Wednesday, January 30, 2008

High West Checks In

I heard from David Perkins of Utah's High West Distillery about Sunday's post. The High West web site has the full text of the Rendezvous Rye back label, where it clearly says, "In this tradition of importing whiskey from back East (while we age our own whiskey), we crafted Rendezvous from two exotic straight rye whiskies."

I apologize for implying that High West claimed it distilled the rye it's selling. They do disclose on the label that they did not make it. However, they're not discouraging publications like the Park Record from giving the impression that they did.

He also complained that I should have contacted him first. I tried to find him but failed, though perhaps I didn't try hard enough. However, just now I Googled "High West Distillery" and got a lot of references, including this blog, but not the one-page High West web site.

Perkins correctly pointed out that I forgot one of the "usual suspects." Barton Brands at its distillery in Bardstown also makes straight rye whiskey, which they sell only in northern Wisconsin under the name Fleishmann's Rye. I often forget them because the Fleishmann's is in such extremely limited distribution and not very good. Nothing wrong with the basic distillate--Barton is a good distiller--it's just very young whiskey.

Perkins says he is contractually bound not to disclose the whiskey's maker. That still leaves a lot of questions he should be able and, I assume, willing to answer about the whiskey. The big one is to clarify if he is really saying someone 18-years-ago made a batch of rye whiskey from a mash that was 80 percent rye grain, and further saying that six years ago that distiller, or another one, made a batch of rye whiskey from a mash that was 95 percent rye? If so, why would they do that, since that's not typical of American straight rye whiskey? Or of any American straight whiskey, for that matter. The only thing an American producer would normally make with that high a proportion of a single grain would be corn whiskey.

The label talks about "a higher proportion of rye" and he mentions that in his email too, but a 60 percent rye mash bill would be a higher proportion than the norm, why 80, or 95? It's so far outside the norm as to be suspicious, but I'm still not sure that's even what he is claiming when he says "95% rye" and "80% rye."

I hope he can also clarify his reference to "unmalted rye." Is he saying the mash bill was, in one case, 95% unmalted rye and 5% malted rye, and likewise in the 80/20 case? If not, then why mention "unmalted" rye? All rye in American straight rye whiskey is unmalted except for the whiskey Fritz Maytag makes, which is 100% malted rye. So I hope he will shed some light on how this very unusual whiskey (his use of "exotic" is apt) came to be made, since it is so outside the norm.

Maybe he can't tell us who made it but how did he find out about it? There's a lot he can tell us about the whiskey itself without naming the distiller.

Perkins says "'Straight Rye Whiskey' isn't necessarily a better classification" than "a blend of straight rye whiskies." I suppose we can just disagree about that. To most American whiskey drinkers, "blend" is a dirty word in any context. It's also an unfamiliar classification. On the other hand, I suppose he wanted it called a blend because he wanted to talk about the two constituent whiskeys. However, my reading of the standards for "a blend of straight rye whiskies" is that that classification is only to be used when the constituents are straight rye but non-conforming as to the standards for "straight rye whisky," which would point to them having been made in different states. He can confirm or deny that without disclosing the maker(s).

If both were made in the same state, then why are they non-conforming? If they conform, then did TTB give him the option of using either classification? That is contrary to my reading of the rules, but he went through the label approval process and I didn't, so maybe he will enlighten me.

As I wrote Sunday, I like the idea of mixing an old straight rye with a young one, ideally to capture the best of both. I applaud that. I never denied this might be a good, even exceptional whiskey.

I said all of these things and more to him in a reply to his email and will let you know if he answers back. He is also, of course, welcome to post a comment here and say it in his own words.

The final and, perhaps most important question? Has High West distilled anything? Have they laid down any rye whiskey that they made? The web site makes it clear that the answer to that question is no. They bought an old stable in Park City, which they are restoring as a "distillery and saloon."

Far be it from me to strangle a baby in its bed, and I get the idea about getting some products out to get some cash coming in and some publicity going out, but the buzz you're creating is about people wanting to try that 18-year-old rye made in Utah, when it's nothing of the kind. I still have a problem with somebody calling himself a distiller and his company a distillery putting out a product he merely bought and bottled. It's not good for him in the long run. It's a bad way to start.

Maybe his publicity just got ahead of him, or maybe my post did exactly what I wanted it to do.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Is This Stuff, Really?

It may sound sometimes like I'm on a crusade against micro-distilleries. I'm really not. Quite the opposite. I have great hopes that small distilleries will revitalize the American distilled spirits industry. Problem is, most micro-distillery operations seem to be pushing out bullshit faster than any other product, which is perhaps not surprising since it is the easiest thing to make.

