Friday, January 29, 2010

George T. Stagg, the Candy Bar.

BonBonBar is a very small candy maker in Northern California. As they put it, "BonBonBar combines the fun of candy bars with the quality of artisan confections."

Some time ago they did a Scotch Candy Bar using Talisker Distillers Edition Single Malt Scotch.

Their new creation, the Bourbon Candy Bar, combines George T. Stagg bourbon (the 2008, 141.8° proof expression) with caramel, dark chocolate, Maldon salt, and black pepper. There is a corn wafer embedded in the top surface. They're $5 each in boxes of three or six.

Bourbon candies are pretty common in Kentucky. Bourbon balls are ubiquitous, especially at Derby time. I've never seen anyone take it this far. Sounds good.

Blame Jack.

A correspondent in Finland wrote to ask about Beam's Choice Green Label. I thought the answer was interesting enough to post here.

Beam’s Choice has always been an oddball. It is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, not a blend (that's Beam's Eight Star). They now call it Jim Beam's Choice (pictured above), but that's a recent change.

In 1987, Beam bought National Distillers and got a large portfolio of spirits brands. Before that, Beam was essentially a one brand company. Jim Beam white label was their primary and only significant product. It and Jim Beam Rye were the only products that used the “Jim Beam” name, but “Beam” or “Beam’s” was used on many others. They even bottled a tequila called Beamero.

What is now Jim Beam Black Label was then called Beam’s Black Label, and looked similar to Beam’s Choice. Beam’s Black was 8-years-old, Beam’s Choice was 5-years-old. When Beam got heavily into decanters in the 1960s and 70s, those were sold under the Beam's Choice brand too.

But forgetting the decanters and just looking at the Beam's Black and Beam's Choice bottles, notice the words “charcoal filtered” on both labels and you can figure out why those two expressions were created. They were intended to appeal to Jack Daniel’s drinkers. In those days before Gentleman Jack and Single Barrel, JD’s two expressions were the black and green labels.

Beam wasn't alone in going directly after Jack Daniel's drinkers. Evan Williams, Ezra Brooks, and several other brands were created for the same purpose, to serve as Jack Daniel’s knock-offs during a period when Jack Daniel’s was in short supply.

Continuing with their imitation of Jack, Beam put the words “Old No. 8 Family Formula” on the label which, like JD’s Old No. 7, many people confused as an age statement. If Jack was going to be 7, Jim was going to be 8, one better, just like the amplifier volumes in "Spinal Tap." The actual age statement of 5 years was in small type on the side of the label. (Now it's on the front.)

It’s hard to explain why Beam’s Choice has hung on for all these years, especially since it’s a very small brand. It apparently sells just enough to justify its existence. I assume some people like to feel they’ve discovered something exclusive and special. It’s not particularly special, though at five years it is slightly older than white label.

There is nothing wrong with it, but if you want Beam whiskey with more age on it, Booker’s, Baker’s, Black Label, and Knob Creek are all better choices than 'Choice.'

Buy Your WhiskeyFest Chicago Tickets by Sunday and Save $10.

WhiskeyFest Chicago, sponsored by Malt Advocate Magazine, is Chicago's only major whiskey event. It is held each year at the Hyatt Regency downtown. This year it is on Friday, April 23, from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm.

For the second consecutive year there is no increase in ticket prices. Regular tickets are $110 each and early admission VIP tickets are $150 each. But order now (through Sunday, January 31) and pay just $100 for the standard admission ticket. Go here to order your tickets or here if you want more information.

They've also arranged for special room rates at the Hyatt. Unless you're like me and can get home on the #145 bus, staying there is a good plan.

If you've never been to one of these events, it goes something like this.

When you arrive and register, you receive a commemorative Glencairn Scottish crystal nosing glass. Then you enter the ballroom, which looks like you're at a trade show, with rows of booths. Each booth is hosted by a different whiskey producer and they are pouring one or several of their whiskeys. Sometimes the person doing the pouring is the master distiller or master blender.

There's also a substantial buffet, one at each end of the hall. It's a typical hotel buffet, but you can make a dinner of it.

In the adjacent meeting rooms, distillery representatives give presentations, most of which include guided tastings.

