Wednesday, March 18, 2020

TTB Waives Rule, Permits All Distilleries to Make Hand Sanitizer

Several distilleries have made posts recently, indicating that they are not legally permitted to make hand sanitizer. That was true until today. The Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has just announced that, "any existing DSP therefore can immediately commence production of hand sanitizer or distilled spirits (ethanol) for use in hand sanitizer, as described below, without having to obtain authorization first." The details are here.

However, not every distillery is able, because of the technology it uses, to make the necessary 190° proof (95% ABV) ethanol, and they also may not have access to the other materials needed. But for those that do, this is a way for them to both 'pitch in' during the current crisis, and keep their businesses going. Although alcoholic beverages can still be sold, many small distilleries depend on visitors and purchases made at the distillery, and that will be severely impacted by the crisis.

3/20/2020: New guidance, provided today, is here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Happy Birthday, Bottled-in-Bond Act

One-hundred-twenty-three years ago today, Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act. Once considered the epitome of 'the good stuff' in American whiskey, the 'bonded' or 'bottled-in-bond' (BIB) designation fell into disuse. Old Grand-Dad Bonded, the best-selling bond for many years, was one of the few nationally-distributed bonded whiskeys that remained. Heaven Hill had a stable of inexpensive bonds (Heaven Hill, J.T.S. Brown, J.W. Dant, T. W. Samuels) sold primarily in Kentucky. Sazerac's Very Old Barton, another mostly-in-Kentucky brand, had a bonded expression. Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond (the green label) was also available here and there.

But bottled-in-bond has come back in a big way. Beam Suntory, which makes OGD Bonded, now has Jim Beam and Old Overholt BIB expressions. Brown-Forman has bonded versions of Old Forester and Early Times. (Which is funny since company founder George Garvin Brown opposed bonds.) Heaven Hill has a super premium bond in Henry McKenna and their #1 bourbon, Evan Williams, now comes in a bonded expression. They also make Mellow Corn, the only bonded corn whiskey, and Rittenhouse, the top-selling bonded rye. Sazerac also has a premium bond, named for the father of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, Col. E. H. Taylor Jr.

Recently, several micro-distilleries have introduced bonds as a way to proclaim, "Look! We actually have whiskey that is more than four years old." They include Kings County, Laws Whiskey House, New Riff, FEW Spirits, Dad's Hat, One Eight, and Tom’s Foolery.

What does 'bottled-in-bond' mean? The 1897 Federal law was America's first 'truth in labeling' legislation. In return for allowing the Federal Government to monitor their operations and adhering to a strict set of rules, producers could label their products 'bottled-in-bond,' which the government considered a guarantee of whiskey authenticity. Though guaranteeing quality per se was never the intention, it became that de facto.

The most obvious characteristic of a BIB is its proof, 100°, which means one-hundred degrees of proof, also known as 'full proof,' which is 50 percent alcohol, 50 percent water. Though essentially arbitrary, this was long believed to be the ideal alcohol concentration for a whiskey. Modern tastes seem to prefer a milder 40/60 mix, but bonds must be 50/50, no more, no less.

A bond must also be at least four years old but it can be older. The Henry McKenna Bond, for example, is 10-years-old. George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond in 13-years-old.

The lesser known but more interesting characteristic of bonds is their singularity. A bond must be the product of a single distillery and a single distiller during a single distilling season. A 'distilling season' is a six-month period, either January-June (Spring) or July-December (Fall).

Think of bonds as 'single batch' whiskeys. The singularity rule means producers can't 'correct' a bottling batch by mixing in older or younger whiskey, or whiskey from another distillery. This makes barrel selection critical. If you really want to experience a distillery's house character, drink one of their bonds.

Although bottled-in-bond whiskeys were made and sold pre-Prohibition, it was mostly after the drought that they came into their own. Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II all kept the American whiskey industry from building up a solid stock of fully aged whiskeys for more than 25 years. In a market chock full of immature spirits, the words 'bottled-in-bond' became a Holy Grail in the late 40s and 50s, and into the early 60s. Then the whole American whiskey market crashed. Instead of being desirable, bonds came to be considered old-fashioned. One after another, major producers discontinued their bonds in favor of 80° proof expressions.

In today's crowded whiskey marketplace, new products are the easiest and surest way to grab attention. The long whiskey aging process makes it hard to develop products that are from-scratch new. For large producers especially, bonds are a way to create a new product from existing inventory. Bonds appeal to newbies and veterans alike. Bonds are back.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Is There Gluten in Bourbon?

