Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The History of Maker's Mark, by Sam Cecil

Sam Cecil's 1999 book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in whiskey history. I use it constantly. The book is best when Cecil writes about places where he worked, such as Maker's Mark and T. W. Samuels.

The Makers story starts with Charles Burks, who built a grist mill and distillery on Hardin's Creek in 1805. Although Burks died in 1831, his family kept the place going and in 1878, George Burks joined the company and began to rebuild the facility, adding a bottling house and a manager's residence. When Prohibition came in 1920, the family moved to Louisville, selling the 200 acre property to a farmer, Ernest Bickett.

The distillery still had whiskey in storage, of which it was relieved by George Remus, the notorious 'King of the Bottleggers.' Bickett's tenant, Bill Shockency, thereafter used the empty warehouse as a hay barn. The Bicketts revived the distillery after repeal, then sold it, after which it had a succession of owners.

For all of the years before and during Prohibition, and for several years after repeal, the distillery had no electricity. A small steam engine ran the mechanicals. In 1943, a spring-fed lake was built above the distillery and the line from it to the distillery delivered enough static pressure to operate the cooling coils.

Bill Samuels Sr. bought the property on October 1, 1953 for $50,000. Production began in February of 1954. Eighteen barrels were produced on that first day. In that first year they filled 1,527 barrels. It jumped to 2,550 in year two.

Elmo Beam, the eldest son of Joe Beam, was the first master distiller. Samuels knew him from the old T. W. Samuels Distillery and he came out of retirement to start up what they were then calling 'Old Samuels.' Elmo Beam died on April 5, 1955.

Like many of today's new distilleries, Samuels sourced whiskey to get cash flowing, to start building relationships with distributors, and to work out the kinks in the bottling operation. Some of it came from what is now Beam's Booker Noe Distillery, then owned by Barton.

With the time to bottle the first whiskey distilled at 'Old Samuels' approaching, Samuels learned that he no longer owned the rights to his own name. French and Shields, a St. Louis advertising agency, was hired. In the Spring of 1957, they presented the name and packaging for Maker's Mark bourbon. After some test batches, regular bottling began in August, 1958.

After a slow start the company began to pick up steam. In 1981 it was sold to Canada's Hiram Walker, which was subsequently acquired by England's Allied Lyons.

Cecil concludes the article with a personal note, about his acquisition of an original bottle of Burk's Springs.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do the Stitzels Get Too Much Credit for Modern Wheated Bourbon?

The term 'wheated bourbon' describes a bourbon that uses wheat instead of the more popular rye as its flavor grain. As a bourbon it is still mostly corn. The flavor grain, rye or wheat, is typically 10 to 15 percent of the mash bill.

Although the term is contemporary, the use of wheat in bourbon goes way back. There isn't much disagreement about that. In the post-Prohibition era, however, only one distillery made a commotion about its use of wheat, the Van Winkle family's Stitzel-Weller. They were joined in the 1950s by a new distillery called Maker's Mark.

Today, Stitzel-Weller is gone but the wheated bourbons it originated are still being made by Sazerac at Buffalo Trace (Weller and Van Winkle) and Heaven Hill (Old Fitzgerald, from which Larceny is a spin-off). Maker's Mark, of course, is still going strong. In the last few years other distilleries, large and small, have begun to make wheated bourbon.

Last November, Mike Veach posted an article headlined: "The Stitzel Factor in Bourbon." In it, he claimed that, "They (the Stitzel brothers) also experimented with the recipe for Bourbon, using wheat as the flavoring grain. They experimented until they found what they thought was the best ratio of grains, yeast, distillation proof and barrel entry proof. They never used this whiskey in one of their major brands, but they would pass along what they learned to Arthur Philip Stitzel when he opened the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in 1903."

Before Prohibition, 'Pappy' Van Winkle's W. L. Weller Company bought much of the bourbon it distributed from A. Ph. Stitzel. During Prohibition (anticipating its end), Van Winkle bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and formed Stitzel-Weller. After Prohibition, Stitzel-Weller closed the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and built a new one south of Louisville, which opened in 1935. According to Veach, 'Pappy' Van Winkle decided to use the Stitzel's wheated bourbon recipe because it seemed to produce a palatable whiskey after minimal aging, an advantage in the immediate post-Prohibiton era.

Veach's source is a letter written by 'Pappy' Van Winkle to a customer in the mid 30s. In his role as an archivist, Veach has read many documents such as this one that have never been published, so we have to take his word for what they say.

Now fast-forward 20 years. It has often been said that Bill Samuels Sr. created Maker's Mark bourbon using a recipe and yeast given to him by his good friend, 'Pappy' Van Winkle. I first heard that story from a Louisville advertising executive named Claude Brock, who worked at Stitzel-Weller during the Van Winkle era.

