Monday, November 28, 2022

Karl Raitz Makes a Monumental Contribution to Bourbon History



Bourbon whiskey is not only a signature industry for Kentucky but also weaves throughout the state's history and culture. Making Bourbon. A Geographical History of Distilling in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky, by Karl Raitz, is a monumental work and something that has long been needed on the subject. It is a thorough, academic examination from a top scholar in the field. Raitz is professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kentucky. Making Bourbon is published by the University Press of Kentucky, a consortium of 15 Kentucky universities, and other entities such as the Kentucky Historical Society. 

This is serious stuff. The writing is dry and voluminous (500 pages of narrative, 145 pages of backmatter), but for anyone interested in the true history of Kentucky's distilling industry (which, appropriately, includes Cincinnati in its analysis), it is indispensable. 

The 19th century is crucial because that is when whiskey-making in Kentucky shifted from an adjunct of agriculture into an industry in its own right, going from artisan to industrial, and from local to international. The change happened quickly, in a generation or two, and was both affected by the region's geography and had a profound effect upon it. This is also when the beverage we know as bourbon whiskey evolved into its current form.

Instead of romanticized folderol, Raitz gives us hard data. You've probably heard about the Royal Spring in Georgetown, where Elijah Craig famously built his distillery and fulling mill, but did you know it has a flow rate of 400,000 gallons per day? If you find that hard to believe, you can flip to the back and learn that the source is a 1957 report from the U.S. Geological Survey. You've probably heard that Kentucky's 'limestone water' is what makes Kentucky whiskey special, but Raitz explains why that is mostly hype. He notes, however, that "while such myths may not be proved by objective analysis, they are plausible and believable. And they contribute to the body of lore that underwrites the industry's heritage and self-image."

As recently as the current issue of "Bourbon+," I have opined that the universities and historical societies of America's whiskey heartland have given whiskey-making short shrift. Raitz's book is a much-appreciated corrective.


Friday, November 18, 2022

Before Johnny and Amber, There Was Hiram and Mollie

 


It was a scandal that rocked the bourbon world in 1880, then faded from the headlines and from memory, as the more recent saga already has for many. 

It is a timeless tale: older man, younger woman, a heady mix of alcohol and sex followed by bitterness, recrimination, violence, and, always in the background, money, lots and lots of money. 

The full, sordid tale is here, in the form of my "Back In The Day" column in the Fall issue of Bourbon+ Magazine, available now. I have been on the last page of Bourbon+ with my musings on American whiskey history in every issue published so far, since the beginning. This new one wraps up four years of publication. Good for us! 

It's a little bit of fun with a serious point. The history of American whiskey is worth preserving. I do what I can, but where are the university history departments that could be doing this work in a serious and professional way?

The idea of this free sample of the magazine, naturally, is to induce you to subscribe, which I recommend. Bourbon+ covers American whiskey and everything around it like no one else. It is a beautiful magazine with good writing that goes nicely with a little 'red likker.' 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Has Maker's Mark Jumped the Shark?

 

The latest release in the Maker's Mark Wood Finishing Series: BRT-01 & BRT-02

Would you pay $120 to taste Maker's Mark's mistakes? That is the proposition underlying these two new releases from Loretto. 

Mistakes, you say? Back in 2010, Maker's Mark very publicly agonized over the decision to release its first line extension, Maker's Mark 46. Why? Because from its humble beginnings as a family-owned distillery in the 1950s, Maker's always maintained that they make one bourbon and it is the best bourbon they know how to make. As then Master Distiller Kevin Smith said in 2009, Maker's is a small distillery and struggles to make enough standard Maker's Mark without trying to make something else too. Back when Dave Pickerell was Master Distiller, he let people taste 10-year-old Maker's to show them how bad it is. But that was then. 

Under pressure from Jim Beam, its new parent, Maker's launched Maker's Mark 46 in 2010. They insisted it was still 'perfect' Maker's Mark, but with a little something extra. "Not better, just different" was their mantra. "Think of it as a change-of-pace for the Maker's drinker," they said. "A way to enjoy something a little different but still in the family." Its very name testified to their resistance, since only on their 46th attempt did they come up with something they were willing to share. 

It got much easier after that.

Here is how they explain these two new iterations: "Our fourth Maker’s Mark® Wood Finishing Series may be the easiest way to taste your way through the rickhouse. The name BRT was given to these expressions because of the influence our consistent practice of hand-barrel rotation (BRT) and temperature has on our whisky process. Made to be enjoyed as a pair, BRT-01 is inspired by the tasting notes found at the hotter top of the rickhouse, and BRT-02 is inspired by tasting notes found at the cooler bottom. Together, they give people the unique opportunity to experience where the characteristics responsible for the original Maker’s Mark® come from, so they can reach a new level of understanding of whisky."

Suggested retail is $59.99 each (750 ml) so for a mere $120, you can taste two perfectly incorrect versions of 'perfect' Maker's Mark, its yin and yang

What the copywriter meant to write was "taste notes" not "tasting notes," but that is not the heart of the problem. 

The 'Wood Finishing Series' is so called because it features different secondary wood finishes, like Maker's 46 itself. From that description, this release seems to have nothing to do with secondary wood finishes. Instead, it is meant to demonstrate what happens when Maker's doesn't complete its rotation cycle. Maybe it should be called the Wood Unfinished Series?

Except that is not what it is. Notice the words 'inspired by' in the product description above. From the movies, we know what 'inspired by' means, as in 'inspired by a true story.' It means true, but not quite. In this case, 'inspired by' means these are secondary wood finishes after all. A demonstration of the 'whisky process' it is not, but rather a symbolic simulation of it, and one of dubious value. 

Tucked away at the bottom of the press release is this: "BRT-01...uses American oak staves to dial up the flavors developed over the first three years of aging" while "BRT-02...uses French oak staves to dial up the flavors developed over its final years of aging." In what way do American oak staves simulate the "hotter top of the rickhouse" and French oak staves simulate "the cooler bottom"? That is not explained. 

Barrel rotation has long been a token of what Maker's Mark calls their “purposeful inefficiency.” They love to talk about it. The story goes like this. Long ago, most distilleries routinely moved all or most of their barrels within the warehouse to even-out the aging process, because barrels in different locations can age very differently. Barrels were 'rotated' the same way players change positions on a volleyball court. Barrels of new make entered at the top and, step by step, rolled to the bottom like bottles in a vending machine. When a barrel got to the end, it was ready to drink.

As you can imagine, moving barrels around like that takes a lot of labor. Because of the expense it is rarely done today. Maker's doesn't rotate everything, only some barrels 'as needed,' but more than other producers. They say it is necessary because they use small dump tanks. It is easy to smooth out differences when you dump hundreds of barrels for each bottling batch. A bottling batch for Maker's is more like 20 barrels, so they need all of them to be 'right,' hence rotation. 

The problem with talking about 'hand-barrel rotation' is that most people don't know what you're talking about unless you explain it thoroughly. (Sticking 'hand' in there doesn't help.) Hearing the term without an explanation, one probably assumes the barrel itself is rotated, as in spun around for some mysterious purpose, like riddling Champagne bottles. 

