Wednesday, August 14, 2019

What Would Owsley Think?

I saw this in Walgreens the other day. Maybe not this brand, but this fragrance. Whiskey & Tobacco. At first blush, that doesn't seem like a good choice for a scented candle. I certainly have been in many rooms redolent with the scents of actual whiskey and tobacco. I can't say it was edifying.

I think I would be more disposed to burn a scented candle to mask, rather than reproduce, the aroma of whiskey and tobacco.

But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. I'm reminded of an interview I did with Owsley Brown, president of Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniel's, Old Forester, Early Times, Woodford Reserve, and many other whiskeys. Owsley Brown was the great-grandson of Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown. He spent 37 years working for the company, but he told me about his memories of visiting the distillery as a child.

Today, the corporate campus in Louisville, on Dixie Highway just south of West Broadway, houses only offices and bottling. Distillation and maturation happen elsewhere. In Owsley Brown's youth (he was born in 1942), everything was done at Dixie Highway, and Brown-Forman's plant was right next door to a huge Philip-Morris cigarette factory.

Mr. Brown told me he enjoyed his childhood visits to the distillery. He described them as "magical." He recalled the musical cacophony of the bottling line, and how the women who worked there always made a fuss over him. (Bottling line staff in those days were mostly women.) And he remembered the smell, the aroma of the whiskey mingling with the tobacco scents from next door.

Since Owsley Brown died in 2011, we can't ask him if this candle brings back any happy childhood memories, or if it is more in tune with my decadent adult pursuits. I guess we'll never know.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Perils of Personality Brands

This column is not about the latest iteration of the Bulleit family tragedy, which has been ignited again by an article today in Neat Pour, in which Hollis Worth (née Bulleit) gives her first interview. Diageo, which owns Bulleit Bourbon and Rye, declined to comment for the article, as did Ms. Worth's father, Tom Bulleit.

All cards on the table, I know Tom Bulleit professionally. I have never met Hollis Worth. I haven't spoken to Tom in several years and we've never talked about his family.

My purpose in writing today is to look at another aspect of this, separate from the story itself, which is the risk any company takes when it ties a product or brand so closely to a living human being.

The most extreme example is Jared Fogle, principal spokesperson for the Subway sandwich chain from 2000 to 2015, when he was charged and convicted of sexual offenses against minors. Did Subway lose any business as a result? The company has struggled ever since Fogle's misdeeds became public. Starting in 2016, Subway has closed more stores each year than it has opened, for the first time in its history.

They can't blame all that on Fogle. Fast food is a brutal business and Subway's success spawned a flood of imitators.

Every situation is different. Fogle was never presented as anything other than a spokesperson. Mila Kunis has been the spokesperson for Jim Beam since 2014, a significant run, but if she got into some embarrassing trouble it's hard to imagine how the brand could be significantly damaged. Matthew McConaughey has been hawking Wild Turkey for about the same amount of time, and it's the same deal there. Both brands have their master distillers and other personalities. The risk is spread around.

A slightly different case might be made for newly-launched celebrity brands, such as Ryan Reynolds with Aviation Gin, Bryan Cranston with Dos Hombres Mezcal, or Bob Dylan with Heaven's Gate Whiskey. The only possible reason for a consumer to be interested in those brands is their interest in the celebrity owner. The celebrity is the brand.

In Diageo's case, the cautionary tale with Bulleit is be careful what you create out of thin air. Tom Bulleit is a real, living person and he really did create a bourbon brand named after himself. Hollis Worth is his daughter, also real and alive. That is about where the reality ends.

The Bulleit brand launched in 1995, via Buffalo Trace. That was a contract distilling arrangement, Tom Bulleit owned the brand. A few years later he sold it to Seagram's. They created the current bottle and brand story, including the legend of Tom Bulleit's ancestor, Augustus. Seagram's folded and the brand passed to Diageo in 1999-2000.

I've written about Bulleit many times over the years, starting with this one in 2008. Go here for more about the Augustus Bulleit origin story. Go here for a succinct summary of the actual Bulleit origin story.

In a very real sense, Diageo is hoist on its own petard, as they have gone to great lengths over 20-25 years to make Bulleit look like a family company, even though it's not. They took a name they liked because it was a homophone for 'bullet' and built an entirely fictional origin story around it involving currently living persons (and one dead one). They hired two of the living persons to front the brand throughout the industry, cast as founder and heir respectively. They overplayed the roles of those persons in the creation, making and marketing of the brand. As a result, Hollis Worth is very well known among bartenders, bar owners, and cocktail writers; and Tom Bulleit is very well known among distributors, retailers, and whiskey writers. They personify the brand.

You can do whatever you want with a dead or fictional person, but living people have real lives that can go awry and reflect negatively on the businesses with which they are associated, whether it's Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. It's something else again when you cast living people in fictional roles. The actual connection between the people and the brand is minimal, but the fictional connection is real enough to hurt you when something goes wrong.

Inevitably, the Bulleit family conflict is a problem for Diageo. How big a problem it is, and what Diageo will try to do about it, remains to be seen.

Friday, July 5, 2019

You Cannot Age Gin (Wink Wink)

Gin, the original flavored vodka, is having a moment. Gin, especially craft gin, has captured its own artisanal cachet. Except for juniper berries, which are what makes gin gin, the sky is the limit in terms of flavorings.

An important sub-category these days is aged gin, although when the subject comes up you're liable to hear someone mention that aged gin is not allowed under Federal government rules. They may even cite Section 5.40 (d), which says, "Age, maturity, or similar statements or representations as to...gin...are misleading and are prohibited from being stated on any label."

In practice, that is less restrictive than it sounds. It works like this. You can age gin. You just can't SAY you age gin, as in you can't call it 'aged gin,' and you can't say how long it wasn't aged. (How does Corsair get away with its label? You'll have to ask them.)

You can even describe your 'barrel mellowing process' in the "general inconspicuous" label copy. And, of course, your product can exhibit the obvious tawny color extracted from wood.

For the most part, TTB rules don't tell producers what they can and cannot make, they just regulate what they can say about it.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Buffalo Trace First Made Wheated Bourbon

When Sazerac released the current Weller packaging, about three years ago, it introduced a new claim for the brand, "The Original Wheated Bourbon."

We debunked that claim then and won't repeat it here, but that raised another question. When did the Buffalo Trace Distillery (BTD), where Weller is now made, start to distill wheated bourbon?

The answer comes from Sazerac President Mark Brown himself, in a letter written to me in 2003, in response to a question about a 12-year-old Old Charter expression they had just released.

"When we acquired Weller and Charter, we purchased enough stock to cover our selling needs until our own distillations come of age. So, the Charter whiskey being used all came from the Bernheim inventory.

"However, there is an interesting twist to the story ...

"We actually distilled some Weller and Charter for UD in the late 80's / early 90's and have been aging them at the Trace since then. In the case of Charter 12, it is actually the whiskey we distilled and aged. In addition, given that Schenley owned both BTD and Bernheim at the same time, there was / is a lot shared knowledge and expertise between the two distilleries, hence our ability to distill Charter competently. In the case of Weller, we had quite a bit of practice when distilling for UD."

Schenley, which became part of the Diageo roll-up in 1987, owned both Buffalo Trace and Bernheim until 1983, when it sold Buffalo Trace to Ferkie Falk and Robert Baranaskas.

