Thursday, December 30, 2010

American Malt Whiskey. It’s Not Scotch.

What is American malt whiskey? Is it, pardon the expression, American scotch?

No, it’s not.

Thanks to the Federal Government’s Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, which were written for rye and bourbon makers, American malt whiskey must be aged in new charred oak, just like bourbon and rye but unlike scotch, which typically is aged in used barrels.

Also unlike scotch, which is seldom sold at less than eight years old, most American malt whiskey is aged for less than three.

With those specifications it is hard to make something that tastes like scotch, which most American malt whiskey does not.

Historically, American distillers don’t make malt whiskey. Americans consume plenty of malt whiskey, imported from Scotland and Ireland, and we use malt to make beer, but we make whiskey mostly out of corn.

No major American distillery makes malt whiskey for sale, but it is very popular among American micro-distillers. If a micro-distillery makes whiskey at all, it probably makes malt whiskey.

Why? Because it’s easy, perfect for a little guy. In the early stages it is just like making beer. You can even have a micro-brewer make a wash for you, so all you have to do is distill it. That’s what the American Distilling Institute, the national association of small distillers, recommends.

Likewise selling the whiskey young isn’t an artistic decision, it’s a financial one. Aging is expensive. All of that money you invested in making the whiskey ages right along with it. In a sense you only have to pay that cost once, because after you have a steady supply of aging whiskey in the pipeline, sales of mature spirit can fund the new stuff, but that initial hump is a big one for most small producers to overcome.

That’s why most micro-distiller whiskey, malt or otherwise, is less than three years old. Some is aged for as little as three months, and some isn’t aged at all (so-called ‘white whiskey’).

I was one of twelve judges at the American Distilling Institute (ADI) 2010 American Craft Whiskey competition in May. Most of the products we tasted had a malt base. Because we tasted blind I can’t comment on any entrants specifically, but my impression of the field overall was clove notes over a sour apple base. The whiskeys didn’t have much character and lacked the complex balance of flavors that is whiskey’s primary appeal.

But they did possess some charms. Most micro-distiller whiskeys make a virtue of the raw, herbal, sometimes bitter, usually tart tastes that time softens. The new wood adds different but equally strong flavors. The spirit tends to be bold and aggressive, more like slivovitz than bourbon or scotch. It is like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.

Aging measured in years is a relatively recent phenomenon. It only became popular about 150 years ago. Before then, most people drank whiskey that was fresh from the still, innocent of oak, or only lightly aged, perhaps incidentally, such as during transport.

There may be a place for both styles in the modern whiskey universe but it would be a shame if craft distillers became pigeonholed as only making young whiskey, or only malt whiskey for that matter.

There are pleasant surprises out there, but American micro-distilling is a very young movement and its products are mostly works-in-progress. What we have now, at best, is evidence that the wait may be worth it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Clay Risen Stirs The Pot. Good For Him.

In a posting today on The, Clay Risen takes on what he calls "The Microdistilling Myth." He was reacting to an article on New York by Toby Cecchini. A link to Risen's post was posted on ADI, where a lot of microdistillers hang out. It elicited some immediate, knee-jerk, hostile reaction.

You probably should at least read Risen's article to make sense of what follows.

Risen’s article is intelligent and well-informed, and makes a worthwhile contribution to discussion about the relationship between micro- and macro-distillers and their respective products. He made the choice to take a provocative tack. I suggest the reader look past that and consider his actual points. It's a short piece. (Shorter than this commentary about it.)

He goes off the track with his proposition that while 'small is better' was automatically true with beer, it's not automatically true with distilled spirits. It wasn't and isn't true with beer either. What is true with beer is that a skillful brewer can make and bring to market, in a relatively short amount of time, a product that to the average, experienced beer drinker will be recognizable as beer and better in identifiable ways than a product such as Bud Light.

Since that is not true with craft whiskey yet his main proposition is correct. There are some micro-distiller whiskeys on the market that are admirable for what they are, but they can't stand toe-to-toe even with Jim Beam white label let alone with Four Roses Mariage, which is in fact one of the best bourbons on the market.

I know all distillers have to believe in their products but if any micro-distiller thinks he or she has made and brought to market a finished whiskey that is clearly superior to Four Roses Mariage, that person is plain and simply delusional.

As for Jim Beam white, surpassing it is certainly an easier goal, but head-to-head as a straight bourbon? Sorry, no. Not yet. The problem isn't anyone’s skill with a still, it's time in the barrel. There are few micro-distiller whiskeys with at least four years in wood and even fewer, if any, bourbons.

The best micro-distiller whiskeys are, at best, excellent works-in-progress.

Jim Beam white isn't just a four-year-old whiskey, that's the minimum age. The profile includes whiskey that is older, whiskey that has been "pushed" through aging in the most intense warehouse locations. It takes an operation like Jim Beam to make a product like Jim Beam white. You may think it’s too young. You may think it’s too bland. You may not like the foxy yeast signature. But you can’t argue with the quality.

There certainly are whiskeys on the market that are superior to Jim Beam white label, including most of the other bourbons Beam Global makes, but in a head-to-head comparison there is no micro-distillery bourbon that is broadly superior to Jim Beam white.

The contrary argument is not that there are such whiskeys, but that it is the wrong standard, especially at this stage in the micro-distillery industry’s development. Making a Jim Beam-like whiskey in a micro-distillery makes about as little sense as craft vodka, but that’s a different argument.

Unlike with beer, where beer drinkers always had the opportunity to taste 'other' beers, even after that opportunity became extremely limited, the American whiskey industry was so devastated by Prohibition, then WWII, then by the market's collapse in the 1970s and the intense consolidation that followed, and there was such a high barrier to entry, that there was very little incentive for anyone to serve the demand for idiosyncratic and original American-made whiskey products.

So much more so than micro-brewers, micro-distillers are starting from scratch with regard to whiskey. Small isn’t necessarily better but small has the opportunity to be more interesting, more creative, and more fun. And some micro-distilleries are taking that opportunity. That’s the rebuttal.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is Selling Out Selling Out?

Back in October Jonathan Shikes reported on that Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, one of the early success stories in the micro-distillery movement, is in the process of being sold to Proximo Spirits. Proximo is a marketer of premium and super-premium spirits brands such as 1800 Tequila.

Proximo is no Diageo, but neither are they a small, local, artisan spirits producer. They are a well-heeled international marketing company with a fat portfolio of brands.

Shikes quoted an anonymous Proximo executive who said, "We have no intention of changing anything." He assured Shikes that co-founder and owner Jess Graber and head distiller Jake Norris will "keep doing what they are doing."

Officially, Stranahan's and Proximo have said nothing about a sale, but shows that Proximo has re-registered the Stranahan's trademark in Proximo's name. That certainly suggests a deal done .

The lack of comment spanning several months is itself a bad sign. Part of the idea of a small, local, artisan producer is to get close to your customers, communicate with them, and make them feel like they are part of the operation. For example, Stranahan's invites fans to help bottle the product at the distillery. Don't they owe it to those same fans to tell them who owns the company?

Obviously, things will change if the sale goes through, otherwise why do it? That same anonymous executive who said nothing will change also said they intend to help Stranahan's ramp up production. That's a change.

Stranahan's moved into a new facility 19 months ago. By June of 2010, the last time I talked to Jess Graber, they were making 12 to 18 barrels a week. "Our goal, in late 2011, is to purchase 2 new wash stills and a second spirit still from Vendome, which should boost our capacity to about 50 barrels per week," said Graber in June. "That level of production would maximize the current location. No concrete expansion plans beyond that. It will be more than enough if it all falls together." He said that by summer of 2011 they hope to be in 14 more states and start international distribution. He didn't say anything about selling a majority interest in the company, as Shikes reported.

I was talking to Jess in June of 2010 because that was when William Grant & Sons, makers of Grant’s Scotch and single malts Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, acquired the Hudson Whiskey line from Tuthilltown Spirits, a New York craft distiller. Grant bought the brand and contracted with Tuthilltown to produce it. Tuthilltown itself is still independent.

So when is selling out selling out? We won't be able to assess what Stranahan's has done until we know what it really is. Cashing out, in whole or in part, is the goal of most entrepreneurs, regardless of their platitudes about staying small and local and close to their customers. Can you be both? We'll see.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Beam Feeds Military Families For The Holidays.

Fred Noe (Jim Beam's great-grandson) told me once that being able to do things for our service members and their families is one of the best parts of his job. I'm sure he was happy about this.

This holiday season, Beam Global Spirits & Wine (parent company of Jim Beam Bourbon) donated 1,000 meals to military families through its “Holiday Meals for Military Families” charity program. Working in partnership with Operation Homefront and nearly 30 valued business partners, Beam Global donated meals in three large military communities across the United States: Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago from December 15 through December 17, 2010.

By providing pre-packaged meals for military families, Beam Global and its sponsors were able to ease the burden that service members often experience during the holidays.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Whiskeys Are Rated.

