Friday, February 29, 2008

Tell the Truth.

Honesty always is a popular subject during political season. I've been meditating today, not so much about the sociopathic act of outright lying as about dissembling, deflecting and misdirecting, the political arts.

Among regular people, and even politicians, who regard themselves as fundamentally honest, there are two kinds of people. (Aren't there always?)

For one kind, when they are asked a question, their first thought is, "what's the right answer?" i.e., the true answer.

For the other kind of person, and this is where most politicians fall, their first thought is, "what's the most advantageous answer?" i.e., what answer will work out best for me.

The first kind of person may, upon bringing the true answer to mind, still dissemble if the stakes are sufficiently high and their principles are sufficiently low, but the second kind skips that step and goes right to formulating the most advantageous answer, regardless of its veracity. Such people may still tell the truth but when they do, it's mostly a coincidence. Their calculation of the best answer happens also to be the true one.

I consider myself to be of the first type, but I don't take credit for it. For both types, which you are is mostly a function of how you were raised. The second type of response is probably the most intuitive so unless you are taught at a young age to think the first way, you probably won't.

Both of my parents stressed honesty with us and, most importantly, they walked the talk, my father especially. He is so honest he once carried on a spirited fight with the IRS to convince them that he owed more than they said he did, and he was pleased when he finally won the argument.

His first thought is "what's the true answer" and, unfortunately, his second thought is usually, "what's the most thorough answer."

I've inherited that as well.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Happy Anniversary.

Today is the anniversary of my one-and-only arrest and incarceration.

Thirty-eight years ago I was on my way to an anti-war conference at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I was coming from Miami University, about 63 miles away, where I was a freshman.

I never made it.

I was hitchhiking. I didn't hitch often, even back then, but I did it enough to know that a big guy like me doesn't get picked up after it gets dark. I was on the outskirts of Dayton when the sun went down and the rides dried up. I'm not sure how I knew this, maybe it was just a hunch, but I was able to walk a couple of miles to where I could get a city bus into downtown. I had friends at the University of Dayton, so I went there instead.

The weekend turned out very different than I had planned. Dayton was playing arch rival Notre Dame in basketball that Saturday night. If UD won, they would be in the NCAA tournament. We started drinking early on Saturday, by which I mean we started drinking when I arrived Friday night. We tried to get into the game but failed, due to our intoxication. I recall them literally throwing my friend, Charlie, out of the arena. At least the picture in my memory is of him flying out the door and rolling across the sidewalk.

Charlie's roommate was, I believe, sober. At least I hope he was, because he was driving. He was also rich and drove a Jaguar X-Type. Beautiful car. My dream car.

So we went back to the dorm, drank, and watched it on TV. UD won so we went out on the streets to celebrate.

UD at that time had a student housing neighborhood near the campus that everyone called The Ghetto. It was a neighborhood of small privately-owned, two-story, wood frame houses, almost all of which were rented to students. The neighborhood was very rundown then and now has long since been demolished. The streets were full of students, building bonfires. I'm not sure if spontaneous bonfire building was a traditional form of celebration in that neighborhood or if this was something new. I was a visitor so I went along. I don't recall doing any active fire-building myself, but I may have fed the flames literally. I was certainly doing it metaphorically.

Remember that it was 1970. Most young adults in those days had at least a little experience with demonstrations and other mass activities. I won't go into the whole litany, but there was a lot of that about. Anti-war and also race-related. We didn't know it at the time, but apparently there had been some kind of riot or near-riot in Dayton's mostly black Second Ward that same night, so when the police got to us they were even more tired and grumpy than usual.

The Fire Department was there too, putting out the fires. As each was extinguished, the mob would run to the next intersection and set another one.

The police tired of this game very quickly and started to round people up. This had the desired effect of dispersing the crowd and ending the party. In the midst of that, I saw several cops grab Charlie's roommate, I ran to his aid (as I perceived it at the time) but before I got there I was felled by a blow to the head from a riot club, the long ones, about the size of a baseball bat.

