Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing.

Two of the most persistent controversies in the world of whiskey are the whiskey/whisky spelling issue and the "Jack Daniel's isn't bourbon, or is it?" issue.

I'm not going to rehash either of them here. If you're interested, the spelling issue is explained here and the Daniel's issue is here.

As I say in the later essay, the two are similar in that there is much less to both than many people think. They are both information usually obtained very early in a whiskey drinker's education, right after they learn that "smooth" is the catch-all attribute for any whiskey they like, but before they learn that using it marks them as a novice.

Why is "a little knowledge" dangerous? Because it makes a person feel superior, which makes them defensive when they subsequently learn that the reality is more nuanced than they realized.

Typical is the person who wants to call the manager to the table because a server has included Jack Daniel's when listing the establishment's bourbon selection. When you ask a server what bourbons they have, "Jack Daniel's" is the least of the possible wrong answers. I've had them list everything on the bar that isn't clear, including Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker, and Southern Comfort.

In that context, Jack Daniel's is actually a right answer.

Is it ironic that the best-selling bourbon-type whiskey isn't bourbon? Yes, but it's not particularly important. When you only have a little knowledge, you don't know this, so your outrage about the ignorance of the server or bar actually betrays your own ignorance. Neat how that works.

Here's all you need to know. The only reason Jack Daniel's isn't labeled as bourbon is because its owners don't want to label it as bourbon. All of the reasons people cite for why JD can't be labeled as bourbon are nonsense. The only ruling on the subject that the feds have ever made was made at the request of the company, seeking permission to call their product Tennessee whiskey instead of bourbon. They did this because they were afraid they would be forced to label it as bourbon and they didn't want to, so they lobbied for and received acknowledgement of Tennessee Whiskey as not-bourbon..

Similarly, the only reason people worry about using the spelling "whisky" when talking about scotch is because the Scotch Whisky Association makes such a big damn fuss about it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bourbon Versus Scotch.

Although I prefer American whiskey I have nothing against scotch, despite my occasional pokes at some of its more pretentious enthusiasts. My real quarrel is with the ones who denigrate and dismiss as pretenders all whiskeys that are not single malt scotch. Their prejudices, like most, are generally based in ignorance.

One of their false beliefs is that spirit distilled in pot stills is inherently superior to spirit distilled in column stills. Because most American whiskey is initially distilled in a column still, like Scottish grain whiskey, many scotch enthusiasts assume they are more or less the same thing.

They aren't.

First, the stills. A column still can do anything a pot still can do but it can also do things a pot still cannot, like distill to 95% alcohol. It's not the type of still that matters, it's how you use it.

Second, the second distillation. Like Scottish single malts, American whiskeys are distilled twice, the second time in a pot still. Although the Americans don't need that second distillation to raise the proof, they believe it polishes the whiskey by pulling off a few of the more stubborn undesirable congeners.

Third, the end product. In Scotland, column stills are used to make blending whiskey that is distilled just shy of 95% alcohol, meaning just shy of neutrality, i.e., vodka. Pot stills are used to make malt whiskey that is distilled to about 70% alcohol. In an American whiskey distillery, column stills are used to distill to about 70% alcohol, about the same as a Scottish malt distillery. (Lower proof off the still means more flavor in the green spirit.)

The two distillates are different because of different grains, different yeast, and different water, but not because the stills are different.

The Celtic (Scotland plus Ireland and Wales) and American whiskey-making traditions began to diverge more than 200 years ago. They're different, you may even like the product of one better than the other, but to claim that one is objectively better than the other is calumny.

I'd Like A Temptation-Free Room, Please.

There they were, arrayed below the HDTV like an alcohol archipelago: wine, tequila, vodka, gin, rum, and Tennessee whiskey. But that was just the beginning.

The hotel was very nice, right in my wheelhouse in terms of design. The shower was awesome. But the in-room merchandising was over-the-top. It was as if a mini-bar had exploded. There was still a mini-fridge, stocked with wine, beer, and other beverages, with a clear glass door so everything was visible. Immediately to the left of the liquor array was a basket of cookies, crackers, chips, nuts, and other snacks. On a table next to the easy chair sat one Coke and one Sprite, next to tall glasses already strawed. (I didn't say it wasn't stylish.) Still hungry? The one-page room service menu was conveniently displayed on the desk.

Most nice hotel rooms have these things but the traditional mini-bar is discreet, usually hidden in the furniture. If you don't trust yourself, you can lock it and drop the key at the desk. The room service menu is usually in the guest services binder.