I'm known to have a bad attitude about the rating systems used by spirits competitions. Their basic flaw is that they give a sheen of objectivity to something that is inherently subjective.

I had a long conversation about this with Jim Murray once and his conclusion was, "we owe it to people to give them some kind of guidance." I concede his point, but what's the best way?

Usually when you are asked to rate, say, customer service in a survey, 5 is considered 'acceptable' or average. Anything below 5 is considered some degree of less-than-acceptable, anything above 5 is considered some degree of exceptional. Below average, average, better than average. A classic bell curve.

Here is how the major competitions do it. This is a 10-point scale but since they allow tenths, just move the decimal point to make it a 100-point scale.

0 -5 FAULTY - There is something technically wrong with the product.

6 - 7 POOR - The product has little character or complexity and lacks balance.

7 - 7.5 AVERAGE - The product is okay but nothing special.

7.6 - 7.9 GOOD - The balance is good and there are elements of complexity.

8 - 9 VERY GOOD - The product is well balanced and complex.

9+ EXCEPTIONAL - The product is very complex, deep and rich, with lots of character.

Note that 0-7 is products that probably shouldn't be sold let alone entered into contests. 7 is 'acceptable.' Only above 8 does it get competitive. That's the way the scoring goes in most competitions. Nothing below 7, only a few 7 to 7.9, everything else 8 to 9.9. There are no tens because nothing is perfect.

The rationale is that, indeed, anything less than 5 is unacceptable, and while 5 to 7.9 might be acceptable, only 8 to 9.9 is award-worthy. The purpose of the competition is to determine which of the award-worthy products is best.

I'm neither attacking this system nor defending it, just explaining it. What do you think?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book BOURBON, STRAIGHT Makes The Perfect Gift.

All of us who love American whiskey have enjoyed its recent renaissance. I wrote Bourbon, Straight; The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey to share my passion for the spirit. The book, published in 2004, has sold well and, more significantly, it seems to be selling better now than at any time since its first year.

That is personally gratifying, of course, but I mention it because I think it means interest in American whiskey is still growing. Lots of new people are discovering bourbon and looking for the story behind it. The bourbon renaissance shows no signs of abating.

Although sales of the book for most of this year have been steady but average, they have skyrocketed since the gift-buying season began. November, December and January are always the best months, but 2009 was better than 2008, and 2010 is blowing 2009 out of the water.

If you shop on Amazon, you probably know they publish sales rankings for every book they sell. The rankings can change minute-by-minute. As I write this, Bourbon Straight is ranked #12 among all books about the history of the American South, and #82 among all books about distilled spirits. It ranks #15,592 among all books Amazon sells, which may not seem that great but is actually pretty impressive for a 6-year-old paperback about whiskey.

As much as I might like to think this is some kind of groundswell of interest in the author, perhaps caused by his provocative recent blog posts, growing interest in the subject matter seems the more likely explanation. Whatever the explantion, I hope it continues. Bourbon, Straight does make a great gift.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Absence Of News About Fortune Brands Doesn't Keep People From Talking.

Although there has been no actual news since last week's announcement, people continue to talk about Fortune Brands spinning off its home products and golf products businesses to concentrate on distilled spirits, i.e., its Beam Global business.

One theme, popular on the east side of the Atlantic, is that Fortune/Beam is in play, a possible target for Diageo. This seems to be based solely on the fact that Diageo is light in the booming American whiskey segment in which Fortune/Beam is heavy. It ignores a host of reasons why that doesn't make sense.

The biggest reason? Fortune is putting its other businesses, which are considerable, in play in order to become a bigger player in the distilled spirits business. What do you think they will do with the cash they get from selling or spinning off those businesses? Buy a railroad? They're going to buy more distilled spirits assets.

That's not to say they are sure to be successful. If they aren't they may become an acquisition target down the road, but that's a long way off. The actual break-up plan hasn't even been announced yet, let alone implemented.

On the other side, Jim Beam and the other bourbons are about the only brands in Fortune/Beam's portfolio that Diageo can absorb. Can Diageo add Canadian Club to a portfolio that already includes Crown Royal? Can it add Sauza to a portfolio that already contains Cuervo? How can Diageo possibly add any more scotch brands?

In every other category where Beam is big, Diageo is already bigger. Diageo would have to have a partner, as they did when they and Pernod carved up Seagram's a few years ago, or as Pernod did with Beam when they carved up Allied Domecq. They would need a partner that could absorb the whole Fortune/Beam portfolio sans the bourbons. Who might that be?

The speculation also ignores Diageo's historic exit from a major position in American-made whiskey barely a decade ago. It also ignores the profile Diageo has adopted since then with regard to American whiskey. It has the premier Canadian Blended Whiskey, Crown Royal, the 'other' Tennessee whiskey George Dickel, and a thriving premium bourbon in Bulleit. It also has the number one American blended whiskey in Seagram's Seven Crown and a major export-only bourbon I. W. Harper. A resurgent Jeremiah Weed is in there somewhere too.

None of those is Jim Beam, Maker's Mark or Knob Creek, but still...

Taking the historic view, one irony of this story is that Fortune started life as a tobacco company (the American Tobacco Company) and is now going to be a pure play spirits company. So much for diversifying out of the vice business.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Artistry Or Sorcery? The Quest To Age Whiskey Faster.

The impulse is understandable. Let's say it is your dream to start a distillery and make the world's greatest whiskey. You've been dreaming about it for all of your adult life. All around you now other people are starting little distilleries, why not you?

So you dive in. You put everything you have into it. You get your family and friends to kick in. You've gotten your license. You've ordered the still. You're doing it.

Your plan is to start out making vodka, gin, absinthe, liqueurs, but that's just to get some cash flow going. What you really want to make is whiskey, great whiskey, the best whiskey ever.

You figure, go big or go home.

Then some spoilsport reminds you that the best bourbons are eight to twelve years old and the best scotches, if you want to make something more in that style, are eighteen years old and up. And none of them got it right on the first try.

Let's say you're 40 now. You're going to be -- absolute best case scenario -- 48 before your baby goes to market! Is that acceptable? Is that a good business plan? Is it a good life plan?

Thus begins the quest to age the whiskey faster and, what do you know, this being America there are all kinds of people ready to sell you products and processes that promise to do exactly that, give you "the taste of an eight year old whiskey in as little as two."

How can you resist?

I won't point to anyone in particular. You know how to use the internet. Search "age whiskey faster."

The problem is, it doesn't work. That's not to say you can't make a good, even very good, two year old whiskey, or an even younger one. It's one thing to say, "here's this two year old whiskey I made. I think it's good for two year old whiskey." It's another thing to convince yourself, and try to convince the drinking public, that your two year old whiskey is equivalent to a much older whiskey.

There is artistry in making good two year old whiskey but that doesn't make it eight year old whiskey.

You need sorcery to do that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Reader In Mail. No Holiday Content.

The December, 2010 issue (Volume 13, Number 3) of the Bourbon Country Reader is in the mail. It contains no holiday content, unlike the December issue of everything else. It also contains no year-end summaries or lists.

You're welcome.

It does contain an Anniversary. The modern era of American distilling began in 1860 as a by-product of the American Civil War, which began in that year. That's the premise, anyway, of "Anniversary: The Modern Whiskey Industry Began 150 Year Ago." Not coincidentally, 1860 also was the year in which the Early Times brand was established by Jack Beam, Jim Beam's uncle. Today it is owned by Brown-Forman, which is itself 140 years old (born in 1870).

The other story in the December issue is a review of two new products by two new companies, each the brainchild of a veteran distiller. The Louisville Distilling Company's Angel's Envy Bourbon was created by former Brown-Forman master distiller Lincoln Henderson, while WhistlePig Farm's WhistlePig Straight Rye is fronted by Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker's Mark.

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses, $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card.

Click here for more information.

Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format).

Click here to open or download the PDF document "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tried It? I Made It!

Someone asked me today if I'd ever had the George Washington Distillery Limited Edition Vatted American Whiskey?

"Had it?" I said. "I made it!"

When the whole project to restore George Washington's Mount Vernon distillery began, each DISCUS member donated a full barrel of their whiskey. It was delivered with much fanfare and then left to age a little longer at Mount Vernon.

The original bottling they did from that whiskey was special bottles of each brand, which were auctioned or otherwise sold at ridiculous prices to benefit the restoration project.

After that they still had a lot of it left and some of it was getting pretty old, so they came up with this idea to mix it all together. I was on hand for that event in the summer of 2005. The plan was to empty all of the barrels into a big plastic tub, mix them together, then put them back into the barrels for another six months.

As you can imagine, getting whiskey out of a barrel is pretty easy but getting it back in is not. The only way in is through the bung hole, which is about 2.5 inches in diameter.

