Friday, May 20, 2016

Master Distiller Greg Metze Leaving MGP of Indiana

Master Distiller Greg Metze
MGP Ingredients, Inc. today announced that Greg Metze, master distiller at MGP of Indiana, is departing after 38 years of service. MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin said, “We appreciate all that Greg has done for us and the outstanding mentoring he has provided to the next generation of our master distillers. We wish Greg the best of luck with any endeavors he may pursue in the future.”

Asked about the naming of a successor, an MGP spokesperson said this: “MGP has developed a solid base of talent, including a team of other master distillers and experts within the company who have greatly benefited from Greg’s many years of mentoring. We will be making an announcement in the future about specific personnel moves.”

Metze spent all 38 years at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery which makes whiskey, vodka, and gin. He was named a master distiller in 2000. As he said in a 2013 company press release, “As in my case in Lawrenceburg, this position has always been achieved through on-the-job training and a lengthy internship under a master distiller mentor. I had the privilege of studying under Larry Ebersold, who was a master distiller here for 20 years. Learning all aspects of the facility, equipment, processes and quality control measures is extremely important since making quality spirits and whiskey is an art and science that depends on this knowledge. Additionally, although a background in chemical engineering is not an absolute requirement, it is extremely beneficial.”

Metze has been an MGP employee only since 2011, when MGP bought the distillery then known as LDI from its owners, CL Financial. CL bought it in 2007 through its Angostura subsidiary, which also bought the shuttered Medley Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky. CL Financial collapsed during the 2008 worldwide financial crises and LDI was on its last legs when MGP bought it. Industry sources say MGP bought the whole distillery for just the value of its inventory.

MGP’s timing could not have been better because now the distillery is thriving.

Before Angostura and CL, Metze was an employee of Pernod Ricard, which acquired the distillery as part of the Seagrams break-up in 2000. Pernod never really wanted the facility and began to shop it almost immediately. In 2006 it announced that if the plant could not be sold by 2008, it would be closed.

Originally, Metze was a Seagrams employee. Seagrams bought the Lawrenceburg distillery during Prohibition and rebuilt it substantially after repeal. All of the buildings still bear the Seagrams name in gigantic letters and most locals still call it by that name. Seagrams used it to make a variety of products, primarily Seagrams Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey and Seagrams Gin. Pernod began the practice of selling its whiskeys, including its now highly regarded 95% rye, on the open market in about 2004. Some of the first customers, such as High West in Utah, learned about the whiskey’s availability through Jim Rutledge at Four Roses, himself a long time Seagrams master distiller.

In the post-Prohibition era, Seagrams always had a reputation for producing first rate distillers because of its exceptional distiller training program. In addition to Metze, Ebersold, and Rutledge other well-known graduates of the Seagrams program include Ova Haney, David Scheurich, and Glenn Glaser.

According to Metze (in that 2013 release), the master distiller monitors production schedules, product quality and multiple steps in the production process including yeast propagation. Other day-to-day tasks involve making sure all standard operating procedures are followed and that all product specifications and organoleptic standards are met. There is considerable interaction with distillery operators and other internal colleagues to provide assistance and expertise in coordinating logistical issues.

“Many customers rely on the expertise of the master distiller to ensure the creation of products that are superior and unique to others in the market,” said Metze. “Producing what are considered to be among the finest spirits and whiskeys in the world is very gratifying. Customer satisfaction is the purest form of a compliment. As such, I take great pride in being able to utilize my background and experience to directly assist in delivering the results customers want. While challenging at times, solving equipment and process issues can also be uplifting experiences. Additionally, being able to perform an active role in developing unique and innovative techniques, distilling methods and mash bills is extremely rewarding.”

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Labor of Love. What I Did for Booker's Rye

Fred Noe demonstrates the proper way to apply the wax 'B' emblem and ribbon to a bottle of Booker's Rye.
That is Fred Noe, the great-grandson of Jim Beam, showing us how to finish a bottle of Booker's Rye. After Fred's photogenic demonstration we were trained by the Beam employees who do this for a living. Then our band of ink-stained wretches was ready to try our hands at it.

Booker's Rye is a limited release and each bottle is hand-numbered. If you get one of the first 120 or so, you can enjoy our handiwork.

The bottles were already filled, corked, and labeled when we got them. We just applied a few finishing touches.
  • Write the bottle number on the neck label.
  • Affix the self-adhesive wax 'B' and ribbon emblem to the bottle.
  • Apply tear tape to the bottle closure, leaving a small tab.
  • Dip the bottle in green wax. Remove and angle it so the excess wax drips off.
  • Place it in the rotating drying rack.
  • Remove bottle from the rack, inspect the wax, and trim if necessary.
  • Position bottle in its wooden box.
  • Slide the clear front of the box into position.
  • Fasten the front to the box by looping the leather thong over the screw head.
  • Place finished package in the shipping case.
In case you haven't heard, Booker's Rye is a limited edition that will be in stores soon. It is a genuinely small batch of whiskey that Booker Noe made shortly before his death in 2004. It uses a different mash bill from the standard Beam rye recipe with a higher rye content. They won't give exact amounts, but the standard Jim Beam rye recipe, like most, is 'barely legal' at not much more than 51 percent rye. Booker's Rye is probably 60 to 70 percent rye, based on how it tastes.

