Thursday, May 16, 2024

What’s in a Name? (Beam’s Version)

 

Fred, Freddie, and Booker Noe, at the Jim
Beam Distillery, Bullitt County, Kentucky.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

That’s my message to members of the Beam family who were saddened by the May first corporate name change, from Beam Suntory to Suntory Global Spirits. As Juliet says, that name is no part of thee. The Beam name and all it represents can never be erased.

When Jacob Beam came to Kentucky from Maryland at the end of the 18th century, he had already undergone a name change himself, from Johannes Jacobus Boehm to Jacob Beam. 

He had at least one son, David, who joined and followed him in the whiskey business. The third generation produced three successful whiskey makers. By the fourth generation, Beam family members were everywhere in bourbon country. 

That takes us to the end of the 19th century, when brothers Jim and Park Beam, along with their brother-in-law, Albert Hart, took over the operation begun by their great-grandfather. The distillery was called Beam & Hart. Their uncles and cousins were making whiskey too, at other companies.

The Beam & Hart Distillery was on Nazareth Road (now Old Nazareth Road), about three miles north of Bardstown, near the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth religious community. Beam & Hart’s main bourbon was called Old Tub. They operated at Nazareth until Prohibition (1920).

During Prohibition, the brothers bought the property where the Jim Beam Clermont distillery is now, about 20 miles northwest of the Nazareth place in Bullitt County. It had been a distillery, but the property also included a gravel quarry, a going business at the time. 

After Prohibition, with their sons, the Beam brothers rebuilt and reopened the distillery at Clermont. There were some problems with ownership of the Old Tub brand name, so Jim Beam became the name of the brand and company. 

In the 1940s, the family sold the company to a trio of Chicago investors. The new owners kept the name, and the family. Jim’s son, Jere (pronounced “Jerry,” short for Jerimiah), continued to run the business side while Park’s sons, Earl and “Shucks,” made the whiskey. Now called Jim Beam Brands, the company was based in Chicago. 

Jim Beam Bourbon’s popularity soared in the 1960s. Harry Blum, by then sole owner, sold the company to American Tobacco. Today, Blum’s grandson runs a cannabis company.

At the distillery in Kentucky, on the whiskey-making side of the business, Park Beam’s grandsons, Baker and David, were joined by their cousin, Booker Noe, son of Jim Beam’s daughter, Margaret. The company bought a second distillery, in Nelson County, and had Booker run it. It now bears his name. There were other family members here and there in the company.

Meanwhile, the new owner, American Tobacco, morphed into a diversified conglomerate called Fortune, which used its Jim Beam Brands subsidiary to acquire additional assets in the beverage alcohol space. They successfully converted Jim Beam Brands from a bourbon company into a diversified beverage alcohol company with a broad portfolio. In 2006, following a major acquisition that brought Maker’s Mark into the fold, Fortune changed the subsidiary’s name to Beam Global Spirits and Wine.

By that time, diversified conglomerates like Fortune Brands were out of favor with investors. Fortune began to sell off pieces of itself. In December 2010, it was split into three chunks, representing its three remaining businesses: distilled spirits, home and security, and golf products. 

Earlier in 2010, Pershing Square Capital Management, Bill Ackman’s hedge fund, became Fortune’s majority shareholder. Ackman pushed hard and publicly for a break-up. In 2011, Fortune became a "pure play" beverage alcohol company and changed its corporate name to Beam, Inc.

Company management hoped that would be good enough, but Ackman wasn’t finished. He kept pushing for more divestment. Almost exactly 10 years ago, Ackman got his way. Beam Inc. was sold to Suntory Holdings Limited, a privately held company based in Japan. Its distilled spirits division became Beam Suntory. In 2022, Beam Suntory moved its headquarters to Suntory’s offices in New York. Earlier this month, “Beam” was deleted from the name. That division is now called Suntory Global Spirits.