Although they also bought the Ancient Age brand, their main business was contract distilling. As those were some of the darkest days for the industry, many distilleries had closed or were operating on very reduced schedules. United Distillers (UD, predecessor to Diageo) owned both Stitzel-Weller, where Weller was made, and Bernheim, where Charter was made, but both distilleries were dark for long stretches during that period. When they were, and UD's projections showed they needed some new make, they would contract it to Buffalo Trace.

In 1992, Sazerac bought Buffalo Trace. That same year, UD opened New Bernheim, closed Stitzel-Weller and Medley, and stopped needing Buffalo Trace's contract distilling services.

Buffalo Trace, like everybody else, also had plenty of room in its warehouses when it was contract distilling for UD. It didn't make sense to ship the barrels of new make over to Louisville to be stored there so they stayed in Frankfort. UD/Diageo owned the whiskey and would claim some of it from time to time, but some of it was still there and was included in the stock Sazerac bought when it bought the brands in 1999.

After Prohibition, only one distillery made a point of making wheated bourbon and that was Stitzel-Weller. The recipe they used probably came from the Stitzel family, but no one knows for sure. Wheat had always been an occasional ingredient in bourbon in the pre-Prohibition era but no one made a point of touting a wheated recipe, or a rye bourbon recipe either, for that matter. Nobody talked about wheated bourbon until Pappy Van Winkle did post-Prohibition.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A Bourbon Drinker's Guide to Flavored Bourbon

No, really. We're taking this seriously.
A couple months back, we looked at the wave of flavored bourbons from a regulatory perspective, but we didn't look at it from a consumer perspective. Consumers clearly like the stuff. Last year, according to Shanken News Daily, the total flavored whiskey segment in the U.S. grew by 5.5 percent to 12.28 million cases. A decade ago it was something like 2 million. Growth has slowed but since the flavoring possibilities are endless, there will always be news in the segment and new products attract new customers. Is there a limit? Well, flavored vodka shows you the answer to that.

Sazerac's Fireball is still the leader and still growing, up 6 percent in 2018. Its market share is about 40 percent. The whiskey in Fireball is Canadian, as is number 2, Crown Royal Apple. Crown Royal Vanilla is number 6. The rest of the top 10 is American, led by Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey.

'Flavored,' as the word is used these days, covers a multitude of sins, everything from secondary barrel finishes to liqueurs in which bourbon is merely an ingredient.

At least that's my definition of 'flavored.' Shanken doesn't see it that way. They don't count barrel finishes as flavored, so products such as Angel's Envy, Maker's 46, Legent and other finished products aren't included in their 'flavored' analysis.

What's good in the segment depends on what you want. If you want bourbon with just a little something extra, you probably can't do better than Angel's Envy, which is straight bourbon flavored though a secondary aging in port barrels. Maker's 46, the various Maker's Private Select expressions, Beam Suntory's Legent, Woodford's Double Oaked, and several iterations of Luxco's Blood Oath series also handle flavoring through barrel finishing in a subtle and sophisticated way. They couldn't be further from Fireball.

Next we get to the products that contain flavoring but no alcohol other than whiskey. Jim Beam's Red Stag is an example of this. (Apparently, this is no longer true. See comments below.) This is as distinguished from the products that are either straight-up liqueurs (Wild Turkey American Honey) or a mixture of whiskey and a liqueur (most of the rest, including Fireball, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, Evan Williams Honey, etc.).

A liqueur is an distilled spirit beverage but the alcohol is almost always neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. It's hard to determine the exact contents of these products, but it seems likely that in most if not all cases, if there is a liqueur involved, most of the alcohol in the product is vodka, not whiskey.

The most favorable way to think about a flavored bourbon is as analogous to a bourbon cocktail. It's not bourbon, it's a drink in which bourbon is an ingredient. As with cocktails, some are more sophisticated than others. Unlike cocktails, the best of which offer you a unique combination of flavors, most flavored whiskeys keep it simple, emphasizing just one flavor; honey, cinnamon, cherry, peach, apple, maple. And, of course, they usually contain a lot of sweetner.

If you want to avoid neutral spirit, avoid anything that has the word 'liqueur' on the label. The Beam flavored products seem to be your best bet for that. Something like their Knob Creek Smoked Maple comes to mind, or the original cherry-flavored Red Stag.

An interesting side note. Shanken considers Southern Comfort to be a flavored whiskey. For most of its history, SoCo was a liqueur, with 100 percent of its alcohol coming from neutral spirit. It contained no whiskey. For a brief time under Brown-Forman, it was about 5 percent whiskey. Sazerac, which bought the brand in 2015, has repositioned it as "the smooth-drinking whiskey created by M.W. Heron in 1874 and born in New Orleans." They can call it whiskey because it is now "Spirit Whiskey with Natural Flavors." Spirit whiskey is a type of blended whiskey that is 5 percent whiskey, 95 percent vodka. Go here for more about spirit whiskey.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Last Chance to Comment on Proposed TTB Rule Changes

Next Wednesday, June 26, is the last day to comment on TTB's plan to "comprehensively amend its regulations governing the labeling and advertising of alcohol beverages in order to improve understanding of the regulatory requirements and to make compliance easier and less burdensome for industry members," which was first published seven months ago. (TTB Notice No. 176)

Today the Texas Whiskey Association (TXWA), a group of 15 Texas-based distilleries, released its comments. They did a good job. Rules drafting is hard work. If you are interested in this sort of thing, you should take a look at what they did. Jared Himstedt, who signed the letter as TXWA Founding President, is Master Distiller at Balcones. A list of the TXWA members is here.

I agree with most of their comments, and where I don't I can see their point. Mostly, I have a different perspective on it.

For the section "Statements of Age 5.74 (a) (3)," TTB proposes that where spirits are aged in more than one barrel, only time spent in the first barrel can be stated on the label. Similarly, for the section "Statements of Age 5.74 (e)," age statements of any kind would be prohibited on barrel-finished products.

In both cases, TXWA argues for more flexibility for its members. They want to be able to state the additional time as well as the original time. It's a good transparency argument, plus whiskey nerds love that sort of thing. The more truthful information a producer can provide, the better.

However, I disagree with TXWA and support TTB's original proposal. This rule regulates the age statement, which is required under some circumstances, optional in others. The age statement is a formal part of the label and meant to be presented in a standard form. For the sake of the ordinary consumer, label disclosures need to be simple and unambiguous.

Furthermore, the proposed rule regulates only the formal age statement, not every single word of label copy. Current TTB rules allow "general inconspicuous age, maturity or similar representations without the label bearing an age statement." That means producers may describe their process and provide all of that additional information in an "inconspicuous representation," i.e., back label copy, they just can't incorporate it into the formal age statement.

We went through this last year with Wild Turkey.

I also disagree with TXWA on the matter of "Whisky Class Designation 5.141 (b) (3)," which states "that spirits should be labeled with their most appropriate class type. If it meets the definition of a ‘Bourbon Whiskey’, it must be labeled as a Bourbon Whiskey and not as a specialty whiskey or a ‘Whiskey’."

