Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How Did a Product With Four Simple Ingredients Get So Strange?

A well-funded attempt to degrade bourbon winds up protecting it. A wealthy United States Treasury Secretary gives himself a valuable franchise and no one objects. A rye whiskey empire spawns a renowned robber baron. The biggest company in the business shoots itself in the foot, repeatedly. An American whiskey type is named after the king of France and no one knows why. Members of two reviled immigrant minorities save the bourbon industry. Mushrooms improve bourbon’s taste.

Those are just a few of the surprising, true stories in Bourbon, Strange; the long-awaited sequel to Bourbon, Straight, the book that helped propel bourbon whiskey’s current robust revival.

Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in Chapter 8, "George Dickel and the Trouble With Diageo." Unlike Athena, Diageo did not emerge fully-formed from the head of Zeus when it debuted in 1997. It was the sum of its parts, most prominently Guinness but also the American drinks giant Schenley. The George Dickel brand allows for an interesting case study in how bad corporate decisions can drive a good whiskey into the ground. Dickel is often mentioned in the same breath with Jack Daniel's, a laughable comparison since Jack outsells George 100 to one.

I am able to write frankly about Diageo, the world's largest drinks company, and all of the other producers because they don't provide a penny of my income. I work for you, the whiskey consumer. You pay me by buying my books and other products, and by buying tickets and showing up when I appear somewhere. I try my best to make it fun for you and me, which sometimes means making producers large and small uncomfortable. They want your money too and it's up to all of us to make sure they earn it fair and square.

There are several ways to get the new book, Bourbon, Strange. They're all explained here. If you would like to buy any of my other books, go here. To subscribe to my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader, go here. Those purchases are all processed by PayPal but fulfilled by me. Small business doesn't get any smaller. Everything is printed in the United States. Buy American!

Although I write the books, I consider their creation a collaboration. I get many of my ideas from my interaction with other bourbonians, in person and in social media. I couldn't do this without you. So thanks, but you still have to pay for the book.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Flavoring Is Legal in American Whiskey. Yes, You Read That Correctly

When people say the Federal regulations for labeling distilled spirits are confusing and complicated, they aren't wrong. It is in the nature of laws that at times they can be hard to figure out. That's why there are lawyers and law schools.

I have always believed that the only difference between bourbon whiskey and straight bourbon whiskey is aging. (All of this applies to rye whiskey and all of the other named types too.) 'Bourbon whiskey' must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, but the rules don't say for how long. After the whiskey has been in the barrel for two years, it is entitled to be called 'straight.' If you just read Section 5.22(b)(1)(i) and (iii), you would think that's the only difference, but it's not.

If you jump ahead to Section 5.23(a)(2), you will find that "there may be added to any class or type of distilled spirits, without changing the class or type thereof, (i) such harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as are an essential component part of the particular class or type of distilled spirits to which added, and (ii) harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials such as caramel, straight malt or straight rye malt whiskies, fruit juices, sugar, infusion of oak chips when approved by the Director, or wine, which are not an essential component part of the particular distilled spirits to which added, but which are customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage, if such coloring, flavoring, or blending materials do not total more than 2 1/2 percent by volume of the finished product."

Such coloring and flavoring as described above is not permitted in straight bourbon whiskey (or straight rye, etc.) but it is permitted in products just labeled 'bourbon whiskey' or 'rye whiskey,' without the 'straight.'

This came up because Templeton Rye has revealed to Mark Gillespie that their product, labeled as rye whiskey, contains flavoring pursuant to Section 5.23(a)(2). This is done, they say, to make the taste of their MGP-distilled rye more like the original Prohibition-era drink upon which their product is based.

Templeton's Scott Bush and Keith Kerkhoff gave Gillespie a wide-ranging interview on his WhiskyCast program last week. If you are interested in this subject it is worth a listen to hear their side of the story we wrote about two weeks ago here. The interview begins at 18:30 and runs about 20 minutes.