In this case, it doesn't matter what one thinks 'hand-barrel rotation' means, because that is not what is going on here. This is a simulation of barrel rotation's effects and a seemingly arbitrary one at that. 

In the real world, a barrel that spends too much time in the upper, hotter part of the warehouse will tend to taste too woody. We'd call it overaged. A barrel that spends the same amount of time in the lower, cooler part of the warehouse may taste immature, too green. You rotate to even that out. Does anything about this product tell you any of that? 

Remember, Maker's stated intention with BRT-01 and BRT-02 is to help us "reach a new level of understanding of whisky." Instead we get word salad, 'buzz' that is little more than irritating noise. No one is edified. Maker's Mark used to resist this sort of thing, but has yielded to the News Monster like everyone else. 

For the record, a 750 ml bottle of 'perfect' Maker's Mark is still about $30. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

How To Explore Whiskey Without Doing Homework

 

What to drink next?
Can you walk into a store, armed with some basic knowledge, and make a good whiskey purchase without doing any homework in advance? You can if you read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader (Volume 21, Number 3).

Also, distilleries of all sizes are releasing 'experimental' whiskeys, but some experiments are more daring than others. Read all about it in the new Reader.

Click here to subscribe via PayPal (PayPal account or any major credit card) or for more information. 

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, which just went up, again.

Nevertheless, a subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is a mere $25 per year for addresses in the USA, $32 USD 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 21, Number 3. 


If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $25 each, or three for $60. 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.

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Eventful Year 2012


Jim Beam's American Stillhouse opened in 2012.

The last two decades have been a whirlwind for fans of American whiskey. As we start to look back on the year now wrapping up, here's a peak at what seemed exciting ten years ago, at the end of 2012.

One of the year's best releases was Abraham Bowman Virginia Limited Edition Whiskey, a phenomenal 18-year-old bourbon at 138.6° proof (69.3% ABV). Its moment on the stage was so brief, most of it was consumed instead of collected. It never had a chance to be a unicorn.

Larceny, Heaven Hill's Old Fitzgerald spin-off, debuted in 2012. I called it "a major new star in the wheated bourbon firmament." In addition to being very good whiskey, it replaced a false origin story with a true one.

Jim Beam's American Stillhouse opened in 2012 and set a high bar for distillery visitor experiences. It has been upgraded and updated several times since, as bourbon tourism continues to grow.

The mystery that was Angostura's Lawrenceburg Distillery Indiana (LDI) became the marginally less secretive MGP in 2012. It is the distillery now known as Ross & Squibb. It doesn't matter. Everybody still calls it Seagram's. MGP still isn't as transparent as one might like, but compared to the previous owners they were "a breath of bourbon-scented fresh air."

The renowned Michigan craft brewery New Holland released its first Beer Barrel Bourbon in 2012. I called it "rectification in the finest sense of the word, which means 'to set right; correct.'" They took an undistinguished major distillery bourbon and made it not only drinkable but genuinely special by finishing it in their beer barrels. And they told the truth about it too.

Maker's Mark v Diageo was decided in 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. It said Diageo couldn't use red wax tendrils on tequila bottles, upholding that as part of the Maker's Mark's trademark. I was thrilled to have my work cited not once but five times in the decision. As my sister said, "I sure hope all that stuff you wrote in your book was true now that they're using it to decide court cases." Me too, Jane. Me too.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Building Where My Dad Worked for 40 Years Is Being Demolished Today

 

'A' Building at Westinghouse Mansfield, in its heyday.
It is a milestone few will note, as the Westinghouse 'A' Building has been empty for more than 30 years. The rest of the factory was demolished long ago. In addition to 'A,' there are some small buildings, concrete slabs, and other structures that need to go. "Concrete slab" may not sound like a big deal, but one of them covers 13 acres! Finally, the whole property is being returned to 'greenfield' status so it can be redeveloped. That's a good thing and a good sign for Mansfield, my hometown.

My connection to the building is because my father worked there, as an engineer, for 40 years, 1949-1989. I occasionally took him to work or picked him up. I worked in the plant myself one summer, 1970. They hired college kids so people could take vacations other than during summer shutdown, and the kids of employees got first crack. 

We made washers, dryers, and ranges.

It was a great job, a union shop. I joined the IBEW and got the same pay as any new employee, which was great money compared to other summer jobs. Other local factories did the same thing, but that was one of the last years it was available. The postwar boom was winding down. In 1975, Westinghouse sold its major appliances division to White Consolidated Industries, which eventually sold it to Electrolux, but Dad stayed on through all the changes.  

He retired, as the company required, at age 70. The plant closed a few months later. I joked that they couldn't go on without him, but he didn't find it funny.

The Westinghouse Electric Company built the factory in 1918 to make appliances. At its height it employed more than 8,000 workers. Mansfield had lots of good manufacturing jobs in those days. We made appliances, cars, tires, steel, all sorts of stuff. Westinghouse did events for employees and their families, like a big Christmas party and a summer picnic at an amusement park. I liked to watch professional wrestling at the IBEW Hall.

Although all the buildings had letter designations, I think the 'A' also stood for 'Administration.' That's where all the offices were, for engineers but also salespeople, managers, bookkeepers, etc. Because dad's hours were different from mine the summer I worked there, I got a ride each morning with the father of a high school friend, who was a foreman in the factory. I'm sure walking into the factory each day with Ed Henrich got me a lot more cred than being Ken Cowdery's son.

I don't believe Mansfield has anyone poised to take over the site but I doubt, especially after all this time, if the city, state, and federal governments would be spending $4 million on this remediation without prospects. It's a good location, big enough for just about anything someone might want to put there. Although I haven't lived in Mansfield for many years, I still have friends and family there and much affection for the place. I hope to see something bright, shiny, and new on my next visit.


A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH: (10/17/22) When I posted this on October 5th, I used a picture of 'H' Building because I wanted to show the factory in its prime and I couldn't find one of 'A' Building. I don't like to change posts, but that picture kept bothering me. The new one is 'A' Building and though it's not dated, the cars parked next to it suggest it wasn't long after the building went up in 1918, on the site of what had been the Baxter Stove Company. 


Monday, September 26, 2022

A Century Ago, a Whiskey Warehouse Fire Inspired a Popular Novel

 

Red Likker, a novel by Irvin S. Cobb (1929)
Almost a century ago, a spectacular and suspicious fire at a whiskey warehouse in Kentucky inspired a popular author to write a fictional history of bourbon.

Irvin S. Cobb was an American author, humorist, and columnist who was born in Kentucky but lived most of his life in New York. He authored more than 60 books and 300 short stories. His novel, Red Likker, was published in 1929. It concerns a Kentucky family named Bird and follows them from their pioneer beginnings through Attila Bird’s service in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. 

