Saturday, December 27, 2014
WARNING: No bourbon content.
When I was 11 or 12, my dad came into the room where my younger brother and I were watching television, and told us to join him in the kitchen. This was odd, but we did as requested and he told us this story.
"In May of 1936, Mom, Tom and I moved in together. We did okay financially because Tom was out of high school and working. With both of them working, I wound up doing most of the housework.
"One day Mom said that she wanted to talk. I was concerned that she was going to go into the birds and bees bit because she seemed serious and somewhat reluctant to begin.
"She told me a story that when her older sister, Gen, was born her father came to the realization that there was no one to bake his biscuits for breakfast. For him to not have hot, fresh biscuits for breakfast was unthinkable. After Grandma got on her feet again he had her teach him how to bake biscuits, which he then did whenever she was not able and even at other times when it was convenient.
"As their children were growing up Grandma, naturally, taught the girls the necessary skills, including biscuit baking. Grandpa saw to it that his sons could bake biscuits and made all of his children promise him that if they had any sons, they would make sure that the sons learned the art. Mom remembered her promise and said that it was time that I learned so she taught me.
"I not only enjoyed hot, fresh biscuits but I even enjoyed making them and it wound up that from then on I was the official biscuit baker in the household. I might add that this was well before Bisquick and long, long before biscuit dough in a tube."
At which point, dad taught Jim and me how to make biscuits, from scratch, not using Bisquick or dough in a tube as was already the norm in our household. He then imposed the promise on us. Since Jim died without issue and I likely will as well, the biscuit-making heritage of the Tucker-Cowdery family ends with me.
Just as well, since I don't know where to get lard.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
The demand for premium U.S. whiskeys has increased ten-fold in the India market over the last decade, despite various entry, duty, and other barriers, according to Frank Coleman, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs & Communications, of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), a trade association representing producers and marketers of distilled spirits sold in the United States. Speaking to an Indian hospitality publication at an American whiskey tasting and promotion event organised by the US Department of Agriculture in Delhi, Coleman said the world is witnessing a second renaissance in distilled spirits, and more and more people are "migrating to brown spirits".
"White spirits dominated markets world over for a long time. However, more and more people are migrating to whiskeys now. It's a flavor revolution that is happening. People are attracted to natural products with flavor and heritage," he said. U.S. whiskeys, Coleman said, are a perfect amalgamation of the three elements consumers want: natural ingredients and processes, flavor, and heritage.
Coleman said that India is a large potential market for U.S. whiskey but various barriers make it a difficult market for companies who want to bring products in. "It is not just entry barriers, but there are so many other hurdles as well," he said. "Indian consumers should not be burdened with so many taxes. They should have access to global products," Coleman suggested.
Overall, U.S. distilled spirits exports to India reached almost $4.3 million in 2013, up by 49% compared with 2012. U.S. whiskeys, primarily bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, were 97% of the total. "The market for U.S. distilled spirits, particularly whiskeys, has been growing rapidly in India, and with some further education about the category we feel that growth can continue and even accelerate," he said.
At the tasting event, Coleman introduced premium U.S. whiskeys like Jim Beam black label, Bulleit Rye, Makers Mark, Woodford Reserve, and Jack Daniels Silver Select to the participants. Shatbhi Basu, popular Sommelier and Ambassador of American Whiskeys in India, prepared and presented cocktails with American whiskeys.
Friday, December 19, 2014
The one-hour program is a series of short snippets from dozens of on-camera interviews, illustrated with historic images and beautiful contemporary views of distilleries, including spectacular aerial shots. The interview subjects often speak very personally and emotionally about their families and their love for the bourbon business. It is touching and informative, beautifully shot and edited, everything about it is first rate.
The documentary is only being broadcast in Kentucky but you can stream it here.
As wonderful as the program is, and it really is wonderful, it hides an embarrassing secret. You may wonder why the name Pappy Van Winkle, which has become nearly synonymous with high end bourbon in recent years, is never mentioned. Or why the close friendship between Jimmy Russell and Booker Noe is discussed at length but the third musketeer, Elmer T. Lee, is missing in action.
These important families and several others were excluded, not because there wasn't enough time for everyone, but because they are on the wrong side of a petty commercial dispute.
Erased from history are any families associated with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, or the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro.
“Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business” was produced for KET by Joanna Hay Productions on behalf of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA). Because Sazerac--the company that owns Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, and Glenmore--chooses not to belong to the KDA, it was not given the opportunity to participate.
The KDA and its members have pretended Sazerac and its distilleries do not exist ever since New Year’s Eve of 2009, when Sazerac withdrew from the organization. No Sazerac distillery is included on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail either but the KDA owns the Trail, it doesn’t own KET or the University of Kentucky, both of which are owned by all of the people of Kentucky. KET and UK should be ashamed of themselves for their complicity in this charade.
The Nunn Center might answer that it did a separate oral history project with Buffalo Trace, and those interviews are available for viewing on the Center’s web site. True, but they’re not on the fancy new web site linked to the documentary project.
The KDA member companies clearly dictated every aspect of this project. They chose the interview subjects and even the interviewers, to control how their brand stories would be told. If it wasn't mentioned in any of the carefully controlled interviews, it didn't happen. Therefore, as nice as it is, “Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business” is 60 minutes of propaganda for those companies and their products, to the exclusion of every other family or company important to the history of bourbon in Kentucky.
There are other serious omissions unrelated to Sazerac such as the Buzicks, whose construction company builds most of the aging warehouses; and the Shermans, whose Vendome Company builds most of the stills. Both families have been prominent industry players for several generations.
Don’t feel sorry for Sazerac. They’re doing just fine without the KDA. The problem is that the KDA is lying when it claims to be “responsible for promoting and protecting all things Bourbon.” It is, instead, a private club interested in promoting the views and interests of its members only, and discrediting all other voices. In this case, that lie has been abetted by two institutions of state government. It is an ugly stain on an otherwise lovely piece of work.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
If you haven't been following the saga of Texas micro-distillery Balcones and its founder, Chip Tate, I won't try to bring you up to speed here. The Waco Tribune has covered the story very well from the beginning, for which we should all be grateful. Their most recent story, which reports the conclusion of the current chapter, is here.
I say 'current chapter' because Balcones will continue and Tate will be back. His new manifestation will be in Waco, he says, so the story should stay interesting.
Balcones under Chip Tate has been one of the leaders of the young micro-distillery movement. Its products have been original and delicious. Up until the recent troubles its story has been pitch-perfect too. In a year when craft distillery fakery was all in the news, Balcones was usually pointed to as a new, small distillery that became successful the right way.
My attitude now is that the parties have settled their dispute. What was said was said, and you can't unring a bell, but there is nothing to be gained by rehashing it or trying to dredge up new details. There is nothing to be gained by knowing more except to satisfy our voyeurism, which is a pretty small good for speculation and commentary that will inevitably be very hurtful to people who deserve more respect and care from us than that.
(To that end, I will not approve any comments that do not follow these guidelines.)
I think it's fair to say that a Tate-less Balcones is a fundamentally different company. It will be judged on what it does going forward, just as Tate will be judged on what he does going forward. What they did together is on the record. That entity is gone. It's what is to come that matters now.
All of the parties are to be commended for bringing it to a conclusion quickly and not compounding the damage already done. The most supportive thing we can do as fans is look to the future and hope all parties will do the same and thrive.
That said, this saga has caused me to reflect on what sometimes happens to creative people in business. 'Creative' can be a tough word to talk about in the first person, but I spent most of my career in the world of advertising and marketing communication, where 'creative' is a job title, the name of a department, and the term used to describe the work product itself, as in, "have you finished the creative for the new campaign yet?"
In organizations of all kinds, managers sometimes think of employees as mere cogs in a machine, each essentially the same, easily interchangeable and replaceable. That's always a mistake, because every person is unique. Managers who think that way often do so because they are convinced it is they who make all the difference, not the people who work for them. But mostly it's a problem that happens when managers who come from one discipline are charged with managing people from a different one.
In part, I was raised to be sensitive to this problem. Dad was an engineer for an appliance manufacturer. He complained endlessly about the 'bean counters' who cared too much about cost and not enough about product quality.
For me as a freelancer, I have to be wary of prospective clients who shop for creatives like they're shopping for a new phone. Hiring the right creative is more about the ability to connect and communicate with that person than it is about how much they cost or even whether or not you like their past work. When it's apparent that a prospective client has no real idea what I do, I back away. You have to, because it's bound to become a problem eventually. A client, or boss, who fundamentally doesn't understand what you do can't direct you productively or evaluate you fairly.
