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The Ballyhoo About Bourbon

By Thane Peterson

The excitement over premium bourbon began to build in the 1980s, when Japanese bourbon lovers started asking where they could buy the really good stuff, says Larry Kass, spokesman for Heaven Hill Distilleries (whose bourbon brands include Even Williams and Elijah Craig). Distillers started bottling bourbon out of the so-called sweet barrels -- the ones in the warehouse with the best taste that the master distillers had typically reserved for themselves. These days, when you buy high-end bourbons such as Booker's Blend from Beam and Russell's Reserve from Wild Turkey, you're buying bourbon made in barrels personally chosen by Booker Noe or Jimmy Russell.

However, here are a few warning signs that the upscaling of bourbon is getting out of hand:

Bourbon is now routinely rated like fine wine, sometimes on a ridiculously precise 1-to-100 scale.

Some aged specialty bourbons are now commanding astronomical premiums. For instance, a bottle of the 23-year-old variety of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, a niche bourbon from Old Rip Van Winkle, a small family company in Kentucky, goes for upwards of $200 per bottle in the U.S. -- and as much as $320 in London, according to Vincent Hill, marketing and sales manager for Amathus, the label's British distributor. The idea of aging bourbon is borrowed from the wine and scotch industries, but traditionalists believe that the liquor achieves its optimum taste after just seven or eight years.

"I don't get it," marvels Jay Adams, president of A. Smith Bowman distillery. "If bourbon is aged too long, it starts to taste wood

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