Monday, June 30, 2008

Death Knell for Alcoholic Energy Drinks?

On Thursday, Anheuser-Busch announced that it has stopped manufacturing its alcoholic energy drinks BudExtra and Tilt, and is reformulating them to remove the stimulants caffeine and guarana. Actually, the announcement came from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA), whose members are the states that directly control beverage alcohol sales within their borders by being the state's sole distributor of beverage alcohol products, and in some cases its sole retailer as well.

There are 18 control states, plus two control counties in Maryland. The other 32 states are known as license states, because they control beverage alcohol distribution and sales through the licensing of producers, distributors and retailers.

Busch agreed to stop making the products in conjunction with a deal with attorneys general from eleven of the control states, who alleged among other things that the products are targeted at underage drinkers, using the same dubious assumptions discussed in some of my previous posts on the subject. (Click on the "alcopops" label, below, to bring them all up.)

Here is what a spokesperson for Busch said about the decision: "We have determined that competing in the prepackaged caffeinated alcohol beverage sector may detract from our reputation as the global industry leader in promoting responsibility among adults who drink and discouraging underage drinking."

If ever there was a sentence that needed a comma before the "and" it is that one. Whew!

America's other big brewer, SAB/Miller, says it will continue to make and market the products, but I suspect they will fold too before too much longer.

Even if these products continue to be made and marketed by smaller brewers, those smaller companies probably won't have the necessary marketing muscle, and they certainly won't make as inviting a target for the anti-alcohol forces.

While I continue to feel that the marketing-to-youth charge is bogus, this is a common sense decision, as expressed by one of the attorneys general: "Alcohol mixed with high amounts of caffeine is a recipe for disaster, particularly in the hands of young people," said Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe, Chair of the National Association of Attorneys General Youth Access to Alcohol Committee. "The caffeine gives drinkers the subjective belief that they can function normally. This false belief results in the potential for increased serious harm. This agreement is a monumental win for our nation's young people who are lured by marketing into believing these products are safe."

In addition to that strong argument against them is the fact that I can't think of any argument for them. What are alcoholic energy drinks good for anyway? As an experienced consciousness-alterer, I can confirm that no good has ever come from mixing depressants with stimulants.

So while I don't agree with the attack on the marketing, it will be better for everyone if these products just go away.

Why does it matter that the marketing charges are bogus? Look at the second half of Rowe's last sentence. The supposed beneficiaries of this are "young people who are lured by marketing into believing these products are safe." Huh? I challenge Rowe to show me where any marketing claim is made regarding safety. That statement is ridiculous on its face.

Since marketing beverage alcohol to underage persons is illegal, the marketing charge alleges wrongdoing on the part of marketers. Naturally, that becomes the most important part of the story, even though it is the weakest part of the argument. The movement (assuming its stated motives are its true ones) would be better served by dropping the bogus arguments and highlighting the good ones. Too bad they won't.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nothing New in the Adult Beverage Wars.

Just a follow-up to last week's post's about my state senator and her support of the latest attack on the marketing of adult beverages. The gist of that post was sent to her by way of a reply to her reply. She answered my first inquiry in about 24 hours. This time, it's been a week and no word.

She may not reply and that's okay. The first email was a direct question. The second states my opinion. She isn't really obliged to reply to that. I also have no illusions that I have changed any minds in the Steans organization.

I'll keep you posted if anything further develops.

You Meet the Most Interesting People.

When I brought the mail in today there was in it an envelope from a New York art gallery. I opened the envelope and extracted a large card with this image on it.

I stared and stared. Great image, I thought. Then I thought, “it’s Bill, it has to be Bill, let it be Bill.” I turned it over.

I’ve always known about Bill’s photography because of his most famous work, Suburbia, a now-classic 1972 book of photographs that was reissued in 1999. To explain it beyond the title would be redundant.

But I know Bill Owens for a completely different reason.

Bill is the founder of the American Distilling Institute (ADI). ADI calls itself "the collective voice of the new generation of progressive beverage, medical, and aromatic distillers, and is dedicated to the mission of disseminating professional information on the distilling process." You can find out more at

There are quite a few fascinating people in ADI, and Bill Owens is one of them.