This has come up before and it always strikes me as little more than an underhanded dig at Jack Daniel's. If a product qualifies as whiskey and the producer wants to call it just whiskey, but they arguably could call it bourbon whiskey, how is the consumer harmed by the producer choosing to not call it that?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Meet the Real Baker Beam

Baker Beam, in 2013, for the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Picking up on our story from last week, about Beam Suntory's plan to convert Baker's Bourbon into a single barrel product, Gear Patrol predicted that "Jim Beam’s Forgotten Bourbon Brand Is About to Become a Whiskey Darling."

Although Beam has produced some single barrel products as line extensions, most notably with Knob Creek, this will be the company's first single barrel brand. As the name suggests, a single barrel whiskey is 100 percent the product of one barrel. The significance of a single barrel whiskey is that each barrel has to be carefully selected. For most whiskey bottlings, multiple barrels (sometimes hundreds at a time) are emptied and mixed together. This provides a uniform product and also allows a product to be tailored to match a brand's profile, through the addition of whiskey with certain needed characteristics such as more age. With a single barrel, there is nowhere to hide.

Baker's Bourbon will continue to be an age-stated 7-year-old and bottled at 107° proof. The change to single barrel, along with an updated label design, is scheduled to take place later this year, probably in time for the holiday gift season.

Baker's was launched in 1992 as one of four bourbons in the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbons Collection, along with Knob Creek, Booker's, and Basil Hayden. Baker's was named for Baker Beam, who had at that time only recently retired as day shift Master Distiller at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont. His younger brother David worked the night shift. Baker and David are the sons of Carl 'Shucks' Beam, who preceded them as Clermont's Master Distiller.

There is a beautiful, old wood-frame house on the distillery grounds. It is part of the tour and called the Jere Beam House, after Jim Beam's son for whom it was built. After Jere, Shucks and his family lived there, so that's where Baker and David grew up. Along with their cousin, Parker Beam, they used to ride bikes in Bernheim Forest, which is right across the road from the Beam distillery.

That house figures in the story Baker tells in the clip (above) from the Louie B. Nunn oral history project.

Like most Beams I know, Baker is fond of trucks. For years after he retired, he would show up at the distillery to ride along in the trucks going to Indiana to get corn. In addition to the ride, he liked to visit with his buddies at the silo.

Although he appeared in some print ads in the 1960s, soft-spoken Baker has never been a company spokesperson. That's not his style.

Baker will celebrate his 83rd birthday later this summer. As a courtesy, the company shared its planned changes with him. He expressed some concerns, mostly about the new label design, which has not yet been released.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Does this Latest Warehouse Accident Mean Anything?

The partial collapse of this warehouse at O. Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro has caused the closure of Ewing Road.
After midnight on Monday morning, a whiskey aging warehouse at the O. Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky partially collapsed. About 4,000 of the 20,000 barrels held there got loose. No one was injured. The barrels appear mostly intact and no leakage has been reported according to Master Distiller Jacob Call.

A similar accident happened last year, on June 22, at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Both accidents occurred after very wet springs. Both are steel clad warehouses, wooden buildings covered with a corrugated steel skin. The Barton warehouse was built in the 1940s, the Tyler one was built in the 1960s.

That damaged warehouse as it appeared in 2009.
O. Z. Tyler was previously the Medley Distillery, home of Ezra Brooks Bourbon. It resumed distilling less than three years ago after a major renovation.

What is the impact of these accidents? Not much. There are more than 10 million barrels of whiskey aging in the United States right now, so a loss of 4,000 here or 19,000 there doesn't mean very much. And most of the affected whiskey isn't lost. Although it is a painstaking process, each barrel will be removed from the pile and inspected. Most will be undamaged and returned to storage to continue aging.

If it seems like there have been a lot of these accidents lately, consider that the amount of whiskey aging in America (most of it in Kentucky and Tennessee) has grown dramatically in recent years. Some of the warehouses that are now loaded to capacity stood underused or empty for several decades after bourbon sales collapsed in the 1970s.

The most dramatic loss at an American distillery occurred in 1996, when a fire swept through the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, destroying the distillery itself and seven warehouses. Approximately 7.7 million gallons of whiskey were lost, but even that was only about two percent of the industry's combined inventory at the time.

In May of 2000, a warehouse collapse at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg caused a fire. Whiskey spilled into the Kentucky River, killing an estimated 200,000 fish. In August of 2003, a Jim Beam warehouse at a remote maturation site caught fire. In both incidents, about 19,000 barrels were lost.

In April of 2006, a storm damaged a warehouse at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. Although it left the barrels exposed to the elements, no barrels were lost.

If you think these warehouses collapse too easily, consider this. A barrel of whiskey weighs about 500 pounds. A typical warehouse holds about 20,000 of them. That's about 5,000 tons!

Monday, June 17, 2019

The first brick house west of the Alleghenies was built in 1788 near New Haven, Kentucky

The first brick house west of the Alleghenies was built in 1788 near New Haven, Kentucky.

Last Friday, J. W. ‘Wally’ Dant announced that his Log Still Distilling LLC has acquired the site of the Gethsemane Distillery, between New Haven and New Hope, where his family made whiskey in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He intends to build a new distillery there.

It’s a story that starts with that first brick house, built in part with money earned from the sale of frontier whiskey.

The house was built by Captain Samuel Pottinger Sr., who established the first outpost in that part of southern Nelson County in the spring of 1781. It was a small fort called Pottinger’s Station. For his military service to the Commonwealth of Virginia, in the Revolution and other campaigns, Captain Sam received a grant of 12,100 acres from Governor Patrick Henry. (Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1792.) Before the brick house there was a log cabin, a grist mill, and a distillery.

When Captain Sam learned that a group of Marylanders, mostly Catholics, were looking for a place in Kentucky where they could settle close together, so they could attract a priest and start a parish, he went and got them. They included Basil Hayden and Wally Dant’s ancestor, John Baptiste Dant.

Several generations of Pottingers lived in that brick house. In about 1872, Captain Sam’s grandson, Jeff Pottinger, moved the family distillery a few miles away, onto land adjacent to the new railroad tracks, at a place the railroad called Gethsemane Station. It was named for the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani.

Jeff Pottinger operated the distillery at Gethsemane as T. J. Pottinger and Company until 1888, when he sold it to Francis Head and Minor Case (M. C.) Beam. They renamed it Beam & Head.

Their next door neighbor at Gethsemane was a distillery built by Joseph Bernard Dant, grandson of John Baptiste. That distillery came to be known as Taylor and Williams, a Louisville rectifier who owned the popular Yellowstone bourbon brand. In 1910, Dant bought Beam out and the whole plant became Yellowstone until Prohibition.

After Prohibition, some of the Dants moved Yellowstone to a new distillery in Louisville. Will Dant, with Joe Head, restarted the old Gethsemane Station place as Dant & Head. They didn’t own it for long. Ultimately, it was bought by Armand Hammer, who also bought the Dant family’s original distillery, at Dant Station, along with the J. W. Dant trademark, which he built into a very successful brand. He sold both distilleries and the brand to Schenley in 1953. (Heaven Hill owns the brand today.)

Soon the Dant Station distillery was closed and abandoned, and the Gethsemane place was improved. It operated until about 1961. After that, whiskey was no longer made there but the site continued to be used, as a lumber yard and eventually by a manufacturer of wooden roof trusses. If the new distillery opens in 2021 as planned, it will mark the end of a 60-year distilling hiatus there.