Meanwhile, and apropos Juliet’s admonition, nothing has changed in Kentucky, where all the company’s bourbon and rye whiskeys are made. Beam descendants still have a large say in how those whiskeys are made. The revived American whiskey business is full of Beams, whether they have the surname or not. For all of them, it is better to not share their name with a huge, international company they do not control and have not controlled for 80 years. Beam for the Beams.

Romeo, after all, has the final word on the subject: “Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized.”

Friday, May 10, 2024

Have I Learned Anything About Life? Maybe


Grant Wood "American Gothic" (detail)
In 2003, two of my friends were getting married. They'd both been around the block a few times and requested, in lieu of gifts, that we offer them our advice "on conflict resolution and the making of a successful partnership." It seems weird to me now, but that's how I remember it. 

Anyway, this is what I wrote. I think I printed it on a scroll or something. It's not bad advice, really.

And, yes, they're still married. 
________________

Considering my track record, my first thought was to suggest that you study my recommendations and then do exactly the opposite.

But maybe I have learned a few things.

Trust. There is nothing more important. If I am certain of anything it is that. To be with a person you can trust completely, that is the only reason to even be in a relationship. To have such people in your life in any capacity is a treasure.

Figuring out if you can trust another person is not nearly as important as being trustworthy yourself.

The best way to resolve conflicts is also the easiest: give in. State your position, explain why you feel the way you do, then let it go. Compromise quickly and generously, or simply fold altogether, then forget about it.

That doesn't mean be wishy-washy. You can have an opinion. You can even argue, just don't care about winning. Yes, someone is keeping score, but not the way you think.

No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to be too nice. Kindness does not come naturally or easily to anyone. It is counter-intuitive, you have to work at it. There is no chance that you will overdo it.

Gentleness, patience; also good.

Understanding, on the other hand, is overrated. Acceptance is more satisfying and conducive to happiness than understanding.

Shut up and listen. Of course you have to talk at some point, but the risk that you will listen too much or talk too little is very small.

Other very small risks: that you will laugh too much, smile too much, hug too much, have too much fun, see too much beauty or hear too much music. You can, however, eat too much cake.

Events you do not control will always turn out to be more interesting than events you do control. Also more entertaining, educational and, yes, more frightening, but still better.

Despite all indications to the contrary, your partner will not be improved if he or she becomes more like you. Do not try to understand why this is so. Instead, relax and enjoy the ride.

In fact, that’s probably the single best advice I can give: relax and enjoy the ride. That doesn't mean be passive. You should be engaged and involved, but also utterly open to life’s surprises. Another very small risk: that you will be too open to new experiences.

What about love? That’s the prerequisite. You won’t get very far with any of this other stuff without love. Love is the presence of all things good and the absence of all things bad. Trust, kindness, acceptance, listening – those are behaviors that require your attention. Love takes care of itself.

Thank you (names deleted for privacy) for prompting me to think about these matters. I don’t mean to suggest that I successfully follow all of my own advice all of the time, but right or wrong these are the lessons life has taught me so far.

Be nice. Have fun. Prepare to be surprised.


Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Prohibition: How It Happened, How It Ended, Why It Still Sucks

 

An anti-prohibition parade in Newark, New Jersey in 1932.
Apologists for the Prohibition disaster dubbed it the "noble experiment." There was nothing noble about it. A century ago, the American people were sold a bill of goods. They were promised an end to crime, poverty, depravity, abuse, neglect, and just about any other evil you can think of. All they had to do was ban beverage alcohol.

They fell for it. 

No one, apparently, realized that meant they themselves would have to stop drinking. Most Americans either opposed Prohibition or assumed it applied to someone else, not them. 

Nothing noble about it.

Like a hangover blooming on the morning after, American voters regretted Prohibition almost immediately. But they had changed the damn Constitution! This fuck-up wouldn't be easy to fix.

