Friday, December 21, 2012

Highlights of 2012

In writing posts for this blog, I usually avoid the first person. I use it here to emphasize that this is a personal list. These are the highlights for me. Your results may vary.

Abraham Bowman Virginia Limited Edition Whiskey. In the year I published The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste, and the Van Winkle phenomenon went over the moon, it's nice that a peer to all of them is still so little known and easy to get, at least if you live in or near Virginia. This is the 18-year-old bourbon, 138.6° proof (69.3% ABV) bottling.

Larceny. What Heaven Hill has done with Old Fitzgerald itself has been disappointing but redemption of a sort arrived with Larceny, an Old Fitz line extension that is a major new star in the wheated bourbon firmament. In addition to being very good whiskey, it replaces a false origin story with a true one.

Jim Beam's American Stillhouse. With bourbon tourism booming, bourbon distilleries have been upgrading their visitor experiences, and each new one has outdone the last. As the world's biggest bourbon, Jim Beam should have the biggest and best visitor experience and now it does.

MGPI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Mysteries can be fun, but the unwillingness of the previous owners of the former Seagram's distillery in Lawrenceburg to answer even the simplest questions grew tedious. The new owner, an established producer of neutral grain spirits expanding into whiskey, has been a breath of bourbon-scented fresh air.

New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon. This is 'rectification' in the finest sense of the word, which means "to set right; correct." New Holland took an undistinguished major distillery bourbon and made it not only drinkable but genuinely special by finishing it in their beer barrels. And they told the truth about it too.

Eric Gregory. I can't say enough good things about how the Kentucky Distillers' Association has developed under Gregory's leadership. And since KDA is a membership organization, funded primarily by Kentucky's major distillers (most of them), it reflects well on them too, and on their willingness to let him be creative and explore new ideas.

Maker's Mark v Diageo. As an attorney, I probably should be disappointed that I was cited in a Federal Appellate Court opinion as a bourbon authority and not as a lawyer, but I was thrilled to have my work mentioned not once but five times. As my sister said, "I sure hope all that stuff you wrote in your book was true now that they're using it to decide court cases." Me too, Jane. Me too.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Where Are Kentucky's Distilleries?



View Kentucky Distilleries in a larger map

This map shows the location of every distillery in Kentucky, both craft and major producers. Red pins are micro-distilleries, blue pins are major distilleries, green pins are inactive distilleries. Click on the pin to see the name of the distillery and whether or not it is open to the public. Where available in Google Maps (and most are) the exact address is included, along with other listing information.

Many more inactive distilleries could be shown and a few may still be added. 'Inactive' means the distillery part of the operation is inactive; and not just inactive but demolished in most cases. The ones included are mostly all still owned by major producers and in use for other aspects of distilled spirits production, such as maturation or bottling. Another anomaly; the Four Roses maturation and bottling facility at Lotus, AKA Cox's Creek, is listed as a distillery even though no distillation is done there. That seemed preferable to 'inactive,' since there was never a distillery on that site.

It also seems unfair to green pin Heaven Hill in Bardstown, since it's their primary maturation site, bottling house, and corporate headquarters, but this is a distillery map and the distillery that was once there is gone, destroyed by fire in 1996. 

There are at least a half-dozen other sites in Kentucky, mostly around Bardstown, that were once distilleries but now only the warehouses remain. The sites are owned and used by the major distillers. The warehouses visible from the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg (you can see them on the map's satellite view) are actually owned by Wild Turkey. They were built as part of the Old Joe Distillery. Wild Turkey has another large cluster of warehouses in Nicholasville (Jessamine County), just across the road from the Camp Nelson Civil War Cemetery. That one is on the map, as a green pin.

Danville Road (US Rt 27) crosses the Kentucky River just south of there. The river at that point has created rocky bluffs on both sides. It's quite a view.

In the area around the Brown-Forman (blue pin) and Stitzel-Weller (green pin) sites, there were once a dozen or so other distilleries, including a massive Seagram's plant. Some have been demolished while some (including Seagram's) are more or less intact, but none are being used by distilled spirits producers except maybe Yellowstone, which was being used to distill blending spirits from citrus fruit.

As big as Kentucky's whiskey-making business is today, it was once so much bigger. The purpose of this map was mostly to show where the craft distilleries are in relationship to the major distilleries. A historic map of defunct distilleries would be a different project.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Of Whiskey and Innovation (Part 3); Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Marketers know which words have the most power to draw eyes and attention. 'Free' is number one, but 'new' is right up there too.

The power of these words is mostly in that they make you look, which causes you to think about the brand, which makes you more likely to buy it, even if the 'news' itself is not particularly compelling to you.

New products introduced under the banner of an existing brand are called line extensions. In addition to other benefits of being new; they tend to get the brand a little more shelf space, a floor display, or a bartender recommendation, things which in themselves will increase sales of the whole line, not just the new item.

This is the strategic foundation underlying much of what is called 'innovation' in the whiskey business today. Case in point: new Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.

The analysis above is necessary for understanding why this product exists.

Russell's Reserve began in 2001 as a Wild Turkey line extension, named in honor of veteran Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. The original iteration was 10 years old and 101° proof (50.5% ABV). Soon it was repackaged to something closer to the current look and the proof was cut to 90° (45% ABV). A 90° proof, 6-year-old rye soon followed.

Beginning with release of the rye, the Wild Turkey name disappeared and Russell's Reserve became a brand in its own right. The line was positioned to be a little more contemporary than Wild Turkey, hence the lower proof and milder taste profile. Eddie Russell, Jimmy's son, is responsible for the profile and is the brand's principal spokesperson.

The latest 'innovation' in the line is Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, which has no age statement (NAS), but is a whopping 110° proof (55% ABV). Another Wild Turkey bourbon, Rare Breed, claims to be 'barrel proof' at 108.2° proof (54.1% ABV), but that is being updated to 111°. About six years ago, Wild Turkey raised its barrel entry proof from 110° to 115°, following an earlier increase from 107°, which accounts for the higher proofs emerging now in mature barrels.

Even at 115°, Wild Turkey has the lowest barrel entry proof of any major bourbon distillery.

Many bourbon enthusiasts still mourn that long-ago proof cut from 101° to 90°. For them, Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon is a restoration, with a 9 point bonus!

In creating this single barrel line extension, Campari USA has followed what Beam did with Knob Creek Single Barrel earlier this year. Knob Single is 20° higher proof than standard Knob, and Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is 25° higher proof than standard Russell's Reserve Bourbon.

Although the new single barrel is NAS, Campari USA Senior Brand Manager Robin Coupar says the barrels are all eight to nine years old. Russell's Reserve Single Barrel should begin to appear in stores next month at a suggested retail price of $49.99.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Distilled Spirits Epicenter Joins Kentucky Distillers' Association as First Educational Member

Distilled Spirits Epicenter; an educational, training, and craft distillery; announced yesterday that is has joined the Kentucky Distillers’ Association as the group’s first-ever Educational Distillery member.

"Education is a core principle of the KDA’s mission to promote and protect our signature industry, from legislative advocacy to economic and tourism development to the responsible consumption of spirits," said Jeff Conder, Chairman of the KDA’s Board of Directors.

"Now, with the creation of an Educational Distillery membership, the KDA adds a vital component through research and training opportunities to develop the next generation of our iconic industry," said Conder, Vice President, Global Supply Chain, for Beam, Inc. "We proudly welcome Distilled Spirits Epicenter as a partner in this goal."

"We are pleased to be joining such a legendary organization that shares our commitment to innovation," said Marty Snyder, CEO of Distilled Spirits Epicenter and its sister company, Flavorman. "Just as KDA and its Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure has fueled global interest in the Bourbon phenomenon, our content-rich distilling courses will highlight the artisanship of spirits production."

Kevin Hall, Operations Manager at Distilled Spirits Epicenter, said the company has positioned itself as a one-stop-shop for distilling needs and resources at its downtown Louisville headquarters. "Every Bourbon brand has its own recipe, taste and history, and every project at the Epicenter is unique," Hall said. "Our resources enable us to provide a customized experience for each client, no matter how big or small."

Distilled Spirit Epicenter resources include:

Grease Monkey Distillery, an artisan distillery furnished with state-of-the-art Vendome equipment that may be rented for full scale spirits production or to run small test batches.

Challenge Bottling, an on-site bottling line designed to accommodate smaller production runs and various packaging requirements.

Moonshine University, an educational resource and training facility that provides expert instruction on everything from technical operations to business planning.

The first Moonshine University distilling course, scheduled for Jan. 14-18, will provide hands-on instruction on distillate production and business management. The third day of the course will be dedicated to whiskey production, with presentations from Master Distillers and industry experts from several of the KDA’s member distilleries. Registration is underway at www.ds-epicenter.com.

Distilled Spirits Epicenter is the KDA’s 15th member and sixth new member in 2012. KDA members include Beam, Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark); Brown-Forman Corp.; Diageo North America; Four Roses Distillery; Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc.; and Wild Turkey Distillery.

Craft Distillery members include Alltech’s Town Branch Distillery, Barrel House Distilling Co., Corsair Artisan Distillery, Limestone Branch Distillery, MB Roland Distillery, The Old Pogue Distillery, Silver Trail Distillery and Willett Distillery.

