Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Accelerated Aging Challenge


Once again, as we see every few months, someone has hired a publicist to generate coverage of a new system to accelerate the aging of whiskey. No names, claims, or descriptive details are needed. You've seen it all before. It's another one just like the other ones. They come and they go, which means this one will soon go too. There is no reason to be disturbed by it.

Publications with space to fill and little or no editorial integrity will provide the publicity. A few people, recently disembarked from the turnip truck, will get excited. Others, the hopeless optimists, will mutter that perhaps this is the one, a whiskey messiah for the chronically impatient.

It began with America's first whiskey boom, in the period after the Civil War, when whiskey evolved from a locally-made agricultural product into something that was standardized, manufactured, and nationally-distributed. The model for what most people wanted to drink -- a grain distillate aged for several years in new charred oak barrels -- was established and, almost immediately, people began to look for ways to duplicate that model in less time.

The first solution was what we now call compound whiskey. It started with a young or minimally aged whiskey, perhaps even a neutral spirit, to which flavorings and colorings were added. Ingredients such as tea, caramel, lanolin, vanilla, tobacco, prune juice -- and worse -- were used. With no effective system for regulating labels or advertising, unscrupulous producers could claim anything they wanted for these products and no one believed that listing the actual ingredients or describing the actual production methods was the way to go. Instead they claimed they used traditional methods including long, natural aging.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and subsequent laws, put an end to that era. Since then, we have seen various schemes for achieving the results of long aging through other means. Some, such as the use of wood chips and other wood additives, are prohibited for straight bourbon, straight rye, and other coveted identifiers. Others, such as using small barrels, or subjecting the aging spirits to sound waves, oxygen infusion, or other exotic treatments, do not offend the regulators. At least one technique, warehouse heat cycling, actually works, although its benefits are modest.

However it is done, what matters are the results, which never measure up. One failed scheme fades away and another emerges to take its place.

Back in the 19th century, people who made fake whiskey knew they were running a con. They didn't have any illusions about making a quality product. They were in it for the quick buck. Today you can't always tell. Often these schemes attract business development money from local governments, so there is a potential motive to deceive, but for every scammer there is a sincere but misguided individual or team chasing the American dream of building a better mousetrap and having the world beat a path to your door.

It's not necessary to know which is which. They all ultimately face the same test, of putting a product in a bottle and getting people to drink it. So here is the challenge. Evan Williams Black Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made the traditional way. It does not carry an age statement but based on labeling laws it must be at least four years old. It is probably closer to the seven years it was before the age statement was removed about ten years ago. In most places, a 750 ml bottle of it costs less than $15.

Other products could have been used for this exercise but Evan Williams is a good choice because it is widely available, a good value, and a product most American whiskey consumers are happy to drink.

Until you can make something that tastes better than Evan Williams and sells for less than $15 a bottle, you have nothing. You're just wasting your time and ours.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Owensboro Distillery Is Now O. Z. Tyler


Aerial view of Owensboro's O. Z. Tyler Distillery. 
O. Z. Tyler Distillery is the new name for an Owensboro distillery long associated with the Medley family. It was acquired last year by Terressentia, a South Carolina company that claims to be able to accelerate the aging of whiskey and other products using its TerraPURE process. Orville Zelotes ('O. Z.') Tyler III was the co-inventor of the TerraPURE process, along with his son. O. Z. died last year at the age of 81.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear participated in the July 30th dedication ceremony.

Terressentia says it is investing $25 million to purchase and refurbish the plant, which was built shortly after Prohibition. It needs a lot of work. Although the 36" diameter beer still is in place, a new boiler and new fermenters are needed. Many of the warehouses were damaged in a 2009 winter storm. Terressentia says they will have it up and running in 2016.

The last time anything was made there was in 1992. That same year United Distillers (a predecessor company of Diageo) sold it to Charles Wathen Medley, who was its last master distiller.

