Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reality Beats My Paranoid Fantasies To The Punch.

Yesterday I wrote about San Francisco's new ban on tobacco sales in the city's drug stores, enacted because selling tobacco in drug stores sends the wrong message to children. Really, that's the reason. Read the story.

It's another example of the encroaching Nanny State, which is reached via the Slippery Slope, and in my comments yesterday I speculated that fast food surely would be the next target.

Would that I were not so prescient.

Yesterday, even as I was predicting it, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a one-year ban on new fast-food restaurants in one of the city's poorest areas. The ban's stated purpose is to fight rising obesity rates, especially among children.

The mayor has to sign the bill for it to become law.

As in San Francisco, the ordinance has the peculiar feature of singling out a particular type of retail enterprise, so new McDonald's and Burger King stores will be prohibited, but there is nothing to prevent Red Robin, for example, whose featured item is a $10 hamburger, from opening all of the units it wants, simply because Burger King has counter service and Red Robin has table service.

Not to pick on Red Robin, but their web site has a slick feature that allows you to build your own burger, or other item from their menu, and see the nutritional information for your creation. A plain burger, on a bun, with lettuce and no other toppings, is 555 calories, with 25 grams of fat.

Conversely, a fast food chain like El Pollo Loco, that features low-fat flame-broiled chicken (which is great, by the way), is banned, not because its own menu is bad, but because it is classified as fast food. El Pollo Loco also provides nutritional information on its web site. A broiled chicken breast, with skin, is 224 calories, with 9 grams of fat.

The justification for the ordinance is a 2007 report which found that 30 percent of children living in the South Los Angeles, West Adams, Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park areas are obese compared to about 21 percent in the rest of the city.

Beverly Hills anorexics are probably pulling down the average.

Again, if city governments can keep certain kinds of restaurants out of certain neighborhoods because they have decided the people there are too fat, what's next?

You will have to answer that question for yourself because I'm afraid to predict. I'm too good at it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

San Francisco Bans Tobacco Sales in Pharmacies.

I see slippery slopes everywhere, especially when they involve people trying to force me to do what is best for me against my better judgment. That's why I pay attention when Chicago talks about enacting a mandatory spay/neuter program, even though I don't have pets. It's also why I complain about showboating legislators who demagogue about alcohol producers marketing to children, even though I don't drink Mike's Hard Lemonade. And it's why I pay attention when San Francisco decides to ban tobacco sales in drug stores, even though I don't smoke.

Some of the San Francisco Supervisors who pushed the ban predicted it will be a "first step" toward additional bans on the sale of tobacco in the city. Not surprisingly, Marin County can't wait to follow San Francisco's lead.

The law bans the sale of all tobacco products at pharmacies, including Walgreens and Rite Aid, but not at any other kind of store, including big-box stores like Costco and supermarkets like Safeway that also have pharmacies. The pharmacies, naturally, opposed the ordinance, citing basic fairness and the fact that pharmacies also sell smoking cessation products and pharmacists can give smokers advice about how to quit.

Anyway, that's just posturing. The real issue is the whole Nanny State idea. I've accepted the idea of banning trans-fats, because there was no reason to keep using them after it was determined that they are more harmful than saturated fats, but cigarettes are not comparable and are still a legal product. The idea that a city can take it upon itself to change that fact within its borders sounds like a Commerce Clause violation to me.

The now very broad smoking bans, like the one we have in Illinois, are rationalized primarily as protecting people from second-hand smoke. This is simply intended to make cigarettes harder to buy, and the fact that the mayor's spokesman could say the following should scare everybody. "A pharmacy is a place you should go to get better, not to get cancer." The Public Health Director expanded that thought a little further. "We teach our children that supermarkets and wholesale stores are places you go to buy everything. When it comes to pharmacies, I feel that our children and our teenagers get a different message." Of course, it's always all about the children.

What the article doesn't make clear is the mechanism San Francisco will use to enforce the ban. If Walgreens were to say, "screw you, you can't tell us what we can sell," what could the city do to them? When Chicago banned the sale of foie gras (no, really, they did), it was a ticket and a fine.

If you run any kind of business, think about where this could go. Think about the slippery slope. You're going to have city governments in the towns where your stores are located reviewing your merchandise selection and telling you what you can and cannot sell, based on what message the city government thinks that product is sending to children?

Let's leave indecent literature out of the discussion for right now, because of the additional First Amendment protection. What about selling clothing that the city government considers too revealing, or just too tacky? We want the children to learn good taste too, don't we?

