Monday, September 11, 2017

Beer Still Diameters and Distillery Capacity; It Is Not That Simple


The beer still at the new Bulleit Distillery is 42" diameter.
With all of the new distillery construction and existing distillery expansion going on, it is hard to get a handle on how much new capacity is coming into the industry. Distilleries can produce below their capacity, of course, but these days bourbon distilleries are making as much as they can, so questions of capacity matter.

Although not quite the same as the beer we drink, the fermented grain mash that goes into a still like the one pictured above is called beer, and the still itself is called the beer still. This still strips all of the alcohol from the beer. That vapor, which is still 20 to 30 percent water, goes to a second pot-type still called a doubler for a second distillation, to remove more water and 'polish' the spirit.

Many factors affect how much a distillery can produce. One of them is the size of its beer still. A beer still doesn't have to be a column (i.e., continuous) still, but that is what most bourbon makers use. Because they are so tall, still height is the dimension that seems to impress people, but the dimension that matters is girth, the diameter of the still.

In trying to assess the capacity of different distilleries, I have tried to base it entirely on still diameter but, of course, it is not that simple.

"The diameter of the column is a very important part of the maximum throughput, but it’s not the only thing," says Mike Sherman, Vice President of Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the primary manufacturer of stills and other equipment for America's whiskey makers. "Tray design (amount of open area in the perforation) and downcomer size (the pipe that takes the beer down the column from one tray to the next) play a huge part." Other factors include beer thickness, condenser size, and fermentation yield.

It is also not correct, as I had assumed, that two 36" columns would have the same capacity as one 72" unit, for example. "It is not the diameter of the column, it is the area of the column" that matters, says Sherman. (A=𝜋r²) A 36" diameter column has an area of 7.06 ft², so 14.12 ft² for two columns. A 54" diameter column has an area of 15.9 ft². So, technically, the 54” column can run more than two 36” columns as long as everything else is sized correctly.

It also matters how each distillery uses its equipment, in terms of hours per day, days per week, and weeks per year. Some run one shift per day for five days and have a six-week shutdown versus another that runs round the clock for six days per week and only shuts down for two weeks per year.

So still area is a better metric than still diameter for comparison purposes and it is only roughly comparable, since it doesn't factor in those other considerations.

There are no easy answers, dammit.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bardstown Bourbon Company to Add Capacity, Become Major Producer




Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBC) announced today that it will expand its capacity to allow production of up to six million proof gallons per year. To accomplish this, the distillery will add a second 36-inch beer still, a 12.5k gallon mash cooker, and up to 16 additional fermenters. They expect the expansion to be complete by July of next year. This means more maturation warehouses also will be needed.

The press release claims this expansion will make BBC "one of the largest bourbon distilleries in the world." That's a stretch, but it certainly puts BBC into the major league, probably at number six, which is amazing for a distillery that has only been in operation for a year.

BBC is in direct competition with MGP of Indiana as a contract producer and will be bigger than MGP in terms of whiskey capacity when this expansion is completed. (MGP also produces neutral spirits.)

“The Bardstown Bourbon Company’s rapid growth is extremely exciting,” said David Mandell, President & CEO. “We’re truly helping to reshape the American whiskey market, and the success of our Collaborative Distilling Program demonstrates the massive demand for custom-made, authentic, Kentucky whiskey, bourbon and rye.”

In related news, the Distilled Spirits Council announced today that the value of U.S. distilled spirits exports rose a robust 10.6 percent—up more than $67 million—to a total of $698.5 million in the first half of 2017 as compared with the same period in 2016. In dollar terms, the growth was led by the largest category: American whiskeys including Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey and American Rye, which rose nearly $27 million to $464.6 million up 6.1 percent. The U.S. also exports small amounts of brandy, vodka, and rum.

These two announcements are related because much of the expansion taking place in the American whiskey business, especially among the majors, is predicated on robust, long-term export growth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

This May be Your Last Chance to Get "Made and Bottled in Kentucky" on DVD



"Made and Bottled in Kentucky," my one-hour documentary about the Kentucky bourbon whiskey industry, will no longer be available on Amazon once their current inventory of DVDs is exhausted. It will continue to be available here (i.e., directly from me) until my current inventory is exhausted. The price from me is $28, which includes U.S. shipping.

When my inventory runs out, I may make more DVDs, but more likely I will find some way to make it available via digital download.

So if you want to make sure you have a physical copy in your bourbon library, the time to act is now.

The documentary was made in 1991-92, with grants from Kentucky Educational Television (KET) and the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). KET still runs it from time to time on their network. Because it is 25 years old, it is interesting now primarily from a historical perspective, at it was made when we were seeing the first hints of the bourbon revival.

The production was made possible through a serendipitous convergence of events. Kentucky became a state in 1792, so for the bicentennial the legislature gave KET some extra money to fund independent productions about Kentucky subjects. I applied for and got a grant. The KDA had money to give because it had just received a Federal grant for export promotion. I was working in the industry, in marketing, so I was known to several of the distilleries.

At that point, I had been writing and producing TV commercials and other audio-visual material for about 20 years, but always for clients. I had never done a project where I had complete control. That was exciting for me and the main reason I wanted to do it.

There was no issue about independence with KET, but I was concerned about KDA. I finished my grant pitch by telling them that their funding would not give them the authority to approve the script or final product. Bill Samuels Jr., who was there representing Maker's Mark, leaped to his feet (as Bill will do) and proclaimed, "He's absolutely right, because I would be the worst, and if I can't tell him what to do, nobody can." It passed without objection.

This project is also what gave me the bourbon bug. I have been studying and writing about it ever since.

The video above is a short collection of clips from the documentary. There are others on my You Tube channel.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Come Drink with Me in Findlay, Ohio, on Tuesday, September 26



We will drink, eat, and talk bourbon. It should be a lot of fun. Join me beginning at 5:30 PM on Tuesday, September 26, at The Bourbon Affair, 121 E Crawford St, in downtown Findlay, Ohio. The ticket price ($65) includes a four-course meal and a tasting of four whiskeys. They are Old Taylor Small Batch Bourbon, Calumet Farms 10-year-old Single Rack Black, Woodford Reserve Straight Rye, and a Maker's Mark Private Select created especially for The Bourbon Affair.

