Friday, December 18, 2015

Tales of Whiskey-Making Along Old Knob Creek

An early Knob Creek label from the portfolio of National Distillers, which Beam acquired in 1987.
Many bourbon brands have fanciful names and fictional origin stories, but a few have real history behind them. In the case of Beam Suntory's Knob Creek, it is named after a real body of water with a lot of history. That history has only a small connection to the current Knob Creek brand, but it is real nonetheless.

There are several streams called Knob Creek in Kentucky and southern Indiana. The word 'knob' refers to the region's characteristic round-topped hills. The Knob Creek we care about flows south-to-north roughly along US Route 31E in LaRue County, Kentucky. It gets pretty close to Beam's Booker Noe Distillery but there the connection ends. This Knob Creek is most associated with the various Athertonville distilleries, concluding with Cummins-Collins, which operated under the Seagrams banner until 1987. It is also associated with Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home, which he referred to as 'the Knob Creek place.'

It is an interesting story with as many twists and turns as Knob Creek itself, but to read the rest of it you need a subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader, the always independent and idiosyncratic journal of American whiskey.

Also in this issue, we examine the disturbing behavior of the Kentucky Distillers' Association and its tendency to overreach and under-deliver. This is an ongoing saga that you may have read about here or here.

The Bourbon Country Reader is America's oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey. Honoring tradition, it still comes to you on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader 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.) For the record, this new one is our 98th.

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50.

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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

My Dad's Pearl Harbor Story

Seventy-four years ago today my father, J. K. 'Ken' Cowdery, was in the Army stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. This is his account of that morning. He wrote it in 1991, for the 50th anniversary, for the Mansfield News Journal. It was later published in the AARP magazine.

Sunday, December 7, 1941, dawned bright and clear at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii. At least I assume that it did because it was bright and clear when I got up at about 7:45.

To get breakfast I had to be in the chow line out behind the barracks before 8:00. I made it.

Someone noticed a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of Wheeler Field, the fighter field, south of our location. There were comments and conjecture that the fly boys must be having some kind of exercise and that one of them had cracked up.

At about the same time we noticed a line of planes coming over Kole Kole Pass, which was about three miles northwest of us and in full view because there was nothing in the way. Our barracks was the furthest northwest barracks on the post. As the first plane in the line passed overhead I could not only see the red circle markings on the plane but could see the pilot's face, he came in so low that he cleared the two story barracks by about 5 or 6 feet.

At that point he also started his guns. We never did figure out why he didn't start strafing a few seconds sooner and try to get some of the 30 or 40 guys in the chow line. I have no idea what the second plane in the line did, by the time he got there I was long gone.

We all made for cover, I went into the building via the back door to the kitchen. The kitchen was about 20 feet wide by about 30 feet long. Just inside the back door, to the right, was the walk-in cooler. I hit the floor at the far end of the cooler, putting the cooler between me and the line of fire.

There must have been several planes in the line as the firing kept up for quite a long time--at least it seemed like a long time. After the firing stopped everything was completely silent, there was not a sound. I wondered if I was the only one still alive.

There was a line of preparation tables down the center of the room, with equipment and utensil storage drawers below, and ranges along the far wall at the other end of the room. Looking around I could not see another human being, everyone was obviously hugging the floor. Then I saw a hand rise up, pick up a spatula, turn over two eggs frying on the range, then replace the spatula and again disappear.

Regardless of the circumstances, duty comes first.

I might add at this point that this was the 90th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, a Regular Army outfit.

When it seemed that the attack was over and people started stirring again I grabbed a plate, claimed the eggs, and sat down to eat my breakfast.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Putting Whiskey Rankings, Ratings, and Awards in Perspective.

You've seen the headlines. "Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Named Whiskey of the Year." Then the follow-up headlines. "Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Flying Off the Shelves."

In other news, the New York International Spirits Competition has taken to giving awards such as "Kentucky Rum Distillery of the Year" and "South Carolina Vodka Distillery of the Year." The facial absurdity of these awards, not to mention their sheer gall, seems to go unnoticed. Exactly how did Adam Levy and company assess and evaluate every vodka distillery in South Carolina and every rum distillery in Kentucky, and where exactly is evidence of the public's demand for that particular breakdown of information? The competition named Kentucky's best rum distillery but is silent about the state's much more prominent whiskey distilleries.

Just today, Whisky Magazine announced the results of the "Icons of Whisky Scotland 2016," "Hall of Fame Scotland 2016," and "Independent Bottlers Challenge 2015." Whisky gives an almost uncountable number of different awards every year, including its World Whiskies Awards, announced in the spring.

Whisky Advocate Magazine is dropping its annual awards now, one every few days, and this morning named Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye as its Craft Whiskey of the Year. They are announcing award winners from eleven different whisky segments one day at a time, on their blog, from today through December 14. The Whisky Advocate awards will culminate with the naming of a Lifetime Achievement honoree on December 15 and Distiller of the Year on December 16.

Winners are inevitably proud to win and as the Crown Royal experience shows, a well-publicized win in the right competition is rewarded at the cash register. The normally circumspect Canadian whisky writer Davin de Kergommeaux is treating Crown's score as a matter of national pride. Competition results are news, after all. They are an automatic publish for many information outlets hungry for content that is timely, safe (uncontroversial), and free.

A part of every issue of Whisky Advocate and Whisky Magazine is devoted to rating new whiskey releases. Whisky Advocate uses a 100-point scale. Whisky uses a ten-point scale finished to one decimal point, so a 100-point scale. The content of most whiskey blogs is product reviews, usually with ratings. If you want to give your own whiskey awards there is nothing to stop you. All you need is a platform and a good PR agency.

Excluding hobbyists who rate spirits for their own amusement, most people involved in this sort of thing are selling something. Competitions typically charge a substantial entrance fee. Some are very profitable. Their 'product' is the awards themselves. If you win an award, you can publicize it. The publicity names the product and the award, but never talks about methodology. What was the basis for the win? Who was the competition? Who did the judging? You never hear or see any of that. It's just "Whiskey Name Wins Prestigious Award."

Since awards are the product, award givers maximize revenue by giving lots of them. Here's an interesting statement from the folks in New York. "While other renowned competitions prize up to 85% of entrants with awards, the discerning panel and ethos of the NYISC is to honor the brands that are most deserving among their peers. This year, NYISC prized only 46% of its entrants." So instead of almost everyone winning a prize, only about half do. That's integrity!

Crown Royal's big prize, which certainly sounds universal and definitive, is actually just the opinion of one person, Jim Murray, who writes and publishes an annual whiskey buying guide called, with unapologetic hubris, The Whiskey Bible. When one is disseminating the inspired word of God, no more explanation is needed.

Just as Murray's awards are designed to sell his book, awards given by publications such as Whisky Magazine and Whisky Advocate Magazine are intended to sell magazines and advertising. In each case there is a pool of voters, typically comprising the magazine's staff and maybe some of its freelance writers too.

Sometimes there are blind tastings, though often not. Sometimes the judging panels include producer representatives and sometimes awards go to that producer's product. Yes, really.

The problem with all of this is simple. The award givers are engaged in a ruse to convince you that something inherently subjective and personal can be rendered objective and universal just by how you describe it. One way to test the validity of these exercises would be to look at how often they agree with each other, which is almost never.

The target of all this folderol is you, the whiskey buyer. If they influence your buying decisions they perhaps provide a service by weeding out the really bad products, which rarely win awards. But are the products blessed by these self-proclaimed taste-makers really 'the best' in any sense?

Let's compare whiskey awards to something really important, the naming of Best in Group and Best in Show at the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. One obvious difference between whiskey awards and doggie awards is standards. The 'perfect' dog of each type is rigorously defined by a body recognized as the authority on that particular breed. While a judge's opinion is still subjective, it is based on comparing the candidate animal to a standard, an ideal. Learning and internalizing those standards is literally the life's work of the competition's judges.

