Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sazerac Buys the Distillery Formerly Known as Popcorn Sutton


Not this guy again.
This morning, Sazerac announced its acquisition of "a distillery located in Newport, Tenn." Key staff intend to remain including Master Distiller John Lunn and Master Blender Allisa Henley. (Both Lunn and Henley previously worked at Diageo's George Dickel Distillery.) The purchase does not include any brands.

The Sazerac press release further states that, "the purchase will allow Sazerac to start producing Tennessee whiskey, using the Lincoln County process" and "Sazerac will begin investment into the Distillery to modify the pot stills for the Lincoln County process."

It is unclear what this means since the so-called "Lincoln Country Process" refers to charcoal filtration of the new make spirit after distillation and before barreling. It has nothing to do with the distillation process itself. (Sazerac clarified that it is still determining the distillery's precise capabilities and some additional investment probably will be necessary.)

What is clear from the press release is that Sazerac's primary purpose is to use the facility to make and sell a true Tennessee Whiskey. They plan to begin distilling this new product in a few months. That means, of course, that the unnamed product won't be available for sale until about 2022.

That is where the information provided by Sazerac ends and the questions begin.

Although unnamed in the press release, the "distillery located in Newport, Tenn" can only be Popcorn Sutton Distilling. It has been called Avery's Trail Distilling lately, a name that began to appear in September.

Here is the backstory as we reported it in March. Popcorn Sutton was a colorful and well-known moonshiner, a convicted felon. His widow and one of his buddies started a legit alcohol business in Sutton's name shortly after his death in 2009. It was a very slapdash and small scale operation. About three years ago it was acquired by Mark and Megan Kvamme. He is a successful venture capitalist, close to Ohio Governor John Kasich. She became Popcorn Sutton Distilling's CEO.

The Kvammes built a new distillery in Newport. It is 50,000 square feet. The solid copper pot stills are true alembics (no rectification section), built by Vendome. The two beer stills are 2,500 gallons each. The spirit still is 1,500 gallons. That's big, about the same size as the stills at Woodford Reserve. They were using only about 20 percent of their capacity, according to Lunn.

The Newport location, close to Gatlinburg and other Smoky Mountains attractions, was conceived as a tourist destination.

It is possible Sazerac and the Newport team will continue to make the Popcorn Sutton and Avery's Trail products under contract, assuming those products continue, but it appears Sazerac would like to distance itself from any public association with Sutton.

Sazerac has sent out several press releases today about acquisitions. They have purchased a Cognac distillery and brand, and will be the U.S. distributor for several Danish spirits brands. This on top of last week's high profile New Orleans real estate buy. Sazerac has been successful on many fronts lately, but one assumes this is how they are reinvesting the immense Fireball profits. Sazerac is quickly becoming a very big deal in the international distilled spirits business. They are not afraid to take chances.

It remains to be seen if Tennessee Whiskey is really even a category apart from Jack Daniel's, which represents 99 percent of all Tennessee Whiskey sold, the remaining one percent being George Dickel. Sazerac is betting the words 'Tennessee Whiskey' have some magic on their own. “We see a lot of potential in the distilling capabilities of this operation,” said Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer, Sazerac. “We are excited to have the talents of John Lunn and Allisa Henley on board and we look forward to utilizing their expertise to start laying down true Tennessee whiskey.”

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sazerac Buys New Orleans Buildings to Create New 'Sazerac House' Attraction



The Sazerac Company, based in New Orleans since 1850, has purchased two buildings on the corner of Canal and Magazine Street, adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel, a few hundred yards from the original 1850 Sazerac Coffee House site.

The company plans to rehabilitate the nearly 200 year-old buildings into The Sazerac House visitor attraction and beverage alcohol museum. Guests will learn about the history of the iconic Sazerac Cocktail and many other original New Orleans brands while exploring the unique role New Orleans has played in the bourbon and rum industries, and in American cocktail culture. The buildings will include a gift shop and Sazerac company offices, with a projection of 60 employees eventually working there.

The two buildings, vacant for more than 30 years, date back to the mid-1800s and contain rich architectural details including wood floors, high ceilings, oversized windows, and ornate support columns throughout. As many of the original design elements as possible will be kept as the buildings undergo renovation. “We simply could not be happier than to have the opportunity to restore such beautiful buildings to their former glory, in a perfect location, so close to the original site of the Sazerac Coffee House that will act as our future New Orleans homeplace,” commented Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Sazerac Company. “We’re excited to have this opportunity to preserve our roots, while at the same time explore opportunities to introduce our visitors to new product releases that have a special tie to New Orleans.”

Sazerac has a history of buying hidden gems and restoring them to their natural beauty. In 1992 the company bought Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, complete with ramshackle buildings, barbed wire fences surrounding the property, and an employee base which had dwindled down to 50 from its thriving post World War II days of 1,000 employees. Today, Buffalo Trace Distillery is one of only 2,600 national historic landmarks in the United States, employs nearly 500 workers, and welcomes 165,000 visitors a year who enjoy its lush restored gardens and picturesque campus.

New Orleans historic preservation architects Trapolin-Peer and Ryan Gootee General Contractors have been selected to renovate the structures and plans are being finalized. Sazerac expects the building to be complete by late 2018. Upon completion, Sazerac projects 100,000 visitors in its first year of operation. The purchase price is not being disclosed.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Get Ready to Pay More for Booker's -- a LOT More



It started as a rumor. Beam was going to double the price of Booker's Bourbon as of the first of the year and start allocating it.

It seemed too crazy to be true. Sure, producers hike prices all the time, especially these days, but doubling it? With the increase the retail price will be about $100 per 750 ml bottle. Today, although the suggested retail is about $50, it is commonly found on deal in the low 40s. Such a huge price hike for any brand is a huge risk. It felt like brand suicide. It couldn't possibly be true.

But it is.

Here are the facts, from an official Beam Suntory spokesperson. Suggested retail will be $99.99 and the wholesale price is rising accordingly. At the same time, they will cut back from six or seven batches per year to four, with the batch size staying the same (about 350 barrels). Essentially, that means the number of bottles available will shrink by about one-third. They expect this will cause demand to exceed supply immediately, so they will began allocating the available bottles so every part of the country gets its fair share.

They have their own way of explaining why this is happening but it boils down to this. They are doing it because they can. The brand is strong. Other super-premium whiskeys are selling in that price range, so why shouldn't they enjoy some of the available profit? This keeps Booker's as the top of their line (except perhaps for their very limited 'craft' offerings), rather than creating something new in that high-price segment.

Seen in that context it doesn't seem so crazy after all. Perhaps the fact that Booker's Rye sold out quickly at $300 a bottle gave them the idea.

If you like Booker's and don't want to pay the higher price, or have trouble finding it, Jim Beam Black at about $22 is a good substitute. The biggest difference is the proof, 43% ABV for Jim Black versus more than 60% for Booker's. For about $40 a bottle you can get Knob Creek Single Barrel, which is nearly the same ABV as Booker's. On paper they are virtually identical, but no two products are ever exactly the same due to flavor profiles. Still, $40 versus $100 is worth considering.

This may have been part of the equation. Knob has been creeping up into Booker's price segment. In fact, all four of Beam Suntory's 'small batch' bourbons are bunched up at about the same price. It makes sense to put some distance between them. (The other two are Baker's and Basil Hayden's.)

No doubt there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth about this, with accusations of greed and probably some xenophobia aimed at the parent company. If you swing that way, knock yourself out.

Realistically, no one in the whiskey business is organized as a not-for-profit. Beam has a huge American whiskey portfolio, with something for everyone. The whole industry right now has more demand than supply and the aging cycle means there is a several year lag between production increases at the distillery and supply increases on the street. The smart business play is to increase profits and tamp down demand a little bit with price increases, hopefully without hurting overall demand growth and customer loyalty.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My Dad's Pearl Harbor Story


Seventy-five 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. He wrote it in 1991, for the 50th anniversary, for our local newspaper the Mansfield News Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). It was later published in the AARP magazine. Dad died in September, 2010, age 90.

