Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Of Whiskey And Innovation (Part 2)

A small number of companies own most of the world’s major distilled spirits products, so it’s not surprising that we often see them doing similar things across their portfolios. ‘Innovation’ is the hot buzzword right now, even in the whiskey space which is usually innovation-averse.

You’ve read here about Diageo’s recent innovations with its Crown Royal and George Dickel brands. Now it’s the flagship’s turn.

Introducing Johnnie Walker The Spice Road, the first of a portfolio of whiskeys that take their inspiration from the traveling heritage of John Walker & Sons. It’s available only in duty free stores, but it shows what ‘innovation’ means for the world’s leading whiskey brand. (A title that goes to either Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniel’s, depending on how you count and who you ask.)

This is not a flavored whiskey, as one might be entitled to suppose. It’s a special, limited edition blend. Scheduled for future release are The Gold Route and The Royal Route. Here is how Master Blender Jim Beveridge describes this premier release: "To create the intense spicy flavor profile of Johnnie Walker The Spice Road, we used well-matured single malts and grains, presenting all their fresh vibrant distillery characters, aged in carefully selected, high quality American oak casks; and of course there is a trace of West Coast smoke in the background - revealing the classic Johnnie Walker signature.”

Duty-free means limited availability, and many readers of this blog have little interest in blended scotch. This is interesting nevertheless because it shows another way a whiskey-maker can innovate without necessarily making a new whiskey from scratch, thereby avoiding the many years of lead time that entails. It also ties-in neatly with the distribution channel, a very sophisticated maneuver.

It’s a good story too. Here’s the gist of it. From 1820, the Walker family and their agents traveled the world, navigating their way down the famous trade routes: the Spice Road of Europe and Asia; the Royal Route from Europe to Persia; and the Gold Route of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Their efforts ensured that, by the 1920s, Johnnie Walker had arrived in 120 countries and was being enjoyed on the great railways, luxury ocean liners and early transatlantic flights. Meanwhile, the striking image of the Johnnie Walker Striding Man was becoming an icon all over the world.

Back in London, close to the shipping houses and docks from which the Johnnie Walker agents traveled the world, Alexander Walker established the Travelers’ Room (pictured, above) where his agents would convene to rest, talk strategy, and exchange stories and samples from their travels.

This all sounds true and, assuming it is, it means Diageo shows more respect for Walker’s history that it does for Dickel and Bulleit, its main U.S.-whiskey brands, where it prefers fiction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bourbon Review Awesomeness

If you scroll down this page, looking at the right column, you will come to the recommended sites list. One of them, and the only one by a retailer, is 'Spirits Journal,' the blog of the spirits department at K&L Wine Merchants in California. Yesterday, occasional contributor David Othenin-Girard published a piece under the headline 'Bourbon Awesomeness.' It is well worth a read.

Othenin-Girard, who is based in Southern California, had an opportunity recently to attend a tasting of old bourbons held by the Los Angeles Whiskey Society: An Old Grand-Dad bottled in 1949, a Very Old Fitzgerald bottled in 1956, that sort of thing, but a really exceptional collection.

Bourbon, by the way, doesn't age in the bottle. Tasting whiskey from old bottles like these is more of a window into what people were drinking then. Have the recipes changed? Were the barrels made from older trees? You also often get to taste products that are no longer made from distilleries that are no longer standing.

What's great about the article is that Othenin-Girard, as a high-end whiskey buyer, is a professional whiskey taster who, as also a salesman, is very good at describing what he tastes. He knows what he's writing about much better than most.

Many people like the K&L blog because it's not just about selling stuff, it's about the passion Othenin-Girard and the other David, David Driscoll, who writes most of the posts, have for the products, producers, and customers. In this case, nothing mentioned in the piece can be purchased at K&L.

That's unfortunate, but until someone uncovers a forgotten warehouse full of bourbon from the 40s and 50s, this will have to do.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Of Whiskey And Innovation

For a craft that usually prefers to talk about tradition and heritage, and things that never change, whiskey makers have been crowing a lot lately about innovation. For the majors, new product innovation seems to be proceeding on two paths. On one are products enthusiasts love: limited editions, experiments, and ultra-premium expressions. On the other are products enthusiasts despise: flavored whiskeys.

