Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hey, Mint Julep. Your One-Day-A-Year Is Saturday.

If ever there was a special occasion drink, it is the mint julep, so closely is it associated with the Kentucky Derby.

Most people misunderstand the mint julep. The problem is not so much with how they make it as it is with how they drink it.

The mint julep is not a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more on the order of a shot or shooter. A mint julep should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and turn the drink all watery.

The julep is at its peak of flavor the instant it is completed and every moment that passes thereafter diminishes its quality. There should be just enough liquid in the glass for one or two good swallows.

Taken appropriately in a suitable context the mint julep can be delightful. Its sensuality can be nearly overpowering.

As for a recipe, here is the simplest one I know that is authentic, tasty and easy. First, muddle some fresh mint leaves with one tablespoon of powdered sugar and a like amount of water. There are some specialized tools for doing this, but a spoon works fine.

“Muddle” just means work everything together until the mint leaves have been crushed and the sugar is dissolved. Fill the glass with crushed ice, then with bourbon. Garnish with more fresh mint leaves. Serve and drink immediately.

To make multiple juleps at the same time, have your ice and bourbon ready. Then in a bowl make enough muddle (the mint, sugar, water mixture) for one round. Place some of the muddle mixture into the bottom of each glass. Fill each glass with ice, bourbon and mint leaf garnish, and serve.

Although there are various ways to get mint flavor into a drink, the use of fresh mint is essential for an authentic mint julep experience. The fresher the better. Just-picked is best.

As for glassware, a sterling silver julep cup is the traditional container. They hold between 9 and 12 ounces and cost several hundred dollars each. Silver plate and pewter are also common.

The julep in general and the mint julep in particular are both very old, much older even than the 135-year-old Kentucky Derby. John Milton mentions the “cordial Julep” in a poem from 1673. It or similar words occur in many languages. It first appears in English in 1400 and means a syrup of water and sugar.

The mint julep is specifically American and was originally intended as an “eye opener” to start the day. In an era when most distilled spirits were unaged and nasty, concoctions like the mint julep were invented to make the green whiskey more palatable by overpowering it with sweetness and masking it with aromatic mint.

In Kentucky, the julep is always made with bourbon whiskey but in the Old Dominion (Virginia), rye whiskey is preferred.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Is Bourbon Officially America’s Native Spirit?

I’m warning you right now, this is about as esoteric as it gets.

Part of what got me interested in writing about American whiskey 20 years ago was how much misinformation I found whenever I researched the subject. It was obvious that many writers simply repeated what they read without probing to determine how credible it was. I started to probe and kept finding out that many of the accepted facts are wrong.

It hasn’t been easy to correct the record. Even where I think certain facts are good they can be hard to verify. Also, some myths are more satisfying than the truth, and some tales benefit commercial interests, so they persist. In many cases, the oft-repeated facts aren’t so much wrong as they are not quite right. The differences can seem minor until you think about them.

It is still happening.

In 2007, the U.S. Senate declared September to be “Bourbon Heritage Month.” They did it again in 2008 and will, presumably, three-peat in 2009.

Congress did not make this declaration unbidden. Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky introduced it at the behest of Beam Global, makers of Jim Beam Bourbon, working through the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., the industry trade group of which Beam Global is a prominent member.

Although the rest of the American Whiskey industry has yet to fully embrace Bourbon Heritage Month, most agree it is an okay idea. An official month gets a subject onto a lot of editorial calendars. It also motivates producers and retailers to promote their bourbons a little harder during that month. It might even inspire some non-bourbon drinkers to try a taste of bourbon out of respect, much as Cinco de Mayo sells a lot of tequila. It has the potential to extend the fall quarter, traditionally the key selling season for all distilled spirits, forward a month for bourbon.

In the typical form of such things, the resolution doesn’t just say, "the Senate designates September 2007 as National Bourbon Heritage Month." It takes about 300 words to get there.

Most of those words are devoted to statements supporting the resolution, each preceded by the word "whereas." The resolution has nine “whereas” statements.

I have an issue with the first.

"Whereas Congress declared bourbon as 'America's Native Spirit' in 1964, making it the only spirit distinctive to the United States."

