Thursday, October 30, 2014

If You Like Them, Drink Them. Just Know They Have Nothing Whatsoever To Do With Whiskey

Fireball, a hot cinnamon concoction, is the spirits fad of the moment. Of Canadian origin, it seemingly came from nowhere and has soared to massive popularity. There was a misunderstanding in Finland about the product's ingredients, but that means Fireball is now sold in Finland.

Then Diageo introduced Pie Hole. According to the web site, Pie Hole is "a tempting blend of premium whiskey & delicious pie-flavored liqueur." There are now a million of these products. Diageo's Crown Royal has apple and peach flavors. Honey is everywhere. Maple is nearly as ubiquitous. Scotch and Irish whiskey makers are in the act now too.

Clearly, a lot of people like these products. There has always been a market for sweet and fruity (or nutty) drinks. They're made in a lab with, essentially, vodka as a base. Even products like Jack Daniel's Honey and Pie Hole probably contain more vodka (i.e., grain neutral spirit) than they do whiskey. Fireball is 'whisky with natural cinnamon flavor,' but the whisky base is nearly flavorless.

These products are cheap to make. Most of the expense is in marketing.

What does whiskey have to do with it? Nothing. Drink these products if you want to, really. It's your mouth. Just don't tell yourself you're drinking whiskey. It's kind of great that whiskey is so popular right now that everybody wants to slap that word 'whiskey' on their label. Kind of great, kind of not.

But drink them if you want to, it's fine, it just has nothing whatsoever to do with with whiskey. Whiskey should taste like whiskey. These products don't. Many, like Fireball and Pie Hole, have Canadian whisky as their base. The whiskey flavor in Canadians is light to begin with. Throw in other alcohols, sweeteners and flavorings, and what little whiskey flavor there was disappears immediately. The whiskey is contributing nothing to the drink except its alcohol, which vodka could do just as well.

Seemingly, the main thing it contributes is the word "whiskey."

So drink whatever you want, just don't kid yourself. This stuff is not whiskey.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Al Capone's House is For Sale

This is the house Al and Mae Capone bought in 1923. Capone lived there with his extended family for the rest of his life, when he wasn't downtown at the Lexington Hotel, at his home in Florida, or at Alcatraz. The brick two-flat at 7244 South Prairie Ave., in Chicago's Park Manor neighborhood, is four blocks east of the Dan Ryan Expressway, just north of 73rd Street. It is priced to sell at $225,000, but there have been no takers.

Chicago doesn't know what to do with Al Capone and his legacy. He embodies Prohibition-era America for many Americans. He ruled not just Chicago's illegal alcohol trade and other criminal rackets, but Chicago itself. He was an important historical figure by any estimation. He was also a murderous thug. Should major sites associated with him be preserved? The house on South Prairie is a private residence now, two apartments actually, but it could be a landmark? A museum? Something. But should it be?

Chicago has never been sure. We know we bury history at our peril, yet how do you memorialize a character like Capone without unintentionally glorifying him? Gangster stories from "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos" humanize their subjects by showing them being tender with their families. So does that mean preserving his family home would be a good thing or a bad thing?

Capone was portrayed in the just-concluded HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" by Stephen Graham. He was a pivotal character throughout the series, which raised Capone's profile considerably with the current generation. In one of the final scenes of the final episode, Capone has a tender moment with his deaf teenage son, presumably in the house on South Prairie.

South Prairie is also the house where memoirist Deidre Capone is said to have heard her great uncle Al declare Templeton Rye to be Al's favorite whiskey. While many in Chicago would like to bury the memory of Al Capone, others will do anything to exploit it. Deidre Capone is the daughter of Ralph Capone's only son, also named Ralph. (The elder Ralph Capone, Al's brother, is portrayed on "Boardwalk Empire" by Domenick Lombardozzi.)

Deidre Capone was born in 1940. She was 7-years-old when Al Capone died. When he was released from prison a year before she was born, he was suffering from advanced syphilis. His cognitive abilities were greatly diminished. Deidre Capone never heard her great uncle Al declare anything.

