Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Randy Schrick Named VP of Production and Engineering at MGP

MGP, a leading supplier of premium distilled spirits and specialty food ingredients, has appointed Randy Schrick to the newly expanded position of vice president of production and engineering, effective immediately.

In his new role, Schrick will support the company’s long-term growth plans by assuming leadership of all production activities, in addition to his previous engineering leadership responsibilities.

“Randy’s credentials and professional accomplishments are extraordinary,” said MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin. “His leadership qualities, combined with his vast experience and proficiencies in every aspect of our processes, make him ideal for mentoring others in the art and science of producing the highest quality alcohol products and ingredients for our customers.”

Schrick most recently served as Vice President of Engineering since June 2009 and held the position of MGP’s interim co-CEO from December 2013 to July 2014. He also served as president of the company’s Pekin, Ill., joint venture operation, Illinois Corn Processing, LLC, from November 2009 to December 2011. (Pekin makes grain neutral spirit for vodka and other uses.)

Starting as a distillery shift manager in 1973, Schrick worked his way up through the ranks at the company, building on his unique skills and talents, and strengthening his business acumen. He subsequently served as vice president of operations, plant manager, and corporate director of distillery products manufacturing. He has been a master distiller for more than 20 years.

Schrick holds a bachelor of science degree in physics from Washburn University, Topeka, and a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Kansas State University, Manhattan.

MGP has become very important to whiskey enthusiasts in recent years because the former Seagrams plant MGP operates in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, makes bourbon and rye for assorted producers large and small, some of whom have been in the news lately for misrepresenting the source of their whiskey. MGP can only sell alcoholic beverages to customers who hold the required government licenses but, other than that, MGP has no say in how its customers use those products. 

Although MGP is not the only distillery that sells whiskey to non-distiller producers (NDPs), it is the only one that does so exclusively. It has no brands of its own. Also, and despite the claims of some of its customers, it does not prohibit its customers from revealing MGP as the source. On the contrary, they wish more would, not that MGP needs the advertising. So hot is demand for its products that the distillery today produces more whiskey than it did even in its Seagrams heyday. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

New Content Added to Small Barrels Book, Still Just 99 Cents

This little ebook, created as an experiment almost three years ago, continues to sell and continues to make people angry. They are not entirely wrong.

What I didn't anticipate at the time was that people would take the work as some kind of definitive analysis of the subject and not simply as a report about one very specific experiment.

The original newsletter article upon which the book was based had a longer title. "'Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey,' Says Buffalo Trace." Perhaps I should have left it alone.

As for the ebook itself, it was an experiment to see if it might be worth my time to convert Bourbon, Straight and make it available on Kindle, and perhaps create other original ebook content. It was successful enough and I've been very glad I put my toe in the water with it.

So far it's my only book that's available exclusively as an ebook. The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste started out as an ebook but generated enough interest to justify a small print run.

Wait, didn't the headline say something about new content? Yes it did. I have added a new chapter to the end of Small Barrels that gives the work better balance, although I'm sure there will still be complaints. The new content is an article I wrote for Whisky Advocate in 2013, in which people other than the Buffalo Trace folks speak about the use of small barrels. In particular, I talked to small distillers who have used small barrels successfully.

If you already have the book, I believe Kindle will update it with the new content automatically. It should show up in the table of contents (as Chapter 6), the introduction, and in the text after Chapter 5. If you don't already have the book you can get it here, and it's still just 99¢.

I have not yet updated the Nook version and I don't know when I will. I'm sorry to say that Nook/Barnes & Noble gives me so little business, they're just not worth the trouble.

Monday, September 29, 2014

See Me at Indy's Whisky & Fine Spirits Expo, Friday, October 10

Are you going to Indy's Whisky & Fine Spirits Expo at Montage? Me too! I'll be teaching an American whiskey master class at 6:40 PM. We'll taste and discuss a standard bourbon, wheated bourbon, high rye bourbon, and straight rye, the four primary styles of American whiskey.

It's next Friday, October 10. VIP admission ($150) opens at 5:00 PM, general admission ($80) opens at 6:45 PM. The event runs to 9:00 PM.

No 'rare and exclusive pours' in my class. Just, I hope, some knowledge.

After the class, starting at about 8:00 PM, I'm be on the main exhibition floor selling and signing copies of my new book, Bourbon, Strange, as well as my other two books, Bourbon, Straight and The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste. That will go on for about an hour.

Other than that, I'll just be hanging out and sampling the wares. Come say hello.

