Saturday, May 23, 2015

Owner and Injured Distiller Sue Still Maker Over Deadly Silver Trail Explosion


WPSD-TV, the NBC affiliate in Paducah, Kentucky, is reporting today that Silver Trail Distillery owner Spencer Balentine and Jay Rogers, one of the employees injured in the distillery accident on April 24, are jointly suing Oregon still maker Revenoor for damages.

The family of Kyle Rogers, 27, who died from injuries he received in the explosion, has not yet decided how they want to proceed.

Investigators for the Kentucky Fire Marshal's office in Frankfort have said the explosion was most likely caused by a "catastrophic equipment failure." The Fire Marshal has not announced an official cause.

On Thursday, Amanda Powell, Silver Trail Museum Manager, issued a public statement to other owners of Revenoor stills. "DO NOT operate until you have spoken with the Kentucky State Fire Marshal's office in Frankfort," she warned. "The model 300 gallon Revenoor used by Silver Trail failed massively, hurtling 50 feet and bending a 10' X 10' sliding steel door before landing in the gravel lot." Jay Rogers said the explosion was totally without warning and occurred four gallons into a normal run.

In her statement, Powell also made allegations about the Revenoor Company and its owner, Terry Wilhelm of Yamhill, Oregon. "The very day of the accident Mr. Wilhelm began placing Revenoor Stills into bankruptcy and pulled the website down according to the insurance investigation," she claimed.

In an interview with Mark Gillespie on Friday, Wilhelm denied Powell's assertions. “I started to pull the website and the phone number down on February 24th, not the day after the explosion," Wilhelm told Gillespie. "There hasn’t been anything done about a bankruptcy filing. I simply did it because there were some health and some personal family issues that were just getting to be too much along with the work with Revenoor. I simply wasn’t in a good mind to take any more orders."

An archived copy of the Revenoor web site can be seen here.

According to Gillespie, Wilhelm shut the business down because of a family dispute over ownership. Wilhelm told Gillespie that he has been locked out of the Revenoor shop on the family’s farm since February 23 with no access to the company’s equipment or records. Wilhelm also said that he has not been contacted by anyone associated with the Kentucky Fire Marshal and is willing to cooperate fully in the investigation.

There have been a handful of accidents at micro-distilleries in the last ten years, but no deaths or serious injuries until Silver Trail. The Kentucky Distiller's Association has established a support fund for Jay Rogers and the family of Kyle Rogers called 'Lifting Spirits.'

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Distillery Security Post Pappygate


Today I would like to direct your attention to the Whisky Advocate website, where I will regale you with stories of empty bottles falling out of walls and other tales of distillery security.

Not surprisingly, considering the value of their products, distilleries have extensive human and technological resources devoted to security, yet for every tall fence someone else builds a taller ladder, and folks with larceny in their hearts always find a way, like bribing a security guard to look the other way (allegedly).

Click here for my Whisky Advocate story about distillery security.

Click here for the latest Pappygate news from the Lexington Herald Leader. (There has been a tenth indictment.)

Click here for Larceny, a bourbon dedicated to a better class of whiskey thief.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Buffalo Trace Distillery Issues Third Annual Bourbon Inventory Update


Buffalo Trace started all of the bourbon shortage hysteria with their first report three years ago. Since then, they have gotten increasingly careful about how they word things. I will, therefore, let them speak for themselves. By the way, Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, which also owns the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown. This press release refers to Buffalo Trace and its brands only.
_____________________

There’s good news and there’s bad news coming from Buffalo Trace Distillery in its third annual bourbon inventory update. The good news is that supplies of fully-aged whiskey at the 225-plus-year-old Distillery continue to increase and Buffalo Trace is making more whiskey than ever. The bad news is that demand continues to outstrip its available supply, which means all of the Distillery’s whiskey brands remain on allocation.

“This annual update relates to Buffalo Trace Distillery specifically, and is not intended to speak for the bourbon industry as a whole, or other distillers,” said Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t hear from fans asking why they can’t find their favorite whiskey at the local liquor store, so we are offering an annual update to inform people where we stand, and ensure fans we are distilling more whiskey and planning for the future.”