This is just one of his stories from that fateful day. I heard them all about 100 times but it never got old. He had an amazing memory. How he got to Hawaii is quite a story too, as is what happened next, but I'll leave it at this for now.
_______________

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.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Indy's Big Red Liquors May Be on to Something


The line to get in.
Big Red is a chain wine, beer, and spirits retailer in Indiana. On Saturday they held their third annual Pappy Van Winkle Rare Bourbon Lottery and Sale in the Champions Pavilion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on the north side of Indianapolis. Everybody calls the event 'bourbonfest,' but there is also scotch and even some wine and beer. Even Ale-8-One, an iconic Kentucky ginger ale, was there giving out samples.

In some ways it was just like the whiskey festivals held in other major cities. There were tables, with people giving sample pours of various whiskeys and other products (e.g. Louisville's Copper & Kings Brandy). Wild Turkey's Jimmy Russell was there.

In other ways it was completely different. One was the price. General admission tickets were just $15. For that you got all the samples you cared to taste, and one ticket for the Van Winkle lottery, which also included the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. All proceeds from ticket sales were donated to the Tony Stewart Foundation.

Inside the pavilion.
It was pretty spartan. The facility usually hosts prize livestock. There were not many amenities, a few snacks and plenty of bottled water. The lines for the small bathrooms were as long as the tasting lines. It was also in the afternoon, from 1:00 to 4:00 PM. Most people left when the lottery wrapped up, about 3:30 PM.

They won't say if it's their entire Van Winkle and BTAC allocation, but that is how it looked. It came to about 43 bottles. Lottery winners win the right to buy their bottle at the regular retail price. The bottle you get is also the luck of the draw. The last ticket drawn was for the lone Pappy 23.

The result? A huge, enthusiastic crowd of about 2,400 people, the biggest crowd I've ever seen at this type of event. All of the tables were doing a big business, but the longest lines were at the tables for Buffalo Trace and Four Roses. All of the majors were there but also many craft distilleries.

They planned well for it. Every whiskey vendor had two tables, at opposite ends of the hall. The 'sale' part of the event is the order form every attendee receives upon entering, along with a tasting glass. The form lists each table and the products available there for tasting, with the item's regular and sale price, and a space for how many bottles you want to buy. No money changes hands at the event. You indicate on the order form the Big Red store where you will receive your order. You pay when you pick it up.

People took the buying opportunity seriously. One guest brought his own set of Glencairn glasses so he could comparison-taste.

Speaking of comparisons, Big Red Bourbonfest's $15 ticket compares to $139 for WhiskyLive and $245 for WhiskyFest.

Big Red may be on to something.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Buffalo Trace Distillery Completes First Warehouse X Experiment and Releases Findings, 3.5 Million Data Points Captured


Warehouse X at Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace Distillery has completed phase one of its bourbon barrel aging experiment inside Warehouse X, the experimental warehouse built in 2013 that allows for specific atmospheric variables to be tested in four individual chambers, plus one open air breezeway.

The first experiment focused on natural light, keeping barrels in various stages of light for two years.

Chamber One of Warehouse X held barrels at 50% natural light, while matching the temperature of the barrels inside the chamber to the temperature of the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

Barrels in Chamber Two experienced 100% darkness, while keeping the barrel temperature at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chamber Three also had 100% darkness, but those barrel temperatures were kept the same temperature as the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

Chamber Four barrels saw 100% natural light as the temperature was kept the same as the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

In the two years this experiment was conducted, the barrels in the open air breezeway (which was not climate controlled) saw a fluctuation of temperatures ranging from -10 F to 105 F, likely some of the greatest temperature variance any bourbon barrels have ever experienced. The pressure inside these barrels varied from -2.5 psi to 2.5 psi.

Workers removing barrels following
the experiment's conclusion.
The team at Buffalo Trace collected and analyzed an astonishing 3.5 million data points. Among those learnings, an interesting correlation between light and psi was realized, and a long held distiller’s theory of more heat equaling higher proof was scientifically proven (at least for now).

However, another popular theory was disproved in part – as it turns out, the amount of light does not really affect the color or the proof of the bourbon inside the barrels. So much for the theory of honey barrels! But Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley has this to add about honey barrels, “Even though we proved light doesn’t affect the color or the proof of the whiskey, that doesn’t mean that honey barrels (those next to windows in standard warehouses that are typically distiller’s favorites) don’t taste a little bit better. Perhaps because of other factors than natural light.  We did prove factors like temperature, pressure, humidity and air flow all play a role in the end result.”  

Now that the light experiment is complete, Buffalo Trace is moving on to the next planned experiment, which focuses on temperature. In this experiment, the various chambers will experience different temperature variations, with Chamber One remaining the same temperature as the outdoor breezeway, plus 10 F.  Chamber Two will be 80 F, Chamber Three will be at 55 F and Chamber Four will be kept at the breezeway temperature minus 10 F.  The temperature experiment is expected to last at least two years.

For information about Warehouse X including a blog updated since the inception, visit http://www.experimentalwarehouse.com/  

Monday, November 14, 2016

New Barrel Research Center in Lebanon, Kentucky, Will Focus on Innovation



Independent Stave Company (ISC) has begun construction of a research center dedicated to oak innovation and experimentation for the spirits industry. It is being built in Lebanon, Kentucky, as an addition to the company’s Kentucky Cooperage campus. Once complete, the new research center will serve as a cutting edge resource on oak maturation for ISC’s distilling customers in Kentucky and around the world.

“We are passionate about spirits, including working closely with distillers to foster innovation and develop new products,” said Andrew Wiehebrink, ISC director of spirit research and innovation.

The research center will include a laboratory, a library of experiments, a tasting room, and offices for ISC’s Kentucky-based research and customer service team.

“We don’t want to just talk about what is possible,” said Jeff LaHue, ISC’s director of strategic partnerships. “Instead, we can demonstrate through blind tastings, sensory science and chemical analysis.”

Since the 1990s, ISC has conducted hundreds of barrel experiments and the company, working with its distillery partners, continues to lay down barrels every year. The company’s innovation team has increased the number of experiments in play for the past three years and many of these projects will come of age for evaluation as the research center becomes fully operational. 

"Independent Stave Company is committed to continuously improving the quality, consistency and variety of the barrels we offer,” said Brad Boswell, ISC president. “This research center is further evidence of how we translate that vision into action to the benefit of our customers."

As part of its mission, the research center will also explore how to enhance structural integrity and recovery yields.

“We are looking at all the elements to build a barrel–oak species, wood age, barrel shape and size, how we engineer the barrels, all the materials used–to optimize the barrels we craft,” said Wiehebrink, who works directly with ISC’s key spirits customers on innovation projects. “We encourage distillers to bring us their ideas and challenges. We know how to transform ideas into reality, with sensory and science-backed results.” 

ISC supplies whiskey barrels to most of the whiskey distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee. The major exceptions are Jack Daniel's and the other distilleries owned by Brown-Forman, which owns its own cooperages.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Is There a Bubble Brewing in Bourbon?



"A bubble might be brewing in bourbon," headlined the Business Insider story this morning, reporting on an analysis by RBC Capital Markets. (The last time Business Insider predicted an impending 'bourbon bubble' was in February of 2014.)

The picture above shows good bourbon bubbles, not the kind Business Insider means. Economists define a 'bubble' as "a market phenomenon characterized by surges in asset prices to levels significantly above the fundamental value of that asset. Bubbles are often hard to detect in real time because there is disagreement over the fundamental value of the asset."

