Sam Houston 15 Year – or, Is Too Much Great Bourbon Possible?

SAM HOUSTON 15 YEAR
Release No. 6 Batch MO-1 (2021)

MASH BILL – 74% corn, 18% rye, 8% malted barley (i.e. Barton)

PROOF – 103

AGE – 15 years

DISTILLERY – Three Springs Bottling Company

PRICE – $147

WORTH BUYING? – Yes, with caveats…

I myself would say, no, too much great bourbon is not possible. Bring it, distillers!

I do believe an increase in options could possibly make certain pricing strategies too much, however. The recent stream of well-aged bourbon bottled by NDP (non-distiller producer) companies, while name brands like George Dickel and Barton—two frequent NDP sources—have themselves been putting out their own well-aged releases at half the price of the NDP’s, leads me to wonder if pricing overall will either come down or at least level out a bit. With an increased range of choices available to consumers, we can now afford to be choosier. Will we be?

When I’ve posted in social media bourbon groups asking this question of availability, pricing, and the potential for a buyer’s market, there seems to be an inevitable divide—those who share a hope that the bourbon boom price bubble will soon pop or at least deflate, and those who leap to defend capitalism as wholly (holy?) good.

I won’t get deep into my views on capitalism here. (You’re welcome. 😉🥃) But I’ll admit to not understanding a bourbon customer defending hiked prices. Are they really fine with paying the crazier and crazier price tags out there?

Some people might be. It’s been noted by economists and marketing teams alike that people often rather pay more for something than get it even for free, the assumption being that anything more expensive is so because it’s inherently “better” according to some accepted standard or another. Expensive bourbon bought as a prestige luxury, for example, displayed on shelves but never uncorked and enjoyed, is a thing that people do—a surprising lot of people. Instagram is riddled with pics of home shelves stocked end-to-end with uncorked George T. Stagg or E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof or the like. Trophies. Okay. 🤷🏼‍♂️ If that actually gives a person pleasure and they can afford it… But also not okay, because crazier and crazier prices! And, isn’t some sense of economic proportion important to a well-balanced democratic society?

In any case, the bourbon boom has demonstrated the assumption of price as a measure of quality to be flawed at best. The infamous Weller phenomenon neatly illustrates the impact of fashion and FOMO on pricing, regardless of quality or taste. Weller famously went from a screw-capped bottom shelfer to top-shelf unicorn, commanding prices so high above the msrp it’s comical—and yet people pay it! Weller itself didn’t suddenly taste any better or worse, nor was it being made with higher or lower quality standards than previously. Weller proves the capitalists are correct when they say the financial value of anything is whatever people will pay for it.

I’ll leave this familiar line of commentary there and get to the bourbon.

I mention all this up front simply because Sam Houston counts among the many NDP’s sourcing teenaged Barton bourbon and releasing it in special annual small batches. Their pricing is decent when compared to some other NDPs releasing similarly aged bourbon, whether sourced from Barton, MGP, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey or wherever. Usually the source is not stated per contractual agreements. But if the NDP puts the mash bill on the label as Sam Houston does, one can discern the source.

The Sam Houston batches in any given annual release are named by the state where they are to be sold. The 2021 Release No. 6 includes 45 batches total—the largest of any release thus far. All No. 6 batches feature bourbon aged 15 years, some a batch of 2 barrels and some a batch of 3. Having missed the local drop of the California batches, the bottle I found online and had shipped to me is one of two batches sent to Missouri and combines 3 barrels.

The first Sam Houston release I experienced was the No. 3 from 2019, a 3-barrel batch of 12 year bourbons. My conclusions about the No. 3 release were that it was good, but a familiar enough experience not to warrant further purchases given its price point. (Ironically the familiarity took me more to MGP than Barton, which was a curious surprise.) I then picked up the No. 5 release, a 3-barrel batch of 14 year bourbons. The price was roughly the same as the younger No. 3, which I appreciated and thought showed some class, leading me to give the brand a second go. That bottle has remained in the bunker, however—no reason, just haven’t got to it yet, hence my recent commitment to bunker less and uncork more! So I’m quite out of order cracking this No. 6. But “order” is just a concept anyway, right? And I’m endeavoring to uncork “the good stuff” right away these days.

