Thursday, April 30, 2015

Mint Julep, Your One-Day-a-Year Is Saturday

If ever there was a special occasion drink, it is the mint julep, so closely is it associated with the Kentucky Derby, which is this Saturday, May 2, at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Many people misunderstand the mint julep. It is not a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more of a shooter. A mint julep should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and turn the drink watery.

It's hot. Take refreshment. Repeat. That's the code of the mint julep.

The julep is at its peak of flavor the instant it is completed. Every moment that passes thereafter diminishes its quality. There should be just enough liquid in the glass for one or two good swallows.

Taken appropriately in a suitable context the mint julep is delightful. Its sensuality can be nearly overpowering.

As for a recipe, here is the simplest one I know that is authentic, tasty, and easy. First, muddle some fresh mint leaves with one tablespoon of powdered sugar and a like amount of water. There are some specialized tools for doing this, but a spoon works fine.

How much mint? If you have plenty, use it liberally. It's hard to use too much.

“Muddle” just means work everything together until the mint leaves have been crushed and the sugar is dissolved, forming a kind of paste. Fill the glass with crushed ice, then with bourbon. Stir vigorously for a few seconds. Garnish with more fresh mint leaves. Serve and drink immediately.

To make multiple juleps at the same time, have your ice and bourbon ready. Then in a bowl make enough muddle (the mint, sugar, water mixture) for one round. Place some of the muddle mixture into the bottom of each glass. Fill each glass with ice, bourbon and mint leaf garnish, stir, and serve.

Although there are various ways to get mint flavor into a drink, the use of fresh mint is essential for an authentic mint julep experience. The fresher the better. Just-picked is best. The stuff is easy to grow.

As for glassware, a sterling silver julep cup is the traditional container. They hold between 9 and 12 ounces and cost several hundred dollars each. Silverplate and pewter are also common. A metal glass has some obvious advantages.

The julep in general and the mint julep in particular are both very old, much older even than the 141-year-old Kentucky Derby. John Milton mentions the “cordial Julep” in a poem from 1673. It or similar words occur in many languages. It first appears in English in 1400 and means a syrup of water and sugar.

The mint julep is specifically American and was originally intended as an 'eye opener' to start the day. In an era when most distilled spirits were unaged and nasty, concoctions like the mint julep were invented to make the green whiskey more palatable by overpowering it with sweetness and masking it with aromatic mint.

In Kentucky, the julep is always made with bourbon whiskey but in the Old Dominion (Virginia), rye whiskey is preferred.

If you'd like to take your julep uptown, here's a good recipe using Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon and Cynar which, like Wild Turkey, is a Campari product.

1 ½ oz. Cynar
¾ oz. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
½ oz. Simple Syrup
½ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice
12 Mint Leaves
2 oz. Soda Water
2 Dashes Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters
In a Julep cup or rocks glass add mint and all ingredients except soda water and bitters. Gently muddle, add ice then soda and top with bitters.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ole Smoky Addresses Proposed Tennessee Moonshine Law with Clever Smokescreen

What follows is a press release from Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine about the new proposed Tennessee law that will require all products identified as 'Tennessee Moonshine' to be distilled in Tennessee. As you read it, see if you can find the words "All Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine products are distilled entirely in Tennessee."

Gatlinburg, TN (April 22, 2015) – Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, the leading distiller of premium moonshine in the U.S., welcomes the news of the Tennessee General Assembly’s efforts to protect the integrity of its moonshine heritage by creating guidelines on what can bear the name “Tennessee Moonshine.” The great history of making smooth spirits is what makes Tennessee Moonshine widely loved in the South, around the country and now the world.

“For many generations our families have distilled moonshine in the hills of East Tennessee, and Ole Smoky is proud to use those same techniques and recipes in the products we share with our customers today,” said Joe Baker, co-founder of Ole Smoky Moonshine. “This is a significant move toward preserving the historic value of Tennessee Moonshine, and as the state’s first legal moonshine distillery, we know how important it is to maintain authenticity in this fast-growing category."

Ole Smoky launched in 2010, after the state of Tennessee changed its distilling laws and a group of local families saw an opportunity to showcase authentic, high-quality, mountain-made moonshine. Originally sold only to visitors at its distillery, known as The Holler, Ole Smoky is now the most widely distributed moonshine brand in the world. Fueled by rising consumer interest in Americana, the broader un-aged whiskey category and craft spirits, Ole Smoky is now available in all 50 states and every continent except Antarctica.