The first brick house west of the Alleghenies was last occupied by Vienna Maria Pottinger, the youngest daughter of Jeff Pottinger. She never married and lived there alone until she was committed to the state mental hospital in about 1920. It stood empty for years, then was used as a storage shed. It was demolished in 1940.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Attention Cynics. Most Whiskey Companies Aren't as Awful as You Think

Chuck Cowdery (left) and Fred Noe. Photo by Fred Minnick
Yesterday's happy news about Beam Suntory restoring the age statement on Knob Creek Bourbon was greeted by some with cynicism, specifically the part where I wrote, "Fred Noe and son Freddie have been agitating to bring it back."

Most people welcomed the news, but a few said something like this. "Is that story just more marketing? It's not like they have any actual say."

I get it. I can be as cynical as the next guy. In this case, the reality is different, though it's a nuanced difference. The marketers are involved, surely, but the master distillers who are the face of many brands are no mere mouthpieces. It varies from company to company. In some cases the roles are exaggerated for marketing effect, but in virtually all instances the companies recognize that these individuals, some like the Beams and Noes who have been deep in the industry for generations, are a unique asset.

Valuable as the embodiment of the brand, yes, but also for their knowledge and experience, their contacts, and their connection to customers. They may not always get their way, but their suggestions are always taken seriously.

I have been in and around this industry for more than 40 years. Decision-making is generally collaborative. The top decision makers are the C-suite executive types and those aren't the people you meet at tastings and whiskey festivals. But that doesn't mean the master distillers are spectators. The ones I know, and that's just about all of them, wouldn't stand for that.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Knob Creek to Restore 9-Year Age Statement, Baker's to Become Single Barrel

You know how brands have been losing their age statements these last few years? Well, one major brand is bringing theirs back. The standard expression of Knob Creek Bourbon will once more have a 9-year age statement on the label.

About four years ago, Beam Suntory realized that with Knob's sales growth, they didn't have enough inventory in the pipeline to keep it going as a 9-year, so the age statement was gradually eliminated. Many other brands around the industry have had the same problem and done the same thing. Fred Noe and son Freddie have been agitating to bring it back. Sometime early next year, a new updated label will appear, with the age statement. (Same bottle and wax seal.)

"People maybe don't care about the age of Jim Beam white label," says Fred Noe. "But the person who orders a Knob Creek manhattan, he wants to know it’s 9 years old."

It looks like the inventory will also allow some limited releases of older age-stated Knob.

In other news, Baker's Bourbon is getting a new look and becoming a single-barrel product. That change will happen sooner, probably this fall. Baker Beam has been working with Fred and Freddie on the changes. It will still be 7-years-old (age stated) and 107° proof.

Both changes were announced this week at a Beam sales meeting.

Baker's and Knob Creek were launched in the early 1990s, along with Booker's and Basil Hayden, as the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbons Collection.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

No Buying and Selling Alcohol on Facebook, Says Facebook for Umpteenth Time

Yesterday, all or most of the myriad whiskey pages on Facebook received a letter stating, in part, "While we allow people to talk about alcohol products we will not allow people to sell or purchase these regulated products on our site. This has always been true in places like Marketplace and Commerce posts in groups, but we will now extend this to organic content, and we will be updating our Community Standards accordingly. We are beginning to enforce this policy change on groups and pages we discover to be set up for this specific purpose."

This set off the usual firestorm of what passes for conversation on these pages, many of which sprinkle the commerce with misogynistic and scatalogoical commentary. None of this is new. Except in Kentucky and a few other places, the secondary market for alcohol is illegal, and in those few places where it is legal it is restricted.

The state beverage alcohol agencies that are supposed to enforce these laws rarely do, but they will lean on companies such as Facebook, eBay and Craig's List to get them to clamp down on the peer-to-peer commerce that takes place on their platforms.

It's never easy. This iteration won't be any different from the many previous efforts. Participants in the secondary market are a determined and persistent lot. Many are in denial about the criminal nature of their hobby, but they might be better off if they thought more like criminals. Successful criminals don't try to justify what they do, they just focus on not getting caught.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Before You Hit the Links this Summer, Check Out the New Reader

Byron Nelson (left) and Ben Hogan.
Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan are considered two of the greatest golfers of all time. Their accomplishments on the links will live forever in golf history.

Sadly, the golf course where those two legends got their start looked about to vanish in the mist five years ago. Golf just isn't as popular as it once was and golf courses all over the country, public and private, are struggling. Even famous courses, steeped in history, are often unable to resist the trend.

Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, where Nelson, Hogan, and LPGA legend Sandra Palmer all got their starts, closed its doors in 2014. No one was interested in operating it as a golf course so it was probably going to be redeveloped. Then along came an unlikely saviour, a growing craft distillery.

The story of how Texas bourbon makers Firestone & Robertson saved Glen Garden from the bulldozers is our feature story in the latest issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. And that's just the beginning. This young distillery is taking 'Texas-made' to the limit, with locally-grown grain and a proprietary yeast taken from a pecan nut, which just happens to be the state tree.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies in a week or so. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Michter's Distillery, which traces its roots back to 1753, is also in our sights. They've finally opened their downtown Louisville visitor experience and acquired 145 acres of rural land for expansion. Their first house-made bourbon is about to turn 4-years-old and they've just made some major changes to their distilling team.

Founded in 1994, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still a mere $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 19, Number 4.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50. That's here too.

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

For Father's Day, a Deal on Subscriptions to Bourbon+ Magazine

Bourbon+ is one of the places you can find me, other than here. Fred Minnick, my brother in bourbon, is Editor-in-Chief. Fred tells me they have already earned the number two position in the whiskey magazine marketplace, according to people who watch such things, in just a year. And they're trying to grow even more.

He also says my "Back in the Day" column "is our most popular amongst our base." He's buttering me up so I'll tell you about a special offer they're running, just in time for Father's Day, which is 15% off a subscription for you, your dad, or anybody, really. Use the code BFATH19. The offer is only valid for US subscribers and for one year.

This is my most recent column.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Complete Your Chuck Cowdery Collection with My First Book, Blues Legends

Your Chuck Cowdery collection is not complete unless you have my first book, Blues Legendswritten and published in 1995. It is long out-of-print but I have a few copies, still in the original shrinkwrap, which I'm offering at the original price of $19.95.

I'm selling them through Amazon, rather than on my website, because it's a little easier for me and I don't have that many. (The ordering is through Amazon, but the books come from me.) This link will take you to the book on Amazon, where it is offered by multiple sellers. To get it from me, just make sure the seller is 'Made and Bottled in Kentucky.'

If you would like it autographed, send me an email. If you want a special inscription, just tell me what you want it to say. Of course, you'll also have to order the book, and make sure you give me enough information to match the autograph request to the order. Naturally, I'll have to remove the shrinkwrap to sign it.

I don't have very many and when they're gone, they're gone (although I suppose Amazon will still have the used ones).

A little bit about Blues Legends.

I call it a coffee table book for small coffee tables, as it is only 7.25" x 7.25". It is a hardcover book with dust jacket, 96 pages. It consists of biographies of 20 blues artists (listed below), with lots of photographs, most of them by my friend and legendary blues photographer Raeburn Flerlage. Until his book was released in 2000, Blues Legends was the largest published collection of his blues photographs.

I was given the opportunity to do the book because of some work I did for the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. It was also through that project that I met Ray and was introduced to his work. We became good friends and I was excited by the chance to introduce his photographs to a wider audience. A few years later I also helped him with his book, Chicago Blues As Seen from the Inside.

