Thursday, January 27, 2011

SMS. The Straw That Stirs The Drink.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how single malt scotch is the straw that stirs the drink of the entire whiskey category.

In 2010, 47,093,000 cases of whiskey were sold in the United States. (New DISCUS Data, released Monday.) Just 1,281,000 of those cases, less than 3%, were single malt scotch, yet that’s what people want to talk about, that's what dominates the general and enthusiast media, that’s what gets consumers and the trade excited, and (not coincidentally) that’s what produces everybody’s highest per-unit profits.

Mind you these are just the U.S. stats, but we are the world's largest whiskey market. Less than half of the whiskey we drink is whiskey made here, 44%. Another 34% comes from our friends to the north. The rest, 22%, comes from the whiskey motherlands of Scotland and Ireland. The smallest piece of that is single malt scotch.

Yet that is what whiskey enthusiasts care about. There are many good reasons for this and I'm not complaining. It's not a bad thing. It's a great thing. I drink single malt scotch, I love single malt scotch, I just happen to be a little more interested in whiskey subjects other than single malt scotch, American whiskey in particular. That makes me an oddball in the world of whiskey enthusiasts and whiskey writers, which may give me a unique perspective. (It must be good for something.)

I am also very interested in America's young microdistillery movement. I think American microdistilleries have the potential to make the American whiskey landscape a lot more interesting, in the same way that Scottish single malts are such an outsize part of what makes whiskey in general so interesting. It's not a perfect analogy because what keeps the single malt distilleries in business is a combination of what they sell as singles and what they sell to blenders, and I don't see a parallel to that evolving here.

On the other hand, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey aren't exactly analogous to Scottish blends. It's a completely different paradigm. You can't compare Johnnie Walker to Jack Daniel's and if you always look at American whiskey through a scotch prism you'll always see a distorted picture.

This potential to be American stir-straws is what the buyers of Hudson and Stranahan's must see. If American micros can build their business on a combination of great products, local pride and fun tourism, I can see parallels and how in not so many years microdistilleries could be an integral part of the U.S. whiskey scene, not for their sales volume but for intangible benefits similar to what Scottish single malts provide now.

New Michael Collins Irish Whiskey Gets It Right.

Sidney Frank was a genius. He created Grey Goose Vodka and sold it to Bacardi for $2.3 billion, the highest price ever paid for a single liquor brand. He also built J├Ągermeister into a 2-million-case brand.

Frank, who died in 2006, was the son of an orchard keeper who developed a taste for luxury during his one year at Brown University because his roommate’s father was president of RCA. He resolved then to marry rich. (These are all stories he told on himself.) He set his sights on Louise Rosenstiel, whose father Lewis owned Schenley, the largest distilled spirits company in the country.

After running his father-in-law’s business for a while Frank started his own in 1972. It still has J├Ągermeister and a portfolio of other products. He was preparing to launch Michael Collins Irish Whiskey when he died.

This month, Frank’s company re-launched the brand, named after one of the heroes of Irish independence. It’s still made at Cooley, Ireland’s only independent, Irish-owned distillery. And it still consists of two expressions, a blend and a single malt.

Promotion materials for the re-launch emphasize the new packaging, which is very nice and much more whiskey-like than the old one. The former package was beautiful but over designed and there was another, bigger problem: the whiskey inside wasn’t very good.

The re-launch materials say nothing about changing the whiskey but they clearly did. The former malt was hot, harsh and immature. The new one bears a 10-year-old age statement (the former was NAS) and tastes every bit of it. It is lightly peated, well balanced, and altogether pleasant. The blend has a similar profile. It is full-flavored, sweet, nutty and also very enjoyable. Together they make an excellent introduction to the high quality yet still mainstream Irish Whiskey segment, exactly where this brand should play.

The original was a product Sidney Frank himself approved, but even the great ones make mistakes. This new iteration is much improved. If you previously decided that Michael Collins is mediocre whiskey in a fancy bottle, give it another try. The bottle is not as fancy but the whiskey is much, much better.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Looking For A. H. Hirsch Bourbon? Good Luck.