This was a very contemporary hotel. If this is a coming wave I don't like it. I need neither the temptation to overspend nor the temptation to overindulge.

If it comes to that I will request a temptation-free room, but I shouldn't have to.

Friday, March 26, 2010

American Whiskey, 2030.

On straightbourbon.com yesterday, Gary Gillman asked the community to predict the American whiskey scene in 2030. Here's mine.

More distilleries in the U.S., rather than fewer? I hope so, but it's possible to imagine Beam Global and Brown-Forman, in the roles of Miller and Bud, as a #1 and #2 miles ahead of #3.

The cats and dogs business shreds and Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill become mostly whiskey-makers, owned by Bacardi and LVMH, respectively. Those two along with Four Roses (Kirin) and Wild Turkey (Campari) are in the second tier, size-wise, but just like today, they're making equally as good if not better whiskey than the two giants.

Diageo gets into and out of the American whiskey business at least five times, finally getting out of it altogether, selling George Dickel to Beam, I. W. Harper to Four Roses, and Bulleit to Buffalo Trace where Tommy Bulleit (age 90) is hailed as a prodigal returned.

What's left of the micro-distilleries are actually mid-size regional producers who have strong community ties and superior relationships with local customers. Those customers rely on them for exceptional service and customized products. A few have developed excellent boutique whiskeys that are good enough to be distributed internationally.

Malt whiskey is being made in so much of the world that Scotland loses some of its hold over that style of whiskey, which becomes known as the International Style, consisting of single malts and blends made in dozens of different countries. This competes with the American Style, made mostly in America (which now includes Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean including Cuba, all of Central America, and Venezuela). The International Style is still the more popular, but the gap has narrowed.

The three-tier system is dead.

The largest producers handle their own distribution directly. Mid-size producers band together to form joint ventures to handle their distribution. Local/regional producers handle their own distribution directly. The cats and dogs business (commodity brands) becomes local again.

There are still 'distributors,' but they are transportation companies that simply handle deliveries on a non-exclusive basis. Every transaction is tracked electronically.

Lots of things are local again due to high transportation costs that render the advantages of low cost labor markets less compelling. It becomes more cost effective to produce goods close to where they will be consumed, rather than where labor is cheap.

Just as the world is a bit more developed now than it was 20 years ago, the world of 2030 is a little more developed than today. Cheap labor isn't what it used to be.

And, oh yeah, I am immortal and your king.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Defense Of Giving Up.

"Never give up!"

That's one of those bumper sticker motivational phrases that people always say as if they just thought of it. It's absolutely a cliché, but is it even good advice?

If people never gave up, how would we get anything done? The grown-up way to look at it is know when to give up, don't hang on too long, but don't give up too easily.

Get used to a life full of ambiguity or you'll burn out young. Accommodation is not a dirty word. It's the grease that keeps the wheels turning.

Giving up doesn't necessarily mean giving in. It may just mean moving on.

Writing About Writing, Part Four.

I can’t say I’ve gotten very much from writing teachers, but one of them in college used to say, "writers write." I didn’t get it at the time, until I began to meet people who wanted to 'be' a writer, but never wrote anything. I learned the difference between being and doing, and that you don’t do what you are, you are what you do.

There is nothing wrong with writing 'for the drawer,' as people used to say. Many writers keep journals that may contain bits and pieces they will use, but the journals themselves are for their eyes only. Today, the internet gives us another way to go. Making your writing available to an audience, even if it doesn’t find one, is slightly different than writing for yourself. You are, at least, bringing the idea of readers into the equation.

Even today it is rarely a good idea to publish a first draft. Ideas are the same way. A writer I used to work with called it "first land visited." I’ve known too many people whose first idea is always their best because they give up so easily.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Great Lakes Releases First Wisconsin Bourbon.


The people in this picture waited for up to three hours, outside on a cold Wisconsin afternoon, to pay $45 for a half-bottle of 2-year-old bourbon that none of them had ever tasted.

That’s just an example of the excitement created by Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery (GLD) and the very limited release of their Test Batch Bourbon, the first bourbon whiskey ever made in Wisconsin. Only 263 bottles (375 ml) were produced, the output of two 15-gallon barrels laid down in 2007 by Distiller Doug Mackenzie. The distillery is run by Guy Rehorst.

The launch event was held this past Saturday, March 20, at the small distillery just south of downtown Milwaukee.

Mackenzie, Rehorst and everyone else was blown away by the response. The event was only minimally promoted and they didn’t know what to expect. Because there were so few bottles, they put on a 2-per-customer limit. As the line grew, they decided to pass out tickets so people would know if they were going to get a bottle or not. The event was supposed to begin at 5:30 PM, but all of the tickets were gone by 4:45 PM.

