Monday, November 28, 2022

Karl Raitz Makes a Monumental Contribution to Bourbon History

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2022

Before Johnny and Amber, There Was Hiram and Mollie


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2022

Has Maker's Mark Jumped the Shark?


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

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

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

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

It got much easier after that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

How To Explore Whiskey Without Doing Homework


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

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

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

The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail, which just went up, again.

Nevertheless, a subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is a mere $25 per year for addresses in the USA, $32 USD for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 21, Number 3. 

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

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