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 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.