Friday, February 28, 2014

Fountainhead School of Spirits Update

We had another good Tuesday night at the Fountainhead School of Spirits this week, where we enjoyed the Whiskeys of Wild Turkey. Although it wasn't quite a sellout, it was close.

Next week's scheduled class, the Whiskeys of Jim Beam, has been cancelled due to lack of interest. This was surprising but the people have spoken. We are committed to listening to our students and giving them what they want. To that end, Fountainhead is setting up an email address for feedback and suggestions.

After three successful classes, the Fountainhead School of Spirits (the Harvard of Booze) is off to a good start. Thanks to the folks at Fountainhead and all of you students for a great experience. We'll do everything we can to keep making it better.

This is it for me until the next term starts up in April. The remaining two classes of this bunch are March 11 and March 25, both conducted by Martin Duffy. March 11 is Introduction to Irish Whiskey. March 25 is Introduction to Scotch Whiskey.

In between is St. Patrick's Day, an education in itself.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

MoonPie Moonshine. Why Didn't I Think of That?

I first visited Limestone Branch in Lebanon less than two years ago. Since then, Steve and Paul Beam haven't wasted any time. They've made their reputation with authentic sugar shine, the nearest thing to real moonshine you can buy legally. (Many other famous 'legal moonshine' products are just vodka.)

Most recently, they have gotten ahold of the best idea any craft distillery has had this year, maybe ever: MoonPie Moonshine. The MoonPie, in case you don't know, is a magical confection of graham cracker cookies and marshmallow creme filling, covered with a chocolate, banana, or vanilla coating. They are much beloved in the American South.

Somewhat disappointingly, the MoonPie Moonshine Limestone Branch is making is a flavored vodka, not something based on their half corn/half sugar shine formula. I say 'somewhat' because it won't matter. The product is brilliant. It sounds right, it looks right. It makes me grin whenever I think about it. If they got the flavor even remotely right they're going to make a fortune.

Good for them.

MoonPie Moonshine is bottled at 25% ABV (50° proof). No word yet on the suggested retail price. Keep checking their web site for details.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who Makes Bulleit Bourbon?

The first post here to bear that headline was made five and a half years ago. The issue then was not who--it was widely known that Four Roses was the maker--but whether or not Bulleit Bourbon was all Four Roses.

It was obvious Diageo was using Stitzel-Weller for maturation. Diageo confirmed that, but they wouldn't say what was in the warehouses or where it came from. (They still won't.) It was also widely known, though never confirmed by Diageo, that at least three other distilleries were selling it bourbon distillate, to the tune of millions of proof gallons per year.

Although Bulleit is Diageo's only straight bourbon sold in the USA, Diageo makes I. W. Harper and other bourbons for international sale, and uses straight bourbon in its many blends.

Rumors always swirl because Diageo is so tight-lipped about its program as a non-distiller producer (NDP) of bourbon. Maybe they think it looks bad for the world's largest whiskey maker to be an NDP when it comes to bourbon and rye.

In 2008, Diageo made a rare, definitive statement about who makes Bulleit Bourbon. "Bulleit Bourbon continues to be wholly distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY according to exacting standards developed by Tom Bulleit and the Bulleit Distilling Company. Bulleit Bourbon’s bold flavor is the product of a unique recipe featuring a high proportion of the rye grain and the use of a proprietary yeast culture. As with all Kentucky straight Bourbons, Bulleit Bourbon is aged in charred barrels made from new American Oak and contains absolutely no additives whatsoever."

The use of "distilled" strongly suggested maturation is done elsewhere, but that was widely assumed even though Diageo wouldn't confirm it. Nothing distilled at Four Roses is matured there because they don't have any rackhouses at the distillery. They are over at Cox's Creek, in Nelson County. Most people, however, believe Bulleit Bourbon is aged at Diageo's Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville.

In 2011, when Diageo released Bulleit Rye, it announced that the whiskey was distilled at MGP of Indiana. The next year Dickel Rye was released with the same disclosure.

The Bulleit Bourbon label says "Bulleit Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky." TTB requires the label to show the producer's name ('Bulleit' is an assumed business name, but that's okay), and an address consisting of a city and state. All it has to be is a place of business of some kind (an office, a warehouse, a post office box), but it has to be something.

