Saturday, January 25, 2014

Fountainhead School of Spirits Begins Tuesday, February 11

We're still nailing down a few final details but Fountainhead School of Spirits definitely will begin classes on the evening of Tuesday, February 11. Fountainhead is at 1970 W. Montrose. Classes will be held every Tuesday thereafter. I hope to be named Dean of Discipline, but I know I'm teaching the inaugural class, an Introduction to American Whiskey.

The way it will normally work is there will be four or five whiskeys tasted. We'll taste and talk. It will last about 90 minutes. It will be very informal and probably a bit geeky. I won't teach all of the courses, but probably will do all that involve American whiskey.

Registration, prices, and the complete schedule (at least through spring) will be on Fountainhead's web site soon. It's not up yet but I'll let you know when it is.

If you want to take a campus tour prior to classes starting, please do. Fountainhead is a casual neighborhood joint with a great selection of beer as well as whiskey and other spirits. Their kitchen takes a high-end artisanal approach to food and when possible they support local purveyors.

In that spirit, I think we'll have something from Koval for the first class.

ADDED THURSDAY, JANUARY 30, 2014: Go here for the complete, detailed class schedule and to register and pay your all-important tuition.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bourbon Classic Announces Schedule of Events

Now in its second year, the Bourbon Classic is focusing again on Louisville's world-class culinary and bartending talent. It will take place at the Kentucky Center for the Arts next weekend, January 31 and February 1, 2014.

The Bourbon Classic is designed to attract bourbon enthusiasts and culinary adventurists from across the country to a forum that addresses all aspects of bourbon whiskey, from distilling to food pairings. A complete cross-section of the Bourbon industry will attend: distilling legends, writers, chefs, bartenders, expert connoisseurs, and casual enthusiasts.

Friday, January 31, will focus on entertainment with the Cocktail Challenge, featuring contemporary and classic cocktails, and small plates, prepared by teams of master bartenders and chefs, with each team representing a different bourbon producer. MC Jared Schubert, winner of the 2013 Bourbon Classic Cocktail Challenge, will guide attendees through the event. Cocktail and small plate pairings will be judged by an expert panel including Jennifer Cole, Southern Living; Joy Perrine, Jack’s Lounge; and Chef Albert Schmid.

Participating teams are as follows: Angel's Envy (Bradley Hammond, Decca. Chef Terry French, winner of Food Network’s Extreme Chef 2012, Philadelphia). Blanton's (Chris Wilkins, Proof on Main. Chef Levon Wallace, Proof on Main). Buffalo Trace (Colin Shearn, El Camino. Chef Jonathan Lundy, Jonathan's at Gratz Park, Lexington). Jim Beam (Isaac Fox, Volare. Chef Josh Moore, Volare). Michter's (JR Schiavi, Jack Fry's. Chef Shawn Ward, Jack Fry's). Wild Turkey (Susie Hoyt, Silver Dollar. Chef Tyler Powell, Silver Dollar). Woodford Reserve (Jacquelyn Zykan, La Coop. Chef Bobby Benjamin, La Coop).

Saturday, February 1, will focus on education and entertainment. It begins with a Welcoming Session with master distillers and brand ambassadors including: Wes Henderson (Angel’s Envy), Fred Noe (Jim Beam) Harlen Wheatley (Buffalo Trace), Tom Bulleit (Bulleit Bourbon), Daniel Preston (Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery), Colin Spoelman (King’s County Distillery), Willie Pratt (Michter’s), Dave Schmier (Redemption Bourbon), Drew Kulsveen (Willett). Author Fred Minnick will MC this session, sponsored by the Urban Bourbon Trail.

The Bourbon Classic University will include the following sessions: The Bottle and the Board: How Bourbon Pairs with Cheese, Bourbon Recollections…A Trip Through Time, Entertaining with Bourbon Tastings, Exploring the World of Bourbon & Bitters, Bourbon Flavor Profiles, The Essential Ingredient: Exploring the Creative, Culinary Side of Bourbon, Bourbon & the Bean: What do Chocolate & American Whiskey Have in Common, Five Essential Ingredients for Your Home’s Bourbon Bar, and Bourbon and Beer – A Beautiful Marriage. Sets of four sessions will be offered and attendees will have the opportunity to choose which sessions to join.

(I'm hosting the Bourbon Recollections session, with Fred Noe and Freddie Johnson.)