Many stayed anyway for the party and people kept arriving. Hundreds of people crammed themselves into the small distillery space, where cocktails were available, other GLD products were sampled (they make vodka, gin, absinthe, and liqueurs), and snacks were served (meatballs and some good Wisconsin hard salami and cheese).

The whiskey itself is good, the response was phenomenal.

At their previous location, GLD was very limited in terms of how much alcohol they could store. Now they have more space, and the correct zoning, and a nice rack full of barrels that contain whiskey and other aging spirits. There is more bourbon in the pipeline but, sadly, it won’t be ready for a couple more years.

Is the world excited about bourbon from Wisconsin? It may not matter, because the people of Milwaukee certainly are.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Jim Beam and ESPN Launch Web Series.

The Next Round – Served Up By Jim Beam, is a new web series hosted by ESPN personality and award-winning journalist Scoop Jackson. It will feature famous guests discussing the news with a focus on sports and pop culture.

The Next Round will debut on Saturday, April 3, during the first commercial break of the 11 PM ET SportsCenter, as well as on ESPN.com. Each episode will feature Jackson and a range of guests – actors, athletes, media personalities and comedians – discussing relevant topics of the moment. Known for his strong opinions and edgy perspective, Jackson has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years.

"This far-reaching media integration is a first of its kind for Jim Beam," says Kelly Doss, senior director Bourbons, Beam Global Spirits & Wine. "We like to create legendary experiences for guys, and we know that they bond over Jim Beam cocktails and sports – a perfect combination. By seamlessly integrating the Jim Beam brand with ESPN’s many properties, including their network, web site, magazine and radio outlet, we'll truly be able to play where our guys play. We’re excited to get this venture under way."

New content will air every two weeks on ESPN.com, and portions of the show will air during the 11 p.m. SportsCenter on ESPN. Once per month, The Next Round segments will be featured on ESPN Radio.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Evan Williams In The Wilderness.

On Thursday, November 7, 1996, the worst distillery fire in living memory occurred. The distillery was Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Kentucky. Rivers of burning bourbon flowed like molten lava over the broad hillside and heat from the flames could be felt a half-mile away. Exploding barrels flew like shooting stars across the night sky.

The distillery, three grain trucks with their loads, seven warehouses and 7.7 million gallons of aging bourbon were destroyed.

The distillery was never rebuilt. Heaven Hill resumed production in 1997 at Jim Beam. The 1998 production was made at Brown-Forman. In 1999, Heaven Hill acquired the Bernheim Distillery. Most production was shifted there but, due to insufficient capacity, they continued to produce whiskey at Brown-Forman too.

Just one year before the fire, Heaven Hill had launched the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage series. Each annual release comes from a particular year of production and the whiskey is always nine years old. Therefore, the 1996 edition, released in 2005, was the last one from Bardstown. The 1997, released in 2006, was whiskey made at Jim Beam (to Heaven Hill's specifications). The 1998 and 1999, released in 2007 and 2008, respectively, were from Brown-Forman. The 2000, the first from Bernheim, was released last fall.

I don't have any 1996 handy, so I'm tasting 1994 to represent Bardstown. (I like the 1994 better anyway.) I have 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. I've done some of it but I'm not ready to post my results. If you have that set, or something close to it, why don't you join me?

This is a rare opportunity to taste the same whiskey made at four different distilleries. Who's in?

You can participate here, through comments, or over on the discussion board at Straightbourbon.com. (The link should take you right to the thread but if it doesn't, look for the same title in the "Premium Bourbons/Specialty Bottlings" section.)

If you're an American whiskey fan, you should know about Straightbourbon.com anyway.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Scotch Snobs On Parade.

I get in trouble every time I use the term 'scotch snobs.' Maybe I should say 'whiskey snobs,' since there are bourbon snobs too, but scotch drinkers seem to be the worst offenders.

Let me be clear that I do not consider all scotch drinkers to be scotch snobs. That would be ridiculous. Scotch snobs are people who aren't satisfied with choosing for themselves what to drink and how to drink it, they have to tell everybody else the correct way to do it too. (See 'know-it-alls' and 'busy-bodies.')

Scotch snobbery went on rare display after John Hansell posted a press release from the makers of The Macallan, announcing that they are introducing ice ball cutters in bars in London, Scotland and Yorkshire. The Macallan is one of the most highly acclaimed of all single malt scotches.