I went down instantly, but didn't lose consciousness. I felt myself being dragged by the arms, for which I was initially grateful because my first thought was that I would be trampled. I opened my eyes and saw blue, cuffed trouser bottoms and shoes that could only belong to policemen. The next thing I knew I was in the wagon on my way to jail.

Maybe on some other occasion I'll write out the rest of the story, but I've got some other important things to do today, so I'll shorthand the end. I sat in the lock-up for a few hours, was taken to the hospital to receive stitches to my head wound, actually had a very enjoyable time with the two young cops who accompanied me there, was taken back, got a little sleep, and was bailed out by Charlie and others at about 5:00 AM Sunday morning.

In 1996, when I got my law degree and applied for the Illinois Bar, I had to get a copy of my record from the Dayton PD. They sent me a photocopy of a 3 x 5 card. I don't have it handy, but I think all it said, after my name and address, was "drunk and disorderly," which was certainly true, and the amount of the bail or fine, which was $5.00.

From Bad To Worse.

Leave it Governor Clueless to compound the tragic shooting that occurred two weeks ago today on the campus of Northern Illinois University (NIU).

As you probably heard, a former NIU graduate student shot and killed five students and himself in a lecture hall, wounding many others, for reasons still unknown. Classes resumed at NIU earlier this week.

Yesterday, Governor Clueless (aka Blagojevich), who has no lack of other problems, announced a plan to demolish Cole Hall, where the killings took place, and replace it with a new classroom building and memorial, to the tune of $40 million. The money will come from an emergency appropriation he is proposing to the legislature. Cole Hall was not damaged in the assault, beyond some broken glass, nor was it scheduled to be replaced anytime soon. No, this is all, I'll let NIU president John Peters explain it, as reported in today's Chicago Tribune.

"I talked to a lot of people, and very early on I made the decision that we had to raze that, we had to demolish that building and replace it with something fitting, something fitting our needs and as a memorial," Peters said. He said it was necessary to "consecrate" the site.

That's the going rate for consecration these days? $40 million?

Thankfully, the legislature is not falling all over itself to comply. Some lawmakers are even making sense.

Senator Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), who coordinates budget matters for senate Republicans, suggested slowing down to "get a little distance from the tragedy."

"We need to make good public policy, and making decisions based solely on emotions is not going to create good public policy or good use of tax dollars," she said.

Amen to that.

President Peters can perhaps be excused because (A) Governor Clueless is his boss and (B) his campus will get a new, unbudgeted $40 million building.

Cole Hall was built in 1968. It is a centerpiece of the campus, consisting of two 500-seat lecture halls. Anticipating suggestions that it merely be remodeled, the Trib notes that it "likely cannot be used for other purposes." No, but it can be used for all the purposes for which it was used before February 14, and why shouldn't it be?

On February 2, five women were shot and killed in a Lane Bryant store in a shopping center in Tinley Park, another town in the Chicago area. That shooting was every bit as senseless and spectacular as the one at NIU a few days later. Nobody, yet, is talking about tearing that down and replacing it with a new, bigger and better Lane Bryant store. They probably would if they could get tax dollars to pay for it.

I certainly don't mean to diminish either tragedy, or any other of the thousands of tragic and senseless deaths that occur around the world every day. If the standard becomes that we have to spend $40 million every time there is a senseless killing, we're going to need a lot more money.

And please, fellow Illinois taxpayers, note that "we" and think about what other pressing priorities $40 million could address in our state.

Like just about everything that comes out of Rod Blagojevich's mouth, this is a bad idea. It sets a terrible precedent and is a grotesque grandstand play by a clueless governor who will do anything to distract attention from his administration's disastrous performance.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Problem With Artisan Vodka.

Yes, I'm a whiskey guy, but that is not my sole interest.

I look at the spirits industry as a whole. Right now, vodka is huge. There are about 100-times more vodkas than there are distilleries, but that's another story. Vodka sales in the U.S. are growing at more than 7% per year. All across the United States, small distilleries are springing up. Almost all of them sell vodka.

