Saturday, December 30, 2023

My Bourbon Writing Will Not be Rationed


An anti-hoarding, pro-rationing poster for the United States during World War II.

The rationing poster above refers to an article in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which subscribers will receive shortly, but I wanted to start with a thank you.

The response to my December 13 post was more than I could have asked for, and very much appreciated. Thank you to everyone who commented. As I wrote after the first dozen or so comments came in, my short post happened because lately I feel I am shouting into the void. As a speech major in college, I was taught basic communication theory. The parts of communication are sender, message, receiver, and feedback. The feedback informs the sender as to how the message was received, so it can be modified or built upon. It's pretty basic stuff but the key insight is that communication is a loop, a cycle. One may send messages to some expected receiver, but without feedback there is no communication. 

Some of you are subscribers to my old school, paper-in-the-mail newsletter. I wrapped volume 21 back in August and have been dragging my feet on starting volume 22. I have considered discontinuing the newsletter altogether. Thanks to all of you and your encouragement, volume 22, number 1 is at the printer now and will be in the mail in a few days.

You can subscribe here.

What is in the new issue? Exactly 80 years ago, in December 1943, two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into World War II, a fullpage advertisement appeared in newspapers across the country. The ad’s headline got right to the point: “The TRUTH about the Whiskey Shortage” (emphasis in the original).

Modern "whiskey shortage" concerns are laughable compared to this.

The ad set out to answer three questions: “Is there really a shortage?,” “How much whiskey is available?,” and “How long will the present supply last?”

You will find the whole story in the new Reader.

What else? About a decade ago, I began to keep track of all the column stills making whiskey in the United States. Why? Because the size (i.e., diameter) of a column still tells you that distillery's production capacity, not how much it will produce, or does produce, but how much it can produce. In the story "Size Matters," I go into some of what I've learned from that project. 

Launched in 1994, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is an eclectic mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising 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 is still exclusively on paper, sent in an envelope via the USPS. 

Despite rampant inflation, 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 22, Number 1. 

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.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Now Is the Time to Tell Me

I haven't posted much recently. If you miss it, now is the time to tell me. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

This Is ... Interesting


The "updated" Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame® award.
I was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (KBHOF) in 2009. It's a nice honor. It came with a replica copper still, with my name on it, and a personalised lapel pin. That's pretty much it. There is no actual, physical hall. A list of all members, not yet updated for 2023, is here

For all intents and purposes, those two pages are the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.

Current, living members of the KBHOF have no role in the selection of prospective members or, well, anything. The KBHOF is run by the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA), which apparently also owns the registered trademark for it. The only on-going perk of membership was the annual induction luncheon during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, but now hall members are expected to buy tickets for that like everyone else. The invitation included a free glass. At least, I think it was free.

Then this arrived today:

"Greetings Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame® Members - 

"As you may be aware, in 2022 the Hall of Fame Selection Committee and Kentucky Distillers’ Association [KDA] took the initiative to update the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame® award. The KDA commissioned glassblowing artist Brook Forrest White, Jr. of Flame Run in Louisville to design and craft a unique and contemporary award that incorporates Bourbon-inspired motifs such as amber colors, oak, Copper and water. The limestone award based has been crafted by JoEl E. Ford, owner of Kentucky Cut Stone, located in Lancaster, to symbolize the natural-cut limestone so valuable to the Bourbon industry. The award rounds-out with a Copper name plate that includes the recipient’s name, industry award and Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame® logo. For your reference, see image below/attached.

"The KDA has been reached by several Hall of Fame members requesting the opportunity to purchase this new award style. 

"If you are interested in ordering a new Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame® award, reach (NAME AND EMAIL ADDRESS REDACTED). Please note you will be invoiced for $1,000 to cover the cost of the award. You will be notified when your award is ready and available for pick-up at Kentucky Distillers’ Association headquarters in Frankfort, KY – we are unable to ship the awards. Orders will be accepted until, Friday, October 6th. Production will take approximately 6 weeks."

Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Class of
2009, with the original awards.
I redacted the name of the contact person at KDA, who can hardly be blamed for this, but who perhaps bears responsibility for the grammatical lapses and weird capitalization in the email. 

I have been persona non grata with the KDA for about a decade, ever since I posted this and this, and probably a few other things. All constructive criticism, of course.

Needless to say, my check for $1,000 is not in the mail.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

New Still Will Increase Heaven Hill's Capacity by One-Third, on Way to Doubling It


Heaven Hill installs the column still at its new distillery in Bardstown.
Heaven Hill today, with much fanfare, installed the column still that will be the centerpiece of their new Bardstown distillery. It's a big one, five-and-a-half feet in diameter. They say it is capable of producing 35,500 proof-gallons per day, which is equal to more than 500 barrels per day. 

Heaven Hill is one of the four companies who together make about 70 percent of America's whiskey. Even as many new whiskey companies have come online, the Big Four have all gotten bigger. 

This milestone is exciting because it marks Heaven Hill's return to Bardstown as a distiller. They are also restoring an old name, Heaven Hill Springs, for this facility.

Since 1996, when fire destroyed Heaven Hill's original Bardstown distillery, Heaven Hill has made its whiskey at its Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, where it has three column stills slightly smaller than this one. When they put the last 60" still in at Bernheim, they said that was it. They couldn't add more capacity to that facility. They say that facility's current capacity is 450,000 barrels per year and the new facility is planned to reach that same capacity in time, which means they must already have holes in the floor for two additional stills. 

They had to do this because they were all out of room at Bernheim. There is plenty in Bardstown. The new distillery is being built on a surprisingly empty piece of land between Old Bloomfield Pike and New Bloomfield Road, aka US-62. It's just west of where the old Fairfield Distillery was, where Heaven Hill has maturation warehouses today.

Nothing in Bardstown is very far from anything else and Heaven Hill has several facilities in the area. The main campus is south of downtown, on Loretto Road, by Willett and on the way to Maker's Mark.

All the gang was there. Vendome made the still and Buzick did the installation. Heaven Hill executives and other dignitaries watched from a respectful distance.

Monday, August 14, 2023

New 'Reader,' Out Now, Explores Mexican Bourbon and Whiskey QC


Ad for Mary Dowling's Made-in-Mexico Bourbon
Earlier this summer, Kaveh Zamanian and Pernod-Ricard announced the formation of the Mary Dowling Whiskey Company, a new brand. The whiskey is from Rabbit Hole, but they're not talking about that so much as they are about Mary Dowling, and what a story it is.

You can read all about it in the latest issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, available now!

