Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Supported by Crop Research Grant, Far North Spirits Aims to Make Minnesota an International Leader in Rye Grains for Rye Whiskey


Far North Spirits is a micro-distillery in Hallock, Minnesota. The distillery is located 400 miles northwest of Minneapolis on a 1,500 acre family farm. In February, Far North received a three-year $188,495 crop research grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to complete a first-of-its-kind study to evaluate varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota for agronomic performance in the field and flavor/sensory performance in the distilling industry.

Michael Swanson, owner, distiller, and farmer at Far North Spirits, will administer the grant. His vision is to make Minnesota a leader in the production of world-class rye spirits.

“Kentucky owns bourbon. Scotland, scotch. Minnesota will own rye,” said Swanson. “Our rich soil and extreme climate are perfect for growing this grain. AC Hazlet Rye, our favored variety, is already recognized as our signature.”

Although rye whiskey has grown in popularity in recent years, much of the rye distilleries use is grown outside the U.S., mostly in Canada. One major Kentucky distillery imports its rye from Germany. In addition to its use in rye whiskey, rye grain is an ingredient in most bourbon recipes.

Through field trials conducted on Minnesota farms and sensory analyses conducted at Minnesota distilleries, this project will result in a research report its authors hope will be valuable to Minnesota farmers, distillers, seed dealers, brewers and maltsters. The University of Minnesota Winter Rye Variety Performance Evaluation will conduct agronomic analysis to assess grain quality, winter hardiness, spring vigor, plant height, grain yield, resistance to lodging and other factors. Minnesota distillers will conduct sensory analysis on the rye to include distillate yield, initial viscosity, and assign a sensory score based on flavor and nose.

The finished study will include data on several varieties of winter rye and be a collaborative project involving several Minnesota farmers, distillers, the University of Minnesota Winter Rye Variety Performance Evaluation and the Barley and malt lab in the Department of Plant Sciences at North Dakota State University.

The goal is to provide producers and end users with an unbiased, reliable source of data, as well as the unique addition of flavor and sensory analysis. The report will be available publicly to all Minnesota farmers through the U of M and shared with micro-distillers nation-wide via the American Distilling Institute.

Far North Spirits, one of fewer than 50 micro-distilleries in the nation that also farms the grains it uses in its spirits, currently produces four spirits that use rye, including two gins, a vodka and a rye whiskey.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Bacardi Buys Angel's Envy


Bottle shots being mounted on the Vermont American building in June of 2013.

It was announced today that Bacardi has acquired Angel's Envy, both the brand and the company behind it, which will continue to operate as independently of Bacardi as they can get away with. (That's not how the press release put it.)

Angel's Envy port-finished bourbon is distilled and aged by one or more undisclosed Kentucky distilleries. After aging, Angel's Envy takes possession of the whiskey and finishes it in port barrels. Their other product, Angel's Envy rye, is distilled and aged by MGP of Indiana, and finished by Angel's Envy in rum barrels.

The face of Angel's Envy, the Henderson family, talked from the beginning about having their own distillery. The Angel's Envy Distillery was announced in June 2013. Although that event was billed as a 'groundbreaking,' with the governor tossing the first dirt, Angel's Envy didn't actually own the property until a year later. The announcement said the distillery and visitors center would be operating by 2014, but progress was glacial. It resumed in earnest three months ago, according to production manager Kyle Henderson. The site is in downtown Louisville, across Main Street from Louisville Slugger Field, in what used to be a factory for Vermont American.

The Angel's Envy Distillery will be much larger than the distilleries at the Evan Williams Experience (open since 2013), Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse (under construction), and Michter's (under construction). It will be comparable to the new Old Forester Distillery Brown-Forman is building. All are on Main Street except Jim Beam, which is a few blocks south. Also under construction south of Louisville is a small distillery at Diageo's Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Michter's is about to start producing at its new, large distillery south of Louisville, which is about the same size as the ones Angel's Envy and Old Forester have planned.

The sale to Bacardi has been rumored for about two years. It has been reported that at least one of Angel's Envy's behind-the-scenes investors is a former high Bacardi executive. Another is the former CEO of Cruzan International. Bacardi has done several joint ventures over the years with Brown-Forman, the former employer of Angel's Envy's founder, the late Lincoln Henderson.

They know where Louisville is.

