Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Riverside, the Chicago Portage, and Quincy Street Distillery



Chicago is laid out on a grid, as are most of its suburbs. But look at a map of the western burbs and Riverside stands out, a grid without corners. Instead of straight lines, Riverside’s streets are gently curved, like the Des Plaines River that borders the town on the south and west, and gives it its name.

Riverside was an early example of a planned community, designed in 1869 by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who most famously designed New York’s Central Park. It was intended as a suburb, connected by commuter rail to Chicago's downtown. Today most of the town is a National Historic District.

Quincy Street Distillery, 39 East Quincy St., Riverside, Illinois 
One of the very few straight streets in Riverside is Quincy, where you will find Quincy Street Distillery, a small artisan distiller near an art glass studio and the local arts center. Quincy Street gives tours and does tastings, by appointment, four days a week.

Quincy Street makes a large variety of whiskeys, gins, and other spirits.

A visit to a small distillery can be pretty quick, so it’s nice if there are other interesting things to do in the area. Riverside provides that, in the historic town itself and its neighbor to the south, Lyons, where there is a site very important to Chicago history.

A statue commemorating 17th century explorers Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet.
Chicago is where it is because of its eponymous river, which originally emptied into Lake Michigan. Early European explorers learned from the natives that a short portage from the Chicago River’s south end could put one into the Mississippi River system, effectively connecting the Great Lakes and Mississippi systems. Eventually that portage trail became a canal, then a much bigger canal. Part of the original trail is still visible in its natural state at the Chicago Portage National Historic Site.

And if that isn't enough for you, Brookfield Zoo is also nearby.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

MGP Reduces Minimum Order for Custom Mash Bills


An aging warehouse at the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (formerly owned by Seagrams).
MGP announced today that it has reduced its minimum order for spirits made from proprietary mash bills to 250 barrels from the previous 1,000-barrel requirement, said MGP Vice President of Alcohol Sales and Marketing David Dykstra.

In addition to lowering the minimum order, MGP will allow customers to 'pool' orders with other producers to fulfill the 250-barrel requirement.

MGP also offers a customized barrel entry proof, and the option to use either new or used barrels. Aging in an MGP rack house is also available.

“We’re full-service and fully committed to partnerships that benefit our customers of all sizes,” Dykstra said.

This change would seem to indicate that the contract distilling marketplace is becoming more competitive and MGP is no longer the only game in town.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Some Perspective on the Barton Warehouse Collapse



Two weeks ago, we told you about the partial collapse of Warehouse 30 at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Yesterday, not surprisingly, the rest of it came down. The photographs and videos are certainly dramatic, approximately 18,000 barrels of whiskey, each one holding 53 gallons and weighing 500 pounds, in a massive pile, with pieces of the roof and other debris scattered about.

No one was injured in either collapse.

The story is all over social media and many people are blowing it way out of proportion. Obviously, it is a bad accident, but it doesn't imperil Sazerac, the distillery's owner, nor will it have a significant impact on the industry as a whole. It is a drop in the bucket. There are currently 6,657,063 barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky. The barrels affected in this incident represent about 1/3 of 1% of that total, and that's just in Kentucky. There are a few million more aging in Tennessee, Indiana, and other states.

Although they are rare, events like this do happen. As a precaution, every warehouse contains a mix of different products at different ages, mitigating the impact of accidents on inventory planning.

Sazerac, America's third largest whiskey producer, won't miss a beat.

The warehouse was about 80 years old. It was a wooden structure, covered with a thin steel skin. While the exact cause has not been determined, it isn't hard to figure out the factors that may have been involved: an old, wooden building; a very wet spring, and a tremendous amount of weight. These things happen from time to time. The most unusual fact about this incident is that there wasn't a fire. There usually is a fire.

As it is, the biggest concern is keeping whiskey from smashed or leaking barrels from getting into the creeks that surround the site, which all empty into the Beech Fork River. If you watch one of the longer videos, you can see there is a massive earthmoving operation going on at the base of the hill, creating a barrier to keep the alcohol out of the stream.

After the initial collapse, the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency reported that approximately 500 fish were killed. When alcohol gets into a waterway, algae feed on it and deplete the water of oxygen. The fish die of asphyxiation.

After a warehouse at Wild Turkey collapsed and burned in May of 2000, officials of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced that a 28-mile-long 'dead zone' was floating down the Kentucky River with the current, killing everything in its path. It was the worst fish kill in Kentucky history. About 227,000 fish died, including paddlefish, catfish, shiner minnows, spoonbills, carp, gar and saugers. Wild Turkey was assessed and paid a large fine.