"We’re proud to share our products with folks around the world. Tennessee enjoys a special place in the lore and history of making moonshine and we applaud our state legislators for working hard to protect one of our state’s most famous exports,” said Baker. “Tennessee is part of our brand name. You can make spirits anywhere, but Tennessee Moonshine only comes from the Volunteer State.”

About Ole Smoky® Tennessee Moonshine:

Currently, Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine nationally retails twelve flavors of moonshine made using authentic East Tennessee recipes. Folks from around the world come and experience the moonshining process at the company’s famed Gatlinburg distillery, The Holler (America’s most visited distillery) and new location, the Ole Smoky Barn at The Island in Pigeon Forge. Original Moonshine (100 proof), White Lightnin’ (100 proof), Moonshine Cherries (jarred at 100 proof), Lightnin’ Line (80 proof): Strawberry Lightnin’, Lemon Drop Lightnin’ and Hunch Punch Lightnin‘, the 40 proof line including, Peach Moonshine, Apple Pie Moonshine, Blackberry Moonshine, Pineapple Moonshine, Sweet Tea Moonshine and the most recently added, Harley Davidson’s Road House Customs Charred Moonshine (103 proof) are available selectively in all 50 states and Canada.

Did you find the magic words "All Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine products are distilled in Tennessee"? No? That's because they aren't there. Nor does the release express the proposed law's very simple requirement that 'Tennessee Moonshine' must be distilled in Tennessee. Instead it uses words like "authentic East Tennessee recipes." Perhaps they hope to have the law gutted before it passes. You can read more about Ole Smoky here.

Moonshine is not now and nor has it ever been a type of distilled spirit. It is simply any distilled spirit made illegally. Obviously, Ole Smoky and the other modern moonshiners operate legally, so what's in that jar? In most cases it is grain neutral spirit (GNS), i.e., vodka, which is typically made from corn. In a few it is corn whiskey. Most authentic are the ones distilled from a sugar mash -- technically making them rum -- which are usually classified as a 'Distilled Spirits Specialty,' a regulatory catch-all term. Many sugar shines are half sugar and half GNS.

Most of the Ole Smoky products are either GNS or corn whiskey. It has long been an open secret that Ole Smoky makes only a fraction of the products it sells and very likely makes no GNS. If Ole Smoky does or plans to make GNS, it won't be in those cute copper pot stills. It will be in a big, modern column still which they surely won't show to the tourists.

They could produce their own GNS but it's much more profitable to just buy it from a big GNS producer such as ADM, GPC, or MGPI, like everybody else does. Unfortunately, none of those companies have a distillery in Tennessee.

So what's the difference between Ole Smoky's cherry-flavored GNS and any of a dozen cherry-flavored vodkas? Maybe that's where those 'East Tennessee recipes' come in, or maybe it's just a clever image, 'blowing smoke' as it were. The Ole Smoky products aren't much more expensive than most flavored vodkas, so if you like your flavored vodka from a mason jar, Ole Smoky is right there for you.

In addition to Ole Smoky, the 'moonshine' from Junior Johnson, Popcorn Sutton, and Full Throttle Saloon is GNS as well. There is, furthermore, no commercial GNS producer in Tennessee, although one expects there will be by the time this new law takes effect.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Sazerac Plans 'Farm-to-Table' Experience at Buffalo Trace

Last fall, following the lead of several craft distilleries, Sazerac announced plans to farm corn, rye, and barley on land adjacent to its Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. At that time, Sazerac announced the acquisition of 233 acres for that purpose. Yesterday, it announced that another 49 acres have been purchased.

Buffalo Trace plans to use the new acreage to create a farm-to-table "Single Estate" experience by growing its own grain to make its own bourbon.

The new farm-to-table bourbon will be a separate, stand-alone product with its own brand identity. The name, age, price, and other details have yet to be determined.

The Buffalo Trace site is now 439 acres large and the planned farm may not be the final use of the additional property. "These recent land purchases hold a lot of potential for us," said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley. "We are very excited to begin our farm-to-table venture and see what the future has in store." The site has substantial Kentucky River frontage.

How about this? In the old days, distilleries often raised cows or pigs, feeding them with stillage. Stillage, the spent mash that is left over after all of the alcohol has been extracted, makes a high-protein feed for livestock. Some farmers still collect it in wet form from the distilleries, generally for free. Other distilleries dry it, which allows them to sell it as animal feed, but which is very energy intensive. No distillery today has a feed lot on site. Buffalo Trace could be the first.

