Thursday, June 30, 2011

Algren Reminder.

There's only about a week left in the campaign on Kickstarter to help my friend Michael Caplan finish his documentary about Chicago writer Nelson Algren. I first told you about it here.

If nothing else, Michael has added a few more cool clips for us to enjoy. Go to the site and click on the Updates tab to view them. The latest is by Rick Kogan.

So watch the new clips and become a movie mogul by making a pledge.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Michter's Barrel-A-Day Distillery in New Home

By 1976, Pennsylvania’s struggling Michter’s Distillery was betting heavily on tourism to keep its doors open. To attract visitors during the bicentennial year, they installed a small, historic-scale demonstration distillery in one of the site’s 19th century buildings. Built by Vendome, it was a complete distillery with mash cooker, fermenters, beer still, spirit still, condenser, and all associated tanks and other accessories. It can produce about 50 gallons of spirit a day, enough to fill one standard whiskey barrel.

The barrel-a-day distillery operated at Michter's for the next 14 years. After Michter's closed it sat there for a few years until 1996, when it was purchased by David Beam, who moved it to Bardstown, Kentucky. It was put on display there but never used.

In February of this year it was purchased by Tom's Foolery Distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. After a trip to Vendome for refurbishing it was moved to its new home. Tom and Lianne Herbruck put the major pieces in place over Father's Day weekend. They currently make applejack (i.e., apple brandy) but with the new/old stills they also intend to make whiskey.

No decision has been made on an exact start date and, of course, it will be years before they have any aged whiskey to sell, but the Herbrucks tend not to let grass grow under their feet so I expect the first batch will be made sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The New Reader Is On Its Way.

The June, 2011 issue (Volume 13, Number 6) of the Bourbon Country Reader is in the mail. This concludes Volume 13, which means it's now available as a bound volume.

Although I try to maintain the imperial 'we' throughout, it's obvious I write most of the Reader stories, but not all of them. This time we're excited to welcome Jerry Dalton, the retired Master Distiller at Jim Beam, and Barton before that. Jerry is a very interesting and thoughtful guy. His essay is mostly about corn but Booker Noe and Baker Beam are in there, as is some musing about what 'Master Distiller' really means.

We also tell the story of Antique bourbon, a vagabond bourbon best known for its years as a Seagram's brand. Born in the 19th century, it died in the 21st. This is about what happened in between.

Plus we review the Four Roses 2011 Limited Edition Single Barrel.

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses, $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card.

Click here for more information.

Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format).

Click here to open or download the PDF document "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wild Turkey Unveils New Distillery.

Although the new Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, has been up and running, and giving tours, for about a month, today was its official unveiling. Executives from Campari, the parent company, were there. So were Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Lawrenceburg Mayor Edwinna Baker.

The capacity of the new distillery, 11 million gallons a year, is more than twice the old one. This expansion was actually planned several years ago but delayed about two years due to the ownership change. The new beer still and doubler are the exact same capacity as the old ones. The increase in overall capacity comes from more and bigger mash cookers and fermenters. The stills may be the same size but they're going to be a lot busier.

The price tag for the expansion is $50 million.

The capacity expansion on Wild Turkey Hill is a good thing, as is the new Wild Turkey 81 (81 proof, that is, parallel to the 101 proof flagship). I've always disdained the 80 proof, brown label expression. This one is a lot better. Unofficial distillery sources report it's the same whiskey as 101, just diluted, whereas the old 80 proof was a much younger whiskey.

Especially if you like the milder proof, 81 is a fine addition to the line.

Less edifying is a new TV commercial they've just released, which encourages people to use a well known rude hand gesture to order 'the bird.' After this triggers a few bar brawls they may reconsider.

The commercial also features a model whose hairstyle is right out of the 70s. What's that about? You can see it for yourself on Facebook.

The picture at top shows Master Distiller Jimmy Russell (left) and Associate Distiller Eddie Russell (Jimmy's son) christening an oversized bourbon barrel at today's official ceremony. The picture below shows a tour group from Cincinnati visiting the new facility.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Four Roses 2011 Single Barrel Limited Edition.