KDA President Eric Gregory said he has been impressed with Distilled Spirits Epicenter’s vision, dedication and camaraderie in exploring partnerships to keep Kentucky’s distilling tradition alive and to secure the integrity of the industry. "Kentucky truly is a Bourbon epicenter, and we look forward to working with the professional team at Distilled Spirits Epicenter to promote our rich heritage, to advocate fair treatment of our industry, and to continue our commitment to responsible drinking."

Founded in 1880, the KDA is a non-profit trade association and Kentucky's leading voice on spirits issues.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

More News About that Distillery in Indiana.

About a year ago, after MGP bought the former Seagram's Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, whispering began that they were going to exit the bulk whiskey business and concentrate on contract distilling exclusively.

The distinction is that with bulk sales, the customer purchases aged whiskey that is ready to sell. With contract, you pay the distillery to distill and make whiskey on your behalf, which won't be ready to sell for several years. They're two very different business models.

"There is no foundation whatsoever to any rumors or speculation that MGP is withdrawing from the bulk whiskey market," says David Dykstra, MGP's Vice President of Alcohol Sales & Marketing. "We are investing heavily in rebuilding the whiskey stocks that were depleted under prior ownership of the facility. MGP intends to be in the bulk whiskey market for both the near term and longer term."

If anything, they're going in deeper. "MGP is developing new mash bill formulations of rye, wheat and other grains that we expect to introduce to the marketplace in the coming years, as product innovation is a key component of our efforts to help customers continue to grow their distinctive brands."

Bulk whiskey from that distillery has been responsible for such brands as Templeton Rye, Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout Bourbon and Rye, High West Rendezvous Rye, Redemption Bourbon and Rye, Wm. H. Harrison bourbon, Chattanooga whiskey, and a host of others.

No doubt those micro-producers are relieved to hear what MGP intends, but bulk whiskey pickings will be slim for the next few years, especially for well-aged whiskey because the previous owner laid down very little near the end.

Many bourbon enthusiasts have wondered if MGP plans to develop and market its own whiskey brands, or continue exclusively as a commodity producer. Lawrenceburg is the only pure commodity whiskey producer in the U.S.

"We have no plans at this time to develop or purchase any branded whiskeys or other products," says Dykstra. "However, we remain open to evaluating market opportunities if any such possibilities should warrant our interest."

And what about tours? There have been distilleries on that site since about 1860, though most of what is there now was built by Seagram's in the 1930s. "MGP plans to begin tours at some point over the next 18 months," says Dykstra. "We currently are working on details to ensure the tours provide a highly enjoyable, as well as educational, experience for those who visit our Lawrenceburg facility."

One huge change has already taken effect, the new owners answer questions.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Gifts and Events for Bourbon Fans

The best holiday gift for a bourbon fan is, of course, bourbon. The possibilities are endless.

The next-best holiday gift for a bourbon fan is a bourbon book, bourbon DVD, or bourbon newsletter from the assortment neatly arrayed for you to the right of this column.

Another original choice is a gift set from Bourbon Barrel Foods, such as the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Vanilla and Bourbon Vanilla Sugar combo, just $16. Bourbon Barrel Foods is a small, artisan food maker in Louisville and their signature is products aged in bourbon barrels. The soy sauce is fabulous.

Working with Woodford Reserve, Bourbon Barrel Foods has developed a spiced cherry bitters and a Sorghum Vinaigrette salad dressing. Both are available from Bourbon Barrel Foods and the bitters ($15) is also available on Woodford's site.

Speaking of Woodford Reserve and food, they're one of the few distilleries with an Executive Chef, and she's a good one: Ouita Michel. On Monday, December 17, you can join Ouita for a virtual cooking and Q&A session. Learn why Woodford Reserve pairs so well with holiday foods as Chef Ouita takes you through the Flavor Wheel and provides you with a few yuletide recipes of her own. The broadcast begins at 8PM EST on www.woodfordreserve.com.

Brown Forman's other bourbon, Old Forester, will send you personalized labels that you can affix to a bottle of Old Forester. The self-stick label says the bottle was specially selected for your gift recipient. Best of all, they're free. The labels, that is. You have to buy the whiskey. You can request up to three different labels. Get them from either Old Forester's web site or Facebook page.

Speaking for free gift cards, here's one you can print out and use with any of the fine gifts available here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Dad's Pearl Harbor Story

On Wednesday, I shared my dad's story about the repeal of Prohibition. Today, it's one of his Pearl Harbor stories.


Sunday, December 7, 1941, dawned bright and clear at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii. At least I assume that it did because it was bright and clear when I got up at about 7:45.

To get breakfast I had to be in the chow line out behind the barracks before 8:00. I made it.

Someone noticed a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of Wheeler Field, the fighter field, south of our location. There were comments and conjecture that the fly boys must be having some kind of exercise and that one of them had cracked up.

At about the same time we noticed a line of planes coming over Kole Kole Pass, which was about three miles northwest of us and in full view because there was nothing in the way. Our barracks was the furthest northwest barracks on the post. As the first plane in the line passed overhead I could not only see the red circle markings on the plane but could see the pilot's face, he came in so low that he cleared the two story barracks by about 5 or 6 feet.

At that point he also started his guns. We never did figure out why he didn't start strafing a few seconds sooner and try to get some of the 30 or 40 guys in the chow line. I have no idea what the second plane in the line did, by the time he got there I was long gone.

We all made for cover, I went into the building via the back door to the kitchen. The kitchen was about 20 feet wide by about 30 feet long. Just inside the back door, to the right, was the walk-in cooler. I hit the floor at the far end of the cooler, putting the cooler between me and the line of fire.

There must have been several planes in the line as the firing kept up for quite a long time--at least it seemed like a long time. After the firing stopped everything was completely silent, there was not a sound. I wondered if I was the only one still alive.

There was a line of preparation tables down the center of the room, with equipment and utensil storage drawers below, and ranges along the far wall at the other end of the room. Looking around I could not see another human being, everyone was obviously hugging the floor. Then I saw a hand rise up, pick up a spatula, turn over two eggs frying on the range, then replace the spatula and again disappear.

Regardless of the circumstances, duty comes first.

I might add at this point that this was the 90th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, a Regular Army outfit.

When it seemed that the attack was over and people started stirring again I grabbed a plate, claimed the eggs, and sat down to eat my breakfast.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Dad's Repeal Day Story


We celebrate the Repeal of Prohibition today, December 5, because on this date in 1933, Pennsylvania and Utah ratified the 21st Amendment, providing enough votes to make the amendment law.

This is my dad’s Repeal Day story, but it didn’t happen on Repeal Day. It happened eight months earlier, on April 7, 1933. On that day it became legal to sell beer in many states, including Missouri, where he lived.

Dad grew up in what today is called the Wells/Goodfellow neighborhood of St. Louis, on Roosevelt Place. He was 13-years-old when these events occurred.


The Meyers family lived up near Goodfellow Blvd. Their youngest son was a couple years younger than me but we were friends and I spent a lot of time at their house. Mr. Meyers was the acknowledged best home brew maker in the neighborhood, if not the civilized world. He undoubtedly applied the same skill and attention to detail as he did in his job as a tool and die maker. His stuff was far superior to the stuff that we occasionally made in our basement. It was no more illegal for kids to drink heingemake (homebrew) than for adults, so we were allowed to join in the responsible and moderate use of the quaff.

At the Meyers' house, as was common, the beer was bottled in one-fifth gallon bottles and served in an aluminum bucket, from which all partook.

Frank Meyers' system was a seven day process that he would tend to right after work. He would come in the back door, put his lunch bucket on the sink, kiss his wife, then go to the basement for that day's part in the process. After FDR took office, an executive order was issued proclaiming that 3.2% beer was not intoxicating, therefore it did not fall under the restrictions in the 18th amendment. A date was set when this would take effect.

The building at the corner of Clara and Roosevelt (named for Teddy, I might add) was owned by Anheuser-Busch and had been a tavern. It was now Wesling's grocery. Gelhausen's Saloon across the street had never closed. Perhaps they served iced tea and soda pop during the great drought. The lease for Busch's building had a clause that if beer ever became legal again the lease could be terminated. An agreement was reached and an addition was built onto the rear of the grocery and made into a tavern.

You may note that I refer to one establishment as a tavern and the other as a saloon. This is not accidental. Gelhausen's was a dark, bad place with men sitting around. I do not know why, when beer was again legal, that Grandma always had me go to Gelhausen's when she wanted a pitcher of beer. There was a side door at the rear and a separate tap for take-out. It cost a whole dime for a big pitcher of beer.

When "B" day was drawing near, Mr. Meyers finished up the current batch and then started dismantling and packing away his equipment. When the fateful day arrived, most of the men in the neighborhood congregated at Wesling's Tavern. The house was packed and everyone was having a riotous good time.

When Frank Meyers walked in a hush fell over the place and the crowd around the bar parted like the Red Sea to make room for the greatest. He walked up to the bar, Mr. Wesling drew a glass and set it in front of him. He took a sip, then another sip, then pushed the glass away and turned and walked out. It was not the same after that, it was quiet and half the customers left. Obviously, I was not there but my Uncle Russ was and told me about it.