There is more about the house here but, unfortunately, it is behind the Chicago Tribune's pay wall.

Maybe Templeton should double-down on their flimsy Capone myth, buy the house on South Prairie, and make it their Chicago welcome center. With their present story in shambles, they need to do something.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Come See Me in Cleveland Wednesday, November 5th, at Market Garden Brewery

Come see me in Cleveland (land of my ancestors on my mother's side) Wednesday, November 5, at Market Garden Brewery, 1947 W 25th St., beginning at 5:00 PM.

The occasion is the official release party for Tom's Foolery Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It is co-sponsored by the Cleveland Bourbon Club. I'll be there to speak and sign copies of my new book, Bourbon, Strange.

Tom's Foolery is a real-deal craft distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, outside of Cleveland. It is owned by Tom and Lianne Herbruck. They started out making apple brandy, later adding bourbon and rye.

Their stills and other equipment came from Michter's in Pennsylvania by way of the David Beam family. David is the grandson of Park Beam, Jim Beam's brother. He was a distiller at Jim Beam until his retirement in 1994. He and other family members assisted Tom and Lianne with their bourbon, as did Dick Stoll, former distiller at Michter's. Stoll is the only man alive who had made whiskey using this equipment until the Herbrucks got it a few years ago.

The stills were made by Louisville's Vendome in 1976 and were installed at Michter's as part of the American Bicentennial celebration. The system is capable of producing one 53 gallon barrel of whiskey per day.

If you can't attend the Cleveland event, you can still get a signed copy of Bourbon, Strange by clicking here. It's the perfect gift!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Michter's Stills Are In

A little more than three years ago, when Michter's announced that it was coming to Louisville, the hullabaloo was about restoration of the Fort Nelson Building on Main Street, where Michter's would have a visitors center and small, demonstration distillery. They incidentally mentioned they planned to build a new, production-scale distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively too.

Since New York's Chatham Imports resurrected the Michter's brand it has been a non-distiller producer, acquiring its bourbon and other whiskey from one or more undisclosed distilleries. As the brand has grown, and bourbon in general has boomed, its suppliers have all reached their production limits. Michter's had to become a distiller.

Meanwhile, unforeseen structural problems have stymied the Main Street project. This morning, in Shively, a new Vendome 32-inch diameter column still with pot still doubler was installed. There is still much to do, but Michter's should be making whiskey there by spring. Maturation will also be done on site. Michter's has been bottling its products there for about a year.

Go here to see the new stills going in.

There have been many announcements about new whiskey distilleries recently but only three with significant capacity have actually been built: Willett in Bardstown, New Riff in Newport, and now Michter's in Shively, the biggest of the three.

The town of Shively is where most of the big distilleries went after Prohibition. The new Michter's Distillery is on Wathen Lane, which is just south of Bernheim Lane. Wathen and Bernheim are two prominent family names from bourbon history. The Michter's property is adjacent to what was once the Frankfort Distillery, aka Four Roses. Nearby is the glorious hulk of the old Seagram's plant. Brown-Forman's working distillery and Diageo's maturation and blending facility at Stitzel-Weller are also in the neighborhood.

New brands and new products come and go. Micro-distilleries are proliferating like mushrooms after the rain. New large-scale distilleries like this are still a rarity. Congratulations to the Michter's team. This is a big deal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Which We Retreat and Declare Victory on ‘Craft Distilling’

The latest issue of WHISKY Magazine has on its cover an artsy photograph of a fellow named Henry McWilliams shoveling malt at the Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland.  The headline asks: “Is Craft an Expression of Skill?” The word ‘expression’ is emphasized. Beneath the headline is this pull quote: “Small distillers do not have a corner on ‘craft distilling.’ There are many larger spirits that are craft. There are also some smaller spirits that exhibit little or no skill or artistry.”

The article inside, by Neil Ridley, continues along those lines.

