Thursday, January 31, 2013

Heaven Hill and ALS Association Team Up to Honor Parker Beam

In 2012, legendary 6th Generation Master Distiller Parker Beam was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS affects more than 30,000 Americans at any given time. Parker Beam is in the early stages of ALS.

Today, Heaven Hill Distilleries announced that it, in Parker's honor, it is working with the ALS Association to promote awareness and raise money to battle the disease. Heaven Hill and Parker Beam will dedicate the upcoming fall 2013 edition of Parker’s Heritage Collection, an eagerly anticipated and highly regarded limited annual release of rare American Whiskeys, to raising funds for the ALS Association. Heaven Hill will donate $20 from each bottle sold and projects that a minimum of $250,000 will be raised.

Parker Beam is a charter member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and a grand-nephew of James Beauregard 'Jim' Beam. He has been crafting some of the world’s most critically acclaimed whiskeys at Heaven Hill for more than 50 years; first with his father, Earl, and now with his son, Craig.

Despite his condition, Parker is continuing to work and contribute to Heaven Hill and the bourbon industry’s rising profile. He will continue to personally select the barrels used for his namesake Parker’s Heritage Collection bottlings.

The ALS Association has established a special fund, known as the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund. Details and quantities of the next Parker’s Heritage Collection release will be made public later this year.

"Both my wife, Linda, and myself have become very involved in the ALS Association and in raising awareness of the disease since I was diagnosed with it," noted Mr. Beam. "We are pleased to help in any way we can and are most appreciative to Heaven Hill and the Shapira family for helping with such a generous financial contribution from the sale of the upcoming edition of Parker’s Heritage Collection.

"We hope that others will become more aware of ALS and will find additional ways to help us in our fight."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Oregon Rectifier Sentenced to Federal Prison for Tax Fraud

Among distilled spirits producers and enthusiasts, the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau of the United States Treasury (TTB) is best known as the Federal agency that enforces the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits by reviewing and approving alcoholic beverage labels, but their primary job is collecting taxes. We don't often hear about producers being busted and prosecuted for tax offenses, but with the recent explosion of new licenses and new producers, we may hear about it more often.

Yesterday, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken sentenced William Myers, 66, of Cottage Grove, Oregon, to serve one year and one day in prison for failing to pay $879,000 in federal excise taxes and for filing more than 70 false federal excise tax returns on behalf of his company, the Side Pocket Food Company.

Upon release from prison, Myers must serve three years of supervised release, including 100 hours of community service in each of the three years, and he must pay restitution in the amount of $873,186.88. Pursuant to a plea agreement, Myers admitted that he owes more than $879,000 in federal excise taxes and filed more than 70 false excise tax returns.

Myers was also operating an illegal still inside the company warehouse. He was reportedly distilling wine into brandy on behalf of local wineries. Agents discovered the still while serving a search warrent. When tested, the distilled alcohol had dangerous levels of lead and copper. The Food and Drug Administration said that drinking the tainted alcohol could cause nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting.

Myers runs Side Pocket with his wife and five of their six children. His lawyers argued that Myers was merely trying to save the company on which his family's livelihood depends, after it experienced setbacks during the financial crises of 2007-2008. Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Bradford, who prosecuted the case, argued for a two-year sentence, saying it was important to send a message that cheating customers and taxpayers is not the way to salvage a struggling business.

Bradford's boss, U.S. Attorney S. Amanda Marshall, noted that, “Defendant cheated his clients, the taxpayers, and the regulatory system, acting as if the rules did not apply to him or his business. Business owners need to understand that this type of conduct will not be tolerated. There are legitimate ways, like bankruptcy, to work through difficult financial times. Theft and tax fraud puts individuals and communities at risk, it is illegal, and will land you in jail.”

Licensed as a rectifier (processor), warehouseman and bottler, but not a distiller, Side Pocket bought distilled spirts, which it used to create a line of products that included whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila, gin, and pre-mixed cocktails.

Cottage Grove is a small town located about 20 miles south of Eugene.

UPDATE 1/31/13: Christopher Null at Drinkhacker alerted me to this angle. Two days before the story above broke, it was reported that Side Pocket is being sued for failure to deliver on a private label vodka named for the Ying Yang Twins, a music group. It looks like the Myers family's troubles are just beginning.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Beam Moves Vodka Bottling to Kentucky

A small announcement today from Beam illustrates why bourbon-making is so good for Kentucky, even when bourbon-making itself isn't directly involved.

