Monday, April 29, 2013

Maker's Mark to Allocate 1.75 L Size

There has been a rumor going around that Maker's Mark, due to its tight supplies, is discontinuing every size except the 750 ml and 1 L. That seemed preposterous on its face, but since the shortage that fostered the ill-fated proof cut in February hasn't gone away, something might be behind the story.

Here's the scoop.

Maker's Mark is dealing with the shortage by limiting availability of the 1.75 L size. The 1.75 L size will be on strict allocation. The pipeline may run dry and stores may run out. At least for now, that should allow them to fill most orders for the other sizes.

This move hasn't been widely publicized but it is known within the industry, though as a rumor it got a bit distorted as rumors often do.

Today's two posts are related in that consumers in 2012 were buying whiskey barreled in 2007 and earlier, before the current growth spurt--first seen in 2010--took off. The record volume of bourbon being barreled now means producers expect (i.e., hope) that bourbon will still be booming in 2017 and beyond.

Kentucky Bourbon Makers Fill 1,000,000 Barrels in 2012, First Time in 40 Years

For the first time since 1973, Kentucky’s distilleries filled one million barrels in 2012, further proof that the industry is enjoying a historic renaissance not seen in decades. “This is an incredible milestone that’s been 40 years in the making,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA). “Our legendary distilleries are posting landmark production levels, investing millions in new facilities and experiencing double-digit growth in sales."

The KDA announced today that there were 1,007,703 barrels filled in 2012, the most since 1973. Just since 1999, Bourbon production has increased more than 120 percent, thanks in large part to the growing global demand for premium small batch and single barrel bourbons, and the rebirth of “cocktail culture,” Gregory said.

Today, more than 4.9 million barrels are gently aging in Kentucky's warehouses, the most since 1977. Last year, more than 500,000 people visited the KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries, the first time the world-renowned tourism destination has broken the half-million mark.

The KDA is a non-profit trade association founded in 1880. It is the state’s leading voice on spirits issues. Its members produce 90 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey and have invested more than $230 million in new facilities, equipment and tourism centers in the last two years alone. Heritage 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; Barrel House Distilling Co.; Corsair Artisan Distillery; Limestone Branch Distillery; MB Roland Distillery; The Old Pogue Distillery; Silver Trail Distillery; and Willett Distillery. The Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville is an educational distillery member.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What's in a Name? If It's "Tennessee Whiskey," a Lot

Chapter fifteen in my book, Bourbon, Straight, is about Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. The chapter title is, "The Elephant in the Room."

Why? Because the best-selling bourbon in the world isn't a bourbon, which tends to set off a cascade of confusion and misinformation. Jim Beam is correct when it claims to be the world's best selling bourbon, even though Jack Daniel's sells more, because Daniel's does not claim to be bourbon, preferring instead the classification 'Tennessee whiskey.'

And yet Jack Daniel's adheres to all the rules for bourbon-making, the rules binding Jim Beam and the rest of the bourbons, every single one of them. Why then isn't it labeled as bourbon?

Because it doesn't want to be.

About 70 years ago, the federal regulators said that was okay, but they did it in the form of a letter. Since they did not write it into the rules, there is no universal legally-binding definition of Tennessee whiskey. Today, the principal federal regulator is the Tax and Trade Bureau of the Treasury Department (TTB). All it requires is that claims of geographic origin must be true, so Tennessee whiskey must be made in Tennessee and, of course, it must be whiskey. That's all TTB cares about.

The Office of the U. S. Trade Representative recently tried to fill the gap. In treaties where the U.S. seeks protection for the terms 'bourbon' and 'Tennessee whiskey,' it has defined Tennessee whiskey as "straight bourbon whiskey made in Tennessee."

Does that  prevent someone from making corn whiskey in Tennessee, and calling it 'Tennessee whiskey'? Corn whiskey doesn't have to be aged. It's what many people call 'legal moonshine.' If it's whiskey made in Tennessee, TTB is satisfied. It's inconsistent with the treaty definition, but what can the Trade Representative do? Their job is to make sure other countries don't abuse the term. They have no power in Tennessee.

The Tennessee legislature, most likely at the prodding of a certain big contributor to the Tennessee economy, has decided to step in and protect the integrity of its state spirit. A new law expected to take effect in June will define Tennessee whiskey as, essentially, bourbon that has been filtered through maple charcoal before aging.

This is a good idea. It's good because it gives the term 'Tennessee whiskey' a meaning it would not otherwise have, a meaning consistent with the public's understanding of the term, and there isn't any Tennessee whiskey product that would not benefit from some charcoal filtering.

Phil Prichard, a Tennessee micro-distiller who has been making an unfiltered Tennessee whiskey, was given an exemption.

The law simply requires that the spirit be "filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging." It doesn't require the whole process JD uses. It doesn't say how much charcoal or for how long, so it shouldn't be prohibitive for small producers. They don't have to do it if they don't want to, they just can't call their product 'Tennessee whiskey' unless they do.

