Friday, December 21, 2012

Highlights of 2012

In writing posts for this blog, I usually avoid the first person. I use it here to emphasize that this is a personal list. These are the highlights for me. Your results may vary.

Abraham Bowman Virginia Limited Edition Whiskey. In the year I published The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste, and the Van Winkle phenomenon went over the moon, it's nice that a peer to all of them is still so little known and easy to get, at least if you live in or near Virginia. This is the 18-year-old bourbon, 138.6° proof (69.3% ABV) bottling.

Larceny. What Heaven Hill has done with Old Fitzgerald itself has been disappointing but redemption of a sort arrived with Larceny, an Old Fitz line extension that is a major new star in the wheated bourbon firmament. In addition to being very good whiskey, it replaces a false origin story with a true one.

Jim Beam's American Stillhouse. With bourbon tourism booming, bourbon distilleries have been upgrading their visitor experiences, and each new one has outdone the last. As the world's biggest bourbon, Jim Beam should have the biggest and best visitor experience and now it does.

MGPI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Mysteries can be fun, but the unwillingness of the previous owners of the former Seagram's distillery in Lawrenceburg to answer even the simplest questions grew tedious. The new owner, an established producer of neutral grain spirits expanding into whiskey, has been a breath of bourbon-scented fresh air.

New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon. This is 'rectification' in the finest sense of the word, which means "to set right; correct." New Holland took an undistinguished major distillery bourbon and made it not only drinkable but genuinely special by finishing it in their beer barrels. And they told the truth about it too.

Eric Gregory. I can't say enough good things about how the Kentucky Distillers' Association has developed under Gregory's leadership. And since KDA is a membership organization, funded primarily by Kentucky's major distillers (most of them), it reflects well on them too, and on their willingness to let him be creative and explore new ideas.

Maker's Mark v Diageo. As an attorney, I probably should be disappointed that I was cited in a Federal Appellate Court opinion as a bourbon authority and not as a lawyer, but I was thrilled to have my work mentioned not once but five times. As my sister said, "I sure hope all that stuff you wrote in your book was true now that they're using it to decide court cases." Me too, Jane. Me too.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Where Are Kentucky's Distilleries?

View Kentucky Distilleries in a larger map

This map shows the location of every distillery in Kentucky, both craft and major producers. Red pins are micro-distilleries, blue pins are major distilleries, green pins are inactive distilleries. Click on the pin to see the name of the distillery and whether or not it is open to the public. Where available in Google Maps (and most are) the exact address is included, along with other listing information.

Many more inactive distilleries could be shown and a few may still be added. 'Inactive' means the distillery part of the operation is inactive; and not just inactive but demolished in most cases. The ones included are mostly all still owned by major producers and in use for other aspects of distilled spirits production, such as maturation or bottling. Another anomaly; the Four Roses maturation and bottling facility at Lotus, AKA Cox's Creek, is listed as a distillery even though no distillation is done there. That seemed preferable to 'inactive,' since there was never a distillery on that site.

It also seems unfair to green pin Heaven Hill in Bardstown, since it's their primary maturation site, bottling house, and corporate headquarters, but this is a distillery map and the distillery that was once there is gone, destroyed by fire in 1996. 

There are at least a half-dozen other sites in Kentucky, mostly around Bardstown, that were once distilleries but now only the warehouses remain. The sites are owned and used by the major distillers. The warehouses visible from the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg (you can see them on the map's satellite view) are actually owned by Wild Turkey. They were built as part of the Old Joe Distillery. Wild Turkey has another large cluster of warehouses in Nicholasville (Jessamine County), just across the road from the Camp Nelson Civil War Cemetery. That one is on the map, as a green pin.

Danville Road (US Rt 27) crosses the Kentucky River just south of there. The river at that point has created rocky bluffs on both sides. It's quite a view.