Mr. Meyers went straight home, straight to the basement, unpacked his equipment and started a new batch. Mrs. Meyers kidded later that it was the first time in their forty years of marriage that he had come into the house and started working without kissing her first.

In fairness to Anheuser-Busch, I should add that they were limited to 3.2% alcohol while the Meyers brew ran close to the theoretical maximum for the fermentation process, around 12%.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Excessive Exuberance: The Van Winkle Phenomenon

Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, writes that "Excessive exuberance is the Achilles Heel of social media." It's the Achilles Heel of many things touted on social media too, including the sudden hipness of all things whiskey. Nothing exemplifies this better than the Van Winkle phenomenon.

Because it's end-of-the-year and holiday time, when editorial budgets run out, and your better-paid writers and editors are on their way to a beach somewhere, you're going to see lots of lists: gift ideas, year's best, party tips, and so on. The name of Van Winkle will be on many such lists.

Let's acknowledge right off that the people who most need to read this probably won't, because then they would be informed and most Van Winkle fanatics aren't.

Let's also acknowledge that there are people who have long enjoyed the whiskeys selected and bottled (but not made) by the Van Winkle family. Most of them aren't interested in all the commotion about Van Winkle, and with only a slight twinge of regret are happy to drink something else. That's because they know their way around bourbon and know that the Van Winkle whiskeys, while very good, are not sine qua non.

Here's the history. Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle used to own Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery, makers of Old Fitzgerald and other bourbons. After his death, his heirs couldn't agree on the company's direction, which forced a sale. Pappy's son, JPVW Junior, started a new company using the only brand the family retained in the sale, Old Rip Van Winkle. His son, Julian (JPVW III), continues that business to this day. Assisted by his son and in partnership with the Buffalo Trace Distillery, he sells bourbons at 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23-years-old, and a 13-year-old rye, under various iterations of the Van Winkle brand.

Van Winkle primarily sells bourbon made with wheat instead of rye. That's a minority approach, but not unique. Most of the Van Winkle whiskey is made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, which also makes the W. L. Weller line of wheated bourbons, a former Stitzel-Weller brand.

Van Winkle has always been a very small brand. It was pricey and its extra-aged products were not to everyone's liking. Still, it always had a good reputation among enthusiasts. Then, a few years ago, a few celebrities mentioned they liked it and it started to show up on "best of" lists. Whiskey was suddenly hip and the laziest question a person can ask about whiskey is, "what's the best?" Van Winkle became the default answer and began to be very hard to get. Some retailers and scores of eBay sellers asked absurd prices for it and, in at least a few cases, got them.

Van Winkle is a problem for retailers because there’s so much more demand than supply that people who fancy themselves ‘good customers’ get testy when a store can’t fulfill their Van Winkle desires.

The phenomenon is driven largely by lazy journalists who simply copy what other people write, so everybody who writes about bourbon and desirable high-end bottles winds up writing about Van Winkles. Most of the pieces are written by people who know little or nothing about whiskey. They are ‘life style’ journalists. Their bread and butter is ‘ten best’ lists, which they simply compile from a couple of already published ‘ten best’ lists, so the thing feeds on itself.

Generally, the people clamoring for a Van Winkle are the same as the people behind the lists. They know almost nothing about bourbon. For them, it’s the lazy shortcut route to connoisseurship. They read somewhere that Van Winkle is the best, and since they only buy the best of everything, and they (apparently) have more money than they know what to do with, Van Winkle it must be.

If you actually just want a very good bottle of that type of bourbon (wheated and well-aged), the Weller line is right there for you. The Weller 12-year-old is comparable to all but the 20-23 year-old Van Winkles, and costs about $30 a bottle. It’s in short supply too, though not as crazy as Van Winkle. For that matter, purely in terms of the whiskey, most would be happy with a bottle of Maker's Mark (also a wheated bourbon and about $20 a bottle). If you want something exclusive and high end, the 2010 edition of Parker's Heritage Collection, a 10-year-old barrel proof wheated bourbon, is the peer of any Van Winkle.

If you're a real bourbon enthusiast, you already know this. If you're a typical Van Winkle fanatic, you never will.

Julian Van Winkle (JPVW III) explains the scarcity strategy well. Because there is so much more demand than supply, his cost of selling is about zero. He simply announces how many bottles he has to sell, customers tell him how many they want, he tells them how many they can have, and pretty soon it’s all gone. It's a nice business.

Most stores never put it on the shelf, and they have people on long waiting lists for it. It’s great for Julian but it’s kind of a nuisance for the stores. Yes, they sell every bottle instantly, at a healthy markup, but they have to deal with dozens if not hundreds of unhappy customers.

There are plenty of knowledgeable bourbon enthusiasts who like Van Winkle too (it is genuinely good stuff, just not ambrosia) and wish they could find and afford it, but they’re competing with all the dopes who have to have it because they read something about it in Maxim. It's not worth the trouble.

And now there is one more year-end Van Winkle story.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Of Whiskey And Innovation (Part 2)

A small number of companies own most of the world’s major distilled spirits products, so it’s not surprising that we often see them doing similar things across their portfolios. ‘Innovation’ is the hot buzzword right now, even in the whiskey space which is usually innovation-averse.

You’ve read here about Diageo’s recent innovations with its Crown Royal and George Dickel brands. Now it’s the flagship’s turn.

Introducing Johnnie Walker The Spice Road, the first of a portfolio of whiskeys that take their inspiration from the traveling heritage of John Walker & Sons. It’s available only in duty free stores, but it shows what ‘innovation’ means for the world’s leading whiskey brand. (A title that goes to either Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniel’s, depending on how you count and who you ask.)

This is not a flavored whiskey, as one might be entitled to suppose. It’s a special, limited edition blend. Scheduled for future release are The Gold Route and The Royal Route. Here is how Master Blender Jim Beveridge describes this premier release: "To create the intense spicy flavor profile of Johnnie Walker The Spice Road, we used well-matured single malts and grains, presenting all their fresh vibrant distillery characters, aged in carefully selected, high quality American oak casks; and of course there is a trace of West Coast smoke in the background - revealing the classic Johnnie Walker signature.”

Duty-free means limited availability, and many readers of this blog have little interest in blended scotch. This is interesting nevertheless because it shows another way a whiskey-maker can innovate without necessarily making a new whiskey from scratch, thereby avoiding the many years of lead time that entails. It also ties-in neatly with the distribution channel, a very sophisticated maneuver.

It’s a good story too. Here’s the gist of it. From 1820, the Walker family and their agents traveled the world, navigating their way down the famous trade routes: the Spice Road of Europe and Asia; the Royal Route from Europe to Persia; and the Gold Route of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Their efforts ensured that, by the 1920s, Johnnie Walker had arrived in 120 countries and was being enjoyed on the great railways, luxury ocean liners and early transatlantic flights. Meanwhile, the striking image of the Johnnie Walker Striding Man was becoming an icon all over the world.

Back in London, close to the shipping houses and docks from which the Johnnie Walker agents traveled the world, Alexander Walker established the Travelers’ Room (pictured, above) where his agents would convene to rest, talk strategy, and exchange stories and samples from their travels.

This all sounds true and, assuming it is, it means Diageo shows more respect for Walker’s history that it does for Dickel and Bulleit, its main U.S.-whiskey brands, where it prefers fiction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bourbon Review Awesomeness

If you scroll down this page, looking at the right column, you will come to the recommended sites list. One of them, and the only one by a retailer, is 'Spirits Journal,' the blog of the spirits department at K&L Wine Merchants in California. Yesterday, occasional contributor David Othenin-Girard published a piece under the headline 'Bourbon Awesomeness.' It is well worth a read.

Othenin-Girard, who is based in Southern California, had an opportunity recently to attend a tasting of old bourbons held by the Los Angeles Whiskey Society: An Old Grand-Dad bottled in 1949, a Very Old Fitzgerald bottled in 1956, that sort of thing, but a really exceptional collection.

Bourbon, by the way, doesn't age in the bottle. Tasting whiskey from old bottles like these is more of a window into what people were drinking then. Have the recipes changed? Were the barrels made from older trees? You also often get to taste products that are no longer made from distilleries that are no longer standing.

What's great about the article is that Othenin-Girard, as a high-end whiskey buyer, is a professional whiskey taster who, as also a salesman, is very good at describing what he tastes. He knows what he's writing about much better than most.

Many people like the K&L blog because it's not just about selling stuff, it's about the passion Othenin-Girard and the other David, David Driscoll, who writes most of the posts, have for the products, producers, and customers. In this case, nothing mentioned in the piece can be purchased at K&L.

That's unfortunate, but until someone uncovers a forgotten warehouse full of bourbon from the 40s and 50s, this will have to do.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Of Whiskey And Innovation

For a craft that usually prefers to talk about tradition and heritage, and things that never change, whiskey makers have been crowing a lot lately about innovation. For the majors, new product innovation seems to be proceeding on two paths. On one are products enthusiasts love: limited editions, experiments, and ultra-premium expressions. On the other are products enthusiasts despise: flavored whiskeys.

The post here two weeks ago about Crown Royal XR LaSalle, part of Crown's Extra Rare (XR) series, represents Crown's appeal to the enthusiast community. Now the other shoe has dropped, with the introduction of Crown's first flavored whiskey, Crown Royal Maple Finished.