So, when I started to hear a very specific rumor that Four Roses was cutting Diageo off soon, or already had, I went to the source and asked again, "who makes Bulleit Bourbon?" Many times since the 2008 statement, Diageo executives have confirmed its essential truth, which I expected to hear again.

Instead, I got this: "We don’t comment on speculation nor talk about the specifics of our relationships with various partners but I can tell you that we are committed to providing our consumers with the same high-quality whiskey that Tom Bulleit created years ago."

Because the guy I am dealing with now is new, I explained the history. "Diageo has said repeatedly that every drop of Bulleit Bourbon is made at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. That claim was conveyed on several occasions by (your predecessor). Unless you’ve changed the label recently, it uses Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, as the Bulleit Distilling Company’s official address. Is that previous declaration still true? Is the label still accurate?"

His reply: "The label remains accurate."

What he didn't say is what Diageo has always said before. Surely this means it isn't all made there. Is any of it still made there? The label still says Lawrenceburg but that doesn't mean much, as the whiskey in the bottle now was distilled in 2008 or before. What about the Bulleit we'll be drinking in 2019 and beyond? That's the whiskey being made today, but where?

Diageo isn't talking.

Although Diageo is once again promising to open 'The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller' to the public, it has never said why Bulleit's 'homeplace' should be located there. It is generally believed that Bulleit is aged there, but that has never been confirmed. They're now selling tickets to an event there during The Kentucky Bourbon Affair in May. Someone is bound to ask.

The folks at Four Roses can't say much beyond confirming that Diageo is a customer and has been ever since the breakup of Seagrams, in which Diageo got Bulleit and Pernod got Four Roses, the brand and distillery. That Four Roses would sell whiskey to Diageo going forward was part of the master agreement between Diageo and Pernod, which Kirin inherited when it bought Four Roses from Pernod.

All Four Roses knows beyond that is how many gallons Diageo bought in the past and how much they expect to buy during the current cycle.That's all confidential. Four Roses has no idea what Diageo does with the whiskey.

So "who makes Bulleit Bourbon?" is a mystery once again. It's not up to Four Roses to answer that question, even though visitors often ask them for directions to the Bulleit Distilling Company. It's up to Diageo.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Evan Williams Experience Is Terrific

You're in Louisville on business, or attending a convention. You have a few extra hours to enjoy something in Kentucky's largest city, but what? There are many choices: the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center, Churchill Downs, the Frazier History Museum, the Speed Art Museum.

But you're a bourbon fan. You know Louisville is the gateway to bourbon country. You'd like to have a bourbon experience. You can drink bourbon, sure. You undoubtedly will, but is there anything you can do for an hour or two in the morning or afternoon?

Since there were no distilleries that gave tours within striking distance of Louisville, the answer used to be no. Now there is one, the Evan Williams Experience, on Main Street, in downtown Louisville. Soon there could be several.

I had my Evan Williams experience a few weeks ago. I went as a regular person, not on a press tour, at about ten o'clock in the morning. The first thing I noticed was the smell. That's not real whiskey pouring from the giant bottle. The smell is coming from staves from used barrels, artfully suspended from the ceiling.

I was a tour group of one. I got a ticket ($12), read the history timeline that decorates the lobby walls, and waited comfortably in the waiting area. At the appointed time I was met by my guide, who was very professional and didn't miss a beat.

The guide's spiel is seamlessly integrated with the media show, which she controls with an inconspicuous wireless device in her hand. You start in a theater but as you go deeper into the 'experience,' it becomes three dimensional. You're right there, in the late 18th century, on the riverfront, and in Evan William's frontier distillery.

From there you learn the bourbon-making process, at the end of which there is a dramatic reveal of the working micro-distillery. The distillery is gorgeous and bigger than I expected. As the tour moves on, you climb a flight of stairs that gives you an overhead view into a fermenter and of the entire operation. They thought this thing through.

Upstairs is a 'street,' with facades on either side, taking you quickly through the 19th and 20th centuries. You go into one of the businesses for your tasting. One of them is called Max & Harry's Bar, a nice touch. (Max Shapira is the president of Heaven Hill and his cousin, Harry, who died recently, was vice president. They represent the second generation of the Shapira family, who own and run the company.)

You end, naturally, in the gift shop.