Last year, Beam acquired the Pinnacle vodka brand, which continues to boom. Pinnacle and other products from that deal are now bottled in Maine, but Beam has decided to close and possibly sell that facility, and will bottle in Frankfort, Kentucky, instead. The move is expected to add 45 jobs. Last year, Beam closed a facility in Cincinnati and moved those operations to Frankfort as well.

Consolidating operations is efficient and just good business, but where to consolidate? In the case of Kentucky's bourbon makers, since Kentucky bourbon whiskey can only be made in Kentucky, and is preferred by consumers, Kentucky is always the obvious choice. Since they aren't going to move bourbon distillation and maturation to another state (or country), they might as well do everything in Kentucky, at least everything that can be done anywhere, like bottling vodka, and that's a boon to Kentucky's economy.

Beam obtained the Frankfort facility, located at Forks of the Elkhorn, in 1987 when it acquired National Distillers. It was then the Old Grand-Dad Distillery but other National brands, such as Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, were also made there. Beam closed the distillery portion but still has active maturation warehouses there, and the bottling operation has been expanded several times. Beam's distilleries are at Clermont, which also has bottling, and Boston, which does not.

Beam's Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto is entirely self-contained; distilling, aging, and bottling Maker's Mark Bourbon and nothing else. All three distilleries are close to Bardstown, Kentucky.

This phenomenon is not unique to Beam. Last year, Campari America announced that it is building a new bottling facility at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It will bottle Wild Turkey, of course, but also the company's much larger Skyy Vodka brand. Again, since Wild Turkey needs to be in Kentucky, it just makes sense for other company operations to be there too.

Another example is 'California' brandy. Although the grapes are grown in California, and the brandy is distilled there, three of the top five domestic brandies are aged and bottled in Kentucky, primarily because it's cheaper to transport the brandy than it is to transport the used bourbon barrels in which it is aged.

Wherever bottling is done, that's where finished good distribution begins, which benefits shipping companies and their drivers, as well as all the businesses that support that industry, from truck mechanics to road builders.

Although the Commonwealth has gotten much better in recent years, Kentucky often seems to take its bourbon industry for granted. Other states would kill for something like that, an industry so tied to its home state in the minds of consumers that it can't possibly relocate, and that by its mere presence attracts other businesses that produce jobs, tax revenue, and economic vitality.

Both literally and figuratively, Kentucky would be a much poorer place without its bourbon makers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Beam Is Selling Bellows and Other Value Brands to Luxco


It takes different kinds of companies to make up the distilled spirits business. One way to divide them is between brand companies and commodity companies.

The brand companies base their business on household-name brands, which become and remain household names because the companies spend a lot of money to support them. They count on consumer demand to pull product off the shelf.

Commodity companies base their business on narrow margins, high volume, and efficiency. They push their products into distribution with price, and count on the distributors and retailers to push them out to value-conscious consumers. Commodity companies spend almost nothing on marketing support. Both types of companies make money, it's just a different approach.

Of course, brand v. commodity is a simple dichotomy and, consequently, not entirely accurate . Most of the brand companies have a few commodity products tucked away, and many commodity companies have a recognizable brand name or two.

Heaven Hill and Sazerac would be classed as commodity companies, for example, but Heaven Hill's Evan Williams is a serious brand, #3 in American straight whiskey. So is their Pama Pomegranate Liqueur, and a few others. Same with Sazerac (Blanton's, Weller, Van Winkle).

The commodity companies, generally, are privately-owned, while the brand companies are public. The announcement of this transaction, for example, came from Beam, not Luxco.

On the other side of the coin you have Beam, Diageo, Pernod, and Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman especially has a very lean portfolio, but it's packed with category leaders like Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve. Diageo, Pernod, and Beam--all much bigger than Brown-Forman--emphasize their category leaders, but they all have some 'cats and dogs' in their stables too.

So it is that, periodically, a brand company will off-load some of its commodity brands (also known as 'value' brands) to an established commodity company, as Beam announced it was doing this week. The buyer, Luxco, is a St. Louis-based rectifier and bottler (they don't distill).