Ice balls -- molded, not cut -- have recently become popular here in Chicago. They originated in Japan, where apprentice bartenders carve them by hand from blocks of ice. The Macallan device is a copper press that instantly trims a block of ice into a flawless ice ball.

Ice balls, an ice cube the size and shape of a tennis ball, look slick but they have the practical benefit of chilling a drink fast while diluting it slowly.

From the comments to Hansell's post, you would think that parliament had made the use of ice balls mandatory. "Blasphemy!" wrote one. "With an every day blend, maybe. With a Macallan, no way," wrote another. "The entire text is apologetic marketing newspeak for disguising their real motivation:  Finding a way to sell their whisky to more people than before," as if "finding a way to sell their whiskey to more people," is the most unspeakable kind of evil.

Here's how to tell if you're a whiskey snob. If you berate other people about the way they enjoy their whiskey and you berate producers when they stray from your idea of whiskey purity, you just might be a whiskey snob.

Writing About Writing, Part Three.

As I wrote last time, putting those two bits together – economy and craft – I learned that rewriting a sentence to shorten it by even one word is time well spent.
So when are you finished? Writing to strict deadlines is good discipline early in your career. Rewriting is good, but you can’t let yourself get too fussy about it. If you notice that you keep alternating the same two constructions of a particular sentence or phrase with each revision, that means you’re probably finished.
Setting something aside and coming back to it later is a good tip. The longer the better. You will see a lot that you want to change after an hour. You will see ten times more after a month.
If you are writing something for a blog, and you have this option, don’t hesitate to revisit and rewrite it even after it has been posted.
I reread my stuff so much I worry about narcissism.
But I also don’t believe I have ever rewritten something and made it worse. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

WhiskeyFest Chicago, Almost Sold Out.

The 10th Annual WhiskyFest Chicago is Friday, April 23rd. You can find all of the details here, including the list of whiskies being poured and a listing of the seminars for the evening.

I’m posting this to let you know that, if you are thinking about buying tickets, don’t wait too long. John Hansell reports that the VIP tickets sold out a few weeks ago and there aren’t too many General Admission tickets left.

I'll be there, wearing a Malt Advocate "staff" name tag (they promised I won't have to work). If you see me, introduce yourself and say hello.

Then go away so I can get back to my drinking.

Writing About Writing, Part Two.

I learned one important lesson about writing from a sculptor. He explained that he didn’t create his art with his hands, he did it with his eyes and mind. The most important part of the creation process, he explained, is to look at what you have done, think about it, then make it better. As a sculptor, he emphasized that you have to look at the work from every angle; a good metaphor for what writers do too.

Many writers have made this observation. Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "I have rewritten - often several times - every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers."

Though this bit of wisdom is common, it may need to be impressed upon young writers since so many of today’s modes of expression demand and celebrate the spontaneous and unexamined.

Writers have always been impatient. Young writers especially tend to fall in love with their creations much too quickly. That has to be beaten out of you, as it was me. Today, you can publish as you write. No one will stop you. You have to stop yourself.

I have heard there were once people called editors who helped writers improve their works and become better writers. I don’t wish to disparage any editors with whom I’ve worked, but I rarely get feedback and nobody is that good. It’s not the editor’s fault. They are not hired to do that. They are hired to commission writers who can write something that’s ready to publish. They have too many other responsibilities and don’t have time to give you much more than general impressions.

I have one editor who actually edits me from time to time, but he picks his battles. He only does it when the project is high profile. Again, no criticism is intended. He’d love to do it on everything if he could, but that’s not his job.

Putting those two bits together – economy and craft – I learned that rewriting a sentence to shorten it by even one word is time well spent.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Writing About Writing, Part One.

Since I graduated from college 37 years ago, I have made my living as a writer, but I haven’t written very much about writing. Why not? Well, I haven’t written very much about anything I wasn’t hired to write about. That has been the nature of my career.

But a few years ago I decided, career be damned, I will write more about the things I want to write about. (And the career largely has been damned, but that’s another story.)

Most of the things I’ve learned about writing that have served me well I did not discover on my own.

I learned the value of simple, direct, and economical writing from Ernest Hemmingway and, even more so, Kurt Vonnegut. Like me, Vonnegut started out as a copywriter. He noted that advertising writing is one kind in which personal style is discouraged. He said that was not necessarily bad.

As a writer, I justified a lot of my writing-for-hire as learning the craft. The craft is important. It’s not something to be taken lightly and you usually don’t master it overnight.

After 37 years I’m still learning the craft. Should that worry me? Shouldn’t I have mastered it by now?

