Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Perfect For New Year's Eve: The Seelbach.

The Seelbach in Louisville is a wonderful, old hotel in the grand style of the late 19th and early 20th century, made immortal as the site of Daisy's wedding in The Great Gatsby. No doubt it is perfect for New Year's Eve, although you pretty much need to be in Louisville for that to be an option.

No, I'm talking about the Seelbach Cocktail. Why is it perfect for New Year's Eve? Because it is the only cocktail that comes to mind that combines bourbon with champagne. What's more, as unlikely as it sounds, it is delicious.

The cocktail was created by a Seelbach bartender in 1917. Its recipe was lost during Prohibition and only reappeared in 1995. It's other ingredients are unusual too, not one but two historic bitters.

Although the recipe doesn't specify a bourbon, I have had it at the Old Seelbach Bar made with Blanton's bourbon, which is quite nice. I suggest any of the better bourbons but don't use one that is more than 12-years-old, as too much wood throws it off.

Since it is served in a champagne flute, no one needs to know that you are celebrating with a far superior drink to champagne alone.

Seelbach Cocktail


3/4 ounce bourbon
1/2 ounce Cointreau
7 dashes Angostura bitters
7 dashes Peychaud's bitters
4 ounces chilled brut Champagne
1 orange twist, for garnish


Pour all of the ingredients, in the order given, into a Champagne flute. Add the garnish.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bourbon For Christmas.

What bourbon is good for Christmas? Well, heck, they all are, but here are a couple of thoughts.

You can make egg nog with bourbon. Evan Williams has a ready-to-drink version. So, no doubt, do some other brands. You can substitute bourbon for the more traditional brandy or rum, or mix them 50/50. Martha Stewart's recipe calls for all three.

When Maker's 46 came out, many of the reviews described it as "rich in Christmas spices," so why not make that your official Christmas bourbon?

Goose Island Brewery here in Chicago changes its Christmas Ale every year, but at least once they made a version they conditioned in bourbon barrels.

Make bourbon balls. They aren't specifically a holiday confection, but they're really good. Recipes abound on the web.

Here's a simple Christmas cocktail using bourbon. It was developed by Paul Abercrombie. 


Handful of organic cranberries, picked over and rinsed
4 ounces organic cranberry juice
2 ounces bourbon


In a pint glass, muddle the cranberries until crushed (make sure not to pulverize the cranberries so much that you release the seeds' bitter taste).

Add a large handful of cracked ice, the cranberry juice, and bourbon. Stir.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Micro-Distiller MB Rowland Joins KDA.

MB Roland Distillery, an innovative leader in Kentucky’s growing craft distilling industry, announced today that it has joined the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA).

"We’re proud to welcome MB Roland Distillery to the KDA, and we look forward to working with them to promote and protect our signature industry,” said John Rhea, Chairman of the KDA’s Board of Directors and the Chief Operating Officer at Four Roses Distillery.

“We’ve been very impressed with the leadership from Paul Tomaszewski and his team and their success in developing hand-crafted spirits using locally grown ingredients,” Rhea said. “They are an integral part of our future and the growing craft distillery industry in Kentucky.”

Founded in 2008 by Paul Tomaszewski, MB Roland is a small batch craft distillery located in Christian County that produces a variety of whiskies and other spirits.

The distillery has become one of the Fort Campbell area’s leading tourism destinations.

“It is truly an honor and privilege to be included as a member of such a distinguished and historic organization,” Tomaszewski said. “By the KDA allowing craft distilleries such as ourselves to join its ranks, they acknowledge that our industry is advancing in novel and innovative ways.

MB Roland becomes the KDA’s ninth member and the third Kentucky craft distillery to join. The KDA, a non-profit group founded in 1880, is the state’s leading voice on spirits issues, from taxes to tourism, technical matters and more. Members include Beam Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), Brown-Forman Corp., Diageo North America, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey. Alltech and Barrel House Distillery, both in Lexington, are the other craft distillery members.

KDA President Eric Gregory said the new craft distillery membership is available to licensed distillers in Kentucky that maintain an inventory of fewer than 25,000 barrels of distilled beverage spirits. There are more than 200 craft – or 'micro distilleries' – in the country, including several in Kentucky.

"Our craft members bring a unique perspective on issues that affect our industry," Gregory said. "We look forward to working with MB Roland to promote our proud heritage, advocate for fair treatment of our industry, and continue our commitment to responsible drinking.”

Pictured are (left to right) KDA Chairman John Rhea of Four Roses Distillery; Paul Tomaszewski, founder of MB Roland Distillery; and Chris Morris, Master Distiller at Brown-Forman.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Buffalo Trace Proves Small Barrels Don't Work.

Some time over the summer, I was asked by Buffalo Trace if I would like to come to the distillery in September, during the Bourbon Festival, to taste one of their failed experiments.

It's a measure of how strange this obsession is that I didn't hesitate. "Of course," I said.

Buffalo Trace has been experimenting for about 20 years. Everybody experiments, but Buffalo Trace has done things others don't, like release the results of some of the experiments as part of their Experimental Collection.

It's always been understood that some of the experiments are pronounced failures and the whiskey is discarded. Here was a case where they considered the experiment a failure, but thought I might like to taste its product anyway.

That's because the experiment involved aging bourbon in small barrels. Specifically, 5 gallon, 10 gallon and 15 gallon barrels. Yes, those are the sizes micro-distillers use.

I last wrote about small barrels in July, prompted by something John Hansell posted on his blog.

I write in depth about the Buffalo Trace experiment in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which dropped today. You really should subscribe and read the whole story, but I won't keep you in suspense. The whiskey was standard Buffalo Trace bourbon and it was aged in the small barrels for five years. It tasted bad. The whiskey from the 5 gallon barrel tasted worst.

Tasting them, you could get some ideas about why they tasted so bad. I talk about that too.

The December, 2011, issue of The Bourbon Country Reader is Volume 14, Number 2. In it, we also tell the story of The Great Whiskey Glut, observe the changing of the guard at Virginia Gentlemen, and taste two limited edition releases from A. Smith Bowman and Heaven Hill.

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.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Country Ham: Another Great Kentucky Product.

I call the above “a baggie of bliss.” Many convenience stores in Kentucky sell them at the cash register. It’s just a slice of Kentucky country ham between two pieces of white bread, and it is sublime.

Although bourbon whiskey is Kentucky’s best known consumable, it’s not the only Kentucky product that I crave. I’ve written before about other local specialties such as the Hot Brown Sandwich. Today I rise in praise of Kentucky country ham.

Country ham is a characteristic Southern food and not limited to Kentucky, but most of my experience has been with the Kentucky version. Kentucky country ham is salt-cured and its saltiness is what you notice first. It’s too much for some people. But behind the salt there is a wonderful, rich flavor that quickly spoils you for any other type of ham.

Most of the country ham producers in Kentucky are small and family-owned. It’s a good product for mail order because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. You can buy everything from packages of ‘biscuit slices’ up to whole hams. Finchville Farms is a brand I can usually pick up at Kroger’s in Kentucky when I’m visiting there and it’s the one I’ve enjoyed most recently, but there are many others that are just as good. Country ham is also surprisingly inexpensive.

Although country ham doesn’t have to be refrigerated it is raw and needs to be cooked before eating. I always get slices, which can be fried in a hot, dry skillet in a few minutes, just until the meat starts to brown. Don’t overcook, because it gets tough if you do.

Although it’s very simple, it took me a while to master red eye gravy, mostly because I kept expecting it to be something it’s not. After you finish cooking the ham, remove it from the skillet and add a small amount of water to deglaze the skillet. Some people use coffee instead. Use a spoon or spatula to loosen the flavorful residue and keep stirring it as the liquid reduces. It will thicken only slightly. Then pour it over the ham. It’s not gravy in the normal sense. Mostly it’s used to enhance the flavor of the meat while also giving it back some of its moisture, making it more tender.

Kentucky country ham and Kentucky bourbon complement each other well because both are highly flavorful. Kentucky country ham is usually eaten at breakfast, but finger sandwiches of country ham tucked inside beaten biscuits are popular at parties. Kurtz’s Restaurant, in Bardstown, offers a dinner of country ham and fried chicken that is hard to resist.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jack Daniel's Is Nipping At Johnnie Walker's Heels.

In a recent report by IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research) and just-drinks, Johnnie Walker was declared the world's top performing distilled spirits brand for 2010, but special notice was given to Jack Daniel's, "which punches above its weight in the global spirits market," according to the study. Jack Daniel's, which is owned by Brown-Forman, is the only brand in the top eight not owned by either Diegeo or Pernod.

In this case, "top performing" incorporates IWSR's rankings based on sales volume, retail value and five-year growth, with a just-drinks reader survey of industry opinion. Other researchers using different methodologies will arrive at different results, so "World's #1 Spirits Brand" remains an elusive title.

Daniel's ranked #4 overall. The second and third places went to vodkas Smirnoff and Absolut, respectively.

This sort of news is released by the company that conducted the research as a tease to sell the full report, so it never tells you everything you want to know. To me, the importance of this sort of news is that although scotch outsells bourbon about five-to-one worldwide, American whiskey Jack Daniel's beats every scotch except Mr. Walker's.

