Friday, July 12, 2024

The House that Old Crow Built


Seaview Terrace, also known as the Carey Mansion, in Newport, Rhode Island.
If you recognize the mansion pictured above, it probably has nothing to do with Old Crow Bourbon. The house is famous in its own right, as the fifth-largest of Newport's famous summer houses. (The Breaker's is number one.) It has appeared in movies and TV shows, most famously as Collinwood, the palatial home of the fictional Collins family in the 60s gothic soap opera, "Dark Shadows." (Lots of bad stuff happened in that tower in the middle.)

Unlike Collinwood, Seaview Terrace was not built in the 18th century. It was completed in 1925 by Edson Bradley, president since 1882 of W. A. Gaines & Co., makers of the most successful bourbon of the Gilded Age, Old Crow.

The Old Crow enterprise was begun in Versailles, Kentucky by James Crow, a distiller; Oscar Pepper, a farmer/distiller; and a local banker, E. H. Taylor. The business was reorganized several times, usually after a death, such as Crow's in 1856, and Pepper's in 1865. Taylor found two new investors, one of whom was William Gaines. The new firm was called W. A. Gaines & Co., and he became its president. His death shuffled the deck again, although his name would remain on company letterhead to the end and appears on the Old Crow label to this day.

Old Crow was very successful, but a growing whiskey company constantly needs more capital. Taylor found it at a New York investment firm. In 1870, Taylor exited the company, selling his interest to the president of that firm, George Allen. After Gaines died, the president of Allen's New York investment firm also became president of W. A. Gaines & Co. Bradley took the reins in 1882 and held the job until Prohibition put them out of business in 1920.

But Bradley was, by then, already crazy-rich. A New Yorker, he had moved to Washington, D. C. to be closer to the government that was increasingly sticking its nose into his whiskey business. In 1907, he built a French-Gothic mansion on the south side of Dupont Circle. It covered more than half a city block, and included a Gothic chapel with seating for 150, a large ballroom, an art gallery, and a 500-seat theatre.

The onset of National Prohibition disgusted Bradley so he decided to quit Washington for Newport, Rhode Island, but he liked his house, so he took it with him. Disassembly began in 1923. He added it to an existing mansion, known as Sea View, completing the combined house in 1925. He died in 1935, age 83. His descendants kept the house until the 1940s. It has had many owners since but is still privately owned. 

Nothing now is the way it was back then, but people still chase whiskey fortunes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

I. W. Harper Deserves Better


I. W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 41% alc/vol

In 2015, Diageo relaunched I. W. Harper bourbon, a 19th century brand created by the Bernheim Brothers. 

The relaunch did not set the world on fire. 

Some old brands have been successfully reintroduced or rebooted. Brown-Forman revived its flagship, Old Forester, even gave it its own distillery. Sazerac acquired Old Taylor from Suntory and has gone great guns with it. Beam even had mild success with its pre-Pro Old Tub bourbon. The Limestone Branch Beams have revived Yellowstone.

But I. W. Harper not so much. It made some noise in 2015, when they put money behind it. It is still, ostensibly, available. The website has a 2024 copyright. But Binny's in Chicago doesn't carry it, and as they're fond of saying, "If you can't find it at Binny's it's probably not worth drinking."

Historically, I. W. Harper is an important brand. It was launched in 1879 by the Bernheim Brothers, Issac and Bernard. Issac was company president and "I. W." were his first two initials (Issac Wolfe), but he hesitated about using his own last name and went with the safely Anglo-Saxon "Harper" instead.

During WWI, many families with German-sounding names changed them, the most famous example being the British royals. One of Bernheim's sons changed the spelling to "Burnham." His son, Issac Wolfe Burham, founded in 1931 the investment firm that became Drexel Burnham Lambert (using some money from grandpa).

The brothers had two distilleries in Louisville, the first one in Shively, the second in west Louisville where Heaven Hill's Bernheim Production Facility is today. The brothers sold the company when they retired. After Prohibition it became part of Schenley, which became part of the Guinness roll-up that created what we know as Diageo today. They tore down the old distillery and built a new one in 1992, then sold it to Heaven Hill in 1999.

In retirement, Issac Bernheim became a major philanthropist. Probably his greatest gift was the vast nature preserve in Bullitt County known as Bernheim Forest. He and his wife, and one of his sons, are buried there. Although open to the public it is privately owned by the Bernheim Foundation. It just happens to be right across the street from the Jim Beam Distillery, just off I-65 at exit 112 (KY-245 toward Bardstown / Clermont).

In about 1990, I. W. Harper Bourbon was withdrawn from the U.S. market. By then it was a forgotten, cheap, bottom shelf brand in the U.S., but had, remarkably, become the best-selling bourbon in Japan, where bourbon sales were booming, and where it sold for a premium price. So great was the price differential that clever entrepreneurs began gray market exporting it, buying it at U.S. prices and shipping it to Japan outside of sanctioned distribution channels. The only way to stop them was to kill the brand in the U.S., which they did.

It returned briefly a few years later in the Bourbon Heritage Collection, as a super-premium called I. W. Harper Gold Medal, a 15-year-old. When Diageo bailed out of bourbon in 1999, that product was one of the first casualties. 

In 2012, I. W. Bernheim was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Several of his descendants were at the induction ceremony. He was the only 2012 inductee.

One clue to the brand's future may be in the address shown on the website, which says it is a product of the I.W. Harper Distilling Company, Tullahoma, TN. 

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Prohibition Is an Awful Flop. We Love It!


The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 was widely celebrated.
National Prohibition in the United States (1920-1933) was always divisive, and many otherwise law-abiding Americans never accepted its legitimacy. Several years in, the “noble experiment” was losing public support but remained a political hot potato.

The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), buoyed by a burst of fundraising success, launched a nationwide publicity campaign in 1928. They printed and distributed millions of pamphlets arguing for repeal. Also in 1928, the American Bar Association, the largest national association of lawyers, came out in favor of repeal. The ball was rolling.

When it came, repeal was widely celebrated. Only now, 90 years later, are we beginning to grapple with the shackles that remain on the beverage alcohol business.

In part 2 of 2, we finish the story begun in the previous issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. Also, in this issue (which is Volume 22, Number 3), you can read an exclusive excerpt of Dr. Jerry O. Dalton's new book, The Way of Bourbon. Dr. Dalton is the former master distiller at Jim Beam and, before that, at Barton. As you'll see, he's a bit of a philosopher.

Finally, there's a short piece entitled "Don't Cheat Yourself with Mystery Whiskey." Forewarned is forearmed, or something like that.

Proudly anachronistic, The Bourbon Country Reader remains paper-only, delivered as First-Class Mail by the United States Postal Service, which is not allowed to deliver bourbon but can handle this.

A six-issue, approximately one-year subscription is just: 

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Since its inception (1994), I have made back issues of The Reader available. I still do, but henceforth that service will be limited to what's currently in inventory. No new ones will be printed and bound. Some of the more recent issues (last several years) are available in loose form. I'm still thinking about it. If you're interested in back issues, check out "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.) Then get in touch with me. I hate to put my email address out in the open here, but I'm pretty easy to find. If you can't, send me a note as a comment. I'll read it and get back to you, but I won't post it.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

What’s in a Name? (Beam’s Version)


Fred, Freddie, and Booker Noe, at the Jim
Beam Distillery, Bullitt County, Kentucky.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

That’s my message to members of the Beam family who were saddened by the May first corporate name change, from Beam Suntory to Suntory Global Spirits. As Juliet says, that name is no part of thee. The Beam name and all it represents can never be erased.

