Whisky Advocate


Fire Water

October 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonA while back I got a box from Darek Bell, the co-founder of Corsair Distillery. It wasn’t a big box, just about the size of a shoebox, and not that heavy. On opening, there was a lot of smoke-gray bubblewrap, a piece of paper, and ten little sample bottles of whiskey. The paper had a key to the contents of the bottles. Some had a fanciful name, like Smokejumper, Pyro, or Hydra, and each was whiskey, smoked with a different combustible: black walnut, pear, blackberry root, Hickory Amaranth, lemon balm, “5 Smoke blend.” I thought back to our 2012 Craft Whiskey of the Year, Corsair’s Triple Smoke, and sat down and started opening bottles!

Hydra — 5 smoke blend — The “smokiest” of the batch, bonfire, chimney smoke, but with a depth of different characters that keep it perky and bright: citrus, flower.

Now Bell follows up with Fire Water, Experimental Smoked Malts and Whiskeys, a focused companion book to his earlier Alt Whiskey. These two books share what’s constantly bubbling through Bell’s brain: Innovate or Die. He’s been quoted many times as saying that Corsair’s goal is to make whiskeys that have never been made before. Fire Water represents new territory indeed, by approaching smoke in whiskey as something far beyond peat.

Salamander — muira puama bark — Muira Puama is an Amazonian shrub used in herbal medicine. Floral, bosky, like leaves underfoot or old books without the acidity, and only gently smoky.

Fire Water is directly aimed at the people who want to make whiskey, and these days, illegal though it may be (and it is, very illegal), I run into people every week who tell me they’re distilling at home. (I tell them, you know, whether you sell it or not, even if you make just a little, it’s very illegal.) But the point of the book is to provide a guide particularly to the people who want to try something very different, not just a different mashbill, or making their own malt whiskey; this is for people who, like Bell, really want to rock out with their whiskey-making.

Firehawk — oak maple muira puama blend — Vetiver, cologne, a sharp smokiness with bright notes.

FireWaterThe first part of the book is a detailed look at smoking. What do you smoke, how do you smoke, what changes the amount of smoke a grain will absorb, and the various techniques — including direct injection — of getting smoke flavor into the distillate. I was surprised to learn that frozen grain will absorb more smoke flavor. This is nuts and bolts stuff that will excite the distiller and curious drinker both.

Efreet — lemon balm — very lemony, but with a sweet smokiness; gentle, but firm and refreshing.

Then the meat of the book is the tasting notes: what does distillate made with these smoked grains smell and taste like? The notes are done by two experienced ‘noses,’ Nancy Fraley and Julia Nourney. They give notes independently on an array of distillate made with the different ‘smokes,’ from woods, herbs, barks, and roots. One thing you learn is that fruitwood doesn’t always smell like the fruit. “Where’s the pear,” reads one nosing note under pear wood.

Pyro — pearwood — Fresh, delicately smoky, a surprising hit of olive brine.

The last part of the book approaches blending; putting these different flavors together to make a greater whole. This is the Canadian approach crossed with craft-based explosive variety. It reads not unlike a discussion with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head about his herb and fruit-based beers that seem to defy common sense to work beautifully; Calagione planned his beers, he didn’t just throw things together. Plan for greatness, Bell says, don’t stumble on it, and then lays out a philosophy for blending. Blending has gotten a bad name in whisky circles, and anything that gives it respect is a good thing.

NAGA — clove and barberry blend — Big smoke and spice, explosive, tangy, and shocking. Flavored whiskey that is 100% whiskey.

My one complaint with Fire Water is the design and editing. This was a self-published book, and it shows in spots. There are editing oversights that should have been caught, and the design looks rushed and jammed. The illustrations are good, colorful and illustrative, but don’t always lay well on the page. The production quality is good, though, and the cover is particularly striking.

Smokejumper — black walnut — Perhaps the purest smoke; firewood burning, sweet barbecue smoke.

Overall, though? Fire Water is jam-packed with ideas that will open up imaginative doors for innovative distillers of all types. There is brilliance here, with daring and excitement. These whiskeys won’t be for everyone — neither are Islay whiskies — but they may well burn out a whole new category of American spirits. And that’s worth a look.

Balcones Founder Chip Tate Speaks Freely

October 19th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickFor the first time since the August 8 temporary restraining order, Balcones founder Chip Tate can talk about the legal battle with his investors. He’s been under a strict media gag order, while the 170th Texas State District Court sorts out the disagreement between Tate and his investors, who alleged Tate refused to attend board meetings and even threatened to shoot board chairman Greg Allen. Allen’s legal team changed the terms of the temporary restraining order, Tate says, and he spoke with Whisky Advocate writer Fred Minnick.

By now, you’ve likely seen Allen’s side of the story. The Waco Tribune, bloggers and other media outlets published court records. We wrote about it here on the Whisky Advocate blog.

Last year, Balcones announced expansion plans for its Waco, Texas, distillery, making it one of the most-promising craft distilleries with award-winning whiskey. Allen and Tate seemed to be off to a great start and the press release offered incredible optimism with Tate saying he was “proud” to call Allen a partner.

But other things happened in a short span of time, and this is Tate’s side of that story.