Bill is from Northern California. He began to mess around with cameras in the 1960s while in the Peace Corps. He later worked as a photographer for various San Francisco-area newspapers, but shot fine art photography in his spare time.

At some point, Bill also began home-brewing, then started a brewpub called Wild Bill’s. If not the actual first it was one of the very first brewpubs in the country. Then he started a magazine called American Brewer, a journal for professionals and home-brewers, which spawned a short-lived (1995-96) enthusiast monthly called BEER, The Magazine, for which I wrote a few articles about whiskey.

Born in 1938, Bill decided a few years ago to sell everything and retire. He quickly became bored and started the ADI, which now has several hundred members in 36 states and Canada. Bill has thrown himself into it completely, like he does with everything.

Bill’s other books of photography are Our Kind Of People (1975), Working - I Do It For The Money (1977), and Leisure (2004). The events at the James Cohan Gallery are timed to coincide with the release of a new book, titled simply Bill Owens.

Not long ago, Bill came across a black-and-white picture of himself as a very young boy, wearing nothing except a pair of jockey shorts. He wanted to share the discovery with all of his friends but felt it needed a companion shot of the boy today in, naturally, nothing except a pair of jockey shorts. He’s very fit for a 70 year old man, but I really didn’t need to see that.

Some time later I said something to him about it and his reaction was like, what else could I do? The boy in the first picture had required that the second one be taken.

That's Bill.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Chicago Theater I Know and Love.

Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones has a great piece in today's paper about the likely impact of all the Tony Awards won last Sunday by Chicago theater artists and institutions.

I have enjoyed Chicago theater for more than 20 years. Chicago theater is a phenomenon. New York is no longer America's theatre capital. At best, that role is now shared between New York and Chicago.

Chicago theater is huge. It is the recently revitalized Loop Theater District. It is The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Second City, Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare, and Lookingglass. It is the Neo-Futurists, whose weekend midnight show in a former funeral home in Andersonville is thirty plays in sixty minutes, never the same show twice, and if it's a sell-out there might be pizza.

Last night I saw two one-acts in a 35-seat theater attached to an art gallery in a second floor walk-up loft space between the El and Metra tracks just north of Irving Park Road. It was part of a festival. The first play was a 1916 meditation on culture-bound notions of gender and sex roles dressed up as a murder mystery. The second was part play, part dance piece, based on a proto-feminist short story published in 1899. They were terrific.

These are not neighborhood kids putting on a show, except that neighborhood kids putting on a show is exactly what they are. This is what Chicago theater is really about, walking into a funky storefront space with forty mismatched seats salvaged from an old movie house, and lighting instruments purchased at the hardware store. Then the lights go down and you have an astonishing, incredibly intimate theater experience.

This is how Steppenwolf began. I know because I was there, not at the very beginning in the Evanston church basement, but 20 years ago in the Lakeview storefront, where you could count on madness, violence, and at least a little nudity in every production.

If every living thing grows from its roots, this is where all that is Chicago theater comes from, these lofts and storefront spaces with 50 or 60 seats, a card table ticket office, and a $15 general admission ticket price. Sometimes the plays are brand new, made while you watch, other times they are classics. I have nothing against Wicked or Jersey Boys, but the Chicago theater I know and love is in the hundreds of neighborhood spaces ranging from small to tiny, where people make fresh art every night of the week.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Call to Arms.

I always try to pay attention to the neo-prohibitionists.

I need to try harder.

Illinois just passed a new law aimed at alcoholic energy drinks like Sparks and Tilt.

I wrote about some of this on Sunday and again yesterday.

In reading SB2472, I discovered that it basically amends an existing law aimed at what they call "alcopops." Among other things, I am outraged that such a prejudicial colloquial term would find its way into a statute. The industry does not use that term because it does conflate the ideas of "alcoholic beverage" and "soda pop" in a potentially confusing way, and may even make those products more appealing to under-age youth. In other words, by popularizing the term "alcopop," the neo-prohibitionists are doing exactly what they falsely accuse the beverage alcohol industry of doing.

