Wednesday, December 31, 2008

If the News from Illinois Makes No Sense to You, Maybe This Will Help.

Because of who the president-elect is, just about everything that happens in Illinois these days is national news. I feel that we who live here owe a duty to our brothers and sisters in the rest of the nation to explain Illinois politics as well as it can be explained. Happily, I don't have to explain it personally because Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass does it better than I ever could. His latest is here.

Thanks also to NBC's Chuck Todd, who explained that Harry Reid's goal is not to prevent Burris from being seated, just to delay it. Ideally, Blago will be ousted soon, and the new governor can rescind Roland's appointment. That probably is legal if Blago's appointee hasn't been seated.

What Roland Burris, who is pretty clueless generally, doesn't get is that he has just seriously tainted his previously untainted rep. Typical.

Monday, December 29, 2008

North Carolina Isn't the Problem.

My brother, who lives in North Carolina, tipped me to a story in the News & Observer about a new micro distillery that is being proposed for Chapel Hill. The distillery's proprietor, Scott Maitland, operates a local brew pub called Top of the Hill. The article was written by a News & Observer staff writer, Jesse James DeConto. It was published today. You can read it here.

I wrote to Jesse the following:

Dear Jesse,

I enjoyed your article about Scott Maitland’s proposed distillery and micro distilleries in general. I am a writer who specializes in American whiskey and I have been following the development of the micro distillery industry with interest.

Mr. Maitland may have given you the wrong impression about North Carolina’s liquor laws. Everything was explained correctly, but it gave the impression that North Carolina is unique, or at least unusual and out of the mainstream in its approach. North Carolina is a control state but the issues Mr. Maitland complains about are pretty much universal. In both control and license states; the producer, distributor and retailer must be separate entities. There can be no cross-ownership. Producers may not sell directly to retailers. Each state is slightly different, and the differences can make you crazy, but the three-tier distribution system is the norm in all 50 states. The exception is control states where the state is both distributor and retailer (for off-premise sales). The state can do cross-ownership but non-state entities cannot.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, where 99% of America’s whiskey is produced, if a distillery wants to sell its products to tourists in the distillery’s gift shop, it must sell them to a distributor, who sells them back to the retailer entity the producer has established. In Kentucky and Tennessee, the state made a special exception to the cross-ownership prohibition to allow even this, since in this case the producer is also the retailer. Most states also exercise some control over prices at every level.

It’s all about taxes. Every state, as well as many cities and counties, takes a big rake off of all distilled spirits sales. Distilled spirits, dollar for dollar, are one of if not the most heavily taxed consumer product on the market. This is not unique to North Carolina. Every distiller’s biggest tax payments go to the federal government through a tax on production known as the Federal Excise Tax. In North Carolina, that mark-up between what the ABC pays the producer and what it charges retailers is essentially tax.

Mr. Owens, who I consider a good friend, can also be very misleading on this subject. His emphasis on brewing as a precursor to whiskey making is his personal vision, not universally shared. Among all of the Master Distillers at the major American whiskey producers, only one has ever worked as a brewer.

If you follow Bill’s point of view a little further, he believes micro-distillers should make malt whiskey, not bourbon or rye, because malt is the easiest grain to ferment and distill, and because you can even buy wash from a brewery and avoid fermentation altogether. Bill takes these positions despite the fact that they are contrary to 200+ years of American whiskey-making tradition.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to go into this further.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Kentucky's Inauguration Ball Will Feature Bourbon Trail.

The Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) announced today that Kentucky's official inauguration ball, known as the Bluegrass Ball, will showcase the bourbon industry at a "Walk Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail" reception.

The Bluegrass Ball, held the night before the inauguration, traditionally kicks-off the Washington celebrations of a new president's inauguration.

Seven Kentucky whiskeys will be featured at the ball: Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Four Roses, Maker's Mark, and Wild Turkey.

The Bluegrass Ball is sponsored by the Kentucky Society of Washington. It begins at 6 p.m. on Monday, January 19, 2009, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington D.C.

The evening’s Kentucky-inspired menu was designed by renowned Louisville Chef Michael Paley of Proof on Main. It will feature items made with Kentucky bourbon, as well as Kentucky bison, cheeses, and Ale-8-One.

The public may obtain information on the event from Anne-Marie Kelley, Chair of the Bluegrass Ball at 202-399-2032 or inauguralballchair@kentuckysociety.org.

Sponsorship information can be obtained from Brandon Kirkham, President of the Kentucky Society, at president@kentuckysociety.org.

Contact KDA President Eric Gregory for information about Kentucky bourbon or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail at eric@kybourbon.com, or (502) 875-9351.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Beam’s New Rye Is Not As Superficial As You Think.

I am an American whiskey enthusiast. So are many of my friends.

By that I mean the object of our enthusiasm is American whiskey, a category that includes several different types, primarily bourbon but also Tennessee and rye.

Recently, much has been written about the revival of rye whiskey. Rye dominated the 19th century, then nearly died out in the 20th. Its current popularity is tied to cocktail culture. Many classic whiskey drinks were historically made with rye.

Beam Global Spirits and Wine has long made rye whiskey at its distilleries in Kentucky. Beam makes Jim Beam Rye, obviously, but also Old Overholt, a venerable 19th century brand that originated in Pennsylvania.

Other Kentucky distilleries also make rye whiskey and have, in recent years, developed new products or line extensions. Some tout long aging, as much as 23 years, to justify a premium price. These products, like many others, are aimed directly at whiskey enthusiasts, i.e., me and my friends.

So earlier this year, hearing rumors that Beam was getting ready to drop its own premium rye, many of my enthusiast friends asked me about it. As I learned what Beam intended, my message became, "sorry, but it’s not for us."

That product is now here. It is called Rye One, aka (rī)¹.

The gimmicky name, high-style packaging and deluxe price (about $45) was all enthusiasts needed to see to know that we are not the intended audience. Clearly, the target is buyers of premium vodka and other luxury spirits, the type who think "Effen Vodka" is clever too.

I sympathize with my enthusiast brothers who have already rejected (rī)¹, but now that I’ve tried it, I say we should get past all that, because it’s a very nice whiskey. Price is still an obstacle, so let’s just pretend it isn’t and consider this rye only on its merits.

I like it. I like it very much.

What I like best about it is that it captures the whiskey at just that point in the aging process when the wood has softened most of its harshness, but before the barrel takes over completely. That’s a neat trick and it shows me that the people who developed this product did, in fact, spend as much time getting the whiskey right as they did getting the package and imagery right. Bravo! Good for them.

(rī)¹ has the same basic flavor profile as the other Jim Beam ryes except as noted above, and it also seems drier. It has rye’s spice, especially white pepper, but little of its muddiness. From the wood it takes a lot of vanilla, a little oak, but no ash, smoke or char. There’s citrus, but of a preserved lemon variety. That’s about it. (rī)¹ does not have multiple layers, but what it has is crisp and well-mannered.

Is it complex? Not particularly. Is it challenging? Not at all. If that is what you want, especially if that is what you are willing to pay $45 for, don’t bother. But if you want a rye that tastes good, mixes well, and looks fabulous, here you go.

Because (rī)¹ doesn’t hit you over the head, some enthusiasts find it bland. I prefer to call it subtle and sophisticated. It’s not a rye that makes you say "wow," it’s a rye that makes you say "nicely played."

This is what rye whiskey never tasted like before, but probably should have. More people would have liked rye and maybe even kept drinking it, instead of dropping it like a bad habit when lighter, milder drinks became available during and after Prohibition.

Most American whiskeys bear little resemblance to scotch or Canadian, but a few do. Blanton’s and Basil Hayden’s, both bourbons, are often compared to scotch. (rī)¹ falls into that category, with its subtle flavor and sophisticated character. (rī)¹ also makes me think about the better Canadians, which flaunt vanilla and some of rye grain’s friendlier qualities.

The main similarity is approachability. American whiskey, as a rule, is the most flavorful of the world’s spirit types and can easily overwhelm drinkers who come to it from milder drinks. Instead, (rī)¹ goes down easy.

Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Rye is a similar product that came out about a year ago, but didn’t go so far with the packaging, positioning, or price. They tried to have it both ways, with something for cocktailians and bourbonians. Beam went all in cocktailian, with launch events at the leading cocktail bars in major cities. In spite of all that, it’s a terrific whiskey that bourbonians should not ignore.

By the way, Beam has suggested there will be a (rī)², (rī)³, and so on.

This could get interesting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Oh No! Not the Wiener's Circle!

Being shut down by the Health Department probably hurts most restaurants. Except for business they're losing while they're closed, it probably won't hurt the Wiener's Circle one bit.

Nobody goes there for the hygiene.

The Wiener's Circle really isn't a restaurant. It's a small stand with a counter, a couple of stools, and some picnic tables outside on the sidewalk, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Chicago's north side (on Clark Street at the northern end of the Wrightwood dogleg).

You can't miss it.

I learned about the shutdown here, in the Chicago Tribune. The short article concludes with this sentence: "The eatery is famous for its rambunctious late-night crowd and foul-mouthed staff." That makes it sound threatening, which it isn't. Everything is in fun, though it can be rambunctious and foul-mouthed fun, and it is open until like 4 AM, so you can imagine.

Another thing about the Wiener's Circle is that it isn't really famous for its hot dogs, although an authentic Chicago Style can be had. They also serve a mean polish, but the main attraction is the hamburgers, which are mammoth, char-broiled, and if you so order, slathered with cheese whiz. There's nothing else like them.

