Sunday, September 28, 2008

Raise a Glass to Paul Newman

Paul Newman died Friday at the age of 83. If you would like to raise a glass to Mr. Newman's memory, may I suggest J.T.S. Brown Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Robert Rossen was a producer/director who frequently used how his characters drank to tell us something about them. For example, in his "All The King's Men" (1949), heavy drinking signified the growing corruption of Willie Stark's political movement.

With Paul Newman's "Fast Eddie" Felson in Rossen's "The Hustler" (1961), whiskey was a metaphor for weakness and lack of self control. During the climactic pool game, Newman's Felson drinks J.T.S. Brown Bourbon, straight from the bottle. His opponent, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), requests "White Tavern Whiskey, a glass and some ice." We are left to consider the possibility that Fats' brand is actually a placebo, a way to keep his advantage over Eddie by staying sober. (White Tavern was an actual brand, a blend.)

J.T.S. Brown was an early distiller and the half-brother of George Garvin Brown, who founded Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel's. The J.T.S. Brown Distillery was established by his four sons and later continued by one of his grandsons. The last distillery to bear that name is the one in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, known today as Four Roses. J.T.S. Brown Bourbon is still made, by Heaven Hill Distilleries, and it's quite good for a low-priced, bottom-shelf brand, but not widely distributed. I prefer the bottled-in-bond expression.

Paul Newman's spirit lives on in his movies and his salad dressing. Seriously. The Newman's Own product line has generated millions of dollars for worthy causes. For more information go here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

In Defense of Sarah Palin.

No doubt millions of words have been written and spoken about Sarah Palin since her debut on the international stage, most of them unfair, and I say that as a person who supports the Obama-Biden ticket.

If Sarah Palin is not qualified to hold the position she is seeking that is not her fault, it is the fault of the person—John McCain—who recruited her.

But she is unsuited, not because of the extent of her experience but because of its nature. Sarah Palin is like Jesse Ventura, in the sense that her entire political career has been built on a “throw the bums out” appeal, and she hasn’t held any of her political jobs long enough to show that she is able to do anything except attack. She hasn’t shown that she can do anything constructive, such as run an administration smoothly and make progress solving problems.

The tendency she has shown in office, to govern mostly by finding people to blame and, if possible, fire for actions or conditions she doesn’t like is consistent with that “throw the bums out” approach, but at some point all the bums are gone and you have to show that you can do something positive. Jesse Ventura never managed to do that in office and Sarah Palin hasn’t either.

In Jesse’s case, he just wasn’t interested in governing. It wasn’t fun for him. He likes attention and he likes being a gadfly or, to use the favorite term this year, maverick. John McCain, in his long career, has shown that he can be constructive, but he also still has that shoot-from-the-hip quality that is good for a “throw the bums out” outsider seeking office, and maybe even for a member of a large deliberative body that needs a good shaking-up from time to time. But do we really want that in a president? My opinion is no.

What we will get with a President McCain has been on full display these last two weeks. It isn't pretty. Even thoughtful conservatives agree.

As for Sarah Palin, she might, if left alone, have matured in office and become an effective executive, but it hasn’t happened yet, so giving her this huge promotion is, at the very least, premature.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain's Rezko.

Don't mess with Rich Daley.

Earlier this week, the McCain campaign rolled out its "Chicago Machine" ad and Hizzoner was not amused. There was muttering about the stickiness of mud.

Now, in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the savings and loan bailout of the 80s and 90s, finally, today, the K Bomb was dropped and McCain suspended his campaign, ostensibly to provide leadership in the Senate to solve the current crisis.

Except this mounting crisis is making people look at how well McCain handled things back then, and is the real reason he has suspended his campaign. He doesn't want to explain Charles Keating again. At least not now, not this week.

The Palin choice was his first Hail Mary. Can he connect a second time?

Even before the K Bomb was dropped, Navy pilot McCain was taking heavy flak to his right wing, yesterday from George Will and last week from the Wall Street Journal.

