Life in a Post-Bourbon World: Predicting the Next Big Thing in Booze

It’s no secret that bourbon has been the It Spirit for a good few years now. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how pretty much no one saw it coming. One needs to only look at the vast amount of supply shortages today to see just how unprepared most of the market was. Here’s a fun exercise. Go into your local store and ask them if they have any Weller, Eagle Rare, or even Very Old Barton. Their thousand yard stare, coupled with the nervous tick in the corner of their eye will tell you all you need to know about the current state of things.

Reports and predictions of the “bourbon bubble” bursting have so far been premature. It seems that—at least for now—for every one person who tires of the hunt, there are ten more ready and willing to take their place in line for the latest limited release. I’m not here to predict when that will end, because it’s already proven to be a pointless exercise. However, what can be a fun prediction is guessing what will follow bourbon as the almighty “next big thing.” So let’s take a look at a few spirits, and the reasons why they will — or won’t — usurp bourbon’s place at the top of the hype pedestal. For each of these four, we’re also including the all-important “Van Winkle Factor” — wherein we ask whether there is a singular product which will drive said hype train and become the bane of existence to liquor store employees everywhere.

1. Rum

For years now, rum has been talked about over and over again as being the next big spirit.

Why it Will Succeed:

Rum has a lot of crossover appeal to the bourbon fan. Many rums share a lot of the same flavor components with bourbon — vanilla, caramel, and good old-fashioned barrel spice — though with a slightly softer and sweeter side rum has the potential to appeal to an even broader audience. I have myself, and have heard many others refer to it as “summertime whiskey,” a product which delivers a lot of the same flavor notes but without the warming heat of whiskey. It’s easy and delicious. Plus, the rebirth of tiki drinks and island culture has pushed the importance of specific rum types into the minds of consumers everywhere.

Why it Won’t:

First and foremost, rum has an issue with age statements. Countries like Jamaica and Barbados require an age statement consistent with what most U.S. consumers understand, the age on the label is representative of the youngest spirit in the blend. But rum comes from so many places beyond those two countries, and in those countries age stating is much more vague. Two brands that represent this better than most are Ron Zacapa and Zaya. Ron Zacapa uses a solera aging system which puts a vague average of “23” on their entry level bottle. Zaya recently changed their bottles from saying “12 years” to now indicating that it is now a blend of 12 aged rums. It’s a clever switch of phrasing that makes marketing departments proud but makes many consumers roll their eyes. Also, and here is the obvious, rum has been talked about as the next big thing for quite a while and hasn’t really taken off. Maybe rum’s popularity as it is now is just where it is going to be. Maybe we have already reached peak rum and we are just fooling ourselves that it is going to keep growing.

Van Winkle Effect:

Does rum have that one big bottle? The one which people will wait in line for, the one which will inspire countless Instagram posts with jealous responses? It just might. The Caroni Rum Distillery has been closed or 15 years. Bottles still pop up from time to time from independent bottlers. This may be more of a correlation to a bottle of A.H. Hirsch than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, but bottles of this rum seem to pop up and disappear quite quickly.

2. Mezcal

Why It Will Succeed:

Tequila’s funky, and smoky, compadre has been king of the mixology world for a couple years now. Not since the concept of “pre-Prohibition” have we seen such an obvious inspiration for so many new bars. In one Chicago neighborhood alone, I can count at least three new mezcal specific bars that have opened up in the last year. Yet it persists. A few weeks ago my social media feed was full of one friend’s picture of a mezcal flight, another drinking a mezcal old fashioned, and another commenting on the addition of a new bar a block from their apartment. All of this is without mentioning that mezcal has sotol and raicilla, new Mexican spirits, to bolster its rise in the same way that rye whiskey did for bourbon.

Why It Won’t:

The barrier of entry to mezcal knowledge is quite difficult for even the more advanced drinker. The variation on types of plants mezcal can use and the 8 different regions where they can all come from can create a dizzying combination of recipes and styles. While this is a wonderful thing for adventurous drinkers, it limits the amount of direct bottle to bottle comparison and debate over what is the best, which was a key component to the rise of bourbon. While mezcal may be the current king of the cocktail world, that hasn’t quite yet translated over into bottle sales.

Van Winkle Effect:

Del Maguey’s Single Village series seems to be the obvious choice here. They were among the first to push mezcal as something more than just the thing with the worm or scorpion in the bottom of the bottle. Also they fully embraced the extra funk that is the pechuga style of hanging a chicken carcass in the still for some extra gameyness. To be honest though, mezcal is the current and future king of the cocktail world, but it will have a hard time transitioning into actual off-premise consumer sales.