Maple is the natural choice for a Canadian and Crown Royal (a Diageo brand) is commended for not rolling out one more with honey. (They already have Dark Honey under the Seagram's Seven brand.) The packaging is similar to standard Crown, except with a bronze-colored label and a brown velvet bag instead of the usual blue.

They describe it this way: "Crown Royal Maple Finished begins with the legendary taste of Crown Royal whisky. The liquid then incorporates a touch of natural maple flavor achieved through a proprietary maple toasted oak finishing process for added smoothness."

Through questioning, the following translation was elicited. "Crown Royal Maple Finished Whisky is made by adding a touch of natural maple flavor to the whisky and then we introduce it to toasted oak staves and toasted oak chips. The introduction of these toasted oak staves and chips delivers characteristics of the oak to the liquid, one of which is reminiscent of maple. This finishing process also delivers a smoothness to the whisky, worthy of Crown Royal."

The result? If you believe maple syrup is the best part of pancakes, and wish you could drink it straight from the bottle, now you can, plus get a buzz. To describe it as alcoholic pancake syrup may sound pejorative, but not if you really love that flavor. The maple taste is very good, full and rich. Most of it comes from the 'natural maple flavor' but the specially toasted oak staves and chips have a noticeable and positive effect. Identifiable as oak but nicely complementing the maple, they provide added depth with something recognizable from the whiskey lexicon.

Which is good because, without it, there's not much evidence of whiskey here. All distilled spirits, even vodka, have a body and mouth feel that's distinctive to distillates. Crown Maple has that, and the aforementioned oak, but otherwise the whiskey part of this drink is just a rumor.

Still and all, if you really like maple, Crown Maple should work for you. Open this for a party and expect an empty bottle by the end of the evening. Suggested retail is $24.99.

But, be warned, it may bring back some childhood memories.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Of Whiskey And Cocktails

Once upon a time, the word ‘cocktail’ referred to the occasion more than the drink and was, often as not, attached to the word ‘party.’ In those days, it wasn’t irregular to desire a cocktail and then order or pour a whiskey, neat or on-the-rocks. Most people had no trouble calling an unadorned glass of whiskey a cocktail. Nobody tried to talk you into having ‘a real cocktail’ instead.

The modern meaning of ‘cocktail’ is an assembled-to-order, single serving combination of two or more ingredients, what used to be called a ‘mixed drink.’

Assuming we can hold two different ideas in our heads at the same time, let’s take both meanings and ask ourselves, what is the role of whiskey in cocktails?

First, let’s embrace the idea of whiskey as a cocktail. A first class whiskey is itself a combination of ingredients—grains, yeast, water, wood, heat, time, peat, sherry—and when those elements are fully realized and ideally balanced, whiskey is a perfectly satisfying drink all by itself. In short, a cocktail.

Whiskey’s other role is as an ingredient, but this can be bifurcated too. For the classic whiskey cocktails it doesn’t matter what type of whiskey you use; bourbon, rye, scotch, Canadian, Irish, etc. They all taste different, but they also all work. That’s because classic whiskey cocktails, simply made in the traditional way, feature the whiskey, augmented only slightly by the other ingredient or ingredients.

Elmer T. Lee, the legendary master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace Distillery, likes a highball that is one part Buffalo Trace Bourbon to about three parts Sprite, on ice.

The third way is using whiskey with modern creative cocktails. There it is an ingredient, not the ingredient, and the goal is not so much to taste the whiskey unobstructed as it is to taste it as one part of a unique whole. To be successful, a creative cocktail must be greater than the sum of its parts. For such productions, the call for each ingredient, including the whiskey, has to be specific, not just as to type (scotch, bourbon), but usually as to brand and expression.

So whiskey has three roles: (1) whiskey as cocktail, (2) whiskey as featured ingredient, (3) whiskey as non-featured ingredient. Which begs the question, what whiskeys to use?

Some other spirits types are unambiguous on this question. Read a little bit about cognac, rum, or tequila and you will quickly learn that VS cognac, and white tequila and rum, are for mixing. Higher grades of cognac, and aged tequilas and rums, are recommended for sipping. It’s easy to draw the parallel to whiskey, blends and young whiskeys are for mixing, balanced and fully aged whiskeys are for straight sipping.

But haven’t we been told, by cooks as well as mixologists, that you always get the best results by using the best ingredients? Okay, but maybe we need a ‘within reason’ qualification, supported by a ‘best and highest use’ paradigm.

Pappy Van Winkle used to say that if you must drink your whiskey with water, pour the water into the glass first. That way, you’ll be making a poor thing better, rather than a good thing worse.

So, for the first two types, you want a fine whiskey with excellent balance. That’s obvious for straight sipping. With classic cocktails, you may want to adjust the other ingredients to the whiskey, and tone them down when a better whiskey is used. For creative cocktails, it’s not so much about the best whiskey as it is about the right whiskey.

This is where white whiskeys and young whiskeys can shine. In that third role, you usually want something with a very clear and assertive character.

Are some whiskeys more versatile than others? A good traditional straight rye, like Rittenhouse BIB, Wild Turkey Rye, or Knob Creek Rye, is good straight or in a traditional whiskey cocktail, but can get lost in an elaborate concoction. In that case, a 95% rye like Bulleit, or a very young rye like McKenzie, might work better. Even there, the Bulleit because it has some age on it can be good on its own, while the McKenzie is probably best in a cocktail.

It’s the same with bourbons. Knob Creek, Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and Old Forester are all good choices as both straight sippers and in classic cocktails. Most micro-distillery bourbons are best in creative cocktails.

With scotch, very peaty single malts can work straight and in creative cocktails, but tend to overpower the simpler classic cocktails.

Marketers need to understand how their products show best and market accordingly. It has become knee jerk in spirits marketing to always provide cocktail recipes. But if your product is a fine, fully aged, well balanced whiskey, just perfect by itself, you may do it a disservice by pushing cocktails of any kind. Instead, be more creative about telling consumers how to enjoy your product.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Best And Highest Use For Leftover Turkey: The Kentucky Hot Brown


Here, as an annual public service, is the Hot Brown, a perfect use for leftover turkey. This delicious open face turkey sandwich was created in 1926 at Louisville's Brown Hotel by Chef Fred K. Schmidt.

Hot Brown (4 servings)
4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices toast, with crusts cut off
Turkey breast slices
Crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
Mushroom slices, sauteed

Saute onion in butter until transparent; add flour and combine. Add milk, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Cook on medium heat until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Add cheese and continue heating until they blend. Remove from heat.

Put one slice of toast in each of four oven-proof individual serving dishes. Top each piece of toast with slices of turkey. Cut remaining toast slices diagonally and place on sides of sandwiches. Ladle cheese sauce over sandwiches. Place sandwiches under broiler until sauce begins to bubble. Garnish with crumbled bacon and sauteed mushroom slices and serve immediately.

There are many variations. Most places don’t crumble the bacon, and there are many substitutes for the mushrooms, including tomato slices and asparagus spears. Some simply forgo the vegetables altogether.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Can A Non-Distiller Be Distiller Of The Year?


The liquor industry, like most, loves to give itself awards. Industry media give out most of them. That media, of course, is funded by advertising from the companies being honored. This generally is not considered a conflict of interest because the media outlet's readers have independent ways of judging if the awards are deserved or not, and the outlet’s credibility is what hangs in the balance.

Wine Enthusiast, as its name suggests, is about wine, but since wine drinkers may also enjoy other liquors, Wine Enthusiast dabbles in other forms of alcohol too. So it is that Wine Enthusiast announced yesterday its Wine Star Awards. Among them as distiller of the year: Michter's Distillery.

This will not help Wine Enthusiast’s credibility with whiskey enthusiasts. There are several issues with this choice. Principally, Michter's Distillery is just a name, it's not a distillery, it’s not even a company. It’s a brand name, used by a New York company called Chatham Imports for a line of American whiskey products.

Chatham isn’t a distiller either. They buy and sell distilled spirits, but do not distill any themselves.

The name Michter's is about 60 years old. It was coined by Louis Forman in the early 1950s for a new whiskey brand he planned to sell. Forman (no relation to Brown-Forman) wasn’t a distiller either, not then anyway. He was a whiskey broker, meaning he bought and sold bulk whiskey. He thought he could make more money if he sold some of it as a brand instead of a commodity. That’s how Michter’s was born.

About twenty years later, Forman became a distiller when he bought a historic Pennsylvania distillery and gave it the Michter's name. In 1990, with Forman long gone, that business collapsed. Its liabilities so far exceeded its assets that the then-owners simply walked away.

One of the assets they abandoned was the Michter's name.

A few years later, Chatham re-registered the Michter's trademark. With the legal right to use the name, they began to shamelessly appropriate everything associated with it, in particular the long history of that Pennsylvania distillery. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s a whole book about it, called The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste, which is for sale just over to the right of this column. Everything here is explained in a bit more detail there.

And it makes a great gift.

