Monday, September 11, 2017

Beer Still Diameters and Distillery Capacity; It Is Not That Simple


The beer still at the new Bulleit Distillery is 42" diameter.
With all of the new distillery construction and existing distillery expansion going on, it is hard to get a handle on how much new capacity is coming into the industry. Distilleries can produce below their capacity, of course, but these days bourbon distilleries are making as much as they can, so questions of capacity matter.

Although not quite the same as the beer we drink, the fermented grain mash that goes into a still like the one pictured above is called beer, and the still itself is called the beer still. This still strips all of the alcohol from the beer. That vapor, which is still 20 to 30 percent water, goes to a second pot-type still called a doubler for a second distillation, to remove more water and 'polish' the spirit.

Many factors affect how much a distillery can produce. One of them is the size of its beer still. A beer still doesn't have to be a column (i.e., continuous) still, but that is what most bourbon makers use. Because they are so tall, still height is the dimension that seems to impress people, but the dimension that matters is girth, the diameter of the still.

In trying to assess the capacity of different distilleries, I have tried to base it entirely on still diameter but, of course, it is not that simple.

"The diameter of the column is a very important part of the maximum throughput, but it’s not the only thing," says Mike Sherman, Vice President of Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the primary manufacturer of stills and other equipment for America's whiskey makers. "Tray design (amount of open area in the perforation) and downcomer size (the pipe that takes the beer down the column from one tray to the next) play a huge part." Other factors include beer thickness, condenser size, and fermentation yield.

It is also not correct, as I had assumed, that two 36" columns would have the same capacity as one 72" unit, for example. "It is not the diameter of the column, it is the area of the column" that matters, says Sherman. (A=𝜋r²) A 36" diameter column has an area of 7.06 ft², so 14.12 ft² for two columns. A 54" diameter column has an area of 15.9 ft². So, technically, the 54” column can run more than two 36” columns as long as everything else is sized correctly.

It also matters how each distillery uses its equipment, in terms of hours per day, days per week, and weeks per year. Some run one shift per day for five days and have a six-week shutdown versus another that runs round the clock for six days per week and only shuts down for two weeks per year.

So still area is a better metric than still diameter for comparison purposes and it is only roughly comparable, since it doesn't factor in those other considerations.

There are no easy answers, dammit.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bardstown Bourbon Company to Add Capacity, Become Major Producer




Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBC) announced today that it will expand its capacity to allow production of up to six million proof gallons per year. To accomplish this, the distillery will add a second 36-inch beer still, a 12.5k gallon mash cooker, and up to 16 additional fermenters. They expect the expansion to be complete by July of next year. This means more maturation warehouses also will be needed.

The press release claims this expansion will make BBC "one of the largest bourbon distilleries in the world." That's a stretch, but it certainly puts BBC into the major league, probably at number six, which is amazing for a distillery that has only been in operation for a year.

BBC is in direct competition with MGP of Indiana as a contract producer and will be bigger than MGP in terms of whiskey capacity when this expansion is completed. (MGP also produces neutral spirits.)

“The Bardstown Bourbon Company’s rapid growth is extremely exciting,” said David Mandell, President & CEO. “We’re truly helping to reshape the American whiskey market, and the success of our Collaborative Distilling Program demonstrates the massive demand for custom-made, authentic, Kentucky whiskey, bourbon and rye.”

In related news, the Distilled Spirits Council announced today that the value of U.S. distilled spirits exports rose a robust 10.6 percent—up more than $67 million—to a total of $698.5 million in the first half of 2017 as compared with the same period in 2016. In dollar terms, the growth was led by the largest category: American whiskeys including Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey and American Rye, which rose nearly $27 million to $464.6 million up 6.1 percent. The U.S. also exports small amounts of brandy, vodka, and rum.

These two announcements are related because much of the expansion taking place in the American whiskey business, especially among the majors, is predicated on robust, long-term export growth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

This May be Your Last Chance to Get "Made and Bottled in Kentucky" on DVD



"Made and Bottled in Kentucky," my one-hour documentary about the Kentucky bourbon whiskey industry, will no longer be available on Amazon once their current inventory of DVDs is exhausted. It will continue to be available here (i.e., directly from me) until my current inventory is exhausted. The price from me is $28, which includes U.S. shipping.

When my inventory runs out, I may make more DVDs, but more likely I will find some way to make it available via digital download.

So if you want to make sure you have a physical copy in your bourbon library, the time to act is now.

