Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elijah Craig Did Not Make the First Bourbon



One of the most persistent bourbon myths is the one about Elijah Craig. Here is a typical example, from Alexis Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits: "Early in the colonial history of America, a Baptist minister, Elijah Craig, established a still in Georgetown, Kentucky and began producing whiskey from a base of corn. The still is said to have been one of the first in Kentucky and customers in neighboring towns christened his product Bourbon County Whiskey, from the county of origin."

The myth can be traced to Richard Collins, whose History of Kentucky was published in 1874. Collins does not identify Craig by name, but writes that "the first Bourbon Whiskey was made in 1789, at Georgetown, at the fulling mill at the Royal spring." This claim is included, without elaboration, on a densely-packed page of short statements under the heading 'Kentucky firsts.' 

Collins does not attempt to substantiate the claim nor has any evidence ever been produced to support it. Craig was a real person—a major character in early Kentucky history—and he was a distiller. He also operated a fulling mill at the Royal Spring in 1789, so there is little doubt that Collins intended to attribute this milestone to Craig. What is lacking is any evidence that Craig’s whiskey was unique in its day, that it alone had somehow been elevated from the raw, green, corn distillate made throughout the frontier to the bourbon whiskey we know today.

In addition to a lack of any evidence to support the Collins claim, which was made almost 100 years after the fact, there is another, more significant problem about connecting the Craig claim to bourbon’s name. Craig's distilling operation was never in Bourbon County, even with the shifting of county boundaries that took place during Kentucky's early history. Craig didn’t move, but the boundaries did as new, smaller counties were created from older and larger ones. Craig's site was first in Fayette County (1780), then Woodford (1788), then Scott (1792), but never Bourbon. 

In Craig's day, making whiskey was commonplace, universally viewed as an economic and personal necessity. It was only much later, in Collins’ time, that making and consuming whiskey became controversial. Collins himself sympathized with the prohibitionists who would eventually outlaw whiskey, but distillers and their supporters were quick to embrace his assertion that bourbon was 'invented' by a respected Baptist preacher. This does not explain why Collins attributed the invention of bourbon to Craig, but it does explain why that legend has endured.

Now, of course, it is in the interest of a certain distillery to keep the myth alive. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Buffalo Trace Updates Bourbon Shortage Status



I don't generally publish press releases. I am publishing this one for two reasons. (1) It contains a lot of interesting information. (2) I wish everybody would put out something like this. Don't you?
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Thirsty Drinkers Cope with Scarcity amidst Bourbon Shortage

Buffalo Trace Distillery Now Investing $1.2 Billion to make more  

FRANKFORT, FRANKLIN COUNTY, KY (June 12, 2018) In 2013, Buffalo Trace Distillery looked at its bourbon inventory, current sales, and 20 year sales projections and determined it had a problem: fans were drinking more bourbon than the company had predicted. In short, the company was facing a bourbon shortage. 

So it took the next logical steps: put bourbons most in danger of running out on allocation, warned fans there might be periodic shortages at the liquor stores, increased distillation, added more bottling lines, and hired more employees, including a dedicated position to watch and balance bourbon inventory. The company thought these steps were the appropriate reaction to the problem, rather than raising prices to slow sales or compromising taste or quality to bottle more by diluting proof, or bottling barrels before they fully matured.

Now, five years later, the bourbon boom is still booming, Bourbon sales continue to grow in the United States by five percent annually. The number of new brands has exploded as consumers seek more variety. Over 1,500 craft distilleries dot the landscape across America. The craft cocktail scene has arrived and a new bourbon bar seems to open weekly.

Those national trends are good news for Buffalo Trace Distillery who has more barrels coming of age over the next 12 months. Fans of Buffalo Trace Bourbon will enjoy finding more bottles available in 2018, but the company still suspects it will not be enough to meet demand.

There’s good news on other brands too, like Eagle Rare, W. L. Weller, E. H. Taylor Jr, and Blanton’s Single Barrel, as all of these brands will see more barrels come of age and bottles produced in 2018.

The Distillery will continue to bottle other fan favorites such as Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee and Sazerac Rye as barrels mature, but unfortunately there will be little growth on these brands.

The company expects the majority of its whiskeys will still be on allocation, and will continue bourbon allocations across the U.S. to ensure each state receives some.

“When I started with the company in 1995, we filled 12,000 barrels a year. Today the growth seems moderate, but when you think about how far we’ve come, it’s actually phenomenal, considering when we’re on track to produce 200,000 barrels this year,” said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller.

All that growth takes capital investment, and Buffalo Trace is in the early stages of spending $1.2 billion over the next 10 years at this National Historic Landmark. Already, two new barrel warehouses are complete with new barrels being loaded inside. The third is going up rapidly, and the foundation has been started for the fourth. When complete, each of these new warehouses will hold 58,800 barrels of whiskey. The plan is to build one new warehouse every four months for the next several years. Each warehouse cost $7.5 million to build and $21.0 million to fill with barrels.

Each warehouse will be insulated, an industry first, to protect it from the cold Kentucky winters, when bourbon lies dormant inside a barrel when temperatures drop. Already, Buffalo Trace is one of the few distilleries to steam heat its existing warehouses, now another layer of environmental protection has been added with insulation. 

But all those barrels means whiskey production must be increased too, which is why Buffalo Trace is in the process of replacing its boilers (some of which have been in place since the 1950s) and is preparing its site to add a new cooling tower next summer. The cooling tower cools down the water that is used for cooling down the grain after its cooked into mash. 

Also next summer, the Distillery plans to add four new cookers, twice the size of the existing cookers. Plus, four new fermenters will be installed. These 92,000 gallons fermenting tanks will be same size as the existing fermenters - the largest in the distilling industry.

As whiskey production capacity increases, the distllery expansion will displace the main bottling operation at Buffalo Trace. So a new bottling hall is being built at a cost of $50.0 million which will improve efficiency, flexibility and overall quality. The move is expected to be complete by the end of 2018.

Buffalo Trace Distillery would like to stress that while the bourbon shortages are prevalent on all of its brands, they speak only for themselves, not for the entire bourbon industry. 

Although Buffalo Trace is moving forward aggressively with expansion plans, allocations will continue, with no foreseeable end in sight.  Buffalo Trace Distillery would like to thank its customers for their continued support and to ask them to remain patient as they endeavor to make more bourbon. Unfortunately, you can’t cheat Father Time when making good bourbon!

About Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery is an American family-owned company based in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky. The Distillery's rich tradition dates back to 1773 and includes such legends as E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp, and Elmer T. Lee.  Buffalo Trace Distillery is a fully operational Distillery producing bourbon, rye and vodka on site and is a National Historic Landmark as well as is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Distillery has won 21 distillery titles since 2000 from such notable publications as Whisky Magazine, Whisky Advocate Magazine and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Its Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Four Grain Bourbon was named World Whiskey of the Year by “Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible 2018.”  Buffalo Trace Distillery has also garnered more than 500 awards for its wide range of premium whiskies. To learn more about Buffalo Trace Distillery visit www.buffalotracedistillery.com

Monday, June 11, 2018

International Law? There Is No Such Thing



WARNING: No bourbon content.

In their criticism of the Trump administration's recent policy change, regarding separating the children of asylum-seekers from their parents upon arrival, many have cited the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol that says the U.S. must recognize refugees that fear persecution and are not able to get help from their home country. They say that by arresting asylum-seekers and putting their minor children into protective custody, the U.S. is in violation of that international law.