Friday, March 12, 2010

A New Limited Edition From Four Roses.

There are two kinds of limited edition releases in the American Whiskey business. Some are about the whiskey, some are about the bottle.

Four Roses has been one of the leaders in limited editions that are mainly about the whiskey. In recent years, they have rolled out a limited edition version of their single barrel expression each spring, just in time for the Kentucky Derby (May 1 this year).

For 2010 it is a 17-year-old bourbon that is being used to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the main building at the distillery site in Lawrenceburg. There have been distilleries on or near that site for almost 200 years, but the distinctive Spanish Mission-style building (pictured above) was built in 1910 by the sons of J. T. S. Brown, who ran it on both sides of Prohibition.

The Browns (cousins of the Brown-Forman Browns) had bought the place in 1904. In 1909, a nearby distillery burned down and while it was being rebuilt, the Browns decided theirs could stand to be spruced up too.

During WWII, Seagram’s bought the plant and renamed it Four Roses, after a brand they had also just acquired. Seagram’s was big in the production of neutral spirits for the war effort. They owned 14 Kentucky distilleries by war’s end. They must have liked the one they named Four Roses, because they gradually closed all the rest. By the time Seagram’s itself was sold a decade ago, Four Roses was the only Kentucky distillery they had left.

Today it is owned by Kirin and run by long-time Master Distiller Jim Rutledge. The Four Roses 100th Anniversary Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon will be released in early April. It is bottled at barrel strength (55 percent alcohol) and not chill filtered. About 2,300 bottles will be distributed in all U.S. markets where Four Roses currently is sold.

Even though Four Roses limited editions are about featuring a special whiskey, the bottles are nice too. For this one, an etching of the distillery, in gold, has been added to the standard Single Barrel package.

Although Four Roses makes ten different bourbons, it almost doesn’t matter which of those recipes this is, because at 17 years it is all about the wood. That doesn’t mean all 17-year-olds taste the same, of course. In this case, the result is a whiskey that is very dry, even astringent, but not overly tannic, the usual failing of an extra-aged bourbon.

Instead, the most striking taste here is pure oak, with just a little bit of char. Pretty quickly, though, this whiskey hits a wall. That’s when a splash of water helps to wake it up. Then you get figs and dark molasses, if you can imagine figs or dark molasses denuded of most of their sugar.

If what you like about bourbon is its sweetness, this may not be the bourbon for you.

Also to commemorate the anniversary, and as a tribute to the distillery’s employees, past and present; Four Roses is searching for the oldest living person who once worked at the Lawrenceburg plant. That person will receive bottle no. 1 of the limited edition and other nice prizes.

If you’re interested in a bottle for yourself, and you’re not a former employee, better call your whiskey-monger now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How Much Is This Bottle Worth?

It has been about 16 months since I've made a "what's my bottle worth" post. It's a question I get all the time.

“How much?” is a tricky subject with old liquor bottles because it is illegal to sell alcohol without a license. There are collectors, they buy and sell, and I haven’t heard of anyone being prosecuted for it, but because it is illegal most transaction are on the down low.

A precondition for assessing the resale value of anything is a sufficiently active secondary market for the type of object being assessed. An assessor studies recent sales to predict future prices. The secondary market for American whiskey is too small, fragmented and secretive to do that.

The only easily-accessible market for this sort of thing is the auction web site eBay.

The rarest and most valuable bottles are the oldest ones. Some post-Prohibition bottles have value, usually because the distillery where they were made is out-of-business. Prohibition-era medicinal whiskey is surprisingly common. Rarest of all are intact (i.e., full and well-sealed) pre-Prohibition bottlings.

The absolute high end on eBay is maybe $1,000, and that is only if you get lucky and a couple of people really want what you're selling.

There is a subset of this market that specializes in limited editions by particular producers, Jack Daniel's and Maker's Mark primarily. While most items sell in the sub-$500 range, there is no saying what the top end is. Naturally, big money transactions are the most secretive of all.

Among the people who buy old whiskey, many do it to drink the stuff. This tends not to be true of the Daniel's and Maker's Mark collectors.

I hope this is helpful.

Geek-Out Warning: Green Corn Malt.

This whiskey enthusiasm can get very geeky. How geeky? Keep reading.

I've had several conversations with people over the years about malting corn. (I warned you.) Malt is the natural way to make the enzymes that turn starch into sugar. Sugar is what you need to make alcohol.

Any grain will malt. If corn is all you have, you can malt it. Though that's not commonly done today, we know it was done in the past.