The post here two weeks ago about Crown Royal XR LaSalle, part of Crown's Extra Rare (XR) series, represents Crown's appeal to the enthusiast community. Now the other shoe has dropped, with the introduction of Crown's first flavored whiskey, Crown Royal Maple Finished.

Maple is the natural choice for a Canadian and Crown Royal (a Diageo brand) is commended for not rolling out one more with honey. (They already have Dark Honey under the Seagram's Seven brand.) The packaging is similar to standard Crown, except with a bronze-colored label and a brown velvet bag instead of the usual blue.

They describe it this way: "Crown Royal Maple Finished begins with the legendary taste of Crown Royal whisky. The liquid then incorporates a touch of natural maple flavor achieved through a proprietary maple toasted oak finishing process for added smoothness."

Through questioning, the following translation was elicited. "Crown Royal Maple Finished Whisky is made by adding a touch of natural maple flavor to the whisky and then we introduce it to toasted oak staves and toasted oak chips. The introduction of these toasted oak staves and chips delivers characteristics of the oak to the liquid, one of which is reminiscent of maple. This finishing process also delivers a smoothness to the whisky, worthy of Crown Royal."

The result? If you believe maple syrup is the best part of pancakes, and wish you could drink it straight from the bottle, now you can, plus get a buzz. To describe it as alcoholic pancake syrup may sound pejorative, but not if you really love that flavor. The maple taste is very good, full and rich. Most of it comes from the 'natural maple flavor' but the specially toasted oak staves and chips have a noticeable and positive effect. Identifiable as oak but nicely complementing the maple, they provide added depth with something recognizable from the whiskey lexicon.

Which is good because, without it, there's not much evidence of whiskey here. All distilled spirits, even vodka, have a body and mouth feel that's distinctive to distillates. Crown Maple has that, and the aforementioned oak, but otherwise the whiskey part of this drink is just a rumor.

Still and all, if you really like maple, Crown Maple should work for you. Open this for a party and expect an empty bottle by the end of the evening. Suggested retail is $24.99.

But, be warned, it may bring back some childhood memories.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Of Whiskey And Cocktails

Once upon a time, the word ‘cocktail’ referred to the occasion more than the drink and was, often as not, attached to the word ‘party.’ In those days, it wasn’t irregular to desire a cocktail and then order or pour a whiskey, neat or on-the-rocks. Most people had no trouble calling an unadorned glass of whiskey a cocktail. Nobody tried to talk you into having ‘a real cocktail’ instead.

The modern meaning of ‘cocktail’ is an assembled-to-order, single serving combination of two or more ingredients, what used to be called a ‘mixed drink.’

Assuming we can hold two different ideas in our heads at the same time, let’s take both meanings and ask ourselves, what is the role of whiskey in cocktails?

First, let’s embrace the idea of whiskey as a cocktail. A first class whiskey is itself a combination of ingredients—grains, yeast, water, wood, heat, time, peat, sherry—and when those elements are fully realized and ideally balanced, whiskey is a perfectly satisfying drink all by itself. In short, a cocktail.

Whiskey’s other role is as an ingredient, but this can be bifurcated too. For the classic whiskey cocktails it doesn’t matter what type of whiskey you use; bourbon, rye, scotch, Canadian, Irish, etc. They all taste different, but they also all work. That’s because classic whiskey cocktails, simply made in the traditional way, feature the whiskey, augmented only slightly by the other ingredient or ingredients.

Elmer T. Lee, the legendary master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace Distillery, likes a highball that is one part Buffalo Trace Bourbon to about three parts Sprite, on ice.

The third way is using whiskey with modern creative cocktails. There it is an ingredient, not the ingredient, and the goal is not so much to taste the whiskey unobstructed as it is to taste it as one part of a unique whole. To be successful, a creative cocktail must be greater than the sum of its parts. For such productions, the call for each ingredient, including the whiskey, has to be specific, not just as to type (scotch, bourbon), but usually as to brand and expression.

So whiskey has three roles: (1) whiskey as cocktail, (2) whiskey as featured ingredient, (3) whiskey as non-featured ingredient. Which begs the question, what whiskeys to use?

Some other spirits types are unambiguous on this question. Read a little bit about cognac, rum, or tequila and you will quickly learn that VS cognac, and white tequila and rum, are for mixing. Higher grades of cognac, and aged tequilas and rums, are recommended for sipping. It’s easy to draw the parallel to whiskey, blends and young whiskeys are for mixing, balanced and fully aged whiskeys are for straight sipping.