I don't approve of that policy, nor did I approve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but both events raise the question. What is international law? Here is something I wrote in 2004.
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On September 17th, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation World Service that he believed there should have been a second U.N. resolution to determine the consequences of Iraq's failure to comply over weapons inspections.

Asked if he viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, he said: "Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the U.N. charter--from our point of view, from the [U.N.] charter point of view, it was illegal."

When politicians and commentators talk about international law, they usually fail to explain that what is called 'international law' is very different from the ordinary, everyday law to which you and I are subject. If we break a law and are found guilty by a court, we can go to jail, be required to pay a fine, or required to pay some sum of money to another person. Ultimately, the jurisdiction in question (whether it be a city, state, or nation) has the authority and power to enforce its rulings, by force if necessary, and they usually do so without hesitation.

If, like most people, that is what you think of when you see the word 'law,' then by comparison 'international law' is practically a euphemism.

Advocates of international law would like everyone to equate it with the common understanding of the word 'law.' That is why they use the term. But if there were truth-in-advertising in international rhetoric, the term 'international law' would have to be banned.

International law consists of a web of multilateral and bilateral agreements among and between sovereign states. The first 'international laws' were trading agreements that became standardized and to which most nations subscribed. Today, the various courts of international law operate under the auspices of the United Nations. If you understand the United Nations to be to international law what the State of Illinois is to Illinois law, you can begin to see the problem. Persons, whether natural (you and me) or unnatural (corporations), are subject to Illinois law. The state of Illinois can send armed officers to take me into custody to enforce its laws. It can order my bank to give it my money. It can even kill me.

With international law, sovereign nations are the subjects. What can the United Nations do to a member nation found guilty of violating an international law? If the United Nations imposes sanctions on a nation, it relies on its member states to abide by the sanctions regime. International law only works when it is in everyone’s interest to go along. When it is not, they don’t, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

Unless, that is, they have a military and the willingness to use it. Then so-called international law can provide a handy rationale for military action.

In an Illinois courtroom, at least ideally (and, in fact, in most cases), the law applies equally to everyone. This may be true of international law in theory, but in reality it is always political.

Nations voluntarily submit themselves to the various bodies charged with hearing cases and making rulings about alleged breaches of international law. They can cooperate during a trial and then say, “no thank you” to the verdict, or they can say “no thank you” to the entire process.

As a rule, nations abide by international law except when they don’t. When they don’t, the political part kicks in, first prodding and persuasion, then maybe sanctions, which might or might not be effective at punishing the violator, depending on the violator’s susceptibility to international pressure and on the willingness of other nations to bring it. Imagine if the IRS collected taxes that way.

It is often said that the United States Constitution “is not a suicide pact,” meaning that any right can be reasonably limited when permitting its full exercise would threaten the nation. Likewise, international law is not a suicide pact. Sovereign nations never will submit voluntarily to rulings that threaten their sovereignty and the United Nations has no independent ability to compel them to submit.

So, the United States invokes international law to defend its invasion of Iraq and the war’s opponents invoke it to condemn the invasion as illegal. Who is right? Neither? Both? Both sides have a case but, ultimately, so what?

That is what 'law' means when you put an 'international' in front of it. Ultimately, not much.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Kentucky Launches Mail Order Bourbon Business


Governor Matt Bevin signs the 'Bourbon Without Borders Act' at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville.
The bill Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed into law on Friday allows alcoholic beverage producers in Kentucky--distilleries but also small farm wineries--to ship their products out-of-state. Nicknamed the 'Bourbon Without Borders Act,' it was introduced by Chad McCoy, who represents Bardstown in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

"HB 400 is an important step in eliminating red tape and modernizing one of Kentucky's signature industries," said Gov. Bevin in a tweet. "This new law will promote economic development and increase tourism opportunities, ensuring that visitors can take a little piece of Kentucky home with them when they leave."

Some visitors, anyway. Currently, the privilege is limited to states that also allow direct shipment, of which there are seven (Arizona, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Rhode Island), plus Washington, D.C. The hope is that more states will join the club, leading eventually to a national direct sales marketplace.

Kentucky bourbon distillers and other producers celebrated the new law, as did UPS, which has its Worldport hub at Louisville's airport. UPS's largest air facility, Worldport processes an average of 1.6 million packages a day.

The direct shipment law takes on more significance when considered in conjunction with Kentucky's new 'Vintage Spirits Law,' which took effect on January 1. Now collectors in participating states can buy and sell legally without traveling to Kentucky, as long as they sell to and buy from a licensed Kentucky alcohol retailer. (Unlicensed individuals may not ship alcohol, but if you can get it there, everything else is legal and aboveboard.)

Full normalization of the secondary market in alcoholic beverages still has a long way to go, but it is nice to see Kentucky exhibiting this kind of leadership.

Friday, June 1, 2018

That Stuff You're Drinking? It's Not Whiskey



Whiskey has exactly one ingredient, whiskey. A mixture of different whiskeys, and nothing else, is still whiskey. A mixture of whiskey and other stuff is not whiskey. It is a cocktail.

People can drink what they want. You should drink what you like and be proud of it, which means be honest about it. Don't say you are a whiskey drinker if what you are drinking is not whiskey but merely a beverage "made with whiskey." (See label, above.)

You will also notice, on that label, that the word 'Tabasco' appears in larger type and twice as often as the word 'whisky.'

There are several things going on here, about branding and American whiskey having a moment right now. All of a sudden, everybody wants to say they're a whiskey drinker. Just about all of the big producers are getting in on it. Jack Daniel's Honey is not whiskey. Red Stag by Jim Beam is not whiskey. Fireball is not whiskey.

We could talk about the labeling rules, but what's the point? Most of these products follow the rules, more or less. This isn't about rules, this is about common sense, or maybe dignity, or patriotism, honor, faith, courage, respect, something important like that.

We may not all have the same truth, but let's all try to speak the same language.

A manhattan is a drink made with whiskey, but a manhattan is not whiskey. Only whiskey is whiskey.

Wood finishes, like Angels Envy, Maker's 46, or Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, are a different subject. Wood is an ingredient in whiskey, not the other way around. You can mess with the wood and the liquid is still whiskey. If the Dickel product was just Tennessee whiskey finished in Tabasco barrels it might not be good, but it would be whiskey.

But if you add port, or sherry, or honey, or honey liqueur, or 'essence of Tabasco,' the beverage is no longer whiskey. A beverage is not 'cinnamon whiskey' unless it is distilled from the fermented bark of a cinnamon tree. It is, exactly like a manhattan, a drink in which whiskey is an ingredient.

Well, not exactly like a manhattan. A manhattan is good.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dad's Hat Rye Set to Break 4-Year Age Barrier



All of a sudden, it seems, there are hundreds of small distilleries in the U.S. It is a struggle to keep track of them all. For whiskey drinkers, however, it is possible to quickly shrink the number to a manageable size. Just limit your attention to distilleries selling house-made whiskey that is at least four years old.

Last spring, Whisky Advocate Magazine published a story by me headlined "Craft Whiskey Comes of Age." At the time, I estimated that only about 20 craft distillers met the 4-year standard. I'm sure the number is a little higher now.

Dad's Hat Rye, located in the Philadelphia suburb of Bristol, was on that list. Like several others, their 4-year-old was bottled-in-bond and a very small release, available only at the distillery. Since then, stocks have grown enough that owners John Cooper and Herman Mihalich feel they can make the bond an annual release, available throughout Pennsylvania and soon in other states. The 2018 release will be out at the end of this month.