Just to be crystal clear, nothing can be added to straight bourbon or straight rye without changing the class. That is why Jim Beam's Red Stag, for example, is classified as 'Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused with Natural Flavors.' It's not straight bourbon, it's straight bourbon 'with,' which is a different classification.

Just because a whiskey is classified as 'bourbon whiskey,' without the 'straight,' that doesn't mean it does contain flavoring or coloring, just that it may. If you want to avoid flavoring and coloring altogether, just make sure you see the word 'straight' on the label.

Another obscure rule says mixtures of straight bourbon are considered straight bourbon, but only if all of the components were distilled in the same state. Mixtures of bourbon made in different states must be labeled 'bourbon whiskey' and not 'straight bourbon whiskey,' even if all of the components are straights. Since age statements are required if the whiskey is less than four years old, you shouldn't need the word 'straight' to determine the product's age. Unfortunately, that's another rule currently experiencing lax enforcement.

Although the rules tell you what you must disclose, you can always disclose more voluntarily. Consumers who are really into whiskey want to know every true fact you are willing to reveal, so why not reveal all of them?

For most of modern history, none of this was an issue. Most American whiskey producers made the same things; straight bourbon, straight rye, corn whiskey, blended whiskey, and that was about it. The rules for many other types of whiskey existed but were rarely used. Today, micro-distillers especially but also the big producers are making all sorts of things, sometimes governed by different rules.

It's hard to keep up, but it's fun to learn new things.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Deep In the Heart of ... Not Texas

This should be easy, right? It says 'Texas Made' on the front label. And 'Texas' is part of the name, isn't it? Plus, who would be crazy enough to claim something is made in Texas when it's not? Texas pride doesn't take that sort of thing lightly. I mean, 1835 is the year Texas began its struggle for independence from Mexico. What kind of person would debase that hallowed year by using it to sell Potemkin whiskey? In Texas? What sort of low-down varmint would do such a thing?

And yet, read what Lauren Drewes Daniels wrote in the Dallas Observer last November.

"Take the whiskey called 1835, which is bottled by North Texas Distillers in Lewisville. The name is a salute to the year settlers in Gonzales stood their ground against Mexican troops in what is historically considered the start of the Texas Revolution. The label also reads, 'Come and take it,' on both the back and front, along with a picture of the iconic cannon that was the seed of the conflict. The words "Texas Made" are printed front and center on the label.

"It's unlikely that a single speck of Texas, much less the battle of 1835, is actually in any of those bottles. Stretching the term 'Made in Texas,' the drink is a blend of whiskeys, most or all of them likely from Kentucky, and is only bottled in Texas. The highly astute label reader or whiskey aficionado would be able to discern this, but the average consumer might not. Despite all the Texas banter, the label lacks one key word that is all-telling: 'distilled.'"

In this case, the telltale word 'distilled' tells its tale by its absence. Instead, the label says "Bottled by 1835 in Lewisville, Texas." That's a dead giveaway.

As the TTB uses 'made,' you 'made' something even if you just bottled it, so nothing on the label is illegal except its lack of a 5.36(d) disclosure. But that's not how Bunny and Hoss use the word 'made' out at their ranch. You 'make' something when you actually make it. You don't make whiskey by putting whiskey somebody else made into a bottle.

At least they don't claim they're cutting it with Trinity River water.

Do all those proud Texans who have purchased this bourbon at Specs for about $27 a 750 ml bottle know that it was not distilled in Texas? Probably not. Would they care? What do you think?

A lot is missing from the label, like a company name. There is no company called '1835.' And where is the website URL? Who doesn't have a web site? Even North Texas Distillers only has a placeholder site, with no content. Yet even that tells you a little something. Under the name it says, "A Texas Bottling and Spirits Company."

Not "Distillery."

"But wait," say you. "'Distillers' is part of the name."

Yes it is, Grasshopper. Shall we go through the list of all the other Potemkins that have 'distiller' or 'distillery' in their name?

