Friday, May 31, 2013

Squeezing the Barrel, and the Public Purse

Yesterday was goodie day at the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA), where several well-known small-government conservative Republican distillery owners and wanna-bees lined up with their hands out. Toyota was the greatest beneficiary of taxpayer largesse ($145 million), but several bourbon companies also got a taste.

Among them was Maker’s Mark, which got $100,000 in incentives to support its $8.2 million plan to “extract additional gallons” from its barrels by introducing “a state-of-the-art rinse process” in a new facility at the distillery, according to the Courier-Journal.

Angel’s Envy, through one of its many cross-owned affiliate companies, won approval for as much as $800,000 in incentives for up to 10 years, and also $72,000 in state sales tax rebates, according to Business First.

Previously approved incentives for Michter’s and Wild Turkey were extended.

From Maker's Mark we get squeezing but from Angel's Envy, all we get is teasing.

According to its KEDFA filing, Angel's Envy estimates that within its first three years of operation, it will make a total investment of $10 million in building materials and capital equipment. The project is expected to create 40 new jobs with an average hourly wage of $25 and a total estimated payroll of $1.5 million. The proposed distillery will include a column still, bottling line, grain-handling equipment, and barrel storage, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.

The Herald Leader spoke to Chris Poynter, spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who would not name a specific site but said that the city and the state have been talking to Angel's Envy about a project that would be part distillery and part visitors center for the Main/Market corridor in what is historically Louisville's Whiskey Row area, now under redevelopment.

Angel’s Envy has been teasing the distillery project for about three years, with company representatives typically saying they expect to make an announcement "soon" or in "30 to 60 days." They did it again a week ago and, as of today, have missed yet another of their own deadlines. A Louisville architecture firm has proclaimed itself the winner in a competition to design the new facility, but the company remains silent about its intentions.

Last week, a published rumor identified the site as the old Vermont American factory on Main Street opposite Louisville Slugger Field.

The Hendersons are well-liked and everyone is pulling for them, but fans need to curb their enthusiasm. Remember Willett/KBD? They resumed distilling about a year ago, but only after 20 years of promising it would happen "soon." No one wants Angel’s Envy to become the next "Distillery That Cried ‘Wolf.’"

In related news, Poynter also told the Herald Leader that there are more whiskey attractions on the way for Louisville. "We have most of the major distilleries looking at some sort of presence in downtown,” he said.

Maker's Mark has not given details about its 'new process,' beyond the KEDFA filing, but parent company Beam Inc. has been squeezing Jim Beam barrels for a few years now to produce its Devil's Cut bourbon.

Distillers have always rinsed barrels to get a little more whiskey out. Jack Daniel's was the first to take it further. Several years ago, they built a facility where they take freshly dumped barrels, fill them about 1/3 full with water, then store them for about two weeks before dumping them again. Beam took it a little further by heating the water and using a device like a paint mixer to shake the barrels. This probably accomplishes the same thing storing does for Daniel's, without the huge warehouse Daniel's had to build just for its 'super rinse' operation.

Obviously, the amount of additional alcohol extracted more than justifies the expense.

When asked if the Beam process makes the barrels less desirable for the scotch makers who get them next, Fred Noe replied, "I don't really give a fuck what scotch makers think."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Modest Proposal for Solving the NDP 'problem'

The quotes around 'problem' in the headline above are there to signify that there is nothing wrong with NDP whiskey per se. We've had a lively discussion beneath Sunday's post about non-distiller producer (NDP) whiskeys. Here's a recap, and a modest proposal.

As some of the comments note, NDPs have always been part of the business. In fact, they were the business before Prohibition. Prior to 1920, it was NDPs (then called rectifiers) who owned and marketed most whiskey brands, not the distilleries. Although this began to shift after Prohibition, NDP brands were still common in the modern era. Wild Turkey, which began in 1940, was originally an NDP brand. They only bought their distillery in 1971.

Today, most American-made whiskey is sold by the same company that distills, ages, and bottles it. All of the major brands you know and love -- Wild Turkey, Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Maker's Mark -- are distillery-produced. Although you won't find the words 'Heaven Hill Distilleries' on a bottle of Evan Williams bourbon, it's well known that Heaven Hill is the producer. Distilleries using assumed business names aren't the problem.

The 'problem' comes when companies fudge about the source of their whiskey, or about how much of a hand they really had in making the product. Most won't tell a provable lie, but they will go to great lengths to create a false impression, with a goal of deceiving the consumer and appearing to be something they are not. Rather than quibble about who should or should not be on that list, because every faker fakes differently, let's just agree that many producers are coy about this subject, hence the high intensity of feeling in many of the comments about Sunday's post.