(Followed by their next-most-popular product, vodka.)

Now comes an outfit in Park City, Utah, called High West Distillery. Their premier product is a rye whiskey called Rendezvous Rye. It is 92 proof and selling for $40 per 750 ml bottle. The back label specifies a blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 17-year-old 80% rye.

It also uses the category designation "a blend of straight rye whiskeys." This, by itself, raises some alarms. That classification is for a mixture of straight rye whiskeys which, for some reason, does not conform to the standards for being called straight rye whiskey. Since any mixture of straight rye whiskeys made in the same state should qualify for the better classification of "straight rye whiskey," one wonders why this mixture was non-conforming. The frustration, of course, is that the makers aren't talking because they want to preserve the illusion that they made the product, which is impossible since they've only just gotten both their license and still.

But let's look at the rest of their claim: "a blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 17-year-old 80% rye." Although not crystal clear, the reference to a percentage would seem to refer to a mash bill. The problem is, nobody makes rye whiskey that way.

So here is a reality check and I encourage Scott Bush (Templeton) and David Perkins (High West) to address this issue. Get around these facts if you can:

Over the last 20 years, only five American distilleries have made rye whiskey. One of them, Anchor, can be set aside because they make very small quantities of a very idiosyncratic spirit that has very little to do with the tradition of American straight rye whiskey. The other four are Heaven Hill (using, at the moment, Brown-Forman's distillery), Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) and Jim Beam.

That's it. Those are the usual suspects. The Templeton Rye had to have been made by one of those four. Most likely the High West was too.

All of them make a mash bill that is about 51 percent rye, the balance being corn and barley malt.

Some of the very old ryes on the market today were made more than 20 years ago at the Medley Distillery in Owensboro and at the old Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, so there are two more suspects, but that's it. We can't be sure what their mash bills were, but they probably weren't more than about 60 percent rye.

What is left of that whiskey resides at Kentucky Bourbon Distillers LTD (KBD) in Bardstown, Kentucky, which has bottled it under a number of different labels, and sold it to others wishing to do the same. Setting aside the mash bill claims, KBD may have acquired some 6-year-old rye from, most likely, Heaven Hill and mixed in a little of its elderly whiskey (maybe, in fact, a 17-year-old) to make the High West product. That, based on the known facts, is the most likely scenario.

Personally, I hope it is that, because that would be an interesting product that might actually justify the price. I find most of KBD's very, very old bourbons and ryes too old, too woody, but take a little of that and add it to some good 6-year-old rye? That could be just the thing. I would be interested to try that product.

But back to the original issue. The bottom line is that any fully-aged rye whiskey on the market today has to come from one of the sources named above. That unavoidable fact is the reason why people like High West and Templeton aren't saying who made their whiskey. It's not only because they want you to think they made it. It's also because then it becomes easy to say, "Oh, that's Heaven Hill's rye? Well, you can pay $35 for it in a bottle that says 'Templeton,' or $40 in a bottle that says 'Rendezvous Rye,' or $12 in a bottle that says 'Rittenhouse,' which would you prefer?"

More than a decade ago, when Brown-Forman reopened what is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery, they wanted a Woodford Reserve product on the market right away, so they used whiskey made at their other Kentucky distillery. While they didn't print banner headlines about the whiskey's real source, the information was always there, and if you asked they always told you the truth.

I'm all for this micro-distiller thing, but when it seems like all of these characters are coming out of the box lying to the consumer, I'm already less than enthusiastic about their next act.

But that's just me, the grumpy old man. You kids, knock yourselves out.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

In Praise of the Post Office

The United States Postal Service gets a lot of flak, most of it deserved. I don't rise here to defend the post office, but to praise it despite its faults.

I run a small business, about as small as a business can get. It's just me and I run it out of my apartment. A lot of that business gets walked across the street and dropped into a blue metal box. Remarkably, almost everything I drop into that box gets to its destination on time and in mint condition. How is this possible?

I sometimes marvel.

My brother lived briefly in Ecuador. He basically told us not to try to mail anything to him there, the postal service was so unreliable. I remember even when he lived in Spain that he had a lot more problems with mail delivery than I ever have here, and Chicago is supposed to have problems, relative to the rest of the country.

I won't say I've never had mail go astray. I was even once the victim of an organized ring of mail thieves, working inside the post office. Even with that the percentage of all the mail sent by me or intended for me that hasn't arrived perfectly is very small. Sometimes, when the box is full of junk, I wish they were less efficient than they are.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Industry Council Reports Rising Spirits Sales.