Rounding out the top ten, in order, are Captain Morgan, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s, Baileys, Hennessy, and J├Ągermeister.

The full story is here. If you want to read the full report, that will cost you $790. You can order it here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Brown-Forman Makes Barrels Too.

Forty years ago, most large companies that made whiskey also made barrels in which to age it. Today, only Brown-Forman does.

The Brown-Forman Cooperage is on the south side of Louisville, just west of the airport. From the outside it looks like any other factory, except for the millions of rough cut staves neatly stacked in the yard outside.

At any given time, the cooperage's wood inventory alone is valued at about $30 million.

Brown-Forman Cooperage makes barrels for Brown-Forman brands exclusively, including Jack Daniel's, Early Times, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Canadian Mist, and Herradura. The barrels are made of white oak and held together with steel hoops. No adhesives or fasteners of any kind are used.

All of a whiskey's color and about half of its flavor comes from the barrel.

That wood stacked outside isn't just stored there. It is drying naturally, an important step in the process of making flavor compounds in the wood available for extraction by the aging spirit. It typically stays there, fully exposed to the elements, for six month to two years. Some of it will be finished in a warehouse-size kiln.

The cooperage itself is hot, crowded and noisy. Although there are a lot of machines, there are lots of people too. One of the most highly-skilled jobs is barrel raising. Barrel raisers use their judgment to select an assortment of staves of varying widths which, properly aligned and pulled together, will form the body of the barrel. Their skill is essential to giving the barrel its most important characteristic, water-tightness.

In one of the final steps, the barrels are burned on the inside. This creates a layer of charcoal that filters the spirit and also carmelizes some of the wood sugars.

Brown-Forman Cooperage is open for tours. Contact Mint Julep Tours at (502) 583-1433 to make arrangements.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Be Careful With High Proof Whiskey.

At this time of year, when people like to treat themselves and their friends, it's common to buy whiskeys you normally don't, probably because they're too damn expensive.

Many people are enamored of barrel proof or cask strength whiskey, whether it's Booker's Bourbon at 63% ABV (alcohol by volume), McCallan Single Malt at 58% ABV, or the 2007 George T. Stagg Bourbon at 72.4% ABV. If you give or receive any of these this holiday season, or anything else above about 55% ABV, be careful.

Of course, you always need to be careful with straight spirits. Most whiskey is sold at 40% ABV, which is about four times as much alcohol per ounce as wine and more than eight times as much as most beers.

The most important part of self-control in an alcohol consumption context is being aware of exactly how much alcohol is going into your body; not the volume of liquid, the volume of alcohol.

With very high proof beverages there are additional risks.

Gentle sipping of small quantities of very high proof spirits probably won’t hurt you. It depends on your personal sensitivity. Drinking—as opposed to sipping—alcohol at very high concentrations risks damage to any and all of the tissue it encounters along the way: mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach.

A pour of straight Stagg, for example, contains 75 percent more alcohol than Jack Daniel’s. If you’re not paying careful attention to how much you consume, you risk alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. Those are the primary risks, tissue damage and alcohol poisoning.

On the other side of the risk there is no reward. High proof alcohol tends to deaden or anesthetize the sense receptors, reducing your ability to taste or smell the whiskey. No fun in that.

Whiskeys aren’t bottled at high proof so you can drink them that way. They’re usually expensive and are bottled that way so you pay for whiskey, not added water, and can prepare it for drinking as you see fit. I recommend reducing the proof with room temperature water to about 50% ABV.

I hope this isn't a downer. Have a great holiday, including your favorite adult beverages. Just be adult about it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Girls For Every Boy.

For a brief period in my childhood, Southern California was where I wanted to be, instead of Mansfield, Ohio, where I was.

The reason in no small part was the song "Surf City" by Jan and Dean. It was #1 for two weeks in July of 1963. It was one of the first records I owned.

I was 11 years old.

I couldn’t drive but I wanted to buy a 1930 Ford Wagon and call it a woody. I knew it wouldn’t have a back seat or a rear window but it would still get me where I wanted to go, which was the beach. Surf City was where they never rolled the streets up because they were either surfing or throwing a party.

Going to parties and surfing sounded like the life for me. At the time I had barely been in an ocean let alone surfed, and most of my party experience involved relatives and cake.

But I sincerely wanted to shoot the curl, then check out the parties for a surfer girl. Although I wouldn’t have known what to do with one at the time, “two girls for every boy” sounded like good odds.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Check Out My LDI Story In The New Whisky Advocate.

The new issue of Whisky Advocate, for Winter 2011, is out now. Whisky Advocate is the new name for Malt Advocate, to which I am a long-time contributor.

My piece in the new issue is "LDI: the Mystery Distillery." As the teaser says, many of today's new and notable bourbons and ryes come from this large distillery near Lawrenceburg, Indiana; a distillery that most whiskey drinkers don't even know about.

But you do, if you are a regular follower of this blog.

I have been fascinated by LDI for a long time. I last posted about it here, here and here.

One thing about writing for print magazines is that they still have very long lead times. I submitted the LDI story before the sale was announced. The magazine was just about to go to press when I heard LDI had sold. Happily, we were able to include that rather crucial piece of news, so the story is up-to-date.

If you want to learn all you can about whiskey, I recommend* Whisky Advocate. With its recent redesign the magazine smartly exploits the unique tactile and visual pleasures of print. The result is a thing of beauty. (I try not to sully it too much.) Subscriptions are $18 a year.

* I also recommend that other whiskey magazine that I also write for. I'll write glowingly about it the next time one of my articles is published there.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Woodford Rye Is In Stores Now.

The new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rare Rye Selection is in stores now.

I know that’s a mouthful. Let’s break it down.

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is a very good Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey made by Brown-Forman. They have an experimental program, called the Master’s Collection, that releases one new limited edition whiskey each year at about this time.

I like the Master's Collection. I think it is exactly the kind of experimental program a major company/major brand should do. That's not to say other companies do it wrong, I just like the way Woodford does it very much.

This year, for the first time, two experiments are presented, in a set consisting of two 375 ml bottles that sells for about $100. This is the first step in the direction of Woodford being a whiskey distillery that makes more than bourbon.

I’ve tasted them. They're very good and unlike anything else I've ever tasted.

The New Cask Rye is technically a straight rye, because it’s aged in new charred barrels, but it is unlike any other straight rye I’ve ever had. The Aged Cask Rye is unique, unlike any other whiskey I’ve ever tasted. Both are very flavorful, with a lot of rye character. All of the earthy, grassy, spicy, minty notes you expect are there, probably too much for some palates. Naturally, the ‘aged’ cask version (their euphemism for used barrels) has very little oak character and very little color.

I enjoyed both but, more importantly, learned a lot from them.

What they are missing is the corn backbone of most straight ryes. Most straight ryes are just 51 percent rye, the legal minimum, making them about 40 percent corn. Even in George Washington's day, about 30 percent of the recipe was corn. These, like the LDI ryes, contain no corn. You notice its absence in the body more than the taste. All-rye ryes seem thin, even when they are very well aged. 

Woodford broke one of its own Master’s Collection rules this time, in that it changed more than one variable in this experiment. In addition to being aged in new barrels, the New Cask Rye was barrel entered at 100° proof while the Aged Cask Rye was barrel entered at 86° proof.

One-hundred proof is low. Eighty-six proof is ridiculously low.

Both whiskeys use the exact same distillate. The mash was 100 percent rye, a combination of malted and un-malted grain. The age is at least 7 to 8 years old, maybe more. (They're not saying.) All of it was made in the pot stills at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Just when you think you know what rye tastes like, this comes along.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pappy Van Winkle, Cult Icon.

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery website has just been refreshed, for the first time in a long time. It's still pretty simple and doesn't contain much more information than the old one. It's just more up-to-date in its design and functionality, a welcome improvement.

There's also a film in the works, by independent filmmaker Mark Casey. He has it up on KickStarter now. It's called "Chasing Pappy," and is about the hardest of hardcore bourbon enthusiasts, Pappy fiends.

Let's see if I can explain the Van Winkle phenomenon in a few words. Van Winkle is a brand of whiskey. The Van Winkle whiskeys are always in very limited supply. Each year, at about this time, the annual allocation is released. What follows is a frenzy, as fans try to secure as many rare bottles as they can.

Much of the drama is played out online.

As you can learn from the new website, there are actually seven products in the Van Winkle line. All are limited but the frenzy is reserved for the rarest ones, the three bourbons sold under the Pappy Van Winkle banner. They are 15 years old, 20 years old, and 23 years old respectively.

Julian P. 'Pappy' Van Winkle (1874-1965) was a real person, a colorful character who owned a legendary distillery, Stitzel-Weller. Today's Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery isn't a distillery so much as a marketing company. It is run by Pappy's namesake grandson and his son, and is affiliated with Sazerac and, specifically, Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

I've written about Van Winkle before, most recently here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Few Words About Vodka.

Sometimes I just can't resist poking the bear. In that spirit, I offer some thoughts about vodka.

Kevin Erskine is a writer who I know as a scotch guy. He recently published an ebook about vodka. I churlishly commented that a proper book about vodka would be all blank pages.

Even vodka enthusiasts will admit that vodka is a tabula rasa. By itself, there is very little to it. It is an ideal platform for cocktails because it doesn't get in the way of other ingredients.

