Sunday, February 28, 2016

Our Geekiest Issue Yet

As we rapidly approach our 100th issue, The Bourbon Country Reader remains the oldest publication devoted exclusively to American whiskey. The Reader is still independent and idiosyncratic, with no distillery affiliation. It accepts no advertising. The Reader exists to serve the worldwide community of whiskey geeks and for no other reason.

Volume 17, Number 3 of The Reader may well be our geekiest issue yet, as we dive deep into real life "Jurassic Park" science, yeast division. It is the story of Limestone Branch Distillery and its new very-old yeast strain, which was obtained using advanced nucleic acid extraction methods and other brainy technology. We have tried to tell the story in a way most people can understand and believe we succeeded, more or less.

This all-Kentucky adventure starts with an old yeast jug that belonged to legendary Yellowstone master distiller M. C. Beam, great grandfather of brothers Steve and Paul Beam, who run Limestone Branch. It ends with the biological product scientists at Danville's Ferm Solutions. Just like the masters of old, the team at Ferm Solutions is both yeast-makers and distillers. Their other business is Danville's Wilderness Trail Distillery.

After they took care of Limestone Branch they dabbled in a little "Jurassic Park" science for themselves.

This geek-packed issue includes information about some important new straight rye whiskeys and will also introduce you to another up-and-coming micro, Wisconsin's Driftless Glen. The newsletter just went to the printer and will go into the mail in a few days.

To indulge in this whiskey geek's delight you need a subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader. Honoring tradition, The Bourbon Country Reader 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 for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is 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.)

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50.

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.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Other NDP Award Winners

As a small follow-up to yesterday's post, I looked at the Whisky Advocate Whisky Awards (announced in November) to see if any of them went to non-distiller-produced (NDP) whiskeys.

Out of the top ten, I found two.

Ranked at number eight is Compass Box, "This Is Not A Luxury Whisky," which at $225 a bottle is an homage to the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. As an independent scotch bottler, Compass Box is what Americans call an NDP.

Ranked at number one is John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve 20 year old. Although the producer is Heaven Hill and Heaven Hill now owns the Old Fitzgerald brand and makes the whiskey for it, this whiskey was distilled at Stitzel-Weller when Guinness (predecessor to Diageo) owned Old Fitzgerald, so for purposes of this product, Heaven Hill is an NDP.

There is nothing wrong with an NDP whiskey winning an award unless the contest rules specify that all entries must be house-made, which most do not. Logic dictates that awards purporting to honor small distilleries should have such a rule, but competitions that welcome all comers shouldn't hesitate to take NDP products.

The fact that I want to know who actually made something is a separate issue. When I know a product is NDP, I try to find out who made it. If the NDP won't tell me I'm disappointed, but that doesn't diminish the whiskey.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MGP Deserves Their Victory Lap Too

In the World Whisky Awards (WWA) just concluded, Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10-year-old single barrel bourbon was named World's Best Single Barrel Bourbon.

The WWA is presented by Whisky Magazine. It is all blind tasting and they have good judges. Of all the awards for which I've served as a judge, nobody does it better than Whisky Magazine. (I was not a judge this time.)

The WWA doesn't make any distinction between large distilleries and small, or between distillers and non-distiller producers (NDPs). All are welcome. Because it is such a big tent, it is exciting when a small producer wins one of the top awards. The Smooth Ambler team is right to be proud.

Smooth Ambler is a good company that has always been transparent about its business. It is a small company, in West Virginia, that is both a distiller and an NDP, and they make it clear which products are sourced and which are housemade. Everything sold under the Old Scout trademark is sourced, all or most of it from MGP of Indiana. Another WWA award winner, Smooth Ambler Contradiction, won a gold. It is a blend of housemade (27%) and sourced whiskey.