Palin may have won over the Main Street conservatives, but Wall Street conservatives are more skeptical than ever.

I knew Keating before he was the king maker and bank breaker he was to become. Knew of him, that is. I was a freshman in college at Miami University, near Cincinnati, and he was a fixture in the Cincinnati media as president of the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, and an anti-pornography crusader.

Growing up a Catholic, in the Diocese of Toledo, I read the Catholic Chronicle, the diocesan weekly newspaper. No, really, I did. One of the paper's features was movie ratings and reviews, based not on the movie's quality but on its decency. The ratings and reviews were provided by a group called the Legion of Decency.

That's all I knew about the Legion of Decency. I had never seen them carry picket signs in front of strip clubs before. That's what Charles Keating was up to before he went to Arizona to become John McCain's first Sugar Daddy (unless you count Jim Hensley, Cindi's dad). Keating was, in short, McCain's Rezko, except magnified by a factor of ten. All Rezko ever got Obama to do was accept a shady real estate deal, a down payment on a future favor that never got asked. McCain got the contributions, got asked to do the favors, did the favors, and Keating bilked the Treasury out of millions. McCain and four other senators were investigated. McCain admitted that he had shown poor judgment.

At about the same time Keating was cleaning up Cincinnati, the Queen City's mayor got busted for patronizing a prostitute across the river in Kentucky. He got caught because he wrote her a check. His name was Jerry Springer. The Reds were playing their final season in Crosley Field. And I was finally getting laid. It was a golden time in southwestern Ohio.

Guess Who Is an International Theater Expert?

One nice feature of Blogger is that it shows you when other web sites have linked to you. It's fun to follow the links and see how the linker presents them.

Back in June, I wrote a post about Chicago Theatre, based on a performance I had attended the night before, and on an article that day in the Chicago Tribune.

If you look at the post, at the bottom there is a link. Follow that link and you will get the blog of the artistic director of the theater company that put on the performance I saw. He quotes (favorably) part of what I wrote, but the interesting part is that 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.

About all I can say to support my claim is that it was said to me by Allan Havis, an old college buddy who probably said it 20 years ago, when we were attending a Steppenwolf performance together. Even though he found that night's offering a bit flacid, he said Chicago had a more vital and important theater community than New York even then.

I'm paraphrasing, but I don't think he'll mind since he lives in California now. (He is a New York native.)

Hey, Allan, look! I'm an international theater expert!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obama and the Chicago Machine.

The McCain campaign is pretty proud of its new ad that attempts to tie Obama to the Chicago Machine. It's smart political advertising and well timed, and if they can influence anyone's votes with it, well, that's the point.

So I'm not here even to say it's a cheap shot, because it's not. If there's anything strategically wrong with it, it's that some people may actually like Obama more because if they think he's too soft or cerebral, they might warm to the idea of him as a tough, Chicago streetfighter.

My purpose in posting is just to share a little bit of what I know from living here.

Mayor Daley bristles whenever anyone talks about the Chicago Machine. In one sense, I agree with him, because his is not his father's Chicago Machine and the image most people have when they hear the words "Chicago Machine" would apply to Daley senior's Chicago, but Daley junior's not so much.

(Some people refer to them as Richard I and Richard II, but I prefer Big Dick and Little Dick.)

The son's machine is, if I can mix my metaphors, a big tent machine. Yes, the Cook County Democratic Party controls just about everything that happens politically in Chicago and Cook County, and the Daley family controls the Cook County Democratic Party, but part of how they do that is by letting 1,000 flowers bloom. The price of admission is loyalty to the party, but loyalty mainly means helping the Party retain its grip on everything. Within the party, on matters of policy, things are generally pretty democratic. That's how someone like Obama can be acceptable to the machine without being in any way "dirty." Illinois Democratic U.S. Senators are rarely true machine insiders. Sending guys like Obama, who could become troublesome, to Washington is one of their favorite gambits.

So here are the people the ad ties him to, in order.