The building, which Heaven Hill has owned and occupied since the 40s, has three more floors. There's an event space and the rest is offices and storage.

Heaven Hill isn't the largest distilled spirits producer in Kentucky, but when it opened its Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown in 2004, it leapfrogged to the front of the pack in terms of visitor experience. With the Evan Williams Experience, they've done it again. The production standards, the creative standards, the technology, everything is first rate. It deserves comparison to Disney. It's that good.

The way bourbon and bourbon tourism have grown, easily-accessed welcome center attractions in Louisville are the next big idea. The Evan Williams Experience is a first class beginning, it sets a wonderful standard for what's to come. Soon we will have at least two more distilleries on Main Street, with Michter's and Angel's Envy. A few blocks away, on Fourth, Beam has offices now but the huge Beam logo in the window suggests there soon will be more. Diageo finally seems ready to pull the trigger on Stitzel-Weller, which is about five miles from downtown. Vendome, the still maker (about 1.5 miles from Main Street), is thinking about a visitor center, museum, and tours.

Brown-Forman, which is based in Louisville, gives tours at its cooperage (about 7 miles from Main Street), but would it dare put a Jack Daniel's Welcome Center on Main Street? Why not? Only the small-minded would think it wrong.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why Can't Indiana Convenience Stores Sell Cold Beer?

One residue of Prohibition, which ended 80 years ago, is the hodgepodge of state laws regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages. To say they are idiosyncratic is an understatement. A great illustration is Indiana, where only liquor stores, taverns and restaurants can sell cold beer for carryout. Other kinds of stores may sell beer, they just can't sell it cold. This rule applies only to beer. Everyone can sell chilled wine. No other state has this particular regulation.

The rationale, as usual, is that it is in the state's interest to limit alcohol consumption and one way to do that is by limiting access to alcoholic beverages. Regulators argue that anyone entering a liquor store must be 21-years-old and employees must go through permitting and training. Liquor stores are regulated on when they can be open. That's all true, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the temperature of the beer. The rule assumes that a person, desperate for beer, won't drink a warm one.

State liquor laws are rarely updated and most haven't changed in 80+ years. They don't change because whoever benefits most from the status quo will resist change and there's rarely enough political will to overcome that resistance. Politicians don't like to go on record as having made alcohol easier to buy. When, however, there are strong financial incentives on the other side too, changes might be made, if not legislatively then in the courts.

This is happening right now in Indiana, where the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association is suing the state to force it to allow cold beer sales in convenience stores. The case is just underway in Federal court. Plaintiffs say current law violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Defendants say the 21st Amendment lets them do whatever they want.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" Is 100

One-hundred years ago this month, Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago" was published for the first time in a small, Chicago literary journal. When it was published, Sandburg was largely unknown. He went on to become one of the most renowned poets of the 20th century.

Much will be said and written about the poem in the coming weeks, and none of it will have the power of the poem itself. I encourage you to take a few minutes and read it. This may sound silly, but I further encourage you to read it out loud.


HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,

Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,

Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse. and under his ribs the heart of the people, 


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Next Up for FSOS, Wild Turkey, February 25

The Fountainhead School of Spirits had another successful Tuesday earlier this week. We cut the number of available tickets to make the room a little more comfortable and sold all of them. Fountainhead is doing a great job of putting this on. There are now curtains covering both entrances and the pass-through, which helps both with sound and visual distractions. We're going to keep looking for ways to improve the experience for everyone.

Next Tuesday, February 25th, we'll continue our distillery-specific series with Wild Turkey. In some ways, Wild Turkey is the most misunderstood distillery in Kentucky. Everyone knows Wild Turkey 101° proof bourbon. It's something you do every now and then as a shot maybe. Many don't know the rest of what Wild Turkey has to offer. We're going to taste the 101° proof bourbon, of course, but also Russell's Reserve Bourbon, Russell's Reserve Rye, and Wild Turkey Rye, and we'll learn all about the amazing 60-year career of master distiller Jimmy Russell.

Tickets are still available. Here is the direct link for this class at Brown Paper Tickets. For more information about this and future classes, go here. You can buy tickets now for any class up to March 25th. Buy now and you won't risk disappointment.

