Thursday, February 28, 2013

Me and Fred (and Fred)

Need a photographer? You won't find a better one than Fred Minnick, who took this picture of me with Fred Noe at Jim Beam in Clermont, Kentucky, two weeks ago. Fred learned how to make things look better than they do as an Army photographer in Iraq. Both Freds are super-nice guys I'm proud to call my friends. Thanks Fred. (And you too, Fred.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Willetts Are Back

During last year's Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I was driving down Loretto Road, leaving Bardstown, and noticed that where the sign for Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) always is, there was a new one that read "Willett Distillery." The ground around the sign looked freshly tilled.

The next day I saw Henry Preiss (formerly of Preiss Imports, which brought A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon to the masses), who I knew was staying with a member of the Willett family. I mentioned that I had seen the new sign. "It looks like they just put it up yesterday," said I. "They did," said he. "I helped."

Because Martha Willett married Even Kulsveen in 1972, the Willetts are now the Kulsveens. Martha and Even's two children, and their daughter's husband, run the company with their father.

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and the Willett Distillery are slightly different entities. KBD has been in business for 30 years, the Willett Distillery has been in business for about one. It is on the same site as the original Willett Distillery, which before that was the Willett family farm. Just outside of Bardstown, it sits across the road from Heaven Hill.

The new distillery is in a new building. The rest of the property looks about like it did when the original distillery stopped operating 30 years ago, although one of the aging warehouses and some of the other buildings have been refurbished. That's all good, because while the new distillery has a unique and very personal style, the rest of the site looks exactly like a typical Kentucky bourbon distillery from the post-Prohibition period.

The new Willett Distillery filled its first barrel of bourbon on January 27, 2012, the 103rd birthday of Thompson Willett, Martha's father, who founded the original Willett Distilling Company in 1937.

Willett is a micro-distillery member of the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) and a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Their still, a copper pot, is larger than what most other Kentucky micros have.

Willett is one of the easiest craft distilleries to visit because it is so close to Heaven Hill and other Bardstown-area whiskey-related attractions. Tours are offered daily.

Another thing Willett has that other micros don't is a sales force with a 30 year track record. KBD, which started as an exporter, is a well-established independent bottler and whiskey broker. Their customer list is a who's-who of non-distiller producers. KBD buys bourbon and rye from distillers, aging some in its own warehouses. It then sells some of that whiskey to its customers, also bottling it for them, and the rest it sells as its own brands, including Old Bardstown, the original Willett Distillery's flagship bourbon. .

There is a lot more to the Willett story, which they tell very well on their fine web site.

Friday, February 22, 2013

RIP Magic Slim, 1937-2013

Bluesman Magic Slim, born Morris Holt, died yesterday at the age of 75, which is like 150 in bluesman years.

Magic Slim got his nickname from 'Magic Sam' Maghett, who came with him from Mississippi to Chicago in the '50s. Sam quickly became a star and Slim played bass in his band. Sam dropped dead from a heart attack in 1969, age 32. Slim switched back to guitar and became a leader. He called his band the Teardrops. Members at various times included his brother, Nick; his son, Shawn; and for 13 years, John Primer.

I saw Magic Slim and the Teardrops perform dozens of times, usually at B.L.U.E.S., Etc., on Belmont, here in Chicago. Slim wasn't always magic and was never slim, but he was never less than rock solid, and occasionally lit up the joint.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Beam Descendants Hope to Revive Historic Yeast

You can't make alcohol without yeast. Yeast also contributes to the flavor of alcoholic beverages. About one-quarter of the flavor in a bourbon or rye comes from the yeast. Before yeast-making was a science, it was an art. In Kentucky, master distillers were master yeast makers too.

Yeast for making whiskey could be propagated, grown from a starter, but that didn't last forever. When your yeast ran out, you had to make a new batch from scratch.

Since yeast isn't so much made as caught, you need bait, your particular yeast mash recipe. Yeast makers also had favorite fishing spots, although Jim Beam famously made his on his back porch. When a captured yeast began to work, the maker would look for certain smells and other cues to judge if it was a keeper.

In honor of the one-year birthday of their micro-distillery Limestone Branch, Beam descendants Steve and Paul Beam will attempt to extract a sample from a yeast storage vessel, known as a dona jug, that was donated to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown by their uncle. “It just depends on if, or how well, my Uncle Walter (Toddy) Beam cleaned out that jug,” said Steve Beam.

The public is welcome to watch. Just come to the Getz Museum next Thursday, 2/28, at about 11:00 AM.

Paul and Steve are descended from Minor Case Beam through his son, Guy. Both were master distillers and yeast makers. Their particular yeast strain has been lost for more than a hundred years. White Labs will analyze the sample and see if it's possible to duplicate the strain.