With concerns about gluten allergy (i.e., Celiac Disease), people often ask "is there gluten in bourbon." The short and correct answer is no, but with an explanation.

Gluten is a group of proteins found in many but not all cereal grains. Wheat and rye contain gluten, corn and rice do not.

Because there is no reliable way to test for the presence of gluten in consumer products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says no product may legally be labeled 'gluten free' unless none of its ingredients contain gluten. The U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which controls alcoholic beverage labeling, echos the FDA's direction.

Since a whiskey made from 100 percent corn can be labeled as bourbon if the other requirements are met, a bourbon made from 100 percent corn may be labeled gluten free. Most vodka is made from 100 percent corn and can also be labeled gluten free. Most bourbons, however, contain rye or wheat and those grains contain gluten. Therefore, those whiskeys may not be labeled 'gluten free.'

But are they, in fact, gluten free? Is there gluten in any straight spirits? Almost certainly the answer is no. Proteins such as gluten shouldn't be able to survive the heat of the distillation process. The slight hedging is because (1) I'm not a chemist and (2) the aforementioned inability to reliably test for gluten in the final product.

So if 'highly unlikely' is good enough for you, then you shouldn't worry about gluten in bourbon.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

"Is This Worth $40?"

AUTHOR’S NOTE (3/2/20): The folks at Lonely Oak Distillery are angry about this article. Their ire is misplaced. This article is not about Lonely Oak’s Steeple Ridge Bourbon. It is about what you can do when you see a picture like this and want to find out about the product and what’s in the bottle. That answer may seem disingenuous but let me continue. The article is very clear about the steps one goes through and, in the end, it does not reach a conclusion. Because the picture only shows the front label, I also scoured the distillery’s website. I did not search for the COLA, which would have shown me the back label, because most consumers don’t know how to do that. Also, COLAs can be unreliable because labels can change after label approval. Apparently, this product is 100 percent house-made, and less than four years old, but some of my other questions (actual age?) remain unanswered. Finally, the adage, “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” applies here. ‘Bad’ publicity creates an opportunity to generate good publicity if you’re smart about how you handle it.

The original article begins now.

A person posted this picture online with the question, "Worth $40? What is it? Has anyone tried it??"

My answer: "When I see something unfamiliar, I ask myself 'what is it?' If I can't figure it out from the label, I try the web site. If I still get a bunch of vague puffery but no useful information, I conclude it is not worth consideration, let alone $40."

If you spend time on bourbon sites, you see this sort of thing all the time. That new label someone saw in the store sparks their interest. Maybe someone on the site has an answer, but probably not. They're probably in the same boat. The unfamiliar label catches your eye and you wonder, have I just stumbled upon an unknown gem?

Almost surely not.

Here is a tip for bourbon shoppers. That bourbon you just saw in the store that is unknown to you just might be perfectly okay but it is almost certainly nothing special and most likely an undistinguished, overpriced, sourced whiskey in an enticing bottle. The chance that you have discovered some overlooked gem from some mysteriously unknown distillery is virtually zero.

This is especially tragic if the person is someone new to bourbon. There are so many good to great bourbons and ryes out there at decent prices, from reliable producers who make it clear what's in the bottle, that you really should spend your time getting to know them. But I get it. Strange has its own appeal.

More likely than not, that unfamiliar label is the product of a marketing company that has created a concept and acquired some bulk whiskey for the project. It might be a brand created by a retail chain or distributor, again using bulk whiskey. This is a little less true now than it used to be because the new, smaller distilleries that launched a decade or so ago have come of age and are making good whiskey. But even new distilleries often create a brand using sourced liquid to generate cash flow while they get their distillery off the ground.

But it might still be great whiskey, right?

Anything is possible, but here is why that is unlikely. First, you need to know that whiskey's probable source. The number of distilleries in the U.S. that make whiskey is still fairly small and the number that make enough whiskey to sell some of it in bulk remains tiny. All of them keep their best whiskey for their own brands. What they sell is perfectly good in most cases, but probably nothing special and maybe not worth the price you're asked to pay.

It may not even be unfamiliar. You may have already had that exact same whiskey under a different label.

Almost all of the majors sell some bulk liquid from time to time. These days, aged bourbon is so valuable that if you have more than you need of a certain age or type, it makes sense to sell it rather than leave it in the warehouse.

There are a few companies, most famously MGP, who sell most of their output in bulk, but business is so good these days they struggle to maintain stocks that are more than a standard five or six years old. They're selling most of it much younger even than that.

