Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Perfect For New Year's Eve: The Seelbach.

The Seelbach in Louisville is a wonderful, old hotel in the grand style of the late 19th and early 20th century, made immortal as the site of Daisy's wedding in The Great Gatsby. No doubt it is perfect for New Year's Eve, although you pretty much need to be in Louisville for that to be an option.

No, I'm talking about the Seelbach Cocktail. Why is it perfect for New Year's Eve? Because it is the only cocktail that comes to mind that combines bourbon with champagne. What's more, as unlikely as it sounds, it is delicious.

The cocktail was created by a Seelbach bartender in 1917. Its recipe was lost during Prohibition and only reappeared in 1995. It's other ingredients are unusual too, not one but two historic bitters.

Although the recipe doesn't specify a bourbon, I have had it at the Old Seelbach Bar made with Blanton's bourbon, which is quite nice. I suggest any of the better bourbons but don't use one that is more than 12-years-old, as too much wood throws it off.

Since it is served in a champagne flute, no one needs to know that you are celebrating with a far superior drink to champagne alone.

Seelbach Cocktail


3/4 ounce bourbon
1/2 ounce Cointreau
7 dashes Angostura bitters
7 dashes Peychaud's bitters
4 ounces chilled brut Champagne
1 orange twist, for garnish


Pour all of the ingredients, in the order given, into a Champagne flute. Add the garnish.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bourbon For Christmas.

What bourbon is good for Christmas? Well, heck, they all are, but here are a couple of thoughts.

You can make egg nog with bourbon. Evan Williams has a ready-to-drink version. So, no doubt, do some other brands. You can substitute bourbon for the more traditional brandy or rum, or mix them 50/50. Martha Stewart's recipe calls for all three.

When Maker's 46 came out, many of the reviews described it as "rich in Christmas spices," so why not make that your official Christmas bourbon?

Goose Island Brewery here in Chicago changes its Christmas Ale every year, but at least once they made a version they conditioned in bourbon barrels.

Make bourbon balls. They aren't specifically a holiday confection, but they're really good. Recipes abound on the web.

Here's a simple Christmas cocktail using bourbon. It was developed by Paul Abercrombie. 


Handful of organic cranberries, picked over and rinsed
4 ounces organic cranberry juice
2 ounces bourbon


In a pint glass, muddle the cranberries until crushed (make sure not to pulverize the cranberries so much that you release the seeds' bitter taste).

Add a large handful of cracked ice, the cranberry juice, and bourbon. Stir.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Micro-Distiller MB Rowland Joins KDA.

MB Roland Distillery, an innovative leader in Kentucky’s growing craft distilling industry, announced today that it has joined the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA).

"We’re proud to welcome MB Roland Distillery to the KDA, and we look forward to working with them to promote and protect our signature industry,” said John Rhea, Chairman of the KDA’s Board of Directors and the Chief Operating Officer at Four Roses Distillery.

“We’ve been very impressed with the leadership from Paul Tomaszewski and his team and their success in developing hand-crafted spirits using locally grown ingredients,” Rhea said. “They are an integral part of our future and the growing craft distillery industry in Kentucky.”

Founded in 2008 by Paul Tomaszewski, MB Roland is a small batch craft distillery located in Christian County that produces a variety of whiskies and other spirits.

The distillery has become one of the Fort Campbell area’s leading tourism destinations.

“It is truly an honor and privilege to be included as a member of such a distinguished and historic organization,” Tomaszewski said. “By the KDA allowing craft distilleries such as ourselves to join its ranks, they acknowledge that our industry is advancing in novel and innovative ways.

MB Roland becomes the KDA’s ninth member and the third Kentucky craft distillery to join. The KDA, a non-profit group founded in 1880, is the state’s leading voice on spirits issues, from taxes to tourism, technical matters and more. Members include Beam Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), Brown-Forman Corp., Diageo North America, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey. Alltech and Barrel House Distillery, both in Lexington, are the other craft distillery members.

KDA President Eric Gregory said the new craft distillery membership is available to licensed distillers in Kentucky that maintain an inventory of fewer than 25,000 barrels of distilled beverage spirits. There are more than 200 craft – or 'micro distilleries' – in the country, including several in Kentucky.

"Our craft members bring a unique perspective on issues that affect our industry," Gregory said. "We look forward to working with MB Roland to promote our proud heritage, advocate for fair treatment of our industry, and continue our commitment to responsible drinking.”