Do you sense battle lines being drawn? Clearly, the major producers are not going to let this ‘craft’ thing go. Moreover, they are not going to let themselves be labeled ‘industrial distillers.’ They will fight back. Resistance is futile, so maybe it’s time to just retreat and declare victory. Fighting about it is probably a big waste of time and, ultimately, a distraction from something that is much more important.

Featuring Balvenie on the cover was no accident. Hardly any distilleries grow barley and malt it traditionally, but Balvenie does. It also has coopers and a coppersmith on staff. It can afford all this ‘craft’ because Balvenie is one of the best-selling single-malt brands in the world.

So is Balvenie a craft distillery?

Perhaps that’s the wrong question.

As everyone has pointed out, this all happened with craft brewing a generation ago, yet no one can deny that the name stuck. We still talk about ‘craft beers,’ and for the most part we all mean the same thing when we say it. The parallels aren't perfect. For consumers, the craft beer movement has mostly been about variety, sampling beer in all its possibilities. For some, it’s also about the practical and emotional values of ‘localism,’ if not terroir exactly. For perhaps the smallest number, it’s about the preservation of traditional production methods and the intimate connection between maker and product that is only possible in a small operation.

There is a good chance craft spirits will turn out the same way.

With its numerous expressions, Balvenie offers a lot of variety, but no one would call them experimental. Balvenie is a conventional Speyside malt, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They get their highest points for the use of traditional methods. They score zero for localism as their whiskey is sold everywhere, though no doubt the folks in Dufftown are very proud.

Knowing all that, can you slap the ‘craft’ label on them or not? Breaking it down, you see how ridiculous the question is. If it makes sense to call Balvenie a ‘craft distillery,’ it’s because they’re different. They do many traditional things their counterparts do not. If Balvenie is craft, therefore, Glenlivet can’t be.

What Balvenie is, most of all, is real. That’s where the young U.S. craft distilling movement has gotten stuck. Too many of its leading names are outright fakes. Too many new consumers, attracted by the idea of ‘craft spirits,’ are being suckered by clever packaging and glib stories that may stay within the letter of the law but use every trick imaginable to convey a false impression.

While it's disgusting that some producers employ these practices, and over-burdened regulators let them, consumers deserve some of the blame. There will always be bad actors, especially in expanding markets, and regulators are never fully effective. What’s really shocking is how many consumers are okay with it. They consider it bad taste to disabuse them. All of the fakers have ardent supporters. Fine. Tell Al Capone I said hi.

Maybe the best thing to do now is just let it go. I haven't changed my standards. I'm still going to investigate and report, and anyone who cares knows where to find me. Consumers are going to use the terms they find most useful. The hive mind eventually sorts these things out in ways that are generally unambiguous if not precisely so. It’s good at that.

f you want to know the truth about any products, the first thing you have to do is find independent voices. Many producers do a good job with transparency, but it still takes independent voices to tell you who those producers are and keep them honest. Everyone vying to be one of those independent voices has to establish their own credibility. Everyone in the advertiser-supported media recognizes how that model threatens credibility and because they all navigate it differently, some advertiser-supported outlets are more credible than others.

Because I write for some advertiser-supported outlets, I am partially advertiser-supported but mostly not. When producers invite me to events they want me to cover, they usually pay my expenses, but that’s a wash. Most of my income is from book sales, newsletter subscriptions, and personal appearances.

Consumers have to do some of the work, if only in deciding who to believe and what to buy. The consumer who expects the easy answer to also be the right one is always disappointed. To really understand what’s going on in the distilled spirits business, you might need to read a book.

Here are a few to get you started.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Have a Peek at the Warehouse X Data Stream

The picture above is a snapshot of the data stream from Warehouse X at Buffalo Trace. You'll notice that the liquid temperature is higher than the outside temperature so the barrel is pulling negative pressure, i.e. liquid is being pulled out of the wood.

Warehouse X is an experimental warehouse. It has five chambers, each of which can create different aging conditions. The center chamber is the Breezeway, which is entirely open to the elements.

