Friday, August 31, 2012

Fun With Fungus, Maybe Not.

In addition to getting to the story three months late, yesterday's New York Times piece about Kentucky's whiskey fungus and the recent lawsuits regarding it conveyed some false impressions.

For example, the reporting of a 2007 study in which the fungus was formally named, along with quotations from plaintiffs calling it 'mysterious,' makes it seem like something new. Reported much later is the fact that the fungus has been observed around distilled spirits warehouses since at least 1870. The 2007 study is merely the most recent of many.

The reporter, Melena Ryzik, also waits until the very end of a fairly long article to point out that there is "no evidence ... whiskey fungus causes health problems in humans or animals." In fact, generations of exposure provides pretty convincing evidence that it does not. Even the plaintiffs, no doubt carefully coached by their lawyer, William F. McMurry, have as their biggest complaint that when they clean the stuff off, it grows back.

So, by the way, does the mildew in your shower. Who are you going to sue about that?

For readers who have not experienced it personally, the whiskey fungus is very similar to common mildew.

Lawyers have to make a living, of course, and these recent cases appear to be nothing more than a bid by McMurry to make a little money for himself, and maybe even for the plaintiffs. According to the Times, McMurry wants the courts to order distillers to “stop off-gasing ethanol," an ominous-sounding but completely made-up term. He further claims that "this is not going to affect their bottom line and the flavor of whiskey," which is, of course, nonsense. Any mitigation that prevents ethanol vapors from leaving the distillery grounds will surely do both.

And for what?

All of this fuss is about something natural and harmless. Some consider it unsightly, but it washes off with soap, water, and a little elbow grease. The companies being sued have to be careful about what they say so this story is being reported mostly from the point-of-view of the poor, aggrieved plaintiffs, which makes for a better story anyway.

The plaintiffs brought these lawsuits hoping to make some money, but may have outsmarted themselves if by publicizing the fungus and making it seem worse than it is they depress their property values.

It's impossible to predict what will happen, but nothing should come of this. Only one thing has changed in recent years and that is production volume. Kentucky's distilleries are making, and therefore aging, more whiskey now than they have in more than 40 years. That likely means there is more fungus where it was before and it's probably spreading further than it did before, so more people are affected.

Any reasonable weighing of the economic good of a robust whiskey business against the ostensible harm of the fungus has to come out on the industry's side, but that word 'reasonable' is the caveat. Unbalanced reporting by the esteemed New York Times doesn't help.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Small Barrels Still Produce Lousy Whiskey.

My personal experience with this particular Buffalo Trace experiment is well known.

About this time last year, Buffalo Trace invited me to the distillery in Frankfort to taste the results of a 'failed experiment' involving small barrels. I tasted the whiskey that came from the barrels and talked about it with Sazerac President Mark Brown, Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, and Brand Manager Kris Comstock. I wrote about the experience here and in my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. Lew Bryson, Managing Editor of The Whisky Advocate Magazine, was also in attendance and also wrote about it.

The experiment and our reports created quite a stir, especially within the micro-distiller community, where the use of small barrels abounds. I expanded the Reader article into a small ebook, which has sold well.

Today, Buffalo Trace Distillery sent out a short press release about the experiment and its results. This is not a new small barrels experiment. It's the same experiment, they just waited until now to write about it.

Here's what they have to say:


Not all experiments are successful. Buffalo Trace Distillery learned this the hard way with its small barrel experiments started in 2006.

Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a warehouse for six years.

The results were less than stellar. Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.

While Buffalo Trace is NOT releasing these experiments, the Distillery did feel it was important to release their findings. The company hopes others can learn from such an experiment, just as they have.

“As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons. Even though these small barrels did not meet our expectations, we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes,” said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time. Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned.

“These barrels were just so smoky and dark, we just confirmed the taste was not going to improve. The largest of the three barrels, the 15 gallon, tasted the best, but it still wasn’t what we would deem as meeting our quality standards. But instead of just sweeping this experiment under the rug and not talking about it, we felt it was important to share what we learned, especially in light of the debate about usage of small barrels. It’s one experiment we are not likely to repeat,” said Wheatley.