Sometimes it's just an irritant but it can become a nightmare.
Creatives, therefore, have to develop the ability to spot bad bosses in advance and avoid them, but in a long career you inevitably miss a few. That can amount to a serious career setback or, at the least, a real solid period of unpleasantness, but you have to be true to yourself and pay the price to get back on track. You learn from it and move on. But, for God's sake, learn from it. Examine what blinded you to the warning signs. From my experience it's usually money, or fame, or prestige, or power, or something that looks like an easy score. Some or all of those seduce you and you don't recognize what you later realize was obvious from the beginning.
But if you really do learn from the experience (and I'm talking about myself here, no one else), then it's worth it.
Saturday, December 13, 2014
I have four books out about American whiskey. Three are available in both print and electronic editions, one is electronic only. Click here to learn more.
Although you can buy the print books directly from me, most of my sales come through Amazon. As you can imagine, this is my busy season. Amazon reports sales daily. They should peak this coming week but have been very gratifying so far.
I'm about as small as a small business gets but in my marketing career I have worked with many giants. There are some ways in which all businesses are alike, regardless of size. One is new products. I don't care how much testing and analysis you do, you never really know how well a new product will be received. Some of the biggest companies in the world have had spectacular new product failures.
You just never know.
In addition to wondering how well Bourbon, Strange would be accepted, I wondered what effect the new book would have on sales of Bourbon, Straight, my first bourbon book, now more than 10 years old. That Bourbon, Straight is still selling at all after so long is unusual. Part of that is because I am the publisher and have kept it in print. I'm not sure a conventional publisher would have understood that since bourbon is still booming, new people become interested in it every day. Bourbon, Straight has continued to sell and has sold more in the last few years than it did when it was new.
Obviously, I intended Bourbon, Strange to have a family resemblance. I wanted to signal potential readers that while it is a different book, it is the same kind of book. I calculated that there was value in that but also risk. I was concerned that people looking for a bourbon book would gravitate to the new one and that would hurt Bourbon, Straight sales.
Thankfully, that hasn't happened. Numbers-wise, the sales of Bourbon, Strange appear to be entirely new. Sales of Bourbon, Straight haven't suffered at all. If anything, they've been enhanced. I have found over the years that when I launch a new product it tends to help everything else in the portfolio so I should have expected that, but as I said before, you never know for sure.
That's a lot about me, here is the part about you. Thank you. I appreciate your support more than you can imagine. In addition to the books and newsletter, my recent private and public tasting events have been successful too. Those are very direct forms of feedback. There is no buffer between you and me. I'm happy with that arrangement and gratified that so many of you have made me part of your bourbon adventure.
May it never end.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Beam Suntory announced yesterday its plan to open a "unique new visitors experience in the heart of Louisville’s 4th Street entertainment district in 2015."
The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will include a small working distillery, a bottling line, a tasting experience, and a variety of branded merchandise available for sale.
“The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will be a must-stop destination in the heart of Louisville that will complement the experience offered at our Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont,” said Kevin Smith, Vice President, Kentucky Beam Bourbon Affairs. “In Louisville’s most exciting downtown area, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will provide a unique hands-on opportunity to experience the heritage and craftsmanship of bourbon on weekdays, weekends and evenings, and we believe it will serve as a trailhead for the increasing number of visitors to Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries.”
“This project is another example of the growth of bourbonism in Louisville,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. “Our city’s bourbon experiences are attracting a new type of tourist and that leads directly to economic growth and job creation. The Urban Stillhouse also expands the bourbon experience down Fourth Street, creating a density of spirits tourism locations downtown.”
The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse represents a multi-million dollar investment and will be located in 4,300 square feet of space on the street level beneath Beam Suntory’s Louisville office.
The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will be about a block from Beam Suntory's other 4th Street property, the Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. As Kentucky's largest city, Louisville has successfully positioned itself as the perfect 'home base' for a bourbon country adventure, with more dining and lodging choices than any other town, and now a growing number of bourbon-related attractions.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Denny Potter, currently plant manager, has joined Craig Beam as the Co-Master Distiller at Heaven Hill, the company announced today.
Heaven Hill distills its whiskeys at the historic Bernheim Distillery on the west side of Louisville. They are aged at various locations, but primarily at the company headquarters in Bardstown.
Potter has spent 13 years in distillery operations. He came to Heaven Hill from Jim Beam, where he was Operations Manager at the Frankfort bottling and maturation facility. Prior to that, Potter was General Manager at Beam's Cruzan Rum distillery in St. Croix, USVI, and Director of Distillery and Environmental Operations at Beam's Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto.
“We are very pleased to have Denny continue his growth with the company and within the industry,” Heaven Hill President Max L. Shapira said. “His knowledge of Bourbon production and aging—and his ability to teach and relate these subjects to the trade and consumers—make him an ideal person to help carry forth Heaven Hill’s leadership position and reputation into the future. Denny is grounded in the traditions of our company and industry yet has a keen eye for innovation and emerging trends.”
A native of Louisville, Potter holds an undergraduate degree from Indiana University in Bloomington and an MBA from Indiana University-Southeast.
In addition to responsibility for grain acquisition, distillery operations, maturation, and quality control, master distillers today are a distillery's primary brand ambassadors. One solution to this challenge is multiple master distillers.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Earlier this fall, Stranahan's announced that its Colorado Whiskey will be distributed outside of Colorado for the first time in more than four years. This seemingly straightforward announcement has been accompanied by an unusual amount of bullshit. Forbes Life contributor Katie Kelly Bell, for example, writes that "several years ago Stranahan's went national with distribution. It was a raging success, so much so that local fans in Colorado were left out in the cold, unable to find their home state whiskey anywhere. Owner Jess Graber wisely brought distribution to a halt, restored the stock on local shelves and set about ramping up production to meet national demand. Years later, he has produced and aged enough whiskey to go around and make everyone, from the Rocky Mountains to Manhattan, happy."
If that reads more like a press release than a news story, that's because it probably is. And Katie Kelly Bell is the same person who wrote another piece on Forbes Life in which she claims that "The Best New Bourbon Is Actually An Aged Panamanian Rum."
But the fact that this revisionist history most likely comes from Stranahan's itself is disturbing, especially in light of the still-unfolding Balcones situation, because Stranahan's has been one of the leaders in the craft distilling movement and, by and large, they have done things the right way. Now and then, though, they struggle with the truth.
Here's what really happened.
In 2003, Stranahan's was founded by Jess Graber, George Stranahan, and some other people. Graber was always the front man, appearing all over the country in his trademark Western kit. He was at all the shows and meetings, a garrulous spokesperson who in many ways drew the template for micro-distillery owner/ambassadors to follow.
Then, in 2010, rumors began to swirl and were eventually confirmed. Stranahan's had been sold to Proximo Spirits, a New Jersey distilled spirits marketing company owned by Mexico's Beckmann family, which owns Jose Cuervo Tequila. Everything about it was very secretive. I made about a dozen posts back in 2010-11, trying to follow the story. Search "Stranahan's" in the site search box to the right to check them out.
Head Distiller Jake Norris lasted several months, then quit, explaining to an interviewer that, “I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.” Graber agreed to stay around as a brand ambassador if they wanted him, which they didn't until recently.
No one has ever told the real story of what happened, but Proximo did end all distribution outside of Colorado. It also added equipment and increased production. Although Stranahan's is not age-stated it is believed to be about three years old, so now is when that production increase should be kicking in.
Stranahan's is a good product. It's a malt whiskey, distilled from a wash (like scotch), but it's aged in new, charred oak barrels (like bourbon). The flavor is unique and quite enjoyable, and it's really made in small pot stills in Colorado. It's also really bottled by enthusiastic volunteers in Colorado and not at Proximo's huge bottling plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (part of the old Seagram's complex there).
But they want to have it both ways. Graber is great spokesperson and legitimately a company founder, but he was never the sole owner and hasn't owned anything since 2010. He doesn't run the place. Stranahan's likes to call itself "independent and family-owned," but they don't say that the family is the billionaire Beckmanns, who also own the world's number one tequila.
They won't tell you this and neither will a lot of so-called journalists who are more interested in bylines and inches than they are in reporting actual facts.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Seventy-three years ago today my father, J. K. 'Ken' Cowdery, was in the Army stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. This is his account of that morning.