I also had heard that malted corn often was not heated to stop germination, as is the conventional practice when you malt barley. It was simply sprouted, ground, and used immediately to make a whiskey mash.

I learned today that Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, New York, is now making the mash for their excellent Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey with green corn malt. They tell all about it in the March issue of their email newsletter. To get on the list, go to their web site here.

Partners In Pleasure.

My friend Josh recently found a publication from 1966 that contains a lot of ads aimed at the liquor trade. This one has me scratching my head. Or, perhaps, rubbing my chin quizzically like the guy in the lower right hand corner. (Click on it for a larger version.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How To Taste What Rye Does For Bourbon.

The classes I teach for I Wish all involve tasting, so to simplify things we always do the classes in bars, i.e., a licensed premises. It's good for the bars because they get some business on a usually slow night and get some people into the place for the first time who might like it and come back.

Although I might make some suggestions, the bars usually pick what we're going to taste. We've been using good bars who have made good choices. Then I tailor my remarks based on what they select. I'm not sure why Rock's Lincoln Park picked the four bourbons they did, but it made for an interesting lesson in the use of rye as the most common flavor grain in bourbon.

We started with Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, which is made from Buffalo Trace mash bill no. 2. It has an average rye content. While they won't reveal the exact percentages, it's probably about 15 percent rye. Next we tasted Knob Creek, which is the Jim Beam mash bill and also about 15 percent rye. Then it was Buffalo Trace itself, which is their no. 1 mash bill, and lower, about 8 percent rye, so with ETL and Knob we're tasting two very similar mash bills but two different distilleries and two different yeasts, and a couple years more age in the Knob. Finally, we tasted Bulleit, which is about 35 percent rye, the highest of any bourbon.

One thing you notice is that low rye bourbons taste sweeter. They're not actually sweeter, but the rye tends to mask some of the sweetness with its distinctive spice and floral notes. By reducing the rye or substituting wheat, a milder flavor grain, you make way for the sweetness to cut through.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bourbon Monday, Single Malts Wednesday.

Just a reminder that I'm teaching a Bourbon class this coming Monday, March 8th, at Rocks Lincoln Park (1301 West Schubert). Then on Wednesday, March 10, I'm teaching a Single Malt Scotch class at the Bar on Buena (910 West Buena Avenue). The classes start at 7:00 PM, include tasting, and last about a hour, although the nice thing about doing them in a bar is that you can continue to 'learn' after the class concludes.

All of these classes are "an introduction to..."

I'm doing this through I Wish Lessons. To attend, or get more information, go to their web site and click on "Drinks Around the World."

What Else I Do, Too.

For everyone who enjoyed the last Walgreens video I posted, here is another one. My role in this one is easy to explain. I'm the person Mr. Walgreen is talking to during the interviews. It may not seem like much, but getting someone to relax and just have a natural conversation with all of the cameras and lights and observers around isn't as easy as it looks. This was fun. Mr. and Mrs. Walgreen are two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet and a trip to Florida, from Chicago, during the first week of January wasn't so bad either.

The occasion was Mr. Walgreen's retirement after 57 years with the company his grandfather founded. The video we did was shown at the annual shareholders meeting.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Is It Time To Retire ‘Proof’?

I have long been accustomed, when writing about distilled spirits, to state alcohol concentrations in degrees of proof, e.g., 80° proof. The alternative is to state the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV). Often I state both.

But I’m starting to change.

The proof system serves no actual purpose that I can identify, except it is traditional and in the world of drinks and drinking, we like tradition. If there is anything else to it, I don’t know what it is. Most of the world doesn’t use it and they don’t seem to think they’re missing out on anything important.

Part of my sentimental attachment has to do with the concept of proof itself, with proof—a corruption of ‘proved’—being considered the correct alcohol concentration for a distilled beverage. This idea that a 50 percent alcohol, 50 percent water solution is ideal for drinking also suggests a balanced approach to alcohol consumption itself, the ability to enjoy its pleasures while guarding against its risks.

It also has the feel of a secret language, understood only by initiates, though a lame one since the code can be broken by anyone able to divide by two.

Sadly, the reality today is that very few distilled spirits are even sold at proof and the term is rarely used that way. Instead, proof is just an archaic way to state alcohol concentration. Because it is archaic and much of the world doesn’t use it, most of us who do feel compelled to state the ABV as well. Increasingly, that redundancy seems ridiculous.

There is another archaic notion which holds that the alcohol content of various drinks is better left unstated, lest people use that information to pursue intoxication. In most states, brewers are prohibited from printing alcohol content on their labels, yet vintners and distillers are required to.