This tasting is a bit of a homecoming for me. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, which is about an hour due east. In the 70s, I briefly worked at a radio station in Findlay. That is also where I get off I-75 to head east for visits home, so I've been through Findlay more times than I can count. The Pioneer Sugar silos are like an old friend.

Findlay is a nice town, even nicer now that it has a bourbon bar. It is home of the University of Findlay and Cooper Tire. It was, for 85 years, home of the Marathon Oil Company. The American standard, "Down by the Old Mill Stream," was composed by Findlay native Tell Taylor and inspired by Findlay's Blanchard River.

I promise not to give a long speech with a quick tasting at the end. We'll start to drink right away, and taste a different whiskey between dinner courses. I'll talk about the whiskeys we're tasting, about bourbon in general, and bourbon history. I like it when people interrupt me with good questions. These things are always best when it's a conversation.

If you would like to bring me to your town for a tasting, click here for information about how to do it.

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.

Monday, July 17, 2017

There Are Blends and There Are Blends



The word 'blend' is primarily a verb. It means to mix two or more things together so they combine into one thing. It is a common word, meaning more or less the same as 'mix' and 'combine.' It can also be a noun, referring to the combination itself.

A 'term of art' is a word or phrase that means one thing in common usage, but something else in a particular trade or 'art.' The specialized definition usually is related to the common one, it is just more narrowly drawn. Terms of art exist in many fields, from law to, well, whiskey-making. They can be confusing, especially when you are unfamiliar with the specialized terminology.

Which brings us back to 'blend.' Here it gets even more confusing because while 'blend' is a whiskey-making term of art, it doesn't mean the same thing everywhere. In Scotland, for example, a 'blended whisky' is a mixture of one or more single malt whiskies with some quantity of grain whisky. That is what it means in Ireland and Japan too. Canada is a little different, but the same in principle.

Which brings us to the USA.

The American definition of 'blended whiskey' is unique. It grew out of a dispute between distillers and rectifiers that came to a head in 1909. The compromise, issued by President William Howard Taft, allowed distillers to call their product 'straight whiskey,' while rectifiers were required to use the term 'blended whiskey.'

The new rules were written so as to define 'blended whiskey' as essentially what the rectifiers at the time were making.

Under U.S. rules, 'blended whiskey' is a mixture of at least 20 percent straight whiskey, the remainder being whiskey or neutral spirits. That sounds simple, but it covers a lot of ground. The typical American blend today is at that minimum of 20 percent straight whiskey, the balance being neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. Most knowledgeable drinkers, when they think about American blends, think 20 percent whiskey, 80 percent vodka.

Such a creature is whiskey only in the United States. In the rest of the world, you can't put neutral spirit in something and still call it 'whiskey.' Admittedly, most blending whiskey is nearly neutral, but it is whiskey.

Seagrams 7 is the best-selling American blend. The last time I looked it was 25/75.

Because of the large quantity of neutral spirit in American blends, they are very inexpensive and that seems to be their primary appeal. They are sometimes disparagingly called 'brown vodka.' 'Whiskey-flavored vodka' may be closer to the point. They are usually served as a highball with a soft drink, most famously 7UP (the 'seven and seven' cocktail).

But American blends have not always been that way. In the years after Prohibition, when well-aged whiskey was in short supply, many companies had 'Class A' blends that were all whiskey, albeit of different types, and some of it young, but containing no neutral spirit. These went away as well-aged whiskey became more available and blend buyers became more and more price sensitive.

Today, well-aged whiskey is in short supply again, for a different reason, and 'Class A' blends may be making a comeback.

More on that to come.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Was Fleischmann's the First American Gin?



In the latest edition of The Bourbon Country Reader, we look at the tenure of Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas at what is now Buffalo Trace. Baranaskas had been president of Fleischmann's Distilling prior to he and Falk buying the Frankfort distillery in 1983.

The Reader article provides a little background about the Fleischmann company, which claimed to be the first American producer of gin. Our good friend in Australia, Chris Middleton, disagrees.
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Maybe it is a moot point, Fleischmann’s claiming to be America’s first gin distiller. Maybe it was their advertising hubris or category ignorance that led to such an erroneous statement. They were not the first distiller of gin in America. Neither were they the first domestic brand of gin. Not by a country mile. I checked Sazerac, where it states on their Fleischmann's site ‘…and America had its first distilled gin as well.’ I suppose because they put this statement on the front of their label, that’s sufficient evidence of its veracity.

Some years ago I looked into the US gin/geneva history. It is a difficult category to get a clear fix on the historical consumption, imports and local production before Prohibition.

Gin distilleries, also distilleries producing gin (e.g. molasses spirit, rectified with juniper) established themselves along the east coast by the 18th century. Immigrating Dutch distillers were likely early users of rye spirit; whereas British-American distillers were accustomed to using barley malt or molasses as the spirit base. The base doesn’t legally matter as it’s juniper flavored ethanol that essentially defines the category. No doubt small household distillers and apothecaries (with small compounding stills) were making gin much earlier. Juniper cones (berries) were a staple herbal/botanical of American apothecaries since the early 1700s, probably earlier as native juniper (Juniperus virginiana) was substituted for desiccated European cones/berries (Juniperus communis).

Before the Revolutionary War, gin was a popular spirit in the Colonial era i.e. 1760 & 1770s. An imported British habit and custom. Even during the War years gin had strong patronage, both domestic and imported. Gin was perceived and also consumed as a health tonic or elixir, especially among females. Ironically, its early usage was as an abortifacient.

While much of this flavored new-make was imported from England (gin) and Holland (geneva), many domestic distilleries were also serving the local communities, from Vermont (Middleburg Falls gin distillery) to Georgia (Henry Snow, distiller, made Georgia Geneva from 1767 in Savannah). Meanwhile, in the mid-States, Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont bought John Livingston’s gin distillery on Joralemon Street on the East River frontage, Brooklyn, in 1787. During the war, a fire destroyed the Livingston distillery. Pierrepont refurbished the distillery as the Anchor Gin Distillery. For 32 years he sold the Anchor gin brand in the tri-State area. It survived until 1819.

