Monday, November 24, 2014

My People Have Been Pro-Booze for a Long Time

A little something about me or, rather, one of my ancestors, William Cowdery.

William wasn't on the Mayflower. He arrived ten years later and was one of the founders of what is now Wakefield, Massachusetts. For many years, he was the town clerk.

In 1654, the General Court of Massachusetts "empowered and ordered" William to "sell wine of any sort, and strong liquors, to the Indians, as to his judgment shall seem most meet and necessary for their relief in just and urgent occasions, and not otherwise, provided he shall not sell or deliver more than one pint to any one Indian at any one time upon any pretence whatever."

You're welcome.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Is the World Ready for Remy Martin V?

It's always risky when a company extends a brand into a new product segment. Sometimes it's very smooth. Consumers had no trouble accepting that Dove, a brand of soap, could also be used to sell shampoo, deodorant, and other personal care products. But consumers didn't want Jack Daniel's beer. It's hard to figure.

Rémy Martin is a name associated with Cognac. Rémy Martin V, which is getting a big advertising push right now, is not cognac. It is an eau-de-vie, meaning an unaged brandy. It's not a huge difference, at least on paper, but any Cognac drinker thinking it's just another Cognac expression will be shocked when they see it (it's clear) and taste it. Unaged spirits can be a bit rough.

Just as whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grain, brandy is a distilled spirit made from fruit. In most cases the fruit is grapes, but eau-de-vie typically are not grape-based. Pear is commonly used. Rémy V, however, is grape-based and known, therefore, as an eau-de-vie de vin.

The difference between a grape-based vodka, such as Ciroc, and a grape-based brandy is distillation proof, but as with some very high distillation proof whiskeys (Scottish grain, for example), the actual distillation proof of a brandy is up to the maker so long as it is south of neutrality (less than 95% ABV). If the distillation proof of Rémy V has been disclosed, I haven't seen it.

Here's what the company says about it. "At once bold and sophisticated, Rémy Martin V is the premiere eau-de-vie de vin from the House of  Rémy Martin. Born of legendary French vineyards, its grapes are distilled in the traditional manner in copper pot stills. On the rocks it is vibrant and intricate. Mixed, it is the soul of any great cocktail."

That implies that it is, effectively, white Cognac.

I became aware of Rémy V because of the current advertising campaign, but the product was actually launched in 2010, about the time major bourbon brands started responding to the white whiskey craze started by micro-distillers. That seems to have passed, but Rémy V must be showing enough organic growth to justify the current major advertising investment.

We're in a phase now that most adult beverage producers find uncomfortable. No one wants to drink just one thing. People want to try new things. This is forcing even the most staid brands to consider radical line extensions, to at least keep their customers from wandering beyond the brand family. Will Rémy V catch on? Nobody bought Jack Daniel's beer but millions are buying Jack Daniel's Honey Liquor, so who can say?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Are You a Top or a Bottom? Tree Section, that Is

The last time I mentioned the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project in a post was August of 2012, when release number six came out. Number fifteen came out on Monday. There is just one more to go.

As usual, the twelve whiskeys in this release focus on several variables, but the most interesting one is tree cut. Each tree contained enough wood for two barrels so they made one from the top half and one from the bottom half.

As Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley explains, that's bound to make a difference. “There are four direct components that are related to wood that contribute to our bourbon flavor; hemicellulose, lignin, tannins, and the char layer. There are two major considerations when it comes to tree composition and location, and those are lignins and tannins," says Wheatley. "The top half of the tree tends to have more lignin, which contributes to the formulation of vanilla and vanilla flavor. The bottom half of the tree tends to have more tannins, which contributes to the formation of ellagic acids and tannic flavor. Tannic flavor leaves your mouth dry and delivers complexity or richness in texture.”

All of the bourbons in this release were aged in barrels with the same entry proof (105°), same stave seasoning, aged in the same warehouse (concrete floor), and same char level (number three). All other variables; recipe (wheat or rye), grain size, and tree cut (top or bottom of the tree) vary.