This is my first time attending, but I hear it's a great event. I'm looking forward to it. Hope to see you there.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Enough of 5.36(d) for Now. Everybody, Meet Section 5.40

Here we are again, with our nose in the book. The Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, that is, the labeling rule book for the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Today we're looking at Section 5.40, Age and Percentages. Since people seem to prefer TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM), it's there in Chapter 8.

Before we started to write about Section 5.36(d), we contacted Tom Hogue. He is TTB's Director of Congressional and Public Affairs. We asked if our interpretation of 5.36(d) was correct and he said yes. We did the same thing with 5.40, which requires an age statement for any whiskey that is less than four years old. In recent years, TTB has allowed statements that read simply, “aged less than 4 years,” or something similar, instead of an actual age statement. We asked about that too.

Here is Mr. Hogue's reply:

"Age statements are required for all domestic or foreign whiskies, including blends, that are less than four years old.  For whiskies over four years old, the age statement is optional. TTB is not approving labels with 'aged less than' statements where an age statement is required."

Here is an example of a label in violation of 5.40:

It's obvious why this sucks. Is it three years, eleven months old? Or one week old? It effectively says, "we're not old enough for no age statement, so we're giving you a fake age statement."

If they're going to violate 5.40, they need not have bothered with the fake. Many micro-distillery products simply omit the age statement altogether, even though one sip tells you the whiskey is not more than four years old. Again, since TTB assumes compliance, a label submitted without an age statement on it is, for legal purposes, an affirmative statement that the whiskey inside is at least four years old. If it's not, you've committed perjury.

Oh yes, you have.

When they get caught with labeling violations, producers always insist they weren't trying to deceive anyone but why else leave off or fudge the required age statement? The rule is simplicity itself. If any whiskey in the mix is less than four years old, the age of the youngest whiskey must be disclosed on the label. There is no ambiguity and there are no exceptions. "It only applies to straight whiskey." Wrong. "It only applies to bourbon." Wrong. "It doesn't apply to blends." Wrong. "It doesn't apply to imports." Wrong.

Have TTB examiners given producers incorrect information about 5.40? There is evidence that they have. That's why we got an official statement from TTB. No excuses now.

TTB even tells you what form to use: "___ years old" or "aged ___ years" are the only options.

So is it not obvious that a person trying to sell you nine-month-old whiskey for $60 a bottle would rather you not know it's only nine-months-old?

If you think a lot of producers have been violating 5.36(d), there are too many to count breaking 5.40. Good luck finding one that is in compliance, and yet they do exist. Here's an example:

This matters because, as consumers, we have a right to know what we're buying, and this particular bit of information -- the true age of a whiskey that is less than four years old -- is required by law. Among other benefits, it levels the playing field, allowing one-year-old whiskeys to compete against other one-year-old whiskeys. Anyone who isn't proud enough of their effort to tell the truth about it probably does not deserve your patronage. The question looms, after all; if they're lying about this, what else are they lying about?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beam Releases Historic, Enhanced Photographs

We've talked a lot here recently about what's real and what's not. The picture above is both.

Beam is celebrating Jim Beam's sesquicentennial right now (i.e., his 150th birthday was September 18th). This is a rare photograph of the distillery at Clermont under construction, presumably in 1934 or thereabouts. The smokestack on the right tells me that building houses the boiler. The cupola on the building to the left tells me that's the stillhouse. With that and the old vehicles and construction debris in the foreground, it's a great image.

Only it's not the real photograph. This is.

As part of Jim Beam's birthday celebration, the company has had some of its historic photographs digitally enhanced. Mostly that means colorizing but this one was also straightened.

Jim Beam says it is the first consumer brand to partner with Dynamichrome, a UK-based service that specializes in high fidelity color restoration in culture, history and entertainment. Dynamichrome has previously worked with the Imperial War Museum's World War I extension and the Indian Motorcycle Company to digitally reconstruct and colorize black and white photographs.

I have no real problem with this. The images are great, you just have to remember they're not real. In this photograph the colors are almost certainly correct, but in some of the others showing people, the color of their clothing is largely a guess. To go way philosophical on you, no photograph is real. It's a creation, an artifice, i.e., art, because someone decided what to shoot, how to shoot it, and when to shoot it.

Then again, there is another whole school that says photography isn't art because it merely mimics life. As proof, they point out that a camera can be programmed to take a photograph by itself, with no human intervention. 