Late 18th and early 19th-century distilling manuals and grocery instructions always included a section of recipes for different types of gin (cordial, Old Tom, genever, French genevier, juniper spirit, etc.). In 1791, a Report to the Secretary of Treasury stated ’the consumption of genever, and gin, in this country, is extensive. It is not long since distilleries of it, have grown up among us to any importance.’ Three years later New England gins were described as ‘equal if not superior to imported’ (American Museum & Universal Magazine, 1794).

Even by 1806, the American Manufacturer Report estimated that of the 15 million gallons of spirit consumed annually, three million were of domestic rum and gin. They described "large gin distilleries in cities." As rectifiers were starting to dominate the cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York), I have wondered how much grain and molasses was diverted into gin rectification and compounding. The old quadfecta of local spirits distilling was rum, whiskey, gin and fruit brandies (apple, peach); grape brandy was an import. There was much imported English gin & Hollands geneva; the bulk rebottled for sale by local agents and wholesalers, such as NYC’s A. M. Binninger’s Old London Dock Gin in 1858. Binninger's also produced the first bottled Kentucky bourbon whiskey brand in 1846.

Fleischmann’s may not be the first; although they probably are the oldest gin brand made in America today. Black Friars Distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in Britain since 1793. They make Plymouth Gin. Lucus Bols is the oldest genever brand in the Netherlands, they started distilling in 1575. Assuming Fleischmann’s has been distilling and compounding gin since 1870, except during Prohibition, that makes Fleischmann’s America’s oldest continuous gin brand, which I believe is the case.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why You Have Never Heard of Woodinville Whiskey Company



It was announced today that the Woodinville Whiskey Company of Woodinville, Washington, has been acquired by LVMH, the French luxury brands conglomerate.

Unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, you probably have never heard of this seven-year-old craft distillery run by Orlin Sorensen and Brett Carlile. That is because although their products are well-distributed in Washington, they are unavailable everywhere else. “Our goal is for our brand to have roots and be a significant factor in the American whiskey category in our region before we move outside,” says Sorensen.

Significant? How about competitive with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, an international brand owned by Brown-Forman. In Washington State, Woodinville's bourbon sells about as well as Woodford.

The bottle shown above, from 2013, was young but showed great promise. These days, their lead offerings are a house-made bourbon and rye aged for a minimum of five years in 53-gallon barrels. “These two products have been our goal since Brett (Carlile) and I started the distillery in 2010,” says Sorensen. “We always felt that if we could produce a truly handcrafted, quality product from grain to bottle of a mature age, and offer it at a reasonable price, the rest would take care of itself.”

Sorensen sees age as a competitive advantage. “The craft whiskey market is getting real crowded. A $50+ bottle of 6 month old whiskey is going to have a tough time against a 5 to 6 year old craft bourbon or rye at $40.”

As always seems to be the case when a craft distillery is acquired, the principal attraction for the buyer is a successful brand. Everything else follows that. Since Woodinville is a grain-to-glass operation, changes won't happen quickly. Sorensen and Carlile will continue to run things. 

Why do people sell? For many entrepreneurs, that is always the goal. For others, where the principals want to retain control of the business, and the new owners want them to, the incentive is release of capital. If everything you have is tied up in your business, it is a great relief to get some of it back, especially on generous terms. 

Diversification, you know.

In the case of whiskey, there are unique considerations. Because of aging and taxes, it takes a lot of capital to grow a whiskey-making business. The most successful new distilleries face the greatest challenge because they need so much capital to exploit their full potential. A rich partner that knows the business and has a proven track record of enhancing brand value is just about the perfect partner to have.

Woodinville did good.


ALSO: Susannah Skiver Barton does a great job covering this story on the Whisky Advocate Blog.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Maker's Mark Private Select Needs a Better Name



Many producers have private barrel programs, in which a customer selects and buys an entire barrel of mature whiskey. The contents of the barrel are bottled, usually with a personalized label, and delivered to the customer through the usual channels. Liquor stores do it. Bars and Restaurants do it. Private individuals do it too, often as part of a group. It is a fun experience and an easy way to 'make your own whiskey.' No special skills are required. You just need money and time.

But the Maker's Mark Private Select program is so unlike those other private barrel programs, the generic name doesn't do it justice. With the Maker's program, you aren't just choosing a whiskey, you actually customize it.

Here's the story.

In 2010, Maker's Mark had a problem. Its new corporate masters, the Jim Beam folks, were demanding innovation, i.e., new products.

New products are the lifeblood of most businesses. They generate buzz and increase top-of-mind awareness, which increases sales. Shareholders like innovation and, at that time, Beam was part of a public company.

But Maker's Mark has always been different. Although they had messed around with packaging and proof, they had really only ever made one product, aged-to-taste Maker's Mark bourbon. It was the only product made at the Loretto distillery and it was made nowhere else. They did things other people didn't, such as moving barrels around in the warehouses (called 'barrel rotation'), for the express purpose of creating a consistent product barrel-to-barrel, bottle-to-bottle, glass-to-glass.

They had been doing these things for all 50 years of their existence. They weren't good at making news. That's why company president Bill Samuels Jr. had to dress funny.

As he and other company representatives said repeatedly, "We already make the best bourbon we know how to make. How can we make it better?"

The answer was to make something that was still Maker's Mark, not better, just different. Thus Maker's 46 was born. Maker's 46 is a finished whiskey. It is mature Maker's Mark finished in barrels into which specially-prepared French oak panels have been added. The finishing takes about nine weeks.

Private Select takes the 46 concept a bit further.

When they were working on 46, they did a lot of experimentation with different woods and different ways of toasting them to bring out different flavors. Each experiment was given a number. The one they liked best was number 46, hence the name.

But then they realized, along with their partners in wood at the Independent Stave Company, that one wood prepared one way was just the beginning. What if you developed other woods? What if you combined them? What if you let customers combine them? How many different whiskeys could you make?