A more onerous requirement is the one about aging. Consistent with the TTB definition of bourbon, the Tennessee law requires that Tennessee whiskey must be "aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee." Here again, it doesn't say for how long, and such aging can only help, but new barrels cost money.

The new law has teeth because the penalty for violation is a one-year suspension of the distiller's state distilling permit.

So the feds will prevent 'Tennessee whiskey' from being made outside of Tennessee, and Tennessee law will take care of producers within its jurisdiction.

Without this law, Tennessee whiskey simply means whiskey made in Tennessee. It does not, as it should, define a unique regional whiskey style. Micros in the state have been exploiting this loophole. The new law also prevents a Tennessee producer from buying bulk whiskey made outside of Tennessee, bottling it in Tennessee, and claiming that as 'Tennessee whiskey' merely because it was bottled in the state.

The new law covers the terms 'Tennessee Whiskey' and 'Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey,' whether 'whiskey' is spelled with or without the 'e.' Will the law apply if the producer makes a corn whiskey and wants to call it 'Tennessee Corn Whiskey'? That remains to be seen.

Just like the TTB's rule, this law doesn't tell any distiller what they can make or sell, it just regulates what they can call it. This is good for big producers who already comply with the law, of course, but it will be good too for any micro who chooses to make Tennessee whiskey according to the new rule.

Friday, April 19, 2013

How Illegal Is It to Collect Whiskey?

It's been just a week since the Bourbon Exchange on Facebook was announced. It has had a lively debut, with lots of people joining and posting, and already a couple of changes brought on by legal concerns.

There can be no doubt that it is against the law to sell alcohol without a license, but what people want to know is it against the law like jaywalking is against the law, or like robbing liquor stores is against the law.

To give a good, lawyerly answer: it depends.

For the most part, laws regarding the possession, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages are entirely up to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency to enforce. They have their own enforcement arms, their own investigators. Infractions of the ABC's rules are not crimes as far as the police are concerned. Police don't get involved unless the ABC asks for their help.

Someone operating an unlicensed bar or selling liquor out of the back of a minivan, or a licensed retailer selling to minors, that's what they care about. Nobody is looking to bust collectors, especially if their activity is entirely non-commercial.

That doesn't make trading, buying, and selling legal, it's still illegal, but if you're doing a deal now and then, the truth is that nobody is out there looking for you.

Inspector Javert doesn't care.

What constitutes non-commercial? I know people who have hundreds of bottles in their collections. In some instances, they have cases of specific products that are now considered rare and valuable. Most didn't think they were developing an inventory, they were following a personal passion, but now they have cases of something they bought for $50 a bottle that people are paying $500 for.

This happens in other kinds of collecting too, from stamps to automobiles. Someone who knows the market better than the average collector can make out by doing better deals. They might be able to make a living at it. They might get rich.

It depends.

As you can see, this isn't a simple matter.

Most collectors of most things engage in some buying and selling, sometimes in the form of trading. The object is to use pieces you don't need or care less about to obtain pieces you must have and care desperately about. This is a normal part of the collecting experience, millions of people do it, but if the thing you collect contains potable alcohol, that activity is prohibited by law.

Each state ABC is independent, answerable to its state legislature. Each state's laws are a little different. Each ABC has its own policies and priorities, and they don't exactly announce in advance what aspects of their laws they intend to enforce with vigor.

But if they post their enforcement actions online, you won't find among them, "Caught Suspect X trying to trade two 2006 Sazerac 18s and a 2009 Stagg for a 2007 Pappy Van 23."

As for the Facebook Bourbon Exchange, there probably isn't very much a state ABC can do about a page like that if it wants to and there is no reason to believe anyone wants to. It's also hard to imagine the ATF or TTB getting involved. It's not inconceivable, just unlikely.

At the most, some ABCs may be keeping an eye on the phenomenon to see if it develops into anything they need to concern themselves with.

What they care about is when they suspect (as happened in Tennessee with a Jack Daniel's collector site a couple of years ago) that the supposedly altruistic fellow running the thing is actually making money hand over fist. When a lot of money seems to be changing hands and no taxes are being collected, that's when government agencies pay attention, and call in the state police to help.

This isn't legal advice, it's legal information. Unfortunately, we have a situation where a lot of people want to do something, they don't see anything wrong (i.e., harmful) with what they want to do, but there is no way for them to do it legally. If the state alcohol regulators get interested, or if whiskey collecting grows in popularity to the point where they have to, let's hope that instead of treating it like a criminal problem, they look instead for ways to make this innocent hobby legal in all respects, so whiskey collectors finally can emerge from the shadows.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What About the Maker's Mark Origin Story?