Sunday, December 7, 1941, dawned bright and clear at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii. At least I assume that it did because it was bright and clear when I got up at about 7:45.
To get breakfast I had to be in the chow line out behind the barracks before 8:00. I made it.
Someone noticed a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of Wheeler Field, the fighter field, south of our location. There were comments and conjecture that the fly boys must be having some kind of exercise and that one of them had cracked up.
At about the same time we noticed a line of planes coming over Kole Kole Pass, which was about three miles northwest of us and in full view because there was nothing in the way. Our barracks was the furthest northwest barracks on the post. As the first plane in the line passed overhead I could not only see the red circle markings on the plane but could see the pilot's face, he came in so low that he cleared the two story barracks by about 5 or 6 feet.
At that point he also started his guns. We never did figure out why he didn't start strafing a few seconds sooner and try to get some of the 30 or 40 guys in the chow line. I have no idea what the second plane in the line did, by the time he got there I was long gone.
We all made for cover, I went into the building via the back door to the kitchen. The kitchen was about 20 feet wide by about 30 feet long. Just inside the back door, to the right, was the walk-in cooler. I hit the floor at the far end of the cooler, putting the cooler between me and the line of fire.
There must have been several planes in the line as the firing kept up for quite a long time--at least it seemed like a long time. After the firing stopped everything was completely silent, there was not a sound. I wondered if I was the only one still alive.
There was a line of preparation tables down the center of the room, with equipment and utensil storage drawers below, and ranges along the far wall at the other end of the room. Looking around I could not see another human being, everyone was obviously hugging the floor. Then I saw a hand rise up, pick up a spatula, turn over two eggs frying on the range, then replace the spatula and again disappear.
Regardless of the circumstances, duty comes first.
I might add at this point that this was the 90th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, a Regular Army outfit.
When it seemed that the attack was over and people started stirring again I grabbed a plate, claimed the eggs, and sat down to eat my breakfast.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Luxco, a St. Louis-based non-distiller producer (NDP), announced today that it will acquire a 50 percent equity position in Limestone Branch Distillery. The Lebanon, Kentucky distillery going forward will be operated jointly by the two companies. Limestone Branch was founded in 2011 by brothers Steve and Paul Beam.
Among other things, the deal will return the 143-year-old Yellowstone Bourbon brand to its Kentucky roots.
The Yellowstone brand was created by the wholesale firm of Taylor & Williams shortly after the national park was established in 1872. 'Taylor' was D. H. Taylor, who established the firm in Louisville in about 1865. J. T. Williams joined the company in 1877. Like Luxco, they were NDPs who bought whiskey from various distilleries.
Sometime in the 1880s, Taylor & Williams contracted with Joseph Bernard (J.B.) Dant to make Yellowstone bourbon for them. Dant had a new distillery in Nelson County, Kentucky, at Gethsemane Station near New Haven. It was called Cold Springs Distillery. In about 1903, Taylor & Williams merged with the Cold Springs Distillery. Dant became president and the distillery was renamed Yellowstone, as that brand had by then become very successful.
In 1910, Dant acquired an adjacent distillery owned by Minor Case (M.C.) Beam, which was itself a combination of two older distilleries, the oldest dating to 1872. The whole complex operated as Yellowstone and was run by members of the Dant and Beam families until Prohibition.
Steve and Paul Beam are descended from M.C. Beam on their father's side. On their mother's side they are descended from J.B. Dant's brother, William. Their Limestone Branch Distillery in Marion County is about 23 miles east of the original Yellowstone Distillery site.
After Prohibition, Yellowstone moved to a new location in Shively, south of Louisville. It was solely under the Dant family's control but Beam family members were employed there as distillers. In 1944, the brand and distillery were sold to Glenmore. It was a massive facility that made bourbon until 1991. In 1993, after Glenmore was sold to what became Diageo, Yellowstone was sold to Luxco where it became an unpalatable bottom-shelf brand made by one or more unnamed Kentucky distilleries.
After Prohibition, Yellowstone moved to a new location in Shively, south of Louisville. It was solely under the Dant family's control but Beam family members were employed there as distillers. In 1944, the brand and distillery were sold to Glenmore. It was a massive facility that made bourbon until 1991. In 1993, after Glenmore was sold to what became Diageo, Yellowstone was sold to Luxco where it became an unpalatable bottom-shelf brand made by one or more unnamed Kentucky distilleries.
A column still, additional pot still, automated bottling line, and barrel house will be added at Limestone Branch, which plans to begin distilling the original recipe for Yellowstone (their uncle had a copy) in early 2015.
"Growing Limestone Branch, I saw more and more of my time being pulled into regulatory, marketing, and business paperwork and negotiations, which I do not like," said president and master distiller Steve Beam. "This partnership will allow me to focus on making great bourbon, which I love."
"I am thrilled to be partnering with the Beam family and Limestone Branch Distillery,” said Donn Lux, Luxco chairman. “We have been striving for some time to enter the craft bourbon market with a truly authentic story and product. After spending time with Steve and Paul, it became evident to me that their family and their company is the perfect partner for my family and Luxco."
Monday, November 24, 2014
A little something about me or, rather, one of my ancestors, William Cowdery.
William wasn't on the Mayflower. He arrived ten years later and was one of the founders of what is now Wakefield, Massachusetts. For many years, he was the town clerk.
In 1654, the General Court of Massachusetts "empowered and ordered" William to "sell wine of any sort, and strong liquors, to the Indians, as to his judgment shall seem most meet and necessary for their relief in just and urgent occasions, and not otherwise, provided he shall not sell or deliver more than one pint to any one Indian at any one time upon any pretence whatever."
Friday, November 21, 2014
It's always risky when a company extends a brand into a new product segment. Sometimes it's very smooth. Consumers had no trouble accepting that Dove, a brand of soap, could also be used to sell shampoo, deodorant, and other personal care products. But consumers didn't want Jack Daniel's beer. It's hard to figure.
Rémy Martin is a name associated with cognac. Rémy Martin V, which is getting a big advertising push right now, is not cognac. It is an eau-de-vie, meaning an unaged brandy. It's not a huge difference, at least on paper, but any cognac drinker thinking it's just another cognac expression will be shocked when they see it (it's clear) and taste it. Unaged spirits can be a bit rough.
Just as whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain, brandy is a distilled spirit made from fruit. In most cases the fruit is grapes, but eau-de-vie typically are not grape-based. Pear is commonly used. Rémy V, however, is grape-based and known, therefore, as an eau-de-vie de vin.
The difference between a grape-based vodka, such as Ciroc, and a grape-based brandy is distillation proof, but as with some very high distillation proof whiskeys (Scottish grain, for example), the actual distillation proof of a brandy is up to the maker so long as it is south of neutrality (less than 95% ABV). If the distillation proof of Rémy V has been disclosed, I haven't seen it.
Here's what the company says about it. "At once bold and sophisticated, Rémy Martin V is the premiere eau-de-vie de vin from the House of Rémy Martin. Born of legendary French vineyards, its grapes are distilled in the traditional manner in copper pot stills. On the rocks it is vibrant and intricate. Mixed, it is the soul of any great cocktail."
That implies that it is, effectively, white cognac.
I became aware of Rémy V because of the current advertising campaign, but the product was actually launched in 2010, about the time major bourbon brands started responding to the white whiskey craze started by micro-distillers. That seems to have passed, but Rémy V must be showing enough organic growth to justify the current major advertising investment.
We're in a phase now that most adult beverage producers find uncomfortable. No one wants to drink just one thing. People want to try new things. This is forcing even the most staid brands to consider radical line extensions, to at least keep their customers from wandering beyond the brand family. Will Rémy V catch on? Nobody bought Jack Daniel's beer but millions are buying Jack Daniel's Honey Liquor, so who can say?
Thursday, November 20, 2014
The last time I mentioned the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project in a post was August of 2012, when release number six came out. Number fifteen came out on Monday. There is just one more to go.
As usual, the twelve whiskeys in this release focus on several variables, but the most interesting one is tree cut. Each tree contained enough wood for two barrels so they made one from the top half and one from the bottom half.
As Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley explains, that's bound to make a difference. “There are four direct components that are related to wood that contribute to our bourbon flavor; hemicellulose, lignin, tannins, and the char layer. There are two major considerations when it comes to tree composition and location, and those are lignins and tannins," says Wheatley. "The top half of the tree tends to have more lignin, which contributes to the formulation of vanilla and vanilla flavor. The bottom half of the tree tends to have more tannins, which contributes to the formation of ellagic acids and tannic flavor. Tannic flavor leaves your mouth dry and delivers complexity or richness in texture.”