In the area around the Brown-Forman (blue pin) and Stitzel-Weller (green pin) sites, there were once a dozen or so other distilleries, including a massive Seagram's plant. Some have been demolished while some (including Seagram's) are more or less intact, but none are being used by distilled spirits producers except maybe Yellowstone, which was being used to distill blending spirits from citrus fruit.

As big as Kentucky's whiskey-making business is today, it was once so much bigger. The purpose of this map was mostly to show where the craft distilleries are in relationship to the major distilleries. A historic map of defunct distilleries would be a different project.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Of Whiskey and Innovation (Part 3); Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Marketers know which words have the most power to draw eyes and attention. 'Free' is number one, but 'new' is right up there too.

The power of these words is mostly in that they make you look, which causes you to think about the brand, which makes you more likely to buy it, even if the 'news' itself is not particularly compelling to you.

New products introduced under the banner of an existing brand are called line extensions. In addition to other benefits of being new; they tend to get the brand a little more shelf space, a floor display, or a bartender recommendation, things which in themselves will increase sales of the whole line, not just the new item.

This is the strategic foundation underlying much of what is called 'innovation' in the whiskey business today. Case in point: new Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.

The analysis above is necessary for understanding why this product exists.

Russell's Reserve began in 2001 as a Wild Turkey line extension, named in honor of veteran Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. The original iteration was 10 years old and 101° proof (50.5% ABV). Soon it was repackaged to something closer to the current look and the proof was cut to 90° (45% ABV). A 90° proof, 6-year-old rye soon followed.

Beginning with release of the rye, the Wild Turkey name disappeared and Russell's Reserve became a brand in its own right. The line was positioned to be a little more contemporary than Wild Turkey, hence the lower proof and milder taste profile. Eddie Russell, Jimmy's son, is responsible for the profile and is the brand's principal spokesperson.

The latest 'innovation' in the line is Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, which has no age statement (NAS), but is a whopping 110° proof (55% ABV). Another Wild Turkey bourbon, Rare Breed, claims to be 'barrel proof' at 108.2° proof (54.1% ABV), but that is being updated to 111°. About six years ago, Wild Turkey raised its barrel entry proof from 110° to 115°, following an earlier increase from 107°, which accounts for the higher proofs emerging now in mature barrels.

Even at 115°, Wild Turkey has the lowest barrel entry proof of any major bourbon distillery.

Many bourbon enthusiasts still mourn that long-ago proof cut from 101° to 90°. For them, Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon is a restoration, with a 9 point bonus!

In creating this single barrel line extension, Campari USA has followed what Beam did with Knob Creek Single Barrel earlier this year. Knob Single is 20° higher proof than standard Knob, and Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is 25° higher proof than standard Russell's Reserve Bourbon.

Although the new single barrel is NAS, Campari USA Senior Brand Manager Robin Coupar says the barrels are all eight to nine years old. Russell's Reserve Single Barrel should begin to appear in stores next month at a suggested retail price of $49.99.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Distilled Spirits Epicenter Joins Kentucky Distillers' Association as First Educational Member

Distilled Spirits Epicenter; an educational, training, and craft distillery; announced yesterday that is has joined the Kentucky Distillers’ Association as the group’s first-ever Educational Distillery member.

"Education is a core principle of the KDA’s mission to promote and protect our signature industry, from legislative advocacy to economic and tourism development to the responsible consumption of spirits," said Jeff Conder, Chairman of the KDA’s Board of Directors.

"Now, with the creation of an Educational Distillery membership, the KDA adds a vital component through research and training opportunities to develop the next generation of our iconic industry," said Conder, Vice President, Global Supply Chain, for Beam, Inc. "We proudly welcome Distilled Spirits Epicenter as a partner in this goal."

"We are pleased to be joining such a legendary organization that shares our commitment to innovation," said Marty Snyder, CEO of Distilled Spirits Epicenter and its sister company, Flavorman. "Just as KDA and its Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure has fueled global interest in the Bourbon phenomenon, our content-rich distilling courses will highlight the artisanship of spirits production."

