Tuesday, May 31, 2011

No Proust, Just A Mexican Mudslide.

It is a literary cliché that whenever something triggers a string of memories, you're supposed to reference a certain pastry. I've done it a million times and I'm through. If you are appreciative, thank Chi-Chi's.

I received a press release today from Sazerac about their new Chi-Chi's Skinny Margarita (just in time for summer!). It's only 95 calories per serving, is sweetened with agave nectar, and contains no artificial colors, flavors or added sugars, making it an all-natural product.

I have no interest in this product but the press release got me thinking about several other things.

Such as was Beam crazy to pay real money for the Skinnygirl drinks line? Yes, authentic Skinnygirl comes with brand founder and reality show performer Bethenny Frankel, but the product recipe is so easy to rip off and so is the name.

'Skinny Margarita,' which is perfectly generic and thus can be used by anyone, is just about as good.

I can't decide if the Skinnygirl line has no legs or if they're just very, very thin.

Then I thought about how Mark Brown, president of Sazerac, has his office at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort and how I rarely talk to him about anything except whiskey, so it's easy to forget there's a lot more to Sazerac than bourbon and rye, such as Chi-Chi's, which is a line of pre-mixed cocktails.

Press releases always end with an 'about' paragraph or two. This is for background and is usually not included when the releases are picked up in the media. Sometimes I find them more interesting than the releases. It was, for example, significant when Fortune started to list Knob Creek alongside Jim Beam in their standard 'about' paragraph.

Here's the one from today's Chi-Chi's release. "The Chi Chi’s family includes Original, Gold, Mango, Strawberry, and Skinny Margarita; Strawberry Daiquiri; Long Island Ice Tea; Raspberry Long Island Ice Tea; Pomegranate Martini; Cosmopolitan; Appletini; White Russian; Mojito; Mexican Mudslide; Mai Tai, and Pina Colada. Chi Chi’s is produced and bottled by the Sazerac Company. Sazerac is one of New Orleans’ oldest family owned, privately held companies and has operations in New Orleans, Louisiana; Frankfort, Bardstown, Louisville and Owensboro, Kentucky; Fredericksburg, Virginia; Carson, California; and Baltimore, Maryland. For more information on Sazerac, please visit www.sazerac.com."

I suppose the name 'Mexican Mudslide' could be considered offensive by anyone who has ever been injured or lost property in an actual mudslide in Mexico.

That got me thinking about Chi-Chi's restaurants. The company was based in Louisville when I lived there (1978-1987). I did a little bit of marketing work for them. At the time, Chi-Chi's was being run by an ex-KFC guy, which is also based in Louisville. Louisville was and I guess still is unique for a town its size in having so many headquarters of companies that buy lots of advertising, marketing, PR, and design services, which was good for people like me who do that kind of work.

What's amazing is how successfully the Chi-Chi's brand has survived the restaurant chain's demise. Chi-Chi's was a sit-down chain restaurant that served 'Mexican' food. I use quotes because the menu was Tex-Mex and very Americanized even for that.

According to Wikipedia, the last Chi-Chi's restaurant in the U.S. closed in 2004, but there are a few left in Belgium, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Indonesia and Canada. I also learned that Chi-Chi's corporate parent, which licenses the name to Sazerac and also to Hormel, which makes Chi-Chi's chips, salsa, and other foods, also owns the Tumbleweed restaurant chain.

When I lived in Louisville, Tumbleweed was a one-off, and the best Mexican restaurant in town. I dined and drank there often. It was on Mellwood Avenue between downtown and Zorn Avenue, close to the Fischer Meats plant. (Wikipedia tells me that unit, which became the flagship, was actually #2. The original was across the river in New Albany, Indiana.)

I ate in one of the chain versions once. It did not trigger any memories.

If the press release triggered any other memories, I've since forgotten them.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Me On Whiskycast.

Mark Gillespie does an excellent job with his weekly podcast, Whiskycast. I'm the featured interview this week. We talked a couple of weeks ago when we were both in Kentucky. We were, in fact, in the clubhouse at Keeneland when the microphone came out. Elmer T. Lee was there with us and I think I overstated his age. He's 91, not 94, and still going strong.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BOURBON, STRAIGHT Is Now Available On Kindle.

BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (my book about bourbon and other American whiskeys) is now available for Kindle reading devices. Go here to buy it.

In addition to Kindle reading devices themselves, books published on Kindle may be read on any PC, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, or Android. All you need is the free Kindle app.

I'm also looking into publishing my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader, on Kindle in some form.

Also coming soon, an upgraded web site.