Bill Daley, the mayor's brother, and generally considered the clan's brightest bulb, is at least Obama's economic advisor and probably even more important than that behind the scenes of the campaign. Are the Daley boys inside the Obama campaign big time? Absolutely.

Tony Rezko is a perfect foil for the ad, because he's a recently convicted felon, but there's nothing about his connection with Obama that wasn't thoroughly reported in the Chicago Tribune during Obama's Senate campaign in 2004, or shortly thereafter. I understand why he's in the ad, but to us that's old news. Obama showed poor judgment in the one transaction they did together, and said so explicitly years ago. Nothing in Rezko's trial touched Obama in any way, which cannot be said for Governor Blagojevich, whose corruption was Topic A throughout.

Emil Jones, who is a State Senator from Chicago and the Senate's President, was not initially Obama's sponsor. He definitely didn't get Obama elected to the State Senate in the first place but as time went on, he took the younger man under his wing and showed him the ropes. Obama approached Jones to support his U.S. Senate bid, and it took some persuading, but eventually Jones did support him. If Jones has any serious legal problems, we haven't heard much about them here. He's considered a savvy political operator and nobody's fool, but he's probably one of the less scandal-plagued Illinois politicians.

Finally, they try to link Obama to Governor Rod Blagojevich, and that is a stretch. Although Jones has been a Blagojevich ally, Obama never supported or promoted Blago and he never supported or promoted Obama. Blagojevich is a true wild card, in that nobody can seem to figure out what he's up to, what his game is. Whatever it is, you really can't pin Blagojevich to Obama. That dog won't hunt.

Finally, the name they didn't mention: David Axelrod. From the beginning, Axelrod has been by Obama's side and if someone besides the candidate is speaking for the campaign, that someone is usually him. Axelrod is another example of the big tent. He's a genuinely progressive guy but he is also a Daley insider, who has worked for Daley and a long list of Daley-approved candidates.

So, that's what I know.

More About the StraightBourbon Folks.

In my post from Kentucky on Saturday (I'm back now), I wrote about StraightBourbon.com and the amazing group of people who gather there in the web site's Forums section.

Here is a small addendum.

The StraightBourbon group has its own unofficial official hotel in Bardstown, which has a large gazebo in back where everyone gathers every evening. All of the bottles everyone has brought are placed on the table, there for anyone to sample.

I don't know that anyone bothers to count them, but 50 is probably close. No two are alike and many are quite rare.

The talk is variously about bourbon and life, as these people who met on line discussing bourbon have, in many cases, become close, personal friends in both the cyber and physical worlds. Indeed, it often seems that the very milk of human kindness is amber-hued and 100 proof.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dispatch from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Lew Bryson shamed me.

He didn't say a word, even though we've been hanging out some, but he's written a daily post from down here, even describing his harrowing brush with death in a Mercury, and I haven't done a damn thing.

The truth is, I try not to work when I'm here for the KBF, but Lew seems to be having a good time and working his ass off. I'm not going to emulate him too far, but here's something.

The festival has been going on for close to 20 years. I first came to it in, maybe, 1995. Maybe I came twice. I don't remember. Then I started to participate in discussions about bourbon on StraightBourbon.com, a very professional web site that is, in fact, non-commercial and a labor-of-love for its proprietor, Jim Butler.

Not long after the web site started in 1999, people on the site started treating the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) as an informal national meetup. I've come every year since, mostly to hang out with my on-line friends.

Some, but not all, of the people on the site are dusty hunters. They prowl liquor stores looking for old bottles of bourbon. Believe it or not, whiskey can sometimes sit on a retail shelf for 20 or 30 years. (So much for inventory management.) Whiskey doesn't age in the bottle, but that window makes in possible to find products of now-defunct distilleries. Here is what makes the StraightBourbon group so amazing. When people find these things, they can't wait to share them. Every year, that's a bigger part of the Festival for me (although I still love the barrel rolling competition).

