Sunday, August 30, 2009

September Is Bourbon Heritage Month.

September is Bourbon Heritage Month, as declared by the United States Congress and the Governor of Kentucky. Here are a few interesting facts, taken from Governor Steve Beshear’s proclamation:

  • Kentucky’s whiskey-making industry accounts for about 3,200 Kentucky jobs, $115 million in state tax revenue, and $3 billion in gross state product.
  • The approximately five million barrels of whiskey presently aging in Kentucky have a tax assessed value of $1.6 billion.
  • Kentucky bourbon and other Kentucky-made whiskeys are a major export product and proud symbol of Kentucky tradition and craftsmanship throughout the world.
  • 2009 marks the 10th anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, one of the state’s leading tourism attractions.
  • The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, in Bardstown, is September 15-20.
"From jobs to investment to tourism, bourbon is a vital part of the Bluegrass economy that benefits all of Kentucky’s citizens," Gov. Beshear said. "It’s also a key export and a proud symbol of our heritage that’s known and acknowledged around the world. My administration is committed to working with our distillers to help this essential part of our economy grow and thrive."

Whiskey makers are investing approximately $100 million in recent capital improvements at their Kentucky facilities, and whiskey tourism has drawn approximately 1.5 million visitors in the last five years. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival alone attracts about 55,000 visitors, according to Milt Spalding, the festival’s executive director.

The New Old Taylor, First Batch.

As archivist at the Filson Historical Society for the papers of E. H. Taylor, Jr., Mike Veach discovered that Taylor favored white corn, not yellow, and used 2 1/2 times the normal amount of barley malt -- about 25% malt. With 10% rye and the rest white corn, that was Taylor's mash bill. He distilled it to about 107 proof and put it in the barrel that way, aging it for about 8 years.

The picture above, courtesy of Mark Brown, is that recipe, last week, in the micro-distillery fermenters at Buffalo Trace. The first batch of the new Old Taylor has started its journey.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The New Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Is ...

"Seasoned Oak Finish." What's that? The oak for whiskey barrels is typically seasoned for three to five months. Seasoning just means the cut stave and head pieces are stacked up, either outside or in a huge shed, and allowed to naturally dry. For this experiment, the Brown-Forman Cooperage let a batch of wood age this way for three to five years. They made barrels from it, but they just toasted them, they weren't charred.

Then they took mature Woodford Reserve bourbon, aged the usual seven or eight years, and put it in these special barrels for about 8 months. The result is a whiskey that tastes like it has been aged for maybe 15 years, but with only the good parts of long aging. The bad parts that make you say "too woody" aren't there.

All of the Masters Collection releases have been interesting, but often not so tasty that you want a second glass, let alone a second bottle. This stuff is awesome. It's really good, especially if you like a 12-years plus bourbon.

It should be out soon, at about $90 a bottle.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Another Dubious Achievement for Illinois.

I've been meaning to write something about liquor taxes, especially since Illinois (where I live) has decided to lead the nation in yet another dubious capacity, this time with the highest liquor taxes.

Instead of writing about it myself, I'll refer you to this excellent piece by Sonja Kassebaum who is, among other things, a small distiller here in the Chicago area.

As Kassebaum points out, higher liquor taxes take a toll on the hospitality industry: bars, restaurants, and the people they employ. I've also read an analysis that shows how, because liquor taxes are so high already, higher taxes that supress demand can actually be counter-productive, in that if the higher rates are offset by weaker sales, tax revenues can actually decline.

But that's for another day.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Coming soon from America's whiskey makers, new top-end releases

American whiskey season is roughly the same as football season, and both are in pre-season now. Here are some of the big things that either are on shelves or shipping soon.

Parker's Heritage Golden Anniversary. A limited edition bourbon to commemorate Parker Beam's 50 years as master distiller at Heaven Hill Distillery. 100° proof, $150, out now.

Jefferson's Presidential Select. A McLain & Kyne bottling of 17-year-old Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon. 94° proof, $90, out now.

Four Roses Mariage 2009 Limited Edition bourbon. Four Roses is unique because it makes ten different bourbon recipes. This is a mixture of two of them, one at 19-years-old, the other at 10. 112.4° proof, $70, out mid-September.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2009. This is actually five limited edition whiskeys: William LaRue Weller Wheated Bourbon, Eagle Rare 17-year-old Bourbon, George T. Stagg Bourbon, Thomas H. Handy Rye, and Sazerac 18-year-old Rye. Various proofs, prices $60+, out October.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 2009. Two releases, both double-barreled. The 1993 vintage spent 8-years in a new barrel followed by 8 more in another new barrel. The 1997 vintage spent 8-years in a new barrel follwed by 4 more in another new barrel. If you want to experience what that tastes like, buy both. If you just want the one that tastes good, buy the 1997. Proof and price unknown. Out October.