Feedback is appreciated.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Word Of Caution About Homemade Stills.

From time to time on the craft distiller discussion boards, someone will post about how easy it is to make your own still. Considering that stills have been around for about 1,000 years, the technology is pretty simple. I know of people who have made their own stills and never had a problem. Moonshiners typically make their stills, often in a very quick and slapdash manner, and usually have more to fear from 'revenoors' than from still explosions and other mishaps.

If you are thinking about buying a still made by a crafts-person as opposed to an established company, the same concerns apply. 

First, consider that in distillation you use heat and pressure to make a highly combustible and potentially poisonous end product. The list of things that can go wrong is endless and when they go wrong, they can go very tragically wrong.

Second, consider for example Forsyths, a Scottish manufacturer of stills and other equipment. This is from the Forsyths web site:

Forsyths holds the following accreditations and registrations:
I'm not saying people shouldn't make their own stills under any circumstances. Just take the claims about how 'easy' it is, and how you'll save all kinds of money, with a grain of salt. This ain't no Easy Bake Oven.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beam Parent Sells Golf Division.

Fortune Brands announced today that it has sold its Acushnet unit, which makes Titlest golf balls and clubs, FootJoy golf shoes, and other golf products. The buyer is a group of Korean investors that includes Fila Korea Ltd. Purchase price is $1.2 billion.

This sale is part of the plan to transform Fortune into a 'pure play' distilled spirits company called Beam Inc. What it means for bourbon lovers is another billion in the war chest that will enable Beam to be a buyer of spirits brands and not a takeover or break-up target as many assume.

The next step in the process is for Fortune to spin-off its home and security unit, which should occur later this year.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mum Still The Word At Stranahan's.

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey has been one of the great success stories of the nascent micro-distillery movement. Based in Denver, Stranahan's is a fine product with an excellent story, fronted effectively by founder Jess Graber and distiller Jake Norris.

The last time I talked to Graber was about a year ago. I was writing a story for WHISKY Magazine ("Let 1,000 Distilleries Bloom," July 2010, No. 89, p. 14). I asked what he thought Stranahan's would be doing in five years. He told me this:

"Stranahan’s will still be making 'brown' whiskey in 2015. We are 13 months into our new facility and are making 12 to 18 barrels a week. Our goal, in late 2011, is to purchase two new wash stills and a second spirit still from Vendome, which should boost our capacity to about 50 barrels per week. That level of production would maximize the current location. No concrete expansion plans beyond that.

"It will be more than enough if it all falls together. Summer to fall 2011 will also be an expansion of sales territories. We have 14 more states to 'open' and some markets that have been neglected. We are currently in full allocation of 6,000 cases per year. We hope to bolster our national following first and then expand our international presence. Stranahan’s will continue to produce a Straight Malt Whiskey, grow responsibly, and honor the traditions of the world whiskey fraternity."

It sounded like a plan, but something changed. Last fall there were rumblings that Stranahan's was being or had been sold. Jonathan Shikes broke the story in his blog on Westword. I wrote about it here. Shikes got a confirmation from Graber, then nothing. That was 4 1/2 months ago.

This bothers me.

Not the sale itself. Cashing in is the dream of most entrepreneurs. I'm disturbed by the silence. The Stranahan's web site hasn't been updated since December. There is nothing on it about the new owners. The sale is a fact, no doubt about that. Proximo, the new owner, isn't talking either. An unnamed Proximo executive told Shikes nothing will change, which Graber echoed in his statement. That's it.

Most micro-distilleries thrive by forming an intimate relationship with their customers. Their people are accessible, their facilities welcome visitors. They have newsletters, web sites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. They make you feel like you're part of the family. Stranahan's had that and is now squandering it. That makes no sense either for the people who built the place or its new owners.

Something is hinky in the Mile High City.

Monday, May 16, 2011

New Jack Daniel's Label Is Revealed.

Brown-Forman announced today that it has changed the label for Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Brand because, as the press release says (I'm paraphrasing), "Mr. Jack would have wanted us to."

Bottles with the new labels will begin shipping shortly and should be in stores by July.

Some of the changes are interesting. Lem Motlow is gone. So is the population of Lynchburg. The statement "bottled at the distillery" is gone, perhaps because the distillery is a few miles away from the bottling house.

"Est. and Reg. in 1866" is gone, perhaps because the Federal government has no record of any such registration.

Interestingly, though, all of the claims removed from the label are still made in the press release, so they're not backing away from them, just taking them off the label.

