Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Mint Julep. You're Drinking It Wrong, Probably

More mint juleps are consumed on Kentucky
Derby Day than the rest of the year combined.
Mint juleps and the Kentucky Derby go together like all those other things that go together. You almost cannot mention one without the other.

Invariably at this time of year, you hear complaints about what a bad drink the mint julep is. One famous Kentucky writer famously urged his readers to go through the ritualized preparations, then throw all that muck away and drink the bourbon neat.

For those who don't know, a mint julep consists of fresh mint leaves, muddled with a little sugar, doused with bourbon and served over crushed ice with a mint sprig for garnish. It is a venerable, old drink. It is not a "bourbon mojito."

The problem with mint juleps is not with the drink, but with people who don't know how to drink it. A mint julep is most perfect the moment it is made and should be drunk quickly, not necessarily in one gulp, but without dawdling. If you sip on it, it quickly becomes a watery mess. 

Derby Day is back where it belongs, on the first Saturday in May, which this year also happens to be the first day of May, so feel free to sing "The Internationale" right after "My Old Kentucky Home." 

This has been a public service announcement.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Sazerac Sends Fireball to China and Experiments with Baijiu at Home. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A Baijiu sampler.

So this was in the inbox: "Budweiser China today announced a strategic partnership with The Sazerac Company to bring Fireball Whisky to China."

Also this: "Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery announces the limited release of a Baijiu-style spirit." 

An international incident is imminent.

Fireball is a very successful product, marketed as 'whiskey' with the barest possible legal justification. For most drinkers of actual whiskey it is the punchline to a joke, much as Budweiser is ridiculed by many beer drinkers.

The disrupter.

In China, however, Budweiser is a premium product and leads the premium segment of the Chinese beer market. Budweiser China, which also sells Stella Artois, Corona, Hoegaarden, Cass, Harbin and other brands there, is the most profitable brewer in Asia. In addition to China, the company distributes to South Korea, India, Vietnam and other Asia Pacific regions.

China also is the world's principal baijiu producer. Although little known outside China, that vast market alone makes it the best-selling type of distilled spirit in the world. It accounts for about 31 percent of spirits volume globally, according to the International Wine and Spirits Record (IWSR, 9L volume, calendar year 2019). 

The Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Baijiu-style spirit is distilled like whiskey but uses traditional Baijiu ingredients of sorghum and peas. After aging the distillate for 11 years in three separate casks--uncharred, charred and toasted white oak--the spirits were married together and bottled at 90 proof. 

In addition to Fireball, Budweiser China will act as the exclusive distributor for other premium alcoholic offerings from Sazerac such as Goldschlager, Southern Comfort, Seignette, Buffalo Trace and Seagram's V.O. in the Chinese mainland.

Baijiu is the 24th experimental release from Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery. The first was in 2006. The Experimental Collection includes thousands of different recipes and barrel treatments which examine a variety of unique variables from changes in the mash bill, types of wood, barrel toasts and more.

Experimental Collection Baijiu Style can be found in select markets. Quantities are extremely limited. Suggested retail pricing is $46.99 per 375ml bottle. 

America's whiskey makers have longed for more opportunities to penetrate the Chinese market. Much of the industry's recent investment in increased production capacity is premised on steady, strong export growth, for which China is the principal target. 

It is not known if Buffalo Trace is experimenting with cinnamon-flavored Baijiu.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sagamore Spirit Should Leave Cinco de Mayo Alone

Sagamore Spirit’s 'Rye-Garita' and 'Paloma' cocktails,
for an authentic Maryland Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Sorry, Sagamore Spirit, but you caught me in a grumpy mood. I didn't know I was in a grumpy mood until I learned, from your helpful press release, that "the countdown to Cinco de Mayo has officially begun." Already? And officially! 

It continues, "But what if you’re bored of traditional tequila or have made one too many margaritas at home this past year?" 

Yes, by God, I am bored with traditional tequila and have made one too many margaritas at home this afternoon...I mean, this past year. But what's a boy to do?

Sagamore Spirit has the answer. First, rush out and buy a bottle of their straight rye whiskey finished in Tequila barrels (because that's a thing). It's just $69.99/750ml from Drizly. Use it to mix up a batch of Cinco de Mayo cocktails using that instead of, well, something actually Mexican.

Sagamore Spirit is a Baltimore-based whiskey brand with an increasingly fractured persona. In the beginning (just a few years ago), Sagamore Spirit was all about reviving the heritage of Maryland rye whiskey. "Our spirit flows from a spring house, built in 1909, at Maryland's Sagamore Farm," they cooed. "Naturally filtered spring water, fed from a limestone aquifer. The same water that fuels our champion thoroughbreds also cuts the rich spice of our rye, creating a spirit as revolutionary as America’s risk-takers and history-makers. Our story is one of passion, of old meeting new, and crafting a timeless American whiskey."

Is it?

Well financed by the owner of Under Armor, Sagamore Spirit built a beautiful, state-of-the-art distillery on the waterfront in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood, just off I-95 and close to the Inner Harbor. It opened in 2017 and celebrates its fourth anniversary this month. Today's press release mentioned none of that.

No whiskey made there has been bottled yet. Their current product is a mixture of two straight ryes made at MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In fact, they designed their Baltimore distillery to duplicate those whiskeys as nearly as possible. That famous Maryland water is used to dilute the barrel-proof Indiana whiskey down to bottling proof.

The whiskey's actual provenance has never been a secret. Other than scattershot messaging, they've done everything right. They've established the brand solidly throughout the region and stand a good chance of transitioning to house-made liquid without a noticeable change in taste. That's been a challenge for many new producers. 

So naturally, as one does when one is trying to revive an early American regional whiskey tradition while transitioning from a sourced to a house-made product, Sagamore Spirit decides to finish some of its rye whiskey in 'Extra AƱejo Tequila barrels.' The result of this pairing, they claim, "is remarkably unique tequila finished whiskey with notes of agave and vanilla on the nose and honey, peppercorn and orange citrus to taste." (I assume that was translated from the original Mexican.)

It might have been interesting to mention that most Tequila aging is done in used barrels that previously held bourbon or rye or some other new-barrel American whiskey, maybe even one made at the same distillery in Indiana where Sagamore Spirit's whiskey is made, which would be a neat story indeed, remarkably unique even; barrels made from Ozark oak, first used to age Indiana rye, then dumped and shipped to Mexico, where they hold Tequila for 3+ years, are dumped again and shipped to Baltimore where they're used to finish some of that same Indiana rye so it can be used in a lame Cinco de Mayo promotion by a distillery that thought it had an image but now isn't so sure.

The press release also helpfully reminds us that "pairing tequila and whiskey is always a risky move," which is, apparently, why they didn't do that. This is not "tequila-finished whiskey" as claimed. It is tequila barrel finished whiskey. That's different. The claimed "notes of agave" are not bloody likely.

I visited Sagamore Spirit in the summer of 2019. It's a beautiful and modern facility, right on the water, paired with a small hotel and upscale restaurant. They have a lot going for them, but in addition to being a young brand, Sagamore Spirit is a small brand. It can't afford such a fragmented image. Successful brands, including the biggest ones, are focused and consistent They know who they are and stay on message. The best example is the most successful American whiskey, Jack Daniel's. Their message hasn't changed in 100 years! 

Sagamore Spirit should decide who it is and be that, and probably skip Cinco de Mayo altogether. Consider instead a May promotion involving a little local horse race called The Preakness.