Rittenhouse Very Rare 25-year-old Single Barrel Rye. Heaven Hill has done something very interesting here, they have sold this same batch of whiskey at 21-, 23-, and now 25-years-old. Proof and price unknown. Release date unknown.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Really, We Have To Fix Health Care.

I was flip about it yesterday to make a point. It's not enough to be opposed to the specter of government-run health care, nor is it enough to insist that health care be considered a right, you have to support some kind of reform plan, because the current system is so broken, it's ridiculous.

Perhaps because of all the idiocy spouted by both the right and left on this subject (I've tried to do my part), some thoughtful and useful analysis has begun to emerge. The CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, has written an essay based on free market principles that deserves consideration, not a knee-jerk boycott. David Goldhill, coming from a different direction, has a good one in The Atlantic.

I supported Barack Obama because I believed he stood for finding a sensible middle ground where people try to solve problems, not score points. I still believe that. I hope the administration's plan is to keep trying for as long as it takes to put a health care bill together that provides real solutions.

For example, the state of Illinois offers a 'public option' that allows people to buy state-subsidized health coverage if they are unable to obtain benefits through an employer, and unable to buy affordable coverage in the marketplace. Free marketers have no cause to complain about such a plan because it is available only to people the market has rejected, typically for existing medical conditions or high risk factors such as obesity.

Don't ask if that's socialized medicine, ask if it's a good or bad idea.

There are good ideas out there about what form a sensible plan could take, but you have to tune out a lot of noise to hear them.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fix It Now!

Here's my dumb guy analysis of the health care situation. We have this incredibly costly system that accounts for 17% of our economy, a share that is growing, and one of the system's most crucial information transfers consists of one practitioner scribbling something on a scrap of paper, which is then physically carried by the patient to another practitioner, who acts on it. Does anyone think that's a sign of a rational system, worthy of the greatest nation on earth?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seven Down, Two To Go.

The number may change again before morning, but as I write this four University of Illinois Trustees resigned today. They are Kenneth Schmidt, David Dorris, Robert Vickrey and Devon Bruce. Three others had already resigned: Board Chairman Niranjan Shah; Lawrence Eppley, the former chairman; and Edward McMillan. The hold-outs are James Montgomery and Frances Carroll.

At least somewhere in Illinois there are consequences for corruption, although the apparent confusion among the individual trustees about the right thing to do is more evidence that the whole edifice is rotten.

So U of I is to be commended for doing something. I'm reminded of the three legislative leaders who simply demurred when asked to testify before the Mikva Commission. They are House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, and House Republican Leader Tom Cross. That's how the Illinois General Assembly deals with corruption. By doing nothing.

Reporters covering the Soviet Union frequently remarked on how the whole system ran on favors given and favors owed. It's like the people who defend the rich because they hope to be rich themselves someday. Rather than demanding a clean system, the cloutless simply aspire to attain it.

New Jeffersons Is Stitzel-Weller Whiskey.

McLain & Kyne Distillers has announced that its new Jefferson's Presidential Select Bourbon is whiskey distilled during the last years of production at Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Bottled at 94 proof, "this ultra-rare, ultra-premium, 17-year-old bourbon is a limited offering complementing the existing line of Jefferson's bourbons, Jefferson's and Jefferson's Reserve."

The press release continues: "Produced by what many consider to be history's finest bourbon distillery, Stitzel-Weller, Jefferson's Presidential Select is a truly superlative offering. Trey Zoeller, founder of McLain & Kyne, comments: 'The discovery of these rare Stitzel-Weller barrels is a coup for bourbon connoisseurs everywhere, who will undoubtedly discover in Jefferson's Presidential Select a spirit that more than lives up to the fine reputation of its distillery.'"

Although a new bottling of Stitzel-Weller whiskey is genuine cause for celebration, McLain & Kyne has overdone the superlatives. The last few very old Stitzel-Weller barrels that have hit the market haven't been the distillery's finest. Mostly they have had a little too much wood, although the unique Stitzel-Weller character is still evident.

Although I haven't had the new Jefferson's yet, others who have have given it that sort of report. Woody but good.