Like many whiskey-making clans, the Medleys started with a small, farm-based operation in Kentucky's Washington County early in the 19th century. The patriarch was John Medley. When he died in 1814 his estate included two stills and forty mash tubs.

The Medleys distilled in Washington County until, in 1901, George Medley and a partner bought a distillery in Daviess County, 130 miles to the west. (Pronounce it “Davis” despite the spelling.) The distillery was located just west of Owensboro, the county seat and Kentucky’s third largest city. George’s son, Tom, joined and then succeeded him in that venture.

The Medleys were part of the migration of Maryland Catholics to what they called the American Holy Lands in Kentucky. The Wathens were another such family. By the close of the 19th century, the Wathens were among the most successful distillers in Kentucky. Nick Wathen had a daughter named Florence Ellen. Tom Medley courted and married her. They named their firstborn son Wathen Medley in honor of the union. Charles Wathen Medley is his son.

That original Daviess County Medley Distillery was next door to the current site. During Prohibition it became a meat packer, which it still is today. The first distillery on the current site was built in 1885. It was called McCullough and, later, Green River. As Green River it became famous for its advertising slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache.” Regulators eventually barred that claim. Its replacement, “The Whiskey Without Regrets,” though arguably more evocative, never had the same zing.

Fire destroyed most of the Green River plant in 1918 and the rest was razed during Prohibition. Someone tried to bring it back after repeal as the Sour Mash Distillery. They built the current buildings, installed much of the current equipment, distilled 1,349 barrels of whiskey, ran out of money, and closed in 1939.

The first distillery owned by a Medley after Prohibition was a third place in that same general vicinity, just north of the Green River site, built in around 1881. It was best known as Rock Spring Distilling, a name it acquired in 1906. Tom Medley bought Rock Spring and brought it back after Prohibition, running it until his death in 1940. His son, Wathen, sold it to Fleischmann’s Distilling and bought the adjacent Green River place.

Now Wathen and his four brothers were in charge. In the boom years after World War II, the Medley brothers adopted, as a kind of trademark, the wearing of Kentucky Colonel ties (like the one KFC’s Colonel Sanders wears). The distillery sometimes gave the ties away as promotions.

The Medley brothers sold their whiskey under many different brand names such as Medley Brothers, Five Brothers, Old Medley, and Kentucky Beau. They did a good, regional business and that was plenty in those days, when just about the only thing anybody drank was bourbon whiskey.

Like the Motlows at Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee, the Medleys eventually became victims of their own success. Although the business was sound, they were unable to adequately finance its continued growth and diversification themselves. They sold it to Renfield Importers in 1959. Two of the brothers and Wathen's son Charles stayed on as managers and distillers.

Also in 1959 Medley acquired the Ezra Brooks bourbon brand, which had originated at the Hoffman Distillery in Anderson County. A Jack Daniel’s clone, Ezra Brooks became Medley’s leading seller and #1 asset.

His father and uncle eventually retired but Charles stayed on, even as the distillery changed owners several more times. Although Charles never resumed distilling there, he and his son, Sam, used the last whiskey made at Medley Brothers to launch their Wathen bourbon line as non-distiller producers.

During the years he owned it, Charles mostly tried to keep the roofs from leaking and otherwise keep the buildings in good repair. In 2007, he sold it to Angostura Limited. They began a renovation but in 2009, Angostura's parent company collapsed as part of the worldwide financial crisis and all spending stopped. The distillery has been for sale ever since.

In 2013, Charles and Sam Medley relaunched one of the family brands, Medley Brothers. The Wathen and Medley bourbons are produced under contract by an undisclosed Kentucky distillery. The Medleys are non-distiller producers now and intend to stay that way.