The Russian/Polish word 'vodka' was introduced into the American distilled spirits lexicon because its legal synonyms, 'neutral spirits' and 'alcohol,' sounded more like ingredients than beverages. Indeed, 'vodka' is an ingredient in gin, liqueurs, and American blended whiskey, not to mention products like vanilla extract and mouthwash, and medicines such as NyQuil. 

U.S. rules define vodka as "neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Vodka is not defined by a particular character, aroma, taste or color, but by their absence.

Some vodkas are better made than others. There are differences. But even vodka enthusiasts generally agree that the poorest ones taste like alcohol while the best ones taste like water.

Although virtually all vodka available for sale in the United States is made from grain, U.S. rules allow vodka to be made from any raw material. The raw material used must be disclosed on the label. Circoc is the best known grape vodka. Chopin is the best known potato vodka.

Most people think all vodka is made from potatoes. Funny that, because even historically, in the vodka heartland of Poland and Russia, potatoes were used only when grain was scarce. Potatoes are native to the Americas so they are relatively recent arrivals in Europe, not an ancient and fundamental part of the culture like barley, wheat and rye.

Periodically, Poland and Russia try to get the EU to declare that vodka must be made from either grain or potatoes, nothing else. Grape-growing Europeans typically object.

In addition to grain, potatoes, and grapes, vodka is sometimes made from sugar cane or sugar beets.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Free Jim Beam Burger At Red Robin If Your Name Is Jim.

The Sweet Jim Beam Bacon Swiss Burger is a bourbon-glazed beef patty topped with Applewood smoked bacon, caramelized bourbon onions and melted Swiss cheese on a garlic butter toasted brioche bun. It's available at Red Robin restaurants through Christmas Eve, but on December 6, if your name is Jim, your burger is free.

Real Jim Beam bourbon is cooked down with molasses and caramelized onions. This is used as a glaze for the burger, which is then topped with the onions.

For the Jim Day promotion on December 6, you will need to present a legal ID to get the free burger. According to the ads, your ID can say Jim, James or Jimbo. My guess is that Jimmy will also pass. J-dog, maybe not.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Stranahan's Licenses Name To Breckenridge Brewery.

The phenomenon that is Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey just keeps rolling along. Now, according to Westword, Stranahan's has given its Denver neighbor Breckenridge Brewery exclusive rights to use the Stranahan's name on barrel-aged beers. This is another first for Stranahan's. I know of no other micro-distillery that has extended its brand through a licensing agreement.

The first product will be called Stranahan's Well-Built ESB, which will be conditioned for three months in barrels that previously held Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey.

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey is unique in being a malt whiskey, like scotch, that's aged in new charred oak barrels, like bourbon. Since Stranahan's can only use the barrels once for its whiskey, it needs a re-use market for them. Breweries are a natural. Other distilleries have done that but I don't know of any who have turned it into a brand extension.

I have a personal history with Breckenridge Brewery at their original Breckenridge brew pub location. They were close to where I stayed, had good food and great beer, and we tended to go there daily apres ski, if not to eat then to at least pick up a couple of growlers for the evening.

That's another advantage Stranahan's has over micro-distilleries in, say, Illinois. Local products in major vacation areas are sampled by people from all over, who may not only like the product, but also its association with the place and pleasures of a fun vacation. They talk it up to friends and urge their local bars and liquor stores to carry it. Both Stranahan's and Breckenridge have access to that cachet, which is priceless.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Brandy And The Holidays.

This is the time of year when people who never buy brandy buy brandy.

Although bourbon whiskey is great in egg nog, many people prefer the more traditional brandy. It also figures in other holiday and winter season recipes, not just for drinks but also desserts and other dishes.

So this is when a lot of people who aren't normally brandy drinkers buy and drink brandy, and a lot of that brandy is American-made.

Most American brandy comes from California, or so most people think. Two of the five largest brands are entirely made in California while the other three are distilled in California from California-grown grapes, but aged and bottled in Kentucky. And as I told you Sunday, four of the top five American brandies are aged in used bourbon or Tennessee whiskey barrels.

The United States doesn't have the fine brandy tradition of France, Spain, and Greece. Except for a few boutiques like Germain-Robin, American brandy producers go for a utilitarian spirit, typically aged for two to three years. Most of it is perfectly acceptable for egg nog, punches, and other holiday uses, and it's much less expensive than the imports.

There are four major grape brandy producers in the United States. I specified 'grape' there because Laird's, in New Jersey, is technically a brandy producer but their fruit of choice is apples.

There are countless small brandy producers, in California and elsewhere, mostly associated with vineyards and wineries.

The Big Four are all in California. They are:

1.  E&J Gallo, in Modesto. They make E&J Brandy, the most popular brand. At about three million cases a year, E&J outsells all other brandies, domestic and imported.

2.  F. Korbel and Brothers/Heck Cellars, in Arvin. Korbel Brandy is #4 in sales at about 350-thousand cases. Although Brown-Forman markets and distributes the better-known Korbel Sparkling Wines line, its sole involvement with the brandy is in supplying Jack Daniel's barrels for its aging. Korbel's sales are concentrated in Wisconsin.

3.  O'Neill Vintners & Distillers, in Parlier. O'Neill is one of the two big independents. It provides all of the distillate for Heaven Hill's Christian Brothers (#3) and Coronet (#5) brands, and possibly some of #2 Paul Masson for Constellation. It produces more than five million gallons of brandy and neutral spirit a year. Some customers, like Heaven Hill, just buy their distillate. For others they do the aging, blending, and bottling too.

4.  Vie-Del Company, in Fresno. Vie-Del is the other big independent. It's a former Seagram's plant, now owned by the Nury family. Together Vie-Del and O'Neill supply distillate for just about every brand except Gallo and Korbel. Like O'Neill, Vie-Del is strictly a producer, selling grape juice, wine, and brandy to customers who handle the branding, marketing and distribution of it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heaven Hill Finds Another Good Use For Corn.

When producers send me whiskey to taste, they invariably use a lot of packing material. When Heaven Hill sends me something that requires packing peanuts, they use the biodegradable kind made from corn.

Just like their whiskey.

Biodegradable peanuts are non-toxic, so you can just throw them in the sink and let the water run. They dissolve completely in a few minutes. Warm water seems to works better than cold and it helps if you stir them a bit. While they are dissolving the kitchen smells like fresh corn. Nice.

The alternative is polystyrene peanuts, which are made from petroleum. They can be reused but not recycled. The UPS Store where I do my shipping accepts and reuses them, but putting them in a bag and taking them over there isn't nearly as easy as just throwing them in the sink and turning the water on.

If you get something packed with peanuts and you're not sure whether or not they're biodegradable, hold one under running water and squeeze it a few times. If it's biodegradable it will get sticky and start to dissolve. Polystyrene peanuts don't do anything.

Polystyrene peanuts are a little lighter and about 10 percent cheaper, so congratulations to Heaven Hill for making the greener choice and demonstrating that corn isn't just good for making whiskey.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Used Barrel Uses.

A unique characteristic of most American whiskey types is that they must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Straight bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and straight rye must be so aged. Since those three types represent such a high percentage of U.S.-made aged spirits, most used American whiskey barrels (hundreds of thousands of them every year) are sent to Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and other places where they are used to age virtually every other type of aged spirit.

Heaven Hill is the only major distillery that makes corn whiskey for sale and one of its brands, Mellow Corn, is aged in used barrels.

I assume the barrels Heaven Hill retains are some of the most desirable ones.

The most desirable ones are the youngest, i.e., the barrels that held bourbon for the shortest amount of time. The bourbon that is used for the ready-to-drink market in Australia, where they sell bourbon and ginger ale, and bourbon and cola pre-mixed, is barely two years old--just old enough to be called 'straight bourbon.'

I imagine those are the barrels they retain for aging Mellow Corn.

Mellow Corn is a very small but growing brand. Heaven Hill's principal use for used barrels is for aging their brandies, primarily Christian Brothers. In addition to the youth of the barrels, there is the fact that both the brandies and the bourbon for the ready-to-drinks are aged at Bernheim in Louisville, whereas the rest of Heaven Hill's bourbons are aged in Bardstown and vicinity. I don't know for sure but I suspect Mellow Corn is aged at Bernheim too.

The masonry warehouses at Bernheim are mostly empty, so anything they can age there and not ship to Bardstown they probably do age there. Parker and Craig Beam don't like the way the masonry warehouses age so with the exception of the RTD stuff and some contract production, they don't age any bourbon there.

Most U.S.-made brandy is aged in used bourbon barrels. In addition to Christian Brothers, Heaven Hill also makes Coronet. Korbel brandy is aged in used Jack Daniel's barrels, part of what Brown-Forman pays for the rights to market Korbel Sparkling Wine. Paul Masson Brandy is still aged and bottled at the Barton 1792 Distillery on behalf of the distillery's previous owner, Constellation Brands.

The best-selling U.S.-made brandy is E&J, which is Gallo. They use their own used wine barrels.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gift Shopping Tips, Part Two.

Let’s say someone on your list likes whiskey and you are thinking about giving them whiskey as a gift, but you don’t feel entirely confident making the selection yourself.

This post is for you.

