Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus that Even Grows in Canada


Baudoinia compniacensis. Scary, right?

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

The new fear of toxic molds that arose in the late 1990s happened to coincide with the first uptick in whiskey sales in decades, which led to more production and fuller warehouses in the U.S., Canada, and overseas. Inevitably, people noticed the soot-like fungal growth long associated with whiskey and brandy distilleries, Baudoinia compniacensis. 

One such person was James Scott, PhD, founder, owner, and Chief Scientific Officer of Sporometrics, a privately-owned Canadian company that provides microbiological testing services. 

Scott founded Sporometrics in his apartment shortly after receiving his PhD in Mycology from the University of Toronto in 2001. The first call his new company received was from David Doyle, Director of Research at the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, Michigan. 

In addition to the distillery in Windsor, Hiram Walker has a large maturation complex in the nearby town of Lakeshore, on Lake St. Clair. The Lakeshore complex is surrounded by homes. Doyle said the neighbors were complaining about a mysterious black growth on their houses and other property. Because they could smell ethanol coming from the warehouses, they assumed that was the cause. 

Doyle wanted to know what the growth was and if the ethanol vapors were causing it. Scott was sure he could figure it out. Doyle hired him, and Scott went to work.

Hiram Walker's Lakeshore whisky maturation facility, on Google Maps.

Bringing scientific understanding of the whiskey fungus into the 21st century was challenging. Quoting from “The Distilleries’ Shadow: A summary of knowledge about Baudoinia, the warehouse staining fungus,” published by Scott in 2009: “The nature of the fungus, however, baffled modern experts: ordinary culturing techniques as well as the most modern genetic sampling techniques were confounded by a dusting of ubiquitous, contaminating ‘weed’ fungi that accumulated on top of the primary black growth. 

“Eventually, the problem was solved by using very patient culturing with an unusual twist: since the fungus seemed to grow only where ethanol vapors were present in the air, ethanol was also added to the growth medium at low concentration. Even though the fungus was extremely slow growing, it then grew well enough to be sorted out from the overlying ‘weeds’ and brought into pure culture.”

Scott described his methodology more succinctly to Wired Magazine in 2011. “I put maybe a shot of whiskey in a liter of agar and filled the petri plates with it. That made it grow a hell of a lot faster," Scott said.

Scott got other researchers interested in the unusual fungus. They determined that the Lakeshore specimen most resembled the fungal family friedmanniomycetaceae, best known for growing inside porous rocks in Antarctica, and they were able to match it to specimens collected in Cognac. In 2007, it was given a new genus name, Baudoinia, for its discoverer, Antonin Baudoin. 

In addition to running Sporometrics, James Scott is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He is still chasing the mysteries of Baudoinia. The recent New York Times article quotes him, as do most writers of most articles on the subject.

As so often happens, greater knowledge uncovered more mysteries. Although Baudoinia feeds on ethanol vapors, it prefers other food sources. It can be found in places near warehouses where the concentration of ethanol vapors seems too low to sustain it. 

Hiram Walker became part of Pernod-Ricard in 2005. Mycologist Scott's contract ended in 2009. Since then, Pernod has contributed to a fund that helps pay for power-washing affected property. 

Like the whiskey business, the fungal world is very competitive. There are millions of species. Because it grows so slowly, Baudoinia is usually overcome by other molds seeking to occupy the same environmental niche. That is where alcohol comes in.

NEXT TIME: Alcohol is to Baudoinia as spinach is to Popeye.


Saturday, March 25, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus You Can Blame on France


Cognac wears Baudoinia proudly.

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

The American whiskey industry is in the midst of an expansion going into its third decade. One side effect of that growth is increased prevalence of Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus, in the vicinity of whiskey maturation facilities. 

Today, virtually all major American whiskey producers are operating at capacity. To grow, they must enlarge their distilleries, or build new ones, and build many new maturation facilities, either at the distilleries or remote locations.

Distilled spirits have been known and consumed since at least the 12th century, maybe longer, but the deliberate aging of spirits in oak barrels didn’t become routine until the 17th century, beginning in France. It took a few steps to get there. 

Step one: Merchants representing vintners in southwestern France began to sell wine in England in the 13th century. The trade continued and grew in the centuries that followed, with Holland and other Northern European countries added to the customer list. 

