Saturday, May 14, 2022

Every Picture Tells a Story


Greendale Distillery; Greendale, Indiana; circa 1920.

Whiskey-making in America wasn’t fully industrialized until the final quarter of 19th century, but then it became very big very fast. This is clear from what we know, but hard data to quantify it is elusive. It is even harder to find detailed information about individual distilleries, especially those that disappeared without a surviving physical plant or brand. 

Prohibition is the reason for the paucity of public records, that and the stigma that attached to whiskey-making as a result. Many families covered up their involvement rather than preserve it.

But we can glean some facts from the limited information we have. This image is of the Greendale Distillery in Greendale, Indiana. (Most ‘Lawrenceburg’ distilleries were actually in the adjacent town of Greendale.) We know that after the Whiskey Ring scandal of 1871-76, whiskey production for the greater Cincinnati area became concentrated in Lawrenceburg-Greendale.

This image is taken from a 1920 warehouse receipt. Many distilleries of that era had similar detailed line drawings of their facilities on their letterhead, stock certificates, warehouse receipts, and other documents. After Prohibition, picture postcards of similar images became common. Many of both have survived. By comparing these pre-Prohibition drawings to Sanborn Maps, post-Prohibition postcards, and surviving structures, we see the 19th century drawings were generally accurate, not fanciful nor aspirational. 

The purpose of these images was, perhaps, to assure customers that they were doing business with an actual distillery and not a broker or other intermediary. For us, they can tell us things about the distillery we don’t get from the existing meager record.

Stitzel-Weller Distillery, post-Prohibition picture postcard. 

For example, although Greendale was a small community compared to Cincinnati, this is the configuration of an urban distillery, reflective of the ‘reformed’ industry post-scandal. Everything is close together on a large city block. Although not shown, it is likely there were similar facilities on either side. We know the Squibb Brothers distillery was adjacent to Greendale, as they were combined into a single plant after Prohibition.

Greendale wants us to know it is a modern and substantial distillery. The artist made it a point to show paved roads with automobile traffic on the block’s two visible sides, with sidewalks and curbs. The locomotive visible middle-left tells us a railroad runs through it. (Notice that a train is also depicted on the much later Stitzel-Weller postcard.) 

The large building left-front is clearly the main one. It may be offices, at least a sales room, with the distillery behind. One of the towers is probably an elevator, the other the column still. The stacks indicate boilers.

The two buildings in the center are maturation warehouses, likely holding 18-20,000 barrels each. The long, low buildings at the upper left are probably bottling and finished-goods storage. 

The building on the right is harder to figure. It appears to be two-story with no windows downstairs, which suggests some sort of storage or processing as opposed to offices. Cistern room? New barrel staging? Many distilleries of this era had large machine shops for fabrication and repairs. They were, in some ways, more self-sufficient that the mega-distilleries of today.

We can't tell much about the low buildings on the right, except that the plant is using every inch of its real estate.

What have we learned from this picture? That Lawrenceburg-Greendale was very much like Louisville or Peoria in its urban concentration of large, industrial whiskey manufacturers. How large? We have a record that says Squibb Brothers Distillery, next door, was mashing 330 bushels per day in 1885. That comes out to about 10,000 barrels per year. If the two obvious maturation warehouses are it, and hold about 40,000 barrels, and they’re selling 4-year-old whiskey, those numbers work.

It's a lot of speculation and a shame we have to guess at these things, but at least every picture tells a story, don’t it?

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Who Gets the Best Whiskey?

Barrels of maturing whiskey.

Consider this a thought experiment. 

Let’s say you have a whiskey distillery. You make a lot of whiskey. Most of it you sell through brands you own and distribute. Those are your most profitable sales, the ones that earn you the most money. 

But sometimes you make too much whiskey, more than you need. That’s a good strategy because when you distill whiskey you don't know exactly how much you will be able to sell all those years down the road when it matures. You make too much or risk making too little. 