When Jacob Beam came to Kentucky from Maryland at the end of the 18th century, he had already undergone a name change himself, from Johannes Jacobus Boehm to Jacob Beam. 

He had at least one son, David, who joined and followed him in the whiskey business. The third generation produced three successful whiskey makers. By the fourth generation, Beam family members were everywhere in bourbon country. 

That takes us to the end of the 19th century, when brothers Jim and Park Beam, along with their brother-in-law, Albert Hart, took over the operation begun by their great-grandfather. The distillery was called Beam & Hart. Their uncles and cousins were making whiskey too, at other companies.

The Beam & Hart Distillery was on Nazareth Road (now Old Nazareth Road), about three miles north of Bardstown, near the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth religious community. Beam & Hart’s main bourbon was called Old Tub. They operated at Nazareth until Prohibition (1920).

During Prohibition, the brothers bought the property where the Jim Beam Clermont distillery is now, about 20 miles northwest of the Nazareth place in Bullitt County. It had been a distillery, but the property also included a gravel quarry, a going business at the time. 

After Prohibition, with their sons, the Beam brothers rebuilt and reopened the distillery at Clermont. There were some problems with ownership of the Old Tub brand name, so Jim Beam became the name of the brand and company. 

In the 1940s, the family sold the company to a trio of Chicago investors. The new owners kept the name, and the family. Jim’s son, Jere (pronounced “Jerry,” short for Jerimiah), continued to run the business side while Park’s sons, Earl and “Shucks,” made the whiskey. Now called Jim Beam Brands, the company was based in Chicago. 

Jim Beam Bourbon’s popularity soared in the 1960s. Harry Blum, by then sole owner, sold the company to American Tobacco. Today, Blum’s grandson runs a cannabis company.

At the distillery in Kentucky, on the whiskey-making side of the business, Park Beam’s grandsons, Baker and David, were joined by their cousin, Booker Noe, son of Jim Beam’s daughter, Margaret. The company bought a second distillery, in Nelson County, and had Booker run it. It now bears his name. There were other family members here and there in the company.

Meanwhile, the new owner, American Tobacco, morphed into a diversified conglomerate called Fortune, which used its Jim Beam Brands subsidiary to acquire additional assets in the beverage alcohol space. They successfully converted Jim Beam Brands from a bourbon company into a diversified beverage alcohol company with a broad portfolio. In 2006, following a major acquisition that brought Maker’s Mark into the fold, Fortune changed the subsidiary’s name to Beam Global Spirits and Wine.

By that time, diversified conglomerates like Fortune Brands were out of favor with investors. Fortune began to sell off pieces of itself. In December 2010, it was split into three chunks, representing its three remaining businesses: distilled spirits, home and security, and golf products. 

Earlier in 2010, Pershing Square Capital Management, Bill Ackman’s hedge fund, became Fortune’s majority shareholder. Ackman pushed hard and publicly for a break-up. In 2011, Fortune became a "pure play" beverage alcohol company and changed its corporate name to Beam, Inc.

Company management hoped that would be good enough, but Ackman wasn’t finished. He kept pushing for more divestment. Almost exactly 10 years ago, Ackman got his way. Beam Inc. was sold to Suntory Holdings Limited, a privately held company based in Japan. Its distilled spirits division became Beam Suntory. In 2022, Beam Suntory moved its headquarters to Suntory’s offices in New York. Earlier this month, “Beam” was deleted from the name. That division is now called Suntory Global Spirits.

Meanwhile, and apropos Juliet’s admonition, nothing has changed in Kentucky, where all the company’s bourbon and rye whiskeys are made. Beam descendants still have a large say in how those whiskeys are made. The revived American whiskey business is full of Beams, whether they have the surname or not. For all of them, it is better to not share their name with a huge, international company they do not control and have not controlled for 80 years. Beam for the Beams.

Romeo, after all, has the final word on the subject: “Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized.”

Friday, May 10, 2024

Have I Learned Anything About Life? Maybe

Grant Wood "American Gothic" (detail)
In 2003, two of my friends were getting married. They'd both been around the block a few times and requested, in lieu of gifts, that we offer them our advice "on conflict resolution and the making of a successful partnership." It seems weird to me now, but that's how I remember it. 

Anyway, this is what I wrote. I think I printed it on a scroll or something. It's not bad advice, really.

And, yes, they're still married. 

Considering my track record, my first thought was to suggest that you study my recommendations and then do exactly the opposite.

But maybe I have learned a few things.

Trust. There is nothing more important. If I am certain of anything it is that. To be with a person you can trust completely, that is the only reason to even be in a relationship. To have such people in your life in any capacity is a treasure.

Figuring out if you can trust another person is not nearly as important as being trustworthy yourself.

The best way to resolve conflicts is also the easiest: give in. State your position, explain why you feel the way you do, then let it go. Compromise quickly and generously, or simply fold altogether, then forget about it.

That doesn't mean be wishy-washy. You can have an opinion. You can even argue, just don't care about winning. Yes, someone is keeping score, but not the way you think.

No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to be too nice. Kindness does not come naturally or easily to anyone. It is counter-intuitive, you have to work at it. There is no chance that you will overdo it.

Gentleness, patience; also good.

Understanding, on the other hand, is overrated. Acceptance is more satisfying and conducive to happiness than understanding.

Shut up and listen. Of course you have to talk at some point, but the risk that you will listen too much or talk too little is very small.

Other very small risks: that you will laugh too much, smile too much, hug too much, have too much fun, see too much beauty or hear too much music. You can, however, eat too much cake.

Events you do not control will always turn out to be more interesting than events you do control. Also more entertaining, educational and, yes, more frightening, but still better.

Despite all indications to the contrary, your partner will not be improved if he or she becomes more like you. Do not try to understand why this is so. Instead, relax and enjoy the ride.

In fact, that’s probably the single best advice I can give: relax and enjoy the ride. That doesn't mean be passive. You should be engaged and involved, but also utterly open to life’s surprises. Another very small risk: that you will be too open to new experiences.

What about love? That’s the prerequisite. You won’t get very far with any of this other stuff without love. Love is the presence of all things good and the absence of all things bad. Trust, kindness, acceptance, listening – those are behaviors that require your attention. Love takes care of itself.

Thank you (names deleted for privacy) for prompting me to think about these matters. I don’t mean to suggest that I successfully follow all of my own advice all of the time, but right or wrong these are the lessons life has taught me so far.

Be nice. Have fun. Prepare to be surprised.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Prohibition: How It Happened, How It Ended, Why It Still Sucks


An anti-prohibition parade in Newark, New Jersey in 1932.
Apologists for the Prohibition disaster dubbed it the "noble experiment." There was nothing noble about it. A century ago, the American people were sold a bill of goods. They were promised an end to crime, poverty, depravity, abuse, neglect, and just about any other evil you can think of. All they had to do was ban beverage alcohol.

They fell for it. 