They also have thick, hand-cut fries which are routinely drowned in cheese whiz too.

Oh, mama!

Reading announcements of restaurants closed by the Health Department usually doesn't make me this hungry.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wild Turkey For Sale?

Published sources are reporting that Pernod Ricard will gladly sell the Wild Turkey bourbon brand and distillery, if a suitable buyer can be found.

The story goes like this. Pernod bought the producer of Absolut Vodka and now needs to raise cash to bring down its debt. It won't sell any of its 15 core brands, but Wild Turkey is not on the protected list. That makes it an endangered species.

According to at least one published report, Wild Turkey is at the very top of the "for sale" list.

A year ago, Pernod announced it was investing $30 million in a major expansion of the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Last month, it announced that it needs about a billion dollars to make the Absolut acquisition go down smoothly.

Eyes on the ground tell me not much has actually happened yet in Lawrenceburg except some earth moving.

Obviously, the timing is terrible. The other problem is, the distilled spirits industry is so consolidated now, who could buy it?

Pernod's 15 core brands are Glenlivet, Chivas Regal, Jameson, Havana Club, Ricard, Beefeater, Montana, Ballantine, Kahlua, Malibu, Absolut, Jacob's Creek, Mumm, Perrier-Jouët, and Martell.

Call It Belated Birthday Bourbon.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is one of those great, annual, limited-edition bottlings that are so popular with hard-core bourbon enthusiasts.

The birthday is that of Old Forester and Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, who was born on September 2. That's usually when the new edition is released. This year, Brown-Forman released their Old Forester Repeal Bourbon on Brown's birthday and said Birthday Bourbon would be out a little later.

It's now a lot later, we're running out of 2008, and still no 2008 release.

I did some digging and here's what's up.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon comes in a special bottle and that supplier went out of business. Brown-Forman found a new bottle and it is similar but not the same, so when they put it on the bottling line it had some problems. Those problems finally have been resolved and the product is now being bottled. Obviously, that means they will miss the holiday season completely.

Jim Beam also had some "glass problems" recently with their new rye whiskey. It happens.

Being that this is an enthusiast product, people will want to know if this means the whiskey is going to be different. The answer is no. The particular batch of Old Forester selected for the 2008 release was actually chosen about a year ago (I helped). When they couldn't bottle it at the intended time, they dumped the barrels anyway and tanked the whiskey in stainless steel, so it will be the whiskey it was supposed to be.

Look for it after the new year.

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I admire and respect the University of Michigan, and especially its law school, so this story really hit me where I live.

A taste:

The University of Michigan is investigating one of its associate professors accused of paying a U-M Law School student for sexual acts after meeting her online, officials said.

Yaron Eliav, 44, an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, awaits sentencing Dec. 30 after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of using a computer to commit a crime. The 22-year-old student also pleaded no contest to the same charge.

They were originally charged with prostitution/accosting and solicitation, misdemeanors punishable by up to 93 days in jail.

The case came to light in April when the student went to an Ann Arbor police station to report she was assaulted by Eliav after they met at a hotel on the city's north side.

The student told police she was advertising sex acts online via Craigslist to help pay tuition costs. For an in-state student, U-M Law School tuition is $41,500 a year; out-of-state students pay $44,500.

The student told police she reluctantly agreed to allow Eliav to strike her buttocks with a belt, but got upset when he slapped her in the face twice, reports said. She said she suffered vision problems afterward, but did not have any lasting injuries.

The rarity of how the case began - with a law student showing up at the police department's front desk to report she was assaulted while committing a crime herself - was not lost on investigators.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

BT Launches Repeal Day Tour.

More Repeal Day news is coming in as Friday approaches and you can take advantage of this one if you are or will be anywhere near Frankfort, Kentucky.

On Friday, December 5, the Buffalo Trace Distillery raises a glass to the Repeal of Prohibition with a new tour, called the "Post-Prohibition Bourbon Boom Tour."

Buffalo Trace was one of four distilleries that remained open legally during Prohibition, to sell whiskey for "medicinal purposes." Known at the time as the George T. Stagg Distillery, it began an expansion of its facilities as Prohibition was ending that started the Post-Prohibition Bourbon Boom. That "Bourbon Boom" lasted from 1933 (the end of Prohibition) to 1951 (the onset of the Korean War).

This architecturally-focused tour will take visitors through the great building expansion of the distillery during that period and will highlight the development happening today. The new tour will launch Friday, December 5th with tours scheduled for 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The tour is complimentary but reservations are requested. Following the tour guests can enjoy refreshments in the George T. Stagg Gift Shop and Gallery.

This new tour will be available as part of the Distillery’s regular tour offerings. Call 502-696-5926 for reservations and tour times.

Buffalo Trace is a family-owned company based in Franklin County, Kentucky. Its rich distilling tradition dates back to 1787. In addition to its namesake Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the company makes other venerable brands such as Blanton's Single Barrel, Van Winkle, Ancient Age, W. L. Weller, Old Charter, Eagle Rare, Benchmark, Virginia Gentleman, Sazerac Rye, and others.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Just in Time for Repeal Day, Here Is Old Forester Repeal Bourbon.

This coming Friday, December 5, is Repeal Day, and marks the 75th Anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal.

Old Forester Repeal Bourbon is a new, one-time, limited-release bourbon expression that goes on sale nationwide this week. Old Forester Repeal Bourbon comes in a mock, circa-1933, 375ml bottle and carries an Old Forester replica label from that era.

Old Forester became America’s first bottled bourbon in 1870 when George Garvin Brown recognized the need for a bourbon of consistent high quality and began to put Old Forester into glass bottles. Whiskey was sold in bottles before 1870, but Old Forester was the first brand to be sold exclusively in bottles.

Brown, a Louisville pharmaceutical salesman, was so sure of the quality of Old Forester that he put his hand-written guarantee on each bottle – a practice continued today. Old Forester is the only bourbon whiskey in existence that has been sold continuously for more than a century, including between the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1933, when it received one of only ten government permits to sell whiskey for medicinal purposes. No other bourbon whiskey sold in the U.S. today can make that claim.

"This special bottling of Repeal Bourbon celebrates the rich history of Old Forester’s role as the founding brand of Brown-Forman," said Joe Murray, Brand Manager for Old Forester. "Old Forester still lives up to its claim of 'There is nothing better in the market' over 135 years since its inception and is proud to be the only bourbon produced before, during and after Prohibition."

Old Forester Repeal Bourbon comes in a gift pack with a scroll of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended Prohibition, and an Old Forester snifter. Repeal Bourbon is 100° proof. The suggested retail price is $29.99. Only 2,700 cases were produced.

"Repeal Bourbon is bottled from a special selection of Old Forester barrels that exhibited a more robust character that is similar to the Old Forester that was bottled during Prohibition," added Chris Morris, Master Distiller for Old Forester. "The flavor, presented at Prohibition's required 100° proof, is a full, deep, charred oak character that will appeal to bourbon-lovers everywhere."

More information on Old Forester Repeal Bourbon can be found at www.oldforester.com/repeal.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Do You Have Whiskirexia Nervosa?


Whiskirexia nervosa is a whiskey buying disorder characterized by a distorted whiskey inventory image and an obsessive fear of running out of whiskey. Individuals with whiskirexia nervosa tend to already own more whiskey than they can ever drink, even as they continue to buy more.

Sufferers can typically be told repeatedly that they have plenty of whiskey, really more than enough, by persons who they ordinarily would trust, and they may even in moments of coherence acknowledge that fact intellectually, but they can't stop buying.

What can you do if you think you may have this condition? A support group appears to be forming here, although I'm not exactly sure what they support. (I suspect they're all really enablers.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Buffalo Trace Warehouse Supervisor Ronnie Eddins Honored.

Although the Master Distillers get most of the attention, there are many other people who make major contributions to the production of the whiskey we all love.

That's why I was so pleased to see Buffalo Trace Warehouse Supervisor Ronnie Eddins honored last week at Malt Advocate Magazine’s WhiskeyFest New York. Eddins was one of three individuals to receive Malt Advocate’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Lifetime is right. Ronnie Eddins has logged 47 years of service to Buffalo Trace and made countless contributions to the distillery and its Experimental Whiskey Program.

"I’m just thrilled," said Eddins after the ceremony. "It was such a surprise and an incredible honor. I couldn’t be happier."

Eddins is responsible for managing more than 300,000 barrels of aging whiskey and is also one of the driving forces in the Buffalo Trace Experimental Whiskey Program. He has headed up numerous experiments for more than 20 years. Some of the experiments include using different chars and woods for aging whiskey. He has even visited the Ozarks to hand select trees for barrels, based on their growing location.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jim Beam a Top 50 Brand Says Ad Age.

Every year about now, Advertising Age magazine runs this somewhat misleading feature. The 50 brands so honored are selected for doing something noteworthy in the last year or so and not, as you might imagine, for being the most successful or powerful brands generally.

As in most Ad Age features, someone is being stroked. The strokees are identified as "the brains behind" the brands. In Beam's case it is Rory Finlay, chief marketing officer of Beam Global, whose mantra is "building brands people want to talk about."

The full Jim Beam profile is here.

What Ad Age liked so much is what it calls Beam's "brand-as-activist approach," including ads Beam ran to protest the sale of Wrigley Field naming rights. It's all part of Beam's 'Stuff Inside' campaign.