This problem is particularly acute among small producers, because it's a crime when people who work so hard to establish a distillery and make a good product have to compete against Potemkins. Some have proposed that the U.S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) should require distiller disclosure on product labels, but the TTB has a hard enough time doing the job it already has. More stringent source labeling would be opposed by almost everyone in the industry, for different reasons, and who really wants the Federal government all up in the liquor business any more than it already is?

Hence this modest proposal. The industry has several voluntary trade associations: the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA), the American Distilling Institute (ADI), and the newly formed American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA), to name a few. Several universities, such as Michigan State, have distilling programs. One of those entities, or a new one established for this purpose, could create a certification program. It would establish criteria, and a monitoring and enforcement system, and award certifications to producers who apply and meet the requirements. It would all be voluntary and funded by the participants. Then it is up to the participants to promote and support it, to imbue it with sufficient credibility so that concerned consumers will learn to look for and trust that designation.

This has worked for many product categories, from 'organic' to 'kosher,' with the consumer deciding how important the designation is, and with no role for the government whatsoever.

Somebody just needs to do it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Quest for 'The Best,' and Other Myths

When someone hears you know something about bourbon, their next question usually is, "what's the best bourbon?"

"No best there is," says Whiskey Yoda. "Only like what you do."

Whiskey Yoda is right. Bourbon styles aren't as diverse as scotch styles, but they do vary. Some people like a lot of wood, while some prefer a balance of grain, yeast, and barrel. Some appreciate the spice and earthiness of rye, others drink wheaters to avoid it.

Some bourbons are clearly better than others. The cheap stuff on the bottom shelf is there for a reason. People buy them and they know why, but bourbon is a flavorful drink and most people prefer good flavor over bad, though it's hard to say what the objective criteria are. Should bourbon burn a little going down? Some say no, but some say yes.

Being able to drink whatever pleases us, regardless of what someone else thinks, is why we live in America, right?

Most readers of this space enjoy the search for a bourbon or rye that rises above the rest, but even when they find one they keep looking. "My favorite bourbon is the one I haven't tasted yet." The pleasure for them is in the hunt. Most veteran whiskey drinkers like some products better than others but most won't even entertain the 'best' question. They shrug it off with, "well, what I like is ..." or even, "well, what I'm drinking right now is ..."

The craziness that Van Winkle has become is driven by this rumor that it's the best bourbon. Lots of half-assed publications whose editors know nothing about bourbon and bourbon drinkers have published '10 Best' lists with Van Winkle at the top. It's the laziest form of journalism and, consequently, the laziest form of connoisseurship.

If you want to choose your next whiskey from a list, use this one.

The Van Winkle line, if you consider it as whiskey and not as Elysian nectar, has a wood-forward profile. You know that's going to be the case when you see age statements that start at 10 years and go up to 23. In another era, such long aging was considered bourbon abuse. The Van Winkles are genuinely remarkable for being beautifully balanced even for their advanced age, not that most of the people trolling for Van Winkles know or care about that. They just want to get their hands on 'the best' so they can proudly display it on their back bar while muttering something about Anthony Bourdain.

Bourbon is very popular right now so many people feel they need to serve or drink it. They don't want to invest any time or energy in learning anything about it, they just don't want to make a mistake and be embarrassed (you know, like when Robert Parker said Old Bardstown reminded him of Van Winkle 23), so they look for cover from an 'authority.' That's just human nature and will always be so.

But of you, young one, Whiskey Yoda expects better.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Rational Way to Regard NDP Whiskeys

NDP is short for 'non-distiller producer.' The designation is self-explanatory. Some producers make what they sell, starting with the raw materials of grains, water, yeast, and charred oak barrels. They mill, cook, ferment, distill, age, and ultimately bottle the product, put one of their own names on it, and sell it through their own distribution channels.

Other producers buy aged whiskey in bulk from one of the distillers, either directly or indirectly through a broker. Then they bottle and market it. Those are NDPs.

You can't tell distillers from NDPs by reading the product label. You more-or-less have to know. This isn't as hard as it sounds because the number of distillers is small, especially if you exclude micro-distillers (who rarely sell in bulk). Virtually all of America's whiskey is made at 13 distilleries owned by eight companies. All of the NDP whiskey is made by those producers too.

Most distillers market their whiskey under multiple names. Some produce a handful of brands, others dozens, but they're not a secret. Some make a couple of different recipes and matching recipes to brands takes a little more research but that's not a secret either. The companies are usually upfront about it on their web sites.

The Maker's Mark Distillery, which is owned by Beam Inc., makes Maker's Mark bourbon and nothing else, no other brands. The Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve, and George Dickel distilleries likewise make only their namesake brands in a couple of different expressions. Everybody else makes multiple brands. Jim Beam, for example, makes Jim Beam bourbon and Jim Beam Rye, but also Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's, Basil Hayden's, Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, Old Overholt, and a couple more.