For their old Owensboro distillery, Terressentia is the future.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Strange Story of 'Whiskey' Versus 'Whisky'


In honor of Bourbon, Strange approaching its first anniversary next month, I thought I would share a few excerpts, starting last week. This is the last one, at least for now. The bit below is from the chapter, "The Spelling of ‘Whiskey’ and Other Weighty Matters." To just buy the book already, click here.
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‘Whiskey’ is one of those English words, like ‘aging,’ ‘center,’ ‘color,’ and ‘maneuver,’ that Americans and Brits spell differently. There are hundreds of them. In most cases, Canadians side with Great Britain, though sometimes they're with us, and sometimes they find a third way.

In the United States, ‘whiskey’ is the preferred spelling, as it is in Ireland. In Great Britain, Canada, Japan, and just about every place else, ‘whisky’ is preferred. With the exception of Canada and the handful of Americans below, everyone who spells it ‘whisky’ makes a barley-based, scotch-like product.

Several American whiskey brands, most prominently Maker’s Mark, George Dickel, Old Forester, and Early Times, use the ‘-y’ spelling. Maker’s Mark and Brown-Forman (which makes Old Forester and Early Times) say it is because their founders were Scottish.

Since George Dickel was German, Dickel owner Diageo made up a ludicrous story that George preferred that spelling because he believed his product to be as smooth and high in quality as the best scotch whiskies. That sounds like scotch-maker Diageo talking and it's nonsense. Scotch was virtually unknown in Tennessee in Dickel’s day.

There really is nothing more to the spelling difference between ‘whiskey’ and ‘whisky’ than a spelling difference, like ‘tire’ and ‘tyre,’ hence it’s not very important, but writers often fall all over themselves trying to use both spellings according to which national spirit they’re discussing.

You can also, if you research the subject, find all sorts of ‘explanations’ for the difference. They are all nonsense. The result of all that nonsense, unfortunately, is that many people mistakenly believe that ‘whiskey’ and ‘whisky’ are two completely different words with different meanings. Some go so far as to declare that only Scottish single malts are entitled to be called ‘whisky.’ They are wrong. They are the flat-earthers of the whiskey world.

‘Whiskey’ is one word, with one meaning and at least two acceptable spellings.

For some writers, the solution is to use ‘whisk(e)y’ as the universal term. I reject that because it is unnecessary, confusing, and because parenthesis don’t belong inside words. Since ‘whiskey’ is the only multiple-spelling word that is treated that way, such treatment suggests again that the word is unique, which it is not. Plus it is a distinction you can’t make audibly.

As this book is written by an American and published in the United States, it will use the ‘-ey’ spelling throughout, even when referring to scotch whiskey (which won’t happen very often anyway), except when a specific product name is invoked, e.g., Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky. In those cases, this book will use whatever spelling the producer uses, and also capital letters as befits a proper name.

The plural of whiskey is whiskeys. The plural of whisky is whiskies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Strange Story of Bourbon Collecting


In honor of Bourbon, Strange approaching its first anniversary next month, I thought I would share a few excerpts over the next few days. The bit below is from the chapter, "How to Collect American Whiskey." To just buy the book already, click here.
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A trend that has accompanied the rising popularity of American whiskey is American whiskey collecting. The voyeuristic fascination with hoarding, a staple of reality television, leads naturally to the question of where the line between a healthy pastime and an unhealthy obsession lies.

There are many people whose whiskey collection numbers in the hundreds of bottles who don’t seem in danger of being found buried beneath them. Others lose control after a few cases. What's the difference?

Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College and the author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, draws the line this way:

“For collectors, new possessions become part of a larger set of items and considerable time and energy go into organizing and displaying them. When collecting is healthy, the display or storage of these things does not impede the use of active living areas of the home. When a collector expands acquisitions beyond well-defined collections and loses the ability to keep these possessions organized, it becomes a hoarding problem.”

So, if your collection is neatly arrayed on shelves in one room, organized by distillery or in some other fashion, you're okay no matter how many bottles you own. But if they are hidden in cases, stuck into every nook and cranny, you’re not quite sure what you have, nor how many, and your kids can’t find their bikes, you may have issues.

If all or part of your collection is in a rented storage locker that your spouse doesn’t know about, seek immediate professional attention.

