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 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.

______________________

* 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.

Friday, June 3, 2022

What Does a Distillery Taste Like?

 

Beam Suntory's Booker Noe Distillery, Nelson County, Kentucky.

One way to think about tasting whiskey is to think about tasting distilleries. Most distilleries sell multiple expressions of their whiskey. Some also make multiple recipes. 

Beam Suntory, for example, makes three basic bourbon recipes, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Old Grand-Dad. The representative expression of the Jim Beam recipe has to be white label, but what's the best expression? Black label? Knob? Booker's?

Secondary wood finishes destroy the paradigm, so we'll ignore them.

This is not, "What is the most representative expression?" It is what is the best representative expression? What is the easiest way to taste a given distillery's best work? With 'easiest' defined as available and affordable. So in addition to secondary finishes, we'll leave out limited editions, unicorns, and dusties.

I'm fickle about this, which is why I'm opening the floor. If you've never tasted the Jim Beam recipe before, where is the best place to start? White Label? I tend to say Black Label, but a case can be made for Knob, or something else.

But for Wild Turkey, I say start at the top with Kentucky Spirit. That doesn't make sense, but it's what my gut tells me. Four Roses too, go for the Single Barrel. In general, single barrels are a good way to 'taste the distillery' because there is nowhere to hide. The maker can't 'fix' things with blending.

Buffalo Trace is easy. They have consistently put some of the best whiskey they make into their eponymous brand. Their only problem seems to be making enough of it. 

Maker's Mark is equally easy. Everything except standard Maker's Mark is a secondary wood finish, so ruled out for purposes of this exercise. That's deliberate. The core tenant of the Maker's Mark 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 finishes.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage has always seemed Heaven Hill's standard bearer, but its star has faded. Is Elijah Craig Heaven Hill's exemplar today? That's another good word for this exercise. What is each distillery's exemplar?

A distillery should have an exemplar, a standard bearer, a flagship. Unfortunately, the industry's commercial nature dictates that success determines the flagship. Brown-Forman will always officially equate 'flagship' with its founding brand, Old Forester, even though Brown-Forman's real flagship is Jack Daniel's Old No. 7. But is Old No. 7 the best thing Jack makes that is available and affordable? You tell me.

What do you think is the best way to taste this or that distillery? Recommend whatever you want. Since we're tasting distilleries, your recommendation won't be very useful if you don't know where it was distilled. But I'm not going to curate this any more than I usually do, which is hardly at all. Recommend whatever you want.

Take price and availability into consideration. We're talking drinkers, not collectibles.

This isn't an assignment. I'm not suggesting you need to go through every recipe at every distillery. In fact, don't. Please don't. But if you have something useful to share, share it.

The idea is that if you're trying to try different things, how do you make sure you really are trying different things. Beam Suntory had an excellent advertorial in a magazine recently in which they made great suggestions for trying different whiskey combinations, all of which just happen to be made by Beam Suntory. That seems to be their strategy now, to flood the market with new expressions.

The same thing can happen if you try to do it yourself in a liquor store. You might find yourself tasting the same whiskey in five different bottles. That's what we're trying to help people avoid.

So, readers, you have the floor.


Friday, May 27, 2022

Some in Whiskey Country Don't Want More Whiskey in the Country

 

A maturation warehouse at Barton 1792 Distillery, Nelson County, Kentucky.

"Bitter bourbon battle pits Buffalo Trace against Franklin County residents over new warehouse," screams the headline in today's Herald-Leader, which typically has the state's best bourbon industry coverage.

The news business is brutal right now so I won't fault the sensationalized headline. These 'bitter bourbon battles' have become commonplace in the last 20 years. Kentucky's signature industry is doing quite well right now, in case you haven't noticed. More people buying more Kentucky whiskey means Kentucky whiskey-makers must make more whiskey, in Kentucky. Because of American whiskey's marvelous, unavoidable aging process, increasing sales means more maturation warehouses must be built and filled. 

I apologize if this seems too elementary.

Because a maturation warehouse, being mostly wood and high-proof alcohol, is kind of flammable, you don't want them too close to people. The industry's safety record is very good, but still.

In addition to fire risk, neighbors worry about Baudoinia compniacensis, the 'whiskey fungus' that is a harmless nuisance but easy to scare people with. The scare-mongers will call it 'little studied' or 'mysterious' even though it was identified and described about 150 years ago. It was first analyzed by a pharmacist in Cognac named Baudoin, hence the name. It has been observed everywhere distilled spirits are aged in wood all over the world.

Baudoinia is, admittedly, weird. But people who live near proposed whiskey maturation facilities deserve facts, not trumped-up fear. Baudoinia appears and grows only where there is a sufficient concentration of ethanol vapor in the atmosphere. It can't spread very far from the vapor source. It's ugly, but it washes off. It can grow back. 

Many, many people--millions--have lived their whole lives around Baudoinia and never gotten sick. There is literally zero evidence, after 150 years, that it poses any kind of health risk to anyone or anything. It grows on trees and other plants, also with no detectable effect. 

Since Baudoin, interest in studying it comes and goes. Every so often there is a new look, which benefits from the latest technology. There isn't more research because Baudoinia isn't very interesting. It doesn't do anything except make surfaces where it grows look dirty. 

Believe it or not, whiskey companies want to be good neighbors. They don't want any trouble if they can avoid it. The only practical way to contain the fungus, so it doesn't dirty-up people's garage doors, is to build new maturation facilities on large parcels of land, typically 300 acres or more. Provide that kind of buffer around the warehouses and little if any of the fungus will make it past the perimeter. Building these facilities on large tracts in rural areas is the solution, not the problem, at least so far as Baudoinia is concerned.

Sited this way, a maturation facility takes only a tiny fraction of the parcel out of agricultural production. It can continue to be cropland or pasturage or even woodland. Woodlands are particularly good because trees also keep the fungus from spreading. Since the fungus consumes ethanol vapor, more fungus growing on the distillery's property will mean less, if any, will be growing on adjacent properties. 

Traffic is the other typical concern expressed by members of the affected community. Bear in mind, the whole idea of a maturation facility is that once a barrel is in the racks, it doesn't budge until it is time to put it in a bottle, four to ten years later. That simple fact means the number of barrels going in or coming out of the facility on any given day will be very small. A distillery, especially a distillery with a visitor center, then you're talking traffic. A maturation facility? Very little impact on traffic. 