Step two: Because these voyages were long, wine sometimes spoiled along the way. That was bad for business, so in the early 15th century merchants began to distill wine as a form of preservation. As a bonus, distilled wine was more concentrated, which improved shipping efficiency. They called it ‘burnt wine’ (brandwijn in Dutch). When it reached its destination, the ‘brandy’ was reconstituted with water and sold as wine. 

Before you say, “that’s not how it works,” remember that the product in demand was alcohol. The reconstituted brandy had roughly the same alcohol content as wine, and alcohol is what people were buying.

Step three: Throughout history, alcohol merchants have been assiduous about personally testing the quality of their products. Although no deliberate aging was done during this period, merchants noticed that the liquid tasted better after shipment, and correctly assumed that was because of the oak barrels in which it was stored. 

In time, people began to drink the distilled product straight, with little or no added water. It was called either ‘brandy’ or ‘eau de vie,’ which means ‘water of life’ in French. Today, those terms are used to differentiate between aged (brandy) and un-aged (eau de vie) fruit spirits.

By the 17th century, merchants in the town of Cognac were buying new distillate from area producers to hold in barrels until the desired taste was achieved. Time in wood created a more desirable and, thus, more profitable product. As barrel inventories grew, the merchants experimented with different aging durations and blending techniques, creating in time the very exclusive brandy known as Cognac.

Initially, aging barrels were stored wherever space could be found, including the attics of homes. Eventually it became necessary to build aging warehouses, and inventories grew to thousands, then hundreds of thousands of barrels. As the practice of barrel-aging spirits spread to Scotland, Ireland, and eventually North America, so did the practice of storing barrels in large warehouses built for that purpose. 

Through experience, it was learned that aging spirit needs to ‘breathe.’ In Kentucky and Tennessee, that means warehouses tend to be flimsy—just a thin metal skin over a wooden frame—and full of windows to promote air circulation. Some warehouses have fans.

Although these conditions encourage evaporation, the improvement in taste compensates for the loss of volume. In Cognac, they gave the lost liquid a romantic name, “the angels’ share.” 

Since aging began, distillers have known there is ethanol vapor in the air around aging warehouses. To most people, it is a pleasant aroma. As many remark, “it smells like prosperity.”

In the 1870s, a Cognac pharmacist named Antonin Baudoin was the first to describe and analyze the “dark, cryptogamic plant” he observed growing near brandy maturation facilities on masonry walls, tile roofs, and all kinds of wood surfaces, including live trees. Was it fungus or blue-green alga? In 1881, the plant was definitively classified as a fungus and named Torula compniacensis, meaning ‘the torula from Cognac.’ ‘Torula,’ a genus name no longer used, means ‘little rounded thing.’ Locals called it ‘la torule.’ 

After that, there is little in scientific literature about the fungus until the 1960s, then nothing again until the late 1990s, when the public first became widely aware of sickness and death caused by toxic molds in water-damaged buildings. Suddenly, mold wasn’t something you occasionally had to wipe off your shower curtains. It could kill you.

NEXT TIME: Heightened mold fears coincide with bourbon’s revival.


Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus that Moved 185,000 Barrels


Some of Diageo's Orphan Barrel bottlings.

This is Part 2 of a 9-part series about Baudoinia compniacensis. the whiskey fungus. Part 1 is here.

When whiskey maturation warehouses began to fill up with the current bourbon boom, Baudoinia compniacensis, the whiskey fungus, made a comeback too. To property owners near distilleries, it was something new, leading to much power-washing and loud complaining. 

Then a lawyer told them they were being harmed and could make money from it.

In 2012, Diageo was cited by the Metro Louisville Air Pollution Control District (LAPCD) and threatened with fines of $10,000-a-day for its part in the fungus problem. Based on that finding, attorney William F. McMurray filed suit against Diageo, Brown-Forman, and Heaven Hill on behalf of several aggrieved neighbors. McMurray often tries his cases in the press before they go to court, thereby bombarding defendants with bad publicity on top of the threat of large damage awards. 

