Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Of Quercus Alba and Eumycotians

Mushrooms are tasty on pizza, battered and deep fried, or stuffed with crabmeat. Maybe you like grilled portabellas with polenta, or shiitakes in a stir fry, but probably not mushrooms in your whiskey.

Fair enough, but mushrooms do help your whiskey taste good. It has only recently become known that mushrooms, of a microscopic sort, play a vital role in the seasoning of white oak (Quercus Alba) for whiskey barrels. Scientists call it fungal colonization. It is an early part of the wood’s natural decomposition process.

Cooperage, the craft of making barrels is, like the craft of making whiskey, a charming blend of the very traditional and very modern. Today, exciting scientific advances in cooperage are helping whiskey producers with everything from quality control to new product development.

The primary buyers of new oak barrels are wine and whiskey makers. Brown-Forman Corporation (BF) is the only whiskey maker that also makes barrels. They have a large cooperage in Louisville and are building another one in Alabama, strategically located close to some large stands of white oak and also that little distillery they own in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Brown-Forman a few years ago stopped selling new barrels to other distilleries. Perhaps they’ll get back into that business after the new cooperage comes on line.

The other big barrel maker, which also supplies wineries, is Independent Stave Company (ISC). They are based in Lebanon, Missouri, but also have a large cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky. (They give tours.) There are several others, all much smaller than BF and ISC.

Although cooperage is more automated today than it was 150 years ago, it still requires considerable skill. Machines can plane staves and cut heads, but they can’t arrange the staves in just the right way so the barrel won’t leak. Only a highly-skilled human can do that.

Those mushrooms we were discussing, fungi if you prefer, send out roots (hyphae) that penetrate into the wood structure and release hydrogen peroxide, a natural bleaching and oxidizing agent that helps break down the wood chemically, softening tannins and caramelizing hemicellulose among other salutary effects.

First in the pool (a fresh-cut oak is about 60 percent water by weight) is Aureobasidium pullulans, one of the species of common mildew, the same black stuff you clean off your shower tiles. As the wood dries it becomes inhospitable to pullulans which pulls out (okay, dies) and is replaced by another type that thrives in the slightly drier environment. One after another a succession of different fungal species (eumycota) and sub-species each have a go at it, including the one from which the medicine penicillin is made.

By studying these mushrooms modern science proved the superiority of a traditional cooperage practice – air drying – that had been widely abandoned in the United States after World War II in favor of kilns. Kilns remove moisture effectively but they stop the biological processes (fungal and bacterial) that make many of the wood’s flavor components available for absorption by maturing spirit.

In the first stage of seasoning, if humidity and other weather variables are favorable, fresh-cut logs will be left in the field for days or weeks. From there they go to a stave mill, close to the forest, where they are roughly broken down into staves and head pieces. From there they are shipped to the cooperage, where they are neatly stacked in the yard, fully exposed to the elements. There they will remain for anywhere from three months to two years, and in some cases even longer. Often the wood that is given only a short time outside is finished via kiln.

As you probably guessed, it’s a cost issue. You pay a premium for long air seasoning. Expensive whiskey probably should be aged in long-seasoned wood. The next time someone tries to sell you a certain bourbon or rye, ask them: “How long were your barrel staves air seasoned?”

You probably should be impressed if they even know what you’re talking about.

Friday, October 25, 2013

What Andrew Mellon Really Did With Old Overholt

James Cromwell does a wonderful job with a small role in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." His is one of the actual, historical characters mixed in with the fictional ones in the hit series, which recently launched its fourth season.

Cromwell plays Andrew Mellon, then Secretary of the Treasury. At this point in the series he is relatively new to the job, having been appointed by President Warren G. Harding in 1921. He served under the next two Republican presidents too, until 1932. Then he was indicted and tried, but never convicted, by the Roosevelt administration.

In Season Three, we learned that Mellon owned the Old Overholt Distillery in Pennsylvania. The script writers have him conspiring with Nukie Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) to operate the distillery illegally. As Treasury Secretary, Mellon had partial responsibility for enforcement of the Prohibition laws.

