Thursday, April 16, 2015

DISCUS Says TPA and TPP Are Good for American Booze

The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) today announced its support for the bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill just introduced in the U.S. Senate, calling the legislation, “key to opening foreign markets to American spirits products.”

“This bill sends a signal to the rest of the world that the United States is serious about concluding important trade negotiations,” said outgoing Distilled Spirits Council President and CEO Peter H. Cressy. The membership of DISCUS includes both large and small distilled spirits companies who export their products to more than 130 countries.

Cressy noted that TPA legislation comes at a critical time, as the U.S. prepares to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement between the U.S. and 10 trading partners.

Past successful efforts by the United States to open foreign markets have contributed to the impressive gains the U.S. distilled spirits industry has made, and continues to make, in expanding U.S. exports. Global U.S. spirits exports have nearly tripled over the past decade, reaching more than $1.5 billion in 2014.

Most of that, more than $1 billion worth, is from exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Major brands such as Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam now derive half or more of their sales from non-U.S. markets. It was the sustained growth of international markets that sparked the revival of American whiskey 20 years ago.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Bulleit Story

I wrote this up for another purpose but it seemed like a good thing to share here as well. I've posted all of this before, but perhaps not all in one place. At any rate, Bulleit continues to grow and remains a stand out product for Diageo, even with the success of Orphan Barrel and the recent American re-launch of I. W. Harper.

This is the Bulleit Bourbon story, as succinct as I can make it.

Bulleit was started by Tom Bulleit in 1995. He contracted Buffalo Trace to make it and mostly intended to sell it in Japan, where he was already doing business as an attorney. There were two expressions. The packaging was completely different from what it is now.

Some years later, Seagram's started working on a new bourbon. They wanted to do a frontier theme and they were looking at old apothecary bottles for the package design. They liked the name 'bullet' but knew that wouldn't fly, so they were developing a product called 'Bullitt,' after Bullitt County, Kentucky. (Pronounced like the ammunition.) Then somebody told them about Bulleit (also pronounced that way) so, like any big company would, they made Tommy an offer he couldn't refuse. Jim Rutledge suggested a particular combination of Four Roses recipes and that became Seagram's Bulleit Bourbon. Different company, different package, different whiskey.

In 2000, when Seagram's was broken up for parts, their whiskey brands including Bulleit went to Diageo except Four Roses, which went to Pernod along with the distillery. Diageo also hired most of the Seagram's North American Whiskey marketing team. The year before, Diageo had sold the Bernheim Distillery and all of its American whiskey brands except George Dickel and I. W. Harper.

As part of the Seagram's acquisition, Diageo and Pernod contracted for Four Roses to make whiskey for Diageo. That sort of deal is standard when brands go one way and the distillery where they were produced goes elsewhere. That contract remained in force when Pernod sold Four Roses to Kirin almost immediately.

The initial contract involved both aged whiskey and new make, changing to all new make over time. Diageo aged the new make at its Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Four Roses was content to fill its contract but when Diageo wanted more bourbon they said no, they needed it for their own products, and when the contract finally ran out over a year ago, Four Roses didn't renew it.

Four Roses wasn't the only distillery making bourbon for Diageo. A few years ago, I was told that Brown-Forman, Barton and Jim Beam were each making about 2 million proof gallons of new make per year for Diageo. My source was impeccable. That whiskey was also aged at Stitzel-Weller.

At around that same time I received a report that Four Roses had conducted chemical tests and determined that Bulleit contained whiskey not made at Four Roses. At the time, Diageo was proudly promoting the fact that every drop of Bulleit Bourbon was made at Four Roses. The person who provided the report refused to go public.

A little over a year ago, I was able to confirm that Four Roses was no longer providing new make to Diageo. More recently, Brown-Forman informed me that they are no longer providing new make to Diageo or anyone else. I have been unable to nail down anything about Barton or Jim Beam.

Obviously, the bourbon in Bulleit bottles today is at least mostly Four Roses. That will be the case for a few more years. Diageo has a problem with Bulleit that most non-distiller producers (NDPs) don't face, the product's recipe. Bulleit contains almost twice as much rye as a standard bourbon and that's a difference you can taste. Diageo can't sell just any old bourbon as Bulleit.

Contract distillers will, of course, make any recipe you want and Jim Beam already makes a similar product in Old Grand-Dad.

One assumes that Diageo would have been content to remain an NDP for bourbon purposes but with distillers pulling back on contract production to supply their own growing brands, Diageo was forced to build a new distillery of its own.