The Bourbon Marketplace will offer exhibits and displays featuring Bourbon tastings, book signings, food tastings, and culinary and Bourbon-related products. Bourbon Culinary Tastings prepared by Coby Lee Ming, Harvest, Brian Enyart, El Camino, Levon Wallace, Proof on Main, and Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn. Some of the bourbon industry’s most well-known brands are sponsoring the event. The Urban Bourbon Trail is the welcoming sponsor of this event joining Buffalo Trace Distillery, Michter’s Distillery, Blanton’s, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey Bourbon, Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy, Belle Meade, Bingham Greenbaum Doll, LLP, Bulleit Bourbon, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery, Jefferson’s, Kings County Distillery, Old Forester, Redemption Bourbon, Spirits on Ice, LLC, Western Spirits, Wildcat Water, and Art Eatables.

Barnes & Noble will have a pop-up shop offering relevant books for sale and several authors (including me) will be available to sign them.

The Bourbon Classic was co-founded by Tony Butler of FSA Management Group, an established event planning company based in Louisville; and Justin Thompson, Seth Thompson, and Bob Eidson of The Bourbon Review.

"The second year of this truly comprehensive event offers an expanded focus on culinary exploration and enjoyment,” said Tony Butler. “The expanded program of this annual event is more diverse than ever.”

"This event is a natural progression in what we do to promote the bourbon lifestyle: the craftsmanship, the authenticity, the traditions; and marry that with the eclectic epicurean culture of Central Kentucky,” said Seth Thompson.

Tickets are available by calling the Kentucky Center for the Arts at 502-584-7777. Details are available at

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Sets New Attendance Record

The recent phenomenal growth of bourbon sales has been matched or perhaps even surpassed by the phenomenal growth of bourbon tourism, as measured by visits to the distilleries on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

In 2013, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail recorded more than 630,000 visits, a new milestone for the tour that showcases the state’s legendary bourbon and craft distilleries. A record 571,701 people visited the 'heritage' distilleries last year, and an additional 61,698 traveled to the participating craft distilleries. That tour was in its first year.

“We’re always thrilled to see double-digit growth among the heritage distilleries, but we’re equally excited to see the fledgling craft tour really take flight,” said Adam Johnson, Director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program.

The Craft Tour has greatly expanded the Bourbon tourism footprint, from Marshall County and Land Between the Lakes in far western Kentucky to Mason County in the northern part of the state. “With new distilleries coming on board, more and more people are experiencing the charm and beauty of our communities, which adds revenue to local coffers and greatly boosts tourism efforts. It’s all good news and good business for the Commonwealth,” said Johnson.

The new attendance record for heritage distilleries is a 12 percent increase over 2012 and includes figures from Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which opened in the fall as the first Louisville stop on the tour. Visitors came from all 50 states and 50 countries and territories, including Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, Egypt, England, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Spain and Vanuatu.

The heritage tour also incudes Four Roses and Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Jim Beam in Clermont, Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Town Branch in Lexington, and Woodford Reserve in Versailles. The Craft Tour added Danville’s Wilderness Trace Distillery last year, joining Barrel House in Lexington, Corsair in Bowling Green, Limestone Branch in Lebanon, MB Roland in Pembroke, Old Pogue in Maysville, Silver Trail in Hardin, and Willett in Bardstown.

Several distilleries are expanding and opening new visitors’ centers to meet the Bourbon tourism boom. Wild Turkey recently completed a new center overlooking the Kentucky River and Woodford Reserve is expanding its homeplace. In addition, dozens of bourbon-inspired restaurants, bars, hotels, transportation companies, markets, specialty food stores, convention and visitors bureaus, and more, all signed on to be official Kentucky Bourbon Trail sponsors in 2013.

Later this year, Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries will be hosting exclusive tours and events as part of the inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Affair showcase, a four-day Bourbon 'fantasy camp' in May. The event is being co-hosted by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and the City of Louisville.

“Kentucky is the one, true home for bourbon, and the only place where visitors can walk in the footsteps of legends and learn the art and science of our timeless craft,” Johnson said. “We hope visitors from all over the world let the spirit lead them to Kentucky in 2014 so they can experience the hospitality, history and elegance of our beloved Commonwealth and our unrivaled passion for creating the world’s best bourbon.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Second Annual Bourbon Classic Is January 31, February 1 In Louisville.

Bourbon Classic 2014 is a rare opportunity to experience all facets of Bourbon education, from production to promotion; and Bourbon enjoyment, from cocktails to culinary creations.

