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.