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.

28 comments:

Thirsty South said...

I tend to agree with you - not a fan of Woodford or Jim or Jack... with one exception. I've had a couple of very good bottles of the single barrel Jack Daniel's that prove that there is something good in those warehouses in Lynchburg. In fact, I tasted from a range of single barrels when I was in Lynchburg, and one stood out from the rest as much better - more balanced, more nuanced, simply better all around - even though there were three barrels that were all from the exact same "batch" and same barrel date. Proves that the place in the warehouse and the specific barrel itself do play a major role in the final product.

AaronWF said...

The Brown Forman distillery also makes Rittenhouse Rye for Heaven Hill. The Bottled in Bond Rittenhouse is pretty universally heralded as a delicious bargain. The BiB Mellow Corn is also supposed to be a treat at less than $15, and is again made for Heaven Hill. Are you a fan, Sku?

I haven't had Woodford in ages, but I did very much enjoy the 2010 Old Forester Bday Bourbon; I thought it was worth its $40 sticker price.

You bring up an interesting point about the lack of a cask strength release... Come to think of it, do they do any single barrel offerings at all? I don't think I've ever seen any hand-picked retail barrels like I see for most Buffalo Trace whiskeys, a few Heaven Hill products, and of course Four Roses.

sku said...

ThirstySouth and Aaron, great comments. Thanks!

I have no doubt that BF can make good whiskey and I've had some good Brown Forman whiskeys that were independently bottled. And I do like Rittenhouse (but that was a contract job made to Heaven Hill's specs).

The real question is why do they put out mostly crap. The fact that there is some good whiskey in there makes it all the more odd that so much of what they release is so bad.

Aaron, the only single barrel I know of is the JDSB. I haven't liked the ones I've had, but with single barrels there is always variance. I don't think I've ever seen retail bottles.

It will interesting to see what the new Woodford Double Oaked will be like, but based on all the other Woodfords, I'm not holding my breath.

Florin said...

Sku, I second Aaron that the OFBB 2010 is a really special whiskey -- in my books better than most or all bourbon I've had, and that includes the entire Jim Beam range. I have a few stashed away, to be opened at strategic times. I've also found JD green very drinkable, on its own terms. Never had the Woodford yet, and it sounds like I shouldn't hurry.

Ryan said...

Sku, I understand that some people don't like Jack, and as a whole I kindof agree with your post, but I'm not sure it's fair to say that Jack sucks, and that it's just an advertising trick. Old No. 7 is a tad underage and also a tad thin, but otherwise I think it's a high quality and enjoyable whiskey. Personally, I like Jack more than I like George Dickel (8 or 12), and I assure you it's not just because of advertising: I actually dislike all the large corporations and their advertising and try to avoid them. So, is there really a reason you think Jack sucks, or do you just not like it?

SteveBM said...

Agreed on JD and JB being something that I avoid in all situations except when stuck on an airplane and JD or JBBlack are the only options. I do like the JB small batch bourbons though.

As for Woodford, if the flagship brand is what you label as "mediocre" and their experimentals as "terrible" than I might agree with the exception being that I really enjoyed the Seasoned Oak Finish experimental that they did a few years back. The flagship Woodford is one of those bourbons that I can drink on the rocks and not really have to think about which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I also just tried OFBB (paid $32 which I thought was a good deal) and really enjoyed it. Nice flavor and smooth sippin' sauce for sure.

You do raise a good question about why BF has never released anything barrel strength or even single barrel (JDSB being the exception). But I think the answer to your question is pretty simple - MONEY. It's a large corporation that's made bank on releasing product with flavor profiles that paint a broad stroke for the consumer and sell at a relatively low price point. That's the business model and since it seems to be successful for them, there is probably little desire for change. Why compete in the premium market when you don't really need to?

sku said...

I do not like Jack Daniel's.
I would not drink it in a boat.
I would not drink it with a goat.
I would not drink it in a tree.
I do not like JDSB.
I may not run with the pack,
but I don't even like Gentleman Jack.

