Monday, February 17, 2020

Happy Birthday to Our Booziest Presidents

Today is Presidents' Day. Technically, it's the day (the third Monday in February) when we celebrate Washington's birthday (which is really February 22), but most of the ads for mattresses and used cars will feature Washington and Lincoln, our booziest presidents.

Not that they were heavy drinkers, neither man was, but both were in the whiskey business.

For Washington, it was a coda to his public career. Washington the businessman was always looking for ways to make his Virginia estate more profitable. His manager, a Scot, suggested they convert some of the rye, corn and barley grown there into something much more valuable: whiskey. Although it operated for only a few years, the distillery was one of Washington's most successful enterprises.

Today, you can visit Washington's restored gristmill and reconstructed distillery, and even buy some of the whiskey distilled there (recently, not way back when).

For Lincoln, booze was something he got involved with at the very beginning of his adult life, and it dogged him throughout his political career. As a teenager, he briefly worked on flatboats that hauled whiskey from Kentucky to points south. For several years early in his 20s, Lincoln was in the retail liquor business, first as a hired clerk, then as a store owner in New Salem, Illinois. His stores all failed and left him burdened with debt.

Lincoln’s partisans tried to downplay or obscure the fact that he sold whiskey, just as his enemies exaggerated it. Most accounts of Lincoln’s early life describe his stores as 'groceries,' a term that sounds innocent enough to us now, but which at the time was a euphemism for a makeshift rural saloon.

Lincoln's stores sold lard, bacon, firearms, beeswax, honey and other necessities, but mainly whiskey. In tiny New Salem, Lincoln's male customers would hang out and visit with Lincoln, his business partner, and each other while consuming some of the whiskey they had just purchased. This socializing helped Lincoln develop the skills and reputation that carried over into his political career. What's more, it was considered all very normal and respectable at the time.

Years later, Lincoln had to deal with a growing Temperance Movement. His message was, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” He praised the good work of the good folks in the local Temperance society and advocated voluntary abstinence. He practiced it too, according to all accounts.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Joe Biden and the Little Creeps of Silicon Valley

(WARNING: NO BOURBON CONTENT.) This bombshell story erupted all over tech media yesterday. It was virtually the same headline and story in every instance. Many people on my Facebook feed posted it in one of its many forms. Many comments, mostly hostile to Biden, followed.

A simple Google search showed that reporting of this bombshell was pretty much limited to the tech media, though that is a very large universe in its own right. Biden made the statement during his meeting with the New York Times editorial board on December 16. The interview transcript was not released publically until this past Sunday night as part of the Times announcement of its endorsements for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Biden was not endorsed.)

Nothing prevented the Times from reporting Biden's statement back in December when he made it. If candidates make news during these interviews, the Times and other media outlets typically report that news right away, even if they don't intend to publish the full interview until later. Apparently, the Times didn't find it newsworthy. They still don't. No freestanding story about Biden's "little creeps" comment has appeared in the Times.

Because I became aware of the story from social media and couldn't find any mention of it in mass media, I was suspicious. A search for "Joe Biden calls game developers little creeps" returned dozens of nearly identical stories but did not return the original source. Therefore, it had the feel of something a Russian troll would push, an extremely negative story about a candidate aimed at a very specific audience.

It may still be that, which is the interesting part of this story. Misinformation doesn't have to be completely fake. In fact, what works best is a story that has what Stephen Colbert called 'truthiness;' "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true."

We all know that, in social media, a large percentage of participants read and react to headlines without ever reading the underlying story, effectively accepting the story as true and the headline writer's spin as the true gist of the story. They rarely do any additional research.

In fact, Joe Biden did not "call game developers 'little creeps.'" He referred to one specific (unnamed) game developer as a "little creep," in the context of a comment about violent video games. It was the sort of unguarded frankness for which Joe Biden is famous, if not always admired.

If there is a lesson here, it is that we all need to up our skepticism game, especially in this election year. Hesitate before you comment. People who follow me know I'm reminding myself to do this as much as anyone else. This is one of the ways we participate in our participatory democracy. Let's try to do it well.

