Saturday, July 31, 2010

News About Rittenhouse Rye And Bernheim Wheat.

Heaven Hill is full-line distilled spirits company but they were founded in 1935 as a whiskey distillery and American whiskey has always been the centerpiece of their portfolio. In addition to bourbon they make rye and corn whiskey, and are the only major distillery that makes wheat whiskey.

During American whiskey's darkest days -- roughly the two decades between 1970 and 1990 -- they were one of the few distilleries that continued to make rye whiskey. Their reward was to be well-positioned to capitalize when rye suddenly got hot a few years ago. This year WHISKY Magazine declared Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond to be the best American whiskey, period, better even than all of the bourbons. This from a product that sold for about $12 a bottle a few years ago and is still less than $20.

Rittenhouse is Heaven Hill's brand and they have enjoyed its success except for one little thing. Ever since Heaven Hill's Bardstown Distillery was destroyed by fire in November, 1996, all of Heaven Hill's rye whiskey has been made at Brown-Forman. This was necessary because Heaven Hill's new distillery, Bernheim in Louisville which they bought from Diageo in 1999, didn't have enough capacity.

The news is that they have increased Bernheim's capacity by about 40 percent and nearly two years ago moved all of their rye production there. Okay, something that happened two years ago may not be news, but just remember that we won't actually have any of that whiskey in bottles for another two years.

They are now mashing rye one day a month, which is up from three or four days a year just a few years ago. Supplies are very tight right now but a batch of nearly 1,000 barrels will come of age in October, so it should be much easier to find after that.

Although they weren't making rye whiskey at Bernheim at first they were making wheated bourbon for Old Fitzgerald, which they acquired with the distillery. Wheated bourbon is still bourbon, i.e., mostly corn, but it contains wheat instead of rye as a flavor grain.

With all of that wheat around they also hit on the idea of making a straight wheat whiskey. Although everyone assumes people made wheat whiskey before Prohibition, there is no record of it, and although a few micro-distilleries have made wheat whiskey, Heaven Hill is the only major producer that makes it. (A wheat whiskey mash must be at least 51% wheat.)

Heaven Hill started to make wheat whiskey shortly after they bought Bernheim and started to sell it in 2005 under the name Bernheim Original, with a suggested retail price (SRP) of $39.99. The label doesn't state an age but Heaven Hill says it is five years in wood.

Now in its fifth year on the market, Bernheim Original has grown slowly. Each year they have made a little more. At the beginning of this year they decided to start driving more volume by cutting the SRP to $29.99. They also added a brand ambassador, Rob Hutchins, who is responsible for Heaven Hill's premium American whiskey portfolio, including Rittenhouse Rye and Bernheim Wheat.

I like both of these products very much. Even though the price has gone up, Rittenhouse Rye is still a great value and $30 is the right price for Bernheim Wheat, so while maybe this news is not exactly timely, it is undeniably good.

Friday, July 30, 2010

HR 5034 Is A Clear Example Of Economic Protectionism Designed To Shore Up Monopoly Profits.

This has to be a first, me recommending an Issue Analysis from the Freedom Works Foundation (Dick Armey's outfit), but this paper about HR 5034 is right on.

The title's a dud but the paper is good.

"No Wine Shall Be Served Before Its Time—At Least Not Without Wholesalers Taking a Cut."

He flubbed the old Paul Masson slogan. It was, "we shall sell no wine before its time," but his fact-checking otherwise is solid .

It is a libertarian argument and one that I endorse. The way alcohol is regulated in this country is a good example of government using its power to protect the private profits of favored clients. If passed, HR 5034 will only make it worse.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

White Whiskey And The Tyranny Of The New.

I was at an event last night, pitching bourbon woo. Also there was my friend Meg Bell from Koval Distillery. They make unaged grain spirits -- white whiskey -- although Koval doesn't use that term.

This wasn't exactly a straight whiskey crowd, yet people seemed to know the term "white whiskey" and what it meant. How is that possible? People barely know what whiskey is but they already know what white whiskey is?

(I was already thinking about white whiskey yesterday because of Kevin Erskine's post about Death's Door.)

I guess it's the Tyranny Of The New. White whiskey isn't even new, it's just a new name for something that has been around forever, something people stopped drinking more than a century ago when better tasting distilled spirits became cheap and widely available.

White whiskey and its micro-distillery kin, very young whiskey, are not so new that they haven't already generated some pushback, as Steve Ury demonstrates here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Death's Door White Whiskey.

Yesterday I told you about how U.S. law can magically turn vodka into whiskey.