There is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey if you're up front about it and Smooth Ambler has always been a straight shooter. I wish all NDPs were as honest as Smooth Ambler. (They aren't.) The Smooth Ambler team deserves credit for creating and marketing the Old Scout line of very carefully curated whiskeys. Yet it's a shame that Greg Metze and his team at MGP, who actually distilled and aged the winning whiskey, don't get a nice plaque to hang on their wall. That's not Smooth Ambler's fault. That's maybe not even Whisky Magazine's fault, as they have never inquired about whether any winner actually made the whiskey that won.

Diageo, the world's largest spirits company and a very large distiller internationally, is an NDP for most American whiskey purposes. If Bulleit Rye won a big award, MGP wouldn't get a victory lap for that either.

About once a year, some major media outlet 'discovers' that some whiskey producers don't make the products they sell. People who actually pay attention to whiskey and maybe read a book or magazine now and then already know this, but the media outlet will play it up like some big revelation and it will be news to most of the people who see the report.

The problem is that most people assume--and they're not necessarily to be criticized for assuming this--that a company called Buick makes Buick automobiles, and a company called Hershey's makes Hershey's chocolates, and a company called Keebler makes all those cookies and crackers, though probably not in a hollow tree.

The reality is generally more complicated.

It is, however, always your right as a consumer to ask "Who made this?" And when you do, you deserve an honest and complete answer.

Perhaps it's also possible that whiskey is a special case. A quarter million people tour the Jack Daniel's distillery every year. How many Buick owners want to visit the factory where their car was assembled? And if whiskey is a special case, maybe craft spirits are a special case too. That doesn't mean a small distillery can't also be a NDP, but it can get tricky.

And you know at least one person is going to get a blog post out of it.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Compass Box Crusade Is Already Won in USA

You may have seen where independent scotch bottler Compass Box is campaigning for a labeling rules change. What you may not realize is that the rules Compass Box doesn't like already do not apply to whiskey sold in the USA.

Here is the Compass Box 'Statement of Belief' that they are asking whiskey enthusiasts to endorse:

We believe that Scotch producers should be given the freedom but not the obligation to include the age of all the components that go into their whiskies to bring them into line with the vast majority of other industries where total transparency is not only permitted but encouraged.

Americans are free to sign the petition if they want to but you should know that these rules don't apply to us and never have. Here, age statements are optional for any whiskey that is more than four years old. Age statements must state the age of the youngest whiskey in the mix, but producers are welcome to provide information about the other components too.

And they do. High West is releasing a new version of its popular Bourye that is "a unique and very premium blend of rich 9-year-old bourbon and 13- and 17-year-old ryes." Luxco's Blood Oath Pact 1 is a combination of three straight bourbons; a 6-year-old wheater, a 7-year-old rye recipe, and a 12-year-old rye recipe. Last year's Yellowstone Limited Edition was a 7-year-old wheater, a 7-year-old rye recipe bourbon, and a 12-year-old rye recipe bourbon. Diageo's new Gifted Horse whiskey is 39 percent 17-year-old Kentucky bourbon, 51 percent 4-year-old MGP Bourbon, and 10 percent 4-year-old MGP corn whiskey.

Diageo deserves credit for including the percentage of each component, which producers usually forgo. If you're looking for the distinctive taste of a 17-year-old whiskey, you might not get much if it's just 10 percent of the blend, but at 39 percent it should be very noticeable. That's why enthusiasts want this kind of information.

Compass Box wants to follow the Diageo example, describing all of the component whiskeys in its blend, including both age and percentage. In the U.S. market, their labels may contain all of that information right now.

Perhaps they had a good reason for it but the European Union (EU) rule, suggested by the Scotch Whiskey Association (SWA), seems absurd. Why prohibit producers from providing truthful information about their products? If the SWA/EU rule serves any interest it is certainly not that of consumers.

But it's not our problem.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Van Winkle of Water

I used to know a lot of people who competed in triathlons. The triathlon culture seemed to be as much about shopping as it was about athletic competition. Instead of buying stuff for just one sport, you could buy stuff for three!

I thought of the triathlon people when I saw this picture and the attached article. It is on the Tales of the Cocktail web site and all over my Facebook newsfeed. The author describes a tasting that compared the effect of Old Limestone in bourbon with tap water and distilled water. It was a serious effort and the article is a good read.