The Birds are whiskey makers and after the war, Colonel Bird becomes a successful Kentucky distiller. The story ends with Prohibition and its climax is based on actual events that occurred at the Forks of Elkhorn Distillery, then owned by R. A. Baker and Thomas Hinds. That site today is a bottling and maturation facility for Beam Suntory. Some people remember it as the Old Grand-Dad Distillery.

Cobb’s Colonel Bird is a man of high principles, brought sharply into focus by the duplicity of everyone around him. He is nearing the end of his long life. The government won’t allow him to sell the whiskey maturing in his warehouses, a product that was legal when he made it. He is approached by scoundrels willing to buy it, but who also threaten to steal it if he won’t sell. In the end he burns it all to the ground, after first cancelling his fire insurance because, you know, principles.

The real Forks of Elkhorn fire occurred on July 21, 1924. It destroyed a federally-licensed concentration warehouse that apparently held both case goods and maturing barrels, as one newspaper described “bottles, barrels and cases popped all Monday night in the dying flames.” The Lexington Herald reported that 2,200 cases and 1,500 barrels of whiskey were destroyed. Two additional warehouses were saved.

Most of the maturing whiskey that was lost belonged to Mary Dowling. She had made it at her Waterfill & Frazier Distillery in Anderson County but was required by the Feds to move it to Frankfort following her arrest for illegal sales. The remainder was owned by the distillery. Although faulty wiring appeared to be the cause, there was a report that the insurance had been cancelled just a few days before the fire occurred, which inspired Cobb’s climax. Baker and Hinds subsequently sold the facility to the Paul Jones Company, best known for their Four Roses brand. 

The fire occurred just as whiskey interests were arguing for a reduction in fire insurance rates, since there was “virtually no fire risk” in the government’s concentration warehouses, so they claimed. Three days after the fire, the Kentucky Actuarial Bureau announced that no rate reduction would be granted.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Truth About Moonshine.


The romanticized image of moonshine.
Hate sits alone on the hood of his car.
Without much regard to the moon or the stars.
Lazily killing the last of a jar
of the strongest stuff you can drink.


From The Ballad Of Love And Hate by the Avett Brothers

Okay, class, what is Hate drinking?

Why moonshine, of course. The jar reference gives it away. So does the last line, although that's one of the many myths about moonshine.

So, what is moonshine? Moonshine is any distilled spirit, regardless of type, that is made by an unregistered distillery. Unregistered means illegal, underground, off-the-grid. It is illegal to distill alcohol without registering your still and obtaining a license for it, even at home just for fun. The license is federal but the state gets involved too.

Distilleries have to register so they can be taxed. Taxes are about half the price of any distilled alcoholic beverage, more than virtually any other product and a lot more than you may think. 

Because 'moonshine' is just a spirit that was illegally made, it is not a type of spirit. Therefore, 'legal moonshine' is an oxymoron. The people who regulate such things, at both the state and federal levels, allow producers to call their products 'moonshine' as long as the product is also identified by its actual, official classification.

Theoretically, a producer can call anything 'moonshine,' but legal moonshine is usually one of three recognized distilled spirit types. (1) neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. (2) cane spirit, i.e., 'sugar shine.' (3) un-aged corn whiskey.  

Of the three, (2) is the most authentic. As Max Watman explains in his excellent book, Chasing the White Dog, real moonshiners (the illegal kind) use table sugar almost exclusively because it is cheap, readily available, and ferments easily.

Moonshining is still practiced today. The goal is to make it fast and cheap, don't get caught, and don't kill anybody, generally in that order of priority. People think moonshine is strong because it tastes bad and they equate that flavor with alcohol strength, but a lot of moonshine isn't even at the minimum of 80° proof (40% alcohol by volume) at which most straight spirits are sold. It just tastes bad. 

The romantic image of moonshine is of a rustic craftsman, an artisan making The Real Thing, uncompromised by Big Business. The reality is that moonshiners are more like the people who make methamphetamine, and often they are the same people. Moonshiners are criminals, out for a fast buck, generally by preying on the poor and ignorant.

Not that a moonshiner can't also be a good distiller gone bad. Back in the 1940s, after he left Heaven Hill in a huff, Harry Beam fell on hard times and did a little 'shining to make ends meet. Yes, those Beams. Harry's dad and Jim Beam were first cousins.

But 99 percent of moonshine is nothing special and some of it is dangerous, as in poisonous, so if you are ever offered some maybe have a tiny sip, just to be polite.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

About That Whiskey Warehouse Demolished Yesterday

 

The Nelson Distillery Warehouse, Louisville, looking east from Lexington Road. (Demolished 8/31/2022.)

As reported by WDRB.com, the Nelson Distillery Warehouse at Louisville's Distillery Commons complex is being demolished after an emergency order labeled it 'unsafe.' The order said it was in "imminent danger" of failing or collapsing. 

A red brick structure on a limestone foundation, it was built as a whiskey maturation warehouse in 1895. Empty and unused for 50 years, it sat at a very prominent intersection mere feet from Lexington Road, a major route between downtown and Louisville's residential east side. What was 'imminent' was the desire of a developer to build condos there.

The building was unquestionably in bad shape. Many maturation warehouses in Kentucky sat empty during the last quarter of the 20th century, when bourbon sales were in the doldrums. As things began to improve in the early aughts, producers identified all available existing warehouses, acquired and renovated them as needed, and put them back into service. Some required extensive renovation. In Frankfort, Buffalo Trace took a former warehouse that had been converted into a state office building and turned it back into a maturation warehouse. 

After all the existing warehouses were brought back, new construction began. The need for maturation facilities continues to grow.

So why wasn't the Nelson Warehouse among the restorations? The condition of the building, after decades of neglect, is only one of the reasons. Masonry warehouses generally are not favored by producers, nor are warehouses in urban areas, where neighbors will fuss about Baudoinia compniacensis, the 'whiskey fungus.' A maturation warehouse is mostly wood and high-proof alcohol, so it is kind of flammable. You don't want that too close to people.

The preference now is for steel buildings in remote, rural areas. There is also a preference for doing everything--distilling, maturation, and bottling--at one site. A lone maturation warehouse, at that location, makes no sense.

There were many distilleries in that neighborhood after about 1860. The Nelson Warehouse was one of the last pieces of what became a mammoth complex of distilleries and related enterprises, all based around Beargrass Creek, a few miles upstream from its confluence with the Ohio River. The complex ultimately became part of the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, the Kentucky arm of the Whiskey Trust. It was a major whiskey producer until Prohibition.

Like most Trust distilleries, the complex at Payne and Lexington made vast quantities of commodity whiskey, sold under many different brand names. It was huge. The largest maturation warehouse ever built was there. It held 145,000 barrels. The Nelson Warehouse held about 40,000.

Two former warehouses and other buildings from the distillery complex remain as Distillery Commons, a mixed-use development. The adjacent Irish Hill residential neighborhood is still largely intact. The modest housing there was originally built for distillery workers, who numbered in the thousands. The site's other neighbor is Cave Hill Cemetery.

After Prohibition, under the ownership of National Distillers, no distillation was done there but the site was a major maturation, bottling, and distribution facility, primarily for National's Old Grand-Dad bourbon brand. When the decision was made to close the plant, the bottling house continued to operate until the last warehouse was empty. That happened in 1974.

