Thursday, May 13, 2021

Did This Government Pamphlet Launch the Craft Distilling Movement?

In 1982, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy teamed up to publish Fuel from Farms, a Guide to Small Scale Ethanol Production. This 168-page document encouraged farmers to set up small distilleries to produce ethanol from their grain or other agricultural products. By converting their tractors and other farm equipment to run on ethanol, they could become energy self-sufficient. (That was just one of the benefits.)

In addition to publishing this helpful tome, the government streamlined licensing and regulation. It also made a stern effort to exclude beverage alcohol from the equation. 

Although the fuel part never took off, the simplified applications and lower fees were extended to beverage alcohol licenses, triggering a revolution.

Got some spare room in the barn?
Why not start a distillery?
There were other factors too, of course, and craft distilling did not catch fire overnight. But from a handful the movement has grown to more than 2,000 distilleries, all over the U.S., and is adding about 200 new producers each year.

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, we deep dive into the roots of this dynamic movement. In this issue, in Part 1 of this two-parter (or maybe three), we explore the movement from its humble beginnings up to today. Next time we'll survey the contemporary craft distilling landscape. 

It's all in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies in a 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 history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still a mere $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. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 20, Number 4.

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 searchable PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

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Thursday, May 6, 2021

What Company Makes the Most Money from Bourbon? The Answer Might Surprise You (But Probably Won't)

We are about 20 years into the 'bourbon boom' and craft distilling renaissance. Much has been said in that time about all the new brands and new producers who, according to some, are bound to replace the tired, old legacies. How is that going? Who holds the largest dollar share of the bourbon category today? 

According to Wine and Spirits Daily, nearly one-third of all the money spent on bourbon, rye and other American-made straight whiskey products is spent on this company's brands.

It is Brown-Forman. B-F holds the largest dollar share of the bourbon category at 28%.

Brown-Forman's lead dog, of course, is Jack Daniel's. Woodford Reserve and Old Forester also contribute. The other big contributor to the company's bottom line is Herradura Tequila. 

And Brown-Forman is about as legacy as legacy gets, founded in 1870 to sell bourbon, it is publicly owned but still controlled by its founding family. 

How do they do it? I worked for a Brown-Forman marketing agency in the early-to-mid 80s. If they couldn't get a brand to at least #2 in its segment (sometimes narrowly defined), they sold or killed it. They also had very high return-on-investment requirements. They made an exception for Old Forester because it was the company flagship, but otherwise they were ruthless. 

That was a long time ago but speaking as a close observer of the industry, I don't think their philosophy has changed much. 

I would love to tell you how the other 72 percent of the bourbon category breaks down but I'm not willing to spend $545 to get past the Wine & Spirit's paywall and I'm not sure they know precisely anyway, because two of the biggest producers, Heaven Hill and Sazerac, are private companies that don't report results.

But based on what we peasants can see, the Bourbon Big Four (Beam Suntory is the other one) all seem to have so far weathered the craft distilling threat pretty successfully.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Mint Julep. You're Drinking It Wrong, Probably

More mint juleps are consumed on Kentucky
Derby Day than the rest of the year combined.
Mint juleps and the Kentucky Derby go together like all those other things that go together. You almost cannot mention one without the other.

Invariably at this time of year, you hear complaints about what a bad drink the mint julep is. One famous Kentucky writer famously urged his readers to go through the ritualized preparations, then throw all that muck away and drink the bourbon neat.

For those who don't know, a mint julep consists of fresh mint leaves, muddled with a little sugar, doused with bourbon and served over crushed ice with a mint sprig for garnish. It is a venerable, old drink. It is not a "bourbon mojito."

The problem with mint juleps is not with the drink, but with people who don't know how to drink it. A mint julep is most perfect the moment it is made and should be drunk quickly, not necessarily in one gulp, but without dawdling. If you sip on it, it quickly becomes a watery mess. 

Derby Day is back where it belongs, on the first Saturday in May, which this year also happens to be the first day of May, so feel free to sing "The Internationale" right after "My Old Kentucky Home." 

This has been a public service announcement.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Sazerac Sends Fireball to China and Experiments with Baijiu at Home. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A Baijiu sampler.

So this was in the inbox: "Budweiser China today announced a strategic partnership with The Sazerac Company to bring Fireball Whisky to China."

Also this: "Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery announces the limited release of a Baijiu-style spirit." 

An international incident is imminent.

Fireball is a very successful product, marketed as 'whiskey' with the barest possible legal justification. For most drinkers of actual whiskey it is the punchline to a joke, much as Budweiser is ridiculed by many beer drinkers.

The disrupter.

