Thursday, March 31, 2011

Doing The Derby.

The 137th running of the Kentucky Derby will take place at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 7.

It's always the first Saturday in May.

Sometimes it's cold enough to snow. Sometimes it's hot enough to melt. I know, I've been there for both.

Nearly everybody in Kentucky celebrates Derby. Some just celebrate it more than others.

Two groups that do up the Derby are the Kentucky Society of Washington and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (of which I am a member).

Naturally, the Society has its Derby event in Far Eastern Kentucky, i.e., Alexandria, Virginia. Its 30th Annual 'Pre-Kentucky Derby Party' will be held on Saturday, April 30, 2011, from 1 PM- 5 PM, on the grounds of the Collingwood Estate.

The theme, "Celebrating Three Decades of Kentucky Hospitality in Our Nation's Capital" recognizes an event that started in a backyard with about 75 people and has since become a highlight of Washington’s spring social season.

On that day, more than 1,000 Kentuckians and their guests will gather in their favorite Derby attire, sip mint juleps, listen to Bluegrass music and soak up the Southern surroundings accented with red roses and Kentucky mementos.

Kentucky Society members prepare much of the party's menu themselves, emphasizing traditional Kentucky fare such as burgoo, country ham, beaten biscuits and derby squares.

"Our party has established itself as Washington’s very special kick-off to Derby week," said 2011 Society President and University of Kentucky graduate, Winn Williams. "It’s like a day at the races, except our version is on the banks of the Potomac!"

On Derby weekend itself the Colonels kick in. (No doubt most Society members are Colonels as well.) The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels has two events, one for Friday's Kentucky Oaks ($340) and the other for Derby on Saturday ($595). Each is an all-day private party at the Kentucky Derby Museum (adjacent to the track), plus a reserved track seat for the day.

All Colonels in good standing may purchase up to ten tickets.

The rank of Kentucky Colonel goes back to 1813. Originally, they were aides to the governor and evolved into his personal entourage. Colonels took the title seriously and commissions were for life. In the 1920s, a movement began to convert the group into something more like a charity and the name Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was adopted.

According to the official history of the Honorable Order, "Minutes of the early meetings confirm that charitable programs were to be a central part of the organization. Social events would also play an important role. The group held a Derby Eve dinner for the first time in 1932."

Contemporary Colonels are encouraged to donate to the Honorable Order's Good Works Program, which gives grants to worthy causes such as hunger programs and hospitals. An annual donation makes you a Colonel in good standing and entitles you to buy tickets to events like the Oaks and Derby parties, and the Colonels BBQ, which will take place on Sunday, May 8, in Bardstown.

Colonel Sanders was a Kentucky Colonel. So were E. H. Taylor, Jim Beam, and most Kentucky bourbon makers, then and now. I'm a Kentucky Colonel, commissioned by Governor Paul Patton in 1997.

And I make a pretty good mint julep.

It's Back. The Wholesaler Monoply Protection Act.

Since we're talking about laws, the Wholesaler Monopoly Protection Act (real name: Community Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act -- abbreviation 'CARE') is back. It was reintroduced in Congress two weeks ago as HR 1161.

All pending bills expire at the end of each Congress and have to be re-introduced. This is the new version of HR 5034, which I wrote about it here and here.

Everyone agrees that the bill would give states more power to regulate alcohol distribution. The disagreement is about whether this is a good or bad thing.

I believe it is a bad law and can be defeated (again) but it will take some effort. The problem is that wholesalers throw around a lot of campaign cash and many legislators see it as a harmless sop to some big contributors. Not being thinking people, they don't think about how this could harm the hospitality industry in their district. It would harm producers too, off course but, state-by-state, wholesalers are much more influential than producers.

It's also bad for consumers, assuming you believe alcohol is already regulated quite enough, thank you. States don't need additional authority to lighten the regulatory burden, only to increase it.

For instance, if you think it is hard to get limited release whiskeys where you live now, passage of HR 1161 will only make it worse.

Lawmakers love their campaign money but counter-pressure will work. They usually hope with this sort of thing that no one will notice. Let them know you've noticed and they'll think twice before supporting it.

Go here if you would like to learn more about the bill, such as whether or not your representative is a co-sponsor. Check back to follow its progress . is neutral regarding the bill. If you'd like to know more about why it sucks, go here and here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Most Micro-Distillery Whiskeys Are Illegal In California.

This is fascinating! Apparently, nearly all micro-distillery whiskeys are illegal in California. The law there says that a distilled spirit labeled as 'whiskey' has to be at least three years old. (That's the rule in Europe too, by the way, which has been giving mirco-distillers fits.) That's the rule in California but no one, including California's alcohol regulators, seems to know about it, because many <3-year-old whiskeys are sold there.

California also appears to require charred barrels.

The pertinent section also uses the term 'straight whiskey' without defining it, which seems like an indirect acknowledgement of the federal Standards of Identity, where it is defined. The term 'straight whiskey' is used nowhere else in the 376-page law.

Presumably, if this rule were to be enforced it could be challenged on the grounds that the federal rules control, and the federal rules have no such requirement.

Here is the relevant section.