Since demand continues to outstrip supply, brands such as Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Van Winkle, and the Antique Collection (George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Sazerac 18, Thomas H. Handy, and Eagle Rare 17) will continue to be on strict allocation and hard to find for the foreseeable future.

Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, Weller, Sazerac Rye, Stagg Jr., and E. H. Taylor, Jr. will continue to be in short supply, but will benefit slightly from increased production more than a decade ago. “Although we can’t guarantee that every fan will find Buffalo Trace or Blanton’s every time they visit the liquor store, things are starting to look up, and overall our inventory is in a better place than it was a year ago. We are very appreciative that fans like our whiskey and thankful for all of their continued patience,” added Comstock.

A few things that Buffalo Trace Distillery will NOT do:
  • Buffalo Trace Distillery won’t lower their quality standards or alcohol by volume (ABV) just to sell more whiskey. 
  • The suggested retail pricing will not be raised just to take advantage of the high demand. (Note, although some stores may charge a premium for Buffalo Trace’s limited brands, the Distillery is not asking them to do so.)
  • Brands won’t be discontinued. All bourbon brands will continue to be produced and allocated each year, with a focus on quality and making more.  
In addition to the previous improvements announced in 2014 such as distilling more whiskey, adding more bottling lines, and hiring more people, Buffalo Trace is taking additional steps to prepare for a growing future. The Distillery recently purchased an additional 300 acres of farmland adjacent to its current land where it intends to grow its own grains for a farm-to-table bourbon, plus potentially build more barrel warehouses. Additionally, former barrel warehouse buildings repurchased a few years ago on the main campus of Buffalo Trace are being re-ricked and used again as barrel storage warehouses, and plans are in the works to re-rick additional buildings on site in the next few years.

The innovation Buffalo Trace is so well known for is being enhanced as the Distillery expands – its experimental warehouse, Warehouse X, has had nearly one year of barrels aging in it, yielding data with very interesting results; more than 3,000 barrels of experimental whiskies are currently aging on the Distillery’s grounds; and research on DNA fingerprinting is taking place as well.

The whiskies from Buffalo Trace are benefiting from resurgence in the category as a whole.

According to Nielsen, bourbon and whiskey grew at 6% for the 52 weeks ending 3/28/15, with premium volumes up 6.2% and ultra volumes up 19%.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Use of the 'Master Distiller' Title in Kentucky


I should have been clearer about this in yesterday's post. The Louisville Courier-Journal's headline, "Bourbon Leaders Debate Term 'Master Distiller,'" wasn't true. There is no debate. Nobody is talking about it unless a reporter calls around asking questions. As a distiller friend of mine commented, "real distillers are too busy to worry about titles."

That has been the history of the term's use in Kentucky. As Fred Minnick pointed out last year, its use was not unknown in the past. Minnick's Kentucky citations are to obituaries of people like Joseph L. Beam and Michael J. Dant, whose mastery no one would have challenged. He also cites to promotional announcements, in which producers tout the credentials of their staff. They used 'master' like we might use 'awesome,' as an amplifier.

In more common usage, the title was simply 'distiller.' Every distillery had at least one. In Sam Cecil's 1999 book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, his Chapter 5 is entitled 'The Master Distillers,' but the word 'master' appears nowhere else in the five pages that follow. The men he writes about are simply called 'distillers.' Distiller was the job title. 'Master Distiller' was a term of honor informally bestowed by one's peers, usually near the end of a career, when the individual's mastery was beyond dispute.

No one would have been egotistical enough to to refer to himself as a Master Distiller.

But things changes. When I started in advertising more than 40 years ago, every advertising agency had one Creative Director. The Creative Director was the person responsible for the agency's creative product. Large or small, every agency had one and only one, just like every company had one president. Today, even small agencies have dozens of creative directors and the largest have hundreds. In all kinds of companies, every division head is now a president. That's just how it is.

I'll let others philosophize about why this is so, but Master Distiller is no different. Every distillery now has to have one. Some have more than one. A convenient justification is to define Master Distiller as the person in charge of a distillery, but in many cases that's not actually the Master Distiller's job. Master Distillers usually have the final word on quality control, but not always. Responsibilities vary by company.