Minnick: What is going on?

Tate: They were trying to make my life exceedingly difficult for a long while. Ever since I gave them a sense of what the distillery expansion was going to cost, I got a weird vibe from them. These are the investors who were going to fund the expansion. That was the whole premise. So, when I got that weird vibe, I put the figures together … {showing} cost between now and 2022, which is a lot. They’ve been strategically trying to get me out of the business since that moment. They’ve tried different proposals and board action to take over the company.

What did they do specifically?

{They were} trying to make me do daily reports on daily things and busywork. The board meetings were supposed to be quarterly, and this idea of having board meetings every few days is nonsense in itself and is clearly to make my job {difficult}. They said, ‘we need to get multiple signatures on checks and put new policies on travel.’ I asked: ‘Is there a problem with travel?’ This was draconian control based on no particular complaint. I proposed to diligently come up with a plan to meet their concerns. The {board} said, ‘nah. Voted. Seconded. Boom, boom.’ At this moment, they weren’t even going through the motions anymore.

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

But in July 2013, the investors come in and have majority control. Don’t they have final say in what goes on at Balcones?

No. When you do an LLC, you have an operating agreement on how you’re going to conduct business. Basically, there was some explicit language in there. They can’t do certain things without my consent. They can’t financially reorganize the company, which they were trying to force.

They said you threatened to shoot an investor.

The whole thing was absurd. When it came to August 5, Greg Allen stormed into the distillery very abruptly with two sheriffs. They said they would give me a period of time to buy them out. … When I got the written leave agreement, I was to resign presidential powers during a 60 day period and thereafter. When they couldn’t coerce me… they made up a bunch of allegations. They said I wouldn’t give them the passwords they literally took at gunpoint. They said I kept coming to the distillery. And they said I threatened to shoot Greg Allen. The funny thing is they said they had me on tape, and I said, ‘great!’ because I know what I said. What I actually said was in reference to when Greg busted into the distillery, I was talking to one of the other investors and said ‘I could have shot the guy, but instead I greeted him, was friendly and talked to him even though he had two armed sheriffs standing next to him.’ If you listen to the whole conversation, I told {the investor}: ‘you better do something about Greg here. They keep flying off the handle and going crazy, and I try to keep calming everybody down and react reasonably, and we don’t get anywhere. Rinse and repeat. But this can’t go anywhere good, and it can go somewhere bad.’

Do you have plans to sue them for slander or damage to your reputation?

One of the fun things about the American justice system: as long it’s done in court filings, you can’t get libel or slander. … with a few exceptions. I’ve been waiting for the circus to settle down. They released me from the injunction. They’re more envious to strike a deal than originally. Leading up to all of this was me saying, ‘hey, I don’t think you guys are happy. If that’s the case, one of us needs to leave the business before this gets to a bad place. I’d really like to stay. I founded it. If you are amendable, let’s talk about that.’ They turned down one offer after another.

What’s the end result here? Somebody buys them out? You get bought out?

If there’s a future, any future for Balcones, one of us is leaving. That’s for sure…. We {both} have to accept what we planned to happen isn’t happening. We’re not going to live happily ever after. We need to act like grown ups. And what we need to do is basically not pull each other’s shit out in the front yard, light it on fire and have the cops call—that’s not the productive way to handle this. {Using a divorce analogy…} What we need to figure out if I’m going to keep the house or they’re going to. The relationship is over. Let’s be grownups and focus on how we’re going to move forward. Either they’re going to buy me out and let me have my freedom. Or they get bought out.

How much to buy you out? And how much to buy them out?

I can’t really talk about that because we’re about to go in mediation.

The consensus from many lawyers on social media is for you to not fight this and to start fresh when the non-compete ends. Why have you decided to make this your life’s fight?

This isn’t my life’s fight. It’s been going on for two months. Anybody who thinks this is World War III has never started a craft distillery. This is a major skirmish approaching a war.

You’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from colleagues. Somebody even started a crowdsourcing site to raise money for your legal fees. What has that meant to you?

That’s huge. I can’t say how much I appreciate it! The support has kept me going. But still, even for legal reasons, I can’t really spill the beans, but these guys have a lot stuff they don’t want me to say. They misunderstood how carefully I handled them for the last six months. I am not going to lay down for these guys and let them steal from me.

The charge of contempt of court…

That was partially a reporting error. The judge makes final decision, {saying} I’m going to hold you in contempt, but I have some real questions on the restraining order.

Speaking of the restraining order, the temporary injunction is on hold now. What does that mean?

Basically, I’m not allowed to lie, cheat and steal or knowingly hold property that belongs to them. I can’t call up the employees and can’t go to the distillery. They have changed their tune very notably. They ran a full-court press on me and now that they’re done, I’ve said, ‘Is that the best you got?’ Because when I start talking, I want to make sure everybody is listening.

Are you confident you’re going to win?

Yes. If the law works the way it should, we would come to some sort of resolution. I just want to make whiskey again.