25175. Age of whiskey. Any person who sells at retail any potable spirituous liquor product labeled as whiskey, including blended whiskey and blends of straight whiskeys, except products containing 20 or more percent of straight whiskey or whiskeys which have been aged in charred oak containers for three or more years after distillation and before bottling is guilty of a misdemeanor, except that this section does not prohibit the sale at retail of unaged corn whiskey, when so labeled, or the sale at retail of gins, brandies, rums, cordials, liqueurs, bitters, or other distilled liquor products or products compounded of distilled spirits and other materials, when in no wise labeled as whiskey or blended whiskey or blends of straight whiskeys, or the sale at retail of Scotch whiskeys, or spirit whiskeys containing not less than 5 percent straight whiskey, three years old or older.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Colonel E. H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon; Tasting Notes.

A month ago, when I wrote this post about the new Colonel E. H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon from Buffalo Trace, I had all the information about it but had not yet tasted the whiskey.

That omission has been corrected.

Since the February post is quite thorough I won’t rehash the product story here. This will just be my tasting notes.

The nose is mild, with tart citrus and warm caramel. Those flavors continue on the tongue but then something surprising happens. Cumin! It just jumped out at me. I love cumin but it’s not a taste I normally find in bourbon. Very earthy and vegetal. A nice surprise.

It is earthy but at the same time, light. Although both can be characteristics of Buffalo Trace bourbons, this is not a recognizable Buffalo Trace whiskey, even though it likely uses one of their standard rye-recipe mash bills and their usual yeast. That’s because when you change a yeast’s environment it will create a different flavor profile. Very much its own creature, this whiskey wears its nine years lightly with barely a trace of soot-char-smoke.

Although the sour mash process doesn’t necessarily or even usually produce a sour-tasting whiskey, this one is ever so slightly sour; sweet and sour like sourball candy. There are some similarities to Old Charter, a Buffalo Trace bourbon. The sourness comes across as tart apple or a slightly sour white wine. It is a pleasant level of sourness unless you have no tolerance for that in bourbon at any level, in which case you won’t care for this.

It is slightly sour on the tongue and slightly bitter on the finish, wrapping up with an anise note.

The high price being asked for this whiskey is mostly because of its rarity due to being an experiment and, therefore, a very small run. It’s not because of the taste necessarily, yet the taste is subtle, elegant and sophisticated. It may appeal to scotch drinkers and others who think bourbon is usually too sweet or in-your-face. This Taylor is neither.

It probably should be mentioned that the new Colonel E. H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon has no relationship to the existing Old Taylor Bourbon that’s on the market, except that it's named for the same guy and made by Buffalo Trace. As explained in the February post, this is the first step in a repositioning of the brand that may, in the future, see Old Taylor Classic go away. But that’s not for sure and in no sense imminent.

There is a temptation to buy something like this and hold on to it for a ‘special occasion’ that never seems to come. That would be a shame because it really should be tasted.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Which Some Very Old, Very Bad Whiskey Is Tasted.

Earlier this week I had a chance to try some old bottles of whiskey that had been obtained from an estate sale. How old they are is uncertain but one may have been pre-Prohibition and another was almost surely bottled during Prohibition.

I won’t drag this out. They were all terrible, but that doesn’t mean valuable knowledge was not obtained. I’m grateful to my friend who gave me this opportunity.

The first lesson is to be wary of such offerings. I have no reason to believe anything happened to them – whiskey in the bottle is hard to hurt – they probably were just as bad when they were made.

Of the three oldest, two purported to be bourbon, and one was a Maryland rye. One of the bourbons had a very credible Old Crow label that said it was made in Canada. I have seen examples in the past of Prohibition-era Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad that said ‘Made in Canada,’ but this was my first chance to drink one.

It was awful, like someone had made a half-hearted attempt to doctor rubbing alcohol. No resemblance to whiskey whatsoever, not even Canadian whisky. Vile. Disgusting.

The other bourbon had a gaudy label and a funny name – Oak-Something, like ‘Oak-Ville” – with a cartoony image of a barrel. Truly awful whiskey but at least it tasted like whiskey. It was bad in a way I’d never experienced before, very brackish. It may have contained a flavoring or coloring that turned, i.e., it may not have been all-whiskey, but it tasted like it was at least some whiskey.

The Maryland Rye was the most tolerable of the three. Again, it may have been doctored – Maryland producers were notorious for that in the bad old days – but there was an underlying whiskey flavor beneath the awfulness that might have been good. It tasted of wintergreen, which is often the best part of a well-preserved old whiskey.

My friend had some other bottles that were not quite so old, from the 70s and 80s. One was an Old Taylor Bourbon in an unfamiliar bottle, similar to the one Buffalo Trace introduced for the Weller line a few years ago. The back label said Frankfort and Louisville, meaning the National Distillers Forks of Elkhorn Distillery and the Payne Street Bottling Plant, respectively. Payne Street closed in 1979, so this bottle had to precede that date.

The whiskey wasn’t great but you could drink it without gagging and it helped get some of the taste of the other three out of my mouth.

