Whisky Advocate


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.

The New Diageo Special Releases

September 15th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonOnce again it’s time for the annual Special Releases series from Diageo – everyone’s pantomime villain that the collectors love to hate (while secretly rushing to buy the bottles).

This year, Whisky Advocate was granted a sneak advance tasting. All eleven of the whiskies will be available in the U.S., albeit in limited quantities, so I have listed them all in the table together (see below) with the essential information on age, pricing (in UK Pounds; no U.S. pricing available as yet), % ABV, and the number of bottles to be released. (Incidentally, if you’re perplexed on the apparently odd numbers, you’ll find they all divide neatly by 6, thus indicating the total number of 6-bottle cases that will be shipped.)

What do we observe from the list? The usual favorites are there: Port Ellen, Rosebank, Brora, Caol Ila, and Lagavulin all make an appearance. But there are one or two surprises, including a first ever Special Releases’ bottling of Strathmill, and a venerable Singleton of Glendullan, at 38 years old the grand-daddy of this group.

The pricing, as we’ve come to expect, doesn’t offer any bargains nor, I suspect, make it likely that anyone will make a toss-the-cork session with these bottles, no matter how good their friends. Diageo have long-since understood the reality of the secondary market and determined that they, not speculators, will profit from the demand to own these treasures. One might recoil in mock horror at some of the prices but it’s hard to blame Diageo for this trend. Having said that, the Unpeated Caol Ila (£75) and the 12 years old Lagavulin (£80) are both accessible and attainable to all but the most impecunious of enthusiasts. These, thank goodness, are whiskies for drinking.

6 bottle range

As the market for this style dictates all the bottles save one carry an age declaration. The odd man out is the Clynelish Select Reserve. Though I understand the youngest spirit in the vatting to be 16 years old, this whisky is a complex, rich and mature blend created by Diageo’s Dr. Jim Beveridge and, for me, one of the stand-out drams of the collection. It’s a great testament to the argument, increasingly advanced by the distilling industry, that skilled blending counts for more than age on its own. While there are certainly some older whiskies in here, the result is a beguiling, waxy, mouth-coating set of sensations that mix Clynelish’s signature ozone and brine notes with fresh and dried fruits, smoke, fudge, and menthol. This is a whisky that keeps on giving – at £500 a bottle you might expect something sensational and this does deliver.

Brora bottle&boxIt’s far from the most expensive, however. Both the Brora and the Port Ellen releases will break the bank for most of us, requiring £1,200 for the Brora and £2,200 for the 14th Release from the closed and now legendary Islay distillery. But, putting price to one side as we must, those lucky enough to acquire a bottle of either are in for something of a treat: fans of these celebrated distilleries will find much to enjoy. Both need a modest amount of water to fully reveal themselves (but go carefully, as only a few drops are required); both are packed with subtle and complex smoke notes; both need time and some care; both finish long, with pepper and spice (an unexpected ginger edge in the Port Ellen stands out) and the damp, smoldering embers of a wood fire on a beach with salt on the wind call to mind their ancestral homes.

There’s poetry too to be found in the offering from Rosebank; this a bittersweet elegy for another lost distillery. Diageo’s Maureen Robinson perplexed us with her initial comment that the nose carried the scent of “fresh air”, but likened it to the crisp, clean aroma of freshly laundered cotton sheets (a 1,000 thread count sateen if I’m any judge of bed linen). This I thought was the aperitif whisky of the session, a vibrant, zesty palate-teaser that zinged into action from the very first sip. It was young, yet knowing; fresh, yet deep; sweet on the nose, yet by turns clean and drying.

From all parts of Scotland they have come and I surely must mention the Speysiders in the company: The Singleton of Glendullan; Cragganmore; a meaty, big-bodied, blustering Benrinnes that threatened to steal the show (and repelled in equal measure some of the panel) and the debutant Strathmill, initially coy and enigmatic but full of mesmerizing charm – a wallflower that would soon waltz elegantly past a line of eager suitors.

