Thursday, August 17, 2017

Whiskey, Water, and You



There has been a lot of coverage today of a new study that explains why dilution with water improves the taste of whiskey and other aged spirits.

In at least one instance, the article includes the dilution formula published in Bourbon, Straight (2004).

It is as follows:

(amount of whiskey) x ((bottle proof/desired proof) -1) = amount of water to add

There is, of course, always water in whiskey. Even a barrel proof bourbon such as Booker's is only about 63 percent alcohol, the rest is water. Most bourbon and practically all scotch is bottled at 40 percent alcohol and 60 percent water.

Some of that water, about 20 percent of it, remains in the distillate that leaves the still. More water is added to get the spirit down to barreling proof, which is 62.5 percent alcohol or less. After aging, more water is added to get the whiskey from barrel proof down to bottle proof.

The study authors write, "When whisky is diluted, the alcohol is driven to the surface, and many of the taste molecules follow it because they like to be in a slightly less aqueous environment." It is unclear if this is something immediate, that happens right after water is added and then dissipates, or if the alcohol stays in that state. And, if it does, does the same thing happen when you pour diluted whiskey into a glass? Or do you have to add more water to create the effect?

It sounds like it happens each time you add water, up to a point of diminishing return. The authors also make an argument against cask strength whiskey that doesn't seem to comport with the experience of most drinkers, who find high proof whiskey very flavorful.

Ice, of course, makes the liquid cooler and also dilutes it, continuously as the ice melts.

Some people believe you should drink whiskey at bottle proof because that is what the maker intended, but this isn't necessarily true for barrel proof (i.e., cask strength) whiskey. The idea of a whiskey straight from the barrel is so you don't have to pay for added water and can dilute the spirit to your taste preference.

That is the best rule anyway. Find out what alcohol concentration you like best and stick to that. Your personal preference is all that really matters and you have all the diagnostic equipment you'll ever need right there in your head.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Fresh Hell Is This?



On Monday, it was "The Death of the Brand Ambassador." Today, it is "Revenge of the Global Partner," reminding us that fanciful titles for paid celebrity spokesfolk are also a hot new thing. Just ask Wild Turkey Creative Director Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey got his gig about a year ago. Kunis has been global partnering with Jim Beam since 2014. Today she recommends that we drink Jim Beam Vanilla, for when "you love the taste of bourbon but are sometimes looking for something a little different." A mixture of vanilla liqueur with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, it adds to the Jim Beam flavored portfolio that includes Jim Beam Apple, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, Jim Beam Honey, and Red Stag by Jim Beam Black Cherry.

Jack Daniel's Honey is the leader in the flavored whiskey segment. It is a mixture of Jack whiskey and honey liqueur. By mixing whiskey with a liqueur you can introduce grain neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) as part of the drink's alcohol content, as neutral spirit is the alcohol component of most liqueurs. A blended whiskey that contains neutral spirit must disclose that fact on the label. Liqueurs are assumed to contain neutral spirit, so a whiskey blended with a liqueur doesn't face that requirement. Jack Honey and Jim Vanilla are classified as 'distilled spirit specialties,' not whiskey.

Neutral spirit costs a lot less to manufacture than whiskey. That makes flavored products more profitable and helps stretch currently tight whiskey stocks. Products classified as 'specialties' can also be sold at a lower proof, 70° (35% ABV) rather than the minimum of 80° (40% ABV) required for whiskey.

But to the typical consumer, it says Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam on the label so it's whiskey, right?

If you hate these products, blame Sazerac's phenomenally successful Fireball, another whiskey/liqueur mixture.

When Jim Beam first got into the flavored whiskey game, they said it would never get as crazy as flavored vodka.

We'll see about that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Death of the Brand Ambassador



The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) is promoting a seminar next week entitled "Build a Better Brand Ambassador," conducted by Robin Robinson.

The seminar is described as follows: "BUILD A BETTER BRAND AMBASSADOR is focused on creating the next generation Brand Ambassador: a sales-oriented, account-driving individual. Full of brand and category knowledge, loquacious and articulate, this individual delivers the brand pitch with aplomb and insider confidence. But also sharply focused on where the brand is at all times and dedicated to driving adoption and volume." (Emphasis added.)

The term 'brand ambassador' is used in many industries, not just distilled spirits. Originally, it was used to describe celebrity endorsers, so the term has always been flexible. But when the distilled spirits business began to use it, maybe 15-20 years ago, the idea was to have someone in the field who was focused entirely on product knowledge and brand education, without the pressure of moving cases and reaching sales goals.

The idea was that salespeople typically have responsibility for multiple brands in multiple categories. It is hard to have in-depth product knowledge about all of them. This reflects on credibility, as does the fact that salespeople have a reputation for saying whatever it takes to get a sale. No criticism intended. If your job is sales, then selling has to be your number one priority. That is why part of the definition of brand ambassador has always been, 'not a salesperson.'