Simplification is good and with Jack Daniel's now selling about half of its volume outside the USA, maybe all that extra clutter just raised questions that are hard for their overseas reps to answer, such as how can a guy who's been dead for 64 years be your proprietor?

I talked recently with a reporter from a major national outlet who wondered it these changes will be controversial. Maybe a little, since Jack's ardent fans are very protective of the brand, but what this really does is give them a reason to buy and set aside as many of the current label bottles as possible.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Discover La Michelada.

Man cannot live on bourbon alone. At least this man can’t.

Maybe I could, maybe I haven't tried hard enough. Whatever. I do drink other things.

Recently I have become enamored of the michelada, a beer cocktail of Mexican or possibly Mexican-American origin.

I was introduced to it at Toyota Park, where the Chicago Fire play. The Fire are Chicago’s Major League Soccer team. I’m a fan and season ticket holder.

Only one beer vendor at the park makes micheladas but she’s near our seats and she’s a hoot, very friendly, always remembers you.

She starts with a 5.5 ounce can of Clamato, which is a blend of tomato and clam juice with celery and spices. To this is added a 20 ounce can of Modelo Especial lager. That’s my usual choice. She also has Tecate, Corona and Victoria. She finishes it with couple lime wedges, a dash of celery salt, and a splash or two of Tabasco. She’ll splash in more Tabasco if you ask.

It’s $12, a mere $1 up-charge from the usual price of the large-size cans of Mexican lager.

I make it pretty much the same way at home except I use generic tomato-clam juice from the Jewels, Miller High Life beer, and I throw in a little soy sauce too.

Budweiser makes a version, co-branded with Clamato, that they call Chelada but I’ve never tried it.

It has been cold at every Fire home game this year so spicy beer tastes pretty good. It doesn’t quite wash away the bad taste of bad play, which we’ve had way too much of so far, but it helps.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Barton 1792 Distillery Opens New Visitor Center.

Earlier today, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (center) and officials from the Barton 1792 Distillery cut the ribbon to open the Barton 1792 Distillery Visitor Center in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Pictured from left to right are Chuck Braugh, former Barton Plant Manager and present for the original Visitor Center opening in 1967; Mark Brown, President and CEO, Sazerac Co.; Governor Beshear; Johnnie Colwell, Vice President of Operations, and Ken Pierce, Chief Chemist.

Though not billed as such, this also marks the official return of the Barton Brands name, by which the distillery was known from 1944 until 2008. It is now the Barton 1792 Distillery, incorporating the name of the bourbon -- Ridgemont Reserve 1792 -- for which the distillery would like to be known. Very Old Barton and several other whiskeys are made there too.

Barton Brands was established in Chicago at the end of Prohibition by Oscar Getz and Lester Abelson. They bought the former Tom Moore Distillery in 1944 and named it Barton. Constellation Brands, which owned the distillery from 1993 to 2009, changed the name back to Tom Moore in 2008, shortly before selling to Sazerac.

The new Visitor Center is a 1,000 square foot facility with a tasting bar and gift shop. It is also where all distillery tours begin and end.

Inside the Barton 1792 Distillery Visitor Center guests can purchase branded merchandise, including hats, shirts, glassware, and jams and jellies. In a nod to its roots, the Visitor Center is in the same building as the original Oscar Getz Museum, which moved to downtown Bardstown after Oscar Getz retired in 1982. Pictures of the original Getz Museum’s grand opening as well as many other distillery historical milestones decorate the walls inside the Visitor Center.

“We’re proud to say that we have, despite the challenging economic environment, significantly increased our investment in the Distillery, hired additional staffing and committed to keeping this vital industry alive in this part of the state,” said Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer for Sazerac. The Bardstown facility employs nearly 200 people and is responsible for an economic impact of $7.2 million to Nelson County. The new Visitor Center is projected to bring 10,000 tourists to the region its first year.

“I congratulate Mark Brown and the others at Sazerac for their success in the midst of a difficult economy, and I want to thank them for their confidence in the Bluegrass State,” said Governor Beshear.

The Barton Brands of Kentucky 1792 Distillery Visitor Center is open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours start every hour on the hour. The last tour begins at 3:00 Monday through Friday and 2:00 on Saturday. Enter at 501 Cathedral Manor (31 E-New Haven Road). The phone number is 866-239-4690.

Upcoming Classes.

I teach whiskey classes here in Chicago through I Wish Lessons. Right now, all of the public classes I teach are about whiskey. I recently did a private class about tequila, which was fun.

The classes are held in different bars. They always involve tasting, usually four products. You can also order food and other beverages, stay after class for 'extra credit,' and make it a fun night out with friends, with a little learning on the side.

