Friday, October 20, 2017

Also, You Can't Make Vodka in a Pot Still



I apparently struck a nerve with yesterday's Tito's post. In barely 24 hours it has received 135,000 pageviews. That is so much more than what my posts usually get, I am blown away. Now I know how Katy Perry feels.

The post has received many comments, both here and on Facebook, and I've received quite a few emails about it, including from industry folks. Several have pointed out the difficulty of distilling vodka in a pot still, especially a true alembic without the benefit of a rectification column. If you talk about 'old-fashioned pot stills,' as Tito's does, then you're talking about alembics like the ones pictured above.

The problem is that to strip 95 percent of the water from a fermented mash that is 8 to 10 percent alcohol, you need multiple passes through a pot still. That simply means you run it, then take the condensed distillate and run it through again. It takes eight to ten passes through a pot still to achieve the 95 percent alcohol concentration necessary for a spirit to be called vodka. That's just chemistry, there is no way around it.

If you would like a distiller to explain it in greater detail, click here.

Now on to economics. If you did run a spirit through a pot still ten times and achieved the 95 percent alcohol concentration, you couldn't charge $20 a bottle for it. There is too much time and labor involved. Don't say, "well maybe Tito has figured out a way." No, he hasn't, it can't be done and it is not being done, by Tito or anyone else.

Tito's isn't alone in this. Far from it. Many of the products marketed as 'legal moonshine' are the same deal. Some 'legal moonshine' is corn whiskey, some is 'sugar shine,' some is a mixture of the two. Many, including most of the flavored products, are our old friend grain neutral spirit (GNS), i.e., vodka. Since 'legal moonshine' isn't a recognized type of distilled spirit, the small print must tell you what it really is, although some use the catch-all 'distilled spirit specialty' classification, which doesn't really tell you anything. In many cases, though, the words 'grain neutral spirit' or 'neutral grain spirit' are right there on the label. You just have to look for it.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Truth About Tito's and All Vodka



As reported this week in Ad Age and many other places, Tito's vodka is now the top-selling distilled spirits brand in the United States, a position previously held by Smirnoff vodka for seemingly forever. Ad Age calls it "Tito's Handmade Vodka, a pioneer of the so-called craft spirits movement."

The 'so-called' is the only clue to what is really going on here. Tito's current advertising calls the brand 'America's Original Craft Vodka.' The product's success has made owner Tito Beveridge (pictured, above) a billionaire. It brings to mind another quotation, from H. L. Mencken, who wrote, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Tito has cleverly exploited a few simple facts. First, Texans and many non-Texans love anything from Texas. Austin, the capital of Texas, is beloved as a haven of eccentricity and live music. Tito plays up the brand's Austin, Texas pedigree.

Second, words such as 'handmade' and 'craft' don't mean what you think they mean. In fact, according to most court rulings on the matter, they don't mean anything. They are considered permissible advertising 'puffery,' subjective not objective, not measurable or provable, "which no reasonable person would presume to be literally true."

The front page of the Tito's web site says this: "Texas and vodka. When you put the two together you get something oh so wonderful. We make it in batches, use old-fashioned pot stills, and taste-test every batch to make sure you get only the best."

Forbes wrote this about Tito's back in 2013. "Sometimes reality bites. That's proving to be a challenge for Fifth Generation, maker of Tito's Handmade Vodka. More precisely: how to maintain the fiction of being a small-batch brand that's actually expanding rapidly in the $5.5-billion-a-year U.S. market for the colorless liquor. Tito's has exploded from a 16-gallon pot still in 1997 to a 26-acre operation that produced 850,000 cases last year, up 46% from 2011, pulling in an estimated $85 million in revenue." In 2017, you may adjust all of those numbers substantially upward, $190 million in annual revenue according to market research firm IRI.

Vodka drinkers, of course, are accustomed to fantasy. Vodka is, by definition; colorless, odorless and tasteless. Virtually all of the vodka made in the U.S., including Tito's and Smirnoff, starts as grain neutral spirit (GNS) manufactured by one of the major producers: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Midwest Grain Products (MGP), or Grain Processing Corporation (GPC), whose headquarters and principal distilleries are in Illinois, Kansas and Iowa respectively. (i.e., where most grain is farmed.)

GNS (some people prefer 'NGS.' Same thing.) is a commodity. It is used for beverages, medicine, and many other purposes. It is simply ethanol. Mostly made from corn, it is distilled above 95% ABV. It is as nearly 'pure alcohol' as can be made. As a commodity, vodka producers buy it on the basis of price and availability. Most buy from all of the usual suspects.

Some vodka makers simply take the GNS they buy and put it directly into bottles. Others do a little bit of additional processing. Tito's runs it through some pot stills. The only discernible purpose for that step is so they can make the claims about batch production (the big GNS makers are continuous, not batch) and Texas distillation. It has little or no effect on the liquid. Charcoal filtering is another common processing step.

Not surprisingly, Tito's doesn't give tours. That's because they don't have grain silos, grain mills, mash cookers, fermenters, and the other trappings of a real from-scratch distillery.

I don't want to get into it with vodka drinkers. I rarely touch the stuff. Feel free to drink whatever you want and think whatever you want to about it. Everything above is factually correct. Do with it as you will.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Heaven Hill Is Now the World's Biggest Bourbon Distillery


Heaven Hill's humble beginning in Bardstown, Kentucky.
As reported today throughout the Louisville media, Heaven Hill's Bernheim is now the World's Biggest Bourbon Distillery. To quote Louisville Business First, "Today, at a press conference held on the premises of the Heaven Hill-owned Bernheim Distillery in West Louisville, representatives from the company, as well as local politicians and media, gathered to celebrate the latest news of the distillery’s $25 million expansion, which the company says will make it the largest single bourbon-producing site in the world."

The slight hedge is necessary because Jack Daniel's in Tennessee is larger, but Jack is not technically bourbon, and Jim Beam is larger if you count everything produced at DSP-KY-230, but that license covers two facilities, ten miles apart.

Hedges aside, this is a remarkable achievement for a family-owned company founded in Bardstown more than 70 years ago by Joe Beam and a group of investors that included Ed Shapira, father of current company president, Max Shapira.

The five Shapira brothers (Ed, David, Mose, George and Gary) were in the dry goods business, running a chain of small department stores called 'The Louisville Store,' although they had no locations in Louisville. The business was started by their father, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. The stores did well during the Depression, selling everyday necessities at bargain prices. That gave them money to invest when Prohibition ended in 1933.

Ed Shapira, who ran the Louisville Store in Bardstown, assumed it would be an arm's length investment, as the other founders were, like Joe Beam, all experienced whiskey men. After the distillery was built and in production, Beam and the others lost money in another venture. They gave Shapira a chance to buy them out. It was either that or close the doors. Ed conferred with his brothers and they agreed to take the plunge. Joe Beam stayed on as Master Distiller, along with his youngest son, Harry.

While Beams made the whiskey, the five brothers ran the business. Ed's son, Max, came on board as did David's son, Harry. They had a unique business model, in which distributors bought the whiskey when it went into the barrel, instead of when it came out. The distributors got a deal and so did Heaven Hill, because that meant less capital was tied up in aging inventory, which allowed them to grow. As with their retail business, value was the secret to their success. The objective was to make the best whiskey their customers could afford.

At first, it was a commodity business. Their first brand was a two-year-old straight called Bourbon Falls. It did okay. Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond, launched a few years later, did much better. Soon it was the best-selling bourbon in Kentucky.

Other bourbon brands followed, and Evan Williams Bourbon became the company's flagship. They built the brand by steadily promoting the claim that it was older and higher proof whiskey, for less money, than the leading brands. Today, Evan Williams is third in sales after Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill is a major, international, diversified distilled spirits producer. Its actual size is unknown because the company is still private, owned by the descendants of the five Shapira brothers.