With Private Select, you have five different woods (all oak, U.S. or French, toasted differently), which you mix and match on a board such as the one above. Maker's 46 is one of the options. You work with samples of Maker's finished with each of the woods, so it's a blending project. What you create and taste in the blending session should be very close to the way your final barrel will taste.

They've been doing it since 2015. Forty-one barrels were created in the 2015-2016 season, for accounts in seven states. During the 2016-2017 season it was 239 barrels in 18 states plus the District of Columbia and Japan. They are doing about one a day now.

Suggested retail is $69.95 for a 750ml bottle (cask strength), which gives you a rough idea of how much it costs, since a barrel should yield about 250 bottles. Right now the program is available only to commercial accounts, not private individuals or groups.

There is more to tell, but that should be enough to explain why it needs a better name.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Utah's 'Zion Curtain' is History, or Not


Salt Lake City restaurant owner Joel LaSalle in front of his 'Zion Curtain.'
(Rick Bowmer, AP)
If you have never bought a drink in a Utah restaurant, you may not believe this is true but it is ... or, rather, was.

They call it the 'Zion Curtain,' a barrier that prevents drinkers in Utah restaurants from seeing their drinks being made. Why? Because Utah wants to protect children from being seduced by the glamour of bartending. This has become even more onerous for restaurants in recent years as bartending has become, well, more glamorous.

But now a new law is dragging Utah kicking and screaming into the mid-1930s.

The rule has only ever applied to restaurants that allow children. No children, no problem, so places that don't admit anyone under 21 have never needed them.

The partitions have not always been with us. They were only enacted in 2009 and applied only to new restaurants, built after the law went into effect.

As you might suspect, it's a Mormon thing. The Mormon faith forbids the consumption of alcohol. Caffeine too, though apparently Starbucks doesn't have to protect children from the glamour of barista-ing.

As a result of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition, the beverage alcohol business in the U.S. works in a way that is almost exactly opposite to how all other laws involving commerce behave. It turns the Commerce Clause on its head in many, though not all ways.

Alcohol in Utah and some other states is similar to abortion in many of the same states, in that they can't ban it altogether so they just try to make it as inconvenient and unpleasant as possible for you to exercise your legal right.

Don't get me started on 3.2 beer.

Although no other state has anything like the 'Zion Curtain,' every state has its own legal peculiarities when it comes to alcohol. Convenience stores in Indiana may sell beer but not cold beer.

In virtually all other forms of commerce, the U.S. is a single market. The same rules apply everywhere. With alcohol, it is 50 different markets. That complexity and inefficiency is built into the price of every alcoholic beverage you buy.

But remember, it's for the children.

Just because the 'Zion Curtain' is tumbling down, that doesn't mean the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC) will stop being a pain in the ass. Now all restaurants, including those built before 2009, will have a choice of either creating a 'no kids zone' at least ten feet from the bar, possibly through the use of a railing or half-wall, or they can keep the partitions. Restaurant owners have five years to comply, assuming Utah doesn't change the rules again.

The UDABC is also warning restaurants that the changes they plan to make must be approved before they are implemented, or they could lose their license. Some of the people who were smashing their partitions last week may need to get out the Crazy Glue.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Falk and Baranaskas, Saviors of Buffalo Trace, Belong in the Hall of Fame



Imagine a world without the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

If you think that prospect is too horrible to contemplate, say a quiet word of thanks to Ferdie Falk and Robert Baranaskas, without whom that great distillery might be a state office complex today.

In 1983, veteran spirits execs Falk and Baranaskas bought the nearly-idle Albert Blanton Distillery in Frankfort from Schenley and formed a new company called Age International. They ran it successfully during some of the worst years for the American whiskey business since Prohibition itself. They enjoyed a nice payday when they sold it to their Japanese partners, who immediately sold the distillery to Sazerac, itself one of the few companies in those days making money selling American whiskey. Sazerac renamed it Buffalo Trace and the rest is bourbon history.

Ancient Age kept the brands it made there: Blanton's, Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, and others. Buffalo Trace still makes them, under contract.

For the whole story, including the likely reason they aren't in the Hall, you need to read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader.

The Sazerac Company figures in this issue's other story too, as the company has submitted a patent application for its Old Fashioned Sour Mash process, which differs from conventional sour mash in that it does not use backset (i.e., stillage).

Current subscribers should receive their copies in the next few days. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring tradition, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

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Friday, June 16, 2017

Tom Bulleit, Great Guy, But Not an Entrepreneur



Under the "Icons of Entrepreneurship" banner, the INC.COM headline says this: "The Unsung Hero Behind Bulleit Bourbon."

It is about Betsy Bulleit, her marriage to Tom, and their "third and fourth children," Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye. It is a fluff piece, written by the brand's PR agency.

I like Bulleit Bourbon (a product of Four Roses) and Bulleit Rye (a product of MGP of Indiana). They are excellent whiskeys. And I love Tom Bulleit. I always enjoy visiting with him. He is a great guy. I don't know Betsy, but the happy marriage angle is great too. I'm totally happy for them.

But Tom Bulleit is not an entrepreneur.

In 1995, Bulleit, a lawyer in Frankfort, Kentucky who had some business in Japan, created two new bourbon brands, 'Bulleit' and 'Thoroughbred,' for the booming Japanese market. He sold Bulleit to Seagrams in 1997. They reformulated the whiskey and redesigned the package. Mostly, they liked the name, which is pronounced 'bullet.' Thoroughbred fell by the wayside.

Tom was an entrepreneur for two years.

Selling your company after two years is surely one measure of entrepreneurial success, but you stop being an entrepreneur when you stop entrepreneuring. For the last 20 years he has been a brand ambassador. Brand ambassador is a noble calling and Tom is a very good brand ambassador but he is an employee, like Fred Noe is at Beam. It is not his company.

The brand owner is Diageo, world's largest drinks company, which never can resist gilding the lily.

