Good story. But is it good whiskey?

Truthiness and the Ethics of Marketing

plus new notes on
Bertie’s Bear Gulch Bourbon

Whiskey is known for its stories, both those pouring out of drinkers and those on the label. Those on the label are marketing, sometimes true and sometimes based on a grain of truth not significant enough to figure into the mash bill. These small tales are generally harmless. But occasionally they leave an off taste that impacts the experience of the whiskey itself.

There is an inherent honesty to whiskey, in that it is so elemental—water, earth, wood, grains, yeast, and time. In some countries, adding caramel coloring is allowed. Like stories on labels, adding color to a whiskey is also marketing. It is believed a consistent color from batch to batch is more appealing to consumers. For me, added color is a marketing detail that goes against the natural grain of whiskey, and I tend not to buy any that use it. I pass on most mainstream scotches, for example, because they almost inevitably have added color.

At this point in whiskey history I don’t know why distillers continue the practice, since unadulterated whiskeys constantly demonstrate a beautiful spectrum of appealing colors. But then I’ve never been much of a capitalist, so, if marketing think tanks and focus groups have found most consumers prefer consistent artificial coloring to varied natural colors, okay.

Whether or not added color impacts flavor is an ongoing debate. (Here and here, for example.) For myself, having tasted many uncolored, unfiltered, cask strength scotches from bottlers like Signatory and Douglas Laing, I do believe I can taste a difference when coloring is added. I can’t know this for certain. But over time I have picked up on a certain synthetic note underlying whiskeys that utilize artificial coloring. Even if this is only psychosomatic, it’s effectively as real as any other noticeable flavor.

Though I enjoy a good tale well spun, my interest in whiskey is for the unvarnished truth—the purity of flavor and sensation. That’s where I’m willing to put my money. This is why I greatly appreciate as much transparency as possible on labels and a distiller’s website. I don’t mind even elaborate stories behind a whiskey. They’re part of the pleasure. But even those are most satisfying when true.

One famous mainstream bourbon with a questionable story is Elijah Craig, produced by Heaven Hill Distillery. I love Elijah Craig Small Batch and Barrel Proof bourbons. They are a gift to oak and caramel lovers. The folks behind the story of the bourbon’s namesake creator, Elijah Craig, readily admit it is unverifiable and likely no more than a good yarn. Here it is in their own words:

Reverend Elijah Craig was a Baptist preacher and active character in 1800s Kentucky. He was an educator, road builder, land speculator, and built the first paper and wool mills in Georgetown, KY. But it was his gift as a distiller and entrepreneur that establishes his place in history as The Father of Bourbon.

How did Elijah Craig become credited with pioneering the charring of the oak barrels used to age Bourbon? We’re actually not totally sure. A lot of the history is lost, and there are several versions of the story. One account tells of an accidental fire in Elijah’s mill, which charred the wooden barrels and changed the whiskey inside. Makes for a great story at your next Bourbon tasting, doesn’t it? Other accounts speak of Elijah storing his wares in former sugar barrels, and becoming impressed with how the charring of the barrels improved the flavor. 

The truth is, no one really knows how Elijah began charring his barrels, but once he figured it out, it’s easy to understand why he continued to develop the process and changed Bourbon making forever. Inside, the clear, unaged corn liquor becomes transformed into a bold amber liquid, with a distinctively smooth flavor that makes Bourbon what it is. 

However it happened, Elijah Craig is credited with being the first distiller to age his whiskey in charred oak barrels. That’s an essential and rich part of the Bourbon story, and we’re proud to embrace that history.

The extent to which this history impacts anybody’s experience of Elijah Craig bourbons, or their decision to try them in the first place, is likely very little. Elijah Craig is among the most known and popular bourbons on the shelf and sells on its reputation. In keeping the story alive, Heaven Hill acknowledges it’s ultimately just a fun anecdote.