There is no 'Heaven Hill' in Bardstown. William Heavenhill was the name of the farmer who owned the land before the distillery was built. Although its distillery is now in Louisville, the company is still based in Bardstown. Its Bourbon Heritage Center there is one of the best distillery visitor centers in the world.

Heaven Hill is a remarkable and quintessentially American success story.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Counterfeits and Unlicensed Sales in the News



Mea Culpa.

I committed one of the cardinal sins of journalism. I printed a story without corroboration. Thankfully, Chanda Veno of Frankfort's State Journal is a much better journalist than I am. She fleshed out the vague story Buffalo Trace released yesterday by finding the New York state public record identifying the Pappy counterfeiter as Charles A. Bahamonde, 32, of New York, who pleaded guilty in New York City Criminal Court to petit larceny, a Class A misdemeanor. He was ordered to pay restitution and remain arrest-free for one year, and is scheduled to be back in court on January 5th.

Veno also uncovered two other cases supporting last Friday's story about selling whiskey without a license. Both cases involved the illegal sale of Van Winkle whiskey. As Veno reported, "Wade Collingsworth, 45, was nabbed by state liquor agents after advertising a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-year on Craigslist. At the meet-up, undercover agents purchased the bourbon for an undisclosed amount. The suggested retail price is $169.99. Collingsworth was charged with a misdemeanor."

In the second case, "Bob Monk, also of the Keystone State, was slapped with an $1,800 fine and misdemeanor charges after purchasing a bottle of 12-year Van Winkle Special Reserve for $59.99 plus tax and selling it to an undercover officer for $500 in December 2015."

Congratulations to Chanda Veno and The State Journal for some excellent reporting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Van Winkle Bourbon Takes Action Against Counterfeiters



(The following was provided by Buffalo Trace Distillery)

Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, the bourbon that is so hard to find it has been compared to unicorns, has become so popular it's often being counterfeited with knock off bottles and illegally re-sold on the secondary market.

The Van Winkles, along with partners Buffalo Trace Distillery, have taken action and successfully provided evidence of counterfeiting which resulted in a resident of New York pleading guilty for his sale of two bottles of counterfeit Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, which sold for $1,500 last year. The defendant will be sentenced in January 2018.

Although this case is the first successful prosecution for counterfeit Van Winkle Bourbon to date, other cases are under investigation. Buffalo Trace Distillery has spent over a half million dollars over the past year alone, to curb online marketplaces potentially selling fake bottles.

With the annual release of the much anticipated Van Winkle bourbons coming up soon, Buffalo Trace would like to take this opportunity to remind consumers to buy Van Winkle bourbons only from licensed retailers.

"Sadly, the Van Winkle bourbons are the latest victim of counterfeiting where innocent consumers are duped," said Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer, Buffalo Trace Distillery. "Avoid buying any bourbon or whiskey, especially the highly sought after ones, from anyone in the secondary market, which includes online private sellers, or in these social media groups that claim to offer genuine products. The only legal and reputable source you should be buying from is a licensed retailer." 

Scam artists have been operating in a variety of ways, some of which include taking empty Van Winkle bottles and refilling them with a variety of other liquids, sometimes cheaper bourbons, sometimes mixtures of products only known to the deceiver.

Nowadays, the con artists have gotten more sophisticated with the ability to print counterfeit labels on home printers and other technological advances. "It's disheartening to see this happening and to see innocent consumers being swindled," said Julian Van Winkle, president, Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. "We cannot stress enough to be careful, and do not buy your Van Winkle products on the secondary market. The old adage of if seems too good to be true, it probably is, definitely applies here."

Van Winkle cautions that if you see a bottle that does not have a matching face label with a capsule on top with the proper corresponding color, that's a sure sign of fraud. Any consumers that run across suspicious looking bottles or may have purchased a bottle from a source other than a liquor store are urged to call their local law enforcement, their state's Attorney General, or their state Alcohol Beverage Control Board.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Sell Whiskey On the Internet and Spend Six Months in County



Whisky Advocate Magazine devoted most of its Fall 2017 issue to whiskey collecting and whiskey collectors. It is hard to collect seriously if you can only obtain whiskey through retail channels. In virtually all forms of collecting, most acquisitions come from the secondary market, either directly from other collectors, or indirectly through dealers.

But there is a problem. While secondary sale of beverage alcohol is permitted in much of the world, in the United States, with a few small exceptions, it is not. Both state and federal law prohibit the sale of any alcoholic beverage to any person unless you have the appropriate license or licenses. Penalties vary by state. In California it is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or up to six months in county jail.

The exceptions are few. One is auctions, which only a few states allow. The owner of a collection can consign it to the auction house for sale. The auction house has a license from the state that allows it to auction the bottles, paying the proceeds to the collector, less the auction house's fee. Are those sales taxed? I'm not sure, but it's hard to imagine they're not.

Another is states that allow retail license holders to buy 'vintage spirits' from collectors for resale either by the drink or by the bottle. 'Vintage' is usually defined as a product that has not been available on the retail market for some span of years. The District of Columbia allows this. Kentucky recently passed a law to allow it but it won't take effect until January 1.

That's about it. Peer to peer sales are all illegal.

The other side of the coin is that these laws are rarely enforced against collectors. They are really aimed at bootleggers and unlicensed bars. That doesn't mean it can't happen. The laws are on the books.

The legality of buying from an unlicensed seller is less clear, but most people who buy also sell. It doesn't matter if you only trade and no money changes hands. It is the same thing.

Some people will be mad at me for writing this. They always are. Do they think I wrote those laws? Or that the people who are supposed to enforce them wouldn't know about them if I would just stop mentioning it? At the very least, if you sell alcohol without a license, you might want to ask the Google machine what the penalty is in your state.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Is Stoli Building a New, $150M Distillery for Kentucky Owl Bourbon?



Janet Patton, the best bourbon reporter in Kentucky, has a story in today's Lexington Herald-Leader headlined, "Stoli plans $150m Bardstown distillery for Kentucky Owl Bourbon."

The gist is that the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA) has approved $2M in tax incentives for the project.

These KEDFA announcements usually are the first we hear of new distillery projects in Kentucky. The tax incentives are 'if come,' meaning that they only receive the benefits if they actually do the project. This is just a proposal at this point, by no means a done deal. Incentive recipients don't appear to be under any time pressure. Angel's Envy, for example, received its KEDFA approval several years before the distillery was actually built.

Although they are now doing some contract distilling at Bardstown Bourbon Company, everything Kentucky Owl has released to this point has been sourced from an undisclosed Kentucky distillery or distilleries. Earlier this year the brand's creator, Dixon Dedman, sold Kentucky Owl to the parent company of Stolichnaya Vodka. It is Stoli's only brand in the American whiskey space.

Although well-aged bulk bourbon has been in very short supply for the last decade or so, small caches can still be had for the right price. That is why most new non-distiller producer (NDP) brands are very limited availability and super premium. The main way Kentucky Owl differs from other NDP bourbons is it debuted at a price about twice what similar brands charge. That was their bold innovation and it succeeded. Each release has sold out quickly and Kentucky Owl commands a high price on the underground secondary market.

Why? The product is good, too woody for my taste, but many people like that sort of thing. Equally as good bourbons are available for much less, but Kentucky Owl has developed a cachet.

Although the new Bardstown distillery is just a proposal at this point, it is no doubt a serious one. For that kind of money, it will be a plant on the order of Bardstown Bourbon Company or Lux Row. It will join those two newcomers plus Barton 1792, Heaven Hill, and Willett as tourable bourbon facilities in the immediate Bardstown vicinity, with Jim Beam and Maker's Mark each about a half hour from town. All of these new distilleries are a huge deal for the economy of Bardstown and Nelson County.