Stitzel-Weller stopped production in 1992. It was owned by the Van Winkle family from its inception at the end of Prohibition until 1972. Its lead brands were Old Fitzgerald and W. L. Weller. All of the Stitzel-Weller bourbons used wheat instead of rye as their flavor grain, a practice later adopted with great success by Maker's Mark.

Some of the most notable bottles produced there were of whiskey distilled before 1972 and bottled at 10 to 12 years old, such as the legendary Very Very Old Fitzgerald.

It's great that McLain & Kyne is telling us where this whiskey was produced. There is nothing wrong with being a non-distiller producer (NDP), which McLain & Kyne is (most NDPs like to pretend they have a still). Now I wish they would tell us how they got these particular barrels.

The company now known as Diageo was the last operator of Stitzel-Weller. It still owns the facility and uses the warehouses. Both Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace got some Stitzel-Weller barrels when they bought Old Fitzgerald and W. L. Weller respectively. No one has ever been quite sure how much Diageo retained. Did they really mean to age it 17 years or more? How did McLain & Kyne get it?

And, most important of all, is there any left?

Monday, August 17, 2009

How Professionals Do It.

I was in Frankfort last Friday for Elmer T. Lee's birthday. Elmer being 90 years old, his official party ended at about 7:30 PM.

At that point, the journalist cohort was delivered safely back to the hotel. The official festivities were over, but we know how to entertain ourselves. We reconvened shortly thereafter on the hotel's patio. No other hotel guests were using the patio. The weather was ideal.

It was me, Jim Murray, John Hansell, Lew Bryson, Stuart MacLean Ramsay, and Laura Congiusti.

Someone (I won't say who) had scored an extra bottle of the Elmer's 90th Birthday Limited Edition. We also had a few beers, some Ancient Age 90, and Buffalo Trace.

But those weren't our first drinks of the day. The bar had opened shortly after we arrived at the distillery for the party, at about 5 PM, but those weren't our first drinks of the day either. We had had a tasting that started at, I don't remember, maybe 2:30 PM, of the five 2009 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and two 2009 Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection releases.

It should be noted that I did not get behind the wheel of a car from the time I got there Thursday evening until I left Saturday morning. Pity the poor PR people, who can't drink because they have to cart us around.

As the night went on, Laura's Wisconsin accent got thicker and thicker and Murray's stories got more and more maudlin. Hansell bailed first (early flight), I was second (no excuse). It was about 11:30 PM. I had been drinking whiskey more-or-less steadily for about nine hours.

I remember everything.

The day ended with a group of friends who don't see each other often enough, who sat down at a table with some alcohol to enjoy it and each other, none of us more than an elevator ride from where we'd be sleeping.

That's how professionals do it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Elmer T. Lee at 90

Elmer T. Lee's birthday was Friday. Family and friends celebrated in the log cabin "club house" on the distillery grounds in Frankfort, Kentucky, that is named after him.

Elmer went to work at the distillery now called Buffalo Trace in 1949. He retired in 1986 and began his second career, as a good will ambassador.

Elmer looked good at the party. His family was there, so were many of his closest friends. Not just fellow Buffalo Trace folks but also all of his competitors: Jimmy Russell from Wild Turkey, Parker Beam and Craig Beam from Heaven Hill, Jim Rutledge from Four Roses, Greg Davis from Tom Moore (recently acquired by Buffalo Trace), and Kevin Smith from Maker's Mark.

Elmer's namesake bourbon is one of the best products Buffalo Trace makes. At the party, a limited edition to celebrate Elmer's 90th was unveiled. A nice touch: the cap is topped with the pattern from Elmer's ubiquitous cap. All of the guests at the party received a bottle. Elmer's keepsake was a barrel head signed by each of the guests.

Although no one at Buffalo Trace will mind if publicity about the event sells more of their whiskey, it really was a very intimate and emotional occasion, a reminder to all of us with elderly friends, mentors or family members that every moment we have with them, every opportunity to say "thank you," is precious.

Old Taylor to be Rye Van Winkle.

There was a lot going on during my short visit to Buffalo Trace Friday. One thing we talked about was Old Taylor. They continue to be very excited about the acquisition and have big plans. They want to make it the equivalent in the rye-recipe bourbon arena of what Van Winkle is in the wheated bourbon segment. No guess yet when the first bottles will be rolling out. They're still figuring out what they have and what they can do with it, but the talk (directly from Mark Brown) is of a portfolio of offerings similar in some ways to the Antique Collection, but not quite so scarce and not with an annual release but with a steady, full time availability of a consistent, ongoing but high end product, like Van Winkle.