So the moral is, if you have a chance to buy some old whiskey, be careful not to pay too much. And if you have a chance to taste some old whiskey, go ahead but don’t expect too much.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

6th Annual Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition Is April 1-2.

The 6th Annual Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition will be held on Friday, April 1, and Saturday, April 2, at the Courtyard by Marriot in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is sponsored by the Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association.

The competition is open to both professionals (i.e., licensed commercial producers) and amateurs. Fermented beverages of all kinds are welcome including ciders, perrys, meads, and beers. There are also categories for commercial distilled spirits products made from apples or pears.

Orchard-keeping is an important part of the Midwest's agricultural heritage. The Great Lakes region still produces about one-quarter of the U.S. apple crop. Beverage production is a good way to add value to an agricultural commodity and patronizing local producers helps support the local and regional economy. 

The Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association (GLCPA) is a nonprofit organization formed to showcase and promote fermented apple and pear beverages and to help educate consumers and producers about them.

The Great Lakes Cider & Perry Festival will be held on the weekend of September 10-11, at Uncle John's Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Anti-Potemkin: Big Bottom Whiskey.

Go to the Big Bottom Whiskey web site. Click on the "Our Story" tab. What are the first words you see?

"Big Bottom Whiskey is an independent bottler."

Wow! Finally, an American independent bottler willing to claim that role with pride instead of pretending to be something it's not.

I first used the term 'Potemkin Craft Distillery' about a year ago. It is a play on the term 'Potemkin Village' and describes a company that pretends to be a little craft distillery but is selling a product it didn't make which was, in fact, made by a great big distillery. I condemn Potemkins because they threaten the credibility of the whole nascent craft distilling movement. I probably also need a name for companies who are technically honest about the source of their whiskey but still load up on distillery imagery and emphasize their future distilling plans over their sole present business, which is bottling.

My purpose here today is not to rehash who should or should not be tarred with the Potemkin brush. It is to praise a new, small company in Oregon that has shown it's not so difficult to come right out of the box and honestly say what you are.

Which is not to say it has been an entirely auspicious beginning, product-wise. They do not call-out the source of their whiskey, a fault in my eyes, and it appears that their first offering is yet more of the very young Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) whiskey -- bourbon in this case -- that is becoming ubiquitous. They are selling some as-is and some finished in port casks, ala Angel's Envy.

And like actors who really want to direct, their stated long term goal is to be a distiller.

So I offer this praise because just as Potemkins are a serious threat to the craft distilling movement, so creative independent bottlers are a potential boon. Many small distillers find themselves overwhelmed when the demands of sales and marketing pull them away from production. A well-developed independent bottler and blender sector would give craft distillers another potential market for their output. But for that to happen, retailers and consumers have to learn and accept what bottlers and blenders can contribute. That isn't helped by bottlers and blenders who, for whatever reason, do not embrace that role with pride.

Yes, independent bottlers and blenders are common in other countries but Americans have a bad habit of showing little interest in anything that occurs beyond our shores.

So I pause my harangues for a moment of praise, however evanescent, for Big Bottom Whiskey and its bold stance as a proud independent bottler.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Rye Whiskey Epiphany.

I promised you some follow-up to my posts about the new Bulleit Rye. If you want to read those previous posts first just scroll down. They are all recent.

Under ‘old business,’ there was one unanswered question when last we broached this matter, “my question about the Bulleit Rye label’s use of the word 'mash' in 'Straight 95% Rye Mash Whiskey,' in which I wondered if that is an alternative form of the designation 'distilled from rye mash,' which permits used barrels. Point blank, is Bulleit Rye aged 100 percent in new charred oak barrels or are used barrels used? I'm still waiting for an answer to that one.”

I received that answer from my official Diageo contact and the answer is, no, used barrels are not used. Bulleit Rye is 100 percent aged in new, charred oak barrels. They even gave me the specific char level, the highest, #4.

Note for CVI Brands and other producers. If you want to squelch ‘speculation,’ provide direct answers to direct questions.

And just to be clear about another potential point of confusion, Bulleit Rye is made at Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Bulleit Bourbon is made at Four Roses, which is in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. This is pure coincidence. The Indiana Lawrenceburg is near Cincinnati, the Kentucky one is near Lexington, about 120 miles away.

Diageo – which owns the Bulleit brand – does not own either distillery, although if they’re interested the Indiana one is for sale. Four Roses, which is owned by Kirin Brewery, has a long term contract to sell bourbon to Diageo for Bulleit, a holdover from when both the distillery and the Bulleit brand were owned by Seagram’s. LDI is a former Seagram’s property too.

I have now tasted Bulleit Rye and also, as it happens, Redemption Rye, which is another bottling of the LDI 95 percent rye juice.

In tasting both of these products I had an epiphany.

Whiskey is usually evaluated neat or with a little water. That’s how most whiskey-drinkers drink whiskey and so that is the traditional whiskey-tasting paradigm. The whiskey is expected to stand on its own as a drink in its own right.

But does it have to be that way?