Most of these objections are the normal 'not-in-my-backyard' (NIMBY) reaction businesses and governments face with just every development or re-development proposal, and that is not entirely a bad thing. People should see how the sausage is made. That should encourage them to learn more about sausage-making and maybe even make some sausage themselves. In a healthy democracy, the more the merrier.

You would think that with as long as Kentucky has been aging whiskey, about 150 years, they would have worked out some of these land use issues, ideally with a statewide standard. As recently as 2016 the next county over, Woodford, was arguing about whether or not whiskey maturation warehouses are an 'agricultural use.'

The Herald-Leader story is well-reported. It shows that the opponents are mostly using procedural and legalistic tactics to delay approval, or perhaps to encourage the developer to go elsewhere where there will be less trouble, except there is no such place.


Saturday, May 14, 2022

What Can this Picture Tell Us About Greendale Distillery?

 

Greendale Distillery; Greendale, Indiana; circa 1920.

Whiskey-making in America wasn’t fully industrialized until the final quarter of 19th century, but then it became very big very fast. This is clear from what we know, but hard data to quantify it is elusive. It is even harder to find detailed information about individual distilleries, especially those that disappeared without a surviving physical plant or brand. 

Prohibition is the reason for the paucity of public records, that and the stigma that attached to whiskey-making as a result. Many families covered up their involvement rather than preserve it.

But we can glean some facts from the limited information we have. This image is of the Greendale Distillery in Greendale, Indiana. (Most ‘Lawrenceburg’ distilleries were actually in the adjacent town of Greendale.) We know that after the Whiskey Ring scandal of 1871-76, whiskey production for the greater Cincinnati area became concentrated in Lawrenceburg-Greendale.

This image is taken from a 1920 warehouse receipt. Many distilleries of that era had similar detailed line drawings of their facilities on their letterhead, stock certificates, warehouse receipts, and other documents. After Prohibition, picture postcards of similar images became common. Many of both have survived. By comparing these pre-Prohibition drawings to Sanborn Maps, post-Prohibition postcards, and surviving structures, we see the 19th century drawings were generally accurate, not fanciful nor aspirational. 

The purpose of these images was, perhaps, to assure customers that they were doing business with an actual distillery and not a broker or other intermediary. For us, they can tell us things about the distillery we don’t get from the existing meager record.

Stitzel-Weller Distillery, post-Prohibition picture postcard. 

For example, although Greendale was a small community compared to Cincinnati, this is the configuration of an urban distillery, reflective of the ‘reformed’ industry post-scandal. Everything is close together on a large city block. Although not shown, it is likely there were similar facilities on either side. We know the Squibb Brothers distillery was adjacent to Greendale, as they were combined into a single plant after Prohibition.

Greendale wants us to know it is a modern and substantial distillery. The artist made it a point to show paved roads with automobile traffic on the block’s two visible sides, with sidewalks and curbs. The locomotive visible middle-left tells us a railroad runs through it. (Notice that a train is also depicted on the much later Stitzel-Weller postcard.) 

The large building left-front is clearly the main one. It may be offices, at least a sales room, with the distillery behind. One of the towers is probably an elevator, the other the column still. The stacks indicate boilers.

The two buildings in the center are maturation warehouses, likely holding 18-20,000 barrels each. The long, low buildings at the upper left are probably bottling and finished-goods storage. 

The building on the right is harder to figure. It appears to be two-story with no windows downstairs, which suggests some sort of storage or processing as opposed to offices. Cistern room? New barrel staging? Many distilleries of this era had large machine shops for fabrication and repairs. They were, in some ways, more self-sufficient that the mega-distilleries of today.

We can't tell much about the low buildings on the right, except that the plant is using every inch of its real estate.

What have we learned from this picture? That Lawrenceburg-Greendale was very much like Louisville or Peoria in its urban concentration of large, industrial whiskey manufacturers. How large? We have a record that says Squibb Brothers Distillery, next door, was mashing 330 bushels per day in 1885. That comes out to about 10,000 barrels per year. If the two obvious maturation warehouses are it, and hold about 40,000 barrels, and they’re selling 4-year-old whiskey, those numbers work.

It's a lot of speculation and a shame we have to guess at these things, but at least every picture tells a story, don’t it?


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Who Gets the Best Whiskey?


Barrels of maturing whiskey.

Consider this a thought experiment. 

Let’s say you have a whiskey distillery. You make a lot of whiskey. Most of it you sell through brands you own and distribute. Those are your most profitable sales, the ones that earn you the most money. 

But sometimes you make too much whiskey, more than you need. That’s a good strategy because when you distill whiskey you don't know exactly how much you will be able to sell all those years down the road when it matures. You make too much or risk making too little. 

No problem. You can sell that surplus to a non-distiller producer (NDP) for one of their brands. You won’t make as much money selling it that way, but you will make a profit. It won’t be hard to sell. With new whiskeys appearing all the time, the NDP market is always hungry for good liquid.

Maybe selling whiskey in bulk is more than just something you do to dispose of excess stock. Maybe it is part or even most of your business. Maybe you have standing contracts with customers for regular deliveries of mature whiskey. Maybe you sell new make. Maybe you lay down whiskey at your own expense for sale on the spot market when it matures. Maybe you sell most of your output in bulk. 

Nevertheless, brand sales are more profitable than bulk sales so even if branded products are a small part of your portfolio, they will inevitably contribute a disproportionate share of your profits. That's why every commodity producer aspires to be a brand producer. It's natural. In business, one proven way to improve profits is to move up the value chain. It’s the nature of the beast.

So that's the business you're in, now a little about you. You are an experienced whiskey-maker. You make the best whiskey you know how. Nothing goes out the door that does not meet your high standards. Your whiskey is excellent. You don’t make bad whiskey. You don’t sell junk. It's all good.

However, you know each barrel is unique. The barrel itself, the tree it came from, its location in the warehouse, the season it went into the warehouse, all those things make each barrel unique. When each barrel is unique, some barrels will be better than others.

In practice, distillers regard all barrels laid down on the same day and stored in the same part of the warehouse as the same, but even within those sets of 50-60 barrels, there are differences if you care to find them. 