Presumably, Diageo has enough liquid in the pipeline or still being made for it by someone to supply Bulleit, accommodating its growth, until whiskey from the new distillery is ready to go. At present, there appears to be plenty of Bulleit to go around.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Brown-Forman Has the Kentucky Derby Locked Up

With the Kentucky Derby just a little more than three weeks away, let's make sure we have this straight. Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve is the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile, Brown-Forman's Old Forester Mint Julep is the Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby. For the last 20-some years, the Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby has been Brown-Forman's Early Times Mint Julep. According to the Official Kentucky Derby web site, it still is.

Both Old Forester and Early Times are selling a pre-mixed mint julep. The Old Forester version is a little more expensive. They both come in a commemorative bottle that changes every year. Woodford Reserve also does a commemorative Derby bottle, but it contains regular Woodford Reserve bourbon, not a pre-mixed cocktail.

The most popular souvenir at the Derby itself is a mint julep in a commemorative glass, which also changes annually. This year, that drink will be made with the Old Forester pre-mix.

Old Forester bourbon is the product that launched Brown-Forman in 1870. The first Kentucky Derby was run five years later, in 1875.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tennessee Whiskey Is Safe for Another Year, Perhaps for Good

The AP is reporting that legislators opposed to the 2013 law defining Tennessee whiskey withdrew their repeal measure yesterday, "to try to generate more support before next year's legislative session." That's exactly what they said when it failed last year. Supporters of the current law, led by Jack Daniel's, have declared the effort dead.

If you want more details on the whole debate, go here.

Much of the media has portrayed this as Jack Daniel's law, but last fall the Tennessee Distillers Guild (TDG) polled its members and 17 of 20 voted in support of the current law.

Although the vote was secret, it is well-known who the three dissenters were. The effort to repeal the law was initiated by international drinks giant Diageo, which is a TDG member because it owns George Dickel. The other two members opposed to the current law are Phil Prichard, who makes a non-compliant 'Tennessee whiskey' that was grandfathered in by the law now in effect; and Popcorn Sutton, which wants to make an unaged 'moonshine' called Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey.

The repeal effort was also very vocally supported by two reality television stars, Michael Ballard and Jesse James Dupree. Ballard owns the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota. His partner is Jackyl lead singer Dupree. Ballard and Dupree claim they intend to build a multi-million dollar distillery in Trimble, Tennessee (Pop. 628), but only if the law is changed so they can make whatever they want and call it Tennessee whiskey.

Dupree is also the entrepreneur behind Jesse James American Outlaw Bourbon Whiskey, which is made by an undisclosed Kentucky producer.

Ballard and Dupree made many statements and claims about the Tennessee whiskey issue.

Not one of them was true.

It got pretty silly for a while there, as all sorts of people jumped into the spotlight. Very late in the game, the conservative lobbying group Americans For Prosperity, an organization backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, threw some of its money behind repeal. Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst, opined that the current law is unconstitutional.

But in the end, sanity ruled.

Monday, April 6, 2015

This New Canadian Whisky Contains an Unusual Ingredient: Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Bourbon

Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is a new product from Beam Suntory. It is an unusual whisky in several ways, and is further remarkable because it represents a coming-out of sorts for Beam's Alberta Distillers, which Beam has owned since the 1980s but rarely talks about.

And, to pay off the headline, Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is unusual because it contains 8 percent Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Everything else in the bottle is made at the distillery in Alberta from Canadian-grown rye, except the one percent sherry component.

To tell you the truth, most of this is not unusual. By Canadian law, Canadian whisky may contain up to 9.09 percent of alcohol sources that are not Canadian whisky, which might be wine, brandy, rum, etc., just about anything as long as it contains alcohol. For Canadian whisky destined for the U.S. market, American straight whiskey may be some or all of that 9.09 percent component. And for using our whiskey as an ingredient in their whiskey when they sell it back to us, they get a tax break.

What is unusual in the case of Dark Batch is that Beam is talking about all this, including revealing that the imported component is, in fact, Old Grand-Dad bourbon.

Canadian whisky brands tend to promote image over the nuts-and-bolts of production, but the producers have finally accepted that a significant segment of the whiskey audience wants those details. They're trying to comply. Rye whisky made at Alberta Distillers, they tell us, is 91 percent of the blend in Dark Batch. Half of that is low proof pot still whiskey, aged for six years in new, charred oak barrels, just like American straight rye whiskey.

In fact, it's a poorly kept secret that this is the whiskey that became Whistlepig Straight Rye, and may or may not be some or all of what is in Whistlepig bottles today. We don't really know because Whistlepig doesn't talk very much about its production and isn't very reliable when it does.

But back to Dark Batch. The other half of the rye component is high proof column still whiskey, aged for 12 years in used bourbon barrels. All Canadian whiskies are a blend of flavorful low proof whiskey and more neutral high proof whiskey, and they never talk about the ratios, but you can be confident that fifty-fifty is unusual. That ratio is entirely up to the distiller, there is no law about it, but in most products the percentage of high proof spirits is much higher than 50 percent.