Mellon, a banker, was one of the richest men in America. He was good friends with Henry Clay Frick, who made his stupendous fortune supplying coke to the steel industry. Frick was the grandson of Abraham Overholt, who had responsibility for his family's still on their farm near Pittsburgh starting in about 1800. By the time Frick came along toward the end of Abraham's life, Overholt's rye whiskey had made the family rich. Overholt employed many family members, including Henry Clay. After Abraham died, Frick muscled out the other cousins and took control.

When the Old Overholt Distillery needed financing to grow, Frick sold half of his two-thirds to his pal Mellon. He also made Mellon the executor of his estate. So when Frick died in 1919, Mellon gained full control of what was by then one of the largest and most successful whiskey distilleries in the country.

We don't know if Mellon did any of the evil things depicted in "Boardwalk Empire," but we do know one thing he did that would be unacceptable today.

This was before the days of blind trusts and concern about conflict of interest. Mellon was considered a great man, a supremely successful businessman who chose to end his working life as a public servant and philanthropist. No one questioned it when, as Treasury Secretary, he granted himself a lucrative franchise in the form of a medicinal whiskey license.

The license allowed Old Overholt to legally sell existing whiskey stocks ‘for medicinal purposes only,’ but not to distill. Medicinal whiskey companies didn't make a lot of money, but the license was valuable. Because of it, Mellon was able to sell Overholt for a good price.

Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey is still sold today. It is made and owned by Jim Beam.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Come See Me in New York at Leket Whisky Night, Tuesday, November 19

Leket Israel is Israel's national food bank and largest food rescue network for the poor.

To benefit Leket, the American Friends of Leket are having a fine whisky tasting and auction on Tuesday, November 19, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl, New York, NY. The event will feature rare and aged spirits, gourmet kosher catering, expert whisky sommeliers, a fine whisky and spirits auction, and more.

General admission tickets are $200 each and still available. The exclusive VIP tasting, at $360 a ticket, is sold out.

I'll be there to meet and greet, and comment on the various whiskeys on offer, both for tasting and bidding. An individual supporter of the charity is donating rare whiskeys from his personal collection for the auction. Call 201-331-0070 for more information or to purchase tickets.

I hope to see you there.

Here are some of the auction items (partial list and subject to change):

Parker Heritage Collection, 1st Edition, 2nd Edition (27-year-old)
Buffalo Trace Antique series (Stagg, WLW, Sazarac 18, Handy, Eagle 17), 2009, 2010, and 2011 releases
Jefferson's Presidential, 17-year-old, 18-year-old
Van Winkle Family Reserve 12-year-old (lot B)
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2012
Rittenhouse Rye, 21-year-old, 25-year old
Van Winkle Rye
Stratisla 42-year-old
Glendorach 42-year-old
Ardbeg, Alligator, Airigh Nam Beist
Albefeldy 21-year-old
Glen Ord 30-year-old
Tamdhu 30-year-old
Miltonduff 38-year-old
Black Bull 40-year-old
Linkwood 38-year-old
Millburn 27-year-old
Forty Creek Confederation
Talisker, 25-year-old, 30-year-old
Maccallan 18-year-old (1980)
Port Ellen 26-year-old

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Come See Me in Miami at CRAFT Spirits and Beer, November 8-9

The primary mission of CRAFT: Spirits & Beer is to "help connect the finest distilleries and breweries with both the trade and the consumer." I hope to see you there.

The main event is on Saturday, November 9, at Soho Studios in Wynwood. I'm hosting two panels on the subject "What Is Craft?" The earlier one, from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM, is for the trade. The second one, from 3:30 PM to 4:30 PM, is for the general public. The other panelists are micro-producers as well as distributors and retailers.

Anyone who follows this space knows I've asked some challenging questions on that subject ever since the dawn of the craft distilling movement. I expect a lively exchange of ideas.

After that, drinking.

