Sunday, February 27, 2011

Excerpts From "Made and Bottled in Kentucky."

"Made and Bottled in Kentucky" is my 1992 documentary about the Kentucky bourbon whiskey industry. I was going through some old videos and came across this clip of excepts from the doc. I think I made this for the Kentucky Distillers Association, which provided some of the funding for the project, but I'm not sure what they did with it. Anyway, though this is almost 20 years old, Jimmy Russell and Bill Samuels don't look much different.

The video is still available on DVD, either directly from me (that's it on the right, just below the book) or from Amazon.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

When Gadhafi Speaks In Green Square, I Think Of My Ancestors.

With Libya so much in the news, and Gadhafi making his speeches from Tripoli's Green Square, I am reminded of Dr. Jonathan Cowdery and the Heroes Of Tripoli.

Dr. Cowdery's father and my great-great-great-great-great grandfather were brothers. Dr. Cowdery was ship’s surgeon on the U.S.S. Philadelphia, which ran aground while fighting pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. Thirteen officers and sailors were killed, 300 were captured and imprisoned in Tripoli.

It was 1804.

As ship's surgeon, Dr. Cowdery had to identify the remains. He also recorded in his journal the exact location of their burial in Green Square. He and the other American prisoners were freed by the treaty that ended the First Barbary War in 1805.

The 13 who died are still there. The rest of that story is here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Buffalo Trace Demonstrates Another Way To Sour A Mash.

Yesterday, Buffalo Trace rebooted the Old Taylor Bourbon line as Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr.

The repositioned brand’s first release is Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey. It will be 9-years-old, 50% alcohol, bottled-in-bond, and $70 per 750ml cork-finished bottle. The bottle comes in a tubular canister similar to those sported by many single malt scotches.

But the product’s raison d’etre is the ‘Old Fashioned Sour Mash’ claim.

At this time I must issue a Geek Alert. This is about to get very geeky. Geeky and long. You have been warned. Continue reading at your own risk.

Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. (1830-1923) was a major figure in American whiskey history. Among his long list of accomplishments was ownership of the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace. It was under Taylor’s leadership that it became a major whiskey producer.

The Taylor name was disconnected from the distillery during his lifetime, by him, and only restored to it in 2009.

By coincidence, that distillery in 2002 conducted an experiment inspired by one of Taylor’s practices. In barrels ever since, that experiment has now been deemed a success and bottled.

Sadly, the history of American whiskey-making has been not well preserved nor very much studied. We have very little detailed information about distillery practices in Taylor’s day, which spanned the 1850s to Prohibition.

Taylor was a distillery owner and financier, not a day-to-day distiller, but he worked with people such as James Crow and other top distillers, and he had his own strong opinions about the best ways to make whiskey.

Normally, the term ‘sour mash’ refers to the use of spent mash to condition new mash by lowering its pH. Spent mash is what comes out of the still after distillation. It contains no alcohol, no fermentable sugar, and no yeast or other micro-organisms, but it does have other nutrients yeast can use and is more acidic than new mash. All of today’s major American whiskey distilleries use this technique, mixing old mash with new in a 1:3 to 1:4 ratio.

There are some obscure references in old literature to a ‘sour mash’ technique that doesn't use spent mash. Something else sours the mash. Mike Veach has noted references to this by Taylor himself in the Taylor-Hay papers, which Veach archived for Louisville’s Filson Historical Society. This confuses modern readers who equate sour mash with spent mash.

This subject has also come up with micro-distillers because some of them refer to the introduction of lactobacillus during mashing as 'sour mash,' even though no spent mash is used. Lactobacillus produce lactic acid, which has an effect similar to spent mash in lowering the pH of new mash to an appropriate level. Lactobacillus are used in the production of yogurt, cheese, sourdough bread, and other foods. They are also used in brewing. Before Buffalo Trace switched to dry yeast they used to add lactobacillus to their yeast mash, as some distilleries still do.