66Gilead: going up to the County

October 17th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxCrimson Rye is the latest whisky from 66Gilead, one of my favorite Canadian micro-distillers. This rural distillery takes its name from its street address in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The distillery sits on 80 tranquil and beautifully maintained acres in the heart of this popular tourist destination. Year round, visitors smile for photos among a scattering of grey-weathered outbuildings. In summer they amble across the broad green lawns, accompanied by an ever-scurrying flock of multi-colored chickens.

The main attraction at 66Gilead is clearly the frequently packed tasting room on the main floor of a restored 19th century home built by a wealthy hop farmer, Bert Cooper.

The 12 Barrel delivery wagon is being restored.

Today, in order to meet fire code, the distillery itself occupies a new metal structure, though the rest of the outbuildings remain as they were in Bert Cooper’s era. There’s an oast house – a hop drying kiln – complete with slatted floors and brick ovens that provided gentle heat for drying. It’s an education to see how hops were dried over a century ago and how large the scale of brewing operations was, even then.

I first visited 66Gilead a couple of years ago. “The County” was built by hard-working farmers, and recently it has become home to some of Canada’s elite writers and musicians.

My day began when I joined a few dozen well-heeled, back-to-the-earth retirees and aging hippies for breakfast and single-estate coffee at the Tall Poppy Café in Wellington. Some long-time residents are not amused that these newcomers beautify their properties with brightly painted old farm machinery and heritage vegetable stands.

I’m back in The County for the launch of Crimson Rye. It’s a luscious big whisky, mature well beyond it’s 42 months in barrel. “It’s the heat,” Peter Stroz explains as we walk around in the distillery. After filling, the barrels are stacked in the distillery building to mature. Even though the stills are not working today, Peter concedes, “It’s hot in here!”

Michael, son of Peter Stroz, has a theory about why the spirits from 66Gilead distillery are so consistently good. “You really have to want to do this,” he tells me. “There are so many government regulations and obstacles that you really have to be determined to succeed.”

Michael is a recent graduate in software engineering, and minds the distillery during the week while the owners (his parents Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi) work at their day jobs. Both are radiologists in Toronto, a commute that takes them about two-and-a-half hours.

Distiller Sophia Pantazi with her still.

This is a genuine small batch distillery and here that means one to three barrels. “Why should I do more?” asks Sophia, “I want quality not volume.”

That attention to quality and detail is reflected in the oil paintings that hang in the distillery guesthouse. Sophia is also an accomplished painter. She may spend weekdays reading x-rays, but in her soul, I think Sophia is an artist.

“Sophia is the creative one,” Peter confirms, “I’m just the property manager.”

In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for at least three years before it can be called whisky. Crimson Rye is the first mature rye to come from 66Gilead. Even so, their rye spirit – what some would call “white rye” – has been available in local liquor stores for several years. Don’t tell martini or whisky snobs, but it makes a heck of a great dirty martini.

Bradford counts to twelve as the barrel chars.

As chickens run clucking around the property, a clanging sound from the Carriage House Cooperage tells me that Pete Bradford is pounding hoops onto a new barrel. I venture back to find some 40 people gathered around his charring furnace, a single barrel late-18th-century working antique. He is about to finish a newly made local-oak cask.

Carefully he places the barrel over the fire and soon it is crackling. “When it starts to ping it’s ready to ignite,” he tells the intrigued onlookers. But this one is a slow starter. It takes almost ten minutes for those distinct pinging sounds to begin then Bradford gets into position. Once the barrel ignites he lets it burn for about 12 seconds then douses it with a pail of water. Even the fire is hand crafted. It’s fueled with 100% white oak scrap.

This is physically challenging work and Bradford tells me he will pass the cooperage on to a new apprentice cooper before year’s end. Canada’s last working cooperage will remain in operation, though he explains that it will likely move elsewhere in The County.

It’s now 2 in the afternoon and a busload of tourists has arrived for a distillery tour and a tasting. Canadian distilleries are notoriously disinterested in tours. 66Gilead is an exception. Visitors are more than welcome here and there’s plenty to keep them occupied.

“Our conversion rate is outstanding,” Sophia grins. I wonder for an instant if our conversation has suddenly turned religious, until she points to the visitors.

“Look at that, over half of them are taking a bottle or two home with them.”

In addition to Crimson Rye and Wild Oak Whisky, 66Gilead also serves vodka, gin, shochu, and barrel-aged rum in the tasting room. “We distil every drop on site,” says Sophia. “It really hurts the craft distillery image that some people use grain neutral spirits.”

Peter nods in agreement. It’s obvious to see how satisfying it is for them to make spirits that are hand crafted in minute batches. I have to remind myself that Peter and Sophia spend most of their week in white coats, tending to patient’s medical needs, and not looking after these barrels.

I ask Peter about their dual focus. “I’m just as passionate about medicine. But here I can chat and joke and share stories with people. At the hospital there is always that element of doctor-patient confidentiality.”

They are genuinely welcoming hosts, Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and spending a day at 66Gilead in Prince Edward County is certainly worth the drive if Toronto is your base. Experience their hospitable spirit and taste their distilled spirit and you’ll likely end up discovering a bottle worth bringing home with you.