That alone should get your dander up.

I'm not going to go into a lot more about it here. Scroll down to read the older posts. It's also easy enough to research it on your own.

My point here is to urge everyone to add neo-prohibitionist legislation to the list of political things you pay attention to, and react accordingly. I don't expect to ever taste Sparks or Tilt, and I might even argue they're a bad idea, but this affects all of us who enjoy the responsible use of beverage alcohol products.

For a peak into the neo-prohibitionist world, check out GetSerious.Org.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Alcoholic Energy Drinks, Part Two.

I received a prompt answer to my inquiry to Senator Steans. It's a good answer; factual and reasonable, at least as far as it goes. What I wrote to her is here. This is her answer:

Thanks for your e-mail. The products in question are named Tilt, Sparks, BudExtra, and LiquidCharge and are manufactured by Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. These beverages are over 6% alcohol. My staff members have found Tilt and Sparks in grocery stores in the district. While they are located in the alcohol aisle, the products look so much like normal energy drinks that when my 24 year old intern purchased one in a local store, along with non-alcoholic drinks, he wasn’t carded.

All over the country, police officers and parents have complained that these beverages look so much like energy drinks that it is difficult to tell them apart. Here are links to a few news articles about alcopop energy drinks, reporting on this labeling issue:

(She provided one, here.)

This new legislation in Illinois changes the labeling requirements so that consumers can clearly tell that this product is alcohol. The labels on beverages in Illinois have already changed. Pictures of the previous product labels are available here. We took these pictures after purchasing the beverages locally.

These products are being marketed towards young people. Attorney generals from 30 states have written a letter to federal authorities expressing concerns over the marketing of these beverages. For example, you can see the website for Sparks at This site is clearly youth-oriented, even cartoonish in nature. Several of these beverages advertise on facebook and myspace, used by millions of teenagers.

While I am pleased to have been able to address this issue, I believe there are far more serious problems we need to tackle, including the need for higher quality education for all kids in the state, reducing the regressive nature of our taxes, changing our culture of corruption, decreasing violence in our communities, and addressing our state’s fiscal crisis. I am working on these issues as well, and appreciate any suggestions regarding other concerns you feel we should be addressing at the State level.

Heather Steans

Alcoholic energy drinks have been around for a couple of years. They haven't been particularly successful and their footprint in the marketplace is very small. They are like Smirnoff Ice and its ilk in that they are beer with most of the flavor and color stripped away, to be replaced by sweet citrus fruit flavors. Like Red Bull and other energy drinks they contain caffeine, taurine and ginseng.

As the Toledo Blade article points out, it should concern parents if their kids are consuming large quantities of even the non-alcoholic energy drinks.

I'm pretty much with Senator Steans through her third paragraph. We part company at the part about them being marketed to kids. Yes, the products are being marketed to young adults, but the web site she cited has an age requirement like all alcoholic beverage sites, and standard alcohol warnings, and the "cartoonish" claim, dubious even if true, isn't.

I don't know if I would go so far as to call these products irresponsible, but they may well be a bad idea for their makers. I haven't had one and don't know the actual effect but alcohol is a depressant and the other active ingredients are stimulants so, on paper at least, the effect should be ... nothing. They should cancel each other out, though it probably doesn't work that way. I know plenty of people who drink vodka and Red Bull or Jaegermeister and Red Bull. It just seems like a bad idea, no matter who is doing it.

The fact that some retail clerks are unfamiliar with these products, may not realize they're alcohol, and may not card purchasers is a problem. It's a problem for retailers because that's a very easy way to lose your license. It's also a problem for producers, image-wise. As someone who would like to see the whole beverage alcohol industry be less harassed, these products are not helpful.

The pictures she pointed to, of the old and new packaging, don't show much. Ironically, because these are marketed as malt beverages, not beer, they are able to show their alcohol content on the label. In most states, beers are prohibited from putting their alcohol content on the label, which was supposed to prevent brewers from competing to offer the highest alcohol content products. That worked well. Senator Steans might want to look into changing Illinois law to require all beverage alcohol labels to clearly state the product's alcohol content.