The next day, March 1 at noon, at their distillery in Lebanon, the Beams will release their first barrel-aged product, MCB Revenge, a sugar shine aged in used bourbon barrels. The brothers will be on hand to sign bottles between noon and five.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

New Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Is Now in Stores

Back in December, we told you about the new Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon. Now the folks at Wild Turkey would like us to mention it again, since it should be appearing in a store near you very soon if it's not there already.

As we told you in December, Russell's Reserve began in 2001 as a Wild Turkey line extension, named in honor of veteran Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. As the brand has evolved, it has looked less like a line extension and more like a brand in its own right.

The folks at Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey, still know their way around vodka (Skyy) a little better than they do bourbon, so they can be forgiven for not realizing that "Small Batch Single Barrel" is redundant. They do know we like high proof (110° proof or 55% ABV) and don't like chill-filtering.

For any Wild Turkey whiskey, 110° is just about barrel proof because they have an unusually low barrel entry proof. The point of high proof whiskey is not that you're supposed to drink it that way (a little water is recommended), but that you're getting something very nearly straight from the barrel and are not paying for extra water. That's why we like high proofs.

We also like label age statements on whiskeys that cost $50 a bottle, but we don't get one here. That's too bad. The other two Russell's Reserve expressions are a 10-year-old bourbon and a 6-year-old rye, and they're more modestly priced. Considering its higher price, the Single Barrel should have one.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Annual Fundraiser Is Uniquely Kentucky

This coming Saturday, February 23, a group of hardcore Kentuckians will gather at Louisville's iconic Seelbach Hilton Hotel to drink Kentucky's whiskey so that Kentucky's Thoroughbreds may retire with dignity.

This will be the 5th annual “Old Friends Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail” dinner and Bourbon-tasting. Tickets are $100 and the hotel is offering a special $119 room rate.

The Bourbon-tasting is put on by the Kentucky Distillers Association. There is also a four-course Bourbon-themed dinner as well as live and silent auctions of exclusive equine artwork, autographed Bourbon items, racing memorabilia, fine jewelry,etc.

Old Friends, which has locations in Georgetown, KY and Greenfield Center, NY, is devoted to providing a dignified retirement to horses whose racing and breeding careers are over. The farms are home to such retired champions as Eclipse winner Sunshine Forever, Breeders’ Cup victor Gulch, Tinners Way (one of the last surviving sons of Secretariat), and Belmont Stakes winner Sarava.

Both whiskey culture and horse culture go back to Kentucky's earliest days, and both have seen many changes but remain dear to born and adopted Kentuckians alike. Built in 1905, the Seelbach is another venerable Kentucky institution.

This is a public event and all are welcome, so it's a great way to immerse yourself in an authentically Kentucky experience.

Reservations can be made by calling the Seelbach’s Jennifer Biesel at (502) 585-9292.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Maker's Mark on Proof Change: "Never Mind"

One week after announcing that it is cutting its proof from 90° to 84°, Maker's Mark and Beam Inc. have decided it was all a bad dream. The people have spoken, the proof cut is off.

I know what you're thinking and, of course, we'll never know for sure, just as we never knew with New Coke.

I was at my neighborhood Jewel-Osco store last night and noticed the Maker's Mark section was pretty bare.

Anyway, here's the spin...I mean, announcement:

"Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) in Maker's Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We're humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker's Mark. While we thought we were doing what's right, this is your brand - and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.

"You spoke. We listened. And we're sincerely sorry we let you down.

"So effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker's Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we've made it since the very beginning.

"The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker's Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you'd even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we'll deal with them as best we can, as we work to expand capacity at the distillery.

"Your trust, loyalty and passion are what's most important. We realize we can't lose sight of that. Thanks for your honesty and for reminding us what makes Maker's Mark, and its fans, so special.

"We'll set about getting back to bottling the handcrafted bourbon that our father/grandfather, Bill Samuels, Sr. created. Same recipe. Same production process. Same product.

"As always, we will continue to let you know first about developments at the distillery. In the meantime please keep telling us what's on your mind and come down and visit us at the distillery. It means a lot to us.

"Sincerely, Rob Samuels & Bill Samuels Jr."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beam to Debut 12-Year-Old Burbon

A few years ago, when bourbon stocks began to tighten, one sign was the disappearance of age statements on the labels of many brands, such as Evan Williams. Most observers predicted that, going forward, age statements would be reserved for only higher end products. Those predictions have proved to be correct.

Recently, Bulliet Bourbon launched a label-stated 10-year-old, at $50 a bottle. Soon Jim Beam will debut a label-stated 12-year-old, at $40 a bottle (and 43% ABV).