For instance, Dawn from Indianapolis had some Old Fitzgerald 1849 from the late sixties, and the same from the mid-eighties. They were both in perfect condition (sometimes whiskeys get damaged by bad corks or oxidation). Both were made at Stitzel-Weller. The earlier one I felt was just perfect, the more recent one still terrific, but not quite as good. Part of that is that I have an idea of Stitzel-Weller perfection and that was it. Others liked the more recent one better.

Gary from Toronto, by way of Tony from Detroit, had some Seagram's Benchmark from the mid-seventies. Now I understand the name. It was an early knock-off of Maker's Mark and had a very similar palate. Benchmark is still made, but by Buffalo Trace, and it tastes completely different.

So, finally, here's the deal with not making any posts. At some point during an event like this, I have to decide if I'm working or drinking. I think you know the rest.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jim Beam Breaks Ground on New Visitors Experience

Yesterday, Beam Global Spirits & Wine broke ground on a new Visitors Experience project at its Clermont, Kentucky, Jim Beam distillery. This is a multi-million dollar tourism development project that will position Beam’s flagship distillery as the gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The Jim Beam American Outpost at Clermont already receives more than 80,000 visitors annually.

The three-phase construction of the Visitors Experience will include displays of newly discovered historical documents and images, and will culminate with the opening of a state-of-the-art Welcome Center complex highlighting the history and heritage of Jim Beam. Completion of this project is expected before the start of the tourist season in 2011 and will be able to accommodate approximately 200,000 visitors a year.

According to Jeff Conder, vice president, North American operations for Beam, "Bourbon is deeply rooted and widely celebrated in Kentucky, and the industry provides more than 3,000 jobs, $3 billion in gross state product and nearly $115 million in state and local taxes. The Jim Beam Visitors Experience project will further economic growth with the creation of more jobs and increased tourism revenue, helping the Commonwealth continue to flourish."

The Visitors’ Experience project is headed by Jim Beam Noe, a great-grandson of Jim Beam through his daughter, Margaret.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Farnsworth House, Closed Until Further Notice.

Farnsworth House, the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe modernist masterpiece, was a casualty of this weekend's record-breaking rains. Farnsworth House is located along the Fox River near Plano, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The house is on stilts but the river rose to a level 18 inches above the first floor. Although the damage could have been much worse, and has been worse in previous floods, this is the first time the house has flooded since it was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois in 2003.

Farnsworth House has been a big part of my year.

Over the winter, they announced a volunteer docent program. I volunteered, received my training, and began to give tours this spring. I set myself a goal of going out there for a day every two weeks and kept to that pace for a while. The last time I was there was Friday, August 1. I needed to focus on some other things and took what I hoped would be a short break. Last week things had cleared away enough that I thought I could get out there again. Whitney French, the site director, asked if anyone could come out on September 25. That worked for me so I signed up.

Then the rains came. The river was already out of its banks when Whitney sent her note but you never can tell and at that point they were standing by. The river finally got into the house on Sunday.

There are some amazing pictures on their web site. There is copious information there as well, which I won't bother to repeat here. There is a prominent link to their blog, where they are providing daily updates. Naturally, money is needed. In addition to clean-up costs, they will have no money coming in from ticket and gift shop sales until they can reopen.

So, no more tours for now. I'm disappointed because the season is over prematurely and I'm saddened by the damage, but I'm grateful that it wasn't worse.

Staff and volunteers were able to get all of the furniture, floor coverings, draperies and other stuff out of the house in advance of the water. They have a team of volunteers who live more-or-less nearby who are prepared for just this sort of emergency. It takes me two hours to get out there on a good day, so I can't participate in that, but I imagine there are volunteer clean-up days in my future. I hope so. I need my Farnsworth fix.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Distiller versus Still Operator.

I have been having a nice, friendly, on-line discussion with some of the members of the American Distilling Institute (ADI) about my recent post here questioning how craft the new craft distilling movement is.