These small barrel experiments are part of the more than 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in the warehouses of Buffalo Trace Distillery. Each of these barrels has unique characteristics that differentiate it from all others. Some examples of these experiments include unique mash bills, type of wood and barrel toasts. In order to further increase the scope, flexibility and range of the experimental program, an entire micro distillery, named The Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. “OFC” Micro Distillery, complete with cookers, fermenting tanks and a state-of-the-art micro still has been constructed within Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Genealogy Of Beam Yeast

The post earlier this month, in which Sam Cecil briefly outlines the careers of the many Beam family distillers, raised a question about the yeast all of those Beams were using, not just at Jim Beam but at Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Yellowstone, Maker's Mark, Barton, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, and many others.

The specific question: Jim Beam's yeast has a reputation for imparting a 'foxy' taste, a characteristic not associated with any other producer, despite having Beams in their lineage. How come?

Historically, 'yeast making' meant propagating a strain from a wild source. Although the Beams all started from the same place, with the same yeast mash recipe, and were all taught the same organoleptic standards, each distiller in each generation would have made his own subtle adaptations after years of practice, and would have passed his way of doing things on to his son.

I say 'son,' knowing that some Beam family distillers were trained by their grandfathers more than their fathers.

Either way, the genealogy of the yeasts is essentially that of the yeast makers.

David Beam (1802-1852) had three sons who became distillers. If you're a fan of Underworld, think of them as the three sons of Alexander Corvinus.

The youngest, Jack Beam, started Early Times and although his only son followed him into the business, there was no third generation. That line died out. It's unknown if that strain was preserved and passed on to the people who revived Early Times after Prohibition, but it seems unlikely.

The other two were Joseph B. Beam and David M. Beam. Those two traditions split more than 150 years ago, and there have been many other subdivisions since.

Each of them had two distiller sons. Joseph B. had Joseph L. (Joe) and Minor Case, and David M had the famous Jim Beam and his brother, Park.

We know from Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, that the Jim Beam yeast was 'caught' by Jim on his back porch in Bardstown as Prohibition was ending and he prepared to build a new distillery.

When Park's son, Earl, left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took the Jim Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the Joe Beam yeast Joe's son Harry was then using. Under Earl Beam, Heaven Hill's bourbon had a reputation for being oily, but not 'foxy' like Beam.

I should note that, to me, the 'foxy' yeast characteristic is only noticeable in the white label Jim Beam expression.

It's hard to say what changed at Heaven Hill. It may have been the water. Yeast can change for very subtle reasons -- different water, different atmospheric conditions, different airborne microorganisms, different mash temperature, a different amount of back set, etc. The loss of the 'foxy' characteristic may have been deliberate, or an accidental by-product of different practices in a different place.

In addition to training his sons Joe and Minor Case, Joseph B. Beam may also have trained Will McGill. Will was a friend of son Joe, who married Will's sister, Katherine McGill.  Will must have been a good student because he became Pappy Van Winkle's master distiller at Stitzel-Weller after Prohibition.

It is likely Joe and Will also learned from Joe's older brother, Minor Case, who was 11 years Joe's senior. Minor had his own distillery at Gethsemane, which made the brand Old Trump, and which eventually merged with the nearby Yellowstone distillery. Joe and Will worked together at many different distilleries during their early careers, including at the Tom Moore distillery, today's Barton.

So the Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark would have originated with Joseph B. Beam and probably went through Minor Case to get to Will McGill, and from him into the hands of Elmo Beam, Joe's firstborn, who would already have been familiar with his father's version.

That Pappy gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not, at least not by me. Sam Cecil probably knew, since he followed Elmo at Maker's Mark.

Among his many feats, Joe Beam restarted Four Roses (then in Shively) after Prohibition, and employed some of his seven distiller sons there, as well as some of their sons. Seagram's bought Four Roses during WWII and Roy's son, Charlie, spent most of his career with Seagram's, where he developed the Eagle Rare Bourbon brand before finishing his career at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg.