Recently I encountered a relatively new distiller, American Freedom Distillery, founded in 2017, which bottles a line of sourced bourbons called Horse Soldier. The distillery’s website sums up its backstory as follows:

Days after 9/11, the USA responded with a daring insertion of small teams of Green Berets mounted on horseback. These brave men are honored today by the America’s Response Monument at Ground Zero. Nicknamed the “Horse Soldiers,” these same men make the bottle in your hand with the image of this statue. Horse Soldier Bourbon is award winning and authentically made with all-American ingredients. The Horse Soldier glass bottle is molded by steel recovered from the World Trade Center to commemorate the lives lost and never forgotten.

American Freedom Distillery was a dream turned reality for a special group of friends who served our nation in its’ darkest days; answering America’s call as generations before us have. Ours is a true story, which we leave for others to tell. Today we hand craft this American product with the same sense of mission, training, and honor. Simply put it is made by us to share together and with you. Taste hard work, challenge, sacrifice, reward or whatever your unique American dream is in every bottle. We put our passion, our pride, and our shared dreams of the future in each and every drop. Premium spirits that will stand the test of time. We gave our all then, we give all now to you our loyal supporters and to our beloved charities. Thank you and know your purchase helped others today and for that we salute you.

The bottle I picked up was their Horse Soldier Barrel Strength, which I’ve written about already on this blog. Despite my disinclination toward a prominent paint-thinner aspect in its flavor profile, the whiskey in the bottle strikes me as a quality product. Some past craft bourbons featuring paint thinner or varnish notes I’ve eventually given away. Horse Soldier Barrel Strength has enough going for it—caramel, vanilla toffee, a kind of tropical fruit hard candy, sweet green grass, cinnamon—that I know I’ll see the bottle through.

Horse Soldier is a bottle that first made me start to question more significantly the role and influence of the story behind a whiskey, as well as the ethics of it. American Freedom has placed its founders’ participation as first responders to 9/11 at the center of their marketing. As for the bourbon, their label and website feature equivocal language about what exactly they themselves have done, how, and where:

What is “handmade” by them? The bourbon? The metal label? And where is it handmade? In a recent interview, co-founder and branding manager Elizabeth Pritchard-Koko spoke to the question of what makes Horse Soldier stand out from the growing pack of craft bourbons. She emphasized the story as the key differentiator. Of the actual bourbon she only noted that it is “award-winning” and “American-made.” Awards are certainly a good sign. American-made is what any bourbon is by definition.

The lack of transparency around who is doing what, and the overwhelming emphasis on the story rather than the contents and experience of the bourbon itself, strike me as at odds with something as significant and unequivocal as the efforts and sacrifices made by those who responded in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. And so the question of the Horse Soldier bourbon’s exact integrity hovers in its aroma like that synthetic paint thinner note, and crosses my mind whenever I taste it.

More recently I happened upon a brand I’d never heard of but was drawn to on sight: Bertie’s Bear Gulch Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the first effort by Saint Liberty Whiskey in Austin, TX:

BERTIE’S BEAR GULCH STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY

MASH BILL – 70% Texas corn, 27.5% Saskatchewan rye, 2.5% North Dakota barley

PROOF – 87

AGE – 4 years

DISTILLERY – Saint Liberty Whiskey, sourcing distillate from Bone Spirits, TX, with proofing done at Lolo Creek Distillery, MT.

PRICE – $43

The actual bottle itself is a gorgeous, authentic 1920s design I recognized right away. I’ve always been fascinated by the American 1920s. That decade still captures so much of what makes modern America what it is—freedom, jazz, young people blazing trails, technologies proliferating, old money resisting change, capitalism gone awry, entrepreneurialism, oppression, amnesia, booze…

The label affixed to this evocative bottle is elegant, simple, and old fashioned in that quite 21st Century way that can fold any anachronism into the present:

The story of the woman Saint Liberty is honoring with this bourbon is told in brief on the back label:

Bertie Brown – known as “Birdie” to her friends – was a woman of great courage. She was one of very few young African American women who homesteaded alone in Montana in the 1920s. Birdie was famous for her warm hospitality and for brewing what locals called the “best moonshine in the country.” One day in 1933, just before Prohibition ended, a revenue officer came around and warned her to stop her brewing. But as Birdie multitasked, dry cleaning with gasoline and tending to her latest batch of hooch, fumes from the gasoline ignited and her kitchen exploded. Birdie was tragically burned in the fire and died shortly after. Today, her once orderly homestead stands in a state of disrepair in the hills of Montana, a memorial to the immortal spirit and kindness of Birdie Brown.