Later this year, Dad's Hat will transition its Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey to a 4-year-old as well, probably in September depending on stocks.

As the whiskey matures, so does the craft whiskey movement itself. Dad's has hung its hat on rye, the traditional spirit of Pennsylvania, home of such legendary rye distilleries as Michter's, Large, Old Overholt, Schenley, and Broad Ford. They are one to watch.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Whiskey Fungus Struggles in Court of Public Opinion


Fungus on the warehouses at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Baudoinia compniacensis is a harmless fungus that grows well in the presence of ethanol vapor. It is commonly called the ‘whiskey fungus’ because it is found on or near whiskey maturation warehouses.

The bourbon boom has led to more whiskey being distilled, more in warehouses, and therefore more fungus. Since the first complaints and lawsuits were filed in 2012, the industry has fared well in courts of law, less well in the court of public opinion. Today, when distilleries decide to build new warehouses, and ask for public investment in the form of tax incentives, the companies and officials want to talk about economic development, but the public wants to talk about fungus.

The new, May issue (Volume 18, Number 6) of The Bourbon Country Reader, available now, contains the second and final part of our in-depth report on B. compniacensis and the threat it poses to American whiskey's continued vitality. In part one, (Volume 18, Number 5) we looked at the history and science of the fungus, and the new awareness that first arose about five years ago. In part two, we look at the recent history of complaints to regulators, lawsuits, and the 'not in my backyard' reaction of many citizens to new distilleries and maturation facilities proposed in their communities.

But wait, there's more! Brown-Forman is relaunching one of its ancient brands, King of Kentucky. They tell some of the story, we tell the rest.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies of the new issue in the next few days. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Founded in 1994, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively 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, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues (no matter how long it takes).

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50. Each volume contains six issues. That's here too. Volume 18 is now available.

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.

Go ahead and subscribe. (Note: newsletter contains no actual fungus.)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Who Makes America's Whiskey?


Beam-Suntory's Booker Noe Distillery - Boston, KY
In 2014's Bourbon, Strange, I wrote, "the industry is very concentrated, with just eight companies distilling all of America’s whiskey at thirteen distilleries."

When the question was revisited in 2016, it was ten companies and 15 distilleries.

In both cases, the list was limited to distilleries that produce at least 500,000 proof gallons of whiskey per year, about 10,000 barrels. Yes, there are hundreds of smaller distilleries that make whiskey, so it can't be 100 percent, but it is at least 99.

In 2016, the newcomers were Michter's and New Riff. Since then Bardstown Bourbon Company, Lux Row, O. Z. Tyler, Bulleit, Angel's Envy, Willett, Rabbit Hole, and Castle & Key have joined the club. Coming soon are Old Forester and Wilderness Trail. All are in Kentucky.

That makes 18 companies and 25 distilleries.

Those numbers are misleading. All of the new plants are at the small end of the range. Most of them have the ability to produce about one million proof gallons per year. Meanwhile, producers at the top have been expanding on a grand scale.

In fact, the concentration at the top is staggering. Four companies produce 70 percent of the whiskey made in the USA. Brown-Forman, led by Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, is biggest. Beam-Suntory is second, Sazerac is third, and Heaven Hill is fourth. Nothing about that appears likely to change unless through merger or acquisition.

Sazerac, for example, is in the midst of a 10-year, $1.2 billion expansion project at Buffalo Trace, that will culminate in the addition of a second 84-inch diameter beer still at the Frankfort distillery.

Although several of the new distilleries are already expanding, the number of new projects on that scale seems to have slowed. Although the number of distilleries in the more-than-500,000-proof-gallon range has doubled, the industry remains very concentrated.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Diageo Doubles Its Shelby County Footprint


Diageo's Bulleit Distillery - Shelbyville, KY
Louisville Business First reported yesterday that Diageo has doubled its real estate holdings in Kentucky's Shelby County. The company has acquired, for $2.8M, 352 acres of additional land on Vigo Road adjacent to the present Bulleit Distillery property.

The same article reports that Michter's has purchased land near Springfield. It has been reported elsewhere that Maker's Mark is shopping for land near Lebanon. Not very long ago, MGP bought a large plot in northern Kentucky, not far from its Indiana distillery. Most of the major producers have acquired more land in the last few years.

Of the above, only Maker's has immediate plans to build warehouses, but that is what all of them will do eventually.

The Bulleit Distillery has only been open for a year and just half of the twelve 55,000-barrel warehouses planned for that site have been built. The distillery fills about 720 barrels a day.

Originally, Diageo wasn't planning a visitors center at Bulleit, but one is now under construction. That's another $10M. When it opens, will Diageo continue to operate the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, south of Louisville? Probably. It is already on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Diageo is a huge company, with more than 200 brands in more than 180 countries. Its biggest brands include Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Bailey's, Tanqueray and Guinness. Relative to its dominance in most other segments, Diageo is a pipsqueak in American whiskey, especially in terms of actual distilling. Its big bourbon, Bulleit (which also has a rye), is entirely sourced. The new distillery in Shelby County is years away from putting anything in bottles. Diageo does make George Dickel Tennessee Whisky at the recently-renamed Cascade Hollow Distilling Company in Tullahoma. It also owns distilleries in Canada, where it makes Crown Royal and other Canadian whiskies.

Shelbyville is about 30 miles east of Louisville, on the way to Frankfort, Versailles, Lawrenceburg, and Lexington. It already has the Jeptha Creed Distillery. Creed is new and small, but visible from the highway and clearly anxious to welcome visitors. When in Shelbyville, be sure to dine at the Claudia Sanders Dinner House. Claudia was the wife of Colonel Harland Sanders, who started Kentucky Fried Chicken. It doesn't get more Kentucky than that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Rabbit Hole, Louisville's latest downtown distillery, opens today


Photo by Fred Minnick
Rabbit Hole Distilling is a new $18 million bourbon distillery located in downtown Louisville. They had their grand opening today.

Rabbit Hole has had whiskey on the market for the last year or two, but it was contract distilled by another distillery. At full production, their new distillery will be able to make about one million proof gallons of spirit per year. That's big, about the same size as neighbors Angel's Envy (open now) and Old Forester (opening soon).

The other, smaller distilleries in downtown Louisville are at the Evan Williams Experience, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, and Michter's (opening soon). Kentucky Peerless Distilling is just slightly west of downtown. Copper and Kings, a very spiffy brandy distillery, is just east.

Louisville is, of course, the capital of Bourbon Country. Evan Williams had one of the first distilleries there in the 18th century, in what would now be considered downtown, but historically distilleries have not been in the city. That is true everywhere, not just Kentucky. The distributors and rectifiers would be located downtown, close to the river in Louisville's case, because the Ohio River was the principal way whiskey got to distant markets. Louisville always had a few distilleries in town, but most were on the outskirts, close to the farms that grew the grain.

There were other reasons for distilleries to stay away from population centers. Water needs were one, they need a lot of it and it needs to be clean. Before Prohibition, many distilleries kept livestock, typically cows or pigs, because spent mash is a nutritious feed. Whiskey maturation warehouses take a lot of real estate and in the city they need extra security. Because distilleries make high proof alcohol, fire is always a risk.

Today, the equation has changed. No distilleries have feedlots and most use municipal water sources. Fire safety is much advanced. All of the new downtown distilleries have only token maturation stocks on-site, if any.