Michter’s today is what is known as a Potemkin Distillery. The fa├žade is quite elaborate. They even have a person with the title of master distiller. His resume includes Brown-Forman, a major distillery owner and operator, except he wasn’t a distiller there. Wine Enthusiast Spirits Editor Kara Newman claims that Michter's is a distiller even though she acknowledges they “don't have their own brick-and-mortar facility.”

“Like a great many smaller producers,” she insists, “they have used stills at other facilities.” Newman claims that Michter's “selects the mash bill, yeast, etc. and oversees the physical distillation and other production details, right down to figuring out the best bottling strength and aging times.” From this she concludes that Michter's “is not working with whiskey made by anybody else.”

What she describes is a fanciful explanation of contract distilling, but it’s doubtful Michter’s even does that much. More likely they buy bulk whiskey, selecting from whatever is available. The whiskey Michter’s sells is good and making those selections is an important job, but it’s not distilling.

It's possible but unlikely that Michter’s is contracting with one or more distillers to make whiskey to its specifications. True contract distilling is rarely done by small producers because the risk and upfront costs are just too great. Even if they have a production agreement with one or more distillers, it’s probably for products that distillery already makes, nothing custom.

And even if they are hiring an actual distiller to do from-scratch contract distilling for them, that doesn't make Michter's a distiller. The rent-a-still image that Newman paints simply does not exist.

What Michter’s is doing is unique only in the venerability of the entity they are sacking. Some have argued that this is simply marketing. History and historical figures are appropriated all the time for commercial purposes. Historians tells us that neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln ever actually attended a mattress sale, for example.

The reason it’s offensive is because it devalues the American whiskey industry’s genuine rich history. Talking to Shanken News Daily last week, Chris Bauder, general manager U.S. Whiskies at Beam Inc., said, “We attribute the latest Bourbon surge to innovation, premiumization and authenticity.”

Michter’s has benefited from that surge but what it is selling, and Wine Enthusiast is honoring, is not authenticity. It’s more like what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ something that sounds true but really isn’t.

Chatham did a good deed when it rescued the Michter’s name from oblivion, but everything it has done since has been something else.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Indiana Distillery Is Crucial To MGPI's Success.

The distillery in Greendale, Indiana, continues to interest whiskey enthusiasts, who know it for such products as Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, Redemption Rye, George Dickel Rye, Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon and Rye, Redemption Bourbon, New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon, Wm. H. Harrison bourbon, Chattanooga whiskey, and others.

The distillery is now owned by MGP Ingredients, Inc. (MGPI) which, as a publicly-owned company, is much more transparent about its operations than was the previous owner.

In the company's report of third quarter 2012 results, released yesterday, the lead headline says a "strong contribution" from the Indiana distillery "offset a reduction in sales for lower-value industrial applications."

"The decline in industrial sales for the quarter was substantially offset by growth in our premium spirits," said Tim Newkirk, President and Chief Executive Officer. "So, while our third quarter alcohol sales were relatively flat, our profit profile actually improved due to a stronger contribution from beverages.”

The report further explains that "post-acquisition progress continues at the Indiana distillery. Production rates have more than doubled since the company assumed ownership in December 2011. Capital improvements and cost reduction programs, including a switch to natural gas, are expected to further increase manufacturing capacity at a lower cost per unit."

“We’ve made great inroads with our line of premium spirits this year," said Newkirk, "despite the fact that most of the important year-end order activity for 2012 took place before we acquired the facility. Our new beverage sales team is encouraged by the high level of interest among our key customers.”

Whiskey enthusiasts in particular want to know MGPI's plans for Indiana going forward, to which Newkirk offers this tantalizing clue. "In premium spirits we’re pursuing beverage innovations, including new mash bills, flavor extensions, and barrel aging techniques."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gift Ideas For Canadian Whiskey Fans.

Diageo is the world’s largest distilled spirits company. I call it The Big Galoot, TBG for short. I criticize Diageo for many things, but not understanding American whiskey and mismanaging their American whiskey portfolio is their greatest sin.

Our disagreement, such as it is, isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about different points of view. I’m Kentucky/Tennessee-centric. I’m all about straight whiskeys, bourbon and rye, where Diageo is weak. Diageo, however, sees the segment as North American whiskey. Their Big Magilla is Crown Royal Canadian Blended Whisky, a brand they obtained in the Seagram’s carve-up a decade ago.

Crown Royal is the only North American whiskey on Diageo’s ‘strategic brands’ list. Those are the big, global brands on which Diageo hangs its hat. Crown is the #1 Canadian whiskey, sells about 5 million cases a year, and is mainly sold in Canada, the United States, and France. Among North American whiskeys, only Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam sell more. Crown probably has a bright future in other global markets too, which is what makes it strategic.

Although Diageo didn’t make Crown a major brand, it has done a good job of keeping it there. One fine initiative has been the Extra Rare (XR) series. The second installment, released earlier this year, is Crown Royal XR LaSalle. It was created from a small reserve of whiskeys from the LaSalle Distillery in Montreal.

The LaSalle Distillery was built beginning in 1924, began distilling in 1928, and stopped distilling in 1993. Andrew MacKay, Crown Royal’s Master Blender, who created XR LaSalle, began his career there.

As a bourbon drinker, I generally find Canadians tasty but way too mild. That’s my taste. I know Canadians have a huge following on both sides of the border and I’m not putting this style of whiskey down. It’s just not my preference, although I enjoy it from time to time as a change of pace.

That said, Crown Royal is among the best and XR LaSalle is a step beyond that; rich, creamy, and fruit forward. I like this whiskey, both as a drink and a gift. The suggested retail is $130 for a 750 ml bottle. That may seem like a lot, but it is a limited edition, and the packaging is impeccable. It starts with an ornate, heavyweight cardboard box, continues with the classic velvet bag, and the decanter-style bottle has a glass stopper. It’s a very nice, genuinely impressive presentation.

Obviously, this is a fine gift for the regular Crown Royal drinker, but any Canadian whiskey fan should appreciate it.


Speaking of great gifts for Canadian whiskey drinkers, Davin De Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky, The Portable Expert, is simply the best book ever published on the subject. It's the definitive guide to Canadian whiskey. Nothing else even comes close. He explains the history, how Canadian whiskey is made today, and how it differs from other whiskeys such as bourbon and scotch. He gives you a guided tour of every distillery and reviews every one of their products. It's awesome. Suggested retail price is $24.99 in Canada, $22 in the USA. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

No Matter How Poor You Are, If You Drink You Pay Taxes.


One of the biggest lies right wing extremists like to tell themselves is that poor people don't pay taxes. Instead they sponge off the noble and righteous people who do. Romney's famous 47% refers to American adults whose incomes are too low to owe federal income tax. The extremist part is taking that fact to mean 47% of Americans pay no taxes and use the federal government as a free ATM.

It's one of the right's oldest tropes, around for generations. Poor people are poor because they are lazy moochers and therefore deserve no help from the rest of us.

In addition to cutting off moochers, the right wants to reduce or eliminate taxes on businesses. If we take the tax burden off job creators, they'll use that money to create more jobs, thus more people will be employed, more people will pay taxes, fewer will need government benefits, and we'll all be able to pay a little less. How great would that be?

A lot in life depends on how you look at things. That's one way to look at things. Here's another.

Businesses don't pay taxes, they build them into the cost of doing business, as they should, and pass that expense along to their customers. That's what businesses do. That's how business works. If their customers are other businesses, they pass that tax along too until it is finally paid by us, you and me, everyone who buys goods and services. It's built into the cost of everything we buy.

I'm best qualified to tell you about one particularly excellent example of this, the federal excise tax on distilled spirits such as bourbon whiskey, aka the FET. This is not intended as a defense of taxes, the FET or any other, or of tax policy, either current or proposed. It is a defense of taxpayers.

All of them.

There is virtually no adult American who pays no taxes.

Included in the 47% of adult Americans who do not pay federal income tax are the poor, but also many low income working Americans, most retirees, most college students, and most veterans. Let's say you are one of those people and you like your Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Here in the Chicago area, you will pay about $26 for a 1.75 L bottle of Jim, including the taxes that are added on at the register. Of that, about $4 is paid to the United States Treasury.

Congratulations, Jim Beam customer, you are a federal taxpayer.

That $4 isn't all of the taxes you pay, just the federal ones. State, local, and indirect taxes add another $10. In all, tax is about 54% of the retail cost of a typical bottle of distilled spirits. So of that $26, $14 is tax revenue, and $12 is split among the producer, distributor, and retailer. (As calculated by DISCUS, the distilled spirits industry trade association.)

Distillers and other businesses collect the taxes and remit them to the government, but they don't pay the taxes. You do, I do, whenever we purchase our favorite libation.

Because poor people spend all of their income, and spend most of it on taxed goods and services, they pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than any other group. That's true whether or not they spend some of their money on alcohol, but if they do, they're paying even more tax. Alcoholic beverages are among the most heavily-taxed consumer products on the market.

The federal government first imposed the FET in 1791. It was the first federal tax on internal economic activity. All previous federal revenue came from taxes on international trade. Widely hated, it was the proximate cause of the Whiskey Rebellion, the first time the federal government used military force against American citizens.