No problem. You can sell that surplus to a non-distiller producer (NDP) for one of their brands. You won’t make as much money selling it that way, but you will make a profit. It won’t be hard to sell. With new whiskeys appearing all the time, the NDP market is always hungry for good liquid.

Maybe selling whiskey in bulk is more than just something you do to dispose of excess stock. Maybe it is part or even most of your business. Maybe you have standing contracts with customers for regular deliveries of mature whiskey. Maybe you sell new make. Maybe you lay down whiskey at your own expense for sale on the spot market when it matures. Maybe you sell most of your output in bulk. 

Nevertheless, brand sales are more profitable than bulk sales so even if branded products are a small part of your portfolio, they will inevitably contribute a disproportionate share of your profits. That's why every commodity producer aspires to be a brand producer. It's natural. In business, one proven way to improve profits is to move up the value chain. It’s the nature of the beast.

So that's the business you're in, now a little about you. You are an experienced whiskey-maker. You make the best whiskey you know how. Nothing goes out the door that does not meet your high standards. Your whiskey is excellent. You don’t make bad whiskey. You don’t sell junk. It's all good.

However, you know each barrel is unique. The barrel itself, the tree it came from, its location in the warehouse, the season it went into the warehouse, all those things make each barrel unique. When each barrel is unique, some barrels will be better than others.

In practice, distillers regard all barrels laid down on the same day and stored in the same part of the warehouse as the same, but even within those sets of 50-60 barrels, there are differences if you care to find them. 

As a distiller, you and your tasting panel make subjective judgments about your whiskey every day. All things being equal, the whiskey from some barrels is better than others. It could not be otherwise.

Here comes the thought experiment.

It is time to select which barrels you will use for your most profitable channel of distribution, where the labels have your name on them; and which barrels you will sell in bulk, where you make less money and the labels do not have your name on them.

Which channel gets your best barrels?

Remember this the next time you get all excited about some bottle you’ve never seen before, from some producer you don’t know, that some retailer or buddy has just shoved in your face. The label is obtuse about where the whiskey was made. Maybe you pooh-pooh people who care about that sort of thing. “I don’t care about that stuff, as long as the whiskey is good.”

Exactly the point of this exercise, finding the best whiskey.

Not to say NDP whiskey is bad, or that whiskey from a known producer will always be better than whiskey from an unknown one. In fact, NDPs often get their hands on very good whiskey, or they are very good at combining whiskey from different sources into something greater than the sum of its parts. That's where the best NDPs shine.

But way too often, that cool label that caught your eye is just a marketing idea and the whiskey inside, while perfectly okay, is nothing special and not worth what they are asking. 

NDPs have unique challenges because they are at the mercy of the market. Distillers are better off because they make everything they sell.

Right now it's a seller's market for mature bulk whiskey and most contract producers are booked up. NDPs have to take what they can get and can't always get what they want from the distillers they want to get it from. That causes inconsistency. Both types of producer strive for consistency in their brands from batch to batch, bottle to bottle. Who do you think has better control of that, the distiller producer or the NDP?

As a whiskey consumer, if you like to spin the wheel and take your chances, more power to you, but as with any risk-reward scenario, there are ways to tip the balance in your favor. 

The first is to be aware if the bottle you are looking at is from a known distiller producer or a NDP. With a known distiller producer you know what you have, no further inquiry is necessary. With a NDP, you might want to dig a little more, gather more data before you make a monetary commitment. If you can find out who the NDP is, maybe you can find out what else they make, and start to move them closer to known producer status.

A known NDP is a better bet than an unknown NDP. 

Some NDPs make this easy by selling a wide range of products from many different sources under a common umbrella. Find one or several NDPs whose stuff you like and let them do the hunting for you. Barrell Craft Spirits and Proof and Wood Ventures are two good examples. With Barrell, Barrell is the brand. Proof and Wood has a variety of brand concepts but the company name is on the label. Good NDPs have web sites. Good NDPs tell you as much as they can about the whiskey they sell. Good NDPs are into whiskey, not celebrity endorsements, fancy packages, or phony backstories. This is a growing niche. 