But haven’t we been told, by cooks as well as mixologists, that you always get the best results by using the best ingredients? Okay, but maybe we need a ‘within reason’ qualification, supported by a ‘best and highest use’ paradigm.

Pappy Van Winkle used to say that if you must drink your whiskey with water, pour the water into the glass first. That way, you’ll be making a poor thing better, rather than a good thing worse.

So, for the first two types, you want a fine whiskey with excellent balance. That’s obvious for straight sipping. With classic cocktails, you may want to adjust the other ingredients to the whiskey, and tone them down when a better whiskey is used. For creative cocktails, it’s not so much about the best whiskey as it is about the right whiskey.

This is where white whiskeys and young whiskeys can shine. In that third role, you usually want something with a very clear and assertive character.

Are some whiskeys more versatile than others? A good traditional straight rye, like Rittenhouse BIB, Wild Turkey Rye, or Knob Creek Rye, is good straight or in a traditional whiskey cocktail, but can get lost in an elaborate concoction. In that case, a 95% rye like Bulleit, or a very young rye like McKenzie, might work better. Even there, the Bulleit because it has some age on it can be good on its own, while the McKenzie is probably best in a cocktail.

It’s the same with bourbons. Knob Creek, Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and Old Forester are all good choices as both straight sippers and in classic cocktails. Most micro-distillery bourbons are best in creative cocktails.

With scotch, very peaty single malts can work straight and in creative cocktails, but tend to overpower the simpler classic cocktails.

Marketers need to understand how their products show best and market accordingly. It has become knee jerk in spirits marketing to always provide cocktail recipes. But if your product is a fine, fully aged, well balanced whiskey, just perfect by itself, you may do it a disservice by pushing cocktails of any kind. Instead, be more creative about telling consumers how to enjoy your product.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Best And Highest Use For Leftover Turkey: The Kentucky Hot Brown

Here, as an annual public service, is the Hot Brown, a perfect use for leftover turkey. This delicious open face turkey sandwich was created in 1926 at Louisville's Brown Hotel by Chef Fred K. Schmidt.

Hot Brown (4 servings)
4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices toast, with crusts cut off
Turkey breast slices
Crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
Mushroom slices, sauteed

Saute onion in butter until transparent; add flour and combine. Add milk, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Cook on medium heat until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Add cheese and continue heating until they blend. Remove from heat.

Put one slice of toast in each of four oven-proof individual serving dishes. Top each piece of toast with slices of turkey. Cut remaining toast slices diagonally and place on sides of sandwiches. Ladle cheese sauce over sandwiches. Place sandwiches under broiler until sauce begins to bubble. Garnish with crumbled bacon and sauteed mushroom slices and serve immediately.

There are many variations. Most places don’t crumble the bacon, and there are many substitutes for the mushrooms, including tomato slices and asparagus spears. Some simply forgo the vegetables altogether.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Can A Non-Distiller Be Distiller Of The Year?

The liquor industry, like most, loves to give itself awards. Industry media give out most of them. That media, of course, is funded by advertising from the companies being honored. This generally is not considered a conflict of interest because the media outlet's readers have independent ways of judging if the awards are deserved or not, and the outlet’s credibility is what hangs in the balance.

Wine Enthusiast, as its name suggests, is about wine, but since wine drinkers may also enjoy other liquors, Wine Enthusiast dabbles in other forms of alcohol too. So it is that Wine Enthusiast announced yesterday its Wine Star Awards. Among them as distiller of the year: Michter's Distillery.

This will not help Wine Enthusiast’s credibility with whiskey enthusiasts. There are several issues with this choice. Principally, Michter's Distillery is just a name, it's not a distillery, it’s not even a company. It’s a brand name, used by a New York company called Chatham Imports for a line of American whiskey products.

Chatham isn’t a distiller either. They buy and sell distilled spirits, but do not distill any themselves.

The name Michter's is about 60 years old. It was coined by Louis Forman in the early 1950s for a new whiskey brand he planned to sell. Forman (no relation to Brown-Forman) wasn’t a distiller either, not then anyway. He was a whiskey broker, meaning he bought and sold bulk whiskey. He thought he could make more money if he sold some of it as a brand instead of a commodity. That’s how Michter’s was born.