In the course of that conversation, I wrote: "I am also concerned about compressing the definition of 'distiller' into somebody who operates a still. A person who runs beer through a still isn't a distiller, that person is called a still operator. Every distillery has a still operator, but it's not the distiller."

One of the participants asked me to elaborate. I did. Here is what I wrote:

First, I'm talking about at the major American whiskey producers; Jim, Jack, et al.

Second, even before the title Master Distiller was in use, every distillery had a Distiller. Every distillery also had a Still Operator. They almost never were the same person. That continues to be the case.

Third, I'm talking about the beer still, which is a continuous column still. I can't say I've ever heard anyone talk about operating the doubler.

The Distiller usually is the manager or overseer of the whole distillery. He may or may not have responsibility for the warehouses but is responsible for grain acceptance, milling, mashing, yeast preparation, fermentation, distillation, and barrel entry, as well as overall quality control of the finished product. He is there supervising all of those stages every day. Today, some Master Distillers are primarily quality control, but there is someone, maybe called the plant manager, who has all of those day-to-day responsibilities.

The Still Operator is a hand who operates the still. He starts it up, monitors it while it runs, makes periodic adjustments, and then shuts it down at the end of the run. At some distilleries (e.g., Wild Turkey), the still operator sits or stands next to the still, monitoring its gauges, listening to and feeling its rhythms, and adjusting its valves. At others (e.g. Heaven Hill), the still operator sits at a control panel in a nearby control room.

I don't mean to suggest that the tactile stuff is lost in the control room. You don't have to be sitting right next to the still to feel and hear it.

Lots of distilleries have had the same still operator or operators for decades. I've never heard of a still operator becoming a distiller.

The whole discussion on ADI Forums is here. You have to register to post, but anybody can read the postings.

Nope, Nothing Suspicious About This.

This is about Illinois government. I promise to keep it brief.

I got a Legislative Update from my State Rep, Greg Harris. It explains the House's proposal to lease the Illinois Lottery and how it differs from the governor's proposal to lease the Illinois Lottery. Here is his list of the key differences:

Among them are the inclusion of strict ethics requirements, anti pay-to-play provisions, requirements for competitive bidding of the lease, caps on transaction fees, dedicated funds to guarantee use of the proceeds of the lease only as intended and not for political purposes, protections against exploitation of poor communities by the lessor, requirements for MBE/WBE/DBE participation, and protections for lottery employees.

Despite, or perhaps because of all those explicit ethics protections, I feel like my pocket is being picked. Oh wait, state-run gambling taxes only gamblers, and I don't gamble, yet I still feel like my pocket is being picked. Why is that?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Makes Bulleit Bourbon?


Although I have taken some shots at the marketing of Bulleit bourbon, I've always been a fan of the product itself. It's well-made and has a distinctive taste profile. Bulleit is not a typical bourbon. The reason, we've always been told, is that the mash contains more rye than any other bourbon on the market, in the neighborhood of 35 percent.

Although there was a previous version of Bulleit made at Buffalo Trace, the current iteration has long been a product of the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. When Seagram's acquired the brand, it also owned the distillery. However, when Seagram's was dismantled (2001-2002) the Bulleit brand went to Diageo while the distillery (and Four Roses brand) went to Kirin.

Then as now, Diageo had no functioning distilleries in Kentucky, so as part of the sale to Kirin it contracted for Kirin/Four Roses to supply its bourbon needs. Although that initially meant aged whiskey, it has evolved to mean new make (i.e., white dog), which Diageo barrels and ages at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which Diageo still owns. From solid industry sources, I can tell you that Diageo also contracts with Brown-Forman, Constellation and Jim Beam for white dog.

The amounts are significant (on the order of six million proof gallons a year) and Diageo has many other needs for bourbon. It still sells I.W. Harper Bourbon in Japan and other places, though not so much in the United States. Bourbon whiskey is also the second-biggest component, after neutral spirits, in Seagram's Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey, other American blends, and even some Canadian blends. Diageo, a scotch company at heart, is much bigger in North American blends than it is in straights.

