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.