At Buffalo Trace, mash goes from the cooker into what they call a drop tub, where they can hold it before sending it to the fermenters. Usually this is just for timing, where a batch of mash might sit there for a couple of hours. In 2002, Buffalo Trace decided to deliberately let a batch of rye-recipe bourbon mash sit in the drop tub for several days, monitoring the pH level but otherwise leaving it alone.

Would the mash sour naturally? Is time just as good as spent mash at neutralizing new mash? Would the mash then ferment well and make good whiskey?

Because they were concerned about spontaneous fermentation and other possible contamination they planned the experiment for the end of a run so nothing else could be affected and they could clean up afterwards if it went wrong.

One difference from Taylor’s day was that back then they mashed in barrels, not the large mash cookers they use today.

To learn more they interviewed six different old-time employees, all then in their 80s and 90s. One was Al Geiser, who was the first master distiller there after Prohibition. Another was Ralph Dupps, who died in 2007 at age 90.

None of them had lived in Taylor’s time, but they all had heard stories about how the distillery didn’t use spent mash then but instead allowed their mash to sour ‘naturally.’ Dupps was the only one who really looked into it. A mechanical engineer by training, Dupps worked for Schenley at both Buffalo Trace in Frankfort and Bernheim in Louisville before going to Tennessee in 1956 to build the George Dickel Distillery. He considered using this technique at Dickel.

After a few days the pH was right and the mash was otherwise as it should be so they piped it to the fermenters, pitched their yeast, and everything after that was done in the usual way. They liked the taste of the distillate, even though it was different, so they decided to barrel it up. Nine years later, that is the whiskey they are releasing as Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey.

This is similar to Woodford Reserve’s sweet mash experiment, which was released in 2008. They didn’t sour their mash in any way. Their yeast were able to adapt but produced a very different set of flavors due to the different environment.

In both the Woodford and Buffalo Trace cases, it’s a good experiment from a scientific standpoint because they changed one variable only, no mash conditioning in Woodford’s case and the use of time instead of spent mash to condition it in Buffalo Trace’s case.

The experiment doesn’t show us how Taylor soured his mash, but it demonstrates that it is possible to sour mash ‘naturally,’ without spent mash.

As for the Taylor name, in January 2009, Buffalo Trace parent company Sazerac acquired some assets from Constellation Brands which included the Effen Vodka brand. Beam Global, which owned the Old Taylor brand, wanted Effen so a deal was made. Buffalo Trace announced then that they would continue the existing Old Taylor product but expected to re-launch the line, up-market, sometime in 2010 using extra-aged rye recipe bourbon from existing stocks. (See my article in Malt Advocate, the Winter 2009 issue.) They are slightly late but this is the fulfillment of that promise.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Liquor Industry Should Try Harder.

I get one almost every day, a press release for another new distilled spirits product. It doesn't matter if it's whiskey, tequila, rum or vodka. After a few words about why this is the most wonderful, delicious and prestigious new product ever, here come the recipes; the jazzy new cocktails, created perhaps by some celebrity mixologist.

Everybody today is pushing a new cocktail, or five. Each is promoted for about two seconds, then discarded for the next set. Often the drinks require exotic ingredients you don't have and bizarre processes you don't understand. (Fat washing, anyone?) Maybe they have clever names. Who can tell? Who can even take them all in? They're yesterday's news before you even finish reading them.

This is not a rant against cocktails. Cocktail culture is obviously still going strong. Consumers are still drinking cocktails and many still enjoy going up to their favorite bartender and saying, "what's new?"

But the difference between "what's new" and "what's out there that I haven't heard about" has never been greater. There are now thousands of drinks you haven't heard about and, therefore, nothing is new.

The problem is that as a form of promotion it has become rote. The drinks industry has become over-dependent on new cocktails. I expect to start seeing them in the quarterly financials.

The volume of new recipes is so great that no matter how breathless the people hyping them are, it's almost impossible for any of the drinks to catch on and become a phenomenon. Everything is simply washed away by the next wave before any new drink can plant a root and the people who are breathless about cocktail #286,547 today will never mention it again. Tomorrow they will be be just as breathless about cocktail #745,682.