Okay, even if (unlike me) you like some of BF whiskeys, have they made anything you would consider great?

Regular Chumpington said...

@SteveBM - Seasoned Oak was the only Woodford I've ever liked. They say Double Oaked is supposed to have been inspired by that - let's see if it holds. However, at $50 for a standard offering, that's one I'm going to split way before I would ever buy a bottle. If way too many bottles of Master's and a standard WR bottle that refuses to die have taught me anything, it's that if it's got Woodford on the label, it'll probably be a disappointment.

@Ryan - I don't think Jack sucks, but the last few I've had have been so utterly forgettable and bland... much like Devil's Cut I think I just nothing Jack. Don't like, don't hate, because there's nothing much there to begin with.

Ryan said...

Conceded: Nothing great. But, I really do like JDSB. It's a truly good sippin' bourbon: 47% abv, non chill filtered. I think its flavorful and enjoyable. If it were $5 or so cheaper it would be a regular for me.

RC: Agreed not much going on with Old No. 7, but that is remedied with the single barrel.

Old Forester does suck (haven't tried the Birthday, though), and Woodford doesn't suck but it's way too expensive for what you get.

Anonymous said...

2010 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon smells gross. "It's a formidable scent... It stings the nostrils." And tastes like, "it's made with bits of real panther." Remains the only bourbon that I've immediately poured down a sink after one sniff/sip.

Tim Dellinger said...

Brown Forman has figured out the dirty little secret of the American whiskey industry:

Quality has little effect on sales.

You can't get rich in the American whiskey market by making a higher quality product.

SteveBM said...

@Sku I'd have to agree that they've produced nothing that I down and out love to drink.

@RC Agreed on the dollar for Double Oak. I passed on trying the ryes they put out this year because of the ridiculous price of what is a total experiment. Truth be told, I think the same of Buffalo Trace's experimentals - waste of $$ that could be spent on something much better at likely a lower cost.

@Tim I'd probably add the word "mass" into your statement so it read - Quality has little effect on mass sales.

BMc said...

Oh great, I just bought a bottle of Old Forester Signature as a bottom-shelfer to replace my Evan Williams Single Barrel. So this sucks, too? I haven't tried it yet.

Ryan said...

BMc: Sorry bud, Old Forester is a big step down from Evan Williams Black Label... let alone single barrel.

BMc said...

Your hate just nourishes BF. They spice their whiskey with the hateful tears of whiskey enthusiasts.

Ryan said...

Must be why it tastes so bad :-P

BMc said...

I did, I believe, pick up on a sour taste in the Woodford Reserve :)

Regular Chumpington said...

Yeah, the sour taste is just from the yeast they use. The tears are what give Woodford its signature Old Fashioned Suckin' On A Ha'penny Just Like Yer Granpappy's Granpappy Usedta metallic tang.

sam k said...

No one has yet offered any sort of answer to your primary question, Sku, "Why does B-F whiskey suck so much?"

I'll head in this direction. Every distillery brags about the breadth and depth of the experience of their master distiller, many of them having come of age under the tutelage of their father and his father before him. It's my understanding that the MD at B-F had been in marketing and sales for the better part of his career before being appointed "master distiller."

I have absolutely nothing against Chris Morris, but he did not grow up enmeshed in the distilling culture and does not appear to have any sort of practical distilling (or chemistry, or fermentation science) pedigree, so what, exactly, are his qualifications for that crucial position?

And if it isn't a crucial position, why does every other distillery, almost unilaterally, treat it as such?

I would think that this may more accurately reflect the corporate culture at B-F, which would make TWO reasons that they consistently underachieve in their pursuit of mediocrity.

I'll say again that I remember when every print ad for JD used to read "90 proof by choice." The current status of that make reflects a mindset of money over substance that I can't support in good conscience.

Maybe they should hire a Beam, like damn near everyone else.

sku said...