As a distiller, you and your tasting panel make subjective judgments about your whiskey every day. All things being equal, the whiskey from some barrels is better than others. It could not be otherwise.

Here comes the thought experiment.

It is time to select which barrels you will use for your most profitable channel of distribution, where the labels have your name on them; and which barrels you will sell in bulk, where you make less money and the labels do not have your name on them.

Which channel gets your best barrels?

Remember this the next time you get all excited about some bottle you’ve never seen before, from some producer you don’t know, that some retailer or buddy has just shoved in your face. The label is obtuse about where the whiskey was made. Maybe you pooh-pooh people who care about that sort of thing. “I don’t care about that stuff, as long as the whiskey is good.”

Exactly the point of this exercise, finding the best whiskey.

Not to say NDP whiskey is bad, or that whiskey from a known producer will always be better than whiskey from an unknown one. In fact, NDPs often get their hands on very good whiskey, or they are very good at combining whiskey from different sources into something greater than the sum of its parts. That's where the best NDPs shine.

But way too often, that cool label that caught your eye is just a marketing idea and the whiskey inside, while perfectly okay, is nothing special and not worth what they are asking. 

NDPs have unique challenges because they are at the mercy of the market. Distillers are better off because they make everything they sell.

Right now it's a seller's market for mature bulk whiskey and most contract producers are booked up. NDPs have to take what they can get and can't always get what they want from the distillers they want to get it from. That causes inconsistency. Both types of producer strive for consistency in their brands from batch to batch, bottle to bottle. Who do you think has better control of that, the distiller producer or the NDP?

As a whiskey consumer, if you like to spin the wheel and take your chances, more power to you, but as with any risk-reward scenario, there are ways to tip the balance in your favor. 

The first is to be aware if the bottle you are looking at is from a known distiller producer or a NDP. With a known distiller producer you know what you have, no further inquiry is necessary. With a NDP, you might want to dig a little more, gather more data before you make a monetary commitment. If you can find out who the NDP is, maybe you can find out what else they make, and start to move them closer to known producer status.

A known NDP is a better bet than an unknown NDP. 

Some NDPs make this easy by selling a wide range of products from many different sources under a common umbrella. Find one or several NDPs whose stuff you like and let them do the hunting for you. Barrell Craft Spirits and Proof and Wood Ventures are two good examples. With Barrell, Barrell is the brand. Proof and Wood has a variety of brand concepts but the company name is on the label. Good NDPs have web sites. Good NDPs tell you as much as they can about the whiskey they sell. Good NDPs are into whiskey, not celebrity endorsements, fancy packages, or phony backstories. This is a growing niche. 

On the other hand, if the producer makes it difficult for you to find out who they are and what they had to do with the whiskey in the bottle, that should tell you all you need to know. Sure, happy accidents happen, but they are never a good bet. Give the cagey NDPs a pass.

There are no guarantees, but these are ways to improve the odds that you will get something new that you will like for a reasonable price. There is a fundamental difference between a known distiller producer and a known NDP, but a known unknown is better than an unknown unknown, as Don Rumsfeld might say. 


Thursday, April 28, 2022

Why 'Straight Bourbon' Does Not Mean 'Straight Bourbon'


It may not mean what you think.

'Straight bourbon' does not mean 'straight bourbon.' 

Huh?

Said another way, the legal meaning of the term 'straight bourbon' is different from the ordinary meaning of the term. This is a never-ending source of confusion and consternation for many.

The dictionary says the word 'straight,' when referring to an alcoholic drink, means undiluted, the same as 'neat,' and gives the example of "straight brandy." This is the ordinary understanding of what 'straight' means in that context, a beverage served as-is, with nothing added. We use this meaning in everyday speech. "Give it to me straight" means "tell me the truth." 

Many whiskey enthusiasts very logically extend that understanding of 'straight' to insist that a whiskey with flavoring or a secondary barrel finish or anything else done to it whatsoever cannot and should not be labeled 'straight bourbon,' even with a modifier. It is no longer straight. That is, it is no longer just bourbon, something has been done to it. Maybe it's now flavored bourbon, but it's not straight bourbon.

They believe products so labeled are mislabeled due to the incompetence of regulators, the cupidity of producers, the chicanery of marketers, the duplicity of spirits journalists, or all the above. 

Whatever the reason, they are having none of it.

But their indignation is misplaced.

What 'straight' means when it precedes the word 'bourbon' on a liquor label, whether bracketed by 'Kentucky' and 'whiskey' or not, is not the ordinary meaning of 'straight' as 'undiluted.' The same goes for 'straight rye' or the generic 'straight whiskey.' In the context of spirits labeling, as regulated by the U. S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau, 'straight bourbon' is a term-of-art, which is itself defined as “a word or phrase that has a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field or profession.” 

The specialized meaning of a word or phrase can even, as in this case, contradict the ordinary meaning, or seem to. The two meanings in this case are certainly incompatible, hence confusion and consternation.

Here's the deal. On a label, 'straight bourbon' does not mean 'nothing but bourbon.' 'Straight bourbon' means bourbon whiskey (which is itself a term-of-art precisely defined in the regulations) that has been stored in a new charred oak barrel for at least two years.

That is the entire definition of 'straight whiskey,' which covers straight bourbon, straight rye and any other straight whiskey. It doesn't mean the term-of-art and the ordinary meaning. Just the term-of-art meaning applies. There is nothing about additives, nothing about filtration, nothing about finishes.

The term 'straight whiskey' gained its specialized meaning because of a presidential proclamation more than a century ago. Like the president president? Yes, William Howard Taft. Whiskey is that important.

Because the term-of-art overrides the ordinary meaning in this context, the ordinary meaning of 'straight' does not apply unless you say “straight straight bourbon” or "straight bourbon, straight," and I’m sure no one wants that.


Monday, April 25, 2022

New Basil Hayden Release May be a Good Choice for Fans of Extremely Old Bourbon


Very old bourbons, say 15-years and up, are not for everyone. Wood dominates, especially the acrid notes of char and ash. If that sort of thing appeals to you, and it does to many, the present limited availability and high cost of those products may be a source of vexation. Now comes a possible solution in Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke from Beam Suntory. 