Pictured are (left to right) KDA Chairman John Rhea of Four Roses Distillery; Paul Tomaszewski, founder of MB Roland Distillery; and Chris Morris, Master Distiller at Brown-Forman.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Buffalo Trace Proves Small Barrels Don't Work.

Some time over the summer, I was asked by Buffalo Trace if I would like to come to the distillery in September, during the Bourbon Festival, to taste one of their failed experiments.

It's a measure of how strange this obsession is that I didn't hesitate. "Of course," I said.

Buffalo Trace has been experimenting for about 20 years. Everybody experiments, but Buffalo Trace has done things others don't, like release the results of some of the experiments as part of their Experimental Collection.

It's always been understood that some of the experiments are pronounced failures and the whiskey is discarded. Here was a case where they considered the experiment a failure, but thought I might like to taste its product anyway.

That's because the experiment involved aging bourbon in small barrels. Specifically, 5 gallon, 10 gallon and 15 gallon barrels. Yes, those are the sizes micro-distillers use.

I last wrote about small barrels in July, prompted by something John Hansell posted on his blog.

I write in depth about the Buffalo Trace experiment in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which dropped today. You really should subscribe and read the whole story, but I won't keep you in suspense. The whiskey was standard Buffalo Trace bourbon and it was aged in the small barrels for five years. It tasted bad. The whiskey from the 5 gallon barrel tasted worst.

Tasting them, you could get some ideas about why they tasted so bad. I talk about that too.

The December, 2011, issue of The Bourbon Country Reader is Volume 14, Number 2. In it, we also tell the story of The Great Whiskey Glut, observe the changing of the guard at Virginia Gentlemen, and taste two limited edition releases from A. Smith Bowman and Heaven Hill.

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, December 13, 2011

Country Ham: Another Great Kentucky Product.

I call the above “a baggie of bliss.” Many convenience stores in Kentucky sell them at the cash register. It’s just a slice of Kentucky country ham between two pieces of white bread, and it is sublime.

Although bourbon whiskey is Kentucky’s best known consumable, it’s not the only Kentucky product that I crave. I’ve written before about other local specialties such as the Hot Brown Sandwich. Today I rise in praise of Kentucky country ham.

Country ham is a characteristic Southern food and not limited to Kentucky, but most of my experience has been with the Kentucky version. Kentucky country ham is salt-cured and its saltiness is what you notice first. It’s too much for some people. But behind the salt there is a wonderful, rich flavor that quickly spoils you for any other type of ham.

Most of the country ham producers in Kentucky are small and family-owned. It’s a good product for mail order because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. You can buy everything from packages of ‘biscuit slices’ up to whole hams. Finchville Farms is a brand I can usually pick up at Kroger’s in Kentucky when I’m visiting there and it’s the one I’ve enjoyed most recently, but there are many others that are just as good. Country ham is also surprisingly inexpensive.

Although country ham doesn’t have to be refrigerated it is raw and needs to be cooked before eating. I always get slices, which can be fried in a hot, dry skillet in a few minutes, just until the meat starts to brown. Don’t overcook, because it gets tough if you do.

Although it’s very simple, it took me a while to master red eye gravy, mostly because I kept expecting it to be something it’s not. After you finish cooking the ham, remove it from the skillet and add a small amount of water to deglaze the skillet. Some people use coffee instead. Use a spoon or spatula to loosen the flavorful residue and keep stirring it as the liquid reduces. It will thicken only slightly. Then pour it over the ham. It’s not gravy in the normal sense. Mostly it’s used to enhance the flavor of the meat while also giving it back some of its moisture, making it more tender.

Kentucky country ham and Kentucky bourbon complement each other well because both are highly flavorful. Kentucky country ham is usually eaten at breakfast, but finger sandwiches of country ham tucked inside beaten biscuits are popular at parties. Kurtz’s Restaurant, in Bardstown, offers a dinner of country ham and fried chicken that is hard to resist.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jack Daniel's Is Nipping At Johnnie Walker's Heels.

In a recent report by IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research) and just-drinks, Johnnie Walker was declared the world's top performing distilled spirits brand for 2010, but special notice was given to Jack Daniel's, "which punches above its weight in the global spirits market," according to the study. Jack Daniel's, which is owned by Brown-Forman, is the only brand in the top eight not owned by either Diegeo or Pernod.

In this case, "top performing" incorporates IWSR's rankings based on sales volume, retail value and five-year growth, with a just-drinks reader survey of industry opinion. Other researchers using different methodologies will arrive at different results, so "World's #1 Spirits Brand" remains an elusive title.

