Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The best gift for a bourbon lover is, of course, bourbon. But if you're looking for something else, how about a fine book about bourbon? Or a DVD documentary? Or a gift subscription to a nifty bourbon-centric newsletter. These delights are all as close as a mouse click. Look, there they are, neatly lined up to the right of this column.
If you buy here your payment goes through PayPal, which means you can use either your PayPal account or any major credit card. If you prefer to buy through Amazon, you can. Right now, Amazon is cheaper, but if you buy either book here, you can have it autographed by the author, and who can put a price on that?
The books are also available for Kindle and Nook e-readers. To find out how to do all of these wonderful things, just click one of the pictures to the right. Everything is available through Amazon except the newsletter. In addition to subscriptions, bound back issues of the newsletter are available. Click here for more information.
Bourbon, Straight. The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey has been selling very well on Amazon, perhaps because they're offering it right now for 22% off the cover price. Only Amazon knows how long they'll have it at that price. They've also got a deal on The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste at 19% off the cover price.
Here's a little tip on how you can get an even lower price on Bourbon, Straight, if you don't mind a little cover damage. The damage is very slight. The cover is intact but has some indentations in it that happened in the manufacturing. They can't be sold as new so they are being sold through Amazon Resellers as Used. Just go to the book's regular listing on Amazon and under the price look for the words "20 Used from $14.50." Click on that (or just click here) and you'll see that the $14.50 price is from Made and Bottled in Kentucky (i.e., me). You order and pay through Amazon. Unfortunately, autographs are not available with that option.
Thanks to everyone who has bought or will buy the books, DVD, or newsletter. It's the sale of those items that make this blog possible. We appreciate your support. Happy Happy.
Monday, December 9, 2013
If these are the best of times for the American whiskey industry, the 1980s were the worst. The business of making and selling whiskey in the United States had hit rock bottom. The business had lost half of its sales volume and although sales had more-or-less stabilized (they were, in fact, still declining but at a much slower rate) there seemed to be no revival on the horizon. Because they believed the decline would be temporary, producers kept producing far too long and the industry was drowning in whiskey that fewer and fewer people wanted.
With sales down and inventories too high, profits were under intense pressure and whiskey assets were changing hands faster than a hot potato.
Most of the large producers were no longer independent. Instead they were part of conglomerates. In those days, unlike now, diversified conglomerates were all the rage. Spirits producers shared a corporate household with all kinds of unrelated businesses.
Back then, F. Ross Johnson was the powerful CEO of Nabisco. He was played by James Garner in the movie "Barbarians at the Gate" (1993). Nabisco had a subsidiary called Standard Brands that included Fleischmann's Distilling. Ferdie Falk was the CEO of Fleischmann's and Bob Baranaskas was president.
In 1983, Johnson decided to sell Standard to Whitbred, which was part of Grand Metropolitan. A few years later, Grand Metropolitan merged with Guinness to form Diageo.
Assuming they'd be replaced after the sale, Falk and Baranaskas resigned and decided to start their own company. Falk was previously an executive with Schenley, so he approached Meshulam Riklis, whose conglomerate now owned Schenley, about selling some assets. Riklis always needed money so he agreed to sell Falk and Baranaskas the Ancient Age bourbon brand and the distillery that produced it, then called the Albert B. Blanton Distillery, today's Buffalo Trace.
Falk and Baranaskas called their new company Age International. As the name suggests, they believed bourbon's future was outside the U.S. One of their first moves was the creation of Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon. Done at the behest of their Japanese customers, they released it in the U.S. as well.
In 1991, Falk and Baranaskas sold a 22.5% interest in Age International to Japan’s Takara Shuzo, with right of first refusal to purchase the remaining shares. In 1992, Falk and Baranaskas sold their shares to Takara for $20 million. Takara immediately sold the distillery to Sazerac, but retained the corporate entity and brand trademarks.
Today, Sazerac still owns Buffalo Trace and Buffalo Trace still produces all of the whiskey for Ancient Age, Blanton's, and the other Age International brands, using a special mash bill. Buffalo Trace distributes the Age International products inside the U.S. Buffalo Trace also makes its own bourbons and other products, using a different mash bill.
Sazerac and Age International have an unusual relationship, but it has worked for both of them for now more than 20 years. It was born at a low point for the American whiskey business. This little story shows how easily things could have been very different.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Don't count the so-called 'old media' out just yet.
With coverage of the American whiskey industry seeming to come more and more from specialized blogs and related 'new media' sources, it would be easy to write off the newspapers and other 'old media' that might have written about it in the past.
Not so fast.