All of the bourbons in this release were aged in barrels with the same entry proof (105°), same stave seasoning, aged in the same warehouse (concrete floor), and same char level (number three). All other variables; recipe (wheat or rye), grain size, and tree cut (top or bottom of the tree) vary.
If past online votes are any indication, fans will be all over the board when it comes to their favorite. Currently, barrel #82 is in the lead, but other barrels in the top spots vary in char level, tree location, recipe and char level. The only thing it seems fans can agree upon is entry proof (105° is preferred) and warehouse type (rick). More than 4,300 reviews have been submitted so far at www.singleoakproject.com.
The Single Oak Project is part of an intensive study Buffalo Trace began in 1999 by hand-picking 96 trees with different wood grains and then dividing them into top and bottom pieces, yielding 192 unique sections. From there, staves were created from each section and air dried for either 6 months or 12 months. A single barrel was created from each tree section, resulting in 192 barrels. The barrels were given either a number three or a number four char and then filled with either wheat or rye recipe bourbon.
For more variety, the barrels were filled at two different proofs, 105° and 125°. Two different warehouses were used, one with wooden floors and one with concrete floors. During the eight years of aging, the distillery created intricate databases and came up with a potential of 1,396 tasting combinations from the 192 barrels.
Participation in the Single Oak Project isn't cheap. Suggested retail is $46.35 per 375ml bottle.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Diageo's 4th release of their Orphan Barrel Project is called Lost Prophet, a 22-year-old bourbon distilled in 1991 at what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. The retail price will reportedly be $125.
Whether or not Orphan Barrel is successful financially is unknown and while that's probably all that matters to Diageo, as a concept it's already a failure. Yes, there is a portion of the market that responds to anything very old, limited, and expensive, but that's all the Orphan Barrel bourbons are. People already feel burned by the 'limited' claim, but what the series really lacks is the transparency and authenticity true whiskey enthusiasts crave.
Although the whiskey is real, just about everything else about this 'project' is phony, starting with the designation 'orphan barrels.' All four releases were distilled by or, in this case, for United Distillers (UD), which was the distilled spirits arm of Guinness. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo. Therefore, the 'parent' of these whiskeys didn't so much die as remarry and take a new name.
The first three 'orphans' were all made at UD's Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, which is now owned by Heaven Hill. That distillery was completely demolished and rebuilt in 1991-92, giving us 'Old Bernheim' and 'New Bernheim.' Old Blowhard was distilled at Old Bernheim. Barterhouse and Rhetoric were distilled at New Bernheim. Although UD sold the distillery and several brands in 1999, along with some whiskey stocks, it retained ownership of what it's now calling 'orphans.' The Bernheim whiskey was originally aged in the masonry warehouses at Bernheim, but moved to the steel-clad warehouses at Stitzel-Weller (SW) after Bernheim was sold.
The whiskey now being bottled as Lost Prophet was distilled at what is now Buffalo Trace in Frankfort on behalf of UD while Bernheim was under construction. It was originally aged there, but also moved to SW at some point. There was also a stock of whiskey made at SW, some of which sojourned in Canada for a time, before returning to Kentucky for sale to the makers of Jefferson's Bourbon. Whether or not Diageo has any of that whiskey left is another unanswered question. A stock of rye whiskey made at Old Bernheim was sold to Julian Van Winkle, then by him to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. It is unknown if Diageo retained any of that either. How many other orphans is it sheltering in Shively? No one outside the company knows.
Shortly after the whiskey for Lost Prophet was distilled, ownership of the Frankfort distillery passed to Sazerac, the current owner. Until 1983, both Buffalo Trace (then known as the George Stagg Distillery) and Bernheim were owned by Schenley, another Diageo predecessor company. After the mid-1970s, American whiskey was in the doldrums and many distilleries only operated for a few months each year. Schenley operated Bernheim and Stagg as if they were one distillery, taking turns meeting the company's limited needs for new whiskey. None of the company's Kentucky brands had a true home. If they needed to make some of a particular recipe, they did it at whichever distillery was operating at that moment.
In 1983, Schenley sold the Stagg Distillery and Ancient Age brand to Ferdie Falk and Robert Baranaskas. They called their new company Age International (AI). In 1987, the rest of Schenley was acquired by UD.
Falk and Baranaskas were longtime industry veterans. Falk was the CEO of Fleischmann’s, a division of Standard Brands, and Baranaskas was the company's president. Falk was also a former executive at Schenley. When Fleischmann’s was sold, Falk and Baranaskas wanted to stay in the business so they persuaded Schenley to sell them the Ancient Age brand and Stagg distillery.
Falk and Baranaskas made money however they could during what was a very hard period for American whiskey makers. They did a lot of contract distilling and sold bulk whiskey. As such, their relationship with Schenley and then UD continued more or less unchanged, as they could make all of Schenley/UD's products.
In the mid-1980s, international sales of American whiskey began to pick up, particularly in Japan. Falk and Baranaskas, and their former Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee, created Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon, primarily for the Japanese market. It was a hit. Other single barrel, super premium brands followed, including one named for Mr. Lee.
In 1991, Falk and Baranaskas sold a 22.5 percent interest in AI to Japan’s Takara Shuzo, with right of first refusal to purchase the remaining shares. In 1992, Falk (35.1 percent) and Baranaskas (33.9 percent) sold their shares to Takara for $20 million. Takara immediately sold the distillery to Sazerac but retained the corporate entity and brand trademarks. All of the AI brands continued to be made at Buffalo Trace, as they are to this day.
The above is history, public information. What isn't known is the mash bill, the barrel char level, and other specifications of each product. Diageo knows all of this, why aren't they saying? They also haven't explained why none of this whiskey was sold before now, even as Diageo was contracting with other distillers for millions of gallons of spirit to support Bulleit and its other brands. Despite Diageo's use of the term 'limited,' this is clearly a very large stock of whiskey. How much more is there? Wouldn't you like to know?
Diageo could have told us interesting, true stories about these products. Instead they give us fantasy and look like they have something to hide.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Buffalo Trace Distillery has purchased 233 acres of land adjacent to its current location in Frankfort, Kentucky; the company announced today, bringing the total acreage of the site to 378 acres.
The recently acquired land includes approximately 100 acres of woods, a farmhouse with barns, and two ponds. It has a private entrance off Lewis Ferry Road (the road that runs behind the distillery), as well as road frontage off U.S. 127. From the farmhouse, the entire Buffalo Trace Distillery site can be viewed.
Buffalo Trace has yet to determine a final use for the acquired property but intends to plant its own corn, rye and barley on the site, from which it will make bourbon, to provide a true farm-to-table experience. It has not been determined if the home-grown grains will be used for a current brand, or if a new brand will be created.
"We are excited about the many possibilities this additional acreage will present to us and look forward to laying out some plans for the future," said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.
The purchase price of the land is not being disclosed. Buffalo Trace Distillery is owned by Sazerac.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am grateful to drinks giant Diageo for giving me so many interesting subjects to write about this past year. I love absurdity and Diageo never disappoints. Case in point is this announcement of three new products in the Jeremiah Weed line.
"It’s show time for Jeremiah Weed as the makers of the brand unveil a new line of American whiskies (sic) blended with hand-selected secret spices and natural flavors. Each variant is sure to bewilder and amaze as they take the stage as either a shot or mixed with cola. With these releases, consumers craving more curiosity and excitement from their whiskey will be provided additional options to be enjoyed responsibly."
The three new products are Jeremiah Weed Spiced Whiskey, Jeremiah Weed Cinnamon Whiskey, and Jeremiah Weed Sarsaparilla Whiskey. ("It's like root beer," the press release helpfully advises.)
Diageo is also the company behind the new Pie Hole brand, another trio of flavored whiskey products. The Pie Hole line has a Canadian whisky base. Jeremiah Weed is an American Blended Whiskey with flavoring. Unlike whiskey whiskey, flavored whiskey can be sold at less than 80° proof (40% ABV). The new Jeremiah Weed products are 70.6° proof (35.3% ABV), 71.2° proof (35.6% ABV), and 70.4° proof (35.2% ABV), respectively. Why three different proofs? Probably just for added bewilderment.
