Thursday, October 30, 2008

Send a Bourbon Lover to School.

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for the Bourbon lover in your life, assuming they already have my book, DVD, and newsletter? Send them to school! Specifically, the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Academy. In this intense, full-day session, they will learn all the ins and outs of Bourbon and American Whiskey.

Three dates have been announced for 2009. Don't wait, because they typically sell out fast.

Students get to spend the whole day with Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s globally-renowned Master Distiller, learning the fine art of producing and appreciating America’s native spirit. (It's five hours, but that's a full day for Chris.)

The class features a delicious bourbon-inspired lunch, hands-on demonstrations, an interactive behind-the-scenes production tour, and a series of tastings. (It's a seriously-good lunch, not a cold sandwich in a box.)

Cost is $150 per person plus tax. Reservations are required and can be made by contacting Kandi Sackett at (859) 879.1934.

Available 2009 dates: February 21, March 21, and June 20
Time: 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Place: Woodford Reserve Distillery
7855 McCracken Pike
Versailles, Kentucky 40383

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Canada, Our Back-Up Distillery to the North.

Americans, especially those of us who live near the border with Canada, discovered Canadian whiskey during Prohibition. This was no accident. While most of Canada’s population lives relatively near the border, that country’s major distilleries were deliberately sited as close to us as possible. Even in 1858, when Detroit grocer Hiram Walker decided to establish a distillery, he chose a site in Canada, less than one mile across the river, in part because he expected the growing U.S. Temperance Movement to eventually succeed. Walker always sold his products in the USA, to the point where U.S. distillers, smarting from the competition, demanded country of origin labeling. They believed no good American would buy Walker's Club Whisky if they knew it came from a foreign land. Walker wasn't worried and cheerfully changed his product's name to Canadian Club. It's hard to remember this now, but gentle, doe-eyed Canada was once our bitter enemy. Sometimes, if you're too prescient, you won't live long enough to benefit from your foresight. Walker didn't. He died 20 years before Prohibition shut down all the legal distilleries on this side of the border and overnight increased the demand for Canadian whiskey by orders of magnitude. Canadian law officially did not permit the export of spirits into the dry U.S. market, but row boats would show up daily at the Walkerville docks, declare their destination as “Jamaica,” and be sent on their way loaded down with all the whiskey they could carry. For more about Canadian whiskey smuggling during Prohibition, go here. The Walker family owned the distillery until 1926, when it was acquired by Harry Hatch, a Canadian entrepreneur who started out with a small liquor store in Whitby, Ontario. By the time Prohibition ended, Hatch and Sam Bronfman of Seagram's pretty much owned the whole Canadian whiskey industry. When once again distilling became legal in the USA, Hatch built the biggest whiskey distillery ever in Peoria, Illinois. All of this is me working up to a review of the limited edition, 30-year-old Canadian Club expression, just released to celebrate the distillery’s 150-year anniversary. I'll have that up soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

More About the New Woodford.

I've only just gotten around to reading the press release I was given on Thursday and it has some information worth repeating.

First, it's worth noting that the sweet mash process was the original practice of bourbon distillers and was replaced by sour mash, which is now universal. What was the first bourbon distillery to adopt sour mash? The distillery today known as Woodford Reserve, about 150 years ago, when the owner was Oscar Pepper and the distiller was James Crow. So it's ironic that Woodford is the distillery reviving sweet mash.

Second, here is how they characterize the difference in the final product: "This process gives the mash a higher pH level and reveals a layer of aromas and flavors which aren't commonly found in sour mash." Yep, that's what it did.

Third, there were some references to an 1838 sweet mash recipe on Thursday, but the more I thought about it that's not right. The recipe is the current Woodford recipe. In reality, 1838 is the year the distillery was founded and, therefore, that year was chosen to "commemorate the end of the sweet mash bourbon-making era."

It really is a good idea to read the press releases.

They refer to this as the third Master's Collection release. I say it's the fourth, since they had two releases of the Four Grain, and the second release had an additional year in wood, so it's really a different whiskey.

Their official tasting notes refer to fruit and spice, and I'd say that's pretty accurate. Compared to standard Woodford, it's both fruitier and spicier.

The bottling proof is 86.4° (43.2% ABV). Only 1,045 cases (12,540 bottles) are available. Suggested retail price is $89.99.

Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia are getting the 1838 Sweet Mash product. They are AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MD, MA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NJ, NY, OH, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, and WI. It will also be available in Canada.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Make Mash the Old-Fashioned Way.

