Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Kirkland Signature Bourbon

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 7 years old, 51.5%, $22 (1 liter)

The terms “independent bottler” and “non-distiller producer” seem to be used interchangeably quite often in American whiskey circles. The fact that neither term is officially defined by the industry is a big part of why this happens. There are also a few companies out there with some parts of their businesses best described by the former and other parts of their businesses best described by the latter.

In either case, we’re talking about companies that bottle and sell whiskey that was distilled by someone other than themselves. I have my own loose definitions of each of these designations. When it comes to the independent bottlers, I typically think of the classic Scottish model of this type of enterprise; outfits like Gordon & MacPhail, Murray McDavid and Douglas Laing, who are clear about the fact that they buy bulk single malt on the open market from various distillers. With the vast majority of these bottlings, the name of the distillery where the whiskey originated is there for all to see on the label.

There are some independent bottlers who share common ownership with distilleries: Caddenhead’s and Springbank, Signatory and Edradour, Gordon & MacPhail and Benromach. But in all of these instances, the independent bottlings and the official distillery bottlings remain under clearly separate labels. Scottish blenders are typically considered as a different category from independent bottlers, further solidifying the characterization of the independents as those who identify the distillery of origin.

As for non-distiller producer’s, this seems to be much more of an American phenomenon. In my mind, the key here is that these companies are trying to create the illusion that they are the distillers of the whiskey that they are selling. The true sources of these whiskeys normally remain secret with the help of nondisclosure agreements. While the phrase obviously implies that they are not actually distillers, some of these outfits do own stills, but they are usually only able to distill a token amount relative to what they sell. Templeton Rye is one such case.

The matter is clouded though, by companies like Jefferson’s. Their flagship bourbon is sourced, but no one knows its origins for sure, and there is nothing on the label to indicate that it isn’t distilled in house. On the other hand, their Presidential Select 18 year bourbon was proudly labelled as being a product of the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Are they an independent, an NDP, or both? It’s kind of a matter of opinion.

There is however another term which is often overlooked; private label whiskey. Private label products are nothing new, supermarkets have been offering them for many years. These are alternatives to major name brand products, but they usually come from the same companies that put out the big name brands. Since these items are sold under store owned brands, they are guaranteed a spot on the shelf in every store of whichever chain owns them. That means no sales people are needed to get the products into the stores and advertising really isn’t necessary. These two reductions in overhead typically translate into tremendous values on the retail level.

Some NDP’s have their own bottling line and labeling capabilities, but in many cases these functions are contracted out to the distiller or a third party. Private label brands will always be packaged by the producer. The big differentiation between the two, in my opinion, is that everyone knows a private label whiskey is coming from one of the major producers, even though the source might not be revealed, where NDP’s will typically make it as hard as possible for the consumer to figure out if the whiskey is sourced or distilled in-house.

Costco introduced their private label “Kirkland Signature” brand in 1995. Several years after venturing into alcohol sales, Costco finally put the two together in 2007 and started introducing spirits under their Kirkland label. Early in 2011 they added the Small Batch Bourbon.

Back around Christmas I had the opportunity to taste the Kirkland 12 year Blended Scotch. I was impressed enough that I went hunting for it a few days later. The Kirkland scotch was sold out, but I came home with the Kirkland bourbon as a consolation prize.

When one considers the current trends in bourbon; rising prices, falling proofs and vaporizing age statements, this bourbon is a great deal, at least on paper, at 103 proof, with a 7 year age statement, and priced at $22 for a 1 liter bottle. The only question now is, does it taste as good as it sounds?

The nose has moderately intense aromas, with a nice balance of oak, candied sweetness and play-doh notes. The alcohol is evident, but by no means overwhelming.
It’s a little mild on the palate right up front, but clay and sweet caramel flavors emerge pretty quickly, followed on by some subtle floral notes.
As it moves into the finish, those flavors fade quickly while a pleasant spiciness (cinnamon red hots) arises. This is accompanied by an appropriate level of heat from the alcohol.
Considering it overall, the word monolithic crossed my mind at one point, but I think that would be describing it unfairly. The flavors have a modest level of complexity and degree of evolution. While I have had better bourbons, there really is nothing to dislike here, and you’d be hard pressed to find something better at the same price.

Of course, everyone wants to know which major distiller this comes from. That’s easy; Jim Beam is listed right on the Certificate of Label Approval. But Beam has two recipes, the high rye used for Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden, and the low rye which is used for everything else they make. Time to pull my OGD bonded and that dusty bottle of Booker’s off the shelf and see how they compare.

I put a splash of water in the Booker's to get the proof closer to the other two. The ages are 8 year, 7 year and at least 4 year (part of the definition of bonded). Barrels can be picked from certain areas of the warehouses to create a particular flavor profile, so that is a factor that adds some uncertainty.

On the nose the Kirkland is closer to the Booker’s. They have more of a Play-doh aroma while the OGD leans more toward clay. Things get more complicated on the palate. I’m getting some flavors on the Booker's (green pepper maybe?) that are quite different than those on the Kirkland. The OGD is definitely drier than the Kirkland, but they do share a similar cinnamon spice on the finish.

I really thought the answer would be more clear-cut than this. I suppose it’s also possible that Beam is vatting their two bourbon recipes together for the Kirkland bottling to create a unique flavor profile.

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