In the early days of Maker's Mark, when Bill Samuels Junior was telling all those great stories about his parents and how Maker's Mark began, he always did it with his tongue firmly placed in his cheek. Samuels Junior officially retired last year and while he doesn't seem to be slowing down, Maker's Mark will have to get by with less of his unique personal style going forward. As he recedes and parent company Beam Inc exerts more control, the new storytellers need to be careful not to take themselves too seriously.

Which brings us to the Maker's Mark origin story and the part about Bill Samuels Senior, bored in his early retirement, discovering the virtues of wheat while baking bread.

The story is an allegory, in which characters and events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. In this case, the idea is that as rye bread differs from regular (i.e., wheat) bread, so rye-recipe bourbon differs from Maker's Mark.

This does not mean Bill Samuels Senior 'discovered' wheated bourbon. He did not. His friend, 'Pappy' Van Winkle, had been making wheated bourbon at his Stitzel-Weller Distillery since the 1930s, decades before Samuels started to think about re-entering the whiskey business.

Van Winkle didn't invent wheated bourbon either. His recipe came from the Stitzel family. They and many other distillers had used wheat in bourbon recipes over the years. It was nothing new.

What Samuels Senior did was decide to make a wheated recipe instead of the more common rye recipe, because he thought it tasted better. That was just one of many bold decisions he made on the way to creating his unique bourbon whiskey.

See, the factually true story is every bit as good as the allegorical one.

The difference between the two recipes is not so much about substituting wheat for rye as it is about simply removing the rye and letting the corn and oak sweetness take center stage. Wheat, compared to rye, has a mild and slightly nutty flavor, whereas rye is very fruity, spicy and earthy.

None of this is meant to say that you can't have fun, especially if you like to bake, messing around with the constituent grains of bourbon. The obvious thing would be to make a loaf that is 75 percent corn flour, 15 percent wheat flour, and 10 percent barley flour (roughly the Maker's Mark mash bill) and another one that is 15 percent rye instead of wheat.

Unfortunately, they probably wouldn't have enough gluten to rise and hold together, but you get the idea. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Something Awesome Is Happening in Oregon

Unless you are in or a frequent visitor to the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably never heard of McMenamin’s, and certainly not their Edgefield Distillery. Yet it is quite possible that Edgefield has made some of the best whiskey of the young craft distillery era.

A few years back, a four-year-old Edgefield rye won gold at the annual American Distilling Institute (ADI) competition. According to the distiller who accepted the award, Booker Noe (Jim Beam’s grandson, himself a legendary whiskey-maker) helped them with the recipe. It was superb. Asked if, when, and how it would be sold, they answered, “It won’t be. We kind of drank it all.”

Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin started with a pub back in 1974. Today, McMenamins is a chain of resort hotels, restaurants, bars, music venues, golf courses, movie theaters, and probably a few other endeavors. They brew beer, distill spirits, and vint wine. They grow a lot of the food they serve in their restaurants and grow the grapes from which their wines are made. They’re way into preventing waste and promoting energy savings and efficiency.

The distillery was established in 1998. It is part of Edgefield, a 100-year-old historic McMenamin's resort hotel, located about 20 miles outside of Portland.

Last month, at their annual St. Patrick’s Day blowout, they released a whiskey called Devil’s Bit, made from malted wheat and barley, and aged for twelve years. It is heart-breakingly good, clearly recognizable as malt whiskey, yet different from anything you’ve ever tasted before. The nose alone is a revelation. They could sell it by the sniff.

If you want to become a distiller, and make great whiskey, get thee to Troutdale, Oregon. If you just want to taste what the craft distillery movement can become, same advice.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Is Southern Comfort, Anyway?

Southern Comfort, 'SoCo' to many, traces its origins to New Orleans in 1874. My personal history with the product, like most people, began when I was shy of legal drinking age and it ended badly.

In adulthood, Southern Comfort became part of my job. Brown-Forman bought Southern Comfort (the whole company, not just the brand) in 1979. I was working for a Brown-Forman marketing agency and was part of the team that brought the brand into the Brown-Forman fold. I worked on it for the next six years. Among other things, I wrote all of the Southern Comfort Recipe Books during that period. They distributed about 10 million of them four times a year, so that's probably the most widely circulated work of mine.

Part of the strategy Brown-Forman inherited from the previous owner was to position Southern Comfort as if it were a whiskey, even though it was clearly labeled as a liqueur. It was the right color and proof (50% ABV then), and maybe tasted a little like bourbon, if you only vaguely knew what bourbon tasted like.

Sales people were encouraged to place it in the whiskey section of liquor stores and with other whiskeys on back bars. Many of the cocktail recipes we repeated from recipe book to recipe book were whiskey recipes, in which Southern Comfort was substituted for whiskey. We always said you could substitute it for any whiskey, but it most closely resembled bourbon.