Blues Legends also includes a CD with ten songs I chose, by Muddy Waters, B. B. King, John Lee Hooker and others. One peculiarity: the CD was supposed to contain "Wild Cow Blues" by Big Joe Williams. Instead it has "Every Day I Have the Blues," by Joe Williams, the jazz singer. It's a great song and performance, perfectly enjoyable, but it was a mistake.

Because I came to the blues through rock and roll, that's how I wrote the book, choosing the artists who most influenced people like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Happily, most of them performed in Chicago and were photographed by Ray.

As I was writing it, it was not unusual for me to write all day and then go see Buddy Guy or Otis Rush perform at a local club that evening. They were both very active in Chicago in those days.

I am grateful to the publisher, Gibbs Smith, for the opportunity and for teaching me enough about book publishing to be able to self-publish all of my bourbon books.

It was a crazy time for me. I was doing my regular freelance writing, and going to law school, and writing this book. As it happened, I was doing a three-week law school summer semester abroad on the Greek island of Rhodes when the book needed to be proofread. They FedExed the proofs to me and I reviewed them on the beach. I thought at the time, "This is how I want the rest of my life to go, proofreading my books on a Greek beach."

The Blues Legends are:

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Memphis Minnie
Big Joe Williams
Son House
Arthur Crudup
Roosevelt Sykes
Little Brother Montgomery
T-Bone Walker
Howlin' Wolf
Robert Johnson
Lightnin' Hopkins
Muddy Waters
Memphis Slim
John Lee Hooker
Jimmy Reed
B. B. King
Little Walter
Freddie King
Otis Rush
Buddy Guy

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Best Bourbons, Ever

Normally, I reject the idea of 'best.' For one thing, it's subjective. What is best for you is whatever you like best. There is no objective 'best.'

That said, here are some of the bourbons that have impressed me the most over the years.

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12-year-old. This 12-year-old wheated bourbon made at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was just about perfect, as in perfectly balanced. It was generally available from the late 50s until about 1990. I’ve gone through several bottles. I have one left.

Abraham Bowman 18-year-old rye-recipe bourbon from Sazerac. This came out in about 2012. It was very limited. Very old bourbons are hit-or-miss. They miss more often than not or are okay but nothing special. Very rarely are they exceptional. This one was. I had one bottle. It is long gone.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, any bottling. This rye-recipe bourbon made by a doomed Pennsylvania distillery during a couple of weeks in 1974 became a phenomenon and is genuinely great whiskey too. Most of it was sold at 16-years-old but even the 20-year-old is terrific. I’ve tasted them all and still have one or two. I also wrote a book about it.

Weller 12-year-old. The closest you can get today to the taste of those great Stitzel-Weller wheaters of yore. Still made and widely available though often in short supply as its reputation as ‘poor man’s Pappy’ has spread.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. On the rye-recipe side of the ledger, Kentucky Spirit stands out as an exemplar. It is simply everything you want in a rye-recipe bourbon. Still made, widely available, and modestly priced for what you get.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills Bourbon (2012). On paper, it’s just a mixture of Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old rye-recipe bourbon with Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old wheated bourbon. The proportions were never revealed. To me, it is one of the best bourbons ever made and a great example of what a veteran master distiller at the height of his powers can accomplish.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

What the Market Calls 'Flavored Whiskey' Is Not What TTB Calls 'Flavored Whiskey'

Jack Daniels, as everyone knows, is whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, to be exact.

But Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire is not whiskey. As the label clearly explains, it is "cinnamon liqueur blended with Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey." Since the first ingredient listed is typically the largest component, we can assume that's the case here.

The official classification of this product, according to the rules of the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is 'other specialties and proprietaries.' It is, in effect, a pre-mixed cocktail, the ingredients of which are cinnamon liqueur and Tennessee whiskey.

TTB has a 'flavored whiskey' classification, but no one uses it. Most producers of what the market calls 'flavored whiskey' use either 'other specialties and proprietaries' or 'whiskey specialty,' which are basically catch-alls. Or they use the liqueur classification.

TTB defines flavored whiskey as whiskey to which has been added, "natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, and bottled at not less than 60° proof." That sounds like what most of these products are, so why don't they just use that? I don't know. Maybe it's too on-the-nose. For the specialty classification, "a statement of the classes and types of distilled spirits used in the manufacture thereof shall be deemed a sufficient statement of composition."

The American whiskey category's three biggest brands, Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and Evan Williams, all have multiple flavored expressions. Canada's Crown Royal is also in the act. And don't forget Sazerac's Fireball. All of them are flavored whiskey to you and me, but not to TTB.

So, while the sticklers will stickle, we know what is meant by flavored whiskey, which since Tennessee Fire was launched in 2011, has grown into a 10 million case business.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Roy Cohn Was Disbarred for Writing Himself Into Lew Rosenstiel's Will

Schenley Founder Lewis Rosenstiel in 1961.
Whenever the name of Roy Cohn is mentioned, which is frequently these days because President Donald Trump is such a fan, I think of a different name: Lew Rosenstiel. When Cohn was disbarred by the State of New York, shortly before his death in 1986, one of the reasons cited was his attempt to write himself into Rosenstiel's will as co-executor, a major legal ethics no-no because Rosenstiel was Cohn's client at the time.

But who was Lew Rosenstiel? And why is he fondling that whiskey barrel?

Born in Cincinnati in 1891, Rosenstiel belonged to one of the first families of the Queen City’s Jewish community. He was a grandson of Frederick A. Johnson, the first Jewish child born in that city.

The family had many business interests, including distilled spirits. Rosenstiel’s uncle was an executive at the Susquemec Distilling Co. in Milton, Kentucky, south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River. Rosenstiel went to work there as a teenager. By 1914 he was on the company’s board of directors. By 1918, at age 27, he was running the place.

Susquemec began as the Snyder Distillery in 1840 and was run by the Snyder family until it was destroyed by fire in 1879. Rebuilt the next year, it was renamed Susquemec and run by James Levy & Brothers, Cincinnati whiskey wholesalers. Rosenstiel’s family took it over in about 1910.

Distilleries being taken over by their customers was nothing new. Distilleries always had financing problems. Selling out to their best customer was a common solution. In most cases, the former owner stayed on as an employee and very little changed.

After Prohibition closed Susquemec and every other distillery in the country, the 30-year-old Rosenstiel and some of his associates formed a company called Cincinnati Distributing Corp. to sell medicinal whiskey. To obtain their license they bought an old Pennsylvania distillery that already had one. It gave Rosenstiel’s company a new name: Schenley.

Buying distilleries and their whiskey stocks throughout Prohibition positioned Rosenstiel and company to dominate the industry when it became legal again in December of 1933. They didn’t keep Susquemec, which never reopened, but did buy two distilleries in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, just west of Cincinnati, and merged them under the name Old Quaker.

By 1937, Schenley had outgrown Cincinnati and moved the company’s headquarters into the Empire State Building in New York. Schenley, largest of the ‘big four’ post-Prohibition liquor producers, would come to control about 25 percent of the United States distilled spirits market.

Schenley was a major player for more than 50 years. In 1987, a shadow of its former self, it was acquired by Guinness, making it part of what is now Diageo. Today, Diageo dominates the distilled spirits industry much as Schenley did a half-century ago.