In 1979, Ray Schuhmann bought the property and began the development of Distillery Commons. Schuhmann's main business was commercial photography and one of his clients was General Electric, which has its major appliances factory in Louisville. The vast, empty spaces in the distillery buildings allowed him to build photography sets to show appliances like ovens, refrigerators, washers, and dryers in realistic settings. Because there was so much space he could just leave the sets in place. Another part of the complex was redeveloped into a recording studio. Another part became an entertainment venue. The Nelson Warehouse stood empty at the easternmost point of the complex, a 45° angle formed by the intersection of Payne Street and Lexington Road, partially hidden by some trees and a billboard.

No one ever found a use for it.

There was a proposal, drafted in 2020, to give the Nelson Warehouse official landmark designation. 

The impracticality and undesirability of returning the structure to service as a maturation warehouse probably doomed it. Everything else in the complex was either restored and repurposed, or demolished and replaced, many years ago. The Nelson Warehouse only stood there like it did for as long as it did because no one wanted it or the land under it badly enough to do anything about it. Until now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

What Do 'High Rye' and 'Low Rye' Mean?

To be called bourbon it must be at least 51% corn. The rest may be any grain.

"What does the industry mean when they say 'high' or 'low' rye bourbon?"

It is a common question, often misunderstood.

First, this is rye-recipe bourbon we are talking about, not rye whiskey, which must be at least 51% rye and can be 100% rye.

Second, 'high rye' and 'low rye' are terms used more by enthusiasts than producers. Four Roses is one of the few major producers to use the terms, although they typically characterize their two bourbon mash bills as 'standard' and 'high,' because both have more rye than most standard bourbons. The two mash bills at Four Roses are 20% and 35% rye, respectively. In the rest of the industry, 12% to 15% rye is standard for most rye-recipe bourbons.

Buffalo Trace, which also makes two rye-recipe bourbon mash bills, explicitly rejects the high/low terminology. They won't reveal their exact mash bills, but #1 is probably around 8% rye, while #2 is nearer to the 12% to 15% standard. That means the Sazerac-owned brands made at Buffalo Trace, such as Eagle Rare, Benchmark, and Buffalo Trace itself are all low rye bourbons. The recipe seems to go back to when Schenley owned the place as well as Bernheim in Louisville. Old Charter, I. W. Harper, and other Schenley bourbons made at Bernheim (and occasionally at what is now Buffalo Trace) used that 8% rye recipe, just like Schenley's George Dickel, which copied it from Jack Daniel's.  

Bulleit is one of the few producers that boasts about the rye content of its bourbon. They use the Four Roses 35% rye mash bill. Old Grand-Dad/Basil Hayden, made by Beam Suntory, is the other true 'high rye' mash bill from a major producer, at about 30%. Their other recipe, the one used for Jim Beam and most of their other bourbons, is about 15% rye.

At Brown-Forman, the Woodford/Old Forester recipe is 18% rye, so their two recipes are 'standard' and 'low,' like Buffalo Trace. 

Around the rest of the majors, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and the other Heaven Hill rye-recipe bourbons are all in the standard range. Same for Wild Turkey/Russell's Reserve and most other major brands. 

Third, since there is no industry standard for these terms, producers are free to use whatever term they think will stimulate sales. Some play fast and loose. Logically, since a bourbon recipe must be at least 51% corn and most contain at least 5% malt, the maximum amount of 'something else' possible is 44%. A reasonable understanding of the terms might be: 1-10% = 'low,' 11-20% = 'standard,' and 21-44% = 'high.' 

Someone could use enzymes instead of malt and make a bourbon that is 51% corn and 49% rye, and now someone probably will.

There is a fourth rye-content category, of course: 'zero.' That usually means wheated bourbons such as Maker's Mark, Larceny, and Weller, but there are bourbons that are 100% corn. Wait, isn't anything 80% corn or above corn whiskey? Not exactly. If an 80-100% corn mash bill whiskey is unaged or aged in used barrels, it is corn whiskey. If it is aged in new, charred oak barrels, it is bourbon, even if it is 100% corn and contains no small grains.

So if someone pitches you what they call a 'high rye' bourbon, ask for the actual mash bill.


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Guess Who Was an International Theater Authority?



In June 2008, the second year of this blog, I wrote a post about Chicago theater based on a performance I had attended the night before, and on an article that day in the Chicago Tribune.

As it happened, the artistic director of the theater company that put on that performance was searching for such things, discovered my post, and quoted, favorably, part of what I wrote in his blog. The weird part is, he discovered it on the web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper. It was a link in the Theater Blog of Chris Wilkinson that used me as a source for the claim that Chicago has eclipsed New York as America's primary city for legitimate theater.

For the record, I am in no way an authority on international theater, Chicago theater, or any other theater. I enjoy live theater and live in a great place for it, so occasionally I am moved to write something.

About all I can say to support my claim about Chicago is that it was said to me by Allan Havis, an old college buddy who said it 30+ years ago, when we were attending a Steppenwolf performance together. Even though he found that night's offering a bit flaccid, he said Chicago had a more vital and important theater community than New York. 

Allan has a bit more standing on the subject than I do, as an internationally-acclaimed playwright, theater scholar, and native New Yorker. We had a good laugh. (See comments, below.)

Friday, August 12, 2022

Was the Edith Farnsworth House a Commie Plot?


The Edith Farnsworth House.
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951,
on the Fox River just outside Plano, Illinois.
The Edith Farnsworth House is one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century. It is one of the jewels of the Chicago area and not to be missed.

Even before it was built, some people hated the house, and not on aesthetic grounds. They considered it subversive. In short, communist. They believed the design dictum "less is more," as embodied by this modernist masterpiece, was a communist plot to condition people to accept the lowest-common-denominator leveling that was inevitable in a forced egalitarian society. 

It didn't seem to matter that Edith Farnsworth was a wealthy physician who commissioned the house as a weekend retreat. We could all stand such leveling.

One of the harshest critics was Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful. In 1953, she edited a forward-looking issue of the magazine that included an essay, "The Threat to the Next America," in which she explained her theories about the subversive agenda of modernism advocates. 

Some quotes: 

"They are trying to convince you that you can appreciate beauty only if you suffer – because they say beauty and comfort are incompatible." 

"They are a self-chosen elite who are trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live." 

"For if we can be sold on accepting dictators in matters of taste and how our homes are to be ordered, our minds are certainly well prepared to accept dictators in other departments of life." 

"Break people’s confidence in reason and their own common sense and they are on the way to attaching themselves to a leader, a mass movement, or any sort of authority beyond themselves." 

All this because Edith Farnsworth complained to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe because the house didn't have any closets. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The 1980s, When Bourbon Hit Rock Bottom

 


As I recount in the new issue of Bourbon+, the 1980s were the worst of times for American whiskey. Sales were off by half, from a high-water mark more than a decade in the past. Producers at first believed the decline would be temporary, a hiccup. It had to be.