Does this assume some fundamental difference, in basic literacy perhaps, between beer drinkers and drinkers of other alcoholic beverages? If that is the case, and if it was ever accurate, it surely is outdated by now.

Perhaps proof was viewed as just obscure enough to prevent those same people from fully grasping its meaning. Again, that seems irrelevant today, since almost nowhere is proof used exclusively. The only place where it is used, on the labels of American distilled spirits products, you always see the ABV too.

The advantage of the ABV system, of course, is that it is easy to understand. Even if you don’t fully grasp the idea of alcohol concentration, or the difference between fermented and distilled beverages, most people can understand that 20 percent alcohol is twice as much as 10 percent alcohol, or that 3 percent alcohol isn’t very much but 72 percent is.

The problem with hiding this is that the information you need to pursue intoxication is exactly the same information you need to avoid intoxication. Perhaps there was a time when it was inconceivable that anyone would choose to drink, and enjoy drinking, while also trying to avoid intoxication, or let’s say excessive intoxication, but that is what many drinkers do today.

I have encountered a few idiots who claim they drink for flavor only and wish they could avoid the alcohol effect altogether, but such delusions are easily dismissed. Of course we enjoy the alcohol effect, but that’s not the same as getting drunk. Many, possibly even most drinkers today want to enjoy some effect short of intoxication. To modulate your drinking along those lines, you need to understand alcohol content.

ABV is the best system for that and proof just muddies the water.

So what am I going to do? Rather than adopt a policy, I’m just going to see what happens, but I am leaning in favor of retiring proof altogether. What do you think?

Seagram's 7 Dark Honey Tastes Good, But Is It Whiskey?

I like a liqueur now and then. What's not to like? Most liqueurs are liquid candy, laced with alcohol. The flavors usually are clear and intense, plus there is plenty of sugar and alcohol.

So I poured myself some of the new Seagram's 7 Dark Honey and took a sip. It tastes like honey, orange too. It is plenty sweet and 35.5 percent alcohol.

I think I'll have another.

Seagram's 7 Dark Honey is not a liqueur, it is a flavored whiskey. The difference? In this case, none.

Seagram's, once the world's largest drinks company, no longer exists except as a brand name. Seagram's 7 Crown American Blended Whiskey is a Diageo product. For information about this or any other Diageo products go to thebar.com.

Seagram's 7 Dark Honey follows on the heels of Beam Global's successful launch last year of Red Stag by Jim Beam, which flavors Jim Beam Bourbon with black cherry. Heaven Hill has done the honey thing too with its Evan Williams Honey Reserve, which like Red Stag has a bourbon base. Diageo's more direct answer to Red Stag is its Jeremiah Weed Cherry Mash Flavored Blended Bourbon. Arguably, Diageo started all this with its Captain Morgan Flavored Rum.

There is nothing wrong with a drink tasting good. That is generally the idea. What I don't taste here is any whiskey. I'm not sure that matters.

So, to summarize, Seagram's 7 Dark Honey: tastes good, but not like whiskey.

Seagram's 7 Dark Honey, $16.99/750 ml at Binny's in Chicago.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I Visit Koval, My Neighborhood Distillery.

‘White whiskey’ is a new term, but a good one. It’s good because anyone with a rudimentary understanding of distilled spirits gets immediately what it means.

Too bad it’s illegal.

Under U.S. law, all whiskey (except corn whiskey) must be “stored in oak containers,” i.e., aged. White whiskey is just another name for white dog, spirit straight from the still, innocent of oak. It may be ‘white whiskey’ to you and me, but it’s not any kind of whiskey to the U. S. government until it has seen the inside of a barrel.

That’s why the five white whiskeys made by Chicago’s Koval Distillery are just called ‘grain spirits,’ even though they are, in fact, white whiskey. Very fine white whiskey at that.

Koval Distillery is in a little storefront on North Ravenswood Ave., just south of Foster, directly across from the Metra tracks, in the Andersonville neighborhood. I’m not saying it’s small, but you can take the whole tour without moving. The still is a custom-made Kothe from Germany and the two principals of Koval also happen to be Kothe’s exclusive North American distributors.

They are Robert and Sonat Birnecker, who are applying the artisan distilling traditions and techniques of Robert’s Austrian grandfather. Their products are certified both organic and kosher, and they are a 100 percent grain-to-bottle producer. Look, there’s the mash cooker, a half-dozen or so closed fermenters, the spirit tanks, the bottling line, the grain in bags on shelves next to the knocked-down case shippers. It’s all there in plain sight.

