Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No Laughing Matter, Kentucky's New Alcohol Tax Takes Effect Tomorrow.

It was passed on Friday the 13th and takes effect on April Fool’s Day but, unfortunately, the alcohol tax rushed through by the Kentucky legislature is not a joke. It takes effect tomorrow, April 1. That's when consumers will start to pay an additional 6 percent sales tax at their favorite package store.

The new tax is on top of five other taxes on liquor, said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. In fact, the sales tax already was being collected as part of a broader wholesale tax put into effect in 1982.

More than half – 53 percent – of an average bottle of spirits goes to local, state and federal taxes, Gregory said. Kentucky already has the third-highest effective tax rate on spirits in the country, and is the highest among most neighboring states.

"The legislature has really put Kentucky’s signature bourbon industry over a barrel with this unfair tax scheme," he said. "It’s a double tax that puts Kentucky at a significant competitive disadvantage with surrounding states and the rest of the country."

The KDA is closely monitoring sales and tax figures for any impact on the historic industry. Wholesale, case and excise tax receipts on spirits plunged 14 percent in February compared to last year, according to the Office of the State Budget Director.

"That raised a red flag and we’ll be watching to see if it’s a trend," Gregory said. "Everyone understands that the economy is down, which is why we argued for a more comprehensive solution instead of a short-term fix."

Gregory also expressed concern about potential harm to the 3,470 retailers that will be collecting the tax, as well as the tourism and hospitality industries. Only 30 of Kentucky's 120 counties permit alcohol sales, although revenue from alcohol taxes is distributed statewide, including in dry counties.

Gregory said he is looking forward to working with the legislature when it takes up comprehensive tax reform. "Kentucky bourbon is a home-grown industry that deserves better treatment. This might be April Fool’s Day, but we’re not laughing."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Now, the New York Spirits Awards.

Yesterday, I told you my opinion about spirits competitions.

Today, I received a press release about a new one, in New York. It will be held in conjunction with The Bar Show at the Javits Center in June. It is called the New York Spirits Awards and appears to be organized similarly to the one in San Francisco that just concluded.

More info is here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.

The 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition was last weekend. You can read all about it here.

The SFWSC is the creation of Anthony Dias Blue (who kind of looks like me) and F. Paul Pacult (who doesn't). They're both knock-around guys who essentially do what I do (drink stuff and write about it), so I genuinely admire their entrepreneurship.

But anybody who has read my book knows how I feel about ratings, and competitions have the same problems, although I do participate as a judge in the WHISKY Magazine World Whiskey Awards and other competitions they do, and I judged for Bill Owens at last year's American Distilling Institute (ADI) whiskey competition.

The problem is that it's all so subjective and often, no matter how they try to arrange the categories, you are comparing apples to oranges. Even when the styles are close, you still have the problem that what I like may not be what you like.

To pretend that the subjective opinions of a group of people, even of experts, can be averaged out and thereby made objective is, what? Delusional?

I learned a lot from Jim Murray when we did the ADI judging together. He is very good at identifying off flavors that indicate a flaw in the manufacture, especially useful when judging the efforts of micro-distillers. I felt our process was as good and fair as we could make it -- everything was judged blind, of course -- but there are always unintended consequences and, at the end of the day, it seems like picking a winner at random wouldn't be much less meaningful.

I feel sorry for someone like Rick Wasmund, who is very innovative, but in a rank of more ordinary spirits his stuff tastes odd and not necessarily in a good way. How do you judge something that is unique?

I noticed once during a WHISKY mag judging that when you taste a lot of different whiskeys, something that tastes a little different (though not as different as Wasmund's) will stick out and get extra points, but does that really make it the best?

Yet we live in a world of top ten lists and the centerpiece of most lifestyle journalism is the quest for the best burger or the best pizza, and when such accolades are awarded, the places that receive them get a big spike in business. Many people believe in the myth of "the best," and indulge in the shortcut of letting someone else tell them what it is.