In his 2006 book, The Whiskey Rebellion, William Hogeland argues convincingly that the FET was engineered by Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary, to favor large distillers over small ones, in order to make collecting the tax easier, and because Hamilton believed in general that a few big businesses were better for the economy than a lot of little ones. As the American polis began to form itself into two political parties, this became one of the major battle lines, and the FET became a useful symbol for Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Republicans against Hamilton's Federalists.

As president, Jefferson abolished the tax, so there was no FET between 1802 and 1814. We are currently celebrating the 200th anniversary of that tax-free period. Jefferson's successor, James Madison, reimposed it in 1814 but his successor, James Monroe, abolished it again. As a young man, Monroe had worked in a distillery and understood business better than his predecessors.

What followed was a long, 44-year period with no FET. In 1862 it was brought back to fund the Civil War, and we've had it ever since. In 1985, during the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, it was increased to $13.50 per proof gallon, where it remains. A 'proof gallon' is one gallon of 100 proof spirits (50% alcohol by volume).

Although the FET hasn't gone up in 27 years, other taxes on alcohol have and as a 'vice,' alcohol is always a convenient target for politicians.

While producers collect and remit the FET, it only hurts their business inasmuch as higher prices affect sales. Would Jim Beam sell more 1.75 L bottles of bourbon if they cost us $12 instead of $26?

If alcohol taxes go up and so do prices, who suffers? I do, since it costs me more to get my drink on, but if I and all of my fellow moochers buy less alcohol, then it's mostly the people who make it and sell it to us who suffer, and most of them are members of the moocher class too. The bottling line at Jim Beam starts to cut hours and lay people off, so do my favorite bars and liquor stores.

When Reagan raised the FET in 1985, tax revenues declined because sales did. It took several years for tax revenues to return to pre-1985 levels.

So, in a democracy, we decide what we want to pay for as a community, then we figure out how to tax ourselves to pay for it. That's how it's supposed to work. It's hard to believe the hodge-podge of taxes and taxing authorities we have now is in any sense designed to be reasonable or fair. If it can even be said to have an overall purpose, it would be simply to maximize revenue.

How do we come up with a more rational way to run our country's finances? Not villainizing half of the tax-paying population might be a good place to start.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Releases, Fall 2012.

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, several new releases are reviewed. They include a lovely new wheater called Larceny, from Heaven Hill; the exquisite new Parker's Heritage Collection, also from Heaven Hill; as well as the new Four Roses Small Batch; and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon which are both also wonderful.

The Bourbon Country Reader does not rate whiskeys. We don't give you scores, we give you information.

For example, you've heard of Seagram's Seven Crown Blended Whiskey. You've probably even had the misfortune of tasting it. As a blend, Seagram's 7 is a mixture of several different whiskeys, plus a whole lot of vodka. Now many of its component whiskeys are being released as straights. We break them down for you.

You've also probably heard of Jack Daniel's. In this issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Jack's former head of global brand communications, Chris Middleton, writes about Jack's new rye and the Tennessee whiskey tradition (it's part one of two).

If you're into bourbon, you really should subscribe to The Bourbon Country Reader. It is produced and delivered the old-fashioned way; ink on paper, in an envelope, delivered personally to your home or office by a uniformed representative of the United States government. It's always independent and idiosyncratic, has no distillery affiliation, accepts no advertising, and contains 100 percent original content that you won't find anyplace else.

And, gosh by golly, it's such a thoughtful gift for the American whiskey lover in your life.

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 (we missed April and August, but got this one out early-ish). Regardless, your subscription always includes six issues. Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tips On How To Label An Unaged Rye Whiskey.


A micro-producer writes, "just read your whiskey blog concerning the new Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye Whiskey. This is very interesting. My husband and I own a small artisan distillery and have had our labels in for approval with the TTB. We received our second rejection and, lo and behold, it's about the wording for our Unaged Rye Whiskey."

It seems a shame that while modern distillers can make a product their ancestors would have called rye whiskey, we can’t call it that today.

Until the second half of the 19th century, most whiskey was not aged. Folks probably didn't call it 'rye whiskey,' they probably just called it 'whiskey.' But it was spirit straight from the still. You can make such a product today, but you can't call it 'whiskey.'

By the time Federal rules about the standards of identity for distilled spirits were being written, early in the 20th century, the aging of whiskey in oak barrels had become so common and expected that whiskey was defined as a distilled spirit made from grain that had been stored in oak containers. Rye whiskey, furthermore, had to, among other things, be aged in new and charred oak barrels.

Before you start to complain about damned government regulations, recall that these rules were written to protect consumers from dishonest or misleading labeling and they have worked pretty well. The problem is one typical of government regulation. It has a hard time keeping up with changes of attitudes and ideas among the people it's supposed to protect.

Setting aside the desirability of unaged rye whiskey, it is a historically legitimate style and not that hard to understand, so the possibility of consumers being confused about it is small.

We've learned from the recent Jack Daniel's experience that the only suitable classification available from TTB is 'Distilled Spirits Specialty,' which is a catch-all for any distilled spirit that can't qualify for one of the other existing classifications.

Although it makes sense that there should be an 'unaged rye whiskey' class, none exists. Since spirit classified as ‘rye whiskey’ must be aged, ‘unaged rye whiskey’ is a regulatory impossibility. Many people have blithely said TTB should just create and define such a category, but it doesn't work that way. It might actually require an act of Congress. Maybe not, but it certainly requires going through a long and arduous regulatory rule making process.

Part of TTB’s problem is that for the first 70 of its 80 years of existence, it dealt mostly with big companies, with compliance departments and lots of lawyers, who were making me-too products. Consequently, TTB is not well equipped to deal with hundreds of small producers who are, in many cases, trying to push the envelope on everything.

But all is not hopeless. Here's how other producers have solved this problem.

When the folks who run Washington's restored distillery at Mount Vernon wanted to sell unaged rye whiskey, they actually aged it, very briefly, in new, charred oak barrels.

This is called gaming the system or, more charitably, finding a work-around. Under the rules, although aging is required, the length of time is up to you (24 hours is plenty) as is the size of the barrel. It just has to be new, which means you can use it only once for rye whiskey. It also has to be oak and charred.

This can, of course, be expensive and you have to pass that cost along to your customers. The folks at Mount Vernon didn't care, they planned to charge a lot anyway.

Another alternative is to age in a used barrel. Again, how long it’s in the wood doesn’t matter. You can't call it 'rye whiskey' but you can call it ‘whiskey,’ as the class, and use ‘rye’ in the name, you just can’t put the words ‘rye' and 'whiskey’ together. You can, for example, call it 'Chuck's Old Rye, An Illinois Whiskey.'

This way is much less expensive because not only does a used barrel cost about 40 percent less than a new one, you can use the used barrel an unlimited number of times, so you only need one no matter how much whiskey you make.

Another alternative is to make corn whiskey instead of rye whiskey, since corn whiskey is already an exception in the rules. It doesn't have to be aged at all.

One idea no one has tried yet is getting a cooperage to make cheap, piece-of-crap oak containers. Essentially, disposable barrels. Since TTB doesn't care how long the spirit is stored in the container, how good does is have to be? It doesn't even have to be a barrel. The rule just says, 'charred new oak containers.' Any vessel that meets those requirements and can hold the whiskey for even a few seconds should pass TTB muster.

Then you can knock the containers down and burn them to fire your boiler.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mis-Identified Bottles Tarnish Bonhams Whiskey Auction.

Collectors of alcohol products confront a dilemma most other collectors do not. The normal buying, selling, and trading that goes on in any other collecting hobby is, in their case, illegal. It is prohibited everywhere in the United States to sell any type of potable alcohol without a license.

One solution is auctions, which are legal in several states, although the auction house has to obtain an appropriate license. Whiskey auctions have only recently become common in the U. S. and the inclusion in them of American whiskey is an even more recent phenomenon.

This post from the L. A. Whiskey Society describes some problems with a recent Bonhams auction. Coincidentally, a correspondent wrote to me today about this same auction. In his case, he was offended by a bottle of Elmer T. Lee bourbon described as 'circa 1950s' that is more likely from the 1990s. Several other bottles fall into the same category.

Rightly, the L. A. Whiskey Society piece also criticizes the boneheads who pay high prices for items they could go into a store and buy for a fraction of the auction price. As much as one hates to see an error-riddled catalog tarnishing what is otherwise a good thing, it's hard to feel too sorry for anyone who has more money than sense.

Here's a link to the Bonhams catalog.

Friday, October 26, 2012

George Dickel Gives A Different Taste To LDI Rye

There’s an interesting link between the new George Dickel Rye and Templeton Rye. Though not available in most of the country, Templeton Rye has, in a short time, become a major brand in Iowa and Illinois, including the major market of Chicago.

When Templeton debuted in 2005, the company was extremely secretive about where it was made. They wanted people to believe it was made in Templeton, Iowa, since mythology about that small town’s Prohibition-era reputation as a leading illegal whiskey source was the heart and soul of the company’s marketing strategy. That was impossible, since the company got its license as a distilled spirits producer the same year it launched its product, which as a straight rye whiskey had to be at least two years old, and tasted more like five or six.

Obviously, Templeton was whiskey made by another distiller, but who? Most lists of the usual suspects (including mine) didn’t include the old Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which turned out to be the source. Little was known about that distillery, then owned by Pernod-Ricard, except that it made Seagram’s Gin, Seagram’s Vodka, and Seagram’s Seven Crown Blended Whiskey, but no straight whiskeys sold in the U.S.