Referencing back to Monday's allegory, the 2011 Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel, released last month, is what happens when Flora gets frisky with the very wry farmer. It's what you get 12 years later, that is.

I reviewed the 2011 Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Meet Bill Samuels, Jr.

This summer, recently retired Maker's Mark Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr. will conduct the bourbon tastings that conclude the Kentucky distillery's free public tours. He won't appear at every tasting (they do 39 a week), but his schedule will be posted on the Maker's Mark web site and Facebook page, so you can plan to be there when he is.

(The schedules don't appear to be up yet.)

For those of you who don't know, Bill Samuels, Jr. is a master showman, a true character. Time spent with him is never dull and always entertaining.

The tour takes visitors step-by-step through the bourbon-making process, including the milling, cooking and fermentation of grains; distillation; aging; and a look at Maker’s Mark’s unique dipping line, where every single bottle of bourbon is hand-dipped and sealed in red wax.

Each tour lasts approximately 45 minutes and concludes with a tasting of Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46. Visitors also have the chance to dip their own bottle of Maker’s Mark at the gift shop.

Bill Samuels, Jr. retired earlier this year after 35 years as president of Maker's Mark Distillery. His father, Bill Samuel's, Sr., started the distillery in 1953. Maker's Mark is owned by Beam Global.

The Maker's Mark Distillery is part of the Kentucky Distillers Association's Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fairest Rose And The Five Yeasts.

Once upon a time there was a rose, a rose so blessed with elegance and beauty that it was said she was more fair than any four ordinary roses. Her name was Fairest Rose. One day, while strolling on the forest path, Fairest Rose came to a fork in the road. Five forks, as a matter of fact.

At the foot of each fork stood a tall yeast. From the first two forks, a man and woman stepped forward. The man spoke. "Hello, I'm Herb Yeast." This is Flora Yeast and those three are Big Fruit, Little Fruit and Spicy. Here's how this works."

Herb explained that if Fairest Rose wanted to walk their paths, she would have to accompany each of them in turn. Along the way they would meet two farmers, each with a wry sense of humor, but one much more wry than the other. She would walk for a while with each of them as well.

Each walk would change Fairest Rose. Together they would complete her.

And that is how Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


I recently added a short list of recommended blogs to the right side of this page. Only the five blogs with the most recent posts are displayed, in posting order with the most recent one first.

These are the blogs I actually follow so it's not a reflection on any blogs not on this list, some run by friends of mine, except for the fact that it means I don't follow them. I only follow a few, which doesn't mean I don't look at some others from time to time.

The ones I recommend are the ones I read a lot and like a lot. Some of those are run by friends of mine too.

Only two are run by producers and only one of those is a major American whiskey producer, Buffalo Trace (BT). Specifically, I follow Harlen Wheatley's blog. He is BT's Master Distiller. His is the one called "Master Blog."

You might very well wonder why I follow Wheatley's blog and nothing from any other major producer. The best answer I can give you is that if any other producer does one even half as well, I'll consider it. Wheatley doesn't waste my time, a big plus when comparing blogs run by commercial interests. When he posts he has something to say, some actual information to convey.

Buffalo Trace in general, under the leadership of CEO Mark Brown, has a very finely-tuned sense of what whiskey enthusiasts want to know. If I seem to write about them more than I do about other producers, that's why. If others want the same kind of attention, the template is right there for you.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Buffalo Trace Helps Charities Help Themselves.

One of the unique features of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, is Warehouse V, the world’s only single barrel bonded aging warehouse. (Photo by yellojkt.) It was built in 1952 and has held various historically-significant barrels over the years.

On December 31, 1999, the new century was dawning as employees at Buffalo Trace gathered to watch the last barrel of the twentieth century roll into Warehouse V.

Now, nearly 12 years later, the Buffalo Trace Millennium Barrel has been removed from Warehouse V, dumped, and 174 beautifully handwritten and individually numbered bottles have been filled. Each Millennium Barrel bottle is packaged in a numbered hardwood showcase box that includes a piece of charred oak stave from the historic barrel. Also included is a brochure that explains the significance of this unique bottle of bourbon.

To do something special with the Millennium Barrel, Buffalo Trace will donate all 174 bottles to charitable organizations across the country to auction off and raise money for their worthwhile causes.