I expressed my admiration for the whole campaign several months ago, here. I probably would not have identified the two ad campaigns that the magazine cites as the most noteworthy or original parts of it, but both did involve conventional media advertising and that's usually another common denominator with anything Ad Age finds worthy of glory.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is Here.

After a three-month delay, the long-awaited new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader has dropped.

I'm supposed to put it out every other month, but I make no promises. Other things came up. The dog ate my homework. It wasn't my fault.

In this new issue we devote ourselves entirely to examining the future of American whiskey, including the possibility that we will be drowning in the stuff in just a few years. The story is entitled, "The Next, Great Whiskey Glut Could Be Sooner Than You Think."

The Bourbon Country Reader is the exclusive source for everything you need to know about American Whiskey. It is the only publication devoted exclusively to American whiskey. Always idiosyncratic, we accept no advertising, have no distillery affiliation and serve enthusiasts of American Whiskey like no other publication.

A six-issue subscription is just $20.00. Click here for a free sample issue (PDF format). Click here to subscribe. Click here for more information. Back issues are available. There's also a free, downloadable guide to all past issue contents.

How Much Is This Bottle Worth?

Maybe it’s the fault of Antiques Roadshow, or eBay, but everybody seems to think their house is full of hidden treasures. The most common question I receive, after, "what’s the best bourbon" is, "I found this old bottle of such-and-such, how much is it worth?"

Unfortunately, the true answer to either question does not usually satisfy the person who asked it. I like to say that the best bourbon is free bourbon. My answer to the second question is equally as oblique but not as witty. It contains a lot of 'maybe' and 'it depends.'

The secondary sale of American whiskey and distilled spirits in general is a rapidly changing field, complicated by the fact that, in the United States, it is illegal to sell alcohol without a license. There are collectors, they do buy and sell, and prosecutions for such transactions are rare, but the at-least-technical illegality of it all keeps the marketplace from being more orderly and transparent than it is.

At present, most of the action is on the auction web site eBay and perhaps on some of its many imitators.

Because of these difficulties, it is almost impossible to appraise a particular bottle of American whiskey. A precondition for assessing the resale value of anything is a sufficiently active and open secondary market for the type of object being assessed. The appraiser has to have knowledge of recent sales of the same or similar objects in order to estimate what a future sale might bring. It’s no more complicated than that but without that market information you can’t make appraisals with any confidence.

At present, the secondary market for American whiskey is too small and fragmented for anyone to be able to make an accurate assessment of any potentially collectible whiskey’s resale value.

My information regarding prices is based on personal contact with actual collectors. The most desirable and valuable whiskeys are pre-prohibition, prohibition-era medicinal, and post-prohibition whiskeys from distilleries that are now closed. A fourth category is limited editions from present day distilleries. Bottles in all of these categories re-sell for between $100 and $1,000 each. Although pre-prohibition whiskey is generally the rarest and most valuable type, hundreds of dollars have been paid for bottles produced as recently as the 1970s.

When you are paying hundreds of dollars for something, as opposed to thousands, you usually just trust your instincts and take your chances. It’s hard to justify much investment in authentication at those prices. In the world of Single Malt Scotch collecting, where prices are much higher, fakes have been a problem.

In American whiskey there are two very active but equally idiosyncratic subsets, Jack Daniel’s collectors and Maker’s Mark collectors. Both producers encourage collecting (but not, of course, any illegal activity) by issuing many limited edition commemorative bottles.

It might be fun if the law made it easier for collectors to openly engage in the buying and selling that is the essence of collecting, but that seems unlikely given prevailing attitudes about alcohol.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Can You Drink on Election Day?

Because I live in Illinois, if I want to go to a bar and have a drink tomorrow after I vote, I can. But if I still lived in Kentucky, I could not.

Seventy-five years after the Repeal of Prohibition, archaic Election Day alcohol sales bans continue to inconvenience consumers and hurt small businesses in a handful of states across the country.

The only states that still cling to statewide Election Day sales bans of alcohol at restaurants, bars and package stores are Kentucky, Indiana and South Carolina. Utah and West Virginia still ban the sale of alcohol at package stores on Election Day. Alaska and Massachusetts also ban Election Day alcohol sales, except that local governments are authorized to provide an exemption from the ban.

Delaware and Idaho repealed their bans earlier this year. Utah relaxed its ban and now permits Election Day sales in restaurants and private clubs.

Before Prohibition, a favorite political tactic was the practice of "treating," in which political operatives would round up people who would rather drink than vote, ply them with alcohol, and then lead them to the polling place, sometimes going into the booth with them to make sure they voted correctly. In the 43 states, plus the District of Columbia, where these bans are no longer in place, this practice does not appear to have been revived in the absence of the sales ban, so perhaps the remaining states can feel secure in bringing their laws up to date too.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Send a Bourbon Lover to School.

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for the Bourbon lover in your life, assuming they already have my book, DVD, and newsletter? Send them to school! Specifically, the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Academy. In this intense, full-day session, they will learn all the ins and outs of Bourbon and American Whiskey.

Three dates have been announced for 2009. Don't wait, because they typically sell out fast.

Students get to spend the whole day with Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s globally-renowned Master Distiller, learning the fine art of producing and appreciating America’s native spirit. (It's five hours, but that's a full day for Chris.)

The class features a delicious bourbon-inspired lunch, hands-on demonstrations, an interactive behind-the-scenes production tour, and a series of tastings. (It's a seriously-good lunch, not a cold sandwich in a box.)

Cost is $150 per person plus tax. Reservations are required and can be made by contacting Kandi Sackett at (859) 879.1934.

Available 2009 dates: February 21, March 21, and June 20
Time: 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Place: Woodford Reserve Distillery
7855 McCracken Pike
Versailles, Kentucky 40383

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Canada, Our Back-Up Distillery to the North.

Americans, especially those of us who live near the border with Canada, discovered Canadian whiskey during Prohibition. This was no accident. While most of Canada’s population lives relatively near the border, that country’s major distilleries were deliberately sited as close to us as possible. Even in 1858, when Detroit grocer Hiram Walker decided to establish a distillery, he chose a site in Canada, less than one mile across the river, in part because he expected the growing U.S. Temperance Movement to eventually succeed.

Walker always sold his products in the USA, to the point where U.S. distillers, smarting from the competition, demanded country of origin labeling. They believed no good American would buy Walker's Club Whisky if they knew it came from a foreign land. Walker wasn't worried and cheerfully changed his product's name to Canadian Club.

It's hard to remember this now, but gentle, doe-eyed Canada was once our bitter enemy.

Sometimes, if you're too prescient, you won't live long enough to benefit from your foresight. Walker didn't. He died 20 years before Prohibition shut down all the legal distilleries on this side of the border and overnight increased the demand for Canadian whiskey by orders of magnitude.

Canadian law officially did not permit the export of spirits into the dry U.S. market, but row boats would show up daily at the Walkerville docks, declare their destination as “Jamaica,” and be sent on their way loaded down with all the whiskey they could carry. For more about Canadian whiskey smuggling during Prohibition, go here.

The Walker family owned the distillery unti 1926, when it was acquired by Harry Hatch, a Canadian entrepreneur who started out with a small liquor store in Whitby, Ontario. By the time Prohibition ended, Hatch and Sam Bronfman of Seagram's pretty much owned the whole Canadian whiskey industry. When once again distilling became legal in the USA, Hatch built the biggest whiskey distillery ever in Peoria, Illinois.

All of this is me working up to a review of the limited edition, 30-year-old Canadian Club expression, just released to celebrate the distillery’s 150-year anniversary. I'll have that up soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

More About the New Woodford.


I've only just gotten around to reading the press release I was given on Thursday and it has some information worth repeating.

First, it's worth noting that the sweet mash process was the original practice of bourbon distillers and was replaced by sour mash, which is now universal. What was the first bourbon distillery to adopt sour mash? The distillery today known as Woodford Reserve, about 150 years ago, when the owner was Oscar Pepper and the distiller was James Crow. So it's ironic that Woodford is the distillery reviving sweet mash.

Second, here is how they characterize the difference in the final product: "This process gives the mash a higher pH level and reveals a layer of aromas and flavors which aren't commonly found in sour mash." Yep, that's what it did.

Third, there were some references to an 1838 sweet mash recipe on Thursday, but the more I thought about it that's not right. The recipe is the current Woodford recipe. In reality, 1838 is the year the distillery was founded and, therefore, that year was chosen to "commemorate the end of the sweet mash bourbon-making era."

It really is a good idea to read the press releases.

They refer to this as the third Master's Collection release. I say it's the fourth, since they had two releases of the Four Grain, and the second release had an additional year in wood, so it's really a different whiskey.

Their official tasting notes refer to fruit and spice, and I'd say that's pretty accurate. Compared to standard Woodford, it's both fruitier and spicier.

The bottling proof is 86.4° (43.2% ABV). Only 1,045 cases (12,540 bottles) are available. Suggested retail price is $89.99.

Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia are getting the 1838 Sweet Mash product. They are AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MD, MA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NJ, NY, OH, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, and WI. It will also be available in Canada.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Make Mash the Old-Fashioned Way.



Yesterday I told you about the new Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon that was unveiled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery near Versailles, Kentucky.

I was there and as part of the unveiling, they divided the assembled scribes into two groups and had us make whiskey mash the old fashioned way. One team hand-made a sour mash, the other a sweet mash.