One of the best cocktails was the Comfort Dry Manhattan, not that any drink made with Southern Comfort can truly be considered dry. It consists of 1 jigger (1½ oz.) of Southern Comfort and ½ oz. dry vermouth. Pour the ingredients over ice in a short glass; stir, and add olive(s) or a twist of lemon. That's how they published it but olives, I can tell you, are terrible in it. Cherries are okay. The lemon twist also good.

So what is Southern Comfort? When Brown-Forman acquired the company in 1979, it was a 100% grain neutral spirit (GNS) base, i.e., vodka. A few years after my tenure, they reformulated it to contain a little bit of bourbon, I guess so they could call it a whiskey liqueur, rather than just a liqueur.

Apparently, although no one will give me the details, they reverted back to 100% GNS a few years after that and that's what it is now.

The ingredients are mixed together and bottled at Brown-Forman in Louisville. The GNS comes from some GNS supplier like MGP or ADM, the fruit concentrate (mostly apricot) is made at a Brown-Forman facility in Puerto Rico, and the final ingredient is sugar.

I remember being in the room one time when they were bottling it. It goes through a filtration system and after a while, the filter module looks like a honey comb, with sugar syrup oozing out of it at every opportunity. SoCo is very sweet.

I didn't come up with the 'SoCo' nickname. That was after my time. My most noteworthy accomplishment was being the first to use "Comfort and Joy" as a Christmas-theme headline for the brand.

If you know your American whiskey history, compound or 'fake' whiskeys were a big problem pre-Prohibition. You might want to consider Southern Comfort as history's most successful compound or 'fake' whiskey. They didn't call it whiskey, of course. They called it "The Grand Old Drink of the South." They (we) just implied that it was whiskey.

Another funny thing about Southern Comfort, it never sold that well in the South. When I was working on the brand, its #1 state was New Jersey.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bourbon Exchange on Facebook Hopes to Make Collecting Easier

People collect things. There is someone who collects just about anything you can imagine. There are people who collect distilled spirits such as whiskey, but they face challenges other collectors do not.

Their hobby is illegal.

It is against the law everywhere in the U.S. to sell alcohol without a license. If you do it anyway, you're probably breaking both federal and state laws. Some states, such as Tennessee, have limits on how much alcohol a person may possess.

These laws were not intended to discourage collecting and they are rarely enforced against legitimate collectors who trade, or buy and sell, alcoholic beverages, but they could be. Every so often, such as when Maker's Mark bottle collectors started to use newspaper classified ads to buy and sell, the local Alcoholic Beverage Control board (ABC) will issue a warning.

So it's hard out there for a whiskey collector.

Maybe social media can help.

That's the hope of John Scott Bull, who just this week launched The Bourbon Exchange on Facebook.

Bull's page is non-commercial, but he is himself a frustrated collector. The idea is simplicity itself. People with something to sell can post pictures. People interested in buying something can post their wants. Everyone can view the site and contact each other via messaging. It's up to the buyer and seller to negotiate terms, navigate the legalities, and assume all risk. Unlike an auction site such as eBay, the Exchange plays no role in the transaction and, of course, receives no compensation.

"It's just a hobby," says Bull.

It's a Facebook Group page, so you have to join the group to participate. Bull says he's approving everyone. Since it's social media, the hope is that people will develop relationships and build up a network of fellow collectors whom they trust, and who share their interests.

The pitfalls of something like this are obvious. Let's see how it goes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Group, the American Craft Distillers Association, Is Announced

The existence of the new American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) was announced on Tuesday, from Denver, Colorado, just four days after the conclusion of the American Distilling Institute's (ADI) annual conference in that same city.

In Tuesday's announcement, Rory Donovan, interim president of ACDA, explained that ACDA was formed "of, by, and for licensed craft distillers" in order to "promote and protect craft distilling in the United States."

It noted that craft distilling is a phenomenon that is sweeping the country. With more than 320 distilleries in existence and more on the way, products run the full gamut from brandy to bourbon, and all are gaining popularity with mixologists, restaurants, and consumers around the country.

According to Penn Jensen, ACDA executive director, "Our focus will be on brand building, public outreach, and legislative action on national and state levels to support the entrepreneur craft distillers everywhere in the U.S."

Officers and directors of the new organization are: President Rory Donovan, Peach Street Distillery; Vice President Ted Huber, Starlight Distillery; Secretary/Treasurer Brett Joyce, Rogue Brewing and Distilling; Ralph Erenzo, Tuthilltown Distillery; Lee Medoff, Bull Run Distillery; Tom Potter, NY Distilling Co.; Chip Tate, Balcones Distillery; Rick Wasmund, Copper Fox Distillery; Andrew Weber, Corsair Distillery; and (Ex Officio) David Pickerell, Oakview Consulting.  

The ACDA website is

The elephant in the room, of course, is the aforementioned ADI, which would seem to occupy most of the same space ACDA is claiming for itself. Penn Jensen, ACDA's new executive director, just retired from a similar position at ADI. Many of the new organization's directors have been active in ADI, some since its formation ten years ago. Huber Distillery, represented by ACDA Vice President Ted Huber, has been the site of many past ADI conferences. Unless the two groups differentiate, there's probably no need for both of them. The marketplace will decide who survives.