Joe Dangler, from A. Smith Bowman Distillery, brought a small lab pump, which was too slow. This part of the plan had not been thought through. Because we all had planes to catch we started to improvise. My innovation was cutting some plastic water bottles into scoops and funnels. We were all dipping and dumping as fast as we could (including a female DISCUS lawyer wearing a Chanel suit...what a sport!) and we were in the tub up to our elbows.

I'm sure there is part of me in every bottle.

I managed to clean up a little bit at the airport but I'm sure we all smelled like...well, you can just about imagine.

I was also there when it was bottled a few months later and that's a good story too, but for another time.

(In the picture, that's Joe Dangler on the left and Dave Pickerell on the right. Ron Call is in the background. I don't recall the woman talking to Ron.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Owner of Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark Bourbons Announces Corporate Break-Up.

Fortune Brands, Inc., owner of several leading bourbon brands, today announced that its Board of Directors has unanimously approved in principle a separation of the company's three consumer businesses: distilled spirits, home and security, and golf products. "We are taking the next logical step in the evolution of Fortune Brands," said Bruce Carbonari, chairman and chief executive officer.

Many will say this move is long overdue. Fortune is one of the last examples of the diversified conglomerate model that lost its luster decades ago. Only the consistently strong performance of its distilled spirits business has delayed the inevitable.

A separation has been rumored many times but never so persistently as in the last few months, since Pershing Square Capital Management became the majority shareholder and began to push for a break-up.

The plan that the company intends to pursue includes the continuation of Fortune Brands as an independent, publicly-traded company focused solely on distilled spirits. It was not announced if the Beam Global Spirits and Wine name will be discontinued. Specific plans about how the new company will be structured have yet to be developed.

To shed its non-beverage businesses, Fortune will spin-off together all of its home and security businesses (Moen faucets, MasterBrand cabinets, Master Lock security products, etc.) into an independent, publicly-traded company; and either sell or spin-off its golf businesses (Titleist, etc.).

The company expects to announce detailed plans for the separation in a few months.

The new Fortune Brands as a pure-play premium spirits company will be the largest U.S.-based spirits company and the fourth largest premium spirits business in the world, with $2.5 billion in annual revenue.

In addition to the Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Knob Creek bourbon brands, the company has Canadian Club Canadian whisky; Laphroaig and Teacher's scotch; tequilas Sauza, Hornitos, and El Tesoro; Courvoisier cognac; DeKuyper cordials (USA only), Cruzan rum, EFFEN vodka and the Sourz cordials brand in Europe.

The bourbon whiskey company started in Kentucky just after Prohibition by Jim and Park Beam and their sons was acquired by American Brands (formerly American Tobacco) in 1967. American Brands went on to acquire other companies in other, unrelated businesses, sold off its tobacco interests, and changed its name to Fortune Brands. In 1987, it acquired the National Distillers Company and merged it with Jim Beam Brands, transforming that single-brand company into a full-line spirits producer. In 2005, it teamed up with Pernod-Ricard to acquire and divide the assets of Allied Domecq, which created the present Beam Global Spirits and Wine company.

Fortune Brands and Beam Global are based in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alcohol-Infused Whipped Cream.

The New Drys are up in arms about alcohol-infused whipped cream. They are over-the-top on this one because the product is too expensive to be abused effectively. It's a novelty, expensive even for that. I haven't had it but I doubt it even tastes good.

Binny's, the big liquor store chain here in Chicago, has it at the checkout because as a novelty it's a good impulse purchase. Recently I was in line behind three young guys -- early 20s probably -- and they were buying for a party. You know, the usual buy for young guys buying for a party -- handles of Captain Morgan Rum, Skyy Vodka and Jack Daniel's. They were being loud and obnoxious, egging each other on, pumping each other up, showing off for each other -- at some point it's like observing chimps -- when one of them noticed the alcohol-infused whipped cream. They picked it up, passed it around, talked it up, then put it back because of the price. Nice idea and at $2 - $3 they might have bought it, but I think it was $7.99 or $8.99 and at that price, no sale.

Repeal Day is this Sunday, December 5. It has been 77 years since Prohibition ended, 90 since it began. Not withstanding the absurdity of protesting alcohol-infused whipped cream, we drinkers need to pay attention to the New Dry agenda. On Sunday, resolve to make sure Prohibition doesn't happen again.

I suggest you drink to it.

Too Woody?

I don’t usually post here about articles I’ve written for Malt Advocate, WHISKY Magazine, and other publications. For one thing, the lead times are so long I’ve usually forgotten all about them by the time they’re published.

But I’m very excited about a piece I have in the new issue of Malt Advocate. (Volume 19, Number 4. Winter 2010.) My enthusiasm starts with the title: “Quercus Alba and the Rise of the Eumycotians.”
For a writer, the most satisfying work is when you learn something new that you can then share with readers. On this project I learned a lot about how new whiskey barrels are made and, in particular, how they are being improved. “Quercus Alba,” in case you don’t know, is American white oak, the wood used to make whiskey barrels. “Eumycota” are true fungi, including yeasts and mushrooms, the latter of which figure prominently in stave seasoning.

If that intrigues you, there is also a fascinating story by Jonny McCormick about barrel management practices in Scotland.

It’s an issue with major wood.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Lesson Of Four Loko.

Four Loko is the controversial alcoholic beverage that has been all over the news recently, as several states have or are trying to ban it. It is made by a Chicago company.

Last night I noticed that a big liquor store near Wrigley Field has its entire exterior wall painted with the Four Loko logo.

I can't tell you how many people I know who would never ordinarily drink something like Four Loko but have tried it because of all the publicity. Maybe the politicians will eventually kill it but, in the meantime, the guys who own it are making a fortune, thanks to the hysteria.

Society's choice in matters of this sort is either to let people make stupid mistakes, consequences and all, or restrict the freedom of everyone to prevent the abuses of a few. I support the former, many people support the latter, and where alcohol is concerned, people don't line up along the usual lines of more regulation/less freedom vs. less regulation/more freedom.

To me, the takeaway from all this is that we, as a society, do a piss poor job of teaching people about alcohol and the main problem is that those in control of the message are determined to lie in the interest of protecting people from themselves rather than telling the truth and hoping for the best. The trouble surrounding Four Loko is a manifestation of what happens when this dishonest approach to alcohol education reinforces myths that encourage risky behavior.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

WhiskeyFest Tickets For The Holidays.

You can only give the whiskey lover in your life so much whiskey and while that may be a debatable proposition, there are other choices.

My book, for example, or my DVD, or a subscription to my newsletter. Those all make great gifts that any whiskey lover would be glad to receive and probably will declare to be the best gifts ever.

But what if the whiskey lover in your life already has my book, DVD, and newsletter?

Get them tickets to WhiskeyFest.

Right now and through the end of the year, tickets for all WhiskeyFest 2011 events are on sale at $15 off the regular price. You can nail down those tickets now (they always sell out) and save a little money in the process.

The first WhiskeyFest of the new year is our beloved WhiskeyFest Chicago, Friday, April 15, 2011, at the Hyatt Regency. WhiskeyFest San Francisco is Friday, October 7, 2011, at the Marriott Marquis. WhiskeyFest New York is Tuesday, November 1, 2011, at the Marriott Marquis.

Although I am a regular contributor to Malt Advocate Magazine, which puts on WhiskeyFest, I have no official role. I go to WhiskeyFest Chicago the same way everybody else does and for the same reasons; because it's a chance to try different whiskeys and to learn more about whiskey, because I always see a whole bunch of friends, and because it's fun.

Click here for more information.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cleaning Out Grandpa's Liquor Cabinet.

People are all the time writing to me about this or that old bottle they've found, usually in the liquor cabinet of a recently-deceased relative. Whether they ask directly or dance around the question, what they all want to know is, "is it worth anything?"

The short answer is "probably not."

The slightly longer answer is:

It is illegal to sell alcohol without a license.

Because of the underground nature of spirits reselling, accurate predictions of a given bottle's value are impossible to make. Appraisers need a record of recent sales of similar items and no such record exists for most alcohol products.

Most old bottles are worth nothing.

Even bottles that may be worth something are, at best, worth a couple hundred dollars. You won't send your kids to college by selling the contents of grandpa's liquor cabinet.

The only significant marketplace is eBay.

Straight spirits such as whiskey, brandy, vodka and rum are usually okay to drink if they've been in a well-sealed bottle, regardless of how old they are.

Low proof products (less than 40% alcohol) can go bad and should be discarded if more that a couple years old.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Moon Mountain Vodka. Crafty. But Crafted?

Moon Mountain is a new vodka launched this week by Diageo, the world's largest drinks company. They have a big promotional push on now so if you haven't heard about it yet, you will.

Diageo loves the new brand's catch phrase so much they've claimed it as a trademark. The phrase is "Crafted. Not Made."