During mashing, grain starches are dissolved in water and converted to sugar by enzymes, then yeast is added to begin fermentation. A typical bourbon mash is 70 to 80 percent corn, which doesn't dissolve easily. In a modern distillery, the ground corn is mixed with water and boiled for about 30 minutes. A motorized agitator stirs it constantly to prevent caking.

That wasn't possible in the old days. (The picture above was taken in 1905 at the Old Judge Distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky.) Instead, water was boiled in large metal pots, then dumped into large wooden tubs. Ground corn was slowly added, as several men agitated the mixture with wooden paddles and rakes. More boiling water was added from time to time. The men would continue to stir until an even consistency was achieved. This was repeated with the other grains and then yeast was added.

That's exactly what we did. The sour mash team started with some dregs from a previous mash in the bottom of their tub. The sweet mash tub was clean. Two buckets full of steaming hot water were added, followed by a bucket of ground corn. I joined the sweet mash team because I noticed their stirring implement was a rake, which is much easier to handle than a paddle.

I had read that making mash this way is back-breaking work. They weren't kidding.

After all the corn was added and stirred to an even consistency, the mash was allowed to rest for a few hours. Then more water (not as hot) was added along with ground rye. After more stirring and another rest, ground malt was added. Malt (malted barley) contains the needed enzymes. Then we added cold water to bring the temperature down to below 90° so the yeast could be added. The sour mash team also added spent mash, i.e., mash from a previous distillation, which is the essence of sour mash. The sweet mash team just added the yeast.

Much to the surprise of even our hosts, fermentation in both tubs began very quickly, more vigorously in the sweet mash tub.

I enjoyed the exercise immensely. Although the point was to show the difference between sweet and sour mash, and I suppose that point was made, what I really enjoyed was the hands-on experience of making whiskey mash with rudimentary instruments, much as it was done for hundreds of years before the modern era. It's a reminder that whiskey-making is a very old craft and although modern technology makes the job much less physical, the modern methods aren't so very different.

The way things are going, we may need all of the pre-industrial skills we can get.

The limited edition Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon will be in stores November 1.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

And the 2008 Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Release Is…

A sweet-mash bourbon based on a 1838 recipe. Let me tell you why this is exciting for whiskey enthusiasts.

Being an enthusiast is about tasting things you’ve never tasted before, ideally things that taste good, but even if they don’t, if it’s original and novel, with something valuable to say, whiskey enthusiasts will like it.

At least this one will.

First, what is sweet mash? The short answer is that it is the opposite of sour mash. Sour mash was developed about 150 years ago as a way to keep a distillery’s whiskey consistent from batch to batch. By adding spent mash to the new mash, the distiller created a consistent environment for the yeast from batch to batch. (It's mostly about the pH value.) The yeast like consistency and reward the distiller by behaving the same way they did the previous time, over and over again.

The alternative, sweet mash, starts each batch fresh.

So Woodford is going to make whiskey that isn’t consistent from batch to batch?

Not exactly.

Cutting to the chase, what is exciting is that Woodford made its usual whiskey—same mash bill, same yeast, same everything—except no spent mash. This created a different environment for the yeast and shocked it into behaving differently. It’s the same strain of yeast, it’s the same everything, but that one little difference, a slightly different pH value in the mash, produces a very different whiskey. That’s cool.

Like the three previous Master’s Collection releases, this one is also all-pot still.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome, Comrades.

Welcome, Comrades, to the new socialist utopia, the United States of America. What is more, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics tried for nearly a century to convert the rest of the world to socialism and the United States did it in about 24 hours. Take that, Khrushchev!

When we go Red, we go Big.

Didn't you get the memo? As of today, we're all socialists. The state now owns the means of production.

Just as Karl Marx predicted.

"The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The jury is still out on the victory of the proletariat, but he has been right about everything else.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The 2008 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Is Here.

The 2008 Antique Collection features the same five limited-release whiskies as last year, with the usual variations as to age, recipe and proof. Here is what whiskey-lovers can expect.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old

Two time winner of the “American Whiskey of the Year” award, the 2008 release is comprised of whiskey that has been aging in Warehouse K on the first floor. The first floor enables the barrels to age slowly and gracefully. This vintage has a spicy aroma with very mature notes of oak and molasses.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon

These barrels were distilled in the spring of 1991 and have been aging in Warehouse C. This bourbon was 17 years old at the time of bottling giving it almond, caramel and leather notes with a dry finish.

George T. Stagg Bourbon

The 2008 George T. Stagg was found on the lower floors of Warehouse I and K. This bourbon was distilled back in the spring of 1993 and weighs in at a hardy 141.8 proof—very powerful stuff! The whiskey tastes of dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans and mature oak.

William Larue Weller Wheated Bourbon

William Larue Weller is the Antique Collection’s uncut, unfiltered, wheat recipe bourbon. The barrels were aged 11 years and two months on the ninth floor of Warehouse I. This William Larue Weller release registers at 125.3 proof. It tastes of dried fruit sweetness, soft vanilla and cinnamon spices.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is the newest addition to the Antique Collection. It is an uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. The barrels were aged six years and five months on the fifth floor of Warehouse M with a proof of 127.5.


The Antique Collection was introduced nearly a decade ago and continues to grow in popularity.

"It is so exciting to see how these whiskeys change from year to year. We are very proud of all the whiskeys we produce here at Buffalo Trace and these are some of our best," said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

The tasting notes above are from the press release, not from me, but I generally have most of the Antiques on hand, from some year or another. They are always outstanding whiskeys and this annual collection has been one of the great acknowledgements of the growing importance of enthusiast releases to the American whiskey category.

And they make a great gift.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Kass on Tuesday's Debate.

If you don't want to read the background, just the column, go here.

The background is that John Kass is a columnist in the Chicago Tribune. He is a self-identified conservative, but his columns are always well-reasoned, well-informed and intellectually honest, which is all I ask of any commentator. In July he wrote a column that impressed me so much, I promised to alert the readers of this space whenever he produced another one on the same subject, as he did today.

As the McCain-Palin campaign once again tries to beat the dead horse that is the supposed Bill Ayers connection, Kass shows them the way to score some real points. No one explains The Chicago Way better than Kass. What Kass doesn't get is that his story is a bit too subtle for knuckle-draggers, who are all the McCain-Palin ticket has left.

I wrote my own commentary about Obama and the Chicago Machine, which is here. By the way, if it isn't obvious, I support the Obama-Biden ticket. My answer to Kass comes from my Christian friends, who strive to be in the world but not of it. So, yes, I believe Barack Obama has been exposed to the Chicago Machine but has not been compromised by it.

Even at that, if one is uncomfortable with Obama-Biden, that alone shouldn't be a reason to vote for McCain-Palin, who scare me and would scare me more if I believed they have any chance of winning. If you can't vote for Obama-Biden, may I suggest Barr-Root.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Tale of Gangsters and Canadians.

Al Capone, whose name needs no modifiers or explanations, figures in most legends about Prohibition-era production and smuggling of liquor. We know that Capone’s organization had clandestine breweries and distilleries throughout the Chicago area, from tiny basement brandy stills in Little Italy, to industrial-scale distilleries in suburbs such as Chicago Heights.

But to meet demand, especially for high quality aged spirits for wealthy customers, Capone’s organization also engaged in smuggling, usually of Canadian whisky. Some came overland into northern Minnesota and was trucked to Chicago from there, as was famously depicted in the 1987 “Untouchables” film. Much also came across the Detroit River, facilitated by Capone’s Detroit affiliates, from distilleries in Windsor, Ontario, established there for just that purpose.

According to Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which owns Canadian Club Canadian Whisky, the Canadian Club Distillery was established in 1858, one mile across the river from Detroit in anticipation of the temperance movement. During Prohibition, it was the site of many secret deals and police chases as Canadian Club whisky was brought over the border into the U.S.

To celebrate the brand’s 150th anniversary, Canadian Club has released Canadian Club 30-year-old, a limited edition, 80-proof, 30-year-old whisky. It is the oldest Canadian whisky on the market and is available in a 750ml bottle at a suggested retail price of $175-$199. It was being bottled at Beam’s Clermont, Kentucky, plant when I was there two weeks ago, so it should be in stores very soon if it’s not there already.

Canadian whisky is much lighter in taste than a typical American straight bourbon or rye and is made like blended scotch, in that rich, flavorful whiskies made mostly from rye are blended with a nearly neutral base whisky made mostly from corn. Canadian Club is unique in blending its constituent whiskeys before, rather than after aging in oak barrels, which typically are used bourbon barrels.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Raise a Glass to Paul Newman

Paul Newman died Friday at the age of 83. If you would like to raise a glass to Mr. Newman's memory, may I suggest J.T.S. Brown Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Robert Rossen was a producer/director who frequently used how his characters drank to tell us something about them. For example, in his "All The King's Men" (1949), heavy drinking signified the growing corruption of Willie Stark's political movement.

With Paul Newman's "Fast Eddie" Felson in Rossen's "The Hustler" (1961), whiskey was a metaphor for weakness and lack of self control. During the climactic pool game, Newman's Felson drinks J.T.S. Brown Bourbon, straight from the bottle. His opponent, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), requests "White Tavern Whiskey, a glass and some ice." We are left to consider the possibility that Fats' brand is actually a placebo, a way to keep his advantage over Eddie by staying sober. (White Tavern was an actual brand, a blend.)

J.T.S. Brown was an early distiller and the half-brother of George Garvin Brown, who founded Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel's. The J.T.S. Brown Distillery was established by his four sons and later continued by one of his grandsons. The last distillery to bear that name is the one in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, known today as Four Roses. J.T.S. Brown Bourbon is still made, by Heaven Hill Distilleries, and it's quite good for a low-priced, bottom-shelf brand, but not widely distributed. I prefer the bottled-in-bond expression.