But the biggest change is tourism. People like to visit distilleries. A great visitor experience can create a customer for life.

While a rural distillery such as Maker's Mark has its own unique charms, urban distilleries are easily accessible. Now someone in town for a day or two on business; or attending a sporting event, concert or convention, can easily get in a distillery visit or two. Louisville's distilleries are a unique attraction that reinforce Louisville's standing as Bourbon's capital city. Add in non-bourbon attractions such as Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the Muhammad Ali Center, plus myriad lodging and dining choices, and Louisville is hard to beat. Visiting Louisville is also remarkably affordable compared to other major cities.

Although one million proof gallons is a lot of whiskey, these new distilleries are small compared to plants such as Heaven Hill, which is close to downtown Louisville, or Brown-Forman, which is about three miles south. The three massive distilleries operated by Beam Suntory in Kentucky are all in rural areas, as are the rest, more or less.

It is still somewhat odd to build what is essentially a factory in the middle of an urban center, but in this case it all seems to make sense. Congratulations to the folks at Rabbit Hole for joining in this marvelous experiment.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Trolling Vodka World



I had a little harmless fun today on Facebook by posting the following statement: "'Craft Vodka' is an oxymoron."

The crowd went wild.

Simple trolls are best because they allow people to respond with their pet prejudices and most practiced arguments, with little regard for the subject of the original post. With a simple troll, many commenters just free associate. It can be entertaining and sometimes illuminating.

The best part about this one is that everybody missed the point.

'Craft Vodka' is an oxymoron, not because of the word 'craft' but because of the word 'vodka,' which is nothing more than a fanciful name for ethanol or, rather, ethanol diluted with water. Ethanol is a type of alcohol, the type we drink. The typical 80° proof vodka is 40 percent ethanol, 60 percent water.

There is ethanol in whiskey, of course, but whiskey (or tequila, etc.) isn't pure ethanol, which is what vodka is supposed to be.

This is not to say all vodkas are identical, anymore than any two glasses of water from different sources are identical. Humans can detect extremely subtle flavors and especially aromas, so the idea that some vodkas taste better than others is not fantasy, although what craft there is to it has more to do with filtration techniques and materials than anything else.

With something like beverages, a skilled craftsperson can make a product that is better than what can be mass-produced. The pertinent question is how much better and at what cost? There is, however, one drink that a factory can almost always make better than a craftsperson and that's vodka, because the making of ethanol is a highly developed industrial process. If the goal is ethanol that is as nearly pure as can be made, you want a machine to make it.

If you drink and like vodka, you can easily understand why this is true. People talk about good vodka in terms of the flavors that aren't there, not the flavors that are. The best vodkas, according to most drinkers, are the ones that taste most like water and 'don't taste like alcohol.'

There is one form of vodka that is, or at least can be, genuinely craft and that is flavored vodka. There the craft isn't in making the ethanol, it is in flavoring it. Gin, for example, is an example of a flavored ethanol product. I made gin once, at one of the big producers. I climbed up to the top of a huge tank of ethanol and poured in about a quart of 'gin essence' purchased from a flavorings house. Voila, I made gin, thousands of cases of it. There wasn't any craft in it, of course. The craft in gin-making, and vodka-flavoring, is in how one selects and processes the flavoring ingredients and how one infuses them into the spirit. That is a real craft requiring creativity, skill and experience.

Vodka is a great way to put alcohol into a drink that gets its flavor and character from its non-alcohol ingredients, but it is not so much a drink itself. It is an alcohol delivery system.

Vodka is also a great vehicle for embodying a particular self-image in a consumer product. That explains why there are so many different vodkas at such a vast range of prices. Get some ethanol, do perhaps some filtering to remove any lingering unpleasant flavors or aromas, then package and market it based on the simple premise of giving people what they want. Maybe you call it 'moonshine.' Maybe you make it in France, from grapes. Maybe you put it in an elegant bottle, give it an exotic-sounding name, and charge a ridiculous amount of money for it, some of which you pay to a suitable celebrity to endorse it. Since vodka is cheap to make, the money can be spent on marketing.

Very few people distill vodka themselves. Most buy it from one of the huge producers who simply make ethanol, some of which is used for drinks, some for medicine, some for fuel, etc. Even the big liquor companies like Diageo and Beam-Suntory don't distill the ethanol they use for their vodka, gin, and liqueur products. They buy it like they buy sugar or any other commodity. The companies that make it all seem to have names that consist of three initials: like MGP, ADM, and GPC.

Most vodka is made from corn (maize), which is why it can be labeled 'gluten free.' Other cereal grains can be and sometimes are used, whatever is cheapest at any given moment. A synonym for ethanol, common in the beverage world, is 'neutral spirit.' U.S. law requires products that contain neutral spirit to identify the source of the spirit, so ethanol made from corn is 'grain neutral spirit' (or 'neutral grain spirit'), ethanol made from sugar cane is 'cane neutral spirit' and so on.

Although ethanol can be refined to 100 percent purity, destroying every trace of the ingredients from which it was made, ethanol likes water too much to stay that dry for long. It quickly absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and stabilizes at about 96 percent. The regulations call it "at or above 190[deg] proof." Then, of course, water is added by the producer to dilute it to, typically, 40 percent.

The last time I wrote this much about vodka was last fall when I wrote about Tito's. As of today, that post has gotten 553,884 page views, my personal best.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Wild Turkey Takes a Broad Swipe at Traditional Age Statements



Labels for beverage alcohol products must be submitted in advance to the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau of the United States Treasury Department (TTB). The image above is of a recently-approved Wild Turkey back label.

Labeling watchdog Wade Woodard discovered it and did an awesome detective job, getting both TTB and Wild Turkey parent Campari on the record about the label's questionable statement about ages. You really should read his account, which can be found here on his 'Tater-Talk' blog.

The gist: Since this whiskey is more than four years old, an age statement is not required. If, however, a statement about ages is made it must be truthful and in the standard form, which is "this whiskey is ____ years old," or one of several acceptable variations of that sentence. If the product contains whiskeys of different ages (as most do), its official age is the youngest liquid in the bottle, except that the age of each component whiskey can be given if the percentage of each is also stated.

Wild Turkey's wording, "...this iconic bourbon is perfectly aged for up to six to eight years...," would seem to be non-compliant, but Wild Turkey found a loophole. The rules provide that labels "not required to bear a statement of age ... may contain general inconspicuous age, maturity or similar representations without the label bearing an age statement.” By that analysis, Wild Turkey's statement about age isn't an age statement, it is an 'inconspicuous representation' about age.

When brands have made 'inconspicuous representations' about age in the past, it has been with phrases like 'fully matured' or 'extra aged.' They have eschewed numbers. Sneaking numbers in is the new trick Wild Turkey has pulled off.

Although all this may be legal, it rubs Woodard the wrong way. Me too. It tells you nothing. It is as if they put "this whiskey might be six to eight years old" on the label. They might as well say, "hey, it's possible some 8-year-old whiskey found its way into this bottle, but who the hell knows?" All you really know is what you already knew from the absence of an age statement, which is that the whiskey is least four years old. But many consumers will read it as the whiskey is between six and eight years old, even though it actually says no such thing. It is much like a trick Wild Turkey pulled about 25 years ago when it took the words '8 Years Old' off the label and replaced them with 'No 8 Brand.' Many others have used the same trick when they dropped their age statements.