But the finish! Almost all these whiskies left me struggling for descriptors that capture their complexity, charm, and character. Too literal a description scarcely does them justice; too poetic and the reader will be baffled and think the taster bewitched…

So let me finish with the two Special Releases that will be most widely seen, enjoyed and drunk: the 15 years old unpeated Caol Ila and Lagavulin, bottled at what is for this distillery at least an unusual 12 years of age. The result of this policy of the preferment of youth is that there will be plenty to go around, at prices that permit enjoyment without the rueful contemplation of one’s credit card statement.

The freshness and vibrancy of eager youth was evident in both. A hint of smoke could be detected in the Caol Ila, which was soft, generous and giving and packed with vanilla, where the Lagavulin was all pulled pork BBQ with smoky bacon topping and a peat sauce. But then rich fruit notes emerged from the misty smoke, an autumnal note crept forward and a tentative, delicate, fugitive sweetness offered up its still, small voice.

If you are sufficiently fortunate to come into possession of one of these whiskies – any one of them – then do not hoard them; do not place them on some remote, unattainable pedestal; do not venerate them, but share them freely (yet with appropriate discretion). Induct some neophyte into whisky’s riches or exchange a dram with another privileged connoisseur.

‘Special’ these releases may be, but I implore you to set them free. It is noble work, and you will be the better for it!

DISTILLERY AGE AT BOTTLING YEAR DISTILLED UK RRSP % ABV NUMBER OF BOTTLES
THE SINGLETON OF GLENDULLAN 38 1975 £750 59.8% 3,756
CAOL ILA – UNPEATED 15 1998 £75 60.39% 10,668
CAOL ILA 30 1983 £425 55.1% 7,638
CLYNELISH SELECT RESERVE 1999 £500 54.9% 2,964
CRAGGANMORE 25 1988 £299 51.4% 3,372
LAGAVULIN 12 2002 £80 54.4% 31,428
PORT ELLEN 35 1978 £2,200 56.5% 2,964
ROSEBANK 21 1992 £300 55.3% 4,530
BENRINNES 21 1992 £240 56.9% 2,892
BRORA 35 1978 £1,200 48.6% 2,964
STRATHMILL 25 1988 £275 52.4% 2,700

The Balcones Controversy

September 11th, 2014

Author - Dave BroomThe extraordinary reports coming out of the Balcones distillery in Waco, Texas may yet be seen as the first of many such scenarios as venture capitalists set their sights on the craft distilling industry. The distillery founder, Chip Tate, has refused to attend board meetings with the venture capital group that owns a majority stake in the company; the VC group has, in turn, accused him of what amount to terroristic threats. Whiskey-lovers are up in arms, fearing the outcome for this iconic craft distillery; the Twitter hashtag #nochipnobalcones is spreading.

Here’s what’s happened. The distillery was established — indeed, was literally built — by president and head distiller Chip Tate in 2008 and has subsequently become one of the flagships of the U.S. craft scene internationally. With demand for the Balcones range rising, Tate needed to increase capacity and in, 2013, he and second round investor Michael Rockafellow accepted a substantial offer from a group headed by Greg Allen, along with a number of smaller investors, which bought out Stephen Germer (Balcones’ initial investor), giving them a majority stake in the company.

Allen’s background is with his family’s food processing business. Prior to that he worked in Goldman Sachs’ mergers and acquisitions department and as an attorney specializing in venture capital financing and emerging growth companies.

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

It appears that a combination of differing philosophies as to future strategy, a clash of personalities, and concerns over the rising costs of the distillery expansion has resulted in a deterioration in relations between Tate and the new board, with them moving to significantly reduce his role within the company he founded. As a result of this, Tate refused to attend board meetings.

On August 22nd, the boardroom battle ended up in court, where judge Gary Coley granted a temporary restraining order enforcing a 90-day suspension on Tate. According to the board, his “unconscionable and reprehensible” behavior could delay the $10 million distillery expansion project. They also alleged that Tate had threatened the life of chairman Greg Allen and suggested he would rather see the distillery burn than have it wrested from his control, claims which most commentators feel were made in the heat of the moment and are hardly credible.

While Allen has made some documentation available to the court, the restraining order has gagged Tate, preventing his side of the story to be heard. (For the record, we have not attempted to speak to him, nor have we received any communication from him.) A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 18.

It leaves a number of questions. The extreme reaction of the board to the apparent rise in costs of the new facility (inevitable in any distillery build) has raised questions as to the financial stability of Allen’s investment group, and makes some analysts wonder whether the Allen-led consortium was investing in Balcones with the intention of selling it at a profit soon after the expanded plant was in production.