In reality, the companies want you to look at the person they call their Master Distiller as the ultimate authority on production and quality, and the most prestigious guest you can possibly have at your whiskey event. Like it or not, that's what the title means today. I don't see how the small guys can resist using it that way when the big guys are unlikely to stop.

This use of the title can be embarrassing for all concerned, especially when the company is a non-distiller producer. A good rule of thumb would be to withhold all distiller titles until the person has actually distilled something. A person who reviews and approves liquid distilled by someone else isn't a distiller. The correct title for that person is 'customer.'

But is there a debate? Not really. Is anything likely to change? Probably not. Does it matter? Not very much.

But I will offer one small piece of advice and it's not just about the title Master Distiller. If you want to be in this business, it is in your best interest to learn and be sensitive to its history. This business didn't begin the day you became aware of it. History and heritage are very important. Newbies who immediately want to change everything catch a lot of grief. Spare yourself. Keep your head down, learn your craft, and get better every day. If you do all that, you'll probably like what people choose to call you.

Friday, May 8, 2015

What Is a 'Master Distiller'?


This headline topped a story in today's Louisville Courier-Journal (C-J): "Bourbon Leaders Debate Term 'Master Distiller.'" (The article may be protected by a pay wall.)

Although it looks like the 'debate' was contrived by the paper, the subject is of interest nonetheless and comes up from time to time. Ever since the micro-distillery boom began, the industry has been flooded with self-appointed master distillers. There are many different opinions about what the term should mean.

This is where the history lesson usually goes, medieval trade guilds and all that stuff. The principle established there is that new masters are properly declared only by existing masters.

In Kentucky, the history of the master distiller title is much more recent. "Things have really changed in the past 15 years," said Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge to the C-J reporter. "I was a distiller working in the distillery. I wasn't out in the media. If someone came around and wanted tours and I was available, I would give tours. Now most of my time is spent traveling, talking to groups of people."

Rutledge comes from a tradition at the now defunct Seagram Company where distillers were formally and rigorously trained. Today, aspiring distillers get their training and experience where and how they can. Major producers tend to hire chemists or chemical engineers and train them in the specifics of distilling. Brewers often transition well because fermentation science is important to both professions. Still makers and dealers, technical schools, and trade associations all offer distilling courses and workshops.

It seems to have been the Kentucky Bourbon Festival that popularized the term master distiller in Kentucky. The producers bestow it, using their own criteria. Mostly and increasingly, they view the master distiller as the best kind of brand ambassador, someone who knows enough of the art and science to keep the nerds happy. What they actually do back at the plant is incidental, as far as the bosses are concerned.

A truly frightening prospect reported by the C-J is that the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) may get involved. Another power grab by that bunch is the last thing the business needs. "We've had discussions within the association about whether Kentucky needs to develop criteria for master distiller," said KDA president Eric Gregory to the C-J. Nice of him to speak for Kentucky since, despite its name, the KDA is an association of companies, not distillers, and it only represents its members, who do not represent all of Kentucky's whiskey makers.

It also represents one very big company, Diageo, that distills no whiskey in Kentucky.

There is no association of distillers themselves, in Kentucky or nationally, and if anyone is going to define master distiller it must be working distillers and no one else. Otherwise, leave it alone and let consumers decide, based on individual resumes and the liquid in the bottle, who the true masters are.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Plaintiffs in 'Handmade' Cases Are Slapped by Florida Judge


As shown here, Maker's Mark Master Distiller Gregg Davis has hands.
The owners of Tito's Vodka, Templeton Rye, and other spirits producers facing false advertising accusations are breathing a little easier today after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Monday ruled in favor of Maker’s Mark and parent company Beam Suntory in a class action lawsuit alleging misleading marketing in the labeling of Maker’s Mark as 'handmade.'

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle dismissed the complaint of two Florida consumers 'with prejudice,' thereby ending the case. “In all events, the plaintiffs have not stated a claim on which relief can be granted,” the ruling concludes.

“We have asserted all along that the complaints in this case were frivolous and without merit, and we are very pleased the court agreed with our position so emphatically,” said Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark. “This ruling is very good news, and it should send a strong message to those who would seek to gain from similar baseless and irresponsible litigation,” added Kent Rose, senior vice president and general counsel of Beam Suntory.