Zamanian and Pernod have dubbed Mary Dowling the “Mother of Bourbon.” Whether or not she was the mother of anything other than her nine children, Mary Dowling’s story is remarkable. If you must pluck a name from history to adorn a new whiskey brand, she is a good choice. If any historical figure represents the internationalization of American whiskey, it is her.

The apogee of her story was her extreme attempt to stay in business during Prohibition by moving her entire distillery 1,500 miles southwest, to Juarez, Mexico. Although it is another 1,000 miles from Juarez to Jalisco, where tequila is made, Mary Dowling Tequila Barrel is a high rye, double malt, Kentucky straight bourbon. Four years old, it is finished in American oak previously used to age Tequila and bottled at 90° proof (45% ABV).

That's pretty much what Zamanian and Pernod will tell you, but there is much more to Mary Dowling's story and The Reader has it all.

Also in this issue, we take a deep dive into the subject of whiskey consistency. Today, while a new breed of whiskey enthusiast primarily buys limited editions, most whiskey is sold to brand loyalists who expect their favorite to always taste exactly the same. Achieving that consistency is not as easy as you might think. We break it down in the new Reader.

Launched in 1994, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is an eclectic 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 is still exclusively on paper, sent in an envelope via the USPS. Doing our part to keep them solvent, we use only First Class Mail.

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 6. 

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.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Will Blue Run's Magnificent Distillery Ever Be Built?


An architect's rendering of Blue Run's proposed
$51 million distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky.

Beermaker Molson Coors announced today it is purchasing Blue Run Spirits. Terms were not disclosed. The deal was reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Despite the usually-reliable Janet Patton calling them one, Blue Run is not a "distillery." Blue Run is a non-distiller producer. The rendering above is just that, an architect's illustration for a proposed distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. This "preliminary design," released in March with much fanfare, is by the Bjarke Ingels Group, designers of Google's headquarters and the Lego museum.

Will it ever be built? The record is not good. 

In 2017, Stoli Group announced its acquisition of Kentucky Owl, a small, luxury bourbon brand. Later that year Stoli said it would build a $150 million distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Land was acquired and some site preparation was done, but the distillery remains unbuilt. Two years ago, they predicted construction would begin in 2024. The Kentucky Owl brand continues to thrive using liquid distilled by Bardstown Bourbon Company and other sources. 

Other examples include Nelson's Green Brier and High West. Although both have distilleries, their acquisitions by major companies were predicated on the success of brands made with sourced liquid. Both companies have house-made products, and High West has transitioned to a blend of sourced and house-made for its top brands. 

The reasoning is simple. If your brand is built on sourced liquid, and a sufficient supply of suitable sourced liquid continues to be available, you have no reason to build a distillery. Sourced brands tend to stay sourced brands until and unless their sources dry up, then they reluctantly become distillers, as happened to Michter's and Luxco. At last report, Blue Run is a 50,000-case brand, and its products are all limited releases. That is part of their appeal. This Forbes article (from 2022) explains what Blue Run is about and what Molson Coors is really buying.

Their first release, the 14-year-old  $169 Kentucky Straight bourbon that made their reputation, was 2,600 bottles. You don't need your own distillery to create releases like that. Their business model has "independent bottler" written all over it.

Jim Rutledge, formerly of Four Roses, is part of the Blue Run team. He is having whiskey contract-distilled for the brand at Castle & Key in Frankfort. 

All of this doesn't mean, of course, that the Blue Run brand might not benefit from a tourism "homeplace," but that doesn't need to be a distillery, doesn't need to be in Georgetown, and doesn't need to cost $51 million.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Heaven Hill Brands and Log Still Distilling LLC Make Statement, Say Nothing


The water tower is a remnant of the distillery that must not be named.

Heaven Hill Brands and Log Still Distilling LLC put out a press release yesterday under the headline, “Heaven Hill Brands and Log Still Distilling LLC Settle Trademark Dispute Over Usage of ‘Dant’ in the Distilled Spirits Industry.” 

It goes on to say Heaven Hill and Log Still are both nice, friendly, family-owned companies in Nelson Country, Kentucky, who have “finalized a mutually agreeable resolution of their dispute regarding the usage of the ‘J.W. Dant’ trademark and its associated goodwill, which were purchased by Heaven Hill in 1993.” Then, after another paragraph about how nice they are and how much they both value intellectual property rights and “strong, independent brand identities within the spirits industry,” they throw in this: “Heaven Hill will continue to be the sole producer of J.W. Dant distilled spirits.”

That’s it. That’s the whole story, at least so far as yesterday's press release is concerned, although it goes on for another 250 words about what nice, friendly companies they both are, how they love their customers, yada yada yada, followed by another 200 words of boilerplate descriptions of the two companies.

So, Heaven Hill owns the J.W. Dant trademark and Log Still can’t use it, end of story. And that pretty much is all there is to it, but that really doesn’t tell you anything, does it?

So I will.

In 2020, Wally Dant, a descendant of J. W. Dant, revived the old distillery site at Gethsemane Station near New Haven as Log Still Distillery, a whiskey resort. The name refers to the legendary wooden still used by his ancestor and made famous via the marketing of J. W. Dant Bourbon over more than a century.

There were many distilleries on the site but the last one before this one was owned by Schenley and made J. W. Dant Bourbon.

When Wally took a Louisville Courier-Journal writer on a tour of Log Still just before it opened, he talked about how in 1836, at age 16, his great-great-great-grandfather fashioned a still from a hollowed-out poplar log. In the interview, he mentioned Cold Spring, the original name of the distillery at Gethsemane Station. He talked about replicating J. W. Dant’s original mash bill. The 1,400-word article mentioned J. W. Dant nine times. 

In 2021, Wally Dant lost a trademark fight with Heaven Hill that restricts his ability to tout Log Still’s connection to the J. W. Dant legacy, although the Log Still name itself survived. He may truthfully tell his family story and stories of the many different distilleries that formally occupied the site, but any use of ‘Dant’ in anything that smacks of branding will bring more trouble. He calls the site ‘Dant Crossing,’ but when he does the following disclaimer must appear: “Log Still Distillery neither owns nor has any affiliation with ‘J.W. Dant’ distilled spirits.” 

Why are they releasing a statement in the summer of 2023 about a dispute decided in 2021? Presumably, the court set some parameters and left the parties to work out the details, which they apparently finished doing earlier this week. The press release doesn't tell you that either, and it doesn't matter, because now we're all friends.

Log Still sells a bourbon called Monk’s Road. The monks at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani have not objected, yet.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Is It in My Blood?


The voodoo of Ancestry DNA says some of
my people migrated from Maryland to North
Central Kentucky in the 18th-19th centuries.

