Monday, September 26, 2016

Whiskey's Biggest Lie


Their whiskey wasn't very good.
"Don't read the comments" is good advice more often than not. For what is to follow you might want to read the comments on the Knob Creek post from last Thursday. Then again, it is not really necessary as they are, for the most part, wholly predictable. They range from resignation to outrage. "This is so unfair to the consumers and fans," "Flavor/Taste profile is a joke to justify keeping the same price using younger juice," "What happens to all the awards and medals that the real Knob Creek won?"

When producers make changes, many drinkers balk reflexively. Why are we so unwilling to accept change? Because those very producers have told us for years that change is bad.

Back in 2005, when the company now known as Beam Suntory (the makers of Knob Creek) created its first major TV advertising campaign for its flagship Jim Beam Bourbon, the theme was “true to our original recipe for 209 years.”

Bulleit Bourbon, a product created within the lifetime of any person of legal drinking age, purports to be made from an ancient recipe passed down to Tom Bulleit from his great-great-grandfather, Augustus. Mr. Bulleit blushes when asked about this story. Like the Beams, he has no parchment to show you, just a ‘tradition’ passed from father to son, and who can argue with that?

The problem with these and every other claim about an ancient, unchanged bourbon recipe is twofold. (1) Bourbon today is much better in every way than what they were drinking in 1795 or 1830, and (2) the claims are untrue, because whiskeys, like most products, are constantly changing.

Even 100 years ago, mashbills were pretty flexible. (In a multi-grain whiskey, the 'mashbill' describes what grains are used and in what proportions.) Ingredients varied based on cost and availability. Products were often made by combining whiskeys made from different recipes at different distilleries. Today there is much more consistency, but there are still variations. Different batches of grain can vary in significant ways. Changes to the stills make a difference. When energy is costly, distilleries will run a thicker mash to reduce energy costs. Wood characteristics vary from tree to tree. Every difference, however small, makes a difference.

Because there are so many variables producers don't rely on recipes, they rely on taste. Every distillery has a library of bottles that record in liquid form how different batches have tasted over the years. Every producer has a panel of tasters whose job is to compare each new batch to the standard for that product. If the new batch doesn't measure up adjustments are made, generally by adding whiskey that possesses the missing characteristic. They are limited in this effort by labeling rules. If a product is age-stated, '9-years-old' for example, no whiskey may be used that is less than 9-years-old even if the profile calls for it.

Virtually all whiskey producers strive for consistency, as do most manufacturers regardless of the product. At the same time there is a seemingly-contradictory impulse to constant improvement. This varies with product type. Technology products have to improve or die. With other products, such as whiskey, long-term consistency seems the higher value.

Twenty to thirty years ago, when America was awash with whiskey no one wanted, many producers routinely put 8- to 10-year-old whiskey into their standard NAS products. They didn't publicize it because they knew it was temporary and no law required disclosure. There were few complaints.

Today, rapid demand growth has outstripped the industry's supply side. Because whiskey has to be aged, you inevitably over-produce or under-produce. It is almost impossible to get it just right. The challenge today is to meet as much demand as you can with the inventory you have, and to do it as profitably as possible.

Because of the demand growth, everyone today is distilling as much whiskey as they can as fast as they can. All indicators say bourbon sales will continue to grow for years to come. All indicators have been wrong before. Nothing is certain.

Marketers of all kinds know a lot about consumer behavior. With whiskey, there are two sure ways to piss off your most loyal customers, raise the price or change the taste, and between those two changing the taste is worse. Everything else, including label changes, has a lower priority.

So producers will continue to like the "nothing changes" claim, but what you should hear is "we're doing everything we can to keep everything you care about the same." That may not be snappy, but it has the virtue of being true.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Another One Bites the Dust


Say goodbye to the Knob Creek age statement. Labels without it could start to appear next week. "We have good inventories but with the growth we’re seeing, we are going to take the age statement off so we can keep the taste profile the same," says Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe. At first the whiskey will not change at all, as there is enough 9-year-old Knob in the pipeline for the time being, but with the growth they're seeing it was either drop the age statement or go into heavy allocation.

This can work because Knob actually finds itself with an over-abundance of whiskey more than 9-years old that will mix well with younger Knob to keep the profile the same. Based on inventory already in the pipeline, they will be able to grow the brand and maintain the profile but only if they are not bound by the age statement. Something had to give.

Older doesn't balance younger with any kind of mathematical precision. You don't get a 9-year-old flavor by mixing half 10-year-old with half 8-year-old, but that is a shorthand way to describe the process. More and more large distilleries are doing this, as they find themselves with various quantities of whiskey across a large and widening age range.

The age statement change only affects the standard Knob Creek expression. The Single Barrel Reserve will continue to have an age statement and the rye, which never had one, will continue unchanged. Nothing else is changing.

Inventory tightness also makes future 'special' Knob releases, like the vintage-dated 2001 expression in distribution now, unlikely.

No one likes to see an age statement go away, but it is part of the times in which we live. Beam has both the inventory and the expertise to keep making whiskey with the same flavor profile in ever larger quantities indefinitely. That is the goal, anyway.