Robert has his own desk where he sits in thrall to his laptop. He says hello and goodbye but never looks up. Sonat and everyone else have their laptops open on the picnic table next to the kitchenette. Part of the space, partitioned off with curtains, resembles a daycare center with its brightly-colored toys. On a small couch against the front wall, the Birnecker’s little boy dozes.

The vibe is simultaneously relaxed and intense. Everyone seems to be having a good time.

Finely made un-aged fruit and grain spirits are much more popular in Continental Europe than they have ever been here. Robert is from Austria but Sonat is from Chicago, and this is grain country, so they are making grain spirits primarily. They have five white whiskeys, each made from a different grain: rye, wheat, oats, spelt and millet.

Yep, spelt and millet. You got a problem with that?

The names are a little fancier: “Rye Chicago,” “Midwest Wheat,” “American Oat,” “Levant Spelt,” and “Raksi Millet.” Sonat’s mom designed the pretty Art Nouveau labels.

Each mash bill is 100 percent of the named grain. No malt is used. Enzymes are added to convert the grain starch into fermentable sugar. Koval distills on the grain and agitates to prevent sticking. The grain spirits come off the still at 92 percent alcohol and are reduced to 40 percent for bottling.

Since whiskey typically comes off the still at about 70 percent alcohol, Koval is off the whiskey model in that respect so its flavors are much more subtle. This is white whiskey in the eau de vie style; a very clean spirit with a light but distinctive flavor of the underlying ingredient.

Though subtle, that flavor is deep and well constructed. Grain spirit is drier than an aperitif but more flavorful than a vodka. I can see it as an after-dinner drink, or as a palate cleanser between courses.

Tasting the five grain spirits one after another, it’s remarkable how different each tastes. I think I named a favorite at the time but can’t remember which one it was. They’re all good.

They have a little bit of natural sweetness, but no sweetener is added. Nothing is added except water.

As good as they are themselves, Koval’s grain spirits also serve as a handy platform for other products. Take the rye off the still at 95 percent alcohol instead of 92 and you have vodka. Steep it with a maceration of herbs, add sweetener, and you have a liqueur. Put some of it in oak barrels and then you can call it whiskey.

They also make a perfect backbone for creative cocktails.

The Koval White Whis…I mean, Grain Spirits are $34.99/750 ml at Binny’s in Chicago. Check the Koval web site for other distribution information.

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Old Crow Reserve.

Old Crow Reserve is a new product from Beam Global. It is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it is a new line extension of an old brand. While this is common practice for most consumer packaged goods, it hasn't been done much with American whiskey, not lately. There also haven't been very many new products introduced at the lower price points. Most of the action has been at the mid-high to high end.

I guess it's also unusual in that it's not flavored, finished, or otherwise enhanced. It is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, period. Those are the four magic words you want to see when you prowl the bottom shelf. They won't guarantee you a good value, but they are a step in the right direction.

Old Crow Reserve differs from standard Old Crow by having a higher alcohol content (43% instead of 40%) and being a little older (4 years instead of 3). Depending on your market, it may also be slightly more expensive than the original but still in the $10 to $12 range for a 750 ml bottle. If it's worth drinking, that's a real good price.

So? Is it? Is it worth drinking? Yes, it is. And that's saying something, since the standard Old Crow is not. There is for me now a drinkable/undrinkable line that Old Crow conveniently straddles. Standard Old Crow is just barely on the wrong side and Old Crow Reserve is just barely on the right side.

As such, Old Crow Reserve is even more like its close cousin, Jim Beam white label. The Jim Beam profile is milder than Crow. The distinctive Beam yeast signature is there. So is a bit of the heat and bite that betray the whiskey's youth, but that is where it also shows major improvement. It is nicely rounded, without the harsh alcohol bitterness typical of one so young. Instead, just when you're expecting the burn, you get a nice caramel and molasses note, a hint of char, some dark berry fruit, and a bright, clean finish.

I'll resist the temptation to run through the whole Old Crow history. Suffice it to say it is a good one, going back about 150 years. Old Crow whiskey was one of the first nationally-known brand name products of any kind. It came into Beam's portfolio by way of the National Distillers acquisition in 1987. In the post World War II heyday of American whiskey, Old Crow was Jim Beam's toughest competition for best-selling bourbon. It had already lost most of its luster before Beam took over. They left it on the bottom shelf and didn't do anything to develop it until now.

I have criticized Beam for not bringing out anything new for the enthusiast community. We still want more, more, more; but this counts, you get points for this. Thanks for listening.