"This was a special barrel of whiskey and we want to do something with the bottles to help those in need,” said Kris Comstock, Buffalo Trace Brand Manager. "We really hope whiskey enthusiasts and collectors will help some deserving non-profit groups raise serious money. These 174 bottles are beautiful and the bourbon tastes amazing. Our goal is to raise $200,000 for charity!"

Charities wishing to apply should go to for details about how to get one of the Millenium bottles.

This is yet another example of Buffalo Trace going its own way and developing original and unique ways to promote its products.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Is Whiskey?

Arguments about whiskey often start, tragically, before anyone has even had a drink. They argue about how to spell it ('whisky' or 'whiskey') and even what it means.

There are a few people who consider 'whiskey' and 'alcohol' to be synonymous, especially when discussing the history of distilled spirits, and to the extent that distilled spirits were almost universally called 'water of life' at first, the different names had more to do with local language than with the type of fermentable substrate used.

The word 'whiskey' is derived from the phrase 'water of life' in Gaelic.

When, however, people began to distinguish between types of aqua vitae, they did so by raw material. That may have been coincidence, but nevertheless 'brandy' came to mean distilled wine and 'whiskey' came to mean distilled beer, and that divide occurred in Europe maybe 500 years ago. 'Rum,' to mean a spirit made from sugar cane, came later.

In all cases, if someone in, say, the West Indies happened to make some spirit from, say, wheat, they might very well call it 'rum,' that term being understood to mean distilled spirit. This is common in the literature, someone writing in the 17th century might mention, "a rum made from wheat."

In context, it's not so much wrong as it is imprecise.

In India today, because of the British colonial influence, they call their local spirit 'whiskey' even though it is made from sugar cane. They even flavor it so it tastes vaguely like scotch. They are unmoved by Western insistence that whiskey must be made from grain and are unwilling to call their whiskey rum.

They have agreed not to call it scotch.

Indian distillers also make what we would consider proper whiskeys, from grain.

Colonialism aside, there is a long tradition of 'whiskey' being largely synonymous with 'distilled spirit' in beer-making cultures. 'Brandy' has been used the same way in wine-making cultures.

The idea that whiskey and brandy must be aged is of fairly recent vintage, about a century and a half, but it has become widely accepted in custom and law.

The fundamental rationale behind regulating the labeling of distilled spirits is that a person shouldn't have to take a course to buy a drink. Fundamentally, when a consumer orders 'whiskey,' he or she should have a pretty good idea what to expect and a pretty good chance of having that expectation realized. So, first and foremost, whiskey should look, taste, and function like whiskey.

The narrower categories such as 'scotch whiskey' or 'bourbon whiskey' branch out from there.

That's pretty much how things are. We're generally well served. But increasing globalization makes it increasingly complicated.

The solution favored by the largest drinks companies is to forget types and focus on brands. That's why Jeremiah Weed (a Diageo product) can be a whiskey, a vodka, a liqueur, and a beer (i.e., flavored malt beverage).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kentucky Bourbon Festival: To Go Or Not To Go.

It's that time of year again, as people plan their summer vacations a few wonder, "should I go to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (9/13-18)?"

I went to the KBF the first couple years of its existence, 20 years ago. It was, for the most part, a snore. I didn't go for ten years, until people on started to talk about it as a meet up opportunity. That was in 2000 and 2001.

Coming so soon after 9/11, the 2001 event was surreal. Only people who drove could even get there. A couple of distilleries pulled out. But the weather was perfect and the atmosphere was very kind and solicitous. People were being preternaturally nice to each other.

I believe I have attended every year since.

That said, I attend very few official events. I went to the 'gala' once. Awful. I've gone to the Four Roses breakfast several times. It's very good, there's just no point in going to it every year because it's always essentially the same. I usually go to the barrel rolling competition on Saturday morning. It's great.

The only part of the festival that kind of looks like a festival takes place Friday and Saturday on the grounds of Spaulding Hall, spilling over to an adjacent city park. Spaulding Hall holds the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. In front of Spaulding is where all of the participating distilleries have their booths. They sell souvenirs -- t-shirts and such -- no whiskey. There are usually some of the distillers around.