Today I'm here to tell you about another peculiarity in the law. To be called whiskey a spirit must be distilled from grain and stored in oak containers, but the law doesn't say how long it has to be stored.

Now let's say you want to make an un-aged grain spirit called "white whiskey." Can you?

I'll let Kevin Erskine of The Scotch Blog explain the rest of it to you in this excellent post.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

U.S. Law Magically Changes Vodka Into Whiskey.

In the United States a blended whiskey can be as much as 80 percent grain neutral spirit (GNS) -- i.e., vodka.

Only in America is a product that is 4/5 vodka considered whiskey. It's not quite water into wine, yet it is magical. (Before anyone blames Obama, the rules have been this way for 101 years.)

To make matters worse, the official type "blended whiskey" applies to mixtures of whiskeys of different types too. So all-whiskey blends and whiskey-spirit blends are both considered blended whiskey under the Treasury Department's rules.

In some cases the rules allow a product to use the class designation -- "whiskey" in this case -- without a type designation. Right now that's not permitted for any blended whiskey. We believe it should be for all blends that contain only whiskey. If everything in the blend is whiskey, no GNS, it could just be labeled "whiskey" and wouldn't have to be labeled "blended whiskey."

The full, modest proposal is in the current issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 13, Number 1.

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses. $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues. Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cincinnati's Whiskey History.

Most whiskey enthusiasts know that Kentucky and Tennessee have been important whiskey-making regions since the 18th century, before they were even states. We know Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland also had long whiskey-making traditions. There are a few other places that were once important but they came along later and didn't last as long so they're little remembered today. One of those is Cincinnati, Ohio.

Cincinnati’s role in the pre-Prohibition era was as a kind of market town for whiskey, consolidating production from a regional network of distilleries in three states, turning that commodity into products, and then selling those products nationally. After Prohibition it was the American beachhead for the then-largest foreign company in the American liquor business, and the launching pad for one of the two largest domestic companies.

Today, only one of Cincinnati’s many regional feeder distilleries is still in operation, and Cincinnati itself has only one small craft distillery. Its last connection to a major spirits company will end next year. By the time it finally draws to a close, Cincinnati’s distilling history will have been almost completely forgotten.

The complete story begins in the current issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 13, Number 1; and will continue in the next issue, due out in September.

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses. $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues. Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learn Distilling In Washington State.

Big Bend Community College's Center for Business and Industry Services is holding a week-long course in craft distilling September 13-17. Classroom work will be supplemented by hands-on training at Bowman Orchards Distillery in Moses Lake.

The course will cover the history of distilling; how distillation works; types of distillation equipment; license and legal considerations; physical plant considerations; grain, tuber, and fruit fermentation fundamentals; business planning; and marketing.

For more information go to http://www.artisancraftdistilling.spruz.com/, email cbisinfo@bigbend.edu, or call 509-793-2374.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

CanadianWhisky.Org

Davin de Kergommeaux is a certified Malt Maniac and trained sommelier who has been analyzing, writing, and talking about whisky, as an independent commentator, for more than a dozen years. He is both erudite and loquacious. If you read the comments after some of my posts, you already know that.

Davin has started a new web site, the first (so far as I know) devoted to Canadian Whisky. Who would have thought the url CanadianWhisky.Org would still be available?

He has a piece up now about Dave Pickerell's WhistlePig Rye.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Knob Creek Single Barrel Still A Rumor, Except In Virginia.

Last month when I was researching the new Jim Beam six-grain bourbon, the folks at Beam hinted that the next new product would be something in the Knob Creek line. Then word came (not from Beam) that a Knob Creek Single Barrel is presently on the shelves in Virginia. From another source (also not from Beam) I learned that Beam has built a single barrel bottling line at the distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.

Also from Kentucky comes a report that retailers there have been offered a Knob Creek Single Barrel but they have to buy the contents of an entire barrel to get it. (That's 200+ bottles.) Several brands offer such a 'buy a barrel" program to retailers. Buffalo Trace has been the leader in this.

With the Buffalo Trace program the retailer gets to pick the barrel, usually from a pre-screened selection of three or four. Beam is not giving retailers that option, at least according to the report from Kentucky. In Virginia, the bottles come with a neck hanger that says the barrel was specially selected for them by Fred Noe.

Beam is unwilling to officially confirm or deny any of this, but it seems increasingly likely that a national roll-out of some kind of Knob Creek Single Barrel is imminent.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Maker's 46 Looks Like A Hit.