One assumes Stoli will pay particular attention to the international market for bourbon and whether or not they pull the trigger will depend on continued strong export growth. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 25, 2017

'Tales of the Cocktail' Does It Again



Here is my take on the whole Tales of the Cocktail controversy, as an interested but very much outside observer.

If you are unaware of this controversy, you might want to keep it that way. If not, Tara Fougner gives a good account of it on the 'Thirsty' blog.

The news that has the hospitality industry roiling is the announcement that Ann and Paul Tuennerman are 'stepping down' from their role in Tales, but no one seems to know what 'stepping down' means.

Although Tales is ostensibly produced by the not-for-profit New Orleans Culinary & Cultural Preservation Society (NOCCPS), the Tuennermans are sole owners of a for-profit entity, Mojo 911 LLC, that owns valuable intellectual property such as the names 'Tales of the Cocktail' and 'Spirited Awards,' without which Tales cannot be produced. Mojo 911 also is paid a large fee to run the event. Although the announcement said Melissa Young will become president of Mojo 911, it was silent about the entity's ownership. If the Tuennermans continue to have a large financial stake in Tales, it is hard to see how their 'stepping down' changes anything.

Although the NOCCPS is required by law to file an annual tax return, called a Form 990, which reveals some financial information related to Tales, and which is public, Mojo 911 is under no such obligation. The way Tales is actually funded and run, who benefits, and how much, is a closely guarded secret.

Whoever controls Mojo 911 controls Tales, regardless of titles. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.

This controversy stems from the notorious blackface incident from earlier this year. The behavior of the Tuennermans then was so tone-deaf it appeared that Tales might collapse, but Paul Tuennerman 'stepped down' and Tales created a 'Diversity Council,' moves that induced many people of good will to give them another chance.

The events of this past weekend look to many like the Tuennermans have been simply and clumsily engaged in cynical damage control intended to protect their personal financial interest in Tales, and these 'resignations' are more of the same.

Will there be a Tales 2018?

Should there be?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Bourbon Distilleries, Ranked by Capacity



To understand this post, it is a good idea to read the two previous ones. Last Monday, we learned that the area of a beer still is the critical metric for determining capacity, that is the area of one of its plates. Although many factors contribute to a distillery's actual capacity, beer still area is something that can be compared across distilleries that use column stills for their first distillation, as virtually all large bourbon distilleries do.

Until last week, I was under the impression that still diameter was the key metric. It is when comparing still to still; larger diameter, more capacity. But since the largest distilleries use more than one beer still, you have to use area to compare them. You can't just add up the diameters. I know this is elementary to many of you, but math has never been my strong suit.

The other post, from September 6, was the announcement that one of Kentucky's newest bourbon distilleries, Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBC), is planning a major capacity increase. In their press release, they claimed it would make them "one of the largest bourbon distilleries in the world." I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and decided they were about sixth. At an event during last week's Kentucky Bourbon Festival, they picked up on that number.

Based on what I subsequently learned about still area, I decided to revisit the numbers and do better calculations. BBC may be disappointed by what I found.

Since BBC made its claim based on planned future capacity, I have done the same, using stills I know about that should be in operation by the end of 2018.

So here is how America's whiskey distilleries rank, by the capacity of their beer still or stills. I did it by distillery, not company, although Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniel's as well as some Kentucky plants, ranks first either way. These are the kinds of choices, though arbitrary, that you have to make with this sort of thing. One could consider Beam's Booker Noe and Clermont plants as a single facility, since they operate under the same registration number (DSP-KY-230) and make the same products, but they are autonomous, and ten miles apart, so I count them separately.

Coming in at No. 1, then, is the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. It has six beer stills, two at 72 inches (diameter) and four at 54 inches. That gives them more than twice the capacity of any other U.S. whiskey distillery.

No. 2 is Heaven Hill in Louisville, with three 60 inch stills.

No. 3 is Beam's Booker Noe plant in Boston, Kentucky, which has two 72 inch stills.

No. 4 is Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. They have just the one still, but it's a monster at 84 inches.

No. 5 is the Brown-Forman Distillery in Shively. 

No. 6 is a tie between the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont and the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown.

No. 7 is Four Roses in Lawrenceburg.

No. 8 is Maker's Mark in Loretto.

No. 9 is Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg.

No. 10 is O. Z. Tyler in Owensboro.

No. 11 is Bardstown Bourbon Company in Bardstown. They're 11th, not 6th, but they are the largest new bourbon distillery in the world.

No. 12 is MGP in Lawrenceburg Indiana. This is an estimate. I have seen their still, but they refuse to tell me its size, so I estimate that it is 48 inches. (They are the only whiskey distillery in America keeping that information secret.)

No. 13 is a tie between the two Diageo distilleries, George Dickel in Tullahoma, Tennessee and Bulleit in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

No. 14 is Wilderness Trail in Danville.

No. 15 is Lux Row in Bardstown.

No. 16 is Michter's in Shively.

No. 17 is Angel's Envy in Louisville

No. 18 is where we will end this list. It is a six-way tie among Old Forester (Louisville), Castle & Key (Frankfort), Willett (Bardstown), New Riff (Newport), Rabbit Hole (Louisville) and Fulton County (Hickman). Of these only two, Willett and New Riff, are actually producing now. 

So what? Mostly it is just interesting. I was surprised that, figured this way, Heaven Hill is second only to Jack Daniel's but I guess I shouldn't be. Heaven Hill's top bourbon, Evan Williams Black Label, ranks third behind Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 and Jim Beam White Label.

This list should be good for the next year or so, since all of the construction underway or on the books is factored in. After that, who knows? These are crazy but exhilarating times to be a bourbon enthusiast. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Beer Still Diameters and Distillery Capacity; It Is Not That Simple


The beer still at the new Bulleit Distillery is 42" diameter.
With all of the new distillery construction and existing distillery expansion going on, it is hard to get a handle on how much new capacity is coming into the industry. Distilleries can produce below their capacity, of course, but these days bourbon distilleries are making as much as they can, so questions of capacity matter.

Although not quite the same as the beer we drink, the fermented grain mash that goes into a still like the one pictured above is called beer, and the still itself is called the beer still. This still strips all of the alcohol from the beer. That vapor, which is still 20 to 30 percent water, goes to a second pot-type still called a doubler for a second distillation, to remove more water and 'polish' the spirit.

Many factors affect how much a distillery can produce. One of them is the size of its beer still. A beer still doesn't have to be a column (i.e., continuous) still, but that is what most bourbon makers use. Because they are so tall, still height is the dimension that seems to impress people, but the dimension that matters is girth, the diameter of the still.

In trying to assess the capacity of different distilleries, I have tried to base it entirely on still diameter but, of course, it is not that simple.

"The diameter of the column is a very important part of the maximum throughput, but it’s not the only thing," says Mike Sherman, Vice President of Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the primary manufacturer of stills and other equipment for America's whiskey makers. "Tray design (amount of open area in the perforation) and downcomer size (the pipe that takes the beer down the column from one tray to the next) play a huge part." Other factors include beer thickness, condenser size, and fermentation yield.

It is also not correct, as I had assumed, that two 36" columns would have the same capacity as one 72" unit, for example. "It is not the diameter of the column, it is the area of the column" that matters, says Sherman. (A=𝜋r²) A 36" diameter column has an area of 7.06 ft², so 14.12 ft² for two columns. A 54" diameter column has an area of 15.9 ft². So, technically, the 54” column can run more than two 36” columns as long as everything else is sized correctly.