The suggested retail is $49.99, but it seems to be running in the $60-$70 range. Even at that price it is more affordable than genuine very-olds like Elijah Craig 18 or Eagle Rare 17, if you can even find those at retail. It is a one-off, but it should be generally available until it’s not. (Their limited editions are not all that limited.) Point is, if you act now, you might actually get to drink it.

Make no mistake. This is not a very-old. It is standard Basil Hayden bourbon, most likely 6- to 8-years old (the 8-year age statement was dropped a few years back), with a secondary barrel finish. The finishing barrel is toasted and lightly charred, then they pump hickory-chip smoke into the barrel and through the whiskey. Nobody is claiming this as a ‘rapid aging’ technology, but it has that effect on the flavor. It tastes old-ish.

They maybe didn’t need to go to so much trouble. The end result is similar to Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, which they get by soaking, heating, and agitating freshly emptied barrels, then mixing that wash with the straight whiskey.

Like most work-around solutions, this one has drawbacks. Although Basil Hayden has become an almost-anything-goes experimental platform for Beam Suntory with secondary barrel finishes, flavorings like port wine and other innovations, they are sticking with the brand’s 80° proof hallmark (40% ABV). This, they say, is what makes Basil Hayden ‘approachable,’ one of the brand's key attributes, and while that is generally true they might want to pause it for this product. Despite the name, the effect is not that subtle, which is all to the good for folks who like this sort of thing.

Another deficiency is the body. It comes off thin because char overpowers the vanilla and wood sugars a high-rye bourbon like Basil Hayden relies on for backbone.

As for it being ‘smoky,’ it is smoky in the way that a very old bourbon is smoky. It is nothing like a smoky scotch. That is peat smoke and there is nothing like that here. It is hickory, after all, campfire smoke or, if you prefer, bacon smoke. (But it doesn’t taste like bacon either, more’s the pity.)

There are some blends out there that also simulate that very-old effect. Whether it's Beam Suntory's Little Book or American craft blends from independents such as Lost Lantern and 50 State, expanding your search beyond known double-digit age statements and opening your mind a little to different ways of getting there might just yield the taste you are looking for at a price you can afford from a bottle you actually can go to the store and buy, and wouldn't that be a nice change-of-pace?

Monday, April 18, 2022

A Long Time Ago in a Congressional District Far, Far Away

 

Kentucky's 5th Congressional District

In my marketing career, I had only one experience as a professional political operative when the advertising agency I worked for was hired to make and place TV commercials for a candidate running in a primary.

The office in question was Representative for Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District. The 5th is in the southeastern corner of the state. Then and now, the district is rural and sparsely populated. In those days, leading up to the 1980 election, Kentucky was still mostly Democratic, but not the 5th. It was just as solidly Republican. This was a legacy, I was told, of Cassius Clay, the 19th century abolitionist who was a founder of the Republican Party. The mountainous region never had much slavery, I was told, so it had no Southern sympathies and had always voted Republican. 

It was my first taste of what Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

The incumbent was Tim Lee Carter, who had decided to retire at age 70 after holding the job for 16 years. It was universally understood that the winner of the Republican primary would win the general and could hold the seat indefinitely. The 5th didn't change its representative unless the current one retired or died. That’s how it was done in the 5th. 

For ambitious Republican politicians in southeastern Kentucky, this primary was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When the dust settled, ten candidates made the ballot. 

My employer was a typical Louisville advertising agency, not a political specialist. I had worked there for about two years. I was their radio and TV guy. I was 28.

Our clients included a regional convenience store chain, a regional drug store chain, a distillery (it being Kentucky), a bank, a lunchmeat maker, the usual mix. We would create and place TV ads for the candidate. The campaign would do the rest, whatever ‘the rest’ was. 

The situation was unusual in that there were no television stations in the district. There was no cable, no streaming, all TV was over-the-air. The district was served by stations in Lexington and Knoxville. We explained that the cost-per-thousand would be insane but there was no other way to reach the district’s voters by television.

In terms of size, we were the #3 agency in the state, but our media buyer was highly regarded. I think her reputation is why we got the gig. The media buy would be tricky. 

I didn’t have a dog in the fight, it was just an assignment, but the project yielded a few memorable experiences. I recall one early meeting where we presented the project budget. When we revealed the total, the campaign manager made a few taps on his calculator and remarked, “for that I can buy every Republican in the district a pint of Jack Daniel’s.”

I am very proud of my reply.

“Sir, if you can figure out how to do that, I think the money would be better spent.”

He laughed.

Another memory is from the shoot itself. It was outdoors, in the district. I remember a lot of driving to different locations, but I don’t remember where they were. The commercials were simple, just the candidate speaking to camera in some appropriate setting. It probably was my first trip to that part of the state, which is very hilly. For one scene we choose a nice spot for the candidate to stand, with rolling hills in the background, fading off in the distance, and I experienced vertigo because there was no level ground, no way to get my bearings, no matter where I looked.

I don’t remember who was on the crew, but I remember it was fun. I recall driving up and down all those southeastern Kentucky hills in a big, black Lincoln, as one does.

(Actually, we got the Lincoln because the trunk was big enough to hold the gear, it was more comfortable than a van, and the candidate was driving the same model, so it looked kind of cool. They thought it might create some buzz.)

Although we were not political specialists, we knew enough to take a baseline survey to figure out where the various candidates stood with voters before the campaign began. The retiring incumbent announced that he would not make an endorsement, and he didn't, but it was generally understood that his long-time chief-of-staff had the inside track. Sure enough, that guy finished first in the baseline. Our guy was a member of the state legislature who happened to be the frontrunner’s cousin, with the same last name. He ranked third in our baseline. 

Considering that this was the first competitive election for that office in 16 years, no one had any idea how it would go or what might move the needle of voter opinion. The campaign hadn’t even begun. It looked like maybe half the field would have enough money to do something, but that kind of election in that kind of district, who the hell knows what will happen? Surely people will do whatever they do before an election, to decide who they want, and the various campaign efforts will have an effect. Something will happen, right?

So, we all did our thing. We made and ran our commercials. Being a primary, it was pretty much one-and-done. There was no opportunity for mid-course corrections. There was no way to tell if our efforts were having any effect until the votes were cast and counted.