In China, however, Budweiser is a premium product and leads the premium segment of the Chinese beer market. Budweiser China, which also sells Stella Artois, Corona, Hoegaarden, Cass, Harbin and other brands there, is the most profitable brewer in Asia. In addition to China, the company distributes to South Korea, India, Vietnam and other Asia Pacific regions.

China also is the world's principal baijiu producer. Although little known outside China, that vast market alone makes it the best-selling type of distilled spirit in the world. It accounts for about 31 percent of spirits volume globally, according to the International Wine and Spirits Record (IWSR, 9L volume, calendar year 2019). 

The Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Baijiu-style spirit is distilled like whiskey but uses traditional Baijiu ingredients of sorghum and peas. After aging the distillate for 11 years in three separate casks--uncharred, charred and toasted white oak--the spirits were married together and bottled at 90 proof. 

In addition to Fireball, Budweiser China will act as the exclusive distributor for other premium alcoholic offerings from Sazerac such as Goldschlager, Southern Comfort, Seignette, Buffalo Trace and Seagram's V.O. in the Chinese mainland.

Baijiu is the 24th experimental release from Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery. The first was in 2006. The Experimental Collection includes thousands of different recipes and barrel treatments which examine a variety of unique variables from changes in the mash bill, types of wood, barrel toasts and more.

Experimental Collection Baijiu Style can be found in select markets. Quantities are extremely limited. Suggested retail pricing is $46.99 per 375ml bottle. 

America's whiskey makers have longed for more opportunities to penetrate the Chinese market. Much of the industry's recent investment in increased production capacity is premised on steady, strong export growth, for which China is the principal target. 

It is not known if Buffalo Trace is experimenting with cinnamon-flavored Baijiu.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sagamore Spirit Should Leave Cinco de Mayo Alone

Sagamore Spirit’s 'Rye-Garita' and 'Paloma' cocktails,
for an authentic Maryland Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Sorry, Sagamore Spirit, but you caught me in a grumpy mood. I didn't know I was in a grumpy mood until I learned, from your helpful press release, that "the countdown to Cinco de Mayo has officially begun." Already? And officially! 

It continues, "But what if you’re bored of traditional tequila or have made one too many margaritas at home this past year?" 

Yes, by God, I am bored with traditional tequila and have made one too many margaritas at home this afternoon...I mean, this past year. But what's a boy to do?

Sagamore Spirit has the answer. First, rush out and buy a bottle of their straight rye whiskey finished in Tequila barrels (because that's a thing). It's just $69.99/750ml from Drizly. Use it to mix up a batch of Cinco de Mayo cocktails using that instead of, well, something actually Mexican.

Sagamore Spirit is a Baltimore-based whiskey brand with an increasingly fractured persona. In the beginning (just a few years ago), Sagamore Spirit was all about reviving the heritage of Maryland rye whiskey. "Our spirit flows from a spring house, built in 1909, at Maryland's Sagamore Farm," they cooed. "Naturally filtered spring water, fed from a limestone aquifer. The same water that fuels our champion thoroughbreds also cuts the rich spice of our rye, creating a spirit as revolutionary as America’s risk-takers and history-makers. Our story is one of passion, of old meeting new, and crafting a timeless American whiskey."

Is it?

Well financed by the owner of Under Armor, Sagamore Spirit built a beautiful, state-of-the-art distillery on the waterfront in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood, just off I-95 and close to the Inner Harbor. It opened in 2017 and celebrates its fourth anniversary this month. Today's press release mentioned none of that.

No whiskey made there has been bottled yet. Their current product is a mixture of two straight ryes made at MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In fact, they designed their Baltimore distillery to duplicate those whiskeys as nearly as possible. That famous Maryland water is used to dilute the barrel-proof Indiana whiskey down to bottling proof.

The whiskey's actual provenance has never been a secret. Other than scattershot messaging, they've done everything right. They've established the brand solidly throughout the region and stand a good chance of transitioning to house-made liquid without a noticeable change in taste. That's been a challenge for many new producers. 

So naturally, as one does when one is trying to revive an early American regional whiskey tradition while transitioning from a sourced to a house-made product, Sagamore Spirit decides to finish some of its rye whiskey in 'Extra AƱejo Tequila barrels.' The result of this pairing, they claim, "is remarkably unique tequila finished whiskey with notes of agave and vanilla on the nose and honey, peppercorn and orange citrus to taste." (I assume that was translated from the original Mexican.)

