Saturday, April 27, 2019

Chris Middleton Has Some Obscure but Interesting Facts About Rye

I heard from our friend Chris Middleton today. He enjoyed my article about rye in the current issue of Whisky Advocate. (Great magazine, but I wish they would spell 'whiskey' correctly.) Mr. Middleton, formerly of Jack Daniel's, is principal and director of Australia's Whisky Academy. He is a treasure trove of information, as his note below reveals.

I enjoyed your article on rye, probing this grain deeper than most writers care to venture. I was intrigued to read one of your interviewees discussing the Rosen rye being popular in Pennsylvania a hundred years ago. The progenitor of this rye cultivar was brought from Russia by J. A. Rosen, a Russian student at the Michigan Agricultural College (which is now Michigan State). The Michigan Agricultural Experimental Station started cultivating Rosen in 1909 and began distributing it in Michigan in 1912. The first farmer (in Albion, MI) to plant it was Carleton Horton, namesake of Horton rye.

Until the end of the 19th century, rye did not command research attention. Corn did, but that’s a digression. My records have circa 1844 mentioning the Patent Office of Agriculture and the rye cultivar, Multicole. Interestingly, this variety originated in Poland, through France to England and into America when someone tried to commercialise it under US patent. I suspect it was rejected, with the first genetic patent going to Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist in Chicago for his koji patent in 1891, when he coincidently registered his ‘disruptive’ new whiskey-making process.

The popular American winter ryes were imported varieties: Common (probably originally from the UK or Western Europe), St John’s Day (Italy), Siberian (German), as well as the Spring and Southern (seems this variety climatised to warmer US regions, KY/TN). As no one was taking much interest in reporting variations in cereal genetics back then, other varieties and races may have escaped the net, i.e. Baltic-derived varieties of early 19th century Europe including Norwegian, Wallachian, Archangel, Johannis, etc.

In 1850, Pennsylvania was the largest producer of rye (4.8 million bushels, or 34% of national output), followed by NY (4.2m) and MA (0.5m). Rye was about to be toppled as America’s leading whiskey style coming into the War Between the States.

Years ago I started researching a book on rye … hence all these ready and esoteric records.

NOTE: Thanks to Ari Sussman, of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company, for sharing this little gem about the rye farmers of Michigan's South Manitou Island, published in the early 1930s.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's Spring and There's a New Reader Out

The distillery (pictured) closed in 1973 and the company died in 1991 but Glenmore's last leader, grandson and namesake of the company's founder, just passed away earlier this month. In the new Bourbon Country Reader, we celebrate the life of James 'Buddy' Thompson and look back at the history of Glenmore Distilleries.

With Glenmore we're looking to the past, but with our story about Beam Suntory's new Legent bourbon we glimpse one way the future of American whiskey may unfold. We also take a brief look at something new from America's other mega whiskey-maker, Brown-Forman, their Coopers' Craft bourbons.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies next week. 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. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 19, Number 3.

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. 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.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Louisville Film Industry and "Grizzly"

Poster for 1976's "Grizzly."
WARNING: No bourbon content.

I moved to Louisville from Columbus, Ohio, in February of 1978. I moved there for a job, at a local advertising agency. My job was to write and produce television and radio commercials for the agency's clients. Most of the television commercials were shot at the local television stations. When we made filmed commercials there was a local filmmaker we used, we also worked with people in Nashville. We had some clients in New Orleans and worked with some production companies there as well.

Louisville always had a small community of people who could crew such a shoot on a freelance basis. There was also a small community of actors and models, almost all part-time, who we used as talent. I learned about many of these local resources from my bosses, the men who had run the agency since the 1950s.

The group was small but capable, some were outstanding. We called it the Louisville talent puddle because it wasn't big enough to be a talent pool.

As I got to know people in that small community, I began to hear the name William Girdler, a filmmaker who had died about a month before I got to town. Just about everybody had worked with him or for him. One actor we worked with frequently, Charlie Kissinger, had parts in several of Girdler's films.

Girdler, I learned, was a Louisville native who had started his production company, Studio One Productions, while in his early 20s. Right out of the box he was making low-budget features. The first was "Asylum of Satan" (1972), followed by "Three on a Meathook" (also 1972). Both films were shot in and around Louisville with local talent on both sides of the camera. In our small community, everyone had a Girdler story. No one seemed quite sure how he funded his productions but they all made money and after the first two, he was making films under contract to Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.