It also matters how each distillery uses its equipment, in terms of hours per day, days per week, and weeks per year. Some run one shift per day for five days and have a six-week shutdown versus another that runs round the clock for six days per week and only shuts down for two weeks per year.

So still area is a better metric than still diameter for comparison purposes and it is only roughly comparable, since it doesn't factor in those other considerations.

There are no easy answers, dammit.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bardstown Bourbon Company to Add Capacity, Become Major Producer




Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBC) announced today that it will expand its capacity to allow production of up to six million proof gallons per year. To accomplish this, the distillery will add a second 36-inch beer still, a 12.5k gallon mash cooker, and up to 16 additional fermenters. They expect the expansion to be complete by July of next year. This means more maturation warehouses also will be needed.

The press release claims this expansion will make BBC "one of the largest bourbon distilleries in the world." That's a stretch, but it certainly puts BBC into the major league, probably at number six, which is amazing for a distillery that has only been in operation for a year.

BBC is in direct competition with MGP of Indiana as a contract producer and will be bigger than MGP in terms of whiskey capacity when this expansion is completed. (MGP also produces neutral spirits.)

“The Bardstown Bourbon Company’s rapid growth is extremely exciting,” said David Mandell, President & CEO. “We’re truly helping to reshape the American whiskey market, and the success of our Collaborative Distilling Program demonstrates the massive demand for custom-made, authentic, Kentucky whiskey, bourbon and rye.”

In related news, the Distilled Spirits Council announced today that the value of U.S. distilled spirits exports rose a robust 10.6 percent—up more than $67 million—to a total of $698.5 million in the first half of 2017 as compared with the same period in 2016. In dollar terms, the growth was led by the largest category: American whiskeys including Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey and American Rye, which rose nearly $27 million to $464.6 million up 6.1 percent. The U.S. also exports small amounts of brandy, vodka, and rum.

These two announcements are related because much of the expansion taking place in the American whiskey business, especially among the majors, is predicated on robust, long-term export growth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

This May be Your Last Chance to Get "Made and Bottled in Kentucky" on DVD



"Made and Bottled in Kentucky," my one-hour documentary about the Kentucky bourbon whiskey industry, will no longer be available on Amazon once their current inventory of DVDs is exhausted. It will continue to be available here (i.e., directly from me) until my current inventory is exhausted. The price from me is $28, which includes U.S. shipping.

When my inventory runs out, I may make more DVDs, but more likely I will find some way to make it available via digital download.

So if you want to make sure you have a physical copy in your bourbon library, the time to act is now.

The documentary was made in 1991-92, with grants from Kentucky Educational Television (KET) and the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). KET still runs it from time to time on their network. Because it is 25 years old, it is interesting now primarily from a historical perspective, at it was made when we were seeing the first hints of the bourbon revival.

The production was made possible through a serendipitous convergence of events. Kentucky became a state in 1792, so for the bicentennial the legislature gave KET some extra money to fund independent productions about Kentucky subjects. I applied for and got a grant. The KDA had money to give because it had just received a Federal grant for export promotion. I was working in the industry, in marketing, so I was known to several of the distilleries.

At that point, I had been writing and producing TV commercials and other audio-visual material for about 20 years, but always for clients. I had never done a project where I had complete control. That was exciting for me and the main reason I wanted to do it.

There was no issue about independence with KET, but I was concerned about KDA. I finished my grant pitch by telling them that their funding would not give them the authority to approve the script or final product. Bill Samuels Jr., who was there representing Maker's Mark, leaped to his feet (as Bill will do) and proclaimed, "He's absolutely right, because I would be the worst, and if I can't tell him what to do, nobody can." It passed without objection.

This project is also what gave me the bourbon bug. I have been studying and writing about it ever since.

The video above is a short collection of clips from the documentary. There are others on my You Tube channel.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Come Drink with Me in Findlay, Ohio, on Tuesday, September 26



We will drink, eat, and talk bourbon. It should be a lot of fun. Join me beginning at 5:30 PM on Tuesday, September 26, at The Bourbon Affair, 121 E Crawford St, in downtown Findlay, Ohio. The ticket price ($65) includes a four-course meal and a tasting of four whiskeys. They are Old Taylor Small Batch Bourbon, Calumet Farms 10-year-old Single Rack Black, Woodford Reserve Straight Rye, and a Maker's Mark Private Select created especially for The Bourbon Affair.

This tasting is a bit of a homecoming for me. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, which is about an hour due east. In the 70s, I briefly worked at a radio station in Findlay. That is also where I get off I-75 to head east for visits home, so I've been through Findlay more times than I can count. The Pioneer Sugar silos are like an old friend.

Findlay is a nice town, even nicer now that it has a bourbon bar. It is home of the University of Findlay and Cooper Tire. It was, for 85 years, home of the Marathon Oil Company. The American standard, "Down by the Old Mill Stream," was composed by Findlay native Tell Taylor and inspired by Findlay's Blanchard River.

I promise not to give a long speech with a quick tasting at the end. We'll start to drink right away, and taste a different whiskey between dinner courses. I'll talk about the whiskeys we're tasting, about bourbon in general, and bourbon history. I like it when people interrupt me with good questions. These things are always best when it's a conversation.

If you would like to bring me to your town for a tasting, click here for information about how to do it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Whiskey, Water, and You



There has been a lot of coverage today of a new study that explains why dilution with water improves the taste of whiskey and other aged spirits.

In at least one instance, the article includes the dilution formula published in Bourbon, Straight (2004).

It is as follows:

(amount of whiskey) x ((bottle proof/desired proof) -1) = amount of water to add

There is, of course, always water in whiskey. Even a barrel proof bourbon such as Booker's is only about 63 percent alcohol, the rest is water. Most bourbon and practically all scotch is bottled at 40 percent alcohol and 60 percent water.

Some of that water, about 20 percent of it, remains in the distillate that leaves the still. More water is added to get the spirit down to barreling proof, which is 62.5 percent alcohol or less. After aging, more water is added to get the whiskey from barrel proof down to bottle proof.

The study authors write, "When whisky is diluted, the alcohol is driven to the surface, and many of the taste molecules follow it because they like to be in a slightly less aqueous environment." It is unclear if this is something immediate, that happens right after water is added and then dissipates, or if the alcohol stays in that state. And, if it does, does the same thing happen when you pour diluted whiskey into a glass? Or do you have to add more water to create the effect?

It sounds like it happens each time you add water, up to a point of diminishing return. The authors also make an argument against cask strength whiskey that doesn't seem to comport with the experience of most drinkers, who find high proof whiskey very flavorful.

Ice, of course, makes the liquid cooler and also dilutes it, continuously as the ice melts.

Some people believe you should drink whiskey at bottle proof because that is what the maker intended, but this isn't necessarily true for barrel proof (i.e., cask strength) whiskey. The idea of a whiskey straight from the barrel is so you don't have to pay for added water and can dilute the spirit to your taste preference.

That is the best rule anyway. Find out what alcohol concentration you like best and stick to that. Your personal preference is all that really matters and you have all the diagnostic equipment you'll ever need right there in your head.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Fresh Hell Is This?



On Monday, it was "The Death of the Brand Ambassador." Today, it is "Revenge of the Global Partner," reminding us that fanciful titles for paid celebrity spokesfolk are also a hot new thing. Just ask Wild Turkey Creative Director Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey got his gig about a year ago. Kunis has been global partnering with Jim Beam since 2014. Today she recommends that we drink Jim Beam Vanilla, for when "you love the taste of bourbon but are sometimes looking for something a little different." A mixture of vanilla liqueur with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, it adds to the Jim Beam flavored portfolio that includes Jim Beam Apple, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Jim Beam Honey, and Red Stag by Jim Beam Black Cherry.