It might have been interesting to mention that most Tequila aging is done in used barrels that previously held bourbon or rye or some other new-barrel American whiskey, maybe even one made at the same distillery in Indiana where Sagamore Spirit's whiskey is made, which would be a neat story indeed, remarkably unique even; barrels made from Ozark oak, first used to age Indiana rye, then dumped and shipped to Mexico, where they hold Tequila for 3+ years, are dumped again and shipped to Baltimore where they're used to finish some of that same Indiana rye so it can be used in a lame Cinco de Mayo promotion by a distillery that thought it had an image but now isn't so sure.

The press release also helpfully reminds us that "pairing tequila and whiskey is always a risky move," which is, apparently, why they didn't do that. This is not "tequila-finished whiskey" as claimed. It is tequila barrel finished whiskey. That's different. The claimed "notes of agave" are not bloody likely.

I visited Sagamore Spirit in the summer of 2019. It's a beautiful and modern facility, right on the water, paired with a small hotel and upscale restaurant. They have a lot going for them, but in addition to being a young brand, Sagamore Spirit is a small brand. It can't afford such a fragmented image. Successful brands, including the biggest ones, are focused and consistent They know who they are and stay on message. The best example is the most successful American whiskey, Jack Daniel's. Their message hasn't changed in 100 years! 

Sagamore Spirit should decide who it is and be that, and probably skip Cinco de Mayo altogether. Consider instead a May promotion involving a little local horse race called The Preakness.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

If You Like Rye Whiskey, Thank a Natufian

A rye-lovers dwelling.
If you like rye whiskey, you may owe it all to the Natufians. They were among the first humans to use rye grain. 

The Natufian culture emerged along the eastern Mediterranean coast about 15,000 years ago. They were just starting the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers by collecting and then cultivating wild cereals, especially rye, which originated in nearby Anatolia. They didn’t have stills (they didn’t have metal), but they did make beer. 

In 2018, the world's oldest brewery was found in a prehistoric cave near Haifa in Israel. The residue in it was 13,000 years old. As their knowledge increased, early brewers learned that barley is better than rye for beer because it dissolves more easily and more readily converts from starch into fermentable sugar. But rye never fell out of use.

Like many rye whiskey lovers the Natufians were semi-sedentary, able to meet their needs without constant nomadic roaming. 

Two lovers expressing rye love.
The Natufians were the last Middle Eastern culture that didn’t have bricks. Their buildings were partially below ground, with dry stone foundations, the upper part of brushwood. Although they stayed in one place for long periods, their settlements were not quite permanent. Much like the pre-Columbian cultures of North America, they most likely exploited their immediate environment to exhaustion, then moved to a similar unspoiled area not far away. 

That pattern of behavior continues to the present day, except now when we exhaust a resource there is nowhere else to go. 

As people of the late stone age, the Natufians reached a high level of sophistication in stone implement manufacture, specializing in small and sharp cutting tools.

They also made stone art. The oldest known depiction of a couple having sex is a small Natufian stone carving found in a cave in the Judean desert. 

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of dogs comes from Natufian sites.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Before 97X, There Was WOXR


I rise today to add a minor footnote to a story that is itself obscure, so be forewarned. Also NO BOURBON CONTENT.

In 1981, Douglas and Linda Balogh, two Cincinnati advertising executives, bought a 3,000 watt FM radio station in Oxford, Ohio, for $375,000. They changed the call letters to WOXY and it became an alt-rock phenomenon branded as “97X,” whose influence far outstripped its humble size and reach. 

In 2004, the Baloghs sold the station and took their format online, which lasted until 2011. If you want to know more about their story, just search “97X WOXY” for a wealth of resources. 97X WOXY is not to be confused with 97X WLXY, a radio station in western Illinois.

I’m here to do a Paul Harvey and tell you the rest of the story.

The station’s original call letters were WOXR and it was licensed to and located in Oxford, Ohio, the home of Miami University, a public university with about 17,000 students. Oxford is the quintessential college town. It is about 50 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

Like many of the earliest FM stations, WOXR was started in 1959 by an electrical engineer. He had another station in Kokomo, Indiana, where he lived. The story was that he had invented some device, which he also manufactured and sold to the Defense Department, and that’s where he made his money. He was an interesting guy, an Indian immigrant, nice enough but a little crooked and he ran the station on a shoestring. On payday, the station's employees raced each other to the bank because there was a good chance the last checks presented would bounce.

Rick Sellers was my friend, teacher, and fellow radio enthusiast. He was a few years older than me, with a master’s degree from Miami. In about 1972, he was hired by WOXR as station manager and ‘morning man.’ Rick is legally blind but had enough vision to get around Oxford on a bicycle. He could read the teletype printouts from which we got our news and weather, though he had to hold the paper directly against his thick glasses and move it from left to right, imitating the motion of the teletype machine. His disability limited him very little.