Minor's son, Guy, was a distiller or master distiller at several different distilleries, including Heaven Hill, Fairfield, and Cummins-Collins. During Prohibition he was a distiller in Canada. Guy had two distiller sons, Burch and Jack. A third son, Walter, who was better known as Toddy, operated a liquor store in downtown Bardstown that still bears his name.

Jack worked for Barton. The two brothers who recently started the micro distillery Limestone Springs in Lebanon are descended from Guy.

Nobody is catching wild yeast these days and if distillers want to tweak their yeast, they do it in the lab, not on a back porch as Jim Beam did.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lexington Micro Joins Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

The Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) announced today that Town Branch Distillery in Lexington has become the seventh distillery, and first micro-distillery, on the KDA's official Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour.

Town Branch, also known as the Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company, is in downtown Lexington, which is Kentucky's second-largest city and home of the University of Kentucky. “We’re thrilled to add Lexington as a host community to greet thousands of visitors to our trademark attraction," said Jeff Conder, chairman of the KDA Board of Directors and Vice President of Americas Operations for Beam, Inc.

Like Louisville, Lexington is a good home base for whiskey tourists who want to enjoy urban amenities after a long day of visiting distilleries. In addition to Town Branch, it's convenient to Wild Turkey and Four Roses in Lawrenceburg and Woodford Reserve in Versailles, not to mention Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, which chooses to operate outside of the KDA trademark but has a great distillery tour nonetheless.

Alltech, led by President and Founder Dr. Pearse Lyons, is a global leader in animal health and nutrition. Its distilled spirits products include Town Branch Bourbon, Pearse Lyons Reserve malt whiskey, and Bluegrass Sundown, a Bourbon-infused coffee drink.

Town Branch is named after the stream that runs under downtown Lexington, from which many early distillers drew their water supply. The new $6 million, 20,000 square-foot distillery is scheduled to open in September, with tours starting Oct. 1. It is built with Kentucky limestone and features glass walls on three sides to showcase the copper stills and fermentation tanks to outside viewers. It’s the first new distillery to be built in Lexington in more than 100 years.

“Kentucky Bourbon is a red-hot industry, and we are proud to support its continued growth around the world,” said Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries have recorded more than 2 million visits in the last five years, with 450,000 in 2011 alone, said KDA President Eric Gregory. Visitors have traveled from all 50
states and more than 50 countries, he said.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Remembering The War Of 1812's Zimmer And Copus Massacres.

September 10 and 14 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Zimmer and Copus massacres, significant incidents in the War of 1812.

That this year's observance of the War of 1812 Bicentennial has been tepid at best is perhaps a subject for another time. This post involves a sequence of events that took place in and around my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Although they preceded my birth by 139 years, it is fair to say I grew up with them.

Watch how I work bourbon into it.

American settlement of the so-called Northwest Territory, including what is now Ohio, began in earnest in1788. Ohio became a state in 1803. Mansfield was founded in 1808. By 1812, it was a small town encircled by many remote farmsteads.

Native Americans were still resident in the area. They co-existed with the settlers most of the time, but northwestern Ohio was still very much the frontier, and the British—who controlled the Great Lakes—were constantly testing the borders and harassing settlers, usually through Indian surrogates.

My father’s family was in southeastern Ohio at the time. My mother’s family was still a few decades away from their relocation from northern Europe to Cleveland. We were mid-20th century arrivals to the Mansfield area.

One of Mansfield’s first settlers was a miller named Jacob Beam. No, not that Jacob Beam. He and his were in Kentucky by then. This Jacob Beam may have been a relative, however, since he practiced the same crafts (corn milling and whiskey-making) and came to Ohio from western Pennsylvania.

Beam’s homestead and mill were about three miles southeast of Mansfield, on the Rocky Fork of the Mohican River. There would eventually be more than 180 gristmills, sawmills and linseed oil mills in Richland County, but Beam’s was the first. Because Beam was always busy, farmers might have to wait hours, even days, to have their grain processed.

While they waited, Beam’s wife, known familiarly as ‘Mother Beam,’ fed them her famous corn-cakes, corn-dodgers, and other specialties. We assume whiskey was also available to help pass the time. Not surprisingly, Beam’s Mill became a popular gathering place for the otherwise isolated farmers.