It is the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB for short), not me, that decides what you can call spirits products if you want to sell them in the United States. It says vodka is a neutral spirit made from any material, distilled above 95% ABV, then "treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." All the TTB is saying there is that said treatments may only enhance neutrality, not diminish it. They can remove aroma, taste, or color, they can't add it.

According to the TTB, vodka is a subset of neutral spirits or alcohol.

The TTB definition certainly does not describe the spirit called vodka in the 18th century and before, but unless the TTB changes its definition, that is what vodka is in the United States and there is no way around it.

Distillers can make something that doesn't comply with the TTB description of vodka, they can make something more like the way vodka was made before the invention of the column still, they can make anything they want, they just can't call it vodka.

Phil Prichard would like to make rum from Tennessee sorghum. He can make all the spirit from Tennessee sorghum that he wants, he just can't call it rum. Nation-of-laws and all that. We may wish the laws were different, but we play the hand we're dealt.

In India, they make a spirit from sugar cane that they call whiskey. They are unhappy that the United States, the European Union, and most other markets won't accept that product as whiskey.

By the TTB definition, all vodka should taste alike, but we know it doesn't. It doesn't because human senses are incredibly sensitive and can detect flavor elements in parts per billion. Some people believe the best of vodka is revealed when the spirit is distilled at the highest proof technology allows, then heavily filtered. Other people have different ideas.

I am a spirits enthusiast and here is what I would like from someone who calls him- or herself a craft distiller or artisan distiller. Make something original. Make it as well as it can be made. Tell me the truth about it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pot Stills Versus Column Stills.

My issue here is not so much the technical one as the truth-in-advertising one. 

When a producer touts a product as "pot still," what is the point being made? One obvious answer is: "not made in a column still." There is, among many spirits enthusiasts, a prejudice against column stills in favor of pot stills. I use the term "prejudice" deliberately because the attitude is based on some very debatable assumptions, but it exists nonetheless. 

If it is an appeal to authenticity, to some sort of adherence to tradition, then does that have any validity if the equipment in question bears little or no resemblance to the traditional alembic or, at least, to the modern versions of same employed in Scotland and Cognac? Even if the equipment is, technically, a pot still, are you being true to the customer's expectations if you use that term? 

There is a product called A. H. Hirsch bourbon, which claimed to be the only pot still bourbon made after Prohibition. Let me say right off that it is a delicious whiskey and I have purchased as many bottles of it as I can afford. It is exceptional. That's not the issue. Extensive research has been done on the pot still claim and although all of the people with direct knowledge are dead (the whiskey was distilled more than 30 years ago), it appears that the claim was essentially false, but rationalized by the fact that the doubler in an American whiskey distillery is, in fact, a pot still, and at the time of the whiskey's distillation at the Michter's Distillery in Pennsylvania, many other larger Pennsylvania distilleries had abandoned doubling, so Michter's did have a somewhat valid claim to a process, involving a pot still, that differentiated it from its competitors. 

It also appears that the whiskey's makers set out intending to make an entirely pot still whiskey but were never able to get that off the ground and settled for just using the term to describe a conventionally-made whiskey. They did, however, stencil the words "pot still" onto their doubler. 

There is a new product on the market right now called Willett Family Pot Still Reserve. The bottle resembles a pot still owned by the Willett family, however the product inside said bottle was not made in that still nor in any pot still except, as with Hirsch, for the doubler used by the conventional American whiskey distillery that actually distilled the product. 

Woodford Reserve, on the other hand, uses three pot stills, manufactured in Scotland, to make one of the component bourbons in its Woodford Reserve Distillers Select. The company has also released two products in what it calls its Masters Collection that are 100% pot still. The stills function exactly like the pot stills used in Scotland for malt whiskey except that the first still uses a recirculating pump that allows them to distill from a mash, in the traditional American manner, rather than a wash. 