Today I got a call out of the blue from a guy looking for A. H. Hirsch Bourbon, specifically the 20-year-old. I couldn’t help him. No one can help him unless they have some of it in their bunker. I don’t. I’ve never owned a bottle of the 20 and only ever had a few tastes of it.

This got me reviewing some of the research I’ve done about Hirsch. Here are the highlights.

The bourbon was commissioned by Adolph Hirsch, a former Schenley executive. It was 400 barrels of bourbon made in the spring of 1974 at the Pennco Distillery in Schaefferstown, PA.

Pennco was a small, independent contract distiller, mostly of rye whiskey. That order represented about eight days of production.

It is unknown why Hirsch commissioned the whiskey. It may have been a way to infuse some capital into a struggling company, which he had once owned. He apparently had no use for the whiskey as he left it there to age for the next 15 years.

This batch of whiskey was not the “last pot still bourbon,” as has often been reported. It was a conventional double-distilled bourbon, but it did age out very nicely.

Pennco, which had history back to 1753, folded shortly after the Hirsch bourbon was distilled. The plant was purchased in foreclosure and renamed Michter’s. It soldiered on for another decade but never stabilized. By 1989 the owners had skipped town and the bank was ready to shut the place down. They told Hirsch to get his whiskey out of there or risk losing it in the chaos that was sure to follow.

Hirsch sold the lot to Gordon Hue, who moved the barrels to a distillery in Cincinnati and began to bottle the whiskey as A.H. Hirsch Bourbon, mostly for sale in Japan. The first release was a 15-year-old, followed the next year by a 16-year-old.

At that point most of the whiskey was dumped and held in stainless steel tanks for subsequent bottling as a 16-year-old. A few barrels were allowed to continue aging. That produced 37 cases of an 18-year-old in 1992, 121 cases of a 19-year-old in 1993, and 500 cases of a 20-year-old in 1994-95.

Then the Hue family sold the brand and remaining, tanked 16-year-old bourbon to Preiss Imports which in 2003 had the rest of it bottled, about 3,000 cases. In 2009, Preiss created a boxed set priced at $1,500. That's the end of it.

The boxed set is still around at retail as are a few bottles of the final 16-year-old (distinguished by its gold foil capsule), reportedly at prices north of $250. I don’t know where they are exactly, but sightings have been reported.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Recovery of Distilled Spirits Industry Still Fragile, Says DISCUS.

This morning in New York, the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) presented its annual report on the state of the industry.

The report is based on sales data and other research about the year just ended. DISCUS President Peter Cressy led with an appeal to lawmakers not to stifle the recovery by piling on new tax burdens.

In 2010, supplier volumes rose 2% to 190 million cases and revenue rose 2.3% to $19.1 billion, but Cressy pointed out that growth rates remain below the robust pre-recession growth rates, and the important on-premise (restaurants and bars) sector is still experiencing a fragile recovery.

Cressy also noted that in 2010 consumers began to return to their preference for high-end and super premium spirits products, with revenue in the super premium category growing 10.9% from a very soft 2009. Revenue-based market share for spirits versus beer and wine gained four-tenths of a point, rising to 33.3% of the beverage alcohol market. Beer lost seven-tenths of a point of market share falling below 50%, as consumers continued their decade-long migration from beer to cocktails.

Reinforcing the cocktails theme, vodka, which accounts for 31% of industry volume, was up 6.1% to 59 million 9-liter cases (the standard measure of industry volume). Among super premium vodkas, volume was up nearly 18% and revenue was up approximately 14%.

Whiskey showed strong revenue growth, particularly in the super premium segment, which increased by 8.1% overall to over $1.1 billion. Within the super premium segment, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey revenue increased by over 17% to $161 million; single malt scotch grew nearly 18% to $140 million; and Irish grew 30% to $23 million. Super premium Brandy and Cognac were also up almost 10% to $315 million.