Since cases have found that clothing can be expression, let's leave that out too. Let's go to the obvious next step, unhealthy foods. What if a city decides to ban the sale of ice cream above a certain butterfat percentage, or requires that restaurants not sell any individual meal that contains more than 2,000 calories? Or bans the sale of soft drinks altogether.

Not possible?

Lots of things seem impossible until they happen. That's why you have to look out for the slippery slope.

Kass on Obama and Hopium.

Continuing with my promise to tell you whenever John Kass writes about Barack Obama, today's column is particularly good, by which I mean funny.

It's also, of course, in the furtherance of a basic Republican talking point, which is that Obama's appeal to "hope" is naive, which I could consider insulting and offensive, but which mostly just strikes me as lame. At least Kass manages to dress it up with some creativity and humor, and the MoveOn.org ad that he mocks gives him plenty of ammunition.

Spay/Neuter Update.

I wrote yesterday about Chicago's proposed mandatory spay/neuter ordinance. As further reading, I recommend the Chicago Tribune's editorial on the proposal, published today.

The editorial also provided some interesting facts that were not in yesterday's Tribune story.

First, about the proposed ordinance. "Owners who don't comply could be fined $100. Those who want to breed their pets could get a permit by paying $100 per year, per dog and submitting to criminal background checks."

How likely is it that Chicago animal owners will comply? "The city now requires dog owners to license their pets. It's $5 if your pet is spayed or neutered, $50 if it isn't. Maybe 1 in 10 dog owners bothers to get the license."

The editorial also points out that City Council supporters of the ordinance are primarily looking for a way to get so-called "vicious dogs" off the street, by which they primarily mean pit bulls.

Regardless of anyone's motives or intentions, the bottom line here is that laws which cannot be enforced or most likely will not be enforced are never a good idea, on this subject or any other.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dogs, Cats, People, Celebrity and City Council.

Boy, what a day it has been, especially for creepy old white guys. Bob Novak, fresh from his hit and run, now has a brain tumor. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was indicted in a massive corruption scandal. Jerry Lewis was busted for carrying a concealed weapon (and the cops say it was not a prop gun, as Lewis's manager claimed). And Bob Barker, he of "The Price Is Right," was in Chicago, arguing for a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance.

This is like a segment on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." Okay, panel, which story did Chuck find interesting enough to comment on further?

The answer, from the Chicago Tribune, is here.

The issue is more interesting than you might think.

The article covers it much more thoroughly than I will now, so by all means read it. The proposal supported by Barker would require all dogs and cats in the City of Chicago to be spayed or neutered before they are six months old. It is supported by PAWS Chicago and the Humane Society, but opposed by the Chicago and Illinois Veterinary Medical Associations.

This is a great example of people talking past each other because they see the issue in such completely different ways. Barker and the animal advocacy groups are all about the animals and what is best for them, whereas the vets have their own practical concerns about how such a law would be enforced and, in effect, they speak for their customers, the pet owners, not the pets.

Put that way, it sounds like Barker et al are the good guys and the vets are putting their business interests ahead of the best interest of their patients, who are the pets.

But it's not that simple. Both sides have fairly elaborate arguments, most of which sound very sensible, but there is something they're not telling you, at least they're not telling it the way I'm going to right now.

To the extent there is a pet overpopulation problem, the default solution is to kill the excess. Please understand I'm not advocating that or anything else. I'm just trying to cut through the rhetoric and state the issue simply. Killing the excess is only a bad idea for one reason, it's cruel. In every other way it is a good solution, with regard to cost and other practical matters.

Here is where the divide starts to take shape. On one side are people for whom preventing that cruelty is just about the highest value there is. Difficult and expensive to enforce? Intrusive on individual rights? Not proven effective? None of those things matter, because we're saving cat and dog lives.

On the other side are people who regard animals as property, cats and dogs just like pigs and horses. If an animal is no longer needed or wanted, killing it in a humane way is something the animal's owner should have an unfettered right to do. Ownership of abandoned animals defaults to the state, which has no reason, aside from the cruelty argument, not to kill them immediately, in the most humane and expeditious manner possible. In fact, when we were a much more agrarian society and more people depended on animals for their livelihood, often in ways that required animals to be killed, as in eaten, that's exactly what people did. If a cat who was hanging around the place had kittens and no one wanted them, they were taken down to the stream and drowned.

It was sad, it was unfortunate, but what was the alternative?