Rather than fight the citation, Diageo agreed to remove 185,000 barrels of whiskey from the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. They said at the time they would be moved either to George Dickel in Tennessee or to an unnamed ‘other location’ about a half mile away. Diageo was not known to own any other property in Jefferson County but may have acquired warehouse space at the old Yellowstone Distillery, which is about that distance from Stitzel-Weller, on Seventh Street Road, in the heart of the post-Prohibition era’s ‘Whiskey Row.’ 

It now appears that what was taken to Dickel wasn’t placed in storage at the distillery in Tennessee but instead was dumped and bottled as Orphan Barrel products Old Blowhard, Barterhouse, Rhetoric, and Lost Prophet. Additional bottlings followed.

By creating Orphan Barrel, Diageo solved a problem and put some liquid into the marketplace that many consider excellent. It would have been nice if Diageo had made this part of the brand story. Instead, it took a review of old copies of Insurance Claims Journal to discover the truth. Diageo confirmed none of this, but its promise to the LAPCD was public information, widely published, and included the figure of 185,000 barrels. 

That raised another question. Stitzel-Weller stopped distilling in 1992, shortly after the company now known as Diageo acquired it. The warehouses eventually emptied out, but it didn’t take long for them to start filling up again when Maker’s Mark leased several. In addition to the 20+ year-old whiskey now being sold as Orphan Barrel, those warehouses also age whiskey intended for Bulleit, I. W. Harper, and other Diageo products. Again, all of this is widely assumed, but unconfirmed. 

Even if all the very old barrels were bottled for Orphan Barrel releases, what about those current production needs, the whiskey of various ages intended for Bulleit and other products? The deal with LAPCD didn’t say they had to leave the warehouses empty.

Since then, Diageo has built two new distilleries in Kentucky, in Shelby County and Marion County, on large tracts in rural areas, which is the only real solution to Baudoinia. A large site, covering hundreds of acres, with rackhouses clustered in the center, provides enough buffer to keep the fungus away from litigious neighbors. 

Hyperbolic articles about the “mysterious whiskey fungus” appear regularly and what is sometimes called “whiskey’s shadow” is casting a pall over the otherwise brilliant revival of American whiskey. Whiskey tourists find it an amusing curiosity. Producers decline to talk about it. Distillery neighbors call it a nuisance and worse. 

The same black mold can be found clinging to outer walls of whiskey warehouses in Kentucky, Tennessee, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, etc. It was first observed in France, in Cognac, 150 years ago. 

Cognac wears it proudly as an ensign of prosperity. In other places it is less esteemed.

NEXT TIME: How it all began, about 400 years ago.


Saturday, March 18, 2023

Baudoinia: the Fungus that Stopped Jack Daniel's


Baudoinia on a Heaven Hill whiskey maturation warehouse in Bardstown, Kentucky.

This is Part 1 of a 9-part series about Baudoinia compniacensis. the whiskey fungus.

“Whiskey Fungus Fed by Jack Daniel’s Encrusts a Tennessee Town,” was the headline in the New York Times digital edition on March 1. A version of the article appeared in print on Sunday, March 5, Section A, Page 18, of the New York print edition with the headline: “Whiskey Fungus Coats A Tennessee Town.”

That particular combination, the world’s best-selling whiskey and one of the world’s most-read news sources, gives the subject heightened visibility and while Michael Levenson did a fine job of reporting, there was not a lot new to report. Construction of warehouses at a stand-alone maturation facility for Jack Daniel's has been halted temporarily (probably) because of a neighbor's Baudoinia complaint. The online version includes a convenient link to a nearly identical story from 2012 about a similar ruckus in Louisville.

If you liked Old Blowhard, Barterhouse, or any of Diageo’s other Orphan Barrel bourbons, you probably should  thank Baudoinia compniacensis, the black fungus that is troubling Jack Daniel’s and likely forced Diageo’s hand in releasing those whiskeys almost ten years ago.

In the beginning, Diageo did not want to reveal anything about its Orphan Barrel bourbons. Then they relented and told where they were distilled and their mash bills, but many questions remained unanswered. 

One of the biggest was why? American whiskey distilleries usually don’t let whiskey age 20 years or more on purpose with no plan for its eventual use. They may let a few barrels go that long, just to see what happens, but they typically use or sell most of it long before it gets that old. 

