Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Very Old Bourbon Problem

Recently, someone I know asked for recommendations for a gift for a "bourbon-loving friend" in the $100-$150 price range.

First, I'm happy to report for those who don't know, that despite bourbon's current popularity and consequent increase in prices generally, $150 is still a princely sum to spend on a bottle of bourbon. You can, of course, spend as much as you want. Instacart recently offered me (unsolicited) a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old for $1,950. 

But back to that $100-$150 range. If the store where you shop has any bourbons in that price range, the likely justification for the price is age. Anything aged more than 12 years probably will be rare and expensive. 

But buying that 20-year-old something (not Pappy) might be an expensive mistake? Why? Because very old bourbons, while they have a following, don't appeal to every bourbon drinker. I know, because I'm one of those people. They are a very different taste. 

I don't seek out very olds because I usually don't like them. They're too woody, too acrid, too sooty. The wood overpowers everything else. In most cases, the whiskeys are not balanced. 

This applies to most limited edition releases, which is just as well since they're rarely available when you want them to be.

There are exceptions. The George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond is very drinkable at 13-years-old, reasonably priced at about $40, and generally available.

If you're shopping for a gift, and this is by no means limited to bourbon, it helps to know some of the products your recipient normally enjoys. If they tend to like the very olds then great, but if their taste runs more to standard bottlings then the most appreciated step-up might be something in the same range. Age-wise, the sweet spot for me is eight to twelve years. Most people who like a good solid four- to six-year-old will like that same recipe in an eight- to twelve-year iteration. So give the Jim Beam drinker a nice bottle of Knob Creek, give Kentucky Spirit to the Wild Turkey drinker, and so on. 

The 'older is always better' myth persists. You know better. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The "95% of the World's Bourbon Is Made in Kentucky" Fallacy


A couple weeks back, we talked about whether or not Jack Daniel's is, as the brand claims, "the #1 selling whiskey in the world." The answer hinged on what the claim actually means. Pressed, Jack Daniel's people will tell you that the claim refers to sales of the Jack Daniel's flagship expression, black label "Old No. 7." By that standard, Jack Daniel's is #1, beating Johnnie Walker Red Label, that brand's leading expression. But if you look at all of the whiskeys sold under those two brand names, Johnnie Walker beats Jack Daniel's by several million cases (although Jack is catching up fast).

Which is it? When you know all the facts, you see it's actually both. In all fairness to both brands, the claim simply means less than it seems. It tells you something, but not everything. It's true only as far as it goes. The full answer is nuanced and qualified. That's how reality is most of the time, but advertising doesn't play well with nuance. It needs claims that are clear, direct, and persuasive. 

It is the same with this oft-repeated claim: 

"Kentucky is the birthplace of Bourbon, crafting 95 percent of the world’s supply."

Is that, indeed, a fact? Not necessarily. You can be excused for believing it's a fact because it appears under the words "Bourbon Facts" on the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) web site.  

Eric Gregory is long-time president of the KDA. He has freely admitted that the claim originated with him and was, to put the best possible face on it, a seat-of-the-pants estimate or, if you prefer, a guess. He has expressed amazement and amusement that it has been accepted and widely repeated as fact. 

Was it a good guess? Is he right?

As the saying goes, it depends.

The claim has persisted and is promoted by the KDA because it serves that organization's purposes and in the precise way they frame it, the claim is probably close to being true. Its accuracy depends on what you mean by "bourbon." If by "bourbon" you mean products that say "bourbon whiskey" on the label, then 95% may be too low. When Gregory first said it, there were only two distilleries outside of Kentucky making a whiskey that was labeled and sold as bourbon. They were A. Smith Bowman in Virginia, which made Virginia Gentleman, and Seagram's in Indiana (now MGP), which made bourbon that was mostly sold outside the U.S. There may even then have been a couple of craft distilleries making bourbon outside of Kentucky, but they didn't make enough of it to matter. Bowman and Seagram's made so little that it probably didn't amount to even the 5% allocated to them by Gregory. 

Which brings us back to Jack Daniel's, always the elephant in the room when we talk about bourbon and Kentucky. Jack Daniel's is bourbon in all but name. So is George Dickel. Their use of the term "Tennessee whiskey" instead of bourbon is a choice, adopted long ago in part because bourbon is so closely associated with Kentucky. Between them, their volume (approximately 90% of which is Daniel's) is about one-fourth of the bourbon-style whiskey category. That makes Kentucky, at best, the producer of about 75% of the "world's bourbon supply."

In the business, the term "bourbon" is shorthand for American whiskey. Nobody breaks out bourbon, much less Kentucky bourbon, as a category. The numbers are for American whiskey, distinguishing straight whiskey from blends in most cases but that's about it. The straight whiskey segment was almost all bourbon and Tennessee whiskey until recently, with the resurgence of rye. 

Today bourbon is made all over the country. Most American whiskey is still made in Kentucky and Tennessee, and most of the growth in whiskey distilling capacity in the last decade or two has been there as well. Again it would be a guess, but if you said 95% of American whiskey is produced in that region, you'd be close to right. That region, which includes MGP's distillery on the Kentucky-Indiana border, is America's whiskey heartland.

With the resurgence of rye, American distillers are now making a lot of whiskey that is not in the bourbon/Tennessee whiskey style. In Scotland, they make many different whiskies, but they are all scotch. Not all American whiskey is bourbon, even with Jack and George included. In addition to bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, America's whiskey-makers make rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, corn whiskey, and blended whiskey, just to name the major types. Increasingly, these other whiskey styles are made in other places. Some craft producers have eschewed bourbon because of its strong association with Kentucky. Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and Maryland all have historical associations with rye whiskey, as does Canada.

Remember, the only thing that distinguishes bourbon from, say, rye is the mash bill. Both types use new, charred oak barrels and taste very similar. The parallel to scotch isn't bourbon, it's American whiskey writ large.

Back to the Kentucky question. The problem, of course, is with the KDA itself. They claim, also on their web site, that they are "Responsible for Promoting and Protecting All Things Bourbon," but that's not true. They actually only care about "promoting and protecting" the bourbon made in Kentucky by their member companies. 

About 70% of the whiskey made in the U.S. is made by four outfits. One of the four, Sazerac, is not a KDA member. Sazerac makes bourbon in Kentucky at Barton 1792 in Bardstown and Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. They are one of the largest producers of Kentucky bourbon but the KDA acts like they don't exist.

Do Brown-Forman and Diageo, which owns George Dickel, support the KDA's Kentucky-centricity? Apparently they do. Since both companies also make Kentucky bourbon, and Brown-Forman is Kentucky-based, they happily support the hegemony of Kentucky's large, legacy whiskey-makers. It's a not-too-subtle barrier to entry for producers of Texas bourbon or anyone else who would like to expand out of a successful regional market. 

In general, false and misleading statements invariably lead to false beliefs. Decisions based on bad information are themselves usually flawed. False and misleading statements erode our trust in the institutions that make them and in institutions generally. It shouldn't surprise anyone that most trade organizations are really private clubs intended to promote and protect the interests of their members, certainly not the interests of the public or even, necessarily, their industry at large. In this case, people repeat the 95% claim like it's gospel. It contributes to the hard-to-kill myth that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. 

They could fix this one, little problem easily. When you say "95%," it sounds like you actually know it's 95% because you've used a number and numbers imply precision. Maybe it would be better to just say "most" and leave it at that.