Paul Newman's spirit lives on in his movies and his salad dressing. Seriously. The Newman's Own product line has generated millions of dollars for worthy causes. For more information go here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

In Defense of Sarah Palin.

No doubt millions of words have been written and spoken about Sarah Palin since her debut on the international stage, most of them unfair, and I say that as a person who supports the Obama-Biden ticket.

If Sarah Palin is not qualified to hold the position she is seeking that is not her fault, it is the fault of the person—John McCain—who recruited her.

But she is unsuited, not because of the extent of her experience but because of its nature. Sarah Palin is like Jesse Ventura, in the sense that her entire political career has been built on a “throw the bums out” appeal, and she hasn’t held any of her political jobs long enough to show that she is able to do anything except attack. She hasn’t shown that she can do anything constructive, such as run an administration smoothly and make progress solving problems.

The tendency she has shown in office, to govern mostly by finding people to blame and, if possible, fire for actions or conditions she doesn’t like is consistent with that “throw the bums out” approach, but at some point all the bums are gone and you have to show that you can do something positive. Jesse Ventura never managed to do that in office and Sarah Palin hasn’t either.

In Jesse’s case, he just wasn’t interested in governing. It wasn’t fun for him. He likes attention and he likes being a gadfly or, to use the favorite term this year, maverick. John McCain, in his long career, has shown that he can be constructive, but he also still has that shoot-from-the-hip quality that is good for a “throw the bums out” outsider seeking office, and maybe even for a member of a large deliberative body that needs a good shaking-up from time to time. But do we really want that in a president? My opinion is no.

What we will get with a President McCain has been on full display these last two weeks. It isn't pretty. Even thoughtful conservatives agree.

As for Sarah Palin, she might, if left alone, have matured in office and become an effective executive, but it hasn’t happened yet, so giving her this huge promotion is, at the very least, premature.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain's Rezko.

Don't mess with Rich Daley.

Earlier this week, the McCain campaign rolled out its "Chicago Machine" ad and Hizzoner was not amused. There was muttering about the stickiness of mud.

Now, in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the savings and loan bailout of the 80s and 90s, finally, today, the K Bomb was dropped and McCain suspended his campaign, ostensibly to provide leadership in the Senate to solve the current crisis.

Except this mounting crisis is making people look at how well McCain handled things back then, and is the real reason he has suspended his campaign. He doesn't want to explain Charles Keating again. At least not now, not this week.

The Palin choice was his first Hail Mary. Can he connect a second time?

Even before the K Bomb was dropped, Navy pilot McCain was taking heavy flak to his right wing, yesterday from George Will and last week from the Wall Street Journal.

Palin may have won over the Main Street conservatives, but Wall Street conservatives are more skeptical than ever.

I knew Keating before he was the king maker and bank breaker he was to become. Knew of him, that is. I was a freshman in college at Miami University, near Cincinnati, and he was a fixture in the Cincinnati media as president of the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, and an anti-pornography crusader.

Growing up a Catholic, in the Diocese of Toledo, I read the Catholic Chronicle, the diocesan weekly newspaper. No, really, I did. One of the paper's features was movie ratings and reviews, based not on the movie's quality but on its decency. The ratings and reviews were provided by a group called the Legion of Decency.

That's all I knew about the Legion of Decency. I had never seen them carry picket signs in front of strip clubs before. That's what Charles Keating was up to before he went to Arizona to become John McCain's first Sugar Daddy (unless you count Jim Hensley, Cindi's dad). Keating was, in short, McCain's Rezko, except magnified by a factor of ten. All Rezko ever got Obama to do was accept a shady real estate deal, a down payment on a future favor that never got asked. McCain got the contributions, got asked to do the favors, did the favors, and Keating bilked the Treasury out of millions. McCain and four other senators were investigated. McCain admitted that he had shown poor judgment.

At about the same time Keating was cleaning up Cincinnati, the Queen City's mayor got busted for patronizing a prostitute across the river in Kentucky. He got caught because he wrote her a check. His name was Jerry Springer. The Reds were playing their final season in Crosley Field. And I was finally getting laid. It was a golden time in southwestern Ohio.

Guess Who Is an International Theater Expert?

One nice feature of Blogger is that it shows you when other web sites have linked to you. It's fun to follow the links and see how the linker presents them.

Back in June, I wrote a post about Chicago Theatre, based on a performance I had attended the night before, and on an article that day in the Chicago Tribune.

If you look at the post, at the bottom there is a link. Follow that link and you will get the blog of the artistic director of the theater company that put on the performance I saw. He quotes (favorably) part of what I wrote, but the interesting part is that he discovered it on the web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper. It was a link in the Theater Blog of Chris Wilkinson that used me as a source for the claim that Chicago has eclipsed New York as America's primary city for legitimate theater.

About all I can say to support my claim is that it was said to me by Allan Havis, an old college buddy who probably said it 20 years ago, when we were attending a Steppenwolf performance together. Even though he found that night's offering a bit flacid, he said Chicago had a more vital and important theater community than New York even then.

I'm paraphrasing, but I don't think he'll mind since he lives in California now. (He is a New York native.)

Hey, Allan, look! I'm an international theater expert!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obama and the Chicago Machine.

The McCain campaign is pretty proud of its new ad that attempts to tie Obama to the Chicago Machine. It's smart political advertising and well timed, and if they can influence anyone's votes with it, well, that's the point.

So I'm not here even to say it's a cheap shot, because it's not. If there's anything strategically wrong with it, it's that some people may actually like Obama more because if they think he's too soft or cerebral, they might warm to the idea of him as a tough, Chicago streetfighter.

My purpose in posting is just to share a little bit of what I know from living here.

Mayor Daley bristles whenever anyone talks about the Chicago Machine. In one sense, I agree with him, because his is not his father's Chicago Machine and the image most people have when they hear the words "Chicago Machine" would apply to Daley senior's Chicago, but Daley junior's not so much.

(Some people refer to them as Richard I and Richard II, but I prefer Big Dick and Little Dick.)

The son's machine is, if I can mix my metaphors, a big tent machine. Yes, the Cook County Democratic Party controls just about everything that happens politically in Chicago and Cook County, and the Daley family controls the Cook County Democratic Party, but part of how they do that is by letting 1,000 flowers bloom. The price of admission is loyalty to the party, but loyalty mainly means helping the Party retain its grip on everything. Within the party, on matters of policy, things are generally pretty democratic. That's how someone like Obama can be acceptable to the machine without being in any way "dirty." Illinois Democratic U.S. Senators are rarely true machine insiders. Sending guys like Obama, who could become troublesome, to Washington is one of their favorite gambits.

So here are the people the ad ties him to, in order.

Bill Daley, the mayor's brother, and generally considered the clan's brightest bulb, is at least Obama's economic advisor and probably even more important than that behind the scenes of the campaign. Are the Daley boys inside the Obama campaign big time? Absolutely.

Tony Rezko is a perfect foil for the ad, because he's a recently convicted felon, but there's nothing about his connection with Obama that wasn't thoroughly reported in the Chicago Tribune during Obama's Senate campaign in 2004, or shortly thereafter. I understand why he's in the ad, but to us that's old news. Obama showed poor judgment in the one transaction they did together, and said so explicitly years ago. Nothing in Rezko's trial touched Obama in any way, which cannot be said for Governor Blagojevich, whose corruption was Topic A throughout.

Emil Jones, who is a State Senator from Chicago and the Senate's President, was not initially Obama's sponsor. He definitely didn't get Obama elected to the State Senate in the first place but as time went on, he took the younger man under his wing and showed him the ropes. Obama approached Jones to support his U.S. Senate bid, and it took some persuading, but eventually Jones did support him. If Jones has any serious legal problems, we haven't heard much about them here. He's considered a savvy political operator and nobody's fool, but he's probably one of the less scandal-plagued Illinois politicians.

Finally, they try to link Obama to Governor Rod Blagojevich, and that is a stretch. Although Jones has been a Blagojevich ally, Obama never supported or promoted Blago and he never supported or promoted Obama. Blagojevich is a true wild card, in that nobody can seem to figure out what he's up to, what his game is. Whatever it is, you really can't pin Blagojevich to Obama. That dog won't hunt.

Finally, the name they didn't mention: David Axelrod. From the beginning, Axelrod has been by Obama's side and if someone besides the candidate is speaking for the campaign, that someone is usually him. Axelrod is another example of the big tent. He's a genuinely progressive guy but he is also a Daley insider, who has worked for Daley and a long list of Daley-approved candidates.

So, that's what I know.

More About the StraightBourbon Folks.

In my post from Kentucky on Saturday (I'm back now), I wrote about StraightBourbon.com and the amazing group of people who gather there in the web site's Forums section.

Here is a small addendum.

The StraightBourbon group has its own unofficial official hotel in Bardstown, which has a large gazebo in back where everyone gathers every evening. All of the bottles everyone has brought are placed on the table, there for anyone to sample.

I don't know that anyone bothers to count them, but 50 is probably close. No two are alike and many are quite rare.

The talk is variously about bourbon and life, as these people who met on line discussing bourbon have, in many cases, become close, personal friends in both the cyber and physical worlds. Indeed, it often seems that the very milk of human kindness is amber-hued and 100 proof.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dispatch from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.