The concern in this case is that the bourbon industry may be growing too rapidly. The story cites as evidence recently released data from an American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) study that shows a 42 percent annual growth rate since 2010 in the number of U.S. distilleries.

There are several problems with the conclusions RBC uses this data to support. First, not all of those new distilleries make bourbon or even whiskey. Most do not. Second, the conclusions are based on the number of distilleries and not on their distilling capacity. 

This is important because most of the new distilleries started in the last ten years are tiny, with an annual production capacity of 15,000 proof gallons or less. A handful of new distilleries have annual capacities between 500,000 and 1,000,000 proof gallons, but even added together they don't equal the capacity of America's largest whiskey distillery, Jack Daniel's in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Jack Daniel's owner Brown-Forman won't disclose the distillery's production capacity, but they confirm it is north of 10 million proof gallons a year.

As we reported in June, in 2014 there were 13 U.S. whiskey distilleries that produced more than 500,000 proof gallons each per year. Today there are 15. By this time next year, or early in 2018, there could be 20. That is in addition to capacity growth by almost all of the existing distilleries. It represents a big increase but is it too much capacity? Most of that new capacity won't impact the marketplace before 2020. By then, we should know if China and India are going to develop the way everyone has predicted. If they do, no one will have made enough. If they don't, everyone will have made too much.

The analysts also warned that "it is important to keep in mind that to be classified as a straight bourbon, the product must be aged for a minimum of four years,"

Business Insider checked with Ralph Erenzo, founder of Tuthilltown Spirits, who corrected RBC's mistake. The 'straight' designation requires only two years of aging, not four.

All that is preliminary to RBC's money shot: "This has led new entrants looking to take advantage of the category's growth to take two approaches: 1) enter the market with an un-aged product; or 2) wait a few years and launch bourbon (once it hits the 4-year mark).

"The former approach is immediately price dilutive on the broader category, and the latter approach could lead to an influx of supply over the next few years, forcing overall category prices lower (the exact opposite of the scarcity value driving overall bourbon prices today)."

Price dilutive? Not when un-aged or lightly-aged craft whiskeys routinely sell for $50 and more per bottle. And, again, the volume of un-aged and lightly-aged products is minimal. As for the fear that a 'glut' of cheap bourbon is looming, that all depends on demand. If demand growth continues to exceed supply growth, especially the demand for older whiskey, bourbon will remain scarce and prices will continue to rise. As mentioned above, export growth is key, but there is no evidence that either it or the more modest domestic growth is slowing.

Speaking of volume, The ACSA study reports that the U.S. craft spirits market reached 4.9 million cases in 2015. Jack Daniel's alone sold about 12 million cases over the same period.

RBC is a premier global investment bank. It says so right on their web site. But they are way off the mark this time.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What Started It All. "Made and Bottled in Kentucky"



In his new book Bourbon, the Rise and Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, Fred Minnick generously credits some of my early bourbon work for ushering in the new era. For me, it all began with my independent production of the documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky." The 25th anniversary of its premiere on Kentucky Educational Television arrives in June. What a long, strange trip it's been.

The one-hour documentary is still available on DVD, either directly from me or from Amazon.

"Made and Bottled in Kentucky" began in 1991 as a book idea. I had yet to write my first book at that point and I didn't know where to start. Most of my experience was in writing and producing videos. When the Kentucky Educational Television Network announced that it had money to fund independent productions on Kentucky subjects, in advance of the bicentennial of Kentucky statehood in 1992, I applied and received one of the first grants awarded. Additional support came from the Kentucky Distillers Association, from a grant it had received from the U. S. Department of Commerce for export promotion.

I began the project with visits to most of the working distilleries in Kentucky, strictly as a research phase. Principal photography took place in the second half of 1991 and first half of 1992. The deadline was June 20 and we were shooting until practically the last minute because we wanted to capture the exteriors in mid to late spring. The first exteriors at Maker's Mark in mid-April had to be carefully framed. The dogwoods were in bloom and the grass was green but the rest of the trees still looked pretty bare.

Our last shot was at the grave of Dr. James C. Crow in Versailles Cemetery. Earlier in the day we had picked up some Elijah Craig 12-year-old, which we passed around and drank straight from the bottle.

Obviously, the documentary looks dated after 25 years, but now that is part of its charm. A lot has happened since. With "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," you can see what bourbon-making looked and felt like in 1991-92, when we had no idea what was to come.

Many of the interview subjects are no longer with us: Booker Noe, Owsley Brown, Ova Haney, Elmer T. Lee, Walter Doerting, and Sam Cecil. Also featured (and still living): Bill Samuels Jr., Max Shapira, Jerry Dalton, Jimmy Russell, Flaget Nally, Dixie Hibbs, Ed Foote and others. All of the interview segments are longer than what you usually see in documentaries today. I was strongly influenced in my style by Donna Lawrence, a Louisville-based producer who didn't like narrators and wanted interview subjects to tell the story in their own words. For that reason, I didn't write the script until after everything was shot. I built the story from the interviews and augmented it with narration.

Making "Made and Bottled in Kentucky" was a great experience and it inspired me to keep studying Kentucky's bourbon culture. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Old Grand-Dad Discontinues 1.75 L Size



Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is no longer available in the 1.75 L size. Discontinuing the 1.75 L is another strategy for stretching limited supplies of whiskey. Like Maker's Mark, a brand that briefly discontinued its 1.75 L a few years ago, Old Grand-Dad is a Beam Suntory product.

The goal is to keep a brand that is under supply pressure on the shelf, because available whiskey will go further in the smaller sizes. It is also possible that Old Grand-Dad, being a relatively small brand, was not selling enough in the jumbo size to justify its continued distribution. Most likely the decision was due to multiple factors.

Some people worry that the discontinuation of a size means the brand itself is in jeopardy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The brand is doing very well, despite a minimal marketing spend. That doesn't mean there won't be more changes. The brand's high proof expression, Old Grand-Dad 114, probably will be discontinued next year, Beam sources say.

Like Maker's Mark, Old Grand-Dad uses a different recipe from Jim Beam and other company brands such as Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's, and Old Crow. Old Grand-Dad contains twice as much rye as Jim Beam (about 30%). Basil Hayden is the only other brand that uses Old Grand-Dad liquid and it too is growing.

A venerable old brand that originated in the 19th century, Old Grand-Dad is a good whiskey that is often not on the radar of many young bourbon drinkers. Especially with the growing popularity of straight rye, high rye bourbons such as Old Grand-Dad offer a unique taste profile. Bulleit and Four Roses are other examples of high rye bourbon.

NOTE: Information about Old Grand-Dad 114 was added on Monday, 10/24.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Go West!


Jamieson and his fermenters.
There is a new distillery in Kentucky's far-western Fulton County. You've never heard of it, but you can read all about it in the new edition of The Bourbon Country Reader, the oldest publication in the world devoted exclusively to American whiskey.

Also in western Kentucky, the long distilling tradition of Owensboro has been revived. In this issue, the Reader explores that rich history.

In recent years, whiskey production has moved beyond Kentucky into virtually every state. We explore five craft distilleries in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin in this Reader.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring tradition, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes.

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 want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50.

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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Let's Demystify Label Age Statements



Everybody knows what age statements are, but many don't understand what age statements really mean. So, some facts about age statements.

For whiskey, in the U.S., an age statement is required if the whiskey is less than four years old. After four years age statements are voluntary. In Europe, an age statement is never required but a grain distillate must be aged at least three years to be called 'whiskey.' The U.S. has no minimum age requirement. It has the age statement requirement instead.

Although age statements are voluntary, they must be true. For the statement to be true, it must give the age of the youngest whiskey in the mix. Only if a product is single barrel or bottled-in-bond will it all be the same age.

In practice, an age-stated product will mostly contain whiskey at or just over the stated age, with a little bit of older whiskey, but you never know unless the distiller tells you. That too is voluntary and typically changes over time.