If past online votes are any indication, fans will be all over the board when it comes to their favorite. Currently, barrel #82 is in the lead, but other barrels in the top spots vary in char level, tree location, recipe and char level. The only thing it seems fans can agree upon is entry proof (105° is preferred) and warehouse type (rick). More than 4,300 reviews have been submitted so far at
The Single Oak Project is part of an intensive study Buffalo Trace began in 1999 by hand-picking 96 trees with different wood grains and then dividing them into top and bottom pieces, yielding 192 unique sections. From there, staves were created from each section and air dried for either 6 months or 12 months. A single barrel was created from each tree section, resulting in 192 barrels. The barrels were given either a number three or a number four char and then filled with either wheat or rye recipe bourbon.

For more variety, the barrels were filled at two different proofs, 105° and 125°. Two different warehouses were used, one with wooden floors and one with concrete floors. During the eight years of aging, the distillery created intricate databases and came up with a potential of 1,396 tasting combinations from the 192 barrels.

Participation in the Single Oak Project isn't cheap. Suggested retail is $46.35 per 375ml bottle.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Failure of Diageo's Orphan Barrel Project

Diageo's 4th release of their Orphan Barrel Project is called Lost Prophet, a 22-year-old bourbon distilled in 1991 at what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. The retail price will reportedly be $125.

Whether or not Orphan Barrel is successful financially is unknown and while that's probably all that matters to Diageo, as a concept it's already a failure. Yes, there is a portion of the market that responds to anything very old, limited, and expensive, but that's all the Orphan Barrel bourbons are. People already feel burned by the 'limited' claim, but what the series really lacks is the transparency and authenticity true whiskey enthusiasts crave.

Although the whiskey is real, just about everything else about this 'project' is phony, starting with the designation 'orphan barrels.' All four releases were distilled by or, in this case, for United Distillers (UD), which was the distilled spirits arm of Guinness. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo. Therefore, the 'parent' of these whiskeys didn't so much die as remarry and take a new name.

The first three 'orphans' were all made at UD's Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, which is now owned by Heaven Hill. That distillery was completely demolished and rebuilt in 1991-92, giving us 'Old Bernheim' and 'New Bernheim.' Old Blowhard was distilled at Old Bernheim. Barterhouse and Rhetoric were distilled at New Bernheim. Although UD sold the distillery and several brands in 1999, along with some whiskey stocks, it retained ownership of what it's now calling 'orphans.' The Bernheim whiskey was originally aged in the masonry warehouses at Bernheim, but  moved to the steel-clad warehouses at Stitzel-Weller (SW) after Bernheim was sold.

The whiskey now being bottled as Lost Prophet was distilled at what is now Buffalo Trace in Frankfort on behalf of UD while Bernheim was under construction. It was originally aged there, but also moved to SW at some point. There was also a stock of whiskey made at SW, some of which sojourned in Canada for a time, before returning to Kentucky for sale to the makers of Jefferson's Bourbon. Whether or not Diageo has any of that whiskey left is another unanswered question. A stock of rye whiskey made at Old Bernheim was sold to Julian Van Winkle, then by him to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. It is unknown if Diageo retained any of that either. How many other orphans is it sheltering in Shively? No one outside the company knows.

Shortly after the whiskey for Lost Prophet was distilled, ownership of the Frankfort distillery passed to Sazerac, the current owner. Until 1983, both Buffalo Trace (then known as the George Stagg Distillery) and Bernheim were owned by Schenley, another Diageo predecessor company. After the mid-1970s, American whiskey was in the doldrums and many distilleries only operated for a few months each year. Schenley operated Bernheim and Stagg as if they were one distillery, taking turns meeting the company's limited needs for new whiskey. None of the company's Kentucky brands had a true home. If they needed to make some of a particular recipe, they did it at whichever distillery was operating at that moment.

In 1983, Schenley sold the Stagg Distillery and Ancient Age brand to Ferdie Falk and Robert Baranaskas. They called their new company Age International (AI). In 1987, the rest of Schenley was acquired by UD.

Falk and Baranaskas were longtime industry veterans. Falk was the CEO of Fleischmann’s, a division of Standard Brands, and Baranaskas was the company's president. Falk was also a former executive at Schenley. When Fleischmann’s was sold, Falk and Baranaskas wanted to stay in the business so they persuaded Schenley to sell them the Ancient Age brand and Stagg distillery.

Falk and Baranaskas made money however they could during what was a very hard period for American whiskey makers. They did a lot of contract distilling and sold bulk whiskey. As such, their relationship with Schenley and then UD continued more or less unchanged, as they could make all of Schenley/UD's products.