If you've read this far expecting to get the inside skinny, you're about to be disappointed. All will be revealed in the fullness of time, perhaps.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The McCormick Distillery in Better Days

Looks like Kentucky, doesn't it? But it's not, it's Missouri, near Weston, northwest of Kansas City. It's an old picture postcard, sent to me by a reader. Here's what the back says: "McCORMICK DISTILLING COMPANY. Here in the rolling hills near Weston, Missouri, 'The Town That Time Forgot', historic McCORMICK DISTILLING COMPANY, the Oldest Operating Distillery in America, was founded in 1856.

Then -- as now -- pure natural limestone springwater was used exclusively in production of McCORMICK BOURBON and PLATTE VALLEY CORN WHISKEY. The Ancient Cave -- build in 1839 -- was used for ageing barrelled whiskey."

They lost their 'oldest operating' title when they stopped operating decades ago, but it was dubious to begin with. The company still exists, though, as a small, regional bottler and rectifier. Today their most popular product is Tequila Rose, a combination of strawberry-flavored cream liqueur and tequila.

McCormick does have a rich history. During Prohibition, it was controlled by Tom Pendergast, the legendary political boss of Kansas City and most of western Missouri. It never stopped making and selling whiskey. Pendergast also had interests in some Kentucky distilleries during and after the drought.

One of McCormick's claims to fame is as creator of the Elvis Presley ceramic decanters, which contained McCormick bourbon of course. Many of the decanters included a music box that played a Presley hit.

Whiskey distilleries never went much further west than Weston because the railroads did and because there is no point building a bourbon distillery unless there's corn and water around. The railroads sent whiskey west and brought beef cattle east.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Long Does It Take to Make Good Bourbon?

"How Long Does It Take to Make Good Bourbon?" he asked with the innocence of youth.

Little did he know what a slug fest asking that question can ignite. Since the micro-distiller age has dawned, much of the discussion on that question has been bullshit. This is an attempt to answer it honestly and equitably in the context of our times.

Most micro-distillers are faced with a dilemma. They rarely have enough capital, or patience, to put their product away for four years or more, so they try to come up with ways to make it drinkable at a younger age. If they tell you it's the product they want to make and not a financial decision, they are lying. If it's not money it's petulance. They just don't want to wait so long.

So we have small barrels, spirals, vacuum pumps, finishes, and rationales that remind one of the fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes." And we have a lot of very hot, harsh, white-doggy spirits.

But it's not all bullshit. Some producers have tried to solve the problem thoughtfully and stylistically, remembering that the first rule of beverage making is: "Don't try to pass off disgusting crap with a good story. Make something that, first and foremost, tastes good."

At this, some have been more successful than others, but no product has been completely satisfying. Still, it's a worthy quest and none of them have been at it for very long. They will get better. They probably hurt themselves when they call their product 'bourbon' or 'rye whiskey,' if the taste and character one usually associates with those styles are nowhere to be found.

Which brings us back to the original question: "How Long Does It Take to Make Good Bourbon?" Let's assume that by "good bourbon," the questioner means the drink most whiskey drinkers would recognize as "good bourbon." The wisdom of the families and companies who have been making bourbon for a long time--several centuries in some cases--is that in a climate similar to Kentucky, it takes a minimum of four years in new charred wood to make something you would like to drink.

There are a few three-year-olds out there from the major distilleries, and they pretty much prove the point.

And four years, in itself, is a short cut compared to the minimum ten to twelve years it takes in chilly Scotland or Ireland. The short cut Americans came up with is the new, charred oak barrel, emphasis on 'new.' That innovation was a different and shorter route to deliciousness, but it made a different style of whiskey, as did our use of corn and rye instead of barley malt. We call that style 'bourbon.' 'Tennessee whiskey' is what Tennessee producers call the same style.

In a way, American rye whiskey should be called 'rye bourbon,' since it is whiskey made in the bourbon style but with rye as the dominant grain rather than corn. Wheat whiskey could probably be called 'wheat bourbon,' using the same logic. That's because, under U.S. rules, mash bill is the only variable. All require the new, charred oak barrel.

But that's just by way of making a point. No one is proposing that nomenclature.

If you're worried about all of those used-once barrels going into land fills, they don't. They go to Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica. You get the idea.

Looked at in that broad historical context, you can say today's micro-distillers are working on their own new style of whiskey, something that's tasty after less than four years in wood, and frequently much less. It's a work in progress. Some are trying to do it the old-fashioned way, although few have anything on the market that's more than two years old.

Eventually, though, they will. And through experimentation the younger products will get better too. Either that, or there will be a lot of second-hand stills for sale.