Don't underestimate the venue either. The Kentucky Center is a wonderful facility in an ideal location and Louisville has never been a more fun place to visit.

This weekend-long event delivers education and entertainment exclusively focused on the bourbon enthusiast. Hundreds of them will gather in Louisville, the gateway to all the heritage and innovation of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, to explore the 'best of the best' in the world of Bourbon—from the craftsmanship of distilling to the pure enjoyment of the spirit in its many forms.

For tickets and other information, go here.

I'm hosting a history-oriented event on Saturday at 4:15 PM, with Fred Noe from Jim Beam and Freddie Johnson from Buffalo Trace.

Bourbon is booming and Kentucky's most cosmopolitan city is taking full advantage of it. Last week, the Louisville city government and the Kentucky Distillers' Association announced the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a 'fantasy camp' for bourbon fans, occurring May 14-18.

I'm doing my own bourbon country magical mystery tour March 12-14. It's sold out but Mint Julep Tours has been receiving a lot of inquiries and is ready to schedule the next one, probably in June.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Still A Great Value

Amidst the big news of the week, here's a small story that shouldn't be overlooked. The new edition of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, barreled in 2004, is rolling out to stores now. (As you can see from the picture above, my bottle arrived not a moment too soon.) This is, of course, an annual event and has been for almost 20 years. What is remarkable about it is the suggested retail price: $26.99 for a 750ml bottle.

It is no secret that whiskey of all kinds has been booming lately and since the supply is always limited because of aging cycles, rising prices are inevitable. We've also seen proof cuts and the elimination of age statements from many products, primarily those in the lower price classes. Not so Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (EWSBV). It is still 43.3% ABV (86.6° proof), still 9-10 years old, still widely available, and still a great value.

Standard Evan Williams black label is Heaven Hill's flagship bourbon and its single barrel iteration is the flagship of Heaven Hill's super premium portfolio, but while the once $40 Elijah Craig 18-year-old has morphed into the limited edition Elijah Craig 21-year-old at $120 a bottle, EWSBV remains in the under $30 sweet spot.

Although it is an annual release, EWSBV is not a limited edition. Although it is conceivable that they could run out of suitable stock, it hasn't happened yet. Heaven Hill bottles it throughout the year as orders come in, until the decision is made sometime in late fall to switch over to the next vintage.

Every distillery has a calling card product, one that is arguably the epitome of that distillery's style, and represents the finest effort of that distillery's master distiller. It's very much a personal choice. In the case of father-son team Parker Beam and Craig Beam, higher warehouse locations that are subject to more extreme temperature gradients produce the more robust whiskey they prefer.

All for just $26.99.

Monday, January 13, 2014

It's Suntory Time For Beam Inc

It was announced early this morning that Suntory Holdings has agreed to acquire Beam Inc. in a transaction worth $16 billion. The deal is still subject to shareholder and regulatory approval, though no major obstacles are anticipated. It's a good day to own Beam Inc. stock, as the sale price represents a premium of 25 percent over the closing price of Beam’s stock on Friday. That's what this is about, maximizing shareholder value.

The new entity will be world's fourth-largest distilled spirits company (Beam had been #5), after Diageo, USL, and Pernod. The next bombshell may be a hook-up between #1 and #2, which Diageo is trying to make happen, an effort that is now in the Indian courts.

The footprints of Beam and Suntory overlap so little that it's hard to see why or how anything should change, at least in the short term. According to Shanken News Daily, Suntory and Beam already partner globally, with Suntory distributing Beam products in Japan and Beam handling Suntory’s products in Singapore and other Asian markets. It has already been announced that Matt Shattock, Beam's president and CEO, will remain in his Deerfield office (just outside of Chicago) running the Beam operation.

Certainly no one in Kentucky need worry about their jobs. If anything, they have become more secure as Suntory will help ensure that Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and the other Beam bourbons continue to perform strongly in Asia, where bourbon has been enjoying its greatest sales growth.

Remember too that U.S. law is absolute that bourbon whiskey must be a product of the United States. Unlike automobiles or televisions, you cannot import bourbon into the United States. It must be made here.

Few American whiskey consumers have ever seen, tasted, or heard of Suntory's Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, and Kakubin brands, but Suntory already owns Bowmore Scotch and Midori liqueur, both of which are widely sold here.

