Saturday, February 28, 2015

Why the Bourbon Shortage Is a Good Thing


(Photo by John Bramel)
Yesterday, Steve Beam (above) started his first barrel of Yellowstone Bourbon at Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. I submit this as evidence that what some people are calling a 'bourbon shortage' is both real and good for bourbon lovers.

I'm not taking back anything I wrote here. For 99 percent of bourbon drinkers, there is no bourbon shortage. Nor am I yielding to Fred Minnick's argument. I do, however, agree with a simple comment posted yesterday on Facebook by Heaven Hill Master Distiller Craig Beam: "There is a shortage of aged bourbon!" I also appreciate David Montgomery's resort to basic economic theory here.

Today, there is no lack of good bourbon available for sale to you and me, but that's not true for folks who buy and resell bourbon, who cannot buy what they want and have to take what they can get.

Which brings us back to Yellowstone. The story of how this picture came to be is here. It was a feel-good story so I didn't want to mention there that Luxco's version of Yellowstone has been largely undrinkable. That's not Luxco's fault since they don't make it. It is made by one of the usual suspects and it doesn't matter which one. It stands for the proposition that distillers don't sell their best whiskey to non-distiller producers (NDPs). Bottom shelf whiskey, whether NDP or distiller-owned, is almost always too young but it's often whiskey that more age won't improve much. Even if you can bring a uniformly perfect distillate off the still, it never all ages the same way.

Saying products like Yellowstone, Old Crow, and Ancient Age -- to cite a few other examples -- are undrinkable is, of course, subjective. The products are cheap and, clearly, there are consumers who find them palatable enough for their needs. Probably, most of those drinkers drown them in cola, or something. They have a market.

What has changed is that even bad whiskey is now in short supply. With every major American whiskey distillery operating at or near capacity, NDPs have trouble buying anything for any price. Even NDPs operating with long-term production contracts are suddenly unable to buy more, which they need to take advantage of the boom. Their producer partners have to tell them there's no capacity to spare.

The solution, of course, is to add capacity. The companies that already have a lot of capacity can add more, and are, but we're now seeing something we haven't seen in half a century or more -- new capacity! The major NDPs are either finding new production partners (Luxco) or becoming producers themselves (Michters, Willett).

That's what the picture above represents. Although the whiskey going into the barrel was made on Limestone's current pot still set-up, a small column still has been installed and should be producing soon. Limestone Branch isn't alone, and some of the other new stills are bigger than Limestone's, like the one at Michter's in Louisville. New Riff in Cincinnati has been producing on its column for a while now. Willett now has house-made whiskey from its column still that is three years old. Few Spirits and Finger Lakes have had columns for about a year. Smooth Ambler put one in last week.

What do column stills have to do with it? Basically, you can produce a lot more distillate with a column still than you can with pot stills. Plenty of small distilleries are using pot stills, but even all put together they don't have much impact on industry-wide volume. A few new column stills will.

Time passes quickly. If Templeton had been a real distillery, they would have 8-year-old whiskey by now. Steve Beam's new barrel of Yellowstone will be 4-years-old in 2019. That day will be here before we know it.

Distilleries that make whiskey live and die on their long term projections. Since no one saw the current boom coming, no one really knows anything about how much will be sold in 2019, let alone 2025, when Steve will bottle his first 10-year-old. Will supply catch up with demand? Will price increases achieve balance by suppressing some of that demand?

What does it all mean? More bourbon. A lot more bourbon. Who will dare say that's not a good thing?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

States Are Clamping Down on Illegal Alcohol Shipping


According to the software company ShipCompliant, the Illinois Liquor Control Commission (ILCC) announced at their board meeting last week that they have sent more than 100 cease and desist letters to retailers, wineries, and fulfillment houses. The letters state that the ILCC "has evidence that your business is transferring alcoholic liquor into Illinois from a point outside of Illinois without a license."

Letter recipients have five business days to respond if they believe they received the letter in error or would like to apply for the required license. The ILCC is threatening to notify the common carrier making the shipment about the non-compliance, which will result in a violation of the carrier agreement and potentially put shipments to all states at risk for that seller.

ShipCompliant reports that Iowa and Michigan are taking similar steps to compel compliance with state law regarding direct shipping.

Forty-three states now permit their citizens to receive shipments directly from producers, but only 14 permit direct shipment from out-of-state retailers.

Each state, of course, makes producers and retailers jump through different hoops, and that's why ShipCompliant puts out these reports. They want to attract attention to their product, an integrated software platform that handles all of the legal stuff on a state-by-state basis for producers and anyone else who wants to do booze business across state lines.

At this point direct shipping is mostly about wine, but every kind of beverage alcohol producer faces the same frustrations dealing with 50 very different jurisdictions. Probably the biggest shock for new producers -- whether they make wine, beer, or spirits -- is how much time they are forced to spend on regulatory compliance matters.