I have been around the Kentucky bourbon business for about 45 years. I got into it by moving from Ohio to Kentucky for a job. I have been involved in it one way or another ever since.

I didn’t always like the product. My parents drank bourbon. My grandpa drank scotch. I drank beer, then scotch, until I moved to Kentucky where I switched to bourbon

Living there, I became fascinated with the industry and its culture, and how integral it is to Kentucky’s culture. It was so different from the culture I grew up in, in the adjacent state. I thought that was it, why I was interested, because it is just that interesting. Then I learned it may also be in my blood.

Dad was from St. Louis and mom was from Cleveland, which was just about all I knew about my roots growing up. I became interested in the subject and gradually put flesh on the bones. Mom’s family all came from German-speaking places and landed in Northern Ohio, ultimately Cleveland (West Side). Dad’s family also had Ohio roots, in the southeastern part of the state, along the Ohio River.

That, of course, put them close to Kentucky, so I wasn’t surprised when I learned that my great-grandfather, Homer Cowdery, was born in Kentucky. The family was there for a year or two, then moved back to Ohio. When he got older, Homer took a job on a riverboat and wound up in St. Louis.

Only recently have I learned that the other side of dad's family, my paternal grandmother, Myrtle Gertrude Tucker Cowdery Mansfield, had an even deeper Kentucky connection.

Her story is here

Through Grandma Myrtle I am descended from Joseph 'Short' Tucker, who was part of the mass migration into Kentucky of Catholic religious refugees fleeing Maryland, the same Maryland Catholics who largely founded the Kentucky bourbon industry. 

The Tuckers didn’t stay in Nelson County for long. They were part of a smaller group that, after a few years, continued west to Missouri. They kept their faith and their connections to their brethren in Kentucky, however. The same priests who built their church in Bardstown built the Missouri one too.

I don’t know if Short Tucker or any of his descendants made whiskey, but my family’s participation in that Maryland-to-Kentucky migration even shows up in my DNA.

So perhaps I was destined for it after all. I found my roots in a bourbon bottle.

Friday, July 14, 2023

MGPI to Close Founding Plant, Become Different Company


MGPI, Atchison, Kansas.

If you noticed in the news that MGPI will close its grain neutral spirits distillery in Atchison, Kansas, you may have thought, "Ho hum, one less industrial alcohol distillery. So what?"

The straightforward press release from MGPI soft-pedals the significance of this announcement. It contains all the information investors and other industry participants care about. The news is all there, accurately reported, with all necessary disclaimers, but there is much more to the story.

First, the business angle. MGPI is exiting the business that sustained it for most of its 82 years, the manufacturing of ethanol from corn. It's a different company now, especially since the acquisition of Luxco two-and-a-half years ago. It has other businesses but is now primarily a distilled spirits producer, leading with American whiskey.

Second, the history angle. This distillery in Atchison is where it all began for MGPI in 1941. It is the distillery Cloud Cray bought and expanded to make ethanol for the WWII war industries. He called it Midwest Grain Processors, later abbreviated to MGP. The "I" was added to represent 'ingredients.' 

The company's Ingredient Solutions business will continue to operate in Atchison. It processes corn, wheat, and other grains into fiber, protein, and starch for use in a variety of foods.

This move isn't entirely unexpected. They started on this path in 2011, when they bought the former Seagram's distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, now called Ross & Squibb.

MGPI is public but still tightly controlled by its founding Cray family. Cloud Cray’s son, Bud, who succeeded him, passed away in 2020 at age 96. Bud's daughter, Karen Seaberg, chairs MGPI’s board today. 

MGPI has an image problem, in that they don't seem to know what they want their image to be. Two-and-a-half years into the Luxco acquisition, they haven't integrated well. They can't even settle on a corporate name. It is MGP in some places, MGPI in others, and MGP Ingredients, Inc. in still others. 

Their Luxco business still does business as Luxco.

Perhaps this plant closure is what they've been waiting for. Although they still make ethanol at Ross & Squibb in Indiana, it's probably not enough to support their internal need for neutral spirit for their vodka, gin, blended whiskey, and cordials products. By exiting the unprofitable grain neutral spirits and industrial alcohol business, they have a chance to stamp the company with a new identity. They need to take it.

Maybe they'll go on a history binge when the place actually closes next year.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Should Your Favorite Whiskey Always Taste the Same?


Big whiskey companies are serious about consistency.

John Lunn, before he took the position of master distiller at George Dickel, got to meet Ralph Dupps, who built the Tullahoma distillery for Schenley in the 1950s. "Don't change a damn thing," was Ralph's only advice.

There is nothing the biggest whiskey companies take more seriously than consistency.

For some craft distillers, consistency is anathema and good for them. They want to be consistent only up to a point, then they want each release to be its own experience. 

That isn't how the majors see it. Their best customers are the 20 percent of drinkers who consume 80 percent of volume, 'heavy users,' with all the implications of that descriptor. They are brand loyalists. They drink every day and always drink the same thing the same way. Bitter experience has taught the big companies that they change a whiskey's flavor at their peril. Those precious heavy users will notice and they will not approve. 

They won't write blog posts about it. They'll just find a new favorite whiskey. 

Changing how a whiskey tastes is an even worse sin than raising the price. Some insiders attributed the rapid demise of Old Crow Bourbon to a small, unintended flavor change that occurred because of a distillery expansion in the 1960s.

This respect for brand-loyal customers who prize consistency made it hard for many companies to learn how to appeal to a new generation of whiskey enthusiasts whose values are different.

How do big distilleries ensure consistency? This post from 2022 asked the question, "Are Basil Hayden and Old Grand-Dad the Same?" That led to an explanation of flavor profiles and the way producers maintain them to ensure product consistency. A long explanation is there, but the short version is this:

When barrels are dumped for bottling, often hundreds at a time, their contents are mixed together in a big tank. 

Enough room is left in the tank for additional barrels to be added if necessary to adjust the product's flavor.

Samples from this new batch are then compared to a standard, "what it tasted like last time." This is done by the distillery's tasting panel. The master distiller has final say. They will tweak the blend until it's right.

Many distilleries have rooms full of plain, glass flasks (typically 500ml) labeled as to contents and when each was filled, shelf after shelf of them, a liquid archive. Quality control personnel can compare a current batch to not only the most recent batch, but to just about any batch of any brand the company has ever produced.

How many craft distilleries do this or anything like it? 

Some do, some don't. Some, like the majors, save not just samples of bottling batches but also samples of new distillate, distillate after one year in wood, etc. Even if you preserve just one sample from every bottling batch, sample bottles can add up quickly. Many craft distilleries start out cramped for space. Do most even have room for a liquid archive? 