The documentary was made in 1991-92, with grants from Kentucky Educational Television (KET) and the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). KET still runs it from time to time on their network. Because it is 25 years old, it is interesting now primarily from a historical perspective, at it was made when we were seeing the first hints of the bourbon revival.

The production was made possible through a serendipitous convergence of events. Kentucky became a state in 1792, so for the bicentennial the legislature gave KET some extra money to fund independent productions about Kentucky subjects. I applied for and got a grant. The KDA had money to give because it had just received a Federal grant for export promotion. I was working in the industry, in marketing, so I was known to several of the distilleries.

At that point, I had been writing and producing TV commercials and other audio-visual material for about 20 years, but always for clients. I had never done a project where I had complete control. That was exciting for me and the main reason I wanted to do it.

There was no issue about independence with KET, but I was concerned about KDA. I finished my grant pitch by telling them that their funding would not give them the authority to approve the script or final product. Bill Samuels Jr., who was there representing Maker's Mark, leaped to his feet (as Bill will do) and proclaimed, "He's absolutely right, because I would be the worst, and if I can't tell him what to do, nobody can." It passed without objection.

This project is also what gave me the bourbon bug. I have been studying and writing about it ever since.

The video above is a short collection of clips from the documentary. There are others on my You Tube channel.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Come Drink with Me in Findlay, Ohio, on Tuesday, September 26



We will drink, eat, and talk bourbon. It should be a lot of fun. Join me beginning at 5:30 PM on Tuesday, September 26, at The Bourbon Affair, 121 E Crawford St, in downtown Findlay, Ohio. The ticket price ($65) includes a four-course meal and a tasting of four whiskeys. They are Old Taylor Small Batch Bourbon, Calumet Farms 10-year-old Single Rack Black, Woodford Reserve Straight Rye, and a Maker's Mark Private Select created especially for The Bourbon Affair.

This tasting is a bit of a homecoming for me. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, which is about an hour due east. In the 70s, I briefly worked at a radio station in Findlay. That is also where I get off I-75 to head east for visits home, so I've been through Findlay more times than I can count. The Pioneer Sugar silos are like an old friend.

Findlay is a nice town, even nicer now that it has a bourbon bar. It is home of the University of Findlay and Cooper Tire. It was, for 85 years, home of the Marathon Oil Company. The American standard, "Down by the Old Mill Stream," was composed by Findlay native Tell Taylor and inspired by Findlay's Blanchard River.

I promise not to give a long speech with a quick tasting at the end. We'll start to drink right away, and taste a different whiskey between dinner courses. I'll talk about the whiskeys we're tasting, about bourbon in general, and bourbon history. I like it when people interrupt me with good questions. These things are always best when it's a conversation.

If you would like to bring me to your town for a tasting, click here for information about how to do it.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Whiskey, Water, and You



There has been a lot of coverage today of a new study that explains why dilution with water improves the taste of whiskey and other aged spirits.

In at least one instance, the article includes the dilution formula published in Bourbon, Straight (2004).

It is as follows:

(amount of whiskey) x ((bottle proof/desired proof) -1) = amount of water to add

There is, of course, always water in whiskey. Even a barrel proof bourbon such as Booker's is only about 63 percent alcohol, the rest is water. Most bourbon and practically all scotch is bottled at 40 percent alcohol and 60 percent water.

Some of that water, about 20 percent of it, remains in the distillate that leaves the still. More water is added to get the spirit down to barreling proof, which is 62.5 percent alcohol or less. After aging, more water is added to get the whiskey from barrel proof down to bottle proof.

The study authors write, "When whisky is diluted, the alcohol is driven to the surface, and many of the taste molecules follow it because they like to be in a slightly less aqueous environment." It is unclear if this is something immediate, that happens right after water is added and then dissipates, or if the alcohol stays in that state. And, if it does, does the same thing happen when you pour diluted whiskey into a glass? Or do you have to add more water to create the effect?

It sounds like it happens each time you add water, up to a point of diminishing return. The authors also make an argument against cask strength whiskey that doesn't seem to comport with the experience of most drinkers, who find high proof whiskey very flavorful.

Ice, of course, makes the liquid cooler and also dilutes it, continuously as the ice melts.

Some people believe you should drink whiskey at bottle proof because that is what the maker intended, but this isn't necessarily true for barrel proof (i.e., cask strength) whiskey. The idea of a whiskey straight from the barrel is so you don't have to pay for added water and can dilute the spirit to your taste preference.

