Wednesday, December 31, 2008

If the News from Illinois Makes No Sense to You, Maybe This Will Help.

Because of who the president-elect is, just about everything that happens in Illinois these days is national news. I feel that we who live here owe a duty to our brothers and sisters in the rest of the nation to explain Illinois politics as well as it can be explained. Happily, I don't have to explain it personally because Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass does it better than I ever could. His latest is here.

Thanks also to NBC's Chuck Todd, who explained that Harry Reid's goal is not to prevent Burris from being seated, just to delay it. Ideally, Blago will be ousted soon, and the new governor can rescind Roland's appointment. That probably is legal if Blago's appointee hasn't been seated.

What Roland Burris, who is pretty clueless generally, doesn't get is that he has just seriously tainted his previously untainted rep. Typical.

Monday, December 29, 2008

North Carolina Isn't the Problem.

My brother, who lives in North Carolina, tipped me to a story in the News & Observer about a new micro distillery that is being proposed for Chapel Hill. The distillery's proprietor, Scott Maitland, operates a local brew pub called Top of the Hill. The article was written by a News & Observer staff writer, Jesse James DeConto. It was published today. You can read it here.

I wrote to Jesse the following:

Dear Jesse,

I enjoyed your article about Scott Maitland’s proposed distillery and micro distilleries in general. I am a writer who specializes in American whiskey and I have been following the development of the micro distillery industry with interest.

Mr. Maitland may have given you the wrong impression about North Carolina’s liquor laws. Everything was explained correctly, but it gave the impression that North Carolina is unique, or at least unusual and out of the mainstream in its approach. North Carolina is a control state but the issues Mr. Maitland complains about are pretty much universal. In both control and license states; the producer, distributor and retailer must be separate entities. There can be no cross-ownership. Producers may not sell directly to retailers. Each state is slightly different, and the differences can make you crazy, but the three-tier distribution system is the norm in all 50 states. The exception is control states where the state is both distributor and retailer (for off-premise sales). The state can do cross-ownership but non-state entities cannot.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, where 99% of America’s whiskey is produced, if a distillery wants to sell its products to tourists in the distillery’s gift shop, it must sell them to a distributor, who sells them back to the retailer entity the producer has established. In Kentucky and Tennessee, the state made a special exception to the cross-ownership prohibition to allow even this, since in this case the producer is also the retailer. Most states also exercise some control over prices at every level.

It’s all about taxes. Every state, as well as many cities and counties, takes a big rake off of all distilled spirits sales. Distilled spirits, dollar for dollar, are one of if not the most heavily taxed consumer product on the market. This is not unique to North Carolina. Every distiller’s biggest tax payments go to the federal government through a tax on production known as the Federal Excise Tax. In North Carolina, that mark-up between what the ABC pays the producer and what it charges retailers is essentially tax.

Mr. Owens, who I consider a good friend, can also be very misleading on this subject. His emphasis on brewing as a precursor to whiskey making is his personal vision, not universally shared. Among all of the Master Distillers at the major American whiskey producers, only one has ever worked as a brewer.

If you follow Bill’s point of view a little further, he believes micro-distillers should make malt whiskey, not bourbon or rye, because malt is the easiest grain to ferment and distill, and because you can even buy wash from a brewery and avoid fermentation altogether. Bill takes these positions despite the fact that they are contrary to 200+ years of American whiskey-making tradition.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to go into this further.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Kentucky's Inauguration Ball Will Feature Bourbon Trail.

The Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) announced today that Kentucky's official inauguration ball, known as the Bluegrass Ball, will showcase the bourbon industry at a "Walk Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail" reception.

The Bluegrass Ball, held the night before the inauguration, traditionally kicks-off the Washington celebrations of a new president's inauguration.

Seven Kentucky whiskeys will be featured at the ball: Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Four Roses, Maker's Mark, and Wild Turkey.

The Bluegrass Ball is sponsored by the Kentucky Society of Washington. It begins at 6 p.m. on Monday, January 19, 2009, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington D.C.

The evening’s Kentucky-inspired menu was designed by renowned Louisville Chef Michael Paley of Proof on Main. It will feature items made with Kentucky bourbon, as well as Kentucky bison, cheeses, and Ale-8-One.