Most of the whiskeys you can buy in the United States are represented. Bourbon, rye, scotch, Irish, Canadian, Japanese, it's all there. Naturally, new expressions are often featured.

It can get pretty crowded. So it doesn't get too crowded, they limit how many tickets they sell. They always sell all of them in advance, so don't think you're going get tickets at the door.

I'll be there, though not in any official capacity. Once, a few years ago, I asked myself if I was there to work or there to drink and I opted for drinking.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Second Annual “Old Friends” Event Is February 20.

One of the main things I love about Kentucky is how it is so unlike anyplace else. Case in point: its two 'signature' industries are whiskey-making and horse breeding.

That's my kind of state!

The two converge at a now-annual event at Louisville’s historic Seelbach Hilton Hotel, called “Old Friends Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” a bourbon tasting and progressive dining experience to benefit the thoroughbred retirement facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, that is home to more than 80 retired racehorses.

The event on Saturday, February 20, begins at 6 pm with distillery representatives hosting a bourbon tasting (with appetizers) in the hotel’s famous Rathskeller, followed at 8 pm by a bourbon-inspired dinner in the beautiful Oakroom, Kentucky's only Five Diamond restaurant. Presiding over dinner will be the Seelbach’s Executive Chef Jim Gerhardt and Chef de Cuisine Bobby Benjamin.

Following dinner, guests will return to the Rathskeller for sumptuous desserts and coffee.

A highlight of the evening will be a silent and live auction to benefit Old Friends that will feature equine art, racing memorabilia, jewelry, accessories, and much more.

Tickets are $100 (tax and gratuity included) and the hotel is offering a “take the elevator home” reduced room rate of $79 for the night.

If you have never been, the Seelbach is a wonderful hotel in the Grand Hotel tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Rathskeller is a one-of-a-kind space, every inch of it covered with terra cotta made by Cincinnati's Rookwood Pottery. The Oakroom is a genuine fine dining restaurant and $79 for a room at the Seelbach is an absolute steal.

Although this is billed as a fundraiser, it is also a terrific deal.

The Seelbach Hilton Hotel is located at 500 South Fourth Street in downtown Louisville. For reservations please Call Jennifer Biesel at 502-585-9292 or email

Old Friends is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that operates Dream Chase Farms, home to more than 80 retired racehorses. It is located in Georgetown, Kentucky, and is open daily for tours by appointment. For more information call 502-863-1775, or see their website at

Class Next Week By Me.

Just a reminder that I'm teaching a Bourbon class on Monday, February 1, at Rocks Bar (1301 West Schubert Ave.). The class will include tasting.

I'm doing this through I Wish Lessons. To attend, or get more information, go to their web site and click on "Drinks Around the World."

Sazerac Brings Back Original 1934 Herbsaint Recipe.

Herbsaint has long been a critical ingredient in the world famous Sazerac Cocktail. Both have enjoyed a revival of late as part of the passion for classic cocktails.

So it is with perfect timing that the Sazerac Company of New Orleans has dug deep into its archives to launch a new product called Herbsaint Original. The new product is made according to the same recipe first used by J. Marion Legendre for Herbsaint in 1934.

Shortly after Prohibition ended in late 1933, Legendre - a New Orleans apothecary-turned-entrepreneur - introduced a product he called Legendre Absinthe. Legendre had learned about pastis and absinthe while stationed in France during WWI. Upon his return to New Orleans after the war and with the onset of Prohibition, he secretly made absinthe in his uptown home. His launch of Legendre Absinthe was a dream come true.

Sadly for Legendre, just months after launching his product and in spite of the fact that it did not contain wormwood, the U.S. Government forced him to remove the word 'absinthe' from his brand name amid concerns that absinthe consumption was harmful. Legendre quickly re-named his product Herbsaint and launched an aggressive marketing campaign that called on people to “Drink Herbsaint Wherever Absinthe Is Called For.”

In 1949, after spending 15 years promoting Herbsaint around the United States, Legendre sold it to the Sazerac Company. Legendre died in New Orleans in 1986 at the age of 90.

The recipe for Herbsaint changed a bit over the years and while Herbsaint has been a staple on sophisticated bars for decades, Sazerac hopes the release of the original recipe will rekindle consumer interest in the product as it tasted 75 years ago.