As you can see from the pictures, many of the barrels appear to be intact. They are made from white oak, which is pretty stout stuff. There are no estimates yet as to how many can be salvaged, and the effort will take a long time. Barrels will literally have to be removed one by one, probably using some kind of crane to avoid disturbing the pile.

There probably were distilleries on the Barton 1792 site before 1876, but that was the year Tom Moore and Ben Mattingly established the Mattingly & Moore Distillery there, with financial help from John Willett, Mattingly's father-in-law. Moore's mother was a Willett too, so it was all in the family. In 1879. Moore established the Tom Moore Distillery right next door and that is the plant that eventually became Barton. (The year 1792, which is the name of the distillery's flagship product, is the year Kentucky became a U.S. state. It otherwise has no significance to the history of the distillery.)

Barton is pretty ideally situated on the edge of Bardstown. The distillery itself is in the valley, at the spring. Most of the warehouses are on a high plateau above it, to maximize air circulation. Although a small part of one original building was incorporated into the distillery, most of it was built in the 1940s. Sazerac bought it in January of 2009. Sazerac also owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, and a maturation and bottling operation in Owensboro at the site of the Glenmore Distillery.

Although this accident is surely unfortunate, and the clean-up will be costly and time consuming, everything and everyone is going to be just fine.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

In Bourbon Country, Fall Begins Today



No, the leaves haven't changed and the thermometer tells a different story, but July 1 is the first day of the fall distilling season in America's whiskey distilleries.

Division of the year into two distilling seasons was codified in the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 and later incorporated into the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits as Subpart B, Sec. 5.11 'Meaning of terms.'

The significance of this rule is shown in the photograph. For a distilled spirit to be labeled 'bonded' or 'bottled-in-bond' it must, among other things, have been entirely distilled within a single distilling season, either spring (1/1 - 6/30) or fall (7/1 - 12/31) of a given year. Although the law no longer requires disclosure of the distilling season on the label, it still obliges producers to adhere to that limitation.

Designating the two seasons as 'spring' and 'fall,' rather than in some other way, has even deeper roots. Traditionally, distilling was a seasonal enterprise, mostly taking place in the fall, after the harvest was in, when grain was most plentiful and cheapest, and when farmers were available to work as distillery hands. Distilling would then continue into the winter months, with a short break around Christmas and New Year, until the grain ran out or the weather got too hot, whichever came first.

As the research being done at George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon has shown, distilling in those days involved a lot of very hard, physical labor. It was also hot work, from boiling water to cook the mash, which had to be stirred by hand, to the hot copper stills themselves, distilleries were hot and smoky. Better to do that sort of thing in the fall and winter than in the heat of summer. Also in those days, without the technology to control fermentation with chilled water, the yeast had a tendency to work too fast in hot weather, leading to lower yields.

Today, although technology makes it possible to distill all year, and the current high demand for American whiskey makes it an economic necessity, distilleries still typically take a summer break—usually in August—to give workers a vacation and to clean, maintain, and upgrade the equipment.

If you plan to tour a distillery this summer, check first to make sure they will be operating during your visit.

So while it is too early to break out the candy corn, you may want to raise a glass to the new distilling season that starts today.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Rest of the Sourced Whiskey Story



A few weeks ago, NBC News posted a story and video with the headline "Behind the misleading claims fueling America's bourbon boom." They did a good job with it. It was well told and accurate, despite the overheated headline.

Stories about whiskey sourcing appear from time to time and that's good too. It is an aspect of the industry most people don't understand, and there are shady operators out there who exploit that ignorance.

But there are a few parts of this story most journalists miss.

(1) Sourced whiskey is nothing new.

(2) Whiskey sourcing is not inherently sinister.

(3) It's not all coming from MGP.

First, some history. It took a long time for distilled spirits to become an industry in the United States. Distilleries, like most things, were local. You bought your whiskey or other spirit directly from the person who made it, or from a local retailer who did. It was only around the middle of the 19th century that it became an industry. The Coffey still made it possible to produce a large volume of product, and the railroads made it possible to get that product to distant markets quickly and economically.

For the most part, distilleries simply distilled and aged the product. Most were located in the country, close to their raw materials: water and grain. They sold most of their output to distributors who bottled it and created brands, and marketed them far and wide. Back then, virtually all whiskey was sourced whiskey.

After 1905, technology made bottling more practical, beginning a trend toward vertical integration.