MGP of Indiana is included among the distiller producers, although they make no brands of their own. However, most of the NDPs who use MGP whiskey identify it as the source.

That brings us to the NDPs who keep the source or sources of their whiskey a deep, dark secret. Templeton Rye, for instance, would like you to think its product is made at a little distillery in Templeton, Iowa, when it's actually made at a great big distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

Templeton is not unique. Some other NDPs you may know are Michter's, KBD (Willett), Black Maple Hill, Whistle Pig, Jefferson's, Pogue, and Angel's Envy. They make nothing themselves. Because most of their products are quite good, there is always a lot of speculation about who made this or that expression.

You are of course free to buy whatever you want and equally free to speculate about the provenance but consider this: why do business with someone who makes you play stupid guessing games about the basic question of who made their product?

"Because I like it and don't care who made it," is a fair answer.

There used to be a lot of bulk whiskey around that was made by closed distilleries, but virtually all of that juice is gone. All of the NDP whiskey you get today was made at one of those 13 distilleries by one of those eight companies. With the exception of MGP, it was made by someone who also sells that same whiskey (more-or-less) under their own names. When a distillery makes a bulk whiskey sale, do you think they deliver their best whiskey? Of course not, their best whiskey goes into the products they put their name on.

NDPs are secretive because they want you to believe they made the product themselves and some go to great lengths to create that illusion. They rarely lie but will spin like dervishes. When pressed, they claim they're contractually prevented from revealing their sources. Maybe they are, or maybe that's just a convenient excuse to continue the deception.

Look at it this way. You can get plenty of good whiskey from companies that don't try to deceive you at every turn. Do business with them.

ADDED A FEW HOURS LATER: Here's a good example of how NDPs hurt themselves with their dissembling. After this went up, a poster in a discussion group where I linked to it took great offense at it. She felt I was insulting her friends who work for the companies I named. She got very upset with me and called me many names, but who do you think she'll be mad at if she eventually learns that everything I wrote is true and what they told her is a big load of crap? And she's a bar manager, their customer.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Mark Brown on the Bourbon Shortage

Here is more detail about the bourbon shortage discussed here on Wednesday, courtesy of Sazerac President Mark Brown. (Sazerac owns the Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 distilleries.)

On pricing: "Costs have been increasing for energy and raw materials like corn," says Brown. "Any price increases we are implementing, or contemplating, are primarily tied to recovering those cost increases, as opposed to changing any brand’s position."

On brands: "Each and every brand has a specific sales forecast out through its product age plus several years and therefore has its own allocation of whiskey," says Brown. That means for, let's say Eagle Rare Single Barrel, a 10-year-old, that they have allocated existing whiskey stocks based on meeting sales forecasts for 10+ years. If actual sales exceed the forecast in any of those years, shortages could occur, but since forecasts and inventory allocations are periodically adjusted based on actual sales, adjustments to production are made the only place they can be, in the current year.

On staffing: "We are actually ahead of the curve since we anticipate the need to manage sales, allocations and stocks increasing more so in a year’s time from now," said Brown in response to comments here and elsewhere that Buffalo Trace should have hired its new inventory manager sooner.

On the press release itself: "We felt it was time to explain why folks are already seeing gaps on the shelves (i.e. Weller 12) and from our vantage point why those gaps will be occurring on various brands for some time to come," says Brown. "We have had extensive debates about what to do about the supply / demand imbalance and our conclusion is that the best thing to do is stay the course with each brand’s position in the market and spread the available supplies out as evenly as we can."

It should be noted that this is an issue throughout the entire whiskey industry. Sazerac is now on-the-record as to how it intends to deal with the matter. If any other producers decide to weigh in on the subject, you'll read about it here.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rumor Mill Identifies Site of Long-Rumored Angel's Envy Distillery

Last summer, part of the former Vermont American Corp. complex in downtown Louisville was razed to make way for the downtown portion of the Ohio River Bridges Project. At the time, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear announced that the remainder of the complex would be redeveloped and that negotiations with a prospective developer were underway.

The site is just south of Louisville Slugger Field, home of the Louisville Bats, a minor league (AAA) baseball affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. It is at the easternmost end of the Whiskey Row district that Louisville has been trying to revive.

The Vermont American property has been vacant for decades. The site is heavily contaminated. Vermont American's parent company, Robert Bosch Tool Corp., has agreed to pay for environmental cleanup of the grounds and courtyard.