The last paragraph of Senator Steans' reply is also somewhat disingenuous, in that it was she who listed that legislation first among her personal legislative accomplishments in her legislative update.

But it's the advertising-to-children claim that always gets my goat. As with the character dubbed "Joe Camel," ads are deemed to be directed at children solely because they are illustrated. Illustrations, especially those that can be characterized as cartoons, appeal to children, ergo Joe Camel was being used to advertise cigarettes to children. It became an article of faith among anti-smoking activists, then came to be treated as a statement of fact. There was never one iota of evidence presented that Joe Camel was intended to influence children or ever used in such a way as to reach children. The charge was based solely on the conclusion that Joe Camel must be targeted at children because he is a cartoon character.

Likewise, "alcopop" is a term of derision coined by anti-alcohol activists (aka neo-prohbitionists). That term has never been used by the producers. The non-energy versions of these products have been around for many years – the Coors product Zima was the prototype.

Like their energy counterparts, those products are deemed by their critics to be directed at children solely because they taste good, and taste similar to soda pop. The fact that most of these products bear the names of well-known distilled spirits brands is further evidence that they are not trying to pretend they are anything other than alcoholic beverages intended for legal age adults. This is not true of the alcoholic energy drinks, but it doesn't seem to matter. The same critics are making all of the same claims.

Most beverage alcohol advertising is directed at young adults, as is most advertising for automobiles, music, electronics, clothing, health and beauty aids, and a wide range of other consumer products. Young adults are attractive to advertisers because they are still forming brand preferences. Also fundamental is that there is no way to create advertising that will appeal to persons of legal age but won't appeal to anyone younger than legal age. There is not some kind of switch that is thrown at age 18 or 21. Kids, especially older kids, like many of the same things young adults like. It is not possible to effectively advertise to persons at the low end of the legal age scale without some of that advertising reaching individuals at the high end of non-legal age.

This is why claims that certain products or ads are nefariously directed at children are, at best, an unfounded personal opinion and, at worst, a deliberate falsehood.

There is one objective way to determine if advertising is directed at children, and that is by examining the medium in which it is run and determining who views or hears that medium. The standard followed by the beverage alcohol industry is that advertising for those products is placed only in magazines, on television shows, on radio shows, or in other media, where at least 70 percent of the audience is expected to be adults. The Federal Trade Commission has consistently found that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to those guidelines and, therefore, does not market to underage consumers.

My Memories of the 1960 Presidential Election.

A friend of mine, who is about ten years older than I am, recently wrote this about his memories of the 1960 Presidential Election:

I distinctly remember hearing the pastor of the First Christian Church of Flora, Illinois, warn the congregation of dire consequences if a certain Senator from Massachusetts were to run for and win the Presidency. The gist of it was that a Roman Catholic would be duty-bound to follow the Pope's direction, not the Constitution. (My father sincerely believed that the Knights of Columbus were the core of a Catholic army that would someday overthrow the U.S. government, en route to controlling the world.)

I was 9-years-old in 1960, in fourth grade at St. Peter's Catholic School in Mansfield, Ohio. As always, Ohio was in play and I saw both Nixon and Kennedy in person.

Kennedy was first, in the town square. It was just a few blocks from my school and my parents let me borrow their camera, an awesome responsibility. It was either after school or, just as likely, they let us out of school so we could go.

Nixon was later, at the local public school's football stadium. The whole family went to that one.

Although my parents were Republicans and for Nixon, virtually everyone else I knew was for Kennedy, including everyone else in Mom's family, and all of the teachers at school. We also heard the concerns of our Protestant friends and neighbors, expressed exactly as my friend above remembers it.

There was a small amount of pressure on Catholics to vote for the Catholic but my parents were in no sense ostracized or even hassled for going the other way. I don't recall it ever being mentioned explicitly from the pulpit but it wouldn't surprise me if it was. The priests, the nuns, the teachers, most were Democrats anyway and very enamored of Kennedy.