Also, it is not necessary to like or agree with the New York Times to appreciate it when they provide the unedited voice of the candidate. (Albeit behind a paywall.) They and the other mainstream media (including entities such as Fox News, which is 'mainstream' in this regard) provide direct reporting by reporters. That's different from media outlets that simply take stories reported by others and re-report them with their own spin. Think of them as second-hand news.

It isn't difficult to tell the difference. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with ideology. The Daily Kos is second-hand news just as much as Breitbart is. We  are better off when we get our news as nearly first hand as we can and make up our own minds about what it means.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Whiskey Secondary Market Doesn't Matter

I have no objection to the bourbon secondary market except for the awkward fact that it is largely an illegal enterprise. What consenting adults do with their adult beverages should be up to them. Some people are way into it, the whole buying and selling thing. They are passionate about it. More power to them. Have fun with it. You'll hear no complaints from me.

I do have one issue, however, one source of irritation. Many of the people involved in that pastime have a very inflated idea of its importance. They believe the secondary market affects the overall bourbon or broader whiskey/whisky marketplace, for better or worse.

They're wrong. It doesn't. The broader industry pays very little attention to the secondary market. The vast majority of whiskey consumers don't even know it exists.

The secondary market matters, but only to itself. It has virtually no impact on the wider whiskey/whisky industry. It doesn't affect pricing or availability except on a very small number of brands that amount to a drop in the bucket of overall industry volume. In many cases, the complaints one hears are nostalgia for a past that never was.

True, as the chart above shows, you can almost never go into a store and find a Van Winkle product on the shelf at the official suggested retail price. Because people have figured out that Weller is the same recipe from the same distillery, the Weller products have been hard to find and are often marked up. But if you actually just like drinking a well-made wheated bourbon, Larceny isn't hard to find nor, for that matter, is Maker's Mark, and they are very similar to the Weller/Van Winkle products.

Of course, the secondary market isn't about finding something good to drink. I don't play so sometimes I'm not quite sure what it's about, but it is its own thing. That's great, it's fine, have fun with it, but it's not important except to itself.

To people who argue solemnly that the secondary market accounts for the higher prices we pay for whiskey today, consider this. A bottle of Rittenhouse Rye BIB cost $11 a decade ago. It's about $25 now, a 130% increase, but Rittenhouse Rye BIB never has been a player in the secondary. It's just a product that is very good, so people bought it, and demand outstripped supply, so the producer thought the market could bear a higher price. At $25, it's still a very good value.

So if you're into the whole secondary market thing, great, have fun. It's now legal in a couple of places, including Kentucky, which should help normalize things, and take away some of the mystery. Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe part of the fun of the secondary market is complaining about the secondary market, in which case the market is thriving.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Politics of Prohibition's Repeal

Today marks the 86th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Before December 5, 1933 the production, transportation and sale of beverage alcohol was illegal in all 48 states. It wasn’t just the law, it was part of the Constitution, the 18th Amendment. Getting rid of that would take lawyers, lots of them. Rising to the task, nine prominent New York attorneys formed the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers in 1927 to get the ball rolling. Their main contribution was designing a system of state constitutional conventions to ratify the repeal amendment, rather than putting it before the state legislatures.

Broader public messaging was handled by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.

Repeal was an issue in the 1928 presidential election. As a big city Catholic, Democrat Al Smith didn’t need to declare his support for repeal; it was assumed. Republican Herbert Hoover endorsed Prohibition but promised, if elected, to appoint a commission to study the effectiveness of Prohibition enforcement. He won and did.

In its 1931 report, the Wickersham Commission concluded that:

"There have been more sustained pressures to enforce this law than on the whole has been true of any other federal statute, although this pressure in the last four or five years has met with increasing resistance as the sentiment against prohibition has developed.”

It noted that, “a very large number of respectable citizens in most of our large cities and in several states” now supported repeal, and contrasted this with the attitude toward narcotics, whose prohibition was still universally supported.

Notwithstanding their analysis, all but one of the eleven commissioners opposed the repeal of the 18th Amendment, the entry of the Federal or state governments into the liquor business, or even the modification of national prohibition to permit the sale of light wines and beer, a popular compromise being proposed at the time.