Consequently, if you're in the market for bulk whiskey so you can create a brand, you will have a pretty easy time finding new make (spirit straight from the still), but the pickings get slimmer and the cost gets higher the older you go. If the source has something in the range of 12-years available, there's a good chance it's over-oaked, which doesn't mean someone won't sell it anyway.

If you're really interested in a new brand and don't have $40 (or more) to throw away, start by asking the retailer if that brand is available to taste. If not, maybe you can find it in a bar and taste it that way. Otherwise, the next step is to do some research.

Back to the bottle in the picture, "Steeple Ridge Bourbon Whiskey." What does the label tell you? There is no age statement visible and it's not labeled 'straight bourbon,' so that's a bad sign. 'Straight' is a pretty low threshold. It just means the whiskey is at least two years old. In the U.S., an age statement is required if the whiskey is less than four years old. After that, the age statement is voluntary. You can't see an age statement in the photograph above so does that mean it's at least four years old? Not necessarily. The absence of 'straight' suggests the whiskey is less than two years old. If the age statement is there it probably is hidden on a back or side label, in very small type. I've seen them printed sideways to be even less noticeable.

But say you're in the store, have examined the bottle carefully, and found no age statement. Does that mean it's at least four years old? Not necessarily. People have been known to violate that rule.

The other thing to look for on the label, which this one doesn't show, is some kind of 'distilled by' statement. Although that's not required, if it doesn't say 'distilled by' and says something like 'produced and bottled by' followed by the name of the distillery, or it says nothing, it almost certainly is sourced whiskey. Again, perfectly good whiskey but not an undiscovered gem.

The next step is to search the web. The good news is that this producer, Lonely Oak Distillery, appears to be a real distillery in rural western Iowa. There are pictures of their stills. There are pictures of the owners standing next to their stills. Their distillery is not huge but it is substantial. You can make whiskey with that rig. They are farm-based so they talk a lot about their grain, but not at all about mashbills, aging, and other details.

A little more online digging reveals that Lonely Oak Distillery has been in business only since the summer of 2017. That means that, at best, anything made there is barely two years old. No whiskey that young is worth $40 a bottle, though I concede that's an opinion others may not share.

The information now at our disposal suggests that this is probably a 'something to get us started' bottling of sourced whiskey. This is bolstered by the fact that they are also selling a single barrel, cask strength bourbon. It's still possible both are very young house-made liquids, but sourced seems more likely.

If it is sourced and was distilled outside of Iowa the label is supposed to disclose the state where it was made, but that rule too is often disregarded or, like the age statement, hidden as much as possible. One famous offender was their neighbor in Templeton, Iowa. There aren't very many distilleries in Iowa in a position to sell their whiskey in bulk, but it's possible. A source like MGP in Indiana is more likely. Again, we don't really have answers and although Lonely Oak has a well-designed web site loaded with stuff, none of those questions are answered there.

So we know more than we did but we still don't have a good idea of what is in that bottle, who made it, or how mature it is. Is what we do know worth $40?

It's nice to support someone just getting started, so you could look at your purchase that way, as part whiskey, part Kickstarter contribution.

I'll leave the final decision up to you.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Kentucky Bourbon Festival Names New President and Chairman

International Barrel Rolling Championship at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) is an annual event in Bardstown, Kentucky. If I'm counting right, this will be its 29th year. The dates are September 16-20.

I have been critical of the festival in the past. The gist of my complaint has been that it always felt like a party the locals threw for themselves, but they got the bourbon industry to pay for it. It seemed to neglect what should have been its core audience, out-of-town bourbon enthusiasts. Not a few of the bourbon producers expressed the same criticism.

The festival has steadily gotten better in that regard and it looks like they've just taken a major step in a positive direction. First, they have hired a professional to run the thing. He is Randy Prasse, the new president and COO. Prior to joining the KBF, Prasse was Senior Director of Operations at Churchill Downs in Louisville, directing all operations functions of the 2016-2019 Kentucky Derbys. He has also held positions at WESS Event Services – Garda, Gettysburg Fest, Tri-County Economic Development Alliance (Elizabeth, IL), and the Wisconsin State Fair Park, and has volunteered for numerous festival, travel, and visitors bureau non-profit organizations in Wisconsin. Randy was named Top 100 People to Know in Milwaukee (2008) by and Forty Under 40 (2006) by the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Equally as important is the appointment of David Mandell as the new Chairman of the festival's Board of Directors. Mandell is the Co-Founder and former President and CEO of The Bardstown Bourbon Company, where he created, launched and managed the company’s Napa Valley-esque bourbon distillery destination experience in Bardstown, Kentucky.

