Wednesday, February 17, 2021

If You Like Rye Whiskey, Thank a Natufian

A rye-lovers dwelling.
If you like rye whiskey, you may owe it all to the Natufians. They were among the first humans to use rye grain. 

The Natufian culture emerged along the eastern Mediterranean coast about 15,000 years ago. They were just starting the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers by collecting and then cultivating wild cereals, especially rye, which originated in nearby Anatolia. They didn’t have stills (they didn’t have metal), but they did make beer. 

In 2018, the world's oldest brewery was found in a prehistoric cave near Haifa in Israel. The residue in it was 13,000 years old. As their knowledge increased, early brewers learned that barley is better than rye for beer because it dissolves more easily and more readily converts from starch into fermentable sugar. But rye never fell out of use.

Like many rye whiskey lovers the Natufians were semi-sedentary, able to meet their needs without constant nomadic roaming. 

Two lovers expressing rye love.
The Natufians were the last Middle Eastern culture that didn’t have bricks. Their buildings were partially below ground, with dry stone foundations, the upper part of brushwood. Although they stayed in one place for long periods, their settlements were not quite permanent. Much like the pre-Columbian cultures of North America, they most likely exploited their immediate environment to exhaustion, then moved to a similar unspoiled area not far away. 

That pattern of behavior continues to the present day, except now when we exhaust a resource there is nowhere else to go. 

As people of the late stone age, the Natufians reached a high level of sophistication in stone implement manufacture, specializing in small and sharp cutting tools.

They also made stone art. The oldest known depiction of a couple having sex is a small Natufian stone carving found in a cave in the Judean desert. 

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of dogs comes from Natufian sites.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Before 97X, There Was WOXR


I rise today to add a minor footnote to a story that is itself obscure, so be forewarned. Also NO BOURBON CONTENT.

In 1981, Douglas and Linda Balogh, two Cincinnati advertising executives, bought a 3,000 watt FM radio station in Oxford, Ohio, for $375,000. They changed the call letters to WOXY and it became an alt-rock phenomenon branded as “97X,” whose influence far outstripped its humble size and reach. 

In 2004, the Baloghs sold the station and took their format online, which lasted until 2011. If you want to know more about their story, just search “97X WOXY” for a wealth of resources. 97X WOXY is not to be confused with 97X WLXY, a radio station in western Illinois.

I’m here to do a Paul Harvey and tell you the rest of the story.

The station’s original call letters were WOXR and it was licensed to and located in Oxford, Ohio, the home of Miami University, a public university with about 17,000 students. Oxford is the quintessential college town. It is about 50 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

Like many of the earliest FM stations, WOXR was started in 1959 by an electrical engineer. He had another station in Kokomo, Indiana, where he lived. The story was that he had invented some device, which he also manufactured and sold to the Defense Department, and that’s where he made his money. He was an interesting guy, an Indian immigrant, nice enough but a little crooked and he ran the station on a shoestring. On payday, the station's employees raced each other to the bank because there was a good chance the last checks presented would bounce.

Rick Sellers was my friend, teacher, and fellow radio enthusiast. He was a few years older than me, with a master’s degree from Miami. In about 1972, he was hired by WOXR as station manager and ‘morning man.’ Rick is legally blind but had enough vision to get around Oxford on a bicycle. He could read the teletype printouts from which we got our news and weather, though he had to hold the paper directly against his thick glasses and move it from left to right, imitating the motion of the teletype machine. His disability limited him very little.

Another notable Miami Radio & TV classmate and friend from that era was Rick Ludwin, who went on to fame as a television producer and longtime NBC programming executive, generally credited as being the person who got “Seinfeld” on the air.

The two Ricks were leaders of a group of younger radio enthusiasts that included me. When Sellers got the job at WOXR, we were all anxious to join him there. I got my chance part-time late in 1972, then full-time after I graduated in June of 1973. I was Operations Manager and the early evening DJ. Most of the people who worked there were close friends, so we hung out together most of the time when we weren’t working. We used to joke on the air that we all lived together in a big house at the edge of town, which was true metaphorically if not literally.

At the time, the station was on North College Ave., just north of High Street. Not long after I went to work there we moved to High Street, into the center of the ‘uptown’ commercial area just west of the Miami campus, in the lower level of a commercial building that included a Burger Chef fast food restaurant. 

Like everything at the station, the move was done on a tiny budget. We were, apparently, the first tenants in that space as it was entirely undeveloped. I designed the floor plan and we all participated in the construction up to the limits of our specific skills. I could help with most of the construction but not the electronic stuff, although I did successfully solder a patch panel, of which I was proud. The two mixing consoles were homemade, though not by me. 