For $65 million, Luxco got Bellows and Calvert, both of which Beam acquired in 1987 when it bought National Distillers. Bellows and Calvert are pretty old brands, but they never got off the bottom shelf. Calvert is blended whiskey, both Canadian and American, as well as gin. Bellows is bourbon, American blended whiskey, gin, rum, scotch, and vodka. Luxco also got a couple of vodkas, most notably Wolfschmidt, and a couple of other Canadians.

Wolfschmidt is a good example of a commodity 'brand.' It's a top seller in some markets, but strictly because of its distribution and price. Skol, a similar brand, was once described by its owner as the company's 'aircraft carrier.' Its profit margin was minimal, but its volume was so great that it paid to roll the trucks. The company's smaller but more profitable brands rode for free.

So a move like this is good for both companies. Beam gets $65 million and gets rid of what, for it, were mostly nuisances. Nobody at Beam wanted to manage Bellows. That's not how you advance your career.

Luxco, for its part, got that much more volume. It will keep selling everything Beam sold everywhere Beam sold it. Nobody is going to stop buying Wolfschmidt vodka because it's now sold by Luxco instead of Beam. Luxco will absorb its new acquisitions easily, because that's the business they're in.

The deal should close at the end of this month. Beam will continue to produce and bottle the brands for Luxco until at least January of 2014, according to Beam.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Recipe for Bourbon Pork Tenderloin

I was asked to post my favorite bourbon recipe. I hesitated, because I don't cook with bourbon very often, but this is one I love, and it's quite simple. It's appropriate that the meat is pork, since pig in all its forms is highly favored in bourbon country.

I prefer a simple and straightforward rye-recipe bourbon for cooking, but use whatever you like. I haven't used rye whiskey in this recipe but it would probably be great.

Ingredients:

Two whole pork tenderloins (1 to 1½ pounds each)
1 ½ cup bourbon whiskey
1 ½ cup orange juice
5 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Crushed red pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
1 tbsp butter

Directions:

Combine all ingredients except the meat and butter. Reserve one cup of the liquid for sauce and use the rest as marinade.

Pierce the meat with a fork and marinate it for at least one hour.

Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees.

Discard the used marinade and roast the meat, uncovered, for about 1 hour and 45 minutes, until done. Baste occasionally with the reserved marinade.

In a saucepan, boil the rest of the reserved marinade until it is reduced by about half. Finish with butter. Serve as a sauce.

Let the meat rest for at least ten minutes after removing it from the oven. Cut into medallions ¾” to 1” thick.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bourbon Classic in Louisville, March 22-23

There's something new on the whiskey events calendar. It's the Bourbon Classic, March 22-23, at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville, Kentucky.

As Steve Coomes wrote on InsiderLouisville.com last month, "The state’s whiskey makers surely are saying and sighing simultaneously, 'It’s about time!' and they’re right. They’ve done their part; it’s time to do ours."

The Bourbon Classic is produced by FSA Group, a professional event organizer based in Louisville, and Bourbon Review Magazine, with heavy support from the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. It's new, but they hope it will be annual. They're starting small, expecting about 500 people.

Unlike other events, this one is entirely bourbon-centric, though no doubt there will be some rye around too. It's being held in downtown Louisville, on Whiskey Row, in a building located where headquarters of whiskey companies once stood, all within sight of the Ohio River, which first took Kentucky's whiskey south and, ultimately, around the world.

Amazingly, Louisville has never hosted a major bourbon event before, at least not in the modern era. Although it lacks the 'weekend in the country' appeal of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, it makes up for it with all the amenities of a major city, including an international airport and world-class dining and lodging options.

There are different events on the two nights and they can be purchased together or separately, at a standard or VIP level. You can spend as little as $135 or as much as $355. Packages that include lodging are available. There's more information here, but if you want to go directly to the ticketing information, click here.

I will be participating in some way, as the moderator of a panel, probably about history. I'll post more when information becomes available, but I am planning to be there.

In a way, this inaugural event will be a leap of faith for both participants and attendees. It's certainly the right idea, but you can't be sure exactly what you are going to get. In a way, it depends on who buys the tickets or, at least, whether or not the organizers' vision meshes with the aspirations of the ticket buyers. It will be a one-off if the attendees don't feel that they got their money's worth. But if your problem with other events has been "not enough bourbon," both literally and figuratively, that should not be a problem here.

If you want to combine the Bourbon Classic with distillery tours or other activities, there are plenty of people eager to help you set it all up. You can start here.