So, again, back to the question. Traditionally, in Kentucky and Tennessee, the consensus is that four years is the minimum, five to six is better, eight to ten is optimum, and beyond ten you're again getting into a different, wood-heavy style, which is risky but can be superb.

Monday, April 8, 2013

More About Sazerac

The chief architect of present day Sazerac Company is President and CEO Mark Brown. He had some follow-ups to Thursday's post.

Although Sazerac doesn't belong to DISCUS or KDA, it is a member of The Presidents’ Forum of the Beverage Alcohol Industry, a trade association made up of U.S. beverage alcohol company CEOs. Brown estimates that Presidents' Forum members account for 35 to 40 percent of U.S. distilled spirits volume. Vicky McDowell, former Deputy Administrator of the TTB, is Executive Director.

The Forum doesn't have a web site but it appears to represent its member companies primarily on regulatory issues, which is part of what DISCUS does as well.

Regarding the absence of Ten High and others from the Great Bourbon list, Brown pointed out that Great Bourbon was not meant to be all inclusive. The full list of Sazerac products is on the Sazerac site.

They're still trying to figure out whether or not to put their ryes on the Great Bourbon site.

Brown has been a fun presence on the bourbon scene. He's the kind of guy who will drive from Frankfort to Cincinnati to show up at a small, private gathering of bourbon enthusiasts, just to see what we think of something they're working on at the distillery. He's very accessible and open, to a point, but when he doesn't want to tell you something he doesn't dissemble, he just says "I'm not going to tell you that."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Buffalo Trace Takes Experimentation to New Level with Warehouse X

Buffalo Trace Distillery broke ground Friday on an experimental barrel warehouse that will allow the distillery to take its quest for the “perfect bourbon” even further.

Named Warehouse X, this warehouse is the first new building Buffalo Trace has added to its 130 acre complex in more than 60 years.  Comprised of brick, concrete block, and skylights, it is no ordinary barrel warehouse. With a small footprint of only 30 feet by 50 feet, Warehouse X will have a capacity of around 150 barrels.

Its most compelling feature, however, is four independently operating chambers that will allow specific variables to be tested, in order to determine their effect on aging barrels. There will also be a barrel breezeway with an open air rick, underneath a roof, that will allow a small number of barrels to age while being exposed to the natural elements.

The first four variables Buffalo Trace plans to experiment with are natural light, temperature, airflow, and humidity. Warehouse X will test one variable at a time. For example, the first experiment will focus on the effect of natural light for at least two years. Each chamber will have varying degrees of light, ranging from 100% natural light to complete darkness.

After the natural light experiment is concluded, a new experiment will start on temperature, and then studies will start on the effects of humidity, and so on.

Warehouse X is projected to be finished by August 2013, but everyone can track the progress and view pictures of the construction through a blog updated frequently:

Upon completion, visitors to Buffalo Trace Distillery will be able to walk around Warehouse X and learn about the current experiment occurring inside. “It’s no secret that we’re on the hunt to find the Holy Grail of bourbon,” said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller. “By building this experimental warehouse, we’ll be able to keep a tight control on the variables that affect the barrel aging process and can make changes along the way to the aging environment that will hopefully allow us to one day come up with the perfect bourbon.”

The whiskeys aged inside Warehouse X will be bottled under the Experimental Collection line. It will be a minimum of eight years after the warehouse is completed before any whiskey will be bottled from Warehouse X.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Beam Launches $200 Bourbon; Everything Is Not for Everyone

A robust American whiskey industry, which we all want, means there will be products for certain audiences, whether they be people who like cherry-flavored whiskey, or people who can and care to spend $200 or more for a bottle of bourbon.

It's a big tent. Not everything is for everyone.

On Wednesday, Beam announced that it will release on Kentucky Derby Day (Saturday, May 4) a new edition of Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece. It is an extra-aged Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, barrel-finished in Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherry casks, and bottled at 50% ABV (100° proof). It will be sold only at the distillery gift shop in Clermont, Kentucky. The price is $200 a bottle.

If $200 sounds like a lot for a bottle of whiskey, even if it does come in a wood box, consider that Heaven Hill has a bottle of 23-year-old Evan Williams it sells only at its gift shop for $300. It comes in a leather bag.

And Kentucky has some catching up to do. Last week The Macallan (that's a single malt scotch) announced their latest expression, a single cask whisky aged in American Oak for 22 years, sold in a package with a bombproof flask for $1,500. Yes, bombproof.

Has whiskey loss due to bombs become a problem?

For a measly $200, Beam won't even tell you how old the whiskey is ('extra-aged' tells you zip) nor how limited the edition is (The Macallan 22 is 550 bottles), although they imply that if you're not there bright and early on May 4, you won't get one.

This is actually the third release in the Distiller's Masterpiece series, but it's been more than 10 years since the first two came out.