Again, I don't seem to be saying anything that makes Barker et al sound wrong, but consider this. If we have the government force us to spay and neuter our pets, because voluntary spay/neuter programs haven't solved the pet overpopulation problem, what will happen if the mandatory spay/neuter regime also fails to reduce pet overpopulation? What will they try next? You--meaning all you irresponsible pet owners--have shown you can't be trusted with a companion animal, so now we're going to have the government take your pets away from you. Pet ownership will be a privilege, not a right, and harboring an off-the-grid pet will be a worse crime than owning an unlicensed handgun.

What the vets fear, of course, is that they are next, that they will be required to spay or neuter any pet they see that is more that six months old. How can they be forced to perform a procedure over the objections of the owner? Who will pay for it? Maybe the vets will just be required to report non-compliant owners to the spay/neuter authority.

Their fear is that people will just stop using vets, which will be bad for business but also bad for a lot of pets, who will be deprived of proper medical care.

However, one might argue by analogy that human doctors are required by law to report suspected child abuse? Isn't failure to spay or neuter an animal also a form of abuse? What's the difference?

Do you regard that as a perfect analogy? Or as a perfectly abominable analogy? That, ultimately, is where this issue goes. It is about the relative value of human and non-human animal lives, and the relative value of human liberty when compared to the value of a non-human animal life.

To use an old expression that seems apropos, I don't have a dog in this fight. Because I don't have a dog or cat, I'm not affected no matter how all this turns out, which makes me a pretty neutral observer. For that same reason, I'm under no obligation to resolve the conundrum. It's people who have animal companions who have to take a stand.

Barker et al have such a visceral certainty that it probably is futile to suggest they should see a bigger picture, which is that they stand for the proposition that at least some non-human lives (cats and dogs), maybe even all non-human lives, are just as important in all respects as human lives. There are people who are willing to go that far and who are, at least in the abstract, willing to live with the consequences of that world view. If you are not willing to go that far, if you believe human life is inherently more valuable than non-human life, and you too are willing to live with the consequences of your world view, then you probably should think twice about supporting mandatory spay/neuter laws.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Special Four Roses Single Barrel Bottling Is Coming to Binny's.

We're lucky here in Illinois, because Four Roses is presently available in only seven states and this is one of them. Sorry Iowa, Wisconsin. and the rest of you.

We're about to get even luckier.

Sources tell me that Brett Pontoni, the Specialty Spirits Buyer at Binny's, has selected three casks for a special Binny's exclusive Four Roses Single Barrel bottling.

Binny's already has many special bottlings of casks selected by Brett, of both American and Scottish whiskey. One of my favorites is his pick of an Elmer T. Lee Bourbon, from Buffalo Trace.

These "buy a barrel" deals are good for everybody. The producer/distributor sells the equivalent of a barrel of whiskey (about 20 cases), maybe more than the retailer normally would buy. The retailer gets an exclusive product and a story to tell, and the customer gets the opportunity to taste something a little bit different.

Buffalo Trace has been the leader with these programs, but Four Roses has seen a good thing and gotten in the game too. At this as with many things, Four Roses brings something unique to the party. They do what no other American distiller does, they make ten different bourbon formulas, by combining five different yeasts with two different mash bills. Their standard, yellow label expression is a mixture of all ten, but by its nature a single barrel can be just one. For the standard issue Four Roses Single Barrel, they don't want too much variation from barrel to barrel, but with a special bottling like this one for Binny's, getting a couple of different tastes is the whole idea.

I'm told they should be available in the next month or so and will be labeled Cask 1, Cask 2 and Cask 3. I'm told that Cask 3 is the "fattest."

Trust me, the crazy people I know will buy as many bottles of all three as they can afford, so don't wait too long. Three barrels, or about 60 cases, may sound like a lot but I predict that it will go fast.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kass on Obama and Liberal Bias.

I promised to tell you whenever Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass writes about Barack Obama. This one isn't about the Chicago machine side of the story, which is where Kass is best, but a promise is a promise. It's a good read regardless.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Religion

My friend Jim says, "without good data, you're just another asshole with an opinion."

I agree and usually when I write, I support my thesis with facts.

So I don't write about religion very often, because at the heart of every religion there is a fact-free zone. I don't mean that in a disrespectful way. I say it because religion isn't about facts, it's about belief.

So here's my opinion, speaking as a non-believer.