When it arrives (the exact date hasn't been announced), it also will represent the debut of the Jim Beam Signature Craft Series. As explained earlier this week by Adam Graber of Beam's Innovation Team, the 12-year-old bourbon will be a permanent part of the series, which also will feature periodic limited editions.

One such will debut along with the 12-year-old, but so far they're keeping it a secret.

Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Years will be the oldest iteration of Beam bourbon ever released, with the exception of the Distiller's Masterpiece Series from many years ago. Jim Beam Black is 8-years-old and Knob Creek, essentially the same whiskey, is 9.

It tastes about as you'd expect, which is like an older brother to Jim Beam Black. That expression uses the claim 'double-aged,' making the 12-year-old 'triple-aged,' if they choose to say so. It's good, well balanced, and not too woody. For many, 10- to 12-years in the sweet spot for bourbons, when they still have all their character from the grains and yeast, before the wood starts to take over. This will be a very welcome addition in that range.

Jim Beam Black, by the way, is a great bargain at about $22 a bottle, and $40 is a good price for a 12-year-old in a fancy bottle. Good for Beam on both counts, for continuing to deliver excellent value.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Some Calm Thoughts About the Maker's Mark Proof Change

Now that we've all had a few days to settle down, a few reflections on the Maker's Mark proof change.

All of the producers have put themselves into a bit of box with the 'nothing ever changes' claim, because when they do change something, they have to hide it or spin it, as Maker's is doing now.

Maker's has never been about a particular proof point. It's not like they ever ran a lot of ads touting 90 as the best proof.

The claim that's it's about 'making sure there's enough to go around,' is a bit insulting. Watering whiskey is an age-old way for the seller to keep more and give the customer less. It's the equivalent of a price increase. Who's kidding who?

It's still Maker's Mark and if you love Maker's Mark, you're cutting off your nose to spite your face if you stop buying it because of this.

They still haven't answered the question about why they didn't avert this by expanding the distillery when they had the chance.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

RIP Truman Cox

The whiskey world woke up to some sad and shocking news this morning. Truman Cox, 44, master distiller at A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia, and formerly chief chemist at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky, died last night after a very brief illness.

Yesterday, we were helping him pick a name for his new dog.

He leaves behind a wife, young daughter, and legions of friends and admirers. Truman was one of the first industry people to participate in online bourbon enthusiast groups. He was simply a great guy, invariably funny and friendly, always ready to answer a question or explain a process, somebody you could always turn to.

Sadly, this is how it goes for all of us, but no matter how many times it happens, it never gets easy to say goodbye to a friend.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why Is Maker's Mark Watering Its Whiskey Instead of Expanding?

The news began to leak yesterday and became official this morning. Effective immediately, Maker's Mark is lowering the alcohol concentration of its standard expression from 45% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) to 42%. (90° proof to 84° proof, if that's how you roll.)

After aging, Maker's comes out of the barrel at about 60% ABV and water is added to bring it down to bottling proof. Maker's will now add a little more water and a little less whiskey to every bottle.

Why? To get more bottles from each barrel. This is necessary, they say, because "demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it." That's nothing new. Maker's has been on allocation for something like 30 years. 'On allocation' means that when customers tell Maker's how much they want, Maker's tells them how much they can have.

So what has changed? "We never imagined that the entire bourbon category would explode as it has over the past few years, nor that demand for Maker’s Mark would grow even faster." The proof cut "will enable us to maintain the same taste profile and increase our limited supply so there is enough Maker’s Mark to go around, while we continue to expand the distillery and increase our production capacity."

The bottom line, for them, is that lowering the proof doesn't change the taste, and nothing else about the unique way Maker's Mark is made has changed. "In other words, we’ve made sure we didn’t screw up your whisky," said the letter co-signed by Rob and Bill Samuels.

They've taste-tested it, they say, and no one can tell the difference.

That may be, but there is no denying the simple fact that they have cheapened the product without lowering the price, so consumers will get a little less of what they paid for and Maker's (i.e., Beam Inc.) will make more money.

They're not talking about that, of course, but there's an even bigger story they're not talking about either. They claim they are expanding the distillery and increasing capacity, but are they?

In 2005, Beam (then called Fortune) teamed up with Pernod Ricard to buy and dismantle Allied-Domeq, which owned Maker's Mark. Maker's was the prize Beam wanted most.

Just months before the Allied sale was announced, Maker's announced a plan to expand the distillery's capacity by about 50%. In 1996, Maker's had doubled its capacity by creating an exact duplicate of the original distillery, right next to the original. The plan was to build a third identical plant there too.