And how it tastes is quite good. They probably chose just the right time to harvest it because there is a good balance between the grain and barrel notes, always a concern when age gets into double digits. As we know from the MGP 95 percent ryes, you need some corn for body. Booker's Rye gets that balance right too.

It's a very good whiskey but because it is so limited, it will cost $300 a bottle. It should be in stores soon, but it won't last long. If you are interested, the time to consult your whiskey monger is now.

The room set up for the finishing tasks was adjacent to one of the automated high speed bottling lines. That room probably bottled and labeled 1,000 bottles for every one of ours. It was hot in there and the pressure of that kind of work is to be very precise while also moving at a reasonably fast clip. What Fred is using in the picture is a guide that helps put the 'B' in exactly the right place, at a particular height and aligned between the 'e' and 'r' in Booker's on the main face label. You also have to get it on straight. Applying the tear tape is surprisingly difficult, because you have to be careful about allowing any wrinkles. You have to wear protective gloves to dip the bottles in the hot wax. Holding it by the base, you lower the top of the bottle straight down into the wax until it just covers the 'B.' Then you pull it out and hold it at an angle, aligned so that the excess wax drips off the tear tab.

The rotating drying rack was obviously made just for this purpose. Bottle are inserted so they are angled down, with the tear tab at the lowest point. You have to put it in carefully to avoid damaging the wax, but you can't take too long because it is moving. The wax sets up quickly so that by the time the wheel has rotated 180° the bottle can be removed and boxed.

We weren't told in advance that they were going to work us so hard. The itinerary just said "Booker's Rye experience." But it was fun and it's always interesting to meet some of the many Beam employees who make Fred and the other bosses look good.

In an attempt to make him look too good, the Booker's Rye fact sheet says "Fred Noe personally tastes and selects every barrel of Booker’s Bourbon before it is bottled." This is not true. Each batch of Booker's consists of 350 to 375 barrels and they produce six batches per year. Fred works hard but he isn't tasting and evaluating 2,250 samples every year just for Booker's. (He has many other things to sample too.)

What Fred does is sample a barrel from each production run that has been nominated to be a component in a Booker's batch. That amounts to a dozen or so samples, not 375. Other people taste them too.

A bottling batch usually contains three to five different barrel lots. Each lot consists of 50 to 100 barrels, all made on the same day and aged in the same warehouse location. In the case of Booker's Rye there were only 100 barrels made. They were all made on the same day but they were stored in a couple of different warehouse locations. Again, every lot was tasted but not all 100 barrels.

Still and all, a lot goes into making a bottle of whiskey so all we have to do is open, pour, and drink it.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Hey, Mint Julep. Your One-Day-a-Year Is Here

If ever there was a special occasion drink, it is the mint julep, so closely is it associated with the Kentucky Derby, which is tomorrow, May 7, at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Since the Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May, this is the latest it can be.

Many people misunderstand the mint julep. It is not a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more of a shooter. A mint julep should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and turn the drink watery.

The julep is at its peak of flavor the instant it is completed. Every moment that passes thereafter diminishes its quality. There should be just enough liquid in the glass for one or two good swallows.

Taken appropriately in a suitable context the mint julep is delightful. Its sensuality can be nearly overpowering.

Secret: many Kentuckians on Derby Day have one julep, then switch back to what they usually drink, which is usually Bud Light.

As for a recipe, here is the simplest one I know that is authentic, tasty, and easy. First, muddle some fresh mint leaves with one tablespoon of powdered sugar and a like amount of water. There are some specialized tools for doing this, but a spoon works fine.

How much mint? If you have plenty, use it liberally. It's hard to use too much.

“Muddle” just means work everything together until the mint leaves have been crushed and the sugar is dissolved, forming a kind of paste. Fill the glass with crushed ice, then with bourbon. Stir vigorously for a few seconds. Garnish with more fresh mint leaves. Serve and drink immediately.

To make multiple juleps at the same time, have your ice and bourbon ready. Then in a bowl make enough muddle (the mint, sugar, water mixture) for one round. Place some of the muddle mixture into the bottom of each glass. Fill each glass with ice, bourbon and mint leaf garnish, stir, and serve.

Although there are various ways to get mint flavor into a drink, the use of fresh mint is essential for an authentic mint julep experience. The fresher the better. Just-picked is best. The stuff is easy to grow.

As for glassware, a sterling silver julep cup is the traditional container. They hold between 9 and 12 ounces and cost several hundred dollars each. Silverplate and pewter are also common. A metal glass has some obvious advantages.

The julep in general and the mint julep in particular are both very old, much older even than the 141-year-old Kentucky Derby. John Milton mentions the “cordial Julep” in a poem from 1673. It or similar words occur in many languages. It first appears in English in 1400 and means a syrup of water and sugar.