“It has been a lot of fun to work on bringing back the original Herbsaint formula. We’re grateful to have discovered the recipe in our archives and to have had such a wonderful reaction from consumers and bartenders about bringing it back to life. It really is The Spirit of New Orleans,” said Kevin Richards, Sazerac’s Herbsaint brand manager in New Orleans.

Herbsaint Original is 100° proof and is available in 750ml bottles. Sazerac will continue to sell Herbsaint 90° proof, also in 750ml bottles.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Classes Next Week By Me.

Just a reminder that I'm teaching a Cognac class on Monday, January 25, at Stretch Run (544 N. LaSalle St.); and a Single Malt Scotch class on Wednesday, January 27, at the Bar on Buena (910 W. Buena Ave.). Both classes will include tasting.

The classes are through I Wish Lessons. To attend, or get more information, go to their web site and click on "Drinks Around the World."

Learn Distilling In Washington.

Many of the earliest American micro-distilleries were started by wineries so they could make brandy. The State of Washington has more than 600 wineries, so it isn't surprising that the micro-distillery movement has a strong foothold there.

Nor is it surprising that an enterprising community college, Big Bend in Moses Lake, would offer a craft distilling workshop. It is scheduled for March 22-26, 2010. The instructors are Berle 'Rusty' Figgins, Jr., a viticulturist, winemaker and distiller; and Judith Smasne, a compliance consultant and insurance agent who specializes in wineries, breweries and distilleries.

For more information go to the web site, email, or call 509-793-2374 .

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Learn Distilling In Chicago.

Since 1872, the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago has set the standard for brewing-industry education and services. After 137 years of teaching the art & science of brewing technology, they are moving into a new area of fermentation science.

The Siebel Institute, in conjunction with the Ethanol Technology Institute, is holding its first-ever course in beverage distillation. The Siebel Institute Craft Distilling Operations & Technology course (April 19-23, 2010) is designed to give students the critical information they need to create distilled spirits in a small-scale distillation environment. With content created and presented by some of the leading international experts in distilling, this course will give students the training they need to operate a small distillery efficiently, safely, and profitably. Topics covered in this comprehensive 1-week program include:
  • Introduction To Distilling
  • Materials and Processing
  • Fermentation - Theory & Fundamentals
  • Fermentation - Distilling Applications
  • Distillation Technology: Fundamentals of Distillation
  • Distillation Technology: Applied Methodology
  • Post-distillation: Flavor Development/Maturation/Blending of Distilled Spirits
  • Packaging
  • Sensory Aspects of Distilled Spirits
  • Utilities: - Energy, Water
  • Process Control
  • Quality Control, Plant Cleaning & Microbiological Control
  • Craft Distillery Management
  • Taxation and Compliance
  • Environmental Issues
  • Engineering and Maintenance
  • Practical Exercises Conducted in a Local Craft Distillery
If you are considering entering this quickly-growing segment of the alcoholic beverage industry, the Craft Distilling Operations & Technology course will give you a foundation of understanding on which you can build a successful career in craft distilling. You can get full information on the course including tuition and registration details by downloading the course catalog in PDF form here. For questions involving this and any Siebel courses, contact Keith Lemcke here.

The Siebel Institute of Technology is located at 1777 North Clybourn Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60614; Phone 312-255-0705;

Monday, January 18, 2010

KDA Releases Economic Impact Report.

This may not do anything for whiskey-lovers outside of Kentucky, but for better or worse America's whiskey industry is closely tied to the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) does a lot to promote the industry to the world, but it also looks out for its members interests within the Commonwealth.

The new, first-ever economic impact study was prepared by University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes. Here are a few highlights:

While other Kentucky manufacturers cut 20 percent of their jobs over the past decade, distilling employment grew by 6 percent.

Kentucky distilleries employ 3,200 people with an annual payroll of $244 million, plus benefits. They represent 43 percent of all distilling workers in the United States.

Each distilling job creates more than twice as many spin-off jobs as other Kentucky “signature” industries such as horse breeding, tobacco farming and coal mining.

More than $1.5 billion worth of bourbon is produced in Kentucky each year. It accounts for 26 percent of the value of all distilled spirits produced in the United States. Kentucky bourbon is exported to 126 countries.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

About The New Look.