If so, this will not be the last time we will see this happen. Investors unfamiliar with the long-term nature of the whisky business are liable to only see potential profit, with no great understanding of the deep pockets required to invest in plant, warehousing, and inventory. What further complicates matters where craft distilleries are concerned is that they are not just buying into a brand, but a highly personalized vision. Without Chip Tate, is there — can there be — a Balcones?

Photo: darkrye.com

Happy 60th anniversary, Jimmy Russell!

September 10th, 2014

Young Jimmy Russell: all-Kentucky basketball player

Young James Cassidy Russell: all-Kentucky basketball player

Sixty years ago today, in 1954…

 

Jimmy Russell started working at the Wild Turkey distillery, at the age of 18.

We at Whisky Advocate, from founder John Hansell on down, our entire staff, would like to say: Well done, Jimmy!

We’ve talked to Jimmy over the years. Here’s some of his story, as we’ve reported it in previous issues.

“Really, my wife, Joretta, was working here before I was,” Jimmy recalls, “and my dad worked at the Old Joe distillery here in town. There were four distilleries here at that time. It was us, then where Four Roses is now was known as Old Prentice, the Hoffman distilling company, and Old Joe distilling, where my dad was. I was fortunate enough to get on here and haven’t been able to get away yet.

“This is really the only full-time job I’ve ever had,” he says. “It wasn’t hardly the same as it is now. They called it ‘Quality Control.’ Now you do Quality Control and people bring you samples and you sit there and run them. Back then, you went and got your own samples, and then you might be unloading a truck of grain after you run them. Unloading it with a shovel!”

Jimmy learned distilling from Mr. Bill Hughes (that’s how Jimmy always refers to him). “Mister Bill was a seven-day man,” as Jimmy puts it. “He lived up on top of the hill, and he was here seven days a week. He’d worked before Prohibition, here at this distillery.”

Real Wild Turkeys, real Jimmy Russell

Real Wild Turkeys, real Jimmy Russell

“When I started, about all bourbons were bottled at 100 proof, bottled in bond,” Jimmy notes. “But theirs had to be at 101, and it stuck, because that’s what they liked on this turkey hunt.”

The turkey hunt is the origin of the Wild Turkey name, enshrined in the brand’s back-story. The McCarthy family owned the distillery in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the McCarthys would take bourbon from the warehouses along on an annual turkey hunt with friends in the late 1930s. The friends asked for more of “that wild turkey whiskey,” and the McCarthys decided to sell it under that name.

That probably seems too easy, a story created in the marketing department, but Jimmy remembers hearing the story directly from Thomas McCarthy, who’d been on the hunts. Until the late 1970s, that 101 proof bottling of Wild Turkey was the only product the distillery made.

Jimmy Russell - high res in warehouse

Jimmy is perhaps best know for keeping Wild Turkey made the way he wanted it made, the way he learned to make it from Mister Bill. He has stuck to his guns, and while there have been some changes — additional products, like the rye, the Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit bottlings, and the whole Russell’s Reserve line — and the entry proof has been nudged up just a little to 57.5%, largely, Wild Turkey is still made the same way it has been for 60 years.

“Any time you have to add [water],” Jimmy says, “you’re going to reduce your lighter flavors. But, you know, all of us have different ideas, and we all make good bourbon.” He pauses. “But that’s how we make ours,” he said.

60 years ago, it was made the Mister Bill way. Now it’s the Russell way.

Author - Fred MinnickThat was then; this is now. Fred Minnick reports on a ceremony last week that honored Jimmy with a lifetime membership in the Kentucky Distiller Association, just one of the celebrations that have been taking place this year.

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell thought the Kentucky Distiller Association’s September 2 board meeting was just another meeting. He was wrong.

As Russell walked down the long, sloping Wild Turkey lunchroom entrance, a surprise-party audience stood on its feet, roaring, clapping, and ready to commend a friend, a bourbon legend, an iconic Kentucky figure who could win the state’s governor position if he ran. (At least, that’s what Kentucky governor Steve Beshear said.)