When the British started to make trouble in the area, in the run-up to 1812, Beam’s Mill also became important for local security. A defensive structure, known as a blockhouse, was built, one of several in the area. Everyone knew to head to the nearest blockhouse at the first sign of trouble.

On September 10, 1812, troops bivouacked at Beam’s Mill were patrolling the area and discovered the bodies of four dead settlers at the nearby farm of George Zimmer. As word of the killings spread, settlers fled to Beam’s Mill for the security of its blockhouse and bivouacked troops. Four days later, a small detachment of soldiers was dispatched from Beam’s Mill to the nearby farm of James Copus as a precaution. Captain Martin, who was in command of the troops at Beam’s Mill, promised to send more the next day, but his scouts failed to detect any Indian presence, so he concluded that the danger had passed.

He was wrong.

Indians attacked the Copus farm, killing three soldiers and one settler, and wounding several others. The attacks were widely publicized and blamed on the British, and thus played a role in the propaganda wars attendant to the shooting one.

I recall being hauled out to the Copus Monument many times as a child and told the hair-raising tale. After these tragedies, Beam’s Mill and the Beam surname rarely appear in Mansfield history. Perhaps the family simply moved on, as so many did. In the southwestern part of Ohio, in Clinton County, other Beams built a large mill that still operates to this day, known as the Joe Beam and Sons Mill. Then, of course, there are those Beams who wound up further south, in the area around Bardstown, Kentucky.

On the Rocky Fork today, nothing remains of Beam’s Mill or its blockhouse, although ‘Beam’s Mill’ as a place name continued to be known into the early 20th century. The remains of a similar blockhouse, on Mansfield’s town square, were used to reconstruct a full-size replica which stands in the city’s South Park today (pictured above).

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sam Cecil Talks About The Beam Family.

The Beam Family Reunion is coming up on September 8, at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. If you are descended from Jacob Beam, you should check it out.

Like most of the Beams, Sam Cecil was born and raised in Nelson County, Kentucky. Like so many of them, he spent his entire career in the whiskey business. In his case, the career spanned more than 40 years. Even after he retired in 1980, Cecil worked occasionally for Heaven Hill, giving history-oriented tours of Bardstown and vicinity.

In 1999, he published The Evolution Of The Bourbon Industry In Kentucky, an invaluable historic resource. Cecil died in 2005.

In 1992, he was interviewed for the documentary "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," which you will see is available for purchase in the column to the right. If you live in Kentucky, you can probably catch it on KET, where it first aired 20 years ago and is still in heavy rotation.

In this excerpt, Sam Cecil sorts out the many threads of the whiskey-making Beam family.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Basil Hayden Growth Confuses Bourbon Fans.

Last Thursday, in a little news digest post, I mentioned that Beam's Basil Hayden bourbon is up 33 percent in sales this year. If you read the comments, most are about that. Many readers found that news hard to swallow. Serious bourbon enthusiasts generally dismiss Basil Hayden as too light at 40% ABV, and too expensive at about $40 a bottle.

You shouldn't take too seriously a big one-time bump in sales on a small brand such as Basil Hayden. After 20 years in the marketplace, it is still a small brand. If it sustains a 33 percent growth trend over several quarters, then something is happening. If it does that, it won't be a small brand for long.

Eagle-eyed bourbonians have noticed that Beam recently received approval for a Basil Hayden label with no age statement (NAS). Just because a label is approved, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be used. I don't believe a NAS Basil Hayden bottle has shown up at retail yet.

The trend away from age statements has been to give producers flexibility, in this time of booming sales, to mix in some younger whiskey if it meets the brand profile. Many enthusiasts always believe the worst of the big producers, but the highest priority for most producers is to match the brand's flavor profile with each and every batch. It's not in their interest to make changes that actually change how the whiskey tastes, even if they can save a little money and put out a bit more volume by using younger spirit.

So what is moving Basil Hayden's needle? Beam seems to have had success focusing Basil Hayden on a cocktails-oriented, fashion and style-oriented consumer, something to drink while watching "Project Runway." Maybe it simply has taken 20 years for Basil Hayden to find its drinkers.