Daniel's ranked #4 overall. The second and third places went to vodkas Smirnoff and Absolut, respectively.

This sort of news is released by the company that conducted the research as a tease to sell the full report, so it never tells you everything you want to know. To me, the importance of this sort of news is that although scotch outsells bourbon about five-to-one worldwide, American whiskey Jack Daniel's beats every scotch except Mr. Walker's.

Rounding out the top ten, in order, are Captain Morgan, Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s, Baileys, Hennessy, and J├Ągermeister.

The full story is here. If you want to read the full report, that will cost you $790. You can order it here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Brown-Forman Makes Barrels Too.

Forty years ago, most large companies that made whiskey also made barrels in which to age it. Today, only Brown-Forman does.

The Brown-Forman Cooperage is on the south side of Louisville, just west of the airport. From the outside it looks like any other factory, except for the millions of rough cut staves neatly stacked in the yard outside.

At any given time, the cooperage's wood inventory alone is valued at about $30 million.

Brown-Forman Cooperage makes barrels for Brown-Forman brands exclusively, including Jack Daniel's, Early Times, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Canadian Mist, and Herradura. The barrels are made of white oak and held together with steel hoops. No adhesives or fasteners of any kind are used.

All of a whiskey's color and about half of its flavor comes from the barrel.

That wood stacked outside isn't just stored there. It is drying naturally, an important step in the process of making flavor compounds in the wood available for extraction by the aging spirit. It typically stays there, fully exposed to the elements, for six month to two years. Some of it will be finished in a warehouse-size kiln.

The cooperage itself is hot, crowded and noisy. Although there are a lot of machines, there are lots of people too. One of the most highly-skilled jobs is barrel raising. Barrel raisers use their judgment to select an assortment of staves of varying widths which, properly aligned and pulled together, will form the body of the barrel. Their skill is essential to giving the barrel its most important characteristic, water-tightness.

In one of the final steps, the barrels are burned on the inside. This creates a layer of charcoal that filters the spirit and also carmelizes some of the wood sugars.

Brown-Forman Cooperage is open for tours. Contact Mint Julep Tours at (502) 583-1433 to make arrangements.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Be Careful With High Proof Whiskey.

At this time of year, when people like to treat themselves and their friends, it's common to buy whiskeys you normally don't, probably because they're too damn expensive.

Many people are enamored of barrel proof or cask strength whiskey, whether it's Booker's Bourbon at 63% ABV (alcohol by volume), McCallan Single Malt at 58% ABV, or the 2007 George T. Stagg Bourbon at 72.4% ABV. If you give or receive any of these this holiday season, or anything else above about 55% ABV, be careful.

Of course, you always need to be careful with straight spirits. Most whiskey is sold at 40% ABV, which is about four times as much alcohol per ounce as wine and more than eight times as much as most beers.

The most important part of self-control in an alcohol consumption context is being aware of exactly how much alcohol is going into your body; not the volume of liquid, the volume of alcohol.

With very high proof beverages there are additional risks.

Gentle sipping of small quantities of very high proof spirits probably won’t hurt you. It depends on your personal sensitivity. Drinking—as opposed to sipping—alcohol at very high concentrations risks damage to any and all of the tissue it encounters along the way: mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach.

A pour of straight Stagg, for example, contains 75 percent more alcohol than Jack Daniel’s. If you’re not paying careful attention to how much you consume, you risk alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. Those are the primary risks, tissue damage and alcohol poisoning.

On the other side of the risk there is no reward. High proof alcohol tends to deaden or anesthetize the sense receptors, reducing your ability to taste or smell the whiskey. No fun in that.

Whiskeys aren’t bottled at high proof so you can drink them that way. They’re usually expensive and are bottled that way so you pay for whiskey, not added water, and can prepare it for drinking as you see fit. I recommend reducing the proof with room temperature water to about 50% ABV.

I hope this isn't a downer. Have a great holiday, including your favorite adult beverages. Just be adult about it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Girls For Every Boy.

For a brief period in my childhood, Southern California was where I wanted to be, instead of Mansfield, Ohio, where I was.

The reason in no small part was the song "Surf City" by Jan and Dean. It was #1 for two weeks in July of 1963. It was one of the first records I owned.

I was 11 years old.