Fall Bourbon and Rye Whiskey Limited Release Overview

October 15th, 2014

john hansellIt’s that time of the year again, when all the major bourbon and rye whiskey producers release their limited edition whiskeys, and consumers scramble to find a bottle before they disappear. Your time and money is valuable, so I thought I’d offer some guidance on which whiskeys you should concentrate on buying.

I’ve tasted my way through the following whiskeys. My formal reviews will appear in the upcoming issue of Whisky Advocate, but here’s a quick overview of them, in no particular order.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (All $80, in theory)

My favorite of the line is the George T. Stagg (69.05%). The past two years have shown a tamer, more rounded and balanced Stagg. This one is a classic.

2014 BTACSazerac 18 yr. Rye (45%) is similar, but not identical to, previous years. And I really like it. To me, it’s still the best example of a classic ultra-aged rye that’s released on an annual basis. This is the same whiskey that has been tanked in stainless steel and released annually over the past several years. It will continue to be until a new 18 year old rye is released in 2016.

Both Eagle Rare 17 yr. (45%) and William Larue Weller (70.1%), two perennial favorites, are showing more age this year. By this, I mean there’s more wood spice and resin. They are still very nice whiskeys, but to me the extra oak is gratuitous and unnecessary.

The disappointment this year is the Thomas H. Handy Rye (64.6%). This year’s release is thinner and less complex on the palate, with unintegrated spice, botanical, and feint vegetal notes dominating. Yes, there are other flavors thrown in the mix, but it doesn’t help. It’s easily the weakest whiskey in this year’s Antique Collection.2014LESmallBatch_Front

Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch, 55.9%, $90

There’s more oak and dried spice when compared to the 2013 release (our American Whiskey of the Year last year) and, while not quite reaching that caliber — it’s not quite as seamless, drinkable, or complex — it gets close. Very impressive.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 56.6%, $40

This is what I wish the standard Maker’s Mark would be: more mature, spicier, more complex, and with a richer finish. This was initially released in Kentucky only, but rumors are that it will get a wider distribution in the future. The best Maker’s Mark since the now extinct Maker’s Mark Black, which was released for export only. If you can track down a bottle, you won’t be disappointed. (Except for the fact that it’s only in 375 ml bottles.)

2014_OFBB_BottleMockupElijah Craig 23 year old (Barrel No. 26), 45%, $200

Yes, 23 years is a long time to age bourbon. And yes, there’s plenty of oak influence. But there’s an underlying sweetness that balances the oak spice (with this particular barrel; others may vary). I suspect that some of the barrels will be over-oaked, so be careful.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2014 release), 12 year old, 48.5%, $60

This whiskey’s signature over the last several years has been wood-dominant, with plenty of dried spice (the exception being the 2013 release which I really enjoyed—it was chock full of balancing sweetness). The 2014 release is similar to the pre-2013 releases; a dynamic bourbon, but still leaning heavily on the oak spice.

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2014 Release), 59.65%, $170

The third cask strength release and, like all Angel’s Envy bourbons, this one is finished in port barrels. When compared to the standard Angel’s Envy bourbon, this Cask Strength release is packed with more of everything: alcohol, port fruit notes, and oak. While very enjoyable, it pushes the envelope of the port finishing. If port finishing isn’t your thing, then you should think twice before buying.Parker's Heritage Collection Original Batch 63.7

I’ll throw in a bonus wheat whiskey too:

Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 year old, 63.7%, $90

Heaven Hill’s straight wheat whiskey, Bernheim Original, is a pleasant drink, but I always felt that some extra aging and a higher proof would give it additional richness and complexity to propel it to a higher level. That’s what this new whiskey accomplishes. If you like Bernheim Original, you’ll love this one.

The Templeton Case: let’s talk to a lawyer

October 10th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I visited Templeton, Iowa, to cover this hot rye whiskey that Al Capone supposedly liked. At the time, I knew they were purchasing bulk whiskey from what was then called LDI, the former Seagram’s facility that gave the world beautiful 95% rye mashbills, but I had never approached the company about this. Going into the interview, I half expected them to be confrontational. Keith Kerkhoff, one of the founders, played college football and tried out for an NFL team; and let’s just say, his lineman shoulder could crush my spine.

When questioned, the founders, Kerkhoff and Scott Bush, were honest about the sourcing process and I later found their sales reps disclosed the whiskey origins. Templeton even disclosed this fact on its Website, producing a video captured at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and openly discussed the fact on social media. But for whatever reason, the company never disclosed the state of distillation on the label. Instead, Templeton sold the small town’s infamous Prohibition heritage.

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

For years, even before my 2011 visit, hardcore whiskey geeks called foul on Templeton’s marketing efforts and even the locals didn’t care for Kerkhoff’s and Bush’s attempt to bring unwanted attention to the town. (Illicit whiskey makers are still very much in business in Templeton!) All of this would be chalked up as noise or slightly bad publicity for a brand that became a consumer favorite.

But all of that changed in late August when a class-action lawsuit was filed against Templeton in Cook County, Illinois, citing “deceptive marketing practices” and that Templeton violated consumer protection laws. The plaintiff claimed he was led to believe that the whiskey was made in Iowa. This lawsuit was given the green light to proceed and two additional class-action suits have been filed, with the most recent one being filed this week in Iowa. Tito’s Handmade Vodka faces a similar class-action lawsuit.