Since the early part of the 21st century, when most of that whiskey was still young, it has been easy to sell bulk whiskey to the many non-distiller producers looking for something to package and sell. Demand has been strong and prices have been good. So why did Diageo let a large inventory of bourbon sit in warehouses at its otherwise-shuttered Stitzel-Weller Distillery, year after year? They didn’t try to sell it. No one outside the very secretive company even knew it existed.

Because of Orphan Barrel, we now know the whiskey was old and there was a lot of it, thousands of barrels. They won’t tell us how many but based on the sequential numbers on Orphan Barrel bottles (numbers up to 84,000 were reported for some releases), it was thousands of barrels. Barrels that old lose a lot to evaporation, but that is still an enormous amount of whiskey.

We may never know why they let it sit for up to two decades, seemingly with no plans for it, but we know why decided to sell it in 2014. At least, we think we do.

The reason, it appears, is fungal. Not fungus in the whiskey, fungus on the houses, cars, and lawn furniture of Stitzel-Weller’s neighbors. And those neighbors were angry about it.

Baudoinia, the whiskey fungus, stains property near whiskey maturation facilities wherever they may be, from Louisville, Kentucky, to Lincoln County, Tennessee and beyond. It has been studied for more than 150 years. Baudoinia can and does grow everywhere but it grows faster and hardier in the presence of ethanol vapor. 

There is zero evidence Baudoinia is hazardous to health, but it is an ugly nuisance. It is also an unavoidable by-product of aged spirits production. 

In the case of Diageo’s Orphan Barrels, Baudoinia has been part of Stitzel-Weller’s neighborhood since the distillery opened in 1934, but after 1969 bourbon sales began to tumble and so eventually did production. As the industry adjusted to the new sales reality, inventory levels at Stitzel-Weller and other distilleries fell, and with them prevalence of the fungus. 

When warehouses began to fill up again with the current bourbon boom, the fungus made a comeback too. To homeowners who moved near distilleries during the downturn, it was something new, leading to much power-washing and loud complaining. 

NEXT TIME: how the Metro Louisville Air Pollution Control District got the ball rolling in 2012.


Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Memphis Minnie, the Chicago Years


Release date Oct 15, 1930
After she moved to Chicago, Minnie became a major star in the stable of Lester Melrose, who produced most of the blues recordings made in the United States between 1934 and 1951, usually with the same core group of musicians. 

In addition to Minnie, the Melrose group included Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, and many others. By 1939, Minnie had changed partners, professionally and romantically, teaming up with Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars. They were together for the rest of her career. 

During the 1930s, Minnie's guitar style evolved. She developed, along with Tampa Red and Lonnie Johnson, a single-string picking style that characterized what came to be called the "urban blues." Their innovations inspired T-Bone Walker and B. B. King and can be heard today in the playing of virtually every guitarist born since 1950. 

Minnie was one of the first to play in this new style on an electric guitar. She had already helped change the fundamental sound of blues guitar once before, when she was among the first to use a National steel. Later, in the 1950s, she was one of the first blues guitarists to play standing up, a seemingly minor change in performing style but one that was universally adopted thereafter. 

Memphis Minnie enjoyed her greatest commercial success during the 1940s. She and Lawlars recorded a string of hits, including "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," her biggest. Like her earlier hit, "Bumble Bee Blues," it was sexual advertisement at its most explicit, as frankly erotic as any blues recorded by a male singer of the period. In no uncertain terms, Minnie told her listeners what she wanted and why: "Wants to see my chauffeur, wants to see my chauffeur, I wants him to drive me, I wants him to drive me downtown." (A little guitar riff.) "Says he drives so easy, I can't turn him down." 

Minnie still sang with a full country twang after more than twenty years off the farm, which added to her earthy appeal. 

Throughout the 1940s and well into the 1950s, Minnie and Lawlars were in demand at all the top Chicago clubs, including The Gate, a popular West Side tavern operated by Ruby Lee Gatewood. The Gate was the site of Memphis Minnie's famous weekly "Blue Monday" parties, but her main club base was the 708 on the South Side. 

In her mid-forties, Minnie Lawlars continued to enhance her lifelong reputation for hard living. Her fellow musicians, all men, remember her as drinking, cursing, gambling, fighting, chewing tobacco, and playing guitar "just like a man." Her fans, both male and female, regularly awarded her the prize in "cutting" contests against other guitarists. 