Texas 1835 Bourbon Whiskey has been on the market for about two years and appears to be successful. They are moving a lot of it. Yet as one observer noted, "They aren't pumping all that volume out of some little pot still in Lewisville and charging $27 a bottle for it." The micro-distillery whiskeys actually made in Texas are in the $50 to $80 range, so that price point is another dead giveaway. This is sourced whiskey, sourced from Kentucky, Tennessee, or Indiana more likely than not.

There might be another rule violation, as you see no age statement on the label. That is supposed to mean four-years-old minimum, yet the product is just 'bourbon whiskey,' not 'straight.' Why not? 'Straight,' if a product qualifies for it, is an optional word, but most producers like to use it if they can. If they can't it's usually because either it's not two-years-old, not all from the same state, or contains additives permitted in 'bourbon whiskey' but not in 'straight bourbon whiskey.'

Or they just neglected to put an age statement on a label that needed one.

But that's not what Texans care about, I reckon. They don't much care what some government regulators in Washington think either. They care about Texas grains, Texas yeast, and Texas water. They care about Texas-distilled whiskey maturing in the Texas heat. They care about Texas jobs. And they don't buy whiskey that says "Made in Texas' when it's not.

Just like they don't buy salsa made in New York City.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Mystery at 9,600 Feet

What is in a bottle of Breckenridge Bourbon? Some say every drop is distilled and aged at the World's Highest Distillery in that ski resort town. Others say it is young bourbon from a Kentucky distillery, or maybe Indiana. Still others say it is both, some locally distilled liquid mixed with liquid made elsewhere.

But wait, here is a written statement attributed to Breckenridge owner Bryan Nolt in 2013. "Due to demand we function at max capacity but over deplete our Bourbon barrel inventory at times. When that happens we contract time at other distilleries to produce the identical mash bill, fermentation, and distillation process. And while I'd say there's a lot of KY tradition in our Bourbon, we've never made, bought, or contracted any Bourbon in or from KY."

Huh? That doesn't make sense. If he said that, what was he trying to say? Or was it deliberate doubletalk? The problem is you can't suddenly make bourbon when you don't have enough of your own to meet demand. That new bourbon still has to age. So unless you're contracting via time machine, that statement doesn't make sense.

He does say unequivocally that not a drop of Breckenridge Bourbon was made in Kentucky. That leaves Indiana unless the contractor was another micro-distillery. Micros don't often do contract, but some now have enough capacity (usually due to the addition of a column still) that they can, and a few have.

Maybe the contract distiller is another one in Colorado. If Breckenridge is getting its 'extra' whiskey from another Colorado distiller, there is no 5.36(d) problem.

But we just don't know. It's a mystery.

People have asked, but the answers are all over the map, even from seemingly official sources. One person says it's all local. Another says it used to be all sourced but now they're mixing in local-make, increasing the percentage as capacity allows, on the way to transitioning to all local-make. Still another person says their sales are growing so fast they'll never be able to make it all themselves.

That's not the only mystery. How old is Breckenridge Bourbon? Nobody seems to think it is more than two or three years old. It doesn't have an age statement on the label and it is supposed to have an age statement if it is less than four years old. So does that mean it is more than four years old? It would be nice to know.

The evidence against Breckenridge is circumstantial but here it is. The label does not say 'distilled by Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colorado.' It says 'produced and bottled by Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colorado.' 'Produced' is not a synonym for 'distilled.' You can use 'produced by' even if all you did was bottle it. The wording 'produced and bottled by' is often used by artful dodgers to make it look like they did more than they did. It's used because many consumers think words like 'made' and 'produced' mean the same thing as 'distilled,' but they don't.

Legally, the producer is the company that puts the product into distribution by selling it to a distributor. They don't really have to 'do' much of anything to legally say they 'produced' or 'made' the product.