As a distillery's inventory changes, along with changes in sales and product mix, the age statement once seen as a marketing advantage can handcuff the producer, preventing it from using whiskey that has the right taste because it doesn't have the minimum calendar age.

Since most age statements are voluntary, they are used only when the brand feels an age statement will help sales without hamstringing the production side. When an age statement becomes too restrictive, it is changed or, more often, dropped. This is nothing new. Wild Turkey lost its 8-year-old age statement more than 20 years ago.

Knob Creek was created 25 years ago. It was very small at first and the industry was awash with aged whiskey due to overproduction in the 70s. The Small Batch Collection of which it was part was an experiment. No one knew if there was enough demand for super-premium bourbon. They were unknown, unproven, and needed every advantage they could get. All of the Small Batch brands had age statements.

Of the four, Knob Creek was the oldest, cheapest, and most successful. Today Knob is a substantial and well-established brand. With inventories tight industry-wide due to booming sales, the Knob age statement became expendable.

The use or non-use of an age statement is always a marketing decision. When most bourbon sold was barely 4-years-old and not age-stated, a few brands decided to go with a modest statement, like Very Old Barton at 6, or Evan Williams at 7, to differentiate themselves from the NAS (non-age stated) products in the same price segment.

That was easy to do 40-50 years ago. Today it's a problem. If you have an age-stated product and more demand for it than your inventory can support, you have three choices. (1) Keep the age statement and start allocating the brand, keeping your sales and profits flat. (2) Keep the age statement and raise the price enough to raise profits despite flat sales. (3) Lose the age statement, keep the price more-or-less the same, and increase profits by producing enough (using some younger whiskey) to meet growing demand.

In the old days, brand loyalty was all. Today many bourbonistas like to drink around but brand loyalty is still very important. Producers know from experience that most loyalists have a good taste memory. They know how their regular brand tastes and you tamper with that at your peril. A price increase is the second worst thing you can do. If a price increase is modest and there are no viable alternatives, people will accept a price increase. But if the flavor changes, the people who were your best customers will abandon you in droves. Lose the age statement and, while there may be some carping, sales won't be affected.

The reassuring thing is this. Since changing the flavor is the deadliest sin, the producer will do everything it can to keep the flavor the same. That is their highest priority. Their business depends on it. So it is preposterous to suppose that the disappearance of an age statement will mean an immediate or even long term debasement of the product. The truth is exactly the opposite. The age statement was sacrificed to protect the flavor.

Businesses, more even than humans, tend to be rational animals. They act in what they perceive to be the best interest of the business. You can count on it. When that interest coincides with your interest, you have nothing to worry about.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Whiskey's Biggest Lie


Their whiskey wasn't very good.
"Don't read the comments" is good advice more often than not. For what is to follow you might want to make an exception and read the comments on the Knob Creek post from last Thursday. Then again, it is not really necessary as they are, for the most part, wholly predictable. They range from resignation to outrage. "This is so unfair to the consumers and fans," "Flavor/Taste profile is a joke to justify keeping the same price using younger juice," "What happens to all the awards and medals that the real Knob Creek won?"

When producers make changes, many drinkers balk reflexively. Why are we so unwilling to accept change? Because those very producers have told us for years that change is bad.

Back in 2005, when the company now known as Beam Suntory (the makers of Knob Creek) created its first major TV advertising campaign for its flagship Jim Beam Bourbon, the theme was “true to our original recipe for 209 years.”

Bulleit Bourbon, a product created within the lifetime of any person of legal drinking age, purports to be made from an ancient recipe passed down to Tom Bulleit from his great-great-grandfather, Augustus. Mr. Bulleit blushes when asked about this story. Like the Beams, he has no parchment to show you, just a ‘tradition’ passed from father to son, and who can argue with that?

The problem with these and every other claim about an ancient, unchanged bourbon recipe is twofold. (1) Bourbon today is much better in every way than what they were drinking in 1795 or 1830, and (2) the claims are untrue, because whiskeys, like most products, are constantly changing.

Even 100 years ago, mashbills were pretty flexible. (In a multi-grain whiskey, the 'mashbill' describes what grains are used and in what proportions.) Ingredients varied based on cost and availability. Products were often made by combining whiskeys made from different recipes at different distilleries. Today there is much more consistency, but there are still variations. Different batches of grain can vary in significant ways. Changes to the stills make a difference. When energy is costly, distilleries will run a thicker mash to reduce energy costs. Wood characteristics vary from tree to tree. Every difference, however small, makes a difference.

Because there are so many variables producers don't rely on recipes, they rely on taste. Every distillery has a library of bottles that record in liquid form how different batches have tasted over the years. Every producer has a panel of tasters whose job is to compare each new batch to the standard for that product. If the new batch doesn't measure up adjustments are made, generally by adding whiskey that possesses the missing characteristic. They are limited in this effort by labeling rules. If a product is age-stated, '9-years-old' for example, no whiskey may be used that is less than 9-years-old even if the profile calls for it.

Virtually all whiskey producers strive for consistency, as do most manufacturers regardless of the product. At the same time there is a seemingly-contradictory impulse to constant improvement. This varies with product type. Technology products have to improve or die. With other products, such as whiskey, long-term consistency seems the higher value.

Twenty to thirty years ago, when America was awash with whiskey no one wanted, many producers routinely put 8- to 10-year-old whiskey into their standard NAS products. They didn't publicize it because they knew it was temporary and no law required disclosure. There were few complaints.

Today, rapid demand growth has outstripped the industry's supply side. Because whiskey has to be aged, you inevitably over-produce or under-produce. It is almost impossible to get it just right. The challenge today is to meet as much demand as you can with the inventory you have, and to do it as profitably as possible.

Because of the demand growth, everyone today is distilling as much whiskey as they can as fast as they can. All indicators say bourbon sales will continue to grow for years to come. All indicators have been wrong before. Nothing is certain.

Marketers of all kinds know a lot about consumer behavior. With whiskey, there are two sure ways to piss off your most loyal customers, raise the price or change the taste, and between those two changing the taste is worse. Everything else, including label changes, has a lower priority.

So producers will continue to like the "nothing changes" claim, but what you should hear is "we're doing everything we can to keep everything you care about the same." That may not be snappy, but it has the virtue of being true.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Another One Bites the Dust


Say goodbye to the Knob Creek age statement. Labels without it could start to appear next week. "We have good inventories but with the growth we’re seeing, we are going to take the age statement off so we can keep the taste profile the same," says Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. At first the whiskey will not change at all, as there is enough 9-year-old Knob in the pipeline for the time being, but with the growth they're seeing it was either drop the age statement or go into heavy allocation.

This can work because Knob actually finds itself with an over-abundance of whiskey more than 9-years old that will mix well with younger Knob to keep the profile the same. Based on inventory already in the pipeline, they will be able to grow the brand and maintain the profile but only if they are not bound by the age statement. Something had to give.

Older doesn't balance younger with any kind of mathematical precision. You don't get a 9-year-old flavor by mixing half 10-year-old with half 8-year-old, but that is a shorthand way to describe the process. More and more large distilleries are doing this, as they find themselves with various quantities of whiskey across a large and widening age range.

The age statement change only affects the standard Knob Creek expression. The Single Barrel Reserve will continue to have an age statement and the rye, which never had one, will continue unchanged. Nothing else is changing.

Inventory tightness also makes future 'special' Knob releases, like the vintage-dated 2001 expression in distribution now, unlikely.

No one likes to see an age statement go away, but it is part of the times in which we live. Beam has both the inventory and the expertise to keep making whiskey with the same flavor profile in ever larger quantities indefinitely. That is the goal, anyway.

To Knob fans, Noe makes this pledge. "I will taste every batch. It won’t be Knob Creek unless I say it’s Knob Creek.”