Speaking of which, it may be hard to understand why a producer wants to call something that tastes so little like whiskey by that name. Imitation, of course, drives much of the packaged goods industry and the big dog in sweet, flavored alcoholic drinks right now is Sazerac's Fireball, which calls itself 'whiskey' with the same minimal justification and likewise tastes nothing like whiskey as most whiskey drinkers understand the term.
You should drink whatever you like but if you drink these products, just understand that they have nothing to do with whiskey. Due to a political compromise made more than a century ago, the United States alone in the world allows products that contain very little actual whiskey to be labeled as whiskey if the proper modifiers are used. American blended whiskey (the base for these Jeremiah Weed products) can be as much as 80 percent vodka and usually is. Spirit whiskey can be as much as 95 percent vodka. The base for Canadian whisky, while not quite vodka, is whiskey distilled just a jot shy of neutrality. It's a fine line. Hit 95 percent alcohol or more off the still and it's vodka. Anything less than that is legally considered whiskey.
In Canada and Scotland, while blending whiskeys are nearly neutral off the still, they are all aged in oak, usually used bourbon barrels. The blending spirit in American blended whiskey is straight neutral spirit, i.e., vodka.
In contrast the products whiskey drinkers call whiskey, such as bourbon, rye, and single malt scotch, come off the still at less than 80 percent alcohol and therefore retain more flavor from their base ingredients.
The Jeremiah Weed line contains one product, Jeremiah Weed Blended Bourbon, that is 50 percent bourbon and 50 percent vodka. Every other product in the Jeremiah Weed line contains more vodka than whiskey.
Jeremiah Weed is one of Diageo's smallest brands and they use it as an experimental platform. The current line includes a 'sweet tea' product too. In the UK, Diageo sells a line of Jeremiah Weed hard ciders. Despite Diageo's might, they haven't been able to make Jeremiah Weed a player. It is, however, fascinating to see the kinds of products and themes Diageo thinks consumers might buy.
"When it comes to whiskey, a little bit of mystery always provides a lot more excitement.” So says Patrick Hughes, Innovation Director at DIAGEO. “Jeremiah Weed Whiskies were developed to bring a sense of fun and intrigue to the world of whiskey and to entertain the most curious legal drinking age consumers,” he said.
The original Jeremiah Weed (which is no longer made) was created in the late 1960s, hence the name. It was a nasty-tasting herbal liqueur, similar to Jagermeister, that contained a little bit of bourbon. It became a cult favorite among American jet fighter pilots, who drank it ceremonially. Like Jager and Chicago's own Malort, guys get their friends to drink it just to watch them gag.
'Adult' and 'mature' are not synonyms.
By the way, Diageo, the plural of 'whisky' is 'whiskies.' The plural of 'whiskey' is 'whiskeys.' Happy Thanksgiving.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
On October 27, Wine & Spirits Daily (WSD) exclusively published a letter from Tito Beveridge, founder of Tito's Handmade Vodka, who is being sued for deceptive marketing. In the letter, Tito defended his company's use of the term "craft," claiming that pot still distillation is "the cornerstone of craft spirits."
In response to Tito's letter, the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) sent its own letter to WSD from president Tom Mooney. ACSA represents more than 200 members in 36 states.
I have questioned in the past if any of these organizations has the guts to challenge the questionable practices of their most prosperous members. Through this letter, the ACSA has shown that it does. Good for them.
The issue is not 'what is craft?' It is 'what is truth?'
As the nation's leading association of craft spirits producers, we are keenly interested in the way that consumers, the media, and our industry peers view our trade. The latest chapter in this ongoing conversation is an op-ed by our friend and fellow ACSA founding member Tito Beveridge, offering a simple answer to one of the most elusive questions in our industry - what is 'craft'?
ACSA has, from the start, adopted and then actively promoted an inclusive answer to this question. We believe that craft - like beauty - is in the eye of the beholder. Acting on this belief, we have taken action in two important areas:
We broadened our membership eligibility criteria to include independent spirits producers who craft high quality products through methods other than distillation. We believe that inclusion will lead to more innovation, while formulaic definitions (e.g., pot stills equal craft) will stifle it.
More importantly, we adopted a code of ethics that demands honesty and transparency from all ACSA members. As we see it, if a producer is forthcoming about the way that a product is made, consumers can judge for themselves whether it rises to the level of a 'craft' spirit.
We support Tito's call for greater inclusion, but we disagree that any single definition of the term "craft" will bring it about. Instead, we challenge all spirits producers (large and small) to unleash their creativity, to be forthcoming about the way their products are made, and to be honest when they promote them. The public is intelligent, and they will embrace authenticity regardless of the size, home country, or methods of a producer.
Friday, November 7, 2014
I'll admit my heart skipped a beat on Wednesday when President Obama suggested that he and Senator Mitch McConnell have a bourbon summit. Many since have speculated as to what bourbon they should drink. They're probably important enough to get their hands on some Pappy, if they want to go that route, but if Mitch has anything to say about it there is really only one choice.
Most members of Louisville's Brown family, who control Brown-Forman, are major Republican donors. They have backed Mitch McConnell's career from the beginning. I attended one of the first fundraisers for his 1984 Senate campaign at the home of Robinson Brown Jr., then Brown-Forman's Chairman of the Board.
At the time Robbie's cousin, Lee (Lyons Brown Jr) was Brown-Forman's CEO. After he handed the reins to his brother, Owsley, he was named to the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations by President Reagan. In 2001, President Bush made him U.S. Ambassador to Austria, where he served until 2006.
The summit bourbon, therefore, must be Old Forester, the brand that launched Brown-Forman in 1870. The company's marketing executives will probably argue for Woodford Reserve, the more popular and contemporary brand. These days the company's true flagship is Jack Daniel's, but that's for summits with Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
As McConnell has always been the Senator from Brown-Forman, Jim Beam became a big supporter of former Senator Jim Bunning, also a Republican. His replacement, Rand Paul, doesn't appear to have a favorite bourbon distiller.
I worked on a project for McConnell in 1992. I only had one meeting with him, at which I presented. When you're presenting, you always try to read your audience so you can make adjustments on the fly. McConnell was inscrutable. I wouldn't want to play poker with him. He was also very low key, not an attention hog at all, which is very uncharacteristic for a politician. He was professional and business-like, no showboating. I believe he drove himself to the meeting, which took place in Louisville. I don't recall a driver or any aides being there. The project must have gone well, as he alluded to it in his speech on Wednesday.
In this era of excessive disclosure, the drinking habits of presidents are still generally kept private. We now know that Johnson and Nixon were likely alcoholics. Obama is known to favor a beer now and then. McConnell, too, is believed to be a light drinker but he has been known to take a sip of bourbon from time to time. Sharing one with the president certainly couldn't hurt.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
The company that was never going to have its own brand has announced the release of its first. It's called Metze's Medley.
Metze's Medley is, admittedly, a small and very limited release to support the inaugural Whiskey City Festival in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which MGP is sponsoring. Since 2011, MGP has owned the Lawrenceburg distillery everyone there still calls Seagrams. MGP produces bulk whiskey for non-distiller producers (NDPs) to brand, bottle, and sell. Until now, MGP has said it had no intention of creating any brands of its own, because it didn't want to compete with its customers.
The new product will be labeled as Indiana straight bourbon whiskey. It is named for MGP Master Distiller Greg Metze, who has spent his entire 36-year career at the Lawrenceburg distillery. The festival is this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 7 and 8.
“MGP has a proud legacy of making world-class whiskeys,” said President and CEO Gus Griffin. “This limited edition medley, mashed and distilled at our historic distillery in Lawrenceburg, celebrates that legacy and the whiskey industry’s long history in the Lawrenceburg community.”
Metze’s Medley, a unique whiskey, consists of 20 percent of their 21 percent rye bourbon, made in 2005; 20 percent of their 36 percent rye bourbon, also made in 2005; and 60 percent of their 21 percent rye bourbon, made in 2008, making the youngest whiskey in the mix about six years old.
According to the company's tasting notes, the whiskey showcases subtle grain differences, delivering a rich full taste with slight vanilla notes and a spicy finish.
MGP is joining with the City of Lawrenceburg, Lawrenceburg Main Street, Hollywood Casino, and the Dearborn County Visitor Center to support the festival. Guests who donate $100 or more to the Greater Cincinnati United Way at the event will receive a bottle of Metze’s Medley. Metze will be on hand to sign each bottle. The product will not be available for retail sale.