The largest and most active bourbon discussion site on the web is StraightBourbon.com. Most of the participants there are passionate and knowledgeable, and more than a few of us are committed skeptics.

As I wrote last month after I had an early sample of Maker’s 46, the new expression from Maker’s Mark, “it totally works.” I was sold from the first sip and said so, but at that point only a few people had tried it. Most had to wait until now and many were suitably dubious.

During the last two weeks it has been found at retail in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Oregon, Kentucky, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Tennessee.

Here are some of the reactions:

“Definitely different from the standard MM. But the differences are subtle and understated. Nicely done but no wow factor.”

“I’d pick it over regular MM every time.”

“I must say, this is pretty good stuff. I like it!”

"A nice amount of oak finish without becoming overbearing (and) a finish that's actually interesting to the palate.”

"The nose is wonderful, like oaky vanilla caramel corn.”

“I’m impressed.”

"I was, and am, extremely impressed.”

It’s hard to imagine a tougher test audience but so far most of them love it.

One nice thing about Maker’s 46 for Maker's is that they can make more of it almost like turning on a spigot. Not exactly, but a finish takes weeks, not years, and although regular Maker's is on allocation too, I'm sure they won't hesitate to rob Peter to pay Paul, since "Paul" is more profitable.

I also suspect cannibalization is expected. Cannibalization occurs when a new product gets too much of its sales from current customers. Normally cannibalization is considered a bad thing (you can kind of tell that from the name) but for Maker's it's a good thing, since one of their objectives is to give Maker's drinkers who want more variety in their drink choices another possibility from within the Maker's family.

If cannibalization occurs that will take some supply pressure off regular Maker's, allowing them to pump out more 46.

So don't fret if you haven't been able to get any yet.

You will.

Washington's Silent Stills.

On July 1 the public got its first chance to buy whiskey made at George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery. The first, that is, since it burned down in 1814.

Mount Vernon completed the reconstruction of George Washington’s distillery in 2007. For years Mount Vernon officials promised that when it was completed, the distillery would go into production making whiskey, brandy, and other spirits the same way it did in 1797. They planned to sell the liquor in the gift shop.

In a paper published in 2006, Mount Vernon’s Director of Archaeology wrote, “the structure will open (in) April 2007 as a fully operating distillery.”

Necessary licenses for both production and retail sales were obtained from the Federal and Virginia governments. Virginia even passed a new law legalizing public spirits tastings.

But Washington’s distillery is not “fully operating.” It made about 100 gallons of 110° proof rye whiskey over a two-week period in February of 2009 and is planning to make a similar run of peach brandy this October.

In 1799, Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey and unknown quantities of brandy and rum.

The complete story is in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 13, Number 1.

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses. $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues. Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Website: American Craft Spirits.

Matt Colglazier is the guy behind the new web site American Craft Spirits, which he runs out of beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. He started it because, as he declares, "American distillers are making some of the most exciting and diverse spirits in the history of the world!"

The website is just getting started and Matt chose me as his first interview subject. You can read that here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Cold, Refreshing Drinks Of My Childhood.

Walgreens had a deal on Dog n Suds root beer today (1 L bottle $1.09) so I picked one up and I'm drinking it now.

It's doing a Proustian number on me.

Root beer floats were my favorite childhood summertime treat, whether made at home by Mom or bought someplace like Dog n Suds.

The root beer float could not be simpler. Put a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream into a glass and fill with root beer. It is best drunk with a straw.

We did not have root beer floats every day but if we were playing outside on a hot day, a Kool Aid break was likely. Kool Aid is Kool Aid. What made it great was the glasses Mom used, seemingly for this and no other purpose. They were tall tumblers made of aluminum in assorted summer pastel colors that eventually wore off in the dishwasher.

What was great about them was that, as aluminum, they got cold quickly and stayed cold, seemingly making the drink taste that much colder. For some reason they were only ever used outside on the back porch on hot summer days, which makes their memory even more special.

The alcohol most adults in the family drank at summer gatherings was beer, from the bottle. In my early childhood the brand was usually Erin Brew, from the Standard Brewing Co. of Cleveland, because my great-grandfather had been a bookkeeper there. After that it was Carling Black Label, also from Cleveland, probably because my other great-grandfather on my mother's side had sold cars for The Peerless Motor Car Co. and the president of Peerless, James A. Bohannon, also ran Carling.

By the time I was old enough to join in, most of the family was drinking Stroth's.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition Coming In September.

It’s hard to make money writing about whiskey but there are other benefits. I get lots of free samples for one. What’s more, I get lots of very good free samples, like advance tastes of limited releases.

