Thursday, December 30, 2010

American Malt Whiskey. It’s Not Scotch.

What is American malt whiskey? Is it, pardon the expression, American scotch?

No, it’s not.

Thanks to the Federal Government’s Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, which were written for rye and bourbon makers, American malt whiskey must be aged in new charred oak, just like bourbon and rye but unlike scotch, which typically is aged in used barrels.

Also unlike scotch, which is seldom sold at less than eight years old, most American malt whiskey is aged for less than three.

With those specifications it is hard to make something that tastes like scotch, which most American malt whiskey does not.

Historically, American distillers don’t make malt whiskey. Americans consume plenty of malt whiskey, imported from Scotland and Ireland, and we use malt to make beer, but we make whiskey mostly out of corn.

No major American distillery makes malt whiskey for sale, but it is very popular among American micro-distillers. If a micro-distillery makes whiskey at all, it probably makes malt whiskey.

Why? Because it’s easy, perfect for a little guy. In the early stages it is just like making beer. You can even have a micro-brewer make a wash for you, so all you have to do is distill it. That’s what the American Distilling Institute, the national association of small distillers, recommends.

Likewise selling the whiskey young isn’t an artistic decision, it’s a financial one. Aging is expensive. All of that money you invested in making the whiskey ages right along with it. In a sense you only have to pay that cost once, because after you have a steady supply of aging whiskey in the pipeline, sales of mature spirit can fund the new stuff, but that initial hump is a big one for most small producers to overcome.

That’s why most micro-distiller whiskey, malt or otherwise, is less than three years old. Some is aged for as little as three months, and some isn’t aged at all (so-called ‘white whiskey’).

I was one of twelve judges at the American Distilling Institute (ADI) 2010 American Craft Whiskey competition in May. Most of the products we tasted had a malt base. Because we tasted blind I can’t comment on any entrants specifically, but my impression of the field overall was clove notes over a sour apple base. The whiskeys didn’t have much character and lacked the complex balance of flavors that is whiskey’s primary appeal.

But they did possess some charms. Most micro-distiller whiskeys make a virtue of the raw, herbal, sometimes bitter, usually tart tastes that time softens. The new wood adds different but equally strong flavors. The spirit tends to be bold and aggressive, more like slivovitz than bourbon or scotch. It is like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.

Aging measured in years is a relatively recent phenomenon. It only became popular about 150 years ago. Before then, most people drank whiskey that was fresh from the still, innocent of oak, or only lightly aged, perhaps incidentally, such as during transport.

There may be a place for both styles in the modern whiskey universe but it would be a shame if craft distillers became pigeonholed as only making young whiskey, or only malt whiskey for that matter.

There are pleasant surprises out there, but American micro-distilling is a very young movement and its products are mostly works-in-progress. What we have now, at best, is evidence that the wait may be worth it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Clay Risen Stirs The Pot. Good For Him.

In a posting today on The Atlantic.com, Clay Risen takes on what he calls "The Microdistilling Myth." He was reacting to an article on New York Times.com by Toby Cecchini. A link to Risen's post was posted on ADI Forums.com, where a lot of microdistillers hang out. It elicited some immediate, knee-jerk, hostile reaction.

You probably should at least read Risen's article to make sense of what follows.

Risen’s article is intelligent and well-informed, and makes a worthwhile contribution to discussion about the relationship between micro- and macro-distillers and their respective products. He made the choice to take a provocative tack. I suggest the reader look past that and consider his actual points. It's a short piece. (Shorter than this commentary about it.)

He goes off the track with his proposition that while 'small is better' was automatically true with beer, it's not automatically true with distilled spirits. It wasn't and isn't true with beer either. What is true with beer is that a skillful brewer can make and bring to market, in a relatively short amount of time, a product that to the average, experienced beer drinker will be recognizable as beer and better in identifiable ways than a product such as Bud Light.

Since that is not true with craft whiskey yet his main proposition is correct. There are some micro-distiller whiskeys on the market that are admirable for what they are, but they can't stand toe-to-toe even with Jim Beam white label let alone with Four Roses Mariage, which is in fact one of the best bourbons on the market.

I know all distillers have to believe in their products but if any micro-distiller thinks he or she has made and brought to market a finished whiskey that is clearly superior to Four Roses Mariage, that person is plain and simply delusional.

As for Jim Beam white, surpassing it is certainly an easier goal, but head-to-head as a straight bourbon? Sorry, no. Not yet. The problem isn't anyone’s skill with a still, it's time in the barrel. There are few micro-distiller whiskeys with at least four years in wood and even fewer, if any, bourbons.

The best micro-distiller whiskeys are, at best, excellent works-in-progress.