Is there a comparable universally-agreed-upon standard for whiskey? No, not even close. Even the top distillers can't agree on what would constitute a perfect whiskey. Do judges at whiskey competitions have organoleptic training? Some do, some don't, and among those who do some have more than others. Are whiskey judges screened, are their organoleptic abilities evaluated? In a word, no.

So what? Well, if you understand all this and still find some or all of these declarations useful, then no harm done. Do lazy people use them as a cheat sheet, both for buying decisions and personal pontifications? Clearly, that's the downside.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Badger State in a Bottle

The Wisconsin supper club is much less interesting than it sounds. It's basically the restaurant you go to with your grandparents. The type is not unique to Wisconsin. What is perhaps noteworthy is the affection in which they are held in the Badger State. That may be because they are a reliable place to get that peculiar regional cocktail, the brandy old fashioned.

Soul Boxer Cocktails is a new venture from Jason Neu and Doug MacKenzie, both formerly of Milwaukee's Great Lakes Distilling. Their first offering is the 'Wisconsin-Style' brandy old-fashioned. It's a pre-mixed cocktail that gets it right, for about $20 a bottle. They're making it at Yahara Bay Distillers in Madison but the ambitious Misters Neu and MacKenzie are working on a distillery of their own.

The ingredients are California brandy, real fruit including Door County cherries, bitters, and sugar.

The Old Fashioned is a sweet drink to begin with and the brandy base makes it even more so. The key here to balancing that out is bitters. They give the drink a spice cake quality. Many Wisconsinites spritz their old fashioneds with club soda or a soft drink. Soul Boxer leaves that up to you. It tastes pretty good straight from the bottle, over ice.

Soul Boxer's Brandy Old Fashioned is not widely distributed but perhaps your whiskey monger can order it for you. Soul Boxer's slogan is "Less Time Making. More Time Drinking." I think my suggestion is better: "Soul Boxer. You Can Almost Taste the Badger."

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Chamber Still Is Reborn

Now that you know all about rectification, a mid-to-late 19th century phenomenon, let's go a little earlier in the century. As Chris Middleton pointed out in his comment, there were multiple transitional technologies along the way to the continuous still as we know it today in bourbon-making. Although the earliest form of still, the alembic, is still in wide use these transitional designs mostly died out as the modern continuous still emerged.

A conversation here about one of the most important transitional forms started a year and a half ago with a post about how Leopold Brothers Distillery in Colorado was trying to recreate the distinctive Maryland ryes of legend. One characteristic of these early ryes, made in and around Baltimore and also Philadelphia, was the chamber still.

We heard from David Wondrich, Chris Middleton, Todd Leopold, Thomas McKenzie, and others on the subject. We learned that chamber stills were made of copper but also sometimes wood. There is an explanation of how such a still works here. We were all over it that June.

Now we return to Leopold Brothers and Todd Leopold, who has -- along with the folks at Louisville's Vendome Copper and Brass -- designed and built a production scale chamber still. It is copper, not wood, stands about 20 feet high, and has four chambers.

Innovation like this, by the way, is what it means to be a craft distiller.

As in a column still, steam is introduced at the bottom and mash enters at the top. Gravity is used to move the mash through the system, but unlike in a column, steam and mash can 'work' in each chamber as long as the distiller wants.

The first chamber, the highest, is a pre-heater, which brings the mash nearly to boiling before it enters the first distillation chamber. Mash is held in the first chamber as steam bubbles through it. When that chamber has done all it can the mash is dropped into the next chamber, which is hotter because it is closer to the steam source. The third and final chamber is the hottest.

Because different alcohols and congeners boil at different temperatures, sending mash through three heat 'zones' effectively frees the alcohol, concentrates good congeners, and eliminates bad ones.

As each batch moves from chamber to chamber, another batch is on its heels. The process is continuous, but in a batch sort of way.

The chamber still is a particularly American solution because it allows distilling on the grain, which has always been practiced in America. In Scotland and Ireland, whiskey is distilled on a wash, from which all solids have been removed. This allows them to use large but relatively simple alembic stills.

Leopold became fixated on the chamber still because it figures so prominently in the early history of rye whiskey. It also solves a production dilemma for Leopold Brothers. They need more whiskey production than their pot and pot hybrid stills alone can deliver, but they don't want the huge output of a full-on column still. They already have one for making neutral spirits but for whiskey, "a column still is a volume instrument," says Leopold. "It doesn't make sense to buy one if you aren't going to run an awful lot of mash through it around the clock." A three-chamber still is a nice, happy medium.

"We have no interest in becoming a large distillery," he says. "That's not our path."

The difference between a continuous still and a chamber still is like the difference between an espresso machine and a French press coffee maker. In the former, steam is forced through the grounds in seconds. In the latter, grounds linger and steep in the hot water to taste. The results are both coffee, but very different.

For most continuous bourbon stills, mash is inside the still in contact with steam for about three minutes. In the three-chamber still it's more like an hour. Both technologies extract all of the alcohol from the mash, but the chamber still extracts more flavor.

It isn't just the unique still. At Leopold's request, a Colorado farmer has planted 100 acres of an heirloom rye strain that was used by distillers in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and also by bakers in the Carolinas. Its difference, compared to modern strains, is starch content. Modern cereals are bred for high starch content. Starch becomes alcohol, so more starch means more yield, but starch content increases at the expense of flavor.

Modern rye strains are about 70 percent starch but the one Leopold is using is about 64 percent. "It has a much richer, nutty and floral flavor," says Leopold.

You can see where this is going. Both the still and the grain variety are less efficient but produce a more flavorful spirit.

"We are trying to recreate the flavors of those original ryes simply because they are lost to time," says Leopold. "It would be a shame to let such a glorious tradition of American whiskey production that was all but wiped out by Prohibition stay wiped out."

From the still's thumper, the distillate goes into the barrel with no additional rectification. A lot of work has gone into this recreation but now comes the hardest part; waiting while it ages.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

It's Use It or Lose It Time for Turkey Leftovers

And that means it's time for the Hot Brown, a Kentucky favorite.

The Hot Brown is a turkey-based, open face sandwich specifically made for topping off a stomach full of bourbon. Chef Fred K. Schmidt created it at Louisville's Brown Hotel in 1926 as a breakfast dish to be served before the previous night's revelers finally went home, or upstairs, to bed.

Today it's usually served for lunch or brunch, sometimes for dinner. It's easily scalable and can be anything from a light snack to a hearty main course. It is on the menu at hundreds of Kentucky restaurants.

This is the original recipe, as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal. There are many variations. Some people say the Hot Brown itself is based on Turkey Mornay, which is similar but uses gruy√®re cheese instead of the Hot Brown's cheddar and parmesan blend.

Hot Brown (4 servings)

4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices toast, with crusts cut off
Turkey breast slices
Crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
Mushroom slices, sauteed

Saute onion in butter until transparent; add flour and combine. Add milk, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Cook on medium heat until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Add cheese and continue heating until they blend. Remove from heat.

Put one slice of toast in each of four oven-proof individual serving dishes. Top each piece of toast with slices of turkey. Cut remaining toast slices diagonally and place on sides of sandwiches. Ladle cheese sauce over sandwiches. Place sandwiches under broiler until sauce begins to bubble. Garnish with crumbled bacon and sauteed mushroom slices and serve immediately.

There are many variations. Most places don’t crumble the bacon, and there are many substitutes for the mushrooms, including grilled tomato slices and asparagus spears. Some simply forgo vegetables altogether. Parsley can be added for color.

At buffet tables around Kentucky you may encounter the Hot Brown Casserole, whose creation the Brown Hotel also claims. That brings us close to Turkey Noodle Casserole, leftover turkey's last resort. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

You're welcome.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Let Me Rectify That for You

Historically, rectification was the process of redistilling whiskey to strip out some or all of the whiskey flavor elements. Taken all the way, redistillation transforms whiskey into grain neutral spirit, i.e., vodka (GNS). Historical rectifiers also used filtering, through charcoal or bone dust, and blending. They added coloring and flavoring, some of it dangerous.