Giant Diageo is not exactly known as a craft distiller, but they are a crafty marketer. They say things in a way that creates a certain impression which may or may not be accurate, but you'll never catch them in an outright lie. The picture above may be as close as you'll get.

They claim Moon Mountain Vodka is made in copper pot stills. The six copper alembics they show are what you will find at Diageo's distilleries in Scotland, but such stills are rare in the American Midwest. They don't actually say these are the stills in which Moon Mountain Vodka is made, but you're entitled to that impression.

They are vague about exactly where Moon Mountain Vodka is distilled. The press release says it is "at a Midwest distillery using a small batch copper pot still." Since it is technically impractical to make vodka in an alembic like the ones in the picture, they presumably mean a hybrid, so called because it is a pot on the bottom with a rectification column on top. Any non-continuous, i.e., charge, still is technically a "pot" though not an alembic. Exactly how Moon Mountain is made, where, and by whom they're not saying.

They hang a lot of the brand image on Master Distiller Gerry Webb. I can confirm that he is a real guy, long time U.S. Master Distiller for all of Diageo's U.S. plants such as the one in Plainfield, Illinois, a 450,000 square foot distillery, brewery and bottling plant, one of the largest in the world. About 26 million cases of spirits and malt beverages are produced in Plainfield every year, including the plant's flagship brand and #1 distilled spirit in the world, Smirnoff vodka.

They disclose that they are bottling Moon Mountain Vodka at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, presumably in the old Schenley plant Diageo owns there.

The Moon Mountain name is interesting because although it is borrowed from a Diageo-owned California winery, it subtly suggests moonshine.

Why is Diageo doing all this? As they told investors earlier this year, "Vodka is the most contested and fastest growing spirits category in the US and this is where we have unleashed our most comprehensive innovation programme. We have protected and extended our well-established brands of Smirnoff, Ketel One and Ciroc with exciting new line extensions. We are tactically introducing brands such as Rokk vodka in the premium tier and Ursus in value tier to compete with the influx of new entrants. At the same time we are strategically introducing Moon Mountain Vodka in the super premium and Godiva vodka in the ultra premium tiers to position us even more strongly as the economy recovers and consumers start trading up."

So crafted? Maybe. Crafty? Definitely!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Texas Bourbon All Gone.

Dan Garrison reported yesterday on his blog that it took just 10 days to sell the entire release of his 2008 Vintage Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey. (I told you about it here.)

But all is not lost if you'd still like to taste it. He further reports that all of the bars and restaurants around Fredericksburg bought plenty.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Politics Trumps Science, As Usual.

"We will restore science to its rightful place." Thus spake Barack Obama in his inaugural address almost two years ago. I wrote then about how this simple pledge might be applied to alcohol policy.

Alas, the rightful place of science in Obama's FDA appears to be where it always has been, firmly behind political pandering in the policymaking pecking order.

Yesterday, the FDA declared that caffeine when added to an alcoholic beverage becomes an "unsafe food additive." FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the combination of caffeine and alcohol is a public health concern because it can lead to "a state of wide-awake drunk."  The FDA said experts have raised concerns that caffeine can mask a person's feeling of intoxication, leading to risky behavior.

I challenge you to review the science upon which these claims are based. Hell, I challenge you to even find the science on which these claims are based. Today's announcement was supported with press releases and sound bites, not scientific studies, not even abstracts. The press releases have footnotes, sure, but good luck finding the sources.

Science, remember, is the objective search for answers. It is not the pursuit of evidence to support conclusions that have already been reached. Most of the 'science' cited to support the claims about Four Loko, Joose, and the other alcoholic energy drinks falls into the latter category.

Until about a month ago, I had never heard of Four Loko or Joose. Now they are everywhere. Hey, kids, want to know the best way to get really blasted? The answer is on the front page of yesterday's Chicago Tribune. Or the Huffington Post, or wherever you get your news. It's everywhere.

People, especially young people, believe a lot of myths about alcohol. One of the biggest is that some forms of alcohol are inherently more dangerous than others. What we should teach is that all alcoholic drinks are equally hazardous because what makes them so is alcohol, that it is possible to have fun with alcohol without endangering your health, and that stimulants--whether it's caffeine or methamphetamine--combined with alcohol will add another dimension to your intoxication, but they won't let you get more drunk or let you keep drinking longer or any of those other things. It won't help you be higher for longer so you can have an even better time.

Those are myths. They aren't true. If you drink too much alcohol too fast you will get sick and might die. That's true. The other stuff isn't. The stuff about drinking too much too fast is important. That other stuff isn't.

But, dude, the FDA says it is true, they say the whole caffeine-and-alcohol thing works, so party on!

That's the problem. By reinforcing the false belief that these products do exactly what the critics claim they do, they're making them that much more desirable to their target audience. Now that the practice of combining alcohol and caffeine to achieve "a state of wide-awake drunk" has been endorsed by the FDA, America's fraternities, sororities, and other drinking societies are rapidly updating their party punch recipes to include mega doses of caffeine, guarana and taurine along with the Everclear and Kool Aid. That is, if they didn't do it already years ago.

The Romans talked about "bread and circuses." Leaders manage the masses by keeping them fed and distracted. Our politics today isn't so much polarized as it is dominated by shiny objects meant to keep us from noticing important things that either aren't being done or are being done contrary to our wishes and interests, which is not the new day we were promised. It is not what Obama promised in 2008, nor is it what the tea party promised in 2010. Today the nanny state exposed itself and the tea party blinked.

Same as the old boss.

I need a drink.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's Swag Season.

‘Swag’ is a slang term for freebies given away to promote a product. The term does not encompass actual marketing support materials, such as brochures, nor free samples of the product itself, but it can be applied to just about everything else. Swag invariably is branded, meaning it is imprinted with the product’s logo.

The most common swag item probably is the t-shirt. Also common are pens, key chains, tote bags, and hats. The most common item specific to the booze business is glassware. Although most swag is inexpensive, just about anything can be considered swag if you slap a logo on it and give it away.

Swag has a long history in the booze business. While consumers get hats and t-shirts customers (i.e., bars and stores) get mirrors, clocks, cocktail shakers and pitchers, glassware, and ‘consumables’ such as napkins and coasters. Companies that make this stuff put out thick catalogs of possibilities and just about everything in those catalogs has been used at some point by a liquor company.

Although regulators have clamped down on it in recent years, I’ve seen televisions, patio furniture, coolers, and other fairly snazzy items used as trade gifts. USB drives have become common lately because they can also be used to deliver marketing information.

Writers and other ‘influencers’ get in on this too. We get included in much of what goes to the trade. Realistically, swag is mostly about getting your product or message a little extra attention and giving the recipient a reason to feel more fondly toward you. It’s ‘a little something’ intended to grease the wheels of commerce. Some people fret about undue influence but it’s hard to imagine many orders worth thousands of dollars hinge on who gives the nicest gifts. Trinkets and trash are all well and good but real bribes are still made in cash, under the table.

Fall is the industry’s big season for everything, including swag. Probably the nicest thing I’ve gotten is an iPod Shuffle from Jim Beam. The cocktail shaker I use came from Woodford Reserve. Until it finally stopped working my kitchen clock promoted Seagram’s Gin. I re-gift a lot of the stuff when I teach classes or do other events.

Most publications have policies about their staff writers accepting gifts and other consideration from producers. Independents like me have to use our own best judgment. A few years ago, one of the producers sent me and other writers a Visa gift card worth $200. This went too far for most of us and caused a considerable amount of consternation. Most either returned it or, as I did, donated it to a charity. The producer said it was a mistake and apologized.

A few years ago there was a big to-do about bloggers (not specifically in the booze business) who gave glowing reviews to anyone who sent them cool stuff. This was mostly a case of people who were brand new to the world of marketing and promotion getting carried away by the largesse. Most of us who write about this industry are pretty jaded and not easily influenced. I didn’t write this for purposes of disclosure but rather because I thought you might find it interesting, which is why I write and publish anything.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cocktail Name Creep And Other Sins.

On Monday I was one of the judges at a fun event at The Violet Hour here in Chicago. It was a competition among six local bartenders to make a unique manhattan recipe using Woodford Reserve bourbon and any other ingredients of their choice. The competition is sponsored by Woodford Reserve, Esquire Magazine, and Akira (a fashion store). Monday's Chicago winner will go on to a finals competition in New York.

The event was fun and all of the people there were very nice. I watched each bartender prepare his or her drink, tasted each, and scored them according to the criteria given. They all tasted pretty good and were well and professionally made, but I have a philosophical objection to all of them.

I accept that drink creation is a very free and easy art form but to me, the baseline for a manhattan is that the whiskey should dominate. Although every drink on Monday night included Woodford Reserve bourbon, you could barely taste it in any of them. By 'dominate' I mean most of the drink, by volume, should be whiskey. That was not the case in any of Monday's recipes.

On TV's Iron Chef, one of the judging criteria is how well the dish expresses the theme ingredient. That was not one of the criteria on Monday. Good thing because had it been, everyone would have scored zero.