NOTE: According to a reader, Short Mountain Distillery in Woodbury and Southern Pride Distillery in Fayetteville, both in Tennessee, are feeding livestock on site with stillage.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Nine Indicted in Kentucky Whiskey Theft Ring

Gilbert Thomas Curtsinger (pictured), who worked at Buffalo Trace Distillery, was one of nine persons indicted today in Franklin County, Kentucky. The indictments and other details of the case were announced at an early-afternoon news conference by Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton. Curtsinger was the ringleader, according to authorities. Julie Curtsinger, his wife, was also indicted.

Here is the latest from Associated Press reporter Bruce Schreiner.

The investigation of the criminal gang responsible for thefts at Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey is ongoing. It involves long-term employees of both distilleries. The gang was also involved in the importation and distribution of illegal steroids. Thefts go back to at least 2008. The famous Van Winkle theft, which was reported all over the world, was committed by this gang.

Indicted in addition to the Curtsingers were Mark S. Searcy, Lawrenceburg; Ronnie Lee Hubbard, Georgetown; Dusty H. Adkins, Georgetown; Christopher L. Preston, Frankfort; Joshua T. Preston, Frankfort; Robert M. McKinney, Frankfort; and Shawn R. Ballard, Richmond.

The recovered whiskey in barrels may have to be destroyed but the whiskey in bottles may be returned to its rightful owners.

Apparently the whiskey still in barrels was sold very casually. The conspirators who worked at the distilleries would say to a friend, "hey, we made too much. Would you like to buy a barrel?" They were selling barrels valued at $3,000 to $6,000 each for $1,200-$1,500. The buyers in many cases didn't realize they were receiving stolen merchandise, they just thought they were getting a good deal because they knew someone at the distillery. When the thing began to unravel, people called the sheriff themselves and said, "I think I may have one of those barrels."

"There was stuff walking out of there frequently," said Sheriff Melton about Buffalo Trace. Among the products stolen were steel drums containing bourbon intended for Eagle Rare 17-year-old, part of the Buffalo Trace Antiques Collection. The whiskey has been stored in steel drums to prevent it from aging further.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

DISCUS Says TPA and TPP Are Good for American Booze

The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) today announced its support for the bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill just introduced in the U.S. Senate, calling the legislation, “key to opening foreign markets to American spirits products.”

“This bill sends a signal to the rest of the world that the United States is serious about concluding important trade negotiations,” said outgoing Distilled Spirits Council President and CEO Peter H. Cressy. The membership of DISCUS includes both large and small distilled spirits companies who export their products to more than 130 countries.

Cressy noted that TPA legislation comes at a critical time, as the U.S. prepares to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement between the U.S. and 10 trading partners.

Past successful efforts by the United States to open foreign markets have contributed to the impressive gains the U.S. distilled spirits industry has made, and continues to make, in expanding U.S. exports. Global U.S. spirits exports have nearly tripled over the past decade, reaching more than $1.5 billion in 2014.

Most of that, more than $1 billion worth, is from exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Major brands such as Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam now derive half or more of their sales from non-U.S. markets. It was the sustained growth of international markets that sparked the revival of American whiskey 20 years ago.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Bulleit Story

I wrote this up for another purpose but it seemed like a good thing to share here as well. I've posted all of this before, but perhaps not all in one place. At any rate, Bulleit continues to grow and remains a stand out product for Diageo, even with the success of Orphan Barrel and the recent American re-launch of I. W. Harper.

This is the Bulleit Bourbon story, as succinct as I can make it.

Bulleit was started by Tom Bulleit in 1995. He contracted Buffalo Trace to make it and mostly intended to sell it in Japan, where he was already doing business as an attorney. There were two expressions. The packaging was completely different from what it is now.

Some years later, Seagram's started working on a new bourbon. They wanted to do a frontier theme and they were looking at old apothecary bottles for the package design. They liked the name 'bullet' but knew that wouldn't fly, so they were developing a product called 'Bullitt,' after Bullitt County, Kentucky. (Pronounced like the ammunition.) Then somebody told them about Bulleit (also pronounced that way) so, like any big company would, they made Tommy an offer he couldn't refuse. Jim Rutledge, who worked for Seagram's at the time, suggested a particular combination of Four Roses recipes and that became Seagram's Bulleit Bourbon. Same name, same spokesperson, different company, different package, different whiskey.

In 2000, when Seagram's was broken up for parts, their whiskey brands including Bulleit went to Diageo except Four Roses, which went to Pernod along with the distillery. Diageo also hired most of the Seagram's North American Whiskey marketing team. The year before, Diageo had sold the Bernheim Distillery and all of its American whiskey brands except George Dickel and I. W. Harper.

As part of the Seagram's acquisition, Diageo and Pernod contracted for Four Roses to make whiskey for Diageo. That sort of deal is standard when brands go one way and the distillery where they were produced goes elsewhere. That contract remained in force when Pernod sold Four Roses to Kirin almost immediately.