With every whiskey distillery in the United States running at or near full capacity, distilleries that do contract production for non-distiller producers (NDPs) like Angel's Envy are either cutting back or ending those relationships altogether in favor of house brands. This makes it hard for NDPs to grow, which is more-or-less forcing them to build distilleries.

The Angel's Envy brand has been very successful and shown a lot of promise. Except for a tendency to over-promise, the company is run very professionally. This isn't really a micro-distillery story but it's another example of the many possibilities in this new world of bourbon.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Tennessee Whiskey, Again


The Great Tennessee Whiskey Debate, about to resume in the Tennessee legislature, has involved a lot of misdirection and misinformation, some deliberate, some just ignorant. Without going through every jot and tittle, here is the gist of it.

'Louisiana whiskey' merely means whiskey made in Louisiana because there is no expectation that it means more than that. Likewise 'Ohio whiskey,' or whiskey made in any other state, except Kentucky and Tennessee. Certainly there is pride of place in every case, but no one has ever identified 'Louisiana whiskey' as a whiskey style. It is simply a statement of geographic origin.

There are those who say, "right, and that's all 'Tennessee whiskey' should be, a statement of geographic origin."

But if you are given a ten, why would you want to trade down to a two? That's the essence of the argument. Imagine, if you will, the Wisconsin legislature passing a law that says, "truthfully, cheese made in Wisconsin is no different or better than cheese made in any other state and we apologize for suggesting otherwise."

Most people understand Tennessee whiskey to mean a bourbon-style whiskey filtered through maple charcoal. Even if they don't know those details, everyone who drinks whiskey knows that Tennessee whiskey means Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, or something similar and not just any whiskey made in Tennessee. That represents an extraordinary benefit for distillers in Tennessee, an advantage no other state gives them. It makes Tennessee more attractive than any other state as a location for distillers.

Even the distillers who oppose the current law understand what it means, they just want the benefit without doing the work. They are misguided, however, because consumers aren't that stupid. If you render the designation 'Tennessee whiskey' meaningless, consumers will figure that out pretty quickly.

And if you sell them a 'Tennessee whiskey' that tastes like used dishwater, they won't buy a second bottle.

The current law defining Tennessee whiskey is very good for Tennessee as a whole and for whiskey-makers in Tennessee. There are some who argue that it's such an unfair advantage, the U.S. Supreme Court should find it unconstitutional. Only an idiot would want to throw that away.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The I. W. Harper Launch and P. R. Extravagance



This is how Diageo delivered samples of I. W. Harper to journalists and others this week to announce the brand's reintroduction in the USA. It is a little hard to see, but "I. W. Harper" is embossed on the lid. The covering is faux calfskin. The hardware is steel, medium duty. It's very nice.

Why such a fancy box to deliver two 100ml bottles, a glass, and some literature? It's a common practice, spanning my career (40+ years) and I'm sure many years before that. The idea is to make a splash, get attention, rise above all of the other things competing for a writer or editor's attention. The extravagance of the delivery vehicle is meant to convey the importance of its message. Sometimes it seems cost-be-damned. Also, no one seems to care about waste. After I've seen this thing, been suitably bowled over, and removed the two things I actually want, what am I supposed to do with the rest of it?

This isn't the most extravagant thing I've received. A few weeks ago, Jim Beam sent me a chair.


Also this week, Jim Beam sent me two 375ml bottles of their new Jim Beam High Rye and Rolled Oat bourbons. At the bottom of the enclosed literature it says: "To comply with FTC guidelines, if you choose to write about these products, please disclose that you received these samples without payment." I'm apparently supposed to tell my readers when I receive free whiskey samples, but it's nobody's business if I got a free chair.

From time to time there is a tempest in a teapot about producers providing free samples to writers. That anyone believes I would write something a certain way for the purpose of getting samples, or even chairs, is beyond ridiculous. Inches away from where the pictures above were taken, there is a stack of unopened boxes containing samples. I'm lucky, because I don't write about scotch. Those writers are buried in the stuff. As for people who cover all distilled spirits, or all alcoholic beverages, I can't imagine how they deal with the volume.

Before you ask, yes, I recycle.

Since I. W. Harper is a historic brand, established in the late 19th century when the whole idea of brand marketing was new, this kit is probably intended to evoke the sample cases whiskey salesmen, known as 'drummers,' carried on their sales trips. There is a great depiction of this in the film "Stagecoach" (1939).