The previous edition of The Bourbon Country Reader went out in January, so a new one is a bit overdue. Sorry about that. I hope it's worth the wait. Prohibition is our subject this time. Sure, you know about Prohibition, you watched that interminable Ken Burns thing on PBS. But this is the story as you've never seen it, about the peculiar way it ended, and the burdens we still carry because of it.

It's a two-parter but, happily, you won't have to wait too long for part two. Part one should be out in the next few days and part two will follow a few weeks after that.

Also, in what I am calling the April issue, you'll read about A. Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey. Finally, 37 years after it acquired the brand, Suntory Global Spirits is doing something interesting with it, returning it to its roots as a 19th century "Pure Rye."

Liquor companies are forbidden to make purity claims, so Overholt won't use the term, but The Reader can and will.

Who is Suntory Global Spirits? That's the new name of the company that was called Beam Suntory until, well, today.

Proudly anachronistic, The Bourbon Country Reader remains paper-only, delivered First Class by the United States Postal Service, which is not allowed to deliver bourbon but can handle this.

A six-issue, approximately one-year subscription is just $25 for mailing addresses in the USA, $32 for everybody else. Those links take you directly to PayPal. 

If you are unfamiliar with The Bourbon Country Reader, click here for a sample issue

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.

Since its inception, I have made back issues of The Reader available. I still do, but henceforth that service will be limited to what's currently in inventory. No new ones will be printed and bound. Some may be available in loose form. If you're interested in back issues, check out "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.) Place an order and I'll let you know what's available.


Monday, April 22, 2024

A Train Ride to a Distillery? Yes, Please!

 

For special events, you can park at the Kentucky Railroad Museum
in New Haven and ride the train to Log Still Distillery.
Okay, I'm a sucker for a train ride.

Log Still Distillery’s premier event venue, The Legacy, kicks off its Southern Supper Series on Friday, May 10th. Lee Brice performs that night at The Amp, Log Still's concert venue. You can drive to Log Still and park at the venue if you want, but for a $20 up-charge you can park at the Kentucky Railroad Museum in New Haven and ride a vintage train to Log Still. At the end of the evening, the train takes you back to New Haven. The ride is about seven miles and offers "a scenic view of Kentucky’s landscape." Ticket information is here.

Wait! You can take a train there? How is that possible?

As you may know, Log Still is an entertainment complex that happens to include a whiskey distillery. It is about 50 miles south of Louisville and about 140 miles north of Nashville. 

Log Still is the work of Wally Dant and other members of the Dant family. They chose the site for many reasons. Their ancestors made whiskey there before Prohibition and many living family members grew up nearby. But the people who built the first distilleries there, which included members of the Beam, Head, and Pottinger families as well as Dants, chose the site in part because it was located on a new branch of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the Lebanon Branch, which opened in 1857.

Although regular service on that line ended in about 1987, the tracks are still there. The section going northwest out of New Haven, toward Boston (Kentucky, not Massachusetts) is maintained by the Kentucky Railroad Museum, which uses it for excursions. (The museum was originally located in Boston.) Log Still is in the other direction, at what the railroad called Gethsemane Station, a reference to the nearby Abbey which, apparently unbeknownst to the railroad, spells it Gethsemani. Distilleries all along the Lebanon Branch were the railroad's biggest customers.

Back in the day, of course, you could get the train in Louisville, Frankfort, or Lexington and ride to Gethsemane, Lebanon, New Haven, Athertonville, and many other places. The main line connected Louisville and Nashville. Athertonville had its own, short branch that connected it to New Haven. North of the Lebanon Branch there was another branch for distilleries called the Springfield Branch. That's the line the Kentucky Dinner Train uses, starting in Bardstown.

Some of Kentucky's distilleries still have rail access for shipping grain, new barrels, and empty bottles in, and full bottles out. Only Log Still, and only for special events, has passenger service. (Which, by the way, includes cocktail service.)