I believe believers have nothing to fear from science. The two spheres don't have to overlap, don't have to conflict. Nor should any believer feel threatened by my non-belief. I respect your belief and ask only that you give my non-belief the same consideration. True, believers have to resist their natural instinct to evangelize, but in today's world any group seeking to follow the motto of the Spanish Inquisition ("Convert or Die") is more likely to find itself the one obliterated.

By the same token, feel free to say science is wrong because it disagrees with your beliefs, just don't go the next step and try to undermine science, which has produced air conditioning, bourbon whiskey, and many other things we all enjoy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Let the Spirit Move You

With high fuel prices affecting summer travel plans, many people are considering vacation destinations closer to home.

May I suggest America’s whiskey country?

It is just 300 miles from Chicago to Louisville, though the drive is not as easy as it should be with the way Indiana currently has the northern part of I-65 screwed up.

I visit the area primarily because of the whiskey distilleries, but there is a lot more there to enjoy. Louisville has long styled itself the Gateway to the South. The area has much history and a unique regional culture.

Although whiskey has been one of Kentucky’s main products since the 18th century, local boosters have only recently recognized its tourism potential. The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau has just launched the Urban Bourbon Trail to complement the Kentucky Bourbon Trail recently created by the Kentucky Distiller’s Association and Kentucky Department of Tourism. They’re both following the lead of the Distilled Spirits Council and its American Whiskey Trail.

Both Kentucky trails include a passport program. Get a stamp from every destination and win a free T-shirt.

Although there are two whiskey distilleries in Louisville, operated by Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill respectively, neither one gives public tours. Instead, the Urban Bourbon Trail points you to eight Louisville watering holes that feature Kentucky whiskey. Five of them are in hotels. I recommend the Old Seelbach Bar for its historic elegance and Proof on Main for its modern flair. Both have first class restaurants too.

Just a few doors north of the Seelbach is the Maker’s Mark Lounge, which features a wide range of whiskeys and other spirits, not just its eponymous bourbon. It is a very good restaurant too, but I generally choose appetizers at the bar. (The crab cake sampler is awesome.)

Of the eight Urban Bourbon Trail destinations, only Bourbon’s Bistro is outside of downtown, on Frankfort Ave. It is the Louisville joint most dedicated to bourbon whiskey, not just as a beverage but also as an ingredient in creative cooking. The bar and restaurant is in an 1877 building in a nice neighborhood, so have a little walk afterwards.

Other Louisville-area attractions include Falls of the Ohio State Park (largest naturally-exposed Devonian fossil beds in the world), the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum (cool baseball stuff), Churchill Downs (an excellent horseracing museum and, depending on when you go, actual live thoroughbred races), the Muhammad Ali Center (a museum about the iconic boxer and Louisville native), and the Speed Art Museum (an excellent collection housed on the University of Louisville Campus).

If you want to see bourbon distilleries, you can either head east to the Frankfort-Lawrenceburg area, or southeast to Bardstown. Seven producers welcome visitors and offer some kind of tour. To make sure you see the actual distillery part you should go to Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey or Maker’s Mark, or call Buffalo Trace in advance and request their hard hat tour.

Heaven Hill, in Bardstown, makes up for the lack of a distillery tour (because their distillery is in Louisville) by providing a museum-quality visitors center. They will take you into a barrel warehouse, as do most of the others, which if you’ve never done it before can be the most interesting part of a distillery tour.

Jim Beam is in the process of overhauling its visitor experience, a project whose completion is at least a year away. Barton is building a new visitors center too, but it won’t be ready until fall, 2009.

The rest of America’s whiskey-makers are 250 miles further south, in southern Tennessee. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are just a few minutes apart and both worth visiting. Daniel’s gets 250,000 visitors a year so it’s quite a show, while Dickel is much smaller and provides a more personal experience.

Some of the best attractions in both states are the natural ones, the terrific lakes, rivers, parks, and wilderness areas. Visiting horse farms is popular around Lexington, Kentucky. As America’s original frontier, both states have many significant historical sites too.

Some tips:

Tourism infrastructure is a bit underdeveloped outside of the major urban centers in both states, especially if you want to avoid hotel and restaurant chains. Using Louisville as a base for day trips to distilleries and other attractions is a good strategy in Kentucky. In Tennessee, although the distilleries are another 75 miles south (and not close to any significant urban center), you’ll probably enjoy a visit to Nashville.