While they are all great and I hope they never stop coming, some excite me more than others. Only a few invariably get tasted right away.

At the top of that list is Four Roses.

When a box arrives from Bandy Carroll Hellige (Four Roses’ ad agency) I can’t wait to get it open. Today it contained a tiny (100 ml) bottle of the 2010 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition, which is scheduled for a September release of 3,600 bottles.

Four Roses, you see, has a unique advantage over other distilleries when it comes to limited editions. It is the only distillery that makes ten different bourbon recipes and because it makes them year in and year out, its warehouses contain all ten whiskeys at every possible age from newborn to double-digits.

The possibilities are endless.

In the USA, Four Roses has three platforms: (1) standard, a mixture of all 10 recipes; (2) small batch, a mixture of two to four recipes; and (3) single barrel, by definition a single recipe.

Each spring Four Roses issues a limited edition from the single barrel platform and each fall it issues one from the small batch platform.

Finally, for full geeky pleasure, the ten recipes have names, sort of, a sequence of four letters. To find out what it all means go here.

This fall’s small batch will be a mixture of three bourbons, a 15-year-old OBSV, an 11-year-old OBSK, and a 10-year-old OESK. It’s bottled uncut and unfiltered, so 110° proof (55% alcohol).

The nose is about what you would expect with tobacco-ey wood notes. I was surprised, therefore, that the taste starts out fresh and fruity, with citrus, raspberry, honey, and oak. Then came the dark caramel and molasses, syrupy and just slightly bitter. The finish, also slightly bitter, is very rich and long.

Every mixture of bourbons from the Four Roses vaults is interesting, but this is one of the more successful purely for drinking. To the extent they use these limited editions to test candidates for future regular-issue products, this would be a good one to consider.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bill Samuels Is Going To Russia, Czech Republic.

Bourbon industry icon Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark, will be the featured speaker at two upcoming American whiskey seminars in Russia and the Czech Republic. They are July 13 in St. Petersburg and July 15 in Prague.

The St. Petersburg event will be hosted by acting U.S. Ambassador John Ordway. The Prague event will be hosted by U.S. Consul General Sheila Gwaltney. The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) is putting them on to educate key local hospitality industry executives about the taste, style, and heritage of American whiskey while showcasing the characteristics that make American whiskey unique.

Samuels' presentation will include a tasting of assorted American-made whiskeys (not just his). Following Samuels’ presentation, guests will discover the style and sophistication of cocktails prepared with American Whiskey during a mixology demonstration by renowned local bartenders.

The events are partially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is On Its Way.

The new Bourbon Country Reader (Volume 13, Number 1) was mailed today.

This time we mark a pair of historic milestones. July 1, 2010, marked the first public sale of whiskey made at George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery since it burned down in 1814. But Washington’s distillery is not operating as promised. We call this story, “George Washington’s Distillery Is Back In Business … Sort Of.”

Sometime next year, a last vestige of Cincinnati’s once thriving whiskey industry will close its doors for good. This inspired a two-part "History Of The Cincinnati Whiskey Industry,” which we begin in this issue.

Finally, we offer a modest proposal regarding a subject that has popped up here on the blog a few times, the federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, in particular the uniquely American definition of blended whiskey.

What? You say you don't receive The Bourbon Country Reader? It's very nostalgic, as it comes on paper, in an envelope, in the mail. (That's what the little box outside your front door is for.)

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses, $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card.

Click here for more information.

Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format).

Click here for the PDF document "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Drinking And Thinking About Craft Whiskey.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the American craft distilling movement lately; thinking about it, writing about it (look for upcoming pieces in both Malt Advocate and WHISKY), and drinking its products.

Most of my attention has been on their un-aged and very young whiskeys, since whiskey-wise that is mostly what they have released. Making really wonderful young whiskey may be something craft distillers can do particularly well, but let’s hope it’s not the only thing. When it comes to whiskey, we’ll never be able to say craft is better than mass if they never go head-to-head with mature whiskeys from the majors.

I recently asked the owners of a few of the more successful small, young distilleries what has surprised them the most. Guy Rehorst of Great Lakes Distilling replied, “making a good product is easy, selling a good product is hard work.” Jess Graber of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey answered similarly, “ideas always take longer and cost more money than you think they will.”

What has surprised me the most about this young movement is how well some of these small producers have captured the imagination of drinkers in their local markets. A lot of people, it seems, think it’s really cool to drink something made by a small, local producer. That a craft-made product is better than a mass-made product is accepted as true on its face, no convincing needed. That it’s worth twice as much or more and maybe even worth standing in line for also seems to have been easy for many to accept.