On the other hand, if the producer makes it difficult for you to find out who they are and what they had to do with the whiskey in the bottle, that should tell you all you need to know. Sure, happy accidents happen, but they are never a good bet. Give the cagey NDPs a pass.

There are no guarantees, but these are ways to improve the odds that you will get something new that you will like for a reasonable price. There is a fundamental difference between a known distiller producer and a known NDP, but a known unknown is better than an unknown unknown, as Don Rumsfeld might say. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Why 'Straight Bourbon' Does Not Mean 'Straight Bourbon'

It may not mean what you think.

'Straight bourbon' does not mean 'straight bourbon.' 


Said another way, the legal meaning of the term 'straight bourbon' is different from the ordinary meaning of the term. This is a never-ending source of confusion and consternation for many.

The dictionary says the word 'straight,' when referring to an alcoholic drink, means undiluted, the same as 'neat,' and gives the example of "straight brandy." This is the ordinary understanding of what 'straight' means in that context, a beverage served as-is, with nothing added. We use this meaning in everyday speech. "Give it to me straight" means "tell me the truth." 

Many whiskey enthusiasts very logically extend that understanding of 'straight' to insist that a whiskey with flavoring or a secondary barrel finish or anything else done to it whatsoever cannot and should not be labeled 'straight bourbon,' even with a modifier. It is no longer straight. That is, it is no longer just bourbon, something has been done to it. Maybe it's now flavored bourbon, but it's not straight bourbon.

They believe products so labeled are mislabeled due to the incompetence of regulators, the cupidity of producers, the chicanery of marketers, the duplicity of spirits journalists, or all the above. 

Whatever the reason, they are having none of it.

But their indignation is misplaced.

What 'straight' means when it precedes the word 'bourbon' on a liquor label, whether bracketed by 'Kentucky' and 'whiskey' or not, is not the ordinary meaning of 'straight' as 'undiluted.' The same goes for 'straight rye' or the generic 'straight whiskey.' In the context of spirits labeling, as regulated by the U. S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau, 'straight bourbon' is a term-of-art, which is itself defined as “a word or phrase that has a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field or profession.” 

The specialized meaning of a word or phrase can even, as in this case, contradict the ordinary meaning, or seem to. The two meanings in this case are certainly incompatible, hence confusion and consternation.

Here's the deal. On a label, 'straight bourbon' does not mean 'nothing but bourbon.' 'Straight bourbon' means bourbon whiskey (which is itself a term-of-art precisely defined in the regulations) that has been stored in a new charred oak barrel for at least two years.

That is the entire definition of 'straight whiskey,' which covers straight bourbon, straight rye and any other straight whiskey. It doesn't mean the term-of-art and the ordinary meaning. Just the term-of-art meaning applies. There is nothing about additives, nothing about filtration, nothing about finishes.

The term 'straight whiskey' gained its specialized meaning because of a presidential proclamation more than a century ago. Like the president president? Yes, William Howard Taft. Whiskey is that important.

Because the term-of-art overrides the ordinary meaning in this context, the ordinary meaning of 'straight' does not apply unless you say “straight straight bourbon” or "straight bourbon, straight," and I’m sure no one wants that.

Monday, April 25, 2022

New Basil Hayden Release May be a Good Choice for Fans of Extremely Old Bourbon

Very old bourbons, say 15-years and up, are not for everyone. Wood dominates, especially the acrid notes of char and ash. If that sort of thing appeals to you, and it does to many, the present limited availability and high cost of those products may be a source of vexation. Now comes a possible solution in Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke from Beam Suntory. 

The suggested retail is $49.99, but it seems to be running in the $60-$70 range. Even at that price it is more affordable than genuine very-olds like Elijah Craig 18 or Eagle Rare 17, if you can even find those at retail. It is a one-off, but it should be generally available until it’s not. (Their limited editions are not all that limited.) Point is, if you act now, you might actually get to drink it.