That's whiskey and there is no question that whiskey can be made in pot stills. 

As for vodka, even if it is possible to make vodka, i.e., GNS, in a pot still, even without the use of a rectification column, so what? What would be the point of the claim? What superiority would the use of a pot still ostensibly impart? My purpose here is neither to prescribe nor proscribe, but to provide information and stimulate thought and discussion.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Coming Soon, Another Limited Edition from Four Roses.

Gentlemen and Ladies, start your engines. Or start salivating. Whatever. Here comes the next Four Roses Limited Edition.

In April, just in time for the Kentucky Derby, Four Roses will release another limited edition bourbon. It is to honor the brand's founding 120 years ago. It will be barrel strength again, single barrel and in the single barrel bottle, very similar to the Rutledge 40th Anniversary edition in that respect. This is a 12-year-old and non-chill filtered. Proofs will range from 103 to 116. There will be approximately 3,000 bottles produced.

I've had a sample and it's very unusual, with very bright fruit flavors. My main thought was of the homemade raspberry preserves a friend of mine's mom makes, maybe even pomegranate. I haven't talked to Jim Rutledge about it, but my impression is that he set out to find something a bit different. Don't even think about stashing this in the bunker. You really have to drink it.

Although they haven't said so per se, I suspect this will be an annual thing, at least as long as they continue to be successful. The last one sold out quickly and generated a lot of buzz.

The 40th was primarily sold in Kentucky, with a little bit going to New York. This one will be in Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee and Illinois.

Suggested retail is $69 to $100, depending on the market, probably cheapest in Kentucky and Tennessee, most expensive in NYC. That's a bit more than last fall's Rutledge 40th. The standard Four Roses Single Barrel sells for about $35 a bottle, so they basically double it for the limited editions.

Also, here's good news for those of you just dying to get your hands on any Four Roses bourbons. Although I don't know which ones, they expect to have distribution in 15 more states by the end of 2008, bringing the total to 20.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Who's Zooming Who on Digital TV?

Because all analog TV broadcasts in the USA will end in exactly one year, we've been hearing a lot about it lately. The ads and articles appearing now try to make it as simple as possible, which is admirable, but it's more complicated than it appears.

Like most people who live in a big city, cable is my only option for TV reception; and because I live in a multi-unit building, the fact that there are two cable companies operating in my area--RCN and Comcast--is moot for me. Our building had to pick one which, as it happens, is RCN.

About a month ago, RCN sent out notices that as of yesterday, it would be converting to an all-digital system, which requires every subscriber to have a cable box on every television. Even people with digital TVs need a box so it doesn't really matter if your TV is analog or digital. You need a box.

Here is how they answer the question of how much the box will cost:

"If you do not have at least one cable box, you will receive your first box (DCT 700) at a special promotional rate, with the monthly fee waived as long as you maintain your RCN service in good standing."

That sentence will become significant later on in what I confess is going to be a pretty long post.

My situation is complicated by the fact that my building buys basic cable at a negotiated, bulk rate and charges us for it as part of our assessment (it's a condo building). We don't have a choice. Even if you don't own a television, you're paying $25 a month for basic cable. Whether or not that is fair or makes sense is a subject of its own and not the subject of this post.

In addition to that, I have cable broadband internet service and some premium channels, such as HBO, for which I get a separate bill directly from RCN. So far so good.

RCN got on my bad side because of the following.

I have two televisions. I've long had a box on one, but ran the cable directly into the other one. Until yesterday, the direct one got all of the local broadcast channels plus a basic tier of cable channels, maybe 60 channels in all, which was fine because that TV is in the bedroom and just about all I use it for is to watch CNN in the morning.

So, because of the conversion, I got a second box. RCN said it would cost a couple bucks a month, but there were "complications," at the end of which I wound up paying something like $30 more a month. That, too, is much more complicated than that and not really what I want to talk about today.

