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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Knob Creek Single Barrel Confirmed.

As we first reported two months ago, and as Beam Global has finally confirmed, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve will hit the market.in January 2011.

The note I got yesterday from the Beam PR Department put it like this: "As you know, twenty years ago, Booker Noe – Jim Beam’s grandson – introduced bourbon drinkers to the world’s first super-premium, small-batch bourbon: Knob Creek. Now, after 20 years, the #1 selling super-premium bourbon is ready to introduce bourbon drinkers to a new friend."

That's not exactly how I remember it. Blanton's, from what is now Buffalo Trace, was "the world’s first super-premium, small-batch bourbon." It was single barrel and didn't use the term "small batch," which Beam introduced, but really Blanton's was first.

Even within the Beam family Knob wasn't first, Booker's own eponymous brand was. It had a limited release, proved successful, and was followed by the simultaneous release of Baker's, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek; marketed collectively as the Small Batch Bourbons Collection.

But I digress. Here is the rest:

"And just as Knob Creek is aged patiently for nine years (as Booker wanted), we had to be patient in sharing this exciting news with you… But now we’re ready.

"You've heard the rumors, but here's the official confirmation:

"Come January 2011, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve will hit the market. Hand-selected, barrel-by-barrel, this extraordinarily smooth bourbon promises to capture Knob Creek’s rich, mature flavor and bold, nine-year aged bourbon character."

They've promised a tasting sample in a couple of weeks.

Although I kid about the awkward way it has rolled out, this is an exciting new product release and I'm looking forward to it. This is the first single barrel product from Beam. Single barrel products are fun because they let you taste what the distiller tastes, the contents of a single barrel instead of a mixture of many.

They apparently are still not ready to confirm that Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve will be 60 percent alcohol (120° proof), instead of 50 percent (100° proof) like regular Knob, as we reported on August 22.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The New Bourbon Country Reader Has Dropped.

The new Bourbon Country Reader (Volume 13, Number 2) was mailed today.

In this issue we finish our look at Cincinnati's surprising whiskey history, surprising because who knew Cincinnati had a whiskey history? (This is part 2 of 2. Part 1 was in the July issue.) Since most of the whiskey sold out of Cincinnati was actually made at distilleries in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, we also tell the story of another Indiana whiskey city, Tell City, named in honor of William Tell.

Hint: there were Beams involved.

Fall is usually when the new bourbons come out, especially the limited editions. We sample a few and talk about the rest. No word yet on the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, which is weird. The collection itself isn't weird. What's weird is that it's September and nothing has been announced yet.

What? You say you don't receive The Bourbon Country Reader? It's very nostalgic, as it comes on paper, in an envelope, in the mail. (That's what the little box outside your front door is for.) It is, as we say on the masthead, "Always Independent & Idiosyncratic. (No distillery affiliation.)"

In a nod, however, to modernity this marks the first time I have taken it to the printer on a USB drive instead of paper masters. Progress?

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, September 9, 2010

Eagle Rare Bourbon Launches 'Rare Lives' Charity Tie-In Promotion.

Eagle Rare Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey is sharing its passion for excellence by introducing the Rare Life Award, an annual honor that will be given to one person with an amazing life story who demonstrates Eagle Rare's core values of courage, leadership, survival, heroism, devotion and character.

Nominations are now being accepted for the “Lead a Rare Life” Contest online at http://www.eaglerarelife.com/. The winner will be awarded a $10,000 donation to the charity of their choice. Entries will be posted on the website and the general public can vote on who they think most embodies the “Rare Life” core values through January 1, 2011. A winner will be chosen from the finalists and announced in early February 2011.

“We’re thrilled to announce this new award,” said Kris Comstock, Eagle Rare Bourbon brand manager. “This country is filled with courageous, honest, hardworking people who lead rare lives everyday. We want to hear their stories. Eagle Rare Bourbon embodies life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This award will honor those who do the same. We think rare lives deserve to be rewarded.”

This is another example of Sazerac/Buffalo Trace going its own way and using unusual methods to promote its brands. The idea of this type of charity tie-in promotion is that ordinary consumers will become zealous albeit indirect brand ambassadors as they lobby for their favorite charity. Major brands such as American Express and Pepsi have fielded similar promotions.

And Eagle Rare Single Barrel is, by the way, a very good bourbon at a very good price.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Having Trouble Getting Some Marker's 46? Maker's Mark Has Suggestions.

The folks in Loretto tell me the success of new Maker's 46 has exceeded their expectations. The first release sold out quickly. The second release scheduled for September 1 was 100 percent pre-sold. There will be one more release in 2010.