Kevin Hall, Operations Manager at Distilled Spirits Epicenter, said the company has positioned itself as a one-stop-shop for distilling needs and resources at its downtown Louisville headquarters. "Every Bourbon brand has its own recipe, taste and history, and every project at the Epicenter is unique," Hall said. "Our resources enable us to provide a customized experience for each client, no matter how big or small."

Distilled Spirit Epicenter resources include:

Grease Monkey Distillery, an artisan distillery furnished with state-of-the-art Vendome equipment that may be rented for full scale spirits production or to run small test batches.

Challenge Bottling, an on-site bottling line designed to accommodate smaller production runs and various packaging requirements.

Moonshine University, an educational resource and training facility that provides expert instruction on everything from technical operations to business planning.

The first Moonshine University distilling course, scheduled for Jan. 14-18, will provide hands-on instruction on distillate production and business management. The third day of the course will be dedicated to whiskey production, with presentations from Master Distillers and industry experts from several of the KDA’s member distilleries. Registration is underway at

Distilled Spirits Epicenter is the KDA’s 15th member and sixth new member in 2012. KDA members include Beam, Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark); Brown-Forman Corp.; Diageo North America; Four Roses Distillery; Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc.; and Wild Turkey Distillery.

Craft Distillery members include Alltech’s Town Branch Distillery, Barrel House Distilling Co., Corsair Artisan Distillery, Limestone Branch Distillery, MB Roland Distillery, The Old Pogue Distillery, Silver Trail Distillery and Willett Distillery.

KDA President Eric Gregory said he has been impressed with Distilled Spirits Epicenter’s vision, dedication and camaraderie in exploring partnerships to keep Kentucky’s distilling tradition alive and to secure the integrity of the industry. "Kentucky truly is a Bourbon epicenter, and we look forward to working with the professional team at Distilled Spirits Epicenter to promote our rich heritage, to advocate fair treatment of our industry, and to continue our commitment to responsible drinking."

Founded in 1880, the KDA is a non-profit trade association and Kentucky's leading voice on spirits issues.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

More News About that Distillery in Indiana.

About a year ago, after MGP bought the former Seagram's Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, whispering began that they were going to exit the bulk whiskey business and concentrate on contract distilling exclusively.

The distinction is that with bulk sales, the customer purchases aged whiskey that is ready to sell. With contract, you pay the distillery to distill and make whiskey on your behalf, which won't be ready to sell for several years. They're two very different business models.

"There is no foundation whatsoever to any rumors or speculation that MGP is withdrawing from the bulk whiskey market," says David Dykstra, MGP's Vice President of Alcohol Sales & Marketing. "We are investing heavily in rebuilding the whiskey stocks that were depleted under prior ownership of the facility. MGP intends to be in the bulk whiskey market for both the near term and longer term."

If anything, they're going in deeper. "MGP is developing new mash bill formulations of rye, wheat and other grains that we expect to introduce to the marketplace in the coming years, as product innovation is a key component of our efforts to help customers continue to grow their distinctive brands."

Bulk whiskey from that distillery has been responsible for such brands as Templeton Rye, Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout Bourbon and Rye, High West Rendezvous Rye, Redemption Bourbon and Rye, Wm. H. Harrison bourbon, Chattanooga whiskey, and a host of others.

No doubt those micro-producers are relieved to hear what MGP intends, but bulk whiskey pickings will be slim for the next few years, especially for well-aged whiskey because the previous owner laid down very little near the end.

Many bourbon enthusiasts have wondered if MGP plans to develop and market its own whiskey brands, or continue exclusively as a commodity producer. Lawrenceburg is the only pure commodity whiskey producer in the U.S.

"We have no plans at this time to develop or purchase any branded whiskeys or other products," says Dykstra. "However, we remain open to evaluating market opportunities if any such possibilities should warrant our interest."