The public may obtain information on the event from Anne-Marie Kelley, Chair of the Bluegrass Ball at 202-399-2032 or

Sponsorship information can be obtained from Brandon Kirkham, President of the Kentucky Society, at

Contact KDA President Eric Gregory for information about Kentucky bourbon or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail at, or (502) 875-9351.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Beam’s New Rye Is Not As Superficial As You Think.

I am an American whiskey enthusiast. So are many of my friends.

By that I mean the object of our enthusiasm is American whiskey, a category that includes several different types, primarily bourbon but also Tennessee and rye.

Recently, much has been written about the revival of rye whiskey. Rye dominated the 19th century, then nearly died out in the 20th. Its current popularity is tied to cocktail culture. Many classic whiskey drinks were historically made with rye.

Beam Global Spirits and Wine has long made rye whiskey at its distilleries in Kentucky. Beam makes Jim Beam Rye, obviously, but also Old Overholt, a venerable 19th century brand that originated in Pennsylvania.

Other Kentucky distilleries also make rye whiskey and have, in recent years, developed new products or line extensions. Some tout long aging, as much as 23 years, to justify a premium price. These products, like many others, are aimed directly at whiskey enthusiasts, i.e., me and my friends.

So earlier this year, hearing rumors that Beam was getting ready to drop its own premium rye, many of my enthusiast friends asked me about it. As I learned what Beam intended, my message became, "sorry, but it’s not for us."

That product is now here. It is called Rye One, aka (rī)¹.

The gimmicky name, high-style packaging and deluxe price (about $45) was all enthusiasts needed to see to know that we are not the intended audience. Clearly, the target is buyers of premium vodka and other luxury spirits, the type who think "Effen Vodka" is clever too.

I sympathize with my enthusiast brothers who have already rejected (rī)¹, but now that I’ve tried it, I say we should get past all that, because it’s a very nice whiskey. Price is still an obstacle, so let’s just pretend it isn’t and consider this rye only on its merits.

I like it. I like it very much.

What I like best about it is that it captures the whiskey at just that point in the aging process when the wood has softened most of its harshness, but before the barrel takes over completely. That’s a neat trick and it shows me that the people who developed this product did, in fact, spend as much time getting the whiskey right as they did getting the package and imagery right. Bravo! Good for them.

(rī)¹ has the same basic flavor profile as the other Jim Beam ryes except as noted above, and it also seems drier. It has rye’s spice, especially white pepper, but little of its muddiness. From the wood it takes a lot of vanilla, a little oak, but no ash, smoke or char. There’s citrus, but of a preserved lemon variety. That’s about it. (rī)¹ does not have multiple layers, but what it has is crisp and well-mannered.

Is it complex? Not particularly. Is it challenging? Not at all. If that is what you want, especially if that is what you are willing to pay $45 for, don’t bother. But if you want a rye that tastes good, mixes well, and looks fabulous, here you go.

Because (rī)¹ doesn’t hit you over the head, some enthusiasts find it bland. I prefer to call it subtle and sophisticated. It’s not a rye that makes you say "wow," it’s a rye that makes you say "nicely played."

This is what rye whiskey never tasted like before, but probably should have. More people would have liked rye and maybe even kept drinking it, instead of dropping it like a bad habit when lighter, milder drinks became available during and after Prohibition.

Most American whiskeys bear little resemblance to scotch or Canadian, but a few do. Blanton’s and Basil Hayden’s, both bourbons, are often compared to scotch. (rī)¹ falls into that category, with its subtle flavor and sophisticated character. (rī)¹ also makes me think about the better Canadians, which flaunt vanilla and some of rye grain’s friendlier qualities.

The main similarity is approachability. American whiskey, as a rule, is the most flavorful of the world’s spirit types and can easily overwhelm drinkers who come to it from milder drinks. Instead, (rī)¹ goes down easy.

Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Rye is a similar product that came out about a year ago, but didn’t go so far with the packaging, positioning, or price. They tried to have it both ways, with something for cocktailians and bourbonians. Beam went all in cocktailian, with launch events at the leading cocktail bars in major cities. In spite of all that, it’s a terrific whiskey that bourbonians should not ignore.