Our guy lost. 

His cousin, the incumbent’s chief-of-staff, won. 

What’s more, the election results corresponded almost exactly to the results of our original survey. The ranking was exactly the same and the vote shares were more-or-less the same. Everything we and all the other campaigns did, all the money we spent, had zero effect on voters. None. I kept thinking, if only we could have done that pints-of-Jack thing.

This memory came up today because Don Young died last month. Young held Alaska’s only House seat for 49 years, which made him the House’s longest-serving member, its ‘dean.’ Upon Young’s death the new dean became Hal Rogers, the man who won that primary 42 years ago. He still represents Kentucky’s 5th and is now Dean of the United States House of Representatives. 

John Wanamaker, of the famous Philadelphia department store, is reputed to have said, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half.” This one time, I knew.


Monday, March 28, 2022

Does Your Whiskey Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?

 

“Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” is a novelty song written and originally recorded in the 1920s. It was revived with great success in the late 1950s and became a hit single.

Only somewhat less frivolously, people in whiskey discussions often complain that the taste of a favorite dram has changed, from bottle to bottle, even within the same bottle. They may also mention a change, always in the wrong direction, from some hallowed past. They report this on social media or to their local whiskey club pals and wonder if anyone else has noticed it too.

Why are they so quick to assume it is the whiskey that has changed, and not themselves? It forces one to ask an indelicate question. What was in your mouth prior to the whiskey?

We explore this and other questions in the latest issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which will be mailed to subscribers in the next few days.

"Mailed"? As in the USPS? Yes, we're old school that way. Words on paper, in an envelope, in ye olde mailbox. 

In this issue, we also learn how the secret to enjoying craft spirits may be in finding the right curator, and we discover how distilleries big and small buy rye grain, and why the American rye whiskey in your glass may have been made with rye grown in Sweden.

Click here to subscribe via PayPal (PayPal account or any major credit card, U.S. address only). Click here for other options (including for a non-U.S. address) and more information about the newsletter itself.

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 21, Number 1. 

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 free searchable 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.

UPDATE 4/5/22: Delayed at the printer. Most will be mailed today.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Fifty Years Ago in Chicago, It Was Illegal for Women to Bartend

 

Historical marker outside She-nannigans, 16 W. Division St in Chicago.

In 1951, the City of Chicago enacted what came to be called the 'barmaid ordinance.' It prohibited women from "pouring, mixing, or drawing intoxicating liquors" in a licensed establishment unless they owned it or were related (as wife, sister, or mother) to the owner. Chicago wasn't unique. Michigan had a similar law that survived a Supreme Court challenge and the state of Illinois had related laws that made Chicago's ordinance possible.

When the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, women could serve drinks but couldn't legally make them. A woman couldn't even draw a beer. It was against the law.

Later that decade, She-nannigans became the first bar in Chicago to employ all female bartenders in a deliberate effort to 'bust' the ordinance, hence the “She” in its name. The bar hired some of the female flight attendants who lived in the neighborhood to tend bar on their days off. It was, as they like to tell it, "a modest act of civil disobedience."

She-nannigans is still there. It bills itself as a "sports and Karaoke bar" now, but remains proud of its founding purpose.

The whole business was more serious than the lighthearted way it is remembered on Division Street. The ordinance was largely ignored for more than a decade, until Chicago's Superintendent of Police James Conlisk, Jr. suddenly decided to enforce it and began making arrests. 

A lot of things happened on Conlisk's watch. He was in charge of the cops during the riots that followed Dr. King's assassination, the 'police riot' that rocked the Democratic convention later that year, and the police murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Several of Conlisk's high-ranking subordinates were indicted and eventually convicted for shaking down tavern owners. Arresting female bartenders using that old ordinance was part of the extortion scheme.

After Conlisk's cops started to make arrests, bars all over town began to fire their female bartenders. Nearly four hundred unionized African-American female bartenders lost their jobs. Their union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and their Local 444, refused to support them. The unions backed the ordinance.

In 1968, fourteen female bartenders, two male tavern owners, and the Metropolitan Tavern Association brought a class-action lawsuit against the city in Federal court. The trial court transcripts are both disgusting and hysterical. Someone should put them on stage.

The main justification for the 'barmaid ordinance,' as the lawyer representing Chicago helpfully explained, was that a woman could use her sexual allure to "hypnotize" a man into buying excessive amounts of liquor. "A poor fellow would not know what he was drinking and, lo and behold, if something happens in that bar the licensee can lose his license but Mary can go across the street and go to work there," he argued. The judge suggested that maybe it would be okay if the women simply dressed like men. "Especially if she is shirted or tied so that the bosom is not unduly exposed nor the dress by tradition unduly suggestive," he opined.

The fact that women could legally wear 'suggestive' costumes while serving drinks at the Playboy Club did not, apparently, seem relevant to either side.

There were ultimately two different cases, McCrimmon v. Daley (quoted above) and Daugherty v. Daley. In McCrimmon, the court eventually ruled that, "sex is not a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business of tending bar in the City of Chicago." The barmaid ordinance was held void in view of the supremacy clause of the Constitution because it violated the 14th amendment and conflicted with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was still getting some of its earliest courtroom tests, especially with regard to discrimination on the basis of sex.

The McCrimmon decision came down in March, 1970. In 1981, March was declared "Women's History Month."

The 1974 Daugherty decision, which She-nannigans celebrates, dealt with similar state laws that also were ruled unconstitutional. 

Half-a-century later, the idea that women should be legally prohibited from any line of employment seems ridiculous to almost everyone. Perhaps the issues that divide us so fiercely today will seem just as ridiculous in another 50 years. 


Tuesday, March 1, 2022

What You Need to Know About Vodka in Light of Russia's Invasion of Ukraine


Russian Standard is the only major vodka brand made and owned by a Russian company.
NOTE: I revised this post 3/3/22 to include new information about Stoli. I apologize for putting out misleading information. Sorry, fog of war. I'm doing the best I can.

Most of the world's citizens are outraged and disgusted by Russia's cruel and irrational invasion of Ukraine, and frustrated by their inability to do anything about it. There is a satisfying symbolism in rejecting all things Russian, so what about vodka? That's Russian, right?

