Monday, April 28, 2008

See Heather Carry Water For The Machine.

For my fellow politically-frustrated Illinoisans, spend a moment with this editorial from today's Chicago Tribune.

The hapless Senator Steans is my State Senator. Last year, the incumbent senator from the 7th District announced that she would not stand for reelection because she was joining the Blagojevich administration. She also announced that, after the primary, she would resign her office so that the winner of the Democratic primary could be appointed to fill her unexpired term. The announcement was unexpected and carefully timed to leave a minimal amount of time for potential successors to decide to run and secure a ballot position. Heather Steans just happened to be ready. One opponent, who helped expose the charade, managed to scramble and get on the ballot too.

In the campaign, Steans called herself an "independent Democrat," but she has shown herself to be machine through-and-through, her sad water-carrying today being only the most vivid example.

For more background about what passes for democracy in Illinois, go here.

The point of the Tribune's editorial was that we residents of Illinois should contact our senators and let them know where we stand; on the recall amendment as well as the income tax amendment. I say recall-recall-recall, and let's not give the guy any more tax money in the meantime. (Illinois has a flat rate income tax. The amendment would double the rate for persons with incomes over $250,000/year.)

So I wrote to my State Senator. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Senator Steans,

I just read the Tribune editorial from today. Welcome to life as a machine politician.

I am one of your constituents. I voted for your opponent. I didn’t know anything about you, but didn’t like the way you got your office. From your campaign materials, you seemed like a nice person. It’s a familiar story. You want to get involved in the political process in a serious way and make a difference, but in Chicago there is only one way in. If you’re on the outside you can’t do anything. On the inside you might be able to do something. So you take the deal.

Today you got a good dose of why it’s a lousy bargain, even if there isn’t any better one available.

But maybe you liked the Tribune’s editorial. It said your seat is safe for as long as you want it, but you know that’s not true. You know it’s safe only as long as you’re on the team. Just see what happens if you start to think and speak and vote for yourself, instead of according to party discipline.

It’s hard to hate the machine. We like the bread and circuses. But at the end of the day it’s just not democracy.

So for the record, please vote for placing the recall amendment on the fall ballot. I also oppose changing the income tax under the present circumstances.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Best Bourbon Is Free Bourbon.

I get this a lot. "What's the best bourbon?" Or the equally problematic, "what's your favorite bourbon?"

What do I say? I may mention a couple of things I particularly like, although the list always varies. I often dismiss the query with, "the best bourbon is free bourbon."

The truth is, the list of things I like about equally well is very long, and what I say tends to reflect what I've enjoyed most in the last week or so. Recently it was Four Roses Single Barrel. Sometimes it's Woodford Reserve or Knob Creek or Buffalo Trace.

I tend not to mention the cheaper products I also like just as well, such as JTS Brown. I also generally don't mention products that are difficult or impossible to find, such as Very Very Old Fitzgerald or A. H. Hirsch. I also tend not to mention the more challenging older bottlings, like George T. Stagg.

I also don't mentions rye (unless specifically asked) or corn whiskey.

But I never give the true answer, which is that there is no best and hardly any true favorites. If I narrow the words used to describe the experience, I can plug in a few products. Most memorable would have to be Very Very Old Fitzgerald and A. H. Hirsch, but also the Fairfield Henry McKenna my friend Doug found and shared with me. Always in my house and open: Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond and Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond. I can name a favorite from each distillery, although if they make multiple recipes then it's one per distillery per recipe. And, like I said, it will change tomorrow.

So let's bury the concept of best, which is the search for The One. That's not what the whiskey enthusiasm is about. It's about luxuriating in The Many. And hoping for many, many more.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My New Friend, Jason, in Baghdad.

When I got this picture, I was blown away. Let me tell you about it.

The man in the picture is Jason Hughes. He is a Captain in the Army Medical Service Corps currently deployed for a 15 month tour to Baghdad, Iraq. He is the accountable officer and logistician for TF62 Medical Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Washington. This information, and the picture, is posted with his permission.

The building behind him is the Al Faw Palace, former home of Saddam Hussein and current headquarters of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I).