Make no mistake. This is not a very-old. It is standard Basil Hayden bourbon, most likely 6- to 8-years old (the 8-year age statement was dropped a few years back), with a secondary barrel finish. The finishing barrel is toasted and lightly charred, then they pump hickory-chip smoke into the barrel and through the whiskey. Nobody is claiming this as a ‘rapid aging’ technology, but it has that effect on the flavor. It tastes old-ish.

They maybe didn’t need to go to so much trouble. The end result is similar to Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, which they get by soaking, heating, and agitating freshly emptied barrels, then mixing that wash with the straight whiskey.

Like most work-around solutions, this one has drawbacks. Although Basil Hayden has become an almost-anything-goes experimental platform for Beam Suntory with secondary barrel finishes, flavorings like port wine and other innovations, they are sticking with the brand’s 80° proof hallmark (40% ABV). This, they say, is what makes Basil Hayden ‘approachable,’ one of the brand's key attributes, and while that is generally true they might want to pause it for this product. Despite the name, the effect is not that subtle, which is all to the good for folks who like this sort of thing.

Another deficiency is the body. It comes off thin because char overpowers the vanilla and wood sugars a high-rye bourbon like Basil Hayden relies on for backbone.

As for it being ‘smoky,’ it is smoky in the way that a very old bourbon is smoky. It is nothing like a smoky scotch. That is peat smoke and there is nothing like that here. It is hickory, after all, campfire smoke or, if you prefer, bacon smoke. (But it doesn’t taste like bacon either, more’s the pity.)

There are some blends out there that also simulate that very-old effect. Whether it's Beam Suntory's Little Book or American craft blends from independents such as Lost Lantern and 50 State, expanding your search beyond known double-digit age statements and opening your mind a little to different ways of getting there might just yield the taste you are looking for at a price you can afford from a bottle you actually can go to the store and buy, and wouldn't that be a nice change-of-pace?

Monday, April 18, 2022

A Long Time Ago in a Congressional District Far, Far Away


Kentucky's 5th Congressional District

In my marketing career, I had only one experience as a professional political operative when the advertising agency I worked for was hired to make and place TV commercials for a candidate running in a primary.

The office in question was Representative for Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District. The 5th is in the southeastern corner of the state. Then and now, the district is rural and sparsely populated. In those days, leading up to the 1980 election, Kentucky was still mostly Democratic, but not the 5th. It was just as solidly Republican. This was a legacy, I was told, of Cassius Clay, the 19th century abolitionist who was a founder of the Republican Party. The mountainous region never had much slavery, I was told, so it had no Southern sympathies and had always voted Republican. 

It was my first taste of what Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

The incumbent was Tim Lee Carter, who had decided to retire at age 70 after holding the job for 16 years. It was universally understood that the winner of the Republican primary would win the general and could hold the seat indefinitely. The 5th didn't change its representative unless the current one retired or died. That’s how it was done in the 5th. 

For ambitious Republican politicians in southeastern Kentucky, this primary was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When the dust settled, ten candidates made the ballot. 

My employer was a typical Louisville advertising agency, not a political specialist. I had worked there for about two years. I was their radio and TV guy. I was 28.

Our clients included a regional convenience store chain, a regional drug store chain, a distillery (it being Kentucky), a bank, a lunchmeat maker, the usual mix. We would create and place TV ads for the candidate. The campaign would do the rest, whatever ‘the rest’ was. 

The situation was unusual in that there were no television stations in the district. There was no cable, no streaming, all TV was over-the-air. The district was served by stations in Lexington and Knoxville. We explained that the cost-per-thousand would be insane but there was no other way to reach the district’s voters by television.

In terms of size, we were the #3 agency in the state, but our media buyer was highly regarded. I think her reputation is why we got the gig. The media buy would be tricky. 

