Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Guess Who Was an International Theater Authority?

In June 2008, the second year of this blog, I wrote a post about Chicago theater based on a performance I had attended the night before, and on an article that day in the Chicago Tribune.

As it happened, the artistic director of the theater company that put on that performance was searching for such things, discovered my post, and quoted, favorably, part of what I wrote in his blog. The weird part is, he discovered it on the web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper. It was a link in the Theater Blog of Chris Wilkinson that used me as a source for the claim that Chicago has eclipsed New York as America's primary city for legitimate theater.

For the record, I am in no way an authority on international theater, Chicago theater, or any other theater. I enjoy live theater and live in a great place for it, so occasionally I am moved to write something.

About all I can say to support my claim about Chicago is that it was said to me by Allan Havis, an old college buddy who said it 30+ years ago, when we were attending a Steppenwolf performance together. Even though he found that night's offering a bit flaccid, he said Chicago had a more vital and important theater community than New York. 

Allan has a bit more standing on the subject than I do, as an internationally-acclaimed playwright, theater scholar, and native New Yorker. We had a good laugh. (See comments, below.)

Friday, August 12, 2022

Was the Edith Farnsworth House a Commie Plot?

The Edith Farnsworth House.
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951,
on the Fox River just outside Plano, Illinois.
The Edith Farnsworth House is one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century. It is one of the jewels of the Chicago area and not to be missed.

Even before it was built, some people hated the house, and not on aesthetic grounds. They considered it subversive. In short, communist. They believed the design dictum "less is more," as embodied by this modernist masterpiece, was a communist plot to condition people to accept the lowest-common-denominator leveling that was inevitable in a forced egalitarian society. 

It didn't seem to matter that Edith Farnsworth was a wealthy physician who commissioned the house as a weekend retreat. We could all stand such leveling.

One of the harshest critics was Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful. In 1953, she edited a forward-looking issue of the magazine that included an essay, "The Threat to the Next America," in which she explained her theories about the subversive agenda of modernism advocates. 

Some quotes: 

"They are trying to convince you that you can appreciate beauty only if you suffer – because they say beauty and comfort are incompatible." 

"They are a self-chosen elite who are trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live." 

"For if we can be sold on accepting dictators in matters of taste and how our homes are to be ordered, our minds are certainly well prepared to accept dictators in other departments of life." 

"Break people’s confidence in reason and their own common sense and they are on the way to attaching themselves to a leader, a mass movement, or any sort of authority beyond themselves." 

All this because Edith Farnsworth complained to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe because the house didn't have any closets. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The 1980s, When Bourbon Hit Rock Bottom


As I recount in the new issue of Bourbon+, the 1980s were the worst of times for American whiskey. Sales were off by half, from a high-water mark more than a decade in the past. Producers at first believed the decline would be temporary, a hiccup. It had to be.

But it wasn't.

That is the subject of my "Back In The Day" column in the Summer issue of Bourbon+ Magazine

Part of it is the story of how Buffalo Trace became the distillery it is today. You can read about it here.

I have been on the last page of Bourbon+ with my musings on American whiskey history in every issue published so far, since the beginning. 

The idea of this sample, naturally, is for you to subscribe, which I recommend. Bourbon+ covers American whiskey and everything around it like no one else. It is a beautiful magazine with good writing that goes nicely with a little red likker. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Proposal for Bourbon Festival: Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss


The 2017 World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay® Race
at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Bardstown, Kentucky.
The World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay Races are the highlight of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. Teams or individual competitors push full, 53-gallon bourbon barrels (full of water, not bourbon), which weigh about 500 pounds each, around the course. In addition to speed, competitors must enter the barrels into the rack so they end in a 'bungs up' position. Success takes strength, speed, and skill.

The 2022 festival is September 16-18. The official schedule of events has not been released but the barrel races are usually on Saturday morning (9/17), starting at about 10:00 AM. In recent years, the festival has converted many events into ticketed money-makers, but the barrel races are still free, open to everyone, and family-friendly. From time to time, the emcee might toss 50 ml bottles of bourbon to the crowd.

It is the best, most fun event of the festival. But this is the festival's 30th year, so it is time to up the ante. It is time for the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss. 

A trebuchet is a type of catapult that uses a long arm to throw a projectile. It was first used in the 12th century. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "large trebuchets, powered by 10-ton counterweights, could hurl 300-pound (136-kg) wall-smashing boulders as far as 300 yards (270 metres)."