The Kentucky Dinner Train goes as far as Chapeze Station before heading back to Bardstown. The  Chapeze Distillery used to be there (it played Czechoslovakia in the movie "Stripes"). What's left is now part of Beam's Clermont complex, which is where all their visitor attractions are located. The train doesn't stop there but it could. Beam's bigger distillery, named for Booker Noe, doesn't welcome visitors but it's on the Lebanon Branch, close to where the Kentucky Railroad Museum excursions turn back to New Haven. 

Many other distilleries have train tracks near their sites, even though in some cases they haven't been maintained. How cool would it be if you could do the whole Kentucky Bourbon Trail by train?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Step In, Step Up

 

What to try next?
Today, most of what you see and read about bourbon and rye is focused on limited editions, finishes, and other mostly premium expressions. That's fine if that's what you're into, but it's a nightmare for newcomers trying to get to know the category. Too often, things you are told to try, when you try to try them, are hard or impossible to find, or too damn expensive.

On top of that, producers these days are expanding the envelope with different tastes and experiences that may be fine for what they are, but they are such outliers they just confuse someone still trying to understand the category.

What's a newbie to do?

It's easy to make the rounds of the major brands and their main expressions, a little Jack, a little Jim, some Evan or Elijah. There is nothing wrong with that. What I call "Step In, Step Up" is a slightly different approach. The idea is to introduce yourself to a distillery or brand family by selecting an expression that has some or all of the following characteristics.
  1. It is a step-up from the entry level expression.
  2. It is usually available.
  3. It is a decent value.

A perfect example of this paradigm is Jim Beam Black Label. It is significantly better than white label, a little higher proof, usually available in any decent-sized store, and the upcharge is modest. It goes for about $25 a bottle. In most stores, it will be right next to White Label.

In the Heaven Hill family, you can start with the standard Evan Williams Black Label, but the 1783 expression is a little better, a little higher proof, and in that same $25 range. 

These step-up expressions used to have age statements in the six- to eight-year range, but 'better' still usually means more age, which is evident in side-by-side taste comparisons.

If you want to get away from mega-producers, consider The Representative, a straight bourbon from Proof and Wood, a smallish independent bottler. It won a big award from Whisky Magazine. Yes, the liquid is from MGP, but it's bottled in 20-barrel batches at 115° proof, aged at least 4 years, and widely available at about $50. 

I'd like to include more small producers on a list like this but it's difficult because they tend to have limited distribution. There is also the price. No small producer, whether they're a distiller or not, can compete with Beam Suntory, Heaven Hill, or Brown-Forman on price. I used to tell people the challenge was to find something better than Evan Williams Black Label for the same or a lower price. I no longer say that because it can't be done! If you ever want to drink anything other than Evan Williams Black Label, then you'll have to get used to paying more for whiskey that isn't necessarily that much better.

So, back to the mega-producers. Like Jim Beam Black Label, Beam Suntory has other entry-level step ups hiding in plain sight. Basil Hayden is Beam Suntory's version of a high-rye bourbon, but it's the same distillate as Old Grand-Dad. Like Basil, the standard Old Grand-Dad expression is 80° proof, but right there on the shelf next to it is the much better, and only slightly more expensive, Old Grand-Dad Bonded. If you're really lucky, next to that will be the even better Old Grand-Dad 114.

Another old reliable is Brown-Forman's Old Forester. It is the product that launched the company in 1870. It is the same recipe as Woodford Reserve. They make a lot of noise about their limited editions, but standard Old Forester is a solid, full-bodied bourbon, at 86° proof, for about $25, with the step-up to 100° proof for just a few dollars more.

Which brings us to the two Gems of Lawrenceburg that never disappoint, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Four Roses Single Barrel is about $50, but that's the one you want. Wild Turkey 101, bourbon or rye is hard to beat at about $25. 

This advice, I should repeat, is for people just discovering American whiskey as something to drink. It won't enhance your credibility on Instagram.

But if you have some suggestions for bourbons or ryes that meet the "Step In, Step Up" criteria, feel free to include them in a comment below.


Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Online Sleuths Solve Bourbon Movie Mystery

 

Warren William and Alice White in "Employee's Entrance" (1933).

"Pre-code" refers to movies made between 1927 and 1934, before strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). Pre-code movies featured more sexual innuendo, profanity, promiscuity, and other controversial themes than later films. Such licentiousness would not return to celluloid until the 1960s.

I love pre-code movies.

This one, "Employee's Entrance," is the story of a big city department store struggling to survive in the early years of the Great Depression. It has an "Upstairs/Downstairs" quality, depicting owners and management but also front-line employees. 

When "Employee's Entrance" was released in 1933, National Prohibition was still in effect, yet when ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson shares a drink with Polly, a store employee, he pulls from his desk a pint of Old Taylor Bourbon.

Later in the film, the store throws a big party for employees. Champagne flows freely. No one comments on Prohibition one way or the other. During the party, many of the characters become happily, or not-so-happily, drunk. 

After Roosevelt and the Democrats swept the 1932 elections, it was assumed Prohibition was finished, but it was still in effect when "Employee's Entrance" was released.

During Prohibition, Old Taylor was sold, legally, "for medicinal purposes only." The bottles looked like this.

A Prohibition medicinal pint of Old Taylor Bourbon, in its original box.
It is a different label from the one in the movie. Now, producers change labels all the time, and it's possible that the movie label was a different release. It's also possible the bottle in the movie was a prop, a mockup created by the film's art department, but it seems unlikely they would make a fake label for a real brand.

After I watched "Employee's Entrance" a few weeks ago (and I recommend it if you get the chance. It's a hoot), I captured the above picture and posted it on Facebook. All I wrote was, "From 'Employee's Entrance' (1933). Look what they're drinking." That began a conversation about the bottle's provenance, initially assuming it was a legal Prohibition pint, then noticing the difference between the bottle in the picture and the known Prohibition pint above.

Then someone provided the answer.

A pint bottle of Old Taylor bourbon, made in Canada,
and likely smuggled into the U.S. for illegal sale.
Only so much detail can be gleaned from the movie screen capture, but this looks like the same bottle. What is it? Look closely. It was made by Consolidated Distilleries Limited in Canada. Talk about verisimilitude? Of course, ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson would have access to bootleg liquor, smuggled from Canada.

I've written here before about how Mary Dowling hired Joe Beam to make Waterfill and Frazier bourbon in Mexico. Joe Beam's nephew, Guy Beam, did something similar in Cananda. This Canadian Old Taylor is attributed to a gentleman from Covington, Kentucky, whose name is partially obscured. The idea behind these cross-border distilleries was that the manufacturing was entirely legal. The product could be made and sold legally in the state or province where it was produced. That took the producer entirely out of the equation. The person who bought the whiskey, legally, and exported it into the United States, illegally, committed the crime.

Nevertheless, despite its legal manufacture, you can't necessarily trust everything on the label. Was it bourbon? The law making bourbon whiskey a distinctive product of the United States was still several decades in the future, so that's not an issue. In Canada, as part of their normal whisky production process, distilleries make a corn distillate very similar to bourbon, which they then redistill to near neutrality before aging in used barrels. 

Was this that bourbon-like intermediate distillate? Maybe, it's impossible to know. The only bottle we know about is empty.


Friday, March 29, 2024

From Big Cups to Big Names, American Whiskey's Next Act

 

Celebrate Spring with a friendly putting competition at Welter’s Folly!
Golf Season begins at Welter’s Folly on Sunday, April 14th, with the Big Cup Putting Tournament.

Welter's Folly is a 30,000 square foot, 18-hole, mounded putting green behind the Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan. It was named for Bill Welter, the distillery's founder. 

Scheduled to coincide with the 80th Annual Masters, the Big Cup Putting Competition will be held at Welter's Folly on Sunday, April 14th, beginning at 11:30 AM. Cost is $40 per two-player team. Bring your putter or use theirs for the 9-inch cup challenge.