If Americans know Suntory at all, it is from the 2003 film "Lost in Translation" starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

The reality is that there is no bourbon industry. There is a worldwide distilled spirits industry, in which bourbon whiskey is one product category. Ultimately, everyone will sell everything everywhere and it may not really matter where the corporate headquarters is located.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Come see me at NEAT Kitchen + Bar in Westmont on Wednesday, January 15

Attention Chicago's western suburbs. I'm bringing my whiskey tasting class to NEAT Kitchen + Bar in Westmont this Wednesday, January 15. We'll taste four fine American whiskeys and talk about them.

These classes are very informal and you'll have plenty of chances to ask any questions you may have about bourbon and other American whiskeys. It'll be fun!

I'll be heartbroken if you're not there.

It's at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $25 per person. Call 630-568-8688 to reserve your spot!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

MGP Maintains Focus on Product Innovations as New Year Begins

Especially in light of the management shake-up that occurred late last month and was reported here Tuesday, MGP is actively reassuring customers that the company remains firmly committed to strengthening its role and presence in the beverage alcohol industry as an innovative producer of world-class bourbons and whiskeys (brown goods), as well as distilled gins and grain neutral spirits (GNS) (white goods).

Since Tuesday we have learned that, in addition to CEO Tim Newkirk and R&D VP Don Coffey, VP of Supply Chain Operations Scott Phillips has also left the company. Still in place are VP of Alcohol Sales David Dykstra and VP of Engineering Randy Schrick. Schrick is also one of the two interim CEOs and one of the company's two master distillers. The other master distiller is Greg Metze, who is at the company's Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery where its whiskey program is based. Metze began at Lawrenceburg under Seagram's and has worked there for 35 years. Metze and plant manager Jim Vinoski are both still at Lawrenceburg.

The Lawrenceburg distillery made more of both white and brown goods in 2013 than ever before in its long history, more even than at the height of its ownership by Seagram's. The biggest gains were on the whiskey side.

“MGP has built, and continues to build, a solid base of loyal customers due largely to our reputation as a reliable, innovative and long-established supplier,” said Schrick.

“In each of the markets we serve, we are dedicated to consistently providing the best possible products and service to all of our customers,” said David Dykstra, vice president of alcohol sales. “As such, we are continuously implementing ways throughout the company to improve our operational methods and techniques while simultaneously researching and developing new product innovations. The latter includes the recent and ongoing development of several new distillery product offerings.”

Last spring MGP announced the development of six additional mash bills for new rye, malt and wheat whiskeys, as well as new bourbons. MGP has also continued to develop several new wood and other flavor treatments, and this past fall added GNS distilled from wheat to its growing line of premium alcohol products.

MGP has also added a distilled spirits innovation center to the Lawrenceburg facility. “We view our role with customers as being one of providing increasing expertise and support as their agent of innovation,” Dykstra said. “Our future is not just about supplying premium distilled spirits. We must go beyond that and be highly engaged in the development phase at the consumer product level. Our new innovation center represents a big step in fortifying our ability to help customers drive growth of their distinct brands.”

MGP of Indiana is unique among American whiskey distilleries in that it produces no brands of its own. Known whiskey customers of MGP include Diageo, High West, Templeton Rye, Strong Spirits, Smooth Ambler, and Chattanooga Whiskey Company.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cause Of Small Fire At MGP Of Indiana Still Not Known

Here is some additional information about the fire we reported on yesterday at MGP of Indiana.

According to an announcement by the company, their distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, experienced a small fire that occurred shortly after 3 p.m. on Monday. Injuries were sustained by two contract workers, who were taken to local hospitals where they were treated and released. The cause of the incident and the total extent of damage are still being assessed.

The fire was in the company’s distillers feed operations. Damage was restricted to equipment used to dry spent mash, a by-product of the distilling process, which is sold for use as a high protein livestock feed supplement.

The structural integrity of the building did not appear to be harmed. Products being stored in nearby warehouses were not affected. “Although this accident has momentarily disrupted our distillery operations in Lawrenceburg, we do not anticipate any significant impact on our business or on our ability to effectively supply customers,” said Randy Schrick, interim co-chief executive officer. “We are grateful for the prompt treatment that the injured workers received, as well as the alertness of our employees when the incident occurred. MGP has a long track record and strong commitment in regard to workplace safety.”

Schrick also commended local firefighters for their immediate response to the situation.

Distillery fires are particularly dangerous due to the extreme flammability of the alcohol produced and stored there.

