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.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Can Whiskey 'Go Bad'?

Image created with GPT-4
Does whiskey ever 'go bad'? 

It is a commonly asked question and people usually don't get a satisfactory answer.

First, whiskey in the bottle is very sturdy stuff. It will remain unchanged indefinitely. It has only a few enemies.

'Go bad' usually means 'spoiling,' as in unpleasant bacterial activity changing some component of the product into something else. Wine becomes vinegar. Milk becomes sour. Meat becomes rancid. Fruit becomes mush. That doesn't happen with high proof spirits like whiskey because nothing can live in that much alcohol.

So no, whiskey can't 'go bad' in that sense. What whiskey can do is absorb too much oxygen, which makes it taste like somebody added way too much vanilla. This happens most often when someone leaves a small amount in the bottle for a long period of time and can be aggravated if the cork or cap isn't well seated.

The best solution is to finish the bottle. Don't leave that last quaff for a special occasion. Just drink it.

If you must save it, transfer it to a bottle appropriately sized.

Under some rare conditions you can get unbalanced evaporation, where some or all of the alcohol goes away leaving a very unpleasant-tasting brown water. An inadequate seal is always the culprit here, aggravated by high temperature. This is why you don't want long exposure to direct sunlight. Alcohol is volatile. We think of that as meaning prone to catching fire, but it actually means prone to becoming a vapor and just going away.

Some people think the solution is to store bottles on their side to keep the cork moist, like you do with wine. This is a TERRIBLE idea with whiskey. High proof alcohol is hard on corks and dissolved cork is hard on the flavor of the beverage so do not store bottles on their side, or upside down, under any circumstances.

Some people will suggest that you wrap the bottle tops with paraffin tape. Some will recommend replacing whiskey when you pour it with marbles, or clean pebbles, something to keep the fill level high. This is a bit too fussy for most people and really isn't necessary. Just drink the whiskey in due course.

After all, that's what it's there for.

NOTE: A version of this post was published in August, 2015, hence the comments below from that period. Read them. Most of them are pretty good.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The Genealogy Of Yeast


Joseph Lloyd Beam, Master Distiller, Bardstown, Kentucky.
(date unknown, probably late 1920s)

Yeast, and the different characteristics a particular strain can impart during fermentation, is a fundamental part of bourbon-making. 

Today, most yeast is created in a lab and manufactured in a factory, but before Prohibition making yeast was a crucial part of a whiskey maker's skill set. Back then, "making" yeast meant mixing up a special mash and using it to catch and propagate a suitable strain from a wild source. Yeast is a living organism, a type of fungus. It thrives in a watery environment, eats sugar in liquid form, and metabolizes it into ethanol and carbon dioxide. All of the alcohol you can drink is made by yeast. Like all living organisms, yeast can mutate and change. When mutations render it unfit, it has to be replaced.

At most legacy distilleries, those that started before the modern "bourbon boom," the yeast they use has connections to that earlier era. Therefore, the genealogy of yeast is essentially that of yeast makers. At distilleries such as Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Yellowstone, Maker's Mark, Barton, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, and many others, that meant one or more members of the Beam family.

Yeast mutates and humans adapt. Although the Beams all started from the same place, with the same yeast mash recipe, and were all taught the same organoleptic standards, each distiller in each generation made their own subtle adaptations after years of practice and would have passed their way of doing things on to the next generation. 

Joseph L. "Joe" Beam was considered the dean of American whiskey makers on both sides of Prohibition. He was the son of Joseph B. Beam, whose grandfather was Jacob Beam, the ancestor from whom all whiskey-making Beams are descended. When Four Roses was revived after Prohibition, at a new distillery in Shively, they hired Joe Beam and bragged that he was bringing "the famous Beam yeast."

Joe Beam had seven distiller sons. Jim and Park Beam were his first cousins. His older brother, Minor, also a distiller, had several sons in the business. It's hard to find a distillery of that era that was not touched by a Beam. 

We know from Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, that the Jim Beam yeast was caught by Jim on his back porch in Bardstown as Prohibition was ending and he prepared to build a new distillery. That version of the Beam yeast is known for a "foxy" characteristic most noticeable in the brand's standard white label expression.

Jim and Joe Beam's uncle was Jack Beam, who started Early Times, and although his only son followed him into the business, there was no third generation. That line died out. It's unknown if the yeast strain they used was preserved and passed on to the people who revived Early Times after Prohibition. It is known that the yeast Brown-Forman used for Early Times was not the Old Forester yeast. 

When Park Beam's son, Earl, left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took that Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the yeast Joe's son Harry had been using. Earl tweaked it, as did his son and successor, Parker Beam. They did not, apparently, like that "foxy" characteristic, which is not evident in any Heaven Hill products.

According to family lore, Joe Beam received most of his training from his much older brother, Minor, who also trained Will McGill, a friend of Joe's who became Pappy Van Winkle's distiller at Stitzel-Weller. As journeymen, Joe and Will worked at Minor's distillery at Gethsemane, today's Log Still Distillery. They also worked together at Tom Moore's distillery, today's Barton 1792.

The Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark would have originated with Joseph B. Beam and probably went through Minor to get to Will McGill, and from him into the hands of Elmo Beam, Joe's firstborn, who would already have been familiar with his father's version. That Pappy Van Winkle gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not. No doubt he had his own ideas about such things.

His brother, Charlie, was distiller at the Pennsylvania distillery that became Michter's. Charlie trained Dick Stoll, who made the bourbon that became A. H. Hirsch Reserve.