Psychologists say one way to keep collecting in a healthy range is to have clear goals and strategies.

What constitutes a collection? This is arbitrary, but let’s say if you have more than a dozen bottles of any one type of distilled spirit, i.e., more than a case, and you don't live in the wilderness, days from the nearest liquor store, that’s a collection. You may collect primarily to give yourself a diverse inventory for future drinking, but you're still collecting.

Whiskey collectors should be distinguished from bottle collectors. People who try to collect all or a subset of the commemorative bottles put out by Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, or another producer are bottle collectors, not whiskey collectors. Commemoratives rarely contain special whiskey.

Whiskey collectors collect for the contents, not the package, which is why the contents must be consumed. This gives the pastime a charmingly evanescent quality. If you’re drinking from your collection, and consider few or no bottles to be off limits, that’s healthy. It should help keep things from getting out of control, even if there is more net ingress than egress.

For some whiskey collectors, it’s the thrill of the hunt more than the acquisitions themselves. The size of their stash may rise exponentially when they score, then shrink as those finds are depleted and not immediately replaced.

Such collectors typically have very specific things they look for and when they find them, they don’t stop at one or two bottles. They clean the place out.

What do people collect? In one sense or another, most collectors seek scarcity. If the selection in your bunker mirrors that of your local whiskey monger, what’s the point?

The trick is buying in anticipation of scarcity. Age-stated bottles of Weller Special Reserve, for example, were in ample supply when the NAS label appeared in 2011, but are now scarce. Some might say, “but it was a label change, the whiskey didn’t change.” Yes and no. Label changes may not indicate an immediate product change, but they usually predict that one is coming.

When a limited edition product has several releases, some people have to have every release. With single barrels, some people try to collect one bottle from as many different barrels as they can find.

Sazerac makes more than 30 different brands of bourbon, many with multiple expressions, and Heaven Hill has a similarly large stable. They are constantly tweaking their portfolios and don’t generally announce when something is being discontinued, nor when they change a proof or drop an age statement. All such events are opportunities for collectors.

There are ways to get advance word of some of these changes. In control states, producers typically have to notify the state when something is discontinued and that information is usually public. Most ABCs put that information on their web site, but you have to know how to look for it. That requirement typically covers proof changes but not age statements. You only learn about those when the new label ships.

The window to snap up abandoned versions is typically small, but you might get lucky and find them marked down. Some retailers don’t like the potential for confusion when they have two different labels for the same product on the shelf together, so they may blow out the old stock. If the store has a cut-outs bin, watch for them there.

(For more suggestions, buy the book.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Templeton Rye Settlement Website Is Live


Have you ever wished you could punish a business that has lied to you and ripped you off? Now you can.

If you purchased bottles of Templeton Rye whiskey, or purchased alcoholic beverages containing Templeton Rye whiskey (i.e., cocktails in a bar), between January 1, 2006 and July 21, 2015, you have some money coming but you have to claim it. The website where you can do that is now live. To get started filing your claim, go here.

If you want to know more about the Templeton case, go here.

To make your revenge that much more sweet, you should know that Templeton does not have any insurance coverage for this. It's coming right out of the liars' pockets. The court has capped the damages at $2.5 million, and they deserve to pay every penny of it, but for that to happen people must file claims. You can get up to $36.

No, it's not a lot of money, but justice is priceless.

Spread the word.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Strange Story of How Time and Wood Equal Whiskey


In honor of Bourbon, Strange approaching its first anniversary next month, I thought I would share a few excerpts over the next few days. The bit below is from the chapter, "How American Whiskey Is Made." To just buy the book already, click here.
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Whiskey aging is often referred to as a long slumber, but the process is much more active than that makes it sound. The whiskey is actually eating the barrel.

Aging occurs in cycles. On hot summer days, the whiskey expands through the char, through the red layer, and into the well-dried but otherwise untreated wood beneath. While in the wood, the whiskey dissolves various delicious compounds. In the cool of evening, the liquid contracts and brings all of the dissolved wood goodies out with it, where they begin to flavor the body of the whiskey.