To Knob fans, Noe makes this pledge. "I will taste every batch. It won’t be Knob Creek unless I say it’s Knob Creek.”

You might want to set aside an age-stated bottle just to see how well he does.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's Just Whiskey


The Donnington Priory location of Dreweatts.
Dreweatts, a London auction house, is holding a rare 'wine, whisky, and select spirits' auction on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 10 AM (London time). The only American whiskey on offer is A. H. Hirsch 16 year old Reserve (gold foil), two bottles. Dreweatts estimates their value at £900-1,000 each ($1,170-$1,300).

It is rare that we get a glimpse of the actual market for such 'unicorns.' In the United States, it is illegal to sell alcohol without a license so virtually the entire secondary market is underground. No one knows how big it is and there is no reliable record of prices paid. Two bottles in a distant auction do not a market make, but it's something.

At this point, the selling price for A. H. Hirsch, Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, and select others has nothing to do with their quality or drinkability. It is based entirely on the economics of scarcity and the willingness of some monied folk to spend outrageous sums to obtain something book writers say they can't have. It is much like the old joke about why dogs lick their own balls.

Because they can.

Speaking as someone who is neither wealthy nor especially limber, but who has tasted most of the rarities, you should not feel too badly if you haven't. All of these extremely desirable whiskeys are good whiskeys, but are they 40-times better than a lot of everyday pops? Not really. It's just whiskey. You're mostly paying for the ego trip.

Incidentally, most of the 80 lots are single malt scotch, many in the £100-120 range ($130-155). Bidding is online but I have no idea if residents of the USA can participate.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Making Shit Up: Weller Is Not the Original Wheated Bourbon



Sazerac today unveiled new packaging for the Weller bourbon line and doubled-down on the fictional claim that Weller is “The Original Wheated Bourbon,” which it debuted with the last packaging update a few years ago.

The distortion and misrepresentation gets even worse in the accompanying press release.

“Born in 1825, William Larue Weller was one of the early distilling pioneers in Kentucky. After serving with the Louisville Brigade in the 1840s, Weller returned to Louisville to join the family tradition of whiskey distilling.”

There is no evidence that William Larue Weller ever distilled a drop of whiskey, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Nor is there any evidence that anyone in his family before him ever distilled. There is no recorded Weller family tradition of whiskey distilling.

Weller’s company did not make whiskey, it sold whiskey. Weller was a rectifier. That means he bought whiskey from distilleries; finished it through techniques such as blending, filtering and flavoring; packaged it for sale; and sold it to customers. After 1871, the Weller company had a still, which they used to re-distill poor grade whiskey into neutral spirits which they called ‘cologne spirits.’ The company even issued a statement that it did no original distilling, just this redistillation.

The press release continues with more fiction about Weller. “He developed his original bourbon recipe with wheat, rather than rye in the mash bill. Weller’s original wheated recipe bourbon became so popular he was forced to put a green thumbprint on barrels to ensure that customers were receiving the real deal.” Since Weller wasn’t distilling anything, he had no need for any recipes. The ‘green thumbprint’ is a new wrinkle and may have been a form of branding, which was just emerging at the time, but it merely would have identified Weller’s company as the product’s source. There is no reason to assume it indicated a wheated recipe.

“His namesake company eventually went on to merge with Pappy Van Winkle’s A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery to form the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, one of the most iconic and beloved distilleries in Kentucky.”

This may be the most distorted claim of the bunch. In 1893, ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle went to work for Weller as a whiskey salesman. When Weller retired in 1896, Pappy and another salesman, Alex Farnsley, bought his share and gained controlling interest in the company. When Prohibition came they obtained a medicinal whiskey license. Pappy also had an ownership interest in one of the Weller company’s primary suppliers, the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. In 1933, he merged the two companies to form Stitzel-Weller.

The source for most of this is And Always Fine Bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald, written by Pappy’s granddaughter, Sally Van Winkle Campbell, and published in 1999.

When Prohibition ended, Pappy built a new distillery and decided to make a wheated bourbon there. It was the only recipe that distillery made, which they sold as Old Fitzgerald, Old Weller, and several other brands. It is not recorded why they chose a wheated recipe, but the prevailing theory is that they believed a wheated bourbon would be palatable at a younger age, which was important in those early years when no one had very much aged whiskey.

Stitzel-Weller promoted its wheated recipe in advertising for both the Fitzgerald and Weller brands. (Yes, the 'century-old secret' claim was false then too.) Old Fitzgerald (now owned by Heaven Hill) was the company’s primary brand, but Weller was considered a premium bourbon too. The company’s other brands, all made from the same wheated recipe, were younger and cheaper.

Although recipes for wheated bourbon appear in some pre-Prohibition records, Stitzel-Weller was the first distillery to promote its wheated recipe. In earlier days, wheat was commonly substituted for rye in bourbon recipes based on availability, cost, and personal preference but rye was the dominant ‘flavor grain.’

No one ever claimed the ‘invention’ of wheated bourbon until Maker’s Mark came along. They, too, were indulging in fiction since their wheater followed Stitzel-Weller’s by at least 20 years. It may be that what Sazerac is really trying to say with this claim is that Weller was a wheater before Maker’s Mark. That is true.