My mother, always the rebel in her family, was a Republican even before her sister married the local Democratic Party Chairman, with whom Mom feuded for the rest of her life. It didn't stop her from encouraging her kids (including me) to take political patronage jobs offered by various uncles, however.

The people in my parish were mostly Poles, Italians, and Hungarians, who were second or third generation immigrants, or Irish and Germans (my family) who had been here a couple of generations longer. Mansfield then was a miniature version of Cleveland. Catholics were immigrants, laborers and Democrats.

The excitement about Kennedy among Catholics was very similar to the excitement now about Obama. It wasn't like that in my home, but I received a big dose of it in church, at school, and from my extended family.

My Dad was raised a Democrat in St. Louis. He was only nominally Catholic. My Irish grandmother made sure he was baptized but her devotion didn't stop her from divorcing my grandfather. Dad was raised by his grandmother, who was nominally a non-denominational Protestant Christian but not much of a church-goer. Dad became a Republican sometime before I came along. I'm hazy about exactly why but I can't imagine him as a Democrat.

That's all apropos of my family not being much into that feeling that electing a Catholic president would validate us as first class Americans. A couple of my ancestors on my Dad's side fought in the Revolution and Dad was at Pearl Harbor, so we didn't feel that, but we sure lived in a sea of it. I had experienced anti-Catholic prejudice as a kid so I understood what Kennedy meant to many Catholics.

As for the Knights of Columbus, they did wear swords when they came to funerals and weddings but I wasn't afraid of them and I was nine.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I Read Their Legislative Reports So You Don't Have To.

My State Senator, Heather Steans, sent me a legislative update yesterday. Here's the legislation of which she is most proud:

Better regulating energy drinks that contain alcohol (SB2472). I was the lead sponsor of this bill that requires energy drinks that contain alcohol to have better labeling and prohibits them from being marketed to youth. Research shows that energy drinks are consumed primarily by youth. As a mother of 3 kids, I was very concerned about the easy access underage kids had to the alcoholic version of these beverages.

So I sent Senator Steans the following constituent inquiry:

Dear Senator Steans:

As the lead sponsor of a bill that requires energy drinks that contain alcohol to have better labeling, and prohibits them from being marketed to youth, who you allege have “easy access” to said beverages, could you please give me the names and makers of the products that concern you and point me in the direction of your evidence that these products are being marketed to youth, as well as your evidence that “underage kids” have “easy access” to these products. In particular, I would appreciate knowing what specific evidence convinced you that this is a serious problem within the 7th District.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

I'll let you know what she says.

We've been down this road before. I'll cut to the chase for you. This is a phony, non-solution to a phony non-problem, the kind of stunt legislation legislators from this district are famous for.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Urban Bourbon Trail.

Although whiskey has been one of Kentucky’s main products since the 18th century, local boosters have only recently recognized its tourism potential. The latest is the Urban Bourbon Trail being promoted by the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail it includes a passport program. Get a stamp from every destination and win a free T-shirt. (They don't say T-shirt, they say "special gift.")

Although there are two whiskey distilleries in Louisville, operated by Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill respectively, neither one gives public tours. Instead, the Urban Bourbon Trail points you to eight Louisville watering holes that feature Kentucky whiskey. Five of them are in hotels. I recommend the Old Seelbach Bar for its historic elegance and Proof on Main for its modern flair. Both have first class restaurants too.

Just a few doors north of the Seelbach is the Maker’s Mark Lounge, which features a wide range of whiskeys and other spirits, not just its eponymous bourbon. It is a very good restaurant too, but I generally choose appetizers at the bar.

Of the eight Urban Bourbon Trail destinations, only Bourbon’s Bistro is outside of downtown, on Frankfort Ave. It is the Louisville joint most dedicated to bourbon whiskey, not just as a beverage but also as an ingredient in creative cooking. The bar and restaurant is in an 1877 building in a nice neighborhood, so have a little walk afterwards.

The Urban Bourbon Trail web site is, and includes links to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which covers the distillery tours.