Fountainhead is located at 1970 W. Montrose Ave, at the corner of Montrose and Damen. Street parking usually is available, it's a short walk from the Brown Line L station, and both Damen and Montrose are served by CTA buses.

Although we're serious about serving up knowledge, we're serious about having fun too. The class is informal and you'll probably make a few, new, like-minded friends.

Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What Are Store Barrel Selections Anyway?

I received this question today via email: "I purchased a bottle of Eagle Rare 10 yesterday and noticed that this particular batch was selected specifically for that store. It made me wonder if there are any significant differences between a standard bottle of Eagle Rare 10 and one especially bottled for the retailer?"

With some brands, and Eagle Rare is one of them, stores are given the opportunity to buy all of the contents of one barrel and they get to choose the barrel. The producer will also make and apply the labels that say as much. Many stores do this a lot and at any given moment will have several of their barrel selections available for different brands.

Bars can do it too.

The barrels they are offered, however, have all been pre-selected for that brand. Not all of the brands that offer this type of program are single barrel but Eagle Rare 10 is, so if that particular barrel had not been the barrel selection for that store, it would have been bottled anyway, single barrel, and gone into the general Eagle Rare 10 population. Since all Eagle Rare 10s are single barrel, the only thing special about a store selection is that it reflects the tastes of the person or person who did the selecting. If you like it better than an Eagle Rare 10 from the general population, you may like other barrel selections from that store.

In cases where this program is offered and the product is not normally single barrel, the store selection is single barrel, but the barrels made available are still pre-selected for that brand. In that case, the barrels that aren't selected go into the general dump batch for that brand. Since a product produced by mixing many barrels together tends to be more homogenized, a store selection is more likely to be noticeably different, though it will still be very close to the standard.

So while store barrel selections will always be a little different from the standard, they aren't necessarily better. That depends on your taste and the taste of the person(s) doing the picking.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Buffalo Trace Tests Barrel Entry Proof in Latest Experiments

The latest release in the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection looks at barrel entry proof. Buffalo Trace doesn't always offer opinions about the results of their experiments, but this time they have. The tasting notes are theirs, not mine.

Buffalo Trace began this experiment more than 12 years ago, using four different entry proofs with its rye-recipe bourbon. All of the experiments came off the still at 140° proof. All of the barrels were aged together in Warehouse K for 11 years, 9 months and bottled at 90° proof.

The naming convention for the group is 'rye' followed by the entry proof, so it bears repeating that this is rye-recipe bourbon, not rye whiskey.

Rye 125 – At 125° proof, this was the highest entry proof used. It is also Buffalo Trace’s standard entry proof for its rye recipe bourbons, and the maximum entry proof allowed by law. The result was typical, a well-balanced bourbon with spicy cloves mingled with sweet vanilla, caramel and toffee to create a well-rounded and complex flavor.

Rye 115 – This rye recipe bourbon was put into the barrel at 115° proof and has light oaky flavors mingled with leather and palm sugar.

Rye 105 – At an entry proof of 105°, the angels were particularly greedy with their share taking the highest amount of all four experiments with an evaporation rate of 26 percent. The 105° entry proof produced a bourbon which has a good overall flavor with some earthy tones, followed by a buttery, light finish.

Rye 90 – At an entry point of 90°, this bourbon had a 25 percent evaporation rate. The result was a bourbon with a light fruity flavor followed by some hints of dried nuts and spice, with a drier finish.

Buffalo Trace previously performed a similar experiment with wheated bourbon. Both the wheat and rye experimental barrels were distilled around the same time, aged in the same warehouse, on the same floor, rick, and row and bottled around the same time. A key learning from both experiments was that entry proof does affect bourbon flavor, and it does affect evaporation rates. Also, different barrel entry proofs will produce varying flavor elements.

"Although it should not be a surprise to us, we found in blind tastings the rye-recipe with the 125° entry proof, which is our standard barrel entry proof for our rye-recipe bourbons, tasted the best to us," said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller. "The flavor profile was the most balanced, while still offering the most pleasant mixture of tastes. It’s gratifying to know that even in blind taste tests, we still favored our ‘standard’ method as the best of the four in the experiment."

Buffalo Trace has more than 2,000 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in its warehouses.