It has always been said that Americans like drinks that have a simple, sweet and (usually) fruity taste. In that regard the contestants Monday were doing what they're supposed to do, pleasing their customers. That's all well and good but for me, when I order a manhattan I want to taste the whiskey and if I can't, I'll be disappointed.

One of my fellow judges Monday was Paul McGee, bartender at The Whistler (2421 N Milwaukee Ave.), who pointed out that the manhattan, like the martini and other drinks whose ingredients all contain alcohol, is supposed to be stirred, not shaken. All of Monday's contestants shook. We asked one of them and, again, customer preference ("they like the show") was the explanation. Traditionally, the manhattan may be served straight up or on the rocks. No one Monday risked an on-the-rocks presentation either.

I suppose when 'creativity' is one of the criteria it is natural to veer away from tradition, but is nothing sacred?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Finger Lakes Distilling Is Another One Of The Good Guys.

Finger Lakes Distilling, in upstate New York, is another one of the new small distilleries I admire because they make honest products by traditional methods and tell the truth about them.

Here are a few of the other ways they set a good example for other small distillers.

Think local: Finger Lakes products are sold at the distillery and at liquor stores throughout New York state. This can be frustrating for enthusiasts in the rest of the country who would like to try the Finger Lakes products but it is smart business for a small distiller to concentrate on the local market and not get spread too thin.

Keep it interesting: Make a lot of different products? Or concentrate on one or a few? Either strategy can be successful. Finger Lakes likes to keep it interesting by trying different things: bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, wheat whiskey and corn whiskey, but also fruit spirits including Gewurztraminer Grappa.

Involve and educate your customers: Finger Lakes sells a white dog version of their rye whiskey along with a 2-liter lightly charred barrel so the customer can age it at home. The kit, which includes the barrel and two liters of white dog, is $99. In another form of customer involvement, they encourage customers to send in recipes using their products and if they publish a recipe you submit, you win a t-shirt or hat.

Support other local businesses. If you’re going to have a gift shop anyway, stock it with your own products as well as good products from other compatible local artisans. Finger Lakes sells pickles brined with whiskey, also fennel beets, chipotle carrots, and lavender asparagus. They sell locally-made peanut brittle and locally-made granite cheeseboards too.

Communicate. Finger Lakes has a web site, of course, but also a blog and an email newsletter which they fill with news about new products, product availability, events at the distillery, recipes and other useful information, and not with silly stories and other made up crap.

Friday, November 5, 2010

It Can Be Done; The Hobby Distillery.

Tom's Foolery is a tiny distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Their first product, an applejack (apple brandy), has just been released. Their initial shipment was 240 bottles.

Tom's Foolery is a labor of love for a very nice young couple named Tom and Lianne Herbruck. In using the term "hobby distillery" I mean no disrespect. They take their distillery seriously but as a sideline. They don't expect it to support their family anytime...well, ever.

The Herbrucks took their time (several years) to put their project together and did everything the right way. This week they sent their first shipment off into the distribution pipeline, a major milestone. If you've ever dreamed of operating a legitimate, licensed distillery as a small, part-time, home-based business, here are two people who are doing exactly that and having a lot of fun with it.

Here is what the label says about the product. This is the sort of story everybody trying to cash in on the craft distillery movement would like to tell, but in this case every word is true.
"For years, Colonial farmers enjoyed this classic American spirit. Today, we make our Applejack the same way, using hand-picked apples, a barn full of time-tested equipment and a little bit of patience. The result is a crisp, authentic experience that marries the delicate notes of apple brandy with the bold, smoky characteristics of a bourbon barrel.
"Each bottle is hand filled, and every batch is shaped by the growing season. Enjoy the return of this true American classic."
As I understand it, there are a few stores in the Chagrin Falls area that have the Tom's Foolery Applejack in stock. Any Ohio liquor store should be able to order it for you from the state warehouse.
Since I regularly criticize companies that treat us like chumps, it seems only fair that I commend folks who make an honest product, tell a true story, and treat their customers with respect.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Bad Science (BS) Leads To Bad Public Policy.

In the current issue of NEWSWEEK, science columnist Sharon Begley proposes that K-12 science education should be devoted to teaching kids how to “detect Bad Science—BS, if you will.”

She cites in support a new book by Ben Goldacre of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine called Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks.

To both Begley and Goldacre, a big part of the problem is observational studies, “in which people who happen to behave one way (eating a lot of olive oil, drinking in moderation) have one health outcome, while people who choose to behave the opposite way have a different health outcome.”

What’s wrong with that? As Begley writes, “Unless people are randomly assigned to drink or not drink, those health outcomes are just as likely to reflect something inherent in the drinkers and teetotalers rather than the behavior.”

Which brings us back to the subject of yesterday’s post, and the Bad Science (BS) lurking behind the efforts of two Chicago aldermen, and politicians in many other jurisdictions, to ban drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine. According to yesterday’s press release, “medical experts say such controversial drinks can be hazardous because the caffeine may mask the effects of alcohol making it hard for young adults to realize how intoxicated they have become.”

This claim, repeated almost verbatim in every criticism of these products, appears to be based on a 2006 study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University. Here is what those researchers wrote about the limits of their own study:

“This study used cross-sectional data, which limits our ability to assess causal relationships. In addition, the relationships between consumption of alcohol mixed with energy drinks, and high-risk drinking, and alcohol-related consequences may be a result of selection effects; specifically, sensation seeking individuals may be drawn to energy drinks, heavy alcohol consumption, and risky behaviors. This investigation was limited to college students from a specific geographic area, limiting its generalizability. Data were obtained by self-report; it is possible that survey respondents may have under- or overestimated their alcohol use and its consequences.”

So this big medical claim is based on some kids who drank alcohol and caffeine together, which they did because they believed that combination would allow them to drink more before they felt drunk. Then afterwards they reported that they thought it worked.

That’s medical evidence?

The aldermen could easily have provided references to the science on which their proposal relies, so why didn’t they? Because the anti-alcohol activists who spoon feed this junk to the politicians don’t give it to them, the politicians don’t ask for it, and that’s how public policy is made.

The fraud, of course, it that next year when they run for reelection these aldermen will brag about how they “fought to protect kids from beverage companies who put profits ahead of the health and safety of Chicago families.” What they are really doing is encouraging risky behaviors by giving credence to the myths on which those behaviors are based. Shame on them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Paging Dr. Burke, Paging Dr. Schulter.

Noted medical authorities and Chicago aldermen Ed Burke and Gene Schulter rose today to protect us from caffeinated alcoholic beverages. They want them banned in the city of Chicago. Their proposal was sent for consideration to a Joint Committee of Finance and License and Consumer Protection. (I last wrote about this subject here.)

According to Dr. Burke, "it is a dangerous cocktail which can lead to dangerous situations for young people who may be totally unaware of how inebriated they have become in such a short period of time." The press release from the Committee on Finance further asserts that "caffeinated alcoholic drinks have already resulted in a rash of cases of college-aged students being sent to emergency rooms after drinking the beverages."

Scared yet?

Then listen to what Dr. Schulter has to say about it: "Quite frankly, I think it is completely irresponsible to manufacture and market a product that can make young people so intoxicated, so fast."

According to the press release's own 'facts,' drinking a 23.5 ounce can of one of these products is like drinking four to six beers and one cup of coffee. Oh, the horror.

Most of the 'facts' on which Drs. Burke and Schulter* rely seem to come from a story reported last week by CNN. "Reported" may give CNN too much credit, since it originated with the neo-prohibitionist Center for Science in the Public Interest.

According the CNN story, a 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko, one of the offending products, contains either 6 or 12 percent alcohol by volume, depending on state regulations. A typical table wine is about 12 percent alcohol. It's a stretch to say, even at 12 percent, that it is equivalent to up to six beers, but stretching the truth is what demagoguery is all about.

Have you ever had a couple glasses of Chardonnay either preceded or followed by a cup of coffee? How about a rum and Coke, or Jack and Coke? How about a Red Bull and vodka? There you go, living on the edge.

Do many young adults abuse alcohol with bad, even tragic, consequences? Of course they do. Do they often get into trouble because they are working with incomplete, false or misleading information? Constantly. Is the solution for headline-seeking politicians to muddy the water with more false and misleading information? I don't think so.

This particular lie is dangerous because it fosters the myth that some kinds of alcoholic beverages are inherently more dangerous than others. If that's true, then so is the reverse, that some are inherently less dangerous than others. How many parents have rationalized their child's underage drinking with, "it's only beer"? How many people say they "don't drink," except for "a little white wine"? Champagne is considered so celebratory, many people don't even think of it as drinking.

The reality--and what we should teach kids--is that alcohol is alcohol, period. The only thing that matters, in terms of intoxication and other health effects, is how much alcohol you consume and how fast you consume it. If you want to help young people make smart choices about alcohol, start with this simple proposition.