All of this regulation, over-regulation to some, is based on the premise that alcoholic beverages are a uniquely dangerous consumer product, evidently the most dangerous consumer product in existence, since it is the most highly regulated one. There is a good case to be made for 'normalizing' alcohol regulation, improving efficiency by making it better fit the need, but the first thing you would need to do is eliminate the 50-states solution, which probably would require a constitutional amendment since it was created by one, the 21st.

In addition to abiding all sorts of vested interests, alcohol regulation is politically charged. That's why virtually nothing has changed since 1933.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Hard and Un-True Story of George Dickel



Whiskey fans are always glad to see a neglected brand get some love but, as with the Old Grand-Dad reboot, doing it with made-up history dampens our enthusiasm.

George Dickel is a small brand, a mere speck in drink giant Diageo's eye. It's hard to even find on Diageo's brand lists, so buried is it by Goliaths like Smirnoff, Capt. Morgan, and Johnnie Walker.

So here comes the new Whisky Advocate with a bright, shiny, 12-page insert for Dickel inside, with the title "Handmade the Hard Way, the Hard and True Story of George Dickel American Whiskey at Its Best."

Except the story they tell is a long way from true. We're not talking about fluff here, typical advertising exaggeration, though there's plenty of that. We're talking about blatantly false history and other false claims. Some examples:

"For nearly 150 years, our distillery has been faithful to the recipe that founder George A. Dickel created and perfected." 

There were actually two distilleries, one that operated from about 1877 until 1910, and the current one that was built in 1958, so the real number is 90 years. Worse than that, George Dickel never "created and perfected" a whiskey recipe. He wouldn't have known where to begin. He was a whiskey merchant, not a distiller.

"Soon, he discovered in nearby Tullahoma, Tenn., what he considered the perfect spot to make whisky: Cascade Hollow." 

Tullahoma is about 80 miles from Nashville, where Dickel was based. In his day, that was hardly "nearby." Even today, with the interstates, it's about a 90 minute drive each way. That's a judgment call, this isn't. George Dickel had nothing, nothing, to do with the location of the Cascade Hollow Distillery. The site was chosen and the distillery was built in 1877 by John Brown and F. E. Cunningham. Dickel never did anything but buy whiskey from Cascade. It is unlikely he ever visited the place. He certainly did not build it and he never owned it. 

"So well-regarded was this place that when Dickel first bottled whisky there, in 1870, he named it for the hollow." 

Maclin Davis, who owned Cascade when it did business with Dickel, named the brand. Dickel had nothing to do with that. It is highly unlikely there was ever a bottle filled at Cascade during Dickel's lifetime or at any time before 1959. Dickel would have bottled it in Nashville. That's what he did. He bought, packaged and sold whiskey. He was what we today call a non-distiller producer (NDP). George Dickel & Co. became the exclusive sellers of Cascade Whiskey in 1888, not 1870.

"[After his death, Dickel's widow and business partner] changed the whisky's name to George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky." 

No, they did not. The name change happened in 1964, when the first whiskey from the new Tennessee distillery was ready to sell. Schenley, the brand's owner at the time, changed the name to compete more directly with Jack Daniel's. Schenley had just tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Jack Daniel's. Rebuilding Cascade and launching George Dickel was their Plan B.

As with the Old Grand-Dad reboot, not everything about the Dickel insert is bad. Most of it is great. The photography is beautiful and appropriate, and the present day whiskey-making process is thoroughly and accurately explained. George Dickel makes excellent whiskey and because its owners neglected the place for so long, it has never been fully modernized making its "handmade" claim more legit than most.

What Diageo has done with Dickel's history isn't glossing over the real story, or spinning it. This isn't prettying it up, this is making it up. That's not 'cute' or 'fun,' it's offensive. The true story is told in my books but also here, courtesy of the Tennessee Historical Society. It is all very well documented and easy to find. Diageo knows its version is false.

In business and life, a person or company who will lie to you about something will lie to you about anything. Diageo has shown, and not for the first time, that it can't be believed. That's a problem. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Good and Not-So-Good of the Old Grand-Dad Reboot



Beam Suntory has given Old Grand-Dad Bonded a bright new look and a fancy new price, $24.99 MSRP. (It has been selling at closer to $20.) But the upgrade is a nice job and Old Grand-Dad bourbon deserves more attention. It's also good that Beam is emphasizing the bond, rather than the other Old Grand-Dad expressions. Historically, Old Grand-Dad Bonded was the #1 bonded bourbon when bottled-in-bond meant something to bourbon drinkers.

The new label emphasizes the brand's high rye mashbill. The label is printed on the glass and the bottle is tall and sleek, for a modern look. It now has a cork topper instead of a screw-cap.

These are all improvements, but they made one screw-up. There is no evidence to support the new claim that Basil Hayden "was known for distilling bourbon with a high rye content." In fact, no one really knows when the current Old Grand-Dad recipe was adopted, as the brand had many different owners before Beam acquired it in 1987. What is known is that Beam continued to use the same recipe the previous owner was using, the same recipe Beam still uses, but that's about as far as it goes.