By the way, Beam has suggested there will be a (rī)², (rī)³, and so on.

This could get interesting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Oh No! Not the Wiener's Circle!

Being shut down by the Health Department probably hurts most restaurants. Except for business they're losing while they're closed, it probably won't hurt the Wiener's Circle one bit.

Nobody goes there for the hygiene.

The Wiener's Circle really isn't a restaurant. It's a small stand with a counter, a couple of stools, and some picnic tables outside on the sidewalk, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Chicago's north side (on Clark Street at the northern end of the Wrightwood dogleg).

You can't miss it.

I learned about the shutdown here, in the Chicago Tribune. The short article concludes with this sentence: "The eatery is famous for its rambunctious late-night crowd and foul-mouthed staff." That makes it sound threatening, which it isn't. Everything is in fun, though it can be rambunctious and foul-mouthed fun, and it is open until like 4 AM, so you can imagine.

Another thing about the Wiener's Circle is that it isn't really famous for its hot dogs, although an authentic Chicago Style can be had. They also serve a mean polish, but the main attraction is the hamburgers, which are mammoth, char-broiled, and if you so order, slathered with cheese whiz. There's nothing else like them.

They also have thick, hand-cut fries which are routinely drowned in cheese whiz too.

Oh, mama!

Reading announcements of restaurants closed by the Health Department usually doesn't make me this hungry.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wild Turkey For Sale?

Published sources are reporting that Pernod Ricard will gladly sell the Wild Turkey bourbon brand and distillery, if a suitable buyer can be found.

The story goes like this. Pernod bought the producer of Absolut Vodka and now needs to raise cash to bring down its debt. It won't sell any of its 15 core brands, but Wild Turkey is not on the protected list. That makes it an endangered species.

According to at least one published report, Wild Turkey is at the very top of the "for sale" list.

A year ago, Pernod announced it was investing $30 million in a major expansion of the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Last month, it announced that it needs about a billion dollars to make the Absolut acquisition go down smoothly.

Eyes on the ground tell me not much has actually happened yet in Lawrenceburg except some earth moving.

Obviously, the timing is terrible. The other problem is, the distilled spirits industry is so consolidated now, who could buy it?

Pernod's 15 core brands are Glenlivet, Chivas Regal, Jameson, Havana Club, Ricard, Beefeater, Montana, Ballantine, Kahlua, Malibu, Absolut, Jacob's Creek, Mumm, Perrier-Jouët, and Martell.

Call It Belated Birthday Bourbon.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is one of those great, annual, limited-edition bottlings that are so popular with hard-core bourbon enthusiasts.

The birthday is that of Old Forester and Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, who was born on September 2. That's usually when the new edition is released. This year, Brown-Forman released their Old Forester Repeal Bourbon on Brown's birthday and said Birthday Bourbon would be out a little later.

It's now a lot later, we're running out of 2008, and still no 2008 release.

I did some digging and here's what's up.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon comes in a special bottle and that supplier went out of business. Brown-Forman found a new bottle and it is similar but not the same, so when they put it on the bottling line it had some problems. Those problems finally have been resolved and the product is now being bottled. Obviously, that means they will miss the holiday season completely.

Jim Beam also had some "glass problems" recently with their new rye whiskey. It happens.

Being that this is an enthusiast product, people will want to know if this means the whiskey is going to be different. The answer is no. The particular batch of Old Forester selected for the 2008 release was actually chosen about a year ago (I helped). When they couldn't bottle it at the intended time, they dumped the barrels anyway and tanked the whiskey in stainless steel, so it will be the whiskey it was supposed to be.

Look for it after the new year.

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I admire and respect the University of Michigan, and especially its law school, so this story really hit me where I live.

A taste:

The University of Michigan is investigating one of its associate professors accused of paying a U-M Law School student for sexual acts after meeting her online, officials said.

Yaron Eliav, 44, an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, awaits sentencing Dec. 30 after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of using a computer to commit a crime. The 22-year-old student also pleaded no contest to the same charge.

They were originally charged with prostitution/accosting and solicitation, misdemeanors punishable by up to 93 days in jail.