I’ve mentioned before, for example, that this LDI 95 percent rye recipe was created many years ago by Seagram’s to be a flavoring ingredient in blends like Seagram’s 7. What else can you do with a whiskey designed to be an ingredient? Use it in cocktails. For that, both of these ryes shine. Unbalanced? Not a problem. Balance it in the glass with other ingredients. Use it for the sharp, intense, and distinctive vegetal flavors it brings, and use other ingredients to give your drink the body and dimension the whiskey alone lacks.

If you don’t like cocktails, mix it with a bourbon like High West did (Bourye).

The main difference between Redemption Rye and Bulleit Rye is age. Redemption is just north of two years, while Bulleit is just north of four. Redemption has slightly more alcohol too, 46 percent compared to 45 percent for Bulleit.

Neither rye tastes especially white-doggy, but even Bulleit could do with a little more age to be a good straight sipper like Rittenhouse BIB or Baby Saz. Maybe it can never be that. Maybe it doesn't matter. Where Bulleit and Redemption should get love is from bartenders.

My epiphany wasn’t wholly spontaneous. Both Bulleit and Redemption address bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts in their promotional materials.

Both of these ryes have a big rye grain flavor, as close to rye bread as you are likely to get. There is plenty of heat, spice, mint and sod. Yes, sod. And fresh lawn-clippings. Mint toothpaste too. And all of it is great big and in-your-face.

Bulleit Rye is a Diageo product and its packaging resembles that of Bulleit Bourbon, except with different embossing on the glass and a green label. Redemption Rye is owned by Dynamic Beverages and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, by Bardstown Barrel Selections, a new independent bottling house run by Dave Schmier and Michael Kanbar. Schmier is the young entrepreneur behind Dynamic Beverages and Kanbar is the young entrepreneur behind Strong Spirits.

The Redemption line also includes a bourbon that happens to have the same high-rye mash bill as Bulleit Bourbon, except this is the version distilled and aged at LDI. Like the rye, the Redemption Bourbon is a little more than two years old and designed to work better in cocktails than it does in a glass by itself. Both Redemption products use the same simple but elegant bottle, which is topped by a sensible screw cap instead of a pretentious cork. Bravo for that. The price is also attractive, $26.99 for the bourbon and $27.99 for the rye at Binny’s here in Chicago, about the same retail price as Bulleit.

I guess if you’re going to copy somebody why not copy the biggest and most successful company in the business?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Deconstruction Of Black Maple Hill.

The memo above just came into my possession and I knew it would be of interest here. It illustrates my contention that although whiskey companies will rarely tell an outright lie, they will twist themselves into pretzels to mislead you or, at least, avoid telling you the whole truth.

Black Maple Hill (BMH) is a line of very pricey, very small batch, extra-aged bourbons and ryes. It has been around for about ten years. I'm not a big BMH guy myself, but I know many people who love the stuff. BMH whiskeys have a great reputation.

The brand is owned by CVI Brands of San Carlos, California. CVI does not operate a whiskey distillery. The bourbon and rye it sells as BMH was made by someone else. About that there is no dispute.

The money line in the memo above is this: "Black Maple Hill has no connection whatsoever with Heaven Hill."

Let's review what we know.

The earliest BMH releases were bottled for CVI by Julian Van Winkle III at the Hoffman Distillery (DSP-KY-112) just outside of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. According to VWIII, that was 'his' whiskey, i.e., wheated bourbon from Stitzel-Weller.

When Julian left Lawrenceburg, BMH went to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) in Bardstown (DSP-KY-78), where it remains to this day. Like CVI and Van Winkle, KBD is not a distiller. No one will say who made the whiskey KBD bottles as BMH. There has been speculation that some of it is from the Medley Distillery in Owensboro, which stopped distilling about 20 years ago. And there has been speculation that it's Heaven Hill.

Here's why:

KBD operates out of the old Willett Distillery in Bardstown. Heaven Hill is right across the street. The folks at KBD get all pissy when someone says that all of KBD's whiskey comes from Heaven Hill, but they can't plausibly deny that most of it comes from there. There is nothing wrong with that. A non-distiller producer has to get whiskey from somebody. KBD and Heaven Hill have a long beneficial relationship.

So KBD has relationships with both Heaven Hill and BMH, but there is no relationship between BMH and Heaven Hill. Fair enough.

But saying "Black Maple Hill has no connection whatsoever with Heaven Hill" is not the same as saying "there is not one drop of Heaven Hill-made whiskey in any bottle of Black Maple Hill." Although true literally it certainly would be disingenuous if, in fact, KBD is using Heaven Hill whiskey for BMH.

If it's not Heaven Hill, then who made it? As readers of this space know, the list of possible suspects is a short one.

If CVI intended to be transparent and, therefore, credible in refuting "the Bloggers and Tweeters on the Internet," they wouldn't just deny a corporate relationship with Heaven Hill. They would announce who actually makes their whiskey. That's what people want to know.

By refusing to answer they encourage the "pure speculation" they claim to deplore.

And that is also why I don't have very many bottles from non-distiller producers like CVI and KBD in my personal portfolio. You just never know where they've been.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Is Killing LDI?