The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) reported today that distilled spirits grew for the eighth straight year in 2007, with sales up 5.6 percent, to $18.2 billion, and volume up 2.4 percent, to 181.5 million cases. Despite a weakening economy, the Council predicts that growth will continue through 2008. They estimate a 4.6 percent increase in sales, to $19 billion, from 185 million cases (up 1.9 percent).

They attribute this growth to continuing interest in cocktail culture and to the “premiumization” of the entire drinks category. Both wine and spirits gained market share in 2007, at the expense of beer.

Whiskey (American, Canadian, Scotch and Irish) was the largest segment, representing 29 percent of industry sales. Whiskey sales grew 3.8 percent to $5.2 billion. The vodka segment was second, at 24 percent It grew 7.65 percent, to $4.3 billion.

The report did not break-out American-made whiskey’s share of the overall whiskey segment.

However, the Council did report on 2007 exports of spirits by U.S. makers, and most of that is American whiskey. For the first time, spirits exports topped $1 billion, a 15 percent increase over 2006.

American whiskey is now sold in more than 100 different countries. The leading markets are the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Australia and Japan. Key emerging markets are China, Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Romania and Bulgaria.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Other Shoe Has Dropped, Partially

So the phone rings and I answer it. It's a robo-dialer from the hospital.

Readers of this space will know "the hospital" from my medical billing saga.

The robo-dialer identifies itself as the hospital's billing department. Normally I would not cooperate with a robo-dialer, but I knew what it was about so I held on. Naturally, the person who picked up asked me what I wanted. "You called me," I replied. The representative figured it out. According to her, with the payment Blue Cross made yesterday, I owe the hospital something like $20. I don't know why or for what, and will wait for the bill, but if at this point $20 is the price for an end to this saga, I will pay it.


I awoke this morning to the sound of loud banging. It was loud and close, like just outside my bedroom window. I got up and went to another room, from which I can see the bedroom window from outside. A man was ripping out my three-track storm window, right down to the frame, including the wood framing strips by which it was attached.

This is a storm window unit that was retrofitted over the original (100-year-old) double-hungs about 30 years ago. Only the storm window unit was affected. My actual housing perimeter was not being breached.

I live in a condominium building, but I was under the impression that the windows are mine. So imagine my surprise. I called the management office for an explanation and left a message on their machine.

Within a few minutes, I noticed that the window guy had inserted some new framing and insulation, reinstalled my storms, and was in the process of caulking it. Then I noticed that he had torn out the storms on the windows of my neighbor's unit, but not on any more of mine, and an understanding of what had happened began to dawn.

Did I mention it's cold here, 16 degrees at the moment.

After talking to the building management company, the window guy, and my neighbor, it turns out they tore my window out by mistake but realized it in time to replace it. They didn't seem to damage the window unit in the process, which is lucky because the ones they were supposed to remove are being junked as part of a full replacement job on that unit, not just the storms, but the double-hungs too.

Anyway, other than the startling wake-up and the time spent dealing with it, I seem to have come out ahead, as the re-installed window is noticeably less drafty.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The First Shoe Has Dropped.

Referring you back to the on-going saga of my struggle to get some medical bills straightened out, I received the new Explanation of Benefits statement from Blue Cross today. The amounts and changes shown are a little bit confusing, but they appear to have made an additional payment to the hospital, which should make the hospital happy. The other shoe is whether or not it makes the hospital happy enough. The saga will only truly be concluded when the hospital acknowledges that it has received all the money it expects to get.

Even to the hospitals, insurance companies and others who are in the center of this thing, even to them it must all seem mysterious at times. The money flows, the money doesn't flow, but nobody quite knows where the spigot is.

Anyway, I am still cautiously optomistic.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

All Politics Is Local

Back in November, I berated Illinois State Representative Greg Harris for, as I called it, "lying for a worthy cause."

I'm not backing away from any of that. Just one thing in that post was wrong. I said Harris is my State Representative and he isn't. He represents the 13th District and I'm in the 12th. I don't know which of us is worse, him for sending me a constituent newsletter or me for reading it and not automatically knowing what district I'm in.

With the primary coming on February 5, I looked it up to make sure I don't waste any time on races in which I can't even vote.

To that end, I've gotten a lot of mail from candidates for State Senate, 7th District, even though I'm in the 6th. Direct mail, by its nature, should be able to pinpoint voters exactly. There may be some overlap in a mailing piece shared by several candidates, but when it's a single candidate mailing, why would they waste a penny sending fliers to people who can't vote in that election? I'm close to the border, but it shouldn't matter. The address is the thing and when I look it up to see what district I'm in, I'm using the same database they used to get my address.