Even if you're not trying to exactly match a profile with every batch, there are good reasons to keep a liquid record. When a problem arises, the first thing distillers do is go back to their archive to see if they can tell when the trouble started.

So, the headline above asks, "Should your favorite whiskey always taste the same?" Should it? That's entirely up to you. If you value consistency, the majors have you covered. If you believe variety is the spice of life, that's all right there for you too.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Lost Lantern Celebrates "Summer of Bourbon"


Lost Lantern's 2023 Summer of Bourbon Collection.

The 21st century has witnessed two dramatic changes in the distilled spirits landscape. First is the revival of American straight whiskey, especially bourbon and rye. Second is the explosion of craft distilling.

Because of both trends bourbon, until recently produced almost exclusively in Kentucky, is now made across the United States, "from Nevada's arid deserts to Texas' sprawling plains, from the snowbelt of Ohio, to the rugged mountains of Colorado," according to the folks at Lost Lantern, the independent bottler of American Whiskey founded by Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski, who have declared this "The Summer of Bourbon."

"We have never devoted such a large release entirely to one single style of whiskey," commented Polonski. "We want to showcase the incredible quality and ingenuity coming from all over the country."

Lost Lantern’s Summer of Bourbon collection features eight bourbons across three product lines: the Blend Series (blends of whiskeys from multiple distilleries), the Single Distillery Series (blends of multiple casks from a single distillery that showcase a unique side of that distillery), and the Single Cask Series (whiskeys from a single barrel from a single distillery).

The blend is called Far-Flung Bourbon (582 Bottles | 136.8 Proof) SRP: $110

The single distillery bourbon is Soaring Spice Frey Ranch Distillery Nevada Straight Bourbon Whiskey (900 Btls | 127.6 Proof) SRP: $100

The bourbons from the single cask series are: 

Frey Ranch Distillery Nevada Straight Bourbon Single Cask (217 Btls | 137.2 Proof) SRP: $110

Boulder Spirits Colorado Straight Bourbon Single Cask (151 Btls | 142.6 Proof) SRP: $120

Ironroot Republic Texas Straight Bourbon Single Cask (167 Btls | 137.3 Proof) SRP: $120

Still Austin Texas Straight Bourbon Single Cask (167 Btls | 103.8 Proof) SRP: $80

Tom's Foolery Ohio Straight Bourbon Single Cask (171 Btls | 113.8 Proof) SRP: $120

New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Single Cask (214 Btls | 114.2 Proof) SRP: $90

The Summer of Bourbon releases are non-chill-filtered, bottled at natural cask strength, and transparently labeled with the source distillery or distilleries on the label.

On the subject of dramatic changes in the American distilled spirits landscape, the recent emergence of independent blender-bottlers such as Lost Lantern is another one. You pay for curation, of course, but with nearly 3,000 distilleries operating in the USA right now, it's hard to know what to try. A curator can help. They research and taste a lot of stuff so you don't have to.

“The Summer of Bourbon shows that great bourbon can take many different forms,” says Ganley-Roper. “It can be made in many different ways in climates and aging conditions that are utterly different from each other, having a huge impact on flavor. This incredible diversity of styles and flavors is part of what makes the bourbon world so exciting.” 

Thursday, June 15, 2023

In the United States, We Take Our Whiskey Personally

"A conversation with Mr. Van Winkle."

The question was one of those clickbait things on social media. "To whom do you turn when the going gets rough?" More than one person answered, "Jack Daniel's."

Americans like that about our whiskey. In Scotland and Ireland, whiskies are named after places, with a few notable exceptions. (Yes, Mr. Walker. We see you.) In the U.S., the most popular whiskeys are mostly named after people.

We have Jack and Jim, of course, Elijah, Ezra, Evan, Elmer, Issac, Jimmy, Parker, George, Abraham, Augustus, Cyrus, and Pappy. I'm sure I missed a couple. Back in 1989, George Jones sang, "Last night, I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looks like Elvis. I soaked the label off a Flintstone Jelly Bean jar." I worked on the Jim Beam account at the time. Beam never made an Elvis decanter (that was McCormick), but the folks at Beam sure did love that song.

When the bourbon category was dying, it seemed like any brand with "Old" in its name was declining fastest, even though most of those were people's names too, e.g., Crow, Taylor, Fitzgerald, Weller, Pepper. If you had a round bottle with "Old" in the name, you were screwed. Square bottle with a full name on it, you were okay. I worked on Early Times. They couldn't change the name but did switch to a square bottle.

When sales are crashing, you try anything.

My dad, who enjoyed Van Winkle Rye, would say he looked forward to "a conversation with Mr. Van Winkle" after an especially taxing day.

Back then, it wasn't hard to get Van Winkle Rye, but it was one of the most expensive American whiskeys on the market. Dad and I would talk about whiskey from time to time and he said he remembered rye from his youth (the 1940s) tasting like rye bread, so I got in the habit of bringing him different ryes to try, to see if we could find one that scratched that itch for him.

I went through almost everything before I got to the Van Winkle, not so much because of the cost as because I thought it very bourbon-like, which was what I liked about it, but it certainly did not taste like a traditional rye. This was about 15 years ago, when there weren't as many ryes as there are now. After he'd had the Van Winkle a few times, he commented, "It doesn't taste like rye bread, but I sure do like it." 

That ended our quest for a rye-bread rye but I kept him supplied with Van Winkle Rye thereafter. When he died, there was about a third-of-a-bottle in his cabinet. I finished it for him.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Who Makes America's Whiskey Now?


A photo from the American Craft Spirits Association to represent craft spirits.

Seven years ago, it struck me that for all the sound and fury about new brands and new distilleries, things had not changed very much since I made a similar survey two years before. In my 2014 book, Bourbon, Strange, I wrote that just eight companies distilled all of America’s whiskey at just thirteen distilleries. Two years later, it was ten companies and fifteen distilleries. Today, well, it’s a lot more of both.

I was looking at it in 2016 because so many new distilleries were debuting later that year or in 2017. We had folks such as Angel’s Envy who were underway but still ramping up. This is always a moving target.

The ”all” in both statements is more properly “virtually all.” Of the 2,500 or so distilleries now operating in the U.S., most produce very little, a drop in the bucket of total U.S. whiskey production. Even all put together they don't amount to much. That’s not a knock, just a fact. As the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) puts it: 

“The U.S. craft spirits market is fairly concentrated with larger producers making up only 1.6% of the total number of craft producers, but are responsible for 56.6% of the cases sold. 90.1% of U.S. craft producers are classified as small producers. They are responsible for just 10.3% of the cases sold annually.” 