My recent posts about Diageo’s Bulleit Bourbon, new Bulleit Rye, and the Indiana distillery where Bulleit Rye is produced, got a lot of attention. There are a few things to wrap up on the various subjects those posts covered. If you want to catch up first, the posts were on March 3rd, March 9th, and March 10th.

This post will be about Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). The next one will be about Bulleit, including some tasting notes on the new rye.

Although no one official at LDI talked to me, plenty of other people with knowledge about the place did. The main thing they told me is that LDI is for sale, with a deal likely to be concluded in eight months to a year.

Many of the people who contacted me, including some who commented publicly on the blog, asked what specifically do I want to know? I’d like to know everything, starting with facility specifications: How many bottling lines? How many and what types of stills? How many rectification plates in the whiskey still? How much copper? How much still capacity? How much fermenter capacity? How much maturation warehouse capacity? What type of maturation warehouse construction?

That sort of thing. Standard whiskey geek stuff.

Some of it is on the website but most isn’t and I doubt the website has been updated recently.

Most of all I want to know what they’re doing today? What’s their business model? What do they offer to customers? What do they offer to a prospective buyer? The website tells us what they make -- or at any event what they have made and can make -- but it says nothing about what they have to sell now. That’s what bulk whiskey customers want to know. How much 2-year-old 40% bourbon do you have for sale? How much 3-year-old? How much 2-year-old 95% rye? How much 4-year-old? Or did Diageo get it all? How much is in the pipeline for next year and the year after that?

Prospective buyers of the whole facility don’t just want to know its physical specifications. They want to know what kind of business it can be. They want to know if they’re buying a viable business or just a factory. There is a difference.

The General Manager at LDI is Rick Brock. Although he won’t talk to me, he gave an interview to Cincy Magazine just about a year ago. At that point things were looking bright. Now they’re on the sales block. What happened? Isn’t the economy in recovery? Hasn’t alcohol been strong lately? The Distilled Spirits Council says it has. Shouldn’t a company that was doing well in the spring of 2010 be doing even better today?

Either way, that’s an interesting business story.

According to my sources, LDI has seven bottling lines but runs only four on a typical day, and only on one shift. Lately they have been bottling a lot of Three Olives Vodka, which is a product of Proximo Spirts, a small New Jersey-based producer and importer of various vodka, tequila and rum brands as well as, just recently, Stranahan’s Whiskey. LDI bottles several other Proximo brands and some for Castle Brands too, a similar small producer and importer whose products include Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon and Boru Vodka.

For drinks giant Diageo they bottle Moon Mountain Vodka, Godiva Chocolate-Infused Vodka, Bulleit Straight Rye Whiskey, and Seagram’s Seven Blended Whiskey.

Absent from these mentions is Seagram’s Gin, which used to be a mainstay of LDI. At 2.8 million cases sold per year, Seagram's is America’s #1 gin.

The Seagram’s Gin and Vodka lines are owned by Pernod Ricard, which owned LDI until 2007. Before it sold LDI, Pernod moved most of its bottling to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where it also manufactures its Hiram Walker cordials line. But LDI still made the gin and shipped it by tanker to Fort Smith. Did LDI lose that contract?

Presumably, all or most of the products they bottle at LDI are made there as well. The distillery and maturation warehouses are about a mile from the bottling hall and finished goods warehouse.

Last year at this time, Brock said they had about 185 employees. They have fewer than half that many now, according to my sources, and many are temps.

Is LDI’s secrecy what’s killing it? There’s seems to be no problem with their products, which are doing well for companies such as Diageo, Proximo Spirits, Castle Brands, Tipton Spirits (Harrison Bourbon), High West Distillery, Templeton Rye Spirits, Dynamic Beverages (Redemption Bourbon and Rye), Big Bottom Whiskey, and no doubt others. Their fully-aged whiskey, in its various guises, is the darling of international whiskey enthusiasts and their young bourbons and ryes, again in various guises, are hot properties with today’s most creative and celebrated mixologists.

Shouldn't somebody be able to make a profitable business out of that? I suppose they would have to know about it first.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Diegeo Goes On The Record.

This post pertains to my post yesterday about Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) and the one last week about new Bulleit Rye.

I finally heard from my usual and official Diageo contact, who was as I speculated away on family business, which is why she was slow to respond. I am assured that a sample of Bulleit Rye is on the way.

She confirmed that Bulleit Rye is produced at LDI. "It’s made by our friend and master distiller Greg Metze - distilled, aged and bottled, all at LDI. We chose LDI because of our long-term partnership with them (Seagram’s history) and because they are experts at what they do; they are reliable and they produce great-tasting whiskey."

They are not, however, offering media tours of the distillery.

She also addressed my questions and speculation about Bulleit Bourbon. "Bulleit Bourbon is made – 100% made – in Lawrenceburg Kentucky."

As I have reported previously, sources connected to Kirin have disagreed with that assertion. They need to put up (i.e., go on the record) or shut up. Diageo has the high ground now.

Diageo also categorically denies that there is any LDI bourbon in Bulleit Bourbon.

Now you might ask, "Chuck, do you believe them?" From my experience, companies will often obfuscate, mislead, dance, dodge and "no comment," but rarely do they lie. So, yes, I believe them.