Jim Beam white isn't just a four-year-old whiskey, that's the minimum age. The profile includes whiskey that is older, whiskey that has been "pushed" through aging in the most intense warehouse locations. It takes an operation like Jim Beam to make a product like Jim Beam white. You may think it’s too young. You may think it’s too bland. You may not like the foxy yeast signature. But you can’t argue with the quality.

There certainly are whiskeys on the market that are superior to Jim Beam white label, including most of the other bourbons Beam Global makes, but in a head-to-head comparison there is no micro-distillery bourbon that is broadly superior to Jim Beam white.

The contrary argument is not that there are such whiskeys, but that it is the wrong standard, especially at this stage in the micro-distillery industry’s development. Making a Jim Beam-like whiskey in a micro-distillery makes about as little sense as craft vodka, but that’s a different argument.

Unlike with beer, where beer drinkers always had the opportunity to taste 'other' beers, even after that opportunity became extremely limited, the American whiskey industry was so devastated by Prohibition, then WWII, then by the market's collapse in the 1970s and the intense consolidation that followed, and there was such a high barrier to entry, that there was very little incentive for anyone to serve the demand for idiosyncratic and original American-made whiskey products.

So much more so than micro-brewers, micro-distillers are starting from scratch with regard to whiskey. Small isn’t necessarily better but small has the opportunity to be more interesting, more creative, and more fun. And some micro-distilleries are taking that opportunity. That’s the rebuttal.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Selling Out Selling Out?


Back in October Jonathan Shikes reported on Westword.com that Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, one of the early success stories in the micro-distillery movement, is in the process of being sold to Proximo Spirits. Proximo is a marketer of premium and super-premium spirits brands such as 1800 Tequila.

Proximo is no Diageo, but neither are they a small, local, artisan spirits producer. They are a well-heeled international marketing company with a fat portfolio of brands.

Shikes quoted an anonymous Proximo executive who said, "We have no intention of changing anything." He assured Shikes that co-founder and owner Jess Graber and head distiller Jake Norris will "keep doing what they are doing."

Officially, Stranahan's and Proximo have said nothing about a sale, but Trademarkia.com shows that Proximo has re-registered the Stranahan's trademark in Proximo's name. That certainly suggests a deal done .

The lack of comment spanning several months is itself a bad sign. Part of the idea of a small, local, artisan producer is to get close to your customers, communicate with them, and make them feel like they are part of the operation. For example, Stranahan's invites fans to help bottle the product at the distillery. Don't they owe it to those same fans to tell them who owns the company?

Obviously, things will change if the sale goes through, otherwise why do it? That same anonymous executive who said nothing will change also said they intend to help Stranahan's ramp up production. That's a change.

Stranahan's moved into a new facility 19 months ago. By June of 2010, the last time I talked to Jess Graber, they were making 12 to 18 barrels a week. "Our goal, in late 2011, is to purchase 2 new wash stills and a second spirit still from Vendome, which should boost our capacity to about 50 barrels per week," said Graber in June. "That level of production would maximize the current location. No concrete expansion plans beyond that. It will be more than enough if it all falls together." He said that by summer of 2011 they hope to be in 14 more states and start international distribution. He didn't say anything about selling a majority interest in the company, as Shikes reported.

I was talking to Jess in June of 2010 because that was when William Grant & Sons, makers of Grant’s Scotch and single malts Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, acquired the Hudson Whiskey line from Tuthilltown Spirits, a New York craft distiller. Grant bought the brand and contracted with Tuthilltown to produce it. Tuthilltown itself is still independent.

So when is selling out selling out? We won't be able to assess what Stranahan's has done until we know what it really is. Cashing out, in whole or in part, is the goal of most entrepreneurs, regardless of their platitudes about staying small and local and close to their customers. Can you be both? We'll see.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beam Feeds Military Families For The Holidays.

Fred Noe (Jim Beam's great-grandson) told me once that being able to do things for our service members and their families is one of the best parts of his job. I'm sure he was happy about this.

This holiday season, Beam Global Spirits & Wine (parent company of Jim Beam Bourbon) donated 1,000 meals to military families through its “Holiday Meals for Military Families” charity program. Working in partnership with Operation Homefront and nearly 30 valued business partners, Beam Global donated meals in three large military communities across the United States: Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago from December 15 through December 17, 2010.

By providing pre-packaged meals for military families, Beam Global and its sponsors were able to ease the burden that service members often experience during the holidays.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Whiskeys Are Rated.

I'm known to have a bad attitude about the rating systems used by spirits competitions. Their basic flaw is that they give a sheen of objectivity to something that is inherently subjective.