Lew Bryson shamed me.

He didn't say a word, even though we've been hanging out some, but he's written a daily post from down here, even describing his harrowing brush with death in a Mercury, and I haven't done a damn thing.

The truth is, I try not to work when I'm here for the KBF, but Lew seems to be having a good time and working his ass off. I'm not going to emulate him too far, but here's something.

The festival has been going on for close to 20 years. I first came to it in, maybe, 1995. Maybe I came twice. I don't remember. Then I started to participate in discussions about bourbon on StraightBourbon.com, a very professional web site that is, in fact, non-commercial and a labor-of-love for its proprietor, Jim Butler.

Not long after the web site started in 1999, people on the site started treating the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) as an informal national meetup. I've come every year since, mostly to hang out with my on-line friends.

Some, but not all, of the people on the site are dusty hunters. They prowl liquor stores looking for old bottles of bourbon. Believe it or not, whiskey can sometimes sit on a retail shelf for 20 or 30 years. (So much for inventory management.) Whiskey doesn't age in the bottle, but that window makes in possible to find products of now-defunct distilleries. Here is what makes the StraightBourbon group so amazing. When people find these things, they can't wait to share them. Every year, that's a bigger part of the Festival for me (although I still love the barrel rolling competition).

For instance, Dawn from Indianapolis had some Old Fitzgerald 1849 from the late sixties, and the same from the mid-eighties. They were both in perfect condition (sometimes whiskeys get damaged by bad corks or oxidation). Both were made at Stitzel-Weller. The earlier one I felt was just perfect, the more recent one still terrific, but not quite as good. Part of that is that I have an idea of Stitzel-Weller perfection and that was it. Others liked the more recent one better.

Gary from Toronto, by way of Tony from Detroit, had some Seagram's Benchmark from the mid-seventies. Now I understand the name. It was an early knock-off of Maker's Mark and had a very similar palate. Benchmark is still made, but by Buffalo Trace, and it tastes completely different.

So, finally, here's the deal with not making any posts. At some point during an event like this, I have to decide if I'm working or drinking. I think you know the rest.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jim Beam Breaks Ground on New Visitors Experience

Yesterday, Beam Global Spirits & Wine broke ground on a new Visitors Experience project at its Clermont, Kentucky, Jim Beam distillery. This is a multi-million dollar tourism development project that will position Beam’s flagship distillery as the gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The Jim Beam American Outpost at Clermont already receives more than 80,000 visitors annually.

The three-phase construction of the Visitors Experience will include displays of newly discovered historical documents and images, and will culminate with the opening of a state-of-the-art Welcome Center complex highlighting the history and heritage of Jim Beam. Completion of this project is expected before the start of the tourist season in 2011 and will be able to accommodate approximately 200,000 visitors a year.

According to Jeff Conder, vice president, North American operations for Beam, "Bourbon is deeply rooted and widely celebrated in Kentucky, and the industry provides more than 3,000 jobs, $3 billion in gross state product and nearly $115 million in state and local taxes. The Jim Beam Visitors Experience project will further economic growth with the creation of more jobs and increased tourism revenue, helping the Commonwealth continue to flourish."

The Visitors’ Experience project is headed by Jim Beam Noe, a great-grandson of Jim Beam through his daughter, Margaret.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Farnsworth House, Closed Until Further Notice.

Farnsworth House, the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe modernist masterpiece, was a casualty of this weekend's record-breaking rains. Farnsworth House is located along the Fox River near Plano, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The house is on stilts but the river rose to a level 18 inches above the first floor. Although the damage could have been much worse, and has been worse in previous floods, this is the first time the house has flooded since it was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois in 2003.

Farnsworth House has been a big part of my year.

Over the winter, they announced a volunteer docent program. I volunteered, received my training, and began to give tours this spring. I set myself a goal of going out there for a day every two weeks and kept to that pace for a while. The last time I was there was Friday, August 1. I needed to focus on some other things and took what I hoped would be a short break. Last week things had cleared away enough that I thought I could get out there again. Whitney French, the site director, asked if anyone could come out on September 25. That worked for me so I signed up.

Then the rains came. The river was already out of its banks when Whitney sent her note but you never can tell and at that point they were standing by. The river finally got into the house on Sunday.

There are some amazing pictures on their web site. There is copious information there as well, which I won't bother to repeat here. There is a prominent link to their blog, where they are providing daily updates. Naturally, money is needed. In addition to clean-up costs, they will have no money coming in from ticket and gift shop sales until they can reopen.

So, no more tours for now. I'm disappointed because the season is over prematurely and I'm saddened by the damage, but I'm grateful that it wasn't worse.

Staff and volunteers were able to get all of the furniture, floor coverings, draperies and other stuff out of the house in advance of the water. They have a team of volunteers who live more-or-less nearby who are prepared for just this sort of emergency. It takes me two hours to get out there on a good day, so I can't participate in that, but I imagine there are volunteer clean-up days in my future. I hope so. I need my Farnsworth fix.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Distiller versus Still Operator.

I have been having a nice, friendly, on-line discussion with some of the members of the American Distilling Institute (ADI) about my recent post here questioning how craft the new craft distilling movement is.

In the course of that conversation, I wrote: "I am also concerned about compressing the definition of 'distiller' into somebody who operates a still. A person who runs beer through a still isn't a distiller, that person is called a still operator. Every distillery has a still operator, but it's not the distiller."

One of the participants asked me to elaborate. I did. Here is what I wrote:

First, I'm talking about at the major American whiskey producers; Jim, Jack, et al.

Second, even before the title Master Distiller was in use, every distillery had a Distiller. Every distillery also had a Still Operator. They almost never were the same person. That continues to be the case.

Third, I'm talking about the beer still, which is a continuous column still. I can't say I've ever heard anyone talk about operating the doubler.

The Distiller usually is the manager or overseer of the whole distillery. He may or may not have responsibility for the warehouses but is responsible for grain acceptance, milling, mashing, yeast preparation, fermentation, distillation, and barrel entry, as well as overall quality control of the finished product. He is there supervising all of those stages every day. Today, some Master Distillers are primarily quality control, but there is someone, maybe called the plant manager, who has all of those day-to-day responsibilities.

The Still Operator is a hand who operates the still. He starts it up, monitors it while it runs, makes periodic adjustments, and then shuts it down at the end of the run. At some distilleries (e.g., Wild Turkey), the still operator sits or stands next to the still, monitoring its gauges, listening to and feeling its rhythms, and adjusting its valves. At others (e.g. Heaven Hill), the still operator sits at a control panel in a nearby control room.

I don't mean to suggest that the tactile stuff is lost in the control room. You don't have to be sitting right next to the still to feel and hear it.

Lots of distilleries have had the same still operator or operators for decades. I've never heard of a still operator becoming a distiller.

The whole discussion on ADI Forums is here. You have to register to post, but anybody can read the postings.

Nope, Nothing Suspicious About This.

This is about Illinois government. I promise to keep it brief.

I got a Legislative Update from my State Rep, Greg Harris. It explains the House's proposal to lease the Illinois Lottery and how it differs from the governor's proposal to lease the Illinois Lottery. Here is his list of the key differences:

Among them are the inclusion of strict ethics requirements, anti pay-to-play provisions, requirements for competitive bidding of the lease, caps on transaction fees, dedicated funds to guarantee use of the proceeds of the lease only as intended and not for political purposes, protections against exploitation of poor communities by the lessor, requirements for MBE/WBE/DBE participation, and protections for lottery employees.

Despite, or perhaps because of all those explicit ethics protections, I feel like my pocket is being picked. Oh wait, state-run gambling taxes only gamblers, and I don't gamble, yet I still feel like my pocket is being picked. Why is that?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Makes Bulleit Bourbon?


Although I have taken some shots at the marketing of Bulleit bourbon, I've always been a fan of the product itself. It's well-made and has a distinctive taste profile. Bulleit is not a typical bourbon. The reason, we've always been told, is that the mash contains more rye than any other bourbon on the market, in the neighborhood of 35 percent.

Although there was a previous version of Bulleit made at Buffalo Trace, the current iteration has long been a product of the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. When Seagram's acquired the brand, it also owned the distillery. However, when Seagram's was dismantled (2001-2002) the Bulleit brand went to Diageo while the distillery (and Four Roses brand) went to Kirin.

Then as now, Diageo had no functioning distilleries in Kentucky, so as part of the sale to Kirin it contracted for Kirin/Four Roses to supply its bourbon needs. Although that initially meant aged whiskey, it has evolved to mean new make (i.e., white dog), which Diageo barrels and ages at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which Diageo still owns. From solid industry sources, I can tell you that Diageo also contracts with Brown-Forman, Constellation and Jim Beam for white dog.

The amounts are significant (on the order of six million proof gallons a year) and Diageo has many other needs for bourbon. It still sells I.W. Harper Bourbon in Japan and other places, though not so much in the United States. Bourbon whiskey is also the second-biggest component, after neutral spirits, in Seagram's Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey, other American blends, and even some Canadian blends. Diageo, a scotch company at heart, is much bigger in North American blends than it is in straights.

But Bulleit, because of its distinctive taste profile, was believed to be all from Four Roses, which sells about 40 percent of its output to Diageo.