Bigger picture, this is part of a larger problem in which too many people feel free to pick and choose the "facts" that most appeal to them. There are still ways to find out what is true and what is not. You're using the most powerful of them right now (by which I mean the internet, not this blog). But you have to be smart about it, you might have to do a little more work than you'd like. Most of all you have to care about basing your judgments upon accurate information. The truth, like Tinkerbell, will die if you stop believing in it. Care about the truth, both in what you take in, and what you put out. It's the best way to live.

That's true in whiskey, in politics, in life. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Jim Murray Does It Again (I Wish I Knew How)

Do not look directly into his eyes.

One thing you rarely read about in the whiskey press is the whiskey press. That's just as well. Excessive navel-gazing is a risk in any enterprise. Look at the movie industry. But Jim Murray's annual World Whisky of the Year awards are a cultural phenomenon that deserves a comment or two.

Although it is the work of one man, it is widely reported as if it represents an industry consensus. Every year there are dozens of different competitions for distilled spirits products; with panels of judges, prestigious announcement events, and fancy trophies. Murray does a press release, yet he gets better coverage than all of them. Murray's annual announcement is always front page news in the trade press and garners remarkably heavy coverage in the general press as well. 

How does he do it? No one explains Murray better than Murray. Here is his description of himself, from his website:

"Jim Murray is a legend and leading player on the world’s whisky stage. It is now over 25 years since he became the world’s first-ever full time whisky writer. And this 2020 edition of his Whisky Bible marks the 17th year of annual publication."

You can't argue with results.

What is his secret? Here is part of the answer. Murray does his business in a way that generally pleases whisky producers, although he has pissed off more than a few of them too. His annual pronouncement gives most of them something to crow about, often in irresistibly evocative prose, so they promote his glowing descriptions of their products and burnish his credibility in the process. He keeps a low profile most of the time and doesn't go on Facebook to argue about politics and other wastes of time. He maintains an air of mystery, the hermit aesthetic who speaks to his votaries only through The Book. ($19.95 on Amazon

About that evocative prose, here in part (from his press release) is his description of his latest World Whiskey of the Year:

“A succulence to the oils, balanced perfectly by ulmo and manuka honeys ensure for the most chewable Canadian mouthful possibly ever and yet this is constantly salivating, from the very first nanosecond."

Murray also is very good at creating controversy, i.e., buzz. He loves to tweak the whiskey establishment by giving his highest honors to outliers such as this year's winner, Beam Suntory’s Canadian bottling of Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye.

Whatever his secret, he's been getting it done for 25 years now, and I can testify to how easy that isn't.

NOTE (9/21/20): Murray's hegemony faces a new threat. Finally, he is being called out for the sexism in his writing.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

O. Z. Tyler Is Now Green River Distilling Co. (Again)

The distillery on the west side of Owensboro has had many names. One of the first was Green River, a name originally given to a distillery on the nearby Green River, a tributary of the Ohio. That distillery, established in 1885, was owned by John W. McCulloch, who had worked there as the 'government man' (i.e., internal revenue agent) before buying it. In about 1900, he moved the distillery to its current location for access to the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad line, but he kept the Green River name.

The Green River brand became famous for its advertising slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache.” With new rules post-Prohibition, that slogan was barred. Its replacement, “The Whiskey Without Regrets,” though arguably more evocative, never had the same zing and the brand declined. 

But now the slogan is back, in huge letters on the side of one of the distillery's brick maturation warehouses.

The name change is being unveiled today.

Green River Distilling Co. is owned by Terressentia, which bought it from CL Financial in 2014. They renovated the distillery, which had been dark since 1992, and named it O. Z. Tyler after the company's founder. Distilling resumed there in 2016. The master distiller, then and now, is Jacob Call, whose family has deep roots in bourbon-making. Both his father and grandfather worked at Jim Beam.

“Green River was known for making some of the finest whiskey in Kentucky," said Call. "We’re excited to be crafting bourbon and rye under the Green River flag again. As a third-generation distiller and seventh-generation Kentuckian, playing a role in reviving this historic distillery has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Terressentia is best known as developer of the TerraPURE rapid aging process. However, the bourbon and rye that will be sold under the Green River name will not use TerraPURE, according to distillery sources. Both whiskeys will be traditionally aged for a minimum of four years. A limited release of Green River Kentucky Straight Bourbon will be available in 2021. For more information, visit the distillery's web site.

Rob McCulloch, great-grandson of Green River's founder, worked closely with Terressentia CEO Simon Burch to rename the distillery. “I’ve always wanted the distillery’s name back at its original location in Owensboro," said McCulloch. "It completes the story my great-grandfather started in 1885.”

“We’re so grateful to Rob for sharing his family’s legacy with us and it’s a privilege to continue to build on the legacy that John McCulloch created," said Burch.  

Green River Distilling Co. is the westernmost point on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Is Jack Daniel’s the #1 selling whiskey in the world?


As I read the press release from Jack Daniel's about the resignation of Jeff Arnett, I thought they had buried the lede. There, at the end of the second paragraph, I saw it: "Jack Daniel’s is the #1 selling whiskey in the world."

I don't recall seeing this statement in any previous press releases from Jack Daniel's, but I have to confess I don't read them all. Notice the exact words: "#1 selling whiskey in the world." Not "#1 selling American whiskey in the world."

This is a big deal because the #1 spot has long been held, proudly, by Johnnie Walker. As any whiskey drinker knows, Jack Daniel's and Johnnie Walker are completely different products, connected only by the fact that both are classified as whiskey (or whisky). They are, however, as segment leaders, avatars of each nation's whiskey industry. As Jack and Johnnie go, so goes the business. World wide, scotch still outsells American whiskey about four to one, but that ratio has been narrowing steadily for decades.

In 2014, when the Tennessee legislature was considering amending or repealing its new Tennessee Whiskey law, I testified before the committee looking into the matter. I was there at the invitation of the newly-formed Tennessee Distillers Guild, most of whose members supported the existing law, which for the first time formally defined Tennessee whiskey as (in effect) straight bourbon that has been filtered through maple charcoal before aging.

Those wanting to dilute or discard the law were led by Diageo, owner of Tennessee's George Dickel Distillery, and not coincidentally also the owner of Johnnie Walker. Diageo and its supporters offered a variety of reasons for opposing the law. They said it was unfair to small distillers, too narrow, and stifled creativity. I told lawmakers the real reason. "Right now, Diageo's Johnnie Walker and Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's are battling for the title of world's number one whiskey, a title long held by Johnnie Walker," I told them. "Most industry analysts believe it is only a matter of time before Jack overtakes Johnnie. In emerging markets, where no one knows either, that title is worth millions, so anything Diageo can do to slow Jack down, they will do it, and that is why they are doing this."

That sent the Diageo folks in the hearing room scrambling, but no one has ever denied my claim.

Earlier that year, the drinks research firm IWSR reported that the principal expression of the Jack Daniel's line, black label "Old No. 7," had passed Johnnie Walker Red as the best-selling single expression of a whiskey product. Although the Arnett resignation is the first time I've noticed it in a press release, my Jack Daniel's contact says they've been using it for "some time," relying on the IWSR research. Wasn't there a big announcement, I asked? Apparently not, my contact said. "We typically don't tout something like that directly, so I'm not surprised that there wasn't a big announcement." 

Is Jack Daniel’s the #1 selling whiskey in the world? By that single-expression standard, yes. If you consider the brand as a whole, no. According to industry publication The Spirits Business, Jack Daniel's sold 13.4 million cases in 2019, Johnnie Walker sold 18.4 million.