One of my sisters is an engineer at a TV station, so it's kind of funny that all she has at home is one analog television set on an indoor "rabbit ear" antenna, period. She has been investigating this whole digital conversion thing. Did I mention she's also cheap? She's finally accepted that she either needs a convertor or she needs to break down and get cable, or a dish, or something.

In talking about my situation with her, she mentioned that she had read that cable operators are required to provide analog signals to subscribers until 2012. Since that seemed contrary to what RCN was telling me, I did some research.

I also talked to our building manager who mentioned this to our RCN rep. Here is the note I got back from our building manager:

"I spoke to our rep and he is confused by that since the FCC has mandated that all analog transmissions will end in Feb., 2009, so there’s no way for the cable companies 'to guarantee analog cable customers will receive broadcast channels until February 2012,' since there won’t be any signals to receive."

That, obviously, was bullshit on its face, since the cable operator can easily convert digital broadcast signals to analog at the head end and distribute them to subscribers in analog, if they so choose, as they did until yesterday with cable-only stations that come to the cable operator digitally but were converted and distributed in analog.

So I did some more digging. I learned that, while the explanation RCN gave is bullshit on its face, I found the loophole they are using. They’re still manipulating the system, I believe, and misleading customers, but they have a rationale which I might not think is legitimate, or in the spirit of the rules, but it makes what they are doing at least arguably legal.

Last year, the FCC passed rules to ensure that cable subscribers with analog televisions can continue to receive local broadcast stations, what the rules call “mandatory carriage” stations. Here in Chicago there are nine such stations, including the local ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and PBS stations. This requirement applies for three years after the conversion, until February 19, 2012, and may be extended after that. It gives the cable operators two options. Here is the exact wording from the FCC.

"After the broadcast television transition from analog to digital service for full power television stations cable operators must either:

"(i) carry the signals of commercial and non-commercial must-carry stations in analog format to all analog cable subscribers, or

"(ii) for all-digital systems, carry those signals in digital format, provided that all subscribers, including those with analog television sets, that are connected to a cable system by a cable operator or for which the cable operator provides a connection have the necessary equipment to view the broadcast content."

(Source: “In the Matter of Carriage of Digital Television Broadcast Signals: Amendment to Part 76 of the Commission’s Rules, CS Docket No. 98-120, THIRD REPORT AND ORDER AND THIRD FURTHER NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULE MAKING,” Adopted: September 11, 2007; Released: November 30, 2007. Appendix C.)

Here is how FCC Chairman Kevin Martin explained it in his statement accompanying the release of the above rules.

"Importantly, in the item we adopt today, we do not dictate how cable operators must fulfill their statutory requirement to make all broadcast signals viewable to its subscribers. Rather, we give them a choice. Accordingly, the Commission is not forcing consumers to purchase or lease a set top box to continue watching their favorite channels. This decision lies in the hands of the cable company. They can avoid the need for new boxes by choosing to downconvert the digital signal into analog at their headend. This downconversion would permit analog cable subscribers to continue watching broadcast television just as they do today without disruption. Of course, to the extent that a cable system is all-digital, like DBS systems are, all consumers are given a box that allows them to watch all of the broadcast stations."

Where I believe RCN is playing fast and loose with option number (ii) is that they are ensuring that all their subscribers have the "necessary equipment" by converting to all-digital now and forcing everybody to get a box for every television, analog or digital, but by providing one box per household without additional charge, they’re probably legal, so that as of 2/19/09 the requirement of (ii) will be fulfilled.

All cable operators are franchised by the jurisdiction in which they operate, in my case by the City of Chicago, and the city's Department of Consumer Services has a Cable Commission that is supposed to be a watchdog, looking out for consumer interests but, this being Chicago, that's pretty much a joke.

Ultimately, though this doesn't describe me or my situation, the purpose of the FCC rules was to protect low income cable subscribers from being forced into expensive new services just to keep receiving the basic free broadcast stations. Technically, RCN appears to be meeting the letter of the law, though the spirit may be another thing altogether.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Who Made That Whiskey?