The case is Dimitric Salters and A.G. Waseem, etc. v. Beam Suntory Inc. and Maker’s Mark Distillery, Inc., etc. The full text of the decision is here. Feel free to jump ahead to page four.

While Judge Hinkle's decision is only law in the Northern District of Florida, it will surely influence the judges in other cases. Not all of the facts are the same, of course. Judge Hinkle noted that Maker's Mark is made in batches of no more than 19 barrels. Plaintiffs didn't challenge that fact, though perhaps they should have. There are many ways to break down batch size. For Maker's, those 19 barrels represent the size of a dump tank, 1,000 gallons. That's a bottling batch. A distillation batch is much larger. These are all facts, but their significance is open to dispute.

Judge Hinkle further explains that no reasonable juror would believe Maker's Mark is made entirely by hand, a fact acknowledged by plaintiffs who "offered other possible meanings, including made from scratch or in small units. But the defendants say they make their bourbon from scratch and in small units. The plaintiffs have alleged no contrary facts."

"The plaintiffs suggest 'handmade' implies close attention by a human being, not a high-volume, untended process. But the defendants say their human beings pay close attention and that, while they produce a large volume of bourbon, they do it in small, carefully tended batches. Again, the plaintiffs have alleged no contrary facts."

So, a different judge might find differently. Also, Templeton's case is more about false representation of origin than a strictly 'handmade' claim, and while 'handmade' is at the center of the Tito's case, a court could easily find that his product is not "made from scratch or in small units," thus using Salters against him.

So those other guys aren't out of the woods yet, but Maker's is.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sinful Maybe, But Not How You Think



Sinfully Thinn is a new line of whiskey products from a micro-distillery in Ohio, near Lake Erie northeast of Cleveland. The sin? That there is nothing thin about it.

Don't you expect that a product called Sinfully Thinn Light Whiskey will be lower in calories than regular whiskey? Comb through the web site. They make no such claim. They can't. Ethanol is ethanol. It's all the same. There is no reduced calorie version.

It works like this. All of the calories in whiskey come from ethanol. They say their 1.5 ounce serving contains 100 calories. A 1.5 ounce serving of whiskey at 40% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) is 0.6 ounces of ethanol, which contains about 119 calories at the standard for ethanol of 7 calories per gram. They say 100. Have they reduced the calorie count by 16 percent? I doubt it. If they had, they would say so. They're just calculating it a little bit differently. There is no official standard for stating calories on beverage alcohol products, so there is no telling how that number was reached.

And don't forget, they don't claim to be reducing calories. It's all in the implication of the name.

What they do make a big deal about is their vacuum distillation process. In beverage production, vacuum distillation is most commonly used to make gin and other infusions. MGP of Indiana uses vacuum distillation to make Seagram's Gin. Vacuum distillation has no effect on calorie count.

Finally we come to this, the words 'light whiskey.' 'Light' means lower in calories, doesn't it? Not in the case of light whiskey. According to the Federal Government's Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, light whiskey is a high proof distillate from grain, distilled between 80% and 95% ABV, that has been aged in used or uncharred barrels. Made similar to Scottish grain whiskey, it was supposed to help American distillers compete better with scotch. It didn't. It failed miserably.

'Light,' as used, means lighter in flavor, not calories. Light whiskey became legal in 1968 and had pretty much bombed out by the early 1970s, right about the time Miller Brewing decided that 'light' (or in their case 'lite') would henceforth mean, not lighter in flavor, but lighter in calories, and that's how people think about it today.

So is Sinfully Thinn Light Whiskey a lower calorie whiskey? No, it's not. It contains the same number of calories as other whiskeys of the same proof.

But what about light beers? They claim to have fewer carbs and fewer calories, how do they do it? By containing less ethanol. Some of the lowest are 2% ABV or less.

There are three expressions of Sinfully Thinn Light Whiskey, one unflavored and two flavored, blueberry and cinnamon. The flavored versions contain fewer calories than the unflavored one because they contain less ethanol. Light whiskey must be bottled at at least 40% ABV, but flavored light whiskey may be bottled at 35% ABV. (That's about 104 calories per 1.5 ounce serving at 7 calories per gram.)

The maker of Sinfully Thinn is Seven Brothers Distilling Company in Painesville, Ohio.