With these Beam photographs -- seven were released this week -- the subjects are historical. We want the pictures to be as accurate as possible because we want to learn from them. Does it matter if Jim Beam's suit is gray or brown? Probably not. When you consider what's possible today with photo manipulation software, it's a wonder we believe anything is real.

So, really and truly, I'm glad they did this to the pictures. I'm enjoying them and I really don't think they're leading us to ruin.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

New Hampshire, the Control State People Like

Lately, much attention has been paid to the U. S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the principal federal regulator of alcoholic beverages. TTB is important, but alcohol regulation is mostly a state enterprise. The 21st Amendment created a limited exception to the Constitution's Commerce Clause. The fifty states have much more freedom to regulate alcoholic beverages than they do any other consumer products.

At the most fundamental level, the fifty are divided into license states (33) and control states (17). Washington recently changed teams. Pennsylvania may follow. Whenever a state talks about changing, it is from control to license, never the other way around.

In control states, state government directly controls some aspect of the industry, usually by functioning as the sole distributor for alcohol products. Each state is a little bit different. In some states, the government operates all of the retail outlets too. Often they set prices. There is no competition.

Control state residents frequently complain about high prices, limited selection, insufficient and inconvenient outlets, extremely limited hours, and indifferent service. In every control state, that is, except New Hampshire.

Admittedly, the sample size for this survey is extremely small, but it came up several times when I was there last weekend. Folks in New Hampshire seem to like their state system. What's more, they're proud of it. They brag about how they have stores on the interstates and in the Manchester airport. Prices are low because they don't charge sales tax and they have good sales. They don't necessarily carry everything but special orders are easy. If enough people ask for something, it goes into regular stock. They actually listen and respond to their customers.

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission operates under the name New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet stores. It positions itself like a big, liquor store chain, not a government agency. Some stores are designated as Specialty Wine Stores, Expanded Wine Selection Stores or Specialty Spirits Stores. This statement is from their website:

"Over the years, New Hampshire residents and those from surrounding states for miles around have chosen to shop for their wine and spirits at our conveniently located New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet stores. This has not happened by accident, but by design, as the State Liquor Commission aggressively pursues a strategy that provides you with the best possible value and the most pleasant shopping experience."

Because New Hampshire is such a small state, its residents are very aware of how things are done on the other side of their borders, including the international one. Their system seems to work well for consumers and for the state's legitimate interests in diminishing alcohol abuse.

Nice place, New Hampshire.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

NAS Jim Beam Black Label Should Be Okay

This is not the sort of thing producers announce but Beam Suntory has confirmed rumors that Jim Beam Black Label -- which the company has long touted as 'double-aged' because it is 8-years-old compared to white label's 4 -- will soon be NAS (no age statement). No word on exactly when the change will occur but the NAS product is probably in the pipeline now.

The website appears to be in transition. The copy reveals the new positioning even though the bottle cut still shows the age statement. No doubt that's deliberate. Beam leaves nothing to chance.

Obviously, a producer doesn't drop an age statement without intending to use whiskey that is younger than the abandoned age but what will this change really mean in the case of Jim Beam Black, which has long been the best value in the Beam lineup; a rich, flavorful, mature whiskey for a very good price?

The nature of Beam's production factors into this.

Beam has two big distilleries at Clermont and Boston. They make all of their whiskeys there except Maker's Mark. Boston (Booker Noe) pretty much makes white label exclusively while Clermont makes everything else, but white label is the biggest part of its production too. White label is so huge compared to everything else that for 50 minutes of every hour, that's what they make.

This is where the difference between age and maturity comes into play.

Although a little bit of older whiskey gets into white label batches to match the flavor profile, it is basically 4-years-old and a day. The flavored stuff and Devil's Cut comes out of that pool too. What's left? Old Crow is younger liquid that's also less mature. Although Booker's and Baker's are age-stated, they are very low volume. Knob, at 9-years, is much larger. That gives Beam a lot of whiskey to play with between 4 and 9 years old.

We all know some barrels mature faster than others, based on their warehouse location. These, presumably, are the barrels they'll use for black label. That's where NAS works. They can keep the flavor profile close (which is their top priority) by selecting these younger but more mature barrels. That way, they're putting that extra maturity to good use. Dropping the age statement won't hurt sales if they are successful at maintaining the flavor profile. Regular buyers of black label may not even notice the label change, but they'll definitely notice a flavor change.

With the immense volume of whiskey Beam produces, they should be able to keep the black label as the rich and flavorful product it is now, and keep it a good value too. If they're successful, NAS won't be such a bad thing.