One can also dispute the new label's claim that Wild Turkey bourbon has a 'high rye content.' The Wild Turkey bourbon mash bill is 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye and 12 percent barley malt. That is more rye than Jack Daniel's (8%) but less than Jim Beam (15%) and way less than Old Grand-Dad and Bulleit (each about 30%).

In general, it is bad practice for brands to trick or otherwise mislead consumers. It undermines trust. The terminology and rules are already confusing enough for consumers without muddying the water and making things worse. Wild Turkey has always been well-regarded among whiskey fans and Wild Turkey master distillers Jimmy Russell and Eddie Russell command enormous respect. It is unfortunate that the brand's marketers have decided to disrespect their consumers in this way.


Since actor Matthew McConaughey is now Wild Turkey's 'Creative Director,' this probably is all his fault.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Can Maturation be Slowed Down for Extra-Old Whiskeys?


Deep inside Buffalo Trace's perfectly innocuous Warehouse P is
 an unexpected sight, a huge silver door. What could it be?
Let's have a look, shall we?

What's this? Whiskey barrels? In a giant refrigerator?

Yep.
What happens when you age whiskey for more than about 15-years in a conventional Kentucky warehouse? Most of it goes to heaven. When distilleries harvest their oldest barrels, many come out dry. The rest contain a mere fraction of what went into them originally.

But what is left often can be sold for hundreds, even thousands of dollars a bottle.

It is no secret that barrels for products such as Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon come from the lowest, coolest parts of the warehouse, where they age slowly. In Scotland, some whiskeys are aged for 50 or 60 years, to great acclaim. Scotland is a much cooler climate than Kentucky. What if you could change that? Such as by storing barrels in a warehouse that is held, year-round, at a constant temperature of 45℉?

It is just an experiment now, but the new refrigerated warehouse at Buffalo Trace can hold about 400 barrels. Some of the barrels in it now already have a few years on them, others are newly filled.

Forty-five degrees is pretty chilly, and keeping the temperature constant means there is no cycling, the heating and cooling process that keeps liquid moving through the wood, where it picks up sugars and other goodies. What if, at 45℉, nothing happens? "Then we'll try 50℉," says Sazerac CEO Mark Brown (pictured).

Research conducted elsewhere on the Buffalo Trace campus, at the experimental Warehouse X, has shown that the temperature in an unheated Kentucky warehouse can range from -5℉ to 105℉ over the course of the year. All of the new warehouses Buffalo Trace is building are insulated and heated. In Warehouse P, they're going the other way, holding the maturation process back as much as possible.

Imagine a 50-year-old bourbon.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Don’t Worry Too Much About Those Whiskey Tariffs


Rest easy, little darlings. Rest easy.
Unwelcome as it is, China’s tariff on American whiskey won’t cause much damage.

Exports are important to America's whiskey producers. The United States exported $1.63 billion worth of distilled spirits products last year, most of it whiskey, most of it from Kentucky and Tennessee.

Less than $9 million of that came from China.

Naturally, whiskey producers would be happier with no tariffs. They would rather hear that China has dropped its existing 10 percent tariff on imported whiskey and opened up even more. China is a vast and largely untapped market for imported luxury goods such as whiskey. The industry has been talking about it for more than a decade, but not much has happened. A brief Cognac boom was stifled by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. China's domestic spirits industry is booming.

This budding trade war certainly won’t help American whiskey producers, but Kentucky will feel more pain from the soybean tariff.

Much more significant for whiskey producers would be retaliatory tariffs by Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Canada is the biggest foreign market for American spirits at $198.2 million in 2017. Throw in our other NAFTA partner, Mexico (#9), and it’s $242.8 million. The U.K. is ranked second at $177.9 million. The five largest E.U. countries combined contribute $452.1 million a year. Those three trading blocks alone account for more than half of U.S. export income from spirits.

Pressure on sales to those places will hurt and hurt right away.

But even there, with supplies as tight as they have been these last few years, some easing of export growth might be welcome, at least in the short term. It would give producers some breathing space and allow them to build up inventories and pay a little more attention to the domestic market. It might lead to better retail availability at home and maybe even some price moderation, both of which would be welcomed by American whiskey enthusiasts, if not by producers. Isn’t that what ‘America First’ is supposed to mean, after all?

Longer term, and across the whole economy, tariffs and trade wars are mostly bad. The hit will fall hardest on American consumers but many U.S. businesses will suffer. Many Americans will lose their jobs. For producers and consumers, the United States always does best in open markets. That is an opinion, of course. You may consider me a free trader.

The desirability of open markets is even more clear with bourbon whiskey and Tennessee whiskey, because they must be made in the United States. They are products the world wants and wants now. We can’t miss our moment. Anything that makes it harder to satisfy worldwide demand for American whiskey is bad.

But if there are tariffs, we will deal with them, and try to make the best of it. When life hands you a lemon, you might as well make a whiskey sour.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

After 30 Years, the Photographs of Ray Flerlage Are Right Where They Belong


Me and Ray in 2000. Photograph by Marc Pokempner for the Chicago Reader.
My personal history with the photographer Ray Flerlage began 30 years ago at the Chicago History Museum (CHM). I was doing photo research for Donna Lawrence Productions and thought CHM would have a big collection of blues photos. They didn't. "You want Ray Flerlage for that," the archivist told me.

I called Flerlage. At first he wasn't cooperative. I learned later that he was depressed. I persisted and it turned out the attention and interest in his photographs was exactly what he needed. His renewed enthusiasm about his own work led, in 2000, to publication of his book of photographs and remembrances, Chicago Blues as Seen from the Inside. Lisa Day, a renowned film editor ('Stop Making Sense,' 'Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll'), discovered Ray's work while editing Martin Scorsese's Eric Clapton film, 'Nothing But the Blues.' Day was the driving force in getting Ray's book published.

My smaller contribution was with my own 1995 book, Blues Legends, which also featured Ray's photographs extensively.

With publication of his book, Ray learned that he had inspired an entire generation of young photographers, including Marc Pokempner, who took the one above. Ray had mobility issues and didn't like to receive guests at his South Side home, so I generally took him wherever he needed to go, such as book signings. For interviews he liked Valois, a modest Hyde Park restaurant also favored by President Obama.

Ray died in 2002. His wife, Luise, died one month later. Her nephew was responsible for the estate. I made some suggestions about the collection (the Smithsonian was interested), but eventually lost contact with him. Recently, I was delighted to learn that, in 2016, CHM acquired the entire collection of 45,000 images, shot from the late 50s through the early 70s, as well as Ray's papers. Sometimes things work out exactly as they should.

This coming Saturday, the museum’s first full-scale Chicago blues exhibit, 'Amplified,' will open and it is built around Ray's photographs. Joy Bivins is the curator. (The Chicago Tribune has a preview here.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

MGP: 100% of Our Electricity Will Come from Wind



The production of whiskey and other distilled spirits has a significant impact on the environment. Distilleries use a lot of water and energy, and generate a considerable amount of waste. Environmental sustainability is a constant challenge for producers.

MGP is a leading U.S. supplier of premium distilled spirits and specialty wheat proteins and starches, best known by readers of this space for its whiskey distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. MGP has embarked on a major renewable energy initiative, to source 100% of its electricity needs from renewable wind power, which is abundant in MGP's home state of Kansas.