The Spirits Business does a cute trick. Jack Daniel's is #1 on their "World Whisky" list, which excludes the products of Scotland. Johnnie Walker is #1 on their "Scotch Whisky" list. But they also show the numbers. Neither brand has moved very much since 2014, with each growing by about a million cases.

If you merge the two lists it goes like this. Johnnie is first, Jack is second, Jim Beam is third, Ballantine’s Scotch is fourth and other blended scotches round out the top ten. An American whiskey, Maker's Mark, slips back in at number 12. 

But nobody cares about #12. Everybody wants to be #1. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

No, the Booze Business Is Not 'Thriving,' Part Two


Historically in the US, approximately 80 percent of alcohol sales were conducted at off-premise retail establishments such as alcohol, convenience, and grocery stores; with the remaining 20 percent coming from on-premise (bars, restaurants, etc.). As Covid-19 impacts the on-premise beverage alcohol landscape, the balance between on- and off- premise occasions has shifted, with consumers being forced into even more at-home consumption.

This is from IWSR, one of the leading research companies serving the alcoholic beverage business. 

As much as it is Covid killing on-premise today, the on/off-premise ratio has been shifting toward off-premise since the turn of the century.

One reason is price. Drinking in always has been cheaper than drinking out, but the gap has grown as on-premise prices have increased more than off-premise prices over the last 20 years. Other factors driving more at-home drinking include stricter DUI laws, a societal/generational shift towards online experiences, the growth of online shopping and delivery services, and better at-home entertainment options. 

Today, there are 20% fewer places that serve alcohol than there were 20 years ago. 

According to IWSR's analysis, total beverage alcohol volume sales for off-premise increased by 9.3% over the 52-week period ending August 16th. It would need to increase at twice that rate to compensate for the estimated 75 percent loss of on-premise business. 

IWSR estimates that, when all is said and done, the industry will have grown 0.06 percent in 2020. Growth? Yes. Thriving? No. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

No, the Booze Business Is Not 'Thriving'

On Tuesday, Vinepair published an article by Tim McKirdy entitled, "What's Fueling the Billion-Dollar Bourbon Boom?" In it he writes, "It's no secret that liquor sales have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic." 

Not only is it not a secret, it's not true. What has thrived has been at-home drinking and hence liquor stores sales, what the industry calls "off-premise." Yes, off-premise is thriving but on-premise, meaning bars and restaurants, is dying. The one has not offset the other so overall liquor sales are down or, at best, flat.

How bad is it?

IWSR is one of the leading research companies serving the alcoholic beverage business. Back in May, they put out a press release with this headline and subhead: "Beverage Alcohol Not Expected to Rebound Until 2024. Global Alcohol Consumption Grew Last Year, However, New IWSR Research Forecasts That Covid-19 Will Push 2019 Volume Gains Back By 5 Years."

That's the real story.

They elaborate: "Total global alcohol consumption, led by increases in beer and ready-to-drink products, grew by +0.1% in volume and +3.6% in value in 2019, but losses in the months-long near complete shutdown of bars and restaurants across the world this year has not been offset by upticks in liquor retail and ecommerce. IWSR expects this to lead to double-digit declines in 2020, which IWSR estimates will take until 2024 to reach 2019 pre-Covid-19 levels (though in the UK and US, IWSR forecasts that pre-Covid-19 beverage alcohol volume levels likely won’t return until after 2024.) Global travel retail, severely affected by widespread travel restrictions, will see a particularly harsh decline in 2020 but is expected to reach pre-crisis levels by 2024."

Did you catch the caveat about the US and UK? They predict recovery some time after 2024, and they aren't prepared to say how much after. Yes, this release is from May, but has anything happened since then that would make the outlook rosier?

I got into the beverage alcohol business at about the time the American whiskey industry collapsed. For years after that, industry observers predicted a rebound was "just around the corner." It wasn't. It took about 40 years. Only now, as in 2019, has whiskey production (as in new distillate going into barrels) exceeded the previous high-water mark. As McKirdy notes, in 2019 "Kentucky distillers filled more than 1.7 million barrels of bourbon — nearly four times greater than 1999’s total. Production in the Bluegrass State ... is the highest it’s been since 1972, according to data from the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA)."

Production in the other big production state, Tennessee, is similarly at record levels.

It's bad all over. Last month, a study prepared by the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) and the American Distilling Institute showed that craft distillers have lost 41 percent of their sales, worth more than $700 million, since the shutdowns started earlier this year. Thirty-one percent of their employees have been furloughed. 

Craft distillers have been hit so hard because sales at the distillery are such a big percentage of their total sales. About 40 percent of craft distillers make most of their sales at the distillery. Most craft distilleries have seen those at-the-distillery sales decline and 15 percent say their distillery store is completely shut down. 

But the worst hits are happening with on-premise retail; bars and restaurants. Those who haven't thrown in the towel are struggling to survive. Millions are out of work. No one is thriving.

There is a lot of denial around this crisis, driven by partisan politics. But if you're willing to look at the facts in a clear-eyed way, it's possible to get a picture of what's really going on and what happens next. I'm lucky because I'm mostly retired. Like everyone I've lost some income streams, but most people have it much worse than I do. If I have any advice it's just this. 

Be realistic. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Production of American Whiskey Today and How It Got That Way

Diageo's 2017 Bulleit Distillery near Shelbyville, Kentucky.

American whiskey may be the greatest comeback story of all time. Left for dead a half-century ago, today it bestrides the world. 

Although it seems like we have been talking about the 'bourbon boom' forever, the industry has grown only recently in terms of the number of distilleries producing American whiskey and the number of different companies involved. The biggest players have gotten and are getting much bigger, and there are several newcomers. It's a new ball game and the biggest changes have occurred in the last four years.

Is it enough? Is it too much? No one can know for sure, but at least you can be well-informed about where we are and where we seem to be headed.

If, that is, you read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. It drops today. This is the third in our "How It Got That Way" series.

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

Born in 1993, in the 201st year of Kentucky statehood, 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. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still a mere $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 20, Number 2.

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 searchable PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

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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.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Whiskey Yoda Says, "There Is No Best, Only You Like Best"

Au Cheval, a restaurant here in Chicago, makes a double cheeseburger that Food Network’s 'Top 5 Restaurants' program named the best burger in the U.S. There have, of course, been many ‘best burger’ lists, also best pizza, best candy bar, best breakfast, best ice cream, best cereal, best barbeque, best snack, and of course best whiskey.

While I’m happy for the folks at Au Cheval, and I think it’s great when people are applauded for their accomplishments, I despise these lists, all of them, especially the whiskey ones. I believe the people who make them and the people who believe and rely on them have a serious character flaw. At least one. This is, therefore, just a vent. I am under no illusion that this will change anyone’s mind. At best, it might give a little comfort to others who agree with me.

'Best’ is an illusion. There is simply no such thing without some sort of objective criteria, like weight, length, or height. Biggest burger is a real thing, best burger is not. It’s subjective, the judgment of one person or, maybe, a group of people. They certainly didn’t sample every burger in America, or even a small fraction of them. They say they have found the best burger in America but that's a lie. They have done no such thing.

The people who commission and make these lists are engaging in a tremendous act of hubris, choosing their favorite of something and declaring it ‘the best.’ Tallying the subjective opinions of several people does not render them objective. Everyone is entitled to have favorites but declaring that your favorite is ‘the best’ is narcissistic. Who are you to judge? Your taste is superior to mine? You've eaten more burgers than I have? Get over yourself! Better to tell the truth.