The short answer is, no, in that virtually all vodka sold in the United States and most of the rest of the world has nothing to do with Russia. It isn't made there, nor is it made and sold by Russian companies. The only brand of Russian-made vodka you are likely to see in the United States is Russian Standard.

Yes, the word 'vodka' is Russian, but that's about it. It literally means 'little water,' or something close to that, in Polish, Ukrainian, and several other Slavic languages in addition to Russian. The word comes from the ancient description of distilled alcohol as "water of life." The word 'whiskey' has a similar etymology, based on that same phrase in Gaelic. "Eau de vie" is literally "water of life" in French, and usually describes a clear, fruit-based spirit. Since the typical 'vodka' in Russia and the wider region is a clear, neutral or nearly-neutral spirit distilled from grain, 'vodka' seemed like a more appealing name for that type of product than 'grain alcohol,' which is how grain neutral spirits (GNS) were generally sold before Prohibition. 'Vodka' sounds exotic.

There is a fine line between what we now call 'vodka' and what used to be called 'common whiskey' in America, known later as 'white whiskey,' since neither is aged in wood. The difference is in the purity of the alcohol and that itself can be a fine line. Although an American straight whiskey such as bourbon cannot be distilled higher than 80% ABV (alcohol-by-volume), generic whiskey just has to be less than 95% ABV. After 95% it's ethanol, i.e., vodka. So, 94.5% ABV = white whiskey, 95.1% ABV = vodka. Then, of course, it is diluted with water to 40-50% ABV for bottling.

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 at first, until the brand launched its "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.

It was more than that, of course. Americans had long since begun to mix their whiskey with soft drinks and fruit juices, and for the first several decades after Prohibition's repeal, the best-selling distilled spirits had been blended whiskey, either scotch or American. Some of them had very little whiskey flavor. When Americans became aware of vodka's existence through Smirnoff's advertising, millions simply switched from using Imperial Blended Whiskey to Smirnoff Vodka in their cocktails. Vodka sales exploded in the 1960s and, therefore, every company needed a vodka brand. Most of them got Russian-sounding names. Most were just that, Russian-sounding names, with no connection to Russia. All of them were made in the United States.

But because of Smirnoff, which had an actual history in Czarist Russia, and all of the made-up Russian names, the whole 'Russia' thing hung around, through all the ups and downs of the Cold War and beyond. Then came Stolichnaya ('Stoli'), which proudly advertised itself as Russian vodka. It was introduced in the United States in 1972 and quickly became huge. Suddenly, premium, imported vodka was a thing. Stoli was followed by Absolut, made in Sweden; and Grey Goose, made in France. Followed by others too numerous to name.

Yesterday, Stoli Group, manufacturers of Stolichnaya Vodka, denounced Russia's aggression in an announcement on their website.

The statement says, in part, "Stoli Group has had a long history of fighting oppression from the Russian regime. We unequivocally condemn the military action in Ukraine and stand in support of the Ukrainian people. While we do not have any operations in Russia, we do in Ukraine and across many of the bordering countries."

Stoli® Premium and Elit™ vodka are manufactured and bottled in Riga, Latvia. Latvia is a member of NATO and, therefore, a U.S. ally. Stoli and its owner, Yuri Shefler, separated themselves officially from Russia about 20 years ago. Stoli Group owns other beverage alcohol assets, including Kentucky Owl bourbon and rye.

Stoli is not, however, telling the whole truth. While they "do not have any operations in Russia," they apparently purchase distillate from a Russian distillery in Tambov, about 400 miles southeast of Moscow and very much in Russia. They ship the distillate to Riga, Latvia, where it is diluted with water for bottling. Legally, it's a product of Latvia. In reality, if this Difford's Guide story is accurate and current (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), SPI is playing fast and loose with the facts, though it's great that they condemn the Russian military action. 

A lot of imported vodka sold in the United States is made in Poland. Some of the better known brands are Sobieski, Chopin, and Belevedere. Poland is a member of NATO and, therefore, a U.S. ally. It shares a long border with Ukraine and is receiving many of the refugees.

Ukrainian vodka is not widely distributed in the United States but some of the brands available on Drizly are Khor, Shevkoff, and Nemiroff.

Most vodka sold in the U.S. is made here, by public companies. Again, they have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia, regardless of the brand name. Of the top ten brands of vodka sold in the U.S., six are U.S.-made, four are imported. The imports come from Sweden (Svedka, Absolut), The Netherlands (Ketel One), and France (Grey Goose). The U.S.-made brands are Tito's, Smirnoff, New Amsterdam, Pinnacle, Burnett's, and Skyy. All of the bottom-shelf vodka sold in the U.S., in 1.75L handles only, is U.S.-made. 

Almost every distilled spirits company sells vodka, typically under multiple brand names. Very few of those companies distill the spirit themselves. Although producers typically process the spirit before bottling, such as charcoal filtering it, and some even redistill, most do not make the grain neutral spirit (GNS) from scratch. Instead, they buy it from a handful of specialist companies who produce ethanol from grain (usually corn) for beverages but also for pharmaceuticals, fuel, weapons, textiles, and other industrial uses. In the world of beverage alcohol, that same grain neutral spirit is used to make gin and liqueurs. Ethanol, and therefore vodka, can also be made from sugarcane and fruit.

Although the standards are slightly different for what goes into your body versus what goes into your car, it's all essentially the same stuff, i.e., 'pure' (95%) ethanol, and it is considered a commodity. All of the major vodka producers buy their ethanol from the same group of manufacturers, usually on the basis of price and availability, although some have a better reputation for quality than others. Although some craft vodkas are scratch-made, most are not. They're based on that same GNS. That's fine if they do something else 'crafty' with the spirit, such as flavoring it. Since it really is a commodity, there isn't much reason to make it yourself, but a few people do and they will make sure you know it. Again, none of this has anything to do with Russia, but now you know a little bit more about vodka. 

The major U.S. ethanol distillers, the folks who make GNS from scratch, are:

Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), an American multinational food processing and commodities trading corporation headquartered in Chicago. 



MGP Ingredients (Midwest Grain Products), which distills GNS in Atchison, Kansas, where it is based, and at the historic Ross & Squibb Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

GPC (Grain Processing Corporation), a subsidiary of Kent Corporation. It has distilleries in Muscatine, Iowa, where it is based, and Washington, Indiana. 