You don't have to be around for very long to discern the pattern.

As a form of promotion, cocktails have become perfunctory, and in marketing perfunctory means dead. You might as well just save your money and do nothing if this is the best you can do.

Legal restrictions make it unusually hard for alcohol beverages to promote so it's probably no surprise that so many marketers seem to have given up. Instead of giving up, try harder, be more creative, take some chances. Recognize that what once was daring no longer is. If you must do a cocktail, figure out a new way to deliver it. Instead of doing five, do one and figure a way to make it stick.

New drinks, like new products, need more than their existence to justify their existence. That's what good promotion is all about.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Value Isn't The Same As Cheap.

I don't write much about awards. I have nothing against them, I pay attention to them. I just don't find them very interesting to write about.

But John Hansell wrote something terrific on Wednesday as he bestowed the Malt Advocate Best Buy Whiskey of the Year Award on Evan Williams and Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond. I wholeheartedly agree with the choice but I particularly appreciate what he wrote by way of introduction to the category:

"Best Buy is always a touchy category. It’s not cheap whisky, and it’s not barely endurable whisky -- there are plenty of both, but we’re not interested —- it’s about whisky that’s a great combination of flavor and price."

Value is never just about price, it's about the intersection of price and quality. Yes, value is intangible and subjective. So is love. That's why it's so touchy. If I say a product isn't worth its price, that's not the same as saying it's bad. And if I say something is a good value, rarely does that mean it's the cheapest bottle in the store.

It also shouldn't be lost that there are really two awards here, not just two winners. Before they narrowed it down to these two products, the Malt Advocate judges decreed that American whiskey is where the best whiskey values are to be found. That may be slightly less true outside the USA than it is here, but it's still true.

I'm also intrigued by Artisan Whisky of the Year going to a very young Islay malt. Maybe awards are getting more interesting.

(By way of transparency, I should tell you that while I write for Malt Advocate I do not participate in the judging for these awards.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stop Booze Wholesalers Before They Sin Again.

To paraphrase Rick Blaine in Casablanca, “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of drinkers and drink-makers don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” On the other hand, preventing government mischief before it can occur is good policy under any conditions.

Hence the letter sent yesterday to members of Congress by the trade associations representing America’s 3,500 breweries, wineries, distilleries, and alcohol beverage importers.

Its well-argued plea: don’t co-sponsor the Wholesaler Monopoly Protection Act (also known as the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act [“CARE Act”]) when it is reintroduced into the 112th Congress as anticipated. (It never came to a vote in the 111th.) I last wrote about it here.

After outlining the contribution the alcohol beverage industry makes to the U.S. economy, yesterday’s letter continues: “Fundamental to our long-term success is a stable regulatory system in which Congress regulates interstate and foreign commerce, and states regulate the distribution and retail sales of alcohol beverages within their borders. This system has evolved and served the public well since the repeal of Prohibition.”

“We do not believe that Congress should spend valuable time wading into an intra-industry squabble and unraveling a successful regulatory structure to the detriment of consumers, the industry, and the federal interest in a fair, competitive, and orderly marketplace for alcohol beverages.”

What the letter doesn’t mention is that in cahoots with the wholesalers are state alcohol regulatory boards, who can’t wait to create larger and more burdensome bureaucracies, not because they care so passionately about alcohol regulation but because they like their jobs and want to make themselves more important.

The wholesalers are only too happy to carry water for the alcohol control bureaucrats because the bureaucrats have no interest in fostering competition at the wholesaler level. When you have the power to grant people very lucrative, low risk business monopolies, they tend to be very cooperative. State legislators are in on it too because booze wholesalers are such generous campaign contributors.