Jimmy and plant manager Rick Robinson

Jimmy and plant manager Rick Robinson

The first to embrace the “Buddha of Bourbon” was his distillery sweetheart and wife, Joretta Russell. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” Russell asked, embracing his wife to the sound of joyous clapping.

Russell was being honored with the KDA’s Lifetime Honorary Member Award, making him only the sixth person since 1880 to receive the honor. It’s the latest honor bestowed upon Russell. He’s in the Bourbon Hall of Fame, the Kentucky legislature passed a Resolution to honor the distiller, and Wild Turkey’s parent company, Campari, has practically shifted all of its 2014 Wild Turkey marketing dollars to promote Russell’s 60th anniversary. This private event was the industry lobby’s chance to recognize Russell, who joined the KDA board May 16, 1978, and remains Wild Turkey’s alternate director.

“If there was a Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, Jimmy Russell would be one of the first faces on it,” said Eric Gregory, the executive director of the KDA.

Jimmy and his brother, Dickie Russell

Jimmy and his brother, Dickie Russell

After a round of thoughtful remarks from KDA members, a few laughs and a documentary dedicated to Russell (see above), where I learned Russell was thought to be Kentucky’s best athlete during his youth, I caught up with the legend to ask a few questions.

Was this really a surprise?

This is one they put over on me!

What does the Lifetime Honorary Member Award mean to you?

This is unbelievable. Seeing all these distillery people, this is something I’ll always enjoy. Being here in Kentucky and in the bourbon business, we help each other all the time.

This honor is about your KDA role. Give me a KDA story.

There are a lot of them. Over the years, I’ve been a member for, gosh, I don’t know how long. But a lot of things went on. They’d get rowdy at times, but we all ended up agreeing with one another.

Any really intense meetings?

There have been several intense meetings over the years. When they had the sales tax in Kentucky, they first put it on the distributor. And then five or six years ago, they put another sales tax on the consumer. We went to the Capitol steps in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and poured out bourbon all over the steps.

Over the years, the KDA has been involved with lawsuits with Sazerac. What has it been like being a board member during these situations?

It’s one of those things. We all have disagreements we get into, but we’re all still friends in the business. Some people want to do it one way, some want to do it another way. Usually, the KDA resolves their problems and ends up working everything out.

What does the future of bourbon look like?

I hope great. If not, we’re in deep trouble. Our company spent more than $100 million over the last five years, and we’re putting away bourbon we’re not going to sell for another eight years. If it doesn’t keep going, we’re going to have a lot of bourbon seven to eight years from now.

 

 

Jimmy's family: his wife, Joretta, and two sons: Mike (on the left) and Eddie

Jimmy’s family: his wife, Joretta, and two sons: Mike (on the left) and Eddie

We’re lucky to have him. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Jimmy is the one his son Eddie pays him in the video. Here’s what he said. “The question I got when I first started going out on the road was, ‘How are you going to fill those shoes?’ And my complete and honest answer is, ‘I’ll never fill those shoes.'”

And Jimmy? We’re going to see him for a while, of course. He’ll be at WhiskyFest in San Francisco and New York this fall: he’s the only person in the industry who’s been to every one…and there are only three of us on the staff who can match that record! But when the celebrating and the honors of his anniversary year are over, he’s going to keep on working, making Wild Turkey whiskey the best way he knows how.

“I hope that’s the way it is when I leave here,” he says at the end of the video. “I’ll come to work that morning, and that afternoon, when it’s time to leave, just walk out. That’s the way I’d like it to — it’ll never happen that way, I think, but that’s the way I would like for it to happen.”

We hope you get your wish, Jimmy. You’ve earned it.

The Vote For Scottish Independence

September 5th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has some thoughts about the upcoming vote on Scottish independence. Not surprisingly, they center on its effects on Scotch whisky. Be honest; that’s exactly the way many people who read this blog evaluate it!

At last! At last, the Scotch whisky industry has woken up to the potential dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum (you can explore the issues, facts, opinions, and polls on a BBC site here).

In summary, on September 18th, voters in Scotland will give a YES/NO answer to a simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

The question is a momentous one, involving the break-up of the 300 year old United Kingdom and turning Scotland and England into foreign countries. The debate has run on for nearly two years, with no final and satisfactory answers to questions such as ‘what currency will Scotland use, and on what basis?’, ‘will an independent Scotland be part of the European Union?’ and ‘how will all this be paid for?’