On Friday evening, November 8, I'm hosting a dinner at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami. The special menu will match foods with craft whiskeys from High West, Koval, Balcones, and Dry Fly. Here's a short interview with me on Michael's web site.

Chip Tate, the Head Alchemist at Balcones, will be attending CRAFT. That gives me an opportunity to correct something in the new Bourbon Country Reader. As my brother swiftly pointed out to me, Balcones is in Waco and Waco is not "West Texas." Sorry.

As for what else I'm doing at CRAFT, I don't really know. Those are my scheduled events. I'll be around and accessible. So if you're in Miami that weekend, check it out. I hope to see you there.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Medley Brothers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. What's Old Is New Again

Here's something to look for that's both old and brand new. It's called Medley Brothers Bourbon. It is from Charles Medley and his son, Sam, who have been producing Wathen's Single Barrel for about 15 years now.

Charles is the son of Wathen Medley, who is second from the right on the label above.

This is a four year old bourbon, 102° proof, that will retail for about $25. The label is virtually the same as their label from the 1950s, showing the five Medley brothers. It's NDP (non-distiller producer), but Kentucky-made (not MGPI).

It's similar to Angel's Envy in that Charles Medley, like Lincoln Henderson, spent his whole career as a hands-on distiller, so he's doing the quality control for this, i.e., picking the barrels. Their products are contract distilled, not bulk, and use their mash bill which is 77 percent corn, 10 percent rye, and 13 percent barley malt.

Earlier this year they came out with a 12-year-old. It's very good, but also very limited. The Medley Brothers will be in ten states initially. I know Kentucky and Illinois are two of them. I don't remember the rest.

Some might say, "big deal, it's just an NDP whiskey with a story." True, but it's good whiskey and a true story.

The new Medley Brothers bourbon is very rich with all of the good wood flavors, but with a little bit of grain too. One thing about bulk whiskey (also called spot market whiskey) is that, especially in the current environment, you don't always get the pick of the litter. You have to take what the distillery is willing to sell you, which often isn't their best stuff. There are 4-year-olds the distillers will sell in bulk and 4-year-olds they keep for themselves, for their own brands. This tastes more like the ones they keep for themselves.

Who made it? They won't say, of course. Who will do contract distilling? Almost anyone with the capacity. Why not? You get paid up-front plus you get an income stream from aging, and you never have to worry about selling the stuff when it matures because the NDP owns it. Sell-through is their problem.

Most start-ups can't afford to do contract, they need whiskey they can sell right away. Therefore the micro-producer looking to create a brand, or the micro-distillery looking to sell sourced whiskey to get some cash flow, is buying on the spot market. They usually have very little capital to invest and don't want to wait four or five years before they have something to sell. If you're going to do that, you might as well build a distillery.

Most contract work is from established businesses. The considerable whiskey that Diageo buys from MGPI and others is all contract. What regional rectifiers like Phillips, Luxco, Frank-Lin and Paramount buy is contract. I suspect Templeton Rye, which has been a successful brand for six or seven years now, has switched from spot to contract.

Heaven Hill uses a contract distilling model with their distributors. The 6-year-old whiskey that will be 7-year-old (theoretically) Evan Williams next year isn't owned by Heaven Hill. They sold it to their distributors years ago, when it came off the still. This allows Heaven Hill to free up capital to invest in more production and gives the distributors a favorable price, especially in an expanding market. Heaven Hill works with its NDP customers the same way. Heaven Hill was probably doing a little less of it until they expanded Bernheim sufficiently, but Heaven Hill has always done both contract and spot as a regular part of their business.

Brown-Forman still has quite a bit of excess capacity in Shively so they're happy to do contract. They just prefer to work with other producers, people who already know the industry. I've never really talked to anyone at Beam about it but I know they do it too and I suspect their attitude is the same as Brown-Forman's.