You might want to set aside an age-stated bottle just to see how well he does.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's Just Whiskey


The Donnington Priory location of Dreweatts.
Dreweatts, a London auction house, is holding a rare 'wine, whisky, and select spirits' auction on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 10 AM (London time). The only American whiskey on offer is A. H. Hirsch 16 year old Reserve (gold foil), two bottles. Dreweatts estimates their value at £900-1,000 each ($1,170-$1,300).

It is rare that we get a glimpse of the actual market for such 'unicorns.' In the United States, it is illegal to sell alcohol without a license so virtually the entire secondary market is underground. No one knows how big it is and there is no reliable record of prices paid. Two bottles in a distant auction do not a market make, but it's something.

At this point, the selling price for A. H. Hirsch, Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, and select others has nothing to do with their quality or drinkability. It is based entirely on the economics of scarcity and the willingness of some monied folk to spend outrageous sums to obtain something book writers say they can't have. It is much like the old joke about why dogs lick their own balls.

Because they can.

Speaking as someone who is neither wealthy nor especially limber, but who has tasted most of the rarities, you should not feel too badly if you haven't. All of these extremely desirable whiskeys are good whiskeys, but are they 40-times better than a lot of everyday pops? Not really. It's just whiskey. You're mostly paying for the ego trip.

Incidentally, most of the 80 lots are single malt scotch, many in the £100-120 range ($130-155). Bidding is online but I have no idea if residents of the USA can participate.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Making Shit Up: Weller Is Not the Original Wheated Bourbon



Sazerac today unveiled new packaging for the Weller bourbon line and doubled-down on the fictional claim that Weller is “The Original Wheated Bourbon,” which it debuted with the last packaging update a few years ago.

The distortion and misrepresentation gets even worse in the accompanying press release.

“Born in 1825, William Larue Weller was one of the early distilling pioneers in Kentucky. After serving with the Louisville Brigade in the 1840s, Weller returned to Louisville to join the family tradition of whiskey distilling.”

There is no evidence that William Larue Weller ever distilled a drop of whiskey, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Nor is there any evidence that anyone in his family before him ever distilled. There is no recorded Weller family tradition of whiskey distilling.

Weller’s company did not make whiskey, it sold whiskey. Weller was a rectifier. That means he bought whiskey from distilleries; finished it through techniques such as blending, filtering and flavoring; packaged it for sale; and sold it to customers. After 1871, the Weller company had a still, which they used to re-distill poor grade whiskey into neutral spirits which they called ‘cologne spirits.’ The company even issued a statement that it did no original distilling, just this redistillation.

The press release continues with more fiction about Weller. “He developed his original bourbon recipe with wheat, rather than rye in the mash bill. Weller’s original wheated recipe bourbon became so popular he was forced to put a green thumbprint on barrels to ensure that customers were receiving the real deal.” Since Weller wasn’t distilling anything, he had no need for any recipes. The ‘green thumbprint’ is a new wrinkle and may have been a form of branding, which was just emerging at the time, but it merely would have identified Weller’s company as the product’s source. There is no reason to assume it indicated a wheated recipe.

“His namesake company eventually went on to merge with Pappy Van Winkle’s A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery to form the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, one of the most iconic and beloved distilleries in Kentucky.”

This may be the most distorted claim of the bunch. In 1893, ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle went to work for Weller as a whiskey salesman. When Weller retired in 1896, Pappy and another salesman, Alex Farnsley, bought his share and gained controlling interest in the company. When Prohibition came they obtained a medicinal whiskey license. Pappy also had an ownership interest in one of the Weller company’s primary suppliers, the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. In 1933, he merged the two companies to form Stitzel-Weller.

The source for most of this is And Always Fine Bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald, written by Pappy’s granddaughter, Sally Van Winkle Campbell, and published in 1999.

When Prohibition ended, Pappy built a new distillery and decided to make a wheated bourbon there. It was the only recipe that distillery made, which they sold as Old Fitzgerald, Old Weller, and several other brands. It is not recorded why they chose a wheated recipe, but the prevailing theory is that they believed a wheated bourbon would be palatable at a younger age, which was important in those early years when no one had very much aged whiskey.

Stitzel-Weller promoted its wheated recipe in advertising for both the Fitzgerald and Weller brands. (Yes, the 'century-old secret' claim was false then too.) Old Fitzgerald (now owned by Heaven Hill) was the company’s primary brand, but Weller was considered a premium bourbon too. The company’s other brands, all made from the same wheated recipe, were younger and cheaper.

Although recipes for wheated bourbon appear in some pre-Prohibition records, Stitzel-Weller was the first distillery to promote its wheated recipe. In earlier days, wheat was commonly substituted for rye in bourbon recipes based on availability, cost, and personal preference but rye was the dominant ‘flavor grain.’

No one ever claimed the ‘invention’ of wheated bourbon until Maker’s Mark came along. They, too, were indulging in fiction since their wheater followed Stitzel-Weller’s by at least 20 years. It may be that what Sazerac is really trying to say with this claim is that Weller was a wheater before Maker’s Mark. That is true.

As always, the problem for bourbon distilleries with these forays into fiction writing is that they diminish the real history of the people, companies, and brands. All of the major producers, and many of the small ones, are guilty of it in one way or another. Marketing will always be with us, but there is still such a thing as truth. Now you know Weller’s true story.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Owensboro's New/Old O. Z. Tyler Distillery Fills Its First Barrels



After 24 years, whiskey is being made in Owensboro again. Although the official Grand Opening of the O. Z. Tyler Distillery is next Thursday, September 1, the first barrels are being filled today.

O. Z. Tyler is a revival of the old Medley Distillery, home of Ezra Brooks and other bourbons, which United Distillers (now Diageo) acquired in 1991 and closed in 1992.

O. Z. Tyler is owned by Terressentia, which is based in North Charleston, South Carolina. The company is best known for its patented TerrePURE process, which uses ultrasonic energy, heat, oxygen, and other factors to improve the quality and taste of distilled spirits products. The company has built a successful business making bottom shelf whiskeys a little more palatable, successful enough that the company needed a more reliable source of whiskey, hence O. Z. Tyler (named after one of the inventors of the process).

Amidst the current building boom in whiskey distilleries, O. Z. Tyler is unique for a couple of reasons. Both Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve and the former Old Taylor Distillery, now known as Castle and Key, are revived distilleries that were silent much longer and in much worse shape when their restoration began. Charles Medley, the Owensboro distillery's last master distiller, bought it from United. Although he was never able to reopen it, Charles managed to keep the plant in good repair. A decade ago, he sold it to the Trinidadian company that makes Angostura Bitters, which began the restoration until it was rocked by the world financial crisis in 2009.

Charles Medley, who celebrates his 75th birthday on September 1, appears in this video on behalf of the new owners.

The centerpiece of any distillery is its beer still. The existing one at Medley was in good shape, but Terressentia President Earl Hewlette wanted to go bigger, so he had Vendome make him a new 54" diameter column. It's not the biggest still in Bourbondom, Beam and Daniel's have some 72" monsters, but it's the biggest among the newcomers. The fermenters and boiler are also new but much of the other equipment was retained.

O. Z. Tyler is run by Jacob Call, whose family has deep roots in Kentucky's whiskey-making culture.

Although it begins a new era today, the distillery had a long association with the Medley family. Like many whiskey-making clans, the Medleys started with a small, farm-based operation in Central Kentucky early in the 19th century. The patriarch was John Medley. When he died in 1814 his estate included two stills and forty mash tubs.

Medley sons followed their fathers throughout the 19th century until, in 1901, George Medley and a partner bought a distillery in Daviess County, 130 miles to the west. (Pronounce it  'Davis' despite the spelling.) That distillery was adjacent to the current one. George’s son, Thomas, joined and then succeeded his father in that venture.