With whiskey, “what’s the best bourbon?” is the question I'm asked most often, usually followed by “what’s your favorite bourbon?” when I demure on the first question. When asked these questions I am friendly and polite (usually) and try to give a satisfying answer, naming four or five personal favorites, but what I really want to do is turn and run away, lest I start to lecture them about the need for a complete life change.

If you really could determine the 'best bourbon,' you might regret it. I like to try new things but if I know what the best is, why bother? Taste a new whiskey because it just might be better than the best? What are the chances? What a desolate life, either eating or drinking only one thing, albeit somebody's idea of ‘the best,’ or eating or drinking various but always inferior things. Don't rank, enjoy the splendor of diversity.

The 'quest for the best' is a cheat. Drinking something because you've heard it’s ‘the best bourbon in the world’ (you know which one I mean), and telling everyone that’s why you drink it, doesn’t tell me you're an accomplished bourbon connoisseur. Just the opposite. It tells me you're lazy and want a short cut route to this and probably everything else. You're unwilling to do the work of connoisseurship, which is also its greatest reward. Your judgment is of no interest to me because you have shown none. I should feel sorry for you because you're missing the best part, but in fact I think you're a jerk.

I read some of these lists, because I might see something I’d like to experience, but the ‘b’ word always turns me off. It continually gnaws at me. Are we such children that we would find a program called ‘Five Really Good Hamburgers and Where to Find Them’ insufficiently compelling? Guy Fieri may be irritating but I respect the fact that every program is filled with “the greatest diners, drive-ins and dives.” He never feels compelled to rank them at the end of the season. He loves everything. Sure, some diners, drive-ins and dives aren't so great. That’s why they're not on the show.

At law, calling your company, service or hamburger ‘the best’ is considered ‘puffery.’ That’s the actual, legal word for it: ‘puffery.’ It is defined as a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no 'reasonable person' would take literally. The Federal Trade Commission defines puffery as a "term frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined."

Let that sink in for a moment. You can't claim you're the oldest or the biggest or the most popular unless you are and can prove it, but you can claim you're 'the best' even if you have nothing to back it up. The puffery rule means that if you say you're ‘the best,’ no one can sue you by arguing you're not, no matter how bad you are. The claim is not subject to proof and is, therefore, not actionable.

I could get serious for a moment and suggest that people who believe there is a best hamburger or best bourbon may also believe there is a best way to solve any problem, as in only one right way. They may also believe there is only one right way to configure a family, educate children, govern a country, make love, art, or tea. They may believe there is only one true God. And there is a good chance that anyone who does not prefer the one true hamburger is apostate and not to be trusted.

Off with their heads.

‘The best’ sounds serious, important, hard to ignore. A similar meaningless claim you hear all the time is 'none better,' as in, "no one beats our prices." While that seems like a superlative, it's not. What it really means is, "our prices are about the same as everybody else's."

Despite all that, 'the best' attracts eyeballs in our clickbait world.

By the way, I no longer judge whiskey competitions, mainly because I don't enjoy it.

When you're doing it in a group, the social part is fun. If you're doing it by yourself at home it is tedious. Having been on the inside of major international whiskey competitions does not make me take them more seriously, just the opposite. I'd rather be drinking Wild Turkey.

But I'm just venting. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

My Favorite Dick Perry Story

One of Dick Perry's 20 books, a history of Cincinnati radio station WLW.
(WARNING: No Bourbon Content.)

Dick Perry was a journalist in Cincinnati and Chicago, the author of 20 books, six plays, and hundreds of articles. When I knew him, I was in college at Miami University and he was living in Oxford, stringing for the Cincinnati Post. We got to know each other when he was reporting on the campus anti-war demonstrations in which I participated (1969-1973). We became friends and I always enjoyed seeing him. He was the classic ink-stained wretch, in a shabby trench coat, always lurking inconspicuously just around the corner like the pro journalist that he was. He was about the same age as my dad.

My favorite Dick Perry story took place on election night, 1972. I was covering it at the Butler County Courthouse in Hamilton for WOXR in Oxford, and he was covering it for the Post. At some point in the evening, Dick caught my eye and motioned for me to follow him. He led me through the dark corridors of the empty courthouse until we came to an office. The door wasn't locked so we entered. Dick turned on the lights. He motioned for me to sit, as we both did.

"Chuck, as you know," he said. "It is illegal to consume alcohol in the Board of Elections on election night. This, however, is the Board of Education." From the pockets of his trench coat he produced two bottles of beer, which we proceeded to open and consume before returning to our work in the Board of Elections.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Crazy Conspiracy Theories Are Nothing New

1851 logo for the Proctor & Gamble Company.
(WARNING: No Bourbon Content.)

Crazy conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, spread by followers of QAnon, are nothing new. They even pre-date the Internet. Here is one example from the 1980s.

Proctor and Gamble (P&G) is a very large American consumer goods company. It is also a very old company by American standards. It was founded in 1837, in Cincinnati, Ohio, by William Proctor, a candlemaker; and James Gamble, who made soap. They were also brothers-in-law.

Today, P&G is a gigantic international company that makes household-name products such as Bounty, Crest, and Tide.

As a 19th century company, they had a very 19th century logo. The thirteen stars represented the original thirteen states and the man in the moon was a popular decorative device. Pictorial 'brands' were important at a time when literacy was not universal.

Although deemphasized and simplified over time, the company continued to use the logo in small ways well into the modern era. Then the rumors started that the symbol was satanic, that the curls in moon man's beard were an inverted 666, the 'mark of the beast.' The curls at the top and bottom of the beard were Satan's horns. By playing connect-the-dots with the 13 stars you can make '666' emerge for a second time, and everyone knows the reference to the Beast's number in Revelation is in chapter 13.

This, of course, led to more rumors, such as the persistent one that the president of P&G pledged the company's profits to Satan on an episode of the Phil Donahue Show (he didn't).

P&G tried to debunk the rumors but it only fueled the fire. The corporate logo wasn't a very important part of the company's marketing, since all of their brands had strong individual identities, so they simply retired it.

That was, of course, a distant 40 years ago. People would never fall for something that ridiculous today.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Diageo Says New Kentucky Distillery Will Be Carbon Neutral

(DIAGEO PRESS RELEASE) Diageo announced today that its new Kentucky whiskey distillery, which will distill Bulleit Bourbon and other brands, will be carbon neutral – one of the largest in North America, and a first for Diageo. Reinforcing Diageo’s global commitment to reducing its carbon emissions and addressing climate change, the site will be powered by 100 percent renewable electricity, with a capacity to produce up to 10 million proof gallons per year.

The new distillery, currently under construction in Lebanon, Kentucky, reflects Diageo’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions and moves the company closer to its goal of sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Employing electrode boilers, the site will utilize a mix of renewable electricity sources to power a 72,000 square-foot distillery, dry house, and warehousing facilities. As previously announced “The Diageo Lebanon Distillery” will have the capability to distill a variety of bourbon and American whiskey brands. Bulleit will be the first and lead brand produced at the new distillery – supplementing existing production at The Bulleit Distilling Co. in Shelbyville, Kentucky. This move will further strengthen the brand’s commitment to a more sustainable future.

“As a company we know that our long-term sustainable growth depends on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change,” said Perry Jones, President, North America Supply for Diageo. “This groundbreaking undertaking to electrify our operations and then power them with renewable electricity will result in one of the largest carbon neutral distilleries in North America. This is a significant step to strengthen our commitment to minimizing our carbon emissions and will result in an important reduction of Diageo’s environmental impact on a global level.”