The basic design of a trebuchet.

Although wall-smashing sounds like fun, a distance competition would be sufficient. Entrants must build a trebuchet using traditional materials (wood, rope, stone) capable of flinging a full, 53-gallon bourbon barrel.

The ideal venue would be a high school football stadium, but any large field will do. 

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival World Championship Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss. What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Truth About Vodka

1995 ad from Smirnoff's 'Message in a Bottle' campaign.

In 2020, federal regulators in the U. S. dropped the rule that vodka has to be "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Since they didn't change the definition of vodka, this means producers may now talk about and promote their product's distinctive character, aroma, taste, and color such as it is. Vodka is still defined as a spirit distilled above 95% ABV. That leaves little room for character, aroma, taste, or color. 

Here are some other facts about vodka. 

(1)  Vodka is not Russian. Especially after Russia's cruel and irrational invasion of Ukraine, people wondered if they should stop drinking vodka. Don't stop on that account. Vodka is not Russian. The word has its origins in Russian and other Slavic languages. It is simply the Slavic word for a clear, nearly-neutral spirit.  

(2)  Vodka is mostly water. Vodka has two ingredients, ethanol and water. The typical vodka is 40% ethanol and 60% water. From the cheapest to the most expensive, that's the ratio. A few brands contain slightly more ethanol but they aren't necessarily the more expensive ones. The label will tell you. The initials ABV mean "alcohol, by volume." Alcohol is just another word for ethanol. "I mean, it's not like they just take some ethanol and add water to it, right?" No, that's exactly what they do. They take 300 ml of ethanol, add 450 ml of water, and that's your bottle of vodka.

(3)  Vodka is not made from potatoes. Although there are a few potato vodkas, virtually all vodka is made from grain, mostly corn, less often rye, even less often everything else. Vodka can be made from anything that can be fermented, so fruit, sugar cane, agave, etc. It hardly matters when it is refined to more than 95% pure ethanol.

(4)  Vodka is nothing new. Americans first heard the term 'vodka' when Smirnoff was introduced in the United States in the 1930s, after Prohibition. They didn't do much business until they launched the "Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless" advertising campaign in 1958. The idea was that if you drank vodka at lunch, instead of whiskey or beer, no one would be able to smell it on your breath! It was a huge success. Before Smirnoff, American distilleries sold something they called 'grain alcohol,' mostly as an ingredient for other things. A few people drank it. After Smirnoff took off, that product was rebranded as vodka.

(5)  Most companies that sell vodka don't make it. Because there are so many brands on the shelf and every company seems to have at least one vodka in its portfolio, and some have dozens, you might think many different companies make vodka. In fact, it is more like a handful. These specialists distill virtually all of the world's ethanol, even for the biggest brands, imported and domestic. Liquor companies buy it like they do any other commodity, based on price and availability. 

(6)  Vodka is an ingredient in many other drink and non-drink products. There is little difference between the ethanol you drink and the ethanol in your car. Vodka is ethanol with slight additional processing, if any. Add juniper and some other flavors, it's gin. Add caraway seeds, it's akvavit. Add peppermint and sugar, it's peppermint schnapps.* Add orange and sugar, it's triple-sec. If it's not whiskey, tequila, brandy, or rum, then vodka is the alcohol in the drink. It's also in fuels, drugs, explosives, synthetic fibers, and many other products.

(7)  Buy what you want, drink what you want. Decadence has been defined as the most for the least. Expensive vodka in a fancy bottle is just ethanol and water. It cannot be otherwise. Consumption doesn't get more conspicuous than that. Go big or go home. You deserve it.


* In the original post, this example said 'Kahlua.' That was a bad choice. Kahlua, in fact, is made with white rum, which is nearly neutral but not quite, and most other coffee liqueurs have rum, brandy, or tequila as their base too, not neutral spirit. The point was that most liqueurs, schnapps, cordials, etc., have neutral spirit as their base. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Wigle Whiskey Dominates ACSA Awards for 7th Consecutive Year


The Wigle Whiskey production team (left to right) Richard Platania, Brian Waryck, Michael Foglia, and (center) Rachel Bateman, Taylor Bostock. 

Pittsburgh-based Wigle Whiskey won 28 medals, the most of any distillery, at the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) awards ceremony last night in New Orleans. 