Although whiskey production is important to both states and so, increasingly, is whiskey-related tourism, many counties there remain officially hostile to its purchase and consumption; i.e., they’re dry. The largest cities are wet, but many rural areas are not. This is especially true in some of the best places to go for scenic beauty, so be sure to check first.

Recent state law changes make it possible for Kentucky distilleries to provide free samples, i.e., tastings. Producers in both states are now allowed to sell bottles of their product in their own gift shops.

There are many historic sites in Kentucky related to Abraham Lincoln, his parents, and his wife, Mary Todd. Official Lincoln Bicentennial events will be held at many Lincoln sites between now and February 12, 2010. (Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.)

The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival is in Bardstown, this year running from September 16-21, although most of the action is on the weekend. Depending on your point of view, this is either the best time to visit Whiskey Country or the worst. There are lots of special activities but also many, many people. This year, that will be compounded by the fact that the Ryder Cup is in Louisville during the same period.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Drink Bulleit Anyway.



The new ad for Bulleit bourbon bothers me.

My first problem is, I don't know what it means. What makes Bulleit the "Last of the Great Bourbons"? And why should that make me want to drink it?

Gene Song is the Brand Manager for Bulleit and George Dickel at Diageo. Here is his explanation:

"Last of the Great Bourbons" is meant to convey the idea that Bulleit Bourbon is among a small collection of unique bourbons which have survived the tests of time and continue to be enjoyed today. More specifically, Bulleit Bourbon's distinctive taste from its high rye recipe and long history dating back to Augustus Bulleit combine to form something unique. Unless other brands from the 1800s are resurrected, this 'fraternity' of bourbons is closed.

Today, we are lucky to live in a time where consumers who enjoy bourbon have more choices than ever. There are a lot of great bourbons available, each with its own history and taste profile. "Last of the Great Bourbons" is intended to inspire those who are looking for a bourbon with both distinctive taste and a long, rich history to discover Bulleit Bourbon.


Well, okay, except for a couple of things. First, and perhaps most important, Bulleit bourbon is not a "brand from the 1800s." Bulleit bourbon was launched in 1995, the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who, through his legal work, learned a lot about the growing international market for American whiskey. He contracted with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, to make it. A few years later, he moved his operation over to Seagrams. They created the current bottle and reformulated the product, moving its production to the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

When Pernod-Ricard and Diageo teamed up to buy Seagram's, they each took the brands they wanted and sold the rest. Diageo took Bulleit but not Four Roses, although Bulleit is still made there under contract.

Bulleit has never before claimed to be a 19th century brand. Tom Bulleit always said that his family had a history in the whiskey business. That evolved into stories about a 19th century ancestor named Augustus Bulleit. The present day Bulleit formula was supposedly passed down from Augustus.

I know and like Tom Bulleit and have asked him about this history. He told me it's what his father told him, but he looked a little embarrassed as he said it. I didn't press him. This much I know, there is no evidence to support any of the claims about Augustus Bulleit and there is no record of a product named "Bulleit Bourbon" before 1995. That doesn't mean the stories passed down through the family aren't true, it just means it's a big stretch to characterize Bulleit as a 19th century brand.

It was Seagram's that, in advertising, first called Bulleit "frontier whiskey." The original Buffalo Trace package looked like it might contain perfume. Seagrams went with something inspired by 19th century apothecary bottles, hence the "frontier whiskey" theme. A couple of years ago, Gene Song's predecessor told me it was the bottle design that caught the attention of senior Diageo executives and made them think Bulleit was a horse they could ride to the front of the emerging premium bourbon category.

As for the recipe, the Bulleit recipe is one that Seagram's has made for decades, since long before there was a Bulleit bourbon. Yes, it is a high-rye bourbon formula, but it was developed entirely independent of the Augustus Bulleit legend.

Finally, did Gene Song really answer the question? Why "last"? He seems to be saying that it is last in that it is the most recent 19th century brand to be relaunched in a later century. He even concedes that it could be supplanted if, for example, somebody reintroduces Old Tub, the Beam family's 19th century bourbon.

One also has to accept the premise that 19th century automatically equals great.

Perhaps this just goes to show that we shouldn't read any advertising too carefully.

Or does it show that we don't read most advertising carefully enough?

All that said, drink Bulleit bourbon anyway, because Four Roses is a great distillery and Bulleit is a delicious and well-made bourbon, in an admittedly cool bottle, that is sold at a good price ($20-$25). The high-rye mash bill gives is a spicy taste you won't find in many other bourbons.