The dictionary definition of ‘rectify’ is ‘to fix.’ Rectifiers chose that name and justified their practices as ‘fixing’ poorly made whiskey, to make it more palatable and marketable.

Today ‘rectification’ is synonymous with blending. A rectifier mixes a little straight whiskey (e.g., straight bourbon) with a much larger percentage of GNS, plus flavoring and coloring, to produce blended whiskey. By U.S. law, at least 20 percent of the blend must be 100° proof straight whiskey.

This is American blended whiskey we’re talking about. The rules for blended scotch whiskey and Canadian blended whiskey are different.

Rectifiers also make vodka, gin, and liqueurs. By definition, vodka is GNS and GNS is vodka, although most vodkas producers filter the GNS in some way before bottling. Rectifiers also receive their GNS at more than 190° proof (>95% ABV), so they add water to reduce it to 80° proof. Rectifiers make gin by mixing vodka with a gin flavoring concentrate. This is known as ‘compound gin.’

Making liqueurs requires a slightly more complicated blending process. In addition to combining GNS with a flavor concentrate, liqueurs (aka cordial, aperitif, schnapps, etc.) typically add a boatload of sugar. Most liqueurs have GNS as their base but a few use whiskey. Many of today’s so-called ‘flavored whiskeys’ are actually liqueurs. (Check the label.) As such, they may contain more GNS than whiskey.

Rectified whiskey was virtually unknown before 1831. It took the introduction of the continuous still (pictured) to make redistillation, especially to or near neutrality, practical. After its introduction its popularity grew steadily. Rectified whiskey was most popular in the decades just prior to Prohibition, when 75 to 90 percent of all spirit consumed in the U.S. was rectified whiskey.

The flavor of rectified whiskey was generally lighter and less harsh than straight whiskey and because little if any of the typical blend was actually aged whiskey, rectified whiskeys were much less expensive. Rectified whiskey was also more consistent from batch to batch than all but the finest straight whiskey.

From the beginning, the makers, sellers and consumers of straight whiskey considered the rectification process disreputable.

Most rectifiers were distributors who purchased whiskey from distillers for resale to taverns, restaurants and other retailers. Their suppliers were the hundreds of small country distilleries that dotted the landscape across Kentucky and other states.

In those days, the quality of whiskey ‘at the still’ varied widely, not just between distilleries, but also from run to run within a given distillery. The quality depended on the skill of the distiller and his workers, the weather, and many other factors, probably dumb luck most of all. Even after Dr. Crow introduced the sour mash process, consistency and quality remained problems.

Not surprisingly, the best runs were retained for personal use or sold to neighbors. The rest was sold to distributors. To even out the quality and make what little good, aged whiskey they did obtain go further, distributors became rectifiers. The worst whiskey was rectified into neutral spirits, then blended with good, aged whiskey (maybe) and flavorings like sugar and prune juice. Glycerine was added for body. Acid was added to give it a good ‘burn’ going down. Some of the recipes were unhealthy and dangerous.

Bourbon purists thought the rectifiers were barbarians, but the argument generally revolved around labeling, specifically what should and should not be called whiskey. Rectifiers could and did make all sorts of false claims for their products, including false age claims. Though the claims were untrue, they were not against the law as there were no 'truth in labeling' laws like we have today.

The dispute came to a head when it was proposed that whiskey labels be regulated by the Federal Government under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. At first, the Act was interpreted to require that rectified products could not use the word whiskey without a modifier such as ‘imitation,’ ‘compounded,’ or ‘blended.’ Rectifiers were to be barred from using the term ‘bourbon,’ making age claims, or duplicating the labels of famous brands such as Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad, all of which were common practices.

The rectifiers were understandably appalled by this interpretation and attacked the bourbon interests for selling dangerous, unwholesome ‘fusel oil whiskey.’ Lengthy and rancorous hearings were held in the U.S. Congress, where whiskey quality was by no means an abstract concept.

This so-called 'Whiskey War' raged until 1909, when President William Howard Taft issued the ‘Taft Decision.’ Henceforth, rectified goods would be called ‘blended whiskey’ and the traditional product would be called "straight whiskey," but both had an equal right to the name ‘whiskey.’ Later, even more precise definitions were written for ‘bourbon,’ ‘rye,’ and other types.

Blended whiskeys were popular after Prohibition and again right after World War II, in both cases because straight, fully aged whiskey was in short supply. When more straight whiskey became available, the ratio shifted in straight whiskey’s favor. Blends are still sold today, of course. Seagram’s Seven Crown is the best-selling brand. Most blends are very inexpensive, found on the bottom shelf in 1.75 L plastic bottles. Blends have not benefited from the current whiskey boom.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Remembering Buffalo Springs Distillery

Stamping Ground is a small town in Kentucky's Scott County. It was so named by its first settlers, who observed herds of bison trampling the grasses around a fruitful spring. Not long after the buffalo departed, the spring was turned to the production of whiskey. There was a distillery on the site for about 100 years.

The one known as Buffalo Springs Distillery was constructed early in the 20th century. It produced several bourbon brands including Boots and Saddle. It came back and was substantially rebuilt after Prohibition. Otis Beam, one of the seven master distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam, was the distiller. Eventually purchased by Seagram, it ceased production for good in the 1960s and stood vacant for many years thereafter.

Buffalo Springs was typical of the many small town distilleries that once abounded in the region. It generally operated from late fall until early spring, employing local farmers for the period between harvest and planting. As one of the few sources of non-farm employment, it dominated the local economy and was a powerful part of the town’s consciousness.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

All Hail the Tuffy's Toasted Roll

From time to time I like to write about local and regional food specialties. I was born and raised in Ohio and attended Miami University there from 1969 to 1973. Ohio has many favorite foods, some statewide, some very local. This is a very local one.

Tuffy's was a little basement sandwich shop and hangout. It was a private business but virtually on campus. I don't remember what the classes were, but I remember having two classes with a one-period break between them. I usually spent that period at Tuffy's with friends.

Tuffy's was on the northwest corner of Bishop and High. You know the type of place, a few steps down in a basement. A counter at one end with a flat top behind it, wooden tables and plain wooden booths. Very austere, no decor to speak of. The sort of place only a college student could love. I guess they sold sandwiches but mostly they sold toasted rolls and coffee. At least that is mostly what they sold to me.

So what is a toasted roll? Imagine a large cinnamon roll, like 4" x 6". Cut it lengthwise. Slather the two cut sides with butter and throw them on the flat top until they brown. Remove from heat, dust the two grilled sides with powdered sugar, close it up, and dust the top with powdered sugar. Eat with a fork.

You could also get ice cream sandwiched between the two grilled sides, which was a 'toasted roll a la mode,' or in the sublime wit of college students, a 'roasted mole on the commode.'

The student union also served toasted rolls in deference to Tuffy's. It still does.

I must always have sat in the same booth, at least that's what is indelibly etched in my memory, a view of the whole place from a very specific seat, the counter and griddle in front of me, the entrance to my left.

I have one permanent memory of Tuffy's, a scar on my right hand from where I brushed it against the brick wall one day on my way out. It has faded with time but it's not gone entirely.

UPDATE: (10/19/23) I have been informed that the student union recently dropped the toasted roll from its menu.

NOTE: (5/20/24) My friend, Jane, informs me that Tallawanda Hall (and Tuffy’s) was at the corner of High and Tallawanda, not Bishop, which seems reasonable.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is a Bourbon Tour Appropriate for Children?

Most people have no desire to see where their toaster was made, or their clothing, or where their food was grown. Yet tours of breweries, wineries, and distilleries are popular all over the world. In addition to seeing whiskey being made, visitors to Kentucky's bourbon country can see whiskey barrels being made, and whiskey candy, whiskey soy sauce, even whiskey cigars. They can stay in a self-described whiskey-themed hotel. They can eat food with whiskey in it. They can buy tons of souvenirs emblazoned with whiskey brand names.