Jack Daniel's Honey is the leader in the flavored whiskey segment. It is a mixture of Jack whiskey and honey liqueur. By mixing whiskey with a liqueur you can introduce grain neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) as part of the drink's alcohol content, as neutral spirit is the alcohol component of most liqueurs. A blended whiskey that contains neutral spirit must disclose that fact on the label. Liqueurs are assumed to contain neutral spirit, so a whiskey blended with a liqueur doesn't face that requirement. Jack Honey and Jim Vanilla are classified as 'distilled spirit specialties,' not whiskey.

Neutral spirit costs a lot less to manufacture than whiskey. That makes flavored products more profitable and helps stretch currently tight whiskey stocks. Products classified as 'specialties' can also be sold at a lower proof, 70° (35% ABV) rather than the minimum of 80° (40% ABV) required for whiskey.

But to the typical consumer, it says Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam on the label so it's whiskey, right?

If you hate these products, blame Sazerac's phenomenally successful Fireball, another whiskey/liqueur mixture.

When Jim Beam first got into the flavored whiskey game, they said it would never get as crazy as flavored vodka.

We'll see about that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Death of the Brand Ambassador



The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) is promoting a seminar next week entitled "Build a Better Brand Ambassador," conducted by Robin Robinson.

The seminar is described as follows: "BUILD A BETTER BRAND AMBASSADOR is focused on creating the next generation Brand Ambassador: a sales-oriented, account-driving individual. Full of brand and category knowledge, loquacious and articulate, this individual delivers the brand pitch with aplomb and insider confidence. But also sharply focused on where the brand is at all times and dedicated to driving adoption and volume." (Emphasis added.)

The term 'brand ambassador' is used in many industries, not just distilled spirits. Originally, it was used to describe celebrity endorsers, so the term has always been flexible. But when the distilled spirits business began to use it, maybe 15-20 years ago, the idea was to have someone in the field who was focused entirely on product knowledge and brand education, without the pressure of moving cases and reaching sales goals.

The idea was that salespeople typically have responsibility for multiple brands in multiple categories. It is hard to have in-depth product knowledge about all of them. This reflects on credibility, as does the fact that salespeople have a reputation for saying whatever it takes to get a sale. No criticism intended. If your job is sales, then selling has to be your number one priority. That is why part of the definition of brand ambassador has always been, 'not a salesperson.'

With that background, this seminar doesn't tell producers how to 'build a better brand ambassador.' Instead, it tells the rest of us that the brand ambassador era is over. There can be no such thing as a brand ambassador who sells. That person is called a salesperson. To call them brand ambassadors is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.

The ACSA is a terrific organization and Robin Robinson is a superb presenter who understands the marketing and promotion of distilled spirits products better than anyone I know. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of anyone involved, just of their rhetoric. This also is nothing against salespeople. As salespeople are fond of saying, nothing happens until somebody sells something.

The argument has been made that craft producers, as small operations, can't afford to field both types of representatives. Fine, makes sense, then build a better salesperson. Don't pretend they are brand ambassadors.

The 'redefinition' (i.e., death) of the brand ambassador role is not limited to craft producers. Last year, 'world's-biggest-drinks-company' Diageo ended its 'Masters of Whisky' program and 40 people lost their jobs. Some were rehired as 'redefined' brand ambassadors, i.e., salespeople.

Another role in the mix here is 'field promotions manager.' Now some of them are being called 'brand ambassadors.' Could it be that 'brand ambassador' is too desirable as a title to be wasted on actual brand ambassadors?

If 'the next generation of brand ambassadors' is really the next generation of brand-aware salespeople, there is nothing wrong with that. Just don't pretend it is something else.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Coming Soon: a Limited-Edition Bourbon for $22.99



My latest for The Whisky Wash is a brief history of Early Times (ET), a 157-year-old whiskey brand made and sold by Brown-Forman. In it, I write that ET is a price brand, not well-regarded by bourbon enthusiasts, so that "there are no limited releases" of Early Times.

I was wrong.

Brown-Forman today informed me that, in fact, a limited edition of Early Times will be hitting the shelves very shortly, as in yet this summer, and it will be bourbon, not 'Kentucky Whisky.' Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky will be in select markets including Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Oregon at the suggested retail price of $22.99 for a 1-liter bottle.

The fact sheet for ET Bottled-in-Bond (BIB) says, "(BIB) standards introduced a new era of guaranteed quality within the spirits industry." That is not quite true. When the law was enacted, the federal government went to great pains to emphasize that Bottled-in-Bond did not guarantee quality. What it guaranteed was authenticity. It was America's first 'truth in labeling' law.

Although the Bottled-in-Bond Act became law in 1897, the heyday of BIB was the decades after WWII. Whiskey-making was curtailed because of wartime priorities, so fully-aged whiskey was in short supply when the war ended. BIB became known as 'the good stuff' because it was always at least four-years-old and 100° proof (50% ABV). The limited-edition Early Times BIB bourbon attempts to duplicate the brand's style from the 1940s.

The press materials note that DSP No. 354, home of ET, is the longest continuously-operating distillery under the same ownership in Kentucky. That is a mouthful, but Brown-Forman prides itself on the precise accuracy of its historical claims.

ET is also re-introducing its most famous proprietary cocktail, 'The Pussycat,' a twist on the whiskey sour that gets its sweetness from amaretto and orange juice instead of simple syrup. Back in the day, Brown-Forman even sold a powdered Pussycat mix.

Also notable is that the release will be in a one-liter bottle, rather than the more common 750 ml. This is a play for the bar trade, which prefers the liter size. Even though it is in a larger size, the suggested retail is a mere $22.99.

ET was a bourbon until 1983, when Brown-Forman converted it into a 'Kentucky Whisky.' To save money, they decided to do some of the aging (about 20 percent) in used barrels, disqualifying it as bourbon, which must be entirely aged in new, charred oak barrels. Because of the current bourbon boom, that may be a decision they now regret.

A few years ago they introduced a line extension, Early Times 354, that was bourbon, but it never caught fire and was discontinued. Although this is a limited edition, it may be another effort to get value-conscious bourbon drinkers interested in ET again. We'll see.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Baker Beam's Birthday Is Tomorrow


Baker Beam (in 1992), sampling new make at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, KY. (from the documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky")
Baker Beam turns 81 tomorrow. Beam Suntory is promoting the anniversary with the 'Baker's 81 Bar Salute,' and conducting a state-wide toast to Baker Beam on his 81st Birthday, at 7:36 PM. (Baker was born in 1936, so they used the year as a time, 19:36, i.e., 7:36 PM.)

Simultaneous parties, known as Baker’s Birthday Bashes, will be thrown at bars across Kentucky from 6 PM- 9PM. They are using the following hashtags to follow the Salute: #bakersbourbon,  #bakers81barsalute, #bakersbirthdaybash

Baker and his younger brother, David, shared distiller duties at Clermont for many years. Their father, Earl 'Shucks' Beam, was distiller there before them, as was his father, Park Beam, Jim Beam's younger brother.

Baker and David grew up in the big house on the hill above the distillery. As distillers, Baker worked days and David worked nights. At the same time their cousin, Booker Noe, was distiller at the Boston (Kentucky) plant that now bears his name.

Baker Beam and David Beam, on the lake at the Boston, KY Beam distillery, for a Jim Beam ad in the '60s.
Unlike Booker, Baker is soft-spoken and taciturn, as are most Beam family members I have known. Like many in the clan, he loves motorcycles and trucks. For many years after he retired, he would show up at the distillery just to ride along on the trucks going up to the corn silos in Indiana, where he had many friends. As kids he and David, with their cousin, Parker (the late master distiller at Heaven Hill), used to ride bicycles together in Bernheim Forest, which is right across the road from the distillery.