About twenty years later, Forman became a distiller when he bought a historic Pennsylvania distillery and gave it the Michter's name. In 1990, with Forman long gone, that business collapsed. Its liabilities so far exceeded its assets that the then-owners simply walked away.

One of the assets they abandoned was the Michter's name.

A few years later, Chatham re-registered the Michter's trademark. With the legal right to use the name, they began to shamelessly appropriate everything associated with it, in particular the long history of that Pennsylvania distillery. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s a whole book about it, called The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste, which is for sale just over to the right of this column. Everything here is explained in a bit more detail there.

And it makes a great gift.

Michter’s today is what is known as a Potemkin Distillery. The fa├žade is quite elaborate. They even have a person with the title of master distiller. His resume includes Brown-Forman, a major distillery owner and operator, except he wasn’t a distiller there. Wine Enthusiast Spirits Editor Kara Newman claims that Michter's is a distiller even though she acknowledges they “don't have their own brick-and-mortar facility.”

“Like a great many smaller producers,” she insists, “they have used stills at other facilities.” Newman claims that Michter's “selects the mash bill, yeast, etc. and oversees the physical distillation and other production details, right down to figuring out the best bottling strength and aging times.” From this she concludes that Michter's “is not working with whiskey made by anybody else.”

What she describes is a fanciful explanation of contract distilling, but it’s doubtful Michter’s even does that much. More likely they buy bulk whiskey, selecting from whatever is available. The whiskey Michter’s sells is good and making those selections is an important job, but it’s not distilling.

It's possible but unlikely that Michter’s is contracting with one or more distillers to make whiskey to its specifications. True contract distilling is rarely done by small producers because the risk and upfront costs are just too great. Even if they have a production agreement with one or more distillers, it’s probably for products that distillery already makes, nothing custom.

And even if they are hiring an actual distiller to do from-scratch contract distilling for them, that doesn't make Michter's a distiller. The rent-a-still image that Newman paints simply does not exist.

What Michter’s is doing is unique only in the venerability of the entity they are sacking. Some have argued that this is simply marketing. History and historical figures are appropriated all the time for commercial purposes. Historians tells us that neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln ever actually attended a mattress sale, for example.

The reason it’s offensive is because it devalues the American whiskey industry’s genuine rich history. Talking to Shanken News Daily last week, Chris Bauder, general manager U.S. Whiskies at Beam Inc., said, “We attribute the latest Bourbon surge to innovation, premiumization and authenticity.”

Michter’s has benefited from that surge but what it is selling, and Wine Enthusiast is honoring, is not authenticity. It’s more like what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ something that sounds true but really isn’t.

Chatham did a good deed when it rescued the Michter’s name from oblivion, but everything it has done since has been something else.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Indiana Distillery Is Crucial To MGPI's Success.

The distillery in Greendale, Indiana, continues to interest whiskey enthusiasts, who know it for such products as Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, Redemption Rye, George Dickel Rye, Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon and Rye, Redemption Bourbon, New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon, Wm. H. Harrison bourbon, Chattanooga whiskey, and others.

The distillery is now owned by MGP Ingredients, Inc. (MGPI) which, as a publicly-owned company, is much more transparent about its operations than was the previous owner.

In the company's report of third quarter 2012 results, released yesterday, the lead headline says a "strong contribution" from the Indiana distillery "offset a reduction in sales for lower-value industrial applications."

"The decline in industrial sales for the quarter was substantially offset by growth in our premium spirits," said Tim Newkirk, President and Chief Executive Officer. "So, while our third quarter alcohol sales were relatively flat, our profit profile actually improved due to a stronger contribution from beverages.”

The report further explains that "post-acquisition progress continues at the Indiana distillery. Production rates have more than doubled since the company assumed ownership in December 2011. Capital improvements and cost reduction programs, including a switch to natural gas, are expected to further increase manufacturing capacity at a lower cost per unit."

“We’ve made great inroads with our line of premium spirits this year," said Newkirk, "despite the fact that most of the important year-end order activity for 2012 took place before we acquired the facility. Our new beverage sales team is encouraged by the high level of interest among our key customers.”

Whiskey enthusiasts in particular want to know MGPI's plans for Indiana going forward, to which Newkirk offers this tantalizing clue. "In premium spirits we’re pursuing beverage innovations, including new mash bills, flavor extensions, and barrel aging techniques."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gift Ideas For Canadian Whiskey Fans.