Several of Girdler's films were knock-offs of current major studio hits, he made an "Exorcist" clone called "Abby" and a "Jaws" clone called "Grizzly." "Abby" was a 'blaxploitation' film, as was Girdler's next effort, "Sheba, Baby," an action film starring Pam Grier.

After "Sheba, Baby," Louisville's time as a feature film production center was done. Girdler went to Hollywood, but he took some of his Louisville crew along. I heard a lot of stories about "Grizzly." It was Girdler's biggest hit, a virtual scene-by-scene duplicate of "Jaws" featuring an 18-foot grizzly bear instead of a great white shark. The film's star, a real bear named Teddy, was only 11 feet tall, but he played big.

Girdler made two more features. He directed nine features in six years, writing three of them, before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for his next film. He was 30 years old.

I lived in Louisville for nine years, until 1987 when I moved to Chicago, but I have been involved with the city and with Kentucky ever since, mostly because of bourbon, but the area has so many fascinating stories. William Girdler's is one of them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

UK to Create Institute for Kentucky Spirits with $5 Million Grant from Jim Beam

Beam Suntory, which owns the Jim Beam Bourbon brand, is donating $5 million to the University of Kentucky to establish the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits. The Institute will educate the next generation of distillers through a curriculum that covers the skills needed to succeed in the distilled spirits industry at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. 

“As the University for Kentucky, we are the engine of our state’s industry—the pulse of its economy,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “When we envisioned ways to prepare our workforce to meet the changing needs of our rapidly growing Bourbon industry, a partnership with Jim Beam was a natural fit, and I can’t thank them enough for the generous gift that will help bring our vision to life. Together, as the Commonwealth’s indispensable institution and the world’s No. 1-selling Bourbon, we’re inspired by the common goal of maintaining the welfare, prosperity, and sustainability of Kentucky’s spirits industry for generations to come.”

The $5 million represents Beam Suntory’s largest single philanthropic or educational gift in company history.

“This donation is an investment in the future of Bourbon, and Kentucky’s future workforce, and we are confident that the future for both is very bright indeed,” said Albert Baladi, President and CEO of Beam Suntory. “We are excited about the key role that this program will play in the continued global expansion of America’s Native Spirit.”

The James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, led by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, will offer courses across engineering, chemistry, business, law, horticulture, forestry, food science, and entomology to address spirits industry needs in sustainable agriculture, research and development, and more.

“With the continued global growth of Bourbon, we need to focus on educating the next generation of distillers, scientists and engineers who can tackle the needs of this industry well into the future,” said Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s Seventh Generation Master Distiller. “And there’s no better place to make Bourbon than right here in Kentucky.”

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, there are nearly two barrels of Bourbon resting in the state of Kentucky for every person living there, valued at $3 billion, up 300% from 2009. Bourbon contributes $8.6 billion to Kentucky’s economy each year, including $1 billion in payroll, and $235 million in state and local tax revenue. The Bourbon industry also provides more than 20,000 jobs in the state.

“Very few places in the world have a historic landmark product like Bourbon,” said Seth DeBolt, horticulture professor and institute director. “The Institute is a collaboration to increase the longevity and the economic development for the spirits industry in Kentucky. It is really driven from an interdependence that we see between the university and the industry, and of course, remembering UK’s land-grant mission is to serve the economy of Kentucky. It’s a win-win all the way around, and we’re really excited about it.”

The university began a popular certificate in Distillation, Wine and Brewing Studies in 2014 and its online version is set to launch this fall. The Institute will build on this existing teaching opportunity as well as in research and outreach. It is a collaboration between the Colleges of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Business and Economics.

“Our signature Bourbon industry is an incredible economic engine for the Commonwealth and a thriving global symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “In the coming months, we look forward to sharing details of an impressive statewide initiative that will leverage many of our universities strengths and prepare the workforce of tomorrow for careers in Bourbon hospitality, business, and tourism, in addition to distillation and research and development.”