Baker has always been very kind to me.

I have always liked his Baker's Bourbon too. Whenever I have drinks with a certain friend, that is all we drink. It is a tradition with us almost as old as the brand itself.

So this will be my salute. Happy birthday, Baker. And many more.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Beam Suntory Opens a New Book



Last week, we looked at one side of American blends. The other side, what used to be called 'Class A' blends, has largely been forgotten in the American whiskey world. The young scion of whiskey royalty is out to change that.

Frederick Booker Noe IV, better known as Freddie, was nicknamed 'Little Book' by his grandfather, Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe. In the last few years, Freddie has joined his father, Fred Noe, in the family business. The next step in his ascension is a new whiskey brand called Little Book. It will be an annual, limited-release series, and it is not a bourbon. It is a blend.

But this is not a typical American blend. It is all straight whiskey, with no neutral spirit. Each year, Freddie will select a different blend. It will be packaged in the same bottle as Booker's Bourbon and, like Booker's, it will be uncut and unfiltered.

The first release, called 'The Easy,' will debut in October. It contains 13-year-old corn whiskey, rye whiskey and malt whiskey aged 5.5 years each, and 4-year-old bourbon. Suggested retail is $79.99 for a 750ml bottle. Although American blended whiskey may contain “harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials" as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a), Little Book does not.

Freddie says the goal is to "create something different, a one-of-a-kind taste profile that people haven't experienced before."

Mission accomplished!

The key to experiencing Little Book 'The Easy' is to not expect it to taste like bourbon. It doesn't. The long-aged corn whiskey dominates the profile, grainy and grassy like corn is supposed to be, but tempered by its long time in reused wood. (The other three whiskeys were all aged in new, charred oak.) Malt provides creamy nuttiness, rye a little background spice, and the bourbon provides body and richness. It is thick and viscous, almost syrupy, and surprisingly easy to drink even at its full 120.48° proof (60.24% ABV).

Some bourbon signifiers are there, caramel in particular. A little water brings it out.

This is a bit of a gamble for Beam. Little book is not the first 'Class A' blend of the modern era, but it arrives with a lot of fanfare and is a lot of weight to put on a young man's shoulders. But Freddie is a big man, like his father and grandfather. I think he can handle it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Whiskey Tourism and the Driver's Dilemma



Several friends have asked me this recently. "We want to go to Kentucky and visit distilleries. Is there a bus or something we can take so we don't drink and drive?" Okay, nobody exactly asked that, but most of my friends are responsible and several have asked about transportation alternatives.

This matters because the distilleries are rather far apart. The distance between Buffalo Trace and Maker's Mark, two very popular tours, is about 65 miles and a lot of that is winding country roads.

Kentucky's whiskey tourism infrastructure is still developing. So is Tennessee's, which has some catching up to do. In Kentucky, the premier tour company for whiskey fans is Mint Julep Tours, which operates out of Louisville. They offer everything from private, customized tours to regularly scheduled trips anyone can join for the price of a ticket.

Mint Julep recently expanded its options for full-day public bourbon tours on Fridays and Saturdays. A three-day adventure to nine different distilleries is also available. Each daytrip includes stops at three distilleries, lunch at a locally-owned restaurant, all admissions and planning, and comfortable transportation with an enthusiastic tour leader.

Mint Julep has an official relationship with the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) and its official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but that doesn't mean they won't take you to Buffalo Trace and other non-KDA distilleries. The KDA also has official relationships with R&R Limousine, as well as Uber and Lyft.

I'm not a big ride sharing guy, but if sitting in the backseat of a stranger's Prius for a couple of hours sounds cool to you, go for it. Me, I prefer the comfy buses.

Because the places you want to go are so spread out, and because there is alcohol involved, a successful tour of America's whiskey heartland requires planning. Although it is much more developed now than it was ten or twenty years ago, it is still a bit of the Wild West compared to a distillery tour of Scotland or a winery tour of the Napa Valley. But if you use all of the available tools, that can be part of the fun.

Monday, July 17, 2017

There Are Blends and There Are Blends



The word 'blend' is primarily a verb. It means to mix two or more things together so they combine into one thing. It is a common word, meaning more or less the same as 'mix' and 'combine.' It can also be a noun, referring to the combination itself.

A 'term of art' is a word or phrase that means one thing in common usage, but something else in a particular trade or 'art.' The specialized definition usually is related to the common one, it is just more narrowly drawn. Terms of art exist in many fields, from law to, well, whiskey-making. They can be confusing, especially when you are unfamiliar with the specialized terminology.

Which brings us back to 'blend.' Here it gets even more confusing because while 'blend' is a whiskey-making term of art, it doesn't mean the same thing everywhere. In Scotland, for example, a 'blended whisky' is a mixture of one or more single malt whiskies with some quantity of grain whisky. That is what it means in Ireland and Japan too. Canada is a little different, but the same in principle.

Which brings us to the USA.

The American definition of 'blended whiskey' is unique. It grew out of a dispute between distillers and rectifiers that came to a head in 1909. The compromise, issued by President William Howard Taft, allowed distillers to call their product 'straight whiskey,' while rectifiers were required to use the term 'blended whiskey.'

The new rules were written so as to define 'blended whiskey' as essentially what the rectifiers at the time were making.

Under U.S. rules, 'blended whiskey' is a mixture of at least 20 percent straight whiskey, the remainder being whiskey or neutral spirits. That sounds simple, but it covers a lot of ground. The typical American blend today is at that minimum of 20 percent straight whiskey, the balance being neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. Most knowledgeable drinkers, when they think about American blends, think 20 percent whiskey, 80 percent vodka.

Such a creature is whiskey only in the United States. In the rest of the world, you can't put neutral spirit in something and still call it 'whiskey.' Admittedly, most blending whiskey is nearly neutral, but it is whiskey.

Seagrams 7 is the best-selling American blend. The last time I looked it was 25/75.

Because of the large quantity of neutral spirit in American blends, they are very inexpensive and that seems to be their primary appeal. They are sometimes disparagingly called 'brown vodka.' 'Whiskey-flavored vodka' may be closer to the point. They are usually served as a highball with a soft drink, most famously 7UP (the 'seven and seven' cocktail).

But American blends have not always been that way. In the years after Prohibition, when well-aged whiskey was in short supply, many companies had 'Class A' blends that were all whiskey, albeit of different types, and some of it young, but containing no neutral spirit. These went away as well-aged whiskey became more available and blend buyers became more and more price sensitive.

Today, well-aged whiskey is in short supply again, for a different reason, and 'Class A' blends may be making a comeback.

More on that to come.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Was Fleischmann's the First American Gin?



In the latest edition of The Bourbon Country Reader, we look at the tenure of Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas at what is now Buffalo Trace. Baranaskas had been president of Fleischmann's Distilling prior to he and Falk buying the Frankfort distillery in 1983.

The Reader article provides a little background about the Fleischmann company, which claimed to be the first American producer of gin. Our good friend in Australia, Chris Middleton, disagrees.
____________________

Maybe it is a moot point, Fleischmann’s claiming to be America’s first gin distiller. Maybe it was their advertising hubris or category ignorance that led to such an erroneous statement. They were not the first distiller of gin in America. Neither were they the first domestic brand of gin. Not by a country mile. I checked Sazerac, where it states on their Fleischmann's site ‘…and America had its first distilled gin as well.’ I suppose because they put this statement on the front of their label, that’s sufficient evidence of its veracity.

Some years ago I looked into the US gin/geneva history. It is a difficult category to get a clear fix on the historical consumption, imports and local production before Prohibition.