On Wednesday, I told you about the outstanding giftiness of my book, DVD and newsletter. All I’ll add is how great would it be to give someone the book and a great bottle, or the DVD and a great bottle? This post is meant to help you with the great bottle part.

To begin, you have to know what your gift recipient usually drinks. If all you know is that the person drinks whiskey, that’s not enough. Even if you know they drink scotch or bourbon, you’re still flying blind. Your best bet is to find out what specific brand or brands they like and if you can get them in order of preference, all the better. This is especially important for scotch drinkers.

Armed with that information, you can make good use of your neighborhood whiskey monger.

First, it’s never wrong to give someone exactly what they usually drink. If that’s what the person likes, why rock the boat? The typical gift-giver, however, feels compelled to do something ‘special.’ Fair enough. That’s why many major brands offer gift packages at this time of year.

The typical whiskey gift box contains a bottle and two glasses, but sometimes it’s a cocktail shaker or something else. They try to price the gift boxes close to the product’s regular price, so they’re usually a good value. Your gift recipient can always use a couple more glasses.

You won’t have many choices because typically each brand only does one gift box per season.

Another good tip is limited editions. Find out if any of the brands your recipient likes is offering a limited edition. The real question will be whether the store has any in stock. Because they are limited, in short supply, and usually sell out, they are automatically giftable.

Don’t confuse limited editions with commemorative bottlings, although either might make a good gift. If the person is primarily a whiskey drinker, then they probably won’t care about a commemorative bottling, which is a special bottle that contains the same whiskey as usual. Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark, among others, do a lot of these.

On the other hand, if your gift recipient is a Jack Daniel’s or Maker’s Mark fanatic, a commemorative might be perfect.

A true limited edition is more than a different bottle, it’s a different whiskey. Although the only difference may be age or proof (i.e., alcohol content), sometimes it’s completely different, like the annual Master’s Collection by Woodford Reserve. Four Roses does two annual limited edition releases. You can also find limited editions in the scotch, Irish and Canadian whisky segments. Just tell the whiskey monger your recipient’s usual brand and ask if that line has any limited editions available.

Warning. Limited editions can be expensive.

Another possibility is that your whiskey monger will have a house selection of your recipient’s brand. This is a type of limited edition. The store’s whiskey buyer selects a specific barrel of that whiskey, then the whole barrel is bottled for exclusive sale at that store. This makes a great gift because it is simultaneously special and unique, yet also exactly the same as the recipient’s usual brand. It’s usually a good value too because it rarely costs more than the regular product, and sometimes less.

Similar, and with some overlap, is the line ‘step up,’ also a good gift. Many brands have a ‘good, better, best’ hierarchy, with pricing to match. Often the Johnnie Walker Red drinker really prefers Johnnie Walker Black, but it’s too expensive for regular use. For that person, a bottle of Black is the perfect gift.

This can sometimes go wrong. The Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 drinker may prefer it to the more costly Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, but it’s worth a shot. You’ll get an A for effort.

The riskiest course is to tell the whiskey monger what your recipient drinks and then ask, “can you recommend something similar?” There you mainly need to know that your recipient likes to try new things. That way, even if they don’t adore your gift, they will at least enjoy the experience of trying it.

Finally, you need a good whiskey monger. Most should be able to provide this level of service, the best ones thrive on exactly this challenge, but there are no guarantees. Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel the love, go somewhere else.

If you hope to receive a whiskey gift you might want to print this out and leave it in a strategic location.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gift Shopping Tips, Part One.

If you're a regular visitor here, you've probably noticed the thumbnails down the right hand side of this page. Maybe you've even checked them out. But being as the season of giving is upon us, allow me to call them to your attention.

I'm preparing a post for Friday that will give some genuine gift shopping tips to please the whiskey drinkers on your list. This post today is a shameless plug for my small portfolio of products and their outstanding giftiness.

First, the book: BOURBON, STRAIGHT; The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. It's ideal for anyone with the slightest interest in whiskey, from the greenest beginner to the most bourbon-soaked veteran. Clicking here (or on the thumbnail in the right column) takes you to my website. The advantage of buying it there is that I will autograph it for no extra charge. Look for the box that says 'inscription' on the order form.

It's also available on Amazon. They have been discounting it lately, so go there if you want to save a couple bucks. At the moment it's $15.64, you save 32%! (Sorry, no autographs.)

Next comes the DVD, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky." It's a one-hour documentary, produced for public television. It complements the book and, like the book, veteran bourbon fans will enjoy it as much as novices. Click here to get it from my website or here to get it from Amazon.

If you're old school, I have some VHS tapes of it to sell, but only on the web site, no Amazon.

Finally, the newsletter. Consider giving a gift subscription, for the bourbon lover who has everything. I'll admit you have to be pretty into it to want the newsletter, but for a real American whiskey fan there is nothing else like it. It's only available on the web site, here.

For all of the above, use the 'special instructions' box on the web site if you are having the gift shipped to the recipient and would like a gift card included. I don't offer gift wrapping but Amazon does.

Anything you buy through the website is processed by CCNow, my e-commerce provider, so you don't have to worry about me being your main security bulwark. (It would worry me.) I've used CCNow for years and never had a complaint. In addition to all major credit cards, the web site accepts payments through PayPal.

For more information about CCNow, go here.

The last item on the right is a link to the I Wish Lessons web site. There you can buy tickets to my whiskey classes here in Chicago as gifts, or maybe you should call them scholarships. I generally teach all of the whiskey classes I Wish offers in Chicago but before you buy a ticket, confirm with them that I will be the coach (their preferred term) for that particular class. Here are some I know I'm scheduled to teach.

Check back here on Friday for some actual shopping tips about whiskey gifts. It will be the sort of post that someone hoping to receive a whiskey gift might want to print out and leave in a strategic location.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dispute Between KDA And The Sazerac Company Is Settled.

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) and Sazerac Company, Inc., today announced that the groups have reached a settlement over disputed trademark issues. Although terms of the settlement are confidential and will not be released to the public, the result is evident from the announcement's wording. KDA continues to own the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® trademark, but Sazerac is allowed to refer to the 'bourbon trail' generically when promoting tourism at its three Kentucky facilities.

The announcement brings an end to litigation filed in U.S. District Court in May 2010 by the KDA against Sazerac, a Louisiana-based company that owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, and Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro. In response to KDA’s lawsuit, Sazerac countersued the KDA. The counterclaims against KDA have also been resolved as a result of today’s settlement.

Sazerac Company resigned from the KDA, a non-profit trade association based in Frankfort, in December 2009. Members of the KDA include Beam Global Spirits & Wine (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), Brown-Forman, Diageo North America, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey.

“We’re pleased that an amicable resolution has been reached in this important matter,” said KDA President Eric Gregory. “The KDA and its members look forward to continue building the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® experience and promoting our signature industry’s rich history to visitors from around the world.”

“Sazerac’s three Kentucky distilleries, Buffalo Trace Distillery, Barton 1792 Distillery and The Glenmore Distillery look forward to continue developing their distillery tours along the bourbon trail,” said Marketing Service Director, Meredith Moody.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Women And Whiskey.

I was asked today if I knew of any whiskey brands named after women. The questioner mentioned Four Roses, which is a stretch.

There certainly have been women in the industry, though not many. There are a few famous cases pre-Prohibition of women taking over the family distillery after their husbands died, but as managers not distillers. (In many cases, their husbands weren’t distillers either.) Mary Dowling, who ran Waterfill & Frazier, comes to mind. Agusta Dickel similarly helped run George Dickel for many years after George’s death. But much like the Jewish families who owned distilleries but never put their names on the labels, there have been many unsung women in the whiskey biz.

In modern times, Rachel Barrie of Glenmorangie has the title “Whisky Creator and Master Blender.” Jill Jones is the executive in charge of all production at Brown-Forman, including Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve.

Craig Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hill, has no sons but two teenage daughters and he hopes at least one of them will want to carry on the Beam family tradition.

I’m 60, so I’ve watched this business for a long time. My mom drank nothing but bourbon her whole life as did many women of her generation. Women not drinking whiskey is the more recent phenomenon, but in the last ten years or so the pendulum has swung the other way. I teach a ‘whiskey 101’ class and frequently women outnumber men among the students. I taught a bourbon class last night and I believe there were 5 women out of 13 students. Three were with guys and the last two were with each other. Often in the classes I get groups of 2 to 5 women taking the class together, and their numbers equal or exceed the number who come with male dates. They are invariably young (under 30), as are most of the students in my classes.

Ten years ago, women were rare at whiskey events of any kind, unless they were working, and 90 percent of the women who did attend did so with male dates. But today, among young adults, there seems to be very little difference between the genders in their interest in whiskey. At least that's so here in Chicago.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Proximo To Buy LDI Bottling.

Proximo Spirits, the New Jersey company behind 1800 Tequila and 3 Olives Vodka, among other brands, is in the process of buying the finished goods warehouse and bottling hall part of the former Seagram's distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, according to Proximo CEO Mark Teasdale. As we reported on October 21, the distillery and aging warehouses are being acquired by MGP.

Since the MGP announcement indicated that the distillery sale was conditional on a successful sale of the bottling operation, there was great interest in that part of the transaction.