2010 preliminary U.S. distilled spirits export data showed a fourth consecutive year exceeding $1 billion, and a rebound from the slight downturn in 2009. The Council predicted final results could break the $1.1 billion record set in 2008. American whiskey represents 71% of all U.S. spirits exports.

DISCUS also reported that progress is being made in the prevention of underage drinking and drunk driving. The latest government data shows underage drinking by 8th, 10th and 12th graders, as well as the total number of drunk driving fatalities in the United States, are at historic low levels.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kentucky Loves Its Horses Too.

For as long as Kentuckians have been making and drinking whiskey they have been breeding and racing horses too. Both industries have fostered unique cultures that often overlap.

One stage on which they have appeared together for more than a century is the historic Seelbach Hilton Hotel, one of Louisville’s two grand hotels.

The Seelbach announced today that it will once again host the annual “Old Friends Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail” event, a bourbon-tasting and progressive dinner to benefit Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement facility.

The event begins at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 19. Tickets are $100 per person. Event guests who wish to sleep at the Seelbach (recommended) receive a special reduced room rate of $95 per night. The historic Seelbach Hilton (built 1905) is located at 500 South Fourth Street in downtown Louisville.

Old Friends, which has locations in Georgetown, KY and Greenfield Center, NY, provides a dignified retirement to horses whose racing and breeding careers have come to an end. The farm is home to such retired champions as Eclipse winner The Wicked North, Breeders’ Cup victor Gulch, and Travers stars Will’s Way and Thunder Rumble.

“This is the perfect Kentucky experience,” said Old Friends president and founder Michael Blowen, “It brings together our signature industries, horses and bourbon, at a world-class venue. We are very grateful to both the Seelbach and the Kentucky Distillers Association for their support.”

The bourbon tasting will be held in the Seelbach’s famous Rathskeller, the only intact Rookwood Pottery room left in the world. Bourbon-inspired appetizers will be served and Kentucky’s celebrated master distillers will pour samples of the finest whiskeys from Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Bulleit, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, and Wild Turkey.

Dinner will be served in the hotel’s Five Diamond, Triple AAA-Awarded Oakroom, a two-course dinner created by Seelbach Chef de Cuisine Bobby Benjamin.

The first course will feature Greg’s Grateful Greens, Colonel Newsom’s Aged Country Ham, Capriole Farm Pipers Pyramid Goat Cheese, sweet potato, fig vincotto, and bourbon mustard.

The second course is a Wagyu short rib with horseradish potato puree, pickled radish, bourbon glazed farm carrots, and bourbon pecan gastrique.

After dinner, guests will return to the Rathskeller for dessert. Finally, the Old Seelbach Bar will host an after-party featuring the music of Dick Sisto. Sunday brunch will be available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ($29 per person).

For reservations call Melissa Getz at the Seelbach at (502) 585-9292.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2001

Just as the Kentucky Derby is a race for 3-year-olds, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (EWSBV) is a race to be the best 9-year-old rye-recipe bourbon in Heaven Hill's warehouses.

After 14 years, the series is also like an old friend. It's not always the same but it's not very different either. The familiarity is always welcome. While the basic profile stays the same there is enough variation from year to year so that you look forward to each new release. It's an annual harvest of Heaven Hill's best. Because of that it is much more true to the traditional meaning of 'vintage' than most other annual whiskey releases.

Heaven Hill and thus EWSBV spent several years in the wilderness after the distillery in Bardstown was destroyed by fire. That history is reflected in the 1997 to 2000 vintages. If some of those years were a bit iffy, the series is back on track now.
The new EWSBV 2001 represents Heaven Hill settling down at its new distillery in Louisville, making exactly the whiskey they want to make. Its principal charm is exquisite balance. It has pipe tobacco on the nose, with tannin, deep char and candy corn on the palate.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2001 won't knock you on your ass. It's more like a comfortable visit with an old friend. Nothing spectacular and nothing new, but deeply enjoyable nonetheless.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What Makes A Cocktail Great?

