Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Why Does Brown Forman Suck So Much?
There are many mysteries in the world of whiskey, but this is one of the biggest for me. Brown Forman is a hugely successful company. Why does their whiskey almost universally suck? I'm generally not a fan of Jim Beam, the other huge player in US whiskey, but there are products in their portfolio that I can enjoy, such as Old Grand-Dad 114, and they put out some great Scotch from Laphroaig and Ardmore. But with Brown Forman, their whiskey is just terrible. What's the deal?
If you're not familiar with the company, Brown Forman is one of the biggest selling whiskey producers in the United States. They own three whiskey distilleries (Brown Forman, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel's). They also own Canadian Mist, Finlandia Vodka, El Jimador and Herradura Tequila and Southern Comfort.
They clearly know spirits and marketing, so why does their whiskey suck so much? It's easy to reflexively answer that they are just too big, but Diageo is an even bigger company, and it owns some distilleries that are making excellent whiskey.
The three Brown Forman whiskey distilleries are very different. Jack Daniel's is their cash cow. I can understand it sucking, and I don't complain about it. It doesn't need to taste good because it sells on its well crafted mystique. Rock stars, bikers and hipsters all agree that the black bottle of Old No. 7 is cool, and they'd like a t-shirt and some barbecue sauce to go with it. I've never met a Jack product I liked, but given the role the brand plays, that's okay.
Woodford Reserve is the polar opposite of Jack. It's a small distillery making pot still whiskey which does a limited experimental release each year. It's essentially a corporate owned microdistillery. The only problem is, their whiskey runs from mediocre to terrible. Experimentation is all well and good but if you don't start with good whiskey, you aren't going to end up with good whiskey. Garbage in, garbage out.
The eponymously named Brown Forman distillery is mid-way between Jack and Woodford, an industrial distillery but not one that produces on anywhere near the scale of Jack Daniel's. This is where they make Old Forester, a mediocre mid-range bourbon and Early Times, a lower end American Whiskey (bourbon stored in used barrels) which now also has a bourbon label. These whiskeys are boring, boring, boring. Some whiskey fans do like the annual Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. While that is undoubtedly the best bourbon that comes out of Brown Forman, I've never been as excited about it as some others. It just never seems that distinctive.
While Brown Forman has some special releases, one notable thing is that they never seem to release anything at barrel strength. In fact, their only regular higher proof offering is the Old Forester Signature at 50% abv (last year saw a Jack Daniel's special release, the Holiday Select, also at 50%). I'm not one of those people who thinks nothing under cask strength is worthwhile, but I am suspicious about a distillery that never releases anything at cask strength. It's as if they don't believe in the quality of their whiskey in its purest form.
The tragic thing is that Old Forester used to be lovely stuff. For last week's Dusty Thursday, I tasted a bottle from the 1970s that was just wonderful, with more complexity than anything they are doing today. I've had bottles from the 1950s that have an intense, chewy, cigar butt note that reminds me of a well aged Zinfandel. It saddens me that this once great bourbon is a shadow of its former self.
I suppose there is no use in encouraging one of the most successful whiskey companies in the country to change its game, but success is more than balance sheets. I want to see Brown Forman do more than succeed. I want to see them make whiskey worth drinking.