Of the many bourbon brands Beam acquired when it merged with National Distillers in 1987, the Old Grand-Dad recipe was the only one Beam continued to make the same way. All of the other National brands, such as Old Crow, were simply switched to Jim Beam distillate when the liquid made by National ran out.

Although Beam doesn't officially disclose mashbills, Booker Noe told me many years ago that the Old Grand-Dad recipe is about 30 percent rye, as compared to Jim Beam at about 15 percent. Four Roses also uses more rye than average in both of its mashbills. At the other extreme, some major bourbons contains as little as 8 percent rye.

It is important to challenge this new exaggeration about the origins of the Old Grand-Dad recipe because there is real history here, important history that deserves to be told without brand-hyping distortion.

Here's a little bit of it.

Basil Hayden was one of the leaders of a migration of Catholics from Maryland to Kentucky in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although they came west in small groups over about a 30-year period, they all came with the intention of settling in what are now Marion, Nelson, and Washington Counties. They wanted to settle close together for mutual support and, specifically, so they could attract a priest.

Maryland, which had been established as a colony for English Catholics, eventually turned on them. After 1692, Maryland established the Church of England by law and forced Catholics to pay heavy taxes to support it. Catholics were cut off from all participation in politics. The Mass, the Sacraments, and Catholic schools were all outlawed.

When the successful conclusion of the Revolution opened up more of the interior for American settlement, many Catholics headed west. The Kentucky Catholics were the first large Catholic enclave west of the mountains.

Most of the migrants were farmers and many of them were distillers. So far as we know, Basil Hayden was a typical farmer-distiller of his era. Nothing has come down to us about his recipe and it is probable that he, like his contemporaries, distilled whatever he had on hand without consideration of niceties like mashbills. Again so far as we know, Basil's son Lewis was a farmer-distiller much like his father.

The Maryland Catholic families stuck together and intermarried. Many of those families are still prominent in those same three Kentucky counties. In 1818 Lewis Hayden married Mary Dant, daughter of another famous distilling family in the Kentucky Holy Lands. They had 14 children, including a son named Raymond.

After the Civil War (1861-1865), whiskey-making left the farm and became industrialized. In about 1882, Raymond Hayden teamed up with a former treasury agent to establish a commercial-scale distillery at Hobbs, Kentucky, a stop on the then-new branch of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. They named the distillery Old Grand-Dad and put a portrait of Raymond's grandfather, Basil, on the label. With the industry growing rapidly, many producers cultivated the image of 'old time' distillers like Raymond's grandfather.

Although Hayden's distillery made both rye whiskey and bourbon, this was common at the time and doesn't prove the bourbon recipe was uniquely high-rye. It was Old Grand-Dad bourbon that became successful nationally and the rye was discontinued.

After Hayden's death, Old Grand-Dad was acquired by members of the Wathen family, who also had been part of that Catholic migration. They continued to sell Old Grand-Dad bourbon as medicinal whiskey during Prohibition and their company, American Medicinal Spirits, became a major component of National Distillers after Repeal.

As for the recipe, it's likely that when National revived the brand after Prohibition, they simply developed a recipe they thought would be appropriate. As rye whiskey and bourbon had been about equally popular before 1920, it is likely that bourbon recipes containing a healthy dose of rye were also common. But after Prohibition, consumers want a softer taste, and rye can taste hot and harsh, especially in a young whiskey. Rye whiskey itself struggled after Repeal and many bourbon makers reduced the percentage of rye in their mashes to produce a milder taste. In addition to softening the taste, rye was (and is) much more expensive than corn, so reducing the rye content also saved money.

Old Grand-Dad was positioned as a premium brand and also as an old, traditional one, so it retained its old, traditional recipe. That's important, even if the recipe isn't 200+ years old. Beam Suntory does a disservice to the brand's authentic heritage by exaggerating it.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

No Additives in Bourbon, No Way, No How



WARNING: This entire post is about geeky labeling rules stuff.

The picture above came to me from Germany. It is the back label of a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon. In English, the phrase indicated means "Contains Caramel." I posted it elsewhere and a lively discussion ensued. Another correspondent in Germany theorized that, because Diageo sells so many scotches, and they contain caramel (which must be disclosed in Germany), the person in charge of their German label compliance must have assumed bourbon contains caramel too. The statement no longer appears on Bulleit Bourbon labels in Germany, so his theory seems sound.

What does Diageo say about it? I asked but they never answered.

The discussion caused some people to refer back to a post here in September, where we discovered that flavoring is permitted in American whiskey in some very limited circumstances. We also noted a seeming conflict between the rules themselves and the TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM).

The BAM is a tool created by TTB for the convenience of producers. It is easier to use than the rules but is subordinate to them. If they conflict, the rules rule.

In the comments to that September post, we received some very good input from some very knowledgable people and also, offline, a clarification from TTB itself, which we published as a comment in the same thread.

It's there, in the comments, and has been since September, but in light of yesterday's discussion I now realize it didn't get enough play at the time, so here it is again. This is TTB's statement:

"Bourbon whisky can't have coloring, flavoring, or blending materials because 27 CFR 5.23(a)(2) allows the use of such materials up to 2 ½ percent only if  'customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage.' TTB’s interpretation of this is that Bourbon whisky does not customarily include such usage (straight or otherwise).