U of I Leadership Should Go.

Once again, Pat Quinn looks like the only straight shooter on the Illinois political scene. (I first wrote about this here.)

Three University of Illinois trustees resigned before the Mikva Commission's report was released, including the Board chairman. All three suggested the rest should join them. They didn't. Then, based on the Mikva Commission's recommendation, Quinn asked the six remaining members to resign. They haven't and probably won't.

The Chicago Tribune reports that one of the hold-outs, Trustee James Montgomery, is defiant. He told Quinn's general counsel, "If the governor has a legal basis for forcing me out of the trusteeship, he is going to have to access that avenue and I will defend against that."

The commission's report said Montgomery once intervened on behalf of a rejected student who was related to his daughter's boyfriend.

The university's president and chancellor have a slightly more defensible reason for not resigning. They want the Board of Trustees to decide their fate.

Sure, Quinn is a politician who wants to put his loyalists anywhere he can, but he also recognizes that the current board has zero credibility. If they don't go, one way or another (Quinn can fire them), clout will have won and reform will have died aborning yet again.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Coming Soon, Two New BT Experimentals.

The two new releases in the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection (BTEC) are both double wood. The first was distilled in 1993, aged for 8 years in a new barrel, transferred to another new barrel and aged for 8 more years. The second was distilled in 1997, also aged for 8 years in a new barrel, then transferred to another new barrel for four more years.

I tasted them yesterday. The one with the lesser time in the second barrel was better, good even. Woody, of course. The 16-year-old was too much. Bitter, acrid.

The original double-barrel was also distilled in 1993, but it was the BT2 (high rye) recipe. The new one is BT1 (low rye). That earlier one, like the new '97, was 8 years in one barrel, 4 in the other.

They'll be released in October. I don't know the suggested price, but they're typically $50+ for a 375 ml bottle. Pricey and also in very short supply.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tasting at Buffalo Trace.

We just tasted the five 2009 releases of the BT Antique Collection along with two new experimentals, all slated for October release. All awesome, although I might say stay away from the 1993 experimental. The experiments are double wood. After eight years in a new, charred barrel, they put them into another new charred barrel, one for another four years, the other for another eight years. The result of the experiment is that four years in a second barrel is pretty cool. Eight years is too much. Your mileage may vary.

Of the Antique, consensus is that the William LaRue Weller is the killer. Naturally, it's the one in shortest supply.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jack and Coke RTD Debuts in UK.

Although imbalanced tax and regulatory regimes make them unattractive in the USA, ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails are very popular in the rest of the world.

In Australia, for example, one of the top international markets for American whiskey, more of it is consumed in RTDs than any other way. Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and others have popular RTDs that combine whiskey and cola.

Now Jack Daniel's, the world's most popular American whiskey, is joining the fray with Jack Daniel's & Cola in a 330 ml can, just released in the United Kingdom.

Susie Modhawadia, Jack Daniel's brand manager, said, "With consumer research demonstrating that over 40% of Jack Daniel's is consumed with cola, this new product is the perfect mix."

In the United States, where spirits products are taxed more heavily that beer and wine, and distribution is more limited, RTDs that contain the actual spirit product portrayed on the label have been a non-starter. Instead, many leading spirits brands have developed flavored malt beverages as line extensions, such as Black Jack Cola, which leverages the Jack Daniel's name and image but contains no actual Jack Daniel's whiskey.

Both types of products have been demonized by anti-alcohol crusaders who dub them "alcopops" and falsely accuse producers of targeting them at children.

The suggested retail price of Jack Daniels and Cola is GBP1.99 (US$3.30).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Jimmy Bedford Memory.

Jimmy Bedford, retired Jack Daniel's master distiller, died Friday at his Lynchburg, Tennessee, home. I wrote about it yesterday.

Since then, I've been thinking about Jimmy and reading what others have written. Here are some of my more personal memories.

The first time I met Jimmy Bedford I didn't really meet him. It was a few years ago at WhiskeyFest Chicago. I went to the seminar Jimmy was conducting. The audience at those things is several hundred people and they've all been drinking. Jimmy was a perfectly good presenter but he reminded me of Baker, Parker, and Craig Beam. They are all, in those situations, a bit more taciturn than the occasion warrants.

Later that evening, after WhiskeyFest was over, a friend and I went to the Hyatt's BIG Bar for a nightcap. I didn't notice him at first, but so had Jimmy. He was sitting, by himself, a few stools east of us.