Gin distilleries, also distilleries producing gin (e.g. molasses spirit, rectified with juniper) established themselves along the east coast by the 18th century. Immigrating Dutch distillers were likely early users of rye spirit; whereas British-American distillers were accustomed to using barley malt or molasses as the spirit base. The base doesn’t legally matter as it’s juniper flavored ethanol that essentially defines the category. No doubt small household distillers and apothecaries (with small compounding stills) were making gin much earlier. Juniper cones (berries) were a staple herbal/botanical of American apothecaries since the early 1700s, probably earlier as native juniper (Juniperus virginiana) was substituted for desiccated European cones/berries (Juniperus communis).

Before the Revolutionary War, gin was a popular spirit in the Colonial era i.e. 1760 & 1770s. An imported British habit and custom. Even during the War years gin had strong patronage, both domestic and imported. Gin was perceived and also consumed as a health tonic or elixir, especially among females. Ironically, its early usage was as an abortifacient.

While much of this flavored new-make was imported from England (gin) and Holland (geneva), many domestic distilleries were also serving the local communities, from Vermont (Middleburg Falls gin distillery) to Georgia (Henry Snow, distiller, made Georgia Geneva from 1767 in Savannah). Meanwhile, in the mid-States, Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont bought John Livingston’s gin distillery on Joralemon Street on the East River frontage, Brooklyn, in 1787. During the war, a fire destroyed the Livingston distillery. Pierrepont refurbished the distillery as the Anchor Gin Distillery. For 32 years he sold the Anchor gin brand in the tri-State area. It survived until 1819.

Late 18th and early 19th-century distilling manuals and grocery instructions always included a section of recipes for different types of gin (cordial, Old Tom, genever, French genevier, juniper spirit, etc.). In 1791, a Report to the Secretary of Treasury stated ’the consumption of genever, and gin, in this country, is extensive. It is not long since distilleries of it, have grown up among us to any importance.’ Three years later New England gins were described as ‘equal if not superior to imported’ (American Museum & Universal Magazine, 1794).

Even by 1806, the American Manufacturer Report estimated that of the 15 million gallons of spirit consumed annually, three million were of domestic rum and gin. They described "large gin distilleries in cities." As rectifiers were starting to dominate the cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York), I have wondered how much grain and molasses was diverted into gin rectification and compounding. The old quadfecta of local spirits distilling was rum, whiskey, gin and fruit brandies (apple, peach); grape brandy was an import. There was much imported English gin & Hollands geneva; the bulk rebottled for sale by local agents and wholesalers, such as NYC’s A. M. Binninger’s Old London Dock Gin in 1858. Binninger's also produced the first bottled Kentucky bourbon whiskey brand in 1846.

Fleischmann’s may not be the first; although they probably are the oldest gin brand made in America today. Black Friars Distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in Britain since 1793. They make Plymouth Gin. Lucus Bols is the oldest genever brand in the Netherlands, they started distilling in 1575. Assuming Fleischmann’s has been distilling and compounding gin since 1870, except during Prohibition, that makes Fleischmann’s America’s oldest continuous gin brand, which I believe is the case.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why You Have Never Heard of Woodinville Whiskey Company



It was announced today that the Woodinville Whiskey Company of Woodinville, Washington, has been acquired by LVMH, the French luxury brands conglomerate.

Unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, you probably have never heard of this seven-year-old craft distillery run by Orlin Sorensen and Brett Carlile. That is because although their products are well-distributed in Washington, they are unavailable everywhere else. “Our goal is for our brand to have roots and be a significant factor in the American whiskey category in our region before we move outside,” says Sorensen.

Significant? How about competitive with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, an international brand owned by Brown-Forman. In Washington State, Woodinville's bourbon sells about as well as Woodford.

The bottle shown above, from 2013, was young but showed great promise. These days, their lead offerings are a house-made bourbon and rye aged for a minimum of five years in 53-gallon barrels. “These two products have been our goal since Brett (Carlile) and I started the distillery in 2010,” says Sorensen. “We always felt that if we could produce a truly handcrafted, quality product from grain to bottle of a mature age, and offer it at a reasonable price, the rest would take care of itself.”

Sorensen sees age as a competitive advantage. “The craft whiskey market is getting real crowded. A $50+ bottle of 6 month old whiskey is going to have a tough time against a 5 to 6 year old craft bourbon or rye at $40.”

As always seems to be the case when a craft distillery is acquired, the principal attraction for the buyer is a successful brand. Everything else follows that. Since Woodinville is a grain-to-glass operation, changes won't happen quickly. Sorensen and Carlile will continue to run things. 

Why do people sell? For many entrepreneurs, that is always the goal. For others, where the principals want to retain control of the business, and the new owners want them to, the incentive is release of capital. If everything you have is tied up in your business, it is a great relief to get some of it back, especially on generous terms. 

Diversification, you know.

In the case of whiskey, there are unique considerations. Because of aging and taxes, it takes a lot of capital to grow a whiskey-making business. The most successful new distilleries face the greatest challenge because they need so much capital to exploit their full potential. A rich partner that knows the business and has a proven track record of enhancing brand value is just about the perfect partner to have.

Woodinville did good.


ALSO: Susannah Skiver Barton does a great job covering this story on the Whisky Advocate Blog.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Maker's Mark Private Select Needs a Better Name



Many producers have private barrel programs, in which a customer selects and buys an entire barrel of mature whiskey. The contents of the barrel are bottled, usually with a personalized label, and delivered to the customer through the usual channels. Liquor stores do it. Bars and Restaurants do it. Private individuals do it too, often as part of a group. It is a fun experience and an easy way to 'make your own whiskey.' No special skills are required. You just need money and time.

But the Maker's Mark Private Select program is so unlike those other private barrel programs, the generic name doesn't do it justice. With the Maker's program, you aren't just choosing a whiskey, you actually customize it.

Here's the story.

In 2010, Maker's Mark had a problem. Its new corporate masters, the Jim Beam folks, were demanding innovation, i.e., new products.

New products are the lifeblood of most businesses. They generate buzz and increase top-of-mind awareness, which increases sales. Shareholders like innovation and, at that time, Beam was part of a public company.

But Maker's Mark has always been different. Although they had messed around with packaging and proof, they had really only ever made one product, aged-to-taste Maker's Mark bourbon. It was the only product made at the Loretto distillery and it was made nowhere else. They did things other people didn't, such as moving barrels around in the warehouses (called 'barrel rotation'), for the express purpose of creating a consistent product barrel-to-barrel, bottle-to-bottle, glass-to-glass.

They had been doing these things for all 50 years of their existence. They weren't good at making news. That's why company president Bill Samuels Jr. had to dress funny.

As he and other company representatives said repeatedly, "We already make the best bourbon we know how to make. How can we make it better?"

The answer was to make something that was still Maker's Mark, not better, just different. Thus Maker's 46 was born. Maker's 46 is a finished whiskey. It is mature Maker's Mark finished in barrels into which specially-prepared French oak panels have been added. The finishing takes about nine weeks.

Private Select takes the 46 concept a bit further.

When they were working on 46, they did a lot of experimentation with different woods and different ways of toasting them to bring out different flavors. Each experiment was given a number. The one they liked best was number 46, hence the name.

But then they realized, along with their partners in wood at the Independent Stave Company, that one wood prepared one way was just the beginning. What if you developed other woods? What if you combined them? What if you let customers combine them? How many different whiskeys could you make?


With Private Select, you have five different woods (all oak, U.S. or French, toasted differently), which you mix and match on a board such as the one above. Maker's 46 is one of the options. You work with samples of Maker's finished with each of the woods, so it's a blending project. What you create and taste in the blending session should be very close to the way your final barrel will taste.