“For Bulleit, our passion for sustainability began when we built the Bulleit Distilling Co. in Shelbyville, where we focus on reducing carbon emissions, water conservation and waste management during production. Then, when we opened our Visitor Experience there, we chose to implement practices like eliminating single use plastics from our bar and sourcing locally-grown organic cocktail garnishes from our onsite garden,” said Sophie Kelly, SVP Whiskies, Diageo NA. “Our commitment to the environment evolves with the Lebanon distillery, where no fossil fuels will be consumed for the production of Bulleit. This allows us to really begin to double down on our ambition to reinvent category standards.”

To achieve carbon neutrality at the site, Diageo plans to incorporate a variety of features that will avoid annual carbon emissions by more than 117,000 metric tons. This is the equivalent of taking more than 25,000 cars off the road for a year.

These features include:

Electrification of operations:

Electrode boilers avoid the direct carbon emissions that would normally be generated by the use of fossil-fuel fired boilers. Electrode boilers also offer benefits that include reduced noise pollution and reduction of other air contaminants. All vehicles operated onsite, including trucks and forklifts, will be electric, and charged onsite by renewable energy. One-hundred percent of the steam used onsite – for the cooking, distillation and drying process – will be generated by the electrode boilers.

Energy efficiency embedded into facility design: 

Energy efficiency will be optimized in the new electric boilers. Exterior lighting will be solar powered. All onsite interior lighting will be light-emitting diode (LED). Warehouse interior lighting will only activate during loading or unloading activities. Lowered roofs will minimize heating and cooling requirements.

Sourcing renewable electricity:

Long term contracts with the local utility will allow for the purchase of zero greenhouse gas emission electricity from certified renewable sources. Renewable electricity will be supplied by Inter-County Energy and East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC).

Water savings design:

The site is designed to be industry-leading in efficiency and minimize water usage.

Zero waste to landfill:

Once operational, the site will minimize use of materials and waste through reuse and recycling, and any residual waste will not be sent to landfill.

A New Future

“I welcome Diageo’s commitment to carbon neutrality and using renewable electricity at its Bulleit distillery in Lebanon. This is a notable example of a historic Kentucky industry embracing a new future,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. “To continue the commonwealth’s economic recovery, attract business investment and create jobs for Kentuckians across all counties, it’s important we and our economic development partners provide a cost-competitive energy mix. Energy diversity is something more industries are considering when they choose where to locate, and offering the right mix will help us provide a brighter future for generations to come.”

“We want to extend a warm welcome as Diageo makes this valuable investment in Lebanon-Marion County,” said Jerry Carter, President and CEO of Inter-County Energy, which will provide electric service to the Lebanon distillery. “Inter-County Energy is proud to work in partnership with Diageo and East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) to understand the energy needs of this facility and to develop innovative ways to meet the sustainability goals of one of the largest renewable energy consumers in Kentucky.”

A Commitment to Sustainability

Committed to decarbonization with approved science-based targets, Diageo is part of a pioneering group of organizations that are championing a green recovery and supporting Sustainable Development Goals, through membership of the United Nations Global Compact, We Mean Business Coalition and other key global advocacy organizations. Also, as mentioned above, as a signatory to RE100, Diageo aims to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. In addition, Diageo has signed onto the global Race to Zero campaign, a commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The company recently joined over 150 multinationals to reaffirm our commitment to Science Based Targets and urge governments around the world to align their COVID-19 recovery efforts with the latest climate science.

Bulleit has a long-standing commitment to sustainability at their current distillery in Shelbyville, KY, which was recently honored with the title of ‘Highly Commended’ for Sustainable Distillery of the Year at Whisky Magazine’s 2020 Icons of Whisky American Awards. The Shelbyville site includes the first ever industrial solar array in Shelby County, and a focus on reducing their carbon footprint by sourcing local ingredients from local farmers.  In addition, Bulleit implemented thoughtful practices at the Visitor Experience, such as a partnership with the non-profit Oceanic Global to ensure its tasting experience and cocktail bar aligns with The Oceanic Standard (TOS), a badge and certification for venues that have adopted sustainable operating practices and are committed to eliminating single-use plastics.

Investing in Kentucky

Bulleit continues a strong trajectory of growth, with the brand continuing to gain share, and global volume up more than six percent year over year. Diageo broke ground on the $130 million distillery in July of 2019, and the site is expected to be fully operational in 2021. Once fully operational, the facility will employ 30 full-time team members. Since 2014, Diageo has invested more than $500 million in Kentucky. This facility will supplement the company’s other Kentucky operations: Stitzel-Weller in Louisville, and The Bulleit Distilling Company and Visitor Experience in Shelbyville.


Carbon neutrality of Diageo’s new Lebanon, Kentucky distillery for all Scope 1 and 2 emissions from site operations will be achieved by Diageo in accordance with PAS 2060 for the period commencing with the first grain delivery to completion of distilling operations, certified by Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. View the PAS 2060 Qualifying Explanatory Statement. Through sourcing for renewable electricity and the electrification of operations, the site will only require residual amounts of carbon offsets to be purchased, associated with operational elements

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

New Reader Sets Its Sights Further South Than Usual

Fermenter being filled at Cascade Hollow Distillery, Tullahoma, TN
Whiskey history is weird, especially Tennessee whiskey history.

Tennessee whiskey is a modern creation with ancient roots and it's a whiskey many drinkers still struggle to understand.

For much of its history, "Jack Daniel's" and "Tennessee whiskey" have been synonymous. It didn't start out that way and with how things are going, it won't be that way much longer.

All of that is a tease for the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which is out now.

I haven't published since February. Blame the pandemic. Anyway, it's back, and taking a deep dive into Tennessee whiskey.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies in a week or so. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Founded in 1993, 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 a mere $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 20, Number 1.

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, May 15, 2020

How to Write a Business Book in 7 Easy Steps


In case you want to use your quarantine to write a business book, here is a primer.

1.  Give every idea a name. A new name makes an old idea new and by naming it, you make it yours. You can steal anything as long as you give it a new name.

2. Use lots of numbered lists. The top 3 this, the 4 worst that, the 8 biggest whatevers. The lists should be short, never more than ten items, but the number of different lists you can have is unlimited.

3. Repeat your central thesis constantly. Say it the same way and say it different ways, but say it again and again. (If you don't have a central thesis yet, see point number 1 above.)

4. Say everything important in the first 20 pages, because most readers won't get any further, and more importantly no reviewer will get any further. Then restate everything as often as necessary until you reach the contracted page count.

5. Give lots of supporting examples. They are good for filling space. Feel free to make them up.

6. Set up a lot of strawmen. Knock them down with vigor.

7. Seduce the reader. The most important person your book describes should be the person reading it. The world revolves around them. They are indispensable. Know your reader. Stroke your reader.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Some Disturbing News in the Rush to Produce Sanitizer Products

ERC Midwest delivering 110 gallons of Koval's hand sanitizer to Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago.
One of the upbeat, people-helping-people stories of the coronavirus crisis is the many distilleries, large and small, that have been making hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products, typically donating them to first responders and other needy groups. Koval, a Chicago craft distillery in my neighborhood, is one of them.

Koval makes whiskey but it also makes neutral spirits, i.e., vodka, so they are using their own distillate to make sanitizer. This most recent batch was distilled from 15,000 gallons of beer donated by local craft breweries such as Metropolitan and Begyle. Most craft distilleries aren't equipped to distill out at a high enough proof so they are making sanitizer from ethanol they have acquired from industrial ethanol producers. I wrote about this here a couple weeks ago.