Every time some new whiskey appears that isn't being made by one of the "usual suspects" (the handful of known distillers of American whiskey) my first question is always, who made it?

Often, when I query the marketers of said product, they admit they did not make it but claim they can't tell me who did, because that producer won't let them.

I believe this claim of "source secrecy" by bulk whiskey buyers is more obfuscation than fact. When Willie Nelson, for example, wanted to disclose Heaven Hill as the source of his Whiskey River Bourbon, Heaven Hill was happy to oblige, and had him in for pictures. Likewise Luxco identifies Heaven Hill as the source for its Rebel Yell Bourbon. The Pogue family also was very forthcoming when they introduced their bourbon, which was Heaven Hill whiskey sourced through Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Ltd (KBD).

In Scotland, where there are a lot more distilleries and where distillery names and brand names, for single malts at least, are one in the same, and where bulk sales to blenders are common, the distilleries tried without success to prevent independent bottlers from identifying the sources of their whiskey. Logo designs, package designs and things like that are protected, but the courts ruled that if saying, "this whiskey was made at Glen Whatchamacallit" is a true statement, then the bottlers are allowed to make it, whether the distillers like it or not.

Of course, a sale of bulk whiskey could well be made on the condition that the source not be revealed, which would give the distiller a civil cause of action if the bottler did reveal it, and the contract could be written in such a way that the mere breach would entitle the distiller to some kind of award, without having to prove damages, but I've never seen such a contract or heard from a distiller that they insist on such a contract when they make bulk sales.

No, who I hear it from are the bottlers, who frequently have also created a mythology intended to lead consumers to believe they made the product they bottled. Then when somebody like me asks them who really did make it, they come up with this "source secrecy" thing.

In fairness to KBD, a major independent bottler of American whiskey, they have never used the "source secrecy" excuse with me. They either tell me where it came from, give me enough information to figure it out, or just tell me they're not going to tell me, all of which are fine with me. I'm definitely not pointing a finger at them about this, but I've certainly heard it from others, most recently Templeton and High West.

Tell me to go f*** myself, tell me it's none of my g** d*** business, but don't lie to me and treat me like a chump.

While I don't think Heaven Hill or Barton, who are the sources for most bulk whiskey, really care, I can imagine somebody like Jim Beam, who only sells bulk occasionally, when they find they have overproduced for their needs, demanding non-disclosure. Brown-Forman, on the other hand, can't wait to tell me who they're making whiskey for, so I can't believe they swear the customers to secrecy.

If someone refuses to tell me I still don't know, but that's not the same as falsely claiming that you are required by the distiller to keep the source secret. If they say, "I don't want to tell you," they are at least taking responsibility for the secrecy, not pretending that they'd like to tell me but their hands are tied.

As I said, don't treat me like a chump. I'd like to know the source and I don't think much of them for refusing to tell me, but I give them points for owning their silence. I think even less of them if they pretend that they can't tell me when the truth is that they choose not to.

Many people have come back at me with the argument that "who cares if it's good whiskey?" There is some validity to that. However, part of my reason for arguing for transperancy is that the most highly regarded single malts all come from known distilleries and that type of obfuscation is not well tolerated by single malt enthusiasts. I think that for American whiskey to take its rightful place among the world's great spirits, its producers need to be similarly transparent. Independent bottlers should identify themselves as such and be proud enough of their products to tell the truth about them.

We're not children and we don't need to be told that our whiskeys are made by elves in a hollow tree.

In other not-getting-answers-to-my-questions news, it is two weeks and counting since I asked Diageo my George Dickel questions.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

How My Father Quit Smoking.

I’ll start at the end. My father will celebrate his 88th birthday two weeks from today. He is healthy and still living in the house where I grew up.

I’m not sure when he started to smoke, but a lot of his stories about Pearl Harbor (he was there, at Scofield Barracks, during the attack) and the rest of World War II involve wanting cigarettes, finding cigarettes, trading cigarettes, and smoking cigarettes. I remember him as a regular smoker when I was a kid. Mom was not and apparently had only smoked briefly as a young adult.