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

The expectation is that if Scotland breaks away it will follow a more left-wing political and social agenda than has previously been the case for the United Kingdom as a whole. The nationalist case is that Scotland, a country rich in natural assets, can well afford to stand on its own. The North Sea oil fields are frequently mentioned as a major source of income, though as the No campaign loudly responds, eventually the oil will run out. No one knows exactly when, but that the wells will finally run dry isn’t in dispute.

That leaves whisky as one of the few remaining national assets that can’t easily get up and leave (a large part of the significant Scottish financial community could well decamp to the City of London). The fact that Scotch whisky has to be made and matured in Scotland means that it will inevitably be a long-term tax target for any future government of an independent Scotland.

The political arguments are good: the industry uses Scotland’s water but currently pays relatively little tax in Scotland itself and, while it creates employment, the high-value management jobs tend to be out of the country. Much of the economic benefit of Scotch whisky flows not to the people of Scotland, but to anonymous global multinational corporations. A tax on water extraction would be easy to measure and very hard to avoid. Why shouldn’t they pay their share?

It’s a seductive argument. What’s more, as well as a water tax, one could easily anticipate a ‘storage tax’ on every barrel slowly maturing in a Scottish warehouse (similar to Kentucky’s ad valorem tax on aging bourbon; you could expect many more NAS whiskies if that ever came in!). The current political administration of the Scottish National Party, who run the present Scottish administration, are also deeply committed to higher taxes on alcohol on grounds of health and social policy, so the price of a dram or a bottle could shoot up after a Yes vote.

You might have thought then that the Scotch whisky industry would have been lobbying hard against the independence vote and stressing the benefits of the union. But until very recently we’ve heard little; the corporate line has been “it’s for the people of Scotland to decide.”

At last, however, they have started to fight. First to break cover was former Scotch Whisky Association chief Gavin Hewitt, who has set out a clear personal position in mainstream and social media. He’s no enthusiast for an independent Scotland. “Scotland would lose influence in the world and the clout that a big country has with [EU headquarters in] Brussels; lose access to a superb network of UK embassies and trade support, and I am concerned about the consequences [of a 'yes' vote] for whisky. If it ain’t broke,” he argues “then don’t fix it.”

But Gavin is just one man. That’s not the case with William Grant & Sons’ donation of hard cash to the Better Together campaign and other pro-Union groups. Earlier this year they gave £185,000 (more than $300,000) and have been vocal in support of the status quo.

Now they’ve been joined by a number of distillers who were part of a joint letter to The Scotsman newspaper signed by 120 leading Scottish businesses which argued the case for the continued union with England. It included some impressive names such as the chief executives of the Edrington Group (Famous Grouse, Macallan, Highland Park), Inver House, Burn Stewart, and William Grant & Sons, as well as smaller concerns such as Tomatin, Adelphi, Ian Macleod Distillers (Glengoyne), and so on.

Well done, I say… and where are Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Bacardi? This issue is simply too important to let go by default. It’s my opinion that the companies are making a mistake: they should have a view and they should express it, quickly and clearly. Their employees and customers deserve no less. This is too important a subject: Scotch whisky does not belong to Scotland alone, and the drinkers of England and Wales, let alone the wider world, want to hear the distillers’ voice: loud and clear.

Scottish Independence, if it comes, may well be good for whisky’s image, yet also, as I have suggested, push up prices. Whisky drinkers may welcome a greater strength of national identity and the proud confidence of a newly-formed nation, but will those drinkers be willing to pay more to toast an independent Scotland?

That’s the key question that no one can answer. But one thing is sure: if Scotland votes to go it alone, there will be no way back and nothing will be same ever again for the nation’s most famous export.

On September 19th we will know for sure.

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

What Is Craft? Wouldn’t You Like to Know?

August 27th, 2014

Author - Chuck CowderyI hate articles that begin with a dictionary definition, but defining ‘craft’ as it applies to whiskey making is our purpose here, so let’s see what the dictionaries say.

“An activity involving skill in making things by hand.”

“Denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company.”

“An art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.”

And then there’s this:

“Skill used in deceiving others.” As in, “He used craft and guile to close the deal.”