Diageo is the world’s largest distilled spirits company. I call it The Big Galoot, TBG for short. I criticize Diageo for many things, but not understanding American whiskey and mismanaging their American whiskey portfolio is their greatest sin.

Our disagreement, such as it is, isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about different points of view. I’m Kentucky/Tennessee-centric. I’m all about straight whiskeys, bourbon and rye, where Diageo is weak. Diageo, however, sees the segment as North American whiskey. Their Big Magilla is Crown Royal Canadian Blended Whisky, a brand they obtained in the Seagram’s carve-up a decade ago.

Crown Royal is the only North American whiskey on Diageo’s ‘strategic brands’ list. Those are the big, global brands on which Diageo hangs its hat. Crown is the #1 Canadian whiskey, sells about 5 million cases a year, and is mainly sold in Canada, the United States, and France. Among North American whiskeys, only Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam sell more. Crown probably has a bright future in other global markets too, which is what makes it strategic.

Although Diageo didn’t make Crown a major brand, it has done a good job of keeping it there. One fine initiative has been the Extra Rare (XR) series. The second installment, released earlier this year, is Crown Royal XR LaSalle. It was created from a small reserve of whiskeys from the LaSalle Distillery in Montreal.

The LaSalle Distillery was built beginning in 1924, began distilling in 1928, and stopped distilling in 1993. Andrew MacKay, Crown Royal’s Master Blender, who created XR LaSalle, began his career there.

As a bourbon drinker, I generally find Canadians tasty but way too mild. That’s my taste. I know Canadians have a huge following on both sides of the border and I’m not putting this style of whiskey down. It’s just not my preference, although I enjoy it from time to time as a change of pace.

That said, Crown Royal is among the best and XR LaSalle is a step beyond that; rich, creamy, and fruit forward. I like this whiskey, both as a drink and a gift. The suggested retail is $130 for a 750 ml bottle. That may seem like a lot, but it is a limited edition, and the packaging is impeccable. It starts with an ornate, heavyweight cardboard box, continues with the classic velvet bag, and the decanter-style bottle has a glass stopper. It’s a very nice, genuinely impressive presentation.

Obviously, this is a fine gift for the regular Crown Royal drinker, but any Canadian whiskey fan should appreciate it.

Speaking of great gifts for Canadian whiskey drinkers, Davin De Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky, The Portable Expert, is simply the best book ever published on the subject. It's the definitive guide to Canadian whiskey. Nothing else even comes close. He explains the history, how Canadian whiskey is made today, and how it differs from other whiskeys such as bourbon and scotch. He gives you a guided tour of every distillery and reviews every one of their products. It's awesome. Suggested retail price is $24.99 in Canada, $22 in the USA. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

No Matter How Poor You Are, If You Drink You Pay Taxes.

One of the biggest lies right wing extremists like to tell themselves is that poor people don't pay taxes. Instead they sponge off the noble and righteous people who do. Romney's famous 47% refers to American adults whose incomes are too low to owe federal income tax. The extremist part is taking that fact to mean 47% of Americans pay no taxes and use the federal government as a free ATM.

It's one of the right's oldest tropes, around for generations. Poor people are poor because they are lazy moochers and therefore deserve no help from the rest of us.

In addition to cutting off moochers, the right wants to reduce or eliminate taxes on businesses. If we take the tax burden off job creators, they'll use that money to create more jobs, thus more people will be employed, more people will pay taxes, fewer will need government benefits, and we'll all be able to pay a little less. How great would that be?

A lot in life depends on how you look at things. That's one way to look at things. Here's another.

Businesses don't pay taxes, they build them into the cost of doing business, as they should, and pass that expense along to their customers. That's what businesses do. That's how business works. If their customers are other businesses, they pass that tax along too until it is finally paid by us, you and me, everyone who buys goods and services. It's built into the cost of everything we buy.

I'm best qualified to tell you about one particularly excellent example of this, the federal excise tax on distilled spirits such as bourbon whiskey, aka the FET. This is not intended as a defense of taxes, the FET or any other, or of tax policy, either current or proposed. It is a defense of taxpayers.

All of them.

There is virtually no adult American who pays no taxes.