Proximo popped up on the radar screens of whiskey enthusiasts last year when it was revealed that they had acquired Stranahan's in Colorado, the makers of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey. Teasdale says they have no plans to bottle Stranahan's in Indiana. "We consider Stranahan's a jewel," said Teasdale. "It's a special thing and a Colorado brand." Although Proximo is expanding the Stranahan's operation and increasing production, the brand's strong growth in Colorado has limited their ability to distribute it outside the state. "We want to be loyal to the base," says Teasdale.

Lawrenceburg will continue to be a contract bottler and Teasdale hopes they can retain as many of the current customers as possible.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Best Use For Turkey Leftovers: The Hot Brown.

There is more to Kentucky than bourbon, including foods you won’t find anywhere else. As we are entering prime turkey-eating season, here is the best and highest use for leftover turkey: the Hot Brown.

The Hot Brown is a very rich, open-face sandwich. It was created in 1926 at the Brown Hotel by Chef Fred K. Schmidt. The recipe below, which claims to be the original, was published by Cissy Gregg, the late Food Editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Hot Brown (4 servings)
4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices toast, with crusts cut off
Turkey breast slices
Crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
Mushroom slices, sauteed

Saute onion in butter until transparent; add flour and combine. Add milk, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Cook on medium heat until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Add cheese and continue heating until they blend. Remove from heat.

Put one slice of toast in each of four oven-proof individual serving dishes. Top each piece of toast with slices of turkey. Cut remaining toast slices diagonally and place on sides of sandwiches. Ladle cheese sauce over sandwiches. Place sandwiches under broiler until sauce begins to bubble. Garnish with crumbled bacon and sauteed mushroom slices and serve immediately.

If two cups sounds like a lot of sauce for four servings, you have perceived the essence of the Hot Brown. The typical Hot Brown is smothered in sauce. You’ll also notice it says nothing about heating up the turkey slices. You can but it's not necessary. This is a recipe designed for leftovers.

There are many variations. Most places don’t crumble the bacon, and there are many substitutes for the mushrooms, including tomato slices and asparagus spears. Some simply forgo the vegetables altogether. Cissy Gregg even suggested you can substitute chicken for the turkey, but I can’t get behind that.

If you’re traveling to Kentucky, you will find the Hot Brown on the menus of many restaurants. The Brown Hotel still serves it, of course. Kurtz’s, in Bardstown, has a good one too.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Latest Outrage: Spirit Whiskey.

Spirit Whiskey.

It's a new term to most people. It even has a good sound too it, like it might be something great.

It's not.

Unless you're a vodka drinker. But in that case, you probably should just stick to vodka.

It's up to you.

The web site for new Kansas Clean Distilled Spirit Whiskey says, "You won't find rednecks in overalls or middle-aged men in tweed flat caps anywhere near a bottle of Kansas Clean Distilled Whiskey." Instead, the web site shows you pictures of hip, attractive, 20-somethings who supposedly drink this new product.

Other brands trying to catch this wave are American Spirit Whiskey and WhipperSnapper Oregon Spirit Whiskey.

These companies didn't invent 'spirit whiskey.' It has been in the federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (that's the official federal regulatory rule book) all along. It just hasn't been made much in recent years. There's a good reason for that.

The rules define 'Spirit Whiskey' as a combination of at least 5 percent whiskey and neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. That may sound a little like blended whiskey, except there the minimum is 20 percent whiskey and the whiskey has to be straight whiskey, meaning whiskey that has been distilled below 80 percent alcohol and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.

So consider Seagram's Seven, an American Blended Whiskey. It is 25 percent straight whiskey and 75 percent grain spirit (i.e., vodka with a few months in wood). Some people like that sort of thing, but most whiskey drinkers consider it brown vodka. Similar to Canadian whisky, it has a very mild whiskey flavor with strong vanilla notes. It's not ghastly, it's just very mild and superficial.

In the marketplace, American blended whiskey is an inexpensive, inoffensive alcohol delivery system. Typically sold in plastic 1.75 liter bottles, most go for less than $20, about the same as vodka.

For spirit whiskey, the whiskey component can be straight whiskey but it doesn't have to be. It just has to meet the very low threshold requirement for whiskey, which is itself damn near vodka.

So if it sounds like spirit whiskey is vodka with a tiny little bit of something that is barely but still technically whiskey added to it, it's because that's exactly what it is.

Spirit whiskey was put into the regs right after Prohibition, at a time when fully-aged whiskey was scarce and vodka was virtually unknown. It was a way to make something called whiskey that required very little whiskey to make. When fully-aged whiskey became readily available, spirit whiskey died out. 

What's the point of reintroducing spirit whiskey? The premise seems to be that vodka drinkers want to keep drinking vodka, but want to call it whiskey. Spirit whiskey allows you to pour virtual-vodka from a bottle that says 'whiskey' on it, if that is what your self-image requires.

Unlike blended whiskey, which is at least a good value, these new products are all trying to position themselves as premium and are priced accordingly. For the same price you can get a decent whiskey or, for that matter, a decent vodka.

The Kansas people also say this, "Indeed whiskey is far more exciting than the next trendy vodka."

Sorry, but spirit whiskey is the next trendy vodka.

(Full disclosure: I wear tweed flat caps.)

Spirit whiskey most resembles but is not vodka. It scarcely resembles whiskey. Think of is as whiskey's ghost, an emanation faint and evanescent. It is whiskey's echo. It is not whiskey.

LDI An "Exciting Acquisition," Says MGP CEO.

Here is an update on the LDI acquisition by MGP, which we first reported on October 21.

MGP CEO Tim Newkirk has this to say in their quarterly financial statement, released today. "Growing our sales into the consumer packaged goods market is our number one priority. We are on the verge of greatly increasing our presence in distilled beverages, specifically bourbon and rye whiskey, with the pending acquisition of Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. Our integration teams are making significant progress in planning to transition the existing production facilities and their customers as we target completion of this exciting acquisition sometime early in 2012."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Upcoming Whiskey Classes Taught By Me.

I teach whiskey classes here in Chicago through I Wish Lessons. These are introductory classes and last about a hour.

The next one is a bourbon class next Tuesday, 11/15, at French Accent in the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, on the second floor. French Accent is a new venue for us and since we're usually on the North Side, this will be good for people who prefer a loop location, close to Union Station.

On Wednesday, 11/16, I'm teaching a Whiskey 101 class, in which we'll taste Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and American rye. It's at Fion, 426 W. Diversey.

If they're not sold out, I Wish will sell tickets pretty much right up to the last minute, so contact them if you're interested.

The classes are always held in bars and we always taste four products. You can order food and other beverages, and stay after class for 'extra credit.' It's a fun night out with friends, with a little learning on the side.

I Wish also has many other classes. Their most popular one is sushi rolling.

Here is what I have coming up after next week. None of the locations are set yet. As you can see, we're also trying to get a Tequila class going. Go to the I Wish website to sign up or see what other classes they offer.

Wednesday, 12/7 – Tequila
Thursday, 12/15 – Whiskey 101
Tuesday, 12/20 – Bourbon
Wednesday, 12/21 – Single Malt Scotch

Everything is subject to change.

I Wish also does private classes, so if you have a group that would like to have a whiskey or other distilled spirits tasting with me as your coach, you can arrange that through I Wish too, or contact me directly. (Email is on my profile.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

What Do Terns 'High Rye' And 'Low Rye' Mean?

The question was posed to me about the rye content of bourbon recipes. "What does the industry mean," the questioner wondered, "when they say 'high' or 'low' rye?"

I answered that 'high rye and 'low rye' are terms used more by enthusiasts than by producers. Four Roses is about the only producer that uses them, and they would probably say 'high rye' and 'standard rye.' The two mash bills at Four Roses are 20% and 35% rye, respectively. Even their 'low rye' is high relative to the rest of the industry, where 12% to 15% rye is more typical.

Buffalo Trace, which also makes two rye-recipe bourbon mash bills, explicitly rejects the high/low terminology. They won't reveal their exact mash bills, but #1 is probably less than 10% rye, while #2 is nearer to the 12% to 15% standard.

Bulleit is one of the few producers that talks about rye content. They use the Four Roses 35% rye mash bill. Old Grand-Dad/Basil Hayden, made by Jim Beam, is the other true 'high rye' mash bill, at about 30%. Their other recipe, the one used for Jim Beam and most of their other bourbons, is about 15% rye.

Dynamic Beverages, a small producer, uses the terms which they picked up from enthusiasts. They get their whiskey from LDI which, as a former Seagram's plant, uses many of the same recipes as Four Roses, and Dynamic uses the term 'high rye,' but the 20% rye recipe is hardly 'low.' Their Redemption Bourbon uses the 35% rye formula while their Temptation Bourbon uses the 20% rye recipe.

Four Roses, LDI, Beam, Buffalo Trace and Brown Forman are the only major distilleries that make two or more different rye-recipe bourbons.

At Brown-Forman, the Woodford/Old Forester recipe is 18% rye, Jack Daniel's is 8% and Early Times is 11%. So they have three different recipes, two in the 'typical' range and one legitimately low.

While there is no industry standard, I would refer to anything with more than 30% rye as 'high' and anything less than 12% as 'low,' while anything in between is 'standard' or 'typical.'

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Are You Doing Enough To Help Buffalo Trace Create The Perfect Bourbon?

Well, are you?