Some problems are emerging. On April 15, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued limits on certain chemicals permitted in alcohol-based sanitizer, updating a temporary guidance it adopted last month as the health crisis deepened and more manufacturers registered to produce sanitizing products. The FDA has notified several ethanol companies that their product does not meet safety standards, forcing them to halt production and cancel supply agreements. In one case, the FDA said it found significant levels of the carcinogen acetaldehyde in ethanol supplied by a company for use in hand sanitizer.

The problem appears to be with producers who have switched from making ethanol for fuel, which is going begging, to making it for sanitizer. It may not be food grade, which is what distilleries typically buy. As FDA says in its guidance, "because of the potential for the presence of potentially harmful impurities due to the processing approach, fuel or technical grade ethanol should only be used if it meets USP or FCC grade requirements and the ethanol has been screened for any other potentially harmful impurities not specified in the USP or FCC requirements."

As the producer, it is up to you to do the due diligence. Don't trust the manufacturer's word. A midwestern craft distiller I know (not Koval) told me this:

"We get a dozen calls/emails a day from ethanol plants and dealers trying to sell us tankers at a great price. Not a single one has provided a COA (Certificate of Analysis) or SDS (Safety Data Sheet) that shows their levels of methanol and acetaldehyde are within the allowable amounts. Stop falling for it, folks. Follow the guidelines from the FDA and use beverage grade and USP-certified stuff before you hurt someone or give us all a bad name."

The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) both have great resources available on this topic, and both recommend getting independent certification before you use. If you can’t certify, don’t use.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Grandma Schwartz's Kuchen Recipe

A strawberry kuchen, made today by my cousin John.
Lots of people are baking during the quarantine. Sourdough bread is popular. Here is something a bit different: fruit kuchen.

"Kuchen" is simply the German word for "cake," but it usually refers to a coffee cake. In my family, kuchen was the specialty of my great grandma Schwartz.

About Grandma Schwartz:

Celia Chrysenthia (Kinkelaar) Schwartz was my maternal great-grandmother, born in 1883 in Cleveland. I grew up with her and was well into adulthood when she passed at 101 in 1984. (We drank Wild Turkey 101 in her honor at the wake.)

She was, as you can imagine, a tough old bird. She was a big fan of the Cleveland Indians and was older than the franchise. She preferred to listen to games on the radio rather than watch them on television, only in part because of her failing eyesight. She just liked it better. Being frugal, she would often listen in the dark, sitting very close to the radio because her hearing wasn't that great either. When we went to visit her, we often had to peer through the windows to see if she was home because she couldn't hear the doorbell. I would look for the little red light on the radio.

In 1967 she was 84 and the last member of the family still living in Cleveland. Her closest living relation was her eldest daughter, Edna, my grandmother. She and her rather large family, which included me, lived in Mansfield, which is about 60 miles south of Cleveland. That year, we moved Grandma Schwartz from Cleveland to Mansfield. Literally, about 20 of us (including we kids who were old enough) drove up there, loaded a truck and several cars, and brought her and her belongings down to Mansfield.

There she had her own apartment close enough to church for her to walk there, which she did daily for mass. She also volunteered in the school cafeteria. Her family all chipped in to pay her rent and other expenses. In return, she baked.

She insisted on doing it, and one did not argue with Grandma Schwartz.

For years, she kept each family well supplied with her kuchen and occasionally cookies. Some of the kuchen was conventional cinnamon coffee cake, but she also made fruit kuchen, which was baked in a pie pan and custard-like. It was unique. I never had anything quite like it before or since. Her other specialty was hot German potato salad.

About this recipe:

This is not grandma's recipe. It was inspired by my memory of her kuchens. It is based on a recipe for plum clafouti. I tried it because I had some plums to use and was surprised by how much it resembled Grandma’s fruit kuchen. Just about any baking fruit will work. Grandma usually used apples and occasionally cherries. She used pitted cherries but doing some research I learned that there is a cherry clafouti tradition in France that leaves the pits in, which I prefer. You just have to eat carefully. Apples should be peeled and sliced thin. Plums cut into quarters or eighths, depending on size. Likewise strawberries.

We always had it for breakfast but it is also suitable for dessert. You can dust the finished kuchen with powdered sugar if you’d like, but Grandma Schwartz did not.


Fruit (e.g., applies, cherries, plums, blueberries, etc.), enough for one layer
5 tbsp sugar
4 eggs
½ cup milk
Pinch salt
Pinch cinnamon
¼ tsp vanilla
½ cup flour


Pre-heat the oven to 375°. Grease a pie pan and sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar on the bottom. Add the fruit, spreading evenly. Sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar on the fruit. In a bowl, combine the remaining sugar, eggs, milk, salt, cinnamon, vanilla, and flour. Beat well and pour into the pan. The batter should not quite cover the fruit. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Infinity Bottles, from Order to Anarchy

The so called "infinity bottle" started out as a way to consolidate the last little bit of multiple open bottles into a single container, to reduce the number of open bottles in your collection. The idea was that you would then put that bottle into your rotation, drink from it from time to time, and add to it whenever you again had a bottle with just a little bit left. That's how it started, but what has it become?

In his January 2017 "Punch" article, Aaron Goldfarb called the infinity bottle "a phenomenon among whiskey nerds." He traced its formal origins to a Ralfy Mitchell video from 2012, although Mitchell used the term 'solera bottle,' a reference to the way sherry is produced. Already the dichotomy was set. A solera is a very deliberate system, a form of fractional blending that results in a product made up of liquids that have spent different amounts of time in wood. An infinity bottle may be made that way, or it may be a random thing, essentially a housekeeping exercise, a product created entirely by chance.

People can do whatever they want, of course, but if you want to call it an infinity bottle, it probably should have something infinite about it. it's not an infinity bottle unless you are constantly drinking from and adding to it. Which means it's constantly changing.

Then the question becomes, do you try to control those changes, or just let them happen? For some people, order simply comes in the form of logging the additions, so you know what the bottle contains. This can be especially useful if the bottle seems to go south on you suddenly, you'll want to know what was the last thing you added.

Some people religiously add the last few ounces of every bottle they finish. Still others contribute the first few ounces of every bottle they open. Others just let it happen and don't fuss about it too much.

As with Ralfy's solera bottle, you can also try your hand at blending, using the same techniques professional blenders use. That's a house blend, not an infinity bottle, but people are going to use terms they like to describe the things they want to do, and 'infinity bottle' seems to be a popular term right now even if it is being used to describe projects that vary widely.

Do I have an infinity bottle? Sort of. My travel flask is a kind of infinity bottle. If I don't finish it on a trip, the next time I go somewhere I top it off with something I have open. It is what it is. For the most part, if everything you put in is something you like, then the mixture probably will be likable too. I haven't been disappointed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Why Are We So Dumb About Alcohol and Sex?

It's hard to say exactly when the bourbon boom began, but the year 2000 is as good a marker as any. The revival that began in Japan and other overseas markets had reached America and the sales needle, moribund for more than two decades, began to move in a solidly positive direction.

With the growth in bourbon sales came a growth in interest in the subject itself. People wanted to learn more about bourbon. I published my first book, Bourbon, Straight, in 2004. A few people, like Gary Regan, preceded me. A whole bunch of people followed. Although there are a few clunkers, most of the books are pretty good. Publications such as Whisky Advocate, Whisky Magazine, Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Imbibe, and others, also provide generally reliable information. Suffice it to say that today anyone seeking bourbon knowledge does not want for resources.