It's just two month away.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Jacob's Ghost Launch Delayed

Yesterday we talked about Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye, which is arguably a 'white whiskey' product, even though it's not classified as such. Last fall, Daniel's arch-rival Jim Beam announced its own white whiskey, Jacob's Ghost.

Both products were slated to launch in January and Tennessee Rye is starting to appear, but Jacob's Ghost has been pushed back slightly. Bottles are starting to ship to control states now and may appear soon. Ohio, for one, has a reputation for getting product on the shelf as soon as it arrives, without regard for the producer's intended launch date.

Most states, however, won't see it until March.

Although both are as transparent as vodka, the Beam and Daniel's products are quite different. Beam's is named after 18th century family patriarch Jacob Beam. It is standard Jim Beam bourbon, aged for one year, then heavily filtered to remove all of the color and most of the harsher flavors.

The result is a spirit that is still raw, but much milder than white dog, with significant amounts of corn body and barrel sweetness. Beam envisions it mostly as a cocktail ingredient, but they won't object if people want to drink it straight too.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jack Daniel's Rye Now 'Spirits Distilled from Grain'

The other shoe has finally dropped on the saga of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye, as the product is now appearing in stores. A quick recap follows, but if you want to read everything go here, then here, and most of all here. If you want to get into the 'white whiskey' question a bit more generally, go here.

The gist of the story is this. Back in October, Jack Daniel's announced that it was launching an unaged rye, a straight-from-the-still preview of what, in the fullness of time, will become a properly aged Jack Daniel's Straight Rye Whiskey. They said it came off the still at 140° proof (70% ABV), yet the label on the prototype bottle classified it as 'neutral spirit.'

That made no sense, since 'neutral spirit' is vodka and the sample they sent me definitely was not vodka. So I inquired. In response, spokesfolk for Daniel's stated that, "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.'"


The TTB, however, took a different position in correspondence with me. Thomas K. Hogue, Director of Congressional and Public Affairs, wrote that, "The regulations are pretty straight forward. 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 labeled as 'spirits distilled from grain.'

The product has finally been released and here is the actual label.


So, does this mean The Chuck Cowdery Blog forced mighty, mighty Jack Daniel's to change a label? You can decide that for yourselves. The evidence is before you. By the way, when this all began to unravel I asked the Jack Daniel's spokesfolk to comment, but they haven't. They let their new label do the talking for them.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

October Interview With John Lunn Reconsidered

Back in October, when Diageo announced the introduction of George Dickel Rye, I had occasion to talk briefly with John Lunn. He didn't have much to say that wasn't already in the press materials, but we had never met so I took the opportunity to chat him up when it was offered by the PR folks. We had a brief but pleasant conversation.

Earlier last year, I had learned that, in addition to being Master Distiller at the George Dickel Distillery in Tennessee, Lunn had been given responsibility for operations at the company's Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Kentucky. With the revelation this past Sunday that Diageo will resume distilling at Stitzel-Weller, revisiting that interview seemed like a good idea.

There were a few interesting tidbits. I learned that the property in Tennessee is 600 acres, so there's plenty of room for expansion, though nothing is currently planned. I probed for any inkling of future plans, but nothing leaked. "We're always looking at innovation, what we can do and what the people want," was all he would say.

We talked a little bit about Ralph Dupps, who oversaw the building of George Dickel in the late 1950s. Lunn got to meet Dupps before his death in 2008 at the age of 90. "His only advice was, 'Don’t change a damn thing,'" Lunn told me. That's when I learned that everything at Dickel is done the old fashioned way. There are no computers. "It's all sight and sound, touch and feel. Some of the employees here have 30 or more years of experience."

Although nothing was said about distilling resuming at Stitzel-Weller, we did discuss his responsibilities there. Operations there include maturation--which involves entering barrels, periodically checking them, and removing them when the whiskey is ready to sell--as well as blending. He declined to name which brands are matured or blended there, or where the whiskey aging there was distilled.

Visitors granted admission to The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller are not allowed to get close enough to the warehouses to look in the windows and see what the barrel heads say.

There is no bottling facility at either George Dickel or Stitzel-Weller. The whiskey goes from there to Plainfield, Illinois for bottling. Several requests to tour that facility have been denied.

Diageo has not publically confirmed anything about its plans for Stitzel-Weller.