No one, apparently, realized that meant they themselves would have to stop drinking. Most Americans either opposed Prohibition or assumed it applied to someone else, not them. 

Nothing noble about it.

Like a hangover blooming on the morning after, American voters regretted Prohibition almost immediately. But they had changed the damn Constitution! This fuck-up wouldn't be easy to fix.

The previous edition of The Bourbon Country Reader went out in January, so a new one is a bit overdue. Sorry about that. I hope it's worth the wait. Prohibition is our subject this time. Sure, you know about Prohibition, you watched that interminable Ken Burns thing on PBS. But this is the story as you've never seen it, about the peculiar way it ended, and the burdens we still carry because of it.

It's a two-parter but, happily, you won't have to wait too long for part two. Part one should be out in the next few days and part two will follow a few weeks after that.

Also, in what I am calling the April issue, you'll read about A. Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey. Finally, 37 years after it acquired the brand, Suntory Global Spirits is doing something interesting with it, returning it to its roots as a 19th century "Pure Rye."

Liquor companies are forbidden to make purity claims, so Overholt won't use the term, but The Reader can and will.

Who is Suntory Global Spirits? That's the new name of the company that was called Beam Suntory until, well, today.

Proudly anachronistic, The Bourbon Country Reader remains paper-only, delivered First Class by the United States Postal Service, which is not allowed to deliver bourbon but can handle this.

A six-issue, approximately one-year subscription is just $25 for mailing addresses in the USA, $32 for everybody else. Those links take you directly to PayPal. 

If you are unfamiliar with The Bourbon Country Reader, click here for a sample issue

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.

Since its inception, I have made back issues of The Reader available. I still do, but henceforth that service will be limited to what's currently in inventory. No new ones will be printed and bound. Some may be available in loose form. If you're interested in back issues, check out "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.) Place an order and I'll let you know what's available.

Monday, April 22, 2024

A Train Ride to a Distillery? Yes, Please!


For special events, you can park at the Kentucky Railroad Museum
in New Haven and ride the train to Log Still Distillery.
Okay, I'm a sucker for a train ride.

Log Still Distillery’s premier event venue, The Legacy, kicks off its Southern Supper Series on Friday, May 10th. Lee Brice performs that night at The Amp, Log Still's concert venue. You can drive to Log Still and park at the venue if you want, but for a $20 up-charge you can park at the Kentucky Railroad Museum in New Haven and ride a vintage train to Log Still. At the end of the evening, the train takes you back to New Haven. The ride is about seven miles and offers "a scenic view of Kentucky’s landscape." Ticket information is here.

Wait! You can take a train there? How is that possible?

As you may know, Log Still is an entertainment complex that happens to include a whiskey distillery. It is about 50 miles south of Louisville and about 140 miles north of Nashville. 

Log Still is the work of Wally Dant and other members of the Dant family. They chose the site for many reasons. Their ancestors made whiskey there before Prohibition and many living family members grew up nearby. But the people who built the first distilleries there, which included members of the Beam, Head, and Pottinger families as well as Dants, chose the site in part because it was located on a new branch of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the Lebanon Branch, which opened in 1857.

Although regular service on that line ended in about 1987, the tracks are still there. The section going northwest out of New Haven, toward Boston (Kentucky, not Massachusetts) is maintained by the Kentucky Railroad Museum, which uses it for excursions. (The museum was originally located in Boston.) Log Still is in the other direction, at what the railroad called Gethsemane Station, a reference to the nearby Abbey which, apparently unbeknownst to the railroad, spells it Gethsemani. Distilleries all along the Lebanon Branch were the railroad's biggest customers.

Back in the day, of course, you could get the train in Louisville, Frankfort, or Lexington and ride to Gethsemane, Lebanon, New Haven, Athertonville, and many other places. The main line connected Louisville and Nashville. Athertonville had its own, short branch that connected it to New Haven. North of the Lebanon Branch there was another branch for distilleries called the Springfield Branch. That's the line the Kentucky Dinner Train uses, starting in Bardstown.

Some of Kentucky's distilleries still have rail access for shipping grain, new barrels, and empty bottles in, and full bottles out. Only Log Still, and only for special events, has passenger service. (Which, by the way, includes cocktail service.)

The Kentucky Dinner Train goes as far as Chapeze Station before heading back to Bardstown. The  Chapeze Distillery used to be there (it played Czechoslovakia in the movie "Stripes"). What's left is now part of Beam's Clermont complex, which is where all their visitor attractions are located. The train doesn't stop there but it could. Beam's bigger distillery, named for Booker Noe, doesn't welcome visitors but it's on the Lebanon Branch, close to where the Kentucky Railroad Museum excursions turn back to New Haven. 

Many other distilleries have train tracks near their sites, even though in some cases they haven't been maintained. How cool would it be if you could do the whole Kentucky Bourbon Trail by train?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Step In, Step Up


What to try next?
Today, most of what you see and read about bourbon and rye is focused on limited editions, finishes, and other mostly premium expressions. That's fine if that's what you're into, but it's a nightmare for newcomers trying to get to know the category. Too often, things you are told to try, when you try to try them, are hard or impossible to find, or too damn expensive.

On top of that, producers these days are expanding the envelope with different tastes and experiences that may be fine for what they are, but they are such outliers they just confuse someone still trying to understand the category.

What's a newbie to do?

It's easy to make the rounds of the major brands and their main expressions, a little Jack, a little Jim, some Evan or Elijah. There is nothing wrong with that. What I call "Step In, Step Up" is a slightly different approach. The idea is to introduce yourself to a distillery or brand family by selecting an expression that has some or all of the following characteristics.
  1. It is a step-up from the entry level expression.
  2. It is usually available.
  3. It is a decent value.

A perfect example of this paradigm is Jim Beam Black Label. It is significantly better than white label, a little higher proof, usually available in any decent-sized store, and the upcharge is modest. It goes for about $25 a bottle. In most stores, it will be right next to White Label.

In the Heaven Hill family, you can start with the standard Evan Williams Black Label, but the 1783 expression is a little better, a little higher proof, and in that same $25 range. 

These step-up expressions used to have age statements in the six- to eight-year range, but 'better' still usually means more age, which is evident in side-by-side taste comparisons.

If you want to get away from mega-producers, consider The Representative, a straight bourbon from Proof and Wood, a smallish independent bottler. It won a big award from Whisky Magazine. Yes, the liquid is from MGP, but it's bottled in 20-barrel batches at 115° proof, aged at least 4 years, and widely available at about $50. 

I'd like to include more small producers on a list like this but it's difficult because they tend to have limited distribution. There is also the price. No small producer, whether they're a distiller or not, can compete with Beam Suntory, Heaven Hill, or Brown-Forman on price. I used to tell people the challenge was to find something better than Evan Williams Black Label for the same or a lower price. I no longer say that because it can't be done! If you ever want to drink anything other than Evan Williams Black Label, then you'll have to get used to paying more for whiskey that isn't necessarily that much better.

So, back to the mega-producers. Like Jim Beam Black Label, Beam Suntory has other entry-level step ups hiding in plain sight. Basil Hayden is Beam Suntory's version of a high-rye bourbon, but it's the same distillate as Old Grand-Dad. Like Basil, the standard Old Grand-Dad expression is 80° proof, but right there on the shelf next to it is the much better, and only slightly more expensive, Old Grand-Dad Bonded. If you're really lucky, next to that will be the even better Old Grand-Dad 114.