And what about tours? There have been distilleries on that site since about 1860, though most of what is there now was built by Seagram's in the 1930s. "MGP plans to begin tours at some point over the next 18 months," says Dykstra. "We currently are working on details to ensure the tours provide a highly enjoyable, as well as educational, experience for those who visit our Lawrenceburg facility."

One huge change has already taken effect, the new owners answer questions.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Gifts and Events for Bourbon Fans

The best holiday gift for a bourbon fan is, of course, bourbon. The possibilities are endless.

The next-best holiday gift for a bourbon fan is a bourbon book, bourbon DVD, or bourbon newsletter from the assortment neatly arrayed for you to the right of this column.

Another original choice is a gift set from Bourbon Barrel Foods, such as the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Vanilla and Bourbon Vanilla Sugar combo, just $16. Bourbon Barrel Foods is a small, artisan food maker in Louisville and their signature is products aged in bourbon barrels. The soy sauce is fabulous.

Working with Woodford Reserve, Bourbon Barrel Foods has developed a spiced cherry bitters and a Sorghum Vinaigrette salad dressing. Both are available from Bourbon Barrel Foods and the bitters ($15) is also available on Woodford's site.

Speaking of Woodford Reserve and food, they're one of the few distilleries with an Executive Chef, and she's a good one: Ouita Michel. On Monday, December 17, you can join Ouita for a virtual cooking and Q&A session. Learn why Woodford Reserve pairs so well with holiday foods as Chef Ouita takes you through the Flavor Wheel and provides you with a few yuletide recipes of her own. The broadcast begins at 8PM EST on

Brown Forman's other bourbon, Old Forester, will send you personalized labels that you can affix to a bottle of Old Forester. The self-stick label says the bottle was specially selected for your gift recipient. Best of all, they're free. The labels, that is. You have to buy the whiskey. You can request up to three different labels. Get them from either Old Forester's web site or Facebook page.

Speaking for free gift cards, here's one you can print out and use with any of the fine gifts available here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Dad's Pearl Harbor Story

On Wednesday, I shared my dad's story about the repeal of Prohibition. Today, it's one of his Pearl Harbor stories.

Sunday, December 7, 1941, dawned bright and clear at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii. At least I assume that it did because it was bright and clear when I got up at about 7:45.

To get breakfast I had to be in the chow line out behind the barracks before 8:00. I made it.

Someone noticed a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of Wheeler Field, the fighter field, south of our location. There were comments and conjecture that the fly boys must be having some kind of exercise and that one of them had cracked up.

At about the same time we noticed a line of planes coming over Kole Kole Pass, which was about three miles northwest of us and in full view because there was nothing in the way. Our barracks was the furthest northwest barracks on the post. As the first plane in the line passed overhead I could not only see the red circle markings on the plane but could see the pilot's face, he came in so low that he cleared the two story barracks by about 5 or 6 feet.

At that point he also started his guns. We never did figure out why he didn't start strafing a few seconds sooner and try to get some of the 30 or 40 guys in the chow line. I have no idea what the second plane in the line did, by the time he got there I was long gone.

We all made for cover, I went into the building via the back door to the kitchen. The kitchen was about 20 feet wide by about 30 feet long. Just inside the back door, to the right, was the walk-in cooler. I hit the floor at the far end of the cooler, putting the cooler between me and the line of fire.

There must have been several planes in the line as the firing kept up for quite a long time--at least it seemed like a long time. After the firing stopped everything was completely silent, there was not a sound. I wondered if I was the only one still alive.

There was a line of preparation tables down the center of the room, with equipment and utensil storage drawers below, and ranges along the far wall at the other end of the room. Looking around I could not see another human being, everyone was obviously hugging the floor. Then I saw a hand rise up, pick up a spatula, turn over two eggs frying on the range, then replace the spatula and again disappear.

Regardless of the circumstances, duty comes first.

I might add at this point that this was the 90th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, a Regular Army outfit.