As with most whiskey experiments, it will be years before any Warehouse X whiskey is available to taste, but glimpses like this are fun if nothing else.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is in the Mail

This space has been quiet for the last several days because we've been putting out a new edition of The Bourbon Country Reader. It is a few weeks late, dated October, 2014. For those of you keeping score at home, it is Volume 16, Number 3.

In this issue, we digest a few recent bourbon news items and interpret what they mean for bourbon makers and bourbon drinkers in a story headlined "How the Bourbon Boom Is Transforming the Business."
  • With producers operating at full capacity, and keeping most of that production for their own brands, non-distiller producers (NDPs) are struggling to find whiskey to buy. 
  • A major brand is dipping its toe into the coveted Indian market. 
  • Diageo, the world's largest distiller and quite possibly its largest NDP too, is finally going to make whiskey in Kentucky again. 
  • Rumors are rampant so we get answers from the source.
  • And we try to explain what it all means.
Since virtually all of the whiskey made in Scotland is aged in barrels that formerly held bourbon, we examine how each whiskey type uses American oak to craft a unique whiskey style.

Old Forester launched Brown-Forman in 1870. The brand is still made and widely distributed but it is not a big seller and has not benefited very much from the bourbon boom. We report on some of the ways Brown-Forman hopes to change that. (And, by the way. Old Forester is a terrific bourbon. You should try it.)

subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year (six issues) for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. It is published six times a year, or thereabouts.

Click here 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.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Templeton Tale Gets Curiouser and Curiouser

Templeton Rye's current tale of woe is interesting in its own right but also for what it may portend, because Templeton is far from alone in its misleading marketing practices. Products like Tin Cup, Widow Jane, Texas 1835, and many others could be looking at the same kinds of trouble, including lawsuits like the one filed against Templeton and the now two filed against Tito's Vodka.

Vern Underwood is the CEO of Templeton and also Chairman of the Board for Young's Market Company, a big wine and spirits distributor. Yesterday he issued the following public response to the lawsuit.

"As many of you have heard, Templeton Rye Sprits has been sued in Chicago recently alleging deceptive marketing practices.

"The most damaging and patently false statement made in that lawsuit was that stock rye whiskey purchased from MGP is simply poured into bottles and labeled 'Templeton Rye.' That statement is simply not true.

"The fact is Templeton purchases rye whiskey from MGP. Templeton has never hidden that fact from consumers. However, Templeton also purchases a flavoring formula from Clarendon Engineering in Louisville, Kentucky. That proprietary formula was created specifically for Templeton by Clarendon to match the flavor profile of the prohibition-era recipe rye whiskey produced by the ancestors of one of the founders of Templeton. That formula is blended with the rye whiskey distilled by MGP in a small vessel in Templeton, then bottled and labeled in Templeton.

"It is this blending of the whiskey and the formula which results in the production of Templeton Rye Whiskey. Templeton does not purchase 'Templeton Rye' from MGP as alleged in the complaint. Templeton makes (or produces, if you like) Templeton Rye in Iowa using an ingredient supplied by MGP.

"It is the formula created for Templeton that gives Templeton Rye Whiskey its unique flavor and distinctive taste. It is a product unlike any other on the market. The product in a bottle of Templeton Rye is made in Templeton, Iowa. The Company has never said it was distilled in Iowa.

"The Company will vigorously defend itself against these false and misleading allegations and we are confident that we will prevail in the end."

First of all, Templeton absolutely did hide the fact that MGP was its distillery and did so for the first several years of the brand's existence, because I asked Templeton president Scott Bush who distilled it and he refused to tell me. As for this proprietary flavoring, that was never revealed until the Des Moines Register article two months ago.

Can you add flavoring to rye whiskey and still call it rye whiskey? Apparently, yes, but said flavoring may be no more that 2 1/2 percent of the product's volume. More importantly, the added flavoring must be "an essential component part of the particular class or type of distilled spirits to which added" or "customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage." Can Templeton meet that standard? It seems like that would be tough since, until a few years ago, only four American distilleries made rye whiskey and they all made straight rye, in which additives are not permitted, so flavoring wasn't "essential" or "customarily employed" in any of those products.