I began blogging on March 24, 2005. Back then, I wasn't using Blogger or any other service. I was writing the HTML myself and hosting it on my ISP's server.

In August of 2007 I started to double post, on my site and on a Blogger blog. I eventually decided I liked Blogger and discontinued the original site, in that I stopped making new posts to it. The old ones, for good or ill, are all still here.

Blogger does a good job with its standard templates and their canned designs are much better than I could do with my proficiency at HTML. They offer a limited amount of customization.

Using a template, it was only natural that I would see other blogs that looked a lot like mine. As I saw more and more of them it bothered me more and more. I just felt I should have something a little more original and distinctive. Today I came across the blog of a right wing wing nut who is running for the U.S. Senate and, guess what? He has a blog using the same template as mine. I had to change.

This new one is still a Blogger template, but it allows more customization, as evidenced by my use of an original barrelhouse photograph. The modern style is a little more in keeping with my personal taste too.

I hope you like it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

McGwire Confession Should Make Us Think.

Mark McGwire never lied about his steriod use. He just refused to say, until today.

He is not a liar.

He is, however, a cheater.

When McGwire took performance-enhancing drugs, he knew or should have known that their use was forbidden by Major League Baseball. He cheated, period.

In his confession, McGwire said he took the drugs on and off. Sometimes he was better than usual when he took them, sometimes he wasn't. Likewise, sometimes he was better than usual when he didn't take them.

He insists they were not responsible for his record-breaking 1998 season. Denial? Maybe. He has to deal with that himself. For Hall of Fame purposes, it doesn't matter. He cheated. That is the salient fact.

It doesn't matter if his cheating was successful.

This tends not to be what people are talking about, although some athletes have pointed out that performance-enhancing drugs are always available and their use is not always discouraged by coaches and trainers. People should talk about that.

We should also talk about, and think about, cheating generally, in sports and other realms. Some rule violations are treated as 'part of the game.' In the case of fouls, for example, kids are taught it's only wrong if they get caught and they are taught how to foul without getting caught. Is the line between part-of-the-game cheating and really-bad-don't-do-it cheating always clear?

I wrote a piece about this in 2005. It is here.

It would really be something if Mark McGwire stood up and demanded that sports define cheating clearly and unequivocally, demand a zero-tolerance policy toward it, and make fairness and the rejection of cheating a principle at least as important as toughness, competitiveness, resilience, and the other qualities we are supposed to admire in elite athletes.

But he didn't.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Everybody Likes Alcohol Taxes, Except Us Drinkers.

Taxes on alcohol, especially spirits, are outrageous. About 60 percent of the money you spend for a bottle of bourbon goes to some government entity. It is further broken down for you here.

Public policymakers justify these outrageous taxes because it is considered socially beneficial to make alcohol much more expensive than it needs to be, considering how much it actually costs to make and deliver the stuff, to discourage abuse. They also might argue that it is justified to defray the social cost of alcohol abuse, in terms of law enforcement, health care, social services, etc.

However you rationalize it, this is manipulation of the tax code for social engineering purposes and it is supported equally by liberals and conservatives.

Prohibition itself made strange bedfellows of liberals and conservatives, liberals who believed the abolition of alcohol would improve the human condition, uplifting the poor in particular; and conservatives who believed alcohol consumption was a sin and usually occasioned additional sinning, plus drunk workers were bad for industrial productivity.

One could argue that high taxes help keep alcohol legal, since however much politicians might like to earn points by attacking Big Alcohol, they are loath to give up all those tax dollars.

Most taxes on things we buy are a percentage of the price, but most alcohol taxes are not. Most though not all of them are on the alcohol content, meaning that the tax bite for the cheapest vodka is about the same, in absolute dollars, as for the most expensive one.

With state and local taxes, some are based on price, so buyers of premium spirits do pay more, but most are based on alcohol content, without regard for the product's price.

So the differences in price among products that all have the same alcohol content is generally not attributable to taxes.

Because of this, while more expensive products should obviously be more profitable, more expensive distilled spirits products are much more profitable since the average tax burden falls sharply as the price goes up.