This is only possible because alcohol is already so heavily regulated at the state level, unlike almost any other consumer product. More than 4,000 state alcohol beverage laws are on the books. Every state mandates a so-called 3-tier system, in which consumers may buy alcohol only from state-licensed retailers (bars and stores), and those retailers may buy only from state-licensed wholesalers. Producers (i.e., manufacturers and importers) may not sell directly to consumers nor retailers, only to state-approved wholesalers.

The current system has many flaws, most stemming from the fact that it hasn’t been seriously examined since it was put in place almost 80 years ago. The problem isn’t at the Federal level, it’s out-of-date state laws and regulations.

Nobody disagrees with the public policy goals of state regulation – preventing underage drinking and limiting alcohol abuse – or even with the very high taxes we all pay for the privilege of drinking alcohol. It’s out-of-date rules that accomplish little except maintain the status quo, including inefficient monopolies. Empowering state regulators to cause new mischief will only make the problems worse.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More On Beam's Devil's Cut.

I asked Fred Noe if he could tell me a little bit more about how Jim Beam Devil's Cut (coming in May) is made and he confirmed that their process is based on 'barrel sweating,' as I described yesterday.

Here's what Fred said: "The bourbon base is Jim Beam aged for 6 years. You are exactly correct in your thinking regarding the water, heat, and motion. The whole idea came from the 'sweating' of barrels and the bourbon left behind after dumping. Pulling more out of the wood is the key to this product and time will tell if the customers enjoy it. I am sure there will be some folks that really like it and maybe a few that do not like the flavor."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beam Puts Dregs To Good Use With New Devil's Cut.

The dictionary defines ‘dregs’ in part as, "the last remaining, and often least attractive part of something.’ That definition may need to be revised in light of a new product coming in May from Jim Beam.

It’s called Jim Beam Devil’s Cut. The name is a play on the expression ‘angel’s share,’ what distillers call whiskey that evaporates during aging. ‘Devil’s Cut’ is Beam’s trademarked term for whiskey that is still "trapped within the wood" after dumping. In other words, the dregs.

Whiskey-makers typically rinse their freshly-dumped barrels with water to extract some of this remainder. A few years ago, Jack Daniel’s started a program where they fill the emptied barrels about 1/3 with water and let them sit that way, on end, for several weeks. They estimate this recovers about five times more whiskey, measured by alcohol content, than rinsing alone.

All Beam will say about its process is this: "Through a unique, proprietary process, we extract this formerly lost liquid from deep inside the barrel wood and put it back into our special Bourbon. The resulting liquid is deep in color, aroma and character with robust notes of wood and vanilla."

I predict the enthusiast community will be enthusiastic about Jim Beam Devil’s Cut. This is exactly the kind of experimentation we’ve been urging Beam to do, and it follows on the heals of products such as Jim Beam Signature, Old Crow Reserve, and Knob Creek Single Barrel.

Fred Noe grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, and participated no doubt in the local rite of passage known as 'sweating a barrel.' Kids would ‘liberate’ a freshly-dumped barrel from one of the local distilleries, put a few gallons of water in it, plug up the bung hole, and roll the barrel around in the hot sun until they got bored. The resulting liquid usually contained enough alcohol to deliver a light buzz.

How does Jim Beam Devil’s Cut taste? Exactly as I would have expected. Mixing these dregs (what else do you want to call them?) with the regular juice in some proportion gives the illusion of much greater age because it's so loaded with tannin, char and other wood flavors.

There is no age statement on the bottle so presumably Devil’s Cut is based on 4-year-old Jim Beam White Label, but the flavor is very different. Retail price will be in the neighborhood of $24 for a 750/ml bottle.

In the course of about a year, Beam Global has gone from the least innovative company in the industry to arguably the most innovative, and their willingness to bet the flagship brand on these escapades makes it even more impressive.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Do We Need A "Truth In Company Names" Law?

We have truth-in-labeling laws and truth-in-advertising laws, yet there appears to be nothing to prevent companies from using terms such as "distilling," "distillery," and "distillers" in their company name even though they do not own a distillery and perform no distilling. So add this to your "buyer beware" list. Just because a company calls itself a "distiller," that doesn't mean they actually are one.