The Experimental Collection is packaged in 375ml bottles, 12 to a case, with three bottles of each entry proof in each case. The suggested retail price is $46.35 each. This set should be in stores later this month.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Buffalo Trace Tourism Growth Surpasses Statewide Totals

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail®, Bourbon Trail® and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® are all registered trademarks of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA). The official tours include only those attractions that are owned by dues-paying KDA members.

The elephant in the room that is Kentucky bourbon tourism is, of course, Sazerac and its two Kentucky distilleries, Buffalo Trace (Frankfort) and Barton 1792 (Bardstown). Sazerac quit the KDA several years ago, saying it felt it could better use its KDA dues by investing in its own tourism enterprise. Lawsuits and a settlement followed, and an atmosphere of mutual hostility remains.

Yet both are doing well. In 2013, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® recorded more than 630,000 visits, a new milestone for the tour. A record 571,701 people visited the 'heritage' (i.e., big) distilleries, a 12% increase over 2012. An additional 61,698 traveled to the participating craft distilleries.

Numbers were up even more at Sazerac's distilleries, 34% at Buffalo Trace and 31% at Barton 1792. At Buffalo Trace, 84,629 guests took a tour in 2013, compared to 63,181 in 2012. Counting people who came to events at the distillery, including private events held at the Clubhouse (which can be rented), Buffalo Trace received 97,930 total visitors in 2013, a 21% increase over 2012.

The folks at Sazerac point to those numbers as evidence that they are better off outside the KDA, using the money they would be spending on KDA dues to enhance and publicize their own tourism offering. Both Sazerac distilleries provide free tours and tastings, and at Buffalo Trace five different tours are available.

The KDA argues that Sazerac benefits from the Association's general tourism promotion expenditures even though Sazerac doesn't help pay for them, but as KDA has gotten more aggressive about trying to undermine any non-KDA events and attractions, with the Sazerac distilleries at the top of that list (and all under the table, of course), that argument loses most of its credibility.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a distiller to be a KDA member. You just have to have a bourbon production facility in the state and pay the dues. Neither Diageo nor Michters distills in Kentucky and yet both belong to the KDA. Diageo qualifies because it ages bourbon at Stitzel-Weller, and Michters bottles its products at a facility nearby. Neither is open for tourism although, for $150, you can get inside Stitzel-Weller as part of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair.

In addition to members, KDA now has sponsors. Dozens of bourbon-inspired restaurants, bars, hotels, transportation companies, markets, specialty food stores, and convention and visitors bureaus signed on in 2013.

Most non-parties to the KDA-Sazerac conflict, including the state and relevant county and city tourism bureaus, try to remain independent and, thus, neutral. KDA, despite its pose to the contrary, is a private entity whose members are its sole concern and in that way, it is exactly the same as Sazerac. There should be more than enough room for both to thrive, as the statistics indicate is the case, and for the entry of any other persons or groups who want to provide bourbon-related experiences for Kentucky visitors.

No 'gatekeeper' is needed nor wanted.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What's So Great About Louisville? A Whole Bunch of Stuff

I lived in Louisville for nine years and may live there again. Compared to Chicago, where I live now, Louisville has an excellent quality-of-life to cost-of-living ratio. No, it doesn't have everything Chicago has, but it's a lot cheaper. Plus, the bourbon is plentiful and winter is shorter by about four weeks.

I love Louisville.

I'm not alone., a boostering web site, has compiled a list of the city's recent accomplishments. They range from being named one of CNNMoney’s 2014 breakout cities, in part for the music and food truck scenes, to being placed among the top 20 American cities with 'economic momentum,' based on GDP growth, job growth, median household income growth, and unemployment, according to NewGeography.

AARP says Louisville is one of the top 10 best low-cost U.S. cities in which to retire.

The article doesn't mention how, in July and August, a thermal inversion produces high temperatures, high humidity, and pollution like Los Angeles. My doctor in Louisville called seasonal allergies "the price we pay for living in the Ohio Valley."

But now I'm just being picky.

Louisville has a lot going for it, especially among the city's younger citizens. Among the ruling elite there is still an irritating tendency to talk big but think small, as I mused about (too obliquely for some) a few days ago.

Friday, February 14, 2014

TTB Issues New Guidelines for 'Gluten-Free' Labeling

The labeling of alcoholic beverage is regulated by the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau of the United States Treasury (TTB).

