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.

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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."