Meanwhile, Louisville Distilling Company has been talking about opening a distillery in downtown Louisville since before it launched its Angel's Envy brand two years ago. The bourbon whiskey for Angel's Envy is made by an undisclosed distillery, then finished in port casks by Louisville Distilling. The company is owned by Chicago entrepreneur Mark Bushala but Lincoln Henderson, former master distiller at Brown-Forman, is responsible for the whiskey. His son, Wes, and grandson, Kyle, run the day-to-day operation.

Rumors swirling around Louisville are now connecting Louisville Distilling to the Vermont American site. A few blocks west, Heaven Hill is nearing completion of its Evan Williams Experience and another non-distiller producer, Michter's, is trying to develop another old building into a micro-distillery and brand homeplace.

Earlier this week, the rumors gained credence by being reported at Insider Louisville. Asked about the rumors, Kyle Henderson did not confirm the Vermont American site but did announce which Louisville architects won the redevelopment job. He also hinted that an official announcement about the company's future plans would be made by the end of the month. Other sources at Angel's Envy/Louisville Distilling are making no effort to distance themselves from the rumors.

The Angel's Envy brand is doing well and doesn't need the buzz, but the distillery project has increasingly seemed like a pipedream. Since several recently announced new distilleries, including Michter's, have failed to materialize, the Hendersons need to manage expectations.

Even if the location is announced next week, realization of the distillery dream is still a long way off. Environmental remediation of the site has yet to begin. Construction will take about a year. Finally, the distillery equipment will need to be built, installed, and tested.

Louisville's Vendome Copper and Brass, which is nearby, will no doubt make the equipment. Vendome recently increased its estimated time from order to delivery to nine months.

Assuming distillation begins by the end of 2014, an optimistic projection, nothing will be ready to sell before 2019. It's also not known what Louisville Distilling intends in terms of scale. Will it be a small, demonstration distillery like Evan Williams is planning, or large enough to allow the company to stop relying on bulk whiskey purchases? Transitioning a bulk-based brand to home made has never been accomplished but if anyone can do it, Lincoln Henderson can.

Louisville city boosters praise the idea of a craft distillery on the Vermont American site because it will provide another tourism-friendly business across from the ballpark, as well as anchoring the Whiskey Row redevelopment with a whiskey-oriented attraction. Coincidentally, the western end of Whiskey Row is anchored by the Louisville Slugger Museum. The Michter's site is right across the street.

The recently-opened Yum Center arena is also on Main Street, in the approximate center of the redevelopment area, which is also adjacent to the Ohio River. During Louisville's recent Kentucky Derby festivities, Angel's Envy hosted a temporary 'pop-up' bar close to the Vermont American property at 400 E. Main. The neighborhood recently has become home to several popular new bars and restaurants.

We should know more in a week or so.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Whiskey Shortage Is So Bad, Buffalo Trace Has Issued a Press Release

Whiskey stocks have been tight for the last decade or so, but there has been no shortage of rumors about brands or expressions being discontinued, prices being raised, or products being degraded through reductions in alcohol content or age.

The problem is a simple one. Quantities needed for sale in 2013 were predicted in 2009 or earlier. Most of the bourbon being distilled today won't be available for sale until at least 2017. No one predicted that the current bourbon boom would shift into another gear about three years ago. It's a nice problem to have compared with the alternative, but it can be difficult to manage, as Maker's Mark showed in February with the proof cut fiasco.

The problem is so acute that Buffalo Trace Distillery (owned by Sazerac), no doubt in response to a barrage of inquiries from retailers and consumers, today felt compelled to issue a press release acknowledging the problem.

Despite our producing more every year, it says, demand continues to outpace supply.

“We are making more bourbon every day," says Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director at Buffalo Trace. "Our warehouses are filling up with new barrels. Waiting for the bourbon to come of age is the hard part. While we wait, there could be temporary product shortages, even on favorites like Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare.”

Although the press release doesn't mention it specifically, Weller 12 has already experienced localized out-of-stock conditions. The entire Van Winkle line, which is produced by Buffalo Trace, has become scarce to the point of absurdity. Buffalo Trace predicts that fans of its other leading brands such as Blanton's, Buffalo Trace, and Eagle Rare may soon be greeted by bare shelves.

Comstock wants you to know that Buffalo Trace is committed to quality. "We won’t take drastic measures to mitigate the shortages, such as raising prices excessively, lowering the proof or reducing the age of our whiskies,” says Comstock. And any shortages will be temporary.

The only news in the release is that Buffalo Trace will add to its staff someone dedicated to watching and balancing bourbon inventory with sales.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Feel Free to Buy Something

You probably come here for the content in this column, but it's the stuff in the column to the right that supports it. There are books, such as Bourbon, Straight and The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste. There's the newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. And there's also the one-hour documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky."

The reason these are being brought to your attention today is that there have been some changes made that will interest you dear readers who reside outside the United States. The prices for all of these items, for delivery outside the USA, have been recalculated in light of postage rate changes but also due to the way we now manage our e-commerce. While the prices of some items have gone up, a few have gone down. For instance, the price for subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader sent to non-U.S. addresses has gone down, from $28.50 USD, to $25.00 USD, only $5 more than the domestic price.

Again, these changes are only for delivery outside the USA. Domestic prices haven't changed, although they probably will have to the next time postage rates are increased.

Here are a few tips for saving money. Some of these apply to domestic shoppers too. Both books and the DVD are available from Amazon. Because they often will be shipping from inside your country, their prices may be lower for you shoppers outside the U.S. Also, sometimes Amazon does deals and sells below the prices here.

Another way to save money is via Amazon Sellers. This only applies to Bourbon, Straight, but we always have some books that are slightly damaged (and we do mean slightly) available through our Amazon Sellers store at a reduced price. Look for Made and Bottled in Kentucky as the shop name.

Please note that books bought through this web site can be signed by the author, if you wish, at no additional cost. Look for a fill-in space on the order form that says "inscription." Please write exactly how you would like the book inscribed. Please remember that it's the author signing the book, not you. He can't write "All my love, Mom," although he might be willing to write something like "your mother sends her love."

Another suggestion for saving money on the books, especially for The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste, is the e-book option. The e-book edition of Best Bourbon costs about a third of what the print version does. Both books are available for either Kindle or Nook. You can use a Kindle book on virtually any platform (i.e., i-book for Apple devices) except Nook, and you can use a Nook book on virtually any platform except Kindle.

For newsletter subscribers who want to renew their subscription, there is no separate 'renewal' button. Just use the standard "subscribe now" button. If you want to write 'renewal' in the special instructions box, that's helpful, but we will recognize the name and address of a current subscriber. If you want to renew for more than one year, just buy two subscriptions, although in that case an instruction is helpful, so we know you didn't just subscribe twice by accident (it happens).

Thank you for accommodating this advertising message. We try to keep this sort of thing to a minimum and we hope you appreciate that we don't clutter up the page with Google Ads or other advertising. We appreciate your support.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Standards-of-Identity Brain Teaser

Riddle me this, Batman. When is whiskey not whiskey?

Arguably, when it's sorghum whiskey.

Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey is a product of the Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, Wisconsin. The rules say whiskey is "an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain." The U.S. Grains Council describes Sorghum bicolor, the species in question, as the "fifth most important cereal crop grown in the world."

So no problem, right? Sorghum is a cereal, i.e., a grain, so sorghum spirit is whiskey. The Federal regulators obviously agree, because Old Sugar got its label approved and is selling the product now. 

But Old Sugar's product, like other distilled spirits made from sorghum, is not made from the plant's seeds--as is the case with whiskeys made from corn, barley, wheat, rye, etc.--but rather from a sweet liquid derived by squeezing the plant's stalk, much like sugar cane.

Sugar cane, it should be noted, is also a grass, like corn and the other cereals, but spirits made from its sugary juice are classified as rum, not whiskey. Phil Prichard, he of the Tennessee distillery that bears his name, has argued that sorghum spirit should be classified as rum. Unfortunately, the rule for rum is explicit. The source must be sugar cane.

But since the sorghum plant's seeds are not used to make sorghum spirit, it's clearly not made from "a fermented mash of grain," and so shouldn't be classified as whiskey either.

Old Sugar follows the rules. Their sorghum whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels. It's not clear if those barrels are single-use, as required for bourbon, et al, but let's assume they are. It certainly is a legitimate distilled spirits product, but is it whiskey?

All spirits made from grain go through a process in which enzymes are used to convert grain starches into sugar, so fermentation can take place. Sorghum juice is sugar already, like cane, and so doesn't go through that process. The resulting liquor tastes more rum-like than whiskey-like, so someone expecting whiskey characteristics might be disappointed.

So, what do you think? The Batputer fried its circuits on this one.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Louisville's Evan Williams Bourbon Experience Joins the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Today, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure barreled into River City, as Heaven Hill's new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience became the eighth stop on that world-famous journey, and the first ever in Louisville.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer made the announcement at the downtown site on historic Whiskey Row where Heaven Hill is building its multi-million dollar artisanal distillery and immersive tourism experience, scheduled to open this fall. (Pictured here in an architectural rendering.)

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week,” Fischer said. “This is a huge step to enhance the city’s Bourbon tourism efforts."

Heaven Hill executives and other leaders of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program in 1999, gave Fischer a commemorative barrel filled with whiskey from all eight distillery stops to mark the occasion.

“Today starts a great new tourism partnership for our signature industry and the city of Louisville that will pay benefits for years to come,” said Max L. Shapira, President of Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc., the largest independent family owned and operated distilled spirits company in the United States.

“The skyrocketing success of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour has been amazing,” he said. “It is a world-class and much-celebrated attraction, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, all eager to spend and savor our unique Bourbon history.”

More than 2.5 million people have visited Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries in the last five years, including a record 509,292 in 2012, said KDA President Eric Gregory. That was the first time the tour broke the half-million mark in a single year.

Gregory called Louisville "a Kentucky Bourbon Trail anchor.” As Kentucky's largest city and business capital, Louisville has much to offer bourbon-oriented visitors. For years, it has offered its Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of bars deemed hospitable to bourbon seekers. Earlier this year, it debuted "The Bourbon Classic," which is slated to become Louisville's annual bourbon festival. Louisville has many other visitor attractions, such as the Louisville Slugger Museum and Muhammad Ali Center, many great lodging choices, and a dynamic culinary scene.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, located at 528 West Main Street, may mark the beginning of a trend of brand welcome centers based in downtown Louisville. The Main Street neighborhood itself is historic for bourbon fans. Evan Williams' original 1783 distillery was located almost directly across the street from the new visitor attraction and that whole section of Main Street housed dozens of whiskey company offices and warehouses through the late 19th century.

The 'Experience' will offer guided tours where guests will travel back in time to see Evan Williams’ original distillery, Louisville town hall meetings, and wharf scenes and video renderings of turn-of-the-century Whiskey Row. The highlight will be a fully functioning artisanal pot still distillery, with gleaming copper pot stills that are a modern version of the same type of equipment Evan Williams used in his distillery more than 200 years ago.

One of the signature features is the fa├žade of the building (pictured above). The five-story-high Evan Williams Bourbon bottle graphic will transform into a large, glass, flowing Bourbon fountain in the lobby. “We’re confident that this new attraction will continue the revitalization of Whiskey Row and bring the same kind of success that we’ve been fortunate to receive with our Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown,” said Harry J. Shapira, Executive Vice President for Heaven Hill.

Marcheta Sparrow, Secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program is “perhaps the most innovative and best example of private sector tourism development Kentucky has ever experienced."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

God-Like, Robert Parker Conquers (His Word) Bourbon in One Fell Swoop

When you read wine guru Robert Parker's review of 29 bourbons and one rye, as posted by David Driscoll in Spirits Journal, you may wonder if it's not a wicked parody by David. It's not, or maybe it is, but the author is Parker, not Driscoll.

Naturally, people who write about bourbon more than once in a lifetime are not amused. "Scotch and Ice Cream" took the first swat. That was picked up and amplified upon by Clay Risen, he of the New York Times and with a new encyclopedic bourbon book on the way, who quickly posted, "Robert Parker and the Douche-ification of Bourbon."

For all true bourbonians, a sly smirk is probably the best response to all of this. No real harm is being done. Can the Van Winkle line get any more unobtainiumable?

And there is plenty in the review at which to smirk. Parker is a taster and his tasting notes are fine, perhaps even valuable, and generally on the mark. Famous for his 100-point rating system, he is also the prime underminer of same. His lowest score, for Hudson Baby Bourbon, which he describes as tasting "somewhat diluted, simple and harsh" and "over-matched by everything around it," is 82.

It's not a 100-point scale unless you use all 100 points. Here Parker uses an 18-point scale. That's worth a grin.

He also does not appear to know nor care that it's insane to compare Hudson Baby Bourbon to Pappy Van Winkle 23 just because they both have the word "bourbon" on the label. Would he compare a Pinot Noir to a Sauterne? Not without at least noting their inherent differences first.

He also doesn't care much for Woodford Reserve. It's the only Brown-Forman product he tasted. The only Beam product he tasted was Maker's 46. Each got 88 points. Heaven Hill did a little better. They got two on the list, Parker's Heritage Collection 2012 Mashbill Blend (92 points) and Evan Williams 23-year-old (95 points).

Products of the three largest producers of American whiskey only merited four places on a list of 30, according to Parker the Conqueror.

Let's go around the horn to the other distilleries. Four Roses, two; Wild Turkey, none; Barton 1792, none; George Dickel, none; Buffalo Trace, 11 (including Van Winkle and A. Smith Bowman).

Predictably, Parker's loves him some Van Winkle. The 20 gets a 95. The 23 gets 100. Yes, Pappy 23-year-old is the perfect bourbon, sez Robert Parker.

The rest? A couple micro-distilleries and a lot of non-distiller producers. Seven places on the list are taken by direct or indirect products from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, which brokered and bottled the whiskeys reviewed, but made none of them.