To understand the depths of the suit and how it might impact the future of the spirits business, I reached out to attorney Joel Ard, an alcohol attorney specialist with Foster Pepper PLLC in Washington.

 

Templeton’s labels were approved by the TTB. How are they vulnerable for a lawsuit?

That’s a surprise often to a lot of people, certainly among smaller craft producers, but even among larger industry participants. This idea that a government agency has approved their label and then they can get called on it for alternative reasons is often a bit of a surprise.

But isn’t the TTB to blame for not catching an improper label?

The reality is that the TTB is the Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s not a Trademark Office. It’s not an advertising office. It’s not a consumer protection office. They collect excise tax on ethanol and their primary concern about labels is the Surgeon General’s Warning is on it, in the right font, in the right size and that the percent alcohol by volume is accurate.

There are a bunch of regs about no obscenity, no nudity. Just start looking at wine labels for what stuff gets through. There’s a lot of stuff that can get through because they’re pushing through an enormous volume of labels; it’s not primarily a place for judging the accuracy of advertising or the consumer protection statute.

On to the Templeton lawsuit; what kind of case is this?

This is the kind of lawsuit where an enterprising lawyer dug up a more or less imaginary plaintiff and sued somebody and he’s going to pocket the proceeds in the lawsuit. Pick a consumer protection statute, find a target and sue them.

Will this become a trend? Will enterprising lawyers start dissecting alcohol labels for violations of regulations?

I’m sure that somebody could come up with a particularly creative claim that somehow a person was harmed because a wine bottle had the American Flag on it and that’s forbidden by regulation. Hard to imagine what the claim would be. What’s the harm to the consumer?

Now, you might say, where is the consumer harm that Tito’s Vodka is actually not made by hand; and Tito’s lawyers and the California consumers will fight over that, maybe there’s no harm, maybe it’s really bad.

It seems like a lot of this could be fixed if the TTB had more authority to police labels for accuracy.

I’m not sure it would be the best thing to try to give them more authority. A few years back, the label approval backlog was huge. If you are a startup distillery, you need to get a label approved pretty quickly. You can’t afford to wait for your label and don’t have the resources to have an army of lawyers push them through TTB. So, my concern would be if you were [adding] authority, it’s going to hurt the little guys. The big guys have plenty of resources to get their labels approved. The way the TTB runs now, there’s very little legal involvement.

The TTB right now is a decent balance of making sure that people aren’t misled about alcohol content, poisoned by strange distilled spirits, or blatantly obviously lied to on labels. For the broad run of the rest of it, most of the time the market’s going to sort it out. If you put bad stuff in a bottle, it doesn’t matter how cool your label is.

Canadian Club releases an all-rye-grain whisky

October 6th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxIt was a secret mission. So secret, in fact, that even the operative did not know what it was about. I could name the operative but that would put them at risk. Let’s just say, for the moment, it’s a whisky-loving writer based in a friendly country not that far away. It was mid-April and he flew from somewhere in that country to Louisville to meet Beam Suntory marketing director, Kelly McGregor. Louisville isn’t the easiest city to fly to and it took a full day of travel to get there, another on the return. All that for a single day in Louisville.

When Kelly met him for breakfast she couldn’t help cracking a smile as she told him that a blindfold would not be required for the journey. She identified the destination: the Jim Beam distillery campus on Happy Hollow Road in Clermont. Happy Hollow has a nice backwoods ring to it, but when they arrived at their destination – the product development lab – they were surrounded by the essence of modern science, right down to omnipresent white lab coats.

Canadian Club Rye in rye field“We’re going to taste some whisky,” she finally told him. “We’d like to get your impressions.” So, they toured the lab before he sat down with five scientists and about a dozen glasses of whisky. Some, he reports, were good, some were great, and one was just so-so. All had the rich spiciness, dried fruitiness, subtle sourness, and refreshing bitterness of rye.

They worked in silence, writing their tasting notes, five whiskies at a time, and then, once they’d committed their thoughts to paper, they discussed them one by one. Not which ones they liked or why, just aromas, flavors, and impressions. After a couple more rounds, someone collected all the notes, and just like that, it was over. He still hadn’t a clue what was really going on and he doubted that his hurriedly dashed-off notes would be decipherable, let alone of any value.

Then late in August this year, Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory’s senior brand manager, sent him an e-mail. “I wanted to let you know about our new product launch in Canadian whisky. I cannot reveal it yet, but will be letting you know sometime in September. We were honored that you were able to join our team in Kentucky, and hopefully you got a taste of what I consider to be our obsession with moving the Canadian whisky category forward. This new product, and in particular because it comes from this brand, will open the eyes of many Canadians about Canadian whisky.”

Great news, Rob, but there’s an important detail that’s missing: WHICH BRAND????

In Louisville, his taste buds had told him it was rye, and he knew that Rob was the mastermind behind Dark Horse, one of his favorites. So, when he received an invitation to attend a product launch for a new whisky from Canadian Club, one sentence jumped out at him: “Join us as CC unveils the newest member of its portfolio, honoring the grain that is exciting bartenders and whisky lovers across the country.”

