By Debbie Shocair
The whiskey news is currently packed with carefully considered pining for Elijah Craig 12, now replaced by an NAS bourbon. While I have a certain fascination with the points being discussed, I should make it clear that my first interest lies with what is actually inside the bottle.
If a company is producing really fine whiskey, and that product meets the legal regulations and requirements for whatever style or variety of whiskey for what is claimed to be inside the bottle, then I likely will have few issues with the numbers on the side of the bottle regarding age. Replacing the “12 Years Old” on the label with “Small Batch” matters less to me with the quality of the contents and how well that matches to another set of numbers on the bottles, the price tag.
That having been said, I also place great consideration the character of the company. Templeton Rye, for example, certainly has had their share of troubling legal and reputation issues regarding misdirection in their labeling and marketing. However, there was never ambiguity in the answers they gave in response when the question was posed to them directly: “is your whiskey sourced?”
Whiskey, and Bourbon in particular, has traditionally been associated with the American South and Southern Gentlemen in particular (note this is being written by a female whiskey lover, so don’t even think of accusing me of a sexist statement here), and perhaps also with the lifestyle such traditions bring to mind. Kin to those traditions would be a particular set of manners, and while I may be stretching a bit to make my point, the very idea that Heaven Hill, distillers of Elijah Craig, would deny with one hand what the other hand is doing seems to smack of dishonesty, subterfuge, and perhaps an outright lie.
The transition to an NAS Elijah Craig began last summer, when the front label was changed to read “Small Batch,” and the age statement was moved to a less prominent spot on the back. Heaven Hill strongly denied the label change heralded abandonment of the age statement, but only seven months later the change was made. The question then becomes if you believe they really didn’t know in Summer 2015 that they might take Elijah Craig NAS in Winter 2016. If the change was even under discussion during that time, Heaven Hill’s denials become disingenuous.
By contrast, Maker’s Mark was clear about their intentions when they announced their plans to lower proof strength, and in being honest, got an honest outcry from their large pool of consumers. When Basil Hayden dropped it’s age statement, Beam just did it, with no prevarication. While I have not always agreed with the actions of some distillers, bottlers, or marketers, I have noted that there is still a particular degree of integrity among most whiskey-makers.
Once again, I really don’t mind if, for whatever reason a company decides, they choose to go NAS. I am all for businesses making money, and if such an action helps a company meet goals, then so be it. As previously stated, I really care more about what’s in the bottle, and there are scores of talented master distillers and master blenders working hard to please me in that regard.
Yet I do care about character. I do care about trust, even when it comes to corporations, and when Heaven Hill denies, perhaps hoping no one will notice later, what they apparently were planning all along… well, I can say it doesn’t make me want to rush out and try, sample, review or mention what may actually turn out to be a very nice product. Does that seem to go against their goal of increasing sales?
Make good whiskey. Be up front with me. I don’t ask for much.