Friday, March 25, 2016

Drinking Alcohol 101

I wrote in the introduction to Bourbon, Straight that alcohol is a lot like sex, in that most of what we learn about it growing up comes from informal sources and most of what we think we know is wrong. In both cases the process of separating fact from fiction can be long and arduous.

It is in that spirit that I present the following alcohol basics as a public service.

All alcoholic beverages are either fermented or distilled. Your fermented beverages are beer, wine, and cider. Your distilled beverages are vodka, whiskey, rum, liqueurs, etc.

All alcoholic beverages are a solution of alcohol and water. Distilled beverages are fermented beverages that have been concentrated, they have a higher concentration of alcohol. This is accomplished by separating and removing some of the water from the alcohol and water solution.

The alcohol concentration of any beverage is expressed as the percentage of alcohol by volume (% alc./vol. or ABV). While beers are usually around 5% ABV and wines are about 12%, spirits are mostly around 40%. The exception is liqueurs, which can be as low as 20%. If you want to be the boss of your alcohol consumption (and you should), this is crucial information.

Where does alcohol come from? Yeast! They are living organisms that eat sugar and excrete alcohol. We call that fermentation. Their limitation is that they die if the alcohol concentration gets much above 10 percent. That’s why we need distillation.

Distillation uses heat to separate alcohol from water in the fermented brew. Traditionally, this process was repeated two or three times until the alcohol reached a desirable concentration. Modern stills can do it in one pass.

Beyond that, alcohol is alcohol. The potency of any drink (i. e., its capacity to intoxicate) is just a matter of its alcohol concentration. Intoxication is a matter of how much you drink, how fast you drink it, and the way your particular metabolism processes alcohol. Nothing else matters.

The alcohol concentration is always printed on the label, except on beer in some states.

Obviously, mixing your alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic beverage (water, juice, soft drinks, etc.) dilutes it, i.e., it lowers the alcohol concentration of the drink. This is a simple relationship. Add one ounce of water to one ounce of a 50% ABV spirit and the ABV of the drink drops to 25%. Simple!

The type of alcohol in every alcoholic beverage is ethanol. It is all the same, regardless of the type of beverage. Chemically, the alcohol (i.e., ethanol) in tequila is exactly the same as the alcohol in white wine. When people think different types of alcohol affect them differently, that is called 'imagination.'

Among distilled spirits, there are straight spirits and flavored spirits. Among the straight spirits you have two categories: Clear or 'white' (vodka, gin, white rum, white tequila, etc.) and aged or 'brown' (whiskey, brandy, anejo rum, anejo tequila, etc.).

White spirits have little or no flavor on their own and so are usually flavored or mixed with something. The most popular mixers are fruit juices and soft drinks. Some drink recipes call for a mixer, a straight spirit and a liqueur. Others mix several liqueurs together. The combinations are endless. Brown spirits typically have a complex and distinctive flavor of their own and are consumed with nothing added (‘neat’), or with only ice (‘on the rocks’), water, or the simplest mixers (e.g., club soda).

Neutral spirits are distilled spirits that leave the still at more than 95% ABV. Any fermented beverage can be used to make neutral spirits. ‘Vodka’ is what we call a neutral spirit sold as a beverage. After distillation, filtration (usually through charcoal) is often used to remove any residual taste, color, or aroma. Then the alcohol is diluted with water to 40% ABV. Whether the vodka costs $10 a bottle or $1,000, that's all it is.

Neutral spirits, usually made from grain, are the basis for many other beverages. Gin is a flavored neutral spirit in which juniper berries are the principal flavor. Akavit is a flavored neutral spirit in which caraway seeds are the principal flavor. Both are, essentially, flavored vodkas of which there are many.

Liqueurs (e.g., Kahlua, Baileys, Jagermeister, Cointreau, Gran Marnier, amaretto, schnapps) are like mixed drinks in a bottle. They combine neutral spirits with flavorings and, usually, lots of sugar. They come in a wide variety of flavors and alcohol concentrations.

Some final words about potency: A mixed drink with a little liquor and a lot of mixer will have an alcohol content about the same as a typical drink of beer or wine. However, straight spirits served without mixers have a much higher alcohol concentration and should be savored, i. e., sipped slowly, possibly accompanied by a chaser (i.e., water, sparkling water, beer, or some other no- or low-alcohol beverage).

There is a difference between drinking and dosing.

So what should YOU drink? In bars, especially those frequented by young adults, there usually are all kinds of fad drinks. They come and go. They are fun while they are happening but quickly forgotten. My personal bias is for that pinnacle of the beverage alcohol art, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. If it seems too strong straight, dilute it with water or ice. Adjust to taste. Practice makes perfect. By learning to appreciate bourbon at the beginning of your drinking career you will save time and never feel the shame of catching a glimpse of yourself in a bar mirror with a big, pink drink in your hand.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Smell of Prosperity

Bardstown, Kentucky; Bourbon Capital of the Known Universe.
Many years ago I was in Bardstown and the Barton Distillery had the dry house going, which is what produces that yeasty aroma you can smell all over town. It's a very pungent odor. I asked an old timer on the street if it bothered people. "Nope," he replied. "That's the smell of prosperity."