That last one is archaic but relevant, because everyone these days wants to claim the word “craft” and apply it to their company and its products. That includes the largest companies in the business. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The world’s largest beer makers have been trying to co-opt “craft brewing” for decades.

In a recent conversation with Chris Morris, he cited the dictionary. Morris is Brown-Forman’s master distiller and the occasion was a press event to launch a new craft series for Old Forester Bourbon. (It’s pretty cool, but more on that later.) Morris said, “The dictionary says craft is about experience, knowledge, and skill. We have all those things.”

Ewan Morgan, a Diageo brand ambassador for whiskies, puts it this way: “Craft is about artisanship, passion, experience, great liquid, great products.”

I’m not going to quarrel with the big guys — not here, anyway — but the problem with their point-of-view is this. “Craft” cannot merely mean “well made.” If everything is craft, then nothing is. The word becomes useless as a way to distinguish something from something else.

If the definitions above are vague as applied to craft spirits, the American Distilling Institute (ADI) has one that is very specific. It defines “craft spirits” as “the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases, where the product is physically distilled and bottled on site.”

Jackie Summers is a craft spirits producer in Brooklyn, New York, who makes an enticing liqueur called Sorel. He doesn’t distill anything. His craft is working with and combining botanicals and other natural ingredients to produce a drink that is original, even as it seems familiar. He is also skilled at crafting thoughts.

Mastering the craft

Mastering the craft

“Before the advent of public education,” he writes, “people learned a trade through the apprenticeship model. Apprentices would begin to study with a master in their mid-teens, and continue into their early twenties. It was not until you took on your own students that you could claim mastery yourself. By this method, generations of skills were handed from one to the next — you honed your craft — based on a simple principle: you don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by doing something over and over again, learning as you go. Greatness is a process. As Aristotle said, we are what we do repeatedly.

“Ultimately craft distillers see themselves as artists, their distillate being their art,” he continued. “Sure, you could start off with a concept, hire food scientists to chemically analyze and then reverse engineer a liquor. But what makes small batch production special is the tiny inconsistencies from batch to batch that give a product character; the miraculous way one bale of wheat may differ ever so slightly from the next, or how actual botanicals play and dance with each other in a way that chemical compounds can only imitate. Remove these tiny fluctuations, and the end result is sterile perfection.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan effects some kind of transformation. For something to be “craft,” an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The craft performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it. And the artisan himself or herself must do it, perhaps with assistance (e.g., apprentices, journeymen), but the unmistakable mark of the master’s hand must be on the final product.

Craft has nothing to do with the size of the company. It is the product that represents the craft, not the producer. A corporation may be a legal person, but a corporation cannot be an artisan. A corporation cannot be a master distiller.

The artisans working at the producers most recognized for their craft whiskeys — Balcones, Koval, Corsair, Few, Dry Fly — do it with their mastery of the materials, equipment, and processes; but also with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven’t been done before and create products unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before. That’s what the consumer wants from ‘craft.’

To make sure you get what you want when you want craft whiskey, get used to asking producers and promoters this question about their craft products: “What’s ‘craft’ about it?”

 

Georgie Bell of Diageo – In 140 Or Less

August 15th, 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 from Georgie Bell, Diageo’s luxury brand ambassador (Mortlach’s her main focus). Georgie’s boundless enthusiasm ran us close to the wire on some answers, but we managed. 

 

Where are you based and what’s the view from your office window (if you have one)?

The center of Edinburgh; I have been for the last 8 years. The sun is streaming through the window (a rarity for August) and I have a cup of Vietnamese coffee to hand.

Sounds good: explain Vietnamese coffee, please. And the view from the window?

Picked up some incredible coffee from a Saigon market: very strong, extremely aromatic. View: cobbled streets, old town houses in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town.

Georgie B 3And I’m sitting with some bottled water. Won’t ask a lady her age but you are youthful. Background: what brought you into whisky?

Cocktail industry! Worked in Edinburgh bars for 5 years. Found I had a particular interest in whisky. When I graduated from university I thought, why not give it a go!

Good woman. Career path to here?

Firstly the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (similar to the other Diageo Georgie!): worked with them for 3 years as a bartender, then their global brand ambassador.

And then?