Another old reliable is Brown-Forman's Old Forester. It is the product that launched the company in 1870. It is the same recipe as Woodford Reserve. They make a lot of noise about their limited editions, but standard Old Forester is a solid, full-bodied bourbon, at 86° proof, for about $25, with the step-up to 100° proof for just a few dollars more.

Which brings us to the two Gems of Lawrenceburg that never disappoint, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Four Roses Single Barrel is about $50, but that's the one you want. Wild Turkey 101, bourbon or rye is hard to beat at about $25. 

This advice, I should repeat, is for people just discovering American whiskey as something to drink. It won't enhance your credibility on Instagram.

But if you have some suggestions for bourbons or ryes that meet the "Step In, Step Up" criteria, feel free to include them in a comment below.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Online Sleuths Solve Bourbon Movie Mystery


Warren William and Alice White in "Employee's Entrance" (1933).

"Pre-code" refers to movies made between 1927 and 1934, before strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). Pre-code movies featured more sexual innuendo, profanity, promiscuity, and other controversial themes than later films. Such licentiousness would not return to celluloid until the 1960s.

I love pre-code movies.

This one, "Employee's Entrance," is the story of a big city department store struggling to survive in the early years of the Great Depression. It has an "Upstairs/Downstairs" quality, depicting owners and management but also front-line employees. 

When "Employee's Entrance" was released in 1933, National Prohibition was still in effect, yet when ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson shares a drink with Polly, a store employee, he pulls from his desk a pint of Old Taylor Bourbon.

Later in the film, the store throws a big party for employees. Champagne flows freely. No one comments on Prohibition one way or the other. During the party, many of the characters become happily, or not-so-happily, drunk. 

After Roosevelt and the Democrats swept the 1932 elections, it was assumed Prohibition was finished, but it was still in effect when "Employee's Entrance" was released.

During Prohibition, Old Taylor was sold, legally, "for medicinal purposes only." The bottles looked like this.

A Prohibition medicinal pint of Old Taylor Bourbon, in its original box.
It is a different label from the one in the movie. Now, producers change labels all the time, and it's possible that the movie label was a different release. It's also possible the bottle in the movie was a prop, a mockup created by the film's art department, but it seems unlikely they would make a fake label for a real brand.

After I watched "Employee's Entrance" a few weeks ago (and I recommend it if you get the chance. It's a hoot), I captured the above picture and posted it on Facebook. All I wrote was, "From 'Employee's Entrance' (1933). Look what they're drinking." That began a conversation about the bottle's provenance, initially assuming it was a legal Prohibition pint, then noticing the difference between the bottle in the picture and the known Prohibition pint above.

Then someone provided the answer.

A pint bottle of Old Taylor bourbon, made in Canada,
and likely smuggled into the U.S. for illegal sale.
Only so much detail can be gleaned from the movie screen capture, but this looks like the same bottle. What is it? Look closely. It was made by Consolidated Distilleries Limited in Canada. Talk about verisimilitude? Of course, ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson would have access to bootleg liquor, smuggled from Canada.

I've written here before about how Mary Dowling hired Joe Beam to make Waterfill and Frazier bourbon in Mexico. Joe Beam's nephew, Guy Beam, did something similar in Cananda. This Canadian Old Taylor is attributed to a gentleman from Covington, Kentucky, whose name is partially obscured. The idea behind these cross-border distilleries was that the manufacturing was entirely legal. The product could be made and sold legally in the state or province where it was produced. That took the producer entirely out of the equation. The person who bought the whiskey, legally, and exported it into the United States, illegally, committed the crime.

Nevertheless, despite its legal manufacture, you can't necessarily trust everything on the label. Was it bourbon? The law making bourbon whiskey a distinctive product of the United States was still several decades in the future, so that's not an issue. In Canada, as part of their normal whisky production process, distilleries make a corn distillate very similar to bourbon, which they then redistill to near neutrality before aging in used barrels. 

Was this that bourbon-like intermediate distillate? Maybe, it's impossible to know. The only bottle we know about is empty.

Friday, March 29, 2024

From Big Cups to Big Names, American Whiskey's Next Act


Celebrate Spring with a friendly putting competition at Welter’s Folly!
Golf Season begins at Welter’s Folly on Sunday, April 14th, with the Big Cup Putting Tournament.

Welter's Folly is a 30,000 square foot, 18-hole, mounded putting green behind the Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan. It was named for Bill Welter, the distillery's founder. 

Scheduled to coincide with the 80th Annual Masters, the Big Cup Putting Competition will be held at Welter's Folly on Sunday, April 14th, beginning at 11:30 AM. Cost is $40 per two-player team. Bring your putter or use theirs for the 9-inch cup challenge.

Five dollars from each entry goes toward a skins game, with another $5 going toward a closest-to-the-pin competition. Cash prizes will be awarded for the top 3 scores, plus a little something for last place.

After Big Cup, Welter's Folly will be open for putting daily, Monday-Saturday at 11:30 AM, Sunday at 10:00 AM. The green closes daily 20 minutes prior to official sunset. The $9 fee includes a souvenir Journeyman golf ball. No charge for children 12 and under. Cocktails are permitted on the greens for putters 21 & over.

In Three Oaks, in addition to the putting green and distillery tour, Journeyman has a nice bar and restaurant. At their sister distillery in Valparaiso, Indiana, the American Factory, they have multiple restaurants, a brewery, rooftop bar, candy shop, karaoke, and great facilities for weddings and other private events.

As much as I'm happy to give Bill publicity, my purpose here is to highlight this latest trend in American distilled spirits, the whiskey resort. 

The epitome of this new trend is Kentucky's Log Still Distillery, out in the country about 15 miles south of Bardstown. The site has a lot of great bourbon history tied to the Dant family. It is the creation of Wally Dant, the many-times great grandson of J. W. Dant, assisted by other family members. The fact that Heaven Hill owns the J. W. Dant bourbon brand has limited their ability to exploit their lineage, but not their ambition. In addition to a distillery, tasting room, restaurant, and walking trails, Log Still has several B&Bs, a wedding venue with a 350-seat chapel, and a 2,300-seat outdoor event venue that hosts nationally-known artists such as Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Elle King, Lady A, Dwight Yoakam, and Joan Jett.

Whiskey distilleries have always attracted visitors in a way few other manufacturers can imagine. Jack Daniel's in Tennessee gets about 250,000 guests per year, an annual average that hasn't changed much in 40 years. Most distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee now give tours. They have gift shops and tasting rooms, and some have restaurants or other amenities, but mostly they distill and age whiskey. 

Even Journeyman started, more than a decade ago, as a distillery first, adding the putting green and other amenities along the way. Many craft distilleries have parties with live music and other activities, mostly for community goodwill. This has been going on since the beginning.

Log Still is different. It started with the amenities. The distillery part was the last thing they built. They sell whiskey (sourced) and gin, but it's far down on the list of their income streams.

I tend to be someone who mostly cares about whiskey, but I also like history, and what we're experiencing now will become the history of tomorrow, for better or worse. There is another side to it, of course, as there always is. Dirtying up American whiskey's rosy picture is something that looks like dirt. 