About a year ago, the daily newspaper for Lexington, Kentucky, the Herald-Leader, decided to get serious about its coverage of all things related to the burgeoning whiskey industry, especially as it applies to Kentucky. They assigned an experienced journalist, Janet Patton, and gave her the necessary time and resources to do the job right. The result has been a series of articles unsurpassed by any other outlet for their scope, relevance, and accuracy.
The media in Kentucky has always covered whiskey as a business story and occasionally from the human interest angle. Patton and her editors have gone much further. What's more, they are treating it as a subject deserving of serious examination. Patton is willing to take on difficult subjects and ask tough questions. Her readers benefit, of course, but so does the industry, when everyone is better informed. As she herself has learned more about the industry, it has become harder for producers to sell her their spin. She'll report what they say, then drill down to get the rest of the story.
If 'The Chuck Cowdery Blog' is on your regular reading list, Patton's articles should be too. Happily, this 'old media' outlet has a good online presence. Her latest story, about non-distiller producers and how they get their whiskey, is here. From there, you can connect to past stories. (Just click on the arrows.) It's worth your effort.
Technically, today's package concludes the paper's four part series, but I don't think Patton and the Herald-Leader are going to stop now. They've taken the high ground. Let's hope they fight to keep it.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
To start a distillery, micro or macro, you need a license from the federal government. You also need one from the state in which your distillery will be located. As they do with regard to all things alcohol, the laws vary widely from state to state. States may not be the 'laboratories of democracy' that some envision, but they are the laboratories of alcohol regulation, because there is much variety and anyone who cares to look can see what works and what doesn't.
Under Montana's distillery licensing laws, craft distillers may have a sample room, give free sample tastes, and sell their products directly to the public. This is believed to be essential if you want your state's microdistilleries to prosper. One Montana micro-distillery reported that such sales represented half of their revenue in their first year.
Although Montana's micro-distilleries can sell their own products to the public, they can't sell Bud Light. The law says they may only sell alcoholic beverage that they themselves produced on site. But the current Montana law, enacted in 2005, doesn't define 'produced.' Conveniently, the relevant federal rules do and they say you 'produce' a product even if you merely bottle it. Under that interpretation, a Montana micro-distillery could bring in any type of alcoholic beverage in bulk, bottle it at the distillery, and sell it in the sample room.
As part of a major updating of the 2005 rules, Montana now proposes to restrict sample room sales to products distilled on the premises. So there can be no doubt, the new text even defines distillation as "the process of vaporization and subsequent condensation of a beverage containing ethyl alcohol."
The new rules would still allow micro-distillers to be micro-rectifiers too, but they would not be able to sell their made-elsewhere products at the distillery.
Friday, December 6, 2013
People who start micro-distilleries come from many different backgrounds. Some start from scratch, or rather from itch, with no previous related experience. Many start out as brewers, a prerequisite skill for distilling. Others have experience in non-production aspects of the alcoholic beverage industry, such as sales or marketing. Some are moonshiners who want to go legit.
Then there are Pat Heist and Shane Baker, the guys behind Wilderness Trace Distillery in Danville, Kentucky. Yesterday, the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) announced that Wilderness Trace Distillery has joined the KDA and become the ninth stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.
A special grand opening is being held today with KDA and member distillery executives, and Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, in attendance. Tours begin tomorrow at 10 a.m., with food and door prizes provided.
“Wilderness Trace and its parent company, Ferm Solutions, have more than 10 years’ experience in fermentation and distillation techniques, making them a welcome addition to our organization,” said Rick Robinson, Chairman of the KDA Board of Directors. “This new distillery is a natural extension of their core business and will allow them to showcase their expertise and knowledge.”
Robinson is Plant Manager at Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg. “We proudly welcome them as a partner in our signature industry,” he said.
Located at 445 Roy Arnold Avenue in Danville, Ferm Solutions is a long-time provider of advanced ethanol-producing yeast strains and a leader in molecular and genetic engineering technologies. The company also is developing genetically modified yeast strains for improved fermentation. It has invested more than $2 million over the past two years and employs 13 people.
Owners Heist and Baker say the distillery tours will highlight the science behind fermentation and educate visitors on the art and craft of distilling. Brands will include Wilderness Trace Bourbon, Settlers Select Danville’s Rye Whiskey, Blue Heron Vodka, and Harvest Rum.
Because so many of their Ferm Solutions customers are distillers, a small distillery seemed like a good idea. But rather than make it just another tool for the lab, they went full scale micro, welcoming visitors and making products for sale to the public.
As they were preparing, they met a Danville neighbor who is an old hand at the whiskey business, Dave Scheurich, who retired from Brown-Forman a few years ago as plant manager at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. Scheurich is a master distiller, although he never had the title, and is consulting (unpaid) with Heist and Baker on flavor sources and distillation process control.