“We are proud and excited to enter into this agreement, which represents a significant step in our efforts to realize both the direct and overarching benefits of renewable energy technologies,” says MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin. “Among these is our ability to take on a more prominent and proactive role in further supporting environmental sustainability through greater use of clean energy. This initiative is consistent with the long-term view we take for our business, and reflects our enduring commitment to our communities and social responsibility.”

The three-year agreement is with Westar Wind, a Green-e certified program offered by Westar Energy. As a result, total electric usage at MGP’s facilities in Atchison, Kansas, and Lawrenceburg, Indiana, will be offset by green energy provided by Westar’s wind resources in Kansas.

Under the agreement, which can be renewed at the end of three years, MGP will purchase renewable energy credits from Westar. Wind energy equal in value to the credits will then be sourced from wind farms in Kansas and added to the overall energy grid system. This arrangement makes MGP the largest Westar customer to commit to 100 percent renewable electric energy.

“Westar applauds MGP for its commitment to the environment and social responsibility,” Jeff Beasley, vice president, customer care, said. “It’s great to provide Kansas’ wind energy to help our customers reach their sustainability goals, even reaching beyond Kansas.”

As a Green-e certified program, Westar Wind is committed to delivering reliable, affordable, safe and clean energy to consumers. Green e Energy is the nation’s leading certification program for renewable energy. For nearly two decades, Green e Energy has provided oversight for voluntary renewable energy transactions in North America.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Coming Soon, Whiskey at Walmart in Texas



The 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition, gave the states unusual authority to regulate alcohol as they see fit. Although in most ways U.S. law operates to create an 'open market' within the United States, it is different with alcohol. On top of complying with federal law, producers have to navigate through a confusing web of 50 state regulatory schemes. Chain retailers who sell alcohol (or want to) face similar challenges.

Because updating alcohol legislation is always fraught, most of these schemes have changed little since they were first put in place 85 years ago.

Peculiarities abound. In Indiana, only liquor stores can sell cold beer. In Utah, bartenders have to conceal their drink preparations from underage eyes. Some states still prohibit alcohol sales on Sunday.

In Texas, only individuals and privately-owned corporations can get retail licenses to sell distilled spirits. Publicly-owned corporations such as Walmart cannot. Texas is the only state that bars public corporations from selling liquor solely because of their status as public corporations.

That will change if the decision of a U.S. District Court sitting in Austin is upheld. It ruled that the public company ban and some other restrictions are unconstitutional. The decision, filed on Tuesday, won't go into effect until all appeals have been exhausted, or in 60 days, whichever comes first.

The defendants in the suit are the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and the Texas Package Stores Association (TPSA). The TPSA is the trade association of Texas package stores. It only accepts applications from package stores that are majority-owned by Texans.

As reported by ABC News, the CEO of the TPSA, Lance Lively, had this to say about the ruling: "The Texas Legislature put a system in place to ensure safe access to alcoholic beverages in Texas, and that system has worked for over 80 years. We will appeal the trial court's decision and continue to fight for family-owned liquor store owners against the world's largest corporate entities that seek to inflate their profits by upending sensible state laws that protect both consumers and small businesses."

In business, the only profits that are ever 'inflated' are the other guy's.

Consumers, of course, are expected to benefit from the competition Walmart and other national chain retailers will bring to the Texas market.

If you think this rule exists to keep liquor retailing a 'mom and pop' business, think again. Out of a total of 2,578 active package store permits issued by TABC, 574 are owned by a package store chain (meaning, a business holding six or more package store permits). There are now 21 such chains operating in the state. The largest, Spec’s, holds 158 permits. Since 1944, the chains have greatly increased their number of stores and volume of sales, even as the total number of package stores has stayed approximately the same. The four largest chains control about 60 percent of the market.

Is anybody in Texas crying because Specs and Gabriel's may have to compete with Walmart?

Walmart did not challenge the law that will require them to build separate liquor stores next to their existing stores. They already do this in other states that have the same requirement.

The decision describes a legal tug-of-war that has been going on since the early 1990s, in which the TPSA keeps trying to limit retail distilled spirits licenses to Texans only. That triggers what is known as the dormant Commerce Clause, which says that if Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states, then the states lack the power to impede interstate commerce with their own regulations.

Because of the 21st Amendment, state liquor laws are a little bit different but they aren't that different. The court concluded that the sole purpose of the ban was to protect Texas package store owners from out-of-state competition, which is unconstitutional.

In its arguments, TPSA was really grasping at straws. They conceded that allowing in Walmart and other national chains would lower prices for consumers, then they argued that this is a bad thing because lower prices encourage more consumption leading to more liver disease, heart disease, strokes, and cancer, and numerous other social ills such as drinking and driving, child and spousal abuse, homicides, and suicides.

Yes, consumers, our high prices are actually good for you. (But we're not inflating our profits.)

Texans, unlike most people in most other states, are fiercely loyal to their in-state champions. Texans love all things Texas. I get that and I think it's beautiful, but you gave up some of your independence when you joined the United States in 1845, a decision I know some of you now regret.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Does Bourbon’s Shadow Threaten Its Future?


Baudoinia compniacensis covers an aging warehouse in Cognac.

It looks like a shadow and is casting a pall over the otherwise brilliant revival of American whiskey in the 21st century.

Tourists find it an amusing curiosity. Producers decline to talk about it. Distillery neighbors call it a nuisance and worse. There have been government actions and civil lawsuits.

Nobody knows what to do about it.

‘It’ is baudoinia compniacensis, more commonly called the ‘whiskey fungus.’ It looks like dirt. The black mold can be found clinging to the outer walls of whiskey warehouses in Kentucky, Tennessee, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, etc. It was first observed in France, in Cognac, more than 150 years ago.

Cognac wears it proudly as an ensign of prosperity. In other places it is less esteemed.

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader (and the next one), we take a deep dive into all things baudoinia, the history of its discovery, the current state of scientific knowledge, and how it may be affecting the ability of American whiskey-makers and other spirits producers to take full advantage of the recent, ongoing spectacular growth in the popularity of spirits, especially American whiskey.

Baudoinia is a potential threat to all producers of barrel-aged spirits, from the largest to the smallest.

Although there is no evidence that baudoinia is a health threat, and a great deal of evidence that it is not, these days it takes more than facts to keep people from claiming all sorts of dangers.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies of the new issue in the next few days. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Founded in 1994, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively 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, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50. Each volume contains six issues. That's here too.

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.

Go ahead and subscribe. It's fungus!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

What Is Sazerac Doing in Tennessee?


A rendering of Sazerac's proposed Tennessee whiskey distillery in Murfreesboro.
Last fall, Sazerac announced its interest in a 55-acre parcel of land in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on which to build a new Tennessee whiskey distillery. Nothing was said at the time about how this might affect Sazerac's existing distillery in Newport, Tennessee, where distillers John Lunn and Allisa Henley have been making Tennessee whiskey since last June. On March 1, USA Today reported that even as Sazerac's plan works its way toward approval by the city council, local residents are up in arms about traffic, industrial zoning so close to residential, and the dreaded 'whiskey fungus.'

But that isn't what caught my eye in the article. Baudoinia compniacensis will always be with us. What struck me was this: "Sazerac will relocate its Tennessee operations from Newport in East Tennessee." The article doesn't identify a source for that claim, and Sazerac says its plans for Newport are not finalized, so they won't comment.