Veach concludes that, "the DNA for Maker’s Mark is the same as that made by the Stitzel Bros. back in the 19th century. More importantly, they (sic) yeast was the same as that used by the Stitzel Bros."

Years ago, I asked Bill Samuels Jr. about the Stitzel-Weller/Maker's Mark connection. Here is his reply, as published in Bourbon, Straight (2004). 

"'Dad was a collaborator by nature,' says Samuels Jr. When he was getting started in Loretto, Samuels Sr. reached out to his many close friends in the industry, including Pappy Van Winkle and Van Winkle’s son-in-law, King McClure, both of Stitzel-Weller, Dan Street of Brown-Forman, Ed Shapira of Heaven Hill, Jere Beam of Jim Beam, and others. All of them at one time or another provided yeast samples. Van Winkle provided samples of new made whiskey so Samuels Sr. and his crew could know how wheated bourbon was supposed to taste right from the still. One useful piece of information Pappy provided was that wheat mashes cannot be cooked under pressure, as rye mashes often are. Samuels Jr. says his dad always intended to make a wheat recipe bourbon because he preferred that flavor, but he had his own ideas about how to do it. Mostly his collaborators kept him out of trouble. 'They kept him from going down blind alleys,' says Samuels Jr."

Here are some other facts that tend to dilute the Stitzel influence. The first master distiller at Stitzel-Weller was Will McGill. He was the brother-in-law of Joe Beam. Both men were trained by M. C. Beam, Joe's much older brother. In their youth, prior to Prohibition, the two men worked together at various Kentucky distilleries. In 1929, when the government declared a 'distilling holiday' and allowed medicinal whiskey license holders to distill (as pre-Prohibition stocks were nearly exhausted), 'Pappy' Van Winkle called Joe Beam and his crew to fire up the stills at A. Ph. Stitzel. At Stitzel-Weller, McGill employed several of his Beam nephews. The eldest, Elmo, became the first master distiller at Maker's Mark.

If 'Pappy' Van Winkle and Bill Samuels Sr. were so enamored of the way the Stitzel Brothers made wheated bourbon, why did they hire so many Beams and Beam proteges to make it? The Beams knew how to make wheated bourbon just as well as the Stitzels did and didn't need any help from the Stitzels to do it.

When Elmo died he was replaced by Sam Cecil, who had worked with Samuels Sr. at the T. W. Samuels Distillery and with Joe and Harry Beam at Heaven Hill. He had no connection to the Stitzels and never credited them with pioneering the production of wheated bourbon.

The Stitzels appear to have withdrawn from the bourbon industry entirely at the onset of Prohibition. No member of the Stitzel family, nor anyone who ever worked for them, seems to have returned to the industry after Prohibition. They may have left behind a paper recipe and a jug of yeast, but not one single person with the expertise to make whiskey out of it.

Although marketers like to make whiskey recipes seem ancient and unchanging, the reality is that every master distiller makes tweaks. Surely Will McGill made some changes when he started to produce wheated bourbon at the brand new Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1935, as Elmo Beam surely did 20 years later at the new distillery that became Maker's Mark. In the 80+ years since Stitzel-Weller began there has not been one member of the Stitzel family in the mix but a whole mess of Beams and people trained by Beams.

Does this mean anything definitively? No, we still don't know enough to say who is most responsible for the wheated bourbon of today, but if you want to contemplate its genealogy, consider everything.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

You Have to Burn Some Wood to Make Tennessee Whiskey

You have to burn some wood; maple, specifically, to make genuine Tennessee whiskey.

That's what distillers John Lunn and Allisa Henley did recently in Lunn's backyard. Pretty soon, they will use that charcoal to make pot still Tennessee whiskey at their distillery in Newport, Tennessee, owned by Sazerac. (Video provided by Sazerac.)

Traditionally, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through a thick bed of maple charcoal before aging, the famous 'Lincoln County Process.' Jack Daniel's, which is 99.9 percent (conservatively) of the Tennessee whiskey category, has always done it. George Dickel, where Lunn and Henley were previously employed, does it too. In 2013, that tradition became part of Tennessee law.

Late last year, Sazerac bought the brand new distillery in Newport, Tennessee (close to Gatlinburg and other Smoky Mountains attractions) that was built to make Popcorn Sutton Moonshine. The distillery is big, 50,000 square feet. Its solid copper Vendome pot stills are true alembics (no rectification section). The two beer stills are 2,500 gallons each. The spirit still is 1,500 gallons.

“We know it’s going to take many years for this whiskey to age up, so we were anxious to get started on production as soon as possible,” said Henley in a company press release. No start date has been announced.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hey, Look. They Repainted the Water Tower Again

Brown-Forman has repainted its water tower.

Ordinarily, not news. Even when the water tower is shaped like a whiskey bottle and the new paint job reflects new packaging for the company's flagship brand. Even when they throw an event for employees, press and other guests to unveil it. Still not really news.