The initial contract involved both aged whiskey and new make, changing to all new make over time. Diageo aged the new make at its Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Four Roses was content to fill its contract but when Diageo wanted more bourbon they said no, they needed it for their own products, and when the contract finally ran out over a year ago, Four Roses didn't renew it.

Four Roses wasn't the only distillery making bourbon for Diageo. A few years ago, I was told that Brown-Forman, Barton and Jim Beam were each making about 2 million proof gallons of new make per year for Diageo. My source was impeccable. That whiskey was also aged at Stitzel-Weller.

At around that same time I received a report that Four Roses had conducted chemical tests and determined that Bulleit contained whiskey not made at Four Roses. At the time, Diageo was proudly promoting the fact that every drop of Bulleit Bourbon was made at Four Roses. The person who provided the report refused to go public.

A little over a year ago, I was able to confirm that Four Roses was no longer providing new make to Diageo. More recently, Brown-Forman informed me that they are no longer providing new make to Diageo or anyone else. I have been unable to nail down anything about Barton or Jim Beam.

Obviously, the bourbon in Bulleit bottles today is at least mostly Four Roses. That will be the case for a few more years. Diageo has a problem with Bulleit that most non-distiller producers (NDPs) don't face, the product's recipe. Bulleit contains almost twice as much rye as a standard bourbon and that's a difference you can taste. Diageo can't sell just any old bourbon as Bulleit.

Contract distillers will, of course, make any recipe you want and Jim Beam already makes a similar product in Old Grand-Dad.

One assumes that Diageo would have been content to remain an NDP for bourbon purposes but with distillers pulling back on contract production to supply their own growing brands, Diageo was forced to build a new distillery of its own.

Presumably, Diageo has enough liquid in the pipeline or still being made for it by someone to supply Bulleit, accommodating its growth, until whiskey from the new distillery is ready to go. At present, there appears to be plenty of Bulleit to go around.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Brown-Forman Has the Kentucky Derby Locked Up

With the Kentucky Derby just a little more than three weeks away, let's make sure we have this straight. Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve is the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile, Brown-Forman's Old Forester Mint Julep is the Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby. For the last 20-some years, the Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby has been Brown-Forman's Early Times Mint Julep. According to the Official Kentucky Derby web site, it still is.

Both Old Forester and Early Times are selling a pre-mixed mint julep. The Old Forester version is a little more expensive. They both come in a commemorative bottle that changes every year. Woodford Reserve also does a commemorative Derby bottle, but it contains regular Woodford Reserve bourbon, not a pre-mixed cocktail.

The most popular souvenir at the Derby itself is a mint julep in a commemorative glass, which also changes annually. This year, that drink will be made with the Old Forester pre-mix.

Old Forester bourbon is the product that launched Brown-Forman in 1870. The first Kentucky Derby was run five years later, in 1875.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tennessee Whiskey Is Safe for Another Year, Perhaps for Good

The AP is reporting that legislators opposed to the 2013 law defining Tennessee whiskey withdrew their repeal measure yesterday, "to try to generate more support before next year's legislative session." That's exactly what they said when it failed last year. Supporters of the current law, led by Jack Daniel's, have declared the effort dead.

If you want more details on the whole debate, go here.

Much of the media has portrayed this as Jack Daniel's law, but last fall the Tennessee Distillers Guild (TDG) polled its members and 17 of 20 voted in support of the current law.

Although the vote was secret, it is well-known who the three dissenters were. The effort to repeal the law was initiated by international drinks giant Diageo, which is a TDG member because it owns George Dickel. The other two members opposed to the current law are Phil Prichard, who makes a non-compliant 'Tennessee whiskey' that was grandfathered in by the law now in effect; and Popcorn Sutton, which wants to make an unaged 'moonshine' called Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey.

The repeal effort was also very vocally supported by two reality television stars, Michael Ballard and Jesse James Dupree. Ballard owns the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota. His partner is Jackyl lead singer Dupree. Ballard and Dupree claim they intend to build a multi-million dollar distillery in Trimble, Tennessee (Pop. 628), but only if the law is changed so they can make whatever they want and call it Tennessee whiskey.

Dupree is also the entrepreneur behind Jesse James American Outlaw Bourbon Whiskey, which is made by an undisclosed Kentucky producer.

Ballard and Dupree made many statements and claims about the Tennessee whiskey issue.

Not one of them was true.

It got pretty silly for a while there, as all sorts of people jumped into the spotlight. Very late in the game, the conservative lobbying group Americans For Prosperity, an organization backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, threw some of its money behind repeal. Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst, opined that the current law is unconstitutional.