What about the new make we know Diageo is buying from Brown-Forman? Diageo has other needs for bourbon besides Bulleit, so there is no conflict in those two bits of information.

She also had this to say, "Bulleit Rye has long been a dream of Tom’s – it makes sense for the brand, as Bulleit Bourbon’s high rye content lends itself to launching this new addition to the Bulleit family. On his travels across the country, Tom has often been asked by bartenders to create a rye, and so he’s quite pleased, for that reason among others, to be launching this month."

And this information was offered about LDI: "There are two facilities in Lawrenceburg that are one mile apart. The first produces whiskey, neutral spirit and some gin. Moon Mountain Vodka uses the other facility, which is the bottling hall."

So Moon Mountain, which I wrote about here, is bottled at LDI but distilled somewhere else. Where? They're not saying except that it is "a Midwest distillery using a small batch copper pot still."

Also unanswered is my question about the Bulleit Rye label’s use of the word 'mash' in 'Straight 95% Rye Mash Whiskey,' in which I wondered if that is an alternative form of the designation 'distilled from rye mash,' which permits used barrels. Point blank, is Bulleit Rye aged 100 percent in new charred oak barrels or are used barrels used? I'm still waiting for an answer to that one.

Finally, and this did not come from Diageo, I got my Magic Eye Secret Spy Viewer to give me a picture inside LDI. What I see is an announcement newly pinned to the bulletin board. It says the distillery is for sale and they hope to find a buyer who will be able to operate it at full capacity.

Although LDI's ownership has changed twice in the last ten years, it has operated continuously through the changes and there are still many employees there who go back to the Seagrams era. We hope this ends well for their sake and for all of us who would hate to see the number of major American whiskey distilleries shrink from 13 to 12.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

LDI Determined To Remain A Mystery.

Fans of American whiskey will sometimes see an unfamiliar label on a liquor store shelf and wonder if they have discovered some previously-unknown distillery. In most cases, what they have found is either an obscure brand from a major distiller, or the product of a non-distiller using whiskey bought from one of the majors.

These days it might also be the product of a micro-distillery, but they are easy to spot and their combined whiskey output doesn’t amount to 1/10 of one percent of US whiskey production.

A straight rye might come from a non-US distillery, such as WhistlePig from Canada, but if it’s bourbon and not from a micro or defunct distillery (now very rare), then it was made by one of the thirteen US whiskey distilleries that are currently active.

If a bottle is bottom shelf, possibly a store brand, vague origins are no big deal. If you don’t pay much you don’t expect much.

But if the product has a premium price you are smart to ask questions and the first and most obvious one is, “who made this?”

Which brings us back to those thirteen large distilleries that produce 99.9 percent of the whiskey made in the USA.

Nine of them are so open they give regular public tours. Three of the remaining four give occasional press and trade tours. That leaves one.

Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana LLC, usually abbreviated as LDI.

Lawrenceburg, Indiana is near Cincinnati and developed in the 19th century as the main distilling center for spirits brokered and distributed through Cincinnati firms. Until the American distilling industry began its big contraction in the 1970s, two of the Big Four -- Seagrams and Schenley -- had large whiskey plants there.

LDI is the old Seagrams place. It traces its roots back to 1847, although little is known about its early days. The name was Rossville then and after 1875 it was owned by the James Walsh Company. They operated it up to Prohibition, and even during Prohibition under a medicinal whiskey license.

At the end of Prohibition, Walsh sold Rossville to Seagrams, which expanded it and operated it until that company was sold for parts in 2001. Pernod-Ricard had it until 2007, then sold it to Angostura, the current owner.

LDI is actually two distilleries. The larger one makes neutral spirits (vodka and gin) while the smaller one makes whiskey. It has maturation warehouses and a bottling house. According to the LDI web site, it sits on 78 acres and is one of the largest beverage alcohol distilleries in the world. It makes distilled and compound gin, corn whiskey, rye whiskey, and three different bourbons.

Of greatest interest to the enthusiast community are their rye, which is 95 percent rye grain, 5 percent malt; and their high-rye bourbon, which is 60 percent corn, 36 percent rye, 4 percent malt.

Unlike the other twelve major whiskey distilleries in the USA, LDI makes no brands of its own. It sells its entire output in bulk to other producers, large and small, up to and including Diageo (Bulleit 95 Rye) and Pernod (Seagrams Gin). Some LDI whiskey in current distribution was brokered by Pernod, the rest seemingly comes from LDI directly.

In that word “seemingly” lies the rub. The people who run LDI won’t give interviews, at least not to me. Some of LDI’s customers will provide a little bit of information but they don’t necessarily know very much, except what type of whiskey they bought and the fact that LDI made it.

Being secretive and close-mouthed is what bulk producers do. Heaven Hill has always had a big bulk whiskey business but getting them to talk about it is like pulling teeth. Four Roses and Brown-Forman will both confirm that they sell whiskey to Diageo, primarily white dog that Diageo barrels and ages in the maturation warehouses at Stitzel-Weller near Louisville. Buffalo Trace has been in and out of the bulk business and currently says it is out, including at its Tom Moore Distillery, which sold bulk when it was owned by Constellation. Everybody sells bulk whiskey from time to time, to adjust their inventory or when the price is just too good to pass up.