But it wasn't.

That is the subject of my "Back In The Day" column in the Summer issue of Bourbon+ Magazine

Part of it is the story of how Buffalo Trace became the distillery it is today. You can read about it here.

I have been on the last page of Bourbon+ with my musings on American whiskey history in every issue published so far, since the beginning. 

The idea of this sample, naturally, is for you to subscribe, which I recommend. Bourbon+ covers American whiskey and everything around it like no one else. It is a beautiful magazine with good writing that goes nicely with a little red likker. 


Saturday, July 30, 2022

Proposal for Bourbon Festival: Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss

 

The 2017 World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay® Race
at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Bardstown, Kentucky.
The World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay Races are the highlight of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. Teams or individual competitors push full, 53-gallon bourbon barrels (full of water, not bourbon), which weigh about 500 pounds each, around the course. In addition to speed, competitors must enter the barrels into the rack so they end in a 'bungs up' position. Success takes strength, speed, and skill.

The 2022 festival is September 16-18. The official schedule of events has not been released but the barrel races are usually on Saturday morning (9/17), starting at about 10:00 AM. In recent years, the festival has converted many events into ticketed money-makers, but the barrel races are still free, open to everyone, and family-friendly. From time to time, the emcee might toss 50 ml bottles of bourbon to the crowd.

It is the best, most fun event of the festival. But this is the festival's 30th year, so it is time to up the ante. It is time for the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss. 

A trebuchet is a type of catapult that uses a long arm to throw a projectile. It was first used in the 12th century. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "large trebuchets, powered by 10-ton counterweights, could hurl 300-pound (136-kg) wall-smashing boulders as far as 300 yards (270 metres)."

The basic design of a trebuchet.

Although wall-smashing sounds like fun, a distance competition would be sufficient. Entrants must build a trebuchet using traditional materials (wood, rope, stone) capable of flinging a full, 53-gallon bourbon barrel.

The ideal venue would be a high school football stadium, but any large field will do. 

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival World Championship Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss. What could possibly go wrong?


Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Truth About Vodka


1995 ad from Smirnoff's 'Message in a Bottle' campaign.

In 2020, federal regulators in the U. S. dropped the rule that vodka has to be "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Since they didn't change the definition of vodka, this means producers may now talk about and promote their product's distinctive character, aroma, taste, and color such as it is. Vodka is still defined as a spirit distilled above 95% ABV. That leaves little room for character, aroma, taste, or color. 

Here are some other facts about vodka. 

(1)  Vodka is not Russian. Especially after Russia's cruel and irrational invasion of Ukraine, people wondered if they should stop drinking vodka. Don't stop on that account. Vodka is not Russian. The word has its origins in Russian and other Slavic languages. It is simply the Slavic word for a clear, nearly-neutral spirit.  

(2)  Vodka is mostly water. Vodka has two ingredients, ethanol and water. The typical vodka is 40% ethanol and 60% water. From the cheapest to the most expensive, that's the ratio. A few brands contain slightly more ethanol but they aren't necessarily the more expensive ones. The label will tell you. The initials ABV mean "alcohol, by volume." Alcohol is just another word for ethanol. "I mean, it's not like they just take some ethanol and add water to it, right?" No, that's exactly what they do. They take 300 ml of ethanol, add 450 ml of water, and that's your bottle of vodka.

(3)  Vodka is not made from potatoes. Although there are a few potato vodkas, virtually all vodka is made from grain, mostly corn, less often rye, even less often everything else. Vodka can be made from anything that can be fermented, so fruit, sugar cane, agave, etc. It hardly matters when it is refined to more than 95% pure ethanol.

(4)  Vodka is nothing new. Americans first heard the term 'vodka' when Smirnoff was introduced in the United States in the 1930s, after Prohibition. They didn't do much business until they launched the "Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless" advertising campaign in 1958. The idea was that if you drank vodka at lunch, instead of whiskey or beer, no one would be able to smell it on your breath! It was a huge success. Before Smirnoff, American distilleries sold something they called 'grain alcohol,' mostly as an ingredient for other things. A few people drank it. After Smirnoff took off, that product was rebranded as vodka.

(5)  Most companies that sell vodka don't make it. Because there are so many brands on the shelf and every company seems to have at least one vodka in its portfolio, and some have dozens, you might think many different companies make vodka. In fact, it is more like a handful. These specialists distill virtually all of the world's ethanol, even for the biggest brands, imported and domestic. Liquor companies buy it like they do any other commodity, based on price and availability. 

(6)  Vodka is an ingredient in many other drink and non-drink products. There is little difference between the ethanol you drink and the ethanol in your car. Vodka is ethanol with slight additional processing, if any. Add juniper and some other flavors, it's gin. Add caraway seeds, it's akvavit. Add peppermint and sugar, it's peppermint schnapps.* Add orange and sugar, it's triple-sec. If it's not whiskey, tequila, brandy, or rum, then vodka is the alcohol in the drink. It's also in fuels, drugs, explosives, synthetic fibers, and many other products.

(7)  Buy what you want, drink what you want. Decadence has been defined as the most for the least. Expensive vodka in a fancy bottle is just ethanol and water. It cannot be otherwise. Consumption doesn't get more conspicuous than that. Go big or go home. You deserve it.

____________________

* In the original post, this example said 'Kahlua.' That was a bad choice. Kahlua, in fact, is made with white rum, which is nearly neutral but not quite, and most other coffee liqueurs have rum, brandy, or tequila as their base too, not neutral spirit. The point was that most liqueurs, schnapps, cordials, etc., have neutral spirit as their base. 


Sunday, July 24, 2022

Wigle Whiskey Dominates ACSA Awards for 7th Consecutive Year

 

The Wigle Whiskey production team (left to right) Richard Platania, Brian Waryck, Michael Foglia, and (center) Rachel Bateman, Taylor Bostock. 

Pittsburgh-based Wigle Whiskey won 28 medals, the most of any distillery, at the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) awards ceremony last night in New Orleans. 

This is the seventh consecutive year that Wigle Whiskey has led in the ACSA medal count. It received two best-in-class awards for Wigle Peach Brandy and Wigle Amaro Vermut. Two Wigle Whiskeys--Port Rye and Single Barrel Straight Rye--took home gold. Wigle Whiskey received two out of the six best-in-show awards given and four of the 15 total gold medals awarded. No other distillery received more than one. 

ACSA gold medal winners Port Rye Whiskey and Amaro Vermut.

“We are so proud of how our tireless, ever-curious production team continues to innovate and represent the City of Champions in the world of spirits,” said Michael Foglia, Director of Production. “We could not be more thrilled to bring these best-in-show awards and a heap of medals that span our product portfolio back home.” 

Wigle Whiskey's products are sold at the Wigle Distillery in the Strip District, at Wigle’s bottle shop in Ross Park Mall, online at wiglewhiskey.com for shipment across PA and to DC, and at select retailers across the US. The full ACSA Award results can be viewed here

The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) is the only national, registered, non-profit trade association representing the U.S. craft spirits industry. Its mission is to elevate and advocate for the community of craft spirits producers. Membership is open to anyone.  