"The formulation office would not see a formula for Bourbon whiskey as it is not required. The BAM states that harmless coloring, flavoring and blending material (HCFBM) is not allowed to be added to Bourbon whiskey. Caramel color would fit within HCFBM. (I did check the table in the BAM, and it clearly indicates that no HCFBM may be added to Bourbon whisky or Straight Bourbon whisky.)

"So, technically, the BAM is not contradictory to the regulation at 27 CFR 5.23(a)(2) … nor to the standard of identity for the class of whisky and several types in the regulations at 27 CFR 5.22(b). The answer to the question is that you may not add caramel or caramel coloring or flavoring to Bourbon."

This statement from TTB confirms that bourbon may not contain any additives under any circumstances. Through this exercise we learned that rye whiskey (but not straight rye whiskey) may. Rye whiskey may contain 'harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials up to 2 ½ percent,' because for that product said additives are 'customarily employed.' This is why Templeton Rye is not labeled as straight rye, according to its makers. It contains some of the permitted additives.

It is unknown at this time whether or not this dispensation exists for any other named types, such as wheat whiskey. Now at least you know that if your rye whiskey isn't labeled 'straight,' it might contain some flavoring or coloring.

Some might ask how this affects so-called flavored whiskeys such as Red Stag by Jim Beam. Short answer is, it doesn't. That's a different issue, discussed at length here.

TTB, just in case you don't know, is the federal regulator of all beverage alcohol products; beer, wine, and distilled spirits. It is part of the Treasury Department. The initials stand for 'Tax and Trade Bureau.' Technically, TTB's rules only apply to products sold in the U.S., but they do apply in Germany and many other countries through treaty agreements.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Whiskey Shortage? What Whiskey Shortage?


Readers of this space know I don't have much patience with clickbait "whiskey shortage" claims, but I haven't broken it down like I do in my guest post today on the Whisky Advocate Blog. There you can see how both The Tennessean and The Wall Street Journal managed to get 'shortage' into the headline of a story about something else entirely.

About the nascent Spanish-American War, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst famously wrote to one of his photographers in 1898, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Modern journalists have decided they don't need the war, just mention of it in the headline. Since the click is the prize, the story doesn't matter.

Not that fake, bullshit stories about a non-existent whiskey crises really hurt anyone. They're just more fake, bullshit stories in a world full of them. And we're throwing out a little bait ourselves, since next week my good friend Fred Minnick will argue that there is a whiskey shortage.

Whisky Advocate magazine is America’s leading whisky magazine and I'm proud to be in their pages from time to time, as well as guest blogging for them. With bourbon now the fastest growing distilled spirits category worldwide, maybe America's leading whiskey magazine, which is based in America and edited by Americans, should consider spelling 'whiskey' the American way, with an 'e.'


Monday, February 16, 2015

Whiskey and the Perils of Popularity


Whiskey is popular again, especially American whiskey (e.g., bourbon, rye). That means the liquid itself is popular but it also means the idea of whiskey is popular, which means producers will lead you to believe you are drinking whisky when you are not.

This is nothing new in the United States. We are the only country in the world that allows an unaged distillate (corn whiskey) to call itself whiskey, and we are the only one that allows a product that is 80 percent vodka to call itself whiskey, i.e., blended whiskey. We even allow a product that is merely 5 percent whiskey to call itself 'spirit whiskey.'

Today, the issue is so-called 'flavored whiskeys,' none of which use the TTB's Section 5.22 (i) Class 9, the rule where flavored whiskey is defined as "whisky...to which [has] been added natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, and bottled at not less than 60° proof."

Most of these products, and all of the most popular ones (Fireball, Jack Daniel's Honey) are distilled spirit specialties, a catch-all category that isn't really a category at all. The rule is simply that the label must display "a truthful and adequate statement of composition." So Fireball is allowed to be called 'Cinnamon Whisky,' defined below in smaller type as 'whisky with natural cinnamon flavor.' Red Stag by Jim Beam is 'Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused with Natural Flavors,' as is Knob Creek Smoked Maple. Crown Royal Regal Apple and Crown Royal Maple Finished are 'a blend of whiskies infused with natural flavors.'

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, like Fireball one of the most popular flavored products, goes a different route. It is 'Honey Liqueur Blended with Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.' The flavored products from Wild Turkey, Evan Williams, and Rebel Yell use similar language.

With the 'whiskey with...' products such as Red Stag and Fireball, you at least know all of the alcohol in the product is whiskey. That's not true when one of the ingredients is a liqueur. When you see the word 'liqueur' on the label, it is likely that some of the alcohol in the product is grain neutral spirit, i.e., vodka, and you can't be sure how much.