More and more people visit Kentucky every year to see a distillery or other whiskey attraction. Tennessee too. Jack Daniel's alone receives 250,000 visitors annually.

Many bring their children.

Children may not participate in tastings, of course, but they are welcome on all of the tours. Here is how the Kentucky Bourbon Trail addresses it on their 'frequently asked questions' page:

Are people under 21 allowed to take tours?

All distilleries require you to be at least 21 to sample their products if they offer tastings, but anyone is welcome to tour the distilleries. You must be 21 to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Passport Program. 

If you visit the distilleries, you will see many families with children. You will see children of all ages, from babies in strollers to teenagers.

All of the content on these tours is about how whiskey is made, about the families who make it, and about the history. There is very little about drinking it.

Whiskey, however, is an adult product. We try to keep it away from kids, both as parents and as a society. It takes a village, you know. Some people believe advertising for alcohol should be banned because it makes children want to drink. If that's true, then what will visiting a distillery do to them?

The many people who would never dream of visiting a distillery themselves probably don't think children should be allowed, but if you think like that why are you even reading this? You're in a very whiskey-friendly space right now, in case you haven't noticed.

Planning a family vacation is hard. It can be a challenge to find something that appeals to everyone. Maybe that's why so many families default to Disney. The distilleries allow parents to bring their children along on tours, but they don't say whether or not they think it is a good idea. That decision is left up to the judgment of the parents. That's where it belongs.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Real Bourbon County

Paris, seat of Bourbon County, Kentucky.

It is often pointed out that no bourbon whiskey is made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. That is true today, but it was not always the case.

Bourbon County was established in 1786, while Kentucky was still part of Virginia. It covered a vast portion of what today is northeastern Kentucky. Virtually everything north and east of Lexington was Bourbon County. It was during that period and shortly thereafter that corn-based whiskey made in the region came to be called ‘Bourbon County whiskey’ and, ultimately, just ‘bourbon.’

The much smaller, modern Bourbon County, a sliver of the original, is adjacent to Lexington’s Fayette County. The county seat of modern Bourbon County is Paris. (It was originally named Hopewell.) When all of these places were named we loved the French for helping us wrap up the Revolution. They, by the way, had not yet had their revolution, so the French folk we liked were the aristocrats and royal family who then ran the place. The surname of France’s royal family at
the time was Bourbon.

There were at least twelve distilleries in Bourbon County during the second half of the 19th century. Only a few made it into the 20th and none came back after Prohibition.

Some of the bourbon brands that originated in Bourbon County are Peacock, Sam Clay, Paris Club, Old Cabin, Kentucky Belle, Daniel Boone, Old Pugh and Old Barton.

The Shawhan family had a long distilling history in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri. They established their first Kentucky distillery in Bourbon County in 1788. The family and distillery are long gone but the name remains on a little town alongside the railroad tracks close to the Harrison County border.

The Bourbon County distillery that seems to have lasted longest was just outside Paris and known as the Paris Distillery (RD #77). Established in 1860 it had many owners, eventually selling out to the Whiskey Trust which gave it the Julius Kessler name. That name lives on as a brand of American blended whiskey.

The Paris Distillery closed for good in 1913. Today Bourbon County is home to about 20,000 souls, most of them in or around Paris. One of the oldest remaining buildings, from 1788, is the Duncan Tavern. Unfortunately no longer a tavern, it houses the state headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Downtown Paris is quaint and has many well-kept 19th century buildings. Like most of the area around Lexington, the big attraction is horse farms, of which there are about 100 in Bourbon County. Horse breeding is the county’s biggest industry. Kentucky’s horse farms primarily raise thoroughbreds for racing.

Antique shops are another popular attraction.

You may have read that Bourbon County is dry, as are about half of Kentucky's 120 counties. It is not and never has been. Soon it may no longer be true that bourbon isn't made there. A micro-distillery, Hartfield & Co., recently opened in Paris.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Imbibe Magazine Says I'm a Character

I'll get right to the point. This link opens an article from the November-December 2015 issue of Imbibe Magazine. Thank you to Imbibe Executive Editor Paul Clarke, writer Robert Simonson, and photographer Matthew Gilson for making it happen.

Thanks also to Gary Regan, Fred Noe, and LeNell Camacho Santa Ana, who Robert got to say nice things about me, and to Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill (who I've known for 37 years), for admitting that I sometimes piss him off. Special thanks to Chris Kafcas at Fountainhead for hosting the photo session. It takes a lot of time and effort to make me look that good.

The article is headlined 'Whiskey's Iconoclast,' a characterization I can't dispute. The first person who called me an iconoclast, many years ago, had to define it for me. She explained the word's etymology and then we had sex. I'm so glad I went to college.

It's true that as a child of the 60s, I've never had much use for authority. That's probably why I've been self-employed for the past 30 years.

The best thing about this late-life career I've fallen into is all of the fun and fascinating people I've met as a result. It should not surprise you that most people in the hospitality business are fun and sociable, so much so that they can even tolerate the occasional boozy iconoclast.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The State of Bourbon Is Strong

For the last few years, sales of bourbon, rye, and other American whiskeys have been growing at home and overseas. Established producers are increasing their production capacity and launching new products. New producers are entering the field, some small, some not so small.

After a long period in the doldrums, American whiskey began to show signs of life about 25 years ago. One of the harbingers was the appearance of master distillers at tastings, whiskey shows, and other events. Usually kept close to their stills, master distillers were suddenly traveling the world to promote their company's brands. That pioneer generation has now mostly passed from the scene. Several were honored in 2015.

Even in an industry as time-hallowed as whiskey-making, 'innovation' is a driving force. But sometimes the old can be new again, as several producers demonstrated by reviving the bottled-in-bond designation, first used in 1897.

Although it's not over yet, 2015 has been an eventful year and The Bourbon Country Reader is devoting its current issue to a 'State of Bourbon' report for 2015, covering all of the subjects described above. Current subscribers have had the new issue (Volume 17, Number 1) for a couple of weeks. You can get yours by subscribing now.

The Bourbon Country Reader is America's oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey. Honoring tradition, it still comes to you on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

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. (We've been a bit lax of late. Those responsible have been sacked.)

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.) For the record, this new one is our 97th.

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50.

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.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

MGP CEO Predicts Bourbon Growth "Just Beginning"

One of the existing warehouses at the MGP Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
In a recent announcement that MGP is investing $16.4 million to double warehouse capacity at its Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery, MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin made the following statement:

“This investment is consistent with the ‘invest-for-growth’ initiative of our five-year strategic plan. Increased capacity will help us better support the rapid growth of the whiskey category, as well as support our own brand development efforts."

The brand development comment officially reverses a company pledge that it would never compete with its customers by creating its own brands. The reversal is not surprising, as house brands are simply too important for long term profitability to be dismissed that easily.

Griffin also said this:

“American whiskey is in the early stages of a long term growth trend. Thanks to our strong reputation for quality and innovation, and our production capacity, MGP is uniquely positioned to benefit from this trend. This investment allows us to expand our ability to mature product for both our customers and our own future needs.”

There has been much private discussion in recent years about the staying power of American whiskey's current boom. Many companies are speaking through their investments but few senior executives have been willing to predict a bright future this directly. As the U.S. producer most dependent on the non-distiller producer market, MGP needs this prediction to be true. Much depends on robust growth in export markets such as India and China.

MGP has been in and out of the whiskey game for decades, getting back into it with the acquisition of Lawrenceburg's old Seagrams distillery in 2011.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Buffalo Trace Distillery Harvests First Corn Crop

What distillery is the most grain-to-glass? Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky has just harvested its first crop of corn off land adjacent to the distillery. It purchased the land last year, expanding its site on the Kentucky River to 378 acres.