3. Armagnac

Why It Will Succeed:

There is an old adage which states that all old punk singers become country singers. In the same way, all old whiskey drinkers become Armagnac drinkers. It turns out that while Cognac has been all the rage, it has had a southern neighbor which has offered more value for the money all along. While both Cognac and Armagnac are grape brandies, the big difference lies in the use of the Baco and Colombard grapes. Baco is a big deal in terms of difference, it is a grape variety which can only be grown in the Armagnac region and can only be used for distillation. Also, Cognac opts for double distillation while Armagnac goes for single. Just think of Armagnac as Cognac’s rustic cousin. Only in this regard “rustic” means that bottles can be packed with complex and wonderful flavor.

Why It Won’t:

It certainly doesn’t help that the average consumer still has a hard time understanding what Armagnac is. Couple that with the fact that the TV. show Chopped recently referred to Armagnac as an “apple brandy” and you get the idea of the hill this delightful spirit needs to climb.

Van Winkle Effect:

There are stores you can walk into where you can buy a Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac which was distilled in 1865. Those types of stocks are extremely rare and should instantly spark the attention of any collector. Outside of that you have producers like Chateau de Laubade and Darroze, which have lots to offer that will happily turn heads.

4. Irish Whiskey

Why It Will Succeed:

Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world over the last few years — mainly because its sales started off so small. What has been a predominantly homogenized category is currently exploding with new offerings. Look no further than the style of single pot still Irish whiskey for a style of whiskey that is unique to the country that started it all. As well, there is no shortage of Jameson drinkers that are looking for something more premium and more unique. For ages all of your Irish whiskey came from one of four distilleries: Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills, and Kilbeggan. Since 2014 there are now 32 running and proposed distilleries in Ireland.

Why It Won’t:

Irish whiskey has a slight image problem. There are many consumers who have for very long looked at it as predominantly for shots. To many whiskey drinkers it can be seen as plain and boring. The heavy influx of new distilleries and producers putting out new and varying products is already starting to combat these attitudes, but it remains more a question of when change will take place.

Van Winkle Effect:

One need look no further than the relative disappearance from shelves of the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve to see how stocks of older Irish whiskey are becoming squeezed. Releases like the Redbreast Lustau Edition and the Midleton Barry Crocket Edition are helping keep the hype chatter up.

In Conclusion:

Here is the thing with bourbon. Seemingly every major bourbon distillery is expanding in some form, be it actual distilling space or simply just more warehouses to store more barrels. According to some reports, companies like Beam-Suntory are filling almost 500,000 barrels a year, which to us means only one important thing, the big producers don’t see an immediate end in Bourbon’s expansion. In fact they are looking forward to numbers that only continue to grow. And as younger distilleries across the country are able to start bringing new and more mature products to the market the demand will be there.

So yes, maybe it is poor form to say that the next big thing after bourbon is bourbon. But I’m OK with that. Because if it’s something else it will probably be mezcal, or rum, or Armagnac, or Irish whiskey.

Review: Tequila Codigo 1530 Complete Lineup

Tequila Codigo, launched in late 2016, has plenty of industry power behind it, but it also finds support in the form of country icon George Strait, who is an investor and brand ambassador.

Made in the region of Los Bajos, these are all 100% blue agave tequilas. Curiously, all of the aged expressions spend time not in ex-bourbon barrels, which is traditional, but rather in used French oak Napa cabernet sauvignon wine barrels. This takes Codigo’s tequilas in an entirely new direction, for better or for worse.

Five expressions in total are produced. Four are reviewed here — all save for Rosa, which is aged for just one month in those wine barrels and is colored pink. All expressions are bottled at 80 proof. Thoughts on the primary four expressions follow.

Tequila Codigo 1530 Blanco – Unaged. Very peppery on the nose, with overtones of overripe fruit. The body is unusual, with notes of baked apples, roasted meat, and ripe banana. Some cinnamon character endures on the finish, but the overall impact is a little disjointed and tough to fully engage with. B- / $49

Tequila Codigo 1530 Reposado – Spends six months in Napa cabernet barrels. Lots of dessert notes here, though they find a strange bedfellow in the nose that also showcases peppery and agave-laden notes. The palate is heavily influenced by brown sugar, banana, caramel, and some toasted marshmallow notes. Though the body’s a little on the gummy side, but it offers some fun tart and spicy notes on the finish — with hints of chocolate. B+ / $69

Tequila Codigo 1530 Anejo – 18 months of oak give this a nose of well-integrated agave and caramel, in equal proportions, The anejo pumps up the ripe fruit character of the reposado, layering in more baking spice notes and lots of vanilla. Hints of coffee on the back end — with lots of cream. B+ / $119