Yet misinformation persists. You don't need to spend much time on any bourbon-centric social media site to see it on display. People ask basic questions they could easily answer with a Google search. Instead they ask their community, which responds with cascades of wrongness. It's not every time or everywhere, but there is an awful lot of it. And this is among people who identify as bourbon enthusiasts.

It is so widespread I often think I have accomplished nothing in my 30 years of writing and speaking about this subject. Why has so little of it sunk in? I have concluded that some of it is inherent in the subject matter, as I wrote in the introduction to Bourbon, Straight. (Which is still available, by the way, either here or from Amazon.)

"Like sex, alcohol is one of those subjects where much of what people think they know is wrong. The similarities do not end there. Both subjects are laden with taboos, not least of which is their unsuitability for children. Perhaps that is the reason for such wide-spread ignorance about both. We don’t learn much about them as children and as adults, we don’t learn anything very well.

"What we do learn about both subjects growing up often is contradictory. Our parents and teachers tell us one thing, our peers tell us something else. Sex education, fortunately, has improved a lot in recent decades. Alcohol education not so much."

Now I would sum it up more succinctly. Sex and alcohol are subjects we mostly learn about informally, on the street, not in school. And most of what we think we know about both subjects is wrong.

So the fact that so many people believe so many wrong things about American whiskey, and alcoholic beverages in general, used to frustrate me. Then I realized that there continue to be people who seek the knowledge, who will buy the books, who want to learn, and I can contribute to that. If the overall state of knowledge continues to be poor, we're doing all we can. Focus on the people who seek the knowledge, not those who don't. (hint, hint.)

I can also say, with confidence, that the more you know, the more fun it is, with alcohol and sex.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

What Does 'Making' Mean When It Comes to Sanitizer?

Sanitizer product made at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
All across America, distilleries large and small are making hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products that use alcohol to kill germs. But as with the beverages these companies normally produce, 'make' doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does.

There is nothing underhanded here. What the liquor companies are doing is commendable. Most are giving away their sanitizer products to medical institutions and first responders, such as police and fire/EMS. Many are supporting the Covid-19 fight in other ways too. Brown-Forman, for example, has repurposed the kitchens of its corporate cafeteria to make meals they're donating. Most companies also are participating in efforts to assist hospitality industry workers sidelined by the pandemic.

To be effective at killing germs, sanitizer products have to be at least 60% alcohol, or what in the beverage world would be 120° proof. Some are higher. The Beam product shown above is 80%.

This means these products start with grain neutral spirit (GNS), the nearest thing you can get to 'pure' ethanol at 95% alcohol by volume (ABV). That's 190° proof. If you ever made 'jungle juice' in college, you probably started with Everclear or another equivalent 190° proof brand. That's what we're talking about here. By contrast, vodka is a neutral spirit but typically is 80° proof, which is 40% ABV. That won't kill anything except, perhaps, brain cells.

Virtually all of the big liquor companies, and many of the small ones, sell vodka, gin, blended whiskey, and other products that start with a neutral spirit base. Very few actually make, as in distill from scratch, the neutral spirit they use. They buy it in tanker quantities from companies that specialize in that, then they filter, dilute and bottle it. In addition to vodka and gin, most liqueurs have a GNS base. Your typical American blended whiskey is 80% GNS and just 20% whiskey. The big liquor companies buy and use a lot of GNS.

You might think the big guys would be more likely to make their own GNS than the small guys, but it's just the opposite. Hardly any of the big guys do. Some of the little guys do, some don't. Some who say they distill actually just redistill GNS they buy. They do this more for marketing purposes than anything else.

Even a company as big as Beam Suntory doesn't distill its own neutral spirit. It's just not practical. So when they 'make' sanitizer, they're using neutral spirit they bought from someone else. They mix in the other ingredients, which they also don't make, and bottle it. In a way, that makes what they're doing even more commendable, since all the ingredients are an out-of-pocket expense.

Why don't they make it themselves? After all, they have stills and all the other necessary equipment, such as grain mills, mash cookers and fermenters, but American whiskey stills typically produce a spirit that is no more than 80% ABV. They can be modified to produce neutral spirit, but it's not as simple as flicking a switch. Basically, you can't make neutral spirit in a whiskey still.

A few of the big distilleries have the necessary equipment to make neutral spirit from scratch. One of them is Sazerac, which has made vodka at Buffalo Trace using a repurposed light whiskey still. Light whiskey is just a point or two below neutrality, so that's an easy modification. Barton 1792 also has a light whiskey still but I don't know if they have fired it up since they stopped making light whiskey a few years back.

Sazerac won't say if they're distilling the neutral spirit they're using for sanitizer, or using neutral spirit they would normally use for their vodka, etc. It doesn't matter, but it's curious that they won't say.

Grain whiskey distilleries in Scotland and Ireland, as well as all Canadian whiskey distilleries, make a nearly-neutral spirit so they may be using house-made spirit for sanitizer, but most U.S. distilleries are not.

So who does make GNS? There is one big company that makes both GNS and whiskey. That's MGP. They make some GNS at their distillery in Indiana, where they also make whiskey. They make most of it at their facilities in Kansas. Some of the other big GNS makers are ADM (Peoria, Illinois) and GPC (Muscatine, Iowa). Most GNS is made from corn so the big GNS distilleries are where the corn is. The same companies make ethanol for fuel and other non-beverage uses. It's all the same stuff.

So why am I telling you this? Because it struck me as interesting, that's all. It's hard to know what to write about in these crazy times.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

TTB Waives Rule, Permits All Distilleries to Make Hand Sanitizer

Several distilleries have made posts recently, indicating that they are not legally permitted to make hand sanitizer. That was true until today. The Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has just announced that, "any existing DSP therefore can immediately commence production of hand sanitizer or distilled spirits (ethanol) for use in hand sanitizer, as described below, without having to obtain authorization first." The details are here.

However, not every distillery is able, because of the technology it uses, to make the necessary 190° proof (95% ABV) ethanol, and they also may not have access to the other materials needed. But for those that do, this is a way for them to both 'pitch in' during the current crisis, and keep their businesses going. Although alcoholic beverages can still be sold, many small distilleries depend on visitors and purchases made at the distillery, and that will be severely impacted by the crisis.

3/20/2020: New guidance, provided today, is here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Happy Birthday, Bottled-in-Bond Act

One-hundred-twenty-three years ago today, Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act. 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 has come back in a big way. Beam Suntory, which makes OGD Bonded, now has Jim Beam and Old Overholt BIB expressions. Brown-Forman has bonded versions of Old Forester and Early Times. (Which is funny since company founder George Garvin Brown opposed bonds.) Heaven Hill has a super premium bond in Henry McKenna and their #1 bourbon, Evan Williams, now comes in a bonded expression. They also make Mellow Corn, the only bonded corn whiskey, and Rittenhouse, the top-selling bonded rye. Sazerac also has a premium bond, named for the father of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, Col. E. H. Taylor Jr.

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, New Riff, FEW Spirits, Dad's Hat, One Eight, and Tom’s Foolery.

What does 'bottled-in-bond' mean? The 1897 Federal law 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 intent, 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. George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond in 13-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 mostly 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. Bonds are back.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Is There Gluten in Bourbon?