In May of this year, the distillery planted its first seeds using the same corn strain planted by Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. in 1870 (non-GMO, of course).

This week, those 18 acres were harvested and the corn has begun its journey toward fermentation in what will ultimately be Buffalo Trace's own farm-to-table 'Single Estate' experience. This bourbon will be a separate, stand-alone brand with its own identity. The name, age, price, and other details have yet to be determined.

"Although the yield was not quite as much as we had expected, we're still excited to complete this step and begin our own farm-to-table bourbon," said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller.

The additional land was acquired primarily for new warehouses. A total of 50 new warehouses are planned for the next 10 years. They will hold 50,000 barrels each. Construction on the first will begin in 2017. Two office buildings also on adjacent land, built originally as maturation warehouses, were recently converted back to that use. Sazerac also has maturation facilities at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown and the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro. In addition to whiskey, the warehouses at Barton 1792 are also used to age Paul Masson Brandy for the distillery's former owner, Constellation Brands.

Warehouse space is the chokepoint at many distilleries. New ones are being raised as fast as Buzick can build them. Buzick Construction builds most of the warehouses and other buildings for distilleries in the U.S.

MGP recently announced a $16.4 million investment in new and refurbished warehouses. One new warehouse, under construction now, is expected to be completed yet this year. It is being built on a 20-acre site adjoining the company’s current Lawrenceburg facility. The program includes both the refurbishment of existing warehouse buildings and the construction of new warehouses. It will double MGP's maturation capacity.

Monday, October 19, 2015

MGP Joins Big Boys Club

It was announced last week that MGP has joined the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS), the national trade association for producers and marketers of distilled spirits sold in the United States. This is another major move by the Kansas-based distiller which makes bourbon, rye, gin, and vodka primarily for the non-distiller producer (NDP) marketplace.

"As a leading supplier of premium distilled spirits, joining DISCUS is an important step in the evolution of our company," says MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin. "We are excited about our membership in DISCUS, which further demonstrates our commitment to playing an increasingly active role in this industry.”

MGP makes neutral spirits at its distilleries in Atchison, Kansas and Lawrenceburg, Indiana, while Lawrenceburg also makes whiskey.

DISCUS is one of several trade associations in the beverage alcohol business, but it is the largest and best-known group for producers. Joining DISCUS is a big commitment. It's expensive. Not every major producer is a member. Heaven Hill and Sazerac, for example, are not. MGP becomes DISCUS’ 15th voting member. In addition, DISCUS has 127 small distiller affiliate members in 35 states.

DISCUS says that, since 1935, it and its predecessor organizations have served as the industry’s voice on public policy and legislative issues in the nation’s capital, state capitals and foreign capitals worldwide.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Diageo's Crown Royal First to Put 'Serving Facts' on the Label

They can't call it 'Nutrition Facts' because it's not part of that FDA program, but Diageo has gone where no alcoholic beverage has gone before. As announced Tuesday, Diageo has begun to ship cases of Crown Royal that include what they're calling 'macro-nutritional information' on the product. It's the first time an alcoholic beverage brand has included a serving facts panel on its packaging. The panel details serving size, number of servings per container, alcohol by volume, number of calories and grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving. It also includes the U.S. Dietary Guidelines definition of a standard drink, which is 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.

Crown Royal has been used as a stalking horse before.

In 1996, Crown Royal (then owned by Seagram's) drew fire for breaking the taboo on distilled spirits advertising on television. President Clinton criticized them, saying the TV ad ban "helped protect children." Before that, Seagram's had created a line of 'Seagram's Coolers' that included both wine-based and spirit-based products, which it advertised on TV using Bruce Willis as the celebrity spokesperson. Technically, only the wine-based products appeared on TV, but the spirit-based products had identical packaging.

Diageo, which is frequently not very transparent about some of its products, wants to be seen as transparent on these types of consumer facts. Since 2006, Diageo has provided serving facts information on its DRINKiQ ( website. Diageo will add this information to other brands as they change or update their labels.

A 2014 study cited by Diageo found that 86 percent of U.S. alcohol consumers agree that serving facts labels that include the 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol per drink definition provide useful and relevant information, while 83 percent agree the same information on a label helps them understand the definition of a standard drink. The majority of respondents in the same study (conducted by FoodMinds LLC) specifically indicated that beverage labeling that includes alcohol content per serving is helpful to them in following the recommended dietary guidelines for alcohol consumption.

In 2003, Diageo was part of a coalition of consumer and public health advocates that publicly asked U.S. regulators to allow serving fact information on beverage alcohol products. In 2013, the US Treasury’s Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) finally approved that request, allowing labels to include serving size, number of servings per container, alcohol by volume, number of calories and grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving. Since that time, the TTB has approved a label that specifically references the US Dietary Guidelines, which defines a drink as being 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.

Serving fact information is now permitted, but it is not required. Producers have the option to include it or not.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stitzel-Weller, Meet Neiman Marcus

The annual Neiman Marcus Christmas Book debuted today. You know what it is, a wonderful expression of excess and aspiration. The fantasy gifts, the ones that make news, are selected to capture something of the historical moment, so it's an indicator of where American whiskey is today that one of them is this:

Whiskey a Go-Go

The perfect grab bag for a close circle of five whiskey-loving buds with a spending limit of $25,000 each. For $125,000, The Orphan Barrel Project puts you and your pals in the driver's seat (not literally!) at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. There, you'll go "barrel hunting" for bourbons recently discovered at old rickhouses and distilleries. And you get 24 bottles of eight different Orphan Barrel bourbons, never to be tasted again, including two variants you and your tight circle dreamed up during your spirited tour.

That works out to $641 per bottle. All of a sudden, Old Blowhard looks like a great value.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

After 36 Years, Brown-Forman to Part Ways with Southern Comfort

Janis Joplin was a fan.

Although no one at Brown-Forman has confirmed it, neither have they denied the widely-reported story that the company would like to sell Southern Comfort and Chambord, both liqueurs.

I worked on Southern Comfort for several years in the early 1980s.

When Brown-Forman bought Southern Comfort in 1979 it actually bought two companies. One made the proprietary flavoring concentrate and owned the secret recipe for it, the other bought the concentrate (made in Puerto Rico), combined it with sugar, water, and neutral spirit, and bottled it. That took place at a factory in St. Louis.

Southern Comfort had its origins in New Orleans in the 1870s. It was created by Martin Wilkes Heron, a saloon keeper, as a way to make the rough corn whiskey being shipped downriver from Kentucky and other frontier states into something that more closely resembled Cognac. French wood-aged brandy was considered the epitome of fine spirits in the Crescent City.

Heron moved around, ultimately settling in St. Louis, where he made and sold Southern Comfort until Prohibition. He then gave the worthless company to an employee, Grant Peoples, who sold the rights to Francis Fowler. Fowler then largely recreated the recipe in his basement.

Fowler’s product did okay until the late 1960s, when it was adopted by singer Janis Joplin. Sales exploded. Fowler was so pleased he contacted Joplin and asked if she wanted anything. She asked for a fur coat, which he sent immediately.

At 50% ABV, with an amber color, in a clear bottle, Southern Comfort looked a lot like bourbon and surveys showed that more than half of Southern Comfort’s consumers thought it was. No one tried to disabuse them of that notion.

Brown-Forman enters the picture in 1979. I enter it in 1982. Brown-Forman typically manages its major acquisitions from a distance. It doesn’t fix things that aren’t broken. By 1982, they finally had their own brand management team, led by David Higgins, in charge and they were planning to close the factory in St. Louis and move production to Louisville, where Brown-Forman is headquartered.

I was employed by a Louisville sales promotion agency. Brown-Forman was one of our main clients. 

I was assigned to the team that would bring Southern Comfort into the Brown-Forman fold. If three years seems like a long time in which to do something like that, it took Brown-Forman about 30 years to fully integrate Jack Daniel’s into the company and, of course, they kept production where it was.