The web site says the mash bill for Breckenridge Bourbon is 56 percent corn, 38 percent rye, and 6 percent barley. Since that is no one's standard mashbill, that is a point in favor of Breckenridge.

The label featured on the web site (pictured above) says "Special Release." Do they all say that? Is there a 'regular' release?

It costs $50 a bottle here in Chicago.

Much has been made about Caskers declaring Breckenridge Bourbon 'better than Pappy' when they did no such thing, they merely reported that Breckenridge scored one point higher than Pappy 23 at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge (USC) in New York City. If anybody declared Breckenridge Bourbon 'better than Pappy' it was the USC judges, not Caskers.

If you knew anything about the way those competitions are run, you wouldn't be impressed.

Based on all the evidence, the consensus seems to be that it is a young bourbon, some of which was made there, some elsewhere, that was cut from barrel proof (about 65% ABV) to bottling proof (43% ABV) with that precious Rocky Mountain snowmelt water. The water routine we've heard before from Tin Cup and Widow Jane.

What does Breckenridge Distillery owner Bryan Nolt say about all this? I've asked. He hasn't answered.

You can usually figure these things out but Breckenridge is a tough nut to crack. Ultimately all of this detective work is a pain in the ass. They should just tell us, damn it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

We Pause to Collect Our Thoughts About 5.36(d) and Potemkin Distilleries

It has been an interesting two weeks, and an interesting seven years.

I coined the term 'Potemkin Distillery' in January of 2008 to describe a producer that does everything it can to convince you it distilled something when it didn't. This blog goes back to 2007 and it's searchable, so you can follow the progression if you wish.

Templeton Rye started it, so maybe it's nine years, since they began in 2005. I first tasted Templeton at WhiskeyFest. My first words were, "that's good, but it's six years old at least. They didn't make this." That began the quest to figure out who did. At the time, the former Seagram's distillery in Indiana wasn't on anyone's radar because only a few people knew the new owner, Pernod, was selling bulk whiskey, something Seagram's never did. Templeton kept the source a secret as long as it could.

Two weeks ago the owner of Templeton Rye, Vern Underwood, admitted that the whole Templeton Rye story has been a lie from the beginning. They don't make it in Templeton, Iowa, and it isn't made from a secret, Prohibition-era family recipe.

Templeton Rye also has never followed TTB Rule 5.36(d), which requires that the state of distillation be disclosed on the label if it is not the same state as the address on the label. Templeton's label is required to say 'distilled in Indiana,' but it doesn't.

When asked about that by the Des Moines Register, Underwood said the label had received approval without qualms from the TTB. The motivation for the label change came purely from a desire to address confusion, not after inquiries from the TTB, he said. That's a poor excuse. You'll see why in a minute.

On Tuesday, September 2, Tin Cup was in the spotlight, as that seemingly Colorado-made whiskey is also a proud product of Indiana and the company behind it is Proximo, which is not exactly your neighborhood craft distiller. Proximo is based in New Jersey. Its portfolio includes Stranahan's, which is made in Colorado. It also includes Jose Cuervo Tequila, a mega-brand.

Tin Cup's face is Jess Graber, who made whiskey once. He is now a brand ambassador, like Tom Bulleit.

The point once again is that every effort is made to convince the consumer that Tin Cup is a Colorado product when it is not. Tin Cup's label also does not obey 5.36(d).

On Wednesday, it was Widow Jane's turn. We got another bite at that New York apple on Friday. Between Wednesday and Friday I communicated with someone at Widow Jane who wrote, among other things, "It does not make sense to me that they [TTB] approve labels that lack information they claim to require."

Well, here's the thing, Jane. Every single person who has submitted a COLA to the TTB has signed the following declaration:

"Under the penalties of perjury, I declare: that all the statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31. Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval."

In other words, as a DSP license holder, you are expected to be familiar with the law and to follow the law in every particular. You or your agent signed a declaration (above) to that effect when you submitted your Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). You are supposed to be motivated by the fact that your license can be revoked if you screw up too much, which will put you out of business.