The station’s programming was eclectic. Prior to Sellers the station, like its sister in Kokomo, tried unsuccessfully to be the typical small town radio station. Sellers convinced the owner that Miami students were an untapped audience, and he found a couple of local businesses who were willing to buy advertising to reach them. I sold advertising too and we eventually hired a fulltime salesperson. The first person to briefly hold that position was Bob Michelson, a Miami grad from New York who went back to Manhattan to manage syndication for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a steppingstone for most of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.”

Naturally, WOXR was one of the first stations to carry the show. We also ran Bob's next project, a serialized radio drama based on the Marvel Comics "Fantastic Four" stories. Bill Murray was the voice of Johnny Storm, 'the Human Torch.'

Sellers’ morning show was on the ‘service’ model; lots of local news, weather, and sports; stories and guests of community interest; a limited amount of mostly top 40 and oldies music; and Rick’s very winning personality. The rest of the daytime programming was similar, becoming a little more progressive rock as the day went on. Although there was a program director and a music director, we had pretty much free reign to program our shows as we saw fit.

I came on in the early evening and transitioned into what was a full-on progressive rock format in the later evening and, eventually, overnight. I sometimes took shit from the daytime people for rocking too hard and from the late-night people for not rocking hard enough. I snuck in classical music, jazz, and novelty records, and read poetry and short essays on the air. Some of it was planned in advance, but most of it was spontaneous.

It was a lot of fun. 

Like the people who came along later with 97X, we played the most progressive music being recorded in the rock genre, much of it music that few other stations were playing. The Cincinnati market progressive rock pioneer was WEBN, an FM station started by a wealthy man who thought Cincinnati needed more classical music on the radio. It failed to catch on, so he let his son and daughter play 'their' music at night. Pretty soon, the progressive rock format was making the whole station a commercial success.

Like 97X, WOXR aspired to be more progressive than WEBN. Also like them, we aspired to penetrate the Cincinnati market even though our signal just barely reached that city’s northern suburbs (unless you had a pricey antenna). One of our proudest moments during my tenure was making the Cincinnati ratings book for the first time, albeit with the lowest number needed to qualify for inclusion.

I left the station in June of 1974. I was 22 and afraid that if I stayed in Oxford much longer, I would never leave. That wouldn’t have been a bad life but, at 22, I wanted to see what else I could do. I continued to be close to Rick Sellers and some of the other people there for another year or two, coming back once or twice for the annual Easter holiday “Roll Away the Rock Weekend,” during which we played oldies and station alums like me came back and pulled on-air shifts. Rick left in 1975, eventually buying and running a station in Iowa. WOXR went back to more of a straight Top-40 format until the Baloghs bought it in 1981. They moved the station again and the old High Street space became a pet shop.

When “WKRP in Cincinnati” went on the air in 1978, we fancied that it was based on our little station. We even had a ‘Jennifer,’ an exceptionally attractive receptionist who was nice enough but romantically out-of-reach for her many admirers. 

I like to think that although I had nothing whatsoever to do with 97X, we helped lay the groundwork. We were popular with many local high school kids, some of whom were still around when 97X came along and who recognized the connection, but most of the people who worked there never knew about us or what we did. That’s okay. For me it was a great experience during my formative years and gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I had a few more radio jobs, then transitioned into advertising. The freedom of the WOXR experience may have made it hard for me to work for anyone else. In 1986, I started to freelance and remained self-employed for the rest of my career. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Medicinal Use and Misuse of Alcohol

During Prohibition, you could buy whiskey legally with a doctor's prescription. Many years ago, I posted the picture above and it prompted a correspondence with a medical student who was also a whiskey fan, who wrote the following on the medical use of alcohol, what we know, and what we don't.

"Up until the 1980s, alcohol was given by I.V. to (of all patients) pregnant women as a "tocolytic," to help relax the uterus and stop contractions during premature labor. It was titrated to the slurred speech of the woman! It is hard to believe that it took until the 1980s for the medical world to realize that it also caused respiratory depression in neonates. 

"I consider this to be one of the more absurd uses of 'medicinal' ethanol use in history, despite the fact that it did in fact relax the uterus. Other uses have certainly been better thought out. The early anesthesiologists gave ethanol (before the advent of ether) to the wounded in the Civil War during emergency surgery. This was probably whiskey and was moderately successful. Ingested alcohol is actually a pretty good anesthetic, the problem being the amounts needed to reach an adequate blood concentration sufficient for surgery tend towards the lethal. 

