Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Death by List

It's hard to be a journalist these days. I'm not talking about myself. Without getting into what I do, my thing is pretty well set. I'm also old and will die soon (but not soon enough for some people).

No, I'm talking about young people trying to get established, find a voice, and make a living. That last one is especially hard. There are no more journalists, no writers or reporters, just content producers and content providers. The modern media devours content at an alarming rate and, consequently, values any one bit of it very little. You have to crank out an immense number of words, albeit in tiny packages, to have any hope of feeding your family, and the people you are selling them to could care less about quality or accuracy.

You probably even signed a contract making that your problem, you know, if they're ever sued.

In 1997, Puff Daddy told us it was all about the Benjamins. Today, it's all about the clicks. At that, lists excel. Lists have been popular since the Big Man dropped the first ten on Moses, but never more than today.

It's the list's premise that draws the clicks, so what's actually in the list doesn't matter much. You can't unclick that which has been clicked.

It is in that context that Jason Diamond for Men's Journal devoted 15 minutes of his day to crafting "5 American Distilleries Making Whiskey You Can Trust." In the wake of Eric Felten's Daily Beast piece, Diamond created an 'answer' list. Although he doesn't mention Felten's article, he does link to SKUs "Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries & Brands."

Then he drops, as his number two selection, Widow Jane Bourbon. I watched the article being edited live, so who knows what it says now. The fact is, Widow Jane Bourbon was distilled and aged by one of the usual suspects in Kentucky or Indiana (SKU says Indiana) from a standard recipe. Cacao Prieto bought the mature whiskey in bulk, took it to New York, and diluted it from barrel proof (about 65% ABV) to bottling proof (45.5% ABV) with water from the Widow Jane Mine.

Diamond's other four recommendations, by the way, are excellent. Eighty percent is passing in most schools, so Diamond didn't do a terrible job, he just wiffed on Widow Jane. Adding water to whiskey is not a craft. Adding water to whiskey is something millions of misguided souls do every day. There is nothing artisan about it.

Cacao Prieto does have a distillery and on the product list on their web site, the products they actually distill are conveniently labeled "Distilled in Red Hook, Brooklyn." Widow Jane Bourbon is not one of them. Instead its label says, "Pure Limestone Mineral Water from the Widow Jane Mine, Rosendale, NY."

The detective work here is pretty simple. Cacao Prieto started in 2012 and started to sell this 7-year-old bourbon that same year, so they could not have made it themselves. Since it's pretty obvious this 7-year-old bourbon was not distilled in New York State, and the true state of distillation is not shown on the label, Widow Jane Bourbon is breaking TTB Rule 5.36(d).

In fairness to Cacao Prieto, they didn't ask Diamond to put this product on his ostensibly trustworthy list, but he did, and their labeling violates Federal law. Widow Jane Bourbon may be a very fine whiskey but "artisanally crafted in Brooklyn" it is not.

If only TTB Rule 5.36(d) had been followed, Jason Diamond might have been spared this small embarrassment.


Anonymous said...

Whats wrong with TTB? Why cant they get their head out of their asses. And why are they letting these labels get approved. After talking with a TTB agent he could barely answer 90% of my questions. Why aren't these guys doing their job? and who is holding them accountable?

sku said...

Chuck, I agree that the writer blew it on Widow Jane - as so many others before have on lists of "craft whiskeys."

Just to clarify, the Widow Jane 7 year old bourbon referenced in the article is from Kentucky (which the article now acknowledges - I don't know what it said previously), the rye is from Indiana and all of the other bourbon they make is distilled by them in NY. That's according to someone from the distillery who contacted me.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit I click here (and often) for the content. There aren't many on my 'list' that meet that requirement.

Wouldn't the "Kentucky bourbon" label on the front and back labels comply with 5.36(d)?

I'll admit the labeling of the water source as well as the "bottled" by do kind of obfuscate the provenance.

Chuck Cowdery said...

TTB Rule 5.36(d) requires that the form "Distilled in (state)" be used, so no.

The label they are using now for the 7-year-old version of the product (see above) has no mention of Kentucky on it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

RE the TTB, it's hard to know exactly what the problem is because they won't talk about it, but they appear to be overwhelmed and no one is holding them accountable.

Anonymous said...

That looks like an photoshopped mockup bottle -
"Barrel 1 - 2012". I have a bottle from "Barrel 25 - 2012" that has "Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey" on front and back, but does lack the "Distilled in" distinction.

Glad to send a photo if you want.

Chuck Cowdery said...

SKU: That's the third different draft of the Men's Journal article I've seen since they first posted it. I guess that's what they mean by 'dynamic content.'

Anyway, I still don't see "Distilled in Kentucky" on the label, and there is still nothing artisanal about adding water to whiskey. So the whif of the wiff is undiminished.

risenc said...

They do distill a tiny amount of whiskey under their "heirloom" brand: It's very small in volume, and very high in price. But they do, indeed, distill some bourbon themselves -- just not the stuff most people know them for.

Sam said...

FWIW, my bottle of their rye (barrel #14, bottle #57) says:
Widow Jane Rye Whiskey
Unfiltered - Aged in American Oak
Pure Limestone Mineral Water
From the Widow Jane Mine - Rosendale, NY

Backside just says:
Bottled by Cacao Prieto Distillery,
Brooklyn, New York

I've wondered why there are spaces to handwrite the abv percentage and the number of years aged -- do Potemkin distilleries that just add water really vary their proof from batch to batch? Seems like it'd be pretty easy to keep a consistent number if you're not coming straight from the barrel.

And do these places buy unaged or aged whiskey? Or rather, how does MGPI sell it?

Fred Minnick said...

As I've told you privately, editors want lists and slideshows. The lists receive clicks, which equal paid-for-click ad revenue, which equal fat bank accounts. The newspaper industry failed to capitalize on the Internet, and this is why we now have bots in India aggregating content. My favorite was a popular website that said Mcallan was bourbon and that the heavier the char the better the bourbon.

I make my living writing. And I've finally succumbed to the market dynamics that dictate putting food on my table. Not all lists are bad. They can indeed be rich with great content. But the market is not going to change. And newspapers will not make a comeback with the same style of content. Magazines have done a nice job of adapting to the modern reader, offering bullet point information and beautiful long-form written word. Meanwhile, newspapers offer the exact same content style they did in the 1940s. The pages may be paginated differently and their Web sites look trendy, but the editorial style hasn't changed.

If the market wants lists, then, I'm going to write lists you can trust.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sam: When you're trying to create the illusion of a small batch, hand made product, a handwritten label supports that illusion.

Start-ups typically buy aged whiskey. Established NDPs typically have production contracts in which they buy new make and pay the distillery to age it.

Dale_Nixon said...

I think much of this gnashing of teeth could be avoided by requiring distilleries to have actual, working stills. Well, maybe not....