When it seemed that the attack was over and people started stirring again I grabbed a plate, claimed the eggs, and sat down to eat my breakfast.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Dad's Repeal Day Story

We celebrate the Repeal of Prohibition today, December 5, because on this date in 1933, Pennsylvania and Utah ratified the 21st Amendment, providing enough votes to make the amendment law.

This is my dad’s Repeal Day story, but it didn’t happen on Repeal Day. It happened eight months earlier, on April 7, 1933. On that day it became legal to sell beer in many states, including Missouri, where he lived.

Dad grew up in what today is called the Wells/Goodfellow neighborhood of St. Louis, on Roosevelt Place. He was 13-years-old when these events occurred. (His words follow.)

The Meyers family lived up near Goodfellow Blvd. Their youngest son was a couple years younger than me but we were friends and I spent a lot of time at their house. Mr. Meyers was the acknowledged best home brew maker in the neighborhood, if not the civilized world. He undoubtedly applied the same skill and attention to detail as he did in his job as a tool and die maker. His stuff was far superior to the stuff that we occasionally made in our basement. It was no more illegal for kids to drink heingemake (homebrew) than for adults, so we were allowed to join in the responsible and moderate use of the quaff.

At the Meyers' house, as was common, the beer was bottled in one-fifth gallon bottles and served in an aluminum bucket, from which all partook.

Frank Meyers' system was a seven day process that he would tend to right after work. He would come in the back door, put his lunch bucket on the sink, kiss his wife, then go to the basement for that day's part in the process. After FDR took office, an executive order was issued proclaiming that 3.2% beer was not intoxicating, therefore it did not fall under the restrictions in the 18th amendment. A date was set when this would take effect.

The building at the corner of Clara and Roosevelt (named for Teddy, I might add) was owned by Anheuser-Busch and had been a tavern. It was now Wesling's grocery. Gelhausen's Saloon across the street had never closed. Perhaps they served iced tea and soda pop during the great drought. The lease for Busch's building had a clause that if beer ever became legal again the lease could be terminated. An agreement was reached and an addition was built onto the rear of the grocery and made into a tavern.

You may note that I refer to one establishment as a tavern and the other as a saloon. This is not accidental. Gelhausen's was a dark, bad place with men sitting around. I do not know why, when beer was again legal, that Grandma always had me go to Gelhausen's when she wanted a pitcher of beer. There was a side door at the rear and a separate tap for take-out. It cost a whole dime for a big pitcher of beer.

When "B" day was drawing near, Mr. Meyers finished up the current batch and then started dismantling and packing away his equipment. When the fateful day arrived, most of the men in the neighborhood congregated at Wesling's Tavern. The house was packed and everyone was having a riotous good time.

When Frank Meyers walked in a hush fell over the place and the crowd around the bar parted like the Red Sea to make room for the greatest. He walked up to the bar, Mr. Wesling drew a glass and set it in front of him. He took a sip, then another sip, then pushed the glass away and turned and walked out. It was not the same after that, it was quiet and half the customers left. Obviously, I was not there but my Uncle Russ was and told me about it.

Mr. Meyers went straight home, straight to the basement, unpacked his equipment and started a new batch. Mrs. Meyers kidded later that it was the first time in their forty years of marriage that he had come into the house and started working without kissing her first.

In fairness to Anheuser-Busch, I should add that they were limited to 3.2% alcohol while the Meyers brew ran close to the theoretical maximum for the fermentation process, around 12%.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Excessive Exuberance: The Van Winkle Phenomenon

Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, writes that "Excessive exuberance is the Achilles Heel of social media." It's the Achilles Heel of many things touted on social media too, including the sudden hipness of all things whiskey. Nothing exemplifies this better than the Van Winkle phenomenon.

Because it's end-of-the-year and holiday time, when editorial budgets run out, and your better-paid writers and editors are on their way to a beach somewhere, you're going to see lots of lists: gift ideas, year's best, party tips, and so on. The name of Van Winkle will be on many such lists.

Let's acknowledge right off that the people who most need to read this probably won't, because then they would be informed and most Van Winkle fanatics aren't.