In New York's Adirondack Park, WhistlePig Whiskey is being accused of polluting the area with whiskey fungus (Baudoinia compniacensis). Last weekend, the Adirondack Explorer reported that "New tests suggest wider spread of whiskey fungus in small Adirondack town. State requires action by WhistlePig Whiskey in Moriah; environmental impact of whiskey production under scrutiny." 

Award-winning environmental journalist Gwendolyn Craig did the Adirondacks proud with a thorough 2,100-word account, though it covered little new ground. Whiskey needs to age, and a harmless but unsightly fungus comes as part of the deal. In a 10-page report, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said it found the fungus as far away as 1,379 yards from WhistlePig's facility. It has ordered WhistlePig to submit plans for mitigating “the effects of its operations on neighboring properties” by April 20. The Adirondack Park Agency, which oversees public and private development in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, has issued multiple permits for the warehouse complex.

This keeps happening and while I'm sure producers would like to head these problems off, no one seems to have cracked the code. Even in Kentucky, where Baudoinia is well known, and several cases were thoroughly litigated more than a decade ago, and producers are acquiring large tracts of land for their new maturation complexes to keep the fungus as far away from neighboring properties as possible, complaints persist. 

Airports are noisy, factories often are smelly, water is wet, and whiskey maturation facilities grow Baudoinia. Otherwise, everything is great.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Can Whiskey 'Go Bad'?

Image created with GPT-4
Does whiskey ever 'go bad'? 

It is a commonly asked question and people usually don't get a satisfactory answer.

First, whiskey in the bottle is very sturdy stuff. It will remain unchanged indefinitely. It has only a few enemies.

'Go bad' usually means 'spoiling,' as in unpleasant bacterial activity changing some component of the product into something else. Wine becomes vinegar. Milk becomes sour. Meat becomes rancid. Fruit becomes mush. That doesn't happen with high proof spirits like whiskey because nothing can live in that much alcohol.

So no, whiskey can't 'go bad' in that sense. What whiskey can do is absorb too much oxygen, which makes it taste like somebody added way too much vanilla. This happens most often when someone leaves a small amount in the bottle for a long period of time and can be aggravated if the cork or cap isn't well seated.

The best solution is to finish the bottle. Don't leave that last quaff for a special occasion. Just drink it.

If you must save it, transfer it to a bottle appropriately sized.

Under some rare conditions you can get unbalanced evaporation, where some or all of the alcohol goes away leaving a very unpleasant-tasting brown water. An inadequate seal is always the culprit here, aggravated by high temperature. This is why you don't want long exposure to direct sunlight. Alcohol is volatile. We think of that as meaning prone to catching fire, but it actually means prone to becoming a vapor and just going away.

Some people think the solution is to store bottles on their side to keep the cork moist, like you do with wine. This is a TERRIBLE idea with whiskey. High proof alcohol is hard on corks and dissolved cork is hard on the flavor of the beverage so do not store bottles on their side, or upside down, under any circumstances.

Some people will suggest that you wrap the bottle tops with paraffin tape. Some will recommend replacing whiskey when you pour it with marbles, or clean pebbles, something to keep the fill level high. This is a bit too fussy for most people and really isn't necessary. Just drink the whiskey in due course.

After all, that's what it's there for.

NOTE: A version of this post was published in August, 2015, hence the comments below from that period. Read them. Most of them are pretty good.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The Genealogy Of Yeast


Joseph Lloyd Beam, Master Distiller, Bardstown, Kentucky.
(date unknown, probably late 1920s)

Yeast, and the different characteristics a particular strain can impart during fermentation, is a fundamental part of bourbon-making. 

Today, most yeast is created in a lab and manufactured in a factory, but before Prohibition making yeast was a crucial part of a whiskey maker's skill set. Back then, "making" yeast meant mixing up a special mash and using it to catch and propagate a suitable strain from a wild source. Yeast is a living organism, a type of fungus. It thrives in a watery environment, eats sugar in liquid form, and metabolizes it into ethanol and carbon dioxide. All of the alcohol you can drink is made by yeast. Like all living organisms, yeast can mutate and change. When mutations render it unfit, it has to be replaced.

At most legacy distilleries, those that started before the modern "bourbon boom," the yeast they use has connections to that earlier era. Therefore, the genealogy of yeast is essentially that of yeast makers. At distilleries such as Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Yellowstone, Maker's Mark, Barton, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, and many others, that meant one or more members of the Beam family.

Yeast mutates and humans adapt. Although the Beams all started from the same place, with the same yeast mash recipe, and were all taught the same organoleptic standards, each distiller in each generation made their own subtle adaptations after years of practice and would have passed their way of doing things on to the next generation. 

Joseph L. "Joe" Beam was considered the dean of American whiskey makers on both sides of Prohibition. He was the son of Joseph B. Beam, whose grandfather was Jacob Beam, the ancestor from whom all whiskey-making Beams are descended. When Four Roses was revived after Prohibition, at a new distillery in Shively, they hired Joe Beam and bragged that he was bringing "the famous Beam yeast."

Joe Beam had seven distiller sons. Jim and Park Beam were his first cousins. His older brother, Minor, also a distiller, had several sons in the business. It's hard to find a distillery of that era that was not touched by a Beam. 

We know from Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, that the Jim Beam yeast was caught by Jim on his back porch in Bardstown as Prohibition was ending and he prepared to build a new distillery. That version of the Beam yeast is known for a "foxy" characteristic most noticeable in the brand's standard white label expression.

Jim and Joe Beam's uncle was Jack Beam, who started Early Times, and although his only son followed him into the business, there was no third generation. That line died out. It's unknown if the yeast strain they used was preserved and passed on to the people who revived Early Times after Prohibition. It is known that the yeast Brown-Forman used for Early Times was not the Old Forester yeast. 

When Park Beam's son, Earl, left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took that Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the yeast Joe's son Harry had been using. Earl tweaked it, as did his son and successor, Parker Beam. They did not, apparently, like that "foxy" characteristic, which is not evident in any Heaven Hill products.

According to family lore, Joe Beam received most of his training from his much older brother, Minor, who also trained Will McGill, a friend of Joe's who became Pappy Van Winkle's distiller at Stitzel-Weller. As journeymen, Joe and Will worked at Minor's distillery at Gethsemane, today's Log Still Distillery. They also worked together at Tom Moore's distillery, today's Barton 1792.

The Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark would have originated with Joseph B. Beam and probably went through Minor to get to Will McGill, and from him into the hands of Elmo Beam, Joe's firstborn, who would already have been familiar with his father's version. That Pappy Van Winkle gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not. No doubt he had his own ideas about such things.

His brother, Charlie, was distiller at the Pennsylvania distillery that became Michter's. Charlie trained Dick Stoll, who made the bourbon that became A. H. Hirsch Reserve.

After Joe Beam restarted Four Roses it was sold to Seagram's. His grandson, another Charlie, spent most of his career with Seagram's, where he developed the Eagle Rare Bourbon brand before finishing his career at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg. No company did more for whiskey yeast than Seagram's, which archived more than 300 different strains.