The 1932 presidential election was largely a referendum on President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression, but the Democrats had endorsed repeal and the Republicans had not. As he accepted his nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Roosevelt, a one-time dry, said, “I congratulate this convention for having had the courage, fearlessly to write into its declaration of principles what an overwhelming majority here assembled really thinks about the 18th Amendment. This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal.”

Roosevelt’s election virtually assured passage of a repeal amendment, but ratification remained a concern. Congress passed the 21st Amendment in February of 1933. The measure then had to be ratified by 36 states, three-fourths of what was then a 48-state union. This was accomplished on November 7. Congress on December 5 declared the amendment adopted and Prohibition was over. The Constitution had been changed in 18 months, a new record.

After repeal a new regulatory regimen for the industry was established, most of which is still with us today. Labeling standards were set nationally while codes to control marketing and distribution were enacted by individual states. Some states fixed wholesale and retail prices, others let market forces rule. All manufacturers, distributors and retailers were licensed. Manufacturers were prohibited from selling directly to retailers. Every alcohol control authority–federal, state and local–got a piece of the tax pie.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"If My Name Was Dick Cox, I'd Disappear Too"

WARNING: No bourbon content.

Richard Colvin Cox was a cadet at the United States Military Academy when he disappeared on January 14, 1950. He was 21 years old.

His mysterious disappearance, the only such event in West Point history, was a major national story at the time. I wasn't born yet but I grew up with the tale because Cox was a local boy. My family knew his family.

What does the swimming pool in the picture above have to do with it? That's the Woodland Club, in Mansfield, Ohio, where I spent most of every summer during my youth. I knew some of Cox's relatives from there and that's where I heard the stories, about ten years after the fact. That's also where I heard the immortal line in the headline above. Cox's true fate was never learned, but that always seemed like a good explanation to us kids, some of whom were his nieces and nephews.

The story goes like this. Three times over the course of a week, Cox was visited by a young man whose first name may have been George. On the third occasion, Cox and 'George' left the campus and were never seen again. According to an eyewitness account from another cadet, the two men seemed to know each other from somewhere other than West Point.

Because Cox had been in Army Intelligence, stationed in Germany, prior to his appointment to the Academy, it was always suspected that his disappearance involved espionage. Although there were many investigations, official and unofficial, and much speculation, Cox's disappearance was never explained.

As kids, we treated it as a joke, but such mysteries can leave deep marks. My great grandmother, Celia Schwartz, lived to be 101, so I knew her well. She had four sisters and one brother. The brother, Harold, left home as a young man to "seek his fortune" and never was heard from again. The mystery haunted grandma for the rest of her long life.

Monday, October 14, 2019

My Favorite Dad Joke

This is not a traditional 'Dad Joke.' It just happens to be my favorite joke told to me by my dad, Ken Cowdery (1920-2010).

It is about a father and son. The son lives in town, the father lives alone on the family farm several miles outside of town. Every day, as is his custom, the father walks into town, purchases a pint of whiskey, and walks back to his farm. For years, the son has enjoyed this daily opportunity to at least observe his father from his office window, but recently he has noticed that time is catching up with the old man. His stride has shortened and his gait has slowed. The daily walk has become a chore for him.

The son, being a devoted son and not wanting to see his father suffer (and having failed for years to persuade his father to abandon the farm and move to town), decides there is at least one small way he can give his poor father some relief. He purchases a 1.75 L bottle of his father’s favorite whiskey, drives out to the farm and gives his father the gift. The father, never a demonstrative man, accepts the gift and thanks his son, who returns to town.

The next day the son, still basking in the glow of his thoughtful deed, looks out the window to see his father once again walking into town. Moreover, his father seems to have aged ten years. His skin is pallid, his clothing is disheveled and he is walking with even move difficulty than usual. The son immediately rushes to his father’s side. “Dad,” he cries, “What are you doing? I brought you that bottle of whiskey so you wouldn’t have to make this walk every day.” The father slowly raises his head and looking directly into his sons eyes, whispers in a quiet voice, “Son, whiskey don’t keep.”