I actually hadn’t planned on getting No. 6 at all, given I still have No. 5 on hand. As I said the California No. 6 release came and went, and I didn’t try for it—the price having bumped up by $30, and my intent to bunker less, etcetera. But the reviews of No. 6 were notably exceptional across the board. So when I saw the MO batches pop up on an online seller I frequent, was it a lingering FOMO that compelled me to click “Add To Cart,” or simple whiskey fan hopes for more good bourbon?

I’m still not certain.

Anyway here we are. I recalled the No. 3 evolving substantially over the course of its airing out, so I wanted to give the No. 6 some time to evolve a bit too. At uncorking I was immediately impressed by the utterly lovely rich and vibrant orange color of the bourbon. The nose had that familiar Barton floral bouquet right up front, only very well settled into its age, darker than usual, followed by oak and cherry notes vying for secondary attention. The taste had a wonderful syrupy texture, with those Barton florals still quite dark, and a very polished oakiness brightened by the cherry note. The finish was then quite true to the taste and nose. Overall, an exceptionally refined and stately outing of the Barton flavor profile. How would it evolve?

These brief notes were taken two weeks after uncorking and four pours into the bottle, tasted in a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – a thick vibrant orange

NOSE – the familiar Barton floral-rye bouquet nicely balanced with a strong fresh-cut oak note, roughly crushed cinnamon sticks, strong vanilla, baked banana, buttered toast

TASTE – the floral rye notes (now a touch grassier) darken and blend with a nice clear caramel note, the oak running under it all, that rich vanilla note, the baked banana, and sparkly peppery cinnamons on top

FINISH – the rye notes, oak, and now cinnamon roll dough, lingering with a nice peppery tingle

OVERALL – solid, well-aged Barton showing off its darker side while still retaining its characteristic floral brightness

As I was sensing during my recent 5-part series of posts on familiarity, it might be I’ve simply had too much of a good thing. This Sam Houston Release No. 6 is excellent. More enjoyable overall than the 12-year No. 3 release. These older barrels add some darker elements and greater complexity, with those baked banana and vanilla undercurrents. But the Barton flavor profile has simply become too dang familiar for me, leaving me less impressed than I can imagine being were it a newer, or at least less common, sensation. I am without doubt going to enjoy this bottle. I’m just not excited about it. And for three digits I want to be excited.

This is quality bourbon, no question. And a small batch comprised of only three barrels is truly small. So if you know you love Barton, you’re not put off by oak, and the price suits you, then I see no reason to pass a bottle up if you come across it.

And if all that is true for you and you don’t come across Sam Houston Release No. 6, I wouldn’t sweat it. Without a doubt, more good well-aged sourced Barton will be released—or even not sourced, but directly from Barton itself—in the next few days if not minutes. And though any given release might be more appealing to one person and less to another, they’re going to be “good.” Because Barton makes good bourbon. With so much available, it becomes a simple algorithm of personal taste plus personal budget.

In a way this post has inadvertently become Pt6 to that 5-part familiarity series—another rumination on the impact of ubiquitously sourced bourbon. I feel ready to focus on craft distilleries for awhile, where things are more likely to be different or even unique, and then eventually return to the prominent mainstream producers after a much more significant break.

I do remain curious, though, about this question of availability, and why one brand of sourced bourbon enjoys more or less FOMO than another. Why did Sam Houston 15 get snapped up so fast, for example, but not the Calumet 15? They were released at the same time, at the same msrp, featuring the same Barton mash bill, both produced by Three Springs Bottling Company and even featuring a very similar label concept. The two could easily be mistaken for one another at quick glance. What’s the difference? Is the Calumet blended from the barrels that didn’t make the Sam Houston cut? Is it purely marketing, the fact that various whiskey influencers on social media were invited to partake in selecting the batches for Sam Houston, thus guaranteeing free advertising?

We’re again getting into matters of capitalism here. It’s a topic I’m clearly eager and willing to get into. But for now I’m going to enjoy the bourbon on the table before me. And if we end up at the same table together, I’ll be more than happy to crack open a bottle of well-aged sourced bourbon and chat economics. Until then…

Cheers!

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