I had a long conversation about this with Jim Murray once and his conclusion was, "we owe it to people to give them some kind of guidance." I concede his point, but what's the best way?

Usually when you are asked to rate, say, customer service in a survey, 5 is considered 'acceptable' or average. Anything below 5 is considered some degree of less-than-acceptable, anything above 5 is considered some degree of exceptional. Below average, average, better than average. A classic bell curve.

Here is how the major competitions do it. This is a 10-point scale but since they allow tenths, just move the decimal point to make it a 100-point scale.

0 -5 FAULTY - There is something technically wrong with the product.

6 - 7 POOR - The product has little character or complexity and lacks balance.

7 - 7.5 AVERAGE - The product is okay but nothing special.

7.6 - 7.9 GOOD - The balance is good and there are elements of complexity.

8 - 9 VERY GOOD - The product is well balanced and complex.

9+ EXCEPTIONAL - The product is very complex, deep and rich, with lots of character.

Note that 0-7 is products that probably shouldn't be sold let alone entered into contests. 7 is 'acceptable.' Only above 8 does it get competitive. That's the way the scoring goes in most competitions. Nothing below 7, only a few 7 to 7.9, everything else 8 to 9.9. There are no tens because nothing is perfect.

The rationale is that, indeed, anything less than 5 is unacceptable, and while 5 to 7.9 might be acceptable, only 8 to 9.9 is award-worthy. The purpose of the competition is to determine which of the award-worthy products is best.

I'm neither attacking this system nor defending it, just explaining it. What do you think?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book BOURBON, STRAIGHT Makes The Perfect Gift.

All of us who love American whiskey have enjoyed its recent renaissance. I wrote Bourbon, Straight; The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey to share my passion for the spirit. The book, published in 2004, has sold well and, more significantly, it seems to be selling better now than at any time since its first year.

That is personally gratifying, of course, but I mention it because I think it means interest in American whiskey is still growing. Lots of new people are discovering bourbon and looking for the story behind it. The bourbon renaissance shows no signs of abating.

Although sales of the book for most of this year have been steady but average, they have skyrocketed since the gift-buying season began. November, December and January are always the best months, but 2009 was better than 2008, and 2010 is blowing 2009 out of the water.

If you shop on Amazon, you probably know they publish sales rankings for every book they sell. The rankings can change minute-by-minute. As I write this, Bourbon Straight is ranked #12 among all books about the history of the American South, and #82 among all books about distilled spirits. It ranks #15,592 among all books Amazon sells, which may not seem that great but is actually pretty impressive for a 6-year-old paperback about whiskey.

As much as I might like to think this is some kind of groundswell of interest in the author, perhaps caused by his provocative recent blog posts, growing interest in the subject matter seems the more likely explanation. Whatever the explantion, I hope it continues. Bourbon, Straight does make a great gift.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Absence Of News About Fortune Brands Doesn't Keep People From Talking.

Although there has been no actual news since last week's announcement, people continue to talk about Fortune Brands spinning off its home products and golf products businesses to concentrate on distilled spirits, i.e., its Beam Global business.

One theme, popular on the east side of the Atlantic, is that Fortune/Beam is in play, a possible target for Diageo. This seems to be based solely on the fact that Diageo is light in the booming American whiskey segment in which Fortune/Beam is heavy. It ignores a host of reasons why that doesn't make sense.

The biggest reason? Fortune is putting its other businesses, which are considerable, in play in order to become a bigger player in the distilled spirits business. What do you think they will do with the cash they get from selling or spinning off those businesses? Buy a railroad? They're going to buy more distilled spirits assets.

That's not to say they are sure to be successful. If they aren't they may become an acquisition target down the road, but that's a long way off. The actual break-up plan hasn't even been announced yet, let alone implemented.

On the other side, Jim Beam and the other bourbons are about the only brands in Fortune/Beam's portfolio that Diageo can absorb. Can Diageo add Canadian Club to a portfolio that already includes Crown Royal? Can it add Sauza to a portfolio that already contains Cuervo? How can Diageo possibly add any more scotch brands?

In every other category where Beam is big, Diageo is already bigger. Diageo would have to have a partner, as they did when they and Pernod carved up Seagram's a few years ago, or as Pernod did with Beam when they carved up Allied Domecq. They would need a partner that could absorb the whole Fortune/Beam portfolio sans the bourbons. Who might that be?

The speculation also ignores Diageo's historic exit from a major position in American-made whiskey barely a decade ago. It also ignores the profile Diageo has adopted since then with regard to American whiskey. It has the premier Canadian Blended Whiskey, Crown Royal, the 'other' Tennessee whiskey George Dickel, and a thriving premium bourbon in Bulleit. It also has the number one American blended whiskey in Seagram's Seven Crown and a major export-only bourbon I. W. Harper. A resurgent Jeremiah Weed is in there somewhere too.