In addition to Mandell, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival Board of Directors includes:

Vice Chair – Melissa Horton, Corporate Events Manager at Heaven Hill Brands
Treasurer – Donald Blincoe, President/Professional Engineer at Buzick Construction
Secretary – Rachel Miller, Owner of The Harrison-Smith House
Board Member – Jennifer Cissell, Trade and Hospitality Manager at Beam Suntory
Board Member – Tony Kramer, Distillery Operations Manager at Lux Row Distillery
Board Member – Andrew Wiehebring, Director of Spirit Research and Innovation at Independent Stave Company

In addition to Mandell, three board members come from bourbon producers. Independent Stave is the largest maker of bourbon barrels. Buzick Construction builds the warehouses where those barrels, full of bourbon, are stored. Harrison-Smith House is a fine dining restaurant in downtown Bardstown.

Nothing against the city mothers and fathers who got the festival going, but a board of accomplished professionals directly connected to bourbon production and hospitality has to be an improvement in terms of helping make the festival the international, bourbon-centric event it always should have been.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Van Winkle Phenomenon and How It Got That Way

There is nothing else quite like it in the world of distilled spirits, a product (six products, actually) in such demand that they rarely hit the retail shelf and mostly sell (licitly or illicitly) for several multiples above their suggested retail price. If you can acquire a bottle of Pappy 23-year-old for its $299.99 SRP, it is because you won a lottery.

You probably know that Julian P. 'Pappy' Van Winkle owned Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was famous for wheated bourbon. You probably know that the brand is managed today by his grandson and great-grandson, in conjunction with Sazerac, and produced at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

But you may not know the whole story of the man, the whiskey, the brand, and the international phenomenon it has become.

But you can, because the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader is all about Van Winkle, plus a few suggestions of whiskeys you might enjoy instead.

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

Founded in 1993, 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 6. (And, yes, it's a bit overdue.)

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. The release of Volume 19, Number 6 means Volume 19 is now available. 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.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Happy Birthday to Our Booziest Presidents

Today is Presidents' Day. Technically, it's the day (the third Monday in February) when we celebrate Washington's birthday (which is really February 22), but most of the ads for mattresses and used cars will feature Washington and Lincoln, our booziest presidents.

Not that they were heavy drinkers, neither man was, but both were in the whiskey business.

For Washington, it was a coda to his public career. Washington the businessman was always looking for ways to make his Virginia estate more profitable. His manager, a Scot, suggested they convert some of the rye, corn and barley grown there into something much more valuable: whiskey. Although it operated for only a few years, the distillery was one of Washington's most successful enterprises.

Today, you can visit Washington's restored gristmill and reconstructed distillery, and even buy some of the whiskey distilled there (recently, not way back when).

For Lincoln, booze was something he got involved with at the very beginning of his adult life, and it dogged him throughout his political career. As a teenager, he briefly worked on flatboats that hauled whiskey from Kentucky to points south. For several years early in his 20s, Lincoln was in the retail liquor business, first as a hired clerk, then as a store owner in New Salem, Illinois. His stores all failed and left him burdened with debt.

Lincoln’s partisans tried to downplay or obscure the fact that he sold whiskey, just as his enemies exaggerated it. Most accounts of Lincoln’s early life describe his stores as 'groceries,' a term that sounds innocent enough to us now, but which at the time was a euphemism for a makeshift rural saloon.

Lincoln's stores sold lard, bacon, firearms, beeswax, honey and other necessities, but mainly whiskey. In tiny New Salem, Lincoln's male customers would hang out and visit with Lincoln, his business partner, and each other while consuming some of the whiskey they had just purchased. This socializing helped Lincoln develop the skills and reputation that carried over into his political career. What's more, it was considered all very normal and respectable at the time.

Years later, Lincoln had to deal with a growing Temperance Movement. His message was, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” He praised the good work of the good folks in the local Temperance society and advocated voluntary abstinence. He practiced it too, according to all accounts.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Joe Biden and the Little Creeps of Silicon Valley

(WARNING: NO BOURBON CONTENT.) This bombshell story erupted all over tech media yesterday. It was virtually the same headline and story in every instance. Many people on my Facebook feed posted it in one of its many forms. Many comments, mostly hostile to Biden, followed.

