Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Get It Right.

I guess I was always looking for trouble.

Twenty years ago, I started to research and write about American whiskey because most of what I could find on the subject was riddled with inaccuracy. Part of the problem was scotch writers who thought they understood bourbon but didn't. Another was general assignment reporters who only knew what their interview subjects told them and since those interview subjects were selling some brand or another, the articles were loaded with not-always-accurate marketing spin.

General assignment reporters also tend to possess misinformation gathered during misspent youths, which they regard as gospel.  

It has gotten better. Some credit goes to the companies, who are training their people better, and separating the product information function from the sales function. Beam, Inc.'s whiskey professors, for example, are terrific. The internet has helped and so has the rise of publications such as WHISKY Magazine and Whisky Advocate.

But as I was reminded today, writers who should know better can still get a lot wrong. While it gives me no pleasure to call them out, what else can I do? When we were both learning how to drive, my brother used to criticize me for not blowing my horn vigorously enough at drivers who committed various automotive sins. "How else are they going to learn?" he argued.

Case in point: Robert Moss, who writes about food and drink for the City Paper in Charleston, South Carolina. His lengthy article about bourbon, published two weeks ago, had a very promising beginning, an anecdote about Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon being effective celebrity bait in the South. His discussion of the cult phenomenon Pappy has become was accurate but without providing much insight as he described a Charleston bar where Pappy 20 sells for $65 a glass, and Pappy 23 sells for $85.

Although the bar-restaurant he describes sounds terribly pretentious, it's a great advance that, today, pretentious bars can be bourbon-themed.

The phrase "slow-aged corn whiskey" bothered me because aging can be long, but slow? And corn whiskey is not bourbon; although bourbon is made mostly from corn, corn whiskey is its own type and not the same thing. A nit? Possibly.

Then he states that "Congress declared (bourbon) to be 'America's Native Spirit' in 1964," which is often said but simply not true, and always sets me off.

The sad thing is that Moss clearly did a lot of research to find so much inaccurate information.

His capsule history of the American whiskey industry is about half right. The claim of Scots-Irish dominance in frontier distilling has been largely discredited, for example. Moss accumulates and reports facts without seeming to understand them. His modern history ignores the impact of the export market and of Maker's Mark.

What's worse, he seems to believe there is an actual Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery and calls the Van Winkle whiskeys 'artisan,' when they are no more nor less so than any other major distillery products. Call it what it is. Van Winkle is a small and elite brand from a big producer, but Moss seems to have no idea how or where the Van Winkle whiskeys are actually made or, if he does, he chooses to not share that information with his readers.

Even though he interviewed Julian Van Winkle, Moss makes ignorant statements such as, "Van Winkle started buying up old inventory from struggling distilleries, particularly those selling his family's old brands." Julian didn't tell him that. In fact, Van Winkle bought whiskey from his family's former distillery, Stitzel-Weller, which was not struggling, and supplemented it with whiskey from defunct distilleries whose struggles were behind them.

Or perhaps he refers to Buffalo Trace, Van Winkle's present home, which sells W. L. Weller bourbon, one of the "(Van Winkle) family's old brands." Again, Moss has the facts, he just doesn't understand them.

Then he shifts the story to a Charleston-based flavored bourbon, something anathema to any Pappy drinker. To talk about the enthusiasm for premium bourbon and the recent rash of flavored bourbon in the same breath, without mentioning how much premium bourbon enthusiasts despise flavored bourbon, is journalistic malpractice.

I'm piling on Mr. Moss, who I do not know, because I thought we were finished with this sort of thing. In 2009, Kate Hopkins published 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink. She started out knowing nothing about whiskey, wrote a whole book about it, and got almost everything right. It can be done.


Sylvan said...

The Moss article bugged me too - especially the part about how the flavored bourbon is made - "they start with barrels of Kentucky bourbon and infuse it with ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon. Then, they redistill the liquor to clarify it before bottling it for sale." The bottle shows a brown spirit, and re-distilling aged bourbon is pretty unlikely.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Exactly! True infusion is possible but unlikely. Re-distillation is preposterous.

Jason Pyle said...

Good post Chuck. There were definitely some spots in the article that were not adequately researched.

The only thing I would say to your statement of "Julian didn't tell him that", is that we really don't know what Julian told him. Last week I had a visitor/frequent commentor on my site tell me he received an email from Julian stating the very bourbon (2011 Fall/Winter Pappy 15 release) his son Preston noted was "100% Buffalo Trace Bourbon" was from Stitzel-Weller and Bernheim. That's the first I've ever heard about Bernheim being in the mix. I just don't have reason to believe this gentleman isn't telling the truth. Knowing what Preston has stated, the gentleman responded back requesting clarification. He referenced Preston's claims, but has yet to receive a response.

I am an absolute Pappy fan - love the stuff. But I separate my feelings for the bourbon from my feelings about the producer's transparency. I don't think the Van Winkles are very forthcoming about much when it comes to their whiskey. Is that a misinformed statement by me? Possibly, but it's my experience. There is just too much he said she said that I don't think anyone can be sure except the Van Winkles. They are apparently comfortable with there being mystery. I can't say that I blame them. It works for them and I might do the same.

Another example. Last Spring, in the same podcast produced by K&L Spirits, Harlen Wheatley (BT Master Distiller) stated, without an ounce of hesitation, that the Pappy 15 was a marriage of BT and SW juice. It was later reported by some folks from StraightBourbon.com, that appear to me to have little reason to lie, that Julian informed them it was 100% SW juice.

I've gotten off the point perhaps a bit - I agree with your post about this article, but I also believe that just because the writer talked to Julian doesn't mean he got all the straight information. As you suggested, he's probably just uninformed enough not to know what to take with a grain of salt and what to report as fact.

scott said...

I was curious about your saying that the claim of Scots-Irish dominance in frontier distilling has been largely discredited so I began leafing through some books on hand before perhaps asking you about that. Didn't find an answer
yet but did notice this sentence from the introduction of the book The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which is part of the Images of America series of history books: "Straight bourbon has to be aged at least two years because of a law passed by Congress in 1964 recognizing bourbon as 'America's only native spirit'."

Chuck Cowdery said...

What Julian 'didn't tell' Moss is that sentence I quoted about him buying whiskey from 'struggling distilleries' who 'sold his family's brands.' The subject of BT vs. Bernheim vs. SW never came up because the whiskey was, of course, made at the old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.

As for the Scots-Irish, because they were important in Eastern Kentucky, many people assume they were the forerunners of Kentucky's commercial distilling families. They weren't. The families who came to central Kentucky and became major distillers were from a wider range of origins, some Scots-Irish but also English, Germans, Scots, Irish and others.

Read the link above to learn what was really declared in 1964. Hint: the words 'native spirit' appeared nowhere. Why rely on what the KDA says when you can read the actual Congressional Declaration from 1964?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Click on the words, 'not true.'

scott said...

I read your link alright, and that was why the misinformation of the quote from that, rather recently published, book was so glaringly wrong. I wasn't the 1964 law that created the straight whiskey defintion as the book's writer is claiming there. Double whammy!

Tim Davis said...

Listening to/speaking with Mike Veach should be mandatory for all reporters who want to write a treatise on Bourbon that attempts to discuss any history/mythology.


Chuck Cowdery said...

Good idea but, sadly, I've seen Mike mis-quoted too many times to count. A determined fool can get it wrong even with the correct information in plain sight.