I don’t remember him ever trying to quit, or talking about quitting, or Mom bugging him about quitting, which I find hard to believe, but that’s how I remember it.

In August, 1962, my sisters were born, twins, offspring numbers five and six. Of the four boys, the oldest (me) was about to turn 11, on the threshold of tobacco susceptibility. One day that fall, I don’t remember when exactly, all of the ashtrays disappeared, even the huge glass one that sat on its own metal pedestal next to the chair where Dad read the newspaper while we watched television. The carton of Larks (or whatever he was smoking by then) was gone from the second drawer of the desk that stood on the other side of Dad’s chair. The ashtrays in the cars were washed out. I never saw him light another cigarette.

The explanation was that with the new baby girls and his boys almost adolescents, he couldn’t very well tell us not to smoke if he was doing it. If he expected us to have the willpower to resist starting, he had to set the example by quitting. There were no pills or gums or anything like that back then. It was straight cold turkey, all will power. I think that was part of the intended example. One day he was smoking, the next day he wasn’t, and not much was said about it thereafter.

Many years later, he confessed that he fell off the wagon a couple of times when, he said, things got particularly intense around the office, but it was always a one-time thing. He never became a secret smoker like my uncle who died of lung cancer in 2004 at the age of 61.

Of my father's six kids only one (not me) took up the habit. He quit a couple of years ago.

Diageo Checks In.

I heard from someone at Diageo today, wanting to know why I'm asking so many questions.

She didn't say it exactly like that. It was more like, "I just wanted to get some more information about what you're going to be writing about and why exactly you need all these details about Dickel, is this for a story or an upcoming book?"

We had a nice chat, but no answers yet. Stay tuned.

Credit Where Credit Is Due.

I received an email this morning in response to my inquiry yesterday about the legislator lookup feature on the Illinois General Assembly web site.

It was from an Election Specialist at the Illinois State Board of Elections. Here is part of what it said:

"I have contacted the Chicago Board of Elections, and they emailed me a map showing that THEY have you coded correctly in the 7th Senatorial District, and the 13th Representative District. I have forwarded this information to our IT Department in order to get our District Lookup corrected."

Bravo. My faith in Springfield is restored.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Nobody Knows Nothing.

About three weeks ago, I thought I had discovered that the person I believed was my state representative was not, in fact, my state representative. Then I found out my discovery was wrong. He is my representative after all.

The bad information was provided by the Illinois General Assembly (IGA) itself, specifically the "legislator lookup" feature of their web site.

You've seen this sort of thing. You enter your address--your zip+four is sufficient--and it tells you who your elected officials are and what districts they represent. I assumed everybody who offers this sort of service (the U.S. Congress web site has one too, and so do a lot of political advocacy groups) is using the same database, compiled from Boards of Elections around the country. Apparently, where a given address falls in the myriad of different, overlapping jurisdictions is public information, available to anyone. So it makes sense that there would be one database for this and everyone would use it.

That is, after all, how office-seekers know who to send their fliers to, not to mention also capturing your phone number for the robo-dialer. (Government office-seekers are exempt from the Do-Not-Call list.) Obviously, they say "give me all of the voters in such-and-such a district." All of the mailings I got were addressed to "Charles Cowdery or Current Resident." The address is the thing.

So how did the IGA get it wrong? And how do I know they got it wrong?

The first question I can't answer, although I have told them and asked for an explanation. The second question I can answer. I voted on Tuesday and the information on my ballot was different from what the IGA told me. Let it be said that I know I'm on the border of a couple of districts, but that shouldn't matter since it's based on the exact address. Fearing that maybe it was something with the zip+four I tried again with the full address. Same wrong result.

"Is there a higher authority?" I asked myself. For me, the source of the information is the Chicago Board of Elections, so I tried their web site. Sure enough, their information was different, and consistent with what my actual ballot showed me on Tuesday.