If you had a lawyer prepare your COLA, and that lawyer knew your state of distillation and your label address didn't match, and he or she didn't tell you about rule 5.36(d), that lawyer has some explaining to do. This is not legal advice, of course, just a little general information for the education and edification of the public.

Mixed in there over the last two weeks was an announcement about a new ethics code proposed by the American Craft Spirits Association but not yet adopted by its members (which include Widow Jane), and an announcement that virtually every trade association in the alcoholic beverage industry is urging Congress to fix TTB right now by giving it enough money to do its job.

I have no illusions that our little grassroots 5.36(d) movement influenced the united front on TTB funding, or anything else, but it was an interesting convergence of events nonetheless.

Finally, if you don't care about this issue, why on earth did you read this far? The easiest thing in the world is to not know something. Drink what you like, pay what they ask, believe their story or don't. The drinking helps with the not caring and not knowing. If you don't care then I didn't write this for you. I wrote it for the people who do.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Come See Me in Hancock, New Hampshire on Saturday, September 20

If you will be anywhere near Hancock, New Hampshire, next Saturday, September 20, you should come see me at the Hancock Inn. It's a lovely place, the oldest inn in New Hampshire. We'll taste some bourbon and have some dinner. It will be fun. You should come. Details are here.

On Friday, October 10, I'll be teaching a master class at Indy's Whiskey & Fine Spirits Expo, sponsored by Vine & Table. I'll post more details on that as they become available.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Celebrates Its Whiskey Heritage November 7 - 8

From 1803 until the present day, the City of Lawrenceburg, Indiana has been home to many distilleries, thus earning it the name 'Whiskey City.'

The one distillery that remains in operation, the former Seagram's plant now known as MGP of Indiana, has been in the news recently because many non-distiller producers (NDPs) are using whiskey made there to establish fake microdistilleries. It's a reprehensible practice, which we try to expose, but MGP is blameless as they can't control what happens to the whiskey they make once it's sold. In fact, MGP is a fine company and Lawrenceburg is justifiably proud of its 211 years of whiskey history.

In addition to MGP, Proximo Spirits operates a distilled spirits bottling plant in Lawrenceburg. That facility also used to be part of Seagram's. The other major post-Prohibition distillery in Lawrenceburg was Old Quaker, owned by Schenley, which during Prohibition was owned by the notorious bootlegger, George Remus.

To celebrate it whiskey heritage, the City of Lawrenceburg, Lawrenceburg Main Street, MGP, Hollywood Casino, and the Dearborn County Visitor Center have come together to create the inaugural 'Whiskey City Festival,' to be held on Friday, Nov. 7, and Saturday, Nov. 8, at the new Lawrenceburg Event Center. Each day will feature whiskey tastings, industry experts, food, beer, cigars, music (including nationally recognized entertainment), as well as historic displays featuring the local story of the industry and its workers.

The Lawrenceburg Event Center, at 91 Walnut Street, is part of the complex that includes the Hollywood Casino and the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel.

To prepare the historic displays, the organizing committee is asking current, former and retired employees of the local distilleries and bottling plants, both past and present, to share their stories and experiences of working in the industry. "Your stories are an important component in documenting and displaying on a personal level just how significantly this industry impacted our community and the people who worked within it," said Pat Krider, Lawrenceburg Main Street Director.

"If you're worried that your writing skills aren't up to par, please don’t worry, we can help with that," said Krider. "What really matters here is the story and the personal experience.”

A selection committee will review the submitted stories and the best five will be featured in The Dearborn County Register, one each week, in the weeks leading up to the Whiskey City Festival. In addition, a 'memory wall' will be featured at the event, displaying the selected stories. Winning entrants will be entered into a drawing for tickets to some of the events that will be part of the celebration.

Submit stories to the Whiskey City Festival Committee, c/o Lawrenceburg Main Street, 118 Walnut Street, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025.  For more information call 812-537-4507 or email