Let’s join the dots: Beam Suntory owns Canadian Club. Bingo! He had it. A new all-rye Canadian Club.

Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory

Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory

It was an educated guess, though Rob still was evading his questions. Then a week or so before the launch, a messenger arrived from Beam Suntory with a bottle. He ripped the package open and lo and behold: Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye whisky.

Rob finally let him in on the secret. The whisky, he explained, is distilled and aged for 7 years at Alberta Distillers, Beam Suntory’s western Canadian distillery in Calgary and then shipped east to Walkerville, Ontario, for bottling at 40% abv.

Wait a minute! Before fans of “more-is-better” begin to snipe that the whisky is bottled at a standard 40%, take a look at the price. This seven-year-old 100%-rye-grain whisky sells for about $1.50 more than regular Canadian Club Premium. “We could have priced it higher,” Rob concedes, “but we wanted to get it into the hands of 25 to 30 year olds and price is sill an important factor for them.”

A note, then, to US residents who love their rye: Get ready for your cross border shopping run. With just 70,000 cases in the pipeline each year, this new whisky, at least for now, is available in Canada only.

Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye was unveiled at a launch held at Toronto’s Spoke Club on October 2 and will be appearing in Canadian liquor stores over then next few months.

And finally, I can reveal the identity of this whisky-loving operative. It’s… Wait! I hear footsteps…

Jackie Thomson — In 140 Or Less

September 26th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers Jackie Thomson, manager of Ardbeg’s visitor center and the Old Kiln Café. Known for her deep commitment and passion for her role and brand, Jackie tells us a bit about herself and the business there…. but she won’t say what her invention is.

What’s the view from your office window?
Glorious blue sky and puffy clouds and the pagoda from the West Maltings. Delightful.

Where are you from originally?
Originally Glasgow but moved to the Highlands when small. Consider Inverness my home and have great affection for this part of the world.

Jackie Thomson 2I hear of an exotic work past. Your career path and intentions before arriving at Ardbeg?
Was a wanderer. Burning desire for journalism, but missed university entry date so changed direction. Never totally career focused, but lots of life experiences!

Such as?
Oh, the Middle East, radio stations…

What were you doing in the Middle East and how did that come about?
Intrigued by kibbutz living; went with a friend. Backpacked, erected greenhouses in Gaza, dived in the Red Sea. Fascinating times; when ignorance really was bliss.

Radio stations: are you Islay’s best/only DJ?
No. Worked at Moray Firth Radio in Inverness; sold advertising space but read the Highland League results too. Big footie fan then. But Islay FM has a ring to it. [Highland League is a soccer league]

 Ardbeg did “quirky” as a brand and website long before others. Are you all flattered by others following suit?
Love all the connotations which quirky captures — cool, smart, witty, intelligent — sum up Ardbeg. Not flattered, but proud.

You personally, the manager, and the whisky have all won awards. How much do they mean?
The awards are always for the team: quietly chuffed to bits. A dinner in London: even better!

You run the best distillery café EVER and I wish I could get there more than once a year. How do you keep standards up?
By keeping things simple, fresh, and making sure the service is just a little better than it could be. We pride ourselves on making good whisky-drinking food!

The team puts all into Ardbeg Day at the Islay Whisky Fest. Where does all the creativity come from?
From all of us via lots of juicy meetings. We love being able to have fun with the festival. We are on the last day so much of the serious stuff has been done.

How many members does the Ardbeg Committee have now? Plans for growth/running the world?
Over 100,000 members all over the world. Ardbeg is many things, but essentially a wonderful dram and we will continue to fill people with Ardbeg’s spirit.

Shortie

Shortie

Presumably literally and figuratively. How did you acquire Shortie and to whom does the lovely wee dog belong?
By default:  he lived near the distillery and spent much of his time outside the visitor center sniffing, licking, and greeting visitors!

Not many places where you get licked by the staff! How are reservations going for Ardbeg’s luxury cottage?
Great this year. Has taken a while for word to spread, but feedback is hugely positive. I would love to live in Seaview Cottage.

So would I; in middle of house improvements here. What are your interests outside work?
A spot of over indulgence — eating, drinking, fishing, walking, reading, inventing — nothing in moderation.

You probably never need to leave Islay then. Fishing: are you skilled and does your catch make it to the café?
Definitely need to leave sometimes. I get stir crazy! Our wee boat, Catch 22, has seen some action. I am very adept with a spinner, but keep my catch for our dinner table!

Cooking: assume you don’t do it all for the café? Any particular thing or style?
Certainly not; we have great chefs doing culinary gymnastics in the cafe. I love a small glass of wine and creating.

Reading…being on Islay with no bookstores, are you a Kindle girl?
Very recently converted, but love the smell of a good book. Classics on Kindle, contemporary fiction on paper, works for me!

Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Visitor Center ManagerWhere do you find time for all this and being Chair of South Islay Development group? [South Islay Development runs community projects and is raising some of the money toward the setup of a new community center for Port Ellen.]
Sometimes I swim and occasionally I sink. Time is a luxury but I really thrive on being busy. Have tried to slow down, but it doesn’t work for me.