The new distillery plans to offer classes in fermentation and distilling, some of which will be taught by Scheurich. Only truly semi-retired, Scheurich is the principal of High Spirits Enterprises LLC.
Danville is a good place for a micro-distillery, as it is the home of Centre College and historically significant as part of the original settlement area for Europeans in Kentucky, beginning in 1774. Although there is no documentary evidence to prove it, it is likely that Kentucky's first distillers were in the Danville-Harrodsburg area.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
I am generally not a fan of bourbons and ryes aged more than 12-years. When I do like one, it's usually in the sense of "it's pretty good for something that old."
I did a lot of camping in my youth and when a whiskey starts to taste the way I smelled after several days in front of a campfire, it loses me.
Earlier this week, I expressed this view in a somewhat forceful way in a different forum and got a lot of pushback. People who like very old whiskey tend to be passionate and perhaps a bit defensive. So let me be clear. This is about what I like. You may like something different. That's okay.
This is an issue limited to American straight whiskey, bourbon and rye (and Tennessee whiskey too), because the new charred oak barrel imparts so much flavor. Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Japanese and just about every other whiskey species aged in used barrels tend to always get better with age, although there are exceptions.
With scotch, heavy peating might be parallel. It's a very strong flavor that you either love or hate.
Long aging is very risky and expensive for distilleries as so much is lost to evaporation and there is always a question mark as to how what is left will come out. We had a lot of very old whiskey in the recent past because of the post-collapse glut, some good - some not, but distilleries will try to avoid that if they can.
I'd say the 'sweet spot' is 8-12 years and distillers have been bottling more in that range in recent years. For me, it's about balance. I prefer whiskey that has a good balance of all the elements and is not super-heavy in one or another of them.
It's okay to have a different preference.
There's also a bit of a trick involved with very long aging as it's done now (i.e., post-glut). Barrels intended for long aging are put into the lowest and most central warehouse locations; which are cooler, with less temperature variation, and higher humidity. Some producers are experimenting now with very large casks, which might also lend themselves to long aging.
I'm all for offering many different styles, whether I happen to like them all or not.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Many micro-distilleries say they sell 'legal moonshine,' but since 'moonshine' is defined as 'any distilled spirit made illegally,' what is 'legal moonshine'? And is moonshine, even unofficially, a particular 'style' of distilled spirit?
The people who regulate such things, at both the state and federal levels, allow producers to call their products 'moonshine' as long as the product is also identified by its actual, official classification.
Theoretically, a producer can use the term 'moonshine' on anything, but 'legal moonshine' is usually one of these three recognized distilled spirit types.
If you read the label closely you will see, for example, that Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon is actually 'grain neutral spirits.' That, friends, is another name for vodka. Vodka, aka grain neutral spirits, aka GNS, is typically made from corn. Although any grain may be used, it's almost always corn because corn is cheapest.
After fermenting in the usual way, the spirit is distilled to neutrality (i.e., above 95 percent alcohol). By law it must be without distinctive color, aroma, or flavor.
If a 'moonshine' product isn't vodka, there's a good chance it is corn whiskey. Again, it will say this somewhere on the label. Corn whiskey must be at least 80% corn and can be 100 percent corn, but unlike GNS it is distilled below 80 percent alcohol, so it retains some of the flavors created in the fermentation. Georgia Moon, a Heaven Hill product, is corn whiskey. So is the original, unflavored version of Ole Smoky, but their many flavored products appear to be flavored GNS.
Corn whiskey is the only type of whiskey that doesn't have to be aged. However, unaged corn whiskey is generally not recognized as whiskey outside the United States.
The third type of legal moonshine, and arguably the most authentic, is made from table sugar. As Max Watman explains in his excellent book, Chasing the White Dog, real moonshiners (the illegal kind) use table sugar almost exclusively because it is cheap, readily available, and ferments easily.
A few legal moonshiners make what they call 'sugar shine,' using table sugar. In some cases they will throw in some corn for flavor. Limestone Branch and Barrelhouse are two Kentucky micro-distilleries that make it that way.
It should be noted that when corn is used in this way it generally is not converted to sugar first, so it does not ferment. It does convey some flavor to the final spirit, assuming it's not distilled to neutrality. Technically, sugar shine products are rum, but most producers don't want to label them that way so they use terminology like 'cane spirits.'
For the most part these products are good clean fun, albeit nothing special as drinks. Their principal danger is that consumers will not exercise suitable caution if they are ever offered real (i.e., illegal) moonshine, which can be very dangerous.