Even though I have had a long career in marketing and advertising I am still not convinced that it is ever good business to lie to your customers and prospective customers. Unless, of course, you're a crook. As a consumer, I choose not to do business with companies I believe are lying to me. Why would anyone do otherwise?

Chalk it up, I guess, to the growing list of things I just don't understand.

Monday, February 7, 2011

We Like Single Barrel Bourbons. Here's Why.

I've been telling you about Beam Global's Knob Creek Single Barrel since last July, when it was still a rumor. We had a taste of it with Fred Noe in September. Now it's finally in stores.

In addition to being single barrel, this new Knob Creek expression is 120° proof, which is 60 percent alcohol, whereas regular Knob is 50 percent. That's already high as most straight spirits products are sold at 40 percent.

But that's not our subject today. It's that other thing, 'single barrel.'

You probably know that single barrel is higher quality than something that's not single barrel, but do you know why?

The major American whiskey distilleries each fill between 500 and 1,500 barrels a day. Those barrels go into aging warehouses where they will sit for the next several years. As they fill so shall they dump and the major American whiskey distilleries each empty between 500 and 1,500 barrels a day too.

Modern distilleries produce a very consistent product off the still. All of the whiskey going into the barrels is the same but immediately it starts to change and become different. No two barrels of whiskey age exactly the same way.

There are several reasons for this. First, no two trees are exactly the same. The barrel is very much a natural product and White Oak is the wood of choice because of the favorable way it interacts with the aging spirit. Although most American-made whiskey is aged in Ozark Oak, some use wood from other parts of the country.

Second, no two warehouse locations age exactly the same way. Aging conditions vary according to the location and orientation of the warehouse and the location of the barrel within the warehouse. A barrel near an outside wall, near the top and on the south side will be exposed to a lot more heat, for example, than one in the center on a low floor.

The differences between any two barrels can be great but more often they are small and subtle. Still, producers typically want a consistent product so they mix the contents of hundreds of barrels together in a big tank. This erases those subtle differences. The whiskey being prepared for bottling is then compared to previous batches and if it isn't exactly the same, it is corrected through the addition of whiskey selected for certain characteristics. This is how most whiskey is prepared for bottling.

There is nothing wrong with any of it. People want consistency. They want the bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 they buy today to taste exactly like the bottle they bought last week or last year.

But back to the whiskey still in the barrel and those subtle differences. Does the existence of those differences mean some barrels taste better than others?

Yes, it does.

Old timers called them "honey barrels." They are exemplars of their type, perfectly balanced. They're rare, but not that rare. Theoretically, a single barrel product isn't necessarily a honey barrel. If single barrels were selected at random you would get the whole range of variation, from worst to best, but they aren't.

With non-single barrel whiskeys, small flaws are erased through dilution and the whole batch can be adjusted to better match the brand profile. With single barrels, once a barrel is selected there is nothing else you can do with it. There is no place to hide. Because of this, there is very little point in doing a single barrel product if you are not going to seek out the very best barrels of a particular vintage -- more than 9 years old in the case of Knob Creek.

With a single barrel whiskey, you get to taste exactly what the distillery's tasters tasted when they selected that barrel, but unlike them you never have to taste a bad one. Although Beam would never put it this way, they essentially cherry-pick the best of the best for single barrel and put the rest into the regular expression.

Another way to look at it is that this is whiskey in its natural state. That is especially true of Knob Creek Single Barrel because of the high proof, which is very close to barrel proof so very little water is added. This is as close to tapping a barrel as you can get.

Although there are many other single barrel bourbons about, Beam is the first to do one on the same platform as the original expression. All this makes Knob Creek Single Barrel a welcome addition.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

You Call Yourself 'Craft'? Make Your Own Yeast.