So we don't know what Diageo plans to do at Sttzel-Weller, or if John Lunn will have anything to do with it, but it's easy to paint a pleasing picture of Mr. Lunn, after doing things 'the old fashioned way' at Dickel, doing the same thing with the mothballed equipment at Stitzel-Weller. Wouldn't that be something?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Extremely Rare Joseph Finch Bottle Spotted in Texas


This arrived in the inbox Sunday, from a reader in Texas. "I recently found a bottle of Joe Finch in Beaumont, Texas."

He was looking for more information about it, specifically where it was made. Unfortunately, that question is unanswerable, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

Never heard of Joseph Finch Bourbon? Not surprising. It's so rare, no one is even looking for it.

But it's a good lesson in how anything that has ever been out there in the marketplace is liable to turn up somewhere. That's why there are enthusiasts, known as 'dusty hunters,' who comb the bottom shelves of old stores in forgotten neighborhoods, looking for rare, old bottles of bourbon.

The reason this makes sense, where you wouldn't go looking for rare, old bottles of milk, is because whiskey doesn't change in the bottle, so if a store has poor inventory control systems, a bottle can remain on the shelf for decades. Hence 'dusty.'

Last year at about this time, as The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste was being written, a bottle of A. H. Hirsch Reserve was spotted at a store in Kentucky, and scored for its original price of about $45.

Here's the Joseph Finch story.

Joseph Finch and Henry Clay were two limited edition bourbons released in 1997 by United Distillers, a predecessor company to today's Diageo. They were to be the initial offerings in a series called the Rare Bourbons Collection. Fewer than 2,400 bottles of each brand were produced. The packaging was fancy and the price was high.

Then the company changed direction, sold all but two of its American whiskey brands, along with most of their old stocks, and no more Rare Bourbons were released. Both Finch and Clay are almost impossible to obtain today.

Almost, but apparently not quite.

The idea of the Rare Bourbons Collection came about because United Distillers was formed through the acquisition of literally dozens of different companies over more than 70 years. Inevitably, with each new acquisition the company obtained stocks of aging whiskey. Usually, the acquired whiskey was merged with the company’s existing stocks and used in whatever brands the company was still selling. Often, it was used to create blends or other products that did not require strict identification of the whiskey’s origin.

In the late 1990s, as the bourbon category was beginning to show signs of life after three decades in the doldrums, United executives began to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to market the 'odds and ends' of their vast holdings from distilleries no longer in operation.

The result was the Rare Bourbons Collection. The idea was that a given stock of exceptional, highly aged whiskey would be named, bottled, and sold until it was exhausted, then that line would be discontinued. When all of the various rare bourbon stocks were gone, the whole project would end.

That was the idea, anyway. But it never got that far.

Not that it ultimately mattered, but one big flaw in their thinking was that while they decided to use names significant to the history of American whiskey, they chose not to identify where the various whiskeys were actually made. So it was that the product called Joseph Finch was not, in fact, made at the Joseph Finch Distillery in Pennsylvania, which produced the popular Golden Wedding brand before Prohibition. It was distilled and aged somewhere in Kentucky, but that's all we know.

Nor did the Henry Clay Bourbon have any connection to that Kentucky statesman.

The Henry Clay Bourbon was 16 years old and 90.6° proof (45.3% ABV). The Joseph Finch Bourbon was 15 years old and 86.8° proof (43.4% ABV). Both were priced at $80 a bottle, which is stiff even now and was unheard of in 1997.

Joseph S. Finch was a real guy. He established his Pennsylvania distillery in 1856. His ancestors had been distillers back into colonial times. In 1924, Lewis Rosenstiel acquired the Finch distillery and merged it with his Schenley Products Company, named after another Pennsylvania distillery. Many other acquisitions followed, leading to the company we now know as Diageo.

What killed the Rare Bourbons Collection? United merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo but the new company was overloaded with debt, so it began to sell assets, including all of its American whiskeys except George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey and I. W. Harper bourbon, which it only sells outside the United States. The Rare Bourbons Collection had been part of a whiskey-centric strategy that was abandoned when the company found itself owning Smirnoff Vodka.