That trend continued when the industry came back after Prohibition, but sourced whiskey never went away. Some distilleries continued to sell most of their output to distributors and most distilleries sold at least some of it that way.

There are two ways to buy sourced whiskey. The first is bulk whiskey, where you buy whiskey the distillery has made and aged at its own expense that is ready to drink. The other is contract, in which you buy new distillate and either pay the distillery to age it for you, or take it and age it yourself.

As the industry contracted when bourbon sales collapsed in the 1970s, there was a lot of excess distilling capacity. Because sourced whiskey (bulk or contract) tends to be a low margin business, most distilleries that specialized in it were early casualties. The distilleries that survived primarily made and sold their own brands, but since most of them had excess capacity they were happy to do contract distilling for anyone who asked, and they were happy to sell bulk whiskey when they had excess inventory, which most did through the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s.

What we now know as MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana was originally owned by Seagrams. It is a big distillery that makes both neutral spirits (i.e., vodka) and whiskey. It primarily made Seagrams Gin (which uses neutral spirit) and Seagrams blended whiskeys such as Seagrams Seven Crown (which combines straight whiskey with neutral spirit).

In 1999, the entire Seagrams company was sold for parts. Diageo got the blended whiskey brands. Pernod got the Lawrenceburg distillery and Seagrams Gin. Diageo contracted with Pernod to keep making the blends, but there was nothing to prevent them from making them somewhere else in the future. Likewise, Pernod could make its gin somewhere else. The Lawrenceburg distillery, then about 70 years old and showing its age, began to look like a surplus asset. Pernod announced its desire to sell the plant and said they would close it if they couldn't find a buyer.

Because sales of the Seagrams blends were declining, Pernod found itself with more whiskey in its aging warehouses than it needed, so in about 2005 it quietly began to sell some of it in bulk. The makers of Templeton Rye were among the first buyers and as has been well documented, they went to great (and illegal) lengths to hide the source.

Eventually, Pernod sold Lawrenceburg to Angostura, the distilled spirits division of a large insurance and financial services company in Trinidad and Tobago. Along with a lot of other things, that company crashed in the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. Without financing from their failing parent, the Lawrenceburg distillery was forced to go it alone, selling whatever they could to whoever would buy it just to keep the lights on.

MGP bought the distillery in 2011 and their timing was great. All of a sudden, the market for both bulk whiskey and contract distilling was booming. Margins improved. MGP was sitting pretty.

But through all this, MGP was never the only or even the primary seller of sourced whiskey. A few of the major distilleries had always sold it as a regular part of their business. They included Heaven Hill, Barton (then owned by Constellation), and Sazerac's Buffalo Trace. Brown-Forman didn't sell bulk but they did a lot of contract distilling at their Shively plant. Virtually every other major distillery sold bulk from time to time, whenever their forecasts predicted a surplus in a particular age range.

But as the bourbon boom got even boomier, those producers increasingly needed both their stocks and their capacity to support their own brands. Contract producers stopped accepting new contracts or permitting current customers to contract for greater volumes. Brown-Forman stopped doing contract distilling altogether. MGP became the only game in town.

Today, supplies of bulk whiskey are still very tight, but a lot of new contract distilling capacity has been created. In addition to contract distilling, MGP is investing in building up its bulk whiskey stocks and many of the new producers, such as Bardstown Bourbon Company, are doing the same. In addition, long time non-distiller producers such as Luxco and Michter's have built their own distilleries, becoming distillers. As their house-made whiskey reaches maturity, they will exit the sourced whiskey market as buyers and perhaps re-enter it as sellers, so the whole dynamic is changing.

Meanwhile, the majors continue to unload their surpluses into the market from time to time. Maker's Mark and Jack Daniel's are just about the only distilleries that never need to do this.

Although they are losing their hegemony, all this is not bad news for MGP. It means the business is becoming more competitive but MGP's CEO, Gus Griffin, is a smart guy who knows the business well. He already has begun to develop house brands to diversify away from the low margin sourced whiskey business.

Meanwhile, stories like the NBC News one are making consumers smarter and more skeptical about sourced whiskey, especially mediocre products with fancy bottles, big price tags, and dubious origin stories.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Partial Warehouse Collapse at Barton 1792



At about 11AM EDT this morning, without warning, a whiskey aging warehouse at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown partially collapsed. No one was injured but about 9,000 barrels are affected, according to Nelson County Emergency Management spokesman Milt Spalding. Although the visible barrels appear remarkably intact, they may be leaking. So far, according to officials, water in the nearby Beech Fork River has not been impacted.