Since then, many straight ryes have been introduced using whiskey made by the distillery best known as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), which last year was sold to MGP Ingredients, Inc. of Atchison, Kansas. Templeton was the first to bring LDI’s unique 95% rye to market and George Dickel Rye may be the last, as least for now, since almost all of LDI’s current rye inventory is less than a year old. (Dickel has its supply locked up.)

The recipe, which calls for 95% rye grain and 5% malt, was developed many years ago, when Seagram’s still reigned. It was created by Larry Ebersold, then master distiller there. At first they made a standard rye whiskey, just 51% rye, the rest corn and malt. They wanted more rye flavor so they experimented with a recipe that was 80% unmalted rye and 20% malted rye. Everyone loved the result except the accountants, because malted rye is expensive, so they changed the proportions to 95% unmalted and just 5% malted rye. Still too expensive, said the accountants, so they replaced the rye malt with standard barley malt, and that’s the recipe LDI makes today.

The whiskey was always intended to be an ingredient in blends, not a straight. The company liked it so well for that purpose they decided to make it at their plant in Gimli, Manitoba, for use in Crown Royal and other Canadian whiskeys. They failed because a crucial strain of bacteria, native to Indiana, couldn’t survive beyond one generation in the harsher Canadian climate.

Since Templeton, the LDI rye has appeared as straight rye whiskey from High West, Redemption, Filibuster, Smooth Ambler, James E. Pepper, and now Diageo's Bulleit and George Dickel.

Although Diageo doesn’t own LDI, they’re its biggest customer. For several years, Diageo has worked with LDI to develop rye whiskey products for Bulleit (released last year) and Dickel (coming soon) using the LDI rye. The Bulleit version is very similar to Templeton but the Dickel Rye is different.

According to Dickel Master Distiller John Lunn, the aged whiskey is transported from Indiana to the Diageo bottling facility in Plainfield, Illinois, near Chicago. There it meets up with charcoal sent from the Dickel distillery near Tullahoma, Tennessee. At Plainfield, it goes through the exact same charcoal mellowing process as George Dickel Tennessee Whisky does at the distillery. The only difference is that the Tennessee Whisky is filtered before aging and the rye is filtered after aging. It is done in the same way using the same charcoal, after chilling the whiskey to 40°F.

Compared to Bulleit Rye, the difference in flavor is dramatic. Critics of filtering claim it makes any whiskey less flavorful, but that’s not the case here. There is plenty of flavor, but it’s different. Bulleit Rye is fruity but the fruits it suggests are red grapes, plums, and dark berries. Dickel Rye has a strong citrus flavor, suggesting variously grapefruit or pineapple. It’s appropriately sweet with a little bitterness, like peanut brittle, licorice or sassafras. There’s some soot and also raspberry and apricot.

If Dickel Rye does well it will be good for LDI, since Lunn says there are no plans to distill rye at the Tullahoma plant. “We’re concentrating on making the best Tennessee Whisky we can,” he says. They’re not planning to expand the distillery or build more warehouses either, but they have 600 acres, so there’s plenty of room to grow. There are no other products or projects, such as limited edition releases, that Lunn wants to talk about, “but we’re always looking at innovation, what we can do and what the people want,” he says.

At 42, Lunn is one of the youngest master distillers for a major producer. He was trained by his predecessor, Dave Backus, and even got to meet Ralph Dupps, who built the current Dickel distillery in 1958. Dupps gave him one piece of advice, “Don’t change a damn thing.”

He hasn’t. Dickel is unique in operating almost exactly as it did 50 years ago, with no computerized control systems.

The business has been buzzing about rye whiskey for almost a decade, but in the last year or so several new ryes have been introduced as line extensions of major bourbon or Tennessee whiskey brands, including Jack Daniel’s, Knob Creek, Bulleit, and now George Dickel. This should prove whether or not the heavily-publicized rye whiskey revival really has legs or not.

NOTE 10/29:  Made a correction today based on information received from Diageo. When Lunn said they 'use the same charcoal," I incorrectly assumed they filtered it at the distillery. Instead they send the charcoal to Plainfield, Illinois, where Dickel is bottled. Sorry about that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

TTB Says Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye Isn't Neutral Spirit After All, Sort Of.



Jack Daniel's is one of the world's best known and best selling whiskeys, arguably (depending on which survey you use) THE top dog. It is also one of the world's most powerful brands, built on whiskey, but sold on everything from t-shirts to menu items at T.G.I. Fridays.

All of that makes Jack Daniel's Unaged Tennessee Rye a very important new product. Everyone wants to know what it means for both the rye whiskey and white (i.e., unaged) whiskey segments. Most people don't care that it has also created a controversy involving one of the principal regulators of the beverage alcohol industry, the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

TTB's main job is collecting taxes. The tax burden on alcohol is second only to tobacco. No matter how poor you are; if you drink, you pay a boatload of tax to all levels of government, the federal government most of all.

TTB's second most important job is regulating the way beverage alcohol products are labeled and marketed. In return for all the millions we drinkers pay in taxes, TTB makes sure the products we drink are what they claim to be and are marketed responsibly. Its rule book is in the Code of Federal Regulations, where you can look it up. The part covering distilled spirits is Title 27, Chapter 1, Part 5, Subpart C, and is called the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits ('the Standards').

One of the rules is that every distilled spirits product has to fit into one of TTB's established classes. Whiskey, for example, is a class. Each class is strictly defined in the Standards. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is classified as whiskey. That's why people who care about such things were shocked when Jack Daniel's Unaged Tennessee Rye was classified, not as whiskey, but as neutral spirit.

As anyone who has tasted the product will attest, it's not neutral. So why is it labeled that way? Here's the explanation from Jack Daniel's spokesperson Rob Hoskins, "Jack Daniel’s packaging and legal departments argued that the Tennessee Unaged Rye should be labeled as an 'unaged whiskey' which we felt more accurately described the nature of the product to the consumer, but the TTB ruled against this proposal and would only approve the label under the category 'neutral spirit.'"

Strange, since the Standards define neutral spirit as, "distilled spirits produced ... at or above 190° proof." Mr. Hoskins says Tennessee Unaged Rye is produced below 140° proof and is destined, after aging, to become straight rye whiskey. It is, therefore, not neutral spirit.

But then what is it?

All of this was pointed out to TTB and Thomas K. Hogue, their Director of Congressional and Public Affairs, responded. "The regulations are pretty straight forward," wrote Hogue. "Whisky is defined ... as an alcoholic distillate from fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof that must be stored in oak containers. Neutral spirits must be distilled at 190° or higher. A product that is made from fermented mash of grain and produced at less than 190° of proof but not stored in oak containers would be a distilled spirits specialty product, as it would not meet any of the standards of identity."

It could, according to Hogue, be further labeled as spirits distilled from grain. He noted that corn whiskey is an exception, since it need not be stored in oak containers, but must be at least 80% corn grain.

So that means Jack Daniel's Unaged Tennessee Rye is going to change its label, right? "Any time there is a concern that an approved label does not accurately reflect the contents of the bottle, that is something that we address directly with the label holder," writes Hogue.

A comment from Mr. Hoskins at Jack Daniel's has been sought.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is White Whiskey Just About Over?

Savvy investors know that when the general pubic hears about a hot stock, that usually means it's done. Some of that is insider hubris, of course, but trends go through phases and mass popularity blunts leading edge by definition.

In one of the early reviews of Jack Daniel's new unaged rye, Kevin Gray of Cocktail Enthusiast writes that the product "helps to legitimize the unaged whiskey category." Does it? Or does it mark the beginning of the end?

Let's leave aside for a moment the absurd decision of the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to classify Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye as a neutral spirit. We all know what it is, even if the increasingly irrelevant TTB does not.

Kevin Gray is clearly a fan of micro-producer white whiskeys, especially since he thinks the new Daniel's rye delivers "easy-drinking mellowness." Everything is relative.

Whether from micros or majors, most white whiskey is simply white dog, spirit straight from the still that's hot and harsh and badly in need of long years in wood.

Gray's analysis of the marketplace is intriguing. "For Jack to be playing in this space at all means something. It shows that the [white whiskey] category isn’t just for fringe players who cannot afford to let their whiskeys sit in barrels for upwards of four years. But a category worth the interest of the industry’s biggest brands."

As he notes, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and even Maker's Mark have toyed with unaged products, but this Daniel's rye and the impending Jacob's Ghost from Jim Beam take it to a different level due to the immense power of those two brands.

Gray hopes "this doesn’t hurt the micro distillers. Companies like Death’s Door, Finger Lakes and Woodinville each make a fine unaged whiskey. But with Jack Daniel’s and others on the playing field, it could raise interest and visibility of the category as a whole, thereby helping the small guys gain a better foothold."

Or not.

One white whiskey producer confided surprise at the Daniel's and Beam moves, because he is beginning to think the whole white whiskey thing is just about played out. Whether or not it is would seem to depend on how consumers respond to the Daniel's and Beam products.