Tell them the truth.

* A note to my out-of-town readers. Drs. Burke and Schulter received their medical training at the U-Gotta-Prob-Em-Wit-Dat School of Medicine.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Big News From Two Of My Favorite Little Distilleries.

Next week, Garrison Brothers in Texas and Koval here in Chicago will make major whiskey debuts.

Garrison is finally ready to release its signature Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which goes on sale Wednesday, November 3, only in Blanco and Gillespie Counties, Texas. The 1,800 750ml bottles, at 47% alcohol (94° proof), are expected to sell out quickly. This is the product—a wheated bourbon—that Dan Garrison set out to make when he started the distillery several years ago and it will set the standard for his future releases. Suggested retail is $69.95.

Koval, which already has a large portfolio of products on the market, will have its Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey in stores by next weekend. This is Koval’s first aged whiskey. They haven’t announced the size of the release but since the whiskeys are only lightly aged, they probably have enough in the pipeline for the release to be continuous. Initially there will be four products in the Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey line: rye whiskey, oat whiskey, dark rye whiskey, and dark oat whiskey, all at 40% alcohol (80° proof). Suggested retail is $47.99-$49.99 (750ml).

All four of the Lion's Pride whiskeys are aged less than two years in new, charred oak barrels. They are made from 100% rye grain and 100% oat grain respectively. Barrels for the regular expressions are only lightly charred. The 'dark' expressions are a bit older and the barrels have more of a char.

I’ve tasted the Lion’s Pride and while I haven’t tasted this exact release from Garrison, I’ve had a taste or two along the way. I can recommend both of them enthusiastically. In fact, I hope people who manage to score bottles will drink them and not just keep them on the shelf as collectibles. Both distillers have done a remarkable job with some very young whiskey.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The President At Valois.

President Barack Obama, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, and U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias picked up breakfast at Hyde Park's Valois Cafeteria this morning. For the President of the United States just about every public act is symbolic, even his dining choices. So it is with his choice of Valois.

I know Valois from a few years back when I helped my friend, the photographer Ray Flerlage, promote his book, Chicago Blues As Seen From The Inside. Ray lived in the nearby South Shore neighborhood but didn't like to receive strangers at his home, so at his suggestion I always took him to Valois to meet with reporters.

Sorry, France, but the locals pronounce it 'va-LOY.'

Valois has been there a long time and according to Ray, it was the first Chicago restaurant to serve blacks and whites together. That is its symbolic significance, that and the fact that it is a no-frills, regular folks kind of place, just a small storefront with about 20 tables and a steam table cafeteria line at the back. The food is hearty, good and cheap. The people are friendly, although like most cafeterias they don't let you dawdle in line.

The president and I like a lot of the same Chicago restaurants. Last night he went to Topolobampo. I've only been there a couple of times but years ago a girlfriend and I used to have brunch at Rick Bayless's other place, Frontera Grill, almost every Saturday morning. I also frequent Manny's Deli, a favorite with local cops, firemen, other city workers, and pols like President Obama.

I keep waiting for him to show up at Rosa's Blues Lounge on one of these visits. He held one of his first fundraisers for his senate campaign there. Somehow I managed to miss him at all of these places back when he was just a little-known local politician, at least so far as I know, but at least I know we have similar tastes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More From The Department Of Making Shit Up.

Diageo is the world's largest drinks company. The company's big brands are Smirnoff Vodka, Johnny Walker Scotch, Guinness Stout, Captain Morgan Rum, Jose Cuervo Tequila, and many others.

One of Diageo's little bitty brands is Jeremiah Weed. As you might guess from the name, the brand was created in the late 1960s. It is a liqueur that has, let's say, an acquired taste, sort of like Jagermeister. Like Jagermeister and a local Chicago brand, Malort, the primary purpose of Jeremiah Weed seems to be to get a buddy to drink it on a dare and then watch him gag.

I wrote about Jeremiah Weed earlier this year here.

They pretend Jeremiah Weed is a real person and it's all good clean fun, nothing anyone is likely to believe. Then came this, from one of the brand's web sites.

"Welcome to the Jeremiah Weed website: we are all here for one reason, and that is because we love Jeremiah Weed. Born from a long Southern distilling tradition in Weed, Kentucky, our Original Sweet Tea and Blended Bourbon are traditional staples in everybody's kitchen and backyard. Here you can learn about how high-quality ingredients, and love for authentic, home-brewed sweet taste, go into our products, and of course, how Jeremiah Weed the man earned his name on the bottle."

As luck would have it there really is a Weed, Kentucky, a wide spot in the road between Glasgow and Somerset. There is no "long Southern distilling tradition" there. There is nothing there, let alone a distillery. The two products the web site is selling -- Sweet Tea and Blended Bourbon -- were launched about a year ago. They're not 'traditional staples' anywhere and there is not one thing authentic or home-brewed about them.

So again I raise the question. Why would I as a consumer want to do business with a company that lies to me so copiously?

Rob Samuels Named COO at Maker's Mark.

I learned about the naming of Rob Samuels to the position of Chief Operating Officer at Maker's Mark when a reporter called me yesterday for a comment.

Reacting off the top of my head I said a couple of things. Most of all I think it symbolizes Beam's intention to leave Maker's alone, at least so far as anyone can see. Rob is now in place to replace his father when that day comes.

That's all well and good, but the cynic in me wonders how meaningful a title like COO is when Maker's Mark is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Beam Global, which is itself a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fortune Brands.

You'll notice that the announcement makes no mention of who really owns and operates the company. The words "Beam" and "Fortune" appear nowhere in the lengthy press release, not even in the "About" section at the end where such mundane background facts are usually revealed. It encourages the illusion that Maker's Mark is independent, owned and run by the founding Samuels family, which has not in fact been the case in nearly 30 years.

Part of the problem is title inflation. When I started in advertising each agency had one creative director. That was the title of the person who ran the agency's creative department. Today everyone with more than six months experience is a creative director and big agencies have hundreds of them. People seem to like the way big titles look on their business cards, even if they don't mean very much.

When the term 'president' became meaningless because so many presidents were really just division heads, the actual company heads started to be called the "Chief" something or other. Now that's pretty debased too.

This is nothing against Rob who I don't know. We've never met. Considering how long and how deeply I've been involved in this business, that may tell you something right there.

So is he really just a brand ambassador? A living link to the brand's heritage, like Fred Noe is at Beam? Not knowing Rob I don't know if his personality is anything like his dad's but I doubt it. Bill Samuels is one-of-a-kind. One hopes for his sake that Rob has been given a job that will make good use of his talents and experience, and not just his ancestry.

Earlier this year I coined the term "Potemkin Craft Distillery" to describe companies that pretend to be little craft distilleries when they're selling a product they didn't even make. This isn't quite the same thing -- Maker's Mark bourbon is still made at the Maker's Mark Distillery -- but I wonder if this feigned independence will ultimately undercut their credibility.

If I catch you trying to mislead me about something, I have to assume you are willing to mislead me about everything.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ralfy Mitchell Is Worth Watching.

It is so easy these days to make a video that many people do. Most are bad. A few are unintentionally funny but most are just sloppy, tedious, and inane; a complete waste of time as opposed to a fun waste of time.

Simple, low cost videos that are worth watching are so rare I almost always feel compelled to tell people about them. All the more so if the subject is whiskey.

In this case it’s not just one good video, it’s 156 of them and counting.

Though I haven’t watched them all I am hooked on the host, Ralfy Mitchell. I don’t know Mitchell personally but he lives on the Isle of Mann, runs about a dozen different blogs, works the whole Scottish thing to the hilt, and knows what he’s talking about. At least he does when the subject is whiskey. He has a light touch and is very charming. The shows are good technically because he keeps it simple but clearly thinks everything through. Each episode runs about 10 minutes.

I’ve heard of him before now but he finally got my attention when he started to review American whiskey. A sample, from his just-posted review of Elijah Craig 12. Ralfy suggests you add a little water to your whiskey in the glass, cover it, and wait about 30 minutes before tasting because, “this is how you separate the big bourbons from the wee bourbons.”

I know I could have embedded an episode or two here, but better you should just go to and discover him for yourself.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing: Cane Neutral Spirits.

There is much weeping and gnashing of teeth in some quarters about something Beam Global recently did. You see, all labels for alcoholic beverages have to be approved by the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Companies typically get labels approved way in advance and sometimes on the if-come.

That's what Beam did with labels for three of its blended whiskeys. The United States has this crazy rule, rejected by the rest of the world, that says a mixture of 80 percent vodka and 20 percent whiskey may be sold as blended whiskey. It's crazy but it's the rule, a political compromise made more than 100 years ago.