Unfortunately, that connection was probably lost on most of the people who received the I. W. Harper package. Diageo could have sold it better, probably some creative director tried, but got overruled by brand managers worried about appearing "too old-fashioned." It's a delicate thing, re-booting neglected historic brands like Harper, Old Taylor, Old Grand-Dad, and Old Forester. You want the historic cred, which Harper has in spades, but you don't want to look out-of-date.

Speaking of Old Taylor, which is now owned by Sazerac, this week I also received a sample of the new E. H. Taylor Cured Oak. It's a 50 ml bottle. They didn't even include a press release (that was emailed last week). So how did it get my attention? They put a sticker of their buffalo logo on the outside of the box. That's usually enough.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Odds and Ends


Lots of interesting happenings here and there.

Janet Patton, of the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper (Kentucky.com online) does an excellent job on the bourbon beat and is always worth reading. She is a real reporter who looks behind the press releases. Today she takes us to Diageo's Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, south of Louisville, for a rare interview with Pauline Rooney, vice president of North American distillation, maturation and engineering for Diageo.

Ms. Patton observes that, for a tourist attraction, Stitzel-Weller is a little hard to find. She's right. The Bulleit Experience web site helpfully offers directions, but neglects the route Tom Bulleit himself recommends. Here it is:

From I-65, take the Crittenden Drive exit to Central Avenue, following the signs to Churchill Downs. You'll pass Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on the right, then Churchill Downs on the left. (Don't use this route during Derby Week or U of L football home games.) Stay on Central to Seventh Street Road. Take a left, then a quick right onto Wathen Lane. You're now in the old distillery district and the ghosts of closed distilleries surround you. Wathen ends at Dixie Highway, where you'll make another quick left-and-right jog onto Millers Lane. Turn left onto Fitzgerald Road and Stitzel-Weller will be on your right.

Diageo is the world's largest drinks company but they have been very late to the bourbon revival. Recently they have been making up for lost time. Now they have the Bulleit 'home place' at Stitzel-Weller, a new distillery being built in Shelby County, George Dickel in Tennessee operating at full capacity, five super-premium 'Orphan Barrel' bourbons in distribution, the American re-introduction of I. W. Harper bourbon just announced; and more to come.

Ms. Patton's article points out that all of this activity occurs as Diageo rival Brown-Forman is also ramping up its Kentucky act with the appointment of Campbell Brown to run the new Old Forester Distillery in Louisville's downtown. Brown is a fifth generation descendent of company founder George Garvin Brown, who created the Old Forester brand in 1870.

Although it is not in the official press release, many news outlets including Insider Louisville, incorrectly reported that "for the first time in nearly 100 years, a member of the Brown family will take the reins of Old Forester." In fact, there have been Brown family members in charge of the company and all of its brands, including Old Forester, for most of its existence and as recently as 2005.

The long-languishing Old Forester brand has recently shown signs of life, which the company hopes to stimulate with new products such as Old Forester 1870 Original Batch, and the new downtown distillery and tourist destination.

Brown-Forman has announced that it will spend $30 million on the new distillery and another $20 million pushing Old Forester products.

Meanwhile, Jim Beam is seeking to burnish both its craft credentials and its tourism presence in Kentucky's largest city.

Last week, Beam Suntory announced two new releases in its Jim Beam Harvest Bourbon Collection, which is itself a sub-brand of Beam's Signature Craft Series. They are an eleven-year-old High Rye bourbon and an eleven-year-old Rolled Oat bourbon.

Because it seemed disingenuous to label something 'high rye' without stating the mash bill, we inquired. We were reminded that Jim Beam doesn't disclose mash bills (a policy we have called "stupid"), so knowing that Old Grand-Dad is 'high rye,' we asked if Jim Beam 'high rye' is just eleven-year-old Old Grand-Dad. It's not, a Beam spokesperson assured me. It contains even more rye than Old Grand-Dad.

Although Beam doesn't officially disclose mash bills, Booker Noe whispered both of them in my ear many years ago. The Jim Beam mash bill, he said, is 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent malt. The Old Grand-Dad mash bill is 60 percent corn, 30 percent rye, and 10 percent malt. Since bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, and let's say the 10 percent malt is a constant, then the 'high rye' Jim Beam has to be between 31 percent and 39 percent rye.