ACSA is governed by a Board of Directors elected by eligible voting members of the Association. Voting members must be independent licensed distillers (DSPs) annually removing fewer than 750,000 proof gallons from bond. 


Friday, July 15, 2022

Jacob's Well Is a Mistake. Again

 

The original Jacob's Well Bourbon (c. 1997)

In their promotion for Hardin’s Creek, a new brand from Beam Suntory, they write this: “There’s a mantra in the Beam family: True legacy is never finished.”

That statement may be truer than its writer intended.

A real watercourse in Central Kentucky, Hardin’s Creek starts in Marion County, on the east side of Lebanon, then flows west and north, over to Loretto right by Maker’s Mark and up into Washington County where it joins the Beech Fork. Just south of that confluence is where, according to Beam family lore, founding patriarch Jacob Beam dug a well and set up a water-powered grist mill on the creek, to grind corn he grew on his farm there, corn he used to make whiskey. Jacob and his wife, Mary, were among the first settlers to the area toward the end of the 18th century. 

The Beams would eventually move their operations further west, into Nelson and Bullitt, and down through the generations Beam family distillers would make whiskey all over North America.

Beam has been to this well before.

Jacob’s Well is one of two releases under the new Hardin’s Creek banner. It is described, obliquely, as “aged 184 months” and “a limited release blend of two ultra-aged expressions – traditional bourbon mashbill and high-rye bourbon – hand-selected from over 3 million barrels.”

That sounds like some very old (15 1/3 years?) Jim Beam mixed with some equally old Old Grand-Dad, which is potentially interesting. So far, Freddie Noe has done a fine job digging around in that well for his Little Book releases. This appears to be more of the same under a different name. Good idea, bad name. The marketers are clearly struggling with the unhappy confluence of 'heritage' and 'innovation,' and the heritage of Jacob's Well is definitely not innovation.

The original Jacob’s Well (pictured above) was a short-lived, badly-conceived product that debuted in 1997. It was inspired by the success of the Small Batch Bourbons Collection (Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek) Beam had launched a few years before. The bourbon boom was aborning. Jacob’s Well was intended to herald a new line of what Beam called ‘micro-bourbons.’

The label boasted, "For over 200 years, Jacob’s Well has never run dry." The crudely-drawn label illustration showed a farmer prospecting for water with a forked stick.

Then as now, they claimed the location of the actual well is known and some of its remains are visible, but it’s a metaphor. There is no water from said well in the product and you can't make a pilgrimage to visit the site. It's just a name.

Although they dubbed it 'micro-bourbon,' there was nothing ‘micro’ about Jacob’s Well, except maybe how many bottles they eventually sold. It was just 7-year-old Jim Beam at 84° proof (42% ABV) that was "twice-barreled for smoothness." That was the only product innovation, and they never quite got around to explaining what it meant. The rest was smoke and mirrors, empty marketing gobbledygook. They got angry at one of their suppliers who told them it was a bad idea and banned him from the building.

Freddie has been finding and blending some excellent liquid, so both Hardin’s Creek releases probably are worth drinking, but the way Hardin’s Creek is being presented is precious, pompous, and tone-deaf, just like the original Jacob’s Well. It's unworthy of the good work the company does with the whiskey itself.

(See for yourself. The website is here. A Men’s Journal Advertorial is here.)


Monday, July 11, 2022

The Death of James C. Crow and the Birth of Aged Bourbon Whiskey

 

Grave of James Christopher Crow; Versailles Cemetery; Versailles, Kentucky.

Although death is always the end of something, it can cause something else to begin. That is what happened when James Christopher Crow, 67, died in Woodford County, Kentucky, in 1856. 

Crow was a professional distiller, itself something new. He didn’t have a farm, mill, or distillery of his own. His was an itinerant profession, plied at various distilleries in Central Kentucky from the 1820s until his death. 

In those days, few whiskey-makers were known beyond their home communities, but Crow and whiskey he made at Oscar Pepper’s distillery at Versailles (Vur-SALES is the local pronunciation) had a national reputation. The fascination with Crow and his whiskey began the connection between whiskey and Kentucky in popular consciousness. It also was the beginning of a new style of whiskey, bourbon whiskey as we know it today.

The site of Oscar Pepper’s distillery is today’s Woodford Reserve. 

James Crow is often cited as the  father of bourbon. Sometimes, that title is given to his banker, E. H. Taylor. The little-known William Mitchell is another likely candidate. (Elijah Craig is not a likely candidate. That story is bullshit.)

But it all starts with Crow. 

You may think you know Crow's story and perhaps you do, but you probably don't know all of it, and most people don't know what happened next nor how big Old Crow Bourbon ultimately became. But you will if you read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader (Volume 21, Number 2).

Also, a rye varietal revered by whiskey makers a century ago, known as Rosen, has returned to its roots in Michigan, literally.


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, which just went up, again, so there is a whiff of subscription price increase in the air.

Nevertheless, 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 21, Number 2. 

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card (the fastest and easiest way). Or click here for other options and more information (the slightly more difficult way). Click here for a free sample (an older issue in PDF format). Click here to open or download "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. (Those prices are probably going up soon 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.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Does that NDP Whiskey Really Have a NDA?


Bound by a NDA, or lying?
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is a legal contract covering confidential information the parties wish to share with each other, but with restrictions on wider sharing. In the whiskey world, when you try to find out who made something, a non-distiller producer (NDP) may tell you that information is confidential because of a NDA? Is the NDP really prevented from revealing the whiskey's source or sources because of a NDA?

Probably not.

By its nature, the use of NDAs in the world of NDPs is tough to research, but the distilleries that provide most of the whiskey bottled by NDPs say they don't require them. In fact, distillers like MGP/Luxco, Tennessee Distilling Group, Bardstown Bourbon Company, and Green River Spirits encourage their NDP customers to tell their customers where the whiskey was made.

Producers who sell into the bulk market, often through brokers, are proud of their products, but also professionally discrete. As business-to-business producers, they consider that information as the customer's, for the customer to reveal or conceal, at the customer's discretion. They won't tell you, except in general terms, who their customers are or what they make for them. In many if not most cases, they don't know what happens to their liquid after it leaves their control so they have nothing to talk about. Their discretion is appropriate.

If most producers don't require NDAs, why do so many NDPs claim to be bound by them?

They're lying.

The only distillers who have much incentive to require NDAs are the majors. If Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark, or one of the other brand name producers sells some excess whiskey, as they all do, they don't want the buyer to start advertising their 'Jim Beam' bottling. If there is a NDA in such a case, it may not require absolute secrecy. You can, for example, find bottlings of COSTCO's Kirkland Bourbon that say 'Clermont, Kentucky' on them. That is obviously Jim Beam liquid, but they're not using the Jim Beam name. No doubt, Beam-Suntory's purchase agreement with the broker who ultimately sold the whiskey to COSTCO contained some non-disclosure wording.