From the 1950s, Southern Comfort had a tradition of printing small recipe booklets which were given away free at retail and also bound into major magazines. We continued that practice, typically doing four unique books per year. They were about half drink recipes and half food recipes. I developed the themes, helped invent some of the drinks, and wrote all of the copy. All of the design, photography, and food styling was done in-house as well. My legacy is the theme ‘Comfort and Joy’ for Christmas promotions.

The Southern Comfort drinker always skewed young, sometimes problematically so. We joked that most consumers had tried it, had a bad experience, and rejected it before they were old enough to drink it legally.

I left that agency in 1986 and left Louisville for Chicago in 1987. Because of my interest and involvement in the bourbon business after about 1991, I stayed in touch with Brown-Forman and kept my eye on Southern Comfort. It had many good years but has been slipping lately. There’s still a market for sweet ersatz whiskey – look at Fireball – but Southern Comfort has become old news. Maybe a new owner can find a way to revive it.

If any of this makes you want to sample the stuff, get the original (not one of the flavored line extensions) and make either a Scarlett O’Hara or a Dry Manhattan.

Scarlett O’Hara, From Antoine’s, New Orleans.
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
Cranberry juice cocktail.
Wedge of fresh lime.
Pour Southern Comfort over ice cubes, fill glass with cranberry juice cocktail. Squeeze in juice from the lime wedge and add the wedge.

Comfort Dry Manhattan
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
½ oz. dry vermouth.
Dash of Angostura bitters
Pour ingredients over ice in short glass. Add a cherry.

UPDATE: Sazerac did indeed buy Southern Comfort in January, 2016.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Top Five Super-Premium Bourbons as Reported by Shanken

Shanken today reported on sales in the super-premium bourbon segment. Super-premiums are powering the bourbon boom and these five brands are powering the segment. Beam Suntory owns two of them. Brown-Forman also owns two. Diageo owns one.

Companies guard their sales data closely and outfits like Shanken that develop their own sources for reporting it sell that information for a high price, so it's rare we in the public get a chance to compare apples to apples.

Here, then, are the top five super-premium* bourbons in 2014 U.S. sales.

1. Maker's Mark -- 1,340,000 cases**
2. Bulleit -- 480,000 cases
3. Gentleman Jack -- 310,000 cases
4. Knob Creek -- 290,000 cases
5. Woodford Reserve -- 275,000 cases

* 'Super-premium' is defined as a retail price of $25 or more for a 750 ml bottle.

** Although cases are not all the same size, sales are reported as if they are all standard nine liter cases, also known as flat cases. A case of twelve 750 ml bottles is nine liters.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

How Do You Make Ten Different Bourbons at One Distillery?

There has been a lot of symbolic torch passing at this year's Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF), underway now in Bardstown and other locations.

Having a whiskey event at multiple locations, some quite distant from each other, would seem like a bad idea considering that drinking and driving shouldn't be encouraged. Yet they do it, during the KBF and the Bourbon Affair. They encourage designated drivers, of course, and you can pay for transportation, but still.

One of the best KBF events has always been 'Let's Talk Bourbon,' which takes place on Friday morning at Four Roses. It's a great event because Jim Rutledge gives a presentation that really gets into detail about how bourbon is made. It's generally free of marketing fluff. They serve a nice breakfast too. They have capped attendance at about 300 people and always sell out.

They do a great job and you can understand why Four Roses wants to have it at the distillery and not somewhere in Bardstown, but Four Roses is about 42 miles from Bardstown.

Yesterday morning, Rutledge, who is recently retired, passed the torch to Brent Elliott, the new Four Roses Master Distiller.

After the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Induction on Wednesday, I happened to walk with Elliot to where our cars were parked at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Rutledge was never able to explain to me how Four Roses is able to make ten different recipes 'in line,' i.e., without shutting down to change over. The inability to understand is entirely my fault, not Jim's, so I thought I would give Elliott a try. He gave me a little more detail that helped my understanding.

In even more fairness to Rutledge, I've asked him the question at events with lots of other people vying for his attention. I had Elliot all to myself on a warm Kentucky afternoon when neither of us minded spending a few more minutes standing in the sun.

The key is timing, he explained, which begins when the last fermenter of a given recipe heads to the beer well, followed by the first fermenter from the next recipe. There is a little bit of overlap in the beer well itself, he conceded, because it has to be maintained at a constant level. They know how long it takes for that last fermenter of mash to get from the beer well through distillation to barrel entry, and that's when they change over the barrel head stencils to indicate the new recipe.

This means, of course, that a tiny handful of OESV barrels might have a little bit of OESK in them. The mind reels.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Absolut Bourbon?

Ain’t that America? We have whiskeys that don’t taste like whiskey (e.g., Fireball) and now a not-whiskey that tastes a little bit like whiskey, Oak by Absolut. Absolut is foundering and desperate. The pundits say it is whiskey, bourbon in particular, that is kicking vodka’s butt in the USA. Ergo, bourbon-flavored vodka. Never let it be said that Pernod Ricard doesn’t see and do the obvious.

It isn't bourbon-flavored vodka exactly, but most of bourbon's flavor does come from the new charred oak barrel in which it labors for several years. (The aging process is much more active than the 'slumber' metaphor usually used to describe it.) Oak by Absolut spends about six months in wood. They can't call it 'aged vodka.' That would be against the law. Instead, like the Tequila makers, they call it 'rested.' 'Rested on oak' is their description of the process.

Believe it or not, this isn't new. Seagram's gin used to have a slight yellow tint because it was 'rested' in used bourbon barrels for about three months before bottling. The neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) component of Seagrams Seven received the same treatment. There is even an official name for it; 'grain spirits.'

Seagrams could do this because their Lawrenceburg, Indiana plant distilled both neutral spirit and whiskey, and aged the whiskey there. The neutral spirit was flavored into gin there using a vacuum distillation process. They had a bottling plant just down the road, so freshly emptied barrels were always readily available.

It was quite a place. Corn and water went in, cases of Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin came out.

But then Seagrams was dissolved as a company and its assets sold separately. Today, the owner of the Indiana distillery is MGPI but the bottling plant is owned by Proximo. Although both Seagrams Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey and Seagrams Gin are still made at MGP, they are now owned by Diageo and Pernod, respectively, and shipped out in tankers to be bottled elsewhere. Technically, the 'resting' could still be done -- Pernod is doing it for Oak -- but Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin are price-sensitive products, so that extra expense has been deemed superfluous.

We don't know where Oak by Absolut is 'resting.' They say they are using Swedish, French, and American Oak, which might be interesting for a whiskey. For this I'm not sure it matters.

One of the greatest failures in the history of the American distilled spirits industry was Light Whiskey, introduced in 1968. At that time, vodka was kicking whiskey's ass and a nearly-neutral spirit with a little bit of characteristic whiskey flavor seemed like just the ticket. It wasn't. One of the biggest reasons people drink vodka is because they don't like the flavor of whiskey, so why would they drink a vodka that tastes even just a little bit like whiskey? They wouldn't, they didn't then, and they probably won't now.

I have not been offered a taste of it yet but when I am, I'll let you know.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Independent Stave Expands Kentucky Operations with Fifth American Oak Stave Mill

Here is some good bourbon news from now infamous Rowan County, Kentucky.

Independent Stave Company, the largest maker of oak barrels for the American whiskey industry, announced yesterday that its fifth American oak stave mill is now fully operational. Transformed from an empty 58-acre field to a state of the art stave mill in just two years, Morehead Wood Products is now supplying high quality staves to the company’s Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky. This new stave mill is one of several Independent Stave projects to support the growing bourbon industry.

“This has been an exciting time of investment and expansion as we support the significant growth our distilling customers are experiencing,” said Brad Boswell, president and fourth-generation cooper

“By production capacity, this new stave mill is now the second largest stave mill in the world, allowing us to greatly increase our supply of high-quality American white oak.”

