Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Is Craft?

What is craft, as in 'craft distillery'?

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

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

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

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

Maybe this will help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

My Brazil Experience

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

I did not vandalize a gas station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, it was a great trip.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Booze for Beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among distilled spirits, there are straight spirits and liqueurs.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mr. Boston Bartender's Guide is Now Online

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

Ingredients: bourbon whiskey, glass

Directions: Pour bourbon into glass. Drink bourbon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Rule Writing Is Not a Job for Amateurs

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

"Rubba Dub Dub, Make Mine Old Tub"

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

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

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

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

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

Brand names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

"Toggie's Invitation" Is a Tribute to Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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