Those are the major operators I know about in the beverage space. There are many others who distill vast amounts of ethanol for non-beverage uses. 

And that's about it. That's where vodka comes from. Ukraine, by the way, is much like the American Midwest in being a huge grower and exporter of wheat and other cereals. Egypt, the 'bread basket' of the Mediterranean in Roman times, is now a major importer of wheat, most of which comes from Ukraine and Russia.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

What Is Next for Rye Whiskey?

 

Opened in 2017, the Sagamore Spirit Distillery is in Baltimore's Port Covington neighborhood. It is the largest distillery in the U.S. that makes only rye whiskey.

It is perhaps symbolic of our era that the most faithful recreation of Maryland-style rye whiskey is made in Colorado and the largest rye whiskey distillery in Maryland uses recipes developed in Southern Indiana. 

Rye whiskey is where the action is.

Leopold Brothers is the Colorado distillery making rye whiskey in a three-chamber still, a type that was widely used in Maryland and Pennsylvania to make very flavorful rye whiskey a century ago. Bottled after four years in wood, it is available on its own or in a blend with column-distilled rye made at Cascade Hollow (formerly George Dickel) in Tennessee. 

Though inspired by Maryland distilling practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Leopolds don't call their product Maryland rye. The product formerly known as Leopold Brothers Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey is no longer in the company’s portfolio. The new product is called Leopold Brothers Three Chamber Rye Whiskey. The Dickel product is called Collaboration Blend.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Sagamore Spirit released its first Maryland-distilled, bottled-in-bond straight rye whiskey in November. Sagamore is Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's whiskey company. Their Baltimore distillery is the largest in the East and makes only rye whiskey, but it has been making it only since 2017, hence a 4-year-old eligible for bottled-in-bond debuted in 2021.

Sagamore Rye is a combination of two rye whiskeys. One is the famous MGP 95-percent rye. The other is a 51-percent rye buffered with corn that MGP has made since 2013. How the two are blended is Sagamore’s contribution. Except for this new release, the Sagamore in stores now is whiskey made by MGP in Southern Indiana, but since 2017 Sagamore has made great quantities of both recipes at its distillery in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood. Made-in-Maryland Sagamore Rye should be widely available soon.

Other Maryland outfits make rye whiskey, such as Gray Wolf in Saint Michaels.

Maryland rye may be about to embark on the journey Tennessee whiskey took a few years back. Is ‘Maryland rye’ simply any rye whiskey made in Maryland? Or is it a distinctive style? And if ‘Maryland rye’ is a distinctive style, what are the characteristics of that style? Can ‘Maryland-style rye’ be made in Colorado? Or Indiana? 

The answer to these questions is, only time will tell. Ultimately, whiskey consumers will decide whether or not Maryland rye is a thing. 

Meanwhile, distillers, still makers, and farmers have only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is possible with rye whiskey, and not just in Maryland. New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia all once had robust, homegrown rye whiskey industries and could again.

Why mention farmers? Because today, almost all of the rye grown in the United States is never harvested. It is planted as a cover crop. Most of the rye sold to U.S. distilleries is grown in Canada or Northern Europe. Only Minnesota grows enough high-quality rye to supply major U.S. producers.

Hallock, Minnesota is a hard goal shot from the Canadian border. There, in the Red River Valley, on a farm tilled by the Swanson family for more than a century, Minnesota rye is grown and distilled into whiskey at the aptly-named Far North Distillery. For their Roknar 100% Rye they had a nearby maltster malt some of it for them. A nearby cooperage made the barrels from Minnesota oak. It is a tiny release most of us will never taste, but we can enjoy the idea of it and hope for more like it.

More than one distiller, researching how rye whiskey used to be made, has come across mention of Rosen Rye, a variety developed about a century ago at what is now Michigan State University. Rosen is supposed to be great for making very flavorful rye whiskey. Too bad no one grows it. The only seeds are in seed banks. It takes time to turn a handful of seed bank seeds into a crop, then more years to turn those plump, juicy kernels into whiskey. Then more years to figure out the ideal way to age the resulting distillate, which if the Leopold Brothers Three Chamber Rye is any indication, will taste very different from most of the rye whiskey made today. 

But a few hardy souls are trying to get more flavorful rye varieties into the ground and then into a bottle. The Delaware Valley Fields Foundation (DVFF) has a mission to support small farmers in the countryside around Philadelphia. They work with the United States Department of Agriculture Research Service, universities, and farmers to resurrect ‘lost’ grains such as Rosen. 

Dancing Star Farms in Imler, Pennsylvania has grown Rosen for the DVFF for several years. Stoll & Wolfe in Lititz distilled some of Dancing Star's grain. Their recently released Straight Keystone Rosen Rye Whiskey is only two years old and not widely available but is a harbinger of things to come. George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon got some of Dancing Star's Rosen crop and made whiskey from it in December. An unaged version will be released this year, the rest when it’s ready.

Dancing Star planted 45 acres of Rosen for the DVFF in the fall of 2021. The DVFF has another 50 acres on other farms in the region.

Rosen is unusual because it needs to be grown in isolation. In Michigan, Ari Sussman of Mammoth Distilling is working with Michigan State University and the National Park Service to farm Rosen on a Park Service island in Lake Michigan, the same island that produced pure Rosen seed for farmers in the grain's heyday.

Rosen is just one variety. Abruzzi, which is grown for the Leopolds in Colorado, is another. There are more. Maybe some good heirloom varieties are waiting to be discovered, or new hybrids can be developed. Grains are usually developed for yield, which for alcohol means more starch. Is flavor-for-alcohol a good trade-off? Again, only time will tell.

Kids, this is where the action is, and it is going to be good.


Friday, February 18, 2022

A Mansfield Roller Coaster Would Have Changed My Life

 

The figure-8 roller coaster at Luna Park, Mansfield, Ohio (c. 1915).
I enjoy history and especially the history of places I've visited or lived. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, a small city midway between Cleveland and Columbus. It's a place like any other, and therefore unique, but special to me. Regular visitors to this space know all this. An example of past Mansfield musings is here.