No producer except MGPI has any interest in talking about this part of the business. With everyone else, if you want to write something about them, they'd prefer you write something about the brands they own. Nobody, including MGPI, will talk about what products use their whiskey and that's fair. If I'm a contract producer, I'm making and selling whiskey with certain specifications. I don't really know if Customer A is using that whiskey to make Brand B. It's none of my business and I don't care. I just make the stuff.

In considering this particular NDP whiskey, you also have to remember who Charles Medley is. He's not some guy who last year got a wild hair to start a whiskey business. He's been doing this for 50 years and knows everyone in the business. He started at Medley when the family owned it and stayed as master distiller with every subsequent owner, down to and including United Distillers, which became Diageo. When Diageo sold the Owensboro distillery in 1992, Charles bought it. He also bought the 8,000 or so barrels of whiskey that were still in the warehouses. Those were still the glut years and Diageo didn't want it.

A few years ago, Charles sold the distillery -- which had never reopened -- to CL Financial, which also owned what is now MGPI of Indiana. They still own the Owensboro plant. Lots of people have kicked the tires but no one has bit. Reportedly, the owner has an inflated idea of what the place is worth.

Although it still bears his name, Charles Medley has no interest in owning it again, or in (at age 72) distilling again anywhere.

Those 8,000 barrels of bourbon that Charles bought in 1992 are what Wathen's Single Barrel was originally. When that started to run out, they looked around for partners. They needed whiskey, they also needed someone to bottle and distribute it. They worked with Luxco for a while. There was also a period when they weren't doing much of anything. Now it's Frank-Lin, from California.

Sam Medley, son of Charles, is now the driving force. They figure this is a good time to ramp it up and make a real business out of it. In a couple of years they hope to be doing 30,000 cases, most of that in the Medley Brothers.

What does Charles do? He isn't hanging out at the distillery. He's sitting in his office, tasting samples, deciding what's ready and what needs to age a little longer. Who will do contract under those terms? Just about everybody. The list of who won't is shorter: Maker's, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Woodford. In all of their cases it's just because they don't have enough capacity. With the enlarged distillery, I wouldn't completely rule out Wild Turkey.

Do I care? Not too much. I know it's one of the usual suspects and I know it's Charles Medley, not Craig Beam or Chris Morris, who is doing the quality control.

I don't want it to sound like I'm working for them because I'm not, but I think there is a qualitative difference between this and the many micro-producer whiskeys that have come on the market recently.

Happily, Medley Brothers Bourbon is reasonably-priced and should have wide availability, so you can decide for yourself if it's worthy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New and Improved Map of Kentucky Distilleries

View Kentucky Distilleries in a larger map

I created this Google Map late last year. I'm reposting it because I have made a few additions.

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

'Inactive' means the distillery part of the operation is inactive; and not just inactive but demolished in most cases. The ones included are mostly still owned by major producers and used for maturation. I added several more of those, all in the Bardstown area. Included is the name by which that distillery was best known.

There are no inactive micro-distilleries, so all of the green pins are sites of inactive major distilleries. Most of them stopped distilling in the 1970s. Heaven Hill in Bardstown is a green pin because the distillery there was destroyed by fire in 1996, but Heaven Hill still has a lot going on at that site including maturation, bottling, offices, and the Bourbon Heritage Center.

In all cases, I have tried to be as accurate as possible as to the locations, so if you ever want to visit them you can. Most are not open to the public but the sites can be thoroughly viewed from the public right of way. Please do not trespass! The whiskey in those warehouses is worth a lot of money. Even though security seems lax, don't be surprised if guys in pickup trucks show up suddenly if you get too close.

I've only included places where there is something left to see and where you can see it from the street.

Where I still need to do some work is around Louisville and Shively. Maybe next year.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

There's More to Kentucky than Whiskey

As a vast country populated by people from all over the world, you can't beat America for diversity. It's one of the great pleasures of living here, and discovering the diversity of different regions is one of the pleasures of travel.

Diversity, of course, takes many forms. Foodways is certainly one of them. Kentucky, being in many ways a bridge between North and South, draws from the food traditions of each and has some that are unique. Kentucky bourbon whiskey tops the list, of course, but the list goes on from there.