There also seems to be a direct contradiction in their argument. If their flavoring is proprietary, i.e., used only by them, making Templeton Rye "unlike any other on the market," how can it also be "an essential component part" of all rye whiskey, or "customarily employed therein"? You can't have it both ways.

Finally, there is this claim that the flavoring from Clarendon is used to "match the flavor profile of the prohibition-era recipe rye whiskey produced by the ancestors of one of the founders of Templeton." That would be Alphonse Kerkhoff. Back in 2006, when the company was just getting going and filing its first labels with the TTB, one of its COLAs was for something called "Templeton Rye Kerkhoff Recipe." It was classified as a "Specialty Distilled Spirit," TTB's catchall for products that don't qualify for any other classification. The label further stated that the product was to be "bottled in Templeton" (i.e., not distilled there) and would consist of "Spirits Distilled from Cane (90%) and Rye (10%)."

That is a typical moonshine recipe. Real moonshiners*, then and now, ferment table sugar but throw in some grain for flavor. Since no enzymes are used, the grain starch isn't converted into sugar so the grain isn't contributing any alcohol, but it may add a little flavor. It looks like what Templeton planned to do was mix neutral spirit made from cane (i.e., white rum) with a little bit of rye distillate. I don't know if that product was ever produced or what it's relevance might be to this proprietary flavoring, but that's the only "Kerkhoff Recipe" that's on the record.

If you've read this far, you are one of those people who, like me, is way more into this stuff than the average drinker. What is the average drinker and regular buyer of Templeton taking away from all this? Only time -- meaning sales figures -- will tell.

* To learn the true story of moonshine and its makers, read Chasing the White Dog by Max Watman.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Randy Schrick Named VP of Production and Engineering at MGP

MGP, a leading supplier of premium distilled spirits and specialty food ingredients, has appointed Randy Schrick to the newly expanded position of vice president of production and engineering, effective immediately.

In his new role, Schrick will support the company’s long-term growth plans by assuming leadership of all production activities, in addition to his previous engineering leadership responsibilities.

“Randy’s credentials and professional accomplishments are extraordinary,” said MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin. “His leadership qualities, combined with his vast experience and proficiencies in every aspect of our processes, make him ideal for mentoring others in the art and science of producing the highest quality alcohol products and ingredients for our customers.”

Schrick most recently served as Vice President of Engineering since June 2009 and held the position of MGP’s interim co-CEO from December 2013 to July 2014. He also served as president of the company’s Pekin, Ill., joint venture operation, Illinois Corn Processing, LLC, from November 2009 to December 2011. (Pekin makes grain neutral spirit for vodka and other uses.)

Starting as a distillery shift manager in 1973, Schrick worked his way up through the ranks at the company, building on his unique skills and talents, and strengthening his business acumen. He subsequently served as vice president of operations, plant manager, and corporate director of distillery products manufacturing. He has been a master distiller for more than 20 years.

Schrick holds a bachelor of science degree in physics from Washburn University, Topeka, and a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Kansas State University, Manhattan.

MGP has become very important to whiskey enthusiasts in recent years because the former Seagrams plant MGP operates in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, makes bourbon and rye for assorted producers large and small, some of whom have been in the news lately for misrepresenting the source of their whiskey. MGP can only sell alcoholic beverages to customers who hold the required government licenses but, other than that, MGP has no say in how its customers use those products. 

Although MGP is not the only distillery that sells whiskey to non-distiller producers (NDPs), it is the only one that does so exclusively. It has no brands of its own. Also, and despite the claims of some of its customers, it does not prohibit its customers from revealing MGP as the source. On the contrary, they wish more would, not that MGP needs the advertising. So hot is demand for its products that the distillery today produces more whiskey than it did even in its Seagrams heyday.