My problem with dubious history in association with American whiskey products is that the industry has such a rich authentic history, I hate to see it confused with ficton contrived by marketers for short term gain. Diageo isn't the only culprit, virtually everybody does it, although I have taken Diageo to task before for playing fast and loose with the history of its George Dickel brand.

The moral, I guess, is that while I take my whiskey straight, I take most whiskey marketing with a grain of salt.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meet Your Chicago Spirits Examiner.

A few weeks ago I hadn't heard of Examiner.com.

Now I'm part of it.

That's how fast things sometimes move in this crazy, modern world.

I'm still learning about Examiner.com. The model is fascinating. On the surface it's just another portal, a combination of the syndicated feeds you see on a lot of sites, with an Associated Press news feed front and center, plus original content.

The original content is what sets it apart. It is provided by "examiners." Each examiner is supposed to be an expert in his or her field. The examiners are basically bloggers and most have blogs separate from their "examiner" duties, so their content is usually being multi-purposed.

The other key to their model is localization. Major cities like Chicago have local editions now. Conceivably, any place could have one if there was enough interest.

A few months ago, I met the person who is now the Content Manager for Chicago, and she asked me to come on board to write about distilled spirits. The sites are advertiser-supported and the individual examiners are paid based on how many people visit that examiner's page. So, please visit my page, a lot.

You can find it here.

National Consumers League Blasts Alcohol Myth.

The press release is dated today. The headline says, "NCL Challenges Myth that Some Alcoholic Beverages Are 'Safer' and 'Less Potent.'"

The subhead is even more provocative: "New Initiative Underscores Need for New Alcohol Label."

You can read the release here. That's the NCL web site, which is good if, like me, you've never heard of the NCL before.

NCL stands for National Consumer League. Still not ringing any bells? Apparently, it's a 100 year old organization that "emerged as part of the late 19th century social justice movement." One of its founders was Chicago icon Jane Addams, of Hull-House fame.

But back to the press release. Their point hinges on alcohol equivalency, which is something the distilled spirits side of the booze industry has always pushed hard. (Here it is on the Distilled Spirits Council's web site.) The gist is that a standard serving of wine, beer or a spirits cocktail contains about the same amount of alcohol.

Okay? So?

I quote: "...the myth that some alcoholic beverages are 'safer' and less 'potent' than others...is pervasive and linked with the overconsumption of alcohol and the permissive attitudes of some parents about underage drinking. In an opinion poll commissioned by the Center for Government Reform, 88% of parents mistakenly concluded that beer is safer than liquor."

Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Here it is: "We are trying to give consumers the basics about the alcohol content of different alcoholic beverages, but the real answer is government action to require standardized and complete labeling information on beer, wine and distilled spirits products. Consumers should know how many calories, carbohydrates, and other nutrition information are in a standard drink. They have it for nonalcoholic beverages, food, and nonprescription drugs. It is time for this information to be on the labels for alcoholic beverages."

Don't they proof read these things? How much "nutrition information" is in a standard drink, anyway?

There are some practical problems with alcohol labeling. What, for example, are the ingredients in bourbon whiskey? Water, corn, rye, malted barley, and yeast are the only ingredients. Does that tell you anything? What do you call the compounds that enter the spirit during aging? wood sugars and wood oils?

The obvious and most fundamental thing they are calling for is alcohol content, which through some fairly bizarre post-prohibition logic is required on wine and spirits products in all states, but prohibited on beer and other malt beverages in most states. The NCL thinks it should be on all beverage alcohol products, which I think is just common sense. The logic for prohibiting it, that brewers would start to compete based on alcohol content, seems absurd in today's alcohol marketing and consumer product labeling environment.

They also go further, urging that each package state how many "standard drinks" it contains. They don't map it out, but basically a 12-ounce can or bottle of beer contains one standard drink, a 750 ml bottle of table wine contains 5 standard drinks, and a 750 ml bottle of 80° proof spirits contains 17 standard drinks.

All very reasonable and common sense, which is why you probably won't read about it anywhere else. I'll bet it doesn't get one-tenth of the coverage the clowns at CSPI get each time they go ballistic about "the alcoholic-beverage industry's relentless marketing and powerful political influence."

And that's a pity.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Good Perspective on Jesse Jackson.

Les Payne's column in today's Newsday is a good take on the Jesse Jackson castration controversy. Jackson's Achilles Heel always has been that he craves attention just a bit too much.

This post is mostly to call your attention to the Payne column, but I can't resist mentioning that I find it hard to believe a media creature like Jackson didn't know his comments would not remain private.