Minnie's career declined in the 1950s, and by the time Big Bill Broonzy died in 1958 the party was just about over for Minnie and Joe as well. Their lifestyle had taken its toll. Joe had a serious heart condition that prevented him from performing, so he and Minnie moved back to Memphis.  

For Minnie, the party lasted more than forty years. When she began to have circulatory problems of her own they moved in with her youngest sister. Joe died in 1961 and Minnie continued her slow decline for the next twelve years. She had no money and received no royalties for the many songs she wrote and recorded. Donations from fans paid for a few comforts near the end. She died in 1973. 

Memphis Minnie's career was full of singular accomplishments, the greatest of which was the sum of them all. She was literally the only woman of her time to accomplish what she did, and she overcame enormous obstacles to do it. Memphis Minnie's greatest legacy is that she did exactly as she pleased, got away with it, and created some great art along the way.

This is Part 4 of a 4-part series. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Memphis Minnie, Life on the Road


Record company publicity photograph, 1930s.
Playing the blues in barrel houses and juke joints was dangerous. Memphis Minnie's solution was twofold. She always traveled and performed with a male partner, a husband for most of her career, but she also developed a reputation as a very rough customer. 

Minnie could take care of herself and made sure everyone knew it. She was quick with a bottle or knife, and didn't play an all-steel National guitar just for its sound. In Chicago, word was that she had killed more than one man back in Mississippi. Minnie laid down her rules so swiftly, decisively, and forcefully that there was no excuse for ignorance: Look all you want and listen, please, but touch without being asked and you will lose something; make no mistake. 

Memphis Minnie began life as Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, in 1897. She was the oldest of thirteen children and always "Kid" to her family, never Lizzie. "Memphis Minnie" was a name she was given much later by a white record-company executive. 

When "Kid" Douglas was seven, her family moved north to Walls, Mississippi, a small town just south of Memphis, Tennessee. About a year later, Douglas got her first guitar. She would do anything to avoid farm work, including run off to Memphis and play for nickels in the parks around Beale Street. During World War I, she toured the South with the Ringling Brothers traveling show out of Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

Toward the end of her run with the circus, while in her late teens or early twenties, Kid Douglas began to follow the blues in her own particular way. She would hook up with a man as lover, protector, and musical partner. He would play rhythm guitar to her lead, and both would sing and contribute songs. For about ten years, Douglas auditioned men for this job, including Willie Brown, who also worked with Robert Johnson and Son House. 

During this period, just after World War I, Kid Douglas was one of the few Black entertainers hired to play at parties for the local white aristocracy, usually when W. C. Handy was not available. She knew how to satisfy these audiences because of her traveling show experience, and she used that income to supplement the meager amounts she made playing blues. 

Around age 30, Kid Douglas hooked up with Joe McCoy. In 1929, the couple cut their first six sides in New York for Columbia, including one of their biggest hits, "Bumble Bee Blues." When the first sides from that session were released, the couple became "Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie."

Although her new name was coined by the record company, it suited her. Lizzie Douglas was no longer a kid. She was Memphis Minnie McCoy, popular blues recording artist. 

Like most blues singers, Minnie's whole life was spent on the road, whether recording in New York or Chicago, or touring the Midwest and South. Memphis was her home as much as any other place, but she also lived in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, where Joe McCoy was raised. 

After the success of their early records, they moved their base to Chicago but returned South often. Unlike many blues artists, the recording career of Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie survived the Depression, though greatly diminished. Retail prices for their records fell from seventy-five to thirty-five cents or less, and times were tough financially. 

There were personal and artistic differences, too. As their careers matured, it became clear that Minnie was the star of the pair, a fact that did not sit well with Kansas Joe. They split in 1935.


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Memphis Minnie, Defier of Taboos


From R. Crumb's "Heroes of the Blues"
Why did so few women follow the life Memphis Minnie chose? The answer lies in the sexual mores of the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, show business was not considered a respectable occupation for anyone, male or female, white or Black. 

The main reason for this social disapproval was that popular entertainers, especially singers, invariably traded on whatever sex appeal they had. Advertising their sexual availability, whether actual or symbolic, was part of their act. Across cultures, this is the most universal theme in popular music, and while it invariably conflicts with society's official attitudes about some sexual behavior, it usually reinforces having different standards for men and women. 