While I commend Louisville and the Commonwealth for finally recognizing the potential for whiskey country tourism , I have two complaints. One is with the Louisville folks, for running a few too many themes up the flagpole. They've got "Urban Bourbon" and "Just Add Bourbon" and "Bourbon Country," all going at once.

They also seem to think they can trademark "Bourbon Country." Nice try, but I've been publishing The Bourbon Country Reader for about 15 years.

My other complaint is one of parochialism. To me, America's Whiskey Country covers Kentucky and Tennessee, and maybe even Virginia because of Virginia Gentleman and Mount Vernon. Even if one dismisses Virginia, it's hard to dismiss Tennessee since Jack Daniel's is the most popular American straight whiskey in the world and the most popular whiskey country tourist attraction.

The original whiskey trail was launched a few years ago by the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS). Known as the American Whiskey Trail, it covers distilleries in both Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as historic sites like Mount Vernon, but its flaw is that because DISCUS is a membership organization, and Heaven Hill and Four Roses are not members, those very important producers are excluded.

So despite all of these helpful programs, a prospective Bourbon Country (so sue me) tourist still has to do a little work to get the complete picture.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Charles and Camilla Visit Laphroaig.

Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc. today played host to The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall -- known as The Duke and Duchess of Rothesay while traveling in Scotland -- at its Laphroaig distillery in Islay.

They were there to sign some barrels that will be auctioned off later, with the money donated to a charity to be named later.

Blah blah blah.

What caught my eye in the press release were these tidbits:

Laphroaig is running at full capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In 2007, Laphroaig achieved record production levels of 2.5 million litres of alcohol, up 6.5% from the previous record set in 1990.

Laphroaig is committed to continuing reduction in energy usage and to hand-cutting peat, which minimizes impact on the peat bog, as well as providing island employment.

We should never forget, as we note the ongoing bourbon boom, that internationally bourbon is just a small part (about 20%) of an overall whiskey boom, which is basically a scotch boom. It is, however, a rising tide that raises all ships.

And from now on, while traveling in Kentucky I will be known as Lord Yo Yo Ha Ha.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is Here!

The new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader will drop in the next couple of days.

In this issue we complete our three part examination of George Dickel. Staying in Tennessee, we also have an update about that guy charged with illegal possession of $1 million worth of Jack Daniel's whiskey. Then we do our first review of a micro-distillery whiskey. The verdict may surprise you.

In fact, our goal is to surprise you with every issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. Sometimes it's a surprise to everybody that we even get the darn thing out.

The Bourbon Country Reader is the exclusive source for everything you need to know about American Whiskey. It is the only publication devoted exclusively to American whiskey. Always idiosyncratic, we accept no advertising, have no distillery affiliation and serve enthusiasts of American Whiskey like no other publication.

A six-issue subscription is just $20.00. Click here for a free sample issue (PDF format). Click here to subscribe. Click here for more information.

Additional charges for delivery outside the U.S. will be added on the order form.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Southern Foodways Does Louisville.

Here's something for anyone thinking about visiting Kentucky this summer.

Louisville: Blue Grass and Brown Whiskey
July 11-13, 2008
A Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Field Trip.

The SFA is an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture with headquarters at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, so these are serious foodies with an academic bent, but their field trips are open to anyone. They're good people and, being Southern, they recognize whiskey as a food group.

Activities include a bourbon academy led by Julian and Preston Van Winkle.

Here's a little bit from the official brochure:

We'll play dainty, an only-in-Louisville game, in the streets of the city's Schnitzelburg neighborhood. We'll gather in the Rathskeller, beneath a tooled leather ceiling, to toast the work of Minnie Fox and the African American cooks she honored in the Blue Grass Cookbook. We'll taste Benedictine spread and Henry Bain sauce. We'll sip brown whiskey from the state's best distillers and red wine from grapes raised by a onetime tobacco farmer. We will dine on fried catfish at the All Wool and a Yard Wide Democratic Club. And farm-fresh fare at Lilly's. We'll sample bourbon-marinated smoked fish. And bourbon barrel-aged sorghum.

For more details, go to their web site.