Independent Stave has a long heritage of serving the spirits industry since its inception in 1912, first as a domestic supplier of staves, and today as a cooperage company crafting a wide range of barrels and oak products.

When Independent Stave began researching locations for its fifth stave mill, Morehead quickly became a top contender thanks to an excellent work force and an ideal location surrounded by forests known for cooperage-quality white oak.

“Building a stave mill from scratch has many advantages, including the ability to optimize each step of the process through proven techniques and new innovations,” said Boswell. “We have pushed ourselves throughout the development process to build on our experience and look for ways to further improve our quality and processes – which then becomes a direct benefit to our distilling customers.”

Mike Knudson is the new mill’s general manager. Knudson has worked for the company for more than 21 years and has extensive experience in production supervision. Upon accepting his new role one year ago, he relocated with his family to Morehead to begin the hiring process.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the community, both in welcoming us to Morehead and also submitting applications to join our team,” confirmed Knudson. “We appreciate the community’s support and look forward to a bright future.”

Presumably, that includes the Clerk of Rowan County, who will be on hand to make sure the staves are all straight.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The 'Michter's Stills' Are Once Again Owned by Michter's

Mainly, I'm posting this to call your attention to my post about the 'Michter's Stills' over on the Whisky Advocate Blog, but here is a little 'rest of the story.'

I became aware of the equipment in question more than a decade ago. I was talking to John Ed Beam (yes, those Beams) about some equipment his family owned. Although he and his two brothers all had good careers in other fields, they also felt the itch to make whiskey to varying degrees. Their dad, David Beam, a former master distiller at Jim Beam, had acquired the equipment years before, but hadn't done anything with it except put it in a little pavilion where he could look at it. John Ed and I talked casually about what it would take to set up a micro-distillery. This was in 2002-2003, when such a thing still seemed like a pipe dream.

My, how things have changed.

That led to a story by me in Whisky Magazine about the family and the stills, which everyone enjoyed, but the idea of the micro distillery never got off the drawing board. John Ed got married, he and his wife had twins, and that was pretty much the end of it.

A few years later another father of twins, Tom Herbruck, was getting his Tom's Foolery Distillery going on the outskirts of Cleveland. Having a distillery was a childhood dream of his (really!) and he was planning to start with applejack, but also wanted to make whiskey. We got to talking about what kind of equipment he might need and I thought of the Michter's stills. I asked John Ed if he thought his dad might be willing to sell them. John Ed wasn't sure but he thought it was worth asking.

So Tom did, and the timing was right. Tom got the equipment, sent it to Vendome for any necessary refurbishment, then on to Ohio. Pretty quickly he had it set up and running. David Beam and other Beam family members helped, as did Dick Stoll, who had run the equipment when it was at Michter's and he was master distiller there.

The Michter's that owns the equipment now is a completely different company, of course, but the old wooden fermenters still have the Michter's name on them after all these years, so it seems like everything turned out right.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cool Video, Old News

This video is all over the internet today. It's amazing, well worth watching, but it's not news, and much of what is being said about it is wrong.

First, it happened in 2003, twelve years ago. Second, lightning didn't ignite a 'leak from the factory,' as many outlets reported. Lightning struck a warehouse, at least that's the conclusion reached by investigators at the time. It couldn't have been a 'leak from the factory' because the two Beam distilleries are each about 15 miles from where this occurred, at a separate maturation facility just north of Bardstown off Withrow Court. The lake into which the burning whiskey flowed is a man-made retention pond. I don't believe there was a significant fish kill from the event, as some have reported.

Fire is a constant threat at whiskey distilleries and maturation facilities due to the combustible combination of wood and high proof alcohol. This particular warehouse was relatively small, containing about 800,000 gallons of whiskey. The ones they're building now hold more than twice that much, but they also have better fire controls. Beam has 72 maturation warehouses at various locations in Nelson, Bullitt and Franklin Counties, a few more than it did in 2003.

This location has been particularly unlucky. In 1968, before Beam owned it, another fire destroyed a warehouse there. It was still a distillery then. The other buildings were saved but the distillery closed the next year anyway. Beam bought the site to replace some warehouses it lost to a tornado in 1974.

If a warehouse starts to burn, about all firefighters can do is try to keep it from spreading. It can't be extinguished. Some barrels explode, sending others flying through the air. You don't see it here, but usually the flames are blue, like an alcohol lamp.

The first distillery at that particular location, known as S. P. Lancaster, was built in 1881. Like many distilleries built at that time, the location was chosen to take advantage of the newly-built Bardstown-Springfield Branch of the L&N Railroad. Like many Kentucky distilleries, it changed names often. It was variously known as Independent, Shawhan, and Waterfill & Frazier.

Beam had a fire at another site in 2007. Wild Turkey had one in 2000. (That one, by the Kentucky River, did have a significant fish kill.) The worst one on record was at Heaven Hill in 1996, which destroyed the distillery and seven warehouses. The Cummins-Collins Distillery in Athertonville had a bad one in 1972. Barton had a bad one in 1944. Both of those were in the distillery itself.

During Prohibition, a distillery at Elkhorn Forks near Frankfort, built in 1901 by John D. Hinde, was destroyed in a fire. Arson was suspected. The event was fictionalized in Irwin Cobb’s 1929 novel, Red Likker. After Repeal, a new distillery was built there by Kenner Taylor, son of E.H. Taylor of Old Taylor fame. It eventually became Old Grand-Dad. Today it is owned by Jim Beam and used for maturation and bottling.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Accelerated Aging Challenge

Once again, as we see every few months, someone has hired a publicist to generate coverage of a new system to accelerate the aging of whiskey. No names, claims, or descriptive details are needed. You've seen it all before. It's another one just like the other ones. They come and they go, which means this one will soon go too. There is no reason to be disturbed by it.

Publications with space to fill and little or no editorial integrity will provide the publicity. A few people, recently disembarked from the turnip truck, will get excited. Others, the hopeless optimists, will mutter that perhaps this is the one, a whiskey messiah for the chronically impatient.

It began with America's first whiskey boom, in the period after the Civil War, when whiskey evolved from a locally-made agricultural product into something that was standardized, manufactured, and nationally-distributed. The model for what most people wanted to drink -- a grain distillate aged for several years in new charred oak barrels -- was established and, almost immediately, people began to look for ways to duplicate that model in less time.

The first solution was what we now call compound whiskey. It started with a young or minimally aged whiskey, perhaps even a neutral spirit, to which flavorings and colorings were added. Ingredients such as tea, caramel, lanolin, vanilla, tobacco, prune juice -- and worse -- were used. With no effective system for regulating labels or advertising, unscrupulous producers could claim anything they wanted for these products and no one believed that listing the actual ingredients or describing the actual production methods was the way to go. Instead they claimed they used traditional methods including long, natural aging.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and subsequent laws, put an end to that era. Since then, we have seen various schemes for achieving the results of long aging through other means. Some, such as the use of wood chips and other wood additives, are prohibited for straight bourbon, straight rye, and other coveted identifiers. Others, such as using small barrels, or subjecting the aging spirits to sound waves, oxygen infusion, or other exotic treatments, do not offend the regulators. At least one technique, warehouse heat cycling, actually works, although its benefits are modest.

However it is done, what matters are the results, which never measure up. One failed scheme fades away and another emerges to take its place.

Back in the 19th century, people who made fake whiskey knew they were running a con. They didn't have any illusions about making a quality product. They were in it for the quick buck. Today you can't always tell. Often these schemes attract business development money from local governments, so there is a potential motive to deceive, but for every scammer there is a sincere but misguided individual or team chasing the American dream of building a better mousetrap and having the world beat a path to your door.

It's not necessary to know which is which. They all ultimately face the same test, of putting a product in a bottle and getting people to drink it. So here is the challenge. Evan Williams Black Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made the traditional way. It does not carry an age statement but based on labeling laws it must be at least four years old. It is probably closer to the seven years it was before the age statement was removed about ten years ago. In most places, a 750 ml bottle of it costs less than $15.