None of those is Jim Beam, Maker's Mark or Knob Creek, but still...

Taking the historic view, one irony of this story is that Fortune started life as a tobacco company (the American Tobacco Company) and is now going to be a pure play spirits company. So much for diversifying out of the vice business.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Artistry Or Sorcery? The Quest To Age Whiskey Faster.

The impulse is understandable. Let's say it is your dream to start a distillery and make the world's greatest whiskey. You've been dreaming about it for all of your adult life. All around you now other people are starting little distilleries, why not you?

So you dive in. You put everything you have into it. You get your family and friends to kick in. You've gotten your license. You've ordered the still. You're doing it.

Your plan is to start out making vodka, gin, absinthe, liqueurs, but that's just to get some cash flow going. What you really want to make is whiskey, great whiskey, the best whiskey ever.

You figure, go big or go home.

Then some spoilsport reminds you that the best bourbons are eight to twelve years old and the best scotches, if you want to make something more in that style, are eighteen years old and up. And none of them got it right on the first try.

Let's say you're 40 now. You're going to be -- absolute best case scenario -- 48 before your baby goes to market! Is that acceptable? Is that a good business plan? Is it a good life plan?

Thus begins the quest to age the whiskey faster and, what do you know, this being America there are all kinds of people ready to sell you products and processes that promise to do exactly that, give you "the taste of an eight year old whiskey in as little as two."

How can you resist?

I won't point to anyone in particular. You know how to use the internet. Search "age whiskey faster."

The problem is, it doesn't work. That's not to say you can't make a good, even very good, two year old whiskey, or an even younger one. It's one thing to say, "here's this two year old whiskey I made. I think it's good for two year old whiskey." It's another thing to convince yourself, and try to convince the drinking public, that your two year old whiskey is equivalent to a much older whiskey.

There is artistry in making good two year old whiskey but that doesn't make it eight year old whiskey.

You need sorcery to do that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Reader In Mail. No Holiday Content.

The December, 2010 issue (Volume 13, Number 3) of the Bourbon Country Reader is in the mail. It contains no holiday content, unlike the December issue of everything else. It also contains no year-end summaries or lists.

You're welcome.

It does contain an Anniversary. The modern era of American distilling began in 1860 as a by-product of the American Civil War, which began in that year. That's the premise, anyway, of "Anniversary: The Modern Whiskey Industry Began 150 Year Ago." Not coincidentally, 1860 also was the year in which the Early Times brand was established by Jack Beam, Jim Beam's uncle. Today it is owned by Brown-Forman, which is itself 140 years old (born in 1870).

The other story in the December issue is a review of two new products by two new companies, each the brainchild of a veteran distiller. The Louisville Distilling Company's Angel's Envy Bourbon was created by former Brown-Forman master distiller Lincoln Henderson, while WhistlePig Farm's WhistlePig Straight Rye is fronted by Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker's Mark.

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.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tried It? I Made It!



Someone asked me today if I'd ever had the George Washington Distillery Limited Edition Vatted American Whiskey?

"Had it?" I said. "I made it!"

When the whole project to restore George Washington's Mount Vernon distillery began, each DISCUS member donated a full barrel of their whiskey. It was delivered with much fanfare and then left to age a little longer at Mount Vernon.

The original bottling they did from that whiskey was special bottles of each brand, which were auctioned or otherwise sold at ridiculous prices to benefit the restoration project.

After that they still had a lot of it left and some of it was getting pretty old, so they came up with this idea to mix it all together. I was on hand for that event in the summer of 2005. The plan was to empty all of the barrels into a big plastic tub, mix them together, then put them back into the barrels for another six months.

As you can imagine, getting whiskey out of a barrel is pretty easy but getting it back in is not. The only way in is through the bung hole, which is about 2.5 inches in diameter.

Joe Dangler, from A. Smith Bowman Distillery, brought a small lab pump, which was too slow. This part of the plan had not been thought through. Because we all had planes to catch we started to improvise. My innovation was cutting some plastic water bottles into scoops and funnels. We were all dipping and dumping as fast as we could (including a female DISCUS lawyer wearing a Chanel suit...what a sport!) and we were in the tub up to our elbows.

I'm sure there is part of me in every bottle.

I managed to clean up a little bit at the airport but I'm sure we all smelled like...well, you can just about imagine.

I was also there when it was bottled a few months later and that's a good story too, but for another time.