They also have some cool beer classes, though I don't teach them. Their most popular class is sushi rolling.

I Wish prefers 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.

The classes I teach are Introduction to Bourbon, Introduction to Single Malt Scotch, Whiskey 101, and Whiskey and Cupcakes. The Whiskey 101 class compares and contrasts American, Scottish, Irish and Canadian whiskey. Whiskey and Cupcakes is similar but the cupcakes let us get into matching whiskey with food.

Here is what I have coming up. Go to the I Wish website to sign up or see what other classes they offer.
  • Tue, May 17th – Scotch (Pitchfork)
  • Mon, May 23rd – Bourbon (Rocks)
  • Mon, May 30th – Whiskey 101 (Pitchfork)
  • Thu, Jun 16th – Bourbon (Rocks)
  • Wed, Jun 29 – Whiskey 101 (Pitchfork)
Pitchfork is at 2922 W. Irving Park Rd., just west of California. Rocks Lincoln Park is at 1301 West Schubert Avenue, at Lakewood.

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.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Virginia Gentleman Is Still Made and Sold.

Ah, the bar bets.

The know-it-all tells you bourbon can only be made in Kentucky so you book the bet and ask the barkeep to hand you a bottle of Virginia Gentleman Bourbon, made in Virginia. Easy.

A. Smith Bowman, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is now owned by Sazerac/Buffalo Trace. About a year ago they launched a line of Abraham Bowman small batch bourbons and ryes. They also killed, I thought, the more pedestrian Virginia Gentleman brand.

Joe Dangler, the long-time Master Distiller at Bowman, will retire soon (exactly when is up to him). His replacement will be Truman Cox, Chief Chemist at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, who moves to Virginia this week.

I was talking to Cox recently and learned that while they did discontinue the 90 proof Virginia Gentleman expression, known as 'the fox' for its fox-hunting scene label, the venerable old 80 proof VG continues to be made. It's nothing special, just a good, standard bourbon, mostly distributed in Virginia.

But if you see it on a back bar somewhere else, there is money to be made.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

More About The Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project.

If you are interested in the new Single Oak Project from Buffalo Trace (and you should be), I hope by now you have perused the web site or at least read the press release. This thing is too detailed and too complicated for me to explain it all here.

The Single Oak Project is unique. No one in the whiskey industry has ever done anything like this before. Why are they doing it? They are doing it for themselves but also for you, the person who reads this blog, i.e., people like us who care way too much about American whiskey and American whiskey-making. Sickness, meet your enablers.

This is craft distilling at its finest, a model and challenge to anyone who claims that descriptor. Buffalo Trace, of course, would not ordinarily be considered a craft distillery but they are blurring the line with this project. What self-proclaimed craft distillery could even attempt something this ambitious?

The Single Oak Project is supposed to be fun but it has a serious side. It represents a genuine and ongoing exploration of the factors that make American whiskey what it is, in an effort to make it better.

Best of all, you can participate in a meaningful way.

On Friday, I tasted the first release set of 12. There were 192 different barrels, hence there are 192 different whiskeys in the project. They will release 12 whiskeys per quarter for the next four years.

Twelve is a good number because that is a standard case in the liquor business. Each case will contain one bottle each of this release. They are 375 ml bottles, ‘splits’ in wine parlance, and will cost $46.35 each.

It will start shipping soon and should reach retail by the end of the month. Quantities are very limited – about 400 cases total – so talk to your whiskey monger now.

Here is some of what I experienced during the tasting on Friday.

One clever thing they have done is compress the number of variables for each release. Therefore, any two bottles will teach you something really cool. You can, for example, taste two whiskeys in which the only variable is wood grain coarseness. Everything else is controlled for -- I mean everything -- and they do taste different.

Think about it this way. You can taste two bottles of Blanton's or any other single barrel bourbon, from two different barrels, and know that any differences you taste are coming from the barrel, but you can’t know what it is about the barrel that is causing the difference. With Single Oak Project bourbons, you know, because the only difference is that one is fine grain and the other is coarse, for example. Everything else about the distillate and barrel is the same. Hell, all of the wood is from the same tree.

That is the point of 'single tree,' by the way. It’s not because a single-tree barrel is better. It’s because with a single tree you have control over all variables because every stave and both heads are made of wood from the same tree. Anything that is true of one stave in that barrel is true of all of them.

I said you can learn something cool with even two bottles but what if you can get your hands on only one? What then? In that case, I suggest comparing it either to your favorite bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, or specifically to Buffalo Trace bourbon. Use that as a baseline. If your Single Oak bottle is rye recipe, then by comparing it to Buffalo Trace you already have many things in common.

