Friday, July 27, 2012

When Visiting Kentucky, Don't Miss The Cooperages.

The word itself is not familiar to most people. A 'cooper' is a person who makes or maintains barrels and similar objects. A 'cooperage' is the place where that is done.

Cooperage is an ancient craft. It preceded the Iron Age but the advent of strong iron tools made it possible to work hard woods for many purposes, including barrel-making. Today, the craft is kept alive primarily by the wine and whiskey industries. Since only new barrels can be used to age bourbon and other straight whiskeys, American distilleries require a steady supply and cooperages are their essential partners.

Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville is one of the two main suppliers of barrels to bourbon makers. Their barrels are used for Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve, Early Times, Old Forester, and other Brown-Forman products.

The other big barrel-maker, which serves the rest of the industry, is Independent Stave Company. They make whiskey barrels in Lebanon, Kentucky, and (coincidentally) Lebanon, Missouri. They have other plants that primarily make wine barrels.

Brown-Forman Cooperage offers tours through Mint Julep Tours. Kentucky Cooperage (Independent Stave) in Lebanon, Kentucky, offers free walk-in tours twice a day. 

The booming whiskey business has promoted some smaller players to enter the field, including Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville and the Barrel Mill in Minnesota.

Although barrel-making is still very labor-intensive, and some of that labor is highly skilled, the process is much more automated today than it was a century ago. At a place like Louisville's Hartmann Cooperage (1875-1925), where barrels were made almost entirely by hand, dozens of men would have performed the hard, physical labor using tools not much changed since the dawn of the Iron Age. 

Henry Hartmann's grandson, Walter Doerting, prowled the cooperage as a child and ultimately inherited a large collection of its tools, which he donated to the Jim Beam Company. When you visit Jim Beam in Clermont, Kentucky, you can also visit the Hartmann Cooperage Museum.

In 1992, Doerting visited the museum, demonstrated some of the tools, and talked about his memories of the cooperage for the documentary "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," which is conveniently available for purchase in the right-hand column of this page.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bardstown, Kentucky, Is The Most Beautiful Small Town In America, Says USA Today.

The Best of the Road contest, sponsored by Rand McNally in collaboration with USA TODAY, has named Bardstown, Kentucky, as the most beautiful small town in the United States.

The area's bourbon whiskey producers are a big part of the reason, according to judges Nikki and Dusty Green. "Bourbon is Bardstown's history and tradition and the countryside is beautiful, but we probably got fewer scenic shots in Bardstown than anywhere else," said the Greens. "The people turned us around. We realized maybe we're not just here to see mountains and rivers, maybe there's something else. Our hearts are still in this place."

They were smitten by downtown's "classic Norman Rockwell" look and feel. Danville, Kentucky, was one of the runners-up and another category, Friendliest, was won by Murray, Kentucky.

The picture above shows pretty much the whole downtown business district, with the county courthouse in the center.

Bardstown, which calls itself 'The Bourbon Capital of the World,' is the site of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, September 11-16.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is Black Maple Hill The Next Pappy?

David Driscoll is the spirits buyer for K&L, a chain of booze stores in Northern California. He makes regular blog posts and podcasts, reporting about new products and trends in spirits. He writes extensively and well about whiskey.

The K&L spirits blog, written mostly by Driscoll, has been added to the blog roll of this blog, if you look to the right and scroll down. The blog roll shows the five blogs with the most recent posts. The K&L spirits blog is called 'Spirits Journal.'

Driscoll is not afraid to stir the pot. Last Friday he wrote about Black Maple Hill, which he believes could be the next Van Winkle. Today's post is called 'The NAS Dilemma.' It's provocative stuff.

Driscoll, like any large retailer in a major metro, has a good feel for market trends, even more so for being in always trendy No. California. I appreciate that he told it like it is about BMH, that it's a non-distiller producer (NDP) that won't or can't reveal its sources, and that scarcity and perceived scarcity are driving the market.

You can't give BMH much credit for any of that. They are the beneficiary of forces largely outside of their control.

The older folks among us have lived through two very different bourbonian periods. In the pre-boom era, we had gallons of good, cheap, glut-era whiskey from numerous NDPs, some better and more ethical than others. We could buy whatever we wanted at will, whenever we wanted, and turn our noses up at the rest.

Was that the golden age? Maybe, but it wasn't sustainable. Now whiskey is hot and newbies are flooding the market looking for 'experts' to tell them what is 'the best,' so they can avoid any heavy lifting on their way to connoisseurship. Plenty of self-proclaimed 'experts' have appeared, eager to oblige. They don't try to educate, they can't, they don't know anything. Instead they just pass along recommendations they have heard, like Van Winkle.

That's not Driscoll. He knows his stuff and when he's uncertain about facts, he does the necessary research. Plenty of other people out there do not.

Since the instant experts need a second act, and Van Winkle has become nearly impossible to find, the search is on for the next Van Winkle. It has to be expensive to be good, and hard to get, the older the better, high proof is good too, and a Van Winkle-like back story doesn't hurt, if it can be boiled down to a few easy-to-remember bullet points.

BMH is as good a candidate as any.

And so a fool and his money are soon parted.

In addition to availability problems, the loss of age statements, and higher prices; other unpleasant by-products of the current boom have been eBay, flavored whiskeys (honey, cherry, cinnamon), white whiskeys, celebrity whiskeys, and quasi-whiskeys (blended whiskey, spirit whiskey).