"Another interesting use of alcohol in the hospital is its administration in the event of a methanol or ethylene glycol (anti-freeze) overdose. Ethanol reverses the toxic effects of those other poisons, preventing blindness, and liver and kidney failure. 

"My understanding is that during Prohibition, when physicians wrote prescriptions for whiskey, these tended to be for other reasons. I'm guessing the practice centered on the idea of whiskey as a 'general tonic,' a 'constitutional' of some sort. Perhaps even an early psychiatric medicine? Which would be interesting because of what we now know about the physiology of alcohol's depressive effects on the central nervous system. 

"What I find so interesting about all this is that humans have known for a long time that alcohol has a medicinal use, but we've often been very mistaken in our understanding of the physiology. This is a fascinating chapter in the history of medicine, not just in the history of whiskey. 

"Numerous papers have been published in journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine about the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Wine gets all the publicity in the lay press, but every paper unequivocally states that the form of the alcohol one ingests makes no difference. Reductions in heart attacks are well documented, as are reduced rates of strokes, as well as reduced cognitive decline and dementia in the elderly. There has even been some work on the antioxidant effects of spirits, but the funding of these papers renders some of their conclusions questionable. 

"While the scientific understanding of alcohol's effects is expanding, it is still based primarily on outcome studies rather than on biochemical experiments. Animal models are useful only up to a point. Most conclusions thus far about the salubrious effects of alcohol are based on controlled, double-blind randomized population studies. Those conclusions are pretty darn solid, but when it comes to the hypothesized mechanism of actually how alcohol induces its effects, no one really knows, other than to say that there is something 'anti-atherogenic' about alcohol. Which is kind of like defining a horse as a horse. No shit. 

"I wonder what effect the anti-alcohol movement has had historically on developing our scientific knowledge of alcohol. An analogy is the debate about stem-cell research. Politics and moralists have our scientists hog-tied while the rest of the world moves forward with life-saving insights and technologies. The medical understanding of alcohol is one of the many casualties of American theocracy, one of the great ironies in our history." 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Local, Craft Whiskeys Hold Pride of Place, at Least in My Neighborhood


North Buena Deli & Wine is a joint in my neighborhood. They have good sandwiches and are right next to a good bar, The Bar on Buena. Klein's Bakery and Café is right across the street, so it's a pretty tasty intersection, where Broadway crosses Buena.

All three have online menus, naturally. I was just browsing North Buena's. My interest was primarily sandwiches, but part of my pathology is that I can't look at a liquor store (or bar, or restaurant) and not look at their bourbon list if they have one. It's a pretty obvious truth of retail that you can read a lot into what a retailer chooses to sell. It tells you how they view their business and their actual and prospective customers. The more limited their offering is, the more it tells you.

This may not be everything they stock in the store, but this it what they list online under "Bourbon Whiskey." It's a short list, just six items.

  • Koval Bourbon Whiskey $49.99. (Koval is nearby, maybe a mile west.)
  • FEW Bourbon Whiskey $49.99. (Also local, a few miles north in Evanston.)
  • Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey $34.99
  • Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey $29.99
  • Four Roses Bourbon $24.99 
  • Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey $37.99
Under "Rye Whiskey" they offer two selections.

  • Koval Rye Single Barrel Whiskey $45.99
  • Low and Slow Rock and Rye $29.99 (Not local, but from a small producer in New York. Also not whiskey.)

The most interesting fact is that, on such a limited menu, three of the eight offerings are from local craft distilleries, and their products are the most expensive products on the list. This is where the best craft producers are right now. This store believes its customers want artisan and local, and are willing to pay for it. You will find FEW and Koval products next door at Bar on Buena too. North Buena Deli & Wine also features Koval and FEW gins.

The rest of the bourbon list tells you what national brands their customers are buying, the space in which (at least to this retailer's way of thinking) FEW and Koval play. Bulleit, Woodford and Maker's are high end offerings (but still mainstream) from Diageo, Brown-Forman and Beam Suntory, three of the industry's giants. Most bourbon fans won't be surprised to see the Four Roses name, but might find it curious that it's the so-called 'yellow label' expression, not the more prestigious small batch or single barrel. That's why it's the least expensive bourbon on offer.

People who buy bourbon at North Buena are doing so for convenience, after they get off the #36 bus on their way home, while picking up a Sicilian (Prosciutto, Genoa Salami, Capicola, and Provolone cheese on a 6" or 9” French Roll. Topped off with red roasted peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and our Italian dressing) and some Joe's potato chips. This is Chicago, after all. There are several other places to buy booze within a few blocks in any direction, so this is a neighborhood place with a very definite idea of who its customers are and what they want.