If you are a person of more modest means, you might want to hold out for the Jim Beam Signature Craft Series 12-year-old bourbon, finished in the same new American Oak barrel it was born in, which should be coming out soon for about $40 a bottle. And that cherry-flavored stuff costs about $20. Something for everyone.

If you're interested in the new Distiller's Masterpiece, go to the American Stillhouse website for more information. The gift shop opens at 9:00 AM on Saturdays, which gives you plenty of time to buy your bottle and get to Churchill Downs in time for the Kentucky Derby.

Friday, April 5, 2013

More About MGP

In bourbon country, it's rare for a distillery to launch a new recipe, so to launch six at once--as MGP will do this month--is unprecedented. How do you do it? Here is an explanation from Don Coffey, Ph.D., MGP’s Vice President of Research, Development and Innovation.

"MGP’s development of the new mash bills was initiated in response to customer interest combined with our desire to provide a broader selection of specially-made premium whiskeys and bourbons," said Dr. Coffey. The announcement earlier this week, that MGP will begin to make six new mash bills at its Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery, is the first new products announcement since MGP bought the distillery in 2011. "This expanded portfolio of product offerings enables our customers to further distinguish their brands while satisfying a growing diversity of consumer preferences and tastes," said Coffey.

The development phase required planning and teamwork among various personnel and departments, including research, development and innovation, sales and marketing, operations, sourcing and logistics, and the master distiller in Lawrenceburg, Greg Metze.

"In preparation for actual production runs, and to make certain the mash bills possessed the distinct qualities being sought, each was piloted and thoroughly checked in a laboratory setting," Dr. Coffey explained. "Scale-ups are planned to occur throughout April. However, production of the six mash bill additions will not be launched simultaneously, but are scheduled at different intervals during the month."

They have already started, with the new rye whiskey made from 51% rye and 49% barley malt.

"At this time, precise dates and the order of preference have not been assigned to production scale-ups for the remaining five mash bill formulations," said Coffey. "To make this determination requires that a number of variables, including maintaining optimum production scheduling efficiencies for all of our products, undergo thorough consideration so as not to disrupt operations as a whole, as well as our ability to effectively and consistently supply ongoing customer needs."

MGP, which sells no brands of its own, makes distilled spirits for a wide range of customers, from Diageo (the world's largest drinks company) to many of today's new micro-producers. In addition to whiskey, MGP is the largest gin producer in the U.S., and also makes vodka.

And here's a note about MGP of Indiana's two current bourbons, which they universally refer to as "25% bourbon" and "40% bourbon." Turns out, that's not the rye percentage, it's the total percentage of small grains, i.e., the percentage of the mash bill that's not corn. The mashbill for the 25% bourbon is 75/21/4 and the mashbill for the 40% bourbon is 60/36/4. I regret any confusion this may have caused and I hope they do too. (It's a weird way to state it.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sazerac Company Is A World Unto Itself

Sazerac Company, often synonymous with its main distillery, Buffalo Trace, is one of the largest bourbon and rye producers in the country. Due to its size and independence, it is almost like an entirely separate Kentucky whiskey industry.

This is because Sazerac is not a member of the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA). Consequently, its two Kentucky distilleries and other facilities are not part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Tour, which is a KDA enterprise and registered trademark.

Nor is Sazerac a member of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the national trade association for the American distilled spirits industry. Asked why, Sazerac says it feels it can spend that money better on itself by itself. Sazerac is privately owned, by the Goldring family, and has additional facilities in New Orleans (where it began) and other U.S. cities.

Sazerac is not completely anti-social. It participated side-by-side with many of its KDA counterparts at the Bourbon Classic in Louisville on March 22nd and 23rd. It typically participates in events such as WhiskyFest and WhiskyLive. The company, its distilleries, and its products have won countless awards. The Buffalo Trace Distillery especially is beloved by serious bourbon enthusiasts for its in-depth tours and products such as the Antique Collection, Experimental Collection, Single Oak Project, and White Dog series.

In addition to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Sazerac has the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown. Both distilleries welcome visitors. In addition, Buffalo Trace frequently holds concerts and other events. In Owensboro, the company has whiskey maturation warehouses and a bottling house at the site of the old Glenmore Distillery. Although Glenmore does not now offer tours, the company has said it may in the future. Bottling is also done at Frankfort and Bardstown. Sazerac also operates A. Smith Bowman, a micro-distillery in Virginia, that welcomes visitors.

Buffalo Trace is a bourbon as well as a distillery, a very good bourbon. The name Barton 1792 incorporates the names of two of the best known bourbons from the Bardstown distillery, Very Old Barton and Ridgemont Reserve 1972, which are also terrific bourbons.

At Buffalo Trace, Sazerac produces several rye-recipe bourbons, using a separate recipe, for Age International, which owns several brands and shares U.S. sales and marketing responsibilities with Sazerac. The Age brands include Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Hancock Reserve, and Ancient Age.