That is the best rule anyway. Find out what alcohol concentration you like best and stick to that. Your personal preference is all that really matters and you have all the diagnostic equipment you'll ever need right there in your head.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Fresh Hell Is This?



On Monday, it was "The Death of the Brand Ambassador." Today, it is "Revenge of the Global Partner," reminding us that fanciful titles for paid celebrity spokesfolk are also a hot new thing. Just ask Wild Turkey Creative Director Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey got his gig about a year ago. Kunis has been global partnering with Jim Beam since 2014. Today she recommends that we drink Jim Beam Vanilla, for when "you love the taste of bourbon but are sometimes looking for something a little different." A mixture of vanilla liqueur with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, it adds to the Jim Beam flavored portfolio that includes Jim Beam Apple, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Jim Beam Honey, and Red Stag by Jim Beam Black Cherry.

Jack Daniel's Honey is the leader in the flavored whiskey segment. It is a mixture of Jack whiskey and honey liqueur. By mixing whiskey with a liqueur you can introduce grain neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) as part of the drink's alcohol content, as neutral spirit is the alcohol component of most liqueurs. A blended whiskey that contains neutral spirit must disclose that fact on the label. Liqueurs are assumed to contain neutral spirit, so a whiskey blended with a liqueur doesn't face that requirement. Jack Honey and Jim Vanilla are classified as 'distilled spirit specialties,' not whiskey.

Neutral spirit costs a lot less to manufacture than whiskey. That makes flavored products more profitable and helps stretch currently tight whiskey stocks. Products classified as 'specialties' can also be sold at a lower proof, 70° (35% ABV) rather than the minimum of 80° (40% ABV) required for whiskey.

But to the typical consumer, it says Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam on the label so it's whiskey, right?

If you hate these products, blame Sazerac's phenomenally successful Fireball, another whiskey/liqueur mixture.

When Jim Beam first got into the flavored whiskey game, they said it would never get as crazy as flavored vodka.

We'll see about that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Death of the Brand Ambassador



The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) is promoting a seminar next week entitled "Build a Better Brand Ambassador," conducted by Robin Robinson.

The seminar is described as follows: "BUILD A BETTER BRAND AMBASSADOR is focused on creating the next generation Brand Ambassador: a sales-oriented, account-driving individual. Full of brand and category knowledge, loquacious and articulate, this individual delivers the brand pitch with aplomb and insider confidence. But also sharply focused on where the brand is at all times and dedicated to driving adoption and volume." (Emphasis added.)

The term 'brand ambassador' is used in many industries, not just distilled spirits. Originally, it was used to describe celebrity endorsers, so the term has always been flexible. But when the distilled spirits business began to use it, maybe 15-20 years ago, the idea was to have someone in the field who was focused entirely on product knowledge and brand education, without the pressure of moving cases and reaching sales goals.

The idea was that salespeople typically have responsibility for multiple brands in multiple categories. It is hard to have in-depth product knowledge about all of them. This reflects on credibility, as does the fact that salespeople have a reputation for saying whatever it takes to get a sale. No criticism intended. If your job is sales, then selling has to be your number one priority. That is why part of the definition of brand ambassador has always been, 'not a salesperson.'

With that background, this seminar doesn't tell producers how to 'build a better brand ambassador.' Instead, it tells the rest of us that the brand ambassador era is over. There can be no such thing as a brand ambassador who sells. That person is called a salesperson. To call them brand ambassadors is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.

The ACSA is a terrific organization and Robin Robinson is a superb presenter who understands the marketing and promotion of distilled spirits products better than anyone I know. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of anyone involved, just of their rhetoric. This also is nothing against salespeople. As salespeople are fond of saying, nothing happens until somebody sells something.

The argument has been made that craft producers, as small operations, can't afford to field both types of representatives. Fine, makes sense, then build a better salesperson. Don't pretend they are brand ambassadors.

The 'redefinition' (i.e., death) of the brand ambassador role is not limited to craft producers. Last year, 'world's-biggest-drinks-company' Diageo ended its 'Masters of Whisky' program and 40 people lost their jobs. Some were rehired as 'redefined' brand ambassadors, i.e., salespeople.

Another role in the mix here is 'field promotions manager.' Now some of them are being called 'brand ambassadors.' Could it be that 'brand ambassador' is too desirable as a title to be wasted on actual brand ambassadors?

If 'the next generation of brand ambassadors' is really the next generation of brand-aware salespeople, there is nothing wrong with that. Just don't pretend it is something else.