Friday, June 9, 2017

MGP Ingredients Announces the Re-Launch of George Remus Bourbon



A lot has been written about MGP Ingredients, a company that makes commodity whiskey at a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The company is primarily a neutral spirits distiller. It has been mentioned here a few times.

MGP is changing, gradually and not always smoothly, but profoundly. They are cautiously adding a branded products component to their commodity offering.

That is what makes their re-launch of George Remus Bourbon, announced this week, significant. George Remus Bourbon is a tiny Cincinnati-area brand that MGP acquired last year, not long after it was launched. That product used whiskey made at MGP's Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery. The new version, according to the company, is a different formulation ("a smoother, more complex whiskey") in a new package.

Liquor brands that celebrate criminals (e.g., Popcorn Sutton, Clyde May) are inherently problematic, considering the fraught history of alcohol in both legal and illegal forms. The real George Remus was a very successful bootlegger at the beginning of Prohibition, but is that any reason to buy his namesake whiskey? Guys like Remus are only in it for the money, after all, so his standards were not very high. If it had alcohol in it, that was good enough for him.

But he was a colorful character. If you want to know more, check out William Cook's biography, George Remus, King of the Bootleggers

"We’re whiskey lovers and are very proud to offer this updated styling of George Remus Bourbon," says Andrew Mansinne, Vice President of Brands, MGP Ingredients. He is a recent hire in a brand new job. Til American Wheat Vodka is MGP's other branded product.

"This is a complex bourbon whiskey that showcases our signature, high-rye profile and the talent of our distillation team, who have artfully crafted George Remus Bourbon into a beautiful and bold spirit inspired by George Remus’ rebellious and entrepreneurial character," says Mansinne.

Available this summer in select markets (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota), George Remus Bourbon is made at "MGP’s historic, 170-year-old distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana." It is good to see them featuring the "historic, 170-year-old distillery," an attribute that will have resonance long after the novelty of the brand's name fades.

Suggested retail is $44.99 for a 750 ml bottle.

6/13/17: I received this image of the new package from MGP's PR firm. It's an improvement.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Something Went Wrong on the Way to "The 25 Most Important Bourbons Ever Made"



Two months ago, I was invited to participate in a project for Food & Wine magazine being helmed by Robert Simonson, a writer I hold in high esteem. The pitch went like this:

"The idea is to catalogue the 25 most significant and influential and just plain excellent Bourbons ever distilled since they started distilling Bourbon. These could be adjudged so for a variety of reasons: innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc. They can be extant Bourbons handily found on the shelf, or Bourbons that are hard to get, or Bourbons that are extinct and impossible to get and only live on in memory."

The finished product, on the Food & Wine website, is here.

It is disappointing.

What went wrong? It is hard to say. You will notice that all of the products pictured can be purchased today, albeit with difficulty in some cases (e.g., Van Winkle). Was that always the plan? Or was it the decision of an editor, perhaps sensitive to the article's advertising-seeking potential? It is implausible that all of the "25 most important bourbons ever made" are still available. Where are the avatars of "innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc." from the past? Some of that is in the text, but the overall result is confusing.

Take Michter's, for example. The picture shows a current iteration of Michter's, but the short blurb that accompanies it accurately states that, "This old Pennsylvania distilling name got new life in the 1990s under new owners who sourced, rather than made, their whiskey." It is hard to tell a complicated story in 100 words or less. (It took me more than 100 pages.)

One could argue that Michter's is important for two reasons. The old Michter's, which had a brief history under that name, died in 1990. A few years later, the present owners claimed the abandoned trademark and made good use of it. The whiskey they sourced was excellent and the Michter's line became a leader in the super-premium segment of the market. In August of 2015 (not 2012, as the article states), this Michter's became a distiller, operating a new distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively.

But the original Michter's was also important, for many reasons but in bourbon lore for being the source of the legendary A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, the history of which is told in The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste.

Many of the other selections have a similar problem, trying to combine multiple points of significance into a 100-word blurb under a picture of a modern product that may have little or no relationship to the story being told. Then you realize that the list represents a ranking and comes to the conclusion that Maker's Mark is the most important bourbon of all time, which is absurd on its face. Apparently, the method was to add up how many people mentioned a given brand name. Maker's was mentioned most often, hence it was judged the most important.

Here, for what it is worth, is what I submitted:

Old Oscar Pepper/Old Crow made during Dr. Crow’s lifetime, so pre-1856. Crow introduced many practices we take for granted, such as the sour mash process and routine aging. None of his whiskey has survived. I’ve never tasted it, nor probably has anyone in more than a century. Its significance is that it fundamentally changed how bourbon was made.

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12-year-old. It was a 12-year-old wheated bourbon made at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and just about perfect, as in perfectly balanced. It was generally available from the late 50s until about 1990. I’ve gone through several bottles. I have none left.

Abraham Bowman 18-year-old rye-recipe bourbon from Sazerac. It came out in about 2012. Very limited. Very old bourbons are hit-or-miss. They miss more often than not or are okay but nothing special. Very rarely are they exceptional. This one was. I had one bottle. It is long gone.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, any bottling. A rye-recipe bourbon made by a doomed Pennsylvania distillery during a couple of weeks in 1974, that became a phenomenon and is genuinely great whiskey too. Most of it was sold at 16-years-old but even the 20-year-old is terrific. I’ve tasted them all and still have one or two bottles.

Weller 12-year-old. The closest you can get today to the taste of those great Stitzel-Weller wheaters of yore. Still made and widely available though often in short supply as its reputation as ‘poor man’s Pappy’ has spread.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. On the rye-recipe side of the ledger, Kentucky Spirit stands out as an exemplar. It is simply everything you want in a rye-recipe bourbon. Still made, widely available, and modestly priced for what you get.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills Bourbon (2012). On paper, it’s just a mixture of Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old rye-recipe bourbon with Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old wheated bourbon. The proportions were never revealed. To me, it is one of the best bourbons ever made and a great example of what a veteran master distiller at the height of his powers can accomplish.