You don't even have to travel to enjoy Kentucky's bounty. Most of it will come to you.

As you may have heard, cereal grains such as corn, wheat, rye, and barley can be used to make products other than whiskey.

Weisenberger Mill is located on South Elkhorn Creek in southern Scott County, Kentucky, in the tiny town of Midway. The creek has provided water to power the mill's turbines since the 1800's. Six generations of Weisenbergers have operated the mill at its present location since 1865. They make a wide variety of flours, corn meals, grits, and mixes, all of which can be ordered online.

The spoonbread (an eggy version of cornbread) is awesome.

Midway and environs have become an upscale bedroom community for Frankfort and Lexington. The cute downtown, bisected by a railroad, has several excellent bars and restaurants. Most notable among them is Ouita Michel's Holly Hill Inn.

If you head into Western Kentucky, the land gets flatter and the local specialty is meat. Owensboro is famous for its burgoo, a meaty stew, and mutton barbecue. Moonlite and Old Hickory are two well known purveyors, but there are many others. The annual festival is in May.

The whole state of Kentucky is full of great barbecue places, and Wes Berry has tried them all. Happily, he wrote a book about it.

Head toward the Tennessee border and ham tops the menu. Dry-cured country ham is the main attraction, but it's all good. Most ham curers also make incredible sausage, bacon and other pork products, and being cured they travel well. Here again, there are many high quality outfits such as Newsom's, Broadbent, Finchville, and Gatton Farms.

For something a little healthier, consider a salad of Bibb lettuce. This tasty variety was developed in the backyard of Jack Bibb's Grey Gables house in Frankfort. Bibb served during the War of 1812 and represented Logan County in the Kentucky House of Representatives and the state Senate from 1827 to 1834. An amateur horticulturist, he developed the lettuce and shared the seeds with friends. It was first commercially produced in 1935. For more, go here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

New Reader Will Be In The Mail Soon

I released the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader to the printer today. That means it will go into the mail in a few days. Subscribers should have them by this time next week, or thereabouts.

"Thereabouts" is a very important word in The Bourbon Country Reader's promise to our faithful subscribers, that we publish every other month, "or thereabouts." The "thereabouts" this time was a big one. The last issue, which said June on the masthead, actually went out in early July.

I won't make excuses. Sometimes it's just hard to get them out. That's what the "thereabouts" is for.

Last time, we explored where non-distiller producers (NDPs) get their whiskey. That was a good issue. So is this one. It is one of our rare 'all reviews' issues. Seems like a good time for one, right before the holiday shopping season. There is, in fact, a story about that very thing, and why your favorite whiskeys just might not be the best gifts.

Do you know what does make a great gift? A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader!

The Bourbon Country Reader lets me go into more depth on subjects I may touch on here on the blog. The simple pitch is this. If you're into bourbon, you really should subscribe to The Bourbon Country Reader. It is produced and delivered the old-fashioned way; ink on paper, in an envelope, brought personally to your home or office by a uniformed representative of the United States government. (Separately budgeted, so not subject to shutdown.)

How much would you expect to pay for six issues of such a stellar publication? $300? $500? But you won't pay that. You won't pay $100, or even $50. You won't even pay $25 (unless your mailbox is outside the USA). A six-issue subscription is still just $20!!!

The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. Subscriptions are $20 for U.S. addresses and $25 (a new lower price!) for everybody else. It is published six times a year, or thereabouts.

Click here or on any of the copious hyperlinks above to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Government Shutdown Already Affecting Beverage Alcohol Industry

According to Shanken News Daily this morning, "The government shutdown is starting to affect the beverage alcohol industry, with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau halting label approval and permits for new production facilities. The shutdown will at least temporarily snarl as many as 400 label approvals a day, and the large numbers of craft breweries and distilleries currently in the planning stages will have to wait longer for permits. The bureau said, however, that its website will continue to be available and drinks companies will 'continue to be able to file electronic payments and returns for federal excise taxes and operational reports.'”