Five dollars from each entry goes toward a skins game, with another $5 going toward a closest-to-the-pin competition. Cash prizes will be awarded for the top 3 scores, plus a little something for last place.

After Big Cup, Welter's Folly will be open for putting daily, Monday-Saturday at 11:30 AM, Sunday at 10:00 AM. The green closes daily 20 minutes prior to official sunset. The $9 fee includes a souvenir Journeyman golf ball. No charge for children 12 and under. Cocktails are permitted on the greens for putters 21 & over.

In Three Oaks, in addition to the putting green and distillery tour, Journeyman has a nice bar and restaurant. At their sister distillery in Valparaiso, Indiana, the American Factory, they have multiple restaurants, a brewery, rooftop bar, candy shop, karaoke, and great facilities for weddings and other private events.

As much as I'm happy to give Bill publicity, my purpose here is to highlight this latest trend in American distilled spirits, the whiskey resort. 

The epitome of this new trend is Kentucky's Log Still Distillery, out in the country about 15 miles south of Bardstown. The site has a lot of great bourbon history tied to the Dant family. It is the creation of Wally Dant, the many-times great grandson of J. W. Dant, assisted by other family members. The fact that Heaven Hill owns the J. W. Dant bourbon brand has limited their ability to exploit their lineage, but not their ambition. In addition to a distillery, tasting room, restaurant, and walking trails, Log Still has several B&Bs, a wedding venue with a 350-seat chapel, and a 2,300-seat outdoor event venue that hosts nationally-known artists such as Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Elle King, Lady A, Dwight Yoakam, and Joan Jett.

Whiskey distilleries have always attracted visitors in a way few other manufacturers can imagine. Jack Daniel's in Tennessee gets about 250,000 guests per year, an annual average that hasn't changed much in 40 years. Most distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee now give tours. They have gift shops and tasting rooms, and some have restaurants or other amenities, but mostly they distill and age whiskey. 

Even Journeyman started, more than a decade ago, as a distillery first, adding the putting green and other amenities along the way. Many craft distilleries have parties with live music and other activities, mostly for community goodwill. This has been going on since the beginning.

Log Still is different. It started with the amenities. The distillery part was the last thing they built. They sell whiskey (sourced) and gin, but it's far down on the list of their income streams.

I tend to be someone who mostly cares about whiskey, but I also like history, and what we're experiencing now will become the history of tomorrow, for better or worse. There is another side to it, of course, as there always is. Dirtying up American whiskey's rosy picture is something that looks like dirt. 

In New York's Adirondack Park, WhistlePig Whiskey is being accused of polluting the area with whiskey fungus (Baudoinia compniacensis). Last weekend, the Adirondack Explorer reported that "New tests suggest wider spread of whiskey fungus in small Adirondack town. State requires action by WhistlePig Whiskey in Moriah; environmental impact of whiskey production under scrutiny." 

Award-winning environmental journalist Gwendolyn Craig did the Adirondacks proud with a thorough 2,100-word account, though it covered little new ground. Whiskey needs to age, and a harmless but unsightly fungus comes as part of the deal. In a 10-page report, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said it found the fungus as far away as 1,379 yards from WhistlePig's facility. It has ordered WhistlePig to submit plans for mitigating “the effects of its operations on neighboring properties” by April 20. The Adirondack Park Agency, which oversees public and private development in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, has issued multiple permits for the warehouse complex.

This keeps happening and while I'm sure producers would like to head these problems off, no one seems to have cracked the code. Even in Kentucky, where Baudoinia is well known, and several cases were thoroughly litigated more than a decade ago, and producers are acquiring large tracts of land for their new maturation complexes to keep the fungus as far away from neighboring properties as possible, complaints persist. 

Airports are noisy, factories often are smelly, water is wet, and whiskey maturation facilities grow Baudoinia. Otherwise, everything is great.