So I was surprised when, in the context of an event coming up next week at the Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, a Kirin executive objected to the characterization of Bulleit as being made by Four Roses. His assertion was that since Four Roses supplies whiskey to Diageo, but can't be sure what Diageo does with it, and because it's known that Diageo gets whiskey from other sources they (Kirin/Four Roses) don't believe Bulleit is 100 percent Four Roses whiskey. Another source tells me that organoleptic testing confirms that Bulleit is not 100 percent Four Roses-made whiskey.

So I contacted Diageo, told them what I was hearing, and asked them where Bulleit is made. Here's their reply:

"Bulleit Bourbon continues to be wholly distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY according to exacting standards developed by Tom Bulleit and the Bulleit Distilling Company. Bulleit Bourbon’s bold flavor is the product of a unique recipe featuring a high proportion of the rye grain and the use of a proprietary yeast culture. As with all Kentucky straight Bourbons, Bulleit Bourbon is aged in charred barrels made from new American Oak and contains absolutely no additives whatsoever."

Who is telling the truth? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps more interesting is why, now, is Kirin/Four Roses getting its back up about this? Is Diageo doing what Four Roses says and Four Roses is putting them on notice that if they want to continue to invoke the good name of that distillery, they better stop diluting Bulleit with whiskey made in other places? Or is something else at work here? I'm pretty much at a dead end because I take everyone at their word unless I have reliable evidence to the contrary.

Monday, September 8, 2008

I'm Still the Chicago Spirits Examiner.

I announced this back in July when it began, but now that I've been doing it for about two months, I thought I'd give you an update.

I am the Chicago Spirits Examiner on the Chicago Examiner web site. That means I examine the topic of distilled spirits, frequently from a Chicago perspective. I post short articles several times a week.

The Chicago Spirits Examiner is in the Food and Drink section of Examiner Chicago. There's a national Examiner portal and several local ones, including Chicago Examiner (I never remember which comes first, Chicago or Examiner). To go directly to the Chicago Spirits Examiner page, that is here.

I think the Examiner model is really terrific as a general interest portal, the kind of site people would set as their home page, to open every time they go online. It's a mix of news and comment, and lots of entertainment and lifestyle stuff. It's also a rich mix of syndicated and original content. The original content is what sets it apart.

One of the nice things on all of the pages, including mine, is a list of always changing headlines from feeds I've selected. You can, for example, see what John Hansell is posting on his blog without actually going there. This blog is one of the feeds. All of the feeds are adult beverage oriented (most of the time).

They also like us to do lists. I keep a running list of the last ten drinks I've had (with, I'll confess, a small amount of redaction).

You might like it. It's worth a look, anyway.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Question for Craft Distillers: Where’s the Craft?


All of a sudden, in the past few years, small "micro" distilleries have popped up all over the country. The first ones were associated with wineries and made brandy. More recently, and in much greater numbers, people with brewery backgrounds have begun to make grain spirits.

There is no question that these operations are universally small. A few years back, one of the big distilleries tried to pose as micro, but was quickly exposed. No, the micro distilleries really are little.

But are they really craft? Are they truly artisanal?

In most cases, the answer is no. If you add the word "traditional" to the equation, that no is even more emphatic.

To reach that conclusion, compare the practices of micro-distillers to those of America’s big distilled spirits producers, whiskey-makers such as Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, and Wild Turkey; rum-makers such as Bacardi and Cruzan; and brandy-makers such as Gallo, Christian Brothers, and Paul Masson. Who employs more craft, those big guys or the micros?

This critique is not across the board. A small number of craft distillers take a back-to-basics approach, with no short cuts. More common are the ones who put a lot of craft emphasis on one or two parts of the process, but also use short cuts. An even larger number use every short cut they can to make products that barely meet minimum legal requirements for distilled spirits, let alone qualify as craft or artisanal.

One issue is ingredients. Rum, by law, is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, but for hundreds of years the actual base material in rum production has been molasses, a by-product along the way from cane juice to table sugar. Molasses can be hard to handle. It’s much easier to dissolve table sugar in water and ferment that, which many so-called craft distillers do. Bacardi and Cruzan don’t, they use molasses.

But at least the table sugar-users do their own fermentation. Many of the micro distillers who make whiskey buy their wash—beer before it has been hopped and carbonated—-from a brewery. Of necessity, this means they are making malt whiskey, like they do in Scotland and Ireland, rather than corn whiskey like Jim, Jack, and all those other guys do here.

You can’t entirely blame them. It’s what their fledgling trade association tells them to do. "Why reinvent the wheel?" asks Bill Owens, President of the American Distilling Institute.

He recommends that you put your distillery next to a brewery, contract with them for wash, and start making whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, except where is the craft in buying your way past two-thirds of the process? It’s exactly like buying frozen bread dough, baking it in your oven, and calling yourself an artisan bakery.

Every industrial-scale, grain-based distiller in America, from the makers of Kentucky bourbon, to vodka-makers, to the folks who make fuel ethanol for cars, starts the process with whole grain, but not Bill’s guys. How come?

Micro distillers who make brandy and rum don’t mind fermenting, but it’s harder with grain. Fruit juice and molasses are fermentable just as they are, but grain starch is not. It must be converted. For that you need enzymes. In Scotland, the law requires distillers to use endogenous enzyme systems only. That’s a fancy way of saying you have to use malt, which is barley that has been malted, i.e., sprouted, to produce the necessary enzymes.

Some large American whiskey distillers use supplemental enzymes, which are permitted here but not universally used. No one has abandoned endogenous enzyme systems altogether except micro distillers, not because it’s better—-it isn’t-—but because it’s easier.

Another issue is equipment. Most micro distillers make a big deal about how they use pot stills, not column stills. What they actually use are hybrid stills. They are batch process, like pot stills, but instead of an alembic (the simple, one-piece still top that’s shaped like a tear drop), their pots are topped by...columns, exactly like the ones that give column stills their name.

Part of the problem is that these hybrid stills aren’t designed to make whiskey the way Americans make whiskey. They are European and designed to make brandy and other fruit spirits. They will distill a grain wash okay, into whiskey or even vodka if that’s what you want, but they can’t handle an American distiller’s beer, which contains husks and other undissolved grain solids. Even a wash made from corn and rye, instead of just malt, will give these stills fits.

Then there’s aging. Except for vodka and other clear spirits, most distilled spirits are aged in oak barrels, typically for years, occasionally for decades. Most micro-distillers can’t wait that long, so they sell unaged or very lightly aged products. There’s nothing wrong with that. There always have been unaged and young spirits sold, but aging is another part of the craft and most micro distillers give it short shrift. Virtually all bourbon whiskey is aged for more than four years. I know of only one micro distillery whiskey aged that long and it costs $300 a bottle.

It gets worse. Some micro distillers don’t make anything. They buy bulk spirits and bottle them. They have a distillery, or plan to; it’s making something, or will soon. The bulk goods are just a bridge until their own product is ready for sale, they say, but several have been saying that for years and not exactly publicizing how the only product they sell is one they didn’t make and probably can never duplicate.

The moral of this story is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, especially if you think you are buying an artisanal product and that matters to you. Do some research, ask questions, be skeptical. Most producers won’t lie to you outright, but you have to ask the right questions and listen to the answers very carefully.

Do these practices make these distillers, or their products, bad? Not necessarily, but that’s not the question. The question is, are these practices craft? Are they artisanal? Are they traditional? That’s where many of these new micro distilleries have issues.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I Taste Some 22-Year-Old Bourbon from 1938.

I attended an event in Louisville Tuesday evening, at the Filson Historical Society (housed in a very cool, old mansion) on the occasion of George Garvin Brown’s 162nd birthday. Brown launched what became the Brown-Forman company when he created the Old Forester Bourbon brand in 1870.

Brown-Forman typically launches the new edition of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon on GGB’s birthday, but this year was different. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition (on December 5th of this year), they are releasing Old Forester Repeal Bourbon, a 10-year-old expression of Old Forester in a 375ml replica of a Prohibition-era medicinal whiskey bottle.

It comes in a gift set that also includes a commemorative tasting glass and a scroll of the 21st Amendment itself. It will be priced at about $25 and should appear in stores in late November.

The 2008 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is expected to debut in mid-October.

Since Brown-Forman received one of only six medicinal whiskey licenses issued by the federal government during Prohibition, Old Forester is unique. It is the only American whiskey that has been sold continuously, under the same name and made by the same company, for 138 years.

Mike Veach, who spoke at the event, made an interesting point. The 18th Amendment was the only part of the U.S. Constitution that took a right away. That very un-American act was corrected by the 21st Amendment.

Although we tasted some of the new Old Forester Repeal Bourbon, as well as standard Old Forester and Old Forester Signature (the 100° proof expression), what got me to the event was a chance to taste three historic whiskeys, one from each of the three Brown-Forman distilleries where Old Forester has been made.

The oldest was a bourbon distilled in 1916 at St. Mary, Kentucky, and bottled in 1938, so it was 22 years old.

How did it taste? It was not overly wooded, as so many of the Prohibition-era medicinal whiskeys are. It was quite good, totally drinkable. The nose was incredible. We could smell it as we were walking up the stairs to the room. If you didn't know it was a bourbon, you might think it was a rye, with that floral, as opposed to spicy, quality ryes sometimes have. It was especially rich with top notes of anise, toffee and citrus, which complemented a middle of dark fruit.

The most prominent feature, as is often the case with older bottlings, was that wintergreen taste and aroma that comes from the 200+ year old trees used for the barrels. You get that in some post-prohibition bottlings too, through the 1960s, but you never get it today. The new Repeal Bourbon, chosen to resemble the 1916-1938, is mainly lacking that.

