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.