The ACSA does not even count producers who make more than 750,000 proof gallons annually. For my list, I put the cut-off a bit lower, at 500,000. If I hadn’t, the number would not have changed at all.

The ACSA figures are also for all spirits, they don’t break out whiskey. 

Overall, the data is not there for the picking. You have to suss it out. With whiskey, it’s hard to know what to count, since the product the companies are selling now was distilled four to ten years ago. Do you count how much they’re selling or how much they’re making? 

Neither number is readily available, but since distillery output is forward-looking, let’s stick with that. Only one of the four biggest companies, Brown-Forman, is public so they have to disclose that sort of thing. The other three—Beam Suntory, Sazerac, and Heaven Hill—only disclose what they want to disclose. So, the results of this exercise should be considered as falling somewhere between a rough estimate and an educated guess. Feel free to improve it if you can.

In 2016, the two companies not on the 2014 list were New Riff and Michter’s. For 2023, you can add Lux Row (now part of MGP), Bardstown Bourbon Company (including Green River), Wilderness Trail, Jackson Purchase, and Angel’s Envy, all in Kentucky. In Tennessee, there is Tennessee Distilling Group. In Texas, Firestone and Robertson. 

Meanwhile, the majors have all gotten bigger, both by adding distilleries and expanding their current ones. Brown-Forman and Sazerac each added one. Diageo added two. Four Roses essentially cloned itself, doubling capacity, but all at one location. The other majors from the original lists, Wild Turkey (Campari) and Ross & Squibb (MGP), have gotten bigger too. 

I'm not counting demonstration distilleries, like Michter's Fort Nelson and the Evan Williams Experience, as distilleries in these counts.

That brings us to 16 companies operating 28 distilleries of varying sizes. Most of the new guys are in the contract distilling and bulk whiskey business to a greater or lesser extent and are at the lower end of the volume scale, but the combine of Bardstown Bourbon and Green River is putting up some big numbers, as are Wilderness Trail and Tennessee Distilling Group.

And we’re not finished. If we double the threshold, to one million proof gallons per year, we can probably stop here, and maybe even lose one or two. But if we keep the cut-off where it was in 2016, at 500,000 gallons, we have a few more names to add: Willett, Castle & Key, Rabbit Hole, and Sagamore Spirits all appear to be in that range. They are all about the same size and have a few years under their belts. I may be missing a couple of others.

Then there are the folks just getting started, such as Log Still in Kentucky and Nearest Green in Tennessee. Nearest has an 18-inch column still. So do Driftless Glenn and Dancing Goat (Wisconsin), Wyoming Whiskey, and Southern Distilling (North Carolina), and probably a bunch more I don’t know about. Still size tells us maximum capacity, they have to tell us how much they're actually producing.

So, yeah, the needle has moved, bigly. It's hard to keep up. And there are more coming.

The big four are still the big four, by the way, and if the newcomers have made a dent in their combined 75 percent share of overall capacity, it isn't by much. Maybe now it's more like 70 percent. 

What does it all mean? That's a question for another time.

UPDATE: (10/16/23) I just ran the numbers. The big four's share of industry production capacity, with all known current and scheduled new capacity factored in, is 65 percent.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Do Taylor Swift Fans Appreciate Having Their Own Cocktails?


Bad Blood Sangria, Starlight Pear Lemonade, and French 1989.

Kristen wrote: "Hi Charles K., Taylor Swift is taking the world by storm, and plenty of Swifites (sic), including the staff at Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, are drawing inspiration from her record-breaking Era’s tour! Below are some cocktail recipes Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport’s rooftop restaurant Lifted, is serving from May 19-21 in honor of Taylor’s Boston shows that can also be enjoyed at home!"

This caught my eye because I like being called "Charles K." Looking further, the whole package (an email press release I received because I'm apparently on some lists) fascinated me from a pop culture perspective. I confess that while I am aware of Taylor Swift, I am not a participant, so I genuinely don't know what to make of any of this. I suspect most of you, dear readers, are in the same boat. I present it for our mutual cultural edification.

Although American whiskey, like Taylor Swift, is taking the world by storm, none of these drinks contain whiskey. 

Here are the recipes:

Bad Blood Sangria. Combine 4 oz Pinot Noir, 1 oz Blood Orange Purée, 1 oz Orange Juice, and 0.75 oz Lemon Juice. Shake and strain into a wine glass. Top with 1 oz Sprite.  

French 1989. Combine 2 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin, 1 oz Lemon Juice, and 1 oz Strawberry Rose Syrup with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe. Top with 2 oz Prosecco.  

Starlight Pear Lemonade. Combine 2 oz Malfi Lemon Gin, 1 oz Lemon Juice, 0.5 oz Lavender Syrup, and 0.75 oz Desert Pear Syrup with ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass. Top with a splash of club soda.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Green River, the Whiskey Without Regrets, Launches Flagship Bourbons


A maturation warehouse at Green River Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Green River is just a name. But, oh, what a name.

As for the river itself, there is a Green River in just about every U.S. state, and elsewhere, but the one in Kentucky is the Green River John Prine sings about in his song, “Paradise.” Three-hundred-eighty-four miles long, all of it in Kentucky, the Green flows through Muhlenberg County and is still an important waterway for coal and aluminum producers in Western Kentucky.

The Green enters the Ohio between Owensboro and Henderson. In 1885, John W. McCulloch bought a small distillery on the Green called Green River. A few years later, he took the name and built a new distillery in Owensboro, along a rail line. His original slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache,” was banned by government regulators. He changed it to, “The Whiskey Without Regrets.” It was a huge success.

After Prohibition, the Green River Distillery became Medley Brothers. No one picked up the brand. Medley stopped distilling in 1992. Revived in 2016, it was rechristened Green River in 2020 with the McCulloch family’s involvement. About this time last year, Green River was acquired by Bardstown Bourbon Company. Both are now owned by Chicago's Pritzker Group.

We review all that history, and Green River’s recently-released flagship bourbons, in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader.

Other headlines in this issue: “Wyoming Whiskey Releases 10-Year Anniversary Edition Bourbon,” “Jeptha Creed, Kentucky Farmer-Distillers for the 21st Century,” “MGP/Luxco Acquires Penelope Bourbon Brand for $105M,” and we remember the late distiller, John Lunn.

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Launched in 1994, 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.