By vodka I mean neutral spirits. Another equally silly part of the compromise says that if neutral spirits are used, the label must say what kind of neutral spirits they are, i.e., from what raw material they were made. If made from grain it has to say grain neutral spirits. If made from fruit it has to say fruit neutral spirits. If made from potatoes it has to say potato neutral spirits. And if made from sugar cane it has to say cane neutral spirits.

This is true for any beverage that contains neutral spirits, not just blended whiskey. The same rule applies to vodka, gin and most liqueurs. That's all Beam was doing, getting labels approved that say 'cane neutral spirits' instead of 'grain neutral spirits.'

Why might they want to use cane spirits instead of grain spirits? Beam, like most beverage companies, doesn't make its own neutral spirits. Neutral spirits are a commodity, sold strictly on price. Becauses of this, neutral spirits distilleries tend to be where the raw materials are, so the companies that make grain neutral spirits tend to be in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa; and the companies that make cane neutral spirits tend to be in tropical areas where sugar cane is grown.

Years ago the U.S. government came up with an idea to help fund development in Puerto Rico. Instead of distilleries there paying federal excise tax like all U.S. distilleries do, they pay a special federal tax that goes directly into the budget of the island's government. Eventually the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) got the same deal for its distilleries. Everyone was getting along fine until USVI decided to lure Diageo, the world's largest drinks company, to USVI by rebating half of the tax back to the company.

Since neutral spirits are a commodity this tax advantage gives neutral spirits produced in the islands a significant price advantage over neutral spirits produced in the Midwest, probably more than enough to offset the shipping cost. Since blended whiskeys are themselves extremely price-sensitive, blended whiskey producers such as Beam Global may have no choice but to switch to cane neutral spirits. Vodka, gin and liqueur makers will too.

To those doing the weeping and gnashing, this is a bad thing because "whiskey is supposed to be made from grain." I would argue that whiskey is not supposed to be made by flavoring neutral spirits, but that horse is not just out of the barn, it has died of old age as have all its offspring to seven generations. Since whiskey-flavored vodka can be called blended whiskey, how much can it really matter what kind of neutral spirit it is?

Some weepers and gnashers have compared this to India, which would like the rest of the world to recognize its cane-based imitation scotch as whiskey. Europe and much of the rest of the world is holding fast to the rule that not only must whiskey be made entirely from grain, and not be neutral, it must be aged in wood for at least three years. Morally, the U.S. has less of a leg to stand on but it too refuses India's appeals. Although if the Indians want to sell us very cheap cane neutral spirits we'll be glad to use it in our blended whiskeys, because there is nothing in the rules about U.S. origin either.

I'm all for calling out any producer, big or small, who does something bad for whiskey and whiskey lovers, but this just isn't worthy of our outrage.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Upcoming Bourbon Classes Taught By Me.

For the better part of this year I have been teaching classes for I Wish Lessons. The mission of I Wish Lessons is to make learning fun. How better to make learning fun than by drinking during class?

We hold the Introduction to Bourbon classes at Rocks Lincoln Park (1301 West Schubert, Chicago). The class starts at 7:00 PM, includes a tasting of four bourbons, and lasts about a hour, although one nice thing about doing it in a bar is that students can continue to 'learn' after the class concludes. I usually hang around to answer questions.

The schedule of bourbon classes from now until February is as follows:
Mon, Nov. 15, 2010
Thurs, Dec. 16, 2010
Mon, Jan. 3, 2011
Mon, Jan. 17, 2011
Mon, Feb. 14, 2011
Fri, Feb. 18, 2011

Go here to buy tickets and to check for any date changes. I also teach Introduction to Cognac and Introduction to Single Malt Scotch, but those classes haven't been scheduled yet. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

W.H. Harrison Indiana Bourbon Honors War Hero, Governor, and President With Empty Hype.

Here we go again.

Another Potemkin Craft Distillery has appeared with the usual load of misleading or flat-out-false claims.

This one is called W. H. Harrison Indiana Straight Bourbon Whiskey, from a new company called Tipton Spirits. The whiskey debuted about two weeks ago. They have a fancy new web site, Facebook page, etc.

What they don't have, so far as I can tell, is a distillery. They don't claim to, but look at the web site and the rest and see if it doesn't seem like they want to give you the impression they're a little distillery tucked away in some corner of rural Indiana.

The actual maker is probably Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), a bulk producer in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, near Cincinnati. LDI is the source (usually undisclosed) of whiskeys sold by High West, Templeton and other Potemkins.

LDI was owned and operated by Seagram's for about 70 years. The plant made whiskey and other spirits for various Seagram's brands. Pernod got it in 2001 when Seagram's was broken up. Angostura, the present owner, bought it in 2007. They strictly sell in bulk and are just about the only spot market source for aged whiskey these days. They are surely the only one in Indiana.

So by all appearances, Tipton is just a marketing company. They bought existing bulk whiskey from a bulk whiskey producer, invented a name, designed a package and contracted with someone to bottle it for them. There is nothing wrong with that, but they are working overtime to create buzz about a 'new' and seemingly 'special' whiskey that is really nothing special at all. It is an 80 proof bourbon that is less than four years old and priced at around $30. Jim Beam, an 80 proof bourbon that is more than four years old goes for less than $20, and there are some lesser known fully-aged Kentucky bourbons that sell for $10-$12.

I admire the chutzpah, but you deserve to know what's really going on here. Potemkins depend on people not looking past the pretty facades.

Their big claim is that Harrison bourbon is "the first Indiana Bourbon since Prohibition." Not so. There were four distilleries making bourbon just in the Greendale/Lawrenceburg area right after Prohibition ended. One closed not long after it opened. Two more were merged by Schenley to make the company's popular Old Quaker bourbon. They made Indiana bourbon until the late 1980s.

The fourth, previously known as Rossville Union, was acquired near the end of Prohibition by Canada's Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, which expanded it into one of the largest distilleries in the U.S. Eventually they shifted a large part of their production to neutral spirits, primarily used for Seagram's Gin, but they also kept and operated a small whiskey distillery. That's today's LDI. They have made an ocean of bourbon over the years.

There was also the Park and Tilford Distillery in Tell City, Indiana. It operated from the end of Prohibition until the late 1960s. The distillers there were members of the Beam family. They made lots of Indiana bourbon too.

But no one called it 'Indiana Straight Bourbon Whiskey." If what Tipton means is that Harrison is the first bourbon made in Indiana since Prohibition to admit it, then that may be true. From the 30s through the 60s, bourbon was made in many states other than Kentucky, not just Indiana but also Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri, and probably a few others. The Kentucky producers did a good job of convincing people that Kentucky bourbon was superior and when the industry contracted in the 70s and 80s, most (though not all) of the non-Kentucky producers shut down.

Harrison also brags about its Indiana corn. That's for real  Most of the corn in Kentucky bourbon is from Indiana too and LDI is unique in being the only American whiskey distillery that owns its own grain wholesaler, in Rushville, Indiana. That's LDI, though, not Tipton/Harrison.

Less credible is their claim that "much of the oak used to make bourbon barrels is actually grown in Indiana." They made that up. Neither ISC nor Brown-Forman sources any significant amount of timber from Indiana and they represent about 99% of all whiskey barrels made in the USA, so no, this whiskey was not aged in Indiana oak.

There is both a Harrison Bourbon web site and a Tipton Spirits web site but neither one tells you very much. The Tipton site says the company is made up of people who used to work for the big liquor companies but it doesn't name a single name or even give an address of where the company is located.

As they say in Texas, all hat, no cattle.

It would be neat if a company like this took the opportunity to brag on LDI, the actual producer. Or found something else that is actually true to brag about. I worked in marketing and advertising for many years and always believed the objective was to tell the truth about the product in the most flattering way possible. But that's hard work. It's easier to just make stuff up.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's The Deal With Wild Yeast In Bourbon Making?

I have written that Jim Beam uses 'wild yeast' and was just asked twice in as many days what I mean. Unfortunately, the term 'wild yeast' is used by different people to mean different things. In the case of Jim Beam and other 'practical distillers' of American whiskey, here is what it means.

Yeast is, of course, required for fermentation, which is how alcohol is made. Yeast eat sugar and produce alcohol, carbon dioxide, and also flavors. There are millions of different yeast strains and each produces different flavors.

To obtain a 'wild yeast' for making whiskey, a yeast maker would mix up a yeast mash from his own personal recipe, typically one taught to him by his father or uncle. The yeast mash would be a different recipe from the whiskey mash, as its purpose was to make yeast, not whiskey. He would set it in a preferred location and wait. Booker Noe told me that Jim Beam used his screened-in back porch and 'stank up the house' according to Mrs. Beam.

The yeast maker would wait until the mash began to ferment. He would then watch it, smell it, and taste it, to see if it had the qualities he preferred. If it didn't he would try again, over and over, until he got one he liked. He would then propagate it, typically keeping it cool so it would work slowly, periodically transferring some of it to fresh mash in another container, keeping it alive the way a baker does with sour dough starter. This was known as 'jug yeast' because it was kept in a sealed container that looked like an old time milk jug.

