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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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.