Kentucky benefits generally from its distilleries and other businesses related to bourbon whiskey, but the counties where distilleries are located benefit the most. Property tax revenue is the most obvious benefit, but bourbon generates taxes and jobs in many other ways too, from trucking to tourism.

At the moment, quite a few new distilleries are recently opened or being built. Most of them are in Kentucky and most of those are in the same communities that already have them, most prominently Nelson County, where Bardstown is the county seat.

Jefferson County (Louisville) has distilleries and is getting more, but it has many other businesses too, so bourbon doesn't make as big a dent. Adjacent to Nelson is Marion County, which has Maker's Mark and Limestone Branch, and may get more. In Boyle County (Danville), Ferm Solutions has a growing business selling yeast to distilleries They also have their own distillery, Wilderness Trail, that is growing too. Franklin, Fayette, Bullitt, Anderson, and Daviess Counties all benefit from the bourbon boom.

Not everyone appreciates the benefits bourbon brings, however. Prompted by a zealous attorney, many people who live near distilleries are trying to profit from the harmless whiskey fungus (Baudoinia compniacensis), a familiar nuisance in whiskey country (Scotland has it too). They're suing some of the distilleries. Considering all that the industry is already doing to pay for their schools, libraries, and other services you might expect them to be a little more grateful and a little less greedy.

The politicians in Frankfort have done a few good things to encourage the industry's growth but they could do a lot more. Kentuckians who buy their state's product pay some of the highest liquor taxes in the country. Kentucky could learn a lot from California if it wants to get the maximum benefit from its locally-made hooch and the culture that surrounds it.

Finally, there is the fact that Kentucky as a whole remains extremely conservative. Kentucky bourbon may not even be sold in 39 of Kentucky's 120 counties and sales are severely restricted in another 49. (Those may not be the latest numbers.) It's not a coincidence that most of the distilleries are in communities with very large Catholic populations. Bourbon and everything about it is frowned upon where the protestant evangelicals rule.

The counties that already have distillery businesses are getting more because they are more likely to have experienced workers available but also because they are generally more welcoming, with tangible business development enticements as well as bourbon-friendly citizens.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Popcorn Sutton Releases Limited Edition Barrel Finished Spirit

This is not John Lunn
A year ago, John Lunn was Master Distiller at the George Dickel Distillery. He was responsible for the production side of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville too. At 45, Lunn seemed to have a bright future with the world's largest spirits company.

So it was quite a shock when Popcorn Sutton Distilling named him Master Distiller and gave him control of their shiny new distillery in Cocke County, Tennessee, where Sutton spent much of his later life and, more importantly, close to Gatlinburg, Gateway to the Smoky Mountains and a major tourism destination.

Popcorn Sutton, who died in 2009, is probably America's best-known moonshiner. He was notorious, a true outlaw in a world of poseurs, with few redeeming qualities. But he was a character, one-of-a-kind, with a distinctive look and memorable name.

From that, you can build a brand.

Sutton's widow and one of his buddies started a legit alcohol business in Sutton's name shortly after his death. It was very slapdash and small scale. About three years ago it was acquired by Mark and Megan Kvamme. He's a successful tech investor. She became CEO.

The new distillery in Newport is 50,000 square feet. The solid copper pot stills are true alembics (no rectification section), built by Vendome. The two beer stills are 2,500 gallons each. The spirit still is 1,500 gallons. That's big, about the same size as the stills at Woodford Reserve. They only use about 20 percent of their capacity now, so there is plenty of room to grow.

Or do contract distilling if you have something you would like to make in those big copper pot stills.

The first new product introduced under Lunn's guidance is Popcorn Sutton Barrel Finished. Barrel finished what, you ask? Technically, it is a 'distilled spirit specialty,' but Popcorn's recipe is a bourbon mash (corn, rye, malt) augmented with sugar.

Meet the new boss, nothing like the old boss.
Although Lunn won't reveal the exact distillation proof he says it is not neutral (>95% ABV) but is higher than a bourbon, which must leave the still at less than 80% ABV. The un-aged distillate is Popcorn Sutton Original. The new product is that same distillate aged for three years in new, charred barrels.

The word 'moonshine' is nowhere to be seen.

How is it? The flavor is original, which is as it should be. The somewhat rough qualities of the still-young spirit are well tempered by the wood. Think smoked caramel and graham crackers. Although it won't take your head off it does have an edge. Lunn knows what he is doing. He has tamed the beast, but not too much.

Popcorn Sutton products are available in about 20 states. Suggested retail on the Barrel Finished is $49.99.

They call it a 'limited edition,' but Lunn says it is not a one-off. They expect it to remain in their portfolio, probably with an annual release.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Whiskey Appraisal Racket

Photo courtesy of Luther /
I am asked all the time what this or that bottle of whiskey is worth. My answer is always the same; it is impossible to say. I will even go so far as to advise that anyone willing to appraise a bottle of whiskey for you is not to be trusted.

This is why.

In the USA, valuations of whiskey are problematic because the secondary market is illegal except for the rare licensed auction. You can't sell alcohol legally without a license. There are no exceptions. And just to be extra clear, trading is the same as buying/selling for legal purposes.