Yesterday I told you about the new Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon that was unveiled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery near Versailles, Kentucky.

I was there and as part of the unveiling, they divided the assembled scribes into two groups and had us make whiskey mash the old fashioned way. One team hand-made a sour mash, the other a sweet mash.

During mashing, grain starches are dissolved in water and converted to sugar by enzymes, then yeast is added to begin fermentation. A typical bourbon mash is 70 to 80 percent corn, which doesn't dissolve easily. In a modern distillery, the ground corn is mixed with water and boiled for about 30 minutes. A motorized agitator stirs it constantly to prevent caking.

That wasn't possible in the old days. (The picture above was taken in 1905 at the Old Judge Distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky.) Instead, water was boiled in large metal pots, then dumped into large wooden tubs. Ground corn was slowly added, as several men agitated the mixture with wooden paddles and rakes. More boiling water was added from time to time. The men would continue to stir until an even consistency was achieved. This was repeated with the other grains and then yeast was added.

That's exactly what we did. The sour mash team started with some dregs from a previous mash in the bottom of their tub. The sweet mash tub was clean. Two buckets full of steaming hot water were added, followed by a bucket of ground corn. I joined the sweet mash team because I noticed their stirring implement was a rake, which is much easier to handle than a paddle.

I had read that making mash this way is back-breaking work. They weren't kidding.

After all the corn was added and stirred to an even consistency, the mash was allowed to rest for a few hours. Then more water (not as hot) was added along with ground rye. After more stirring and another rest, ground malt was added. Malt (malted barley) contains the needed enzymes. Then we added cold water to bring the temperature down to below 90° so the yeast could be added. The sour mash team also added spent mash, i.e., mash from a previous distillation, which is the essence of sour mash. The sweet mash team just added the yeast.

Much to the surprise of even our hosts, fermentation in both tubs began very quickly, more vigorously in the sweet mash tub.

I enjoyed the exercise immensely. Although the point was to show the difference between sweet and sour mash, and I suppose that point was made, what I really enjoyed was the hands-on experience of making whiskey mash with rudimentary instruments, much as it was done for hundreds of years before the modern era. It's a reminder that whiskey-making is a very old craft and although modern technology makes the job much less physical, the modern methods aren't so very different.

The way things are going, we may need all of the pre-industrial skills we can get.

The limited edition Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash Bourbon will be in stores November 1.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

And the 2008 Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Release Is…

A sweet-mash bourbon based on a 1838 recipe. Let me tell you why this is exciting for whiskey enthusiasts.

Being an enthusiast is about tasting things you’ve never tasted before, ideally things that taste good, but even if they don’t, if it’s original and novel, with something valuable to say, whiskey enthusiasts will like it.

At least this one will.

First, what is sweet mash? The short answer is that it is the opposite of sour mash. Sour mash was developed about 150 years ago as a way to keep a distillery’s whiskey consistent from batch to batch. By adding spent mash to the new mash, the distiller created a consistent environment for the yeast from batch to batch. (It's mostly about the pH value.) The yeast like consistency and reward the distiller by behaving the same way they did the previous time, over and over again.

The alternative, sweet mash, starts each batch fresh.

So Woodford is going to make whiskey that isn’t consistent from batch to batch?

Not exactly.

Cutting to the chase, what is exciting is that Woodford made its usual whiskey—same mash bill, same yeast, same everything—except no spent mash. This created a different environment for the yeast and shocked it into behaving differently. It’s the same strain of yeast, it’s the same everything, but that one little difference, a slightly different pH value in the mash, produces a very different whiskey. That’s cool.

Like the three previous Master’s Collection releases, this one is also all-pot still.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome, Comrades.

Welcome, Comrades, to the new socialist utopia, the United States of America. What is more, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics tried for nearly a century to convert the rest of the world to socialism and the United States did it in about 24 hours. Take that, Khrushchev!

When we go Red, we go Big.

Didn't you get the memo? As of today, we're all socialists. The state now owns the means of production.

Just as Karl Marx predicted.

"The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The jury is still out on the victory of the proletariat, but he has been right about everything else.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The 2008 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Is Here.

The 2008 Antique Collection features the same five limited-release whiskies as last year, with the usual variations as to age, recipe and proof. Here is what whiskey-lovers can expect.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old

Two time winner of the “American Whiskey of the Year” award, the 2008 release is comprised of whiskey that has been aging in Warehouse K on the first floor. The first floor enables the barrels to age slowly and gracefully. This vintage has a spicy aroma with very mature notes of oak and molasses.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon

These barrels were distilled in the spring of 1991 and have been aging in Warehouse C. This bourbon was 17 years old at the time of bottling giving it almond, caramel and leather notes with a dry finish.

