Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Best Bourbons, Ever

Normally, I reject the idea of 'best.' For one thing, it's subjective. What is best for you is whatever you like best. There is no objective 'best.'

That said, here are some of the bourbons that have impressed me the most over the years.

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12-year-old. This 12-year-old wheated bourbon made at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was just about perfect, as in perfectly balanced. It was generally available from the late 50s until about 1990. I’ve gone through several bottles. I have one left.

Abraham Bowman 18-year-old rye-recipe bourbon from Sazerac. This came out in about 2012. It was very limited. Very old bourbons are hit-or-miss. They miss more often than not or are okay but nothing special. Very rarely are they exceptional. This one was. I had one bottle. It is long gone.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, any bottling. This rye-recipe bourbon made by a doomed Pennsylvania distillery during a couple of weeks in 1974 became a phenomenon and is genuinely great whiskey too. Most of it was sold at 16-years-old but even the 20-year-old is terrific. I’ve tasted them all and still have one or two. I also wrote a book about it.

Weller 12-year-old. The closest you can get today to the taste of those great Stitzel-Weller wheaters of yore. Still made and widely available though often in short supply as its reputation as ‘poor man’s Pappy’ has spread.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. On the rye-recipe side of the ledger, Kentucky Spirit stands out as an exemplar. It is simply everything you want in a rye-recipe bourbon. Still made, widely available, and modestly priced for what you get.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills Bourbon (2012). On paper, it’s just a mixture of Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old rye-recipe bourbon with Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old wheated bourbon. The proportions were never revealed. To me, it is one of the best bourbons ever made and a great example of what a veteran master distiller at the height of his powers can accomplish.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

What the Market Calls 'Flavored Whiskey' Is Not What TTB Calls 'Flavored Whiskey'

Jack Daniels, as everyone knows, is whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, to be exact.

But Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire is not whiskey. As the label clearly explains, it is "cinnamon liqueur blended with Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey." Since the first ingredient listed is typically the largest component, we can assume that's the case here.

The official classification of this product, according to the rules of the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is 'other specialties and proprietaries.' It is, in effect, a pre-mixed cocktail, the ingredients of which are cinnamon liqueur and Tennessee whiskey.

TTB has a 'flavored whiskey' classification, but no one uses it. Most producers of what the market calls 'flavored whiskey' use either 'other specialties and proprietaries' or 'whiskey specialty,' which are basically catch-alls. Or they use the liqueur classification.

TTB defines flavored whiskey as whiskey to which has been added, "natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, and bottled at not less than 60° proof." That sounds like what most of these products are, so why don't they just use that? I don't know. Maybe it's too on-the-nose. For the specialty classification, "a statement of the classes and types of distilled spirits used in the manufacture thereof shall be deemed a sufficient statement of composition."

The American whiskey category's three biggest brands, Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and Evan Williams, all have multiple flavored expressions. Canada's Crown Royal is also in the act. And don't forget Sazerac's Fireball. All of them are flavored whiskey to you and me, but not to TTB.

So, while the sticklers will stickle, we know what is meant by flavored whiskey, which since Tennessee Fire was launched in 2011, has grown into a 10 million case business.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Roy Cohn Was Disbarred for Writing Himself Into Lew Rosenstiel's Will

Schenley Founder Lewis Rosenstiel in 1961.
Whenever the name of Roy Cohn is mentioned, which is frequently these days because President Donald Trump is such a fan, I think of a different name: Lew Rosenstiel. When Cohn was disbarred by the State of New York, shortly before his death in 1986, one of the reasons cited was his attempt to write himself into Rosenstiel's will as co-executor, a major legal ethics no-no because Rosenstiel was Cohn's client at the time.

But who was Lew Rosenstiel? And why is he fondling that whiskey barrel?

Born in Cincinnati in 1891, Rosenstiel belonged to one of the first families of the Queen City’s Jewish community. He was a grandson of Frederick A. Johnson, the first Jewish child born in that city.

The family had many business interests, including distilled spirits. Rosenstiel’s uncle was an executive at the Susquemec Distilling Co. in Milton, Kentucky, south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River. Rosenstiel went to work there as a teenager. By 1914 he was on the company’s board of directors. By 1918, at age 27, he was running the place.

Susquemec began as the Snyder Distillery in 1840 and was run by the Snyder family until it was destroyed by fire in 1879. Rebuilt the next year, it was renamed Susquemec and run by James Levy & Brothers, Cincinnati whiskey wholesalers. Rosenstiel’s family took it over in about 1910.

Distilleries being taken over by their customers was nothing new. Distilleries always had financing problems. Selling out to their best customer was a common solution. In most cases, the former owner stayed on as an employee and very little changed.

After Prohibition closed Susquemec and every other distillery in the country, the 30-year-old Rosenstiel and some of his associates formed a company called Cincinnati Distributing Corp. to sell medicinal whiskey. To obtain their license they bought an old Pennsylvania distillery that already had one. It gave Rosenstiel’s company a new name: Schenley.