Fueled my ‘geeky’ interest by gaining IBD* diploma in distilling. Then joined Diageo in January 2014 as luxury malts ambassador, looking after rebirth of Mortlach.

Quite intensive. Congrats on the IBD diploma, that’s commitment. It’s been less than a year on Mortlach. Enjoying it so far? 

7 months, still standing! It’s been fascinating working on the launch of a whisky – no 2 days are the same – and everyone in the company and out has been very supportive.

Georgie B1Well, I’ve enjoyed our tasting meetings. What does the job largely involve day to day?

Very varied. Working with markets on launch plans; both at a distance and in market (off to China soon). There’s more…

Okay then: fire away.

Spending time with the whisky creation team, in archives researching the distillery history, special Mortlach tastings & dinners. It’s a lot of fun! I’m very lucky.

You have my dream job. What are your most and least favorite aspects of it?

Least…I’m not a huge fan of hotel laundry services (I prefer to wash my own intimate apparel!), everything else is fantastic.

Such as…?

Love traveling, new cultures, seeing overseas friends, breaking stereotypes, introducing people not only to Mortlach but whisky as accessible & versatile spirit.

You’re so right on accessible/versatile.  The “new” Mortlachs taste great. Any quick insight into how those 4 were arrived at to offer to consumers?

To show distillery character at its best: highlighting unique 2.81 distillation process. All 4 so individual and decadent but a common strain of flavor throughout.

And those characteristics and common flavor strain are….?

A distinct umami note (savoriness), rich, ‘thick’ in body and viscosity and muscular with an underlying succulent fruitiness.

The distillation system there is quite complex, on paper at least. Is it easier if you can get to see it?  Mortlach Ambassador Georgie Bell

I think it’s easier if someone explains it to you. I spent 4 days working there and it wasn’t until the final hour that I actually ‘got’ it; it’s quite something!

Does that system make it more expensive to produce? If so, how? Nothing wrong with expensive; just trying to understand.

Not at all! Just a different pattern of distillation from other places. Distilled it this way since 1896. We’re replicating the 2.81 process in the new stillhouse.

Will look forward to hearing more. Scotch generally: some lovely but expensive packaging for older or special ones. Going too far and overshadowing the whisky?

No, it’s giving the whisky the attention/care deserved. Think how pretty you feel in an extra special dress or coat. Whiskies ‘dressed’ as such are extremely special.

Good answer and, as a marketeer, I agree. In that case do you think industry pricing for such things is about right or do you not get much time to notice?

I try to focus on the whole category so if you take account of other factors (18+ years in cask is taking a gamble), the prices reflect the whisky’s rarity and specialness.

True: not everyone gets the high costs behind the long maturation process. You’re enviably slender and one interest is sport. Anything in particular?

Thank you, but beg to differ! Running (a half marathon soon, a great way to explore a new city); general gym work. Spin classes & bikram yoga: exercise keeps me leveled.

That’s not exercise, that’s full-on training.  Is this because you also love food?

I do love food and also spend a lot of my life traveling. Being in shape helps combat any stress of traveling and keeps my energy levels high for presentations etc.

Any particular dish or style of cuisine?

Anything and everything! I love spicy Asian food. I tend to try and stay away from anything too rich though.

I understand you bake. Do you have competitions with Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin?!

I would love that! Although I’m sure she’d win: my attempts recently haven’t been too successful. ‘Freestyling’ a baking recipe isn’t advised…

Okay, maybe we have a bake-off challenge here. The Great Scottish Bake-Off!
You also love travel,  just as well. Favorite country for a) work and b) leisure? Why?

What is leisure?! I’m joking – I’m a beach baby at heart so anywhere sunny – I also love to dive.

And for work?

The U.S. (specifically DC & NYC – lots of friends there); Sweden (incredible quality of living); Canada; Singapore – I haven’t yet been to a country I haven’t enjoyed.

What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of competitors – others in this series have. Only one, mind!

Drams match memories. Had an incredible BenRiach 1988 after Victoria Whisky Festival; Mortlach 25; Monkey Shoulder; anything from Clynelish: I can’t just pick one!

It’s compulsory – one only, please!

Mortlach 25 – decadent, beautiful – for a luxurious desert island retreat!

And we’re done. Thank you.

 

* Institute of Brewing & Distilling

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