The Lawrenceburg distillery makes alcohol products for both beverage and industrial uses. MGP purchased the facility in 2011.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Future Hazy For MGP of Indiana

According to several Cincinnati news sources, there was a fire yesterday at MGP of Indiana, the former Seagrams distillery in Lawrenceburg that supplies whiskey, gin, and vodka to many non-distiller producers. Two injuries were reported. A county police dispatcher said the fire began in the dryer room. Details are still sketchy.

Also sketchy are details about the effect major corporate governance changes announced late last month will have on Lawrenceburg's future as a commodity whiskey producer. Last June, we reported that the parent company, MGP Ingredients, based in Atchison, Kansas, had postponed its 2013 Annual Meeting because of a proxy fight initiated by a voting trust that controls 75 percent of the company's voting shares. The dissident shareholders proposed a competing slate of directors. They also proposed that CEO Tim Newkirk be removed.

Early last month, the company capitulated. Newkirk was terminated and replaced temporarily by the company's CFO and VP of Engineering. The search for a new CEO is underway.

Today it was learned that Don Coffey, VP Research and Development, has left the company and his position has been eliminated. Coffey was very involved in the development and implementation of several new whiskey mash bills. He figured prominently in this November 20th post on the Whisky Advocate Blog about MGPI's future.

Although it is clear that the dissident shareholders have won (see here and here), exactly what that means for Lawrenceburg and the future of its whiskey mission is unclear. In November, MGP announced that it had completed a "review of strategic alternatives" begun last spring. It concluded that "the best approach at this time to enhance long-term shareholder value is to continue execution of the Company's strategic plan to reposition the business for profitable growth."

The subsequently-announced governance changes would seem to repudiate that conclusion, as does Coffey's departure. It seems more likely that MGP will retrench as a grain neutral spirits producer, which may jeopardize the whiskey operation.

No doubt further announcements will be forthcoming. (In fact, here they are.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Standard Bourbon Has New Exemplar: Jim Beam Single Barrel

Let us now praise standard bourbons.

Bourbon whiskey is a broad platform. It admits many wonderful variations. But standard bourbon is what most people drink most of the time. It is a distillate of corn, flavored with rye, aged four to six years in new, charred oak. It holds grain, yeast, and wood in gracious balance. It is suitable for all purposes. It is silky sweet with just enough bitterness to be adult. It is the benchmark, measure, model, and touchstone. It is classic and definitive. It is where all knowledge of America's whiskey tradition and heritage begins.

All standard bourbons on the market today are made by major distilleries. That is not to say a micro-distillery cannot make a standard bourbon, they just haven't.

Standard bourbons typically do not carry an age statement. They are usually a good value. They dominate the American whiskey market. For all of these reasons they are generally taken for granted.

Standard bourbons are not all the same. Most are perfectly okay. A few are less than they should be. Another few are wonderful.

The 'wonderful' category is about to get a new member.

It would be very disappointing if Jim Beam Single Barrel Bourbon was not wonderful. A successful single barrel program is all about selection, so having more barrels from which to choose than just about anyone else should be a huge advantage. Beam estimates that only one barrel out of 150 will make the cut.

Technically, single barrel just means that the contents of a given bottle all came from the same barrel, but the point of a single barrel program is selectivity. You're not picking to a standard so much as looking for the best liquid you have. According to Fred Noe, Jim Beam Single Barrel "represents our highest standards" and is "some of the very best liquid Beam's distillers have produced."

He's not kidding.

Much like the 12-year-old Jim Beam released last year, Jim Beam Single Barrel is exactly what it should be, an exemplar of standard bourbon. From now on, this should be Jim Beam's calling card. That's not to take anything away from any of the other whiskeys that bear the Jim Beam name, but they are all made by producing the best bourbon they can day-to-day, then combining barrels with different characteristics to match a standard. This is a slightly different paradigm. Here they are plucking the subjectively best barrels from the warehouses and bottling them as-is.

With single barrel, there's no place to hide.

Distillers have always done this, of course, prowled the racks to look for honey barrels. Who wouldn't, given the chance? That was the whiskey they kept for themselves and shared with their closest friends, like what German winemakers called their 'kabinett' (cabinet) wines. Elmer T. Lee adapted that paradigm for Blanton's, so did Parker Beam for Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, and Jim Rutledge for Four Roses Single Barrel. It's inevitably a reflection of the maker's personal taste, a small bit of individuality in a homogenized corporate world.

Although not part of the Signature Series, Jim Beam Single Barrel uses the same bottle, but with a cork instead of the sensible screw top. It is 47.5% ABV (95° proof). Suggested retail is $34.99/750ml.

Look for it everywhere in March.