'Newport' is the distillery formerly known as Popcorn Sutton. At the very end of 2016, Sazerac bought the distillery but not the Sutton brand, nor any of the spirit made there up to that point. Popcorn Sutton was a notorious moonshiner who died in 2009. Shortly after his death, his widow and one of his buddies launched a legal distilling venture in Sutton's name. In 2013, it was acquired by Mark and Megan Kvamme. He is a successful venture capitalist, close to Ohio Governor John Kasich. She became Popcorn Sutton Distilling's new CEO. The Kvammes still own the brand, which appears to be quiescent.

The Kvammes poured a lot of money into building a new distillery in Newport, near Sutton's home, and also not far from Gatlinburg and other Smoky Mountains attractions. The place is big, 50,000 square feet. The three 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. The operation also includes a 5,000-gallon mash cooker, three 10,000-gallon fermenters, and a small bottling line.

The Kvammes scored their biggest coup in 2015 when they hired John Lunn and Allisa Henley away from Diageo's George Dickel Distillery to run the place. When Sazerac bought it, they kept Lunn, Henley and their crew in place. After a few months of planning and experimentation, Lunn and Henley began production of a Tennessee whiskey of their own creation.

Then came the Murfreesboro announcement. Nothing was said about Newport, but USA Today in its recent reporting says Henley will run the Murfreesboro operation.

What Sazerac seems to be doing is logical. Newport only made sense when the distillery was all about the legend of Popcorn Sutton. That remote location might be good for tourism, but without Sutton there is no obvious tourism hook. Sazerac doesn't want to make 'moonshine.' They want to make regular, bourbon-like Tennessee whiskey to compete with Jack Daniel's and George Dickel. Murfreesboro is close to Nashville and the home of Middle Tennessee State University. It is reputed to be a great place to live and will be an easy stop for tourists on the way to visit Jack and George.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Remembering a Family Champion



When Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson, retired as Beam's master distiller and became a brand ambassador for the company, the image makers seemed to decide there were no Beams except for Jim Beam and his descendants.

They found their plan stymied by a tiny woman filled with family pride. She was Jo Ann Beam, daughter of Harry Beam, and granddaughter of Joseph L. ‘Joe’ Beam.

The Beams were prominent Kentucky whiskey-makers even before Joe and Jim came along, and there are other whiskey-making branches too.

Jim Beam had one son, Jeremiah, who joined him in the business but was not a distiller. He had no children. Booker was the son of Jim Beam's daughter, Margaret.

Joe Beam had seven sons who all became distillers, touching nearly every company in the industry. Jo Ann Beam’s father, Harry, was the youngest of the seven brothers. Although not a distiller herself, Jo Beam made Beam whiskey for 38 years as a bottling line worker at the James B. Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. After she retired in 1995, she devoted herself to serving as a volunteer at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, and to researching her family’s heritage. She especially championed the ‘forgotten history’ of her grandfather, father, and uncles.

Rifling through the attics and basements of her relatives, Jo uncovered rare bottles, hand-written bourbon recipes, and other priceless objects associated with all of the whiskey-making Beams. Many of her finds are now on display at the Oscar Getz Museum. She compiled two books of Beam family press clippings, personal documents, and family tree diagrams.

I got to know 'Aunt Jo' during the last few years of her life. She generously shared her research and stories, and took great delight in doing so. She was funny, salty, boisterous, irreverent, all of my favorite qualities. In 2001, Malt Advocate Magazine (now known as Whisky Advocate), published an article by me about the Beam family, prominently featuring Aunt Jo's 'forgotten Beams.' She was thrilled and showered me with praise, but the real credit belonged to her.

In 2002, Jo Beam achieved some notoriety when she and her twin sister, Jean Hall, appeared on national television in the two-hour History Channel documentary, “Rumrunners, Moonshiners and
Bootleggers.” In a segment near the end of the program they revealed that their father, Harry Beam, was caught making illegal liquor in 1949. They were teenagers and remembered the bust vividly.

The incident had long been an open secret in the community, but never admitted to. When it happened their grandmother used her influence (and $1,000) to keep it out of the newspapers.

No family is more important to the heritage of whiskey in the USA than the Beams, and no one did more to preserve that legacy than Aunt Jo. Next week, on her 85th birthday, join me in a silent tribute and toast.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Hoosiers May Now Buy Liquor on Sunday



This Sunday, for the first time ever, Indiana's liquor stores will be open for business. Indiana becomes the 41st state to allow Sunday liquor sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

You might expect liquor store owners to celebrate the change, but they won't. Such is the peculiarity of politics in the highly-regulated world of alcohol.

Consumers, of course, almost universally favor Sunday sales. Those with religious objections are mainly the ones who don't. Also unhappy about the change are liquor retailers in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky who enjoyed a little extra business on Sundays from thirsty Hoosiers.

So why did Indiana liquor store owners oppose the change? Let's call it unenlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interest would dictate that, as a retailer, I should favor anything my customers favor. That is the essence of a customers-first business philosophy, isn't it?

Most Indiana liquor store owners didn't see it that way. Naturally, the new Sunday sales law applies to every type of retailer licensed to sell alcohol, which includes supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores, etc. (Alcohol by-the-drink in bars and restaurants has been legal for many years.) It is expensive for a liquor store, normally closed on Sunday, to open for an additional day, whereas those other stores are already open on Sunday. Their additional cost to sell liquor on Sunday is minimal.

Indiana's liquor store interests spent at least $150,000 lobbying state lawmakers in recent years, on this and other issues, and have donated more than $750,000 to those lawmakers since 2010, according to research by the Associated Press.

One privilege retained by liquor stores is the sale of cold beer. Indiana is the only state that regulates beer sales by temperature. In Indiana, only liquor stores can sell cold beer.

And now they can sell it on Sunday.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Here Is What You Need to Know About WNS



For the last ten years, I have been trying to raise awareness about Whiskirexia Nervosa Syndrome, or WNS.

WNS is a whiskey buying disorder characterized by a false whiskey inventory image and an obsessive fear of running out of whiskey. Individuals with WNS tend to already own more whiskey than they can ever drink, even as they continue to buy more. News about whiskey shortages and out-of-stocks aggravates the condition, leading to imprudent case lot purchases. Persons with WNS have been known to empty store shelves of particular products they fear will soon be scarce, thereby producing the very scarcity they dread.

A typical WNS sufferer can be told repeatedly that he or she (although most sufferers are men) has plenty of whiskey, really more than enough, by persons who they ordinarily trust, and they may even in moments of clarity acknowledge that fact intellectually, but still they can't stop buying.

Many marriages are at risk.

Whiskey manufacturers have not addressed the problem. Instead they release more and more line extensions and new brands, more than ever before. New producers are proliferating. WNS, which had only a few sufferers when my campaign began a decade ago, has reached epidemic proportions.

As WNS takes hold, sufferers tend to seek comfort from other similarly afflicted individuals, but rather than supporting recovery, these groups tend to enable the condition.

What can you do? If you do not have WNS yourself, find someone who does. Help them drink their whiskey. It's the least you can do.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Do You Have a National Distillers Dusty?


Jim Beam Brands Co. recommended Bourbon Section shelf set for 1989-90.
Start talking about old whiskeys and pretty soon someone will mention National Distillers, usually in the context of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon or Old Overholt Rye. But National had a lot of bourbon brands including Old Crow, Old Taylor, Bourbon DeLuxe, Bellows, and other regional cats-and-dogs.