This is the seventh consecutive year that Wigle Whiskey has led in the ACSA medal count. It received two best-in-class awards for Wigle Peach Brandy and Wigle Amaro Vermut. Two Wigle Whiskeys--Port Rye and Single Barrel Straight Rye--took home gold. Wigle Whiskey received two out of the six best-in-show awards given and four of the 15 total gold medals awarded. No other distillery received more than one. 

ACSA gold medal winners Port Rye Whiskey and Amaro Vermut.

“We are so proud of how our tireless, ever-curious production team continues to innovate and represent the City of Champions in the world of spirits,” said Michael Foglia, Director of Production. “We could not be more thrilled to bring these best-in-show awards and a heap of medals that span our product portfolio back home.” 

Wigle Whiskey's products are sold at the Wigle Distillery in the Strip District, at Wigle’s bottle shop in Ross Park Mall, online at wiglewhiskey.com for shipment across PA and to DC, and at select retailers across the US. The full ACSA Award results can be viewed here

The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) is the only national, registered, non-profit trade association representing the U.S. craft spirits industry. Its mission is to elevate and advocate for the community of craft spirits producers. Membership is open to anyone.  

ACSA is governed by a Board of Directors elected by eligible voting members of the Association. Voting members must be independent licensed distillers (DSPs) annually removing fewer than 750,000 proof gallons from bond. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Jacob's Well Is a Mistake. Again


The original Jacob's Well Bourbon (c. 1997)

In their promotion for Hardin’s Creek, a new brand from Beam Suntory, they write this: “There’s a mantra in the Beam family: True legacy is never finished.”

That statement may be truer than its writer intended.

A real watercourse in Central Kentucky, Hardin’s Creek starts in Marion County, on the east side of Lebanon, then flows west and north, over to Loretto right by Maker’s Mark and up into Washington County where it joins the Beech Fork. Just south of that confluence is where, according to Beam family lore, founding patriarch Jacob Beam dug a well and set up a water-powered grist mill on the creek, to grind corn he grew on his farm there, corn he used to make whiskey. Jacob and his wife, Mary, were among the first settlers to the area toward the end of the 18th century. 

The Beams would eventually move their operations further west, into Nelson and Bullitt, and down through the generations Beam family distillers would make whiskey all over North America.

Beam has been to this well before.

Jacob’s Well is one of two releases under the new Hardin’s Creek banner. It is described, obliquely, as “aged 184 months” and “a limited release blend of two ultra-aged expressions – traditional bourbon mashbill and high-rye bourbon – hand-selected from over 3 million barrels.”

That sounds like some very old (15 1/3 years?) Jim Beam mixed with some equally old Old Grand-Dad, which is potentially interesting. So far, Freddie Noe has done a fine job digging around in that well for his Little Book releases. This appears to be more of the same under a different name. Good idea, bad name. The marketers are clearly struggling with the unhappy confluence of 'heritage' and 'innovation,' and the heritage of Jacob's Well is definitely not innovation.

The original Jacob’s Well (pictured above) was a short-lived, badly-conceived product that debuted in 1997. It was inspired by the success of the Small Batch Bourbons Collection (Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek) Beam had launched a few years before. The bourbon boom was aborning. Jacob’s Well was intended to herald a new line of what Beam called ‘micro-bourbons.’

The label boasted, "For over 200 years, Jacob’s Well has never run dry." The crudely-drawn label illustration showed a farmer prospecting for water with a forked stick.

Then as now, they claimed the location of the actual well is known and some of its remains are visible, but it’s a metaphor. There is no water from said well in the product and you can't make a pilgrimage to visit the site. It's just a name.

Although they dubbed it 'micro-bourbon,' there was nothing ‘micro’ about Jacob’s Well, except maybe how many bottles they eventually sold. It was just 7-year-old Jim Beam at 84° proof (42% ABV) that was "twice-barreled for smoothness." That was the only product innovation, and they never quite got around to explaining what it meant. The rest was smoke and mirrors, empty marketing gobbledygook. They got angry at one of their suppliers who told them it was a bad idea and banned him from the building.

Freddie has been finding and blending some excellent liquid, so both Hardin’s Creek releases probably are worth drinking, but the way Hardin’s Creek is being presented is precious, pompous, and tone-deaf, just like the original Jacob’s Well. It's unworthy of the good work the company does with the whiskey itself.

(See for yourself. The website is here. A Men’s Journal Advertorial is here.)