On Tuesday, TTB announced that it has completed its review of how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) final rule on the use of the term 'gluten‐free' in the labeling of products under FDA’s labeling jurisdiction impacts TTB’s interim policy on gluten content statements in the labeling and advertising of wines, distilled spirits, and malt beverages, previously set forth in TTB Ruling 2012‐2.

As a result of TTB's review and consultation with FDA, the Bureau is updating its policy on gluten labeling. Given the important consumer health considerations relating to 'gluten-free' claims, TTB believes it is important to be as consistent as possible with the regulations FDA issued.

Under TTB's updated policy, alcoholic beverages that are made from ingredients that do not contain gluten, such as wines fermented from grapes or other fruit and distilled spirits distilled from materials other than gluten-containing grains may continue to make 'gluten-free' claims in the same way allowed in the new FDA regulations for inherently gluten-free products. Consistent with the new FDA regulations, TTB will continue to consider 'gluten-free' label claims for alcoholic beverages that are made from gluten-containing grains to be misleading to consumers who are seeking to avoid the consumption of gluten for health reasons.

However, products made from gluten-containing grains may be labeled with a statement that the product was “Processed,” “Treated,” or “Crafted” to remove gluten, if that claim is made together with a qualifying statement that warns the consumer that the gluten content of the product cannot be determined and that the product may contain gluten.

TTB may revise this policy after FDA issues a final rule or other guidance with respect to fermented and hydrolyzed products. In the interim, we remind consumers that the FDA has determined there is still no scientifically valid way to evaluate the claims that beers made from gluten-containing grains can be processed in a way that removes gluten and that there is inadequate evidence about whether such methods are effective.

TTB's Revised Interim Policy on Gluten Content Statements in the Labeling and Advertising of Wine, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages (TTB Ruling 2014-2) can be found on the TTB Website at:

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fountainhead School of Spirits Off to a Great Start

The first Fountainhead School of Spirits class, this past Tuesday, was a big success. We had a full house, too full in fact. We've already decided to sell fewer tickets from now on, to make it a little more comfortable for everyone, including the teacher.

Fountainhead is going above and beyond to make your classroom experience a great one. They already have a dedicated space for us but since we're in the middle of a working bar and restaurant, Fountainhead is hanging heavy curtains in the doorways and in the bar pass-through to cut down on some of the noise. I have a loud voice, but you don't want your teacher yelling at you. You probably had enough of that in middle school.

Fountainhead provides complimentary snacks and you're welcome to order off the menu if you want more. Recognizing that some people will come directly from work and won't have had a chance to get dinner first, you're welcome to eat during class (although table space is tight) or they will reserve a table for you so you can sit down for dinner immediately after class ends, at about 8:30 PM. Fountainhead has great food.

Tickets are selling briskly for the next class, this coming Tuesday, February 18. Here is the direct link to the place to buy tickets. For more information about this and future classes, go here. Fountainhead is located at 1970 W. Montrose Ave, at the corner of Montrose and Damen. Street parking usually is available, it's a short walk from the Brown Line L station, and both Damen and Montrose are served by CTA buses.

Our theme for Tuesday's class is the whiskeys of Heaven Hill. We'll taste Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon Whiskey (current year), Larceny Bourbon Whiskey, Rittenhouse Rye BIB, and Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey.

Since this is the first of our distillery-themed classes, it's worth pointing out that it is not being taught by a distillery representative. Part of what you're paying for is a knowledgeable and independent authority, not a marketing presentation from the producer.

Although we're serious about serving up some knowledge, we're serious about having fun too. The class is informal and, considering the tight quarters, you'll probably make a few new friends.

Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Whiskey Trust. Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

In 1881, Joseph Benedict Greenhut built the Great Western Distillery in Peoria, Illinois. The production of whiskey and neutral spirits was booming in Peoria and each new distillery was bigger than the last and, therefore, the biggest distillery in the world.

Six years later, Great Western and 65 other distilleries merged to form the Distillers & Cattle Feeders' Trust. Popularly known as the Whiskey Trust, Greenhut became its president.

The Trust used its resources to buy more distilleries, many of which it closed. The idea of the Trust was to limit production industry-wide to reduce competition and protect profits. Although the Trust was technically legal (it would not be today), it engaged in many illegal activities including the intimidation of distillery owners who did not want to sell.