And what they want, in addition to tasty sandwiches, is locally-made craft spirits.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and How It Got That Way

For the last few issues of The Bourbon Country Reader, we have been running a series of "How It Got That Way" features. This time we look at the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, including an exclusive interview with Sazerac President Mark Brown about the impact of this iconic collection, now in its 20th year.

We also ponder the question "What Is Truth?" as it applies to marketing communication about American whiskey. There is true, false, and something in between.

It's all in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies in a few days (or weeks, depending on how the USPS is feeling). New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Born in 1993, in the 201st year of Kentucky statehood, 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. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail.

You may notice that this issue, mailed on January 2nd, says "December, 2020." Can't blame the USPS for that, that's 100 percent my fault, to prompt me to get another one out on schedule in February. Hey, it says "idiosyncratic" right there on the first page.

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 20, Number 3.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free searchable 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.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Very Old Bourbon Problem

Recently, someone I know asked for recommendations for a gift for a "bourbon-loving friend" in the $100-$150 price range.

First, I'm happy to report for those who don't know, that despite bourbon's current popularity and consequent increase in prices generally, $150 is still a princely sum to spend on a bottle of bourbon. You can, of course, spend as much as you want. Instacart recently offered me (unsolicited) a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old for $1,950. 

But back to that $100-$150 range. If the store where you shop has any bourbons in that price range, the likely justification for the price is age. Anything aged more than 12 years probably will be rare and expensive. 

But buying that 20-year-old something (not Pappy) might be an expensive mistake? Why? Because very old bourbons, while they have a following, don't appeal to every bourbon drinker. I know, because I'm one of those people. They are a very different taste. 

I don't seek out very olds because I usually don't like them. They're too woody, too acrid, too sooty. The wood overpowers everything else. In most cases, the whiskeys are not balanced. 

This applies to most limited edition releases, which is just as well since they're rarely available when you want them to be.

There are exceptions. The George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond is very drinkable at 13-years-old, reasonably priced at about $40, and generally available.

If you're shopping for a gift, and this is by no means limited to bourbon, it helps to know some of the products your recipient normally enjoys. If they tend to like the very olds then great, but if their taste runs more to standard bottlings then the most appreciated step-up might be something in the same range. Age-wise, the sweet spot for me is eight to twelve years. Most people who like a good solid four- to six-year-old will like that same recipe in an eight- to twelve-year iteration. So give the Jim Beam drinker a nice bottle of Knob Creek, give Kentucky Spirit to the Wild Turkey drinker, and so on. 

The 'older is always better' myth persists. You know better. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The "95% of the World's Bourbon Is Made in Kentucky" Fallacy


A couple weeks back, we talked about whether or not Jack Daniel's is, as the brand claims, "the #1 selling whiskey in the world." The answer hinged on what the claim actually means. Pressed, Jack Daniel's people will tell you that the claim refers to sales of the Jack Daniel's flagship expression, black label "Old No. 7." By that standard, Jack Daniel's is #1, beating Johnnie Walker Red Label, that brand's leading expression. But if you look at all of the whiskeys sold under those two brand names, Johnnie Walker beats Jack Daniel's by several million cases (although Jack is catching up fast).

Which is it? When you know all the facts, you see it's actually both. In all fairness to both brands, the claim simply means less than it seems. It tells you something, but not everything. It's true only as far as it goes. The full answer is nuanced and qualified. That's how reality is most of the time, but advertising doesn't play well with nuance. It needs claims that are clear, direct, and persuasive. 

It is the same with this oft-repeated claim: 

"Kentucky is the birthplace of Bourbon, crafting 95 percent of the world’s supply."

Is that, indeed, a fact? Not necessarily. You can be excused for believing it's a fact because it appears under the words "Bourbon Facts" on the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) web site.  

Eric Gregory is long-time president of the KDA. He has freely admitted that the claim originated with him and was, to put the best possible face on it, a seat-of-the-pants estimate or, if you prefer, a guess. He has expressed amazement and amusement that it has been accepted and widely repeated as fact. 

Was it a good guess? Is he right?

As the saying goes, it depends.