Neither the producers nor their customers will say much about the bulk whiskey business. Since a bulk producer doesn’t really know what happens to the whiskey after it leaves their plant, and since they don’t own the brand names under which it is sold, their reluctance makes a kind of sense. If a marketing company wants you to think it’s really a distiller, as some do, its reluctance to talk about the real producer makes sense too.

Or consider this. Diageo confirms that its new Bulleit 95 Rye is LDI. The LDI high-rye bourbon mash bill is the same as the one Four Roses makes, which is no surprise since both plants used to be owned by Seagrams.

That bourbon recipe happens to be the Bulleit Bourbon recipe. Is Diageo taking spirit distilled in Indiana, aging it in Kentucky, mixing it with the all-Kentucky bourbon from Four Roses, and calling the whole thing “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey”?

Can they? The rules say producers may not misrepresent where a product was manufactured, but they don’t define ‘manufactured.’ They do say that when distilled spirits are bottled by or for a rectifier, the phrase ‘manufactured by’ may be used in lieu of the phrase ‘bottled by.’

If mere bottling is considered ‘manufacturing’ then surely aging is too.

Beyond the TTB’s general misrepresentation rule above, no entity regulates the use of ‘Kentucky’ in the phrase ‘Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.’ Nowhere is it decreed that whiskeys using the phrase must be distilled and aged in Kentucky.

So I’m not saying Diageo has done anything wrong if they are doing this, but it sure would be interesting to know.

Maybe that tells you why nobody wants to talk about LDI. The problem, of course, is that when you can’t get information from authoritative sources, the rumor mill takes over. I may hear something that doesn’t sound quite right but if I can’t get a company to confirm or deny a rumor there’s not much I can do to set the record straight.

The best hope is that LDI’s customers will convince them to open up. The place makes good and interesting whiskey. Somebody should be bragging about it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is Kentucky 'The New Napa'?

I have a nice story about whiskey tourism in Kentucky and Tennessee in the current issue of Malt Advocate Magazine (Spring 2011, Volume 20, #1).

I say "nice" not because it's so impeccably researched and brilliantly written (modesty prevents me) but because the folks at MA did such a nice job laying it out and putting it together.

For the whiskey enthusiast touring Kentucky and Tennessee today, there is more to enjoy than just distillery tours, although those remain the centerpiece. More and more the region's whole tourism infrastructure is catering to whiskey fans, which is reflected in improved dining, drinking, lodging, and shopping choices.

If you make the trip you'll probably want to pick up some whiskeys you can't find at home. You have plenty of options. Toddy's in Bardstown probably has the most history, being right downtown and having been founded, owned by, and named for a member of the Beam family. (That was a long time ago. The present owner is named Guthrie.) The same family owns the newer and much larger Liquor World on the north side of town.

For the best selection and lowest prices look for the Liquor Barn chain, which has several stores in and around Louisville and Lexington.

If you're coming into Kentucky from Ohio there are several excellent stores just across the river, including the Cork'N Bottle in Covington and The Party Source in Bellevue.

But just about any liquor store in Kentucky will probably have a better bourbon selection than you can find anywhere back home. After all, they don't just make whiskey in Kentucky and Tennessee, they drink it too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Diageo May Be Dissing Me.

Another writer and I have taken to calling Diageo 'The Big Galoot,' TBG for short. In case you don't know, TBG is the world's biggest drinks company. It owns Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Bailey's, J&B, José Cuervo, Captain Morgan, and Tanqueray, to name a few.

One of their itty-bitty brands is Bulleit Bourbon, which is soon to be joined by Bulleit Rye, but you didn't hear it from me. Why? Because it appears that TBG is boycotting me, maybe just with regard to Bulleit Rye, or maybe with regard to everything from now on.

The Shanken Combine is all over it but I can't get my calls returned.

If TBG is boycotting me, I think I know why. It's because they don't want to talk about what I want to talk about, which is their source for this whiskey and their relationship to Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), the Angostura-owned distillery that makes and bottles this rye on Diageo's behalf. Lawrenceburg, Indiana is clearly identified on the label as the source.

It's no scandal that Diageo is buying its whiskey from someone else. Diageo hasn't made a drop of bourbon or rye whiskey in more than a decade.

No, I want somebody to talk to me about LDI because it's interesting. LDI is known-to-be or believed-to-be the source of many recent whiskey releases, all on behalf of other people, none of whom are talking about the real distillery where it was made. LDI whiskey is being sold as Templeton, High West, Harrison, Redemption, and probably others.

LDI is identified as the producer of Bulleit Rye on the TTB label approval form and, of course, it says Lawrenceburg, Indiana on the label. There is only one active distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. (Lawrenceburg is near Cincinnati, by the way.)

The label also says Bulleit Rye has a 95 percent rye mashbill, which is a LDI hallmark.

LDI is owned by Angostura Holdings Ltd. Angostura and LDI are mysterious. I can't get anyone at either place to talk to me. LDI returned my call and referred me to my regular Diageo contact. I had already reached out to her. She usually is great but suddenly doesn't know who I am. (Or maybe she's on vacation.)