I didn’t have a dog in the fight, it was just an assignment, but the project yielded a few memorable experiences. I recall one early meeting where we presented the project budget. When we revealed the total, the campaign manager made a few taps on his calculator and remarked, “for that I can buy every Republican in the district a pint of Jack Daniel’s.”

I am very proud of my reply.

“Sir, if you can figure out how to do that, I think the money would be better spent.”

He laughed.

Another memory is from the shoot itself. It was outdoors, in the district. I remember a lot of driving to different locations, but I don’t remember where they were. The commercials were simple, just the candidate speaking to camera in some appropriate setting. It probably was my first trip to that part of the state, which is very hilly. For one scene we choose a nice spot for the candidate to stand, with rolling hills in the background, fading off in the distance, and I experienced vertigo because there was no level ground, no way to get my bearings, no matter where I looked.

I don’t remember who was on the crew, but I remember it was fun. I recall driving up and down all those southeastern Kentucky hills in a big, black Lincoln, as one does.

(Actually, we got the Lincoln because the trunk was big enough to hold the gear, it was more comfortable than a van, and the candidate was driving the same model, so it looked kind of cool. They thought it might create some buzz.)

Although we were not political specialists, we knew enough to take a baseline survey to figure out where the various candidates stood with voters before the campaign began. The retiring incumbent announced that he would not make an endorsement, and he didn't, but it was generally understood that his long-time chief-of-staff had the inside track. Sure enough, that guy finished first in the baseline. Our guy was a member of the state legislature who happened to be the frontrunner’s cousin, with the same last name. He ranked third in our baseline. 

Considering that this was the first competitive election for that office in 16 years, no one had any idea how it would go or what might move the needle of voter opinion. The campaign hadn’t even begun. It looked like maybe half the field would have enough money to do something, but that kind of election in that kind of district, who the hell knows what will happen? Surely people will do whatever they do before an election, to decide who they want, and the various campaign efforts will have an effect. Something will happen, right?

So, we all did our thing. We made and ran our commercials. Being a primary, it was pretty much one-and-done. There was no opportunity for mid-course corrections. There was no way to tell if our efforts were having any effect until the votes were cast and counted.

Our guy lost. 

His cousin, the incumbent’s chief-of-staff, won. 

What’s more, the election results corresponded almost exactly to the results of our original survey. The ranking was exactly the same and the vote shares were more-or-less the same. Everything we and all the other campaigns did, all the money we spent, had zero effect on voters. None. I kept thinking, if only we could have done that pints-of-Jack thing.

This memory came up today because Don Young died last month. Young held Alaska’s only House seat for 49 years, which made him the House’s longest-serving member, its ‘dean.’ Upon Young’s death the new dean became Hal Rogers, the man who won that primary 42 years ago. He still represents Kentucky’s 5th and is now Dean of the United States House of Representatives. 

John Wanamaker, of the famous Philadelphia department store, is reputed to have said, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half.” This one time, I knew.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Does Your Whiskey Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?


“Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” is a novelty song written and originally recorded in the 1920s. It was revived with great success in the late 1950s and became a hit single.

Only somewhat less frivolously, people in whiskey discussions often complain that the taste of a favorite dram has changed, from bottle to bottle, even within the same bottle. They may also mention a change, always in the wrong direction, from some hallowed past. They report this on social media or to their local whiskey club pals and wonder if anyone else has noticed it too.

Why are they so quick to assume it is the whiskey that has changed, and not themselves? It forces one to ask an indelicate question. What was in your mouth prior to the whiskey?

We explore this and other questions in the latest issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which will be mailed to subscribers in the next few days.

"Mailed"? As in the USPS? Yes, we're old school that way. Words on paper, in an envelope, in ye olde mailbox. 

In this issue, we also learn how the secret to enjoying craft spirits may be in finding the right curator, and we discover how distilleries big and small buy rye grain, and why the American rye whiskey in your glass may have been made with rye grown in Sweden.