A simple Google search showed that reporting of this bombshell was pretty much limited to the tech media, though that is a very large universe in its own right. Biden made the statement during his meeting with the New York Times editorial board on December 16. The interview transcript was not released publically until this past Sunday night as part of the Times announcement of its endorsements for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Biden was not endorsed.)

Nothing prevented the Times from reporting Biden's statement back in December when he made it. If candidates make news during these interviews, the Times and other media outlets typically report that news right away, even if they don't intend to publish the full interview until later. Apparently, the Times didn't find it newsworthy. They still don't. No freestanding story about Biden's "little creeps" comment has appeared in the Times.

Because I became aware of the story from social media and couldn't find any mention of it in mass media, I was suspicious. A search for "Joe Biden calls game developers little creeps" returned dozens of nearly identical stories but did not return the original source. Therefore, it had the feel of something a Russian troll would push, an extremely negative story about a candidate aimed at a very specific audience.

It may still be that, which is the interesting part of this story. Misinformation doesn't have to be completely fake. In fact, what works best is a story that has what Stephen Colbert called 'truthiness;' "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true."

We all know that, in social media, a large percentage of participants read and react to headlines without ever reading the underlying story, effectively accepting the story as true and the headline writer's spin as the true gist of the story. They rarely do any additional research.

In fact, Joe Biden did not "call game developers 'little creeps.'" He referred to one specific (unnamed) game developer as a "little creep," in the context of a comment about violent video games. It was the sort of unguarded frankness for which Joe Biden is famous, if not always admired.

If there is a lesson here, it is that we all need to up our skepticism game, especially in this election year. Hesitate before you comment. People who follow me know I'm reminding myself to do this as much as anyone else. This is one of the ways we participate in our participatory democracy. Let's try to do it well.

Also, it is not necessary to like or agree with the New York Times to appreciate it when they provide the unedited voice of the candidate. (Albeit behind a paywall.) They and the other mainstream media (including entities such as Fox News, which is 'mainstream' in this regard) provide direct reporting by reporters. That's different from media outlets that simply take stories reported by others and re-report them with their own spin. Think of them as second-hand news.

It isn't difficult to tell the difference. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with ideology. The Daily Kos is second-hand news just as much as Breitbart is. We  are better off when we get our news as nearly first hand as we can and make up our own minds about what it means.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Whiskey Secondary Market Doesn't Matter

I have no objection to the bourbon secondary market except for the awkward fact that it is largely an illegal enterprise. What consenting adults do with their adult beverages should be up to them. Some people are way into it, the whole buying and selling thing. They are passionate about it. More power to them. Have fun with it. You'll hear no complaints from me.

I do have one issue, however, one source of irritation. Many of the people involved in that pastime have a very inflated idea of its importance. They believe the secondary market affects the overall bourbon or broader whiskey/whisky marketplace, for better or worse.

They're wrong. It doesn't. The broader industry pays very little attention to the secondary market. The vast majority of whiskey consumers don't even know it exists.

The secondary market matters, but only to itself. It has virtually no impact on the wider whiskey/whisky industry. It doesn't affect pricing or availability except on a very small number of brands that amount to a drop in the bucket of overall industry volume. In many cases, the complaints one hears are nostalgia for a past that never was.

True, as the chart above shows, you can almost never go into a store and find a Van Winkle product on the shelf at the official suggested retail price. Because people have figured out that Weller is the same recipe from the same distillery, the Weller products have been hard to find and are often marked up. But if you actually just like drinking a well-made wheated bourbon, Larceny isn't hard to find nor, for that matter, is Maker's Mark, and they are very similar to the Weller/Van Winkle products.

Of course, the secondary market isn't about finding something good to drink. I don't play so sometimes I'm not quite sure what it's about, but it is its own thing. That's great, it's fine, have fun with it, but it's not important except to itself.

To people who argue solemnly that the secondary market accounts for the higher prices we pay for whiskey today, consider this. A bottle of Rittenhouse Rye BIB cost $11 a decade ago. It's about $25 now, a 130% increase, but Rittenhouse Rye BIB never has been a player in the secondary. It's just a product that is very good, so people bought it, and demand outstripped supply, so the producer thought the market could bear a higher price. At $25, it's still a very good value.

So if you're into the whole secondary market thing, great, have fun. It's now legal in a couple of places, including Kentucky, which should help normalize things, and take away some of the mystery. Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe part of the fun of the secondary market is complaining about the secondary market, in which case the market is thriving.