Minor's son, Guy, worked at several different distilleries, including Heaven Hill, Fairfield, and Cummins-Collins. During Prohibition he was a distiller in Canada. Guy had two distiller sons, Burch and Jack. A third son, Walter, who was better known as Toddy, operated a liquor store in downtown Bardstown that still bears his name. Jack worked for Barton. Steve and Paul Beam, who run Lebanon's Limestone Branch Distillery, are descended from Guy.

I once asked Craig Beam, Parker's son and successor, if he thought anyone in the family could make yeast the old-fashioned way, capturing it from a wild source. He knew he couldn't, he said. His grandfather, Earl, taught him how to propagate Heaven Hill's yeast, to make enough for the fermenters, but not how to make it from scratch. When Heaven Hill moved to Bernheim, they switched to dry yeast rather than add a yeast room, which the rebuilt distillery did not have. 

Craig said he thought if anyone could make it from scratch, it would be Baker, but when I asked Baker, he just laughed.

Monday, February 26, 2024

How Mushrooms Improve Whiskey


Sautéed mushrooms, quickly cooked in butter and extra virgin olive oil,
then finished with a flambé of bourbon.

Mushrooms are tasty on pizza, battered and deep fried, or stuffed with crabmeat. Maybe you like grilled portabellas with polenta, or shiitakes in a stir fry. Or perhaps you'd enjoy a tasty side-dish like the one pictured above. Bourbon-flavored mushrooms? Sure. Mushroom-flavored bourbon? Maybe not. 

But when white oak intended for whiskey barrels is seasoned naturally, mushrooms of a microscopic sort, usually referred to as fungi, play a vital role. Scientists call it fungal colonization. It is an early part of the wood’s natural decomposition process.

During seasoning, a succession of different fungal species send out roots (hyphae) that penetrate the wood structure and release hydrogen peroxide, a natural bleaching and oxidizing agent that helps break the wood down chemically, softening tannins and caramelizing hemicellulose among other salutary effects.

A fresh-cut oak is about 60 percent water by weight and needs to get below 18 percent for the coopers to do their thing. First in the pool is Aureobasidium pullulans, one of the species of common mildew, the same black stuff you clean off your shower tiles. As the wood dries it becomes inhospitable to pullulans which pulls out (okay, dies) and is replaced by another type that thrives in the slightly drier environment. One after another a succession of different fungal species (eumycota) and sub-species each have a go at it, including the one from which the medicine penicillin is made.

By studying fungal colonization in American white oak (Quercus alba), scientists proved the superiority of a traditional cooperage practice–air drying–that was widely abandoned in the United States after World War II in favor of kilns. Kilns remove moisture effectively, but they stop the biological processes, fungal and bacterial, that make many of the wood’s flavor components available for absorption by maturing spirit.

In the first stage of natural seasoning, if humidity and other weather variables are favorable, fresh-cut logs are simply left in the field for days or weeks. From there they go to a stave mill, close to the forest, where they are roughly broken down into staves and head pieces. From there they are shipped to the cooperage, where they are neatly stacked in the yard, fully exposed to the elements. There they will remain for anywhere from three months to two years, and in some cases even longer. Often wood that is given only a short time outside is finished via kiln.

As you can probably guess, it’s a cost issue. You pay a premium for long natural seasoning. A good question to ask when someone tries to sell you an expensive whiskey is, "How long were your barrel staves air seasoned?”

Don't be surprised if they have no idea what you’re talking about.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Latvia Is Russia's Whiskey Mule


Russia has its own whiskey, but they want ours.

Despite sanctions intended to deprive Russia and Russians of any Western goods they may want, many things are getting through, including scotch and bourbon. The mule satisfying Russia's whiskey jones is our NATO ally, Latvia.

According to DW, the German public broadcaster, in the first nine months of last year, Russia imported almost €244 million ($266 million) worth of whiskey products. Three-fourths of that came through Latvia, according to figures published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. In second place was another Baltic country, Lithuania, which sold Russia €27 million worth of whiskey.

Latvia also has become Russia's largest source of wine.

According to the Latvian government's official statistics portal, its exports to Russia were worth more than €1.1 billion last year. More than half of that was for alcohol and vinegar.

Latvia and Lithuania have small, domestic beverage alcohol industries, but most of what they ship to Russia comes from Western companies registered in the Baltics. 

What about sanctions? The head of a Russian spirits importer says it merely required a paperwork change. "While documents used to say that imports to Russia simply went through Latvia or Lithuania, now the Baltic states appear as the destination of the export, " he told the news agency. "Deliveries to Russia are then made from there."

Some observers say selling whiskey to Russia does not technically violate sanctions. Routing shipments through the Baltics, with Baltic companies handling all the of re-shipment to Russia, is mostly about Western companies concealing their Russian business to protect their reputations. 

According to the London-based Moral Rating Agency, Pernod Ricard is one of the largest suppliers of alcoholic beverages to Russia. Pernod owns Chivas Regal, Ballantine's, Royal Salute, The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Jameson, Powers, TX Whiskey, Rabbit Hole, Smooth Ambler, and Jefferson's. Pernod says it is trying to get out but, as just about everyone involved in this bemoans, it's complicated.

Latvia was admitted to NATO in 1999, along with Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, all states formerly dominated by Russia. They and other former Russian satellites, such as Poland, tend to be the most enthusiastic supporters of Ukraine, but many, such as Latvia, also have large Russian-speaking populations and many business and cultural connections to Russian entities. It's ironic, but also complicated. 

Friday, February 9, 2024

Bulleit's New American Single Malt Is Sourced Whiskey


Bulleit American Single Malt Whiskey is bottled at
90° proof (45% ABV). MSRP is $60 (750 ml).

Are you excited to try the new Bulleit American Single Malt? Well, here's a hot tip.

Bulleit didn't make it.

Diageo, which owns Bulleit, is the biggest distilled spirits maker in the world. They operate two large Kentucky distilleries and one in Tennessee, but they bought this whiskey from someone else.

They won't say from whom.

Here is what they will say, but only if you ask.

Fitting the American Single Malt category guidelines, Bulleit American Single Malt was distilled by 1 distillery in Kentucky. 

Due to contractual obligations with our supply partners, we cannot share specific details, but as has always been the case, we work very closely with our distilling partners to ensure that Bulleit is made to our exacting standards and specifications.

For further detail, we factor in working in partnerships with local distilleries to meet the growing demand for our whiskey that cannot be serviced by production at our distilleries in Shelbyville, KY or Lebanon, KY. Our distillers work closely with our distilling partners to ensure that Bulleit whiskey is made to our exacting standards and specifications.  

When we were first exploring Bulleit American Single Malt, the Lebanon, KY distillery was not operational and our Shelbyville, KY distillery was just getting started producing our signature Bulleit Bourbon at full capacity so we looked to an outside contractor to distill this product to our exacting specifications.  

We look forward to distilling and aging Bulleit American Single Malt at one of our world class facilities in the near future.

So where was Bulleit American Single Malt distilled and aged? Likely suspects include Beam Suntory, Sazerac, Heaven Hill, and Bardstown Bourbon Company. Another possibility is Newport's New Riff, which has been making malt whiskey since 2014 and released its own single malt last year. It seems unlikely any of Kentucky's smaller distilleries is the source, as they wouldn't be able to produce enough for Diageo's needs. 