The case came to light in April when the student went to an Ann Arbor police station to report she was assaulted by Eliav after they met at a hotel on the city's north side.

The student told police she was advertising sex acts online via Craigslist to help pay tuition costs. For an in-state student, U-M Law School tuition is $41,500 a year; out-of-state students pay $44,500.

The student told police she reluctantly agreed to allow Eliav to strike her buttocks with a belt, but got upset when he slapped her in the face twice, reports said. She said she suffered vision problems afterward, but did not have any lasting injuries.

The rarity of how the case began - with a law student showing up at the police department's front desk to report she was assaulted while committing a crime herself - was not lost on investigators.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

BT Launches Repeal Day Tour.

More Repeal Day news is coming in as Friday approaches and you can take advantage of this one if you are or will be anywhere near Frankfort, Kentucky.

On Friday, December 5, the Buffalo Trace Distillery raises a glass to the Repeal of Prohibition with a new tour, called the "Post-Prohibition Bourbon Boom Tour."

Buffalo Trace was one of four distilleries that remained open legally during Prohibition, to sell whiskey for "medicinal purposes." Known at the time as the George T. Stagg Distillery, it began an expansion of its facilities as Prohibition was ending that started the Post-Prohibition Bourbon Boom. That "Bourbon Boom" lasted from 1933 (the end of Prohibition) to 1951 (the onset of the Korean War).

This architecturally-focused tour will take visitors through the great building expansion of the distillery during that period and will highlight the development happening today. The new tour will launch Friday, December 5th with tours scheduled for 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The tour is complimentary but reservations are requested. Following the tour guests can enjoy refreshments in the George T. Stagg Gift Shop and Gallery.

This new tour will be available as part of the Distillery’s regular tour offerings. Call 502-696-5926 for reservations and tour times.

Buffalo Trace is a family-owned company based in Franklin County, Kentucky. Its rich distilling tradition dates back to 1787. In addition to its namesake Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the company makes other venerable brands such as Blanton's Single Barrel, Van Winkle, Ancient Age, W. L. Weller, Old Charter, Eagle Rare, Benchmark, Virginia Gentleman, Sazerac Rye, and others.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Just in Time for Repeal Day, Here Is Old Forester Repeal Bourbon.

This coming Friday, December 5, is Repeal Day, and marks the 75th Anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal.

Old Forester Repeal Bourbon is a new, one-time, limited-release bourbon expression that goes on sale nationwide this week. Old Forester Repeal Bourbon comes in a mock, circa-1933, 375ml bottle and carries an Old Forester replica label from that era.

Old Forester became America’s first bottled bourbon in 1870 when George Garvin Brown recognized the need for a bourbon of consistent high quality and began to put Old Forester into glass bottles. Whiskey was sold in bottles before 1870, but Old Forester was the first brand to be sold exclusively in bottles.

Brown, a Louisville pharmaceutical salesman, was so sure of the quality of Old Forester that he put his hand-written guarantee on each bottle – a practice continued today. Old Forester is the only bourbon whiskey in existence that has been sold continuously for more than a century, including between the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1933, when it received one of only ten government permits to sell whiskey for medicinal purposes. No other bourbon whiskey sold in the U.S. today can make that claim.

"This special bottling of Repeal Bourbon celebrates the rich history of Old Forester’s role as the founding brand of Brown-Forman," said Joe Murray, Brand Manager for Old Forester. "Old Forester still lives up to its claim of 'There is nothing better in the market' over 135 years since its inception and is proud to be the only bourbon produced before, during and after Prohibition."

Old Forester Repeal Bourbon comes in a gift pack with a scroll of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended Prohibition, and an Old Forester snifter. Repeal Bourbon is 100° proof. The suggested retail price is $29.99. Only 2,700 cases were produced.

"Repeal Bourbon is bottled from a special selection of Old Forester barrels that exhibited a more robust character that is similar to the Old Forester that was bottled during Prohibition," added Chris Morris, Master Distiller for Old Forester. "The flavor, presented at Prohibition's required 100° proof, is a full, deep, charred oak character that will appeal to bourbon-lovers everywhere."

More information on Old Forester Repeal Bourbon can be found at