Another notable Miami Radio & TV classmate and friend from that era was Rick Ludwin, who went on to fame as a television producer and longtime NBC programming executive, generally credited as being the person who got “Seinfeld” on the air.

The two Ricks were leaders of a group of younger radio enthusiasts that included me. When Sellers got the job at WOXR, we were all anxious to join him there. I got my chance part-time late in 1972, then full-time after I graduated in June of 1973. I was Operations Manager and the early evening DJ. Most of the people who worked there were close friends, so we hung out together most of the time when we weren’t working. We used to joke on the air that we all lived together in a big house at the edge of town, which was true metaphorically if not literally.

At the time, the station was on North College Ave., just north of High Street. Not long after I went to work there we moved to High Street, into the center of the ‘uptown’ commercial area just west of the Miami campus, in the lower level of a commercial building that included a Burger Chef fast food restaurant. 

Like everything at the station, the move was done on a tiny budget. We were, apparently, the first tenants in that space as it was entirely undeveloped. I designed the floor plan and we all participated in the construction up to the limits of our specific skills. I could help with most of the construction but not the electronic stuff, although I did successfully solder a patch panel, of which I was proud. The two mixing consoles were homemade, though not by me. 

The station’s programming was eclectic. Prior to Sellers the station, like its sister in Kokomo, tried unsuccessfully to be the typical small town radio station. Sellers convinced the owner that Miami students were an untapped audience, and he found a couple of local businesses who were willing to buy advertising to reach them. I sold advertising too and we eventually hired a fulltime salesperson. The first person to briefly hold that position was Bob Michelson, a Miami grad from New York who went back to Manhattan to manage syndication for the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," a steppingstone for most of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

Naturally, WOXR was one of the first stations to carry the show. We also ran Bob's next project, a serialized radio drama based on the Marvel Comics "Fantastic Four" stories. Bill Murray was the voice of Johnny Storm, 'the Human Torch.'

Sellers’ morning show was on the ‘service’ model; lots of local news, weather, and sports; stories and guests of community interest; a limited amount of mostly top 40 and oldies music; and Rick’s very winning personality. The rest of the daytime programming was similar, becoming a little more progressive rock as the day went on. Although there was a program director and a music director, we had pretty much free reign to program our shows as we saw fit.

I came on in the early evening and transitioned into what was a full-on progressive rock format in the later evening and, eventually, overnight. I sometimes took shit from the daytime people for rocking too hard and from the late-night people for not rocking hard enough. I snuck in classical music, jazz, and novelty records, and read poetry and short essays on the air. Some of it was planned in advance, but most of it was spontaneous.

It was a lot of fun. 

Like the people who came along later with 97X, we played the most progressive music being recorded in the rock genre, much of it music that few other stations were playing. The Cincinnati market progressive rock pioneer was WEBN, an FM station started by a wealthy man who thought Cincinnati needed more classical music on the radio. It failed to catch on, so he let his son and daughter play 'their' music at night. Pretty soon, the progressive rock format was making the whole station a commercial success.

Like 97X, WOXR aspired to be more progressive than WEBN. Also like them, we aspired to penetrate the Cincinnati market even though our signal just barely reached that city’s northern suburbs (unless you had a pricey antenna). One of our proudest moments during my tenure was making the Cincinnati ratings book for the first time, albeit with the lowest number needed to qualify for inclusion.

I left the station in June of 1974. I was 22 and afraid that if I stayed in Oxford much longer, I would never leave. That wouldn’t have been a bad life but, at 22, I wanted to see what else I could do. I continued to be close to Rick Sellers and some of the other people there for another year or two, coming back once or twice for the annual Easter holiday “Roll Away the Rock Weekend,” during which we played oldies and station alums like me came back and pulled on-air shifts. Rick left in 1975, eventually buying and running a station in Iowa. WOXR went back to more of a straight Top-40 format until the Baloghs bought it in 1981. They moved the station again and the old High Street space became a pet shop.

When “WKRP in Cincinnati” went on the air in 1978, we fancied that it was based on our little station. We even had a ‘Jennifer,’ an exceptionally attractive receptionist who was nice enough but romantically out-of-reach for her many admirers. 

I like to think that although I had nothing whatsoever to do with 97X, we helped lay the groundwork. We were popular with many local high school kids, some of whom were still around when 97X came along and who recognized the connection, but most of the people who worked there never knew about us or what we did. That’s okay. For me it was a great experience during my formative years and gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I had a few more radio jobs, then transitioned into advertising. The freedom of the WOXR experience may have made it hard for me to work for anyone else. In 1986, I started to freelance and remained self-employed for the rest of my career.