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Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Owsleys of Kentucky


Augustus Owsley Stanley III (1935-2011)

For a teenager in the late 1960s, the name "Owsley" meant just one thing. It was synonymous with the drug LSD, which Owsley Stanley manufactured in his clandestine California lab. Owsley Stanley was also famous as audio engineer for The Grateful Dead. He was as important in that field as he was as an underground chemist. The Dead had the most advanced sound system of any touring band and, no doubt, the best acid.

The name "Owsley" also sticks out to me because it shows up frequently in the history of Brown-Forman, America's top whiskey company. During one of Brown-Forman's periodic image re-dos, one internal wag suggested as their new company slogan, "We're the only company with two Owsleys." 

Augustus Owsley Stanley (1867-1958)

Although he had no direct connection to the Brown-Forman Owsleys, the Dead’s Owsley Stanley, also known as ‘Bear,’ was a Kentucky Owsley and got his name the same way they did. His full name was Augustus Owsley Stanley III. He was named for his grandfather (1867-1958), who was Governor of Kentucky (1915-1919) and then represented Kentucky in the United States Senate (1919-1925). 

When a prominent surname appears as a first or middle name, it usually is because your mother’s family is too important not to claim. Such was the case with both sets of Kentucky Owsleys. The link between them was the 16th Governor of Kentucky, William Owsley. 

William Owsley (1783-1862)

Born in Virginia, William Owsley’s parents brought him to Kentucky as an infant in 1783. He was well-educated and worked as a teacher, surveyor, and deputy sheriff before studying law. He was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1809 and later became a judge on the Court of Appeals. Elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1832, he left that job to become Kentucky Secretary of State. He served four years as governor beginning in 1844, after which he retired to his farm near Danville, age 66. He lived there happily for another 14 years.

Governor Owsley had an older brother, Nudigate (sometimes spelled ‘Nudeget’), who also came to Kentucky. The name Nudigate was itself a surname converted into a given name. Nudigate Owsley had a daughter named Amanda, making her the governor’s niece. Amanda and her husband, Reverend William Stanley, named their first-born Augustus but gave him his mother's prestigious surname as a middle name. He became the governor after whom the famous chemist/audio tech was named. 

As for the Brown-Forman connection, Governor William Owsley had a son, Erasmus, who had a daughter, Amelia. In 1869, the governor’s granddaughter was a 21-year-old widow with a baby daughter. George Garvin Brown, 23 and unmarried, snapped her up. George went on to found and lead Brown-Forman. A son was born to George and Amelia, and they named him Owsley after his notable great-grandfather. He joined the company in 1904 and became president when his father died in 1917, just three years before the whiskey-making business was shut down due to Prohibition. Owsley obtained a medicinal whiskey license and kept the business going that way. 

Owsley Brown (1879-1952)

Owsley married Laura Lee Lyons and they had three children, two sons and a daughter. Two of them named one of their sons Owsley (Owsley Brown II and Owsley Brown Frazier), hence the “two Owsleys” employed at Brown-Forman in the late 20th century were first cousins. Their company prospered and both Owsleys became billionaires. 

When the original Owsley Brown wanted to restart Brown-Forman after Prohibition, he invited his brothers and sisters to invest before he sought outside money. Only one, his younger brother Robinson Swearingen Brown, responded, creating a cadet branch of the Brown family within the company, one that continues to this day, and is notable for its lack of Owsleys.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus and Me


Fun with fungi.

This is a personal epilogue to the nine-part series just concluded about Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus. If you have not read it and are interested, the series starts here.

I became aware of Baudoinia about 30 years ago, when I began to spend a lot of time at distilleries. I noticed it first at Jim Beam in Clermont. The black-trunked trees caught my attention. I had never seen bark that black. I thought it might be some Kentucky tree species with which I was unfamiliar. So I asked, which got a laugh.

They called it "the whiskey fungus." I never heard any other name for it until I dug into the research. Baudoinia is its new name, as mentioned in the series. The name I first encountered was Torula compniacensis, at which point I decided to keep calling it "the whiskey fungus."

Only after my inquiry about the trees did I begin to notice it on the sides of warehouses and other buildings. It usually appears darkest at ground level and gets lighter the higher on the wall it goes. It looks like dirt. Most people think it is dirt. I did. Most people don't like dirt, but they aren't afraid of it.

I had a friend back then who lived next to the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown. Her house was literally the first one outside the old main gate. She had some on her garage. She said a couple times a year she called the Barton office and they sent someone over with a power washer, no charge. 

These days it's not so simple. "Cleaning assistance, which we did, is more complicated than it appears," a retired bourbon company executive told me. "We had serious concerns that some of the houses would fall over from pressure washing. We had people sic their dogs on the cleaning crews," he said. "Just getting releases signed was a nightmare."

I never heard anyone express concern about it as anything other than a mild nuisance until 2012, when the trouble in Louisville began. That story, especially the Stitzel-Weller part, is the throughline for the series.

As I read about the Metro Louisville Air Pollution Control District citation that started the ball rolling, I thought back to a lunch I had with Bill Samuels Jr. in 2003 or 2004, at Kurtz's in Bardstown. (I had a hot brown, I think Bill had fish.) As we were finishing, Bill mentioned he was on his way to Louisville for a meeting with that agency, or its predecessor, or maybe the federal EPA. I asked if something was going on. He said no, he had to meet with them every couple years to review the distillery's emissions profile. Ethanol vapor was mentioned but carbon-dioxide released during fermentation was usually a bigger concern. 

The point of that memory is that distilleries routinely interact with applicable government monitors and regulators about all relevant emissions issues. Despite all the romance attached to them recently, distilleries are factories. Their operations impact air and water quality and always have. Baudoinia didn't suddenly come out of nowhere in 2012. Nobody is hiding anything about Baudoinia from the government or the public. I suspect that 2012 citation was made in error by someone unfamiliar with the industry.

I am about as far from a scientist as you can get, so my understanding of these things is a layperson's, but a layperson who has followed the subject over a 30-year period. The literature is not extensive and I have read most of it. The series just concluded covers the subject as thoroughly as possible. 

Fungi play an important role in bourbon-making. In my 2014 book, Bourbon, Strange, I wrote about Aureobasidium pullulans, one of several fungal species that help release flavor compounds in white oak during natural seasoning. To quote me: "Carried by air, the spores land and send out roots (hyphae) that penetrate into the wood structure, where they release hydrogen peroxide. This natural bleaching and oxidizing agent helps break down the wood chemically, softening tannins and caramelizing hemicellulose among other salutary effects."

Other molds follow Aureobasidium and continue its work, but not Baudoinia. It's useless. It doesn't do anything. It can't even caramelize a little hemicellulose. It is neither good nor bad, just ugly. 