With concerns about gluten allergy (i.e., Celiac Disease), people often ask "is there gluten in bourbon." The short and correct answer is no, but with an explanation.

Gluten is a group of proteins found in many but not all cereal grains. Wheat and rye contain gluten, corn and rice do not.

Because there is no reliable way to test for the presence of gluten in consumer products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says no product may legally be labeled 'gluten free' unless none of its ingredients contain gluten. The U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which controls alcoholic beverage labeling, echos the FDA's direction.

Since a whiskey made from 100 percent corn can be labeled as bourbon if the other requirements are met, a bourbon made from 100 percent corn may be labeled gluten free. Most vodka is made from 100 percent corn and can also be labeled gluten free. Most bourbons, however, contain rye or wheat and those grains contain gluten. Therefore, those whiskeys may not be labeled 'gluten free.'

But are they, in fact, gluten free? Is there gluten in any straight spirits? Almost certainly the answer is no. Proteins such as gluten shouldn't be able to survive the heat of the distillation process. The slight hedging is because (1) I'm not a chemist and (2) the aforementioned inability to reliably test for gluten in the final product.

So if 'highly unlikely' is good enough for you, then you shouldn't worry about gluten in bourbon.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

"Is This Worth $40?"

AUTHOR’S NOTE (3/2/20): The folks at Lonely Oak Distillery are angry about this article. Their ire is misplaced. This article is not about Lonely Oak’s Steeple Ridge Bourbon. It is about what you can do when you see a picture like this and want to find out about the product and what’s in the bottle. That answer may seem disingenuous but let me continue. The article is very clear about the steps one goes through and, in the end, it does not reach a conclusion. Because the picture only shows the front label, I also scoured the distillery’s website. I did not search for the COLA, which would have shown me the back label, because most consumers don’t know how to do that. Also, COLAs can be unreliable because labels can change after label approval. Apparently, this product is 100 percent house-made, and less than four years old, but some of my other questions (actual age?) remain unanswered. Finally, the adage, “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” applies here. ‘Bad’ publicity creates an opportunity to generate good publicity if you’re smart about how you handle it.

The original article begins now.

A person posted this picture online with the question, "Worth $40? What is it? Has anyone tried it??"

My answer: "When I see something unfamiliar, I ask myself 'what is it?' If I can't figure it out from the label, I try the web site. If I still get a bunch of vague puffery but no useful information, I conclude it is not worth consideration, let alone $40."

If you spend time on bourbon sites, you see this sort of thing all the time. That new label someone saw in the store sparks their interest. Maybe someone on the site has an answer, but probably not. They're probably in the same boat. The unfamiliar label catches your eye and you wonder, have I just stumbled upon an unknown gem?

Almost surely not.

Here is a tip for bourbon shoppers. That bourbon you just saw in the store that is unknown to you just might be perfectly okay but it is almost certainly nothing special and most likely an undistinguished, overpriced, sourced whiskey in an enticing bottle. The chance that you have discovered some overlooked gem from some mysteriously unknown distillery is virtually zero.

This is especially tragic if the person is someone new to bourbon. There are so many good to great bourbons and ryes out there at decent prices, from reliable producers who make it clear what's in the bottle, that you really should spend your time getting to know them. But I get it. Strange has its own appeal.

More likely than not, that unfamiliar label is the product of a marketing company that has created a concept and acquired some bulk whiskey for the project. It might be a brand created by a retail chain or distributor, again using bulk whiskey. This is a little less true now than it used to be because the new, smaller distilleries that launched a decade or so ago have come of age and are making good whiskey. But even new distilleries often create a brand using sourced liquid to generate cash flow while they get their distillery off the ground.

But it might still be great whiskey, right?

Anything is possible, but here is why that is unlikely. First, you need to know that whiskey's probable source. The number of distilleries in the U.S. that make whiskey is still fairly small and the number that make enough whiskey to sell some of it in bulk remains tiny. All of them keep their best whiskey for their own brands. What they sell is perfectly good in most cases, but probably nothing special and maybe not worth the price you're asked to pay.

It may not even be unfamiliar. You may have already had that exact same whiskey under a different label.

Almost all of the majors sell some bulk liquid from time to time. These days, aged bourbon is so valuable that if you have more than you need of a certain age or type, it makes sense to sell it rather than leave it in the warehouse.

There are a few companies, most famously MGP, who sell most of their output in bulk, but business is so good these days they struggle to maintain stocks that are more than a standard five or six years old. They're selling most of it much younger even than that.

Consequently, if you're in the market for bulk whiskey so you can create a brand, you will have a pretty easy time finding new make (spirit straight from the still), but the pickings get slimmer and the cost gets higher the older you go. If the source has something in the range of 12-years available, there's a good chance it's over-oaked, which doesn't mean someone won't sell it anyway.

If you're really interested in a new brand and don't have $40 (or more) to throw away, start by asking the retailer if that brand is available to taste. If not, maybe you can find it in a bar and taste it that way. Otherwise, the next step is to do some research.

Back to the bottle in the picture, "Steeple Ridge Bourbon Whiskey." What does the label tell you? There is no age statement visible and it's not labeled 'straight bourbon,' so that's a bad sign. 'Straight' is a pretty low threshold. It just means the whiskey is at least two years old. In the U.S., an age statement is required if the whiskey is less than four years old. After that, the age statement is voluntary. You can't see an age statement in the photograph above so does that mean it's at least four years old? Not necessarily. The absence of 'straight' suggests the whiskey is less than two years old. If the age statement is there it probably is hidden on a back or side label, in very small type. I've seen them printed sideways to be even less noticeable.

But say you're in the store, have examined the bottle carefully, and found no age statement. Does that mean it's at least four years old? Not necessarily. People have been known to violate that rule.

The other thing to look for on the label, which this one doesn't show, is some kind of 'distilled by' statement. Although that's not required, if it doesn't say 'distilled by' and says something like 'produced and bottled by' followed by the name of the distillery, or it says nothing, it almost certainly is sourced whiskey. Again, perfectly good whiskey but not an undiscovered gem.

The next step is to search the web. The good news is that this producer, Lonely Oak Distillery, appears to be a real distillery in rural western Iowa. There are pictures of their stills. There are pictures of the owners standing next to their stills. Their distillery is not huge but it is substantial. You can make whiskey with that rig. They are farm-based so they talk a lot about their grain, but not at all about mashbills, aging, and other details.

A little more online digging reveals that Lonely Oak Distillery has been in business only since the summer of 2017. That means that, at best, anything made there is barely two years old. No whiskey that young is worth $40 a bottle, though I concede that's an opinion others may not share.

The information now at our disposal suggests that this is probably a 'something to get us started' bottling of sourced whiskey. This is bolstered by the fact that they are also selling a single barrel, cask strength bourbon. It's still possible both are very young house-made liquids, but sourced seems more likely.

If it is sourced and was distilled outside of Iowa the label is supposed to disclose the state where it was made, but that rule too is often disregarded or, like the age statement, hidden as much as possible. One famous offender was their neighbor in Templeton, Iowa. There aren't very many distilleries in Iowa in a position to sell their whiskey in bulk, but it's possible. A source like MGP in Indiana is more likely. Again, we don't really have answers and although Lonely Oak has a well-designed web site loaded with stuff, none of those questions are answered there.

So we know more than we did but we still don't have a good idea of what is in that bottle, who made it, or how mature it is. Is what we do know worth $40?

It's nice to support someone just getting started, so you could look at your purchase that way, as part whiskey, part Kickstarter contribution.

I'll leave the final decision up to you.