(In the picture, that's Joe Dangler on the left and Dave Pickerell on the right. Ron Call is in the background. I don't recall the woman talking to Ron.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Owner of Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark Bourbons Announces Corporate Break-Up.

Fortune Brands, Inc., owner of several leading bourbon brands, today announced that its Board of Directors has unanimously approved in principle a separation of the company's three consumer businesses: distilled spirits, home and security, and golf products. "We are taking the next logical step in the evolution of Fortune Brands," said Bruce Carbonari, chairman and chief executive officer.

Many will say this move is long overdue. Fortune is one of the last examples of the diversified conglomerate model that lost its luster decades ago. Only the consistently strong performance of its distilled spirits business has delayed the inevitable.

A separation has been rumored many times but never so persistently as in the last few months, since Pershing Square Capital Management became the majority shareholder and began to push for a break-up.

The plan that the company intends to pursue includes the continuation of Fortune Brands as an independent, publicly-traded company focused solely on distilled spirits. It was not announced if the Beam Global Spirits and Wine name will be discontinued. Specific plans about how the new company will be structured have yet to be developed.

To shed its non-beverage businesses, Fortune will spin-off together all of its home and security businesses (Moen faucets, MasterBrand cabinets, Master Lock security products, etc.) into an independent, publicly-traded company; and either sell or spin-off its golf businesses (Titleist, etc.).

The company expects to announce detailed plans for the separation in a few months.

The new Fortune Brands as a pure-play premium spirits company will be the largest U.S.-based spirits company and the fourth largest premium spirits business in the world, with $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

In addition to the Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Knob Creek bourbon brands, the company has Canadian Club Canadian whisky; Laphroaig and Teacher's scotch; tequilas Sauza, Hornitos, and El Tesoro; Courvoisier cognac; DeKuyper cordials (USA only), Cruzan rum, EFFEN vodka and the Sourz cordials brand in Europe.

The bourbon whiskey company started in Kentucky just after Prohibition by Jim and Park Beam and their sons was acquired by American Brands (formerly American Tobacco) in 1967. American Brands went on to acquire other companies in other, unrelated businesses, sold off its tobacco interests, and changed its name to Fortune Brands. In 1987, it acquired the National Distillers Company and merged it with Jim Beam Brands, transforming that single-brand company into a full-line spirits producer. In 2005, it teamed up with Pernod-Ricard to acquire and divide the assets of Allied Domecq, which created the present Beam Global Spirits and Wine company.

Fortune Brands and Beam Global are based in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alcohol-Infused Whipped Cream.

The New Drys are up in arms about alcohol-infused whipped cream. They are over-the-top on this one because the product is too expensive to be abused effectively. It's a novelty, expensive even for that. I haven't had it but I doubt it even tastes good.

Binny's, the big liquor store chain here in Chicago, has it at the checkout because as a novelty it's a good impulse purchase. Recently I was in line behind three young guys -- early 20s probably -- and they were buying for a party. You know, the usual buy for young guys buying for a party -- handles of Captain Morgan Rum, Skyy Vodka and Jack Daniel's. They were being loud and obnoxious, egging each other on, pumping each other up, showing off for each other -- at some point it's like observing chimps -- when one of them noticed the alcohol-infused whipped cream. They picked it up, passed it around, talked it up, then put it back because of the price. Nice idea and at $2 - $3 they might have bought it, but I think it was $7.99 or $8.99 and at that price, no sale.

Repeal Day is this Sunday, December 5. It has been 77 years since Prohibition ended, 90 since it began. Not withstanding the absurdity of protesting alcohol-infused whipped cream, we drinkers need to pay attention to the New Dry agenda. On Sunday, resolve to make sure Prohibition doesn't happen again.

I suggest you drink to it.

Too Woody?

I don’t usually post here about articles I’ve written for Malt Advocate, WHISKY Magazine, and other publications. For one thing, the lead times are so long I’ve usually forgotten all about them by the time they’re published.

But I’m very excited about a piece I have in the new issue of Malt Advocate. (Volume 19, Number 4. Winter 2010.) My enthusiasm starts with the title: “Quercus Alba and the Rise of the Eumycotians.”
For a writer, the most satisfying work is when you learn something new that you can then share with readers. On this project I learned a lot about how new whiskey barrels are made and, in particular, how they are being improved. “Quercus Alba,” in case you don’t know, is American white oak, the wood used to make whiskey barrels. “Eumycota” are true fungi, including yeasts and mushrooms, the latter of which figure prominently in stave seasoning.

If that intrigues you, there is also a fascinating story by Jonny McCormick about barrel management practices in Scotland.

It’s an issue with major wood.