The book in his hand is mine, BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. In a post on, Jason mentioned that he had the book and liked it. I noticed his location and commented that I thought it was cool my book was in Iraq.

Taking this picture and posting it on the web was Jason's idea. When I thanked him and told him I was blown away he wrote, "I am glad that I found something interesting to learn about. Most of the time we don't get to show our appreciation for the people that help us discover and provide the history that enhances the enjoyment of new hobbies."

Jason's unit is comprised of more than 3,200 Service Members dispersed over 47 different locations within Iraq. They provide command-and-control for three U.S. Army combat support hospitals in six locations within Iraq, and one Air Force theater hospital, that provide forward life-saving surgical intervention, hospitalization and ancillary services; and two multifunction medical battalions that control the health service support functional areas of evacuation, area medical support, and medical regulating, preventive medicine, medical logistics and blood management, combat stress, laboratory services, veterinary services, dental services and health information systems.

Jason's wife is a CPA and works for the Washington State Auditors Office. Jason will hit his six year mark in the military in May, with most of that time spent in Korea (15 months) or Iraq (27 months). His hobbies include running (five marathons under his belt and he is running one this weekend in Iraq), reading and spending time with his wife.

I don't think I can do justice to all of the thoughts and emotions I have had due to this chance encounter. Most of the words in this post are actually Jason's and I think I'll leave it that way.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Thanks, John and Amy, For Another Great Party.

Last night was WhiskeyFest Chicago at the Hyatt Regency downtown, year eight for what has become a rite of Spring. So big is WhiskeyFest that it is now Whiskey Week, as various bars and liquor stores sponsor their own events to take advantage of the awareness, the presence of industry executives, and the desire of whiskey enthusiasts to keep the party going. It's gotten so big, in fact, that several people I know came into town from as far away as Houston but didn't attend WhiskeyFest itself, partaking instead of all the ancillary events. In the case of one group, not attending WhiskeyFest enables them to secure seats at the bar at Delilah's, the site of the unofficial afterparty. (And so cool is Delilah's, they don't even mention it on their schedule.)

WhiskeyFest is sponsored by Malt Advocate, a magazine. They do the same thing each year in New York and San Francisco too. WHISKY Magazine has its own, similar series call Whisky Live, which covers the rest of the world. There are similar, independent whiskey shows in Philadelphia, Toronto and other major cities.

The format is pretty simple. Hire a hotel ballroom, rent booth space to all the whiskey companies, provide a nice buffet and non-alcoholic drinks, and a few additional rooms for seminars. The producers provide the whiskey and the seminars. For the price of your ticket ($110) you get a tasting glass and all the whiskey you care to sample. The tables pour freely. By law, a "taste" is 1/2 ounce, but there is no limit on how many tastes you can obtain.

Since I've now raised that spectre, people who are clearly intoxicated are not served and people getting drunk are a very small problem, from what I've seen. Most people are responsible and that's not why they're there.

The stars at these things are the master distillers. I really only pay attention to the Americans, but I'm sure there are many Scottish distillers there as well. I saw Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Chris Morris (Brown-Forman), John Hall (Forty Creek Canadian), Craig Beam (Heaven Hill), Greg Davis (Barton), and Jeff Arnett (Jack Daniel's).

Jeff is Jimmy Bedford's successor. His ascension was announced, not coincidentally, the day before. I was looking forward to meeting Jeff which, when I did, I realized I already had, when I was in Lynchburg about a year ago. He had showed us around the warehouses and some other parts of the operation. Nice guy. As I said to him last night, I hope he knows what he's gotten himself into. His life will never be the same.

WhiskeyFest is a great event. Everyone seems to have a good time, and why wouldn't you? For me, anymore, it mostly feels like a party that John and Amy throw for a couple thousand of their closest friends. (John Hansell is the Publisher and Editor of Malt Advocate. Amy Westlake is the Events and Magazine Director.) I see tons of friends and get to meet, in person, many people who I've previously only talked to on the phone or via email.

