American Whiskey’s Nostalgia Fetish (and Bulleit Bourbon)

The American whiskey industry’s fetish for nostalgia marketing: it baffles me. It really does. It’s not as if Scottish whisky is branded too differently, but American brands have gone to great lengths to manufacture a – largely imagined – distilling past that involves rugged mountain men hewing a nation out of raw nature.

Sure, it’s romantic, and I’m just as susceptible to these narratives as the next guy, but ultimately this strikes me as a destructive practice. We are in the midst of an unprecedented moment: an explosion of variety, techniques, and interest combined with competitive pricing in comparison to Scottish product and a market hungry for innovation. In my mind, brands should be highlighting characteristics that feed this unique postion for American whiskey.

Look at Old Potrero and Buffalo Trace. Both are active in driving American liquor production to new territory, actively tweaking and expanding upon tradition to create exciting, new offerings. Yet, at the same time, both brands’ flagship products are painted with a thickly nostalgic brush. They should be coming out and trumpeting their innovation to the broader market, rather than the Malt Advocate crowd alone.

This leads me to this week’s tasting: Bulleit Bourbon.

Presentation:

At first glance, Bulleit leans heavily on nostalgia. From the serrated label, to the blocky font, to the medicine-flask bottle, they would have you believe that they dug this out of old Augustine Bulleit’s grave. In fact, none of the copy on the bottle speaks to what the product inside might be like – it is entirely devoted to convincing the consumer that this whiskey has a long history and has never changed.

The most telling indication of the nostalgic reliance is in the labeling of the product as “frontier whiskey” – as if this bottle was produced in the days of nascent American whiskey production.

Tasting:

Upon first opening the bottle is a gentle, sweet nose with a not-insignificant corn presence. Goes with their “frontier whiskey” claim, certainly.

The full nose is not too different from the initial impression: sweetness, corn, some latex. I was a little surprised by the lack of charcoal and post-rain freshness to it.

Upon drinking, Bulleit is largely unassuming. It begins and ends quietly, with a clean sweetness throughout. There is less corn on the tongue than in the nose and there is a noticeable flash of not-altogether unappealing must in the middle.

Over all:

This is certainly drinkable, but all in all is a little boring.

Clearly, Bulleit has focused all effort on making their product fit into the correct nostalgic category. They would be better served focusing on what they fill the bottle with, rather than what misleading narratives they print on it.

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