Does that mean we should always interpret a NDP-NDA claim as indication of a major producer source? Dave Pickerell, when he was first promoting WhistlePig, claimed a NDA prevented him from revealing the name of the Canadian distillery that made it (Alberta) even as he told you who it was with a wink and a nudge. He was bound by a NDA and he honored it, but it was more about discretion than secrecy.

These days, although all of the majors occasionally offload surplus liquid, usually with some level of disclosure restriction, it's a drop in the NDP bucket. You may safely assume 90 percent or more of the NDP whiskey in the market is not bound by any kind of NDA. The claim of a NDA is almost always for the NDP's interest and convenience.

Why? Because we still have too many NDPs who try to pretend they're makers, not fakers. When you point out they don't have a distillery, they feed you some double-talk about "cooking in someone else's kitchen."   

So while some NDA claims are true, most are not, and the most adamant are the least likely to be true. Regard the claimants accordingly. If they are keeping their sources a deep, dark secret, there is a reason. The secret the NDP is protecting is the NDP's, not the producer's.
 
Regard also NDPs who always reveal their sources. Ever wonder how they are able to avoid those dreaded NDAs?

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Bardstown Bourbon Company Buys Green River

 

Maturation warehouse at the Green River Distillery, Owensboro, Kentucky.

It was announced today that Bardstown Bourbon Company is buying the Green River Distillery in Owensboro, as well as Green River's bottling, blending, and product development facility in Charleston, South Carolina. Whiskey enthusiasts want to know what it means. Mainly, it means creating a major whiskey producer from scratch, and apparently in a hurry, takes a lot of scratch, as in capital, which Bardstown Bourbon Company clearly gained access to with its sale to Chicago's Pritzker Group earlier this year.

There is a long tradition of Kentucky distilleries seeking and finding capital in Chicago. Jim Beam did it. So did the descendants of Tom Moore, whose distillery in Bardstown is today's Barton 1792. The alternative is sale to one of the major distilled spirits producers. Heaven Hill recently bought Samson & Surrey. MGP bought Luxco. Constellation owns Nelson Brothers and High West. Pernod owns Jefferson's, Smooth Ambler, Rabbit Hole, and Firestone & Robertson. Who's next? New Riff? Wilderness Trail? Sagamore Spirits? Jackson Purchase?

The majors don't buy production facilities, they buy brands, which Bardstown Bourbon and Green River don't have. After Green River adopted that name and walked away from that TerrePure rapid-aging business, they began to position themselves exactly like Bardstown Bourbon, as the best place for a non-distiller producer to create and build a brand. The hook-up was a natural.

Ample capitalization makes the new combination less dependent on contract distilling and better able to invest in brand development for its own portfolio, while socking away whiskey to mature, to use when it's ready, either in their own brands or for that most profitable kind of bulk sales.

Some people will foresee in this omens of doom. Others will gleefully chant, "glut, glut, glut." 

The reality is, there is a lot of whiskey being made. That's nothing new, and not just here. Whiskey is up everywhere. We've been in this boom, by some estimates, for two decades already. Prices aren't softening. Everybody is booked up with contract work. Everybody is adding capacity. Whiskey in every maturity segment, from young whiskey going into the flavored and ready-to-drink products, up to and including once-rare 'teenagers' (anything north of 12-years-old), is available and selling, with older stuff more scarce, of course. At the moment, there are a few bottlenecks. Everybody is having trouble getting bottles and barrels. Grain prices are high because of the war, but availability doesn't seem to be a problem. Maturation warehouses are going up at a rapid clip, Buzick is busy; but don't worry, Kentucky isn't running out of land. 

Bardstown Bourbon Company was a literal green field project. Nothing was there when they began construction. Green River operated as Medley Brothers until 1992 and has history back to the 19th century. It got a major re-do after Terressentia bought it. Both distilleries have been producing since 2016, and their liquid is solid, so this sale won't change anything in terms of how much whiskey is available in the marketplace. 

What seems to be shaking out is we will have boutiques and bigs, that's it. All in all, business as usual. If there is anything unusual about this moment, it is the speed with which all this is happening. By it's nature, the whiskey business is used to a more leisurely pace. 


Monday, June 27, 2022

Michigan Celebrates Rebirth of Rosen Rye with Official Proclamation

Ice house and barn foundation on South Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Northern Michigan. Rosen Rye Day 2022. Party bus in foreground.

MICHIGAN SENATE

Senate Resolution No. 160

Offered by Senators Victory, Bayer, Huizenga, Santana and Wojno

A RESOLUTION TO RECOGNIZE JUNE 23, 2022,
AS “ROSEN RYE DAY”

WHEREAS, Michigan’s food and agriculture system is a major contributor to income and employment in the state’s economy, accounting for over $100 billion in direct, indirect, and induced economic activity and over 800,000 jobs; and

WHEREAS, Since its admission to the union in 1837, Michigan has been an important producer of cereal grains including wheat, corn, and rye. In 1909, a new rye varietal was brought to Michigan Agricultural College (MAC) from Russia by Joseph Rosen and subsequently cleaned, selected, and propagated by Professor Frank Spragg; and

WHEREAS, It was determined conclusively that Rosen Rye vastly outperformed common varietals and that its cultivation become a priority for Michigan’s agricultural community; and

WHEREAS, Beginning in 1917, significant exports of “Certified” Rosen Rye seeded around the world, and notably to major whiskey producing regions of the United States. By 1920, Michigan was the nation’s largest producer of rye; and

WHEREAS, It became apparent that, despite universal acclaim, Rosen Rye crops diminished in quality from year to year due to cross-pollination from contact with common rye. A decisive action needed to be taken to isolate the finest seed-stock and protect the innovations and investment of Michigan’s agricultural community. In turn, a survey was formed to determine suitable, isolated areas and South Manitou Island was found to be ideal; and

WHEREAS, George and Louis Hutzler, along with Irvin Beck, led all seven farms on South Manitou Island and formed a mutual pact, swearing under penalty of drowning, to grow only Rosen Rye to protect its genetic purity. Over the following decade, they earned numerous international awards for “Certified” Rosen Rye, garnering the farmers the moniker “Rye Kings” and Manitou Island as the “World’s Rye Center”; and

WHEREAS, Between the dawn of Prohibition, and the 1960s when the last farmers left South Manitou Island, Michigan Rosen Rye was venerated in whiskey advertisements, extolled in internal distillery production manuals, and raised to legendary status in bootlegging folklore, before completely disappearing from the market for 50 years; and

WHEREAS, Under permit from the National Park Service, using seeds from the United States Department of Agriculture Seed Bank, along with assistance from Michigan State University’s Department of Bio Ag Research and volunteer descendants of the Hutzler and Beck families, Mammoth Distilling has revived these historic farms to reintroduce “Certified” Rosen Rye; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED BY THE SENATE, That the members of this legislative body recognize June 23, 2022, as “Rosen Rye Day”; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we recognize the critical role of native grains and locally grown agriculture to the success of the craft spirits industry in Michigan.

Adopted by the Senate, June 23, 2022.