All four of the bourbons Beam calls The Small Batch Collection are very good but over-priced. The only one that seems appropriately priced for what it is is Knob Creek, which has been the most successful. There have been reports of Basil Hayden selling for closer to $30, but it's hard to know if they have permanently adjusted the price, or if they've just been dealing it a lot.

Heavy dealing can also account for a short-term 33 percent sales increase, which doesn't mean anything if they can't sustain the price point that's driving the extra sales. The idea, of course, is that deals drive sampling and usage, and the hope is that at least some of those consumers will stay with the brand after the price goes back up.

Most of the Beam bourbons are based on the Jim Beam recipe. Basil Hayden is not. It is based on the Old Grand-Dad recipe, which has about twice as much rye in the mash, and consequently less corn. It's still bourbon, not rye, but it has more rye flavor and may be enjoying some boost from the recent fascination with ryes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

When You're The World's Biggest, What's Small?

In marketing terms, 'niche' is usually a nice way of saying 'little.' One way to grasp just how huge spirits industry leader Diageo really is by looking at what they consider 'niche' brands. This examination became more convenient last September when Diageo created Catalyst, a business unit focused on 28 spirits brands the company classifies as 'niche.' Together they bring in about $250 million a year.

Diago's stated goal is to double that by 2014. The unit experienced a setback when its first president, a 20-year Diageo veteran, abruptly left the company just four months into her new job.

The Catalyst portfolio includes line extensions such as Tanqueray Sterling Vodka, acquisitions such as Stirrings Liqueurs, new products such as Moon Mountain Vodka, and small but venerable brands such as Pimms and Myers’s Rum.

Whiskey enthusiasts will be interested to know that the Catalyst group contains several esteemed single malts: Lagavulin, Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Oban, and Talisker. George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey is 'niche,' as are pseudo-whiskeys Jeremiah Weed and Yukon Jack.

The word 'catalyst' has become fashionable in company names without much regard for its dictionary definition, which is something that causes change without being changed. The word 'niche' also seems misused, since it usually means a product or service that appeals to a very narrow and specific audience. One thing true niche brands do not do, almost by definition, is double in size.

If you examine it, Catalyst starts to look like a free-standing luxury brands portfolio, especially if it shed Weed, Jack, and Moon. The single malts are an exceptional collection, and George Dickel is a brand full of potential that Diageo has never quite realized.

No one has said anything about a spin-off, but wouldn't that be nice?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jim Beam Is Up 11%, Single Oak Project Has 6th Release, And The KDA Has New Digs.

Here's a little news round-up from Bourbon Country.

Beam Inc. has reported its second quarter results. Sales are up and bourbon is why. In worldwide sales, Jim Beam itself is up 11 percent for the year, Knob Creek is up 9 percent, and Maker's Mark is up 29 percent. That's pretty incredible, but there is another Beam bourbon that is doing even better: Basil Hayden, up 33 percent.

Almost everything in Beam's portfolio is up. Effen Vodka is one notable exception. When Beam bought Effen Vodka from Sazerac three years ago, I said it was a mistake. Sure enough, Effen sales are down 14 percent, probably because Beam has lost interest in it since Beam now has Pinnacle Vodka, a much bigger brand and one that is not based on a vulgarity.

This month, Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery will releases the sixth round of Single Oak Project bourbons. Twelve of these experimental bourbons are released each quarter. With release six, therefore, the score is 72 released, 120 to go.

Each release has a theme. This time, all twelve bourbons in the set are from Warehouse L, a masonry warehouse with concrete floors that many Tracians consider their best. The other common feature is low barrel entry proof (52.5% ABV). Since most bourbons go into the barrel at close to the legal maximum of 62.5% ABV, low entry proof is of great interest to distillers and aficionados.

The Kentucky Distiller's Association (KDA), of which Sazerac is not a member, is 132 years old but never has had a physical home. It now occupies a portion of Frankfort Barracks, a 141-year-old building that housed federal troops stationed in Frankfort between 1871 and 1876. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The address is 614 Shelby Street, Frankfort, KY 40601.

In addition to offices for KDA's staff, which has ballooned to three people, it will also serve as information center and gift shop for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour.