Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chuck Cowdery Mint Julep Tour Update

Places for the March 12-14 "Chuck Cowdery Bourbon & History Tour Experience" are filling up fast so if you want to go, don't wait much longer before you pull the trigger. I'll be heartbroken if you're not there.

Imagine it. You, me, a couple of bottles, with somebody else driving, criss-crossing Kentucky's bourbon country. I'll show you all of the cool and fun bourbon-related places we can squeeze into three days. It's as up-close and personal as any sensible person would want to get.

The folks at Mint Julep Tours will make sure we're safe and sound, amply fed and watered, and exactly where we're supposed to be at all times. Go here for complete details. To book, or for any questions, call Josh Dugan at 502-384-6468, ext 306, or email him at

You may wonder why there are only a couple of distillery tours on the itinerary. It's because the distilleries do a great job of showing you around, explaining everything, and answering your questions. You don't need me to help you tour Jim Beam. In fact, if you want to hit some of the other distilleries, come a day or two early or stay through the weekend. They'll be happy to see you. If you want to do it on a bus, with somebody else driving, Mint Julep can hook you up.

Instead of visiting every distillery, we'll hit some of my other favorite places. We'll see bourbon barrels being made. We'll see bourbon stills being made, in the place where virtually all of them have been made for the last 100 years. We'll visit the world's only bourbon museum, and eat some good Kentucky grub. There's even a cemetery on the itinerary.

Each day of our tour will begin and end in Louisville, so you can enjoy everything that city has to offer, including some great hotels, bars, and restaurants. We'll start and end each day at the Mint Julep offices in the Galt House, which is right on the Ohio River and close to everything downtown. Every day except Friday, that is. We'll end the last day with a special tasting and nosh at the St. Charles Exchange.

Come on. You know you want to be there.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Southern Wine and Spirits Is Still Not Local Enough For Missouri

Warning: this post is very inside, about the booze business and the laws that regulate it. It may be sleep-inducing for some readers.

The U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause was intended to create a national market for goods and services by preventing states from unfairly favoring in-state versus out-of-state businesses. With regard to alcoholic beverages, the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, turned the Commerce Clause on its head. It gives the states broad discretion in the regulation of beverage alcohol sales.

Although the Twenty-first Amendment doesn't specifically require it, all states have used a mandatory 3-tier distribution system as part of their regulatory scheme. That means producers may only sell to state-licensed wholesalers, and only they may sell to the state's retailers, both stores and bars. (Missouri actually has a 4-tier system, but that's irrelevant for our purposes.)

Part of the rationale for this system is that producers are often national or international. It might be very hard for a state to legally 'reach' an akvavit producer in Sweden. That's why all states require wholesalers to be local business entities. The Swedish producer might be out of reach, but the distributor that actually brings the product into the state is not.

Unfortunately, a way around this requirement was easily found. Wholesalers are able to do business in multiple states by simply incorporating a subsidiary in every state in which they want to operate. As a result there are many wholesalers, such as Southern Wine and Spirits (SWS), that are effectively national companies. They comply with the letter of the law, if not its spirit.

Missouri's alcohol regulators have an answer for that. Simply incorporating a subsidiary in the state isn't good enough for them. They require that the licensee be at least 60 percent owned by Missouri residents and they carefully define who qualifies as a Missouri resident for their purposes.

Back in 2011, SWS sued in Federal Court to challenge the constitutionality of Missouri's rule. The trial court sided with the state and on Wednesday the 8th Circuit affirmed that decision, ruling that "the legislature legitimately could believe that a wholesaler governed by Missouri residents is more apt to be socially responsible and to promote temperance, because the officers, directors and owners are residents of the community and thus subject to negative externalities -- drunk driving, domestic abuse, underage drinking -- that liquor distribution may produce."

SWS was emboldened to sue because the U. S. Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Granholm v Heald (54 U.S. 460) revealed a chink in the Twenty-first Amendment's armor. The Court famously held that, "the aim of the Twenty-first Amendment was to allow States to maintain an effective and uniform system for controlling liquor by regulating its transportation, importation, and use. The Amendment did not give States the authority to pass nonuniform laws in order to discriminate against out-of-state goods, a privilege they had not enjoyed at any earlier time."

What the Court ruled was that the Twenty-first Amendment does not grant states a universal pass on the Commerce Clause when alcohol is involved. It was the first case to acknowledge an exception. When a law is unrelated to a legitimate state interest in regulating the transportation, importation, and use of alcohol, the usual understanding of the Clause applies.

SWS has not announced if it will appeal to the Supreme Court.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Meet Tom Blincoe. Because Distilleries Don't Build Themselves

The whiskey business isn't just distilleries, it's many other businesses that provide a variety of products and services. And just as whiskey distilleries are specialized, so are their suppliers. Two cooperages make most of the barrels, one copper and brass fabricator makes most of the stills, and one construction company builds most of the buildings.

That company is Buzick Construction. Last Friday Buzick's President, Tom Blincoe, was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. His father-in-law, Donald Buzick, built the company's first barrel aging warehouse in 1941. It's still in use by Heaven Hill at the site of the former Fairfield Distillery on Bloomfield Road in Bardstown.

In 1975, Buzick brought in Blincoe to run the construction business. In 1977, Blincoe moved his family to Lynchburg, Tennessee, so he could oversee the construction of 39 warehouses for Jack Daniel's, a project that took five years.

In 1991, on assignment to build a new warehouse for Maker's Mark, Blincoe developed a new system that allows the 'heavy lifting' part of warehouse construction to be done with equipment. Using his system, barrel warehouses can be built faster, more economically, and more safely.

With the current bourbon boom, Buzick's business is booming too. In addition to warehouses, they build visitors centers and other distillery buildings. Their restoration of Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve Distillery won a national historic preservation award.

Under Tom Blincoe's leadership, the fourth generation of his family is now working in the business.

At the induction event, Blincoe was introduced by Joe Fraser, Vice President of Manufacturing for Heaven Hill Distilleries, and Secretary-Treasurer of the Kentucky Distillers' Association.

The Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame was created in 2001 by the Kentucky Distillers' Association and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, "to recognize individuals and organizations that have made a significant impact on bourbon’s stature, growth and awareness. It is the highest honor given by Kentucky’s legendary bourbon industry."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Master Distillers' Unity Bourbon to Raise Money to Fight ALS

Limited editions have become a fixture of the whiskey world and this is the most limited one yet. Only two bottles of Master Distillers' Unity Bourbon will be sold, in a two bottle boxed set, to the highest bidder at Bonham's Whisky, Cognac and Rare Spirits Auction on Sunday, October 13 in New York City. There will be only one opportunity for consumers to taste this bourbon, on Saturday, October 12 at WhiskyFest New York.

All proceeds from the auctioned set will go to the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund, which was established by the ALS Association to raise money for research and patient care, in honor of 6th generation Master Distiller Parker Beam. In 59 years at Heaven Hill Distilleries, Beam has created leading bourbons such as Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Larceny.

In February, Parker Beam and his family announced that he has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Since then, Heaven Hill has launched a series of initiatives to raise money for the fund. In this one, the seven major Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries (Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve) have united to marry their bourbons together in a once-in-a-lifetime bottling, with the final blend being overseen by Parker Beam. The idea behind the two-bottle set is that there will be one to drink and one to keep for the winning bidder.

Each master distiller made a special selection of whiskey to donate to the cause. Other bourbon industry partners such as Saxco Industries, Walsen International, and Promotional Wood Products donated the high-end packaging materials (e.g., silver closures, silk lining). Bonham's 1793 Auction House is waiving its commissions.

If you want to taste the Master Distillers' Unity Bourbon before you bid, you can. Ten additional bottles will be poured during a WhiskeyFest Tribute to Parker Beam on Saturday, October 12. Parker will be in attendance to talk about his long career as an elite whiskey maker. The event will be hosted by Whisky Advocate Publisher and Editor John Hansell.

"The Master Distillers' Unity initiative is perhaps the best single example of how our competing distilleries can come together for one of our own and join forces for a greater good," noted Heaven Hill President Max L. Shapira. "We are proud to have spearheaded this effort and proud of how our industry can collaborate for a great cause."

Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Four Roses, the All-Bourbon Blend

Though well-intentioned, the Federal regulations known as the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits can have unintended consequences. One is that a perfectly good descriptive word has been taken out of the lexicon.

That word is 'blend,' as in 'blended whiskey.' The rules say a combination of two or more different whiskeys is a blend, but a combination of two or more whiskeys that have the same classification is not a blend. Therefore Four Roses Yellow Label (pictured, above) is labeled 'Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey,' even though it is a blend of ten different straight bourbons.

'Blend' is generally considered a dirty word because it can also mean a combination of straight whiskey with neutral spirits (i.e., vodka). In the USA and nowhere else, a mixture that is 80 percent vodka and just 20 percent whiskey can be called 'blended whiskey.' Since that describes most blends on the market, it's no wonder the word is eschewed.

Then there is Four Roses Yellow Label. A perfectly good way to describe this product is as a blend of ten different bourbon recipes. They usually resort to 'mixture' or 'combination' to avoid the dreaded b-word.

Four Roses arrives at ten recipes by combining two different mash bills with five different yeasts. They explain it all very well on their web site, here. Although Four Roses likes to talk about the ten recipes and the characteristics of their five yeasts, what they won't tell you are the all-important proportions. How much OBSK is in yellow label, how much OESO.

Four Roses used to be owned by Seagrams and blending is very Seagramsey. Crown Royal, the best-selling of what used to be Seagrams whiskeys, is a Canadian Blended Whisky. Canadian rules are very different and Canadian blends are respectable, as are Scotch blends. It's only a dirty word here.

This is too bad, because as the American whiskey industry continues to evolve, blending has a lot of potential. Wild Turkey has just released a limited edition called Forgiven that blends straight bourbon with straight rye. They say it was an accident but it looks more like a deliberate imitation of High West's Bourye. Jim Beam's Devil's Cut could be considered an all-bourbon blend since it combines regular Jim Beam Bourbon with the very smoky bourbon they extract from empty barrels. The 2012 edition of Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage Collection (PHC) combined rye-recipe bourbon with wheated bourbon.

Four Roses Yellow Label is an excellent bourbon and a great value at around $20, but the 2012 PHC really shows the potential of all-whiskey blends. It is an example of what whiskey-makers at the height of their powers can accomplish. The whiskeys selected and the blending proportions (never revealed) resulted in a superb whiskey that is so much more than the sum of its parts, it ranks as one of the best American whiskeys ever made.

With micro-distillers inventing new whiskeys every day, and with MGP of Indiana making more than ten different whiskey recipes, blending is becoming a way for non-distiller producers (NDPs) to create original whiskeys rather than just bottling an existing whiskey made by one of the major distilleries. That's revolutionary and could be really cool, especially if the NDPs don't lie about it (a long shot).

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bourbon Made in Mexico? Read the Story, Watch the Movie

In 1920, legal distillation of whiskey and all other beverage spirits stopped everywhere in the United States. Between state prohibition and restrictions imposed during WWI, the number of distilleries still operating in the United States had already dwindled to almost none. We now know that a few distilleries continued to operate, but did so outside the law.

Even the six distilleries that got medicinal whiskey licenses could only sell whiskey that was already made. Not until 1929 would they get permission to make more.

Mary Dowling, who took over at the Waterfill & Frazier Distillery after her husband died, wasn't ready to give up in 1920. She devised a bold and unique solution. She hired Joseph L. Beam, then considered the dean of Kentucky's bourbon distillers (1st row, middle). His assignment was to dismantle Waterfill & Frazier, load it onto a truck, and haul it to Juarez, Mexico. There he would put it back together and resume making bourbon, legally.

Beam's job was to make it. What happened to it after that was someone else's problem.

We know he took sons Harry and Otis along to help, and perhaps some of the others. He had seven of them (pictured above), trained them all to be distillers, and all of them found work once it was legal again here.

Most of what we know about this story comes from the children and grandchildren of the participants but it has never been in doubt. The Juarez distillery continued to operate after 1933. A few years ago, when they finally replaced the last of the original equipment, they contacted Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, who made it. They offered to return anything Vendome might want, Vendome just had to pay the shipping cost. Vendome asked for and received the doubler, which they have on display at their Louisville offices.

Recently, another piece of likely evidence surfaced at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. It is :44 seconds of newsreel film, dated 1931. Here is how they describe it: "This film helps illustrate the impact of prohibition upon border communities, 1920-1933. It is possible that the company featured in the film is that of Stillwater and Frazier, which began production in 1927 and continued through the 1970s under the name D&W. During prohibition, a number of bars and clubs previously located in El Paso moved over the border into Juarez."

Not exactly on point, but close enough. No one in the film has been identified but Beam family members who have seen it say the man standing on the barrels with a clipboard could be Joe Beam, who returned to Kentucky and became Jailer of Nelson County, a position to which he was elected twice. He went on to found Heaven Hill Distilleries. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The First-Ever Chuck Cowdery Bourbon Tour Is October 16-18, 2013

Picture it.

You, me, a couple of bottles, with somebody else driving. I show you all of the cool and fun bourbon-related places we can squeeze into three days. I'm there the whole time, so you can ask me every obscure bourbon question you've ever wondered about. It's not like a private and personal tour of bourbon country, it is a private and personal tour of bourbon country.

Okay, there will be a few other people along, but not very many. And they'll all be cool. There are just 20 places available for each date. That's it! You can book the inaugural tour (October 16-18, 2013) or get a jump on the spring tour (March 12-14, 2014).

When we have teased about this in the past the response has been enormous, so please don't dawdle. I'll be heartbroken if you're not on the bus when we roll out that Wednesday morning.

The professionals at Mint Julep Tours will make sure we're safe and sound, amply fed and watered, and exactly where we're supposed to be at all times. Go here for complete details. To book, or for any questions, call Josh Dugan at 502-384-6468, ext 306, or email him at

I lived in Kentucky for nine years, from 1978 to 1987, and fell in love. Actually, I fell in love several times, but only Kentucky herself has been constant. I've never stopped traveling to and around the state and would love to show you why I keep going back.

You may wonder why there are only a couple of distillery tours on the itinerary. It's because the distilleries do a great job of showing you around, explaining everything, and answering your questions. You don't need me to help you tour Jim Beam. In fact, if you want to hit some of the other distilleries, come a day or two early or stay through the weekend. They'll be happy to see you.

So will I. The Mint Julep folks have been great about helping me make this tour really special. We'll get a rare inside look at Vendome, where all the stills are made. Their century-old family business is booming, custom-making stills and other equipment and vessels for distilleries small and large. You'll probably see some stills before their owners do. We have special lunches planned, I'll take you shopping, and we'll wrap it all up with a tasting at a top Louisville bar and restaurant. Each day will begin and end in Louisville, so you can enjoy everything that city has to offer, including some great hotels, bars, and restaurants.

Come on. You know you want to be there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wild Turkey Opens New Bottling Plant

Today marks the official opening of Wild Turkey's new packaging plant at the distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It's a 145,000 square foot facility that cost $43 million.

Wild Turkey is owned by Campari, which also owns SKYY Vodka. Both Wild Turkey and SKYY will be bottled at the new facility.

Since Campari bought Turkey from Pernod in 2009, it has invested about $100 million in plant improvements, including a new, much larger distillery and several new maturation warehouses. A new visitors center is scheduled to open next year.

Wild Turkey bottling is returning to Lawrenceburg after what the company says was a seven-year absence. It is more like 13 years. When Pernod and Diageo carved up Seagrams in 2000, Pernod came away with a distillery and bottling plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Shortly thereafter it dismantled the bottling line at Wild Turkey and moved that function to Indiana. The whiskey was dumped from barrels at the distillery and shipped via tanker truck to the bottling plant 120 miles away.

The "seven years" probably refers to the sale of that facility to Angostura, after which Pernod moved Wild Turkey bottling to Fort Smith, Arkansas, about 700 miles away. The Fort Smith facility, built originally by Hiram Walker, primarily makes Hiram Walker Liqueurs. Pernod obtained it in the Allied Domecq chop-up with Beam in 2005.

Whiskey is typically bottled close to where it is matured. Sazerac, for example, has three bottling facilities in Kentucky, at each of its maturation sites (Frankfort, Bardstown, and Owensboro). Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell was never happy about the moves, saying such long drives aren't good for whiskey. He's glad the bottling is back.

So is the governor of Kentucky. “Kentucky’s Bourbon industry has been growing at a rapid pace, with production of our native spirit up more than 120 percent in the last decade and 5 million barrels currently aging in the Commonwealth,” said Gov. Steve Beshear. “The significant investment Gruppo Campari has made at the Wild Turkey Distillery, including the $43 million Packaging Facility, will not only help grow that number through worldwide expansion of the Bourbon category, but will also create valuable jobs for the people of our great Commonwealth.”

The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority preliminarily approved the packaging facility project for tax incentives up to $2 million through the Kentucky Business Investment program and up to $350,000 in Kentucky sales tax refunds through the Kentucky Enterprise Initiative Act.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Illusion That Is International Law (10/1/2004)

NOTE 1: The following post has no bourbon content.