Great point Sam! Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments.

Jason Pyle said...

Great post as always SKU. I think your post would be better titled as, "Why Does Brown Forman not release great whiskey", but that's a crap title I realize. These guys have to have great whiskey in their stocks - just have to. It's not possible they do not. I find Woodford a Very Good whiskey. I find Jack Daniels Old No. 7 on the good/very good bubble. Jack Daniels Single Barrel, as you mention, is something with variance, but the bottles I've had have been very good.

BUT BUT BUT, to your point however, they do not have a GREAT whiskey out there. Not even close. Old Forester 2010 after 3 years of absolute mediocrity at best, was an excellent whiskey. It's the only one I can think of in years. Aaron's point on Rittenhouse is well taken, but clearly that was too good for them to put their name on it (I kid, but you get my point).

So, to summarize, your post title is quite bold, but your point is right on. Release the great shit Brown Forman! You have it. I know you do. The people want it. Raise the proof, age the shit barrels longer and see what happens, or keep them out of the blend entirely. Just give us something that holds its head up with the likes of what Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, and others are doing.

Make your money on the stuff you need to, but don't disregard those of us that want to taste the best of what you have. Can you answer that call?

BMc said...

"Yeah, the sour taste is just from the yeast they use. The tears are what give Woodford its signature Old Fashioned Suckin' On A Ha'penny Just Like Yer Granpappy's Granpappy Usedta metallic tang."

Oh, that Gramps, always losing teeth!

BMc said...

Well, for a glorified PR firm, they've made an odd choice by owning a "microdistillery" with pot stills. Sure, they can pitch its uniqueness, but why in the world would they have picked that unless they knew something about whiskey?

Or maybe they had their business meetings with Mr. Jameson and that's ALL they knew about whiskey.

I don't like the Brown Forman stuff I've had, and I see your points. But you could say (almost) the same about Heaven Hill - other than the Parker's Heritage line, which is recent, what prestige whiskey do they make? Their web site opens with a bunch of girls getting wasted on Hypnotiq vodka.

sku said...

Jason, great points. I think you hit the nail on the head (though I'm not so sure there is great whiskey at Woodford).

BMc, I don't think Heaven Hill is at all comparable; in fact, I think Heaven Hill is one of the distilleries (along with BT and Four Roses) that is really doing right by whiskey lovers(though as with all of them, there is some variability in their lineup and things I wish they'd do better).

Parker's Heritage releases ranges from very good to excellent. Elijah Craig and Rittenhouse are great whiskeys as well. I even like the $13 Pikesville Rye quite a bit and enjoy Bernheim Wheat as well. These are whiskeys far better than anything coming out of Brown Forman. Heck, I would choose Old Heaven Hill BIB over most Brown Forman whiskeys.

Lazer said...

I agree with your opinions. If you look at www.thewhiskyexchange.com, a store in London, you'll see versions of JD that you'll never see in the US. I think I read somewhere that 60% of JD is sold outside the US. I think they keep these versions out of the US because they don't want to ruin the brand name for the bulk of the JD customers. Remember clear pepsi? what if everybody in India loved it. It would be smart for pepsi to sell it in india and keep it out of the US.

Anyway, a friend is getting me a bottle of JD Silver Select from europe to try. I'll let you know if its a "honey barrel".

BMc said...

Sku, do you think those are great whiskeys, or good whiskeys that are great for the money? Would you pay double for them?

Connoissaurus said...

I have to agree Brown Forman whiskeys are absolute crap. The main thing I can't get over is the fruity banana aroma that basically kills any chance of me every liking anything they make.

The new WR Ryes were probably the biggest letdown in recent history. There are only a handful of whiskeys out there I actually consider to be trash and those were two of them!

EricH said...

I seem to recall from a Chuck Cowdery post that Evan Williams Single Barrel 1998 and 1999 were made at Brown-Forman. However I'm going to assume that like Rittenhouse, those two were also made to Heaven Hill's specs.