In the mid-1980s, international sales of American whiskey began to pick up, particularly in Japan. Falk and Baranaskas, and their former Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee, created Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon, primarily for the Japanese market. It was a hit. Other single barrel, super premium brands followed, including one named for Mr. Lee.

In 1991, Falk and Baranaskas sold a 22.5 percent interest in AI to Japan’s Takara Shuzo, with right of first refusal to purchase the remaining shares. In 1992, Falk (35.1 percent) and Baranaskas (33.9 percent) sold their shares to Takara for $20 million. Takara immediately sold the distillery to Sazerac but retained the corporate entity and brand trademarks. All of the AI brands continued to be made at Buffalo Trace, as they are to this day.

The ultimate failure of Diageo's Orphan Barrel Project is that you didn't learn any of this from them. Instead you get silly names, cute but meaningless label designs, and other made-up stuff. All of these whiskeys have a real story behind them and, presumably, at the prices being charged, it's information consumers would like to know. For instance, all of the Bernheim whiskey was made during the tenure of Ed Foote as master distiller. Gary Gayhart was master distiller at Stagg when the Lost Prophet whiskey was made.

The above is history, public information. What isn't known is the mash bill, the barrel char level, and other specifications of each product. Diageo knows all of this, why aren't they saying? They also haven't explained why none of this whiskey was sold before now, even as Diageo was contracting with other distillers for millions of gallons of spirit to support Bulleit and its other brands. Despite Diageo's use of the term 'limited,' this is clearly a very large stock of whiskey. How much more is there? Wouldn't you like to know?

Diageo could have told us interesting, true stories about these products. Instead they give us fantasy and look like they have something to hide.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Buffalo Trace Expands Distillery Site

Buffalo Trace Distillery has purchased 233 acres of land adjacent to its current location in Frankfort, Kentucky; the company announced today, bringing the total acreage of the site to 378 acres.

The recently acquired land includes approximately 100 acres of woods, a farmhouse with barns, and two ponds. It has a private entrance off Lewis Ferry Road (the road that runs behind the distillery), as well as road frontage off U.S. 127. From the farmhouse, the entire Buffalo Trace Distillery site can be viewed.

Buffalo Trace has yet to determine a final use for the acquired property but intends to plant its own corn, rye and barley on the site, from which it will make bourbon, to provide a true farm-to-table experience. It has not been determined if the home-grown grains will be used for a current brand, or if a new brand will be created.

"We are excited about the many possibilities this additional acreage will present to us and look forward to laying out some plans for the future," said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

The purchase price of the land is not being disclosed. Buffalo Trace Distillery is owned by Sazerac.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Jeremiah Weed Maker Says Product Is "Bewildering"

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am grateful to drinks giant Diageo for giving me so many interesting subjects to write about this past year. I love absurdity and Diageo never disappoints. Case in point is this announcement of three new products in the Jeremiah Weed line.

"It’s show time for Jeremiah Weed as the makers of the brand unveil a new line of American whiskies (sic) blended with hand-selected secret spices and natural flavors. Each variant is sure to bewilder and amaze as they take the stage as either a shot or mixed with cola. With these releases, consumers craving more curiosity and excitement from their whiskey will be provided additional options to be enjoyed responsibly."

The three new products are Jeremiah Weed Spiced Whiskey, Jeremiah Weed Cinnamon Whiskey, and Jeremiah Weed Sarsaparilla Whiskey. ("It's like root beer," the press release helpfully advises.)

Diageo is also the company behind the new Pie Hole brand, another trio of flavored whiskey products. The Pie Hole line has a Canadian whisky base. Jeremiah Weed is an American Blended Whiskey with flavoring. Unlike whiskey whiskey, flavored whiskey can be sold at less than 80° proof (40% ABV). The new Jeremiah Weed products are 70.6° proof (35.3% ABV), 71.2° proof (35.6% ABV), and 70.4° proof (35.2% ABV), respectively. Why three different proofs? Probably just for added bewilderment.

Speaking of which, it may be hard to understand why a producer wants to call something that tastes so little like whiskey by that name. Imitation, of course, drives much of the packaged goods industry and the big dog in sweet, flavored alcoholic drinks right now is Sazerac's Fireball, which calls itself 'whiskey' with the same minimal justification and likewise tastes nothing like whiskey as most whiskey drinkers understand the term.