So what about the whiskey? A couple of highlights. Death's Door, a micro-distillery in Madison, Wisconsin, was sampling what they called White Whiskey, whiskey straight from the still without benefit of any aging. I liked it. I've had what distillers generally call white dog off of just about every still in Kentucky and Tennessee, and this was as yummy as any of them. I hope Brian Ellison, the proprietor, didn't mind that I sent every master distiller I talked to over for a taste.

Also fun was the Heaven Hill seminar, at which Craig Beam and Larry Kass walked us through a tasting of several very rare bourbons sold only in export markets. I arrived late and didn't have all of them, but they included an intese 12-year-old and a very intense 23-year-old.

That's not to say those were the only interesting whiskeys there, but nobody was really pouring anything I haven't had before and, as I said, I'm there as much for the visiting as the drinking.

One surprise on the visiting front was the appearance of Rob Allanson and Gordon Dundas, editor and sales manager respectively for WHISKY Magazine, i.e., the competition, and it was just my luck to be chatting with Rob and Gordon when John Hansell walked up. There were a number of people in our little cluster, including Larry Kass, an executive at Heaven Hill. John didn't notice Rob and Gordon at first, as he had come over to speak to Larry, and we made a few jokes about edging slowly toward the door, but all was friendly and cordial. (I write for both magazines.) John certainly would have nothing to be upset about, as what could be more flattering than having the competition check out your event? They even bought tickets, feeling it might be just a bit too cheeky to ask for press credentials.

So, it was fun, it always is, but I don't know how people can do several days of that, especially the people from the distilleries who seem to go from one of these events to another. I didn't even hit the party at Delilah's. Instead, I strolled down to Michigan Avenue where my chariot (the no. 146 bus) awaited. Thanks again to the Chicago Transit Authority for facilitating my depraved lifestyle.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bad Journalism Inflames Harry Caray Ad Flap.

It’s a small matter, but I think it represents something a bit troubling.

The Chicago Tribune, rather prominently at least on, reported today that Harry Caray’s widow, Dutchie, is offended by AT&T’s recent TV ads featuring a Harry Caray impersonator. Then it inflamed the matter further by inviting readers to comment and offer their own opinions about the ads. Within a few hours, hundreds of readers had commented and most, not surprisingly, agreed with Dutchie.

Here is at least one posting of one of the ads on YouTube, along with some excellent clips of the real Harry (his Crackerjack rant is a classic), as well as some other clips of comedian John Campanero doing his impression, which he's been doing for many years. Will Ferrell also does Caray, but I think Campanero is better.

The AT&T commercials are okay, sort of funny, also sort of pointless, as the use of Caray has nothing to do with the product being offered. It was just a way to use a funny character to make an otherwise straight pitch with a little bit of humor. They also underestimated the extent to which Harry is still a very beloved figure here and while he could be unintentionally hilarious, to portray him as a buffoon to sell something was tone-deaf. To me as a marketing professional, the most offensive thing is that it was an ill-conceived campaign.

But that's not how the Tribune played it.

Although at least one of the Tribune’s reports indicated that Harry Caray’s estate licensed the ads, i.e., gave AT&T permission to use Caray’s name and distinctive voice and delivery, and presumably Dutchie Caray controls the estate and profited from the ads, the Tribune’s reporting never put those pieces together and most readers don’t understand that AT&T never could have run the ads without the estate’s permission.

I don't blame the readers for not understanding the laws governing that sort of thing, I blame the Tribune for stirring them up with a very misleading story.

The real story, then, it seems to me is that Dutchie Caray is a hypocrite, putting money in her pocket, then biting the hand that feeds her by publicly bashing the ads, when she could easily have kept them from being made in the first place. (I don’t know for a fact that she controls the estate, but that’s a reasonable assumption.) So my question to the Tribune is, when are you going to report the real story instead of creating a phony, trumped-up, half-told and brazenly sensationalized public spectacle? Where’s the journalism? That’s the troubling part.

The Tribune article also failed to point out that the Chicago Tribune owns the Chicago Cubs and was Harry Caray's employer for all of the years he did the Cubs broadcasts.