Buying distilleries and their whiskey stocks throughout Prohibition positioned Rosenstiel and company to dominate the industry when it became legal again in December of 1933. They didn’t keep Susquemec, which never reopened, but did buy two distilleries in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, just west of Cincinnati, and merged them under the name Old Quaker.

By 1937, Schenley had outgrown Cincinnati and moved the company’s headquarters into the Empire State Building in New York. Schenley, largest of the ‘big four’ post-Prohibition liquor producers, would come to control about 25 percent of the United States distilled spirits market.

Schenley was a major player for more than 50 years. In 1987, a shadow of its former self, it was acquired by Guinness, making it part of what is now Diageo. Today, Diageo dominates the distilled spirits industry much as Schenley did a half-century ago.

Rosenstiel died in 1975. Cohn's gambit failed. Rosenstiel was luckier. Despite many salacious rumors, he is mostly remembered as a successful business leader and generous philanthropist.

What is he doing in that picture? It is unclear. As was the custom in those days with press release photographs, there is a proposed caption taped to the back. It reads: "BATTLE OF THE BARRELS was proclaimed by Lewis S. Rosenstiel, chairman and president of Schenley Industries Inc. in New York as he announced company's drive to break 'near-monopoly' of foreign producers in 'the large, profitable aged-whiskey field.' Barrels he displays here have special glass ends to illustrate the greater 'outage' or evaporation that occurs in longer-aged whiskey. Mr. Rosenstiel said his company is in good position to lead such a program because it has been 'building inventory continuity for a dozen of its major brands each year over the past decade.'"

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Chris Middleton Has Some Obscure but Interesting Facts About Rye

I heard from our friend Chris Middleton today. He enjoyed my article about rye in the current issue of Whisky Advocate. (Great magazine, but I wish they would spell 'whiskey' correctly.) Mr. Middleton, formerly of Jack Daniel's, is principal and director of Australia's Whisky Academy. He is a treasure trove of information, as his note below reveals.

I enjoyed your article on rye, probing this grain deeper than most writers care to venture. I was intrigued to read one of your interviewees discussing the Rosen rye being popular in Pennsylvania a hundred years ago. The progenitor of this rye cultivar was brought from Russia by J. A. Rosen, a Russian student at the Michigan Agricultural College (which is now Michigan State). The Michigan Agricultural Experimental Station started cultivating Rosen in 1909 and began distributing it in Michigan in 1912. The first farmer (in Albion, MI) to plant it was Carleton Horton, namesake of Horton rye.

Until the end of the 19th century, rye did not command research attention. Corn did, but that’s a digression. My records have circa 1844 mentioning the Patent Office of Agriculture and the rye cultivar, Multicole. Interestingly, this variety originated in Poland, through France to England and into America when someone tried to commercialise it under US patent. I suspect it was rejected, with the first genetic patent going to Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist in Chicago for his koji patent in 1891, when he coincidently registered his ‘disruptive’ new whiskey-making process.

The popular American winter ryes were imported varieties: Common (probably originally from the UK or Western Europe), St John’s Day (Italy), Siberian (German), as well as the Spring and Southern (seems this variety climatised to warmer US regions, KY/TN). As no one was taking much interest in reporting variations in cereal genetics back then, other varieties and races may have escaped the net, i.e. Baltic-derived varieties of early 19th century Europe including Norwegian, Wallachian, Archangel, Johannis, etc.

In 1850, Pennsylvania was the largest producer of rye (4.8 million bushels, or 34% of national output), followed by NY (4.2m) and MA (0.5m). Rye was about to be toppled as America’s leading whiskey style coming into the War Between the States.

Years ago I started researching a book on rye … hence all these ready and esoteric records.

NOTE: Thanks to Ari Sussman, of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company, for sharing this little gem about the rye farmers of Michigan's South Manitou Island, published in the early 1930s.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's Spring and There's a New Reader Out

The distillery (pictured) closed in 1973 and the company died in 1991 but Glenmore's last leader, grandson and namesake of the company's founder, just passed away earlier this month. In the new Bourbon Country Reader, we celebrate the life of James 'Buddy' Thompson and look back at the history of Glenmore Distilleries.

With Glenmore we're looking to the past, but with our story about Beam Suntory's new Legent bourbon we glimpse one way the future of American whiskey may unfold. We also take a brief look at something new from America's other mega whiskey-maker, Brown-Forman, their Coopers' Craft bourbons.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies next week. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Founded in 1994, 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.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $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 19, Number 3.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free 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.

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Louisville Film Industry and "Grizzly"

Poster for 1976's "Grizzly."
WARNING: No bourbon content.

I moved to Louisville from Columbus, Ohio, in February of 1978. I moved there for a job, at a local advertising agency. My job was to write and produce television and radio commercials for the agency's clients. Most of the television commercials were shot at the local television stations. When we made filmed commercials there was a local filmmaker we used, we also worked with people in Nashville. We had some clients in New Orleans and worked with some production companies there as well.

