I tend to live my life with a fair amount of snark and irony wrapped around the place where most people keep an actual personality. As such it sometimes becomes hard for me to tell when I stopped ironically appreciating something and start genuinely liking it. Or if that change ever happened.
Example A: Ancient Age.
Ancient Age is a low level or “value” brand. I remember drinking handles of it in college not because it was phenomenal stuff, but because it was affordable. I moved on as a slight increase in disposable income allowed me to try other things yet here I am unabashedly keeping it in a decanter of honor on my back bar. And I’m not the only one, Ancient Age has a massive cult following for its affordability and quality, at least its quality in comparison to its price. But why?
The brand is relatively old as far as Bourbon brands go. The brand was first introduced in 1946 by Schenley Industries, and has been made at the same distillery for the brands entire life. Both the brand and the distillery have changed hands many times but Ancient Age has always been made at what we now know as the Buffalo Trace Distillery. It is not, however, owned by Buffalo Trace. It is owned by a company known as Age International which is one of those incredibly interesting corners of the Bourbon world that is rarely talked about.
In the 80’s things were not good for brown spirits. Consolidation, shut downs, and sell offs were happening everywhere. Especially if you weren’t really a booze company, like say Nabisco. At the time Nabisco had a subsidiary called Standard Brands, which included Fleischmann’s Distilling. In 1983 Standard Brands was sold to Grand Metropolitan, which a few years later would merge with Guinness to become the behemoth Diageo.
Knowing that Grand Metropolitan already had a successful drinks arm Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas, the CEO and President of Fleischmann’s respectively, resigned and started their own company. Having previous relation with Schenley, Falk approached them and the pair were soon the proud owners of the Ancient Age brand and its home distillery.
The new company was dubbed Age International and they believed that the future success of Bourbon lay outside the U.S., hence the ‘international’. Their interest in foreign markets led them to work with Elmer T. Lee to create Blanton’s Single Barrel, which was originally designed for a Japanese market and just happened to be released in the States as well. This focus on over seas markets is also why there are so many variations of Blanton’s available around the world that aren’t available here at home.
In 1992 Falk and Baranaskas sold the remainder of their shares in the company to their Japanese partners, Takara Shuzo who immediately turned around and sold the distillery to Sazerac while maintaining control of Age International and its brands.
Sazerac continues to distill Blanton’s, Ancient Age, and the other Age International Brands which lead them to develop a separate mashbill to create their own proprietary brands, like the distilleries eponymous Buffalo Trace. So while Buffalo Trace does distill Ancient Age the two Bourbons sit on different branches of the Bourbon Family Tree.
Over the decades there have been several different variations of Ancient Age, my personal favorite being Ancient Ancient Age 10 Year Old for the name alone, but the whiskey shortage has even effected value brands so you’re most likely to come across just standard 80 proof Ancient Age these days.
The bourbon itself is fiery. Despite its name it is a young whiskey where the grains are more predominant that in many of its older siblings. It’s more cereal with the vanilla and caramel taking a backseat with the barrel presence being much less refined. Honestly, this is the kind of whiskey an Old Fashioned Cocktail was designed for. It’s a whiskey that benefits from having its edges softened and it’s hot heart rounded.
In the end, I just like this whiskey. It is what it is and I just have to accept that it’s essentially the Pabst Blue Ribbon of the Bourbon world. Except people aren’t proudly drinking Ancient Age at their back yard hipster BBQs. Though to be fair I can’t remember the last time I actually saw someone drink a Pabst these days. Everything is cyclical. So I’m going to circle it back around and keep pretending I’m fancy even if it’s just Ancient Age in my decanter.