Let's also acknowledge that there are people who have long enjoyed the whiskeys selected and bottled (but not made) by the Van Winkle family. Most of them aren't interested in all the commotion about Van Winkle, and with only a slight twinge of regret are happy to drink something else. That's because they know their way around bourbon and know that the Van Winkle whiskeys, while very good, are not sine qua non.

Here's the history. Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle used to own Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery, makers of Old Fitzgerald and other bourbons. After his death, his heirs couldn't agree on the company's direction, which forced a sale. Pappy's son, JPVW Junior, started a new company using the only brand the family retained in the sale, Old Rip Van Winkle. His son, Julian (JPVW III), continues that business to this day. Assisted by his son and in partnership with the Buffalo Trace Distillery, he sells bourbons at 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23-years-old, and a 13-year-old rye, under various iterations of the Van Winkle brand.

Van Winkle primarily sells bourbon made with wheat instead of rye. That's a minority approach, but not unique. Most of the Van Winkle whiskey is made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, which also makes the W. L. Weller line of wheated bourbons, a former Stitzel-Weller brand.

Van Winkle has always been a very small brand. It was pricey and its extra-aged products were not to everyone's liking. Still, it always had a good reputation among enthusiasts. Then, a few years ago, a few celebrities mentioned they liked it and it started to show up on "best of" lists. Whiskey was suddenly hip and the laziest question a person can ask about whiskey is, "what's the best?" Van Winkle became the default answer and began to be very hard to get. Some retailers and scores of eBay sellers asked absurd prices for it and, in at least a few cases, got them.

Van Winkle is a problem for retailers because there’s so much more demand than supply that people who fancy themselves ‘good customers’ get testy when a store can’t fulfill their Van Winkle desires.

The phenomenon is driven largely by lazy journalists who simply copy what other people write, so everybody who writes about bourbon and desirable high-end bottles winds up writing about Van Winkles. Most of the pieces are written by people who know little or nothing about whiskey. They are ‘life style’ journalists. Their bread and butter is ‘ten best’ lists, which they simply compile from a couple of already published ‘ten best’ lists, so the thing feeds on itself.

Generally, the people clamoring for a Van Winkle are the same as the people behind the lists. They know almost nothing about bourbon. For them, it’s the lazy shortcut route to connoisseurship. They read somewhere that Van Winkle is the best, and since they only buy the best of everything, and they (apparently) have more money than they know what to do with, Van Winkle it must be.

If you actually just want a very good bottle of that type of bourbon (wheated and well-aged), the Weller line is right there for you. The Weller 12-year-old is comparable to all but the 20-23 year-old Van Winkles, and costs about $30 a bottle. It’s in short supply too, though not as crazy as Van Winkle. For that matter, purely in terms of the whiskey, most would be happy with a bottle of Maker's Mark (also a wheated bourbon and about $20 a bottle). If you want something exclusive and high end, the 2010 edition of Parker's Heritage Collection, a 10-year-old barrel proof wheated bourbon, is the peer of any Van Winkle.

If you're a real bourbon enthusiast, you already know this. If you're a typical Van Winkle fanatic, you never will.

Julian Van Winkle (JPVW III) explains the scarcity strategy well. Because there is so much more demand than supply, his cost of selling is about zero. He simply announces how many bottles he has to sell, customers tell him how many they want, he tells them how many they can have, and pretty soon it’s all gone. It's a nice business.

Most stores never put it on the shelf, and they have people on long waiting lists for it. It’s great for Julian but it’s kind of a nuisance for the stores. Yes, they sell every bottle instantly, at a healthy markup, but they have to deal with dozens if not hundreds of unhappy customers.

There are plenty of knowledgeable bourbon enthusiasts who like Van Winkle too (it is genuinely good stuff, just not ambrosia) and wish they could find and afford it, but they’re competing with all the dopes who have to have it because they read something about it in Maxim. It's not worth the trouble.

And now there is one more year-end Van Winkle story.