All of which may be beside the point. This sort of product sells to people who just love to buy stuff. When they develop a new enthusiasm, buying the accouterments is some or maybe even most of the fun. I've known people who, upon deciding to try country line dancing for the first time, went out first and bought boots, a hat, etc.

It's about liking to buy things but also about having what they consider the total experience. The whiskey enthusiasm is no different. Some people can't wait to buy the special whiskey tasting glasses and all the rest. Surely there must be a special water to use, to enhance the experience. The next thing will be a whiskey tasting jacket.

Many distilleries as far back as the 1950s have done branded bottled water. If you have a productive spring and an under-used bottling line, it's practically a no-brainer. Stitzel-Weller did it, there are still a few bottles of 'Weller Water' around. Nobody has ever had a big hit with it, but these are unusual times. Calling it 'mixing water' is a clever wrinkle, makes it sound like a thing. People who inherently like to buy this sort of item need only the smallest push.

But come on, it's water. If you use water in your whiskey, the same water you drink and cook with will be just fine. If it tastes okay to you on its own it will taste okay in your whiskey. If you are noticing off flavors in your drink, by all means change your water, but there are plenty of other quality bottled waters.

Objectively, the problem with 'whiskey water' is that your water doesn't have to match your whiskey, it has to match you and your taste. Do you drink water? Then you already know what you like. It's not broke so don't fix it.

Unless you just like to buy things. In which case go right ahead. It's good for the economy.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Yes, Bourbon Fraud Is a Problem

In 2004, Dave Broom, Dominic Roskrow and WHISKY Magazine did some fine journalism that revealed a massive fraud in old bottles of Macallan. The wine world too is periodically rocked by counterfeiting scandals. There is one going on right now. Whether it's whiskey or art, when prices soar forgery soon follows.

Until recently, counterfeiting wasn't much of a problem with American whiskey. It wasn't worth the trouble when the most desirable bottles only sold for hundreds of dollars. That changed when secondary market prices, particularly for Van Winkle whiskey, soared into four figures.

Many rather shabby fakes have appeared recently, leading dimwits to conclude that they can spot the counterfeits. You can't. Why? Because most of them are refilled bottles. Faking the closure is all you have to do and it's not that difficult for someone with a modicum of skill.

One problem with forged whiskey that isn't an issue in, for example, the art market is the whiskey resale market's underground nature. Selling alcohol without a license is illegal everywhere in the United States. It's true that the agencies charged with prosecuting that 'crime,' the state alcoholic beverage authorities, have bigger fish to fry and rarely go after collectors. But the illegal nature of the marketplace forces it underground, into private networks and secret groups on Facebook, and other social networking sites.

The market's underground nature also makes it attractive to thieves. It gives them cover. If your illegal whiskey transactions go bad, you can't very well call the police, can you?

You may think you're safe if you buy your overpriced Pappy from a licensed retailer, but some of them buy their 'special stock' on the secondary market too. Yes, that's illegal, and consequently those retailers may not care if the bottles are fakes. They may even be forgers themselves or in cahoots with forgers. Except where the state dictates prices, retailers are free to charge any price they want, so charging inflated prices for prestige bottles is generally legal. The producers and distributors may not like it (and they don't) but there isn't anything they can do about it. Is that $2,000 bottle of Pappy at the liquor store authentic? It might not be.

The online auction site, eBay, stopped alcohol sales several years ago, so what does eBay have to do with this? It's simple. You can sell empty bottles on eBay and people do, sometimes for hundreds of dollars. You can sell empty bottles wherever you want, it's perfectly legal. You can, however, be pretty sure that anyone who is willing to spend hundreds of dollars for an empty bottle of Pappy 23 is planning to refill it and sell it for thousands.

So, the folks who made the graphic above have this suggestion for people who want to sell their empty bottles but don't want to encourage and enable fraud. When you offer your bottles for sale, do these two things:

1. Include clear photos of the laser-coded numbers on the bottle. The bourbon community will keep track of those codes and match them against any new full bottles offered for sale.

