Macro/Micro: Craft and time in bourbon and translation

In Kentucky, there are more barrels of bourbon than there are people — 4.7 million bourbon barrels versus 4.3 million people, to be exact. The Commonwealth of Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon, exporting 28.7 million gallons to 126 different countries in 2010 alone. Bourbon is big business and we Kentuckians take it quite seriously. If you don’t believe me, just hit up the bar at an industry conference at the same time I do. Watch me order the house bourbon. Then watch me grow very, very angry when the bartender gives me Jack.

That’s because Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon; it’s Tennessee whiskey. As a Kentuckian, I’ll start by claiming the difference is both ethical and profound. But in all actuality, there’s a science behind what separates bourbon from its brother whiskeys. While bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, it does have to be made with at least 51% corn mash. Also, bourbon must be distilled in an oak barrel.

The “distilled in an oak barrel” part is what brings us to translation. The American Distilling Institute has never said how long the bourbon must be distilled. Four Roses Small Batch, what I’m drinking as I write this, soaks in the barrel for ten years. Pappy Van Winkle — unarguably the most premium bourbon around — distills for 15. It’s this aging that allows the bourbon, over time, to take on flavors from the oak as Kentucky’s cycle of hot-then-cold weather pushes the soaking bourbon through the wood and back out again. The corn mash may give it its sweetness, but the oak barrel gives it the honey and vanilla tones that make it grand. Overseen by master distillers, the process also evaporates water down out of the bourbon, making it stronger, alcohol content-wise. So in other words, craft and time make bourbon taste better and give you, the bourbon drinker, more bang for your alcoholic buck.

This is where the similarities to translation start. Meet Cleveland Whiskey. In the words of Inc. magazine, “It’s made in Cleveland [Ohio]. In a laboratory. In less than a week. And yes, it’s real bourbon. Deal with it, Kentucky.” In other words, meet the machine translation (MT) of the bourbon world.

As I touched on earlier, the key is that when the American Distilling Institute, the organization that drew up the definition of bourbon versus Tennessee whiskey versus Scotch and so on, said bourbon had to be aged in oak, it never said for how long. According to the June 2013 issue of Inc. magazine, Cleveland Whiskey’s bourbon is “distilled” in a 120-gallon, patented pressure tank with a few oakwood strips thrown in for flavor. With this process, hundreds of years of bourbon tradition is overthrown. Feel free to drink tequila or Jell-O shots if you want to get drunk cheap and easy, but bourbon culture has never been about getting drunk. Bourbon culture is sitting on long verandas while a soft Southern breeze floats up the driveway. Bourbon culture is the smell of cigars and the sound of your grandfather laughing. Bourbon culture is the practice, sweat and sun that drives a horse to win the Kentucky Derby. Bourbon’s branding is patience, bourbon’s branding is quality, bourbon’s branding is class.

But at Cleveland Whiskey, bourbon’s branding is a laboratory. Instead of considering itself a commodity drink — as one might automatically assume — and therefore targeting a lower-price paying clientele, Cleveland Whiskey is marketing itself as a premium drink, charging $35 a bottle, a higher price point than that of Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek, two of the finest bourbons around. It takes less time to make but it costs more. Since time is how bourbon gains its quality, based on the quality-price x-curve, you would think Cleveland Whiskey would be the cheapest stuff on the planet. But Tom Lix, Cleveland Whiskey’s CEO, claims his bourbon is actually a better product than the stuff it takes us years to make here in Kentucky. As quoted to Inc., Lix says, “Our story is that we really don’t have a big story. It’s simple. We use technology to make our whiskey faster, which makes for a great entrepreneurial business and a product that actually tastes better.”

“We use technology to make our whiskey faster.” Huh. See what I mean now when I say Cleveland Whiskey is the bourbon industry’s own MT? It makes a similar product faster — so much faster that traditional stakeholders in the industry find the speed unbelievable — and it has the audacity to claim the quality’s fine.

Personally I can’t say anything one way or the other on that. I’ve never tried it. But Inc. cites two taste tests. In the first, the testers tried Cleveland, Old Forester, Wild Turkey and Knob Creek, tasting each bourbon the way bourbon is meant to be drunk, sip by glorious sip. Cleveland came in dead last. In a second test, though, conducted by a Cleveland, Ohio, television station, Cleveland Whiskey went head to head with Knob Creek and won. But in this instance, the testers drank the bourbon in a way traditional bourbon drinkers never would: they downed it quickly in a shot. In other words, the two groups were looking for two entirely different things.

Seems like Cleveland Whiskey is starting to look more and more like MT with every paragraph I write.

So here’s the rub: not everyone is able to wait 15 years for a glass of bourbon. Maker’s Mark itself, the bourbon with the largest non-US market share, recently reached the point of bourbon sacrilege, where they warned drinkers they would start watering down their product in order to meet a current consumer demand much higher than that anticipated when they first began distilling the 2013 batch years ago. In the company’s own words, “Demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it, which means we’re running very low on supply. We never imagined that the entire bourbon category would explode as it has over the past few years.” Gee, no, none of this sounds like translation at all. Our industry is perfectly capable of meeting rising demands, right?

Even were there plenty of bourbon — er, um, I mean translation — to go around, the fact remains that not everyone even wants to wait that long, even if they are able to pay, premium price. I know bourbon drinkers everywhere are cringing as I write this, but I don’t like Pappy Van Winkle! It doesn’t matter if it’s what’s aged the longest, it’s just oh-so-heavy and doesn’t suit my tastes.

But you could say the same about MT. Not every project needs the traditional translate-edit-proof (TEP) cycle. In some cases, TEP is actually the worst thing you could do, as human editors and proofreaders allow egos and personal preferences to get in their way. In fact, I’d even contend that if you’re still stuck in the trap of thinking TEP ensures the highest-level quality translation, then you need to come out from your cave. Another troglodyte would like to use your rock. That’s not to say traditional TEP doesn’t have its place. Some legal and life science translations are required to have it, and even my own company relies on it when the case may fit. However, we live in a world where there are now many, many ways to produce translations and the fact of the matter is, MT is now one of them. It may be the cheap and easy way, but sometimes cheap and easy can still be the best.

So maybe Cleveland Whiskey is on to something. As a Kentuckian I cringe — in fact, something inside me weeps — when I think about bourbon being “aged” in a laboratory within a week. But what I get from my bourbon is not the high. I get peace. I get home away from home, a little piece of Kentucky that follows me as I hop from conference to client visit all around the world. So if quality truly is in the eye of the beholder, then what I behold is entirely different from the next man, who may be drinking for alcohol and alcohol alone. For that man, MT is fine enough, for it is the content and only the content that he needs. The finesse and the flavor we shall leave to the human translators of the world, to those who are willing to wait for bourbon to age to its finest, who are willing to take a sip from all four corners of the world and taste the 4.7 million barrels that are home.