What's more, 53.5 percent of the spirit in the bottle was aged in new, charred oak barrels. That's virtually unheard of for Canadian whisky, most of which is aged in used bourbon barrels.

The standard profile of Canadian whiskey is a little bit of flavorful low proof whiskey cut with a large serving of nearly flavorless high proof whiskey, which gives the product a pleasant but mild taste. At least that's how it seems to a regular drinker of straight bourbon.

Therefore, Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky will be a surprise to both sets of consumers. It doesn't taste like a bourbon, but it is as flavorful as one. You might be surprised that it contains just one percent sherry, but that's because of how well the wine notes blend with the rich low-proof rye. The other distinctive component is the 12 years in a used barrel, which gives it the musty taste of old, dry oak. You may or may not find that flavor pleasant, but it's unmistakable.

With all the flexibility Canadian producers have within the definition of 'Canadian whisky,' you might expect them to give us some pretty wild rides, but they rarely do. Dark Batch hints at what's possible. You've never tasted anything quite like this before.

Beam's Alberta Distillers is located in the Canadian province of Alberta, naturally. It opened in 1946 and is one of the world’s few distilleries specially designed to distill spirits from an all-rye mash. It is the largest producer of 100 percent rye whiskey in North America.

Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky should be appearing in stores this month, for about $30 per 750ml bottle.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the bourbon in Dark Batch is Jim Beam. We regret the error. Old Grand-Dad, also made by Beam Suntory, makes more sense since it contains about twice as much rye as Jim Beam.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A New Bourbon Country Reader Is on Its Way

Many people compare the current craft spirits boom to the craft beer boom of a generation ago. There are many similarities but also differences. One is money. Back in the day, most craft brewers were doing it on a shoestring. Not so today's craft distillers. Many, though not all, are very well funded, often by investors who stay in the background.

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 16, Number 5, dated April, 2015, we follow the money to see how it allows micros to poach distilling talent from the majors, and can lead to micro-producer sales to the majors.

We also look at the growing hobby of vatting, in which enthusiasts 'make' new whiskeys by combining two or more commercially-available products.

And we review a few of the excellent, super-premium whiskeys that are still readily available in most places, despite the oft-reported 'bourbon shortage.'

All this is in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, America's oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey. Honoring tradition, it still comes to you on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year (six issues) for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. It is proudly old-fashioned and published six times a year, or thereabouts.

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.) For the record, this new one is our 95th.

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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Supported by Crop Research Grant, Far North Spirits Aims to Make Minnesota an International Leader in Rye Grains for Rye Whiskey

Far North Spirits is a micro-distillery in Hallock, Minnesota. The distillery is located 400 miles northwest of Minneapolis on a 1,500 acre family farm. In February, Far North received a three-year $188,495 crop research grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to complete a first-of-its-kind study to evaluate varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota for agronomic performance in the field and flavor/sensory performance in the distilling industry.

Michael Swanson, owner, distiller, and farmer at Far North Spirits, will administer the grant. His vision is to make Minnesota a leader in the production of world-class rye spirits.

“Kentucky owns bourbon. Scotland, scotch. Minnesota will own rye,” said Swanson. “Our rich soil and extreme climate are perfect for growing this grain. AC Hazlet Rye, our favored variety, is already recognized as our signature.”

Although rye whiskey has grown in popularity in recent years, much of the rye distilleries use is grown outside the U.S., mostly in Canada. One major Kentucky distillery imports its rye from Germany. In addition to its use in rye whiskey, rye grain is an ingredient in most bourbon recipes.

Through field trials conducted on Minnesota farms and sensory analyses conducted at Minnesota distilleries, this project will result in a research report its authors hope will be valuable to Minnesota farmers, distillers, seed dealers, brewers and maltsters. The University of Minnesota Winter Rye Variety Performance Evaluation will conduct agronomic analysis to assess grain quality, winter hardiness, spring vigor, plant height, grain yield, resistance to lodging and other factors. Minnesota distillers will conduct sensory analysis on the rye to include distillate yield, initial viscosity, and assign a sensory score based on flavor and nose.

The finished study will include data on several varieties of winter rye and be a collaborative project involving several Minnesota farmers, distillers, the University of Minnesota Winter Rye Variety Performance Evaluation and the Barley and malt lab in the Department of Plant Sciences at North Dakota State University.

The goal is to provide producers and end users with an unbiased, reliable source of data, as well as the unique addition of flavor and sensory analysis. The report will be available publicly to all Minnesota farmers through the U of M and shared with micro-distillers nation-wide via the American Distilling Institute.

Far North Spirits, one of fewer than 50 micro-distilleries in the nation that also farms the grains it uses in its spirits, currently produces four spirits that use rye, including two gins, a vodka and a rye whiskey.