Both new products are priced at $50 for a 375 ml bottle. They're available in Chicago now and should be everywhere in the next few weeks. Although they surely are limited, Beam isn't making a point of that. Last year's 'Harvest' releases, Red Wheat and Brown Rice, are still in stores. The series will wrap-up in 2016 with Triticale and Six Row Barley.

Beam has also begun construction of its Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse at the north end of downtown Louisville's Fourth Street Live entertainment district. The attraction is supposed to open later this year. Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark Lounge anchors the south end of the strip.

In sad Louisville news unrelated to bourbon, the Louisville Slugger brand has been sold to Wilson Sporting Goods for $70 million, as reported today by Louisville Business First. Although it has sold the iconic brand, the 131-year-old Hillerich & Bradsby Company will remain family-owned and will continue to manufacture Louisville Slugger wood bats at the factory and museum on Main Street. Headquartered in Chicago, Wilson is owned by a Finnish company, Amer Sports Corp.

In other booze news, the lawsuit against Tito's Handmade Vodka is moving forward. Although we don't care about vodka, Templeton Rye, Breckenridge Bourbon, Jim Beam, and Maker's Mark are all facing similar suits.

In particular, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller ruled that Tito's owners hadn't shown that safe harbor provisions barred the suit's allegations. This refers to the argument that Tito's can't be sued about its label because the label was approved by the federal regulator, the TTB. All of the producers who have been sued for misleading label claims are offering this defense, which we refuted here.

More recently, the TTB's new guidelines on age statements prove that prior approval counts for nothing if the label is wrong. Labels that are wrong must be corrected the next time labels are printed. You can read more about that here and here.

Speaking of Texas and mis-labeling, Whitmeyer's Distilling Company, a micro in Houston, has announced the release of "the first legal bourbon whiskey fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Harris County, TX since prohibition." The release of 600 bottles will be sold only at the distillery. This is interesting because Whitmeyer's got caught between the TTB's old and new rulings on age statements. Since all of the bottles are already labeled, Whitmeyer's won't need to change them, but their labels are wrong.

They need an age statement.

According to TTB rules, the absence of an age statement is supposed to mean the whiskey is at least four years old. This one isn't, as Travis Whitmeyer was happy to admit. The whiskey is, in fact, two-years old, but they didn't put 'straight bourbon' on the label even though they could because TTB told them they could avoid the age statement that way. They know they'll have to label future products differently.

If the comments to Whitmeyer's Facebook announcement are any indication, those 600 bottles will be gone in no time. At last count, the announcement had 115 'likes' and 17 'shares.' Limit two per customer.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Some Advice on Conflict Resolution and the Making of a Successful Partnership


NOTE: As I've been working on a new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, I haven't posted in the last week or so. This post contains no bourbon content. It is something I wrote for some friends about 12 years ago, at their request, on the occasion of their marriage. They're still married, if that tells you anything.
_____________________

Considering my track record, my first thought was to suggest that you study my recommendations and then do exactly the opposite.

But maybe I have learned a few things.

Trust. There is nothing more important. If I am certain of anything it is that. To be with a person you can trust completely, that is the only reason to even be in a relationship. To have such people in your life in any capacity is a treasure.

Figuring out if you can trust another person is not nearly as important as being trustworthy yourself.

The best way to resolve conflicts is also the easiest: give in. State your position, explain why you feel the way you do, then let it go. Compromise quickly and generously, or simply fold altogether, then forget about it.

That doesn't mean be wishy-washy. You can have an opinion. You can even argue, just don't care about winning. Yes, someone is keeping score, but not the way you think.

No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to be too nice. Kindness does not come naturally or easily to anyone. It is counter-intuitive, you have to work at it. There is no chance that you will overdo it.

Gentleness, patience; also good.

Understanding, on the other hand, is overrated. Acceptance is more satisfying and conducive to happiness than understanding.

Shut up and listen. Of course you have to talk at some point, but the risk that you will listen too much or talk too little is very small.

Other very small risks: that you will laugh too much, smile too much, hug too much, have too much fun, see too much beauty or hear too much music. You can, however, eat too much cake.

Events you do not control will always turn out to be more interesting than events you do control. Also more entertaining, educational and, yes, more frightening, but still better.

Despite all indications to the contrary, your partner will not be improved if he or she becomes more like you. Do not try to understand why this is so. Instead, relax and enjoy the ride.

In fact, that’s probably the single best advice I can give: relax and enjoy the ride. That doesn't mean be passive. You should be engaged and involved, but also utterly open to life’s surprises. Another very small risk: that you will be too open to new experiences.