This is primarily a state law matter, although it offends Federal law as well. Primary enforcement, such as it is, comes via each state's alcoholic beverage control authority. Enforcement is lax but that doesn't change the facts. The entire secondary market for beverage alcohol is illegal.

Sales take place all the time, of course, but because they are illegal they aren't publicly reported. When they are reported it is informal, without documentation. Without a reliable record of recent sales to reference, accurate valuations are impossible. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either uninformed or dishonest.

People will hazard guesses based on what information there is and from their own experience but even when it is done honestly and with the best of intentions, it is not like appraisals in other fields. Without a reliable record of past sales it is impossible to estimate value accurately.

That said, and understanding that you have to view skeptically any attempts at valuation, some people do take an honest stab at it. I usually advise folks to start with Bottle Blue Book. They have their limitations, as I've already explained, but they are honest about them. Check out the site.

One criticism: They need to do a much better job of explaining their methodology and making that information easy to find. The best thing they have on the subject is here.

Most people who have something they might like to sell have no idea how much it could be worth, whether $50 or $50,000. A resource like Bottle Blue Book can give you a rough idea, which is all most people want anyway.

This is all presented here for the purpose of providing accurate information about the situation as it now stands. I support the legalization of secondary sales but it is unlikely to happen. Alcohol regulation hasn't changed much in 80 years. Prohibition sentiment is still with us, so constructive dialogue is difficult. State legislatures have been persuaded to modernize laws regarding alcohol production and primary sales on economic development grounds but no one has effectively made a similar argument for normalization of the secondary market.

Friday, March 4, 2016

E. H. Taylor Is a Wheater?

The press release starts like this: "Buffalo Trace Distillery continues its homage to former Distillery owner Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. with a special release bourbon whiskey aged in seasoned wood oak barrels. This 100 proof, Bottled-In-Bond, small batch wheat recipe bourbon was aged well over a decade and is a special one-time-only release."

Huh? E. H. Taylor is a wheater? And oak is wood? Who knew?

The point of this product, as Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) sees it, is the special wood treatment. "The barrels in this release underwent a variety of special seasoning processes, including barrels made from staves that were immersed in an enzyme rich bath with water heated to 100 degrees. After spending time in this proprietary solution, these staves were then placed into kilns and dried until they reached an ideal humidity level for crafting into barrels. Other staves were seasoned outdoors for six months, and still others were left outdoors for a full 12 months before being made into barrels and sent to Buffalo Trace Distillery to be filled and aged. All barrel staves were seasoned, dried, and crafted at Independent Stave Company, who consulted on this project with the premiere expert on oak maturation, Dr. James Swan."

So three different barrels, the results all mixed together. That's why there is enough for a release broader than the usual Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection (BTEC) release. Okay, that's weird, but let's get back to this wheater thing. As the press release points out, this is the eighth E. H. Taylor release. All of the previous releases were rye recipe bourbon except for one, a straight rye.

Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. Seasoned Wood Bourbon Whiskey should be in stores by the end of the month, for $70.

So does this mean E. H. Taylor is now a wheater going forward? No, this product is this product, although it certainly means E. H. Taylor could become a wheater again at any time in the future.

In response to my inquiry about how E. H. Taylor can be a wheater, I received this reply: "While the E. H. Taylor whiskeys to date have all been rye recipe, the experimental nature of this actually fits nicely with the EHT mark. As you know, Taylor himself was quite an innovator and risk taker. When we put these experimental whiskeys away, we really never know how they will turn out - we really like this one. The profile of this bourbon is different than Weller or Van Winkle. This is an exception to the rule; in fact, we don’t have any more wheat expressions planned for EHT."

When they say, "When we put these experimental whiskeys away, we really never know how they will turn out," they are leaving out part of the explanation. When they put experimental whiskeys away they don't know if they're ever going to release them, nor do they know how they'll release them if they do. This whiskey didn't go into barrels branded as E. H. Taylor. They didn't know what it would eventually be, if anything. If they come out at all, most experiments come out in the BTEC. For reasons known only to them, they decided to put this one out as E. H. Taylor instead.

This is something new. Several brands now, including E. H. Taylor, are selling a straight rye under the same brand name as a bourbon. There is good precedent for that. Many brands did it before Prohibition. Jim Beam has done it ever since Prohibition ended. Wild Turkey has done it for a long time as well. Newer brands such as Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Russell's Reserve, and Bulleit have followed suit. George Dickel and Jack Daniel's, which never had rye whiskeys in their lines before, now do. None of the famous wheater brands -- Maker's Mark, W. L. Weller, and Old Fitzgerald -- has ever sold a straight rye or a rye-recipe bourbon. And there has never been a brand that sold both a rye-recipe bourbon and a wheated bourbon under the same brand name.

Until now.

This is a weird dilution of the brand identity. That doesn't necessarily make it bad. Certainly no one can say the E. H. Taylor line is going for a consistent flavor. This will surely taste completely unlike any previous E. H. Taylor release. That's probably the main thing consumers need to know. Like they say about investments, past experience does not necessarily predict future results.