Fungi are part of our environment. Very few are dangerous. The mushrooms on your pizza? Those are fungi too. If you got them at the grocery they're probably fine. If you picked them off a log by the creek behind your house, maybe not.

But molds, not mushrooms, are the fungi that scare people these days and Baudoinia is mold. If you would like to know more about the assorted fungi popularly known as mold, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has a wealth of mold resources.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, Baudoinia is the mold that has people's teeth on edge. "It may cause cancer also, which they don't care to admit," is a recent comment posted in social media, in response to my Baudoinia series, by a person who, ironically, is living proof that his fear is misplaced. He and his similarly aggrieved Kentucky neighbors have lived their entire lives surrounded by Baudoinia, exposed to it more than just about anyone else in the world. 

The Kentucky communities where whiskey is made are about 250 years old. Baudoinia has been conspicuous there for at least 150 years, which is when they started to fill warehouses with thousands of barrels of aging bourbon. If Baudoinia could hurt you, the evidence would be there, in central Kentucky, or south-central Tennessee, or in Scotland, or Cognac, or Lakeshore, Ontario. There is none.

People keep saying, without evidence, that Baudoinia is dangerous. It is not. They keep saying it hasn't been studied. In fact it has been studied extensively, by multiple scientists, in Europe and the Americas, over that 150-year period. It has some novel characteristics, but nothing remotely dangerous. The evidence cited for its danger is its mere existence. "Something that looks that bad can't be good for you," is about as far as it goes. "It's killing our trees!" the Tennessee litigants claim. Something may be killing their trees, but it's not Baudoinia.

So, why do people freak out about Baudoinia? As I theorized in the series, in the 1990s, the danger of toxic molds entered the public consciousness. Because Baudoinia is unusual, and unfamiliar, many people assume it must be harmful. Add to that its connection to whiskey, to which some people morally object. A fungus that feeds on whiskey vapors? Get thee behind me, Satan! Other objectors know it's not dangerous, but are embarrassed to whine about a little dirt on their lawn furniture, so they conjure up a hideous, hidden threat. Some people just want attention. 

The narrative that multinational poison merchants are callously polluting rural communities with dangerous emissions, and spreading disease-causing mutant plants, is catnip for the conspiratorially-inclined.

As far as that goes, we're all living in a petri dish, but we're not talking about flesh-eating bacteria or brain-eating amoebae or what have you. Baudoinia is basically mildew. Living near a whiskey plant and complaining about Baudoinia is like living at the beach and complaining about sand. We've all got bigger things to worry about.  

Don't you realize it's that phone you're staring at right now that's going to kill you?

Finally, in some of the worst timing ever, Kentucky's distillers have just pushed a bill through the legislature to eliminate the hefty 'barrel tax' that goes directly to the county governments where maturation warehouses are located. Taking millions out their budgets has those governments up in arms, vowing to stop new warehouse construction citing, among other issues, public health concerns about Baudoinia.

Whiskey makers, both legacy and new, want to make their products in Kentucky and Tennessee for many reasons. Most important is the market's preference for Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, but they also like being where their industry's idiosyncrasies are understood and appreciated. Distillers and politicians seem determined to screw that up.

I have written about Baudoinia before. I have written about it so many times I can type Baudoinia without checking the spelling. Most of this series was originally published in my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. If you like this sort of thing, feel free to subscribe.

I posted this series because when this subject pops up, it usually is because a new distillery or maturation facility has been proposed. The local media does their best, as do concerned community members, but if they go online to do research most of what they will find is hot but not well informed opposition that is little more than a typical not-in-my-backyard reaction to any development someone views as unfavorable to their personal interests. 

I also posted it here on my blog because a 7,000-word article about an obscure fungal species is not the sort of thing very many editors are interested in, even (or perhaps especially) at the whiskey publications. (My view stats for this series tells me they're right.) You won't get the full story from any of the companies or industry trade associations either. That's probably a mistake. 

I admit to being pro-bourbon but otherwise have no axe to grind. I was interested in the subject because of my interest in bourbon so I did a lot of research about it. This is what I found out.

I hope, if you got this far, it was useful. 

5/21/23: Since this was published, many people have asked if there is a technological solution. Yes, there is. It's this.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Baudoinia: the Whiskey Fungus Is Not Dangerous but It Is a Problem


Masonry maturation warehouses at Green River Distillery, Owensboro, Kentucky.

This is Part 9 of a 9-part series about Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here, Part 5 is here, Part 6 is here, Part 7 is here, Part 8 is here.

Happily for whiskey makers in Kentucky and Tennessee, where most American whiskey is made, rural real estate there is inexpensive. Much of both states is too rocky or hilly for productive agriculture, so the most cost-effective Baudoinia compniacensis solution seems to be to locate maturation facilities on very large parcels with few neighbors. Tobacco is gone, coal is going. Whiskey needs space for new maturation facilities and can use land that isn't much good for anything else. Both states are primarily agricultural and a growing whiskey industry benefits local cereal farmers and meat producers. 

In addition to creating a buffer zone through sheer acreage, experts believe a well-wooded property is best for containing the fungus. Warehouses are clustered in the middle, surrounded by enough land and biomass to keep Baudoinia on company property. 

Although less efficient than having everything in one place, stand-alone maturation facilities have some advantages. In addition to Baudoinia containment, they reduce the risk of catastrophic loss from fire or other disasters at the primary facility.  

No one will say on-the-record that Baudoinia containment is why producers are building new maturation facilities the way they are where they are, but that seems to be the case. In Shelby County, Kentucky, Diageo acquired additional land adjacent to its Bulleit Distillery and now has more than 600 contiguous acres there. Some new distilleries, such as Angel’s Envy, Rabbit Hole, and Old Forester, have only token barrel storage at their showcase distilleries in downtown Louisville. Most of their maturing whiskey is elsewhere, typically on a large, isolated parcel in the country. 

Remote warehouses may even be a good idea for the smallest distilleries, who need visitor traffic and so want to be in inviting, easily-accessible locations. Often, they are in or near residential areas and need neighborhood goodwill. Too little is known about the fungus to accurately predict if a small craft distiller will ever have a problem, but it never hurts to think ahead.

Demand for maturation space in Kentucky and Tennessee continues to grow. Late last year Barrell Craft Spirits, an independent blender and bottler, purchased a historic maturation warehouse at the former Yellowstone Distillery south of Louisville for $2.4 million. 

Now Baudoinia is getting in the way.

What makes Baudoinia a problem for whiskey makers is not the plant itself but the inchoate fear that it might be harmful. Toxic molds kill people and most people know nothing about mycology, so all molds scare them. People hostile to whiskey in general are predisposed to fear something called "the whiskey fungus." Even where there is no actual problem, Baudoinia is ideal for attention-seekers and deliberate mischief-makers. 