Parker seems oblivious to the distinction. He does not, he says, know much about Black Maple Hill, except that it "comes from the Black Maple Hill Distilling Co. in Bardstown, KY," which he apparently does not know is an entirely fictional distillery.

And he gives it a 96, one of his highest scores.

Perhaps it's appropriate that Parker loves the product of a fictional distillery, since he freely admits that his foray into bourbon was inspired by his enjoyment of the TV series, "Justified," which is set in Kentucky and whose characters drink improbable amounts of Van Winkle bourbon.

We can only hope Robert Parker doesn't become enamored of "The Walking Dead" next.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

How Craft Is the New Jim Beam Signature Craft Series?

About 20 years ago, Jim Beam came out with a bourbon called Jacob’s Well, named for family patriarch Jacob Beam and the spring at his first Kentucky distillery. In advertising, they said it was, "the First Micro-Distilled Bourbon."

It wasn't.

Jacob’s Well Bourbon was made in the same big stills at Jim Beam as white label and everything else. Maybe you could call it ‘micro-bottled,’ because they never sold very much of it, but calling it ‘micro-distilled’ wasn't just an adroit turn of phrase, it was a lie. They could, conceivably, have made it on a small still, but they didn’t. There was nothing ‘micro-distilled’ about it.

Someone took to the then-very-small online bourbon community, on a service called Prodigy and another called CompuServe, and blew the whistle. Beam was very angry at the whistleblower, who was estranged from Deerfield for many years. Today, everyone who was there then is gone. By their nature, big corporations have short memories. It’s better for business.

A few years ago, Beam was suddenly bitten by the new products bug. Beam recently unveiled its Global Innovation Center near the Jim Beam distillery at Clermont, Kentucky, where they develop new Beam company products for the world. Two such products for the U.S. market were announced last month, although they won't be in stores until late summer. They represent the debut of an ultra-premium Jim Beam line extension called Jim Beam Signature Craft. (Previewed here in February.) 

Much as the word ‘micro-distilled’ was used 20 years ago to remind people of the then-nascent micro-brewing industry, the word ‘craft’ is meant to evoke the currently-nascent craft distilling industry. This time, Beam isn’t being so clumsy. You don't have to be little to be craft, they argue. Big producers can do ‘craft’ projects too.

So how craft is Jim Beam Signature Craft?

The first two products in the new line are a 12-year-old, 43% ABV straight bourbon, and a 43% ABV straight bourbon finished with Spanish brandy. As ultra-premiums go they're a good value at about $40 a bottle. Both are to start appearing in stores in August. Assuming it sells, the 12-year-old will be a permanent product while the brandy-finished bourbon is a one-off. The plan is to debut a different one-off in August of 2014, and so on. The ‘signature’ of the title is Fred Noe’s.

Noe and company have done an excellent job choosing and managing the barrels they reserve for the 12-year-old. The whiskey is not a bit over-wooded. It is right where a 12-year-old bourbon should be, wood dominant on just the right side of the tipping point; rich with caramel, vanilla, and oak; but without much soot or smoke. Here the ‘craft’ is primarily in wood management and barrel selection, both of which are done exceptionally well.

The brandy-finished bourbon is unusual because it is not, as one might assume, brandy barrel finished. It is finished by the addition of a very small amount of actual brandy. Beam has long sold a product in Australia that is a bourbon finished with port. This is the same idea. It works very well. Much like the wood finish used for Maker’s 46, the brandy provides a grace note. Although it is an added flavor, it doesn't overpower the whiskey like the cherry flavoring in Red Stag arguably does. The craft here is in the finish itself, selecting the brandy and adding just the right amount, and in selecting the best bourbon for the pairing. Again, it’s a job well done. The stuff is delicious.

Beam got the packaging right too. The bottles are very sensual in the hand and I commend Beam for going with a simple plastic screw cap instead of cork. Corks have become ubiquitous in high-end spirits, even though they confer not a single benefit and are inferior in terms of seal, plus they can break down and taint the whiskey. Corks and high proof spirits just aren't a good combination, but there will be dopes who will complain that Beam ‘cheaped out’ by going with screw caps. They'll be wrong. It is a bold, elegant, and appropriate choice.

Beam also deserves credit for saying, in their promotion materials, that both products should be enjoyed neat or on-the-rocks. They declined to provide any cocktail recipes. They can't hold out forever, the cocktailian pressure is too great, but we appreciate the sentiment.

Another iconic Kentuckian, Muhammad Ali, famously said that, "the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life." Wise man. Whiskey fans love whiskey because it’s real. It has real flavor and real history, and it’s a sturdy enough platform to support wild experimentation. Marketers will always find reasons to spin. They just have to remember that bourbon drinkers are (mostly) grown-ups. We can handle the truth.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Former AMA Chair Calls Out CDC for Bad Science

Dr. Raymond Scalettar is a clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center, a medical adviser to the Distilled Spirits Council, and a former chair of the American Medical Association.