But in the end, sanity ruled.

Monday, April 6, 2015

This New Canadian Whisky Contains an Unusual Ingredient: Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Bourbon

Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is a new product from Beam Suntory. It is an unusual whisky in several ways, and is further remarkable because it represents a coming-out of sorts for Beam's Alberta Distillers, which Beam has owned since the 1980s but rarely talks about.

And, to pay off the headline, Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is unusual because it contains 8 percent Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Everything else in the bottle is made at the distillery in Alberta from Canadian-grown rye, except the one percent sherry component.

To tell you the truth, most of this is not unusual. By Canadian law, Canadian whisky may contain up to 9.09 percent of alcohol sources that are not Canadian whisky, which might be wine, brandy, rum, etc., just about anything as long as it contains alcohol. For Canadian whisky destined for the U.S. market, American straight whiskey may be some or all of that 9.09 percent component. And for using our whiskey as an ingredient in their whiskey when they sell it back to us, they get a tax break.

What is unusual in the case of Dark Batch is that Beam is talking about all this, including revealing that the imported component is, in fact, Old Grand-Dad bourbon.

Canadian whisky brands tend to promote image over the nuts-and-bolts of production, but the producers have finally accepted that a significant segment of the whiskey audience wants those details. They're trying to comply. Rye whisky made at Alberta Distillers, they tell us, is 91 percent of the blend in Dark Batch. Half of that is low proof pot still whiskey, aged for six years in new, charred oak barrels, just like American straight rye whiskey.

In fact, it's a poorly kept secret that this is the whiskey that became Whistlepig Straight Rye, and may or may not be some or all of what is in Whistlepig bottles today. We don't really know because Whistlepig doesn't talk very much about its production and isn't very reliable when it does.

But back to Dark Batch. The other half of the rye component is high proof column still whiskey, aged for 12 years in used bourbon barrels. All Canadian whiskies are a blend of flavorful low proof whiskey and more neutral high proof whiskey, and they never talk about the ratios, but you can be confident that fifty-fifty is unusual. That ratio is entirely up to the distiller, there is no law about it, but in most products the percentage of high proof spirits is much higher than 50 percent.

What's more, 53.5 percent of the spirit in the bottle was aged in new, charred oak barrels. That's virtually unheard of for Canadian whisky, most of which is aged in used bourbon barrels.

The standard profile of Canadian whiskey is a little bit of flavorful low proof whiskey cut with a large serving of nearly flavorless high proof whiskey, which gives the product a pleasant but mild taste. At least that's how it seems to a regular drinker of straight bourbon.

Therefore, Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky will be a surprise to both sets of consumers. It doesn't taste like a bourbon, but it is as flavorful as one. You might be surprised that it contains just one percent sherry, but that's because of how well the wine notes blend with the rich low-proof rye. The other distinctive component is the 12 years in a used barrel, which gives it the musty taste of old, dry oak. You may or may not find that flavor pleasant, but it's unmistakable.

With all the flexibility Canadian producers have within the definition of 'Canadian whisky,' you might expect them to give us some pretty wild rides, but they rarely do. Dark Batch hints at what's possible. You've never tasted anything quite like this before.

Beam's Alberta Distillers is located in the Canadian province of Alberta, naturally. It opened in 1946 and is one of the world’s few distilleries specially designed to distill spirits from an all-rye mash. It is the largest producer of 100 percent rye whiskey in North America.

Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky should be appearing in stores this month, for about $30 per 750ml bottle.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the bourbon in Dark Batch is Jim Beam. We regret the error. Old Grand-Dad, also made by Beam Suntory, makes more sense since it contains about twice as much rye as Jim Beam.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A New Bourbon Country Reader Is on Its Way

Many people compare the current craft spirits boom to the craft beer boom of a generation ago. There are many similarities but also differences. One is money. Back in the day, most craft brewers were doing it on a shoestring. Not so today's craft distillers. Many, though not all, are very well funded, often by investors who stay in the background.

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 16, Number 5, dated April, 2015, we follow the money to see how it allows micros to poach distilling talent from the majors, and can lead to micro-producer sales to the majors.

We also look at the growing hobby of vatting, in which enthusiasts 'make' new whiskeys by combining two or more commercially-available products.

And we review a few of the excellent, super-premium whiskeys that are still readily available in most places, despite the oft-reported 'bourbon shortage.'

All this is in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, America's oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey. Honoring tradition, it still comes to you on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year (six issues) for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. It is proudly old-fashioned and published six times a year, or thereabouts.

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.) For the record, this new one is our 95th.

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.