Other products could have been used for this exercise but Evan Williams is a good choice because it is widely available, a good value, and a product most American whiskey consumers are happy to drink.

Until you can make something that tastes better than Evan Williams and sells for less than $15 a bottle, you have nothing. You're just wasting your time and ours.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Owensboro Distillery Is Now O. Z. Tyler

Aerial view of Owensboro's O. Z. Tyler Distillery. 
O. Z. Tyler Distillery is the new name for an Owensboro distillery long associated with the Medley family. It was acquired last year by Terressentia, a South Carolina company that claims to be able to accelerate the aging of whiskey and other products using its TerraPURE process. Orville Zelotes ('O. Z.') Tyler III was the co-inventor of the TerraPURE process, along with his son. O. Z. died last year at the age of 81.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear participated in the July 30th dedication ceremony.

Terressentia says it is investing $25 million to purchase and refurbish the plant, which was built shortly after Prohibition. It needs a lot of work. Although the 36" diameter beer still is in place, a new boiler and new fermenters are needed. Many of the warehouses were damaged in a 2009 winter storm. Terressentia says they will have it up and running in 2016.

The last time anything was made there was in 1992. That same year United Distillers (a predecessor company of Diageo) sold it to Charles Wathen Medley, who was its last master distiller.

Like many whiskey-making clans, the Medleys started with a small, farm-based operation in Kentucky's Washington County early in the 19th century. The patriarch was John Medley. When he died in 1814 his estate included two stills and forty mash tubs.

The Medleys distilled in Washington County until, in 1901, George Medley and a partner bought a distillery in Daviess County, 130 miles to the west. (Pronounce it “Davis” despite the spelling.) The distillery was located just west of Owensboro, the county seat and Kentucky’s third largest city. George’s son, Tom, joined and then succeeded him in that venture.

The Medleys were part of the migration of Maryland Catholics to what they called the American Holy Lands in Kentucky. The Wathens were another such family. By the close of the 19th century, the Wathens were among the most successful distillers in Kentucky. Nick Wathen had a daughter named Florence Ellen. Tom Medley courted and married her. They named their firstborn son Wathen Medley in honor of the union. Charles Wathen Medley is his son.

That original Daviess County Medley Distillery was next door to the current site. During Prohibition it became a meat packer, which it still is today. The first distillery on the current site was built in 1885. It was called McCullough and, later, Green River. As Green River it became famous for its advertising slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache.” Regulators eventually barred that claim. Its replacement, “The Whiskey Without Regrets,” though arguably more evocative, never had the same zing.

Fire destroyed most of the Green River plant in 1918 and the rest was razed during Prohibition. Someone tried to bring it back after repeal as the Sour Mash Distillery. They built the current buildings, installed much of the current equipment, distilled 1,349 barrels of whiskey, ran out of money, and closed in 1939.

The first distillery owned by a Medley after Prohibition was a third place in that same general vicinity, just north of the Green River site, built in around 1881. It was best known as Rock Spring Distilling, a name it acquired in 1906. Tom Medley bought Rock Spring and brought it back after Prohibition, running it until his death in 1940. His son, Wathen, sold it to Fleischmann’s Distilling and bought the adjacent Green River place.

Now Wathen and his four brothers were in charge. In the boom years after World War II, the Medley brothers adopted, as a kind of trademark, the wearing of Kentucky Colonel ties (like the one KFC’s Colonel Sanders wears). The distillery sometimes gave the ties away as promotions.

The Medley brothers sold their whiskey under many different brand names such as Medley Brothers, Five Brothers, Old Medley, and Kentucky Beau. They did a good, regional business and that was plenty in those days, when just about the only thing anybody drank was bourbon whiskey.

Like the Motlows at Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee, the Medleys eventually became victims of their own success. Although the business was sound, they were unable to adequately finance its continued growth and diversification themselves. They sold it to Renfield Importers in 1959. Two of the brothers and Wathen's son Charles stayed on as managers and distillers.

In the 1970s, Medley acquired the Ezra Brooks bourbon brand, which had originated at the Hoffman Distillery in Anderson County. A Jack Daniel’s clone, Ezra Brooks became Medley’s leading seller and #1 asset.

His father and uncle eventually retired but Charles stayed on, even as the distillery changed owners several more times. Although Charles never resumed distilling there, he and his son, Sam, used the last whiskey made at Medley Brothers to launch their Wathen bourbon line as non-distiller producers.

During the years he owned it, Charles mostly tried to keep the roofs from leaking and otherwise keep the buildings in good repair. In 2007, he sold it to Angostura Limited. They began a renovation but in 2009, Angostura's parent company collapsed as part of the worldwide financial crisis and all spending stopped. The distillery has been for sale ever since.

In 2013, Charles and Sam Medley relaunched one of the family brands, Medley Brothers. The Wathen and Medley bourbons are produced under contract by an undisclosed Kentucky distillery. The Medleys are non-distiller producers now and intend to stay that way.

For their old Owensboro distillery, Terressentia is the future.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Strange Story of 'Whiskey' Versus 'Whisky'

In honor of Bourbon, Strange approaching its first anniversary next month, I thought I would share a few excerpts, starting last week. This is the last one, at least for now. The bit below is from the chapter, "The Spelling of ‘Whiskey’ and Other Weighty Matters." To just buy the book already, click here.

‘Whiskey’ is one of those English words, like ‘aging,’ ‘center,’ ‘color,’ and ‘maneuver,’ that Americans and Brits spell differently. There are hundreds of them. In most cases, Canadians side with Great Britain, though sometimes they're with us, and sometimes they find a third way.

In the United States, ‘whiskey’ is the preferred spelling, as it is in Ireland. In Great Britain, Canada, Japan, and just about every place else, ‘whisky’ is preferred. With the exception of Canada and the handful of Americans below, everyone who spells it ‘whisky’ makes a barley-based, scotch-like product.

Several American whiskey brands, most prominently Maker’s Mark, George Dickel, Old Forester, and Early Times, use the ‘-y’ spelling. Maker’s Mark and Brown-Forman (which makes Old Forester and Early Times) say it is because their founders were Scottish.

Since George Dickel was German, Dickel owner Diageo made up a ludicrous story that George preferred that spelling because he believed his product to be as smooth and high in quality as the best scotch whiskies. That sounds like scotch-maker Diageo talking and it's nonsense. Scotch was virtually unknown in Tennessee in Dickel’s day.

There really is nothing more to the spelling difference between ‘whiskey’ and ‘whisky’ than a spelling difference, like ‘tire’ and ‘tyre,’ hence it’s not very important, but writers often fall all over themselves trying to use both spellings according to which national spirit they’re discussing.

You can also, if you research the subject, find all sorts of ‘explanations’ for the difference. They are all nonsense. The result of all that nonsense, unfortunately, is that many people mistakenly believe that ‘whiskey’ and ‘whisky’ are two completely different words with different meanings. Some go so far as to declare that only Scottish single malts are entitled to be called ‘whisky.’ They are wrong. They are the flat-earthers of the whiskey world.

‘Whiskey’ is one word, with one meaning and at least two acceptable spellings.

For some writers, the solution is to use ‘whisk(e)y’ as the universal term. I reject that because it is unnecessary, confusing, and because parenthesis don’t belong inside words. Since ‘whiskey’ is the only multiple-spelling word that is treated that way, such treatment suggests again that the word is unique, which it is not. Plus it is a distinction you can’t make audibly.

As this book is written by an American and published in the United States, it will use the ‘-ey’ spelling throughout, even when referring to scotch whiskey (which won’t happen very often anyway), except when a specific product name is invoked, e.g., Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch Whisky. In those cases, this book will use whatever spelling the producer uses, and also capital letters as befits a proper name.

The plural of whiskey is whiskeys. The plural of whisky is whiskies.