In Black American culture when Minnie was young, the taboo against women playing the blues was so strong it was almost completely successful. Women could sing sacred songs in church or at home, but they could not sing the blues in barrel houses. A woman who violated this taboo could not be a member of the church and was, therefore, cut off from support by the female community. 

Sure, male blues performers were considered spawn of the devil too, but a woman who played guitar and sang the blues in public also was assumed to be a whore, a lash of social censure for which there is no male equivalent. Memphis Minnie did not avoid these assumptions or that censure; she simply disregarded them and succeeded in spite of them. 

Although classic blues artists like Bessie Smith suffered the same social disapproval, their situation was more tolerable because they typically performed in theaters, insulated from the audience. Minnie played in bars and dance halls, where the heady mixture of alcohol, gambling, and sex was always present. 

She performed exposed on the dance floor or a makeshift platform. There was no orchestra pit, no backstage dressing room. 

Playing blues in the kinds of places where blues was played was dangerous for musicians of both sexes. Robert Johnson was only the best-known victim of his own successful sexual advertising. Jealous boyfriends and husbands, as well as jilted lovers, ended the life of many a bluesman. For a woman, the obvious additional risk was sexual assault. 


Saturday, March 4, 2023

Memphis Minnie, A Blues Original


Lizzie 'Memphis Minnie' Douglas (1897-1973)
The blues tradition that most influenced modern popular music is that of the self-accompanied singer/songwriter. This tradition of the traveling musician who sings and plays guitar, and whose original songs address current events as well as timeless themes, is the "country blues" that begot the "urban blues" that begot rock and roll. Those musicians were almost exclusively male. Lizzie "Memphis Minnie" Douglas was the rare exception. 

The singers usually named as great blueswomen--Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, and many others--are from a different tradition, usually called "classic blues." This strain was born in the popular theater of the early twentieth century known as vaudeville. It combined blues ideas with then-popular European-American song forms to produce a sophisticated, sexy sound recognizable as the blues, but also different. 

"Classic" makes it sound old, but it was actually the newest thing, created by the first generation of African-American musicians to penetrate the mainstream American entertainment industry. Exemplified by Bessie Smith and W.C. Handy, they were professional musicians, often well-trained in the musical idioms of the dominant white culture. They generally had not "lived" the blues except peripherally. 

The term "classic" applies because this was the first type of blues to be recorded, beginning in 1921, and remained virtually the only style of blues recorded until the end of that decade. 

There is sometimes a tendency to portray the classic tradition as female and the country tradition as male, but this is not accurate. The purveyors of classic blues were both men and women. Its composers and musicians were mostly men, while the singers were mostly women. Country blues, the American griot tradition of the traveling, self-accompanied singer/songwriter, consisted almost entirely of men. Almost, but not entirely. 

Memphis Minnie was not the only women "in the blues," but their numbers were small, and she was unquestionably the most successful. For more than twenty years, she was among a handful of top blues performers, one of the few who survived the Depression with her career largely intact. She wrote most of the songs she performed, was an early innovator on both National steel and electric guitars and was the clear leader of the various ensembles in which she worked. The groups always included her man of the moment, and often other musicians as well. 


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Sweating a Barrel with Fred Noe


Photo by Fred Minnick
The "Scotch Guys Think Bourbon Guys Are Screwing with 'Their' Barrels" post got a lot of attention and sparked a memory.

When Beam introduced Devil's Cut in 2011, I asked Fred Noe how this new way of processing used barrels would affect the Scottish distillers who buy them to age scotch. "I don't give a damn about scotch," said Fred, or words to that effect. I know there was an expletive involved.

But later, as we talked, I tried to wheedle more information from him about Beam's proprietary extraction process. I mentioned that it sounded like sweating a barrel, a practice beloved by youngsters throughout whiskey country. Kids would ‘liberate’ a freshly-dumped barrel from one of the local distilleries, put a few gallons of water in it, plug up the bung hole, and roll it around in the hot sun until they got bored. The resulting liquid usually contained enough alcohol to deliver a light buzz.

Fred agreed and shared a story about one time, as a kid, he and some buddies snitched a barrel from the Beam distillery at Clermont and sweated it, but since he was the son of one of the company's distillers and cousin of the other two, he got caught. I forget what his punishment was.