“MGP is pleased and excited for the opportunity to play a substantial role in supporting this festival, while also coming up with a creative way to further support our communities through donations to the United Way,” Griffin said.
Other activities during the two-day festival will feature whiskey tastings and exhibits, talks by industry experts, specially prepared food and great music, including nationally-recognized entertainment.
Since 1803, Lawrenceburg has been home to several distilleries, earning its name, “Whiskey City.” Through the years, the industry has made its mark on the history, economy and lives of generations of residents, regionally, as well as locally. MGP’s Lawrenceburg distillery was established in 1847 as Rossville Distillery. It was acquired by Joseph E. Seagram and Sons in 1933.
Additional details about the Whiskey City Festival can be accessed at www.whiskeycityfestival.net.
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Charles K. Cowdery is an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. He is a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009). He is the author of Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey (2014), The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste. The True Story of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Distilled in the Spring of 1974 (2012), and Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (2004).
He is the producer/director/writer of the public TV documentary "Made and Bottled in Kentucky" (1992).
Other books include Blues Legends (1995), 20 profiles of notable blues musicians. Cowdery was a contributor to the book 1001 Whiskies You Must Taste Before You Die (2012).
He is a regular contributor to Whisky Advocate Magazine, and the editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader, the oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey.
In 2012, Cowdery was cited by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals as an expert on the history and marketing of American whiskey in Maker's Mark v Diageo. He wrote the ‘Bourbon’ article in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 7, Foodways (2007).
He is available for speaking appearances and guided tastings.
Cowdery also works as a marketing writer for a variety of commercial clients, and is an attorney. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Fireball, a hot cinnamon concoction, is the spirits fad of 2014. Of Canadian origin, it seemingly came from nowhere and has soared to massive popularity. There was a misunderstanding in Finland earlier this week about the product's ingredients, but that means Fireball is now sold in Finland.
Meanwhile, Diageo has just introduced Pie Hole. According to the web site, Pie Hole is "a tempting blend of premium whiskey & delicious pie-flavored liqueur." There are now a million of these products. Diageo's Crown Royal has a new apple flavor. Honey is everywhere. Maple is nearly as ubiquitous. Scotch and Irish whiskey makers are in the act now too.
Clearly, a lot of people like these products. There has always been a market for sweet and fruity (or nutty) drinks. They're made in a lab with, essentially, vodka as a base. Even products like Jack Daniel's Honey and Pie Hole probably contain more vodka (i.e., grain neutral spirit) than they do whiskey. Fireball is 'whisky with natural cinnamon flavor,' but the whisky base is nearly flavorless.
These products are cheap to make. Most of the money is in marketing.
What does whiskey have to do with it? Nothing. Drink these products if you want to, really. It's your mouth. Just don't tell yourself you're drinking whiskey. It's kind of great that whiskey is so popular right now that everybody wants to slap that word on their label. Kind of great, kind of not.
But drink them if you want to, it's fine, it just has nothing whatsoever to do with with whiskey. Whiskey should taste like whiskey. These products don't. Many, like Fireball and Pie Hole, have Canadian whisky as their base. The whiskey flavor in Canadians is light to begin with. Throw in other alcohols, sweeteners and flavorings, and what little whiskey flavor there was disappears immediately. The whiskey is contributing nothing to the drink except its alcohol, which vodka could do just as well.
Seemingly, the main thing it contributes is the word "whiskey."
So drink whatever you want, just don't kid yourself. This stuff is not whiskey.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
This is the house Al and Mae Capone bought in 1923. Capone lived there with his extended family for the rest of his life, when he wasn't downtown at the Palmer House Hotel, at his home in Florida, or at Alcatraz. The brick two-flat at 7244 South Prairie Ave., in Chicago's Park Manor neighborhood, is four blocks east of the Dan Ryan Expressway, just north of 73rd Street. It is priced to sell at $225,000, but there have been no takers.
Chicago doesn't know what to do with Al Capone and his legacy. He embodies Prohibition-era America for many Americans. He ruled not just Chicago's illegal alcohol trade and other criminal rackets, but Chicago itself. He was an important historical figure by any estimation. He was also a murderous thug. Should major sites associated with him be preserved? The house on South Prairie is a private residence now, two apartments actually, but it could be a landmark? A museum? Something. But should it be?
Chicago has never been sure. We know we bury history at our peril, yet how do you memorialize a character like Capone without unintentionally glorifying him? Gangster stories from "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos" humanize their subjects by showing them being tender with their families. So does that mean preserving his family home would be a good thing or a bad thing?
Capone was portrayed in the just-concluded HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" by Stephen Graham. He was a pivotal character throughout the series, which raised Capone's profile considerably with the current generation. In one of the final scenes of the final episode, Capone has a tender moment with his deaf teenage son, presumably in the house on South Prairie.
South Prairie is also the house where memoirist Deidre Capone is said to have heard her great uncle Al declare Templeton Rye to be Al's favorite whiskey. While many in Chicago would like to bury the memory of Al Capone, others will do anything to exploit it. Deidre Capone is the daughter of Ralph Capone's only son, also named Ralph. (The elder Ralph Capone, Al's brother, is portrayed on "Boardwalk Empire" by Domenick Lombardozzi.)
Deidre Capone was born in 1940. She was 7-years-old when Al Capone died. When he was released from prison a year before she was born, he was suffering from advanced syphilis. His cognitive abilities were greatly diminished. Deidre Capone never heard her great uncle Al declare anything.
There is more about the house here but, unfortunately, it is behind the Chicago Tribune's pay wall.
Maybe Templeton should double-down on their flimsy Capone myth, buy the house on South Prairie, and make it their Chicago welcome center. With their present story in shambles, they need to do something.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Market Garden Brewery, 1947 W 25th St., beginning at 5:00 PM.
The occasion is the official release party for Tom's Foolery Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It is co-sponsored by the Cleveland Bourbon Club. I'll be there to speak and sign copies of my new book, Bourbon, Strange.
Tom's Foolery is a real-deal craft distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, outside of Cleveland. It is owned by Tom and Lianne Herbruck. They started out making apple brandy, later adding bourbon and rye.
Their stills and other equipment came from Michter's in Pennsylvania by way of the David Beam family. David is the grandson of Park Beam, Jim Beam's brother. He was a distiller at Jim Beam until his retirement in 1994. He and other family members assisted Tom and Lianne with their bourbon, as did Dick Stoll, former distiller at Michter's. Stoll is the only man alive who had made whiskey using this equipment until the Herbrucks got it a few years ago.
The stills were made by Louisville's Vendome in 1976 and were installed at Michter's as part of the American Bicentennial celebration. The system is capable of producing one 53 gallon barrel of whiskey per day.
If you can't attend the Cleveland event, you can still get a signed copy of Bourbon, Strange by clicking here. It's the perfect gift!
Thursday, October 23, 2014
A little more than three years ago, when Michter's announced that it was coming to Louisville, the hullabaloo was about restoration of the Fort Nelson Building on Main Street, where Michter's would have a visitors center and small, demonstration distillery. They incidentally mentioned they planned to build a new, production-scale distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively too.
Since New York's Chatham Imports resurrected the Michter's brand it has been a non-distiller producer, acquiring its bourbon and other whiskey from one or more undisclosed distilleries. As the brand has grown, and bourbon in general has boomed, its suppliers have all reached their production limits. Michter's had to become a distiller.
Meanwhile, unforeseen structural problems have stymied the Main Street project. This morning, in Shively, a new Vendome 32-inch diameter column still with pot still doubler was installed. There is still much to do, but Michter's should be making whiskey there by spring. Maturation will also be done on site. Michter's has been bottling its products there for about a year.
Go here to see the new stills going in.
There have been many announcements about new whiskey distilleries recently but only three with significant capacity have actually been built: Willett in Bardstown, New Riff in Newport, and now Michter's in Shively, the biggest of the three.
The town of Shively is where most of the big distilleries went after Prohibition. The new Michter's Distillery is on Wathen Lane, which is just south of Bernheim Lane. Wathen and Bernheim are two prominent family names from bourbon history. The Michter's property is adjacent to what was once the Frankfort Distillery, aka Four Roses. Nearby is the glorious hulk of the old Seagram's plant. Brown-Forman's working distillery and Diageo's maturation and blending facility at Stitzel-Weller are also in the neighborhood.