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Salute to the Unknown Distillers

Portraits of bourbon legends adorn the walls at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse,
Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Seth Thompson)
In Lexington, Kentucky the new Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse has a 'Bourbon Room,' decorated with images of such bourbon legends as Booker Noe, Jimmy Russell, Elmer Lee, and Bill Samuels. These are the names most bourbon fans know.

But where are the portraits of Paul Kirn and Jimmy Kearns? Who? Those are just two of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unknown master distillers, distillers, and plant managers whose portraits probably will never hang in a fancy steakhouse.

Here, for example, are some of the men (and they have pretty much all been men, although that is changing) who made the whiskey at just one defunct distillery, the Yellowstone Distillery on Seventh Street Road in Shively, just south of Louisville.

Yellowstone goes back to J. Bernard Dant's Cold Springs Distillery, which he started at Gethsemane in 1865. He later merged it with Taylor & Williams, a Louisville wholesaler that owned the popular Yellowstone bourbon brand. After Prohibition, J. Bernard and his three sons: Mike, Walter and Sam, and Jimmy Kearns, a nephew, built a new Yellowstone distillery in Shively.

Wilmer Beam, one of the seven distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam, was the distiller. (We would probably say 'master distiller,' but that term wasn't commonly used in those days.) Jimmy Kearns was plant manager and president. When the Thompson family's Glenmore Distilleries bought Yellowstone in 1944, Kearns moved to headquarters as a corporate vice-president and Paul Kirn succeeded him as plant manager. When Willmer Beam retired, Poss Greenwell became the distiller. Jack Beam, Wilmer's nephew, followed Greenwell. He was followed by Joe Ruttle. Bill Creel followed him. When the plant stopped distilling in the 80s, Creel went to Barton in Bardstown.

We only know this particular list, from one distillery spanning about 50 years, because Sam Cecil knew all of them and wrote it down in his book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky.

Today, the Dant and Beam families are making Yellowstone again at the Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon. Proprietors Steve and Paul Beam are descended from both families.

And so it goes in bourbon country.

Legends like Booker and Jimmy deserve all the recognition they receive, but the next time you sip on some fine Kentucky nectar, give a thought to the many unknown distillers and distillery hands who made Kentucky bourbon whiskey what it is today.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Provenance Versus Taste

If "provenance versus taste" seems like a false dichotomy, that's because it is. As whiskey has become more popular, provenance issues have arisen from time to time. Where was this whiskey made? How? From what? By whom? Is the label misleading?

Is it worth the price?

In the midst of all that, inevitably someone will declare, "I don't care about all that stuff, so long as it tastes good." To people trying to have a serious conversation about provenance, that sort of brush-off can grate, but it gets to a truth we enthusiasts often forget.

A good drink for a good price really is the bottom line.

I care a lot about provenance. The history and culture of America's whiskey makers is what attracted me in the first place. That is separate from liking to drink the stuff. While it may sound romantic to say knowledge makes the whiskey taste better, it doesn't.

I am musing about this because Beam Suntory's recent Legent Bourbon got me interested in the company's new Ao World Whiskey, just released in Japan, which led me to some of Dave Broom's writing about transparency issues in the Japanese whisky industry.

Does Japanese whisky made entirely in Japan taste different from 'Japanese whisky' that is 90 percent imported bulk whisky from Scotland or someplace else? Two whiskeys with different provenance may taste different, but provenance isn't the reason. Terroir? Maybe, but national borders don't have some magical effect on distillate. That it tastes a certain way is what matters, why it tastes that way does not. If you like the flavor, buy the product. You don't need the recipe. It's not like you're going to try to make it yourself.

One can easily get lost in the weeds on provenance questions. I'm someone who enjoys his time in the weeds, but not everyone does. This advice is for everyone who just wants a good drink for a good price. Don't trust anything you read or hear. It's all nonsense. Don't trust your friends. No, not even your bartender. Drink the cheapest thing that tastes good to you. If the label embarrasses you, use a flask or decanter.

Then if you also find provenance interesting, join the conversation.

What drives so much of this is that most people don't trust themselves, which makes them susceptible to the wiles of charlatans and quick-buck artists. Unfortunately, even well-meaning advisors can't offer much help because only you can decide what tastes good to you. Only you can decide how much you are willing spend.

Trust yourself, your own palate, and your own wallet.

There is no more to it than that.