While we don't know where Finch and Clay were distilled and aged, we do know where they were bottled: at Diageo's Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was no longer distilling by then but was active with maturation, bottling, and the offices of some sales and marketing staff.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

After More Than 20 Years, Stitzel-Weller to Resume Production


Earlier today, John Hansell reported on the Whisky Advocate Blog that Diageo sources have told him Stitzel-Weller will resume production soon. No further details are available. Hansell received the news in confidence several months ago, and decided to confirm it today after the news began to leak over the weekend. According to one report, on Friday night a Diageo rep spoke about it freely at Bourbon's Bistro in Louisville.

Stitzel-Weller is the Louisville distillery established by the Van Winkle family after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. It was known for producing wheated bourbon, which it sold as Old Fitzgerald, W. L. Weller and several other brands. The Van Winkle family sold the distillery, its whiskey stocks and brands in 1972. After that, ownership changed several times until it landed with a predecessor company to Diageo, which closed it in 1992. Since then, the warehouses have been used but not the distillery. There have been multiple reports that the need for asbestos abatement makes it cost prohibitive to return the existing distillery to production. How that will be resolved remains unknown.

In 1999, Diageo sold Old Fitzgerald and the other Stitzel-Weller brands.

When the Van Winkle family sold Stitzel-Weller, they retained rights to Van Winkle as a brand name and went into business as a non-distiller producer, using whiskey bought from their family's former plant. This is the basis of the now famous Pappy Van Winkle line, although today only the 23-year-old is entirely Stitzel-Weller bourbon. In other forms too, whiskey produced at Stitzel-Weller has long been highly prized but, after more than 20 years, it is very scarce.

Diageo's only active whiskey distillery in the United States is the George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. In 2012, Dickel Master Distiller John Lunn was put in charge of operations at Stitzel-Weller, where whiskey for Diageo brands is matured and blended.

We await an official announcement from Diageo as well as meaningful details. Whatever the plan, it will be several years before new Stitzel-Weller whiskey will be ready to sell.

In recent years, Diageo has prepared Stitzel-Weller to serve as a homeplace for Diageo's Bulleit brand, which is made elsewhere at non-Diageo facilities. Although The Bulleit Bourbon Experience has been ready for nearly two years, it hasn't been opened to the public. Presumably that too is imminent, but again there is no official word.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Buffalo Trace Distillery Breaks Tourism Record, Launches New Web Site

Buffalo Trace Distillery is the only active distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky's capital. It's a big one, once part of Schenley, a post-Prohibition giant. It and its whiskeys are beloved by whiskey enthusiasts, who in truth love all distilleries, just some more than others.

Buffalo Trace does a great job with tourism too. A record number of visitors toured the Trace in 2012, shattering the previous visitor record by 28 percent.

For whiskey fans who cannot tour the 225-year-old distillery in person, Buffalo Trace has just unveiled a new website at www.buffalotracedistillery.com. The enhanced website features a new interactive map as its home page, showing the entire 130-acre complex. Several points of interest come with 360 degree views. Seven web cams give a bird’s eye view of areas such as the hand bottling halls, barrel dumping, fermenters and still house. There are videos of Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley and Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee, and many other features.

There is also information about the distillery's four different tours. “We’re very excited about the progress we’ve made, both on the tourism side and the cyber side,” says Meredith Moody, marketing services director. “We attribute our strong increase in visitors to the fact that we offer a great variety of tours, all complimentary."

Buffalo Trace Distillery is part of Sazerac, a family-owned company. In addition to its eponymous bourbon, Buffalo Trace makes Blanton's, Eagle Rare, W. L. Weller, Sazerac Rye, and many other brands. The distillery's rich tradition dates back to 1787 and includes such legends as E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp, and Elmer T. Lee. Buffalo Trace Distillery is a fully operational grain-to-bottle distillery producing bourbon, rye and vodka on site, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(Photo by Buffalo Trace Distillery)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Where to Shop For and Drink Bourbon in Chicago


I first did this in 2008 and it needs to be updated. For one thing, the number of Chicago bars with a fulsome selection of American whiskeys has exploded in the last few years.

The best place to buy bourbon and rye by the bottle is still Binny's. I'm sure many people wish it could be some little boutique in a funky neighborhood, but it isn't. They simply have everything. As their slogan goes, if you can't find it at Binny's, it probably isn't worth drinking. Or it's universally sold out.

Not all Binny's are created equal, however. I haven't shopped all 29 locations, but of the ones I know, South Loop on Jefferson just north of Roosevelt is the best. South Loop also has the advantage of being across the street from Manny's Deli, purveyors of the world's best pastrami and corned beef. (Tip: know what you want before you get in line.)