Rosenstiel died in 1975. Cohn's gambit failed. Rosenstiel was luckier. Despite many salacious rumors, he is mostly remembered as a successful business leader and generous philanthropist.

What is he doing in that picture? It is unclear. As was the custom in those days with press release photographs, there is a proposed caption taped to the back. It reads: "BATTLE OF THE BARRELS was proclaimed by Lewis S. Rosenstiel, chairman and president of Schenley Industries Inc. in New York as he announced company's drive to break 'near-monopoly' of foreign producers in 'the large, profitable aged-whiskey field.' Barrels he displays here have special glass ends to illustrate the greater 'outage' or evaporation that occurs in longer-aged whiskey. Mr. Rosenstiel said his company is in good position to lead such a program because it has been 'building inventory continuity for a dozen of its major brands each year over the past decade.'"

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Chris Middleton Has Some Obscure but Interesting Facts About Rye

I heard from our friend Chris Middleton today. He enjoyed my article about rye in the current issue of Whisky Advocate. (Great magazine, but I wish they would spell 'whiskey' correctly.) Mr. Middleton, formerly of Jack Daniel's, is principal and director of Australia's Whisky Academy. He is a treasure trove of information, as his note below reveals.

I enjoyed your article on rye, probing this grain deeper than most writers care to venture. I was intrigued to read one of your interviewees discussing the Rosen rye being popular in Pennsylvania a hundred years ago. The progenitor of this rye cultivar was brought from Russia by J. A. Rosen, a Russian student at the Michigan Agricultural College (which is now Michigan State). The Michigan Agricultural Experimental Station started cultivating Rosen in 1909 and began distributing it in Michigan in 1912. The first farmer (in Albion, MI) to plant it was Carleton Horton, namesake of Horton rye.

Until the end of the 19th century, rye did not command research attention. Corn did, but that’s a digression. My records have circa 1844 mentioning the Patent Office of Agriculture and the rye cultivar, Multicole. Interestingly, this variety originated in Poland, through France to England and into America when someone tried to commercialise it under US patent. I suspect it was rejected, with the first genetic patent going to Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist in Chicago for his koji patent in 1891, when he coincidently registered his ‘disruptive’ new whiskey-making process.

The popular American winter ryes were imported varieties: Common (probably originally from the UK or Western Europe), St John’s Day (Italy), Siberian (German), as well as the Spring and Southern (seems this variety climatised to warmer US regions, KY/TN). As no one was taking much interest in reporting variations in cereal genetics back then, other varieties and races may have escaped the net, i.e. Baltic-derived varieties of early 19th century Europe including Norwegian, Wallachian, Archangel, Johannis, etc.

In 1850, Pennsylvania was the largest producer of rye (4.8 million bushels, or 34% of national output), followed by NY (4.2m) and MA (0.5m). Rye was about to be toppled as America’s leading whiskey style coming into the War Between the States.

Years ago I started researching a book on rye … hence all these ready and esoteric records.

NOTE: Thanks to Ari Sussman, of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company, for sharing this little gem about the rye farmers of Michigan's South Manitou Island, published in the early 1930s.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's Spring and There's a New Reader Out

The distillery (pictured) closed in 1973 and the company died in 1991 but Glenmore's last leader, grandson and namesake of the company's founder, just passed away earlier this month. In the new Bourbon Country Reader, we celebrate the life of James 'Buddy' Thompson and look back at the history of Glenmore Distilleries.

With Glenmore we're looking to the past, but with our story about Beam Suntory's new Legent bourbon we glimpse one way the future of American whiskey may unfold. We also take a brief look at something new from America's other mega whiskey-maker, Brown-Forman, their Coopers' Craft bourbons.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies next week. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Founded in 1994, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 19, Number 3.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50. That's here too.

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Louisville Film Industry and "Grizzly"

Poster for 1976's "Grizzly."
WARNING: No bourbon content.

I moved to Louisville from Columbus, Ohio, in February of 1978. I moved there for a job, at a local advertising agency. My job was to write and produce television and radio commercials for the agency's clients. Most of the television commercials were shot at the local television stations. When we made filmed commercials there was a local filmmaker we used, we also worked with people in Nashville. We had some clients in New Orleans and worked with some production companies there as well.

Louisville always had a small community of people who could crew such a shoot on a freelance basis. There was also a small community of actors and models, almost all part-time, who we used as talent. I learned about many of these local resources from my bosses, the men who had run the agency since the 1950s.

The group was small but capable, some were outstanding. We called it the Louisville talent puddle because it wasn't big enough to be a talent pool.

As I got to know people in that small community, I began to hear the name William Girdler, a filmmaker who had died about a month before I got to town. Just about everybody had worked with him or for him. One actor we worked with frequently, Charlie Kissinger, had parts in several of Girdler's films.

Girdler, I learned, was a Louisville native who had started his production company, Studio One Productions, while in his early 20s. Right out of the box he was making low-budget features. The first was "Asylum of Satan" (1972), followed by "Three on a Meathook" (also 1972). Both films were shot in and around Louisville with local talent on both sides of the camera. In our small community, everyone had a Girdler story. No one seemed quite sure how he funded his productions but they all made money and after the first two, he was making films under contract to Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.

Several of Girdler's films were knock-offs of current major studio hits, he made an "Exorcist" clone called "Abby" and a "Jaws" clone called "Grizzly." "Abby" was a 'blaxploitation' film, as was Girdler's next effort, "Sheba, Baby," an action film starring Pam Grier.

After "Sheba, Baby," Louisville's time as a feature film production center was done. Girdler went to Hollywood, but he took some of his Louisville crew along. I heard a lot of stories about "Grizzly." It was Girdler's biggest hit, a virtual scene-by-scene duplicate of "Jaws" featuring an 18-foot grizzly bear instead of a great white shark. The film's star, a real bear named Teddy, was only 11 feet tall, but he played big.

Girdler made two more features. He directed nine features in six years, writing three of them, before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for his next film. He was 30 years old.

I lived in Louisville for nine years, until 1987 when I moved to Chicago, but I have been involved with the city and with Kentucky ever since, mostly because of bourbon, but the area has so many fascinating stories. William Girdler's is one of them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

UK to Create Institute for Kentucky Spirits with $5 Million Grant from Jim Beam

Beam Suntory, which owns the Jim Beam Bourbon brand, is donating $5 million to the University of Kentucky to establish the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits. The Institute will educate the next generation of distillers through a curriculum that covers the skills needed to succeed in the distilled spirits industry at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. 

“As the University for Kentucky, we are the engine of our state’s industry—the pulse of its economy,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “When we envisioned ways to prepare our workforce to meet the changing needs of our rapidly growing Bourbon industry, a partnership with Jim Beam was a natural fit, and I can’t thank them enough for the generous gift that will help bring our vision to life. Together, as the Commonwealth’s indispensable institution and the world’s No. 1-selling Bourbon, we’re inspired by the common goal of maintaining the welfare, prosperity, and sustainability of Kentucky’s spirits industry for generations to come.”

The $5 million represents Beam Suntory’s largest single philanthropic or educational gift in company history.

“This donation is an investment in the future of Bourbon, and Kentucky’s future workforce, and we are confident that the future for both is very bright indeed,” said Albert Baladi, President and CEO of Beam Suntory. “We are excited about the key role that this program will play in the continued global expansion of America’s Native Spirit.”