They are going to have some Repeal-related content on the web but it doesn't appear to be up yet, but everything you might want to know about Old Forester is probably here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Right Stuff.

I spent some time with Fred Noe recently, while he was here in Chicago for some promotional appearances. I already told you about our rye balls discussion.

Fred was in town to promote a couple of different items, including Beam’s "Here's To The Stuff Inside" PR campaign. (I told you about it back in May, when they launched it.) Because we were just talking, I didn’t invite the whole PR onslaught, but I was curious to know what, in that campaign, had made a personal impression on him, as it covers a lot of ground.

We talked briefly about their chiming in to preserve the name of Wrigley Field, which may make more sense when you understand that Beam is as much a Chicago company as it is a Kentucky one. The distilleries are there but the corporate offices, along with sales and marketing, have been here in Chicago since the end of Prohibition, originally downtown, now in Deerfield.

But clearly what has touched Fred the most is Operation Homefront. "It’s a great thing, people doing the right things for the right reasons," said Fred. Operation Homefront helps American military families with emergency assistance, especially with needs that might otherwise fall through the cracks. "Some family needs a water heater," said Fred, "they get it for them."

Operation Homefront also provides food, baby care, car repairs, financial assistance, and computers to the families of our troops. It’s an authentic grassroots movement of more than 4,000 volunteers.

One way Beam has raised money for Operation Homefront is through the sale of Jim Beam in special commemorative bottles. Fred was thrilled to present them a check for $250,000, and at the Indy 500 no less. “There are lots of organizations, but this one really gets it done,” he said.

No doubt Fred Noe has an unusual job, but I can see that he really likes being able to represent the company that way. As he says, people doing the right things for the right reasons. If that leads you to believe they probably make their whiskey the same way, so be it.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bourbon tour, October 2-4

I'm told that American Table Culinary Tours is having trouble filling up its Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, scheduled for October 2-4. If you're interested, you have to register by next Wednesday, September, 3. The web site says Monday, but the Director of the group tells me they can take registrations until Wednesday.

The nice thing about a tour like this is that you don't have to drive. The distilleries are pretty spread out and if you have to drive everywhere, that could interfere with you-know-what.

Anyway, the details are here.

For more general information about traveling to America's whiskey country, go here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tours Begin October 1.

The historic Tom Moore Distillery (formerly known as Barton), home of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, has joined the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and will begin offering tours on Oct. 1, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced today.

The Bardstown landmark is owned and operated by Constellation Spirits, the former Barton Brands, Ltd. It was founded by Tom Moore in 1879. Its super premium 1792 brand bourbon is named for the year Kentucky gained statehood.

"We’re excited and proud that visitors will be able to get a behind-the-scenes look at what our employees do best – make excellent Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey," said Johnnie Colwell, Vice President and Plant Manager of Constellation Spirits.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail was formed in 1999 and has become one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions, said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers' Association. Visitors come from all 50 states and 25 countries, he said.

This is the first time the Trail has grown past its original seven founding members. The Tom Moore Distillery joins Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.

"It’s an exciting time to be part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and we’re thrilled that Constellation Spirits has joined," said Gregory.

Located near downtown Bardstown, the Tom Moore Distillery’s walking tour will showcase its entire bourbon-making process, from distilling to aging to bottling, Colwell said. "It will be an up-close look at the best kept secret in Kentucky," he said.

Plans also are underway for a visitor’s center to open in 2010.

Tours will be offered on weekdays at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (502) 348-3774 at least one day in advance. Participants must be at least 21 years old.

Constellation Brands, Inc., based in Fairport, N.Y., has more than 250 brands of wine, spirits and beer with sales in 150 countries. To learn more about the company and its products, visit their web site at www.cbrands.com. (As I'm posting this, that website isn't working, but the old Barton Inc. one still is.)

To learn more about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, visit www.kybourbontrail.com.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rye Balls.

Fred Noe was in Chicago last week and we spent a little time together. Fred is the great-grandson of Jim Beam and the son of Booker Noe, a legendary whiskey-maker who died in 2004. Fred splits his time between the distilleries in Kentucky and the road, where he promotes Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and other Beam hooch.

Although they haven't owned the company since Prohibition, the Beam family is key to the success of Jim Beam Bourbon. A lot of that rests on Fred. Fred has showmanship, but is he the real deal? As the Jim Beam advertising campaign says, “It’s the stuff inside that counts.” Does Fred Noe have the stuff inside?

Yes, he does. If Fred Noe were any more real he’d be bourbon.

Fred learned whiskey-making from his father and cousins, just like his father learned it from his uncles, who learned it from their fathers or uncles, all the way back to Jacob Beam in the 18th century. There are scads of Jacob Beam descendants but the Beam company likes to focus on Jim's line. Only one of Jim’s three children, his daughter, Margaret Beam Noe, had children. That’s where we get Fred and his cousin, Jim Beam Noe, who is a manager at the distillery.

Although Fred isn’t at the distillery every day, he knows about the important stuff.

Like rye balls.

Rye whiskey was America’s first whiskey and, historically, many bourbon distilleries also made rye. Jim Beam was one of them. They have made straight rye whiskey at least since the company was reconstituted after Prohibition. Beam is coming out soon with a new super-premium straight rye (more about that when they do it), so Fred and I got to talking about making rye.

Although bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, and rye must be at least 51 percent rye, bourbon is usually more like 70-75 percent corn, but the same is not true of rye. Most straight rye, including Beam’s, is “barely legal” at just 51 percent. I’ve always wondered how come?

One reason is taste. Rye has a very strong flavor and more rye doesn’t necessarily mean more flavor. A little goes a long way. Cost is another reason. Rye costs about twice as much as corn. Fred mentioned another one.

Rye balls.

The reason you don’t want to use any more rye than you have to, Fred explained, just enough to get that full, rich, spicy rye flavor, is because rye can be hard to work with. Some of the dry clumps of ground grain don’t break up when they go into the mash. Instead, "they form rye balls," says Fred. "They don’t break up and they stay dry inside, which allows bacteria to grow." Bacteria means off flavors. "Using more rye doesn’t give you more flavor, it just causes you more trouble," says Fred.

I know many members of the Beam family. Some who aren’t making whiskey feel like they should be and most who are can’t imagine doing anything else.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kentucky Traveler Alert: Summer Shut-Down.

Last month, I encouraged you to visit Kentucky, especially the distilleries. Today I received a report from someone who did just that and had a mixed experience.

At Buffalo Trace he happened into a Hard Hat Tour just getting ready to embark. The Hard Hat Tour normally has to be scheduled in advance, but he got lucky and had a great experience.

He visited Woodford Reserve but didn't take the tour, since he'd taken it before, but everything there seemed to be operating normally.

At Four Roses, he enjoyed the visitor's center and free tasting, but no tours were offered. That's really too bad, since the Four Roses Distillery tour is one of the best. The reason? Summer shut-down.

At Wild Turkey he was really bummed. "The nice 'tour' guide (none of this is her fault) was only able to offer a video and a description of the buildings," said my correspondent. The reason? Summer shut-down.

Most distilleries do shut down during the hottest part of the summer. It's traditional, because whiskey-making can be very hot work, but it's insane if they don't keep their visitor's operations going even during summer shut down, since that just happens to come at the height of the tourist season.

I'm sure people will be disappointed if things aren't running, but people understand that. They would still like to see the still, see the cistern room, see the fermenters, see the grain silos, and have the process explained to them. How tough is it to keep a barrel house open? Even if it's summer shut down and nothing is running, they should show everything that doesn't have to be off-limits because of major maintenance. That's just ridiculous. Shame on them.

To keep a gift shop open but not give a real tour is just insulting to visitors.

Wild Turkey is supposed to be upgrading its visitor center soon, but they need to address these operational issues that have nothing to do with the facility. I've heard of this happening to other people at Turkey, though most of the time people have a wonderful experience there. I'm really surprised at Four Roses, who usually is tops in visitor care.

If shut down came at a time of the year when tourism also was low I could see it, but summer shut down comes at exactly the height of tourist season.

The traditional summer shut down is something the distilleries might want to reconsider now that they've started to promote tourism hard. They invite a guest into their home then slam the door in their face. That can't be good for business.

If you are planning a trip, especially between now and Labor Day, call ahead.

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Rep Panders Too.

I've given it to my State Senator Heather Steans lately here and elsewhere.

But I shouldn't let Greg Harris off the hook. He's my state representative (D-13th) and he and Senator Steans are close allies. If my pet peeve with her is the Alcopop Law, which he supported, my pet peeve against him is the civil unions bill, HB1826, which she also supports. She bragged about Alcopop in her Legislative Update a few days ago. He brags about HB1826 in the one I received from him today.

Hummm. Direct mail Legislative Updates? Is there an election soon? Sure enough, both Harris and Steans will be on the November ballot. Steans is running to complete the balance of Carol Ronen's term. (I wrote about that sweet piece of business here.) All rep seats are up this year.

So what do I have against civil unions? Nothing, except in Illinois, and apparently some other states, legislators have gotten civil unions passed by expressly permitting heterosexual seniors to use civil unions to scam Social Security. I've written at length about this issue before, so I won't go into a lot about it here. Suffice it to say I think it taints the righteousness of demanding equal spousal privileges for same sex couples.

Finally, I plead with you to pay as much attention to your local elections as you do to the presidential race. The your-vote to effect-on-your-life ratio is much greater for elections that are closer to you, like for your representatives in the state legislature.