Kentucky is a small state and distilling is a very collegial business. Then as now, all of Kentucky’s main distillers were acquainted with one another. Like the Medleys, the Wathens had been early settlers in Washington County, part of a community of Catholics who all came west together from Maryland. By the close of the 19th century, the three Wathen brothers; John Bernard, Nick, and Nace, were  among the most successful distillers in Kentucky. Old Grand-Dad was one of their brands.

Nick Wathen had a daughter named Florence Ellen. Tom Medley courted and married her. They had six sons who all worked in the family business. One of them was named Wathen Medley, to signify the blending of two long Kentucky distilling traditions. Charles Medley is his son.

The first distillery on the current site was built in 1885. It was called McCullough and, later, Green River. Fire destroyed most of Green River in 1918 and the rest was razed during Prohibition. Someone tried to bring it back after repeal as the Sour Mash Distillery. They built the current buildings, distilled 1,349 barrels of whiskey, ran out of money, and closed in 1939.

The first distillery owned by a Medley after Prohibition was a third place in that same general area, just north of the Green River site, built in around 1881. It was best known as Rock Spring Distilling. Tom Medley bought it and brought it back after Prohibition, running it until his death in 1940, at age 64. Wathen sold it to Fleischmann’s and bought the adjacent Green River place, which he renamed the Medley Brothers Distillery. Wathen sold the company in 1959 but the new owners kept the name. Wathen, Charles and Wathen's brother John stayed. Two other brothers, Tom Jr. and Ben, went off to start another distillery nearby, called Old Stanley.

In the late 1980s, in quick succession, Medley bought Fleischmann's, Glenmore bought Medley, and what became Diageo bought Glenmore.

Terressentia owns none of the old Medley brands and none of the brands it does own are household names. The company plans to make traditional bourbon and rye, some of which it will subject to its TerrePURE process. It will compete in the bulk whiskey market with MGP, and probably develop its own brands eventually. It is not open to the public right now, but a visitors center and participation in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are in the cards.

O. Z. Tyler may be the only working distillery in Owensboro but it is not the only producer. On the site of the old Glenmore Distillery, on the east side of town, Sazerac has several aging warehouses and a large bottling and distribution facility.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Is Craft?



What is craft, as in 'craft distillery'?

The dictionary offers a little help. The most nearly relevant dictionary definition is: "denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company."

That certainly supports those who argue that a big producer can't be craft, but distilling is problematic. Whiskey, for the most part, is made in a "traditional" and "non-mechanized way" by everyone. The difference between a big distillery and a small one is mostly just scale. The processes are almost identical.

Does that mean the term 'craft' is meaningless? Lew Bryson thinks so, as he told the Charleston City Paper a few days ago. "I've been trying to tell the brewers to walk away from that term for 15 years now. Just call it beer. It's beer. The only reason you're using craft is because you want to separate yourself from the big brewers. But people know who they are." He feels the same way about applying the term to whiskey and other spirits.

Bryson is a powerful voice in both industries but craft brewers haven't listened to him on this, neither have craft distillers. People will continue to use the term and argue about its meaning, who should use it, and who should not.

Maybe this will help.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan affects some kind of transformation. For something to be 'craft,' an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The 'craft' performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it.

For example, Diageo claims its Orphan Barrel bourbons are craft, but Orphan Barrel is a marketing idea, not a product idea. The product itself consists of nothing more than several large batches of leftovers.

Too harsh? Consider the facts. No one has claimed that United Distillers, the Diageo predecessor company that made the whiskey, intended all those years ago to make these products, nor that it did anything special then or along the way to the specific whiskey that became these products. It was standard production of the Bernheim Distillery, from before and after it closed and was rebuilt. It is simply whiskey they couldn't find any other use for until now. There is nothing wrong with it, it is perfectly good whiskey if you like bourbons that have spent that much time in wood, but there is nothing remotely 'craft' about it.

At the beginning of the craft distilling movement, many new distilleries were quick to claim that their 'craft' whiskey was superior to 'industrial' whiskey because, you know, it was 'craft.' The claim was hubris and all it took was a taste. No craft distillery has improved on the bourbon made by Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, etc. They probably never will. Today, most craft distillers have abandoned that foolishness.

The producers most recognized for craft whiskey -- Balcones, Koval, Stranahan's, Corsair, FEW, Dry Fly, Tom's Foolery -- do it with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven't been done before (belying the 'traditional' requirement) and create products unlike anything you've ever tasted before. That's what consumers want from 'craft,' but does it give us the makings of a legal or 'official' definition?

Probably not. As Lance Winters (St. George Spirits) says, "putting a binding definition on what craft is, would be like putting a binding legal definition on what art is." Consumers have to decide for themselves what 'craft' means to them and they should stay skeptical. Always ask producers who call their products 'craft,' what is craft about it? It is a question we have been asking here since 2008.

Friday, August 19, 2016

My Brazil Experience



WARNING: No bourbon content, although I did drink Cachaça and a lot of beer.

I did not vandalize a gas station.

It was 1982. I was making a video about oil shale. Our client was an energy producer who wanted to exploit Kentucky's shale oil reserves, an interesting story in its own right but this isn't about that.

Our client had worked with the office of Kentucky Senator Wendell Ford to get the necessary visas and permits. We were to have the cooperation of Petrobras, the Brazilian oil monopoly, as they were the ones exploring shale oil development in Brazil, and the conditions at their pilot plant in the small town of São Mateus do Sol in the southern part of the country were similar to conditions in Eastern Kentucky.

We flew into and out of Rio de Janeiro, where Petrobras had its offices. Although we spent most of our time in São Mateus do Sol, we wanted to capture some of the color of Rio so we also spent a few days there.

At the end of the trip, the day before our return flight to the United States, the Petrobras executive who had arranged everything for us called me into his office downtown and presented me with a rather substantial 'bill' for the 'services' they had provided to us while we were in the country. In the nicest possible way, he made it clear that we and our several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment would not leave the country until the 'bill' was paid, in cash. He casually mentioned our flight number.

This was the first I had heard about any expectation of compensation. I conferred with the client's representative and my account executive, and they conferred with the folks back home, including Senator Ford's office. This was news to everyone and was, we concluded, a shakedown.

We decided to pay. Happily for me, the account executive had talked his way onto the trip by saying he would handle the 'business stuff' so I could concentrate on the 'creative stuff.' I concluded this was 'business stuff' and went to the beach.

That afternoon, he scraped together an amount of cash (we all had company American Express cards) that Petrobras agreed to accept, but we were nervous until our plane (with our equipment on it) left the ground.

Otherwise, it was a great trip.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Booze for Beginners



Alcohol is a lot like sex. We learn about it informally and most of what we think we know is wrong.

So, as a public service, here are the basic facts about alcoholic beverages.

All alcoholic beverages are either fermented or distilled. Your fermented beverages are beer and wine. Your distilled beverages are vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum, liqueurs, etc.

‘Beer’ refers to any fermented beverage made from grain. ‘Wine’ refers to any fermented beverage made from fruit.

Distilled beverages are fermented beverages that have been concentrated, i.e., they have a higher concentration of alcohol. The alcohol concentration of any beverage is expressed as its percentage of alcohol by volume (% alc./vol. or ABV). While beers are usually around 5% ABV and wines are about 12%, spirits are mostly around 40% except liqueurs which go down to as low as 20%.

When beer is distilled, the result is called whiskey. Start with wine and the result is called brandy. If any fermented beverage is distilled to 95% ABV or higher it is considered a neutral spirit, i.e., vodka.

Where does alcohol come from? Yeast! They are living organisms that eat sugar and excrete alcohol. Called fermentation, this is how all alcohol is made. Distillation, a subsequent step, uses heat to separate alcohol from water in the fermented brew.