The other night on television, I saw a story about a pizza joint in Brooklyn that frequently tops the "best of" lists. It has a line down the block all day every day. Good for them, but can any pizza be so much better than every other pizza (and just try to imagine how many pizza joints there are in New York City) that you would stand in line for it? To me, the answer is an unequivocal no.

Another of life's many mysteries.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Who Makes America's Whiskey?

Go to the American whiskey section of any large liquor store and you will see dozens of different brands on the shelves, so many people are surprised to learn that all of the whiskey made in America (excluding the handful of very small micro-distilleries) comes from eight companies, operating 13 distilleries.

They are:

1. Beam Global -- three active whiskey distilleries, all in Kentucky.

2. Brown-Forman -- three active whiskey distilleries, two in Kentucky, one in Tennessee.

3. Sazerac -- two active whiskey distilleries in Kentucky (Buffalo Trace and Tom Moore), honorable mention for a redistiller in Virginia (A. Smith Bowman).

4. Pernod Ricard -- one active whiskey distillery in Kentucky. (Wild Turkey)

5. Kirin -- one active whiskey distillery in Kentucky. (Four Roses)

6. Diageo -- one active whiskey distillery in Tennessee. (George Dickel)

7. Heaven Hill -- one active whiskey distillery in Kentucky.

8. Angostura -- one active whiskey distillery in Indiana, one currently being restored in Kentucky.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Malört. It's a Chicago Thing.

I have been living and drinking in Chicago for 20 years but Malört was new to me when radio host Nick Digilio mentioned it during an interview on WGN. He associates it with Andersonville, which makes sense as that neighborhood was established by Swedes. Malört, as I have since learned, is a Swedish-style schnapps sold only in Chicago. The name is the Swedish word for wormwood, one of its ingredients.

Many people incorrectly spell it with two 'l's and no umlaut

In the United States, schnapps is not an official beverage category, but since Malört is a grain neutral spirit that has been flavored and sweetened, it is classified here as a liqueur. Malört is 70° proof (35% ABV). The closest thing to it in nationwide distribution probably is Jagermeister.

Wikipedia says Malört was created just after Prohibition ended. I suspect it was created before Prohibition ended, as it is exactly the sort of thing you would make from the nasty neutral spirits Al Capone’s distilleries in Chicago Heights were producing.

The maker of Malört is the Carl Jeppson Company. Their listed address is in a residential building close to me. The product is made for them by a rectifier in Florida. Jeppson, a Swedish immigrant, was the creator of Malört, but there is a similar product sold in Sweden called Bäska Droppar.

Although the company doesn’t seek publicity, the product comes with a sales brochure that challenges you to drink it because, “its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone.” Unsophisticated souls think it tastes bad because it is so strong but it actually contains less alcohol than straight spirits like whiskey or vodka. It just tastes bad. No one seems to think it tastes good.

I would describe it as sweetened cardboard with an oregano finish.

After reading many blog posts, it seems that Malört’s primary market is people who trick or goad their friends into drinking it so they can see the looks on their faces. A 750ml bottle is $15.99 at Binny’s.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Chuck Cowdery Blog Gets Outbrained. Do You Like It?

Regular visitors will notice something new on The Chuck Cowdery Blog, some stars at the bottom of each post, followed by recommendations of other articles on, presumably, similar subjects.

I say "presumably" because I have nothing to do with generating the recommendations. The stars and the recommendations are provided by outbrain (all lower case appears to be their preference). It applies retroactively to every post made since the blog began, but since I just added it about twenty minutes ago, there are no ratings yet.

You probably have seen this on other sites. My question is, what do you think? Do you like it? Is it useful?

My first impression is that it makes the page look more cluttered. I haven't put up widgets like "Ads by Google" because the revenue is negligible, it makes the page look busy, and I don't like the idea of ads being placed on my site over which I have no control. I have the same reservations with the outbrain recommendations, although I don't see any problem with the ratings system per se.

There is an option to restrict the recommendations to this site, so only my own past posts on similar subjects would be recommended. I can also turn off the recommendations altogether. What do you think?

