Some bourbons have rye; some have wheat. Some are expensive; others are bargains. Some have decades-old distilleries behind them; others are from tiny start-up crafts. But they all come in a bottle.
Once upon a time, bourbon was sold straight from the barrel or jug. It's unclear who first sold bourbon in a bottle, but in 1870, Louisville native George Garvin Brown was the first to sell his bourbon — dubbed "Old Forrester" for a Louisville physician — exclusively in a sealed bottle to ensure consistent quality. (Canadian whiskey maker Hiram Walker had done it in the 1860s.)
Over the decades, as labels got more creative, bottles got more interesting as well. Old pressed-glass bottles from Four Roses in Lawrenceburg often feature climbing rose vines. Versions with spiderwebs and shamrocks also were popular.
Then came the era of the decanters, when bourbon was sold in almost any shape you can think of: dogs, cars, ships, even computers. Decanters fell out of favor in the 1980s but have since made something of a comeback.
Jim Beam has brought out limited-edition decanters of its new American Stillhouse and of the new Fred's Smokehouse, with a new one planned each year.
Today's bourbon bottles are often plainer, in part to make bottling easier for high-speed lines or simpler for hand-bottling.
Wild Turkey has brought a new bottling plant and jobs to Kentucky. Campari CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz said in an interview that the nearly $44 million bottling plant, which has plenty of room to expand, "might look industrial, but there's a lot of craftsmanship here."
The plant, which can fill 38,000 bottles an hour on three lines, will give Campari greater flexibility and the ability to react more quickly to consumer demand.
"That will enable us to take our game and innovation to the next level," he said. "We can be much faster and do it confidentially."
More surprises, such as the recently released Wild Turkey Spiced, a flavored bourbon, and Forgiven, a blend of bourbon and rye, are coming, he said.
"Our industry moves in cycles, and we are at the beginning of a very long cycle," Kunze-Concewitz said. "Exciting things are happening in bourbon, and we have lot of innovation coming. ... Wild Turkey's starting to become a big innovator in this industry."
Other new releases coming soon: two special "malt" from Woodford Reserve, and maple-flavored bourbon from Jim Beam.
So, look for more interesting bottles coming from all directions.
New releases from Ky. distilleries
If fall makes you think of pancakes, Jim Beam has the bourbon for you.
This month, following on the success of Jim Beam Honey and its flavored Red Stag line, Jim Beam is launching Jim Beam Maple, a straight bourbon with "warming maple and light caramel" flavors. (70 proof, $15.99 recommended price)
Also coming in September will be Knob Creek Smoked Maple, its upscale cousin. The premium version takes Beam's high-end Knob Creek and adds smoky sweetness, according to reviewers. (90 proof, $31 recommended price)
The maple bourbons tap into a soaring market for flavored whiskies, which have become an increasingly important part of distillers' brand portfolios.
Campari's Wild Turkey was the first to add a flavored version — in 1976 — with what is now known as American Honey. Now, Honey is getting some company, with Wild Turkey Spiced, a flavor designed to compete with trendy spiced rum. The spiced version has creamy vanilla notes as well as cloves and other spices. (86 proof, $22.99 suggested price)
This follows on the release last month of Wild Turkey's Forgiven, an inadvertent blend of rye and bourbon. According to distiller Eddie Russell, the whiskey really was the result of an employee accidentally dumping barrels of rye into bourbon.
Marketing came up the name, and the batch has taken off so well, he said, that Wild Turkey might consider doing it again. On purpose this time. (91 proof, $49.99 suggested price)
At Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve, experimentation has gone in another direction — toward Scotland. In November, Woodford will release "The Double Malt Selections," a straight malt whiskey and a classic malt.
The limited-quantity releases are the latest in its Master's Collection, and they offer two distinctly different malt whiskies. The Woodford Reserve Straight Malt was finished in a new barrel that contributed a fruity oak note to the cereals of the whiskey.
The Woodford Reserve Classic Malt, finished in a used barrel, is much lighter in color and has the scent of oats and apples, with a touch of lemon custard, according to master distiller Chris Morris. (Both are 90.4 proof, $99.99 suggested price for each.)