But here is a clue. Section 5.22 (h) (2) defines 'rye liqueur' and 'bourbon liqueur.' Nobody uses that classification either. Why not? Probably because it requires that the product derive at least 51 percent of its alcohol from the named whiskey type. It is safe to assume, then, that the liqueur component of these products does not meet that minimum standard. When the label says 'liqueur and whiskey' you have no idea what the ratios are, so it's possible that most of the alcohol in the product is actually vodka,

None of this is presented as a criticism of any product, company, or consumer. It is an exercise intended to keep me sharp (interpreting the rules is hard) and help all of us know what we are really drinking.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The End Came for Michter's 25 Years Ago Today



Today is the 25th anniversary of the final closing of the Michter's Distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania.

That's the day the bank called and ordered Master Distiller Dick Stoll to shut it down, send everyone home, and turn off the lights on his way out. The owners, with a big unpaid tax bill hanging over their heads, had simply walked away.

Despite its ignominious end, the distillery had a very long history. In 1753, a Swiss Mennonite named Johann Shenk built a small distillery on his farm near Schaefferstown in what became Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. At Shenk’s death the distillery passed to his daughter and son-in-law, John Kratzer. It remained in the Kratzer family until 1861 when Abraham Bomberger purchased it. He was family too, married to Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer, Johann Shenk’s great granddaughter.

For most of the pre-prohibition period, it was known as Bomberger's.

Because ownership passed through the daughters several surnames were involved, but it was always owned by descendants of Johann Shenk until it was bought by Ephraim Sechrist in 1920, after it had closed down due to Prohibition. Ownership by the same family had run for 167 years, itself a remarkable achievement. By comparison, the Beams of Kentucky only owned their distillery for about 125 years.

Although the distillery came back after Prohibition, it struggled to stay open. More than once it changed hands because the previous owners went bankrupt. In the 1970s it took the name Michter's and began to promote itself more as a tourist attraction than a working distillery. It did fairly well during the bicentennial year of 1976, then went back to struggling. By the end, the company's products had no distribution beyond the distillery gift shop.

On Valentine's Day 1990, everything was abandoned. The county sold the whiskey in the warehouses for back taxes. It was probably redistilled into ethanol. Although several attempts were made to revive it, all of the buildings gradually fell into ruin and most were demolished. There is little at the site today, not even a historical marker. While the town of Schaefferstown seems proud of its local history in general, it never considered the distillery an important part of that history.

Because all of the assets of Michter's were abandoned, that included the name and its use as a trademark. The name sat untouched for several years after the demise, when anyone could have claimed it for not much more than the modest registration fee.

Eventually a New York liquor importer and producer called Chatham Imports recognized the value, and claimed and registered the name. They acquired some whiskey from one or more Kentucky distilleries and revived the Michter's brand name with some success. Operating as Michter's, they have built a new whiskey production facility in Shively, a suburb of Louisville. They have been bottling there for about a year and will begin to distill whiskey from scratch this year. The distillery equipment is installed and in the process of being broken-in.

It is safe to say that Chatham has done better with the Michter's name than Michter's ever did.

Most of the above comes from a book I wrote called The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste, about the A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon made at the Schaefferstown distillery in 1974.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

More on How Booker's Bourbon Is Made



A lot goes into 'making' a bourbon. It starts with grinding grains, cooking them with water to liquefy the starch, letting the enzymes in malt convert the starch into sugar, adding yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol, and distilling the result to remove unwanted water. Then the spirit goes into barrels, where it becomes whiskey, but even when aging is complete the whiskey isn't entirely 'made.'

As we talked about recently, filtration affects what goes into the bottle. So does batching. 'Batching' is a term Brown-Forman coined to get around the negative connotations of 'blending,' which is what it amounts to.

When whiskey is barreled and put away to age, they don't start at the bottom of an empty warehouse and fill it up. Instead they place the barrels, in lots of 60 to 100, in various warehouses and warehouse locations. All of the barrels in a given location will age similarly but barrels in different locations, even barrels distilled on the same day, will age differently.

Which brings us to Booker's Bourbon and the Booker's Roundtable, in which I participated.

Many people think of Booker's son, Fred Noe, as primarily a brand ambassador. They underestimate the work he does at the distillery. For Booker's Roundtable, Fred and his team do the heavy lifting. The rest of us just taste, discuss, and vote.

Fred shows up with a sheath of work sheets, page after page filled with dense columns of numbers representing the contents of the warehouses and the locations of various bourbon lots. For Booker's, they start by selecting lots that have reached the minimum age of six years. 'Batching' consists of taking samples from several of the selected lots and mixing them together to match the Booker's standard taste profile as closely as possible. One consideration in the plan is how each proposed batch will scale up to the approximately 350 barrels needed for a bottling batch.

For Booker's, this is done about six times a year.

Booker's has always been made this way and this is, more or less, how this stage of the 'making' is done for every bourbon or rye.

For the Roundtable, three candidates are batched in this way. When scaled up, each candidate will consist of a certain number of barrels from each of several different lots. The selected lots will be from different production dates, so they will have different ages. Because evaporation rates are different in different locations, each selected lot will have a different proof.