In an op-ed to the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, Dr. Scalettar called out the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for opposing privatization of liquor sales in Pennsylvania using as evidence studies that do not support their claim that privatization leads to unhealthy overconsumption of alcohol. The specific offender is Robert Brewer, who leads the alcohol program in the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The notion that privatizing liquor sales will have major negative health consequences is absurd on its face, which is probably why Brewer felt compelled to trump up evidence. Privatization is not deregulation. In the 33 'license states' in the U.S., private ownership of liquor retailers does not mean anything goes. Matters such as hours of operations, location of stores (e.g., near schools or churches), density of stores (how many in a given area) are all still determined by the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency.

I'm sure the directors of those 33 ABCs will tell you that citizens in their state are just as well protected from alcohol abuses as are the citizens of Pennsylvania and the other 17 'control states.'

As Scalettar explains, Brewer cites a 44 percent median increase in per capita sales of alcoholic beverages within jurisdictions that switched from a state store system to private ownership. Brewer derived his figure by analyzing 17 studies, six of which showed no increase in consumption, and four of which showed only moderate increases. Brewer's own task force found no pattern of increased alcohol-related harms from privatization, though he implies the opposite.

In fact, the 44 percent figure is from studies of wine sales from 30 years ago. Between 1970 and 1981, six states privatized the sale of wine. The sale of wine increased significantly in those states but, guess what? The sale of wine increased significantly in the other 44 states too during that same period. Americans simply started to drink more wine in the '70s. It had nothing to do with privatization.

The privatization of wine sales was more likely the result of wine's increased popularity rather than the cause of it.

As Scalettar concludes, "The CDC has the imprimatur of a respected, science-based government organization. Brewer has the responsibility to honestly present research in an unbiased, forthright manner so the public and elected officials can make decisions based upon the best available evidence."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MGP of Indiana Changes Its Whiskey Recipe Descriptions

MGP Ingredients, a big corn processor out of Kansas, bought the former Seagram's distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 2011. Observing how they run and position it has been fascinating.

Although unique today, commodity producers like MGP of Indiana used to be a prominent part of the American whiskey landscape. Wild Turkey was a non-distiller producer (NDP) for the first 30 or so years of that brand's existence. It was made from whiskey purchased from commodity producers until Austin-Nichols acquired the Ripy family's distillery in the 1970s, the distillery we know as Wild Turkey today.

MGP's distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, was acquired and rebuilt by Seagram's at the end of Prohibition. It made a lot of whiskey but all of it was used for Seagram's products. After the break-up of Seagram's by Pernod and Diageo, Pernod became its owner and began to sell bulk whiskey to Templeton Rye, High West, and others in a small way. They kept a low profile, as did their successor, Angostura (i.e., CL Financial), and as do the distilleries like Heaven Hill that operate a substantial contract distilling and bulk whiskey business along with their branded business.

MGP is taking a different approach, in part because they're a public company, but also because they want to make a name for themselves as a quality producer for the NDP community. Early last month, they announced the addition of six new recipes to their portfolio. As people began to look at that portfolio, it became apparent the distillery was using some odd and confusing naming conventions, probably inherited from Seagram's.

The naming convention for the ten bourbon recipes made at Four Roses, also a former Seagram's enclave, is similarly vestigial. It uses four letters, two of which are the same for every recipe and have no meaning that's relevant to their current application.

Unlike Four Roses, which pretty much leaves things like that alone, MGP has moved swiftly to correct its confusing names. Here's some of what yesterday's notice to its customers said:

"This is to notify you that effective immediately the names of four of MGP's beverage alcohol products are being changed. The previous naming practice varied as certain product names listed the percentage of the total small grains used in the mash bill while other names did not. Going forward, the product names will note the feature grain of the mash bill."

Here they are, with the new name first.

'Bourbon (21% Rye)' was called '25% Bourbon.' Mash bill is 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt.

'Bourbon (36% Rye)' was called '40% Bourbon.' Mash bill is 60% corn, 36% rye, 4% barley malt.

'Bourbon (99%)' was called 'Corn Bourbon Whiskey.' Mash bill is 99% corn, 1% barley malt.

'Corn Whiskey (15% Rye)' was called 'Corn Whiskey.' Mash bill is 81% corn, 15% rye, 4% barley malt.

The bourbons, of course, must be aged in new charred oak barrels while aging is optional for corn whiskey, but if aged the barrels must be used or un-charred. Take that corn whiskey recipe, put it into new charred wood, and it becomes a fourth bourbon.