They've been doing it since 2015. Forty-one barrels were created in the 2015-2016 season, for accounts in seven states. During the 2016-2017 season it was 239 barrels in 18 states plus the District of Columbia and Japan. They are doing about one a day now.

Suggested retail is $69.95 for a 750ml bottle (cask strength), which gives you a rough idea of how much it costs, since a barrel should yield about 250 bottles. Right now the program is available only to commercial accounts, not private individuals or groups.

There is more to tell, but that should be enough to explain why it needs a better name.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Utah's 'Zion Curtain' is History, or Not


Salt Lake City restaurant owner Joel LaSalle in front of his 'Zion Curtain.'
(Rick Bowmer, AP)
If you have never bought a drink in a Utah restaurant, you may not believe this is true but it is ... or, rather, was.

They call it the 'Zion Curtain,' a barrier that prevents drinkers in Utah restaurants from seeing their drinks being made. Why? Because Utah wants to protect children from being seduced by the glamour of bartending. This has become even more onerous for restaurants in recent years as bartending has become, well, more glamorous.

But now a new law is dragging Utah kicking and screaming into the mid-1930s.

The rule has only ever applied to restaurants that allow children. No children, no problem, so places that don't admit anyone under 21 have never needed them.

The partitions have not always been with us. They were only enacted in 2009 and applied only to new restaurants, built after the law went into effect.

As you might suspect, it's a Mormon thing. The Mormon faith forbids the consumption of alcohol. Caffeine too, though apparently Starbucks doesn't have to protect children from the glamour of barista-ing.

As a result of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition, the beverage alcohol business in the U.S. works in a way that is almost exactly opposite to how all other laws involving commerce behave. It turns the Commerce Clause on its head in many, though not all ways.

Alcohol in Utah and some other states is similar to abortion in many of the same states, in that they can't ban it altogether so they just try to make it as inconvenient and unpleasant as possible for you to exercise your legal right.

Don't get me started on 3.2 beer.

Although no other state has anything like the 'Zion Curtain,' every state has its own legal peculiarities when it comes to alcohol. Convenience stores in Indiana may sell beer but not cold beer.

In virtually all other forms of commerce, the U.S. is a single market. The same rules apply everywhere. With alcohol, it is 50 different markets. That complexity and inefficiency is built into the price of every alcoholic beverage you buy.

But remember, it's for the children.

Just because the 'Zion Curtain' is tumbling down, that doesn't mean the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC) will stop being a pain in the ass. Now all restaurants, including those built before 2009, will have a choice of either creating a 'no kids zone' at least ten feet from the bar, possibly through the use of a railing or half-wall, or they can keep the partitions. Restaurant owners have five years to comply, assuming Utah doesn't change the rules again.

The UDABC is also warning restaurants that the changes they plan to make must be approved before they are implemented, or they could lose their license. Some of the people who were smashing their partitions last week may need to get out the Crazy Glue.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Falk and Baranaskas, Saviors of Buffalo Trace, Belong in the Hall of Fame



Imagine a world without the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

If you think that prospect is too horrible to contemplate, say a quiet word of thanks to Ferdie Falk and Robert Baranaskas, without whom that great distillery might be a state office complex today.

In 1983, veteran spirits execs Falk and Baranaskas bought the nearly-idle Albert Blanton Distillery in Frankfort from Schenley and formed a new company called Age International. They ran it successfully during some of the worst years for the American whiskey business since Prohibition itself. They enjoyed a nice payday when they sold it to their Japanese partners, who immediately sold the distillery to Sazerac, itself one of the few companies in those days making money selling American whiskey. Sazerac renamed it Buffalo Trace and the rest is bourbon history.

Ancient Age kept the brands it made there: Blanton's, Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, and others. Buffalo Trace still makes them, under contract.

For the whole story, including the likely reason they aren't in the Hall, you need to read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader.

The Sazerac Company figures in this issue's other story too, as the company has submitted a patent application for its Old Fashioned Sour Mash process, which differs from conventional sour mash in that it does not use backset (i.e., stillage).

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.

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.)

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Go ahead and subscribe. All of the cool kids are doing it.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Tom Bulleit, Great Guy, But Not an Entrepreneur



Under the "Icons of Entrepreneurship" banner, the INC.COM headline says this: "The Unsung Hero Behind Bulleit Bourbon."

It is about Betsy Bulleit, her marriage to Tom, and their "third and fourth children," Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye. It is a fluff piece, written by the brand's PR agency.

I like Bulleit Bourbon (a product of Four Roses) and Bulleit Rye (a product of MGP of Indiana). They are excellent whiskeys. And I love Tom Bulleit. I always enjoy visiting with him. He is a great guy. I don't know Betsy, but the happy marriage angle is great too. I'm totally happy for them.

But Tom Bulleit is not an entrepreneur.

In 1995, Bulleit, a lawyer in Frankfort, Kentucky who had some business in Japan, created two new bourbon brands, 'Bulleit' and 'Thoroughbred,' for the booming Japanese market. He sold Bulleit to Seagrams in 1997. They reformulated the whiskey and redesigned the package. Mostly, they liked the name, which is pronounced 'bullet.' Thoroughbred fell by the wayside.

Tom was an entrepreneur for two years.

Selling your company after two years is surely one measure of entrepreneurial success, but you stop being an entrepreneur when you stop entrepreneuring. For the last 20 years he has been a brand ambassador. Brand ambassador is a noble calling and Tom is a very good brand ambassador but he is an employee, like Fred Noe is at Beam. It is not his company.

The brand owner is Diageo, world's largest drinks company, which never can resist gilding the lily.

Friday, June 9, 2017

MGP Ingredients Announces the Re-Launch of George Remus Bourbon



A lot has been written about MGP Ingredients, a company that makes commodity whiskey at a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The company is primarily a neutral spirits distiller. It has been mentioned here a few times.

MGP is changing, gradually and not always smoothly, but profoundly. They are cautiously adding a branded products component to their commodity offering.

That is what makes their re-launch of George Remus Bourbon, announced this week, significant. George Remus Bourbon is a tiny Cincinnati-area brand that MGP acquired last year, not long after it was launched. That product used whiskey made at MGP's Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery. The new version, according to the company, is a different formulation ("a smoother, more complex whiskey") in a new package.

Liquor brands that celebrate criminals (e.g., Popcorn Sutton, Clyde May) are inherently problematic, considering the fraught history of alcohol in both legal and illegal forms. The real George Remus was a very successful bootlegger at the beginning of Prohibition, but is that any reason to buy his namesake whiskey? Guys like Remus are only in it for the money, after all, so his standards were not very high. If it had alcohol in it, that was good enough for him.

But he was a colorful character. If you want to know more, check out William Cook's biography, George Remus, King of the Bootleggers

"We’re whiskey lovers and are very proud to offer this updated styling of George Remus Bourbon," says Andrew Mansinne, Vice President of Brands, MGP Ingredients. He is a recent hire in a brand new job. Til American Wheat Vodka is MGP's other branded product.

"This is a complex bourbon whiskey that showcases our signature, high-rye profile and the talent of our distillation team, who have artfully crafted George Remus Bourbon into a beautiful and bold spirit inspired by George Remus’ rebellious and entrepreneurial character," says Mansinne.

Available this summer in select markets (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota), George Remus Bourbon is made at "MGP’s historic, 170-year-old distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana." It is good to see them featuring the "historic, 170-year-old distillery," an attribute that will have resonance long after the novelty of the brand's name fades.

Suggested retail is $44.99 for a 750 ml bottle.

6/13/17: I received this image of the new package from MGP's PR firm. It's an improvement.