All of this information flows up to Fred, who normally makes the selection himself with help from an internal tasting panel. In the case of the Roundtable, the helpers are outsiders like me. Booker did something similar with a group of his buddies who gathered around his kitchen table. Our group has done several over the phone. In October, they brought us to Bardstown for an in-person Roundtable.

Fred tells us the specs for each lot in the candidate batch: age and proof, where it is, and how many barrels from that lot will go into the final batch. We taste them, talk about them, and vote (secret ballot). Then we drink some more and eat country ham until the bus takes us to the airport.

When the winning sample is scaled up and bottled, the age on the label is the age of the youngest whiskey in the batch. The proof is the actual proof of the entire batch, as gauged before bottling.

These Roundtable batches have apparently been well-received because Beam-Suntory has just announced that 2015 will see a series of specially-labeled batches. The first, Booker’s Bourbon Batch 2015-1, named “Big Man, Small Batch,” features a custom label inspired by the iconic image of Booker sipping bourbon in his rocking chair with his dog Dot by his side. According to the press release, the batch’s name "honors Booker’s role in the creation of small batch bourbons and the larger-than-life personality for which he was known."

Personality aside, Booker was a big man, as am I. He once said to me, "Chuck, we're full-growed men." I've never heard it put better.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Golden Tickets to June's Kentucky Bourbon Affair Sold Out in Six Hours, Says KDA



At $1,500 each, the 50 'Golden Tickets' to June’s Kentucky Bourbon Affair fantasy camp sold out in fewer than six hours this morning, announced Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), which coordinates the event.

“Now we know how Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce feel,” said Gregory.

Only 16 of the ticket holders are from Kentucky. Two are from Canada. The rest are from California, Florida, New York, Illinois, Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin, Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, South Carolina, Maryland and Minnesota.

Tickets to individual events go on sale at 9 a.m. EST tomorrow, February 12. See the event's website for more information and to purchase tickets.

The Kentucky Bourbon Affair is a five-day 'fantasy camp' featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes tours, private barrel selections and specialty events at several Kentucky distilleries, capped by evening events to highlight Louisville’s Bourbon culture and cuisine.

This year’s Affair will be held from June 3 to June 7 and will showcase nine KDA-member facilities: Bulleit, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.

The $1,500 'Golden Ticket' guaranteed recipients their first choice of three distillery tours plus opening and closing events; two nightcap tickets; the Sunday Polo waterfront brunch; a swag-filled toolkit; customized itinerary; and personalized service from a Bourbon Affair concierge.

All events require tickets and the tickets to individual events range from $50 and $250. Many include souvenir bottles, Bourbon-inspired lunches and commemorative gifts. Transportation is also included in all ticket prices. “You can leave the driving to us,” Gregory said.

One session is already sold out – the Michter’s “Rare Tasting and Tour” on Saturday, Gregory said. “If today is any indication, Bourbon lovers better grab individual tickets while they can,” he said. “We’re very impressed and thankful for everyone’s support.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

With a Rebel Yell They Cried "More, More, More"



Rebel Yell Bourbon has new packaging. Normally that isn't enough to quicken the pulse, but there is a lot more new at the iconic brand.

Rebel Yell is produced by Luxco, a non-distiller producer (NDP) based in St. Louis, Missouri. Their undisclosed bourbon supplier is in Kentucky.

Rebel Yell is an old brand, acquired by Luxco in 1999 from Diageo. It was originally a Stitzel-Weller product, started by one of the owners on behalf of his nephew, a Louisville politician. The politician wasn't a whiskey man, but he thought there was a market for a bourbon targeted exclusively to the old Confederacy. Until 1984, Rebel Yell was only sold below the Mason-Dixon Line.

As a Stitzel-Weller bourbon, Rebel Yell used wheat as its flavor grain instead of rye. It still does. Never a fancy whiskey, the flagship expression still sells for about $15 a bottle. If you want more, more, more, there's Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve, with a little more proof and, presumably, a little more age (all of the expressions are NAS).

Just appearing on store shelves now is a new Rebel Yell Rye Whiskey (distiller unknown) and a Rebel Yell 'American Whiskey,' that combines bourbon and rye. The brand family also includes two liqueurs; one honey-flavored, one cherry. Luxco is a rectifier and has the ability to make liqueurs itself.

That brings the Rebel Yell portfolio to six expressions.

Like Rebel Yell Honey and Rebel Yell Cherry, most of today's so-called flavored whiskeys are not whiskey at all, even though they carry whiskey brand names. They are liqueurs. This is true of segment leaders Wild Turkey American Honey, Jack Daniel's Honey, and Fireball. Red Stag by Jim Beam is the exception. It is a Distilled Spirit Specialty, described as "Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused with Natural Flavors."

It's not bourbon, but at least that means it contains straight bourbon and no other alcohol. With a liqueur, you have no idea how much whiskey it contains, if any. Because it's a liqueur, some of the alcohol may not come from whiskey. Some or even most of it may be neutral spirit, i.e., vodka.

Not to get too deep into arcane federal regulations but there is a classification for 'flavored whiskey,' it's just rarely used. As a normal human understands the term, Red Stag is 'flavored whiskey,' while most of its competitors are not.