Mansfield has a nice system of four connected parks on its west side. I spent much of my youth up to something in one or the other of them. Maple Lake Park was the closest, followed by South Park, Middle Park, and North Lake Park. There was a lake at Maple Lake Park once, but by my era it was a ball field, some tennis courts, and a playground. 

North Lake Park still has its lake. We ice-skated there in winter. It was the most developed of the four parks. It had a roller rink and swimming pool. 

Sometimes when I learn about Mansfield's history, I fantasize about living there in an earlier time, before I was born. More than anything, I want to ride the electric streetcar out Fourth Street to Luna Park, which is what North Lake Park was called in its glory days. (Click here for an excellent 13-minute video about it.

I am gobsmacked that, once upon a time, North Lake Park had a roller coaster. 

While the electric streetcar would have been nice, I didn't need it. One of the best things about growing up in Mansfield is that the city is so small, just about everything is accessible to a kid on a bicycle. I could and did ride my bike everywhere. I certainly rode it to North Lake Park. If I could have ridden my bike to a roller coaster at North Lake Park, every day if I wanted to, I believe that would have changed my life.

I like roller coasters. I am not one of those people who spend every holiday visiting amusement parks to ride as many different roller coasters as possible. I don't have a roller coaster scrapbook or anything like that. But I do like roller coasters.

As an adult, just about everywhere I've lived or traveled in the world, if there was a roller coaster there, I probably rode it. 

Growing up, we went to several different amusement parks in and around Cleveland: Chippewa Lake, Euclid Beach, Meyer’s Lake. They all had coasters. Only one, Cedar Point in Sandusky, is still in business. All of them were about an hour away, so going there was a special event, a family outing. We might hit two or three a year. 

So the prospect of growing up with a roller coaster in town, a mere bike ride away, blows my mind. When I found out my parents had owned a boat before I was born, that hurt. This cuts even deeper. 

I can picture it, riding my bike through the four connected parks. Even though that wasn't the quickest route, it was the most fun. I would buy a ticket, or maybe a whole string. I might just ride once, or all afternoon, depending on my mood and what else I had to do. I could go with friends or by myself. A roller coaster could have been part of my everyday life through junior high and high school if only I had lived a couple generations sooner.

I imagine a daily roller coaster ride as a tonic, a pick-me-up. I could do it on the way home from school. Not exactly on the way, but I could make it work. Maybe get the whole family to go after church on Sunday. It's healthier than ice cream. I imagine mom, when she got fed up with me for some reason, saying, "go ride your roller coaster." And I would.

I had a happy childhood. I have no complaints. But when I imagine everything exactly the same, plus a roller coaster ride a couple times a week, I can't help thinking that would have been so much better.

On the other hand, I know how these things work. If I had had an easily-accessible roller coaster I would have taken it for granted, probably, just like I did all of the wonderful things I did have growing up. 

But a Mansfield roller coaster sure would have been nice.

Friday, February 11, 2022

After 10,000 Years, Rye Is Having Its Moment


Göbekli Tepe is a Neolithic archaeological site near the city of Şanlıurfa in Southeastern Turkey.
Humans began to collect and eat rye seeds about 10,000 years ago. The people who built Göbekli Tepe, the oldest known monumental structure on earth, may have been familiar with rye, in either its wild or earliest cultivated form.

Yet although rye has been around all that time, it is never the first choice for any important application. Wheat is better for bread and barley is better for beer. Because rye will grow where those do not, and livestock like it well enough, rye is always in the mix.

After 10,000 years, humans finally have figured out that the highest and best use for rye is rye whiskey.

Corn, what some call maize, is the world’s go-to cereal for distilling. Corn and rye have very different properties. Corn kernels are huge and yield a lot of fermentable material. Rye yields less alcohol even on a per-bushel basis and costs about twice as much. 

For drinkers, the big difference is taste. Corn distillate has very little flavor. Most bourbons are more than 75 percent corn so most of their flavor comes from the charred oak barrel. What little taste they get from the mash comes from small grains: rye, wheat, and barley. Rye is the most used of these 'flavor grains' because it is the most flavorful, too flavorful for some palates. That's why many popular bourbons and both major Tennessee whiskeys use so little of it.

Yet even though Jack and George don't like too much rye in their Tennessee whiskey, both like it in their stills just fine. Both Jack Daniel's and George Dickel now make rye whiskey too. 

Rye whiskey very nearly died out. Thirty years ago, only three distilleries in the United States (all in Kentucky) regularly made rye whiskey, and made it only one or two days per season. Today, just about everybody with a still makes rye whiskey.

The rye grain sold for distillation today is rarely a single variety. Most of it is grown in Northern Europe or Canada. Minnesota is the only major U.S. supplier. 

Today, rye is planted primarily for soil improvement, grazing, or both. In Pennsylvania, for example, only about 18 percent of the rye planted each year is harvested. Most of that is used for the next year's cover planting. The rest is fed to livestock.

All of that means little of the rye planted in the United States is cultivated for its flavor characteristics. That potential is virtually untapped. So while the growing and distilling of heirloom maize varieties is interesting, doing the same thing with rye is potentially spectacular. 

Rosen, a hybrid developed a century ago at what is now Michigan State, was once highly regarded for whiskey. It grew in Michigan and elsewhere for most of the 20th century, until the late 1970s. Efforts are underway to revive it, but that takes time. 

The northern parts of Pennsylvania and New York once grew a lot of rye for whiskey and could again. If there is a market, the farmers will figure it out.

In Colorado, Todd Leopold found a local farmer who would grow Abruzzi rye for him. Leopold chose Abruzzi because it contains higher-than-normal levels of certain substances he believes are good for rye whiskey. Then he discovered and had built a special type of still that transfers those flavors from the mash to the spirit. The resulting whiskey is wonderful, a revelation. 

Many distillers would like to work with these super-flavorful rye varieties, but would prefer to get them from Brooks or some other broker. The grain dealers aren't there yet but they're working on it. 

This is just the beginning. With rye grain varieties cultivated for whiskey, stills and other equipment built to accentuate rye's characteristics, and a community of creative distillers and adventurous consumers, the possibilities for rye whiskey are limitless. 

It is, potentially, another agricultural revolution, 10,000 years in the making, at least as regards the agriculture of whiskey.