A Restaurant, a Drugstore, and the First Amendment.

I hate it when news stories fail to tell the whole story. Space is limited, I understand, but sometimes they fail to answer the most obvious questions.

Take, for example, this story, published yesterday, about the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) coming to the defense of a Missouri restaurant called Justus Drugstore, A Restaurant. The state says it can't use the word "drugstore" in its name because it isn't one. The ACLU says it's a free speech issue.

Since the First Amendment doesn't protect misrepresentation, and protects commercial speech at a lower level than it does other kinds of speech, the next question one is likely to ask (at least it was the next question I asked) is what is behind the odd name? That, apparently, is not something the St. Louis Post Dispatch thought its readers needed to know.

Fortunately, the internet was quick to yield an answer, and it turns out to be a cool story. The short version, as I suspected, is that the building used to be a drugstore, but there is more to it than that. For starters, the drugstore was run by the chef's parents, and the decline of the small town where it is located gives the name's preservation a certain poignancy.

The restaurant has run afoul of a state law specifically about pharmacies, but in general cases such as this should hinge on whether or not a reasonable person would believe "Justus Drugstore, A Restaurant" is actually a drugstore, and be harmed by that mistake. Obviously, the law is intended to prevent a business that is not a licensed pharmacy from posing as one. It surely did not anticipate nor was it intended to be used in situations like this.

So in steps the ACLU, much vilified by the Right, but here involved in something most conservatives should endorse, which is defending private business owners against the government's heavy and, in this case, capricious hand.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kass on Obama.

I have decided to make it my personal mission to alert readers of this blog whenever Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass writes about the Obama campaign. His column in today's Trib inspired this new commitment on my part.

Kass succeeded Mike Royko as the Tribune's columnist-at-large charged with broadly assessing the Chicago scene, especially its politics. I'm a big fan. I read him every day, despite the fact that he self-identifies as a conservative Republican.

For the most part (i.e., except on abortion), he is my kind of conservative Republican. He considers the current national administration to be an incompetent, duplicitous kleptocracy (my words, not his). He is always quick to expose and ridicule hypocrisy and corruption. He speaks truth to power.

His writings about the Obama campaign are important because no one writing today knows more about the real world of Chicago and Illinois politics than Kass, and no one else presents such a finely nuanced perspective. His piece today is a good example, as he explores why some on the left feel betrayed as Obama inevitably tacks toward the center for the general election.

Kass as his jumping-off place uses Jesse Jackson's castration comment. Jackson, too, is a Chicago political figure. His son is a local Congressman who would like to inherit Obama's Senate seat. One thing you should know about Chicago politics is that the local stuff always comes first. Usually that's what Kass writes about, but presidential candidate Obama is a product of the Cook County Democratic Party machine. Whether you support him or not, that's something you should know. It doesn't mean he is Dan Rostenkowski, but it does tell you something. Read Kass, he explains it much better than I do.

I don't agree with everything Kass writes, in this column or any other, but his commentary is always worth reading. That point I will defend.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Detroit.

I just returned from a brief but lovely visit with my sister, who lives in Ann Arbor. On Tuesday evening we went to Detroit to watch the Tigers beat our beloved Indians. Our only consolation was in knowing that the Indians had conceded the season the day before by trading C. C. Sabathia to Milwaukee.

I get to Ann Arbor frequently but haven't been to Detroit in years. Detroit is a very sad place. The government is paralyzed by a sex scandal involving the mayor, a top aide and, of course, cover-ups. Today it broke that he had affairs with five other women too. The dysfunctional city council sometimes has food fights at its meetings.

Meanwhile, despite a few bright spots, the city rots. All around the stadium and along the route we took to get there, we saw block after block of empty lots, with only the occasional brownstone or other vintage structure still standing; a bunch of interesting buildings, but completely devoid of context, many of them empty. As we got closer, the only difference was that the empty, discarded buildings got commercial and much bigger.

After the game, as we were leaving, we passed old Tiger Stadium. They had just begun to demolish it that day.

Why it can’t just stand there empty and rotting, like the rest of Detroit, I can’t explain.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How Safe Is The History Channel?

As a kid and even a young adult, I was interested in a lot of off-beat subjects, including all of the stuff they talked about on the forbidden late night radio talk shows that I listened to anyway on a transistor radio (by some unknown company named Sony) hidden in my pillow: ghosts, magic, UFOs, psychics, homosexuals, and monsters like Bigfoot and Nessie.