The Trust rationalized its activities by saying it brought order and stability to an often chaotic and wasteful marketplace by eliminating the over-production that sometimes forced producers to sell below cost. Doesn't a 'free market' also give market participants the right to cooperate for the betterment of an entire industry?

Greenhut left the Trust in 1895 when legal and financial problems forced it into receivership. It was never the same but never quite went away either. It kept mutating into different corporate forms. It even survived Prohibition, coming back after repeal as National Distillers. It was no longer a trust, however. Those were now illegal.

By the time Prohibition shuttered the industry in 1920, the Trust or one of its spin-offs controlled every distillery in Peoria. It also owned distilleries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and other distilling states. After Prohibition, the Trust was supplanted in Peoria by Canada's Hiram Walker and Sons. Walker bought Greenhut's Great Western, tore it down, and built -- you guessed it -- the biggest distillery in the world. (Pictured above.) Today that plant makes grain neutral spirits for Archer Daniels Midland.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It Is Still Illegal to Sell Alcohol Without a License

The following is presented as a public service. This is not legal advice, it is general legal information.

It is illegal to sell alcohol without a license.

This is true everywhere in the United States. There are no exceptions.

This keeps coming up because there are many people who collect whiskey. Whiskey is booming right now and so is whiskey collecting. Collectors of anything, from stamps and coins to Shirley Temple (RIP) memorabilia, usually build their collections by buying, selling, and trading with other collectors. That's normal. It's a big part of the fun of collecting.

But if what you collect is an alcoholic beverage, it's also against the law.

I last wrote about this just ten months ago, here. The Facebook page discussed in that post was taken down a few months ago. To protect the folks involved, I won't say more about it. Before that, eBay did a brisk business in whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. That was taken down too.

Laws regarding the possession, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages are entirely up to each state's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency to enforce. They have their own enforcement arms, their own investigators. Infractions of the ABC's rules are not crimes as far as the police are concerned. They don't get involved unless the ABC asks for their help. Someone operating an unlicensed bar or selling liquor out of the back of a minivan, or a licensed retailer selling to minors, that's what they care about. Nobody is looking to bust collectors.

But that doesn't make what collectors do legal. It's still illegal. An observation about patterns of enforcement doesn't change the underlying status of the activity. It's still against the law.

Should those laws be updated? Probably. It is hard to see how whiskey collectors do any harm. But beverage alcohol regulations are notoriously difficult to change. Most of them haven't been touched since Prohibition was repealed 80 years ago.

Social media is full of sites for enthusiasts of all kinds, including whiskey. A persistent problem for those sites is people who try to buy or sell whiskey via the site. Social media sites must be very careful about not allowing participants to advocate law-breaking. Sites that try to enable peer to peer collecting activity without doing anything illegal themselves resort to "Fight Club" rules of secrecy. They don't work. There are constantly people who either don't get it or don't care.

Perhaps this post will reach a few of them.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Big Trouble in Bourbon Country

Bourbon is a Kentucky thing.

The law says you can make bourbon whiskey anywhere in the United States but Kentucky bourbon is special, so special the best-selling American-made whiskey in the world won’t call itself bourbon, even though it is exactly like bourbon, because it isn't made in Kentucky.

Bourbon is a Kentucky thing but it isn't the only Kentucky thing. The Hot Brown is a Kentucky thing. Thoroughbred horses are a Kentucky thing. Bluegrass music is a Kentucky thing. So is barbecued mutton.

Those are all good things, even barbecued mutton.

But not every Kentucky thing is a good thing.

Unfortunately, small-timer syndrome is a Kentucky thing too. Small-timers are people who are obsessed with limits. They are obsessed with failure. They devote way more time to threats than to opportunities. They believe life is always a zero sum game. They most certainly do not believe there is ever more than enough for everyone. They are careful not to aim too high. Better to not take the chance.

Their God is Icarus.

Ask a longtime Louisvillian what happened to the Louisville School of Art or Louisville’s independent public television station. Ask any Kentuckian why UK refused to play U of L in major sports for 60 years.

The reasoning is that having two of something is wasteful. It’s better to have just one because then that one can be better, maybe even outstanding. The possibility that Kentucky could have two or three or four of something and all of them be outstanding is inconceivable to a small-timer.