As always, the problem for bourbon distilleries with these forays into fiction writing is that they diminish the real history of the people, companies, and brands. All of the major producers, and many of the small ones, are guilty of it in one way or another. Marketing will always be with us, but there is still such a thing as truth. Now you know Weller’s true story.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Owensboro's New/Old O. Z. Tyler Distillery Fills Its First Barrels



After 24 years, whiskey is being made in Owensboro again. Although the official Grand Opening of the O. Z. Tyler Distillery is next Thursday, September 1, the first barrels are being filled today.

O. Z. Tyler is a revival of the old Medley Distillery, home of Ezra Brooks and other bourbons, which United Distillers (now Diageo) acquired in 1991 and closed in 1992.

O. Z. Tyler is owned by Terressentia, which is based in North Charleston, South Carolina. The company is best known for its patented TerrePURE process, which uses ultrasonic energy, heat, oxygen, and other factors to improve the quality and taste of distilled spirits products. The company has built a successful business making bottom shelf whiskeys a little more palatable, successful enough that the company needed a more reliable source of whiskey, hence O. Z. Tyler (named after one of the inventors of the process).

Amidst the current building boom in whiskey distilleries, O. Z. Tyler is unique for a couple of reasons. Both Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve and the former Old Taylor Distillery, now known as Castle and Key, are revived distilleries that were silent much longer and in much worse shape when their restoration began. Charles Medley, the Owensboro distillery's last master distiller, bought it from United. Although he was never able to reopen it, Charles managed to keep the plant in good repair. A decade ago, he sold it to the Trinidadian company that makes Angostura Bitters, which began the restoration until it was rocked by the world financial crisis in 2009.

Charles Medley, who celebrates his 75th birthday on September 1, appears in this video on behalf of the new owners.

The centerpiece of any distillery is its beer still. The existing one at Medley was in good shape, but Terressentia President Earl Hewlette wanted to go bigger, so he had Vendome make him a new 54" diameter column. It's not the biggest still in Bourbondom, Beam and Daniel's have some 72" monsters, but it's the biggest among the newcomers. The fermenters and boiler are also new but much of the other equipment was retained.

O. Z. Tyler is run by Jacob Call, whose family has deep roots in Kentucky's whiskey-making culture.

Although it begins a new era today, the distillery had a long association with the Medley family. Like many whiskey-making clans, the Medleys started with a small, farm-based operation in Central Kentucky early in the 19th century. The patriarch was John Medley. When he died in 1814 his estate included two stills and forty mash tubs.

Medley sons followed their fathers throughout the 19th century until, in 1901, George Medley and a partner bought a distillery in Daviess County, 130 miles to the west. (Pronounce it  'Davis' despite the spelling.) That distillery was adjacent to the current one. George’s son, Thomas, joined and then succeeded his father in that venture.

Kentucky is a small state and distilling is a very collegial business. Then as now, all of Kentucky’s main distillers were acquainted with one another. Like the Medleys, the Wathens had been early settlers in Washington County, part of a community of Catholics who all came west together from Maryland. By the close of the 19th century, the three Wathen brothers; John Bernard, Nick, and Nace, were  among the most successful distillers in Kentucky. Old Grand-Dad was one of their brands.

Nick Wathen had a daughter named Florence Ellen. Tom Medley courted and married her. They had six sons who all worked in the family business. One of them was named Wathen Medley, to signify the blending of two long Kentucky distilling traditions. Charles Medley is his son.

The first distillery on the current site was built in 1885. It was called McCullough and, later, Green River. Fire destroyed most of Green River in 1918 and the rest was razed during Prohibition. Someone tried to bring it back after repeal as the Sour Mash Distillery. They built the current buildings, distilled 1,349 barrels of whiskey, ran out of money, and closed in 1939.

The first distillery owned by a Medley after Prohibition was a third place in that same general area, just north of the Green River site, built in around 1881. It was best known as Rock Spring Distilling. Tom Medley bought it and brought it back after Prohibition, running it until his death in 1940, at age 64. Wathen sold it to Fleischmann’s and bought the adjacent Green River place, which he renamed the Medley Brothers Distillery. Wathen sold the company in 1959 but the new owners kept the name. Wathen, Charles and Wathen's brother John stayed. Two other brothers, Tom Jr. and Ben, went off to start another distillery nearby, called Old Stanley.

In the late 1980s, in quick succession, Medley bought Fleischmann's, Glenmore bought Medley, and what became Diageo bought Glenmore.

Terressentia owns none of the old Medley brands and none of the brands it does own are household names. The company plans to make traditional bourbon and rye, some of which it will subject to its TerrePURE process. It will compete in the bulk whiskey market with MGP, and probably develop its own brands eventually. It is not open to the public right now, but a visitors center and participation in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are in the cards.

O. Z. Tyler may be the only working distillery in Owensboro but it is not the only producer. On the site of the old Glenmore Distillery, on the east side of town, Sazerac has several aging warehouses and a large bottling and distribution facility.

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.