Saturday, July 30, 2022

Proposal for Bourbon Festival: Bourbon Barrel Trebuchet Toss

 

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

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

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

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

The basic design of a trebuchet.

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

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

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


Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Truth About Vodka


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

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

Here are some other facts about vodka. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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


Sunday, July 24, 2022

Wigle Whiskey Dominates ACSA Awards for 7th Consecutive Year

 

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

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

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

ACSA gold medal winners Port Rye Whiskey and Amaro Vermut.

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

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

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

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


Friday, July 15, 2022

Jacob's Well Is a Mistake. Again

 

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

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

That statement may be truer than its writer intended.

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

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

Beam has been to this well before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, July 11, 2022

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it all starts with Crow. 

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

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

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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Does that NDP Whiskey Really Have a NDA?


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

Probably not.

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

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

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

They're lying.

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

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

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

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

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