When a product idea clicks so naturally with drinkers, buyers for bars and stores don’t need much convincing either. I’m not saying sales is not still hard work, but look at Tuthilltown’s deal with William Grant & Sons. Tuthilltown has its Hudson Baby Bourbon and other whiskeys on the smartest back bars in Manhattan. That alone is worth whatever Grant paid them.

Rehorst is well on his way to having his brand in every hot bar in Milwaukee, which isn’t quite the same but no small feat either.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

This Independence Day Think About The Limits Of Liberty.

Liberty takes many forms. The ability to easily obtain legal products of our own choosing without government interference is not a trivial freedom. Today, many people shop over the internet and have their purchases shipped to them. You can easily buy guns that way, but not alcoholic beverages.

In the USA, alcohol is more heavily regulated and restricted than guns. In part, that is because guns have a very powerful lobby and their own Constitutional Amendment.

But alcohol has a Constitutional Amendment too, it just cuts the wrong way.

The 21st Amendment, ratified in 1933, ended National Prohibition. It is very short and simple. The first section repeals the 18th Amendment. The third gives states seven years to ratify it (they took less than one).

The second section, necessary to obtain ratification, is where the trouble lies. It says "the transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited."

That means the states may regulate alcohol as they see fit, including banning it altogether, regardless of any burden on interstate commerce that would normally run afoul of the Constitution's Commerce Clause. Furthermore, if you take alcohol into any state in violation of that state's laws, you commit a federal offense too.

Most of the states have used this authority to create a mandatory three-tier system for the distribution of alcoholic beverages. The three tiers are producers, distributors and retailers. The mandatory part means no tier may be bypassed by anyone, including consumers who may only legally buy from state-licensed retailers. In most cases, the laws prevent cross-ownership too. Producers may not own interests in distributors or retailers, and so on.

Everything said about these state laws will be "in most cases" because the 50 states each regulate alcohol differently, which all by itself is a significant burden on interstate commerce.

Imagine that instead of buying L. L. Bean clothes directly from L. L. Bean in Maine and having them delivered to your home you were required by law to buy them from a brick-and-mortar store with no connection to L. L. Bean, who bought them from a distributor who also has no connection to L. L. Bean but has an exclusive franchise from your state government to be the state's only legal source for L. L. Bean clothing.

Retailers who want to carry L. L. Bean clothing must buy their L. L. Bean merchandise from the sole distributor in the state who carries it, whose monopoly is enforced by state law.

The state government, as well as the independent distributor and independent retailer, all have something to say about which L. L. Bean clothes are available to you and how much they cost. Will they offer every garment in every color and size that L. L. Bean makes? Maybe, but probably not. While you probably will have a choice of several retailers who may offer different selections, the monopolist distributor will control absolutely which L. L. Bean products are available to those retailers and thus to you. Unless a state border is nearby, you're out of luck.

And even if it is you may still be out of luck because that same distributor may have obtained the monopoly in the adjacent state too.

Now imagine that on an out-of-state trip you have discovered a clothing manufacturer that is similar to L. L. Bean but a bit more suited to your taste. You return home only to discover that none of the state-franchised wholesalers choose to carry that line. Remember, you are only allowed to buy clothes at state-licensed clothing stores. You cannot legally buy clothing online or over the phone. Once again you are stuck.

Although you may travel to where that other clothing brand is sold to buy it, even that may at least technically violate state and federal law.

Let's assume for purposes of our example that clothing is not burdened with excessive taxes the way alcohol is. Even so, the lack of competition inherent in this state-run system makes its products more expensive than they otherwise would be. Maybe instead of a L. L. Bean polo costing $30 it costs $50. You'll get used to it.

Okay, so not being able to buy clothing (or alcohol) except in a narrowly government circumscribed way is inconvenient but it's not the same as being enslaved by Communist (or Capitalist) overlords.

Yet it still sucks.

What I have described above is the state of the law now. H.R. 5034 would give the states an even greater presumption of authority in alcoholic beverage matters. It is arguable whether or not that is even possible. If you are a drinker, it is almost certainly not desirable.

On the one hand, H.R. 5034 hasn't even gone to committee yet, which is where most legislative proposals die. On the other hand, H.R. 5034 has 122 cosponsors, mostly Democrats but with a fair sprinkling of Republicans too. Will this Congress's first bi-partisan legislation be a further burden on alcohol consumers? Are we the sole whipping boy on which everyone can agree?