Robert Simonson is a terrific writer who I know personally, and who has written kindly about me on at least two occasions. If you read the piece, ignore the photographs and modify some of the subheads, a very different story emerges, one that reads a lot more like the way he writes. I won't embarrass him by asking what went wrong. It only matters what is on the page. Whatever the reason, the article as presented is confusing and unsuccessful. It does not deliver what the headline promises.

By the way, I'm about halfway through Simonson's book from last year, A Proper Drink. So far, it is a delight. More later.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ken Cowdery's Laundry Tips (No Bourbon Content)



For 40 years, my father -- Joseph Kendrick 'Ken' Cowdery -- was an engineer for a major laundry equipment manufacturer. For most of that time he ran their testing laboratories. Here is what he taught me about laundry.

1.  Detergent Amount: Use the amount of detergent recommended by the detergent manufacturer, no more, no less. The correct amount of detergent is a function of the amount of water being used, so if your machine has different water level settings, adjust accordingly. Adding more detergent won’t do any good if you can’t also add more water.

2.  Too Much Detergent: Using too much detergent won’t get your clothes any cleaner. It may cause excess suds, which can make a mess in your laundry room and damage your equipment. It also may leave a residue on your clothes.

3.  Washer Type: Top loaders use a lot more water than front loaders, and consequently call for more detergent. The makers of both the equipment and the detergent will tell you this. Believe them. Front loaders need less detergent because they need less water. (Dad loved front loaders. He helped develop them. They use less energy, less water, less detergent, and clean better.)

4.  Washer Load Size: If your clothes aren’t getting clean enough, or are heavily soiled, wash smaller loads. This is simple and is just about the only way to improve washer performance. Use the same amount of water and detergent, but put in fewer clothes. (Pre-soaking also helps.)

5.  Dryer Load Size: This is counter-intuitive, but the dryer performs best with a full load. It is the hot air trapped within the clothes that dries them. Too few and a lot of the hot air goes straight out the vent. That’s the simplest summation of Dad’s advice: under-load the washer, over-load the dryer.

6.  Water Temperature: Some detergents advertise that they clean just as well in cold water as hot. It’s not true. Use the hottest water whatever you are washing can stand. Dad preferred hot water for everything. Mom didn’t necessarily agree.

7.  Fabric Softener: Dad opposed the use of fabric softener. Mom disagreed. Despite Dad’s standing in the industry, Mom’s vote mattered because she actually did the laundry, and because she was Mom. Dad’s position was that fabric softeners work by damaging (i.e., weakening) the clothing. Mom’s position was that he was the only family member who wore things until they fell apart.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Tennessee Whiskey History Lesson



In the beginning, there were hundreds of small, farm-based distillers in the land that became Tennessee in 1796 (four years after Kentucky statehood). If they made whiskey, it was 'Tennessee whiskey,' because it was whiskey and it was made in Tennessee.

As whiskey-making matured into a real industry after the Civil War, major producers emerged there as they did in Kentucky and elsewhere. The distillery established by Jack Daniel was one of them. Another was Cascade Hollow, which was sold by a Nashville merchant named George Dickel. Another large Nashville merchant, Charles Nelson, owned a distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee.

They all called their products Tennessee whiskey because they were proud of their home state and because bourbon seemed like a Kentucky thing, although it was also made in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other places. Nobody was particularly concerned about definitions and the Federal 'Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits' didn't exist. By the end of the century, producers and politicians were still arguing about the definition of 'whiskey.' They weren't yet concerned about whiskey types.

Statewide prohibition of alcohol came early to Tennessee (1907) and stayed late (1938). Of the major pre-Prohibition distillers in Tennessee, only Jack Daniel's came back in a big way. Cascade Hollow Tennessee Whiskey became Cascade Hollow Bourbon, made at the distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, now known as Buffalo Trace. Nelson's Green Brier Distillery would not be revived until the 21st century.

So as the industry developed after Repeal, only one brand represented Tennessee: Jack Daniel's. The legend of the 'Lincoln County Process,' the filtering of new make spirit through sugar maple charcoal, was promoted as the brand's primary point-of-difference. And Jack Daniel's became pretty successful, so successful that by the mid-1950s, the Motlow family could no longer afford the capital required to keep the brand growing. They decided to sell, but they wanted to sell it to someone who would allow the family to keep running it and keep things in Lynchburg more or less unchanged.

One of the bidders was Schenley, by then one of the 'Big Four' companies that dominated the distilled spirits business. Schenley's owner, Lewis Rosenstiel, went after Jack Daniel's hard. Another bidder was Brown-Forman, a much smaller company. Although Schenley offered more money, the Motlows chose Brown-Forman because it was family-controlled and because they had not enjoyed their previous dealings with Rosenstiel.

In retaliation, Rosenstiel decided to repatriate Cascade to Tennessee, building a new distillery there, and calling it George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. The first batch went on sale in 1964. It used a similar, though not identical, charcoal filtering process, because imitating and eventually beating Jack Daniel's was the whole point of the exercise.

The intention was to compete head-to-head, but although the Dickel brand was successful, it never got close to beating Daniel's. Today, Jack outsells George about 100 to 1. For all intents and purposes, Jack Daniel's is Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel's always has maintained that while it adheres to the legal standards for bourbon, it is different (better?) because of the 'Lincoln County Process.'

In recent years, micro-distilleries have begun to appear in Tennessee, as they have in the rest of the country. Because there was nothing to prevent them from doing so, some of these new, small producers decided to make and sell 'Tennessee whiskey' that didn't use the 'Lincoln County Process,' reasoning that it being whiskey made in Tennessee was sufficient.

The folks at Jack Daniel's, naturally, decided this was bad for the 'Tennessee whiskey' brand and, of course, they had the most to lose if that 'brand' became diluted or meaningless. So they proposed a law to the Tennessee legislature, which passed in 2013. The law defined 'Tennessee whiskey' using the legal requirements for bourbon with two additions: (1) the whiskey had to be made and aged in Tennessee and (2) it had to be filtered through maple charcoal.