While the sense of that statement is correct, it is not literally true, in that the three words contained within quotation marks do not appear in the 1964 resolutions introduced by Senator Thurston Morton and Representative John C. Watts, both of Kentucky. Many readers of the 2007 resolution will assume, because of the quotation marks, that those three words appear in the 1964 resolution. They do not.

Here, as quoted in the Regans’ The Book of Bourbon, is that 1964 resolution:

"Bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic; and whereas to be entitled to the designation 'Bourbon whiskey' the product must conform to the highest standards … and whereas Bourbon whiskey has achieved recognition and acceptance throughout the world as a distinctive product of the United States … it is the sense of Congress that the recognition of Bourbon whiskey as a distinctive product of the United States be brought to the attention of the appropriate agencies."

Although one could readily argue that the claim 'America’s Native Spirit' is supported by that language, the 2007 text quotes that phrase, and capitalizes it for good measure, as if it was bestowed as an official title. It was not.

Why didn’t the drafters of the 2007 resolution use an actual quote from the 1964 resolution? That short text repeats the phrase "distinctive product of the United States" three times, which is sort of like saying, "America’s Native Spirit," but not quite.

The 2007 drafters might refute this by saying that 'America’s Native Spirit' is capitalized and quoted not to indicate that it is a quotation, but to tag it as a common expression or catch-phrase, one which accurately encapsulates the meaning of the 1964 text.

Fair enough.

The claim "Bourbon is America’s Native Spirit" itself can be parsed a couple of different ways. The best way to interpret it is that bourbon whiskey is the only major type of distilled spirit that originated here, if just for purposes of that statement you consider Tennessee Whiskey to be bourbon too, since it is just as native. Gin, vodka, malt whiskey and even rye whiskey all originated in Europe. Tequila is Mexican. Of all the major drink types, only corn-based bourbon whiskey (and Tennessee whiskey) originated in what is now the United States.

Google “America’s Native Spirit” and up pops a web site all about bourbon. The web site is run by Beam Global.

I warned you. This is esoteric and nit-picky in the extreme. And complicated too. I want to make it clear that I am not accusing anyone of lying or obfuscating or even exaggerating.

So, did Congress or did it not declare bourbon whiskey to be "America’s Native Spirit"? Literally, no, it did not. The 1964 resolution passed by Congress does not contain those words. Whether or not the words it does contain express that same meaning is a different question.

At this point you are entitled to ask, "so what?" What is the difference between "America’s Native Spirit" and "a distinctive product of the United States"?

The difference is that while one phrase sounds good in press releases, the other one actually means something.

"America’s Native Spirit" is a vaguely patriotic, feel-good claim that Beam has captured as a web address, and while it only uses that web site to promote the bourbon category, Beam’s brands get in there too in subtle ways. Beam believes in doing well while it is doing good.

In contrast, the legal effect of the 1964 "distinctive product of the United States" declaration has been major, benefiting every bourbon producer equally. Because of it, the United States will not allow any product labeled as "bourbon" to be sold within its borders unless that product was made in the United States, and through treaties it has gotten many other important jurisdictions to enforce that rule on their soil too. Most of those treaties explicitly give Tennessee Whiskey the same protection. This is the significance of that 1964 resolution.

Similarly, you will often see it stated that the 1964 resolution created something called the Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon Whiskey. This is also not quite true. The U.S. Government has rules defining bourbon, but they are contained within the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (SIDS), which is part of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Part 5; "27 CFR 5" for short.

Again, it is a smallish point, but all of that stuff about "not exceeding 160[deg] proof" and "not less than 51 percent corn"? That stuff is not mentioned in the 1964 resolution. That’s all from SIDS, which has nothing to do with the 1964 resolution. The SIDS were first codified in 1935, not long after distilled spirits were made legal again following Prohibition, but they have their roots in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897.

Several of the rules that are repeatedly cited to the mythical Federal Bourbon Standards are themselves mythical, such as the ones that say bourbon must be all-natural, that it cannot be colored or filtered, and that it must be distilled and aged in Kentucky.

In reality, “all-natural” is a reasonable conclusion one can draw from reading the SIDS, but it is not a standard itself. Coloring is prohibited by the real rules but filtering is not. Kentucky is nowhere mentioned, although there is a general requirement that any statement made about origin must be truthful.