New brands and new products come and go. Micro-distilleries are proliferating like mushrooms after the rain. New large-scale distilleries like this are still a rarity. Congratulations to the Michter's team. This is a big deal.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
The latest issue of WHISKY Magazine has on its cover an artsy photograph of a fellow named Henry McWilliams shoveling malt at the Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland. The headline asks: “Is Craft an Expression of Skill?” The word ‘expression’ is emphasized. Beneath the headline is this pull quote: “Small distillers do not have a corner on ‘craft distilling.’ There are many larger spirits that are craft. There are also some smaller spirits that exhibit little or no skill or artistry.”
The article inside, by Neil Ridley, continues along those lines.
Do you sense battle lines being drawn? Clearly, the major producers are not going to let this ‘craft’ thing go. Moreover, they are not going to let themselves be labeled ‘industrial distillers.’ They will fight back. Resistance is futile, so maybe it’s time to just retreat and declare victory. Fighting about it is probably a big waste of time and, ultimately, a distraction from something that is much more important.
Featuring Balvenie on the cover was no accident. Hardly any distilleries grow barley and malt it traditionally, but Balvenie does. It also has coopers and a coppersmith on staff. It can afford all this ‘craft’ because Balvenie is one of the best-selling single-malt brands in the world.
So is Balvenie a craft distillery?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question.
As everyone has pointed out, this all happened with craft brewing a generation ago, yet no one can deny that the name stuck. We still talk about ‘craft beers,’ and for the most part we all mean the same thing when we say it. The parallels aren't perfect. For consumers, the craft beer movement has mostly been about variety, sampling beer in all its possibilities. For some, it’s also about the practical and emotional values of ‘localism,’ if not terroir exactly. For perhaps the smallest number, it’s about the preservation of traditional production methods and the intimate connection between maker and product that is only possible in a small operation.
There is a good chance craft spirits will turn out the same way.
With its numerous expressions, Balvenie offers a lot of variety, but no one would call them experimental. Balvenie is a conventional Speyside malt, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They get their highest points for the use of traditional methods. They score zero for localism as their whiskey is sold everywhere, though no doubt the folks in Dufftown are very proud.
Knowing all that, can you slap the ‘craft’ label on them or not? Breaking it down, you see how ridiculous the question is. If it makes sense to call Balvenie a ‘craft distillery,’ it’s because they’re different. They do many traditional things their counterparts do not. If Balvenie is craft, therefore, Glenlivet can’t be.
What Balvenie is, most of all, is real. That’s where the young U.S. craft distilling movement has gotten stuck. Too many of its leading names are outright fakes. Too many new consumers, attracted by the idea of ‘craft spirits,’ are being suckered by clever packaging and glib stories that may stay within the letter of the law but use every trick imaginable to convey a false impression.
While it's disgusting that some producers employ these practices, and over-burdened regulators let them, consumers deserve some of the blame. There will always be bad actors, especially in expanding markets, and regulators are never fully effective. What’s really shocking is how many consumers are okay with it. They consider it bad taste to disabuse them. All of the fakers have ardent supporters. Fine. Tell Al Capone I said hi.
Maybe the best thing to do now is just let it go. I haven't changed my standards. I'm still going to investigate and report, and anyone who cares knows where to find me. Consumers are going to use the terms they find most useful. The hive mind eventually sorts these things out in ways that are generally unambiguous if not precisely so. It’s good at that.
f you want to know the truth about any products, the first thing you have to do is find independent voices. Many producers do a good job with transparency, but it still takes independent voices to tell you who those producers are and keep them honest. Everyone vying to be one of those independent voices has to establish their own credibility. Everyone in the advertiser-supported media recognizes how that model threatens credibility and because they all navigate it differently, some advertiser-supported outlets are more credible than others.
Because I write for some advertiser-supported outlets, I am partially advertiser-supported but mostly not. When producers invite me to events they want me to cover, they usually pay my expenses, but that’s a wash. Most of my income is from book sales, newsletter subscriptions, and personal appearances.
Consumers have to do some of the work, if only in deciding who to believe and what to buy. The consumer who expects the easy answer to also be the right one is always disappointed. To really understand what’s going on in the distilled spirits business, you might need to read a book.
Here are a few to get you started.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
The picture above is a snapshot of the data stream from Warehouse X at Buffalo Trace. You'll notice that the liquid temperature is higher than the outside temperature so the barrel is pulling negative pressure, i.e. liquid is being pulled out of the wood.
Warehouse X is an experimental warehouse. It has five chambers, each of which can create different aging conditions. The center chamber is the Breezeway, which is entirely open to the elements.
As with most whiskey experiments, it will be years before any Warehouse X whiskey is available to taste, but glimpses like this are fun if nothing else.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
This space has been quiet for the last several days because we've been putting out a new edition of The Bourbon Country Reader. It is a few weeks late, dated October, 2014. For those of you keeping score at home, it is Volume 16, Number 3.
In this issue, we digest a few recent bourbon news items and interpret what they mean for bourbon makers and bourbon drinkers in a story headlined "How the Bourbon Boom Is Transforming the Business."
- With producers operating at full capacity, and keeping most of that production for their own brands, non-distiller producers (NDPs) are struggling to find whiskey to buy.
- A major brand is dipping its toe into the coveted Indian market.
- Diageo, the world's largest distiller and quite possibly its largest NDP too, is finally going to make whiskey in Kentucky again.
- Rumors are rampant so we get answers from the source.
- And we try to explain what it all means.
Old Forester launched Brown-Forman in 1870. The brand is still made and widely distributed but it is not a big seller and has not benefited very much from the bourbon boom. We report on some of the ways Brown-Forman hopes to change that. (And, by the way. Old Forester is a terrific bourbon. You should try it.)
A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year (six issues) for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. It is published six times a year, or thereabouts.
Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)
If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Templeton Rye's current tale of woe is interesting in its own right but also for what it may portend, because Templeton is far from alone in its misleading marketing practices. Products like Tin Cup, Widow Jane, Texas 1835, and many others could be looking at the same kinds of trouble, including lawsuits like the one filed against Templeton and the now two filed against Tito's Vodka.
Vern Underwood is the CEO of Templeton and also Chairman of the Board for Young's Market Company, a big wine and spirits distributor. Yesterday he issued the following public response to the lawsuit.
"As many of you have heard, Templeton Rye Sprits has been sued in Chicago recently alleging deceptive marketing practices.
"The most damaging and patently false statement made in that lawsuit was that stock rye whiskey purchased from MGP is simply poured into bottles and labeled 'Templeton Rye.' That statement is simply not true.
"The fact is Templeton purchases rye whiskey from MGP. Templeton has never hidden that fact from consumers. However, Templeton also purchases a flavoring formula from Clarendon Engineering in Louisville, Kentucky. That proprietary formula was created specifically for Templeton by Clarendon to match the flavor profile of the prohibition-era recipe rye whiskey produced by the ancestors of one of the founders of Templeton. That formula is blended with the rye whiskey distilled by MGP in a small vessel in Templeton, then bottled and labeled in Templeton.
"It is this blending of the whiskey and the formula which results in the production of Templeton Rye Whiskey. Templeton does not purchase 'Templeton Rye' from MGP as alleged in the complaint. Templeton makes (or produces, if you like) Templeton Rye in Iowa using an ingredient supplied by MGP.
"It is the formula created for Templeton that gives Templeton Rye Whiskey its unique flavor and distinctive taste. It is a product unlike any other on the market. The product in a bottle of Templeton Rye is made in Templeton, Iowa. The Company has never said it was distilled in Iowa.
"The Company will vigorously defend itself against these false and misleading allegations and we are confident that we will prevail in the end."
First of all, Templeton absolutely did hide the fact that MGP was its distillery and did so for the first several years of the brand's existence, because I asked Templeton president Scott Bush who distilled it and he refused to tell me. As for this proprietary flavoring, that was never revealed until the Des Moines Register article two months ago.
Can you add flavoring to rye whiskey and still call it rye whiskey? Apparently, yes, but said flavoring may be no more that 2 1/2 percent of the product's volume. More importantly, the added flavoring must be "an essential component part of the particular class or type of distilled spirits to which added" or "customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage." Can Templeton meet that standard? It seems like that would be tough since, until a few years ago, only four American distilleries made rye whiskey and they all made straight rye, in which additives are not permitted, so flavoring wasn't "essential" or "customarily employed" in any of those products.
There also seems to be a direct contradiction in their argument. If their flavoring is proprietary, i.e., used only by them, making Templeton Rye "unlike any other on the market," how can it also be "an essential component part" of all rye whiskey, or "customarily employed therein"? You can't have it both ways.