After reading this, I immediately hopped online to look up more information. It’s such a new product that no reviews popped up, just a few articles featuring interviews with Saint Liberty’s founder, Mark SoRelle. Those articles largely echo information featured on the Saint Liberty website. There is a great deal of transparency, from the aging and the mash bill, to where the grains are sourced regionally, where the distillate is first made and where it’s then watered down to proof.

I love Saint Liberty’s stated mission to honor largely unknown pioneering women with each new bottle, and that their very first tribute is to an African American woman. It’s a gesture that stands out vividly against the exceedingly white and male whiskey landscape. I love that the bottle is modeled after an authentic antique bottle from Bertie Brown’s era, picked up by SoRelle somewhere for $35. And I also love that five percent of the gross sales revenue will go to the PowHERful Foundation, an organization that supports young women from low-income backgrounds getting through college.

All of this made the experience of the whiskey itself a staggering surprise. 

Before I share the nature of that surprise, I am compelled to reiterate that it is my express intent with this blog to always take a positive approach in what I do. This does not mean I like everything I try, or that I only write about whiskeys I fully enjoy. For me, a “right” spirit is not only an open spirit but, crucially, an honest and a curious one. With that in mind:

Bertie’s Bear Gulch Straight Bourbon Whiskey is hands down the single most disappointing whiskey I have experienced to date. I do not note this lightly or without regret. Despite my belief in the maxim that there is no good or bad whiskey, only whiskeys one enjoys more or less, in truth I find this bourbon undrinkable. I’ve given away a few bottles in the past that ultimately didn’t please me. But I have never had a whiskey so off-putting that I wanted it out of my home immediately. Here are my notes at the uncorking:

COLOR – a dirty honey yellow

NOSE – musty, moldy metal pipe and wet cardboard. After some air in the glass: drying wood glue, some kind of raw savory grain, drying clay…

TASTE – thin, sweeter wet cardboard, cheap packet sugar, a subdued pepperiness

FINISH – ended quickly save a faintly lingering warmth 

I could not pick out a single one of Saint Liberty’s own official tasting notes:

Slightly smoky… Caramelized vanilla, apricots, and just a hint of brown sugar. Dried fruits…

Not even remotely, and despite my sampling the bourbon in three different glasses over roughly an hour.

This tasting experience was so shocking, I immediately doubted the sincerity of the makers’ intentions. Given his background in managing liquor brands, I couldn’t help wonder if SoRelle is an opportunist throwing together a bourbon to capitalize on the current #metoo era’s heightened awareness around respecting women, to gain the favor of untapped female customers. “Having a background in booze brand development has given SoRelle invaluable insight into what flies off the liquor store shelf,” one article reports. “It just feels like the right time to debut a whiskey that puts women front and center.”

This supposition of mine admittedly risks cynicism. It may not be true in the slightest. But it’s unfathomable to me that anyone tasted this bourbon and thought it was worth selling, much less worth attaching to such an important political cause. Giving SoRelle the benefit of the doubt, perhaps what is at issue is not intention but taste.

I’ve had many whiskeys that at their uncorking I wasn’t taken by, only to grow fonder or at least more appreciative of them with time as they aired out and evolved. But I’ve never experienced anything quite like this bottle. Wanting to give it a fair shake nonetheless, I did not chuck it to the curb. I left it on the shelf to air out for two weeks before then trying it again.