With that background, this seminar doesn't tell producers how to 'build a better brand ambassador.' Instead, it tells the rest of us that the brand ambassador era is over. There can be no such thing as a brand ambassador who sells. That person is called a salesperson. To call them brand ambassadors is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.

The ACSA is a terrific organization and Robin Robinson is a superb presenter who understands the marketing and promotion of distilled spirits products better than anyone I know. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of anyone involved, just of their rhetoric. This also is nothing against salespeople. As salespeople are fond of saying, nothing happens until somebody sells something.

The argument has been made that craft producers, as small operations, can't afford to field both types of representatives. Fine, makes sense, then build a better salesperson. Don't pretend they are brand ambassadors.

The 'redefinition' (i.e., death) of the brand ambassador role is not limited to craft producers. Last year, 'world's-biggest-drinks-company' Diageo ended its 'Masters of Whisky' program and 40 people lost their jobs. Some were rehired as 'redefined' brand ambassadors, i.e., salespeople.

Another role in the mix here is 'field promotions manager.' Now some of them are being called 'brand ambassadors.' Could it be that 'brand ambassador' is too desirable as a title to be wasted on actual brand ambassadors?

If 'the next generation of brand ambassadors' is really the next generation of brand-aware salespeople, there is nothing wrong with that. Just don't pretend it is something else.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Coming Soon: a Limited-Edition Bourbon for $22.99



My latest for The Whisky Wash is a brief history of Early Times (ET), a 157-year-old whiskey brand made and sold by Brown-Forman. In it, I write that ET is a price brand, not well-regarded by bourbon enthusiasts, so that "there are no limited releases" of Early Times.

I was wrong.

Brown-Forman today informed me that, in fact, a limited edition of Early Times will be hitting the shelves very shortly, as in yet this summer, and it will be bourbon, not 'Kentucky Whisky.' Early Times Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky will be in select markets including Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Oregon at the suggested retail price of $22.99 for a 1-liter bottle.

The fact sheet for ET Bottled-in-Bond (BIB) says, "(BIB) standards introduced a new era of guaranteed quality within the spirits industry." That is not quite true. When the law was enacted, the federal government went to great pains to emphasize that Bottled-in-Bond did not guarantee quality. What it guaranteed was authenticity. It was America's first 'truth in labeling' law.

Although the Bottled-in-Bond Act became law in 1897, the heyday of BIB was the decades after WWII. Whiskey-making was curtailed because of wartime priorities, so fully-aged whiskey was in short supply when the war ended. BIB became known as 'the good stuff' because it was always at least four-years-old and 100° proof (50% ABV). The limited-edition Early Times BIB bourbon attempts to duplicate the brand's style from the 1940s.

The press materials note that DSP No. 354, home of ET, is the longest continuously-operating distillery under the same ownership in Kentucky. That is a mouthful, but Brown-Forman prides itself on the precise accuracy of its historical claims.

ET is also re-introducing its most famous proprietary cocktail, 'The Pussycat,' a twist on the whiskey sour that gets its sweetness from amaretto and orange juice instead of simple syrup. Back in the day, Brown-Forman even sold a powdered Pussycat mix.

Also notable is that the release will be in a one-liter bottle, rather than the more common 750 ml. This is a play for the bar trade, which prefers the liter size. Even though it is in a larger size, the suggested retail is a mere $22.99.

ET was a bourbon until 1983, when Brown-Forman converted it into a 'Kentucky Whisky.' To save money, they decided to do some of the aging (about 20 percent) in used barrels, disqualifying it as bourbon, which must be entirely aged in new, charred oak barrels. Because of the current bourbon boom, that may be a decision they now regret.

A few years ago they introduced a line extension, Early Times 354, that was bourbon, but it never caught fire and was discontinued. Although this is a limited edition, it may be another effort to get value-conscious bourbon drinkers interested in ET again. We'll see.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Baker Beam's Birthday Is Tomorrow


Baker Beam (in 1992), sampling new make at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, KY. (from the documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky")
Baker Beam turns 81 tomorrow. Beam Suntory is promoting the anniversary with the 'Baker's 81 Bar Salute,' and conducting a state-wide toast to Baker Beam on his 81st Birthday, at 7:36 PM. (Baker was born in 1936, so they used the year as a time, 19:36, i.e., 7:36 PM.)

Simultaneous parties, known as Baker’s Birthday Bashes, will be thrown at bars across Kentucky from 6 PM- 9PM. They are using the following hashtags to follow the Salute: #bakersbourbon,  #bakers81barsalute, #bakersbirthdaybash

Baker and his younger brother, David, shared distiller duties at Clermont for many years. Their father, Earl 'Shucks' Beam, was distiller there before them, as was his father, Park Beam, Jim Beam's younger brother.