The char layer reacts with and either traps or softens any bad congeners that remain in the spirit, taming them and rendering them either innocuous or tasty.

Once the aging process has begun the product is called whiskey, but like the intern who is called ‘doctor’ but can’t do anything without supervision, it isn’t much good until it has been in wood for at least two years, at which point it can be called straight whiskey.

After three years it can be sold in Europe as whiskey.

After four years, the maker no longer has to put its age on the label.

After about eight years they want to put the age on the label. Most American whiskey is aged between four and six years, but some is aged longer, up to twenty years or more.

In addition to extraction, the other important processes that take place in the barrel are oxygenation and evaporation.

After about twelve years, barrel flavors start to take over. The whiskey can easily go south at this point. In some cases it gets more interesting. Some whiskeys aged 12+ years will continue to improve for a few more, but older is not necessarily better. Older is only always … older; which means more wood notes, so less of everything else.

Aging is expensive, so old age tends to rationalize a high price, but neither is any guarantee of quality. A great whiskey must be balanced and most very-olds are not.

Sometimes older is interesting, though not necessarily great; sometimes older is awful; and sometimes, but only very rarely, older is singularly outstanding.

For a producer, continuing to age a barrel that is fully mature is a risky proposition. If you miscalculate and let it go too far, you may have to ‘blend it away,’ which is jargon for adding a few barrels of over-aged whiskey to a typically young, commodity product so everything balances out and the imperfections go unnoticed. Financially, this represents a failure, since the monetary return will be much less than originally anticipated.

Corn whiskey, a kind of proto-bourbon, is a very small part of the American straight whiskey market. Unlike all other types, it can be aged but it doesn’t have to be. To call it straight corn whiskey it must be aged for at least two years in either new un-charred or used barrels. If it is aged in new charred barrels, it is bourbon, even if the mash bill is 100 percent corn.

Only the United States regards un-aged corn whiskey as whiskey. It may not be labeled as whiskey in Canada or Europe.

Whiskey aging warehouses are big boxes full of 53 gallon barrels that are themselves full of high proof whiskey. They are a pretty great place to be. The scent of whiskey suffuses the air.

It is comforting to see how much whiskey there is, standing by, pulling itself together, getting ready for future thirsty multitudes.

Out in the countryside, the aging warehouses are on hilltops, spread far apart, copiously adorned with windows, and sheathed only in a thin skin of corrugated metal. In Frankfort and Louisville, they are more likely to be brick, with fewer windows, and capable of being heated to simulate summer conditions during winter, a process known as heat cycling. Some warehouses use electric fans to enhance air circulation. Most just rely on nature.

Brown-Forman is the only company that uses heat cycling in all warehouses at both of its Kentucky distilleries.

Different types of warehouses, different warehouse locations, and different locations within a warehouse all age whiskey differently. The barrels themselves are another variable, the age of the tree when it was harvested, the soil in which it was grown, how long the cut wood was seasoned, and so on.

Aging whiskeys are periodically tested, i.e., tasted, to assess how they are progressing. In some now more and more rare cases (because it’s so expensive to do) barrels are moved to a different location where they will age differently. This process, once ubiquitous but now rare, is called barrel rotation. Maker’s Mark is the only distillery that does it routinely and they don’t do it for every barrel, just the ones that need it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Strange Story of How Mushrooms Make Bourbon Taste Good


In honor of Bourbon, Strange, approaching its first anniversary next month, I thought I would share a few excerpts over the next few days. The bit below is from the chapter, "Of Eumycotians and Quercus Alba." To just buy the book already, click here.
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Mushrooms are tasty on pizza, battered and deep fried, or stuffed with crabmeat. Maybe you like grilled portabellas with polenta, or shiitakes in a stir fry, but probably not mushrooms in your whiskey.