Tequila Codigo 1530 Origen – This is Codigo’s extra anejo, aged a whopping 6 years in those cabernet barrels. The nose here takes things in an entirely new direction, with intense aromas of camphor and antiseptic. None of the sweetness or even the base agave is present aromatically. On the palate, a similar hospital character is heavy, pungent with alcohol, rubber, and notes of motor oil. I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced a tequila that has spent too much time in wood (whiskey yes, tequila no), but I guess there’s a first time for everything. D / $249

codigo1530.com

Review: Tres Papalote Mezcal

Tres Papalote is a new joven (silver) mezcal, crafted from wild Cupreata agave harvested in Guerrero, Mexico, and chatted up by celebrity spokesman Cheech Marin. (Marin even chose the image for the label, we’re told.) Two other expressions of Tres Papalote, “Normal” and “Botanical,” are also available but are not reviewed here.

This is a bold mezcal, huge with smoke right from the start, a far cry from the “starter mezcals” we’ve seen a lot of lately. The nose offers intense wood smoke, heavy lemon juice (with grilled peel), plus notes of petrol. The palate is just as powerful, melding that wood smoke with burnt sugar, some roasted apple, and hints of green banana and papaya on the finish.

Throughout it all, the smoke, rolling and penetrating, never lets up. It’s readily detectable when you crack open the bottle, and it endures for a long while after you’ve finished a glass of the stuff. That all unfortunately comes at the expense of complexity, however.

That said, mezcal fans asking cual es mas macho need look no further. Cheech knows.

92 proof.

B / $49 / papalotemezcal.com

Review: Dos Almas 55 Tequila Plata and Cinnamon Liqueur

Dos Almas is a new brand of tequila (a silver) and liqueur, made in the Highlands region of Jalisco. These are wildly different products, so let’s hop to it. Details (and thoughts) follow.

Both bottles reviewed are from production #1, which comprised 1300 and 1600 bottles, respectively.

Dos Almas 55 Tequila Plata – This is a double-distilled silver tequila, 100% blue agave, bottled overproof, “straight off the still.” You can find in-depth production information on the company’s website below. There’s a slight smokiness and dusty charcoal character on the nose here, along with notes of grilled lemon and rosemary. Some of the aromas tend to clash a bit, but the palate finds more balance between the roasted agave notes, sharp citrus, and ample black pepper character. Orange oil percolates on the tip of the tongue, while spice and heat linger on the back end. What starts off a bit rocky on the nose ultimately comes together in quite a compelling way. While hot, I’d never have guessed this was 55% abv. Note that it is wildly expensive for a plata. 110 proof. B+ / $79

Dos Almas Cinnamon Liqueur – This is a cinnamon liqueur made from 100% blue agave reposado tequila that is infused with organic Indonesian Ceylon cinnamon sticks and organic agave nectar. This is quite a lively and compelling little liqueur. (Actually, whether this is a liqueur or a flavored tequila is a matter of debate; I’d suggest the latter.) The nose is sweet but not overly so, with plenty of red hot candies amidst the notes of racy, herbal tequila. It’s an engaging start to a spirit that keeps firing on all cylinders; the palate is bold with notes of sweet and sour sauce, cinnamon jelly, and a lingering herbal character driven by the reposado. There’s ample caramel here, vanilla-scented sugar, and notes of maple-glazed donuts. Bold but approachable, it’s Fireball for the thinking (and wealthy) man. 70 proof. A- / $55

dosalmastequila.com

A Visit to Casa Herradura

Casa Herradura

The region of Jalisco, Mexico (near Guadalajara) has been, and still is, responsible for the entirety of the Earth’s tequila for over 400 years, though the history of tequila dates back several thousand additional years. Everything in this region is designed to contribute to fine tequila. Beautiful warm weather, natural underground soft water, perfect terroir of red volcanic soil, and the variation of agave plants that produce the most natural sugars are the building blocks of a tequila meant to be sipped and savored. Toss out your salt and lime, and join me in a visit to Casa Herradura — the maker of Mexico’s most popular tequila, produced the same way for generations.

Jimador cutting the pinaHerradura has been instrumental in developing some of today’s key tequila standards, and they continue striving to improve them. They were the first to introduce Reposado tequila to the world in 1974 and Extra Anejo tequila in 1994 — after twenty years spent perfecting it. The excellent quality of their tequila proves that sometimes the old ways are best.