The SIDS are essentially labeling rules. They don’t tell a producer what to make, they tell them what they have to do if they want to label their products with certain words, such as "straight bourbon whiskey." It is in the SIDS where the following statement appears: "the word 'bourbon' shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States."

That rule, and only that rule, is a consequence of the 1964 resolution.

Once, when I was in law school, I complained to a friend about how boring it was to read insurance policies. "If lawyers don’t read them," she replied, "who will?" Point taken. Maybe none of this matters, but at least now I feel better for getting it all out in the open.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is the Wild Turkey Sale a Good Thing?

Will the sale of Wild Turkey be good for American whiskey enthusiasts?

The current-soon-to-be-previous owner, Pernod-Ricard, is the world's second-largest drinks company, after Diageo. It has publicized a list of brands it considers its core. Wild Turkey was not on that list.

Campari, although a much smaller company, wants to use Wild Turkey as a vehicle for its overall growth, internationally as well as in the United States, where Campari is not now a big player. Although they haven't put out a list like Pernod did, it seems that Wild Turkey will be high among Campari's priorities.

So, it seems likely that Wild Turkey will get more attention from senior management at its new home than it did at its old one. Whether or not that proves to be a good thing remains to be seen. However, most brands, like most people, do best when they are wanted.

Source Says Wild Turkey Expansion Will Resume.

The doubling of production capacity at the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, Wild Turkey Distillery should have been finished by now.

Announced in 2007, the expansion never got beyond site preparation as owner Pernod Ricard put it on hold after deciding to sell Wild Turkey to defray some of the cost of buying Absolut Vodka.

Earlier this month, Gruppo Campari announced that it is Wild Turkey's new owner. The first question asked by many American whiskey fans was, "will the expansion resume?"

While nothing has been said officially, a source at Louisville still maker Vendome Copper and Brass Works says they're still making the equipment.

Even before the distillery expansion was announced, Wild Turkey was building new aging warehouses to stay ahead of increased production at the existing plant.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

We preview the 2009 Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition.

'Challenging,' like 'interesting,' is commonly used as a backhanded compliment to describe something of dubious merit which the observer is unprepared to condemn outright. Heavily-peated single malts often receive one or both of those assessments.

But 'challenging' also can mean a creation that requires extra effort from the reader or viewer or, in our case, drinker, an effort which ultimately is rewarded.

Four Roses Bourbon is notable, in its standard expressions, for its exceptional balance, which makes it easy to enjoy. But Four Roses also has had an aggressive limited release program and some of those whiskeys have been challenging, though usually in the good way.

That is the case with the 2009 single barrel limited edition, which won’t be in stores until June.

I got a preview.

The Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition 2009 Release will be uncut and not chill filtered. The distillery will be able to produce up to 1,800 bottles, from the super select barrels, that will be distributed in select U.S. markets.

Master Distiller Jim Rutledge specially selected the sophisticated 11-year-old whiskey from among the 10 bourbon recipes the distillery produces.

"We’re excited to continue the tradition of releasing an exceptional, and very unique single barrel limited edition that consists of one recipe we feel exhibits various combinations of flavors and aromas pleasing to any Bourbon enthusiast," said Rutledge.

What makes this release challenging is an unusual bite that persists in the aftertaste. It still has the complex but balanced flavor profile for which Four Roses is famous, but with an edge. I taste citrus, licorice, honey, and wheatgrass, all improbably rolled into one.

This is not a starter bourbon, but most experienced bourbon drinkers should appreciate it.

These releases are very small and typically sell out quickly. The price point will be a little higher than the standard Four Roses Single Barrel, which sells for about $40 a bottle. If you’re interested, it is not too early to alert your favorite whiskey monger and ask them to reserve a bottle for you.

Four Roses is now available in almost 20 U.S. states, and will continue expansion in other markets throughout 2009.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Age bourbon in Mongolian oak. Why not?

The Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, began an experimentation program more than ten years ago. Its purpose was to push the boundaries of what bourbon whiskey can be.

At one time they had 1,500 experimental barrels going, each a little bit different. A few have been released to the public in very limited editions. One of the best was a barrel of bourbon aged in French Oak.