(Note, October 19, 2009. I recently turned it off, as the automatically-generated recommendations especially were getting on my nerves. No one has complained. Sorry, Yaron.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rust May Not Sleep, But It Makes for Great Pictures.

As Rust-Oleum paint first told us, and Neil Young and Devo reminded us, rust never sleeps. Perhaps it is that tenacity that makes it both so destructive and so beautiful.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Charles Medley distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky. I wrote about that visit here and here.

The distillery as it is today was mostly built in the 30s and 40s, the years just after Prohibition. It stopped producing in 1991. Although it sat idle for 18 years, it wasn't abandoned. Charles Medley did his best to keep it in one piece so it could one day be reopened, but he concentrated on the big stuff like keeping the roofs sound. In the meantime, nature did its thing.

In December of last year, before the renovation began, Owensboro photographer John London was given the opportunity to photograph the property. There were documentary purposes for this, but the results are beautiful. You can view the whole 103-photo portfolio here.

I suggest you just press the slideshow button and let it roll.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Heaven Hill Inaugurates Behind-the-Scenes Bourbon Connoisseur Tour .

Bourbon tourism continues to develop at a rapid pace, with more offerings for the serious whiskey enthusiast as well as the casual visitor.

This week, Heaven Hill Distillers in Bardstown, Kentucky, makers of Evan Williams and Old Fitzgerald bourbons, will begin offering what it calls a behind-the-scenes Bourbon Connoisseur Tour, for $49.95, to complement its free tour.

As you can learn on the Heaven Hill web site, the free tour includes a 20-minute film on the history of Bourbon, a behind-the-scenes tour of a Bourbon-aging rick house, and a guided tasting of two of Heaven Hill's premium brands. Admission to the Bourbon Heritage Center (BHC) itself, which has many excellent exhibits about whiskey-making and whiskey history, is also free.

The new, paid tour includes more behind-the-scenes looks at the Bardstown facility, plus an educational seminar. Included is the cistern room, where barrels are filled; the bottling operation; the dump room, where aged barrels of bourbon are emptied; and a tour of Heaven Hill’s entire 50-acre Bardstown operation, with transportation provided by the Heaven Hill Trolley.

Unfortunately, it will not include the actual distilling operation because that is done in Louisville. Heaven Hill, founded in 1934, had a distillery in Bardstown that was destroyed by fire in 1996. They subsequently bought an existing distillery in Louisville, but kept everything else (aging, bottling, and administration) in Bardstown.

Is it worth $50? That is for the visitor to decide, but giving good value for the money is a Heaven Hill hallmark, so I suspect that the fee barely covers the costs.

Call Lynne Grant at 1-502-337-1000 for more details or to make reservations.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Bit More Information About Red Stag.

Since I first posted about Red Stag by Jim Beam last Thursday, I've learned a little bit more about it.

The total distribution of this product so far: 24 bottles.

I don't know who got the other 23. Mine came by courier from the Beam Global head office in Deerfield. Since I'm here in the neighborhood (Chicago, that is), I must have been one of the first to get it and I appear to have been the first to write about it.

The scheduled release date is June 1, 2009.

I can also tell you that Red Stag is made in Kentucky by Kentuckians, the base spirit is 4-year-old Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (i.e., Jim Beam white label), and it uses a natural infusion process.

Infusion, by the way, is a process for extracting flavor from an ingredient or ingredients by steeping them in a liquid, usually by heating it. The solids are separated from the liquid by using some sort of container, like a tea bag, or by straining the finished product through a filter to remove them. Tea is probably the best everyday example of an infusion.

I expect to learn more about the specifics of Beam's infusion process soon from Red Stag's creator.

Infusion is also used by contemporary chefs to create the base for a sauce by infusing herbs or other ingredients into water, stock, or some other liquid. Most flavored vodkas are not made by infusion but a few of the better ones are, especially those made by micro spirits producers such as Modern Spirits.

And, finally, for anyone whose knee jerk reaction to the idea of flavored whiskey is to judge it an abomination, what really is a single malt scotch finished in sherry casks? Isn't that flavored whiskey too?