Malt whiskey is not something American distilleries normally make, so the list of suspects is limited.

Diageo's statement mentions Shelbyville and Lebanon, but what about Cascade Hollow (AKA George Dickel) in Tennessee? Nicole Austin, distiller there since 2018, made malt whiskey in Brooklyn for King's County and at the Tullamore Distillery in Ireland. Capacity may have been an issue, as Cascade is now producing rye whiskey in addition to Tennessee whiskey, but if they really were "first exploring Bulleit American Single Malt" several years ago, as they claim, kicking that assignment to Austin seems like a natural. 

Diageo likes to sing the "made to our exacting standards and specifications" song, but it seems more likely they sought out and found whiskey that was ready to go when they decided to enter the American Single Malt space. Once again, Diageo is playing catch-up with a me-too product in a space, American malt whiskey, that all the bigs are suddenly barreling into, lest they let crafts get a leg up. Diageo is, of course, also the world's #1 scotch producer, a fact they are not touting.

Since when does America make malt whiskey? Are we at war with Scotland now?

Once again we are left with this guessing game. Bulleit Bourbon itself has been sourced whiskey since its inception, distilled initially by Four Roses, and later by others, always with oodles of obfuscation. Only recently has Shelbyville's Bulleit made its way into bottles. Lebanon is still a few years out. Bulleit Rye has been sourced from Indiana's Ross & Squibb Distillery (AKA MGP) since day one. Diageo may be the world's largest distilled spirits producer, and the world's largest whiskey producer, but when it comes to American whiskey, they are mostly a non-distiller producer (NDP). A follower, not a leader.

The last paragraph in their statement says they intend to make the single malt themselves "in the near future." That wording suggests they are not distilling malt whiskey at any of their American distilleries right now, which means Bulleit Single Malt will remain NDP for at least the next five or six years. 

As I wrote here almost exactly ten years ago, "There is no shame in being a non-distiller producer and if the actual producer won't let you reveal their identity, that's understandable too. The shame is in not being honest about it."

So, if you're interested in American Single Malts, maybe find a craft distillery near you that is actually making one, from scratch, in a still, like a real distillery.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

My Louisville Beginnings, Part Two


The building across 3rd Street from Ollie's is now the Republic Academic Center, part of Spalding University.
I never intended this to be a two-parter, but the original post got me feeling nostalgic about that time and place, now 46 years ago. That got me thinking, wondering, and Googling.

Ollie's Trolley used to be a chain. Launched in Louisville in 1973, it grew to 300 locations but never truly became successful. Most of the shops closed in the 80s. There are three left, one in Cincinnati, one in Washington, D.C., and this one in Louisville. It's a unique burger, heavily spiced. The same spice mix goes on the fries. That's pretty much the menu. Many Louisville friends eat there from time to time, so it comes up regularly in conversation. I feel a special connection because of my history at that intersection and because it's a very tasty burger.

Ollie's Trolley was the brainchild of John Y. Brown Junior. Brown was a politician, Kentucky's governor during the first part of my Kentucky tenure. He was a businessman before he was a politician, best known for buying Kentucky Fried Chicken from Colonel Sanders and building it into an international fast-food powerhouse. He also owned the ABA Kentucky Colonels professional basketball team. He died in 2022, 88 years old. 

From 1979 to 1998, he was married to Phyllis George Brown. In 1975, she became co-host of "The NFL Today" on CBS, becoming one of the first women to hold an on-air position in national TV sports. When she was Kentucky's First Lady, I worked with her on projects for a local museum she supported and also met the governor. I liked them both. She died in 2020, age 70. 

The Cosmopolitan Building is now known as The Republic Academic Center, part of Spalding University. It marks the southeastern corner of their growing, urban campus. The renovated building contains offices, labs, and classrooms and houses Spalding's School of Nursing and School of Social Work. Spalding is a private, not-for-profit, liberal arts university. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in various fields such as business, health sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and education. Spalding was established in 1814 by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Now more than 100 years old, the building was built as the D. H. Ewing & Sons Creamery. In 1930, it merged with the Grayson Von Allman Dairy Company to form Ewing Von Allman Dairy. By 1941, it was producing 90,000 cases of canned milk a year. The front section was always offices and the whole building was converted to offices in 1953 when the dairy moved out. That's when it became known as the Cosmopolitan Building. FS&M Advertising (my employer) started in the 50s, so they may have been an original tenant. Before my time they had several clients in the dairy products industry. 

When I was ensconced there, FS&M occupied the third floor. The second floor was the offices of a convenience store chain that was one of our major clients. I forget who was on the first floor. That may have been the convenience store chain too. Many convenience stores began as retail outlets for dairies, so perhaps it was all connected.

In 1982, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The architect is unknown. 

In 2010, it was sold at auction. Its value was estimated as $745,000. Spalding acquired it in 2012.

Photograph from the building's 1982 National Register application. My Pontiac may be in the parking lot.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Remembering David Beam and the Michter's Stills


Daniel David Beam, 1941-2015

I just happened upon this happy picture. It's from 2014, I think. That smile belongs to David Beam, the last Beam distiller at Jim Beam. (The last one with the last name of Beam, that is.) The picture was taken at Tom's Foolery near Cleveland, with two fermenters from the Michter's Barrel-a-Day Distillery. 

There is a lot to unpack in this simple picture.

David was the son of Carl 'Shucks' Beam, grandson of Park Beam. Park was Jim Beam's younger brother. When the Beams resumed distilling after Prohibition, Jim and his son, Jere, ran the business while Park and his sons, Earl and Shucks, made the whiskey.

David was born in the master distiller's house on the grounds of the Jim Beam Distillery at Clermont in 1941. He and his older brother, Baker, succeeded their father at the distillery, which ran on a 24-hour schedule. Baker had the day shift and David had nights. He worked there for 38 years, retiring in 1996.

Around the time he retired, David learned that the Michter's Distillery in Pennsylvania was being liquidated. He knew they had two nice Vendome pot stills, at 500 gallons and 350 gallons each, and associated fermenters and other equipment. It was a complete distillery capable of producing one barrel (53 gallons) of whiskey per day. 

David decided he wanted it, though he wasn't sure why, so he went to the auction, bid on it, and won. Then he got his three sons and some buddies, borrowed a couple trucks, and trekked to Pennsylvania to bring it all back to Kentucky. He set it up in a shed at the My Old Kentucky Home Motel in Bardstown, which he co-owned and managed with his wife, Belle. He had an apartment there too, where he lived when he wasn't at his farm outside of town.

Although he and his sons talked about it, David never put the equipment to use. In 2011, he sold it to Tom and Lianne Herbruck and helped them set it up and operate it at their craft distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. They made bourbon and applejack. This picture was taken during one of David's visits there. David's grandson, who the Herbrucks hired as an apprentice, was there too.

In 2015, the Herbrucks sold the Michter's equipment to the new Michter's (i.e., Chatham Imports), for installation at their Fort Nelson facility in downtown Louisville, where it has been ever since. The Herbrucks got another old still. They still make whiskey and applejack in Chagrin Falls. On June 29th of that year, David Beam died peacefully at his farm outside of Bardstown. He was 74.

Friday, February 2, 2024

My Louisville Beginnings


My first office in Louisville was on the top floor, left side. Right across the street was my favorite lunch place. Both are still there.