In addition to Rebel Yell and David Nicholson in the bourbon category, Luxco has Ezra Brooks, Bellows, and Yellowstone. In December it announced a joint venture with Kentucky craft distiller Limestone Branch to return the Yellowstone brand to its roots.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Understanding the Old Fashioned


"The Old Fashioned is a concept. Not a specific drink," says Sean Kenyon, an award-winning mixologist based in Denver. His point is that there is no exact spec for it. There are many different right ways to make an Old Fashioned.

Historically, the Old Fashioned is the bridge between punches and cocktails. It has the five punch ingredients: alcohol, citrus, spice, sugar, and water. It also involves a bit of ceremony in the making, as punches often did.

The punch tradition came to Europe from India in the mid-17th century. Later, people began to adapt traditional punch recipes for single-serving preparation and the modern cocktail was born.

Just as the Old Fashioned isn't really a cocktail, some believe its name isn't really a name but a description. They believe it referred to the 'old-fashioned' way of drinking bourbon and rye, with sugar and water. By the end of the 19th century, the best whiskeys were well-enough made to be enjoyed straight, so the once ubiquitous practice of adding sugar to bourbon or rye was dying out. People who continued to enjoy it that way would request an "old-fashioned bourbon," which was eventually shortened to simply "old-fashioned."

The use of bitters and citrus fruit garnishes were innovations of the cocktail era that were incorporated into the Old Fashioned tradition.

At Lexington's Keeneland Race Track one afternoon, drinking with Elmer T. Lee, the legendary Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, he ordered a "highball" of Buffalo Trace Bourbon and 7Up. Put a dash of bitters in that and it's an Old Fashioned. Despite Mr. Lee's endorsement, Bourbon and Seven is considered a lowbrow cocktail these days, but all of the elements are there linking it to a mixed drink tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

The mistake most home bartenders make with simple mixers is too much mixer. In the South, a properly made Jack and Coke contains more Jack than Coke and is served in an on-the-rocks glass, not as a highball. It's the same if the mixer is a lemon-lime soda like 7Up or Sprite. Both drinks were corrupted by bars that wanted to serve a big drink with relatively little alcohol in it, and consumers who don't like whiskey and prefer to mask its taste, but sometimes the old ways are better.

Everyone should feel free to drink their drinks however they like, but you don't have to follow the herd.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bourbon Classic 2015 is Friday, February 20 & Saturday, February 21



The Bourbon Classic is a 1.5 day total bourbon immersion weekend, now in its third year. The Louisville event delivers education and entertainment exclusively focused on the bourbon enthusiast. It is coming up in a few weeks, Friday evening, February 20, and all day Saturday, February 21, to be specific.

(For bourbon enthusiasts, an 'all-day' event begins at a very civilized 2:45 in the afternoon.)

Although it offers opportunities for you to experience many facets of bourbon, from production to promotion, it's mostly about cocktails and culinary creations, showcasing Louisville's drinking and dining community.

All events take place downtown at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, a beautiful venue that features major works of visual art in its public spaces. It is right across the street from the Michael Graves-designed Humana Building, an icon of post-modernism.

Bourbon Classic highlights include:
  • Bourbon Classic Cocktail Challenge featuring top local chefs and bartenders.
  • A general session with master distillers and brand ambassadors.
  • Bourbon Classic University educational sessions.
  • The Ultimate Bourbon Experience, featuring bourbon-related products and tastings from distillers, chefs, and key vendors
Bourbon Classic is co-produced by FSA Management Group and The Bourbon Review.

I will be there, as part of a 'storytellers' session with Bernie Lubbers and Michael Veach, Saturday, February 21, 2:45 PM – 3:45 PM. I'm also hosting a history panel with Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), and Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), on Saturday, February 21, 5:45 PM – 6:45 PM.

Barnes & Noble Booksellers will have a pop-up store in the lobby all day Saturday, where mine and other bourbon-related books will be available. I'll be there at some point to meet and greet and sign books, but that schedule is still being finalized.

The rest of the time I'll be around. One nice thing about this relatively small event is that everyone is very accessible. Come up and say hello.

I attended the first two years and it's a very fun event. Louisville has a great dining and drinking scene, many nice downtown hotels, and many other things to see and do, so you can make a few days of it if you'd like. Louisville, relative to a lot of other U.S. cities its size, is also very affordable.

I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun, or Moon



The word 'moonshine,' as both noun and verb, refers to a distilled spirit of any type that is made illegally. Today, many producers sell what they call 'legal moonshine.' The segment is ill-defined. In some cases the product is neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. In others it is unaged corn whiskey. In still others it is a spirit made from table sugar, often mixed with either vodka or corn whiskey. Some are flavored. It all depends on the product.

But consumers think 'moonshine' is a thing and moonshine products seem to sell well, especially in a venue like Ole Smoky in Gatlinburg.

Many wonder if the whole 'moonshine thing' can last. It has been tried before, whatever that tells you.