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Van Winkle Family Asks Retailers and Resellers to Play Nice

I usually don't reproduce press releases here, but I found this one interesting. No other brand has these kinds of issues.

*  *  *  *  *

             FRANKFORT, FRANKLIN COUNTY, KY (Oct. 10, 2019) – This is the favorite time of the year for bourbon fans, the annual release of the Van Winkle Bourbons.  Like previous years, yields from the barrels are low due to evaporation during the long aging cycle. 

            Known for their smoother and sweeter flavor due to the wheat recipe versus the traditional rye recipe found in most bourbons, Van Winkle bourbons are aged years longer than most others and have garnered an impeccable reputation among connoisseurs.  Although  bourbon has become increasingly popular worldwide in recent years, very little Van Winkle is sold overseas, so that these coveted bottles are available in the United States.
The Van Winkle collection consists of several whiskeys. Suggested retail prices are as follows:

$69.99 - Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon 10 Year Old 107 proof
$79.99 – Old Rip Van Winkle Special Reserve Bourbon 12 Year Old
$119.99 – Old Rip Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year Old
$119.99 - Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 15 Year Old
$199.99 - Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 20 Year Old
$299.90 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year Old

“Unfortunately we cannot control the price retailers charge, so some retailers mark it up beyond our MSRP, even though we ask them not to,” said Julian Van Winkle, president, Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. “We are committed to releasing a quality product and hope retailers will honor what we suggest as a fair retail price.”

Upon release of the Van Winkle bourbon this fall, Buffalo Trace warns consumers to be wary of online resellers such as Craigslist and other online marketplaces, especially private Facebook and MeWe groups. “Trading and selling bourbon online is an unlicensed and illegal sale.  Purchasing bourbon online from unlicensed parties is dangerous.  The product may be counterfeit and unsafe.  If you are not a licensed retailer and you are selling Van Winkle products, we are prepared to take action to curtail the activity,” adds Kris Comstock, senior marketing director at Buffalo Trace Distillery. 

The Van Winkle line of whiskeys has won a multitude of awards through the years, including the 20-year-old receiving a double gold medal, best bourbon, best small batch bourbon at the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition; the 15-year-old being named Best Bourbon, 11-15 Years Old in the 2019 Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and also nabbing a Gold Medal at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. 

The Van Winkle Whiskeys will be available starting in November, but please be mindful that supply is quite limited and bottles shall be hard to find in stores, bars and restaurants. They will be packed three bottles per case.

About Van Winkle Bourbon

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery has a four generation history. The Van Winkle family’s involvement in the bourbon industry began in the late 1800s with Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. He was a traveling salesman for the W.L. Weller and Sons wholesale house in Louisville. Pappy and a friend, Alex Farnsley, eventually bought the wholesale house and also partnered with Mr. A. Ph. Stitzel on the purchase of Mr. Stitzel’s distillery.  The three of them merged the two companies and became the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.   

In May of 1935 at the age of 61, Pappy opened the newly completed Stitzel-Weller Distillery in South Louisville. Its prominent brands were W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still.  Pappy had a heavy influence on the operations there until his death at the age of 91. His son, Julian, Jr. took over operations until he was forced by stockholders to sell the distillery in 1972. The rights to all of their brands were sold to Norton Simon, Inc. Later, United Distillers, who eventually ended up with the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, sold off all of the original labels around 1999. 

After selling the distillery, Julian Jr. resurrected a pre-Prohibition label, the only one to which the Van Winkles kept the rights, called Old Rip Van Winkle. He used whiskey stocks from the old distillery to supply his brand. Julian Jr.’s son, Julian, III took over in 1981 when Julian, Jr. passed away. Julian III has continued with the Van Winkle tradition of producing high-quality wheated bourbon. His son, Preston, joined the company in 2001 and the Van Winkles look to continue that tradition for generations to come.

In 2002 the Van Winkles entered into a joint venture with Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin County, Frankfort, Ky. All of the Van Winkle’s whiskey production now takes place at Buffalo Trace Distillery under the same strict guidelines the family has always followed. For more information on the Van Winkle family of bourbon please visit