But Bulleit, because of its distinctive taste profile, was believed to be all from Four Roses, which sells about 40 percent of its output to Diageo.

So I was surprised when, in the context of an event coming up next week at the Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, a Kirin executive objected to the characterization of Bulleit as being made by Four Roses. His assertion was that since Four Roses supplies whiskey to Diageo, but can't be sure what Diageo does with it, and because it's known that Diageo gets whiskey from other sources they (Kirin/Four Roses) don't believe Bulleit is 100 percent Four Roses whiskey. Another source tells me that organoleptic testing confirms that Bulleit is not 100 percent Four Roses-made whiskey.

So I contacted Diageo, told them what I was hearing, and asked them where Bulleit is made. Here's their reply:

"Bulleit Bourbon continues to be wholly distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY according to exacting standards developed by Tom Bulleit and the Bulleit Distilling Company. Bulleit Bourbon’s bold flavor is the product of a unique recipe featuring a high proportion of the rye grain and the use of a proprietary yeast culture. As with all Kentucky straight Bourbons, Bulleit Bourbon is aged in charred barrels made from new American Oak and contains absolutely no additives whatsoever."

Who is telling the truth? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps more interesting is why, now, is Kirin/Four Roses getting its back up about this? Is Diageo doing what Four Roses says and Four Roses is putting them on notice that if they want to continue to invoke the good name of that distillery, they better stop diluting Bulleit with whiskey made in other places? Or is something else at work here? I'm pretty much at a dead end because I take everyone at their word unless I have reliable evidence to the contrary.

Monday, September 8, 2008

I'm Still the Chicago Spirits Examiner.

I announced this back in July when it began, but now that I've been doing it for about two months, I thought I'd give you an update.

I am the Chicago Spirits Examiner on the Chicago Examiner web site. That means I examine the topic of distilled spirits, frequently from a Chicago perspective. I post short articles several times a week.

The Chicago Spirits Examiner is in the Food and Drink section of Examiner Chicago. There's a national Examiner portal and several local ones, including Chicago Examiner (I never remember which comes first, Chicago or Examiner). To go directly to the Chicago Spirits Examiner page, that is here.

I think the Examiner model is really terrific as a general interest portal, the kind of site people would set as their home page, to open every time they go online. It's a mix of news and comment, and lots of entertainment and lifestyle stuff. It's also a rich mix of syndicated and original content. The original content is what sets it apart.

One of the nice things on all of the pages, including mine, is a list of always changing headlines from feeds I've selected. You can, for example, see what John Hansell is posting on his blog without actually going there. This blog is one of the feeds. All of the feeds are adult beverage oriented (most of the time).

They also like us to do lists. I keep a running list of the last ten drinks I've had (with, I'll confess, a small amount of redaction).

You might like it. It's worth a look, anyway.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Question for Craft Distillers: Where’s the Craft?


All of a sudden, in the past few years, small "micro" distilleries have popped up all over the country. The first ones were associated with wineries and made brandy. More recently, and in much greater numbers, people with brewery backgrounds have begun to make grain spirits.

There is no question that these operations are universally small. A few years back, one of the big distilleries tried to pose as micro, but was quickly exposed. No, the micro distilleries really are little.

But are they really craft? Are they truly artisanal?

In most cases, the answer is no. If you add the word "traditional" to the equation, that no is even more emphatic.

To reach that conclusion, compare the practices of micro-distillers to those of America’s big distilled spirits producers, whiskey-makers such as Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, and Wild Turkey; rum-makers such as Bacardi and Cruzan; and brandy-makers such as Gallo, Christian Brothers, and Paul Masson. Who employs more craft, those big guys or the micros?

This critique is not across the board. A small number of craft distillers take a back-to-basics approach, with no short cuts. More common are the ones who put a lot of craft emphasis on one or two parts of the process, but also use short cuts. An even larger number use every short cut they can to make products that barely meet minimum legal requirements for distilled spirits, let alone qualify as craft or artisanal.