Different woods aren’t the only experiment, but this latest is another one of those. The mystery wood? Mongolian Oak.

Why Mongolian Oak? “It’s a really unique proposition and something that hasn’t been tried before,” commented Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. “We love to try new and innovative things and this one was on our list. We can’t wait to see how it turns out eight or ten years down the road.”

Not only are these barrels new and innovative, they are also expensive. Ten barrels have been put away for aging at a cost of $530 each—about four times the cost of an American White Oak barrel. It also took more than a year to coordinate production of the barrels.

The Mongolian Oak barrels are an industry standard 53 gallons. A cooperage in Spain supplied the Mongolian Oak to the Independent Stave Company and they crafted the barrels. The barrels received a #4 char—about 55 seconds—and will be filled with Buffalo Trace mash bill #1. This is the same recipe which is used for Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Look for more of these types of experiments to be conducted. Also on the list for trial are Japanese and Canadian Oak. For more information about Buffalo Trace Distillery please visit

Friday, April 10, 2009

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is In The Mail.

It should have been the March issue, but it's the April issue instead.

Now in its unlikely 16th year of publication, the Bourbon Country Reader is still the only periodical devoted entirely to American whiskey.

We are always independent and idiosyncratic. We have no distillery affiliation and accept no advertising.

To join the party, you have to subscribe.

This new issue is devoted to two stories about new bourbon whiskey producers. One is a macro-distillery that has been dark for 17 years. The other is a tiny start-up in an unlikely place.

What ties them together is a prediction made in 1992 by an executive of a major, international drinks company, that a new distillery his company built that year in Louisville would be, "the last American whiskey distillery ever built."

Was he right?

You have to subscribe to find out, but if you do it before our next issue is published (scheduled for June), your first issue will be Volume 11 Number 6, which contains these stories. If you subscribe thereafter, you can always request that your subscription begin with that issue. (We're very agreeable here at Reader Tower.)

For a FREE download digest of the contents of all past Reader issuses, click here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Campari Buys Wild Turkey for $575 MM.

Back in December, we announced that Wild Turkey was on the block. Its parent, Pernod Ricard, desperately needed cash to lower the debt it assumed when it bought Absolut Vodka.

The buyer, announced today, is Davide Campari-Milano, better known as Gruppo Campari. The company's namesake product, essential for making the Negroni cocktail, is an alcoholic bitters that is very popular in its home country of Italy.

Gruppo Campari has, slowly but surely, been trying to penetrate the United States spirits market. To that end it acquired Skyy Vodka in 2002 and Cabo Wabo Tequila in 2007. When this deal closes at the end of June, nearly two-thirds of Campari's sales will come from outside of Italy.

The press release is here.

Gruppo Campari CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz called Wild Turkey, "a brand of strategic relevance" and "a unique opportunity to enter the attractive bourbon whiskey category and exploit its growth potential through a global and leading brand."

The press release further says that Wild Turkey has, "all the attributes - authenticity, premiumness, heritage - to successfully exploit its category and market growth potential."

Exploitation is good if it means investment and a commitment to the premium and super-premium segments, which are of particular interest to American whiskey enthusiasts. Kentucky Spirit, the top of the Wild Turkey line, is highly regarded, as have been most of the brand's limited edition releases.

We hope Campari has another $30 MM or so handy, so they can revive the stalled expansion at the distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The plan has been to double production capacity and upgrade the visitors center, but it has been on hold for months.

From a sales standpoint, Wild Turkey is not as big as you might think. It sells less than 10 percent of what either Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam does, about 800,000 cases a year. It's more comparable to Maker's Mark in terms of both sales volume and profitability.

Campari says it is also excited about getting Wild Turkey American Honey Liqueur in the deal, which it believes has great growth potential.

Some are already complaining that another American icon has a foreign owner, but Pernod is French and it has owned Wild Turkey for 30 years.

The brand and distillery have only had the same owner since 1971. Before that, the distillery was owned by the Ripy family, which supplied New York grocer Austin Nichols with whiskey for its Wild Turkey brand. The brand was created in 1940, but both Austin Nichols (1855) and the Ripy family distillery (1869) have deep 19th century roots.