Maker's is now announcing on its official Facebook page whenever shipments of 46 leave the distillery. They also suggest you ask your whiskey monger to start a priority waiting list. Maker's has had a few people inquire about where to get Maker's 46, about 50,000 people, actually.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Whiskey Don't Keep True Story.

Last Wednesday I told you the story behind the saying, "Whiskey Don't Keep."

That story is fiction but I used to know a guy who did something similar. He was an artist of some renown who would walk from his studio to a nearby small grocery store every afternoon to pick up a sandwich and maybe some potato chips for his lunch, along with a pint bottle of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon. He nursed the bottle throughout the afternoon and shared it freely with me or any other guest who happened to be on hand.

We talked about it once and he said it was his way of keeping his drinking under control. He told me that his daily ritual was generally the only time he drank and he didn't keep any liquor in the home where he lived with his wife and children.

He was a very wise man who taught me much about art and life.

There is no more to it than that. That was 30 years ago and we haven't stayed in touch, although I've followed his artistic career from afar and he continues to be successful.

The moral? Whatever works, I guess.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I just came across a handout I did for a Southern Foodways Alliance event in Chicago in 2008. I thought you might find it interesting.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is whiskey made using corn (maize) as the primary grain. It is further characterized by aging in new charred oak barrels.

What is Tennessee whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey is the same as bourbon except it is filtered through thick vats of charcoal before aging, and it is made in Tennessee.

What is Southern about it?

In the original colonies, distilled spirits were made from molasses (rum), apples (applejack/apple brandy) and cereals (whiskey), but the primary grain used for whiskey was rye.

Only after settlement of the interior began in earnest, after the Revolution, did Americans begin to make whiskey primarily from corn, especially in what became Kentucky and Tennessee. The practice of making whiskey from corn spread throughout the region. After Prohibition, it contracted back into its original Kentucky-Tennessee heartland.

Whiskey-making was part of the South’s “hogs and hominy” agriculture, as most distillers kept hogs and fed them spent grain from the stills.

What does Chicago have to do with it?

Westward expansion after the Civil War was driven by the railroads. In Chicago, steers shipped East to the hungry city were replaced for the return trip by barrels of whiskey for the thirsty cowboys.

Whiskey was a commodity, bought in bulk from rural distilleries by Chicago merchants who “rectified” it before sending it west. “Rectification” might include blending, filtering, coloring, and flavoring.

After Prohibition, the descendants of those merchants financed the rebuilding of the Southern distilleries. Two examples are Oscar Getz, who owned Barton Brands; and Harry Blum, who owned Jim Beam. Both companies are still headquartered in the Chicago area.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Moves At Maker's.

Greg Davis is the new Master Distiller at Maker's Mark, succeeding Kevin Smith who is taking a new job with parent company Beam Global, as reported today by Maker's Mark President Bill Samuels in an email to Maker's Mark Ambassadors.

When Davis left Sazerac's Tom Moore Distillery ten weeks ago to take the job of Director of Distillery Operations at Maker's Mark, reporting to Smith, something about it didn't seem right. Davis is young (40) but he was Master Distiller at Barton/Tom Moore for almost ten years and I just couldn't see him being somebody's assistant for very long. For ten weeks, as it turns out.

Smith is mum about exactly what his new job will be at Beam's flagship distillery at Clermont, Kentucky, but I'm sure that shoe will drop soon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Whiskey Don't Keep.

This is a story my father told me. It is about a father and son. The son lives in town, the father lives alone on a farm several miles outside of town. Every day, as is his custom, the father walks into town, purchases a pint of whiskey, and walks back to his farm. For years, the son has enjoyed this daily opportunity to at least observe his father from his office window, but recently he has noticed that time is catching up with the old man. His stride has shortened and his gait has slowed. The daily walk has become a trial for him.

The son, being a devoted son and not wanting to see his father suffer (and having failed for years to persuade his father to abandon the farm and move to town), decides there is at least one small way he can give his poor father some relief. He purchases a half-gallon bottle of his father’s favorite whiskey, drives out to the farm and gives his father the gift. The father, never a demonstrative man, accepts the gift and thanks his son, who returns to town.

The next day the son, still basking in the glow of his thoughtful deed, looks out the window to see his father once again walking into town. Moreover, his father seems to have aged ten years. His skin is pallid, his clothing is disheveled and he is walking with even move difficulty than usual. The son immediately rushes to his father’s side. “Dad,” he cries, “what are you doing? I brought you that bottle of whiskey so you wouldn’t have to make this walk every day.” The father slowly raises his head and looking directly into his sons eyes, whispers in a quiet voice, “son, whiskey don’t keep.”