The alcohol itself is all the same, regardless of beverage type. It is all ethanol. The potency of any drink (i.e., its capacity to get you high) is just a matter of its percentage of absolute alcohol. Nothing else matters. The percentage of alcohol is always printed on the label, except on beer in some states. Obviously, mixing alcohol with ice, water, juice, soft drinks, etc., dilutes it, which lowers the alcohol concentration of the beverage.

Among distilled spirits, there are straight spirits and liqueurs.

Among the straight spirits you have two categories: Clear (vodka, gin, white rum, white tequila, etc.) and aged (whiskey, brandy, anejo rum, anejo tequila, etc.).

White spirits have little flavor of their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something. Aged spirits (held for years in oak barrels) typically have a complex and distinctive flavor of their own and are usually consumed with nothing added (neat), or with ice (on the rocks), water, or the simplest mixers (e.g., club soda).

Liqueurs (e.g., Kahlua, Bailey's, Jagermeister, amaretto, schnapps) are like a mixed drink in a bottle. They typically combine neutral spirits (i.e., vodka) with flavorings and, usually, lots of sugar. They come in a wide variety of flavors and alcohol concentrations.

Going back to the subject of potency, since alcohol is alcohol, all that matters is how many, how fast, and into whom. The typical mixed drink (e.g., rum and Coke) contains roughly the same amount of alcohol as a 12 oz. beer or a 6 oz. glass of wine.

You may drink whatever you like but this column has a bias for that epitome of distilled spirits excellence, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, neat or with a splash of room temperature water.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mr. Boston Bartender's Guide is Now Online



You don't have to be a traditionalist to enjoy bourbon, but many bourbon drinkers are. For many bourbon drinkers, their favorite cocktail recipe is this one.

Ingredients: bourbon whiskey, glass

Directions: Pour bourbon into glass. Drink bourbon.

But some bourbon drinkers also enjoy cocktails with a few more ingredients. If you are a traditionalist and a cocktail lover, you probably will want to bookmark The Old Mr. Boston Bartenders Guide Website.

The new website, launched this week, contains more than 10,500 drink recipes. Each of them was entered into the database as originally found in the printed books.

Old Mr. Boston was a distilled spirits producer established at the end of Prohibition in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston by Irwin "Red" Benjamin and Hyman C. Berkowitz. They sold a full line of distilled spirits, everything from bourbon and rye whiskey to cordials, all under the Old Mr. Boston brand name.

The original Old Mr. Boston Bartenders Guide was compiled and edited by Leo Cotton, a purchasing agent for the Old Mr. Boston company. The first edition was published in 1935. It has been revised and updated 74 times.

The brand, book, and new website are all owned by Sazarec, which has integrated its own company history into the Mr. Boston history due to Sazarec's roll in the development of cocktails dating from the 1795 arrival of Antoine Amedie Peychaud Sr. in New Orleans, where he began to make bitters from an old family recipe.

How Mr. Boston became part of Sazerac is a tale in its own right. Mr. Boston was an independent operation from its founding in 1933 until 1970, when it was acquired by Louisville's Glenmore, then one of the largest distilled spirits companies in the U.S. Although owned by Glenmore, Mr. Boston continued to operate out of its Boston headquarters until 1986, when everything was moved to Louisville. In 1991, Glenmore was acquired by United Distillers (now Diageo).

As was typical during that period of industry consolidation, acquiring companies usually wanted only a few of the acquired company's assets and quickly sold the rest. Barton bought a number of these discarded brands, including Mr. Boston. In 2009, Barton's parent did the same thing and Mr. Boston became part of Sazerac, which seems happy to have it.

“The Mr. Boston books have covered the evolution of the cocktail in America since Prohibition, but sadly, they were let go over the years,” said Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer, the Sazerac Company. “The ties between our company and that brand are inextricably linked, with not only the Sazerac Cocktail, but our heritage in New Orleans, a city long synonymous with the cocktail culture.  It was a natural fit to bring it all together where we are ensuring the future of the brand for at least another 80 years as the ‘go to’ site for professional and amateur mixologists.”

The site is nicely designed and fun to play with. Like the books it is more than recipes, but the recipes are its heart and soul. Over the years, as the company tried to modernize, it dropped both 'Old' and 'Mr.' from its name. Now that the Guide has achieved icon status, it seems right to restore the original 1935 title. The Old Mr. Boston Bartenders Guide was not the first cocktails book and there are many others that reflect the modern mixology movement more accurately, but touchstones are important, to traditionalists anyway.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Rule Writing Is Not a Job for Amateurs



I contribute the occasional post to the R-Street blog. They're all about whiskey in some capacity. The R Street Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan, public policy research organization, a 'think tank.' Their mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited but effective government.

My most recent post over there bears the headline: "Revised Rules for Whiskey Labeling? Proceed with Caution."

The essay is about something that occurred nearly 50 years ago. After booming for more than two decades, bourbon sales had suddenly stalled. Several of the industry's largest companies looked at the world whiskey market and decided bourbon was too expensive to make. Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky and scotch were all cheaper to produce, which meant everything else being equal, bourbon was at a permanent competitive disadvantage. The solution, they concluded, was to make bourbon by the cheaper foreign methods while continuing to call it bourbon. That would require a few rule changes so they petitioned the predecessor to the Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the main federal regulator of distilled spirits products sold in the United States.

You'll have to go to R-Street to find out what happened next.

What got me thinking about this subject is that the TTB recently invited craft distillers – through their trade association the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) – to suggest revisions ahead of an effort this fall to update the regulations.

This has come up many times over the years, especially as the craft distillery movement has picked up steam. It is overdue. I've been a careful student of the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits since long before I became a lawyer in 1996 and I have a suggestion for anyone who wants to rewrite the rules.

Don't.

I do not mean you should not suggest changes, but writing rules at that level is a job for professionals. Instead, think about ways the current laws operate to create confusion or can be used by unscrupulous marketers to deliberately mislead consumers. Then think about what a better rule might accomplish.

For example, to most people the words 'made by,' 'manufactured by,' and 'produced by' mean the product is made, manufactured, or produced by the company whose name follows 'by;' and for most intents and purposes, 'made by,' 'manufactured by,' and 'produced by' all mean the same thing.

In reality, as the rules are now written and enforced, the company whose name follows 'by' may just be a bottler. Someone else, maybe several others, actually cooked, fermented, distilled, and aged the product. It may even be a company that had nothing to do with product manufacturing, not even bottling, but it owns the product and ships it to distributors from its licensed warehouse. What's more, the name can be an assumed business name, an alias, and not the name under which the company normally operates.

So while it seems like a 'produced by' statement on a whiskey label tells you a lot, it actually tells you next to nothing about who really made the product.

So what's the best way to fix that? You could ban those words and only allow terms that mean something, such as 'distilled by.' Maybe, but is that the best way to solve the problem and attain the desired result? I'm not sure.

If this is approached as I suggest, someone still has to do the legal research, legal analysis, and legal drafting. I don't know who that would be but I don't think volunteers are the answer. Lots of these new distillery owners are very smart people. Some of them, like Paul Hletko at FEW Spirits, are even lawyers. But every one of them already has too much to do trying to make and sell their products.

This is where a group such as ASCA comes in. They can develop a template of possible rule improvements through their committees and then, perhaps working with sympathetic legislators, find and fund the resources to have the proposed revisions professionally drafted.

Some nihilists say we should just abolish the TTB. We don't need no stinking rules. But if a word such as 'bourbon' doesn't have a legally-enforceable definition then it has no definition at all. Well-drafted and rigorously-enforced labeling rules are healthy for free markets and can be a valuable part of limited but effective government.

Monday, August 1, 2016

"Rubba Dub Dub, Make Mine Old Tub"



The bourbon pictured above is only sold at the Jim Beam Distillery in Kentucky. The whiskey itself is nothing special, just one more iteration of Jim Beam. Its significance is historical.