At this second tasting, when I poured a sample into a brandy glass, I rubbed some spilled drops into my hands and inhaled—something I often do to discern a whiskey’s dominant “bread” as a preamble to nosing it. Nosed in the hands, Bertie’s Bear Gulch produced a nice aroma of dark pumpernickel rye bread. My hopes now piqued, I picked up the glass:

COLOR – honey amber and toasted orange

NOSE – cardboard, rye grain, faint honey, old dry leather, sun-dried animal fur, paper

TASTE – mixed sugars, crystalized honey, paper, thin simple syrup, damp cardboard

FINISH – sparkly warmth, paper, fades fairly quickly

BUY AGAIN? – No

Though better overall than at the uncorking, sadly it was still unpleasant. That “sun-dried animal fur” aspect? I recognize it from growing up in a small mountain town where many rodents met their end as a hot summer day’s roadkill.

Stubborn, I poured my sample into a Glencairn. The nose was the same as in the brandy glass, now emphasizing the cardboard, adding well water to the mix, and with that pumpernickel rye wafting very faintly in the background. The taste was waterier too, with less sugar and more cardboard, plus that well water flavor. The finish had a slightly sparklier warmth to it, with very faint honey caramel if I closed my eyes and searched for it.

Next in a small tumbler. Now the nose was simple and direct: cardboard, well water, burnt rye grain. The texture was just a bit thicker than in the Glencairn, more like in the brandy glass. But the taste was still quite watered down compared to the brandy glass’ sugary emphases. And the finish was now entirely unremarkable, with the least sparkle and faintest flavors of the three glasses.

I had to try way too hard to extract positive enjoyment out of this bourbon. It brought back a memory of a Garrison Brothers’ bourbon I tried in a bar a few weeks ago—those intense cardboard and dead leather aspects. Is this something coming from the Texas terroir? Is it the Texas water or weather? The yeast, or something in the distillation process? And what role does the Montana water used to bring the Bertie’s Bear Gulch down to 87 proof play?

However this bourbon adds up to what it is, I still don’t find it a worthy pour, much less a worthy tribute.

Conclusions?

In the various examples touched on here, a range of outcomes arise from the chemistry between story and experience. Bertie’s Bear Gulch from Saint Liberty presents a dramatic conflict between its story and its tasting experience, despite excelling in the area of transparency. Horse Soldier from American Freedom Distillery presents a conflict between its story and the transparency around how it’s made, offering an intriguing flavor profile nonetheless. Elijah Craig offers very little in the way of transparency, makes no bones about its fanciful backstory, yet offers a broadly appealing tasting experience that overwhelms all other concerns, leaving it ranked among the top bourbons. Meanwhile those scotch whiskies tainted with caramel coloring quietly pretend to be something slightly other than what they are, and by and large few drinkers notice or care.

Granted, for many people the only thing that really matters about a whiskey is whether or not they enjoy the taste. And ultimately this is what is going to get me to buy more of something in the future as well, despite my predilection for seeking out greater contexts in a whiskey’s murk. And yet I find I can never fully extricate from a tasting experience the presentation, any more than I can separate out memories of who I drank a given whiskey with, or where I was, from the pleasure I take in it. 

Nor do I wish to! Whiskey is, in addition to a sensual pleasure, a means toward stories. Memories are stories. History is stories. Marketing tells stories that invite consumers to add their names to the product’s index. And when those marketing stories draw from deeply meaningful chapters in our society—like 9/11, feminism, or slavery—the ante is suddenly upped. The sensual pleasure of a whiskey had better earn its connection to any significant chapters in our story that the marketing department links to it, or else risk belittling them.

America has always struggled with a puritanical conflict between inner integrity and false spectacle, often relying on sentiment to sway the congregation away from noticing a full truth. Succeed, and you might reap fame and fortune. Fail, and you might get burned at the stake.

With regard to whiskey specifically: as with other things, I’d vote for going ahead and telling the truth. It almost always tastes better. But even when the truth doesn’t taste great, most folks are likely to be forgiving so long as they trust the integrity on offer. A pure capitalist may not actually give a dang about anything other than their own pleasure, and be willing to pay even dearly for it—the Customer having long ago succeeded George III as king of America. But I do believe that socially minded th(dr)inkers, valuing intention alongside pleasure, appreciate how honesty and enjoyment enhance one another in the cocktail of their experiences.

As in life, so in the water of life.

Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s