The mint julep is specifically American and was originally intended as an 'eye opener' to start the day. In an era when most distilled spirits were unaged and nasty, concoctions like the mint julep were invented to make the green whiskey more palatable by overpowering it with sweetness and masking it with aromatic mint.

In Kentucky, the julep is always made with bourbon whiskey but in the Old Dominion (Virginia), rye whiskey is preferred.

Each year, some mixologists try their hand at mint julep variations. Charles Joly has one this year that uses Woodford Reserve Bourbon and fresh mint, and gets its extra sweetness from Koval ginger liqueur and honey syrup. Then he rounds it out with a little lemon juice. He calls it the Prospector's Julep.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Beam Suntory Makes Statement about 50 Cent Vodka Brouhaha

Actor-rapper 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) is all over the news today, at least in southwestern Ohio, because of a video he posted in which he mocks a handicapped teenager who 'Fitty' thought might be on drugs. The performer was in Cincinnati doing promotion for Effen Vodka, for which he is a paid endorser. Now major stores and bars in the region, including where he had just appeared, are boycotting Effen in protest. Upcoming appearances by 50 Cent in St Louis have been cancelled because of the flap.

He has since apologized but the damage is probably done. No one in the retail community is in a hurry to get the brand back on the shelves. Boycotting Effen is a pretty low-cost protest for the retailers since the brand is not a big seller in a category jammed with alternatives.

So far, none of the news accounts have mentioned that Beam Suntory is the brand owner. Might the boycott spread to other Beam Suntory products such as Jim Beam itself?

What does Beam Suntory have to say about it? Just this.

"As a brand that considers social responsibility the highest of priorities, EFFEN® Vodka does not condone the recent behavior of 50 Cent. We have expressed to him our profound disappointment for his actions, which are in no way representative of the brand’s values."

That probably won't be enough. They should have fired him immediately, before the Beam Suntory name gets dragged into it as it inevitably will. Now, in a way, they can't since they have publicly admonished him and he has expressed contrition.

Beam acquired Effen Vodka in 2009 in an odd deal that sent Old Taylor Bourbon to Sazerac. The brand's creator, Constellation Brands, had dumped it along with a basket full of other cats and dogs when it decided to reduce its footprint in distilled spirits.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Jim Beam Is Filling 500,000 Barrels a Year. That Is the Real Story

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe fondle barrel number 14,000,000.
Jim Beam (Beam Suntory) filled its 14 millionth barrel today. That is 14 million barrels (53 gallons each) since the distillery reopened after Prohibition. Put another way, it is 14 million barrels in 83 years. That averages out to 168,675 barrels per year, but it has been just two years since barrel number 13 million was filled, so the current rate is 500,000 barrels a year. That is the key information to take from this milestone.

Not only is bourbon booming today, this means the major producers believe it will continue booming for many years to come.

Million-barrel milestones are a traditional photo opportunity for Kentucky's biggest distilleries. Today Matt Bevin, Kentucky's new governor, joined the festivities at Beam's Clermont distillery in Bullitt County. For the milestone, Beam counts barrels filled there and at the Booker Noe Distillery in Nelson County. It does not count barrels produced at Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark Distillery in Marion County.

"Kentucky bourbon has become not only an American icon, but an international symbol of our proud heritage and craftsmanship," said Governor Bevin. "I'm pleased to toast Jim Beam's impressive milestone, rich history and spirited future."

Kentucky's whiskey-makers did well during the eight years Steve Beshear was governor. Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, took office shortly after Beshear did, so he has never worked with any other governor. Bevin, a Republican, succeeded Beshear, a Democrat, who had succeeded a Republican, Ernie Fletcher, but the current productive partnership between the state and one of its signature industries mostly developed under Beshear.

Bourbon is crucial to Kentucky's economy, in terms of whiskey production and its associated industries (e.g., cooperage), as well as its contribution to tourism (Kentucky's third largest industry). According to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, bourbon is now a $3 billion industry in the state, providing more than 15,000 jobs and generating more than $166 million in tax revenues annually. Over the past five years, the bourbon industry has grown 35 percent. Over the next five years, Beam Suntory alone plans to invest more than $1 billion to make bourbon in the Commonwealth.

Virtually all of the growth in bourbon production, distillery expansion, new distillery development, and bourbon tourism occurred during the Beshear administration. He showed up at just about every event, to welcome new distilleries to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, to honor Master Distillers, and to commemorate industry milestones. It was something Kentuckians and industry watchers had never seen before, their governor arm-in-arm with the commonwealth's whiskey interests.

Many Kentucky producers, large and small, and many others involved with the industry held their breath when the administrations turned over this past December. Bevin ran as a pro-business conservative, but also as a social conservative. Many of his supporters are rabidly against alcohol consumption in any form. Bevin was also a wild card because he had never held elective office before. It was impossible to know for sure if there would be any change in Frankfort for the whiskey industry.

Bevin also attended today's groundbreaking for the new Luxco Distillery just outside of Bardstown.

So it is good, reassuring, to see Governor Bevin at a distillery, pounding in a bung, and smiling for pictures with his hand on a whiskey barrel. We hope he will be supportive in more tangible ways too.