Beam family lore has it that Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795. The event isn't documented but it is consistent with the overall history of the family, so it is probably close to right.

The end of the American Revolution triggered a large influx of settlers into Kentucky and other western lands. Originally part of Virginia, Kentucky grew fast and became a state in 1792. The Beams (then Boehms) came west with a large group of Catholics from Maryland, who all settled in what are now Marion, Washington, and Nelson Counties. Even though the Boehms/Beams were Mennonites, they had attached themselves to some Catholic relatives in Maryland and came west with the Maryland tide.

Many Kentucky settlers brought stills with them. The distillation of spirits was a common farm activity, like baking bread or curing hams. Distilled spirits also became a form of currency. In those early days most of the business was local. If you bought whiskey you usually bought it directly from the person who made it.

Throughout the 19th century there was a slow evolution from farmer-distillers to commercial distillers, but it took a convergence of factors to turn it into an industry. They included the Civil War, the development of steam-powered boats and trains, the settlement of the West, and the conversion from pot to column stills. Suddenly distillers in Kentucky and adjacent states were supplying the whole country with bourbon and rye whiskey, which led to the development of something else.

Brand names.

In 1892, Jacob's grandson, David M. Beam, transferred the family distillery to his sons James and Park, and his son-in-law Albert Hart. They called their company Beam & Hart but gave their distillery the name of their best-selling brand, Old Tub Bourbon.

As whiskey marketers are wont to do, these newly large scale commercial distillers tried to cast themselves as old-timey. Jack Beam, an uncle to Jim, Park, and Al, called his brand (and distillery) 'Early Times' and used terms like 'hand made' and 'old fire copper' to suggest timeless craftsmanship. His nephews' 'Old Tub' was a reference to the wooden tubs in which mash was cooked, laboriously stirred by hand. Historic Old Tub labels show the mash being stirred by a dark-skinned worker, possibly a slave. The modern version just shows the tub.

That same management team was still in place 28 years later when Prohibition struck. The Beams, like most distillers, had whiskey in their warehouses that they could sell only to pharmaceutical companies bearing the proper permits. It was understood if not explicitly spelled out via contract that the pharmaceutical companies could sell the whiskey so obtained under its original brand name.

The distilleries assumed this was temporary and that the names reverted to them after Repeal, but they often got push-back. Booker Noe recalled that being the case with Old Tub. Whatever the reason, the company shifted its marketing emphasis to the Col. James B. Beam brand, which evolved into the brand we know as Jim Beam.

Beam continued to sell Old Tub on a small scale, eventually restricting its distribution to Kentucky. They dropped it altogether when the industry tanked in the 1970s. A few years ago it was revived for sale in the distillery gift shop. (The slogan in the headline above is my invention, but Beam is welcome to use it.)

Many old companies have an uncomfortable relationship with their history. For marketing purposes, they usually prefer a simplified version that emphasizes brand attributes. But bourbon history is American history. The expanded stories deserve to be told because they give us a better understanding of who we are and how we got that way.

Friday, July 29, 2016

"Toggie's Invitation" Is a Tribute to Friendship



Booker Noe, Jim Beam Master Distiller and Jim Beam's grandson, had thousands of friends all over the world. He was that kind of guy. As is the way in Kentucky's bourbon country, Booker's closest friends were with him from childhood. They were guys like Donald Dick, a basketball buddy from St. Joe's.

Both men married in their early 20s. Soon it was Booker and Annis, and Donald and Marilyn, who everybody called "Toogie" (for reasons unknown or, at least, not revealed).

One night after a few bourbons, Booker and Donald made a pledge, as newly-married best friends sometimes do, that if anything happened to one of them the survivor would look out for the other guy's family.

It was a pledge Booker took seriously when Donald died a few years later. Annis and Toogie were already best friends, so she and her five children became even closer to the Noe family.

Then and now, Toogie's family owned a Bardstown restaurant, Kurtz's, a local favorite. Toogie is a great cook. When Booker began to travel the world as a bourbon ambassador, both Annis and Toogie traveled with him. Booker was not into exotic foods, so Annis and Toogie made sure he always had a home-cooked meal.

With Toogie in attendance to tell the tale, the selection of the "Toogie's Invitation" edition of Booker's Bourbon took place at Kurtz's a few months ago. The Booker's Roundtable was presented with three samples, from which one was selected. This was followed by a dinner of Toogie's famous fried chicken, and country ham from Booker's smokehouse. Booker's son, Fred; grandson Freddy; and other Beam folks were also there.

Every Booker's selection fits the Booker's profile but there are subtle differences. "Toogie's Invitation" is a caramel and vanilla bomb, with the tiniest bit of astringency from the barrel tannins, very easy to drink with a splash of water added. Goes well with fried chicken and country ham.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Will Cars of the Future Run on Distillery Waste?


A good, science-y picture from a different UK CAER project.
The University of Kentucky has a fascinating story out today about using stillage to make batteries and other useful products. It is in the experimental stage now, but the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research has partnered with Danville's Wilderness Trail Distillery to test the viability of the idea.

Stillage is a by-product of the distillation process. Unlike scotch, American whiskey is usually distilled from a mash, not a wash. In Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and most other places that make whiskey, solids and liquids are separated after all of the soluble starch in the grain has been liquefied. The liquid portion, known as the wash, goes forward into fermentation and distillation. The moist solids are considered waste and either used as animal feed or simply discarded.

In North America (U.S. and Canada) it is a little different because although the soluble starch is liquefied, just like in Scotland, the grain solids are not removed. Still known as mash it is a slurry, like a very thin oatmeal. It stays that way through fermentation and distillation. What comes out at the end of the process, after all of the alcohol has been removed through distillation, is stillage.

Keeping all of the solids adds flavor but American distillers do it mostly because they can. Since column stills are used for the first distillation instead of pot stills, the early removal of solids is unnecessary.

American distillers typically do separate their stillage into wet and dry components. It's a pretty simple process that leaves a few solids in the wet portion and a bit of moisture in the dry, but it is effective for its purpose. The wet portion is used as setback in the sour mash process. It is mixed with a new mash prior to fermentation. The wet stillage adds a little acid to the fresh mash, which the yeast likes, along with some yeast nutrients, which the yeast also likes.

Setback ratios vary but 1:3 is about the highest, so plenty of stillage is left over. The leftover wet stillage goes into the sewers. The dry portion (which is still pretty wet) goes to one of three places: (1) directly to farmers, who come and get it, for livestock feed; (2) processing that removes the rest of the moisture, which gives it a longer shelf life (it's still used as livestock feed); or (3) into the sewers.

The problem with stillage is that as a direct by-product of the process, the amount of stillage goes up as your production goes up. If there aren't enough nearby farmers willing to come and get it every day, option (1) isn't available. Although stillage is free to the farmer, the farmer has to pick it up and transport it. Even rural distilleries are having a hard time giving their stillage away under those terms, a problem that is compounded as the amount of stillage goes up.

Option (2) isn't great either because the processing (drying and other processes) needed to make the stillage something that can be packaged and stored is expensive. Although it's a good feed and does sell, as a product it barely breaks even, a situation that only gets worse as increased supply pushes the price still lower.

Option (3) is undesirable because not all municipal sewage systems can accept it and even when they can, it's adding to the waste stream when it could be used for something productive. If this project (which uses the wet portion) can find some new, value-added ways to use this material, that will be good for the whiskey industry and the environment.

Wilderness Trail Distillery is the natural partner for this project because it is a bourbon distillery run by scientists. The same folks own and operate Ferm Solutions, which supplies yeast and other products and services to distilleries in Kentucky and beyond. Formerly in downtown Danville, they have moved their operations to a new, much larger facility west of town. It is open to the public for tours.

That it is Wilderness Trail and not one of the majors involved in this is another example of how much the micro-distillery movement is contributing to the industry and to local communities.