Meanwhile, micro-producers might want to think about installing filtration systems. Though still extremely harsh by fully aged whiskey standards, the new Jack Daniel's Rye is certainly milder than a typical white dog due to the charcoal mellowing all Daniel's new make receives. Often described as a jump start to aging, charcoal mellowing tempers, transforms, or removes many of the harsh congeners responsible for white dog's challenging taste. Beam's Jacob's Ghost is actually one-year-old bourbon that has been extensively filtered to remove its color and harsher flavors.

Unless you prefer a spirit that takes off the top of your head, both are an improvement over the typical micro-producer white whiskey.

Does any of this bode well for micro-producers, as Gray hopes? Or is it the death knell for their white whiskeys?

It could be both. White whiskeys may need to change. Luckily, the ability to reinvent oneself quickly should be a micro-producer advantage. Instead of trying to make their products more palatable with short aging in little barrels, micro-producers might try filtration. It's a completely natural, legitimate, and historically authentic way to process whiskey, and it doesn't take years to work.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

KDA Announces Craft Distillery Tour.

This is a great time of year to visit Kentucky, especially if you're coming from the north. Generally, the onset of cold weather there is about two weeks behind what it is here in Chicago.

Plus, now there is something new to see and do.

Yesterday, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear announced the launch of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, a new tourism adventure that links the state’s micro-distilleries. The Governor made the announcement with Lexington Mayor Jim Gray at Barrel House Distillery, part of the city’s new Distillery District.

The new tour, featuring seven artisan distilleries stretching from Marshall to Mason counties, is designed to complement the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience that has become one of the Commonwealth’s most popular attractions.

Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), which will coordinate the tour, said Kentucky is the first and only state with an expedition specifically designed to showcase its flourishing craft distilling industry. Gregory said the camaraderie between historic and boutique distilleries played a key role in forging this new attraction. “For 200 years, one of the distinctive hallmarks of our industry has been the fellowship between distilleries, no matter how big or small. We’re proud that tradition continues today and will ensure that Kentucky remains the one, true authentic home for Bourbon."

The seven founding craft distilleries are: Barrel House Distillery in Lexington, Corsair Artisan Distillery in Bowling Green, Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, MB Roland Distillery in Pembroke, Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville, Silver Trail Distillery in Hardin, and the Willett Distillery in Bardstown.

The tour will officially launch on Thursday, Oct. 18, with the “Bung Heard ‘Round the World” event. Each distillery will have a press conference with local dignitaries and pound a bung into a barrel at 10 a.m. EST to signify that the tour is open for business.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Jack Daniel's And TTB Redefine Neutral Spirits, Or Do They?


When is a neutral spirit not a neutral spirit? When it's a Jack Daniel's product, apparently.

The young saga of new Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye has already gotten curiouser and curiouser. The story begins with Friday's post about two new 'white whiskey' products from Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's.

Looking at the photograph of the Jack Daniel's package provided by the distillery, inquiring minds wanted to know how a product distilled at 140° proof (70% ABV), as they described the product, could be labeled 'neutral spirit,' considering that the regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) clearly state that neutral spirit is a distilled spirit distilled at more than 190° proof (95% ABV). (The exact wording is reproduced below.)

Well, that apparently is not what 'neutral spirit' means if you're Jack Daniel's. Below is the explanation from Jack Daniel's PR agency. I'm flabbergasted, but there it is.

Mr. Cowdery,

Good afternoon. Thank you for your inquiry. Per the portion of the Code of Federal Regulations describing neutral spirits (vodka) and whiskey copied and provided below, vodka has to be distilled at or above 190 proof and “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. Whiskeys must be distilled at less than 190 proof and “possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be stored), and bottled at not less than 80 proof.”

The net of this is that our unaged rye did not satisfy the “Class 2; Whiskey” requirement of being stored in an oak container, therefore the TTB ruled that it should be labeled as a “neutral spirit” even though it was distilled at 140 proof and obviously violates the stated vodka requirement of being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this ruling, it is assumed that the TTB considers all whiskies (except corn whisky) to be neutral spirits until they enter the barrel for maturation. Jack Daniel’s packaging and legal departments argued that the Tennessee Unaged Rye should be labeled as an “unaged whiskey” which we felt more accurately described the nature of the product to the consumer, but the TTB ruled against this proposal and would only approve the label under the category “neutral spirit”.

Jack Daniel’s understands this category classification can certainly be a point of confusion. The Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Unaged Rye is a fermented mash of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley that was distilled at 140 proof and charcoal mellowed, but it was never entered into an oak barrel.

Again, thank you for your inquiry. Please let me know if you have more concerns or questions.

Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms PART 5—LABELING AND ADVERTISING OF DISTILLED SPIRITS

Subpart C—Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits § 5.22 The standards of identity. Standards of identity for the several classes and types of distilled spirits set forth in this section shall be as follows (see also §5.35, class and type):

 (a) Class 1; neutral spirits or alcohol. “Neutral spirits” or “alcohol” are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190° proof, and, if bottled, bottled at not less than 80° proof.

(1) “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

(2) “Grain spirits” are neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.

(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.

Thanks,
Rob Hoskins
Jack Daniel’s Media Relations

As I replied to Mr. Hoskins, the definition of ‘neutral spirits,’ as a class designation, is distinguishable from the definition of vodka, which appears below it as a type designation within the class of neutral spirits, much as ‘rye whiskey’ appears as a type designation within the class of whiskey. The definition of ‘neutral spirits’ as a class, while it does not include the "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color" requirement for vodka, does clearly state that the spirit must be distilled above 190° of proof. The ruling as described would seem to undermine the definition of neutral spirits for more purposes than just the labeling of this one Jack Daniel’s product.

In case you haven't detected this yet, I consider this outrageous. 

I have made my own inquiries to TTB. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Jack Daniel's And Jim Beam Pile Onto The White Whiskey Bandwagon.

Clearly, there is some high level market research out there that says so-called 'white whiskey' is a product consumers want, because the world's two biggest American whiskey brands are rolling out their versions over the next few months.

Micro-producers created the white whiskey category a few years back, ostensibly as a way to generate revenue while their whiskey aged. Mixologists praised its bold, spicy character as a great cocktail ingredient and its clear appearance appealed to people for whom vodka is the quintessential cocktail base.

An informal survey of whiskey enthusiasts showed that while most find white whiskey interesting, few actually drink it regularly. No one reported buying a second bottle.

Although white whiskey must, by law, have some minimal contact with wood to be called 'whiskey,' it can be as little as five minutes, too brief for the wood to have any effect on flavor or appearance. Unlike Europe and most of the rest of the world, the U.S. has no minimum aging requirement for whiskey. It just says the spirit must be 'stored in oak barrels' in order to be called whiskey. It doesn't say for how long.

The rap on white whiskey has been that it's simply white dog, whiskey distillate straight from the still, too hot and harsh to be truly enjoyable, especially neat or on-the-rocks, the way most whiskey enthusiasts drink. This has continued to be true despite the sometimes hyperbolic claims of the micro-producers for whom it is bread and butter.

Although both products are bottled at a mild 40% ABV, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's are approaching the subject differently, from the micros and from each other.

Beam's product is called Jacob's Ghost, after 18th century family patriarch Jacob Beam. It is standard Jim Beam bourbon, aged one year, then heavily filtered to remove the color and harsher flavors. The result is a product that is still pretty raw, but much milder than white dog, with significant amounts of corn body and barrel sweetness. It is scheduled to be released in January.

Beam calls its product white whiskey, Daniel's does not. Because it's not whiskey.

As the press materials say repeatedly, new Jack Daniel's Unaged Tennessee Rye is the first new grain bill used at Jack Daniel's since Prohibition. "While many rye products only contain the required 51 percent rye in their grain bill, Jack Daniel’s Unaged Rye consists of a grain combination of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn and 12 percent malted barley."

Notice the use of the term 'rye products,' not 'rye whiskeys.'

Take a close look at the label. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye is not whiskey, it's neutral spirit.

In other words, it's Jack Daniel's vodka.

Daniel's doesn't talk about any of this in the press materials.

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye actually tastes quite a bit like Jacob's Ghost, and very unlike the typical micro-producer white whiskey or any vodka I've ever had.

From the taste, it's hard to believe it meets the legal definition of neutral spirit. It tastes like a mild whiskey white dog.

Jack Daniel's Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, in his tasting notes, talks the way you would about an unaged rye whiskey. He describes it as more fruity than spicy, and he's right about that. They also as much as say it was already in barrels when they decided it was so good they should sell it white. That sounds like a fairy tale anyway, but is incompatible with the neutral spirit classification.

You see, the terms 'neutral spirit' and 'whiskey' are mutually exclusive. A product can't be both. You also can't put neutral spirit into a barrel and someday harvest whiskey, although they imply that's what they're doing with the phrase, "it's just a taste of what's to come."

I imagine people will be talking about it as "Jack Daniel's moonshine," but it's actually Jack Daniel's vodka, and that's just bizarre.

Both products are far more drinkable than a typical micro-producer 'white whiskey.' The Daniel's rye is spicier and drier than the Beam product. Still, you have to have at least some affection for white dog to drink either, because that's still how they taste.

Everything Arnett says about the product is consistent with how it tastes, but not with how it's labeled. That's the mystery.