I couldn’t drive but I wanted to buy a 1930 Ford Wagon and call it a woody. I knew it wouldn’t have a back seat or a rear window but it would still get me where I wanted to go, which was the beach. Surf City was where they never rolled the streets up because they were either surfing or throwing a party.

Going to parties and surfing sounded like the life for me. At the time I had barely been in an ocean let alone surfed, and most of my party experience involved relatives and cake.

But I sincerely wanted to shoot the curl, then check out the parties for a surfer girl. Although I wouldn’t have known what to do with one at the time, “two girls for every boy” sounded like good odds.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Check Out My LDI Story In The New Whisky Advocate.

The new issue of Whisky Advocate, for Winter 2011, is out now. Whisky Advocate is the new name for Malt Advocate, to which I am a long-time contributor.

My piece in the new issue is "LDI: the Mystery Distillery." As the teaser says, many of today's new and notable bourbons and ryes come from this large distillery near Lawrenceburg, Indiana; a distillery that most whiskey drinkers don't even know about.

But you do, if you are a regular follower of this blog.

I have been fascinated by LDI for a long time. I last posted about it here, here and here.

One thing about writing for print magazines is that they still have very long lead times. I submitted the LDI story before the sale was announced. The magazine was just about to go to press when I heard LDI had sold. Happily, we were able to include that rather crucial piece of news, so the story is up-to-date.

If you want to learn all you can about whiskey, I recommend* Whisky Advocate. With its recent redesign the magazine smartly exploits the unique tactile and visual pleasures of print. The result is a thing of beauty. (I try not to sully it too much.) Subscriptions are $18 a year.

* I also recommend that other whiskey magazine that I also write for. I'll write glowingly about it the next time one of my articles is published there.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Woodford Rye Is In Stores Now.

The new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rare Rye Selection is in stores now.

I know that’s a mouthful. Let’s break it down.

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is a very good Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey made by Brown-Forman. They have an experimental program, called the Master’s Collection, that releases one new limited edition whiskey each year at about this time.

I like the Master's Collection. I think it is exactly the kind of experimental program a major company/major brand should do. That's not to say other companies do it wrong, I just like the way Woodford does it very much.

This year, for the first time, two experiments are presented, in a set consisting of two 375 ml bottles that sells for about $100. This is the first step in the direction of Woodford being a whiskey distillery that makes more than bourbon.

I’ve tasted them. They're very good and unlike anything else I've ever tasted.

The New Cask Rye is technically a straight rye, because it’s aged in new charred barrels, but it is unlike any other straight rye I’ve ever had. The Aged Cask Rye is unique, unlike any other whiskey I’ve ever tasted. Both are very flavorful, with a lot of rye character. All of the earthy, grassy, spicy, minty notes you expect are there, probably too much for some palates. Naturally, the ‘aged’ cask version (their euphemism for used barrels) has very little oak character and very little color.

I enjoyed both but, more importantly, learned a lot from them.

What they are missing is the corn backbone of most straight ryes. Most straight ryes are just 51 percent rye, the legal minimum, making them about 40 percent corn. Even in George Washington's day, about 30 percent of the recipe was corn. These, like the LDI ryes, contain no corn. You notice its absence in the body more than the taste. All-rye ryes seem thin, even when they are very well aged. 

Woodford broke one of its own Master’s Collection rules this time, in that it changed more than one variable in this experiment. In addition to being aged in new barrels, the New Cask Rye was barrel entered at 100° proof while the Aged Cask Rye was barrel entered at 86° proof.

One-hundred proof is low. Eighty-six proof is ridiculously low.

Both whiskeys use the exact same distillate. The mash was 100 percent rye, a combination of malted and un-malted grain. The age is at least 7 to 8 years old, maybe more. (They're not saying.) All of it was made in the pot stills at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Just when you think you know what rye tastes like, this comes along.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pappy Van Winkle, Cult Icon.

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery website has just been refreshed, for the first time in a long time. It's still pretty simple and doesn't contain much more information than the old one. It's just more up-to-date in its design and functionality, a welcome improvement.

There's also a film in the works, by independent filmmaker Mark Casey. He has it up on KickStarter now. It's called "Chasing Pappy," and is about the hardest of hardcore bourbon enthusiasts, Pappy fiends.

Let's see if I can explain the Van Winkle phenomenon in a few words. Van Winkle is a brand of whiskey. The Van Winkle whiskeys are always in very limited supply. Each year, at about this time, the annual allocation is released. What follows is a frenzy, as fans try to secure as many rare bottles as they can.

Much of the drama is played out online.