In 1987, the James B. Beam Distilling Company, a subsidiary of American Brands Inc., acquired the spirits division of the National Distillers and Chemical Corporation for $545 million. Included were three Kentucky distilleries, two of which were still active, although Beam immediately shut them down. The sale also included a lot of aging whiskey stock, at a time when American whiskey sales were in the doldrums and everyone had too much, what we call today 'the glut era.'

Enthusiasts of National Distillers whiskeys distilled before 1987 are constantly trying to figure out if bottles they have are National-distilled or Beam-distilled. It isn't easy, but some context might help.

One of the costs in whiskey-making is the cost of moving whiskey around while it is in the barrel. In a perfect world whiskey is barreled at the distillery and the barrel is moved to a nearby warehouse where it remains undisturbed until it is withdrawn years later for bottling, also nearby.

The point is that Beam's determination as to what whiskey went into what bottle was based primarily on the location of the whiskey to be bottled and the location of the bottling plant to be used. After the National acquisition, Beam bottled whiskey at two locations, its existing Jim Beam Distillery at Clermont, Kentucky, and what had been National's Old Grand-Dad Distillery at Forks of the Elkorn just outside of Frankfort.

In those days, the same bottling crew spent a few days at Clermont, followed by a couple at Frankfort. They did that because it is cheaper to move people than whiskey. The whiskey distilled by National was aging at the distillery where it was made, either Old Grand-Dad or Old Crow, which was also in the Frankfort area. Some of the whiskey distilled at Old Crow was aging in warehouses at Old Taylor, right next door. Some Beam-distilled whiskey was sent to Frankfort to age, but little if any went in the other direction.

To this day, those are Beam Suntory's two bottling plants. Each one has been substantially upgraded over the years. They run full time now and have their own crews, but the fact remains that what is aged at Frankfort is bottled at Frankfort and what is aged at Clermont is bottled there. Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark has its own bottling plant at the distillery in Loretto. The company's largest Kentucky distillery, Booker Noe at Boston, has warehouses but no bottling. Whiskey aged there is bottled at Clermont.

For reference, the distance between the Clermont and Booker Noe plants is about ten miles. The distance from either of them to Frankfort is about 75 miles. Beam has several other maturation facilities but most of them are close to Clermont, not Frankfort. Consequently, most of the whiskey bottling happens at Clermont. Frankfort bottles other things, such as DeKuyper liqueurs.

After Beam stopped distilling at Frankfort, it started to make the high-rye Old Grand-Dad recipe at Clermont, so Old Grand-Dad would have been bottled at Frankfort until the Frankfort-distilled Grand-Dad ran out, and thereafter it was bottled at Clermont. For everything else, Beam used Frankfort-distilled and Clermont-distilled whiskey interchangeably, without regard to brand, depending on where it was being bottled. This was even true of Old Overholt, as Jim Beam has always made rye whiskey in addition to bourbon.

Nothing has been distilled in Frankfort since 1987 so everything in those warehouses now comes from either Booker Noe or Clermont, but if it is aging in Frankfort it will almost certainly be bottled there too.


I know more about the period following the National acquisition than most people because I was in the room for some of it. Two years after the acquisition, Beam was still struggling to integrate the two product portfolios. I was part of a team that developed the document above, a comprehensive manual for off-premise retail merchandising of the combined Beam-National line.

The manual explained the principles of effective merchandising and where to place each major Beam brand. It included advice like this:

"The Jim Beam shelf set should begin immediately to the right of the Jack Daniels set. Jim Beam White Label should be first, immediately to the right of Daniels. Place Jim Beam Black Label to the right of White Label. Place Beams Choice to the right of Black Label.

"The Old-Grand Dad set should be placed to the left of Daniels, with all three proofs on the shelf, from left to right: 86°, 100° and 114°. This is the ideal shelf position for Jim Beam's two most important bourbon brands."

That's right. In 1989-90, Old Grand-Dad was second only to Jim Beam in importance in Beam's portfolio. That is because Old Grand-Dad still commanded a premium price and was, therefore, one of the most profitable brands on the market.

No one then could have predicted how different the bourbon landscape would look 30 years later.

Friday, February 9, 2018

"Bond. Bottled-in-Bond"



If the only Bond you know is James, you're not alone. Once considered the epitome of 'the good stuff' in American whiskey, the 'bonded' or 'bottled-in-bond' (BIB) designation fell into disuse. Old Grand-Dad Bonded, the best-selling bond for many years, was one of the few nationally-distributed bonded whiskeys that remained. Heaven Hill had a stable of inexpensive bonds (Heaven Hill, J.T.S. Brown, J.W. Dant, T. W. Samuels) sold primarily in Kentucky. Sazerac's Very Old Barton, another mostly-in-Kentucky brand, had a bonded expression. Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond (the green label) was also available here and there.

But bottled-in-bond is back in a big way. Beam Suntory, which makes OGD Bonded, has recently introduced Jim Beam and Old Overholt BIB expressions. Brown-Forman has launched bonded versions of Old Forester and Early Times. Heaven Hill has a super premium bond in Henry McKenna. They also make Mellow Corn, the only bonded corn whiskey on the market, and Rittenhouse, the top-selling bonded rye.

Recently, several micro-distilleries have introduced bonds as a way to proclaim, "Look! We actually have whiskey that is more than four years old." They include Kings County, Laws Whiskey House, Mountain Laurel Spirits, FEW Spirits, and Tom’s Foolery. Typically these are limited releases, some sold only at the distillery.

What does 'bottled-in-bond' mean? Its roots are an 1897 Federal law called the Bottled-in-Bond Act. It was America's first 'truth in labeling' legislation. In return for allowing the Federal Government to monitor their operations and adhering to a strict set of rules, producers could label their products 'bottled-in-bond,' which the government considered a guarantee of whiskey authenticity. Though guaranteeing quality per se was never the intention, it became that de facto.

The most obvious characteristic of a BIB is its proof, 100°, which means one-hundred degrees of proof, also known as 'full proof,' which is 50 percent alcohol, 50 percent water. Though essentially arbitrary, this was long believed to be the ideal alcohol concentration for a whiskey. Modern tastes seem to prefer a milder 40/60 mix, but bonds must be 50/50, no more, no less.

A bond must also be at least four years old but it can be older. The Henry McKenna Bond, for example, is 10-years-old.

The lesser known but more interesting characteristic of bonds is their singularity. A bond must be the product of a single distillery and a single distiller during a single distilling season. A 'distilling season' is a six-month period, either January-June (Spring) or July-December (Fall).

Think of bonds as 'single batch' whiskeys. The singularity rule means producers can't 'correct' a bottling batch by mixing in older or younger whiskey, or whiskey from another distillery. This makes barrel selection critical. If you really want to experience a distillery's house character, drink one of their bonds.

Although bottled-in-bond whiskeys were made and sold pre-Prohibition, it was only after the drought that they came into their own. Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II all kept the American whiskey industry from building up a solid stock of fully aged whiskeys for more than 25 years. In a market chock full of immature spirits, the words 'bottled-in-bond' became a Holy Grail in the late 40s and 50s, and into the early 60s. Then the whole American whiskey market crashed. Instead of being desirable, bonds came to be considered old-fashioned. One after another, major producers discontinued their bonds in favor of 80° proof expressions.

In today's crowded whiskey marketplace, new products are the easiest and surest way to grab attention. The long whiskey aging process makes it hard to develop products that are from-scratch new. For large producers especially, bonds are a way to create a new product from existing inventory. Bonds appeal to newbies and veterans alike. Truly, bonds are back but there is no way to know if they are here to stay.