Baudoinia mitigation is unrealistic so the only practical solution is prevention. The American whiskey industry is growing and dynamic. Baudoinia should not be a problem, but it is. People in or close to the industry don’t take the public's fear seriously enough because they don’t share it. From personal experience, they know the fungus is harmless. At distilleries it grows on everything and always has. Millions of people in Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as in Canada, France, Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, have been exposed to it, often daily for generations, with no ill effects ever reported. 

The beverage alcohol industry is more closely entwined with government at all levels than most other private businesses. Government bodies tend to respond to their constituents and complaints don’t have to be rational to get attention. They just have to be expressed loudly by enough people. The last thing anyone in the industry wants is more government.

The risk is easy to see, but what can be done? Here are a few suggestions.

First, don’t zoom your neighbors, you need their trust. Producers probably are advised by their lawyers to say as little about Baudoinia as possible. Stick to stock phrases so as not to admit liability. That’s futile. If somebody lives near a maturation warehouse and has black fungus on their siding, it’s coming from the warehouse and they know it. Don’t pretend otherwise.

Second, if you have neighbors, be a genuinely good one. Don’t force yourself on them but make sure they know you want to hear about any problems they have with the facility; fungus, noise, odors, traffic, anything. Keep lines of communication open. Support community organizations. Maybe throw a party now and then. It may seem like a pain, but hiring good ombudspeople is much cheaper than hiring good lawyers. 

Third, consider cleaning assistance programs such as the one Pernod funds in Canada. This is an opportunity for the Kentucky Distillers Association or some other suitable industry-wide body. It could have the necessary safeguards and best practices, be combined with PR and information outreach, and transform a problem into an opportunity.

Fourth, an all-industry effort to fund scientific research about Baudoinia is another opportunity to turn this problem into an asset. The industry needs to finally and firmly get ahead of the issue. Kentucky and Tennessee have many fine universities. Surely one of them can take this on with suitable funding from industry donors.

Fifth, whiskey tourism has been a hugely beneficial byproduct of whiskey's current robustness. Visitors come to whiskey country to have a unique experience. Why not make Baudoinia a deliberate part of that experience? Don’t shy away from it, embrace it. Name a street in Bardstown after it.

Whiskey, brandy, and other aged spirits are simple products, made from simple ingredients using methods that have not changed much for hundreds of years. Letting that product sit in oak barrels for a few years, in warehouses open to the environment, is about as natural as it gets. It's cool to see the stills and all, but the highlight of most first-time distillery visits is the maturation warehouse, especially the aroma. It is as if you are inside the whiskey.

Whiskey is more than just another consumer product and so much more than mere alcohol. Baudoinia is an integral part of that wonderful, natural, weird, ancient and authentic world. It's a quirky little plant, but it's our quirky little plant. It doesn't drink much. Leave it alone.

NEXT TIME: A personal epilogue to the Baudoinia series.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus Is Not Welcome in Tennessee


Proposed Sazerac distillery near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

This is Part 8 of a 9-part series about Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here, Part 5 is here, Part 6 is here, Part 7 is here.

In 2018, In Indiana, Baudoinia compniacensis complaints about the Ross & Squibb Distillery prompted the Indiana State Department of Health to publish a handy fact sheet. A year later, when MGP wanted to add barrel storage capacity in the nearby town of Sunman, locals had a fit.

Around the same time, in Tennessee, Sazerac announced plans to build a new distillery complex on a 55-acre parcel in Murfreesboro, a college town near Nashville. The company intended to make Tennessee whiskey there. USA Today reported that the site’s neighbors were already “concerned about whiskey fungus.” 

Two mycologists, one hired by Sazerac, testified to the Murfreesboro City Council that the fungus is harmless. "It does not harm anything as it grows," said Ekaterina Kaverina, an adjunct biology professor at East Tennessee State University. "It does not grow overnight. It’s a slow growth. It’s very easily washed off. But it will grow back in a few months," she said. The other expert agreed.

Many nearby homeowners were unconvinced. “Whiskey fungus will 100 percent affect us, our houses, our brand-new houses, and we don't want those values to drop,” complained one local resident. Someone started a Facebook page called ‘Neighbors Against Blackman Distillery.’ (The proposed distillery didn’t have a name, but the site is in an unincorporated community called Blackman.)

Murfreesboro’s planning commission recommended the city council approve Sazerac’s proposal, but that is where it stopped. Sazerac never developed the property, which it still owns. It is now making its Tennessee whiskey in an industrial park in La Vergne, a Nashville suburb, and keeping a low profile.

In Louisville, lawyer McMurry says the whiskey industry, “has got its head in the sand” about the fungus issue. He insists producers should reduce or eliminate their “fugitive emissions” by installing regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTOs), which use combustion to break down ethanol vapors. 

Although E. & J. Gallo has experimented with this technology at its wine and brandy production facilities in California, its applicability to whiskey maturation is by no means certain. And it is not cheap. Capital cost alone is estimated at about $400,000 per warehouse. 

Most distilleries have dozens of warehouses so the total cost to retrofit maturation warehouses will run into the millions, plus annual maintenance and operating costs.

McMurry and others, such as the plaintiff in Tennessee, blithely throw out the RTO solution as if it is a sure, easy, and proportional fix. It is not. On top of the enormous cost, it is unproven technology. No one knows if it will work as intended, or at all.  

Advocates for that solution also contend, without evidence, that RTOs won’t affect the whiskey. Producers rightly hesitate to alter any aspect of whiskey production, which is still mysterious in many ways. 

“Fugitive emissions” is an awkward and deliberately sinister-sounding way to describe what happens in a whiskey warehouse, as the term usually refers to unintended emissions caused by leaks or other equipment malfunctions. 

In a maturation warehouse, emissions are intentional, but the permits under which producers operate classify them as “fugitive” because the sources are dispersed. Vapors are released into the atmosphere from deliberately porous containers stored in deliberately porous buildings. 

Because emissions enter the atmosphere in this dispersed way, for oxidizers to work some sort of collection system would have to be created to channel emissions into the devices. This would increase the cost and risk altering the way whiskey naturally ages. 

Even if RTOs or some other technology can be found to control the fungus without hurting the whiskey, to what end? To clean up a little harmless dirt? What if controlling this harmless, natural flora through some novel technological fix causes some other, unforeseen ecological harm? When you indulge in speculation untethered to facts or science, anything is possible.

NEXT TIME, CONCLUSION: What can be done about Baudoinia?