What about love? That’s the prerequisite. You won’t get very far with any of this other stuff without love. Love is the presence of all things good and the absence of all things bad. Trust, kindness, acceptance, listening – those are behaviors that require your attention. Love takes care of itself.

Thank you (names deleted for privacy) for prompting me to think about these matters. I don’t mean to suggest that I successfully follow all of my own advice all of the time, but right or wrong these are the lessons life has taught me so far.

Be nice. Have fun. Prepare to be surprised.

Chuck Cowdery, February 22, 2003

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I. W. Harper Bourbon Is Returning to the USA



Diageo announced yesterday that it is bringing the I. W. Harper Bourbon brand back to the United States after about a 20 year absence.

The first releases will be I. W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (NAS) and a limited edition I. W. Harper 15-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Associated Press Food Editor J. M. Hirsch got to break the story and received some information the rest of us did not.

The NAS product will be 82° proof (41% ABV) while the 15-year-old will be 86° (43% ABV). Diageo says bottles should start to appear in stores by the end of this month. It's all happening very quickly. They haven't even finished the press releases yet.

I. W. Harper is a very important brand historically. It was launched in 1879 by the Bernheim Brothers, Issac and Bernard. Issac was older and president. "I. W." were his first two initials, but he hesitated about using his own real last name and went with the safely Anglo-Saxon 'Harper' instead.

I wrote at length about Bernheim in both Bourbon, Straight and my new book, Bourbon, Strange.

The brothers had two distilleries in Louisville, the first one in Shively, the second in west Louisville where Heaven Hill's Bernheim Production Facility is today. The brothers sold the company when they retired. After Prohibition it became part of Schenley, which became part of the Guinness roll-up that created what we know as Diageo today. They tore down the old distillery and built a new one in 1992, then sold it to Heaven Hill in 1999.

It was about 1990 when I. W. Harper Bourbon was withdrawn from the U.S. market. It was by then a cheap, bottom shelf brand here but had, remarkably, become the best-selling bourbon in Japan, where it sold at a premium price. So great was the price differential that clever entrepreneurs began gray market exporting it, buying it at U.S. prices and shipping it to Japan outside of sanctioned distribution channels. The only way to stop them was to kill the brand in the U.S.

It returned briefly a few years later as one-fifth of the Bourbon Heritage Collection, as a super-premium called I. W. Harper Gold Medal, a 15-year-old. When Diageo bailed out of bourbon in 1999, that product was one of the first casualties. It hasn't been seen in these parts since.

Though no longer number one, I. W. Harper Bourbon continues to do well in Japan and other non-U.S. markets.

In 2012, I. W. Bernheim was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.

In retirement, Bernheim became a major philanthropist. Probably his greatest gift was the 10,000 acre nature preserve in Bullitt County known as Bernheim Forest. He and his wife, and one of his sons, are buried there. Although open to the public it is privately owned by the Bernheim Foundation. A formal unveiling of the new products will be held next week at Bernheim Forest.

The I. W. Bernheim Monument at Bernheim Forest; Clermont, Kentucky (across the road from Jim Beam).

I. W. Harper Bourbon was notable for having an extremely low rye content, about eight percent. That's not unprecedented. When Diageo was making both brands, Old Charter was the same distillate. Both Jack Daniel's and Diageo's own George Dickel have comparable mash bills. Although they don't reveal their mash bills, the Buffalo Trace rye-recipe bourbon mash bill is believed to be similar.

Hirsch's source says the two releases have different mash bills, the NAS is 73 percent corn while the 15-year-old is 86 percent corn. Diageo American Whiskey Ambassador Doug Kragel also told AP that some of the 15-year-old is from New Bernheim, presumably made between 1992 and 1999.

Who made the rest of it? We're told it will be essentially the same product they've been selling outside the U.S. I don't expect them to tell us the other sources, but in recent years Diageo is known to have purchased large quantities of bourbon distillate (e.g., millions of proof gallons annually) from Four Roses, Brown-Forman, Jim Beam, and Barton, which it aged at Stitzel-Weller. No one will confirm this, but the information is from a superb source. The warehouses at Stitzel-Weller are being emptied now because of the fungus issue. That appears to have been what brought the Orphan Barrels to market and it may be driving this move too.

Although the product remains to be tasted, it is always nice to welcome an old friend back home.