My best guess is that whoever is running the service for the IGA is working from an out-of-date database, which seems crazy but it wouldn't be even close to the most incompetent thing the IGA has done.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

At Last, Good News About Unhealthy Lifestyles.

The truth is out. Healthy people suck.

Every time somebody wants to ban something fun--like cigarettes, cigars, liquor, or Big Macs--somebody usually mentions health care costs. That's why it's not just their own business, the busybodies assert, because all of us pay for the unhealthy lifestyles of some through greater health care expenditures.

Well, guess what? It ain't so. Turns out the cost-benefit analysis actually favors fat drunks who smoke.


Because the health care cost for dead people is zero. Healthy people ultimately use more health care because they live longer, according to a new Dutch study published in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine. It says that because obese people and smokers live for shorter periods of time, they are cheaper to treat in the long run. "Preventing obesity and smoking can save lives, but it doesn't save money," say the study's authors.

For the record, I don't smoke.

Knock on Wood.

About a week ago, I sent the hospital a check for $28.73, which they say is the balance due for, you know, that thing back in October. I'm not really sure, from the statements and EOBs why $28.73, but $28.73 is a number I can easily pay just for peace of mind. Is it really over? Let's say yes.

If you have followed this saga, you may want to hope RCN (my broadband provider) gets religion and decides not to screw me after all, or you'll be reading another one of these tales of woe.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Better Late Than Never (We'll See).

I have better contacts at some of the American whiskey producers than I do at others. I don't know anybody at Diageo. I know Tom Bulleit (Bulleit Bourbon) and I met the Diageo brand guy responsible for North American whiskey (big gun is Crown Royal) once about three years ago. That's it. But I do have a name of somebody in PR who did return an email from me once, so I tried her on the Dickel questions. 

Here's what I asked: 

"What is the status of Dickel No. 8, re the shortage reported by AP in December? Will Cascade Hollow continue to be distributed after No. 8 returns? Are there shortages at retail of Dickel No. 12 and Barrel Select too, as has been reported to me?

"Also, I noticed on the Dickel web site what appears to be some new historical information. I would like to know the basis for the claim that George and Augusta Dickel visited Tullahoma in 1867 and that George Dickel established a business there in 1870. 

"Most accounts with which I am familiar have Cascade Distillery established in 1877/8 and independent of Dickel until 1888. Those particular dates come from Dr. Nicholas Morgan, who was archivist for United Distillers pre Diageo. That information is more than 10-years-old, so maybe something new has been discovered." 

That guy from Utah got mad at me for not talking to him before I wrote what I did about his product. Maybe Diageo will feel the same way. I'm sympathetic in principle, but since I'm writing, in both cases, about stuff they've either published directly or caused to be published through the magic of PR, I feel like they already had their say. I have not, by the way, heard anything more from either the High West guy or the Templeton guy.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

George Dickel, Say What?

Lest no one think my gripes about bullshit in the marketing of spirits products are limited to micro-distilleries, here's a shot at Diageo, the world's biggest booze company.

I was working on some follow up to my December post about the George Dickel No. 8 shortage for my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader, which got me looking at several sources, including the history section of the Dickel web site.

Diageo seems to be engaging in some revisionist history on Dickel's behalf. They now have George and his wife, Augusta, visiting Tullahoma in 1867, where he dreams about "creating the finest, smoothest sippin’ whisky," and then "In 1870, Dickel’s dream came true, and a company which bore his name was opened at Cascade Hollow, Tennessee."

Both, based on everything else I can find out about Dickel's history, appear to be complete fabrications.

One purpose seems to be to obliterate both the independent history of the Cascade Distillery (which was, by all accounts, established in 1877 and never actually owned by Dickel) and diminish the role of the Shwab family (which the Dickel web site misspells as Schwab, like the stock broker), much like Four Roses has built up John Paul Jones at the expense of Rufus Rose.