We do know this. Angostura is based in Trinidad and Tobago. Yes, it's the company that makes Angostura Bitters, but they're a big rum and vodka producer too for the Caribbean market. Twenty months ago, Angostura Holdings Ltd was suspended from trading on the Trinidad and Tobago Stock Exchange (TTSE) because the company had failed to submit audited financial statements for 2008 and 2009. The stock resumed trading last month. About 75 percent of Angostura is owned by the CL Financial Group, which is now under the control of the Trinidad and Tobago government as a result of the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown.

So it's understandable that they haven't been very interested in publicity, but now they're trading again, and their chairman says in the latest financials that "there is a bright future ahead for Angostura," so why won't they talk about their American business interests, which also include an active distillery in Florida and a silent one in Kentucky?

If I can get someone at TBG to talk to me, maybe I'll also ask why they're still saying Bulleit Bourbon is made at Four Roses even though the owners of Four Roses say, no, it's not.

The Four Roses Distillery is in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and the Bulleit Bourbon label says "Distilled by the Bulleit Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, Kentucky."

But here's the story. TBG got Four Roses in the Seagram's break-up. When TBG sold Four Roses to Kirin Brewery, the deal included a contract to supply TBG with whiskey. That was more than ten years ago and the amount Four Roses is obliged to supply has decreased in each year of the contract. The exact terms are secret but eventually that sales agreement goes away.

No one is willing to talk about this on the record but I have it from reliable sources that the amount Four Roses is supplying now is way below the amount Bulleit is selling. Similarly, I know Kirin has done chemical analysis and determined that while some of the whiskey in a typical bottle of Bulleit Bourbon was made at Four Roses, it wasn't all made there.

I also know that TBG has been buying bourbon white dog from Brown-Forman, Jim Beam and Tom Moore, in quantities amounting to millions of gallons a year, and aging it at the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively, Kentucky, which TBG owns.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. It's all a perfectly legitimate way to do business.

What's weird is that I can't get anyone to talk about it, any of it. People are particularly interested in LDI, this major distillery (previously owned by Pernod-Ricard, briefly, and for a long time by Seagram's) that nobody knows much about. I know a few things, but it's mostly pieced together from different sources, some of them dated, most of it vague and incomplete.

There's no reason somebody can't spend 20 minutes on the phone with me or, heaven forbid, give me a tour.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Upcoming Schedule Of I Wish Whiskey Classes Taught By Me.

I have been negligent in posting about the upcoming schedule of classes I'm teaching for I Wish Lessons, perhaps because I've been so busy teaching them. We have increased the number and types of classes this year and they have been very well received. I Wish is a new company, only just beginning its second year in business.

The mission of I Wish Lessons is to help people enjoy life through learning. All of the classes I teach about distilled spirits are held in different cool bars in the city (Chicago). They always involve tasting usually four products and the bars are pretty good about premium pours. You can also order food and other beverages, and make it a fun night out with a little learning on the side.

They prefer the term 'coach' to 'teacher' or 'instructor.' I usually 'coach' everybody as a group for about an hour, then hang around for individual one-on-one 'coaching.' Class size is typically 20 to 30 people. It's all very relaxed and informal and the students usually determine the course of events through their questions. Students are encouraged to participate. They are also encouraged to stay after class to continue their studies on their own.

Last night we debuted a new course at Waterhouse called Whiskey 101. As the name suggests, it's an introduction to whiskey in general. Because it's me we started with bourbon and worked our way up to single malt scotch, with Irish and Canadian in between. It went well, I think. I was surprised that the group was probably two-thirds women, which is rare for anything to do with whiskey. I was thrilled because I like women and because that's good for the whiskey business, if more women start to discover and appreciate whiskey.

Whiskey & Cupcakes is, essentially, Whiskey 101 except with cupcakes. The cupcakes are fun and the cupcake artists do try to match each cupcake to a whiskey, which gives us an opportunity to talk about matching whiskey with foods. The cupcake thing is really just a way to up the fun a little bit. Unfortunately, it's hard for me to coach and eat cupcakes so I usually miss out. (I do manage to drink, however.)

Here is what I have coming up. Go to the I Wish website to sign up.
  • Mon, Mar. 7th – Whiskey & Cupcakes (Pitchfork) 
  • Tue., Mar. 29th – Single Malt Scotch (Pitchfork)
  • Wed, Mar. 30th – Whiskey & Cupcakes (Pitchfork)
  • Tue, Apr. 5th – Whiskey 101 (Waterhouse)
  • Mon, Apr. 11th -- Whiskey & Cupcakes  (Pitchfork)
  • Tue, Apr. 19th – Bourbon (Pitchfork)
  • Wed, April 27th -- Whiskey & Cupcakes (Pitchfork)
Pitchfork is at 2922 W. Irving Park Rd., just west of California. Waterhouse is at 3407 N. Paulina Ave., at the intersection of Roscoe, Lincoln and Paulina, adjacent to Paulina Brown Line 'L' stop.

All dates are 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.