NOTE 2: I wrote this in 2004, a year or so after the invasion of Iraq. It is factual and explanatory, not an opinion. My intention, then and now, is to help people better understand the reality and limitations of what is known as "international law." It is, of course, relevant now with regard to Syria.

NOTE 3: I've been on vacation. Normal blogging activity will resume shortly.

On September 17th (2004), United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation World Service that he believed there should have been a second U.N. resolution to determine the consequences of Iraq's failure to comply over weapons inspections.

Asked if he viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, he said: "Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the U.N. charter--from our point of view, from the (U.N.) charter point of view, it was illegal."

If you read the full quote, you can see that Annan was careful to qualify his answer, but those qualifications disappeared in most reports, which simply said, "U.N. Secretary General says Iraq invasion was illegal."

The qualifications matter, a lot, because they go to the heart of what so-called "international law" is and is not, and how it differs from what most people understand the word "law" to mean.

When politicians and commentators talk about "international law," they usually fail to explain that what is called "international law" is very different from the ordinary, everyday law to which you and I are subject. If we break a law and are found guilty by a court, we can go to jail, or be required to pay a fine, or required to pay some sum of money to another person. Ultimately, the government body in question (whether it be a city, state or nation) has the authority and power to enforce its rulings, by force if necessary, and they usually do so without hesitation. If, like most people, that is what you think of when you see the word "law," then by comparison "international law" is practically a euphemism.

Advocates of international law would like everyone to equate it with the common understanding of the word "law." That is why they use the term. But if there were truth-in-advertising in international rhetoric, the term "international law" would have to be banned.

"International law" consists of a web of multi-lateral and bi-lateral agreements among and between sovereign states. The first "international laws" were trading agreements that became standardized and to which most nations subscribed. Today, the various courts of "international law" operate under the auspices of the United Nations. If you understand the United Nations to be to international law what the State of Illinois is to Illinois law, you can begin to see the problem. Persons, whether natural (you and me) or unnatural (corporations), are subject to Illinois law. The state of Illinois can send armed officers to take me into custody to enforce its laws. It can order my bank to give it my money. It can even kill me.

For the most part, units of government are subject to the laws of superior units of government, but not to inferior units. In other words, the state of Illinois can pass laws binding the city of Chicago and has direct and effective ways to enforce those laws. Likewise the federal government can make and enforce laws that bind Illinois. (The reverse--whether Illinois can enforce its state laws against the federal government--is a complicated question beyond the scope of this article, but in principle it cannot.) So, a city's government is subject to the laws of a state or federal government in the same sense that I am, and a state is subject to the laws of the federal government in the same sense that I am, but that all ends where national sovereignty begins.

With international law, sovereign nations are the subjects. What can the United Nations do to a member nation found guilty of violating an "international law"? If the United Nations imposes sanctions on a nation, it relies on its member states to abide by the sanctions regime. International law only works when it is in everyone's interest to go along. When it is not, they don't, and there isn't much anyone can do about it. Unless, that is, they have a military and the willingness to use it. Then so-called "international law" can provide a handy rationale for military action.

In an Illinois courtroom, at least ideally (and, in fact, in most cases), the law applies equally to everyone. This may be true of international law in theory, but in reality it is always political.

Nations voluntarily submit themselves to the various bodies charged with hearing cases and making rulings about alleged breaches of international law. They can cooperate during a trial and then say, "no thank you" to the verdict, or they can say "no thank you" to the entire process. As a rule, nations abide by international law except when they don't. When they don't, the political part kicks in, first prodding and persuasion, then maybe sanctions, which might or might not be effective at punishing the offender, depending on the offender's susceptibility to international pressure and on the willingness of other nations to bring it. Imagine if the IRS collected taxes that way.

It is often said that the United States Constitution "is not a suicide pact," meaning that any right can be reasonably limited when permitting its full exercise would threaten the nation. Likewise international law is not a "suicide pact." Sovereign nations never will submit voluntarily to rulings that threaten their sovereignty and the United Nations has no independent ability to compel them to submit. Until the United Nations or some other world government has it own military, a military superior to every other, "international law" will remain an illusion.

So the United States invokes international law to defend its invasion of Iraq (Syria) and the war's opponents invoke it to condemn the invasion as illegal. Who is right? Neither? Both? Both sides have an argument, but so what?

That is what "law" means when you put an "international" in front of it. Ultimately, not much.