After Joe Beam restarted Four Roses it was sold to Seagram's. His grandson, another Charlie, spent most of his career with Seagram's, where he developed the Eagle Rare Bourbon brand before finishing his career at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg. No company did more for whiskey yeast than Seagram's, which archived more than 300 different strains.

Minor's son, Guy, worked at several different distilleries, including Heaven Hill, Fairfield, and Cummins-Collins. During Prohibition he was a distiller in Canada. Guy had two distiller sons, Burch and Jack. A third son, Walter, who was better known as Toddy, operated a liquor store in downtown Bardstown that still bears his name. Jack worked for Barton. Steve and Paul Beam, who run Lebanon's Limestone Branch Distillery, are descended from Guy.

I once asked Craig Beam, Parker's son and successor, if he thought anyone in the family could make yeast the old-fashioned way, capturing it from a wild source. He knew he couldn't, he said. His grandfather, Earl, taught him how to propagate Heaven Hill's yeast, to make enough for the fermenters, but not how to make it from scratch. When Heaven Hill moved to Bernheim, they switched to dry yeast rather than add a yeast room, which the rebuilt distillery did not have. 

Craig said he thought if anyone could make it from scratch, it would be Baker, but when I asked Baker, he just laughed.

Monday, February 26, 2024

How Mushrooms Improve Whiskey


Sautéed mushrooms, quickly cooked in butter and extra virgin olive oil,
then finished with a flambé of bourbon.

Mushrooms are tasty on pizza, battered and deep fried, or stuffed with crabmeat. Maybe you like grilled portabellas with polenta, or shiitakes in a stir fry. Or perhaps you'd enjoy a tasty side-dish like the one pictured above. Bourbon-flavored mushrooms? Sure. Mushroom-flavored bourbon? Maybe not. 

But when white oak intended for whiskey barrels is seasoned naturally, mushrooms of a microscopic sort, usually referred to as fungi, play a vital role. Scientists call it fungal colonization. It is an early part of the wood’s natural decomposition process.

During seasoning, a succession of different fungal species send out roots (hyphae) that penetrate the wood structure and release hydrogen peroxide, a natural bleaching and oxidizing agent that helps break the wood down chemically, softening tannins and caramelizing hemicellulose among other salutary effects.

A fresh-cut oak is about 60 percent water by weight and needs to get below 18 percent for the coopers to do their thing. First in the pool is Aureobasidium pullulans, one of the species of common mildew, the same black stuff you clean off your shower tiles. As the wood dries it becomes inhospitable to pullulans which pulls out (okay, dies) and is replaced by another type that thrives in the slightly drier environment. One after another a succession of different fungal species (eumycota) and sub-species each have a go at it, including the one from which the medicine penicillin is made.

By studying fungal colonization in American white oak (Quercus alba), scientists proved the superiority of a traditional cooperage practice–air drying–that was widely abandoned in the United States after World War II in favor of kilns. Kilns remove moisture effectively, but they stop the biological processes, fungal and bacterial, that make many of the wood’s flavor components available for absorption by maturing spirit.

In the first stage of natural seasoning, if humidity and other weather variables are favorable, fresh-cut logs are simply left in the field for days or weeks. From there they go to a stave mill, close to the forest, where they are roughly broken down into staves and head pieces. From there they are shipped to the cooperage, where they are neatly stacked in the yard, fully exposed to the elements. There they will remain for anywhere from three months to two years, and in some cases even longer. Often wood that is given only a short time outside is finished via kiln.

As you can probably guess, it’s a cost issue. You pay a premium for long natural seasoning. A good question to ask when someone tries to sell you an expensive whiskey is, "How long were your barrel staves air seasoned?”

Don't be surprised if they have no idea what you’re talking about.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Latvia Is Russia's Whiskey Mule


Russia has its own whiskey, but they want ours.

Despite sanctions intended to deprive Russia and Russians of any Western goods they may want, many things are getting through, including scotch and bourbon. The mule satisfying Russia's whiskey jones is our NATO ally, Latvia.

According to DW, the German public broadcaster, in the first nine months of last year, Russia imported almost €244 million ($266 million) worth of whiskey products. Three-fourths of that came through Latvia, according to figures published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. In second place was another Baltic country, Lithuania, which sold Russia €27 million worth of whiskey.

Latvia also has become Russia's largest source of wine.

According to the Latvian government's official statistics portal, its exports to Russia were worth more than €1.1 billion last year. More than half of that was for alcohol and vinegar.

Latvia and Lithuania have small, domestic beverage alcohol industries, but most of what they ship to Russia comes from Western companies registered in the Baltics. 

What about sanctions? The head of a Russian spirits importer says it merely required a paperwork change. "While documents used to say that imports to Russia simply went through Latvia or Lithuania, now the Baltic states appear as the destination of the export, " he told the news agency. "Deliveries to Russia are then made from there."

Some observers say selling whiskey to Russia does not technically violate sanctions. Routing shipments through the Baltics, with Baltic companies handling all the of re-shipment to Russia, is mostly about Western companies concealing their Russian business to protect their reputations. 

According to the London-based Moral Rating Agency, Pernod Ricard is one of the largest suppliers of alcoholic beverages to Russia. Pernod owns Chivas Regal, Ballantine's, Royal Salute, The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Jameson, Powers, TX Whiskey, Rabbit Hole, Smooth Ambler, and Jefferson's. Pernod says it is trying to get out but, as just about everyone involved in this bemoans, it's complicated.

Latvia was admitted to NATO in 1999, along with Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, all states formerly dominated by Russia. They and other former Russian satellites, such as Poland, tend to be the most enthusiastic supporters of Ukraine, but many, such as Latvia, also have large Russian-speaking populations and many business and cultural connections to Russian entities. It's ironic, but also complicated.