If not, your next chance has arrived. This month, Buffalo Trace Distillery (BT) will release the third round of Single Oak Project Bourbon, another case of twelve 375 ml bottles, each containing one of the 192 slightly different bourbons created for this project.

This is round three of sixteen. I first wrote about the project here.

Since the first release, nearly 1,000 consumers have posted feedback on the Single Oak Project website, rating some or all of the barrels they’ve tasted. Wheaters from high wood (the top of the tree) are leading, barrels #61 and #127, specifically.

Through this feedback, BT will determine which very specific characteristics bourbon drinkers like best, with a goal of using that information to create a 'Holy Grail' bourbon. The more people who participate, the more useful the results will be.

It’s a very long-term project.

For each release, BT cleverly compresses the number of variables presented, so while the project looks at seven variables, each 12-bottle release deals with no more than three. Therefore, any two bottles will teach you something cool. You can, for example, taste two whiskeys in which the only variable is barrel entry proof. Everything else is controlled for -- everything -- and you can taste the difference.

Although Single Oak Project Bourbon is sold only in the U.S., BT has recorded web site visitors from 31 countries.

This new release explores recipe, wood grain, and barrel entry proof. You can compare rye-recipe bourbon to wheat-recipe bourbon; and barrel entry proofs of 105° (52.5% ABV) or 125° (62.5% ABV), the legal maximum; as well as barrel wood grain rated as coarse, average, or fine.

The suggested retail price is $46.35 per bottle (375 ml), but some retailers are selling Single Oak by the case only.

You have to admire BT’s audacity, first in postulating that bourbon perfection can be attained, then in launching a project to attain it that will take 20 or more years to complete. Like building a medieval cathedral, it's a project to span generations.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Van Winkle Watch.

The purpose here is not to tell you about the Van Winkle whiskeys. It is to tell people who already know about Van Winkle whiskeys that the fall 2011 release will be in stores before 2011 expires -- barely. Probably just after Thanksgiving. Get friendly with your whiskey monger now.

That's official, from the Van Winkles.

You should know (and this isn't from-them official) that the chronic scarcity of Van Winkle whiskey is a deliberate business strategy, not that there's anything wrong with that. By keeping supply well below demand, the company reduces its selling cost and market risk to just about zero. Nobody pressures you on price when you're on allocation, so profits are protected and predictable. They actually do increase the supply, so their profits do grow, just not by much. It's a very unconventional and conservative business model, probably suitable only for small, family-run businesses.

To reflect a bit afield, the current state of things should have us all thinking about the point at which 'reasonable profits' slips over into 'unconscionable greed.' A company like Van Winkle shows that 'get as much as you can as fast as you can' is not the only way to be successful.

Friday, October 21, 2011

MGP Acquires LDI Distillery.

LDI, the mysterious former Seagram’s distillery that makes Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye, Bulleit Rye, and several other popular whiskeys, has finally been sold. When the deal closes, its new owner will be MGP Ingredients, Inc. The press release issued today by MGP can be found here.

‘LDI’ is an abbreviation for Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, which is located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, just west of Cincinnati.

Followers of this space have read about LDI before, such as here and here. A sale has been anticipated for most of this year.

Although MGP has not announced its specific plans for the facility, MGP is a public company so greater transparency is likely going forward. MGP, which stands for ‘Midwest Grain Products,’ is a long-time and well-regarded supplier of grain neutral spirits (GNS) to the beverage alcohol industry. That suggests that they will continue and probably increase LDI’s production and sale of bulk whiskey, which will be welcome news to the many non-distiller producers who rely on LDI for their products.

Based in Atchison, Kansas, MGP has a major GNS distillery in Pekin, Illinois, near Peoria. 

MGP is buying the distillery and related assets but not the nearby bottling plant, which is being sold separately. According to MGP, that deal is imminent and the distillery sale is conditional on its completion.

Not mentioned in the press release is another associated asset, LDI’s grain division in Rushville, Indiana.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Knob Creek Rye, Coming Not So Soon.

I heard from a reader that, at a recent bourbon tasting sponsored by Beam Inc., a company rep mentioned that they are coming out with a straight rye under the Knob Creek banner. Currently, the Knob Creek line consists of two bourbons; the standard expression and a single barrel.

I have confirmed that the rumor is true, but the release is not imminent. Look for it sometime in 2012. It will be a straight rye whiskey, but no other details are available.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Buffalo Trace On Track To Raise $200,000 For Charity.

Nearly $50,000 has been raised for charity to date through Buffalo Trace Distillery Millennium Barrel auctions. With more than two months and 100 non-profit fundraising events to go, the Distillery hopes to reach its goal of raising $200,000 for charity by the December 31st deadline.

The Millennium Barrel was the last of the twentieth century, filled at Buffalo Trace Distillery on Dec. 31, 1999 and placed in Warehouse V, the world’s smallest bonded aging warehouse, which holds one barrel.

In June of 2011, the company removed the barrel from the warehouse and bottled the whiskey, which yielded 174 bottles. Each Millennium Barrel bottle was packaged in a numbered hardwood showcase box that includes a piece of the historic barrel’s charred oak staves.

Buffalo Trace Distillery then offered all 174 bottles free to non-profit organizations wishing to raise funds for their charity. The only caveat was that the bottles had to be auctioned off by Dec. 31, 2011. Interested parties can check on upcoming charity fundraisers for their chance to obtain this piece of history here.

"Some of these non-profits have found really creative ways to raise money for their organizations," said Kris Comstock, Buffalo Trace Bourbon brand manager.

As an example, Comstock referred to the New York Cares organization that raised $6,255 by offering it as a special door prize only to premier ticket holders to their fundraising event. Several other organizations across the country have upped their dollars raised through similar creative strategies, such as bundling the Millennium Barrel bourbon with other upscale prizes.

"With more than 100 non-profits events still scheduled before the end of the year, we hope to reach our goal of $200,000 for these worthwhile causes," Comstock added.

Friday, October 7, 2011

How Maker’s Mark Was Made.

Most histories of Maker’s Mark Bourbon mention an early ad campaign, typified by the one above. “It tastes expensive…and is,” was always the headline.

Bragging about how expensive your product is can be a risky tactic, but Maker’s made it work. To understand how, it helps to understand the context.

The first barrel of Maker’s was laid down in 1954. The first bottle was sold in 1959. They were a true independent then, owned and operated by the Samuels family. They were tiny, starting from scratch. They grew slowly but steadily, almost entirely in Kentucky.

Bill Samuels Junior, whose father started the company, has said it is a good thing they were family-owned and independent then because it didn’t make much sense as a business and any real business would have shut them down.

It took, after all, 25 years.

Price was always an issue with retailers, especially in rural Kentucky, who couldn’t imagine why someone would buy an unknown bourbon for $7 a bottle when there were plenty of good bourbons for $6 and less. In the cities, where people routinely paid $7 or more for a bottle of good whiskey, it was scotch they were buying, not bourbon.

Bourbon was the working man’s drink. No one could imagine a bourbon competing directly with scotch or Cognac.

Maker’s was clearly swimming against the current. Because they were so small, they didn’t have much of an advertising budget. But they did have a story, a good one, one that they believed in. They also had a good advertising agency, Louisville’s Doe-Anderson.

Ads like the one above weren’t full-page or color. They were one-quarter page or less, in black and white. The message had to be clear and pertinent. It had to ‘move the needle.’

The “It tastes expensive…and is” ad campaign, launched in 1966, was successful because it under-promised and over-delivered, in an almost back-handed way. The ads said Maker's was expensive, but it wasn't. It was a little pricier than other bourbons but less than most good scotch or other things people might be drinking. The first time you looked at it in a store you were prepared by the advertising for it to be more expensive than it was. Perfect!

With price resistance thus overcome, they could get to sampling, and Maker’s sampled well because it had a different flavor. It genuinely was not a typical bourbon. It had a milder, sweeter flavor, even compared to scotch. It made an excellent first impression, regardless of the taster’s previous drinking experience.

After 1969, whiskey sales collapsed and the rest of the industry was in a race to the bottom. Maker’s stood apart even more. No one in the business believed you could sell bourbon with a quality claim. That was true when bourbon sales were growing and became carved in stone when sales nose-dived. No one took Maker's Mark seriously. It was still a tiny, Kentucky-owned brand.

Ultimately, Maker’s Mark was 'made' by a 1980 article in the Wall Street Journal, which described how it had been discovered by traveling businessmen, who began a word-of-mouth campaign, which led to surging sales and a chronic shortage that persists to the present.

The WSJ article told how Maker’s was making all the right moves, so it’s likely they would have succeeded anyway, but the article sure helped. It can also be said to mark the beginning of the present bourbon revival. Once it was okay to think of bourbon as a quality product, anything was possible.

The independence that had been such a large part of Maker's story was gone in less than a year. People often mistakenly believe small privately-owned companies sell out because they've hit a bad financial patch. Usually it's the opposite. They sell out because they can't afford to finance the growth their success has made possible without help. In 1981, Maker’s Mark was acquired by Canada’s Hiram Walker and Sons.

Now part of the new Beam Inc., Maker’s Mark has become the first super premium bourbon to break the one-million-case sales barrier. Its success has been built on a perfect convergence of smarts and luck. Bill Samuels Jr., since 2010 the company’s hardest-working retiree, has often said that his primary guiding principle has been, “don’t screw it up.”

So far, so good.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Cowdery Farms Three Sisters Pizza.

While my wrist heals, I'll have other family members carry some of the freight here on the blog. One benefit of having an unusual surname is knowing that most other people who have it are related to you in some way.

In this case, Larry and I share Ethan Cowdery (1788-1848), whose parents brought their family to Southeastern Ohio in 1808 from Hartland, Connecticut. Ethan was my great-great-great-grandfather.

The family settled in what is now Meigs County. Larry's branch stayed. Mine left in about 1886. My link to Ethan, his son Josiah, seems to have forsaken farming for town life. According to Josiah's eldest son, who left, they lived in Coolville, Ohio.

I don't actually know Larry and Kim, although I have corresponded with them and with Larry's parents. This is a story about a pizza made with vegetables grown on their farm.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Beam Announces Two New Red Stag Flavors.

The original black cherry flavor Red Stag by Jim Beam was just named to Shanken's 'Hot Prospects' list — the U.S. market’s most promising wine and spirits growth brands. Winners (announced in Shanken's Impact Newsletter) must have annual depletions of at least 50,000 cases and no more than 200,000 cases, while having achieved at least 15% growth in 2010 and solid progress in the two years prior to that.

A total of 72 brands are on this year’s list, 28 of which sold more than 100,000 cases. Several are likely to pass the 200,000-case threshold and enter Impact “Hot Brand” territory by year-end—including Red Stag,

So, naturally, having proved flavored bourbon is a viable segment, Beam is preparing to release two new flavors. Here's what Rob Mason, Director, U.S. Bourbons, Beam, had to say in an email received yesterday.

"Red Stag Black Cherry by Jim Beam has been one of our greatest success stories in years, and it helped us pioneer a new segment in the category. Now we’re adding two new members to the herd! Coming in early 2012, we’re extremely excited to announce the launch of not one, but TWO new Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskeys infused with natural flavors: Red Stag Honey Tea and Red Stag Spiced."

This also marks a new policy by Beam. Last year it got silly when they fully announced Knob Creek Single Barrel to the trade but wouldn't confirm it for the consumer press. These days you just can't keep something like that bottled up, and Beam seems to have figured that out. Good for them. Smart companies learn from their mistakes. (Hear that, Diageo?)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Detour For Kentucky Visitors.

As I told you last month, fall is a great time to visit bourbon country, but there is a ground transportation problem you need to know about.

One of the three Ohio River bridges at Louisville, the Sherman Minton (I-64), is closed for repairs for the foreseeable future. This is an unplanned, emergency closure, so detour plans are being improvised.

Traffic is mainly being diverted to the John F. Kennedy Bridge (I-65), which is leading to long backups on it, depending on time of day, especially for drivers trying to access I-64 or I-71 on the Kentucky side. My tip is stay to the left as you cross and exit at either Liberty Street or St. Catherine Street, and take surface streets back to the interstate. You'll need a good map, of course, but it's pretty easy.

As for alternatives, there are bridges between Cincinnati and Louisville at Lawrenceburg and Madison, Indiana. The next one south of the Sherman Minton (I-64) is the Matthew E. Welsh Bridge at Brandenburg, KY. These are two lane bridges not directly connected to any interstate and, as such, probably won't be the publicized detours.

Brandenburg is an especially good choice if you are coming from the west and heading to Bardstown or anywhere south of Louisville, as it is just west of Fort Knox. Work your way from there to Elizabethtown, where you can pick up the Bluegrass Parkway to points east.

There is also the William Natcher Bridge at Owensboro, KY, which is new and a real beauty.

These detours have the added benefit of taking you through some very scenic countryside and while the roads aren't interstates they are generally pretty good.

The third bridge at Louisville, by the way, is just west of the Kennedy. Officially it's the George Rogers Clark Bridge but locals call it Second Street Bridge. It might be an alternative. It's easy to find on the Louisville side (just go north on Second Street), a bit harder in Jeff (local shorthand for Jeffersonville, Indiana).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The New Normal At Stranahan's.

I am pleased and relieved to report that things seem be settling down and returning to normal at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

Even though it’s a new normal, that’s good news for everybody.

Proximo (the new owner) is now talking and so is Jess Graber, Stranahan’s founder and chief brand ambassador. Graber was willing to share a little more than the ‘nothing will change’ mantra that has been the answer to every question for the past year.

This follows the departure of Jake Norris in August and his replacement as distiller by Rob Dietrich, who had been assistant distiller for the past five years. Pete Macca is the new general manager. Graber will continue as brand ambassador but won’t be directly involved in day-to-day operations or sales.

Asked by Sean Kenyon on Westword why he left, Norris replied, “I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.”

Kenyon’s interview with Norris is a good capsule of the whole Stranahan’s saga.

Here is the even shorter version. Stranahan’s, located in Denver, Colorado, is one of the pioneers of American micro-distilling, especially micro whiskey-making; and one of the early success stories. Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is unique, distinctive, and very drinkable. It is malt whiskey aged for at least two years in new, charred, standard-size (53 gallon), white oak barrels.

Just about a year ago, the grapevine began to buzz with rumors about a sale, either impending or consummated, of Stranahan’s to Proximo, a small company itself but a much bigger one than Stranahan’s. By the end of 2010 the sale was confirmed through evidence in the public record, such as the transfer of intellectual property. Neither party had said a word.

Eventually an anonymous Proximo executive and an uncharacteristically terse Jess Graber made statements. Then silence. Word came from retailers that Stranahan’s whiskey was becoming scarce in Colorado, and impossible to get elsewhere. In June, Macca announced that Kalamath Street would triple its capacity by the end of the year.

Last Wednesday, Elwyn Gladstone, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Proximo, introduced himself. “We're doing great things with Stranahan's,” he wrote. “Major investment in new stills, more barrels and in the infrastructure of the building.”

Asked why the sale, a year-old at this point, went down the way it did, he replied, “We are a (very) privately held company and as such, we never discuss any of our acquisitions or other business transactions. It’s just our policy – nothing sinister.”

So no harm done? That, apparently, is a matter of opinion.

Sensing my dissatisfaction, Gladstone suggested an interview with Graber.

I have known Jess Graber for a few years, not well but we have talked whiskey a few times. He says the sale will enable Stranahan’s to implement his 10-year plan in about a year. He says both sides wanted secrecy and a formal announcement just never got made.

You still won’t find anything about it on the Stranahan’s web site.

Graber believes the tight supply is because Proximo wants to build up a finished goods inventory so they can deliver a more steady and reliable supply going forward. He concedes that when he was running things, he sold whatever they could put into bottles, as fast as he could, until it ran out.

By the end he was selling it in 36 states. Proximo has retrenched into Colorado, Chicago, and New York City.

On the barrel goods side, they are trying to build up inventory of older whiskey so they can increase production without changing the product. The Stranahan’s we know and love contains whiskey that is three, four and five years old, in very particular proportions. Graber says that mix won’t change and every drop will be made at Kalamath Street so long as he is on the payroll.

When Proximo feels they have enough product to sell that they need to promote it, Graber will go back out as brand ambassador. “For now I’m happy not being on the road 200 days a year,” he says.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One-Handed Typing Sucks.

I broke my wrist a few days ago, so posts may be less frequent and definitely shorter until it gets fixed. Too bad, because I have quite a bit to tell you, from the Bourbon Festival and beyond.

I'll get it all written and posted eventually. 

Now I know what they mean about the one-armed paper hanger.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Whiskey For Dummies, By Dummies.

I was having some fun with friends recently, counting the number of mistakes per paragraph in Whiskey for Dummies, part of that ubiquitous series. Perhaps, someone quipped, they have started a new sub-imprint called “For Dummies, By Dummies,” acronym “FDBD.”

The book is simply bad, as in mistake-ridden. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of whiskey can play this game. I had a lot of fun with the definition of 'sour mash.' That short paragraph contains at least seven errors.

Unfortunately, we can’t take the author to task because he died two years ago. His name was Perry Luntz. Apparently he was a big wine guy. Good for him, but he had no business writing a book about whiskey.

Despite Luntz’s demise, misinformation, it seems, is eternal. An obituary of Luntz by Ron Kapon, who calls himself The Peripatetic Oenophile (www.ronkapon.com), contained this personal note: “I have quoted his Whiskey and Spirits for Dummies book in several magazine articles and use it as a texbook (sic) for one of my classes.”

As a French vintner might remark, “Quel dommage.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Proximo Is Not That Big.

As I posted here on Tuesday, I have followed with interest the saga of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which was sold by its founders about a year ago to Proximo Spirits. I think it's a cautionary tale for any current or prospective micro-distillers, as Stranahan's was one of the success stories of this young industry.

But I have to take issue with one small fact that has been widely reported. Many of the articles in Westword and elsewhere describe Proximo as "a big company" or, even, "a huge company." Everything is relative, of course. Proximo is certainly much bigger than the independent Stranahan's was. But Proximo is not a big company.

Proximo is a young company, about three years old. It is private so detailed information about it isn't readily available, but in the distilled spirits business it would be called a specialty or niche producer. It has a range of products in some currently-popular segments (tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey), all of which are premium-priced, hence very profitable for everyone in the distribution chain, from producer to retailer, even if sales volume is small. 

None of its products are household names or category leaders, although it is currently spending about $18 million dollars to make its 1800 Tequila brand more recognizable. There are a lot of companies like Proximo in the beverage business. They thrive on the desire of bars, mostly, to carry something the guy next door doesn't have. Sometimes they luck out and one of their brands goes major, as Jagermeister and Grey Goose did for Sidney Frank; but overall, in dollar and volume terms, they are not big companies nor big players in the distilled spirits business.

Proximo isn't a pimple on Diageo's ass.

The size of Proximo isn't really the point. What's fascinating about this story is that the PR was handled about as badly as possible, and we still have no idea why or what really happened. Craft distilleries thrive by developing an intimate relationship with both their trade and end-user customers. Their openness, transparency, and accessibility is what distinguishes them from the majors. They are invariably and proudly local. That's what they can do that a major cannot.

Stranahan's excelled at this. I never met George Stranahan, but Jess Graber and Jake Norris were terrific brand ambassadors. Graber, who made that his primary job, was very good at it and cultivated an appropriate Colorado cowboy image. You could always spot him at a WhiskeyFest or ADI convention.

Then the sale went down. There was no warning and no announcement. A few months earlier, I interviewed Graber about Stranahan's future plans and he gave me a detailed five-year projection that said nothing about selling the company. People like me and the folks at Westword figured it out when things like trademarks began to be transferred, which is a matter of public record.

Then Graber and Stranahan disappeared. Graber sent me a new email address, but he hasn't responded to any inquiries sent there. Norris hung around until a couple weeks ago, but was close-mouthed. The Proximo folks never said much either. All anyone will say is "nothing will change, it's going to remain the same great product it has always been," which really isn't enough. You don't have to go very far to hear the disappointment from the bar owners and others, mostly in Denver, who supported the brand from its earliest days.

They aren't upset because it was sold. They are upset because they were kicked to the curb in the process.

By contrast, Tuthilltown in New York, one of the other bright stars in the micro-distillery firmament, sold its Hudson Whiskey brand to William Grant & Sons a few months before the Stranahan's sale. Both companies announced it, I wrote about it, nobody left Tuthilltown, there were no mysteries, no hard feelings, and it has been an overall very positive transition. 

Perhaps Stranahan's can recover from this, but Proximo is virtually starting from scratch to rebuild the brand image. They have squandered most of the goodwill and 'ownership' feeling Graber and Norris built up over the years among the people who matter most, the loyal bartenders and drinkers of Denver.

What does Proximo think it bought? A name? A recipe? A production facility? In the past year, Proximo has shown they don't value at all what the old guard at Stranahan's valued most, the loyalty and affection of their local community. That's a shame.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival Is Next Week.

Technically, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky, starts Monday. Not much happens before Friday, though, which is when the only festival-like part opens up; the booths, rides, and food stands on the Spalding Hall lawn. Most everything before that is a ticketed event.

To refresh your memory about how I regard the festival, read this post from June.

I'll probably go down on Wednesday. Before I head to Bardstown I'm going to check out the new Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

The Festival gets a lot of well-deserved criticism from me, but I always go. My favorite official event -- one that is both public and free -- is the barrel rolling competition. It takes place on Saturday morning on a sports field adjacent to the festival grounds.

Teams from the different area distilleries compete in events that closely mimic how full barrels are managed in the aging warehouses. Barrels used in the competition are the same barrels they really use, only empty.

There usually are some master distillers hanging around, cheering on their teams. It's a lot more fun and authentic than the stupid prom on Saturday night that is supposed to be the Festival's signature event.

If you're in the area, like within a couple hours drive, it wouldn't be crazy just to run down there as a day trip to check it out. Even on the weekend, when the festival is at it's peak, getting in and out and around in Bardstown isn't too difficult.

Woodstock it's not.

You can even make an overnight stay a spur-of-the-moment decision. You probably won't be able to find a room in Bardstown proper, but there are tons of lodging choices at every exit on I-65 near there that will have vacancies.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Stranahan's. Another Shoe Drops.

If you've been following the Stranahan's saga like I have, you'll want to read the latest in Westword.

The news? Distiller Jake Norris has followed founders Jess Graber and George Stranahan out the door.

Beam Maybe Not In Play After All.

As I have written about here before, and also in the current (No. 97) issue of WHISKY Magazine, Fortune Brands will shortly become Beam Inc., a pure-play spirits company as opposed to a diversified conglomerate.

Ever since this plan was announced, industry observers have speculated that some rival will almost immediately acquire Beam Inc. and take it apart. The folks at Beam haven't commented but one can assume that is not what they have in mind. I have always said that such an outcome is not as likely as many people think.

Just-Drinks speculates that the price would be about $9 billion. Now Just-Drinks is also reporting that the two most likely suspects, Diageo and Pernod, both say they are not interested, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Diageo is devoting its resources to developing markets, such as China; while Pernod is still trying to reduce the debt it took on to buy Absolut three years ago.

Many factors bear on whether or not any public company will become a takeover target. A big one will be how Beam Inc. stock trades when it is finally on the Big Board without golf balls and faucets holding it back.

News From Templeton Rye.

Here is some news from Templeton Rye President Scott Bush that came by way of their email newsletter. I thought it interesting enough to pass along.

Templeton has taken a lot of heat for not being able to keep up with demand in its home market of Iowa while it tries to expand into other areas. To rectify this, they announced they will greatly increase their monthly allocation to the State of Iowa in October, November and December, "so you should have an easier time finding a bottle of The Good Stuff for the holidays."

They say they are on pace to sell 22,000 cases in Iowa in 2011, up from 7,100 in 2010. This is one of the first tangible numbers I've seen for Templeton's sales. Twenty-two thousand cases of a premium whiskey in a smallish market like Iowa is pretty impressive. Whatever else Templeton might be, they are effective marketers.

Bush also points out that Templeton is only sold in four states: Iowa, Illinois, New York, and California. They are a pretty big deal here in Chicago, so they are in my face more than they are for most people. They've been in New York and California for less than a year and their distribution there is pretty much limited to high-end bars in New York City and San Francisco.

The news about that is that they don't intend to add any more markets until at least 2014.

Since this is Templeton, I can't resist a small dig.

Their email newsletter is called "Straight From The Still." That's a laugh since the still in which every drop of Templeton Rye is made is not even in Iowa and is not owned by them. Every drop of Templeton Rye is and always has been made at LDI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. That's why Templeton has supply problems, they are limited by how much whiskey LDI has to sell.

Templeton is bottled in Templeton, Iowa, and at least some of it is partially aged there as well. They also claim, in one of their videos, that they throw some rye grain grown on Templeton-area farms into the hoppers at LDI.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Revised TTB Rules? Be Careful What You Wish For.

Some craft distillers are frustrated by the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, a set of labeling rules enforced by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury Department. They think the rules squelch creativity and should be changed.

This is a story about an effort more than 40 years ago to do exactly that. It was supported by some of the largest and most powerful companies in the distilled spirits business. There were no micro-distilleries then, but those arguing against the proposals were the relatively smaller, family-owned distilleries that specialized in straight bourbon, straight rye, and Tennessee whiskey.

It was a battle between modernizers and traditionalists, and the traditionalists won.

The changes were proposed in response to foreign competition. The argument was that the whiskeys of Scotland, Ireland, and Canada had significant cost advantages because they were generally distilled at much higher proof (ABV), entered into barrels at higher proof (ABV), and aged in used barrels.

American producers could make a similar product, but the rules required them to label it in ways that diminished its marketability. There were certain terms they were not allowed to use in regard to such a product, such as ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ and ‘straight rye whiskey;’ and certain terms they were required to use, such as ‘aged in used cooperage.’ The imports merely had to be labeled here the same way they are labeled in their home countries.

So the big companies tried to get the Federal government to change the rules, so they could make American whiskey more in the foreign style, but still label it ‘straight bourbon,’ etc.

They wanted the top distillation proof raised from 80% ABV to 95% ABV, and the rules regarding maximum barrel entry proof and new charred oak barrels eliminated altogether. They wanted to relax the standard for straight whiskey to permit blends of straight whisky, even of different types, to be labeled as straight whiskey without the words ‘blend’ or ‘blended.’ One petitioner wanted a new rule requiring a minimum aging period of two years, another proposed a four-year minimum.

In January, 1968, the agency rejected most of the proposals and explained its reasoning in a nine page Industry Circular (No. 68-03).

It said that spirits made in the proposed way would “generally lack the distinguishing characteristics of such whiskies.” To call these products ‘straight bourbon’ or ‘straight rye’ would be misleading and not “in the interests of the consumer.”

The agency found that higher distillation proof “produces a distillate containing less pronounced natural flavoring components (both desirable and undesirable ones).”

On the minimum age requirement proposals the agency observed that, “there are no appreciable amounts of immature whiskies currently being sold,” a statement that is not true today. They did note, however, that “the present regulations protect the consumer by requiring all whiskies less than four years old to bear a true age statement.”

The most surprising fact about the 1968 circular is the extent to which the agency concerned itself with the balance and flavor of American whiskey. Although the regulators usually insist that their sole interest is truth-in-labeling, not quality per se, that does not appear to be the case here.

Perhaps there was some tasting involved.