Leading up to the new law's passage, Jack Daniel's folks conferred with all of the new Tennessee distillers, most of whom saw the benefit of preserving the traditional meaning of Tennessee whiskey. Most of them supported the law. After the fact, Diageo (successor company to Schenley) tried to get the law repealed or changed for fairly nefarious reasons of their own. They failed.

Many people incorrectly assume that Jack Daniel's is not called 'bourbon' because it cannot be for some reason. They will solemnly explain to you why it cannot be called bourbon. They are wrong. The sole reason Jack Daniel's is not called bourbon is because its owners, from Jack himself, through the Motlows, and since 1956 Brown-Forman, prefer to call it Tennessee whiskey.

So now you know the truth, but if some blowhard in a bar wants to fight you about it, don't bother. It's not worth the trouble.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The History of Maker's Mark, by Sam Cecil



Sam Cecil's 1999 book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in whiskey history. I use it constantly. The book is best when Cecil writes about places where he worked, such as Maker's Mark and T. W. Samuels.

The Makers story starts with Charles Burks, who built a grist mill and distillery on Hardin's Creek in 1805. Although Burks died in 1831, his family kept the place going and in 1878, George Burks joined the company and began to rebuild the facility, adding a bottling house and a manager's residence. When Prohibition came in 1920, the family moved to Louisville, selling the 200 acre property to a farmer, Ernest Bickett.

The distillery still had whiskey in storage, of which it was relieved by George Remus, the notorious 'King of the Bottleggers.' Bickett's tenant, Bill Shockency, thereafter used the empty warehouse as a hay barn. The Bicketts revived the distillery after repeal, then sold it, after which it had a succession of owners.

For all of the years before and during Prohibition, and for several years after repeal, the distillery had no electricity. A small steam engine ran the mechanicals. In 1943, a spring-fed lake was built above the distillery and the line from it to the distillery delivered enough static pressure to operate the cooling coils.

Bill Samuels Sr. bought the property on October 1, 1953 for $50,000. Production began in February of 1954. Eighteen barrels were produced on that first day. In that first year they filled 1,527 barrels. It jumped to 2,550 in year two.

Elmo Beam, the eldest son of Joe Beam, was the first master distiller. Samuels knew him from the old T. W. Samuels Distillery and he came out of retirement to start up what they were then calling 'Old Samuels.' Elmo Beam died on April 5, 1955.

Like many of today's new distilleries, Samuels sourced whiskey to get cash flowing, to start building relationships with distributors, and to work out the kinks in the bottling operation. Some of it came from what is now Beam's Booker Noe Distillery, then owned by Barton.

With the time to bottle the first whiskey distilled at 'Old Samuels' approaching, Samuels learned that he no longer owned the rights to his own name. French and Shields, a St. Louis advertising agency, was hired. In the Spring of 1957, they presented the name and packaging for Maker's Mark bourbon. After some test batches, regular bottling began in August, 1958.

After a slow start the company began to pick up steam. In 1981 it was sold to Canada's Hiram Walker, which was subsequently acquired by England's Allied Lyons.

Cecil concludes the article with a personal note, about his acquisition of an original bottle of Burk's Springs.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do the Stitzels Get Too Much Credit for Modern Wheated Bourbon?



The term 'wheated bourbon' describes a bourbon that uses wheat instead of the more popular rye as its flavor grain. As a bourbon it is still mostly corn. The flavor grain, rye or wheat, is typically 10 to 15 percent of the mash bill.

Although the term is contemporary, the use of wheat in bourbon goes way back. There isn't much disagreement about that. In the post-Prohibition era, however, only one distillery made a commotion about its use of wheat, the Van Winkle family's Stitzel-Weller. They were joined in the 1950s by a new distillery called Maker's Mark.

Today, Stitzel-Weller is gone but the wheated bourbons it originated are still being made by Sazerac at Buffalo Trace (Weller and Van Winkle) and Heaven Hill (Old Fitzgerald, from which Larceny is a spin-off). Maker's Mark, of course, is still going strong. In the last few years other distilleries, large and small, have begun to make wheated bourbon.

Last November, Mike Veach posted an article headlined: "The Stitzel Factor in Bourbon." In it, he claimed that, "They (the Stitzel brothers) also experimented with the recipe for Bourbon, using wheat as the flavoring grain. They experimented until they found what they thought was the best ratio of grains, yeast, distillation proof and barrel entry proof. They never used this whiskey in one of their major brands, but they would pass along what they learned to Arthur Philip Stitzel when he opened the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in 1903."

Before Prohibition, 'Pappy' Van Winkle's W. L. Weller Company bought much of the bourbon it distributed from A. Ph. Stitzel. During Prohibition (anticipating its end), Van Winkle bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and formed Stitzel-Weller. After Prohibition, Stitzel-Weller closed the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and built a new one south of Louisville, which opened in 1935. According to Veach, 'Pappy' Van Winkle decided to use the Stitzel's wheated bourbon recipe because it seemed to produce a palatable whiskey after minimal aging, an advantage in the immediate post-Prohibiton era.

Veach's source is a letter written by 'Pappy' Van Winkle to a customer in the mid 30s. In his role as an archivist, Veach has read many documents such as this one that have never been published, so we have to take his word for what they say.

Now fast-forward 20 years. It has often been said that Bill Samuels Sr. created Maker's Mark bourbon using a recipe and yeast given to him by his good friend, 'Pappy' Van Winkle. I first heard that story from a Louisville advertising executive named Claude Brock, who worked at Stitzel-Weller during the Van Winkle era.

Veach concludes that, "the DNA for Maker’s Mark is the same as that made by the Stitzel Bros. back in the 19th century. More importantly, they (sic) yeast was the same as that used by the Stitzel Bros."

Years ago, I asked Bill Samuels Jr. about the Stitzel-Weller/Maker's Mark connection. Here is his reply, as published in Bourbon, Straight (2004). 