Sazerac also produces the iconic Van Winkle line in conjunction with Julian P. Van Winkle III and his son, Preston Van Winkle.

Other major brands, if any Sazerac brand can be called major, include W. L. Weller, Old Charter, E. H. Taylor, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, and Kentucky Tavern.

And all that is just the beginning. Sazerac makes a staggering number of different whiskey brands, plus vodka, gin, liqueurs, and bitters. It imports and sells Canadian whisky, scotch, and other spirits and wines. Most of its brands are not household names, but cumulatively it's a lot of business. As a private company, they don't release sales statistics, so it's hard to tell how successful they are, but they keep expanding so they must be doing something right.

One of the ways Buffalo Trace is unusual is their marketing. They don't do very much of it, at least in terms of traditional media advertising. They have several web sites, Facebook pages, and other online activities. Most notable is Great Bourbons, a catch-all site that at least covers most of the company's bourbons. The website was recently updated and upgraded. If you're not quite sure who actually makes your favorite American whiskey, check it out.

As long a list as that is, it's not everything. Ten High is missing, so are all of the blends and (surprisingly) all of the ryes. Perhaps there is a 'Great Ryes' site in the works.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

MGP Adds Six New Whiskey Recipes to Lawrenceburg Distillery's Portfolio

In the current issue of The Bourbon Country Reader (Vol 15 No 2), MGP Vice President of Alcohol Sales and Marketing David Dykstra talks about his company's future plans for whiskey production at Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In that interview, he says they are "developing new mash bill formulations of rye, wheat and other grains that we expect to introduce to the marketplace in the coming years."

Six of them were announced yesterday and will begin production this month.

They are:
  • Two new rye whiskeys, one made from 51% rye and 49% barley malt, and the other made with 51% rye, 45% corn and 4% barley malt.

  • A 95% wheat whiskey.

  • A 100% barley malt whiskey.

  • Two new bourbons, one produced with 45% wheat, and the other produced with 49% barley malt.
Currently, MGP of Indiana makes a very popular 95% rye whiskey, and two rye-recipe bourbons that contain 40% rye and 25% rye, respectively. They also make corn whiskey.

“The incorporation of these additional mash bills in our product offerings is driven by our commitment and ability to satisfy a growing and diversified mix of customer needs,” said Dykstra. “It enables us to provide those we serve with a wider, more distinctive selection of world-class beverage alcohol options. Furthermore, it reflects our ongoing focus on innovation while also demonstrating our capabilities to produce customized formulations.”

Development of the new mash bills was initiated by the company’s beverage alcohol sales team, with collaboration from MGP’s research, development and innovation group and Greg Metze, master distiller at the Lawrenceburg facility.

According to Dykstra, the company’s new wheat whiskey and wheat bourbon “will be among some of the more unique products of their type” in the marketplace. “The popularity of wheat-based spirits, mainly in the white goods category, has grown in recent years,” he said. “We expect this to favorably impact demand for products in the brown goods category, as well, and want to be firmly positioned to help our customers in the branded packaged goods arena meet that demand.”

Dykstra says the company’s new rye whiskey produced from 51% rye and 49% barley malt is expected to deliver a deeper flavor than traditional rye whiskey, resulting in opportunities for customers to establish and market novel brands that possess a distinctly satisfying point of difference. 

Additional details regarding each of the recently developed mash bills, along with MGP’s custom formulation capabilities and complete lines of premium whiskeys, bourbons, grain neutral spirits (i.e., vodka) and distilled gins, are available at the company’s booth at the American Distilling Institute (ADI) Spirits Conference and Expo in Denver through April 4 of this week.

Information can also be obtained by accessing the company’s website.

The former Seagram's Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, was acquired by MGP in 2011. Previously known as LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana), the distillery has been supplying whiskey to non-distiller producers since about 2005. MGP is a leading independent supplier of premium spirits, offering flavor innovations and custom distillery blends to the beverage alcohol industry. The company also produces high quality food grade industrial alcohol and formulates grain-based starches and proteins into nutritional and highly functional ingredients for the branded consumer packaged goods industry. The company is headquartered in Atchison, Kansas.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Correction: Eagle Rare Single Barrel Is Still 10-Years-Old

In the current issue of The Bourbon County Reader (Vol 15 No 2), I write that Eagle Rare was 10-years-old and is now NAS (no age statement). This is incorrect. I meant to observe (in the story "Cheapening of Legacy Products Represents a Long Term Trend" on p. 4) that a few years ago, Eagle Rare was repositioned by Sazerac. They upgraded the bottle, raised the price, made it single barrel, and cut the proof from 101° to 90°, but it remained and still is age-stated at 10-years-old.

The article points out that not all changes to legacy products are in the down direction. The Eagle Rare change was some of each. The bottle and single-barrel switch were upgrades, but the proof cut was a downgrade.

We regret the error.

Eagle Rare Single Barrel is a terrific bourbon and an excellent value at about $30.