Louisville always had a small community of people who could crew such a shoot on a freelance basis. There was also a small community of actors and models, almost all part-time, who we used as talent. I learned about many of these local resources from my bosses, the men who had run the agency since the 1950s.

The group was small but capable, some were outstanding. We called it the Louisville talent puddle because it wasn't big enough to be a talent pool.

As I got to know people in that small community, I began to hear the name William Girdler, a filmmaker who had died about a month before I got to town. Just about everybody had worked with him or for him. One actor we worked with frequently, Charlie Kissinger, had parts in several of Girdler's films.

Girdler, I learned, was a Louisville native who had started his production company, Studio One Productions, while in his early 20s. Right out of the box he was making low-budget features. The first was "Asylum of Satan" (1972), followed by "Three on a Meathook" (also 1972). Both films were shot in and around Louisville with local talent on both sides of the camera. In our small community, everyone had a Girdler story. No one seemed quite sure how he funded his productions but they all made money and after the first two, he was making films under contract to Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.

Several of Girdler's films were knock-offs of current major studio hits, he made an "Exorcist" clone called "Abby" and a "Jaws" clone called "Grizzly." "Abby" was a 'blaxploitation' film, as was Girdler's next effort, "Sheba, Baby," an action film starring Pam Grier.

After "Sheba, Baby," Louisville's time as a feature film production center was done. Girdler went to Hollywood, but he took some of his Louisville crew along. I heard a lot of stories about "Grizzly." It was Girdler's biggest hit, a virtual scene-by-scene duplicate of "Jaws" featuring an 18-foot grizzly bear instead of a great white shark. The film's star, a real bear named Teddy, was only 11 feet tall, but he played big.

Girdler made two more features. He directed nine features in six years, writing three of them, before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for his next film. He was 30 years old.

I lived in Louisville for nine years, until 1987 when I moved to Chicago, but I have been involved with the city and with Kentucky ever since, mostly because of bourbon, but the area has so many fascinating stories. William Girdler's is one of them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

UK to Create Institute for Kentucky Spirits with $5 Million Grant from Jim Beam

Beam Suntory, which owns the Jim Beam Bourbon brand, is donating $5 million to the University of Kentucky to establish the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits. The Institute will educate the next generation of distillers through a curriculum that covers the skills needed to succeed in the distilled spirits industry at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. 

“As the University for Kentucky, we are the engine of our state’s industry—the pulse of its economy,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “When we envisioned ways to prepare our workforce to meet the changing needs of our rapidly growing Bourbon industry, a partnership with Jim Beam was a natural fit, and I can’t thank them enough for the generous gift that will help bring our vision to life. Together, as the Commonwealth’s indispensable institution and the world’s No. 1-selling Bourbon, we’re inspired by the common goal of maintaining the welfare, prosperity, and sustainability of Kentucky’s spirits industry for generations to come.”

The $5 million represents Beam Suntory’s largest single philanthropic or educational gift in company history.

“This donation is an investment in the future of Bourbon, and Kentucky’s future workforce, and we are confident that the future for both is very bright indeed,” said Albert Baladi, President and CEO of Beam Suntory. “We are excited about the key role that this program will play in the continued global expansion of America’s Native Spirit.”

The James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, led by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, will offer courses across engineering, chemistry, business, law, horticulture, forestry, food science, and entomology to address spirits industry needs in sustainable agriculture, research and development, and more.

“With the continued global growth of Bourbon, we need to focus on educating the next generation of distillers, scientists and engineers who can tackle the needs of this industry well into the future,” said Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s Seventh Generation Master Distiller. “And there’s no better place to make Bourbon than right here in Kentucky.”

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, there are nearly two barrels of Bourbon resting in the state of Kentucky for every person living there, valued at $3 billion, up 300% from 2009. Bourbon contributes $8.6 billion to Kentucky’s economy each year, including $1 billion in payroll, and $235 million in state and local tax revenue. The Bourbon industry also provides more than 20,000 jobs in the state.

“Very few places in the world have a historic landmark product like Bourbon,” said Seth DeBolt, horticulture professor and institute director. “The Institute is a collaboration to increase the longevity and the economic development for the spirits industry in Kentucky. It is really driven from an interdependence that we see between the university and the industry, and of course, remembering UK’s land-grant mission is to serve the economy of Kentucky. It’s a win-win all the way around, and we’re really excited about it.”

The university began a popular certificate in Distillation, Wine and Brewing Studies in 2014 and its online version is set to launch this fall. The Institute will build on this existing teaching opportunity as well as in research and outreach. It is a collaboration between the Colleges of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Business and Economics.

“Our signature Bourbon industry is an incredible economic engine for the Commonwealth and a thriving global symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “In the coming months, we look forward to sharing details of an impressive statewide initiative that will leverage many of our universities strengths and prepare the workforce of tomorrow for careers in Bourbon hospitality, business, and tourism, in addition to distillation and research and development.”