Back before Prohibition, before the rise of the "master distiller" as we know them today, the people who made whiskey in America were often referred to as 'distiller and yeast maker.' Booker Noe used to tell the story about how his grandfather, Jim Beam, made yeast on the back porch of his house in Bardstown. That yeast is still used to make Jim Beam bourbon.

If your intention is to be a craft distiller, making your own yeast would seem like something you would want to do, yet very few have messed around with it and no one is using their own yeast in production.

You don't 'make' yeast, of course, since yeast is a type of fungus, a living organism. You capture and propagate it. In the old days, before there were commercial yeast manufacturers, every distiller had his own secret yeast mash recipe and yeast-making technique, which was handed down from father to son.

Sour mash, which most microdistillers also do not use, was developed as a way to control yeast and make it perform consistently from batch to batch.

Most of the old timers who are still around will tell you that handling yeast is one of a distiller's most important skills, the first thing you are taught, because if you can't master that you shouldn't bother with the rest. They're mostly talking about propagating an existing jug yeast strain, to scale it up for production, not making it from scratch. Few distillers (micro or macro) even do that. For most of them, yeast comes in a bag.

I ask bourbon distillers about yeast-making from time to time. I once asked a member of the Beam family if he thought there was anyone still alive who could do it. He thought for a long time and answered, "maybe."

Here is what I know about the way old timers did it in Kentucky and Tennessee. You started with a proprietary yeast mash recipe. A mash for starting yeast is very different from a bourbon mash. It is mostly malt with little if any corn (ironically), plus ingredients such as sulfur and hops. The typical container was a bucket.

Booker remembered his grandmother complaining about how it stunk up the house.

They would mix up a batch, pick a place and wait. When it started to work they judged it by sight, smell, and taste. Maybe even sound. They didn't use microscopes. If they didn't like it, they dumped it out and tried again. They didn't modify the mash -- they knew that worked because it was the recipe their daddy used -- but they might change location. They knew it was largely a trial-and-error process, as much luck and patience as anything.

If they liked the initial action of the yeast, they started to propagate it. If it propagated well, which means it seemed robust and retained its characteristics (which meant it wasn't mutating too much), they would try pitching it into a whiskey mash, again in a test quantity. They scaled up from there.

Because it took so much time and effort to capture and propagate a good strain, the yeast-maker would then go to great lengths to preserve it and keep it from mutating to the point where it became unusable. They would keep it in a sealed container called a dona jug. They might divide it up into several jugs for safe-keeping.

Making a batch of yeast for production meant taking a small amount from the jug and adding it to fresh yeast mash. This yeast mash recipe might be the same as the one used for capturing the yeast, or a variation on that, but it still wasn't the same as the whiskey mash. To set the fermenters to make a batch of whiskey takes a lot of yeast prepared in this way. It's a tedious, several-day process usually done by an apprentice.

When refrigeration came along that helped a lot, since it slowed propagation down, which helped the yeast last longer. Before refrigeration they used root cellars and wells to keep the dona jugs cool. Keeping a particular yeast productive also took luck and skill but they would all mutate eventually and have to be discarded. Today's jug yeasts don't because they have been scientifically purified.

They did all this not because they fancied themselves as artisans. They did it because they didn't have a choice. Their alternative wasn't commercial yeast, it was spontaneous fermentation, which is what they were trying to avoid.

So one can accept why no one does this today. Even people who still use jug yeast use jug yeast that is scientifically supported. I would think that the impulse to make it from scratch is the same as the impulse to make bread from scratch even in an era when you can go to the store and buy good bread. It is a chance to make something that is truly, if only minutely, unique.

Two parallels that reach different conclusions might be malting and milling. Kentucky and Tennessee do not have any tradition of people doing their own malting. They didn't malt because they didn't have to. Acceptable malt was always readily available. Yet they always did their own milling and still do. Why? Either because millers couldn't supply the grind they wanted or because millers couldn't supply distilleries cost-effectively.

I confess yeast-making has a romantic appeal for me but if you want to recapture some of what has been lost in the industrialization of distilling, how better?