Baker and David grew up in the big house on the hill above the distillery. As distillers, Baker worked days and David worked nights. At the same time their cousin, Booker Noe, was distiller at the Boston (Kentucky) plant that now bears his name.

Baker Beam and David Beam, on the lake at the Boston, KY Beam distillery, for a Jim Beam ad in the '60s.
Unlike Booker, Baker is soft-spoken and taciturn, as are most Beam family members I have known. Like many in the clan, he loves motorcycles and trucks. For many years after he retired, he would show up at the distillery just to ride along on the trucks going up to the corn silos in Indiana, where he had many friends. As kids he and David, with their cousin, Parker (the late master distiller at Heaven Hill), used to ride bicycles together in Bernheim Forest, which is right across the road from the distillery.

Baker has always been very kind to me.

I have always liked his Baker's Bourbon too. Whenever I have drinks with a certain friend, that is all we drink. It is a tradition with us almost as old as the brand itself.

So this will be my salute. Happy birthday, Baker. And many more.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Beam Suntory Opens a New Book



Last week, we looked at one side of American blends. The other side, what used to be called 'Class A' blends, has largely been forgotten in the American whiskey world. The young scion of whiskey royalty is out to change that.

Frederick Booker Noe IV, better known as Freddie, was nicknamed 'Little Book' by his grandfather, Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe. In the last few years, Freddie has joined his father, Fred Noe, in the family business. The next step in his ascension is a new whiskey brand called Little Book. It will be an annual, limited-release series, and it is not a bourbon. It is a blend.

But this is not a typical American blend. It is all straight whiskey, with no neutral spirit. Each year, Freddie will select a different blend. It will be packaged in the same bottle as Booker's Bourbon and, like Booker's, it will be uncut and unfiltered.

The first release, called 'The Easy,' will debut in October. It contains 13-year-old corn whiskey, rye whiskey and malt whiskey aged 5.5 years each, and 4-year-old bourbon. Suggested retail is $79.99 for a 750ml bottle. Although American blended whiskey may contain “harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials" as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a), Little Book does not.

Freddie says the goal is to "create something different, a one-of-a-kind taste profile that people haven't experienced before."

Mission accomplished!

The key to experiencing Little Book 'The Easy' is to not expect it to taste like bourbon. It doesn't. The long-aged corn whiskey dominates the profile, grainy and grassy like corn is supposed to be, but tempered by its long time in reused wood. (The other three whiskeys were all aged in new, charred oak.) Malt provides creamy nuttiness, rye a little background spice, and the bourbon provides body and richness. It is thick and viscous, almost syrupy, and surprisingly easy to drink even at its full 120.48° proof (60.24% ABV).

Some bourbon signifiers are there, caramel in particular. A little water brings it out.

This is a bit of a gamble for Beam. Little book is not the first 'Class A' blend of the modern era, but it arrives with a lot of fanfare and is a lot of weight to put on a young man's shoulders. But Freddie is a big man, like his father and grandfather. I think he can handle it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Whiskey Tourism and the Driver's Dilemma



Several friends have asked me this recently. "We want to go to Kentucky and visit distilleries. Is there a bus or something we can take so we don't drink and drive?" Okay, nobody exactly asked that, but most of my friends are responsible and several have asked about transportation alternatives.

This matters because the distilleries are rather far apart. The distance between Buffalo Trace and Maker's Mark, two very popular tours, is about 65 miles and a lot of that is winding country roads.

Kentucky's whiskey tourism infrastructure is still developing. So is Tennessee's, which has some catching up to do. In Kentucky, the premier tour company for whiskey fans is Mint Julep Tours, which operates out of Louisville. They offer everything from private, customized tours to regularly scheduled trips anyone can join for the price of a ticket.

Mint Julep recently expanded its options for full-day public bourbon tours on Fridays and Saturdays. A three-day adventure to nine different distilleries is also available. Each daytrip includes stops at three distilleries, lunch at a locally-owned restaurant, all admissions and planning, and comfortable transportation with an enthusiastic tour leader.

Mint Julep has an official relationship with the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) and its official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but that doesn't mean they won't take you to Buffalo Trace and other non-KDA distilleries. The KDA also has official relationships with R&R Limousine, as well as Uber and Lyft.

I'm not a big ride sharing guy, but if sitting in the backseat of a stranger's Prius for a couple of hours sounds cool to you, go for it. Me, I prefer the comfy buses.

Because the places you want to go are so spread out, and because there is alcohol involved, a successful tour of America's whiskey heartland requires planning. Although it is much more developed now than it was ten or twenty years ago, it is still a bit of the Wild West compared to a distillery tour of Scotland or a winery tour of the Napa Valley. But if you use all of the available tools, that can be part of the fun.