Included in the 47% of adult Americans who do not pay federal income tax are the poor, but also many low income working Americans, most retirees, most college students, and most veterans. Let's say you are one of those people and you like your Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Here in the Chicago area, you will pay about $26 for a 1.75 L bottle of Jim, including the taxes that are added on at the register. Of that, about $4 is paid to the United States Treasury.

Congratulations, Jim Beam customer, you are a federal taxpayer.

That $4 isn't all of the taxes you pay, just the federal ones. State, local, and indirect taxes add another $10. In all, tax is about 54% of the retail cost of a typical bottle of distilled spirits. So of that $26, $14 is tax revenue, and $12 is split among the producer, distributor, and retailer. (As calculated by DISCUS, the distilled spirits industry trade association.)

Distillers and other businesses collect the taxes and remit them to the government, but they don't pay the taxes. You do, I do, whenever we purchase our favorite libation.

Because poor people spend all of their income, and spend most of it on taxed goods and services, they pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than any other group. That's true whether or not they spend some of their money on alcohol, but if they do, they're paying even more tax. Alcoholic beverages are among the most heavily-taxed consumer products on the market.

The federal government first imposed the FET in 1791. It was the first federal tax on internal economic activity. All previous federal revenue came from taxes on international trade. Widely hated, it was the proximate cause of the Whiskey Rebellion, the first time the federal government used military force against American citizens.

In his 2006 book, The Whiskey Rebellion, William Hogeland argues convincingly that the FET was engineered by Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary, to favor large distillers over small ones, in order to make collecting the tax easier, and because Hamilton believed in general that a few big businesses were better for the economy than a lot of little ones. As the American polis began to form itself into two political parties, this became one of the major battle lines, and the FET became a useful symbol for Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Republicans against Hamilton's Federalists.

As president, Jefferson abolished the tax, so there was no FET between 1802 and 1814. We are currently celebrating the 200th anniversary of that tax-free period. Jefferson's successor, James Madison, reimposed it in 1814 but his successor, James Monroe, abolished it again. As a young man, Monroe had worked in a distillery and understood business better than his predecessors.

What followed was a long, 44-year period with no FET. In 1862 it was brought back to fund the Civil War, and we've had it ever since. In 1985, during the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, it was increased to $13.50 per proof gallon, where it remains. A 'proof gallon' is one gallon of 100 proof spirits (50% alcohol by volume).

Although the FET hasn't gone up in 27 years, other taxes on alcohol have and as a 'vice,' alcohol is always a convenient target for politicians.

While producers collect and remit the FET, it only hurts their business inasmuch as higher prices affect sales. Would Jim Beam sell more 1.75 L bottles of bourbon if they cost us $12 instead of $26?

If alcohol taxes go up and so do prices, who suffers? I do, since it costs me more to get my drink on, but if I and all of my fellow moochers buy less alcohol, then it's mostly the people who make it and sell it to us who suffer, and most of them are members of the moocher class too. The bottling line at Jim Beam starts to cut hours and lay people off, so do my favorite bars and liquor stores.

When Reagan raised the FET in 1985, tax revenues declined because sales did. It took several years for tax revenues to return to pre-1985 levels.

So, in a democracy, we decide what we want to pay for as a community, then we figure out how to tax ourselves to pay for it. That's how it's supposed to work. It's hard to believe the hodge-podge of taxes and taxing authorities we have now is in any sense designed to be reasonable or fair. If it can even be said to have an overall purpose, it would be simply to maximize revenue.

How do we come up with a more rational way to run our country's finances? Not villainizing half of the tax-paying population might be a good place to start.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Releases, Fall 2012.

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, several new releases are reviewed. They include a lovely new wheater called Larceny, from Heaven Hill; the exquisite new Parker's Heritage Collection, also from Heaven Hill; as well as the new Four Roses Small Batch; and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon which are both also wonderful.

The Bourbon Country Reader does not rate whiskeys. We don't give you scores, we give you information.

For example, you've heard of Seagram's Seven Crown Blended Whiskey. You've probably even had the misfortune of tasting it. As a blend, Seagram's 7 is a mixture of several different whiskeys, plus a whole lot of vodka. Now many of its component whiskeys are being released as straights. We break them down for you.

You've also probably heard of Jack Daniel's. In this issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Jack's former head of global brand communications, Chris Middleton, writes about Jack's new rye and the Tennessee whiskey tradition (it's part one of two).