To me, one mark of a great cocktail is that you almost can't identify the ingredients because it is so much its own thing. A cocktail can be good without that quality, but it's fun when you find it.

Noilly Pratt is my usual vermouth. About all I use it for is manhattans. I like Punt e Mes for a change of pace, but now I have two vermouths I rarely use. What else to do with them?

Recently I saw A. J. Rathbun's Punt e Mes highball. It's one part Punt and two parts ginger ale on the rocks. (I used Vernor's.) The drink is pretty great. Only two ingredients and it doesn't taste like either one of them. I'll have to try it with the Noilly.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Listen To Me Talk About Bourbon.

K&L Wine Merchants is a California retailer that recently started a podcast series. Earlier today I spent about an hour on the phone with K&L's David Driscoll. That podcast is now up and you can get it here or on i-Tunes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Remembering Old Hickory (The Whiskey).

Several people I know have recently come into possession of bottles of Old Hickory Bourbon, in one case a 10-year-old believed to have been purchased in 1965.

Old Hickory was a Publicker brand. I believe it was their primary bourbon. Publicker, based in Philadelphia, was one of the big American liquor companies post-Prohibition. The name 'Old Hickory' is a reference to Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States.

Many people from the Philadelphia area who are over age 50 can recall the distillery located on Packer and Delaware Ave, right by the Walt Whitman bridge. They say you could smell it as you crossed the river.

Whiskey distilleries smell pretty good, sort of like bakeries.

One of those people is Dave Ziegler, who worked there as a young man and keeps the company's memory alive. He holds court on, on the Discussion Board, where his threads about Publicker and Old Hickory dominate the History section. He refers to it as Kinsey Distillery, also sometimes as Continental, but it’s all the same company.

Publicker's whiskey maturation facility near Valley Forge was described in company literature in the 1950s as being the largest in the world, with a capacity of one million barrels.

Ziegler believes Old Hickory died in 1981 and I have no reason to doubt him.

Why did Publicker itself die? My sense is that they were mostly a commodity producer, more regional than national, didn’t have any really strong brands, and thus couldn’t survive the changes that occurred in the industry during the 1970s. Some of their brands, such as Rittenhouse Rye, were sold off and still exist today. Not Old Hickory.

It's also possible they couldn't survive the passing of their dynamic leader, Simon 'Si' Neuman, a son-in-law of company founder Harry Publicker, who ran Publicker during its most successful period.

Neuman, and thus Publicker, is best known today for having started Scotland’s Inver House Distillers, which they established in 1964 to provide a steady supply of Scotch whiskey for Publicker to sell in the USA. It later spun off Inver House, which is today a well-respected independent whiskey producer in Scotland.

In Scotland I think "independent" just means, "not owned by Diageo or Pernod." Inver House is owned by Thai Beverage.

Thanks to A. J. Rathbun for the creepy ad.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hey, Whiskey Collectors. How About A Legal Swap Meet At The Bourbon Festival?

This is just an idea now, but if enough people get behind it, it could become a reality.

I first suggested it here back in August, as a way to improve the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. "Attract Collectors. Get a law passed allowing whiskey collectors (legal age only, of course) to have a legal and above board swap meet" at the Festival.

It might work like this:

Let's say it's in a hall somewhere in Bardstown, a big room. Exhibitors have to register in advance but the only requirement is that they be of legal age. Collectors who want to exhibit pay a fee to do so. People who want to attend but don't want to exhibit buy a ticket. There probably will need to be a limit placed on how many bottles a non-exhibitor may carry in. Again, the only requirement is that everyone must be of legal age and IDs will be checked. All transactions will be private, between the participants. Transactions can take the form or either trades or sales. It lasts for maybe three hours on Saturday afternoon. And it's all legal.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is held each September in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Subsequent to that post I briefly discussed the idea with Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers Association. He seemed to like it. The Festival, which KDA co-sponsors, would have to figure out how to do it legally, which might require some new legislation, so KDA is the outfit to work on that. Mr. Gregory seemed to think it was not completely outside the realm of possibility.

Mr. Gregory, by the way, is staff, but the KDA changes its board leadership every year. The new chairman for 2011 is John Rhea of Four Roses Distillery, the vice chairman is Jeff Conder of Beam Global, and the Secretary-Treasurer is Tom Krekeler of Campari (Wild Turkey). The other board members are Chris Morris (Brown-Forman), Andrea Wilson (Diageo) and David Hobbs (Heaven Hill). The board consists of one representative from each major company.

If you think this is a good idea, let the KDA know.

I would also encourage anyone who thinks it's a good idea to help flesh it out here with comments to this post. How might it be done? What would get you to participate?

Friday, January 7, 2011

American Brandy Is Bigger Than You Think.

The connection between American-made brandy and American whiskey is that most of the brandy is aged in used bourbon and Tennessee whiskey barrels. Three of the top five U.S.-made brandies are actually aged, blended, and bottled in Kentucky. The brandy is distilled in California at large, integrated vineyard, winery and distillery facilities in the Central Valley, then sent in tanker trucks to Louisville and Bardstown.

What surprised me while doing some research today is how big U.S.-made brandy is in the U.S. market, relative to French-made brandy, specifically cognac. The biggest brandy in the U.S. market -- bigger than any cognac -- is E&J Brandy, from Gallo, at about 3 million cases. It is entirely made in Central California.

Number two is Hennessey Cognac, at just over 2 million cases. Number three is Kentucky-made Paul Masson Brandy, at about 1.4 million cases. It is distilled in California but aged, blended, and bottled at Sazerac's Tom Moore Distillery in Bardstown.

Number four is also U.S.-made, Christian Brothers, which like Paul Masson is distilled in Central California and tankered to Kentucky, where it is barreled and aged at Heaven Hill's Bernheim facility in Louisville. After that it is sent to Heaven Hill in Bardstown for blending and bottling. Christian Brothers sells about 1.2 million cases and Heaven Hill's Coronet, at number ten, adds another 150,000.

The three remaining cognacs in the top ten are Remy Martin (#5), Courvoisier (#6), and Raynal (#8). Number nine is Presidente Brandy, which is made in Mexico.

That leaves number seven, Korbel Brandy, which sells about 350,000 cases a year, mostly (it seems) in Wisconsin. Korbel makes its very popular California sparkling wine in Guerneville but the brandy is distilled and aged near Bakersfield, then brought up to Guerneville for blending and bottling. Korbel's sparkling wines are marketed by Brown-Forman. The brandy is not but it is aged in barrels from Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's Distillery.

Remember, this is just the ranking of U.S. sales. American-made brandies are rarely exported, whereas cognac is revered and sold all over the world. Mexico's Presidente Brandy, number nine here, is huge in Mexico. The U.S.-made products also tend to be less expensive and hence less profitable than imports. Still, it is significant that about 60 percent of the brandy sold in the USA is made in the USA, and I would not have guessed it was that high.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Birth of the Modern American Whiskey Industry, 150 Years Ago.

When Jack Beam, Jim Beam's uncle, decided to break away from his father and brothers and start his own distillery, he named it Early Times.

He chose that name because he believed the industry was turning too modern too quickly, and he wanted a brand name that captured the 'good old days.' The name was supposed to remind customers of the old-fashioned methods of making whiskey – mashing grain in small tubs and boiling the beer and whiskey in copper pot stills over open fires.

The year was 1860.

Jack Beam’s claims may have been hyperbole, but in his day many whiskey buyers could remember a very different past.

April 12, 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, which began the Civil War. The war was a great watershed event for America, and also for American whiskey-making. Many characteristics of the industry that we now take for granted got started during that period about 150 years ago.

The complete story is in the current issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 13, Number 3.

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.