The yeast strain would be cultivated in this way and used for as long as possible, indefinitely if it made good whiskey. This was the great skill of the old time distillers, who were sometimes referred to as 'distiller and yeast maker.' Craig Beam has described to me how his grandfather, Earl Beam, taught him how to use the Heaven Hill distillery's version of the Beam family jug yeast to produce enough yeast for production. It was a three day operation that had to be done once a week. That was Craig's first lesson in distilling.

Eddie and Jimmy Russell also have told me yeast making is the distiller's most fundamental skill.

Craig and Eddie have only learned how to propagate the jug yeast for production. They haven't learned how to make yeast from scratch. I asked Craig Beam if he thought anyone today could make a good whiskey jug yeast from scratch. His answer was "maybe."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Breaks Passport Record.

In Bardstown last week at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I saw several people wearing the brown T-shirts that proclaim their completion of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Yesterday the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) announced that it has surpassed last year’s record number of visitors who toured all of its legendary distilleries and completed the souvenir 'passport' program.

Here is a tip for people who live in the north like I do. When fall really starts to hit Chicago, it's still summer in Kentucky for another two or three weekends.

The Bourbon Trail record was apparently broken some time ago. Yesterday's announcement said that through August of this year, more than 4,000 visitors had returned their completed passport to the KDA and received a commemorative T-shirt for their accomplishment. The total for all of 2009 was 3,000 and the total since the program started in 2007 was 8,000 before 2010 began. So, yeah, it's catching on.

The point of this isn't that 4,000 people had their passports stamped at every Bourbon Trail distillery, or that the number for all of 2010 might be 5,000 or more. It is that each 'passporter' represents X-number of other people who didn't do the passport, but did spend some time engaged in whiskey-related tourism. If the passport program is growing then it's a pretty good bet that whiskey tourism itself is growing at a similar pace, i.e., rapidly.

Tennessee's Jack Daniel's is still the tourism king, with about 250,000 visitors a year. (It probably goes without saying that Jack Daniel's is not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.) Several Kentucky distilleries now draw at least 100,000 people a year, and they're all reporting growth. Several have upgraded their visitor experience in recent years or are in the process of doing so now, most notably Jim Beam at its main Clermont plant.

Both of Kentucky's main cooperages (barrel makers) now offer public tours.

What's also happening is that other businesses are noticing these numbers and wondering where whiskey tourists like to stay, what they like to eat, and what they like to do when they're not visiting distilleries, other than drink whiskey. Louisville has instituted its own Urban Bourbon Trail (UBT) which focuses on bar-restaurants with a particular focus on bourbon. Several of the UBT spots are in hotels.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport program also helps the KDA develop demographic and psychographic data about bourbon tourists, again assuming the passporters are representative. They are coming from all over the place, including many foreign countries, although the greatest numbers are coming from adjacent states such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and...yes...Tennessee.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Is Tennessee Whiskey?

Question: What is Tennessee Whiskey?

Answer: Tennessee Whiskey is whiskey made in Tennessee.

Question: What does "made" mean?

Answer: "Made" can mean "barreled, aged & hand bottled," apparently.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

First Taste; Knob Creek Single Barrel.

I've written about Knob Creek Single Barrel several times since rumors of it first reached me in July. Last Friday I finally had a chance to put some in my mouth. The details of this new release, and a picture, are here.

I was in Bardstown, Kentucky, last week for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival and the kind folks at Beam Global arranged for me to have my first taste of Knob Single Barrel poured by Fred Noe, on the back porch of his dad's house, which was also Jim Beam's house. It was a lovely, warm, late-summer day, so what could be better?

With us was Don McGrew, who works in Research and Development for Beam. How great a job must that be?

They'll do fine with this product because it is positioned as a step-up for current Knob Creek drinkers, just like Maker's 46 is positioned primarily as a step-up or change-of-pace for regular Maker's Mark drinkers. If either product happens to bring new drinkers to the brands that's great, but not the main objective. (It's also about controlling shelf-keeping units [SKUs], but that's a bit too inside, isn't it?)

Fred poured some regular Knob and some of the new Single Barrel. On nosing, the higher alcohol content of the Single Barrel was the first thing I noticed. On first sip, the Single Barrel seemed less flavorful than regular, but that was the alcohol bloom obscuring everything else. It opened up with a little water.

The two are very similar, as you might expect. The Single Barrel also bears a strong resemblance to Booker's, not surprising either as the specifications are very similar. (e.g., Booker's is barrel proof and Knob Single Barrel is nearly so.) There is an earthiness in regular Knob that I did not detect in the Single Barrel. It tastes very clean, like Booker's.

The primary appeal of Knob Single Barrel will be its higher 120° proof (60% alcohol). Think of it as getting 20 percent more whiskey, instead of water. Since that's about the price premium they're really the same price if you think of it that way. You can drink it neat (very carefully) or dilute it to taste. If you're an on-the-rocks drinker the Single Barrel will stand-up much better, although at 100° proof regular Knob is no slouch.

The other attraction is the opportunity to experience slight variations from bottle to bottle (i.e., barrel to barrel). For that you will need to buy several different bottles, but I'm sure the folks at Beam are okay with that.

I asked Fred and Don if the profile for selecting barrels for Single Barrel was different in any way from regular Knob. They said no except with regard to color. They looked for darker whiskey to help distinguish the two bottles on the shelf.

In conclusion, Knob Creek Bourbon is a good thing and Knob Creek Single Barrel is even more of a good thing. Our work concluded, we three just drank and told stories for the next two hours. A good day.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

They Did It! Signs At The KBF!

I have complained for years that the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF) needs more signs, starting with big ones as you come into town, welcoming visitors to the KBF. It seems like a little thing, also an obvious one. It's a big deal, right? Then why keep it a secret?

As you can see from the pictures above and below, they've taken a step in the right direction. I saw at least two of the official welcome signs, on major thoroughfares coming into town. Also saw the sign boards on two different restaurants with a 'welcome KBF' message. That sort of thing goes a long way toward making out-of-towners feel ... well ... welcome!

I was told by someone in a position to know that Bardstown has a sign board with very restrictive policies. Every time the festival proposes more signs their requests are denied.

But the new signs are a step in the right direction. Still, the sign promoting St. Monica's Parish Festival in October is bigger and in a better location.

Find It If You Can.

It's Fleischmann's Rye, a straight rye whiskey made at Tom Moore (Sazerac's distillery in Bardstown). It's the only straight rye they sell, only sold in northern Wisconsin, only in handles (1.75 L plastic bottles). It's not great (too young), but not bad. It's cheap.

Fleischmann's is an old brand that has passed through many owners. There is a Fleischmann's Preferred American Blended Whiskey that is more widely distributed but apparently the rye sells well enough in this one part of Wisconsin to justify its continued production. 

I wonder if by "premium taste through the years" they mean "but not right now."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Shot of Knob Creek Takes On New Meaning.

At exit 117 on I-65, the Shepherdsville exit, one of the attractions listed on the highway sign is the Knob Creek Gun Range, where the next machine gun shoot is scheduled for October 8-10.

Shepherdsville and Bullit County are also proud of the nearby Jim Beam Distillery at Clermont (exit 112), where Knob Creek Bourbon is made.

Knob Creek is a real creek. The gun range is on it. The distillery is not.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do Maple Barrels Look Different?

Perhaps when you heard that Woodford Reserve is finishing some of its bourbon in sugar maple barrels you wondered if they look the same as the usual oak. Here is your answer.

The barrels on the bottom row, including the one being removed, are maple. The barrels in the row above them are oak. (Click on the picture for a larger image.)

As you may recall, Maple Wood Finish is the 2010 release of the Woodford Reserve Masters Collection, put together by Master Distiller Chris Morris. This is the first bourbon ever to be finish-aged in barrels made from sugar maple wood.

Many people didn't believe that whiskey barrels could even be crafted from sugar maple wood but these were specially made by the Brown-Forman Cooperage. The barrels are toasted but not charred.

Maple Wood Finish is the fifth annual Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection release. Master’s Collection whiskeys are always extremely limited in quantity.

The inspiration for the Master’s Collection is rooted in the rich history and tradition of what is today known as The Woodford Reserve Distillery. In the mid-1800s distillery owner Oscar Pepper and Master Distiller James Crow studied and recommended the use of key processes such as sour mashing and charred barrel maturation at the historic Woodford County distillery. These practices are still maintained in the bourbon industry.

The Woodford Reserve Distillery receives more than 100,000 visitors annually and is the only distillery in America to triple-distill bourbon in copper pot stills.

As for how it tastes, we'll have to wait a few more days for that but I'm told a sample is on the way. Bottles should start to appear in stores after November 1.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Maple Wood Finish will be sold throughout the United States with a suggested retail price of $89.99.