What follows is the text of an article from The New York Times, published on Feb 12. 1956, written by James J. Nagle. The headline was "Legal 'Moonshine' Offered to Hill Folk." One astonishing fact: in 1956 it was estimated that more than 25 percent of the distilled spirits consumed in the United States were illicit.


"The Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation is fighting firewater with firewater.

"To meet the competition of moonshine, a subsidiary of the big bourbon distillery concern, the Lynndale Distilling Company, has placed on sale in North Carolina a corn whisky known as White Lightning. The product is colorless, as is moonshine. It is made of 80 per cent corn and 20 per cent malt and is 100 proof - or 50 per cent alcohol.

"In other words, it is a potent competitor of moonshine which also is 'white' and runs anywhere from 70 to 110 proof - but which often contains such harmful ingredients as lye or lime to give it an added kick. White Lightning (the legal kind) is priced slightly higher ~$2.25 a pint and $4.40 a quart, compared with $1.50 to $2 a pint or $3.50 to $4 a quart for moonshine.

"Many mountain people are partial to white corn whisky. Until the entrance into the North Carolina market for White Lightning, no such whisky was legally available. Now it can be purchased in nearly 75 per cent of the state's retail package stores. North Carolina does not permit the sale of 'alcoholic beverages by the drink.'

"The market for the legitimate product is concentrated in the western part of the state around Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Asheville, said to be the most active moonshining area. An initial shipment sold within two weeks, according to a spokesman for Brown-Forman.

"During the last two decades there have been many changes in North Carolina. But in isolated areas on the coast and in the mountains the old order has not changed much. Traditional foods and drinks, prepared from recipes handed down from generation to generation, are still in use.

"Many residents still relish Cherokee Indian bread, sourwood honey, home-cured deer and bear meat washed down with hickory nut milk, persimmon and locust beer, scuppernong and dandelion wine and, of course, white corn liquor.

"Much of the last-named product has been made illicitly not only because it is cheaper but because there has been none quite like it available legitimately. The nearest thing to it was a yellow corn whisky aged in used barrels and having more of a scotch taste. But to the natives even this was a 'red whisky.'

"Last year a group of North Carolina beverage control commissioners, headed by Guy Ward, chairman of the Winston-Salem control board, conferred with officials of Brown-Forman on the feasibility of marketing a white corn liquor. White Lightning resulted.

"Will it end or curb moonshining in the state? Agents say it is worth a try. North Carolina for two years has been second only to Alabama in the number of still seizures.

"Distillers and the Internal Revenue Bureau have expressed considerable alarm over the fact that more than one-quarter of all liquor consumed in the United States last year was moonshine. Maybe the answer is to put a tax stamp on it."

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Buy Something Today



Are you one of those people who feel like you should at least buy a Coke when you use the bathroom at McDonalds? Have PBS or NPR ever successfully guilted you into donating? If so, and you’re a regular reader of this blog, this message is for you.

This blog is free because I hope you will come here, like what you see, buy something, like that, and buy something else. Not out of guilt, but out of self-interest, since everything I sell here is more of the same—clear, reliable information about bourbon whiskey and related subjects.

What is there to buy? It’s a goddamn cornucopia. There are the books, including Bourbon, Strange, the new one; and the newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. With the documentary “Made and Bottled in Kentucky,” you can practically see the bourbon renaissance being born. (It was made in 1991-92.)

The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste is about that lord of the unicorns, A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and the strange tale of how it came to be. Small Barrels Make Lousy Whiskey is a provocative, little ebook about an experiment at Buffalo Trace. It will cost you 99 cents to hate it.

Bourbon, Straight, the gateway drug for many of you, is now in its 11th year and still going strong.

For something completely different, there is Blues Legends, my 1995 multi-media package (book + CD) about the mid-century electric blues artists who most influenced rock and roll. You can only get it through Amazon Marketplace but if you select "Made and Bottled in Kentucky" (sound familiar?) as the vendor, you will get a pristine copy still in the original shrinkwrap.

To review all of your Chuck Cowdery book options in one place, go here.

All of my books are available in print and ebook except Blues Legends (print only) and Small Barrels Make Lousy Whiskey (ebook only). Everything tangible (i.e., not electronic) is available from Amazon or directly from me except the newsletter, which you can only get here.

I’ll let you in on a secret. Amazon sells most of my products for less than I do. But if you want a book autographed you can only get that from me.

The Bourbon Country Reader, which you can only get here, is quaintly old-fashioned, ink on paper, delivered to your home or office by a uniformed government representative six times a year, or thereabouts.

Another product I sell is me, as in personal appearances. Usually only large groups can bring me in from out of town, but here in Chicago I do classes and tastings for groups of all sizes, and while a group of 20 is typical, I did one for a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. Contact me via email if you’re interested.

While I’m advertising, I will point out that the only advertising here is my advertising for my products. I’m not trying to sell your eyeballs to anybody else.

To me, the first rule of writing is ‘Respect Your Reader’s Time,’ so thank you for indulging this brief, commercial message. For it is winter and coal is so dear.