I didn't speak to him because I didn't know him at the time. We went about our business and left him to his. After a few minutes, several people came over and spoke to him. He was friendly and they were obviously fans from WhiskeyFest. (They were carrying their goody bags.) After they left, he finished his drink and left as well.

After WhiskeyFest concludes for the evening, there are always lots of after-party opportunities, especially for master distillers who are, after all, the rock stars of the whiskey world. My impression was that all Jimmy wanted to do was have a quiet drink in a crowded bar before going upstairs to sleep.

Subsequently, I got to spend time with Jimmy in Lynchburg. I had dinner with he and his wife at their home, and when I subsequently saw him at events we at least exchanged greetings. My impression of him never changed. He liked to make whiskey and knew he was good at it. He grew up around it, it was the only decent job in the county, and he never thought about doing anything else.

The Jack Daniel's image works in part because so many people down there are really like that. He did the promotional stuff because when you have a job and the boss asks you to do something, you do it, you do it as well as you can, and you don't make a big fuss about it. Those really were his values. That's who he really was.

I'm not saying he didn't enjoy all of the travel and attention, but he probably would have been just as happy dividing his time between his distillery and his farm, in the town where he grew up.

I haven't heard anything about Jimmy's death other than what was in the news obituary distributed by Associated Press, which was essentially the Brown Forman press release. We may never know more. I don't know if he had any history of heart disease, or anything else about his health. I know he was slim and looked very fit.

It's not important to know, necessarily. It's just a shame.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Jimmy Bedford, 1940-2009

He was a quiet man, a reluctant celebrity, who nevertheless became the face of the world's best-selling American whiskey during a worldwide American whiskey renaissance. 

Jimmy Bedford, former master distiller at Jack Daniel's, died yesterday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 69. He was found outside a barn at his farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Bedford went to work at the Jack Daniel's Distillery in 1968, where he held a number of different jobs before becoming master distiller in 1988. At that time, the job of master distiller at an American whiskey distillery was changing, from that of a full-time manager to part manager, part ambassador. A native of Lynchburg, Bedford had traveled little before taking on the ambassador role, which took him all over the world. Only seven men have held the position of master distiller at the 143-year-old distillery, beginning with founder Jack Daniel. 

Though stiff and formal addressing large groups, Bedford could be warm and open in small gatherings, such as when entertaining journalists at his home. He and his wife had one child, a daughter, pictures of whom decorate every room of their house. 

The only public stain on Bedford's long career was the way it ended last year. He was asked to retire after being named in a $3.5 million sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a Texas woman. The suit was settled out of court. His official obituary was prepared and released by his former employer, Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniel's.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Birthers Got Me Thinking.

My conclusion from the birther debate: Maybe U.S. president is just another one of those jobs Americans won't do.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

How Much Do I Love Rittenhouse Rye BIB?

How much do I love Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond? Not, it turns out, as much as I thought.

Rittenhouse Rye is an American Straight Rye Whiskey. It is a Heaven Hill product, made for them by Brown-Forman. There is a standard 80° proof expression but I've always preferred the 100 proof bond. It's a very good rye and until now was one of the best bargains in American straight whiskey. Not anymore.

When I first discovered Rittenhouse Rye BIB it was $11.99. It was still sublime at $12.99, which is how much I paid for it nine months ago. It's now up to $18.99. The bottle was actually in my cart before I started to think about it. Then I noticed 8-year-old Old Charter for $12.99, Elmer T. Lee for $26.99, and Weller 12-year-old for $24.99. The Weller won.

Now, obviously, I know one is a straight rye while the other is a wheated bourbon, but as a pure value proposition, Weller 12 for $25 is a great deal. I'll grant that Rittenhouse BIB is probably worth $19, but it is no longer a value at that price.

In other smart shopping news, I went to pick up some triple sec liqueur. Now when I say triple sec I don't mean Cointreau or Grand Marnier. I'm looking at DeKuyper, Bols, Hiram Walker, that bunch. You probably would have trouble picking one from another in a blind taste test, so I was looking at price, but discovered another differentiating factor: proof. They ranged from 42° up to 60° and the lower proofs were not necessarily cheaper. The best value seemed to be Du Bouchett, at 60° and just $7.99 for the 750 ml.

DuBouchett, as it turns out, is a Heaven Hill product, so they lost me on the Rittenhouse but got me back on the triple sec. And they didn't really lose me on the Rittenhouse, because I will buy it again, just not today.

It pays to read those labels.