"'Dad was a collaborator by nature,' says Samuels Jr. When he was getting started in Loretto, Samuels Sr. reached out to his many close friends in the industry, including Pappy Van Winkle and Van Winkle’s son-in-law, King McClure, both of Stitzel-Weller, Dan Street of Brown-Forman, Ed Shapira of Heaven Hill, Jere Beam of Jim Beam, and others. All of them at one time or another provided yeast samples. Van Winkle provided samples of new made whiskey so Samuels Sr. and his crew could know how wheated bourbon was supposed to taste right from the still. One useful piece of information Pappy provided was that wheat mashes cannot be cooked under pressure, as rye mashes often are. Samuels Jr. says his dad always intended to make a wheat recipe bourbon because he preferred that flavor, but he had his own ideas about how to do it. Mostly his collaborators kept him out of trouble. 'They kept him from going down blind alleys,' says Samuels Jr."

Here are some other facts that tend to dilute the Stitzel influence. The first master distiller at Stitzel-Weller was Will McGill. He was the brother-in-law of Joe Beam. Both men were trained by M. C. Beam, Joe's much older brother. In their youth, prior to Prohibition, the two men worked together at various Kentucky distilleries. In 1929, when the government declared a 'distilling holiday' and allowed medicinal whiskey license holders to distill (as pre-Prohibition stocks were nearly exhausted), 'Pappy' Van Winkle called Joe Beam and his crew to fire up the stills at A. Ph. Stitzel. At Stitzel-Weller, McGill employed several of his Beam nephews. The eldest, Elmo, became the first master distiller at Maker's Mark.

If 'Pappy' Van Winkle and Bill Samuels Sr. were so enamored of the way the Stitzel Brothers made wheated bourbon, why did they hire so many Beams and Beam proteges to make it? The Beams knew how to make wheated bourbon just as well as the Stitzels did and didn't need any help from the Stitzels to do it.

When Elmo died he was replaced by Sam Cecil, who had worked with Samuels Sr. at the T. W. Samuels Distillery and with Joe and Harry Beam at Heaven Hill. He had no connection to the Stitzels and never credited them with pioneering the production of wheated bourbon.

The Stitzels appear to have withdrawn from the bourbon industry entirely at the onset of Prohibition. No member of the Stitzel family, nor anyone who ever worked for them, seems to have returned to the industry after Prohibition. They may have left behind a paper recipe and a jug of yeast, but not one single person with the expertise to make whiskey out of it.

Although marketers like to make whiskey recipes seem ancient and unchanging, the reality is that every master distiller makes tweaks. Surely Will McGill made some changes when he started to produce wheated bourbon at the brand new Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1935, as Elmo Beam surely did 20 years later at the new distillery that became Maker's Mark. In the 80+ years since Stitzel-Weller began there has not been one member of the Stitzel family in the mix but a whole mess of Beams and people trained by Beams.

Does this mean anything definitively? No, we still don't know enough to say who is most responsible for the wheated bourbon of today, but if you want to contemplate its genealogy, consider everything.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

You Have to Burn Some Wood to Make Tennessee Whiskey




You have to burn some wood; maple, specifically, to make genuine Tennessee whiskey.

That's what distillers John Lunn and Allisa Henley did recently in Lunn's backyard. Pretty soon, they will use that charcoal to make pot still Tennessee whiskey at their distillery in Newport, Tennessee, owned by Sazerac. (Video provided by Sazerac.)

Traditionally, Tennessee whiskey is filtered through a thick bed of maple charcoal before aging, the famous 'Lincoln County Process.' Jack Daniel's, which is 99.9 percent (conservatively) of the Tennessee whiskey category, has always done it. George Dickel, where Lunn and Henley were previously employed, does it too. In 2013, that tradition became part of Tennessee law.

Late last year, Sazerac bought the brand new distillery in Newport, Tennessee (close to Gatlinburg and other Smoky Mountains attractions) that was built to make Popcorn Sutton Moonshine. The distillery is big, 50,000 square feet. Its solid copper Vendome pot stills are true alembics (no rectification section). The two beer stills are 2,500 gallons each. The spirit still is 1,500 gallons.

“We know it’s going to take many years for this whiskey to age up, so we were anxious to get started on production as soon as possible,” said Henley in a company press release. No start date has been announced.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hey, Look. They Repainted the Water Tower Again



Brown-Forman has repainted its water tower.

Ordinarily, not news. Even when the water tower is shaped like a whiskey bottle and the new paint job reflects new packaging for the company's flagship brand. Even when they throw an event for employees, press and other guests to unveil it. Still not really news.

But it is an excuse to write something about Brown-Forman, which is, after all. the point.

The Brown-Forman water tower is a Louisville landmark, an architectural novelty -- "the only one of its kind" -- but also a symbol of Louisville's history as not just a whiskey manufacturer, but also a whiskey merchant, shipper, and financier. Whiskey has been big business in Louisville almost since the city was founded in 1778. It has had its ups and downs, but is now big again.

Brown-Forman is the last of its breed, the only major international drinks company based in Louisville, still run by its founding family.


Campbell Brown is a 5th generation member of that family. He is president of Old Forester, a Brown-Forman subsidiary dedicated to the company's founding bourbon brand, which was created by his great-great-grandfather. Old Forester is enjoying a revival along with the rest of the bourbon industry. The company is building a new Old Forester distillery and visitor's center downtown. The water tower sits atop the company's corporate offices, bottling plant, and distribution center south and west of downtown.

The water tower hasn't always been painted like an Old Forester bottle. Early Times had a turn. It has been repainted at least 62 times. But it was Old Forester in 1936 when the tower went up, a confident statement in those tough, early years after Prohibition. The bottle sits 218 feet above ground and is 62 feet, 5 inches tall. Just how committed is Brown-Forman to preserving this bit of its heritage? The water tower is no longer used. It is empty.

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey was introduced in 1870. It was the first bourbon sold exclusively in bottles. It is the only American whiskey sold pre- and post-Prohibition still made by the company that started it. It is also a family of excellent whiskeys. That may not be news but it's good to know.

NOTE: (5/16/17) The fifth paragraph above originally read "Brown-Forman is the last of its breed, the only major international drinks company based in Kentucky, still run by its founding family." I had meant to say "Louisville." I changed it after it was pointed out to me that Heaven Hill is also a "major international drinks company based in Kentucky."