Maker's announced the plan and Allied was ready to pull the trigger when it was acquired instead. It took several months for the transfer of Maker's to Beam to occur. Maker's said they assumed it would take Beam some time to evaluate everything, but since the expansion plan was ready to go and the brand was growing steadily, it seemed like a no-brainer. Once it had all of its ducks in a row, Beam surely would go forward with the planned expansion.

In 2008, Kevin Smith, who was then Master Distiller at Maker's, talked to me at length about the expansion plan for an article that ran in issue 72 of WHISKY Magazine. "My job is to guard the brand and make it the same way it's been made since 1954," said Smith. He explained that infrastructure improvements had been completed, such as raising the dam on the distillery's spring-fed lake to provide additional water.

As Smith explained it, Maker's Mark was the fastest-growing bourbon in the United States, with 2007 sales of 800,000 cases. The current distillery could support up to 1.5 million cases, the expansion would bring that to 2.2 million. The concern then was that, at the then-current rate of growth, they would hit 2.2 million in about 2016, and water source limitations would prevent them from growing further.

Yet here we are in 2013, and construction of the third distillery has not occurred. Asked this morning when construction on it would begin, Rob Samuels said he didn't know, but thought it would be soon.

So how did Beam let themselves get so far behind the curve on this? Since 2008, they have expanded visitor capacity, but not production capacity.

Did they really get blind-sided? Bourbons in the same price class as Maker's have seen strong growth for the last decade or so (hence Allied's expansion plan), but it has shifted into another gear in the last two or three years. One reason has been triple-digit growth in many non-U.S. markets. Rob Samuels says that wasn't a factor and Maker's export business is small and "strategic," but here's an interesting fact.

In Australia, Maker's Mark is 40% ABV (80° proof).

Friday, February 8, 2013

Here's a Whiskey Angle on the 2012 DISCUS Report

Each year at about this time, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) takes over the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan for its annual state of the industry presentation.

DISCUS is a trade association. Its members are most of the major distilled spirits companies that do business in the United States. DISCUS does those things the industry needs to do, and is allowed to do, collectively; such as lobbying and promotion, both here and in foreign markets.

The ‘news’ announced on this occasion is widely reported in the business and general media.

Here at The Chuck Cowdery Blog, we mostly care about the whiskey parts.

In the United States, Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey (BTW) continued to be the best-selling whiskey category, outpacing other domestic whiskeys, as well as imported whiskeys by category.

BTW logged almost 17 million cases in 2012, edging out Canadian whisky at 16 million. The BTW category was up 5.2% from 2011. Sales of the two higher-priced segments of BTW, representing bottles (750ml) that sell for more than $18 at retail, were about 54% of the total.

It’s a sign of robust good health when most of your sales come from your most profitable lines.

The highest price segment, super-premiums (>$30/bottle), was up 12.4%. As good as the super-premium BTW segment looks, compare it to single malt scotch, up 13%; and Irish whiskey, up 22.5%.

Exports were another bright spot. The 2012 value of distilled spirits exports set a new record, at $1.5 billion, led by American whiskey (68% of export volume).

The top three export markets are the other three English-speakers; Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The value of US spirits exports to Canada, our best customer, grew 212% last year. Most of the rest goes to the EU, starting with Germany. Japan comes in sixth, Mexico comes in ninth, but grew by 358% last year.

New trade agreements account for much of the growth.

Finally, the growth of craft distilleries in the US was cited as a trend. The number of distilled spirits plants bottling fewer than 100 thousand gallons annually more than doubled between 2010 and 2012; as did their sales volume, from 700 thousand cases to 1.2 million. That's about 1/2 of 1% of total US spirits sales.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is a Doozy

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, we issue the final report on the GBS Project.

What, you ask, is the GBS Project?

'GBS' is the Georgia Bourbon Society. Last year, a member of that esteemed body discovered a cache of rare bourbon in a small store in South Carolina. Generously, he shared some with fellow bourbon enthusiasts, who generally found it rich and delicious.

From there a plan evolved to submit it for analysis by experts, to wit, current and retired master distillers. In tribute to the whiskey's discoverer, it was dubbed the GBS Project.

The whiskey, pictured here, is Fairfax County Bourbon, which was made at the original A. Smith Bowman Distillery, then located in Sunset Hills, Fairfax County, Virginia (today's Reston). It was distilled in the spring of 1971 and bottled in the fall of 1976.

Seven distillers participated. Two sent the samples to their distillery's lab for analysis.

The results? For that you need to read the current issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which is now on its way to current subscribers. In this issue, we also conclude Chris Middleton's two-part story about Tennessee whiskey.

Not a subscriber? No problem. You can easily become one. It's just $20 and if you act now, your subscription will begin with the current issue, containing the GBS Project report. Click here to get started.

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 (this one is a little late). 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.)