For this first release of Single Oak there are just three variables: recipe (wheat or rye as flavor grain), grain (fine, average, coarse), and tree cut (top half, bottom half).

You know what makes a huge difference? Tree cut, i.e., whether the wood for the barrel came from the top of the tree or the bottom of the tree. Who knew?

There have been some early critics of the project who question its emphasis on barrels. If you think it's possible to overstate the importance of the barrel to American whiskey, you know very little about American whiskey.

When you buy a bottle of Single Oak Project Bourbon, all you will know is its barrel number. Then you can go to the website to get the full provenance of that barrel. I have no doubt that when this gets going people will post the provenance of each barrel on Straight Bourbon, Bourbon Enthusiast, and similar sites.

This is just one of many experiments Buffalo Trace has conducted in its quest for the ‘Holy Grail’ of bourbon, aka ‘the perfect bourbon.’

Many early critics have taken offense at that too, considering it hubristic, which it is in a way. On the other hand, whiskey is a very same-as-it-ever-was business. Consistency is a core value. Buffalo Trace is just saying that consistency and a constant quest to improve can coexist.

Let me put the span of this thing in perspective. Late Friday morning we planted a white oak tree in honor of Ronnie Eddins on the grounds at Buffalo Trace. Eddins was the longtime warehouse supervisor who died last October. It was Eddins who went to Missouri a decade ago and selected the 96 oak trees for this project. Everyone at Buffalo Trace recognizes that they are working on projects that still will be going long after they are not. That is the nature of whiskey-making.

The rye recipe bourbons in the set taste more or less like Buffalo Trace. The wheaters are not quite Weller, but they're good. Everything I tasted was good. There is no reason any of these whiskeys should be less than good, but inevitably some will taste better than others.

That is why consumers are being asked to review and rate every Single Oak Project whiskey they try. In four years, each barrel will have a score, and one will win. Buffalo Trace intends to replicate that one, in terms of duplicating its specifications, on a production scale, and that will be the Single Oak Project Bourbon going forward (with, I assume, an interlude for proper aging).

Why do I suggest you compare a Single Oak Project whiskey to your personal favorite bourbon or Tennessee whiskey? Because the idea is to learn what variables cause what differences and which combinations of variables are most pleasing to -- you. That ultimately is what they – and you -- will get out of this.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Truth About Distilling at Barton.

I was in Bardstown for the weekend to see many of my bourbon friends and there were ugly rumors floating around about Barton. That’s the new/old name for Bardstown’s Tom Moore Distillery. (More on the name change when it becomes official in about a week.)

Here is the real story.

Barton is not shutting down. In fact, they just today had the soft opening of their new visitors center and debuted an expanded tour. The distillery was not, however, running today. They have not distilled since December and won’t resume again until November 1. Then they are scheduled to run until sometime in April or May, 2012.

They distilled for just four weeks in December, 2010. Before that they had distilled for about five months, ending about this time last year. That is a long break but not unusual. Every distillery predicts how much whiskey it needs to put away each season and schedules distilling accordingly.

Because of the long whiskey aging cycle, production scheduling is a moving target, based on actual sales as well as long term sales projections. Fluctuating prices of commodities such as grain and energy can also be considerations.

One difference between Barton and some other distilleries is that when they run, they run 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week. (The fermenters run seven days, the stills run five.) When they are running they produce about 180,000 gallons of white dog per week.

This is just the distillery part of their operation. There is activity in the warehouses and bottling house all year, and visitors get to tour the distillery even if it’s silent.

A few years ago, many of Kentucky’s distilleries were operating at or near capacity and so embarked on major expansions. Now most of those expansion projects have been completed and, assuming they did it right, those distilleries should all have excess capacity to permit future growth. Excess capacity throughout the industry is probably one reason Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) is struggling, since they don't have any brands of their own and only get busy if everyone else is full.

Another limitation on production is warehouse capacity. There is no point in distilling white dog if you have nowhere to put it. New warehouse construction is one aspect of industry expansion that is ongoing.

Barton is now part of Buffalo Trace/Sazerac, which is giving Barton’s brands more support. Its flagship bourbon, Ridgemont Reserve 1792, has had a nice growth spurt since Sazerac took over. The company also has increased distribution of its esteemed Very Old Barton Bourbon (VOB), which was once the private stock of Kentuckians. Down there, VOB sells the way Jack and Jim do in the rest of the country. (VOB BIB is one of my personal favorites.)

Assuming American whiskey continues to boom, Barton has a bright future.