Yes, in the 1960s, homosexuality was as fringe as UFOs.

Homosexuals turned out to be real, all the rest are not, but belief in them persists. Cryptozoology is the subject of History Channel's "MonsterQuest" series. Tonight, I saw the recent episode on the Ohio Grassman.

This Bigfoot-like creature supposedly lives in the area around Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County. Salt Fork is Ohio's largest state park. It is east of Columbus, between Zanesville and Wheeling, West Virginia.

I grew up in Ohio, in Mansfield, and lived in other parts of Ohio until I was 26. I'm not very familiar with that particular area, but I'm pretty well versed in Ohio history and lore generally. I've never heard of the Ohio Grassman.

Apparently, I'm not the only one. Charlie Toft writes What2Watch on Film.com. Charlie is based in Ohio and he hasn't heard of it either. Neither has Len Lacara, Managing Editor of the Zanesville Times-Recorder newspaper (though he's a transplant from New York). Len noticed that the producers decided to spell the name of the nearby town of Coshocton phonetically as Kershocktin.

I'm not saying the History Channel or its producers invented Grassman. There is, after all, a 2006 book called Bigfoot Encounters in Ohio, by Christopher L. Murphy and Jody Cook, who just happen to be the primary authorities interviewed on the "MonsterQuest" episode.

Although most of the action in the show is around Salt Fork Park, sightings in Knox, Gallea and Adams County are mentioned, and each of those is in a completely different part of the state. Knox is near where I grew up. Either there are a lot of these creatures or they travel widely.

Bigfoot in Ohio isn't just a story told to scare children. It isn't a story told at all. Just about the only references you will find to it on the web are derived from either the "MonsterQuest" episode or the book. I'm not about to buy the now-out-of-print book to check its references. All I can say is that most people in Ohio, like most elsewhere, are hearing about the Ohio Grassman for the first time this summer.

Like most of television, the History Channel always has had decent shows mixed with utter garbage. Usually it's easy to tell them apart. Something like "MonsterQuest" can even be rationalized as being about the history of belief in and searches for the creatures (or ghosts, UFOs, or whatever else it is), which is "real" in that there is a history, presumably, of these sightings. But now I'm starting to wonder. I have seen other examples of History Channel shows where a subject has been so sensationalized as to render the program almost completely untrustworthy.

In the episode of "Lost Worlds" called "Al Capone's Secret City," virtually every segment is so exaggerated as to convey almost nothing that is true, such as the claim that the Green Mill Tavern was a favorite Capone hangout and the tunnels beneath it were used by Capone and his men to escape police raids. The Green Mill was controlled by Capone's organization back in the day, but all the rest is merely legend.

Perhaps more disturbing is the recent History Channel special, "The Lost Pyramid", which states some very widely disputed claims as fact and uses a pretty blond spokesmodel posing as a historian to make them, according to an article in Newsweek.

Whenever we watch television we need to remember its purpose is to deliver audiences to advertisers. Realizing that, it makes sense that the more gullible that audience is, the better.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I'm Not Alone.

Drinkers, like smokers, are a large interest group with few advocates. I do what I can in my own small way, but there are a couple of groups on our side. One is the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS), which is the trade group of the distilled spirits industry. Another is the American Beverage Institute (ABI), which represents restaurants that serve alcohol.

Sarah Longwell is Managing Director of ABI. Her guest column in last Tuesday's Seattle PI does a great job of refuting some of the mis-information spread by anti-alcohol forces. For example:

Activists exaggerate the number of deaths that occur due to drunken driving because federal statisticians classify a death as "alcohol-releated" if anyone involved has had a drink, even a passenger in one of the vehicles.

The popular claim that "first offenders drive drunk an average of 87 times before they are caught" is based on research that even its authors call "crude."

They don't tell you about research that shows drivers who talk on cell phones, drive drowsy, or travel 7 mph above the speed limit are more dangerous than drivers who responsibly drive after moderate drinking. Instead, the anti-alcohol forces promote "zero tolerance."

Anti-alcohol crusaders, like a lot of activists, become so passionate that they have no problem exaggerating or just plain lying to advance their cause. It's too bad, because they do some good. The heightened awareness of the risks of driving under the influence has generally been a good thing, but much anti-drunk driving legislation and enforcement has lost touch with reality. The well-meaning but overzealous anti-alcohol activists need to be answered. Thanks, Sarah.