If you're into bourbon, you really should subscribe to The Bourbon Country Reader. It is produced and delivered the old-fashioned way; ink on paper, in an envelope, delivered personally to your home or office by a uniformed representative of the United States government. It's always independent and idiosyncratic, has no distillery affiliation, accepts no advertising, and contains 100 percent original content that you won't find anyplace else.

And, gosh by golly, it's such a thoughtful gift for the American whiskey lover in your life.

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 (we missed April and August, but got this one out early-ish). Regardless, your subscription always includes six issues. Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tips On How To Label An Unaged Rye Whiskey.

A micro-producer writes, "just read your whiskey blog concerning the new Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye Whiskey. This is very interesting. My husband and I own a small artisan distillery and have had our labels in for approval with the TTB. We received our second rejection and, lo and behold, it's about the wording for our Unaged Rye Whiskey."

It seems a shame that while modern distillers can make a product their ancestors would have called rye whiskey, we can’t call it that today.

Until the second half of the 19th century, most whiskey was not aged. Folks probably didn't call it 'rye whiskey,' they probably just called it 'whiskey.' But it was spirit straight from the still. You can make such a product today, but you can't call it 'whiskey.'

By the time Federal rules about the standards of identity for distilled spirits were being written, early in the 20th century, the aging of whiskey in oak barrels had become so common and expected that whiskey was defined as a distilled spirit made from grain that had been stored in oak containers. Rye whiskey, furthermore, had to, among other things, be aged in new and charred oak barrels.

Before you start to complain about damned government regulations, recall that these rules were written to protect consumers from dishonest or misleading labeling and they have worked pretty well. The problem is one typical of government regulation. It has a hard time keeping up with changes of attitudes and ideas among the people it's supposed to protect.

Setting aside the desirability of unaged rye whiskey, it is a historically legitimate style and not that hard to understand, so the possibility of consumers being confused about it is small.

We've learned from the recent Jack Daniel's experience that the only suitable classification available from TTB is 'Distilled Spirits Specialty,' which is a catch-all for any distilled spirit that can't qualify for one of the other existing classifications.

Although it makes sense that there should be an 'unaged rye whiskey' class, none exists. Since spirit classified as ‘rye whiskey’ must be aged, ‘unaged rye whiskey’ is a regulatory impossibility. Many people have blithely said TTB should just create and define such a category, but it doesn't work that way. It might actually require an act of Congress. Maybe not, but it certainly requires going through a long and arduous regulatory rule making process.

Part of TTB’s problem is that for the first 70 of its 80 years of existence, it dealt mostly with big companies, with compliance departments and lots of lawyers, who were making me-too products. Consequently, TTB is not well equipped to deal with hundreds of small producers who are, in many cases, trying to push the envelope on everything.

But all is not hopeless. Here's how other producers have solved this problem.

When the folks who run Washington's restored distillery at Mount Vernon wanted to sell unaged rye whiskey, they actually aged it, very briefly, in new, charred oak barrels.

This is called gaming the system or, more charitably, finding a work-around. Under the rules, although aging is required, the length of time is up to you (24 hours is plenty) as is the size of the barrel. It just has to be new, which means you can use it only once for rye whiskey. It also has to be oak and charred.

This can, of course, be expensive and you have to pass that cost along to your customers. The folks at Mount Vernon didn't care, they planned to charge a lot anyway.

Another alternative is to age in a used barrel. Again, how long it’s in the wood doesn’t matter. You can't call it 'rye whiskey' but you can call it ‘whiskey,’ as the class, and use ‘rye’ in the name, you just can’t put the words ‘rye' and 'whiskey’ together. You can, for example, call it 'Chuck's Old Rye, An Illinois Whiskey.'

This way is much less expensive because not only does a used barrel cost about 40 percent less than a new one, you can use the used barrel an unlimited number of times, so you only need one no matter how much whiskey you make.

Another alternative is to make corn whiskey instead of rye whiskey, since corn whiskey is already an exception in the rules. It doesn't have to be aged at all.

One idea no one has tried yet is getting a cooperage to make cheap, piece-of-crap oak containers. Essentially, disposable barrels. Since TTB doesn't care how long the spirit is stored in the container, how good does is have to be? It doesn't even have to be a barrel. The rule just says, 'charred new oak containers.' Any vessel that meets those requirements and can hold the whiskey for even a few seconds should pass TTB muster.

Then you can knock the containers down and burn them to fire your boiler.