If you insist on someplace small and neighborhoody, Lush is a good choice. They have three locations, all in the city. Also good is In Fine Spirits, in Andersonville, especially if you want to try some locally-made products.

As for bars, there are too many to list. One of my new favorites is Longman & Eagle (2657 North Kedzie), in Logan Square, which is also a great restaurant. They even have a couple of rooms to rent where you can literally make a night of it.

Downtown the Berghoff Bar, at 17 W. Adams, has a limited bourbon selection but some of my favorites, not the least of which is their own private bottling, a Van Winkle wheater. The bar is beautiful. It has been called, "perhaps what the bar in heaven looks like." The restaurant proper closed in 2006 but the bar is still open, serving German food as well as drinks.

For many years, before the American whiskey renaissance, the Berghoff was Julian Van Winkle's biggest customer, so in a way you can thank (or blame) them for today's Pappy Van Winkle phenomenon.

In the Loop, I also like Miller's Pub (134 S. Wabash Street) for many of the same reasons. The bourbon selection is only so-so, but it's a real bar (also a pretty good restaurant), little changed in 50 years, cheap for a downtown joint, with convivial and professional drink slingers. It's civilized without being pretentious. For easy reference, it's a few steps south of the Wabash Street entrance to the Palmer House. Drinking on Wabash, under the L track, is itself a unique Chicago experience.

Both places allow you to imagine you're drinking in Chicago in the 1940s or, for that matter, the 1920s. Chicago was pretty much wide open throughout Prohibition. No sneaky speakeasies for Al Capone's town.

Outside the Loop, in the River North area, I'm fond of the Clark Street Ale House (742 N. Clark Street), which has a good selection of beer and whiskey, nice atmosphere, and is easy walking distance to some good blues bars, restaurants, and convenient public transportation. It's an easy way to get a little bit out of the Loop and Michigan Avenue neighborhoods where most visitors stay.

It also has the best sign ever (above).

Not too far from Clark Street is Sable (505 N State). It's a bit more dress-to-impress than any other bar on this list and although it tends toward cocktails, all of the bartenders are masters of straight spirits too. The kitchen is also of a very high order, and you can eat at the bar.

Rocks is good if you're looking for neighborhood atmosphere, acceptable pub grub, and a good whiskey selection with bartenders who know what's what. They have locations in Lakeview (3463 N Broadway) and Lincoln Park (1301 W Schubert). Good for the same reasons are Bar on Buena (910 W Buena) and Fountainhead (1970 W Montrose). Fountainhead has an elevated food offering too.

Far and away the best bourbon selection in town is at an unexpected place called Delilah’s (2771 N. Lincoln). If you imagine a bourbon bar as looking like an English men’s club, prepare for a shock. Delilah’s is more of a punk rock joint, but they have probably twice as many bourbons on offer as anyone else in town. Any lover of fine drink and serious rock and roll is always welcome but it gets too loud for conversation as the night wears on.

Delilah's doesn't serve food, but there's a Gino's East pizza right across the street.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Diageo Launches Bulleit 10, Surprising No One

In recent years it has become almost impossible for alcoholic beverage producers to keep their new products a secret until launch. So it is that the new 10-year-old iteration of Bulleit Bourbon was announced today with plenty of fanfare but not much excitement, since everyone has known about it for months.

The U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is part of the problem. Labels for alcoholic beverages have to be approved in advance by the TTB. Each approved application--formally known as a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA)--is public information and easily found on the TTB web site (ttb.gov). COLA trolling is a popular hobby among some enthusiasts.

In addition, producers will often test market their new products, or announce them well in advance to trade audiences such as distributor sales forces. Today, with social media and a camera in every pocket, a new product that makes a brief appearance in Walla Walla, Washington, will have its image broadcast around the world in minutes.

For reasons that are increasingly hard to fathom, company PR departments and their agencies steadfastly refuse to confirm the new offerings until the official release date. The ancient practice of giving favored journalists the first taste has become an empty gesture.

So it is that today marks the official launch of Bulleit 10, which made its first appearance on StraightBourbon.com on November 10th. It should begin to appear on store shelves, at about $45, toward the end of this month. It will be ever-so-slightly higher in proof than standard Bulleit, 91.2° proof (45.6% ABV) instead of 90° proof (45% ABV).

Here's a fun game you can play. The press release mistakenly states the Bulleit 10 ABV as 45.5%. Let's see how many 'journalists' fail to catch the mistake. (ABV is always proof divided by two.)

Since the standard Bulleit Bourbon expression is NAS (no age statement), it's impossible to know how much older the 10-year-old version even is, but it's bound to be good. Bulleit Bourbon is made for Diageo by Four Roses and everything they make is good.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Violet Hour and Leatherbee Make a Better Malört

Malört is not bourbon. It's not any kind of whiskey. It's barely even a beverage.

But malört is a unique Chicago thing, a digestif that is so awful it makes Jaegermeister taste like Pepsi. It's worse than Jeremiah Weed. Most moonshine tastes better. In fact, malört tastes like moonshine aged in cardboard boxes.

Malört, officially classified as a liqueur, may be the most disgusting liquid ever declared fit for human consumption.

During Prohibition, Chicago's Swedish immigrants recreated a drink popular in their homeland, by infusing herbs and other ingredients into neutral spirit, and sweetening it with sugar. Wormwood, famous for its role in absinthe, is a key ingredient. Malört is the Swedish word for wormwood.

After Repeal, Carl Jeppson began to make a legal malört and Jeppson's Malört has been the only one you could buy until recently.

The new malört on the block is R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört. As reported by Robert Simonson in the New York Times, 'R. Franklin' is the nom de bar of Robert Franklin 'Robby' Haynes, who manages The Violet Hour in Wicker Park. Haynes first tasted malört about five years ago and began to think about how it might be improved. 

The producer is Leatherbee Distillery, a new micro in Humbolt Park.

Right now, you can taste R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört at The Violet Hour, but you can't buy a bottle. That may change.

Should malört be improved? A malört that doesn't trigger the gag reflex hardly seems worth its umlaut.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The New Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Is Here

In 2003, the Iraq War began, “Chicago” won Best Picture, Tampa won the Super Bowl, and the next release of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (EWSBV) was distilled and barreled.

Advance release bottles of the 2003 vintage are making the rounds now and it will start to appear in stores any day. EWSBV rarely disappoints and 2003 is no exception. It’s similar to the 2002, a bit deeper and richer. Easily overlooked because it is so consistently excellent, there is no better way for a bourbon drinker to start the new year.

The EWSBV series began 17 years ago, a remarkable feat in its own right. It anticipated the bourbon renaissance and in a small way probably helped to bring it about. No other producer has done anything quite like it.

Even 17 years on, the concept is innovative and sophisticated. Each year, Heaven Hill bottles, in single barrel format, whiskey distilled nine years before. Although by law age statements just reflect a minimum age, EWSBV dump dates always reflect at least nine years but less than ten in wood, and they put each barrel’s exact fill and dump dates on the label, along with an identifying barrel number.

The idea is that there are slight differences from barrel to barrel within a vintage as well as between vintages, but there is always a family resemblance. As the series evolved it came to represent what Heaven Hill felt was the best of their bourbon output during a given year, a calling card of sorts, a sample of liquid from their vast inventory that possesses all the qualities they feel a first-rate bourbon should have, a benchmark.

Heaven Hill makes many different distilled spirits products for many different tastes, but they began in 1934 as a bourbon maker and have always been a bourbon maker most of all. Because the age of EWSBV is fixed at nine years it will never be their oldest bourbon. Instead it is the bourbon that says, “this is who we are, this is what we’re all about.”

One unique characteristic of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage is that it is not a limited edition in the usual sense. Instead of making a finite number of bottles, they dump and bottle throughout the year based on how many orders they receive. They can run out theoretically but not practically, and scarcity is not the point as it is with a typical limited edition. This is reflected in, among other things, its modest price. Heaven Hill has always been about value so it makes sense that their signature bourbon is a good one. The suggested retail price is the same as last year, $25.99.

Now is the time to start looking for it at your local whiskey monger. They probably will still have some 2002 on the shelf too. The new vintage typically rolls out during the first two months of the year. Distributors and retailers tend to want the previous vintage to sell through before they release the new one, so if you don’t see the 2003 but see a lot of 2002, that’s probably why.

Since it’s always new without being newsy, the new EWSBV release doesn’t receive a lot of publicity, but it’s consistently one of the year’s most important bourbon releases.