One issue is ingredients. Rum, by law, is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, but for hundreds of years the actual base material in rum production has been molasses, a by-product along the way from cane juice to table sugar. Molasses can be hard to handle. It’s much easier to dissolve table sugar in water and ferment that, which many so-called craft distillers do. Bacardi and Cruzan don’t, they use molasses.

But at least the table sugar-users do their own fermentation. Many of the micro distillers who make whiskey buy their wash—beer before it has been hopped and carbonated—-from a brewery. Of necessity, this means they are making malt whiskey, like they do in Scotland and Ireland, rather than corn whiskey like Jim, Jack, and all those other guys do here.

You can’t entirely blame them. It’s what their fledgling trade association tells them to do. "Why reinvent the wheel?" asks Bill Owens, President of the American Distilling Institute.

He recommends that you put your distillery next to a brewery, contract with them for wash, and start making whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, except where is the craft in buying your way past two-thirds of the process? It’s exactly like buying frozen bread dough, baking it in your oven, and calling yourself an artisan bakery.

Every industrial-scale, grain-based distiller in America, from the makers of Kentucky bourbon, to vodka-makers, to the folks who make fuel ethanol for cars, starts the process with whole grain, but not Bill’s guys. How come?

Micro distillers who make brandy and rum don’t mind fermenting, but it’s harder with grain. Fruit juice and molasses are fermentable just as they are, but grain starch is not. It must be converted. For that you need enzymes. In Scotland, the law requires distillers to use endogenous enzyme systems only. That’s a fancy way of saying you have to use malt, which is barley that has been malted, i.e., sprouted, to produce the necessary enzymes.

Some large American whiskey distillers use supplemental enzymes, which are permitted here but not universally used. No one has abandoned endogenous enzyme systems altogether except micro distillers, not because it’s better—-it isn’t-—but because it’s easier.

Another issue is equipment. Most micro distillers make a big deal about how they use pot stills, not column stills. What they actually use are hybrid stills. They are batch process, like pot stills, but instead of an alembic (the simple, one-piece still top that’s shaped like a tear drop), their pots are topped by...columns, exactly like the ones that give column stills their name.

Part of the problem is that these hybrid stills aren’t designed to make whiskey the way Americans make whiskey. They are European and designed to make brandy and other fruit spirits. They will distill a grain wash okay, into whiskey or even vodka if that’s what you want, but they can’t handle an American distiller’s beer, which contains husks and other undissolved grain solids. Even a wash made from corn and rye, instead of just malt, will give these stills fits.

Then there’s aging. Except for vodka and other clear spirits, most distilled spirits are aged in oak barrels, typically for years, occasionally for decades. Most micro-distillers can’t wait that long, so they sell unaged or very lightly aged products. There’s nothing wrong with that. There always have been unaged and young spirits sold, but aging is another part of the craft and most micro distillers give it short shrift. Virtually all bourbon whiskey is aged for more than four years. I know of only one micro distillery whiskey aged that long and it costs $300 a bottle.

It gets worse. Some micro distillers don’t make anything. They buy bulk spirits and bottle them. They have a distillery, or plan to; it’s making something, or will soon. The bulk goods are just a bridge until their own product is ready for sale, they say, but several have been saying that for years and not exactly publicizing how the only product they sell is one they didn’t make and probably can never duplicate.

The moral of this story is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, especially if you think you are buying an artisanal product and that matters to you. Do some research, ask questions, be skeptical. Most producers won’t lie to you outright, but you have to ask the right questions and listen to the answers very carefully.

Do these practices make these distillers, or their products, bad? Not necessarily, but that’s not the question. The question is, are these practices craft? Are they artisanal? Are they traditional? That’s where many of these new micro distilleries have issues.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I Taste Some 22-Year-Old Bourbon from 1938.

