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.