Primaries in Illinois usually aren't this early, but they moved it up this year so Illinois would be part of Super Tuesday. Unfortunately, the local races, for offices like state senator, are being overshadowed by the presidential primaries.

As other people worry about the presidential campaign, or the state of democracy in the Middle East, I worry about the brand of it we get here in Chicago. A favorite trick is for organization office-holders (i.e., office-holders that are part of Daley's Democratic Party organization) who are not going to run for re-election to quietly resign before their term ends. A suitable replacement is chosen by the organization and appointed to complete the term. That person then, low and behold, becomes the incumbent seeking re-nomination.

Does it go without saying that, in most of Chicago, the Democratic primary is the election, so scarce are Republicans in the city? My actual Senator and Representative are unopposed in the primary.

These resignations and appointments are always timed so potential non-organization candidates don't know that the real, known incumbent has been replaced by a new, unknown incumbent who might have been vulnerable to a primary challenge, if you had known about it in time to get on the ballot. That's how Harris, the rep for the 13th (not my district), got his job and candidacy. Heather Steans, who is running for senator for the 7th, hasn't been appointed to fill her predecessor's term yet, because Senator Ronen merely announced her intention to resign this year, but Steans reportedly had the inside track, although she denies it.

The only reason I know about this is because another candidate, Suzanne Elder, did move quickly to get on the ballot. Now Steans, the organization's choice, is calling herself an "independent Democrat."

Since I can't vote in that election, I thought I'd write about it. This early resignation thing is SOP here. The senator who is resigning, Senator Ronen, got the job the same way. Recently, a couple of local officials used the same trick to pass their office down to one of their children. You know, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is trying to do.

The way democracy works in Chicago is that if you want to run for public office, you join the party, work hard for the organization's candidates and causes, "don't make no waves, don't back no losers," and wait your turn. For the most part, candidates are chosen by local committees, I'm not saying they're all picked by Richard M. Daley himself, but they sure aren't picked by the electorate in an open and transparent democratic process either.

That would risk too many unintended consequences.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I Am Cautiously Optimistic

I am cautiously optimistic that the health care billing problem I vented about yesterday has been resolved.

I finally got someone at Blue Cross to, in the jargon of customer service, take ownership of the problem. I think it was a combination of getting someone who has that attitude (the luck of the draw) and finally having enough information myself to point him in the right direction. He was able to compare the diagnostic codes used on the physician's bill to the codes used by the hospital on the claim that was being denied to figure out what the hospital did wrong.

He told me and then I told the hospital that a check was being cut and adjusted paperwork was being issued. The hospital's "financial representative," though still dyspeptic, agreed to lay off for 15 days.

The Blue Cross representative today, in addition to being genuinely helpful, could not have been more pleasant. Without prompting, he began to refer to himself and the others in his job as "patient advocates." If the first person I spoke to at Blue Cross had felt the same way, we might all have avoided a lot of time and trouble.

I also had a couple of nice conversations with the hospital's pathology lab. The doctor was great too. The representatives of the hospital's billing department, not so good.

Not surprisingly, all evidence points to the mistake having been made by ... the hospital's billing department! The people who have been the least cooperative and most unpleasant as I have tried to resolve the problem probably caused it in the first place.

One interesting bit of evidence: when I talked to the hospital's billing department, I made sure they understood that the dispute was about the pathology lab line item on the hospital's bill, not the pathologist's direct charges. She insisted that all the hospital did was pass through coding provided by the pathology lab, so it had to be fixed there. I repeated that to my contact at the pathology lab and she said that's not true.

The main lesson remains that this is exactly why health care is so expensive. More precisely, this is the part of health care cost that is pure waste. Other lessons are that it always works better to be nice and friendly with people, even and perhaps especially in situations that might become adversarial. It's a lot more effective and a lot more pleasant and is, quite possibly, more effective because it is more pleasant. Most of the time, people can figure things out if they'll just try.

But before I get all lollipops-and-unicorns, let's wait and see the EOB. I've been wrong before.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

My Continuing Adventures in Health Care Land.

My problem with a routine health insurance claim, that I wrote about in late November, has not been resolved after all. There have been developments, but nothing has really changed. The hospital says I still owe nearly $2,000 in lab charges that their paperwork calls "Pathology Lab" but Blue Cross is calling uncovered "Routine Lab Services."

I believe Blue Cross should pay $1,500 of that and I’m on the hook for the remainder. I suppose I could have gone ahead and paid the part I know I will owe when all is said and done, but why should I? The people who want the money owe me a satisfactory resolution of the problem first.