There are also a lot of other booths; craftspeople, community groups, local and not-so-local businesses. Bourbon Barrel Foods, for example, has a booth. They sell this awesome soy sauce aged in used bourbon barrels. The local show car club sets up. The Army is there recruiting. There is a stage with live music. There is a midway with carny rides and carny food.

It's exactly like a thousand other Midwestern community festivals.

One of the worst abominations of the official festival is the "Spirit Garden," a fenced in, shade-free baseball field, exactly like the soccer stadium holding pens that are used when totalitarian governments round up protesters during anti-government demonstrations. You have to buy strips of tickets that you can then use to buy drinks, served in plastic glasses. There's very little seating.

It's how I imagine the bars are in hell.

They also sell Bud Light and more people drink that than bourbon. In another absurdist touch, they absolutely refuse to serve rye whiskey at this or any other official festival event.

But especially if the weather is pleasant, I enjoy hanging out on the 'festival grounds' for a few hours, though not in the Spirit Garden.

In the evening, the informal events crank up and go into the wee hours. They are the highlight of the festival.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Be A Movie Mogul. Support Michael Caplan's "Algren."

Nelson Algren is a Chicago writer whose work I admire. His Chicago, City On The Make is pretty much the only thing you need read to truly understand the Windy City. His Man With The Golden Arm was the first National Book Award winner. He was part of a romantic triangle with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He was a degenerate drinker and gambler. What's not to love?

Michael Caplan is a friend of mine, a Chicago filmmaker who is working on a feature-length Algren documentary. His secret weapon is Art Shay, a Chicago photographer and living legend who was Algren's close friend. Shay took hundreds of photographs of Algren over the years, marvelously capturing Algren's Chicago in the process.

Finally, Kickstarter is a cool web site that helps artists fund artistic projects and makes it easy for people like us to help. Any support level above $10 is gladly accepted.

So check out the sample clip and make a pledge today. Click on the title below the video frame to go to the "Algren" page on the Kickstarter site. You can also watch the clip there.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Great Lakes Tries New Approach To “The Whiskey Problem.”

Great Lakes Distillery (GLD) is a Milwaukee micro-distillery, located on the edge of the Walkers Point neighborhood just south of downtown. You can see the Harley Museum from there.

Founder Guy Rehorst, distiller Doug MacKenzie, and their team are cool people who have done a great job making interesting products and winning the loyalty of local drinkers.

Like every micro, GLD has wrestled with ‘the whiskey problem,’ namely; whiskey is by definition aged in oak, almost always for years and years. For a variety of reasons, mostly financial, few micros have figured out how to make that happen.

GLD has come up with its own, unique solution called Kinnickinnic Whiskey. The word means ‘mixture’ in the Ojibwe tongue. Specifically, it refers to the mixture of tobacco and other plant materials used for ceremonial smoking. It’s also a common place name in Wisconsin.

GLD’s Kinnickinnic Whiskey, therefore, is a blended whiskey that combines Kentucky straight bourbon with malt whiskey distilled by Great Lakes. The bourbon distiller, though undisclosed, is not another micro. It’s one of the big guys.

"Straight" means the bourbon is at least two years old. They don’t say how old the malt is. Based on the taste, not very.

The best use for these very vegetal, very young whiskeys is in cocktails, where a skillful mixologist can both temper and complement their sharp edges. That’s true in this case as well.

It’s 90° in Chicago today, so I tried a whiskey sour. Excellent! Delicious! Perfectly enjoyable!

I was afraid the whiskey would be overpowering but I stuck to a standard recipe. Next time I’ll probably up the whiskey a little, because it blended so nicely into the drink. I’ll probably also hit it with my usual dash of cherry bitters, which I omitted for fear the whiskey itself would make it bitter enough.

Neat, it’s not so enjoyable. It’s hot with a very strong, white dog flavor. It’s as well made as such a thing can be. There’s just no getting around its youth. To 'Kinnickinnic' it a little more by adding some other ingredients is the key, and at $29 a 750 ml you won’t feel like you’re paying way too much for a mixing whiskey.