Margaret O'Brien

Secretary of the Senate


Monday, June 13, 2022

My Bourbon Epiphany

 

I'm often asked what prompted me to start writing about bourbon. I always talk about living in Louisville and working in the industry, and about how my parents always drank bourbon. But there is a chicken-egg aspect to the story I've only just realized. 

My move to Louisville was for a job and with a plan that had nothing to do with bourbon. I was 26 and not a bourbon drinker. Mostly, I drank beer, but my spirit of choice was cheap blended scotch and I had just begun to flirt with single malts. 

When I walked into the liquor store nearest my new home and saw a wall full of different bourbons, I thought "what the hell" and never looked back. I never would have written about bourbon if I hadn't fallen in love with the drink first and I might not have done that if I had not moved to Louisville when I did. 

(And one of the reasons I was in a hurry to move to Louisville was to get my girlfriend away from another guy, but that's a whole different story.)

I have a vivid memory of that exact moment, the little storefront package store on Brownsboro Road, near Zorn. The bourbon wall was to the left. I remember the front of the store was glass, close to the street, so I picture it as dark, with cars rushing past just a few feet away. 

Growing up in Ohio, I was used to state stores. Self-service in a liquor store was new to me, let alone this. It was a tiny space packed with merchandise, most of it bourbon, or so it seemed. Beer was in a cooler in the back. The first thing I grabbed, right out of the box, was Old Forester because it was the first label I recognized. 

The moment was overwhelming but it sure said, "Welcome to Kentucky."


Thursday, June 9, 2022

Finished Whiskeys Feed the News Monster

 

Legent is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Partially Finished in Wine and Sherry Casks.

Marketing copywriters are taught the power of certain words. They’re obvious. You see them all the time. Short, sharp shots, they practically demand their exclamation points: Save! Sale! Now! New! Improved! Free! Easy! More!

Of these, the most pernicious is ‘New!’ and its corollary, ‘News.’ This is especially true for whiskey products, since whiskey is supposed to be old. “People like fresh strawberries, but no one wants fresh bourbon,” a wise, old sales manager once said. He also said, “That may be clever, but will it move one more case of brandy?”

So, whiskey marketers struggle to create news even as the media maw demands more. Even the giants can launch only so many new brands. A genuinely new whiskey takes years to come to market. You can buy advertising to promote anything, but if you want ‘buzz,’ if you want free media coverage, social or otherwise, you need to constantly answer the question, “what’s new?”

It isn’t just consumers and the press who demand news, so does the trade. “I need a reason to start a conversation,” pleads every frontline salesperson to their marketing department. News gets you appointments, which gets you placements, maybe an end-cap, maybe an ad. 

Marketing restrictions unique to the liquor business complicate this problem, since many of the common sales promotion tactics used to generate news in other product categories, things like coupons, BOGOs, bonus packs, co-packs, games, sweepstakes, gift-with-purchase, sponsorships, etc. are off-limits. They are either prohibited entirely or limited to a patchwork of states. National promotions, applicable everywhere, are impossible. Spirits brands can do worthy cause tie-ins, which are worthy and all, but they don’t move cases.

So, we have expressions, limited or ongoing. Some twist on an existing brand.

For producers, the most popular expressions are the easy ones. Two categories seem to dominate. Both involve adding flavor to a mature whiskey, either through a secondary wood finish, or flavoring materials. 

Some whiskey enthusiasts are purists who won’t consider anything labeled “bourbon whiskey with…” Others will try anything. A third group distinguishes between finishes and flavorings, considering the former consistent with historical practice, but the latter an abomination. This leeway is granted because although secondary wood finishes were exceedingly rare in American distilleries until recently, they have long been accepted in Europe. 

After all, whiskey is, by definition, a grain distillate flavored by wood. 

In just about every case of a secondary wood finish you can easily look up what woods were used, how long they were finished, exactly what techniques were used, and other background music. Producers love to tell you that stuff, but it's just filler. It’s not important. It doesn’t tell you anything useful. Knowing there was a secondary wood finish tells you the whiskey will taste different, but bourbon finished in Calvados brandy casks doesn't taste like Calvados, so knowing what Calvados tastes like, or even liking Calvados, tells you nothing about whiskey finished that way. It will taste different, just not in a predictable way. If you expect it to taste like Calvados, you'll be disappointed.

All that matters is, does it taste good? Most of all, does the finish enhance the flavor of the bourbon, which should remain the star, or does it get in the way? A press release won’t tell you that, you have to taste it.

What if you could compare the finished whiskey to its un-enhanced counterpart? Would that tell you what the finish contributes? Yes, indeed. Legent, for example. This Beam Suntory finished bourbon has Jim Beam as its starting point. It does taste different, and good. Is it worth the extra money? At Binny’s in Chicago*, Jim Beam Black Label is $21, Legent is $35. That’s a hefty upcharge. Worth it? Maybe not the right question. The right question is, how well do you like Legent compared to other $35 whiskeys? If secondary wood finishes are ‘okay’ with you, i.e., acceptable, don’t just compare them to other finished whiskeys, compare them to everything in their price range.

That whiskey finished in Calvados brandy casks? That’s Blood Oath, Pact No. 8, from Luxco/MGP. The base bourbon is probably comparable to some of the higher-end Yellowstone or Ezra Brooks expressions. They pull from the same barrel inventory. Again, you can go into the weeds about what and how, it doesn't matter. In this case, it doesn’t matter because fewer than 20 thousand bottles were released and prices from legitimate sellers (Binny’s doesn’t have it) range from $400 to $800. That said, it’s a nice drink, well-balanced considering its disparate elements. Too bad most bottles of it will gather dust in a trophy case.

Which brings us to the granddaddy of all secondary wood finishes, Angel’s Envy. When Lincoln Henderson created it way back in 2011, it seemed like a clever way to take the bulk bourbon available to him at the time and make it distinctive, more than the sum of its parts. It was a product they could bring to market quickly, to make some money until they could get their own distillery built. Henderson had the master’s touch. The port casks contribute noticeable sweetness and dark fruit notes, but it still tastes like bourbon. No one has done it better. Today Angel’s Envy is a major brand in its own right, owned by Bacardi, and secondary wood finishes are all they do.

No brand has fought harder against the news monster than Maker’s Mark. The core tenant of the faith is that Maker's is the best whiskey there is so, by definition, there cannot be a 'better' expression of it, just a 'different' one, hence different proofs and finishes. Maker’s 46 illustrates the principle effectively for a modest upcharge. Regular Maker’s is $30, Maker’s 46 is just $34. On the other hand, a Binny’s Handpicked Maker’s Private Selection is $70.

Taste enough secondary wood finished whiskey and a few things become clear. A subtle finish on a solid base whiskey is most likely to satisfy, a finish can’t fix bad whiskey, some finished whiskeys are better than others, and the rigmarole of how they got there is not important except as homage to the news monster.

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* Binny's is used for price comparisons because it is a major chain retailer in a major market, in a state that doesn't fix prices, so it's a good baseline for price comparisons. Your results may vary.