Natural is the way to describe what’s best about Herradura (which means “horseshoe” in Spanish). While there are tequila industry standards, Herradura prides themselves, and rightly so, for exceeding those across the board. Others may harvest their blue agave plants at four or five years; Herradura lets theirs mature a full seven years or more. Herradura enjoys access to their own underground water resources and have their own cooperage through owners Brown-Forman. Even though the fermentation process is quicker in tequila than other spirits (due to the warm weather year-round), Herradura also ferments at each stage of the tequila production process for longer, nearly double what other tequila distillers do. How do you top all that? By cutting the heads and tails, which are unhealthy alcohols that come out at the beginning and end of distillation, not once but twice.

Tequila aging barrelsSeveral interesting things about agave and tequila were brought to our attention during our visit to Casa Herradura. The agave is roasted and then the sugars are pressed out, leaving behind fibers from the agave plant. Those fibers are then rinsed with water to obtain as much agave nectar as possible. This is where the importance of soft water plays in. The liquid is pumped into fermentation tanks, where fermentation begins within a day or two and lasts for 92 hours. No yeast is added, no heat applied, and the mixture foams and bubbles as the sugars are converted into alcohol. The agave nectar you can buy at the store as a sweetener is this same agave liquid used in making tequila. The difference is, in order to turn it into something with a shelf life and no natural fermentation, it must be immediately pasteurized in the same way milk is.

Pinas waiting to be processedBack to the tequila. There are five types of tequila produced by Herradura. They all come from the very same blue agave and are initially processed the same way. So, what’s the difference between Blanco (Silver), Reposado, Añejo, Ultra, and the Seleccion Suprema Extra Añejo? It’s all in how long the tequila is aged. All of it begins life as Blanco tequila. After 45 days in the fermentation kettles, the clear Blanco is either bottled or put into American White Oak casks to age. If a cask has previously been used, the insides are scraped out before being charred all over again. The next tequila is Reposado, which has a light golden color from the oak. The industry standard is aging for two months, but Herradura ages its Reposado for eleven months. For the Añejo, the aging time lengthens to 24 months. Again, the industry standard is only 12 months. The Ultra starts as the base Blanco but goes through a second distillation process, emerging as a very floral tequila. Seleccion Suprema, the Extra Anejo, ages for a full 45 months, at which point 40% of the original liquid will have evaporated. That “angel’s share” is comparable to a 12-year-old whiskey.

Train viewBecause all tequilas begin as Blanco, you can really tell the overall quality of a distillery by the quality of the Blanco. It makes sense; if you can’t sip the Blanco and have to mask it with salt and lime to get it down, then you’ll likely have a similarly bad experience with the aged ones. Any cocktail created with a good quality tequila tastes significantly better.

Visiting Casa Herradura begins in Guadalajara, where you hop onto the Herradura Express — a train opening to the public on April 29. Riding this lush train, while sipping on a margarita or Paloma, is just the thing to set your visit off to the right start. As you ride along, the train passes by fields of blue agave in various stages of growth. You also see the rustic lifestyles of many people living in this area of Mexico. Wood and barbed wire fences surround the fields, while bright frescos decorate the sides of some buildings.

Agave greetersOnce you disembark from the train, it’s a short bus ride to the Casa. The first thing that greets you upon stepping through the stone gates are pathways lined with blue agave. The lush grasses and native plant life give the place a feeling of being a tequila oasis in the desert. The staff are friendly and greeted our tour group with the house margarita — a tamarind version in a glass rimmed with a chile powder mixture. It tasted wonderfully spicy and tangy.

When you embark on the tour, be sure you are wearing good walking shoes. Casa Herradura is a big place, and you will want to see it all. First up is seeing an agave piña (the center) being stripped of its long, bladed leaves and the green portions sliced away. This is because those green skins will make the tequila bitter if left on. Then, the piña is cut in half and taken to the ovens to be roasted.

Herradura uses the oven baking method for roasting agave piñas. There are other distilleries that use an autoclave to speed up the process, but they sacrifice taste as a result. Our host explained it to us as the difference between cooking meat on the grill as opposed to in a microwave oven. Once roasted, the agave has turned a dark pink-brown color and is ready for removing the syrup from the fibers.

Agave roasting in the ovenThe syrup is pumped into large, open fermentation vats. The reason for the open tops is to allow the natural yeasts from the plantation’s trees and other plants to permeate the syrup as it naturally ferments. On our tour, we sampled the syrup in five stages, all straight from the vats. It is interesting how, in each stage of fermentation for only a few days, the taste of the syrup changes. Some of the sweetness is lost as it converts into alcohol; then flavors of banana and florals begin taking shape.

At this stage, the tequila is pumped into large copper kettles and distilled. Afterward, water is added to the Blanco to bring its alcohol content down before bottling. The remaining tequila is sealed into oak barrels to age.