Fair enough, but mushrooms do help your whiskey taste good.

It only recently has become known that mushrooms of a microscopic sort play a vital role in the seasoning of American white oak (Quercus alba) for whiskey barrels. Scientists call it fungal colonization. It is an early part of the wood’s natural decomposition process.

As unpleasant as it sounds, the early stages of decomposition play a role in the production of many wonderful flavors, from aged meat to Sauternes wine. The natural decomposition of oak is a complicated system that involves various biological and chemical processes that break the wood down into its component chemicals. These then become fodder for other organisms and processes.

For our purposes, these processes reduce too-high levels of some substances, such as tannin, while making others more available for absorption by the spirit, such as sugar.

You don’t want logs that are full of rot, of course, but a little decomposition can be tasty.

Cooperage, the craft of making barrels, is even more ancient than the craft of making whiskey. Both are a charming blend of the very traditional and very modern. The earliest coopers used pine because they didn’t have tools that were hard enough to work hardwood, but those barrels had to be sealed inside with pitch to prevent pine sap from damaging the contents.

When iron tools became available, coopers discovered that white oak doesn’t leak. The flavor benefits were a happy accident.

Historically, barrels were multi-purpose containers. Today, cardboard, plastic, and metals such as aluminum and steel do most of what barrels used to do. The primary buyers of new oak barrels these days are wine- and whiskey-makers. Without the beverage alcohol industry, barrel-making would be a lost art.

Brown-Forman Corporation is the only whiskey-maker that also makes barrels. They have a large cooperage in Louisville and have just opened another one in Alabama, strategically located close to some large stands of white oak and also that little distillery they own in Lynchburg, Tennessee. That is where most of the barrels from both Brown-Forman cooperages wind up.

Despite the fact that it makes barrels only for its own use, Brown-Forman is one of the two largest barrel-makers in the country. The other one, which makes barrels for everyone else, is Independent Stave Company (ISC). They are based in Lebanon, Missouri, but also have a large cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky. (It gives tours.)

In addition to whiskey barrels, ISC is a major wine barrel producer.

There are several other cooperages, all much smaller than Brown-Forman and ISC. Since Brown-Forman and ISC strictly make 53 gallon barrels, it is the small cooperages that supply small distilleries with small barrels.

Although cooperage is more automated today than it was 150 years ago, it still requires considerable human skill. Machines can plane staves and cut heads, but they can’t arrange the staves in just the right way so the barrel won’t leak. Only a highly-skilled human can do that.

The selection and arrangement of staves is called ‘raising’ the barrel. Barrel raisers are paid per-barrel. The best are very well compensated and have great job security.

In addition to making new barrels, the craft of cooperage includes reassembling and refurbishing used barrels, as well as barrel repair. Most large distillers have coopers on staff to perform repairs. Many of the smaller U.S. cooperages and virtually all Scottish and Irish cooperages are primarily involved with used barrel reassembly, refurbishing, and repair.

Back to those mushrooms, fungi if you prefer. Carried by air, the spores land and send out roots (hyphae) that penetrate into the wood structure, where they release hydrogen peroxide. This natural bleaching and oxidizing agent helps break down the wood chemically, softening tannins and caramelizing hemicellulose among other salutary effects.

First in the pool (a fresh-cut oak is about 60 percent water by weight) is Aureobasidium pullulans, one of the species of common mildew, the same black stuff you clean off your shower tiles. As the wood dries it becomes inhospitable to pullulans which pulls out (okay, dies) and is replaced by another type that thrives in the slightly drier environment.

One after another a succession of different fungal species (eumycota) and sub-species each have a go at it, including the one from which penicillin is made.

In studying these mushrooms, modern science proved the superiority of a traditional cooperage practice – natural air drying – that had been widely abandoned in the United States after World War II in favor of kilns.

As they discover how much is really going on, coopers and distillers have begun to talk of wood seasoning, instead of drying. This is part of the new science being applied to this ancient art.