I attended an event in Louisville Tuesday evening, at the Filson Historical Society (housed in a very cool, old mansion) on the occasion of George Garvin Brown’s 162nd birthday. Brown launched what became the Brown-Forman company when he created the Old Forester Bourbon brand in 1870.

Brown-Forman typically launches the new edition of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon on GGB’s birthday, but this year was different. In honor of the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition (on December 5th of this year), they are releasing Old Forester Repeal Bourbon, a 10-year-old expression of Old Forester in a 375ml replica of a Prohibition-era medicinal whiskey bottle.

It comes in a gift set that also includes a commemorative tasting glass and a scroll of the 21st Amendment itself. It will be priced at about $25 and should appear in stores in late November.

The 2008 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is expected to debut in mid-October.

Since Brown-Forman received one of only six medicinal whiskey licenses issued by the federal government during Prohibition, Old Forester is unique. It is the only American whiskey that has been sold continuously, under the same name and made by the same company, for 138 years.

Mike Veach, who spoke at the event, made an interesting point. The 18th Amendment was the only part of the U.S. Constitution that took a right away. That very un-American act was corrected by the 21st Amendment.

Although we tasted some of the new Old Forester Repeal Bourbon, as well as standard Old Forester and Old Forester Signature (the 100° proof expression), what got me to the event was a chance to taste three historic whiskeys, one from each of the three Brown-Forman distilleries where Old Forester has been made.

The oldest was a bourbon distilled in 1916 at St. Mary, Kentucky, and bottled in 1938, so it was 22 years old.

How did it taste? It was not overly wooded, as so many of the Prohibition-era medicinal whiskeys are. It was quite good, totally drinkable. The nose was incredible. We could smell it as we were walking up the stairs to the room. If you didn't know it was a bourbon, you might think it was a rye, with that floral, as opposed to spicy, quality ryes sometimes have. It was especially rich with top notes of anise, toffee and citrus, which complemented a middle of dark fruit.

The most prominent feature, as is often the case with older bottlings, was that wintergreen taste and aroma that comes from the 200+ year old trees used for the barrels. You get that in some post-prohibition bottlings too, through the 1960s, but you never get it today. The new Repeal Bourbon, chosen to resemble the 1916-1938, is mainly lacking that.

They are going to have some Repeal-related content on the web but it doesn't appear to be up yet, but everything you might want to know about Old Forester is probably here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Right Stuff.

I spent some time with Fred Noe recently, while he was here in Chicago for some promotional appearances. I already told you about our rye balls discussion.

Fred was in town to promote a couple of different items, including Beam’s "Here's To The Stuff Inside" PR campaign. (I told you about it back in May, when they launched it.) Because we were just talking, I didn’t invite the whole PR onslaught, but I was curious to know what, in that campaign, had made a personal impression on him, as it covers a lot of ground.

We talked briefly about their chiming in to preserve the name of Wrigley Field, which may make more sense when you understand that Beam is as much a Chicago company as it is a Kentucky one. The distilleries are there but the corporate offices, along with sales and marketing, have been here in Chicago since the end of Prohibition, originally downtown, now in Deerfield.

But clearly what has touched Fred the most is Operation Homefront. "It’s a great thing, people doing the right things for the right reasons," said Fred. Operation Homefront helps American military families with emergency assistance, especially with needs that might otherwise fall through the cracks. "Some family needs a water heater," said Fred, "they get it for them."

Operation Homefront also provides food, baby care, car repairs, financial assistance, and computers to the families of our troops. It’s an authentic grassroots movement of more than 4,000 volunteers.

One way Beam has raised money for Operation Homefront is through the sale of Jim Beam in special commemorative bottles. Fred was thrilled to present them a check for $250,000, and at the Indy 500 no less. “There are lots of organizations, but this one really gets it done,” he said.

No doubt Fred Noe has an unusual job, but I can see that he really likes being able to represent the company that way. As he says, people doing the right things for the right reasons. If that leads you to believe they probably make their whiskey the same way, so be it.