George T. Stagg Bourbon

The 2008 George T. Stagg was found on the lower floors of Warehouse I and K. This bourbon was distilled back in the spring of 1993 and weighs in at a hardy 141.8 proof—very powerful stuff! The whiskey tastes of dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans and mature oak.

William Larue Weller Wheated Bourbon

William Larue Weller is the Antique Collection’s uncut, unfiltered, wheat recipe bourbon. The barrels were aged 11 years and two months on the ninth floor of Warehouse I. This William Larue Weller release registers at 125.3 proof. It tastes of dried fruit sweetness, soft vanilla and cinnamon spices.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is the newest addition to the Antique Collection. It is an uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. The barrels were aged six years and five months on the fifth floor of Warehouse M with a proof of 127.5.

The Antique Collection was introduced nearly a decade ago and continues to grow in popularity.

"It is so exciting to see how these whiskeys change from year to year. We are very proud of all the whiskeys we produce here at Buffalo Trace and these are some of our best," said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

The tasting notes above are from the press release, not from me, but I generally have most of the Antiques on hand, from some year or another. They are always outstanding whiskeys and this annual collection has been one of the great acknowledgements of the growing importance of enthusiast releases to the American whiskey category.

And they make a great gift.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Kass on Tuesday's Debate.

If you don't want to read the background, just the column, go here.

The background is that John Kass is a columnist in the Chicago Tribune. He is a self-identified conservative, but his columns are always well-reasoned, well-informed and intellectually honest, which is all I ask of any commentator. In July he wrote a column that impressed me so much, I promised to alert the readers of this space whenever he produced another one on the same subject, as he did today.

As the McCain-Palin campaign once again tries to beat the dead horse that is the supposed Bill Ayers connection, Kass shows them the way to score some real points. No one explains The Chicago Way better than Kass. What Kass doesn't get is that his story is a bit too subtle for knuckle-draggers, who are all the McCain-Palin ticket has left.

I wrote my own commentary about Obama and the Chicago Machine, which is here. By the way, if it isn't obvious, I support the Obama-Biden ticket. My answer to Kass comes from my Christian friends, who strive to be in the world but not of it. So, yes, I believe Barack Obama has been exposed to the Chicago Machine but has not been compromised by it.

Even at that, if one is uncomfortable with Obama-Biden, that alone shouldn't be a reason to vote for McCain-Palin, who scare me and would scare me more if I believed they have any chance of winning. If you can't vote for Obama-Biden, may I suggest Barr-Root.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Tale of Gangsters and Canadians.

Al Capone, whose name needs no modifiers or explanations, figures in most legends about Prohibition-era production and smuggling of liquor. We know that Capone’s organization had clandestine breweries and distilleries throughout the Chicago area, from tiny basement brandy stills in Little Italy, to industrial-scale distilleries in suburbs such as Chicago Heights.

But to meet demand, especially for high quality aged spirits for wealthy customers, Capone’s organization also engaged in smuggling, usually of Canadian whisky. Some came overland into northern Minnesota and was trucked to Chicago from there, as was famously depicted in the 1987 “Untouchables” film. Much also came across the Detroit River, facilitated by Capone’s Detroit affiliates, from distilleries in Windsor, Ontario, established there for just that purpose.

According to Beam Global Spirits & Wine, which owns Canadian Club Canadian Whisky, the Canadian Club Distillery was established in 1858, one mile across the river from Detroit in anticipation of the temperance movement. During Prohibition, it was the site of many secret deals and police chases as Canadian Club whisky was brought over the border into the U.S.

To celebrate the brand’s 150th anniversary, Canadian Club has released Canadian Club 30-year-old, a limited edition, 80-proof, 30-year-old whisky. It is the oldest Canadian whisky on the market and is available in a 750ml bottle at a suggested retail price of $175-$199. It was being bottled at Beam’s Clermont, Kentucky, plant when I was there two weeks ago, so it should be in stores very soon if it’s not there already.

Canadian whisky is much lighter in taste than a typical American straight bourbon or rye and is made like blended scotch, in that rich, flavorful whiskies made mostly from rye are blended with a nearly neutral base whisky made mostly from corn. Canadian Club is unique in blending its constituent whiskeys before, rather than after aging in oak barrels, which typically are used bourbon barrels.