Click here to subscribe via PayPal (PayPal account or any major credit card, U.S. address only). Click here for other options (including for a non-U.S. address) and more information about the newsletter itself.

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 21, Number 1. 

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card (the fastest and easiest way). Or click here for other options and more information (the slightly more difficult way). Click here for a free sample (an older 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.)

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

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UPDATE 4/5/22: Delayed at the printer. Most will be mailed today.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Fifty Years Ago in Chicago, It Was Illegal for Women to Bartend


Historical marker outside She-nannigans, 16 W. Division St in Chicago.

In 1951, the City of Chicago enacted what came to be called the 'barmaid ordinance.' It prohibited women from "pouring, mixing, or drawing intoxicating liquors" in a licensed establishment unless they owned it or were related (as wife, sister, or mother) to the owner. Chicago wasn't unique. Michigan had a similar law that survived a Supreme Court challenge and the state of Illinois had related laws that made Chicago's ordinance possible.

When the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, women could serve drinks but couldn't legally make them. A woman couldn't even draw a beer. It was against the law.

Later that decade, She-nannigans became the first bar in Chicago to employ all female bartenders in a deliberate effort to 'bust' the ordinance, hence the “She” in its name. The bar hired some of the female flight attendants who lived in the neighborhood to tend bar on their days off. It was, as they like to tell it, "a modest act of civil disobedience."

She-nannigans is still there. It bills itself as a "sports and Karaoke bar" now, but remains proud of its founding purpose.

The whole business was more serious than the lighthearted way it is remembered on Division Street. The ordinance was largely ignored for more than a decade, until Chicago's Superintendent of Police James Conlisk, Jr. suddenly decided to enforce it and began making arrests. 

A lot of things happened on Conlisk's watch. He was in charge of the cops during the riots that followed Dr. King's assassination, the 'police riot' that rocked the Democratic convention later that year, and the police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Several of Conlisk's high-ranking subordinates were indicted and eventually convicted for shaking down tavern owners. Arresting female bartenders using that old ordinance was part of the extortion scheme.

After Conlisk's cops started to make arrests, bars all over town began to fire their female bartenders. Nearly four hundred unionized African-American female bartenders lost their jobs. Their union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and their Local 444, refused to support them. The unions backed the ordinance.

In 1968, fourteen female bartenders, two male tavern owners, and the Metropolitan Tavern Association brought a class-action lawsuit against the city in Federal court. The trial court transcripts are both disgusting and hysterical. Someone should put them on stage.

The main justification for the 'barmaid ordinance,' as the lawyer representing Chicago helpfully explained, was that a woman could use her sexual allure to "hypnotize" a man into buying excessive amounts of liquor. "A poor fellow would not know what he was drinking and, lo and behold, if something happens in that bar the licensee can lose his license but Mary can go across the street and go to work there," he argued. The judge suggested that maybe it would be okay if the women simply dressed like men. "Especially if she is shirted or tied so that the bosom is not unduly exposed nor the dress by tradition unduly suggestive," he opined.

The fact that women could legally wear 'suggestive' costumes while serving drinks at the Playboy Club did not, apparently, seem relevant to either side.

There were ultimately two different cases, McCrimmon v. Daley (quoted above) and Daugherty v. Daley. In McCrimmon, the court eventually ruled that, "sex is not a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business of tending bar in the City of Chicago." The barmaid ordinance was held void in view of the supremacy clause of the Constitution because it violated the 14th amendment and conflicted with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was still getting some of its earliest courtroom tests, especially with regard to discrimination on the basis of sex.

The McCrimmon decision came down in March, 1970. In 1981, March was declared "Women's History Month."

The 1974 Daugherty decision, which She-nannigans celebrates, dealt with similar state laws that also were ruled unconstitutional. 

Half-a-century later, the idea that women should be legally prohibited from any line of employment seems ridiculous to almost everyone. Perhaps the issues that divide us so fiercely today will seem just as ridiculous in another 50 years.