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.