2. Drill a small hole in the base of the bottle. The hole will not be noticeable if the bottle is for a lamp (as some buyers claim), or if it’s intended to be filled with liquid for display. The hole can easily be plugged but never fully disguised, which discourages resale as a counterfeit.

The other problem, of course, is that many of the people who pay absurd prices for Pappy and other prestigious bottles (full) are morons. They are people with way more money than sense. They want to be instant connoisseurs, so they buy what everybody says is 'the best,' and don't care how much it costs. If awareness that fraud is now rampant chases some of those people away, well then that's the silver lining.

Friday, February 5, 2016

There Are Many Different Ways to be Craft

Chattanooga Whiskey Co distiller Grant McCracken
After many years of talking about it, 2015 will be remembered as the year new American whiskey distilleries began to matter in volume terms. More new distilleries producing between 500,000 and 2 million proof gallons per year will come on line in 2016. There are now about ten new distilleries in that size range, mostly in Kentucky, who have started to produce in the last two years or will this year. Collectively, they amount to the addition of another Jim Beam in terms of industry-wide production capacity.

Watch for my story about this phenomenon in an upcoming issue of Whisky Advocate.

Significant increases in production capacity are a big deal for American whiskey, but they aren't the only exciting development, or even perhaps the most exciting one. All across America, people are setting up small stills (let's say fewer than 500 gallons) and doing interesting things with them. Case in point: Chattanooga Whiskey Co.

The current NDP range.
Since its inception a few years ago, Chattanooga has been a non-distiller producer (NDP), selling whiskey distilled by MGP in Indiana. It also has evolved into a popular tourist attraction in Tennessee's fourth largest city, welcoming 15,000 visitors in 2015.

A year or so ago they hired Grant McCracken, former head brewer and researcher at Sam Adams Boston Beer Company as their distiller. They gave him a tiny (100 gallon) still to play with. Here is what he has been doing with it.

"One thing our guests are surprised to find out when they tour the Stillhouse, our research and development micro-distillery, is that nearly every one of these barrels holds a different whiskey recipe. Why not make the same thing every day? Well, it’s not as much fun for us…or you."

Those guests also may not realize that all of the flavor in a whiskey distillate is created during fermentation, the part of the process that is very similar to brewing beer. The still concentrates good flavors and takes out some of the bad ones, but it doesn't add any. The barrel adds flavor, of course, but that comes later.

McCracken continues:

"Eventually we’ll release many different whiskies from the micro distillery - all with different ingredients and profiles. So far, we’ve experimented with around 5 different varieties of corn, 40 different malted grains, 15 strains of yeast and a few different mashing and distillation techniques. Most of the recipes we’ve made are in fact bourbon, yet all of these different ingredients and techniques give our whiskies a wide range of profiles. Sometimes the difference is slight, other times it’s overt. In any case, it makes the process of tasting, selecting and blending extremely challenging, a little confusing and…exhilarating."

The oldest whiskeys from Grant's still aren't even a year old yet, so we're a few years away from tasting them in their final form, but it's good to see this kind of imagination and creativity at work. This is what the craft distilling movement should be about and not just standard bourbon and rye production on a slightly smaller scale.

"Every time you sample a barrel, it’s kind of like getting a post card; the barrel tells you where it's been since it last said 'hello.' Sometimes where they’re at is predictable, other times it appears they’ve taken a detour.

"What you begin to realize though, is that when you send whiskey into the barrel, it’s traveling alone. While a distiller can control much of the flavor up front in the process, there are many aspects of the barrel aging that is out of our hands. So, while we’re still a little ways off from the process of selecting or blending for an actual release, we’ll have to wait and see where the barrels go. Until then, it seems like they're having fun on the road to becoming Chattanooga Whiskey. Here’s to a great new year."

With so many new distilleries and distillers out there, you can't follow all of them and it can be hard to know which ones bear watching. People like Grant McCracken, who really seem to get it, are the ones on my watch list.