Finally, there is this claim that the flavoring from Clarendon is used to "match the flavor profile of the prohibition-era recipe rye whiskey produced by the ancestors of one of the founders of Templeton." That would be Alphonse Kerkhoff. Back in 2006, when the company was just getting going and filing its first labels with the TTB, one of its COLAs was for something called "Templeton Rye Kerkhoff Recipe." It was classified as a "Specialty Distilled Spirit," TTB's catchall for products that don't qualify for any other classification. The label further stated that the product was to be "bottled in Templeton" (i.e., not distilled there) and would consist of "Spirits Distilled from Cane (90%) and Rye (10%)."
That is a typical moonshine recipe. Real moonshiners*, then and now, ferment table sugar but throw in some grain for flavor. Since no enzymes are used, the grain starch isn't converted into sugar so the grain isn't contributing any alcohol, but it may add a little flavor. It looks like what Templeton planned to do was mix neutral spirit made from cane (i.e., white rum) with a little bit of rye distillate. I don't know if that product was ever produced or what it's relevance might be to this proprietary flavoring, but that's the only "Kerkhoff Recipe" that's on the record.
If you've read this far, you are one of those people who, like me, is way more into this stuff than the average drinker. What is the average drinker and regular buyer of Templeton taking away from all this? Only time -- meaning sales figures -- will tell.
* To learn the true story of moonshine and its makers, read Chasing the White Dog by Max Watman.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
MGP, a leading supplier of premium distilled spirits and specialty food ingredients, has appointed Randy Schrick to the newly expanded position of vice president of production and engineering, effective immediately.
In his new role, Schrick will support the company’s long-term growth plans by assuming leadership of all production activities, in addition to his previous engineering leadership responsibilities.
“Randy’s credentials and professional accomplishments are extraordinary,” said MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin. “His leadership qualities, combined with his vast experience and proficiencies in every aspect of our processes, make him ideal for mentoring others in the art and science of producing the highest quality alcohol products and ingredients for our customers.”
Schrick most recently served as Vice President of Engineering since June 2009 and held the position of MGP’s interim co-CEO from December 2013 to July 2014. He also served as president of the company’s Pekin, Ill., joint venture operation, Illinois Corn Processing, LLC, from November 2009 to December 2011. (Pekin makes grain neutral spirit for vodka and other uses.)
Starting as a distillery shift manager in 1973, Schrick worked his way up through the ranks at the company, building on his unique skills and talents, and strengthening his business acumen. He subsequently served as vice president of operations, plant manager, and corporate director of distillery products manufacturing. He has been a master distiller for more than 20 years.
Schrick holds a bachelor of science degree in physics from Washburn University, Topeka, and a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Kansas State University, Manhattan.
MGP has become very important to whiskey enthusiasts in recent years because the former Seagrams plant MGP operates in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, makes bourbon and rye for assorted producers large and small, some of whom have been in the news lately for misrepresenting the source of their whiskey. MGP can only sell alcoholic beverages to customers who hold the required government licenses but, other than that, MGP has no say in how its customers use those products.
Although MGP is not the only distillery that sells whiskey to non-distiller producers (NDPs), it is the only one that does so exclusively. It has no brands of its own. Also, and despite the claims of some of its customers, it does not prohibit its customers from revealing MGP as the source. On the contrary, they wish more would, not that MGP needs the advertising. So hot is demand for its products that the distillery today produces more whiskey than it did even in its Seagrams heyday.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
What I didn't anticipate at the time was that people would take the work as some kind of definitive analysis of the subject and not simply as a report about one very specific experiment.
The original newsletter article upon which the book was based had a longer title. "'Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey,' Says Buffalo Trace." Perhaps I should have left it alone.
As for the ebook itself, it was an experiment to see if it might be worth my time to convert Bourbon, Straight and make it available on Kindle, and perhaps create other original ebook content. It was successful enough and I've been very glad I put my toe in the water with it.
So far it's my only book that's available exclusively as an ebook. The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste started out as an ebook but generated enough interest to justify a small print run.
Wait, didn't the headline say something about new content? Yes it did. I have added a new chapter to the end of Small Barrels that gives the work better balance, although I'm sure there will still be complaints. The new content is an article I wrote for Whisky Advocate in 2013, in which people other than the Buffalo Trace folks speak about the use of small barrels. In particular, I talked to small distillers who have used small barrels successfully.
If you already have the book, I believe Kindle will update it with the new content automatically. It should show up in the table of contents (as Chapter 6), the introduction, and in the text after Chapter 5. If you don't already have the book you can get it here, and it's still just 99¢.
I have not yet updated the Nook version and I don't know when I will. I'm sorry to say that Nook/Barnes & Noble gives me so little business, they're just not worth the trouble.
Monday, September 29, 2014
Indy's Whisky & Fine Spirits Expo at Montage? Me too! I'll be teaching an American whiskey master class at 6:40 PM. We'll taste and discuss a standard bourbon, wheated bourbon, high rye bourbon, and straight rye, the four primary styles of American whiskey.
It's next Friday, October 10. VIP admission ($150) opens at 5:00 PM, general admission ($80) opens at 6:45 PM. The event runs to 9:00 PM.
No 'rare and exclusive pours' in my class. Just, I hope, some knowledge.
After the class, starting at about 8:00 PM, I'm be on the main exhibition floor selling and signing copies of my new book, Bourbon, Strange, as well as my other two books, Bourbon, Straight and The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste. That will go on for about an hour.
Other than that, I'll just be hanging out and sampling the wares. Come say hello.
This is my first time attending, but I hear it's a great event. I'm looking forward to it. Hope to see you there.
Saturday, September 27, 2014
Here we are again, with our nose in the book. The Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, that is, the labeling rule book for the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Today we're looking at Section 5.40, Age and Percentages. Since people seem to prefer TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM), it's there in Chapter 8.
Before we started to write about Section 5.36(d), we contacted Tom Hogue. He is TTB's Director of Congressional and Public Affairs. We asked if our interpretation of 5.36(d) was correct and he said yes. We did the same thing with 5.40, which requires an age statement for any whiskey that is less than four years old. In recent years, TTB has allowed statements that read simply, “aged less than 4 years,” or something similar, instead of an actual age statement. We asked about that too.
Here is Mr. Hogue's reply:
"Age statements are required for all domestic or foreign whiskies, including blends, that are less than four years old. For whiskies over four years old, the age statement is optional. TTB is not approving labels with 'aged less than' statements where an age statement is required."
Here is an example of a label in violation of 5.40:
It's obvious why this sucks. Is it three years, eleven months old? Or one week old? It effectively says, "we're not old enough for no age statement, so we're giving you a fake age statement."
If they're going to violate 5.40, they need not have bothered with the fake. Many micro-distillery products simply omit the age statement altogether, even though one sip tells you the whiskey is not more than four years old. Again, since TTB assumes compliance, a label submitted without an age statement on it is, for legal purposes, an affirmative statement that the whiskey inside is at least four years old. If it's not, you've committed perjury.
Oh yes, you have.
When they get caught with labeling violations, producers always insist they weren't trying to deceive anyone but why else leave off or fudge the required age statement? The rule is simplicity itself. If any whiskey in the mix is less than four years old, the age of the youngest whiskey must be disclosed on the label. There is no ambiguity and there are no exceptions. "It only applies to straight whiskey." Wrong. "It only applies to bourbon." Wrong. "It doesn't apply to blends." Wrong. "It doesn't apply to imports." Wrong.
Have TTB examiners given producers incorrect information about 5.40? There is evidence that they have. That's why we got an official statement from TTB. No excuses now.
TTB even tells you what form to use: "___ years old" or "aged ___ years" are the only options.
So is it not obvious that a person trying to sell you nine-month-old whiskey for $60 a bottle would rather you not know it's only nine-months-old?
If you think a lot of producers have been violating 5.36(d), there are too many to count breaking 5.40. Good luck finding one that is in compliance, and yet they do exist. Here's an example:
This matters because, as consumers, we have a right to know what we're buying, and this particular bit of information -- the true age of a whiskey that is less than four years old -- is required by law. Among other benefits, it levels the playing field, allowing one-year-old whiskeys to compete against other one-year-old whiskeys. Anyone who isn't proud enough of their effort to tell the truth about it probably does not deserve your patronage. The question looms, after all; if they're lying about this, what else are they lying about?