You should drink whatever you like but if you drink these products, just understand that they have nothing to do with whiskey. Due to a political compromise made more than a century ago, the United States alone in the world allows products that contain very little actual whiskey to be labeled as whiskey if the proper modifiers are used. American blended whiskey (the base for these Jeremiah Weed products) can be as much as 80 percent vodka and usually is. Spirit whiskey can be as much as 95 percent vodka. The base for Canadian whisky, while not quite vodka, is whiskey distilled just a jot shy of neutrality. It's a fine line. Hit 95 percent alcohol or more off the still and it's vodka. Anything less than that is legally considered whiskey.

In Canada and Scotland, while blending whiskeys are nearly neutral off the still, they are all aged in oak, usually used bourbon barrels. The blending spirit in American blended whiskey is straight neutral spirit, i.e., vodka.

In contrast the products whiskey drinkers call whiskey, such as bourbon, rye, and single malt scotch, come off the still at less than 80 percent alcohol and therefore retain more flavor from their base ingredients.

The Jeremiah Weed line contains one product, Jeremiah Weed Blended Bourbon, that is 50 percent bourbon and 50 percent vodka. Every other product in the Jeremiah Weed line contains more vodka than whiskey.

Jeremiah Weed is one of Diageo's smallest brands and they use it as an experimental platform. The current line includes a 'sweet tea' product too. In the UK, Diageo sells a line of Jeremiah Weed hard ciders. Despite Diageo's might, they haven't been able to make Jeremiah Weed a player. It is, however, fascinating to see the kinds of products and themes Diageo thinks consumers might buy.

"When it comes to whiskey, a little bit of mystery always provides a lot more excitement.” So says Patrick Hughes, Innovation Director at DIAGEO. “Jeremiah Weed Whiskies were developed to bring a sense of fun and intrigue to the world of whiskey and to entertain the most curious legal drinking age consumers,” he said.

The original Jeremiah Weed (which is no longer made) was created in the late 1960s, hence the name. It was a nasty-tasting herbal liqueur, similar to Jagermeister, that contained a little bit of bourbon. It became a cult favorite among American jet fighter pilots, who drank it ceremonially. Like Jager and Chicago's own Malort, guys get their friends to drink it just to watch them gag.

'Adult' and 'mature' are not synonyms.

By the way, Diageo, the plural of 'whisky' is 'whiskies.' The plural of 'whiskey' is 'whiskeys.' Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

ACSA to Tito: "Code of Ethics Demands Honesty and Transparency from all ACSA Members"

On October 27, Wine & Spirits Daily (WSD) exclusively published a letter from Tito Beveridge, founder of Tito's Handmade Vodka, who is being sued for deceptive marketing. In the letter, Tito defended his company's use of the term "craft,"  claiming that pot still distillation is "the cornerstone of craft spirits."

In response to Tito's letter, the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) sent its own letter to WSD from president Tom Mooney. ACSA represents more than 200 members in 36 states.

I have questioned in the past if any of these organizations has the guts to challenge the questionable practices of their most prosperous members. Through this letter, the ACSA has shown that it does. Good for them.

The issue is not 'what is craft?' It is 'what is truth?'

As the nation's leading association of craft spirits producers, we are keenly interested in the way that consumers, the media, and our industry peers view our trade. The latest chapter in this ongoing conversation is an op-ed by our friend and fellow ACSA founding member Tito Beveridge, offering a simple answer to one of the most elusive questions in our industry - what is 'craft'?

ACSA has, from the start, adopted and then actively promoted an inclusive answer to this question. We believe that craft - like beauty - is in the eye of the beholder. Acting on this belief, we have taken action in two important areas:

We broadened our membership eligibility criteria to include independent spirits producers who craft high quality products through methods other than distillation. We believe that inclusion will lead to more innovation, while formulaic definitions (e.g., pot stills equal craft) will stifle it.

More importantly, we adopted a code of ethics that demands honesty and transparency from all ACSA members. As we see it, if a producer is forthcoming about the way that a product is made, consumers can judge for themselves whether it rises to the level of a 'craft' spirit.

We support Tito's call for greater inclusion, but we disagree that any single definition of the term "craft" will bring it about. Instead, we challenge all spirits producers (large and small) to unleash their creativity, to be forthcoming about the way their products are made, and to be honest when they promote them. The public is intelligent, and they will embrace authenticity regardless of the size, home country, or methods of a producer.