On the other side, how great is it that the LDI 95% rye finally saw the light of day, even though it took a creepy outfit like Templeton to do it?

I'm old, and crotchety by nature as you all know, but I understand that dynamism usually accompanies success. They need each other. So we need to embrace change in general, even if we choose to reject some of the specifics.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What The Bloomburg Businessweek Cover Has To Do With Me.

The already-infamous Bloomburg Businessweek (BB) cover depicts John the Baptist baptizing Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the founders of the Mormon Church. It is a based on a scene often depicted in Mormon art, but BB used it for satire. The story inside is about the church's business interests. The cover image and more about the controversy is here, from

What does this have to do with me? Oliver Cowdery is my second cousin, seven times removed. My ancestor, Ethan Cowdery was born in 1788 in Hartland, Connecticut, on high, stony ground near the Massachusetts border. Oliver Cowdery, his second cousin, was born 18 years later in Wells, Vermont, a small town also on a border, the one between western Vermont and eastern New York.

A contemporary of Oliver and Ethan was another cousin, the famed Dr. Jonathan Cowdery. He was a first cousin once removed to both men.

Jonathan was the oldest of the three, having been born at Sandisfield, Massachusetts, in 1767.

The three men were related through their grandfathers, three brothers named Jacob, William and Jabez. Born in Massachusetts of old Puritan stock, the three eventually moved to Vermont, where William and his progeny remained until Oliver’s generation. Jacob moved around throughout New England before returning to Vermont at the end of his life. For seven years, in the 1790s, he lived in western New York near Canandaigua.

Many years later, in the 1820s, Oliver and most of his family also moved to the Canandaigua region but Ethan’s parents by then had taken advantage of the opening of the Northwest Territory and moved their family to Ohio, to the southeastern corner of the state, close to the Ohio River.

Jonathan, son of Jabez Cowdery, had several different New England addresses, including some near his cousins, before settling in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1805.

Both Jonathan and Oliver Cowdery were famous men in their day.
In 1800, Dr. Jonathan Cowdery was commissioned as a Surgeon Mate in the United State Navy. He served aboard the frigate Philadelphia, under Commodore Stephen Decatur, in the West Indies and Mediterranean. In 1803, the Philadelphia and all her crew were captured by the Tripolians and held for eighteen months. Dr. Cowdery’s memoirs of that experience were published in a Philadelphia newspaper and widely read.

Oliver Cowdery’s fame also came through publication. In New York, he became acquainted with a cousin on his mother’s side named Joseph Smith, with whom he started the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. Oliver was Smith’s scribe, writing down the Book of Morman from Smith’s dictation and overseeing its original publication.

The third and non-famous cousin, Ethan Cowdery, my ancestor, was a successful farmer and mill operator in Ohio.

There is no evidence that the three ever met.

Ethan died in 1848 at the age of 60. Oliver died less than two years later, he was just 46. Jonathan Cowdery died in 1852 at age 85.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cincinnati. Whiskey Town

Nth Degree Distilling is the name of the micro-distillery project being launched by the folks behind The Party Source in Newport, Kentucky. Their official ground-breaking is July 19. That, and the recent sale of LDI, bring to mind the era when Cincinnati was a whiskey town to rival Louisville.

In the pre-Prohibition era, the distilleries were in the countryside. They sold whiskey to middle-men in the cities, who rectified, packaged, re-sold, and shipped it out to customers via railroads or riverboats.

The man who would go on to own the largest post-Prohibition distilled spirits company grew up in the business in Cincinnati. Born in 1891, Lewis S. Rosenstiel belonged to one of the first families of the Queen City’s Jewish community. He was a grandson of Frederick A. Johnson, the first Jewish child born in that city.

Rosenstiel’s family owned a distillery in Milton, Kentucky, south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River. He went to work there as a teenager and ended up running the place, until Prohibition closed it. Rosenstiel and his associates immediately formed a medicinal whiskey company. They bought a Pennsylvania distillery called Schenley for its medicinal license and its name.

Rosenstiel’s Schenley had a hit after Prohibition with a line of inexpensive whiskeys called Old Quaker, a revived pre-Prohibition brand that originated in Peoria, Illinois. Schenley bought two old distilleries in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, near Cincinnati, to make it.

From Quaker Oats to Quaker Oil, ‘Quaker’ has long been used to convey purity and integrity. The real Quakers don’t get anything from all that publicity. In 1939, Time Magazine reported that the Society of Friends was especially offended by Old Quaker Whiskey, since Quakers aren’t supposed to drink. The brand eventually fell out of favor and was discontinued. The distillery was closed in the 1980s, although the associated bottling plant continued to operate into the 1990s under independent ownership.

The medicinal whiskey business gave Schenley a head start when Prohibition ended. It became market leader, with a 25 percent share. In 1937, Rosenstiel moved Schenley from Cincinnati to the Empire State Building in New York.

As owner and chief executive of an alcohol industry leader, Rosenstiel was a frequent target. He was accused of everything from racketeering to cross dressing.

Rosenstiel’s son-in-law, Sidney Frank, who worked with him at Schenley, was a major force in the distilled spirits industry until his death in 2006. His most famous successes were Jagermeister and Grey Goose Vodka.

Cincinnati itself does have one active distillery, a micro called Woodstone Creek.