And being a chairperson?
I don’t know if I am a good chairperson, but I really enjoy being one and the challenges it brings. We quietly try to make things happen.

When will we be able to buy Ardbeg Kildalton online and how much has it raised so far? [Kildalton, created by Dr. Bill Lumsden to aid the project, is currently available at the distillery only.]
No total yet. Plans for it to be available online later this year. Proud to be part of this project to raise funds to set up a community hub to benefit all in Port Ellen.

Is there anything you enjoy that Islay can’t offer? Do you crave retail therapy?
Not for clothes or shoes, but for food choice and big supermarkets! Love to go to Europe and wander the huge hypermarkets.

Seems reasonable. You’ve been at Ardbeg a while now. Of what are you most proud?
It has been a great privilege to watch a brand grow and flourish. Working alongside the team — past and present — who care deeply about the distillery.

Any unfulfilled ambitions for a) Ardbeg Visitor Centre (growing your own cafe produce?) and b) yourself?
To have the Old Kiln Café stand alone as a great eating place. To write a book; see my invention make me millions; watch my boys grow into confident, peaceful young men.

What would be your desert island dram? Only one, mind, and it doesn’t have to be an Ardbeg!
Foraging for food, would be incongruous but delightful to procure elegant, sophisticated Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. Could read the historical insert whilst sipping!

Whisky Auctions to Return to U.S. in 2015

September 23rd, 2014

Jonny McCormickSkinner, Inc., of Boston will host dedicated whisky and rare spirits sales commencing in 2015. Joe Hyman has been appointed to the position of fine spirits consultant to oversee this venture, which is likely to be welcomed by whisky collectors in North America. One impetus to expand into this area was Bonhams’ exit from the whisky auction scene in New York this summer, leaving an absence of any specific auctions for vintage spirits in the calendar.

I caught up with Hyman to mull over his time as head of whisky and rare spirits at Bonhams, NY, to talk about his new endeavor, and to discuss his perspectives on the auction prospects for different categories of collectible whiskies. Straight off, he corroborated the reasons given to Whisky Advocate by Bonhams that the auction house pulled out of whisky auctions in New York for failing to meet their own financial targets.

Why couldn’t they make it work? “It’s different in the States compared to Europe because of all the regulations around alcohol,” explains Hyman. “All the interstate commerce rules, licensing and warehousing issues…everything here has to be under bonded, secure warehouse space, which costs a lot of money. There’s such a layered system that each layer cannot step on any other layer’s toes, so to speak. You’ve got your distributors, your retailers, the auction houses, and shipping agents, so there’s a whole complex web to deal with, that most people in the auction business don’t want to bother with. The big places with huge wine sales, they’ll take whisky if you have $10,000 bottles, but they don’t want to have to deal with it otherwise. I can understand the viewpoint but it’s at a point where it’s growing. I did what I could.”

Joe Hyman

Joe Hyman

Meanwhile, auction houses in Europe have been courting American collectors to consign with them, making offers to ship their whisky collections overseas. Previously, some well-known shipping companies would only insure consignments up to a value of $1,000, inadequate for the needs of collectors consigning dozens of rare bottles, which left U.S. auction houses rather hamstrung.

Hyman has been striving to offer solutions. “I’ve made inroads with the shipping companies and international freight companies that deal with alcohol,” he said. “We can have collections shipped to us to our licensed warehouse, here in Massachusetts. We’ll continue to do the traditional live auctions with phone and online bidding, but we’ll also mix it up with online auctions like the European model.”

“That way, we can handle not only the really cool, expensive items that people get excited over, but we can help people who are looking for old-style whiskies for head to head tasting comparisons,” he explains. Connoisseurs will pay a premium for 10 to 18 year old whiskies from 10 years ago over the ones being produced today, because the flavor profile has changed or the availability of specific wood has altered.

“That environment can create more of a secondary market that the U.S. hasn’t had until now,” Hyman hopes. “Until a couple of years ago, it was eBay, Facebook, or Craigslist, but there is no real go-to place for the secondary market here. We can develop something like that. The $100 bottles and upward are ideal for the online auction environment.”

Skinner held a successful Fine Ales and Spirits online auction last April that included rye, bourbon, scotch, and Canadian whiskies. Furthermore, around 100 bottles of quality whisky are expected to comprise a section of their forthcoming wine sale this fall, before a full whisky sale next year.

What is his assessment of the market potential for whiskey, bourbon, and rye? “It’s going to continue to rise. People have continued to discover bourbon and rye over the past decade. The gains in recent auctions have been outstripping the pace of scotch. A lot of the old bottles are surfacing out of peoples’ basements, closets, and out of walls from the Prohibition era. We’ve not had the same turmoil and looting of basements that there was in Europe during the World Wars. Every time a bottle of significance comes up, then more people go searching through their basements and come up with things.”

What else is hot? “You’ve got the closed distilleries of Japan which have become the Golden Fleece of whisky collecting right now; the Karuizawas and the Hanyus,” he says excitedly. “People can’t get enough of that stuff right now, and it’s escalating. They’re going up at an astronomical rate.”