But it is an excuse to write something about Brown-Forman, which is, after all. the point.

The Brown-Forman water tower is a Louisville landmark, an architectural novelty -- "the only one of its kind" -- but also a symbol of Louisville's history as not just a whiskey manufacturer, but also a whiskey merchant, shipper, and financier. Whiskey has been big business in Louisville almost since the city was founded in 1778. It has had its ups and downs, but is now big again.

Brown-Forman is the last of its breed, the only major international drinks company based in Louisville, still run by its founding family.

Campbell Brown is a 5th generation member of that family. He is president of Old Forester, a Brown-Forman subsidiary dedicated to the company's founding bourbon brand, which was created by his great-great-grandfather. Old Forester is enjoying a revival along with the rest of the bourbon industry. The company is building a new Old Forester distillery and visitor's center downtown. The water tower sits atop the company's corporate offices, bottling plant, and distribution center south and west of downtown.

The water tower hasn't always been painted like an Old Forester bottle. Early Times had a turn. It has been repainted at least 62 times. But it was Old Forester in 1936 when the tower went up, a confident statement in those tough, early years after Prohibition. The bottle sits 218 feet above ground and is 62 feet, 5 inches tall. Just how committed is Brown-Forman to preserving this bit of its heritage? The water tower is no longer used. It is empty.

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey was introduced in 1870. It was the first bourbon sold exclusively in bottles. It is the only American whiskey sold pre- and post-Prohibition still made by the company that started it. It is also a family of excellent whiskeys. That may not be news but it's good to know.

NOTE: (5/16/17) The fifth paragraph above originally read "Brown-Forman is the last of its breed, the only major international drinks company based in Kentucky, still run by its founding family." I had meant to say "Louisville." I changed it after it was pointed out to me that Heaven Hill is also a "major international drinks company based in Kentucky."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Who Actually Wrote that Story You're Reading?

One thing that is rarely done here on The Chuck Cowdery Blog or in The Bourbon Country Reader is the verbatim reprinting of producer press releases. It is never done in The Reader and when it is done here on The Blog, it is always prefaced with a notification that what follows is an unedited company release, usually with some comment about why it seemed worth reading 'as is.'

Many other information outlets, in both traditional and electronic media, have a different policy. Many reprint releases verbatim as if they are the outlet's own in-house generated content. Some even put bylines of staff writers over the pieces, even when they have not changed a single word.

Public relations professionals are taught to write press releases in such a way that media outlets won't hesitate to use them, which means avoiding language and claims more suited to advertising. This is a mark of professionalism and the best PR folks adhere to it. But some, for a variety of reasons, do not.

By the same token, professional journalists are taught to use company press releases as a source of information, but only after subjecting them to skeptical appraisal. Usually, the first step is to prune the marketing fluff.

This is where you come in. You, after all, are the target of both the information sources and the companies feeding them stories. Why does it matter? Because most of us trust the news sources we use to do fact-checking, at least. When they uncritically pass on corporate propaganda, you get fed a lot of bullshit.

Some examples from our little world of whiskey and related libations.

From Group Gordon, a prominent PR firm, today: "WhistlePig LLC, the premier rye whiskey company, today announced that it received a $25 million asset-based line (ABL) of credit from JPMorgan Chase, replacing its current ABL and more than doubling its access to liquidity."

This is being picked up by business and general interest outlets, in Vermont and elsewhere, sometimes identified as a 'news release,' sometimes not. It seems like a straightforward business story, so why not? Because the claim that WhistlePig is "the premier rye whiskey company" is preposterous and indefensible. Whatever else you may think about the company and its products, no one except its owners and their shills would ever call WhistlePig "the premier rye whiskey company."

Also this week, from MGPI, a distiller: (HEADLINE) "Noted Master Distiller Justin King Joins MGP's Beverage Alcohol Sales Team." (BODY) "Over the past seven years, King has achieved widespread recognition as a highly skilled and knowledgeable master distiller for Ole Smokey Moonshine, Gatlinburg, Tenn."

King may be a great guy, a capable distiller, and a good salesman, the job for which he was hired by MGPI. This is not meant to criticize King, but has he really "achieved widespread recognition" in the industry? Have you ever heard of him?

In the present environment, it is hard even to criticize press release writers for all their hyperbole. If they know a lot of outlets will give it their imprimatur (for what that's worth) and put it out there, why not?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

April's Bourbon Country Reader is here (in May)

Well, it was still April when it went to the printer.

Every year or so we do a 'State of Bourbon' story. This time it's a bit of recent history, the last 40 years or so.

As a way of saying where we are today, we assess America's whiskey production capacity, which has increased considerably in recent years. About half of that growth has come from existing distillery expansions, the rest from new distilleries.

Current subscribers should receive their copies in the next few days. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

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