The actual social benefit of high alcohol taxes is dubious since only a small percentage of alcohol consumers are abusers and only a small percentage of abusers are likely to be deterred by price, but hypocrisy in the tax code has also long been supported by liberals and conservatives alike.

I Teach For I Wish.

This coming Wednesday, January 13, I'm teaching an introduction to rum class at Las Tablas, 2942 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago.

This is the first of several classes I'm doing on distilled spirits and, yes, they will include tasting.

The classes are being offered by I Wish, as in their slogan, "What do you wish you could learn?" Mine are part of their 'Drinks Around The World' tour.

In addition to rum, I'm teaching classes on cognac, single malt scotch and, naturally, bourbon.

They're open to the public but, of course, you have to be at least 21 years old and have to register in advance.

The bourbon classes are on February 1, March 8 and April 5, which are all Mondays. They will be held at Rocks, 1301 West Schubert Ave. The cognac classes are on January 25, February 24, and April 6, at Stretch Run, 544 N. LaSalle St. The SMS class I'm teaching is on January 27, but there are other dates. It will be held at the Bar on Buena, 910 W. Buena Ave.

All of the sessions begin at 7:00 PM and run about an hour to an hour-and-a-quarter, and students are always welcome to remain at the bar to study the subject further on their own.

The I Wish way is to keep it light and informal, with lots of interaction, but with solid content and teachers who know their stuff. The purpose of these drinks classes is mostly to introduce people to I Wish, which offers private lessons, group lessons, and scheduled classes on a wide variety of subjects.

For more information, go to

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mini Skirts And Straight Bourbon.

Mini skirts were the fashion craze of the 1960s. Designers, always trying to profit by creating the next new trend, followed that up with something called the maxi skirt.

As the name implies, the maxi skirt was long, typically ending mid-calf. As fashion leaders always do, they urged women to discard their mini skirts immediately in favor of the new maxi skirts.

Women refused (and men cheered).

Much like the introduction of New Coke, the failure of the maxi skirt proved that there is a limit to what marketers can shove down the throat of the American consumer.

At about that same time, some of the largest distilled spirits companies tried to wean Americans away from straight whiskeys such as straight bourbon and straight rye. Instead, they thought we should drink blended whiskey or the newly-developed light whiskey.

Americans were turning away from straights at that time. They were drinking more blended scotch and blended Canadian whiskey, but also a lot more vodka, gin, rum and tequila, all of which were lighter in taste than American straight whiskey.

All of those products were also cheaper to make, which is why the producers were so enamoured of them. They even tried to get the Standards of Identity changed so they could make a lighter and cheaper product, by reusing barrels and distilling at higher proofs, and still call it straight bourbon.

That proposal was rejected by the BATF and light whiskey was solidly rejected by consumers. Blended whiskey--which combines a little straight whiskey with a lot of vodka (i.e., neutral spirit)--gained a little traction but never got close to unseating the straights.

When American whiskey began to rebound in the 1990s it was Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that led the charge.

This is essentially the story of Four Roses. The brand started in the mid-19th century as a straight bourbon and returned after Prohibition that way too. Eventually it was acquired by the Jos. E. Seagram Company, a Canadian producer that only made blends there and thought that's what we should drink down here too. In the U.S. market they converted Four Roses into a blend, although they sold it in the rest of the world as a bourbon.

As time went on, competitive pressures caused Seagrams to cheapen the blend by reducing its straight whiskey component. The legal minimum is a mere 20 percent. Even among blended whiskey drinkers, Four Roses was considered rot gut.

When Seagrams was sold for parts a decade ago, Kirin (which had been partners with Seagrams in Japan) became the new owner of Four Roses and immediately began to reintroduce it into the United States as a high quality straight bourbon whiskey. They had to overcome the blend's bad reputation, but by that time the brand was such a loser that most younger consumers had never even heard of it. To them, Four Roses Bourbon was a new brand.

They began the revival in Kentucky, naturally, and gradually expanded as they were able to produce enough to meet the growing demand. That process is now just about complete. With the new year, Four Roses is now available in Michigan, Maryland and New Hampshire.

No, they were not expanding alphabetically. For a variety of reasons, they chose to expand into control states last.

So the next time you enjoy a fine straight bourbon, think about the American consumers who refused to be herded like sheep so many years ago.