Antique agave crushing wheelHerradura is a charming place, filled with enchanting beauty and history. We drank tequila from barrels carried on the back of a donkey and toured the old factory. Rumors are that the old areas are haunted by the souls of those who died there: workers, priests hiding from persecution, and people seeking refuge from revolutionists. There are underground tunnels where Herradura actively helped smuggle many people to safety in generations past. Those tunnels are now filled with water. Here we also learned that tequila was originally sold solely at barrel-strength and only to men. Times have indeed changed.

The tequila donkeyIn Mexico, people seldom drink tequila cocktails. They prefer sipping it neat or mix it with Squirt or Coke. Drink good tequila from champagne flutes or brandy snifters, as those were recommended as the best glasses to bring the scents and tastes to your experience.

An interesting note: when creating your own tasting, line the glasses up in order — Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, etc. Take in the scent of each after swirling it in the glass to observe the color before tasting. Once you’ve tasted them all, go back to the Blanco and Reposado. Taste one and then the other without any water in between. Then, sip the Blanco again. The change in flavor is immediate and wonderful. Do the same for the Añejo, bouncing among all three. When you do this, the more elusive flavors come forth for you to enjoy. It is a bit of a ritual and a perfect way to enjoy Herradura at your next dinner party.

Review: Jose Cuervo Silver Tequila – The Rolling Stones Tour Pick

Jose Cuervo continues its historically-based promotion of The Rolling Stones with a second bottling that should be considerably more attainable. This silver tequila — really just Cuervo Especial — isn’t anything fancy (it’s a mixto and not even 100% blue agave), but it does say Rolling Stones on the label, so collectors may find it of interest. Otherwise, you can consider this an update of our 2009 review of Especial Plata.

As mixtos go, Cuervo has long been the king of the hill, and you can definitely do worse than Especial. That said, this is nothing particularly especial: The nose is lemon-heavy, with undertones of petrol and fertilizer. On the palate, it’s got a roughness that instantly recalls canned green vegetables, lemongrass, and Sweet’N Low.

Respectfully, if you’re a Stones fan and want to stick with the Cuervo theme, might I suggest pouring this out and filling it instead with some of Cuervo’s Tradicional instead? Mick will never know!

81 proof.

C- / $20 / cuervo.com

Review: Siembra Valles Ancestral Tequila Blanco

Artisan tequila gets a leg up from Siembra Spirits, which takes a painstakingly traditional approach, blending tequila and mezcal production processes, to the creation of this new 100% blue agave tequila. Reportedly bringing together mezcaleros and tequileros for the first time in a century, creator David Suro hopes he is on to something new.

Mind you, this isn’t a simple blend of mezcal and tequila. This is something entirely different, a tequila untouched by machines during its production…

Creating Siembra Valles Ancestral goes beyond mere distilling: Suro and his team rely on hand maceration, fermentation in oak and distillation in pine to impart the flavors that vino mezcal de Tequila would have had 100 years ago, but they also produce the spirit using bat-pollinated(!) agave, harvested by carefully trained family farmers known as jimadores and roasted earthen pit ovens.

The distillation and production of Ancestral is an exercise in extraordinary care:

  • Hand-harvested agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in a hand-dug pit oven 6 feet deep for no less than 113 hours, where heat and smoke yield deeply flavorful fruits via methods that have not been used in tequila production for more than a century.

  • They are then hand macerated with wooden mallets to release just enough of their now perfectly roasted juices and distinctive agave flavor.

  • Bagasse fermentation takes place in oak and brick, and the distilled juice rests in demijohns capped the traditional way: with corn cobs that allow just enough oxygen to interact with the spirit as it stabilizes.

I hope you caught the part about the bat pollination. How many other spirits can claim that?

This is a fun and fascinating experience from start to finish, straddling the line between mezcal and tequila (though, to be honest, it’s got more in common with the former). The nose is lightly to moderately smoky, a bit sweet with honeyed notes, plus some tart lemon peel character. This all gets kicked up quite a bit when you dig into the body, which expands upon all of the above with notes of black pepper, bacon, cilantro, and a citrus note that is closer to lemongrass than lemon peel. This is all filtered through a haze of barbecue smoke, roasted meats, and charred mesquite — a lighter smoky touch than the typical mezcal but enough to spin the experience in a different and surprising direction.

All together, this turns out to be a difficult spirit to put down, a complex and exciting experience that makes you rethink the very nature of what tequila can be. Get some.

100.4 proof. Reviewed: Lot #2.

A / $120 / siembravalles.com

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