The claim has persisted and is promoted by the KDA because it serves that organization's purposes and in the precise way they frame it, the claim is probably close to being true. Its accuracy depends on what you mean by "bourbon." If by "bourbon" you mean products that say "bourbon whiskey" on the label, then 95% may be too low. When Gregory first said it, there were only two distilleries outside of Kentucky making a whiskey that was labeled and sold as bourbon. They were A. Smith Bowman in Virginia, which made Virginia Gentleman, and Seagram's in Indiana (now MGP), which made bourbon that was mostly sold outside the U.S. There may even then have been a couple of craft distilleries making bourbon outside of Kentucky, but they didn't make enough of it to matter. Bowman and Seagram's made so little that it probably didn't amount to even the 5% allocated to them by Gregory. 

Which brings us back to Jack Daniel's, always the elephant in the room when we talk about bourbon and Kentucky. Jack Daniel's is bourbon in all but name. So is George Dickel. Their use of the term "Tennessee whiskey" instead of bourbon is a choice, adopted long ago in part because bourbon is so closely associated with Kentucky. Between them, their volume (approximately 90% of which is Daniel's) is about one-fourth of the bourbon-style whiskey category. That makes Kentucky, at best, the producer of about 75% of the "world's bourbon supply."

In the business, the term "bourbon" is shorthand for American whiskey. Nobody breaks out bourbon, much less Kentucky bourbon, as a category. The numbers are for American whiskey, distinguishing straight whiskey from blends in most cases but that's about it. The straight whiskey segment was almost all bourbon and Tennessee whiskey until recently, with the resurgence of rye. 

Today bourbon is made all over the country. Most American whiskey is still made in Kentucky and Tennessee, and most of the growth in whiskey distilling capacity in the last decade or two has been there as well. Again it would be a guess, but if you said 95% of American whiskey is produced in that region, you'd be close to right. That region, which includes MGP's distillery on the Kentucky-Indiana border, is America's whiskey heartland.

With the resurgence of rye, American distillers are now making a lot of whiskey that is not in the bourbon/Tennessee whiskey style. In Scotland, they make many different whiskies, but they are all scotch. Not all American whiskey is bourbon, even with Jack and George included. In addition to bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, America's whiskey-makers make rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, corn whiskey, and blended whiskey, just to name the major types. Increasingly, these other whiskey styles are made in other places. Some craft producers have eschewed bourbon because of its strong association with Kentucky. Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and Maryland all have historical associations with rye whiskey, as does Canada.

Remember, the only thing that distinguishes bourbon from, say, rye is the mash bill. Both types use new, charred oak barrels and taste very similar. The parallel to scotch isn't bourbon, it's American whiskey writ large.

Back to the Kentucky question. The problem, of course, is with the KDA itself. They claim, also on their web site, that they are "Responsible for Promoting and Protecting All Things Bourbon," but that's not true. They actually only care about "promoting and protecting" the bourbon made in Kentucky by their member companies. 

About 70% of the whiskey made in the U.S. is made by four outfits. One of the four, Sazerac, is not a KDA member. Sazerac makes bourbon in Kentucky at Barton 1792 in Bardstown and Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. They are one of the largest producers of Kentucky bourbon but the KDA acts like they don't exist.

Do Brown-Forman and Diageo, which owns George Dickel, support the KDA's Kentucky-centricity? Apparently they do. Since both companies also make Kentucky bourbon, and Brown-Forman is Kentucky-based, they happily support the hegemony of Kentucky's large, legacy whiskey-makers. It's a not-too-subtle barrier to entry for producers of Texas bourbon or anyone else who would like to expand out of a successful regional market. 

In general, false and misleading statements invariably lead to false beliefs. Decisions based on bad information are themselves usually flawed. False and misleading statements erode our trust in the institutions that make them and in institutions generally. It shouldn't surprise anyone that most trade organizations are really private clubs intended to promote and protect the interests of their members, certainly not the interests of the public or even, necessarily, their industry at large. In this case, people repeat the 95% claim like it's gospel. It contributes to the hard-to-kill myth that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. 

They could fix this one, little problem easily. When you say "95%," it sounds like you actually know it's 95% because you've used a number and numbers imply precision. Maybe it would be better to just say "most" and leave it at that.

Bigger picture, this is part of a larger problem in which too many people feel free to pick and choose the "facts" that most appeal to them. There are still ways to find out what is true and what is not. You're using the most powerful of them right now (by which I mean the internet, not this blog). But you have to be smart about it, you might have to do a little more work than you'd like. Most of all you have to care about basing your judgments upon accurate information. The truth, like Tinkerbell, will die if you stop believing in it. Care about the truth, both in what you take in, and what you put out. It's the best way to live.

That's true in whiskey, in politics, in life.