So far, no one has explained to me why these services are considered “routine” and not covered, when they were an integral part of a covered procedure. In fact, everyone has said they should be covered and there must be a mistake. Then everyone has told me the mistake is not theirs. Each person has told me where they believe the mistake was made and what I should do to resolve it. I have done what they have told me to do in a timely manner. It hasn’t helped.

The parties in this thing are me, Blue Cross, the hospital, the hospital’s pathology lab, and the doctor who performed the procedure. The pathology lab is part of the hospital, but handles its own billing and bill coding. (Everyone agrees the problem is probably a coding error.) The doctor, of course, is also nominally independent but has been on staff at the hospital for 20 years.

I’m not naming the hospital, pathology lab or doctor because that’s not why I’m posting this. I think what I’m experiencing is universal. I mention Blue Cross only because it’s important to know that my benefits provider is a major one, not some fringe company. The hospital is a big one too, part of a large, not-for-profit medical corporation, and is in my plan’s preferred provider network, so they’re supposed to all be able to play nice together. It’s not happening that way.

The problem is that I keep getting a run-around. I’m willing to do the work to solve this problem, but I can’t get access to it. I have to trust other people, whose own access is often limited. No one wants to own the problem. I’ve spoken to everyone except the pathology lab at least once. It became appropriate for me to talk to the pathology lab three days ago, but since then the person to whom I need to talk has been out sick.

Blue Cross has been okay. They could be better. They could actively help me track down the problem. They, like everyone else, have demonstrated a certain systemic incompetence. Here is an example. Today I received what is, in effect, a dun letter from them. The letter says, “If you have any questions, please call us at the telephone number shown at the top of the page.” I called that number, provided all of the necessary identification data, and was told I had called the wrong office. I go through this exact same scenario every time I talk to them. Why can’t they just give me the correct number in the first place? Why give me any number at all if they are going to give me the wrong one?

Why don’t I just call the right number? How do I know what it is? I call the number they tell me to call. They eventually give me a different number and I call that. Is that one always the right number? I’ll keep experimenting, of course. Eventually I do get to the right person, only to be told I have to talk to the provider, i.e., the hospital. Then the hospital tells me to talk to the doctor.

I have talked to the doctor, who has been very helpful and accessible and has done everything I have asked him to do. This is a highly-trained, long-experienced, board-certified specialist who is spending his time to help resolve a patient’s billing problem. The problem isn’t even with his charges, yet he has been a lot more willing to help than the people with customer service in their job titles.

The hospital, where I’m confident the problem is, has not been cooperative. Their customer service people have been terse and rude. Their solution was, “the doctor has to talk to the pathology lab.” The doctor did talk to the pathology lab, but only about the charges the pathology lab billed to me directly, which are fine. That was billed correctly and has been paid in full. The problem is with the pathology lab charges that are being billed by the hospital. I explained this but, hey, he’s a gastroenterologist. Now he wants me to talk to the pathology lab directly. The person he told me to talk to is out sick and, of course, no one else there can help me.

In each case, with each conversation, I have provided all of the information I have. I answer every question I am asked. It hasn’t helped. I feel like the problem is in a box that I can’t open. The people who should be able to open it keep passing the buck to someone else.

What I want someone to say is, “I’m going to track this thing down and figure it out for you.” The doctor is the only one, other than me, who has tried to do that but he proved inadequate to the task. That’s not a criticism, as his access to the box is only slightly better than my own. Both the hospital and Blue Cross have customer service departments that are supposed to provide, well, customer service, but have, in fact, just passed the buck. Blue Cross, at least, has been unfailingly nice about it.

One of those customer service departments should be in a position to knock heads, find out what happened, explain what happened to me and to the other participants, and then fix it. Even if the final outcome is, sorry, those charges really aren’t covered and here’s why, that would be something.

The point of all this, of course, is that this is why health care costs so much. There is a sum of close to $2,000 out there that hasn’t been paid, for a service that was provided now more than three months ago. The service was fine, the billed amount, so far as I can determine, is appropriate, but an administrative glitch has kept that money from being collected for more than three months. Time is money. If I, as a service provider, know I’m going to have to wait several months to receive payment for the service I provide, that’s going to be reflected in my prices. Multiply that by millions of similar incidents and you have billions of wasted dollars. The extra money isn’t paying for medical services, it’s paying for debt service, and for customer service that is provided in name only.

There’s an irony in this. I’m working on an employee development project right now for a client. The subject? Improving customer service.