The James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, led by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, will offer courses across engineering, chemistry, business, law, horticulture, forestry, food science, and entomology to address spirits industry needs in sustainable agriculture, research and development, and more.

“With the continued global growth of Bourbon, we need to focus on educating the next generation of distillers, scientists and engineers who can tackle the needs of this industry well into the future,” said Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s Seventh Generation Master Distiller. “And there’s no better place to make Bourbon than right here in Kentucky.”

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, there are nearly two barrels of Bourbon resting in the state of Kentucky for every person living there, valued at $3 billion, up 300% from 2009. Bourbon contributes $8.6 billion to Kentucky’s economy each year, including $1 billion in payroll, and $235 million in state and local tax revenue. The Bourbon industry also provides more than 20,000 jobs in the state.

“Very few places in the world have a historic landmark product like Bourbon,” said Seth DeBolt, horticulture professor and institute director. “The Institute is a collaboration to increase the longevity and the economic development for the spirits industry in Kentucky. It is really driven from an interdependence that we see between the university and the industry, and of course, remembering UK’s land-grant mission is to serve the economy of Kentucky. It’s a win-win all the way around, and we’re really excited about it.”

The university began a popular certificate in Distillation, Wine and Brewing Studies in 2014 and its online version is set to launch this fall. The Institute will build on this existing teaching opportunity as well as in research and outreach. It is a collaboration between the Colleges of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Business and Economics.

“Our signature Bourbon industry is an incredible economic engine for the Commonwealth and a thriving global symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “In the coming months, we look forward to sharing details of an impressive statewide initiative that will leverage many of our universities strengths and prepare the workforce of tomorrow for careers in Bourbon hospitality, business, and tourism, in addition to distillation and research and development.”

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Salute to the Unknown Distillers

Portraits of bourbon legends adorn the walls at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse,
Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Seth Thompson)
In Lexington, Kentucky the new Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse has a 'Bourbon Room,' decorated with images of such bourbon legends as Booker Noe, Jimmy Russell, Elmer Lee, and Bill Samuels. These are the names most bourbon fans know.

But where are the portraits of Paul Kirn and Jimmy Kearns? Who? Those are just two of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unknown master distillers, distillers, and plant managers whose portraits probably will never hang in a fancy steakhouse.

Here, for example, are some of the men (and they have pretty much all been men, although that is changing) who made the whiskey at just one defunct distillery, the Yellowstone Distillery on Seventh Street Road in Shively, just south of Louisville.

Yellowstone goes back to J. Bernard Dant's Cold Springs Distillery, which he started at Gethsemane in 1865. He later merged it with Taylor & Williams, a Louisville wholesaler that owned the popular Yellowstone bourbon brand. After Prohibition, J. Bernard and his three sons: Mike, Walter and Sam, and Jimmy Kearns, a nephew, built a new Yellowstone distillery in Shively.

Wilmer Beam, one of the seven distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam, was the distiller. (We would probably say 'master distiller,' but that term wasn't commonly used in those days.) Jimmy Kearns was plant manager and president. When the Thompson family's Glenmore Distilleries bought Yellowstone in 1944, Kearns moved to headquarters as a corporate vice-president and Paul Kirn succeeded him as plant manager. When Willmer Beam retired, Poss Greenwell became the distiller. Jack Beam, Wilmer's nephew, followed Greenwell. He was followed by Joe Ruttle. Bill Creel followed him. When the plant stopped distilling in the 80s, Creel went to Barton in Bardstown.

We only know this particular list, from one distillery spanning about 50 years, because Sam Cecil knew all of them and wrote it down in his book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky.

Today, the Dant and Beam families are making Yellowstone again at the Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon. Proprietors Steve and Paul Beam are descended from both families.

And so it goes in bourbon country.

Legends like Booker and Jimmy deserve all the recognition they receive, but the next time you sip on some fine Kentucky nectar, give a thought to the many unknown distillers and distillery hands who made Kentucky bourbon whiskey what it is today.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Provenance Versus Taste

If "provenance versus taste" seems like a false dichotomy, that's because it is. As whiskey has become more popular, provenance issues have arisen from time to time. Where was this whiskey made? How? From what? By whom? Is the label misleading?

Is it worth the price?

In the midst of all that, inevitably someone will declare, "I don't care about all that stuff, so long as it tastes good." To people trying to have a serious conversation about provenance, that sort of brush-off can grate, but it gets to a truth we enthusiasts often forget.

A good drink for a good price really is the bottom line.

I care a lot about provenance. The history and culture of America's whiskey makers is what attracted me in the first place. That is separate from liking to drink the stuff. While it may sound romantic to say knowledge makes the whiskey taste better, it actually doesn't.

I am musing about this because Beam Suntory's recent Legent Bourbon got me interested in the company's new Ao World Whiskey, just released in Japan, which led me to some of Dave Broom's writing about transparency issues in the Japanese whisky industry.

Does Japanese whisky made entirely in Japan taste different from 'Japanese whisky' that is 90 percent imported bulk whisky from Scotland or someplace else? Two whiskeys with different provenance may taste different, but provenance isn't the reason. Terroir? Maybe, but national borders don't have some magical effect on distillate. That it tastes a certain way is what matters, why it tastes that way does not. If you like the flavor, buy the product. You don't need the recipe. It's not like you're going to try to make it yourself.

One can easily get lost in the weeds on provenance questions. I'm someone who enjoys his time in the weeds, but not everyone does. This advice is for everyone who just wants a good drink for a good price. Don't trust anything you read or hear. It's all nonsense. Don't trust your friends. No, not even your bartender. Drink the cheapest thing that tastes good to you. If the label embarrasses you, use a flask or decanter.

Then if you also find provenance interesting, join the conversation.

What drives so much of this is that most people don't trust themselves, which makes them susceptible to the wiles of charlatans and quick-buck artists. Unfortunately, even well-meaning advisors can't offer much help because only you can decide what tastes good to you. Only you can decide how much you are willing spend.

Trust yourself, your own palate, and your own wallet.

There is no more to it than that.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

What We Know About IJW Whiskey

The new IJW barrelhouse on Lebanon Road (KY-34) southwest of Danville.
Yesterday, the Detroit Free Press broke a story that traces a new Kentucky whiskey concern, IJW Whiskey, to an investment by the University of Michigan. It appeared under the headline, "Mystery surrounds University of Michigan's possible whiskey investment."

The company has kept a low profile since it bought and began to develop its property outside of Danville more than a year ago, but its business plan, while unusual, is not as mysterious as its ownership.

The 142-acre tract, acquired from the Boyle County Industrial Foundation, is adjacent to the Wilderness Trail Distillery. The long-term plan presented to the county will involve 17 whiskey aging warehouses plus a 'presentation center' and an access driveway from Lebanon Road. The short-term plan calls for three warehouses that are only accessible via the Wilderness Trail property. Sources tell us Wilderness Trail is making the whiskey going into those warehouses now, on a contract distilling basis.

Sources further tell us that IJW has no plans to build its own distillery on the site. That's the unique part. Typically, a non-distiller producer (NDP) either buys aged whiskey that is ready to sell, or buys new-make and pays the distiller a fee to store it until it matures. IJW is an NDP, in that their whiskey is contract distilled, but they are taking delivery and maturing it in warehouses they own and operate.