As you can learn from the new website, there are actually seven products in the Van Winkle line. All are limited but the frenzy is reserved for the rarest ones, the three bourbons sold under the Pappy Van Winkle banner. They are 15 years old, 20 years old, and 23 years old respectively.

Julian P. 'Pappy' Van Winkle (1874-1965) was a real person, a colorful character who owned a legendary distillery, Stitzel-Weller. Today's Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery isn't a distillery so much as a marketing company. It is run by Pappy's namesake grandson and his son, and is affiliated with Sazerac and, specifically, Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

I've written about Van Winkle before, most recently here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Few Words About Vodka.

Sometimes I just can't resist poking the bear. In that spirit, I offer some thoughts about vodka.

Kevin Erskine is a writer who I know as a scotch guy. He recently published an ebook about vodka. I churlishly commented that a proper book about vodka would be all blank pages.

Even vodka enthusiasts will admit that vodka is a tabula rasa. By itself, there is very little to it. It is an ideal platform for cocktails because it doesn't get in the way of other ingredients.

The Russian/Polish word 'vodka' was introduced into the American distilled spirits lexicon because its legal synonyms, 'neutral spirits' and 'alcohol,' sounded more like ingredients than beverages. Indeed, 'vodka' is an ingredient in gin, liqueurs, and American blended whiskey, not to mention products like vanilla extract and mouthwash, and medicines such as NyQuil. 

U.S. rules define vodka as "neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Vodka is not defined by a particular character, aroma, taste or color, but by their absence.

Some vodkas are better made than others. There are differences. But even vodka enthusiasts generally agree that the poorest ones taste like alcohol while the best ones taste like water.

Although virtually all vodka available for sale in the United States is made from grain, U.S. rules allow vodka to be made from any raw material. The raw material used must be disclosed on the label. Circoc is the best known grape vodka. Chopin is the best known potato vodka.

Most people think all vodka is made from potatoes. Funny that, because even historically, in the vodka heartland of Poland and Russia, potatoes were used only when grain was scarce. Potatoes are native to the Americas so they are relatively recent arrivals in Europe, not an ancient and fundamental part of the culture like barley, wheat and rye.

Periodically, Poland and Russia try to get the EU to declare that vodka must be made from either grain or potatoes, nothing else. Grape-growing Europeans typically object.

In addition to grain, potatoes, and grapes, vodka is sometimes made from sugar cane or sugar beets.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Free Jim Beam Burger At Red Robin If Your Name Is Jim.

The Sweet Jim Beam Bacon Swiss Burger is a bourbon-glazed beef patty topped with Applewood smoked bacon, caramelized bourbon onions and melted Swiss cheese on a garlic butter toasted brioche bun. It's available at Red Robin restaurants through Christmas Eve, but on December 6, if your name is Jim, your burger is free.

Real Jim Beam bourbon is cooked down with molasses and caramelized onions. This is used as a glaze for the burger, which is then topped with the onions.

For the Jim Day promotion on December 6, you will need to present a legal ID to get the free burger. According to the ads, your ID can say Jim, James or Jimbo. My guess is that Jimmy will also pass. J-dog, maybe not.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Stranahan's Licenses Name To Breckenridge Brewery.

The phenomenon that is Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey just keeps rolling along. Now, according to Westword, Stranahan's has given its Denver neighbor Breckenridge Brewery exclusive rights to use the Stranahan's name on barrel-aged beers. This is another first for Stranahan's. I know of no other micro-distillery that has extended its brand through a licensing agreement.

The first product will be called Stranahan's Well-Built ESB, which will be conditioned for three months in barrels that previously held Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey.

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey is unique in being a malt whiskey, like scotch, that's aged in new charred oak barrels, like bourbon. Since Stranahan's can only use the barrels once for its whiskey, it needs a re-use market for them. Breweries are a natural. Other distilleries have done that but I don't know of any who have turned it into a brand extension.

I have a personal history with Breckenridge Brewery at their original Breckenridge brew pub location. They were close to where I stayed, had good food and great beer, and we tended to go there daily apres ski, if not to eat then to at least pick up a couple of growlers for the evening.

That's another advantage Stranahan's has over micro-distilleries in, say, Illinois. Local products in major vacation areas are sampled by people from all over, who may not only like the product, but also its association with the place and pleasures of a fun vacation. They talk it up to friends and urge their local bars and liquor stores to carry it. Both Stranahan's and Breckenridge have access to that cachet, which is priceless.