My recent post about Five Brothers Bourbon and the early history of the Heaven Hill Company brought to mind my own early history with the company and the Shapira family.

Early in 1978, with snow still on the ground from one of the worst winters in memory, I moved from Columbus to Louisville to take a new job. Although the job was supposed to take me on to New Orleans, that part fell through, but I liked Louisville and the company, Fessel, Siegfriedt & Moeller Advertising (FS&M). Ed Fessel was retired by then, but Fred Siegfriedt and Rudy Moeller became my mentors in business and life.

Like most Louisville ad agencies, FS&M had a bourbon client. In our case it was Heaven Hill. I didn't work directly on their business, but in a small agency you're exposed to everything. I don't recall ever meeting any of the founding five brothers, but Max Shapira, Ed's son, was in our offices usually several times a week.

It wasn't much business, some small space magazine and newspaper ads for Evan Williams Bourbon, the occasional sales brochure, point-of-sale display, or label design. I recall when the art department started work on packaging for a new bourbon called Elijah Craig. 

Heaven Hill's bourbon, I soon learned, did not have the best reputation, especially in Bardstown, where it was made. It was described as 'oily.' The current distiller, a member of the Beam family, was aware of the problem and in the process of correcting it, I was told, but these things take time. Although Max's father and uncles owned and ran Heaven Hill, the whiskey had always been made by Beams.

Heaven Hill made whiskey exclusively, bourbon mostly, a little bit of rye, and of course blends. I was in the room when the first label designs for Heaven Hill Gin, Vodka, and Rum were presented. All of the bourbon companies were being forced by changing market conditions to either sell or diversify into other, non-whiskey categories. The Shapiras had no interest in selling, so they diversified.

Fred and Rudy were terrific bosses, and I learned a ton from both of them. Fred had some amazing stories about his Army service in Europe at the end of WWII. I spent the most time with Rudy, often in the car driving to meetings with clients and prospective clients. That's where I got my first Kentucky education, as he told me what crazy thing happened in this or that house as we drove through various small towns.

Max Shapira, who was then in charge of marketing, went on to run Heaven Hill, only recently transitioning to emeritus status. 

After a few years I left FS&M for another Louisville company with a distillery connection. This time it was Brown-Forman, where I worked on various brands but not Jack Daniel's which, although owned by Brown-Forman, was entirely run from Tennessee. 

I left Kentucky in 1987 but by then the Commonwealth had its hooks in me. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

What Becomes a Legend Most?

Heaven Hill was named after the farmer, William Heavenhill, who originally owned the land where the distillery was built. The company's founder and first distiller was a member of the famous Beam family, Joe Beam. Joe's first cousin, Jim Beam, had already cornered the market on the family name, so the new company pulled names from the history books, Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, to christen some of its first brands.

Despite those facts, Heaven Hill's beginnings are primarily the story of the five Shapira brothers, David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose. The brothers ran a chain of small department stores founded by their father. Called the Louisville Stores, they were mostly located in Kentucky's small towns (not in Louisville). They were a lot like today's dollar stores.

One day, the brother who ran the store in Bardstown was invited to invest in a new distillery there. He agreed, believing whiskey was a good investment now that it was legal again, but he expected to be a passive investor because he didn't know the first thing about the whiskey business. He wrote the check and went back to running his store.

Prohibition ended in the midst of the Depression and money was scarce. Soon the brother and his siblings were approached with a new proposal. The other original investors were all over-extended. They intended to sell the company if they could, close it if they couldn't. Would the Shapiras care to buy the whole thing?

Though not sure they should, they did. At their mother's insistence, they pooled their money and thereafter shared everything equally, risks and profits. Slowly, the distillery and its whiskey built a following. The brothers may not have known whiskey, but they had a philosophy forged from their retail experience, of always offering customers the best value for the money. Today, Heaven Hill is one of the largest whiskey distillers in the United States, still owned and run by its founding family, and value is still their hallmark.

Even though Heaven Hill was their company, and always had been, the brothers and their descendants never put their family name on a bottle. Now they have. 

As a way of embedding the tribute in liquid, Five Brothers is Heaven Hill's traditional rye-recipe bourbon at five different ages, between five and nine years old. Yes, it's a gimmick, but it has gotten good reviews. Heaven Hill produces many brands, many of whose profiles include whiskey of different ages. Unless it's a bond or single-barrel, most whiskey products contain whiskey of different ages. Even when the label has an age statement, that just means the youngest whiskey in the bottle is that old. There is almost always older whiskey in there too.

Five Brothers Bourbon is only available in Kentucky, primarily at Heaven Hill's gift shops and a few other Kentucky retailers. Normally, I don't write about products that are this hard to find, but you don't need to buy Five Brothers to appreciate what they accomplished. Enjoy some Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Larceny, Bernheim, Henry McKenna, Rittenhouse, or any of Heaven Hill's many other fine whiskeys. 

Ninety years ago, those five young guys took a gamble. They were new kids then. Some said they were playing where they didn't belong. There were ups and downs, but they stuck together as a family and persevered.

Today, with new bourbon brands appearing daily, often with dubious backstories and liquid of unknown provenance, you have the example of the five Shapira brothers, a classic American tale of taking a chance and doing the work to make it a success. 

David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose thank you for your support.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Barry Berish, Who Ran Jim Beam, Dies at 91

Barry Maurice Berish, 1932-2024
Barry Berish died last week. He was 91.

Berish worked for 40 years, 1957-1997, at Jim Beam Brands, rising to the position of Chief Executive Officer in 1982. Under his leadership, Beam went from a one-brand company to the largest distilled spirits producer in the United States, 5th largest in the world. In 1987, he was instrumental in the company's acquisition of National Distillers, tripling the size of the company, and also acquired several brands from Seagram’s Co. that grew the portfolio by an additional 35 percent. 

I became involved with Beam about the time of the National acquisition and was often in their offices in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, working on various marketing projects until about 1994. After that, although I worked with some of the Deerfield-based PR people, I was no longer involved with Beam marketing and my writing about bourbon put me more in contact with Beam folks based in Kentucky.

Berish's official obituary talks about his "warmth and charisma," but I remember him differently. I say "remember," although I had very little direct contact with him. I knew where his office was, at the end of hall, right next to that of Rich Reese, his right-hand-man and successor. I saw both of them from time to time. Reese would poke his head into our meetings now and then. I don't recall Berish ever doing even that.

Around the office, Berish was considered volatile, capricious, and best avoided. He was very much in charge. Beam folks called it the "Barry and Rich Show" because their opinions were the only ones that mattered. I heard him blow up a time or two, but always from a safe distance. I was just one of dozens of anonymous suppliers who came and went. I wasn't on his radar and from what everyone told me, that was a good thing.

So, this is not much of a personal remembrance, but Barry Berish made a mark as one of the industry titans of the late 20th century. He helped shape the business as we know it today. When he became Beam's leader, companies like Jim Beam and its chief rival, Jack Daniel's maker Brown-Forman, were struggling with the decline in whiskey sales that had begun a decade earlier. The task before both companies, and others, was to transition from whiskey companies into broad-portfolio distilled spirits companies. Beam, led by Berish, succeeded where many others did not.