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.