In no way is everyone in Kentucky a small-timer. Many people are not. The small-timers hate them most of all.

Small-timer syndrome is threatening the best thing that has ever happened to Kentucky, the explosion in American whiskey’s worldwide popularity. When people fall in love with bourbon, the first thing they want to do is go to Kentucky and have a bourbon experience. Maybe they want to tour distilleries but maybe they want to have other kinds of bourbon experiences too. The producers can provide some of that. The new Evan Williams Experience in downtown Louisville is a great example. But the producers can’t do everything and shouldn't try. That’s the genius of the thing. Everything anyone does that provides a visitor with a satisfying bourbon experience inevitably benefits the producers, even when they have nothing to do with it. Who would refuse that deal?

A small-timer.

There are small-timers in Kentucky right now who think they own bourbon. They want to decide who gets to celebrate bourbon, how much and in what way, and if they approve of what you want to do they demand a piece of the action.

They are important people, powerful people.

And there is a very real danger they will screw the whole thing up.

This phenomenon that is American whiskey isn't the property of any producer or group of producers. No one has the right to control it. No one should even try. Ultimately, it is the property of consumers. Anybody who honestly strives to give whiskey drinkers what they want is a friend of the industry. Anybody who tries to limit or stifle how whiskey drinkers can enjoy whiskey and the incredible culture of the land where it is produced is the enemy of the industry, because he has set himself above the interests of whiskey drinkers. Anyone who loses sight of that, who thinks their personal interests or the interests of their organization are more important than the interests of whiskey drinkers is way out of line.

They need to stop it right now.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Ted Huber to Chair DISCUS Small Distiller Affiliate

The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) today announced that Ted Huber of Huber Starlight Distillery in Starlight, IN, has been named Chairman of its Small Distiller Membership, an affiliate arm for distillers who produce fewer than 100,000 gallons per year. In addition to serving as Chairman, Huber will also attend DISCUS Board of Directors meetings.

To ensure regional representation of the growing small distiller movement across the U.S., the Council also appointed four regional Vice Chairmen. They are Steve Johnson of Vermont Spirits Distilling Co., Hartford, VT (Northeast); Phil Prichard of Prichards’ Distillery, Kelso, TN (South); Guy Rehorst of Great Lakes Distillery, Milwaukee, WI (Midwest); and Tom Mooney of House Spirits, Portland, OR (West).

The Council also announced that an eight-member Advisory Council has been elected by the Small Distiller Affiliate Members for a term through the 2015 Annual Policy Conference. New Advisory Council members include Andrew Auwerda of Philadelphia Distilling, Philadelphia, PA; John Dannerbeck of Anchor Distilling Co., San Francisco, CA; Kent Fleischmann of Dry Fly Distilling, Spokane, WA; Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery, Hye, TX; Scott Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Co., Purcellville, VA; Wes Henderson of Louisville Distilling Co., Louisville, KY; Paul Hletko of Few Spirits, Evanston, IL; and Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA.

The Small Distiller Affiliate Membership was launched in 2010. It now numbers more than 80 members in 30 states. Its purpose is to organize the growing number of small distilled spirits producers across the nation and to give them a voice in public policy issues affecting the industry at every level of government.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Beam's New Distribution Center Is Where Else?

Shanken reported yesterday that Beam Inc. has selected a location for its new 600,000-square foot distribution center. The 92-acre tract is at 1509 U.S. Highway 421, a few miles south of Beam's Frankfort, Kentucky, maturation and bottling facility, and closer to Interstate 64.

Construction is expected to begin next month and be completed by year-end. The new DC will be operated by a third-party logistics provider to be named later. It will employ approximately 60 people.

“With two-thirds of Beam’s total spirits volume being produced in Kentucky, having our new distribution facility in close proximity to our production will help us gain increased efficiencies in our supply chain,” said David Hunter, vice president of global manufacturing for Beam.

In addition to the Beam whiskeys and DeKuyper liqueurs that are made in Kentucky, Canadian Club Canadian Whisky and other Beam products made elsewhere are bottled in Kentucky. The new DC probably will free up space at the company's three Kentucky bottling plants at Frankfort, Clermont, and Loretto.

What's next? It makes very little sense for Beam's headquarters to remain in Deerfield, Illinois.