Canadian whisky has yet to have its moment in the sun as a collectible, but Hyman believes this will change. “People are starting to rediscover Canadian whisky, so that could be the next thing to go up,” he says. “I have bought Canadian whiskies like Canadian Club and Seagram’s VO at auction and they don’t go for anywhere near the same amount of money. I’ve taken these things to whisky events and people are amazed about how good they are.”

What about scotch then? “Even Macallan with their M has become a collectible whisky,” says Hyman. “It’s NAS, but it’s Macallan; not everyone can do this. Your collectibles of tomorrow will be the bottlings with age and vintage statements today. That stuff won’t be available in the future.”

Finally, looking back over your time at Bonhams, what was your proudest moment? “The Cognac 1762 Gautier was the stand out bottle for me, just because of the rarity of it. It was the highest price paid for a Cognac at auction outside of Asia.” Hyman is referring to Lot 947 of the April 30th 2014 sale where the Cognac sold for a hammer price of $50,000. I wonder, does he still dream of a bottle that he would love to auction one day? “Ardbeg distilled in 1815 maybe!” he says with a chuckle. “As a whisky enthusiast, I think a Springbank 1919 would be pretty exciting.”

The Skinner Fine Wine sale will be held on October 28th/29th 2014 at 6pm ET

Automated Whisky Dispense at Grane in Omaha

September 22nd, 2014

Lew BrysonHow do you like your whisky? I don’t mean whether you like it neat, or watered, or in a cocktail; how do you like it socially, how do you like it served?

Grane, a new bar in Omaha, Nebraska, has a completely new way to serve whisky: by automated machine. Grane’s founder, Daniel Matuszek, explains that the whole bar is built around the system, developed by WineEmotion, a European company that developed the technology for wine dispense.

“We went to them over a year ago and told them about the growth of whisky,” Matuszek recalls, explaining that they were looking to use the technology for whisky instead of wine. “They resized and retrofitted the pistons that push the liquid. They used the same technologies, but remade for whisky bottles. We got an exclusive arrangement for spirits dispensing with this for a year, global exclusivity. We’re the first and only place to use this; not Chicago, LA, or NYC, not London: Omaha.”

Grane has a “speakeasy feel,” according to Matuszek, but the whisky dispensers are sleekly modern, hard-edged technology. A customer buys a smart card (see the video, below) and “loads” money onto it. It’s whisky, so you probably want to load heavy. Then you take a look at what’s on offer; there are currently 35 bottles available at any one time. “We have a world whisky machine, a bourbon machine, two Scotch whisky machines, and a high-end machine,” Matuszek says.

You choose a whisky, press one of three buttons (½, 1, or 1.5 ounce) above that particular spout, and the whisky pours into your glass. It’s quick, it’s accurate, and you can see the bottle directly below the spout. It’s all customer-operated; no bartender involved. “It breaks down some of the barriers,” he says about the direct operation. “People can read about the whiskies, and then they can try by themselves, at their own pace, their own judgment.”

You’re probably wondering the same things I was. Is there potential for the whisky to be harmed, or changed, or contaminated? Keep in mind that the same issues for whisky are there for wine: contamination, oxidation, and — prime importance considering the cost of whiskies — waste. The whisky is pushed by food-grade argon gas, with the uptake from the bottom of the bottle; the headspace fills up with argon. The spout will drip two or three drops, but cut-off is precise. There is very little to go wrong here.

“The majority of people have been hitting that half-ounce button; they want to try things,” Matuszek notes, which must not surprise anyone who knows whisky lovers. “We don’t keep them on for months at a time. we have a barrel of Dickel 9 year old we selected, and we’ll keep that on. But we go all the way from the biggest baddest Ardbeg to Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. We’re teaching people about Japanese whisky, Canadian whisky, and all that.”

Will people like getting whisky without a bartender? (Grane’s bartenders are fully employed making cocktails, of course.) Will automated dispense catch on outside of Omaha? Will this be the next thing where people will say they can taste the difference? Would you buy auto-dispense whisky?

Whisky Investing…the last time around

September 19th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonMy father died four years ago, and I have to say; he was a bit of a pack rat. More than a bit, really. It took us all day to clean out the garage (which hadn’t held a car since the Johnson administration); honestly, why did a man who rarely worked on his own car need five grease guns?

My mother’s been working her way through all the papers and letters he saved, and she found this one, and thought I’d find it interesting. Once I’d had a look, and chuckled, I thought you might find it interesting as well:

 

IMG_20140919_114839762_HDR

 

It was sent, by air mail (a 4p stamp at the time), to my father’s RD1 address, in April, 1973. To the best of my knowledge, my father never drank an ounce of Scotch whisky in his life, and in 1973, his life savings amounted to his teacher’s pension (which was out of his reach) and about $1,000 in a savings and loan account that we would spend two months later on a family vacation we’d been planning for ten years. We were hardly investors, and certainly not Scotch lovers…yet Strathmore not only found us, but sent a hand-addressed letter to us.

In less than ten years, Scotland would be awash in whisky (which in 15 more years would become the bounty of under-priced mature whisky that some of us swam in, joyfully, for a happy, golden time).

We are being encouraged to “invest” in Scotch whisky again. I feel like I should check my mailbox. And keep a hand on my wallet.

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