The building, which is about 60 years old, was being repaired. Bardstown Fire Chief Billy Mattingly said the part still standing is very unstable and may collapse as well. The warehouse held a total of 20,000 barrels.

There is no way to say yet how many barrels were lost. Intact barrels, still full, can be salvaged. Even so, the financial cost surely will be in the millions, not just from lost whiskey but also the cost of replacing the building. New warehouses cost about $2 million each. As for the whiskey, the value of a barrel will vary according to its age but let's say a full barrel is worth about $2,000, a low estimate. A loss of 9,000 barrels adds up to $18 million.

Here is one mitigating factor. Because accidents happen, distilleries don't put all of their eggs in one basket. Every warehouse contains a mix of barrel ages, from newly-filled to fully mature.

As the images show, the warehouse was built at the edge of a hill and that is the side that collapsed. This has been an unusually wet spring throughout the region. One possible reason for the collapse is subsidence caused by oversaturated soil. Barton 1792 is owned by Sazerac. As of now, the company has not made any announcements about the accident.

Click here for some drone-shot video of the scene.

Sazerac has released the following statement:

Barton 1792 Distillery is confirming it did have an incident with one of its barrel warehouses, Warehouse #30 today, Friday, June 22nd around 11 a.m. EDT. 

One side of the barrel warehouse collapsed causing structural damage.  No one was inside the warehouse and there were no injuries. 

The Distillery team took proactive measures to access and contain the damage immediately.  The Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection has been on site and the Distillery team implemented a number of actions to minimize any environmental risk.

Barrel Warehouse #30 was built in the 1940s and held approximately 18,000 barrels.  We believe no more than half of the barrels inside are impacted; we are assessing how many of the impacted barrels can be recovered.  A mix of various distilled products at various ages were stored in that warehouse.

The Warehouse incident will not affect normal operations or tourism activities; the Distillery expects to be open for tours on Saturday and it will resume normal business operations on Monday.   Barton 1792’s normal “summer shutdown,” which is when bourbon distilleries shut down for a short time period in the summer for repairs and routine maintenance, began last week. This will not affect bourbon production once the Distillery’s summer shutdown time period ends as already planned.   

It may be several days or weeks before a full assessment of the damage to Warehouse 30 at Barton 1792 is fully complete.  At this time we do not know which Barton 1792 brands or customers will be impacted.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elijah Craig Did Not Make the First Bourbon



One of the most persistent bourbon myths is the one about Elijah Craig. Here is a typical example, from Alexis Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits: "Early in the colonial history of America, a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, established a still in Georgetown, Kentucky and began producing whiskey from a base of corn. The still is said to have been one of the first in Kentucky and customers in neighboring towns christened his product Bourbon County Whiskey, from the county of origin."

The myth can be traced to Richard Collins, whose History of Kentucky was published in 1874. Collins does not identify Craig by name, but writes that "the first Bourbon Whiskey was made in 1789, at Georgetown, at the fulling mill at the Royal spring." This claim is included, without elaboration, on a densely-packed page of short statements under the heading 'Kentucky firsts.' 

Collins does not attempt to substantiate the claim nor has any evidence ever been produced to support it. Craig was a real person—a major character in early Kentucky history—and he was a distiller. He also operated a fulling mill at the Royal Spring in 1789, so there is little doubt that Collins intended to attribute this milestone to Craig. What is lacking is any evidence that Craig’s whiskey was unique in its day, that it alone had somehow been elevated from the raw, green, corn distillate made throughout the frontier to the bourbon whiskey we know today.

In addition to a lack of any evidence to support the Collins claim, which was made almost 100 years after the fact, there is another, more significant problem about connecting the Craig claim to bourbon’s name. Craig's distilling operation was never in Bourbon County, even with the shifting of county boundaries that took place during Kentucky's early history. Craig didn’t move, but the boundaries did as new, smaller counties were created from older and larger ones. Craig's site was first in Fayette County (1780), then Woodford (1788), then Scott (1792), but never Bourbon. 

In Craig's day, making whiskey was commonplace, universally viewed as an economic and personal necessity. It was only much later, in Collins’ time, that making and consuming whiskey became controversial. Collins himself sympathized with the prohibitionists who would eventually outlaw whiskey, but distillers and their supporters were quick to embrace his assertion that bourbon was 'invented' by a respected Baptist preacher. This does not explain why Collins attributed the invention of bourbon to Craig, but it does explain why that legend has endured.

Now, of course, it is in the interest of a certain distillery to keep the myth alive.