That's new.

This project is interesting for several reasons, possible ownership by a major out-of-state university notwithstanding. First, the contract distilling market, which was extremely tight just a few years ago, apparently has added enough capacity for this business model to make sense, both now and going forward. Wilderness Trail is supplying them now, but they can buy new make from several other new distilleries nearby too.

Second, the company's owners clearly believe aged whiskey will be a valuable commodity in the coming years, even though the company owns no brands. They are betting that the market for Kentucky bourbon and other American whiskeys will continue to grow.

Third, although we don't know this, the business model may also be to provide maturation services for distillers and other NDPs. Whiskey warehousing has never been a free-standing business but there is no reason it can't be.That's another innovation.

The U.S. distilled spirits industry became vertically integrated after Prohibition, in part to please regulators. This may represent its decoupling.

What they will do with their whiskey when it does mature in a few years is unknown, to us and perhaps also to them.

Jody Lassiter, president of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, characterizes the business as having “low job intensity” but “high capital intensity,” with thousands of barrels of bourbon generating “a huge amount of property taxes,” especially for the Boyle County School District.

More recently, IJW has purchased a building on West Main Street in Louisville. The site, near the YUM Center and the Second Street Bridge, suggests something more public-facing than mere offices. Main Street is Louisville's historic 'Whiskey Row' and is becoming so again, hosting brand 'home places' for Evan Williams, Michter's, Old Forester, and Angel's Envy.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

College Admissions Bribery Scandal Has Bourbon Connection

Marci Palatella, owner of Bardstown's Preservation Distillery.
Yesterday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts released a list of 50 individuals charged in a nationwide college admissions bribery scheme. One of them has a tie to Kentucky’s bourbon industry. She is Marci Palatella, founder and owner of Preservation Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. She is charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. 

According to the indictment, Palatella paid approximately $500,000 to secure her son’s admission to USC.

Marci Palatella is married to Lou Palatella, who played guard for the San Francisco 49ers (1955-1958). After football, he became a liquor distributor in Northern California. They also own Campeón Tequila. Their liquor company, which is run by Marci Palatella, is called Allied Lomar Inc. 

Allied Lomar is better known in the industry for suing other liquor companies than they are for any of their own products. They got into it with Diageo over use of the Stitzel-Weller name, and with Garrison Brothers about the name Cowboy Bourbon. 

In 2015, the Palatellas bought the Bluegrass Expo and Convention Center, adjacent to the US-31E exit of the Bluegrass Parkway, and installed a small distillery. They joined the Kentucky Distillers' Association and started to give public tours last year.

4/16/19: Palatella has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and honest services mail and wire fraud.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Nary a Glimpse of Bourbon in "Glimpses of Kentucky"

Back in the days when movie theaters showed something other than coming attractions before the feature, one common short was "Traveltalks," whose presenter was James Fitzpatrick. In 1940, he presented "Glimpses of Kentucky." It's a nice, little ditty you can sometimes catch on TCM.

An outline of the film would look something like this:
  1. Cumberland River
  2. Bluegrass state
  3. Cumberland Falls
  4. Sheep farming
  5. Fort Harrod
  6. Henry Clay monument
  7. Daniel Boone grave
  8. "My Old Kentucky Home"
  9. "Old Black Joe"
  10. Thoroughbred horses
  11. Mint julep
  12. Other horses
  13. Horse farms
  14. Famous dead horses
With the exception of a brief nod to mint juleps, recommended as a refreshment after horse riding, there is no mention of bourbon whiskey. The bourbon industry was certainly active in Kentucky in 1940, but it followed the repeal of Prohibition by less than a decade. Kentucky made bourbon and its government was happy to collect the industry's taxes, but they didn't brag about it.

Kentucky just didn't tout its bourbon industry in those days. It never did until the recent era, beginning with the administration of Steve Beshear (2007-2015). Matt Bevin, the current governor, has continued that support. He shows up at most major industry events, such as the recent opening of Michter's Fort Nelson facility in downtown Louisville.

One of the most valuable forms of backing is indirect, the commonwealth's support for bourbon tourism. Bill Samuels of Maker's Mark tells the story of the hoops he had to jump through to get the Transportation Department to erect signs to guide people to his distillery. Years later, after the Kentucky Distillers Association established the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, brown 'attractions' signs appeared for all of the distilleries that welcomed visitors.

Although neo-prohibitionist types object, the economic development argument has proven persuasive to Kentucky's government and the governments of most other states that have distilling interests, which is quickly becoming most of them. A new "Traveltalk" for Kentucky would probably still feature a lot of horse stuff, but you can bet bourbon would be front and center too.

Friday, March 1, 2019

The New Michter's Is a Study in Persistence

The Fort Nelson Building on Louisville's Main Street, built in the 1870s, is now the Michter's visitors center 
Fort Nelson is literally where Louisville began. Built in 1781, it was an actual fort for American troops under the command of George Rogers Clark, who were there to secure the Ohio River and protect the tiny settlement of Louisville from Native American and British attacks. It was named after Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr., as Kentucky was then still part of Virginia.

After the fort came the city and in about 1870, an ornate, new structure arose on part of the old fort site. It even took the old fort's name. This was Louisville's original 'Whiskey Row.' Distilleries were out in the country but Whiskey Row was where the companies had their offices, sales rooms, and warehouses. If, like the Fort Nelson, your building was on the north side of Main, you could simply roll barrels out your back door, down to the river bank where paddlewheel steamers awaited.

The buildings in this district tended to be utilitarian. Occupying a corner lot, Fort Nelson's builders set out to be a bit more grand, with pillars and arches and a mighty turret.

In the late 20th century, most of the neighborhood became run down. Many of the buildings stood empty for years. Fort Nelson was one of them. As the neighborhood began its revival in the 1980s, many uses for the Fort Nelson were proposed. A local coffee roaster wanted to put a coffee museum there, but wound up donating the building to the city instead.

Fast forward to 2011. Michter's comes to town with a big announcement. They are bringing their New York-based bourbon business to Kentucky. With much fanfare they announce that they have purchased the Fort Nelson Building, which they intend to restore as their brand's 'home place.' The facility will include all the accoutrements of a whiskey brand visitors center, including a small distillery. They expected to have it open by spring of 2013, becoming the first distillery to return to downtown.

It was not to be. When they really got into it, they discovered that the building was structurally unsound. The schedule was immediately blown. So was the budget. Michter's moved forward with their production-scale facility in Shively, in the neighborhood that took the name 'Whiskey Row' after Prohibition because most of the companies built their new distilleries there. And they tried to figure out what to do with Fort Nelson.

They intended the renovation to be done to National Registry standards, so they threw out the budget and the timeline and started over. In the meantime, Heaven Hill became the first new downtown distillery, followed by Kentucky Peerless and Angel's Envy. Jim Beam opened their Urban Stillhouse. Even Rabbit Hole got there before Michter's did. So did Brown-Forman's Old Forester. Michter's began distilling in Shively in August of 2015, but they were still plugging away at Fort Nelson.

Michter's Fort Nelson opened to the public last month to much acclaim. I haven't been yet, but by all accounts their persistence paid off. They took their time and did it right; a beautiful job. Lew Bryson writes about it in The Daily Beast here. For more about the site history go here and here. For some of my past posts on the subject, go here, here, and here.