Whisky Advocate

Expansion Continues at Maker’s Mark

November 24th, 2015


Demand for Maker’s Mark continues to grow strongly, and the distillery has been trying to catch up with it. A second set of stills, a new artificial lake for secure water supply, new warehouses: it’s been busy outside of Loretto for the past ten years.

It’s not slowing down. Last week, spirit started flowing from a third set of stills at Maker’s. Like the previous expansion, this set is, as much as possible, identical to the originals, a mirror image. The three stills sit side-by-side-by-side to minimize any differences from siting.

Still, still, still; no mirrors used.

Three sets of coppers and pipes; no mirrors used.

You have to wonder how much room there is for this kind of thing to go on, because Maker’s Mark, like bourbon in general, shows no sign at all of slacking off. We promise: if you keep making it, we’ll keep drinking it.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter 2015 Issue’s 10 Highest-Rated Whiskies

November 12th, 2015

The Winter 2015 issue of Whisky Advocate will be on the newsstand early next month. The Buying Guide includes over 130 whiskies reviewed plus a selection of beer. Today we offer a sneak preview by revealing the top 10 whiskies reviewed in this issue.

Ardbeg Supernova 2015 LR#10 – Ardbeg Supernova 2015 Release, 54.3%, $160

Apparently this is the final Supernova release and the Ardbeg team has ensured it goes out with all guns blazing. Although it seems calm initially—there’s a minty and sweet spicy element to the fore—the smoke begins to push through in the guise of creosote, then sootiness which, in turn, mingles with seaweed aromas. The peat dominates the palate but there is sufficient oiliness to round it out and add layers of smoked fish, and dried grasses. Farewell.—Dave BroomBTAC Thomas Handy modified LR

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#9 – Thomas H. Handy Rye, 64.96%, $80

Distilled in 2008, this is always the youngest whiskey in the Collection. The boldest and spiciest too! A blast of mint, clove, and cinnamon leads the spice charge, with fig, dates, caramel-coated nuts, vanilla, and candied fruit. Well-integrated flavors, and a smart balance of youth and maturity.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Compass Box This is not a luxury Whisky_LR#8 – Compass Box This Is Not A Luxury Whisky, 53.1%, $225

This surrealist Compass Box whisky mimics the dimensional challenges of Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” by raising questions about the luxury pretensions of whisky. Is it the expense? Packaging? Good taste? Masquerading behind a green apple, a bowler-hatted John Glaser smiles enigmatically. Sultanas, charcoal smoke, toffee, chocolate, sea salt, and warm sherry tones. The alcohol rides with dense black cherry, cacao nibs, Colombian coffee, and dark fruits. Trails of smoking fruitcake finish the experience. Above all, buy and consume. (4,992 bottles)—Jonny McCormickDailuaine

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#7 – Dailuaine 1980 34 year old (Diageo Special Release 2015), 50.9%, $2,000

That rarely-spotted beast Dailuaine gets the SR treatment. This example has come from refill American oak and has immediate marzipan notes on top of the distillery’s fascinating mix of meaty density and sweetness. In time there are fat fruits, Victoria plum, bitter citrus, faded green leafiness, and chocolate notes. The palate is ripe, rich, and profound, with a hint of tropical fruits cut with cacao. Long, elegant, and complex, this is the best of this year’s bunch for me.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
BTAC W.L modified LR

#6 – William Larue Weller, 67.3%, $80

Distilled in 2003. Weller is the wheated bourbon in the Collection, where wheat replaces the rye found in most other bourbons. The sweetness is balanced nicely by a solid peppering of oak spice. Notes of toffee, maple syrup, fig, black raspberry preserve, cinnamon, and vanilla. Lingering oak and polished leather on the finish.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94BTAC Stagg modified LR

#5 – George T. Stagg, 69.1%, $80

No age statement, but distilled in 2000. A great value if you can find it for $80. An aggressive whiskey, but complex too, showing toffee, nougat, dates, black raspberry, dark chocolate, and resinous oak. Leather and tobacco on the finish. Masculine and exciting.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Royal Salute_62YO_750ml_Bottle LR

#4 – Royal Salute 62 Gun Salute, 43%, $3,000

Named after the gun rounds fired on Royal anniversaries at the Tower of London. Heightened sherry tones with dark Madagascar chocolate, Brazil nut, fondant cream, and faint espresso indulge the nose. One heavenly sip reveals a velvety smooth whisky, thick and sticky, all revolving around the chocolate and nut, with a little support from dark fruits. You can chew over this for hours as the finish soft-pedals the main themes. A work of genius.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94BTAC Sazerac LR

#3 – Sazerac Rye 18 year old, 45%, $80

A benchmark rye whiskey, which has been stored in stainless steel tanks the past several years to prevent excessive aging while new batches mature. This is the last of the “tanked” stock. Soft and teasing for a rye whiskey, but perfectly balanced. Gentle toffee and molasses provide a foundation for interwoven clove, mint, and cinnamon. Delicately dry, lingering finish.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

2015LESmallBatch_Front_FIN#2 – Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch (2015 Release), 54.3%, $120

Seamless in flavor and very elegant. A fully matured bourbon (consisting of whiskeys from 11 to 16 years in age), yet quite fresh on the palate. Lively fruit (apricot, red raspberry, tangerine) on a bed of lush sweet notes (caramel, honey-coconut crème brûlée and cotton candy), peppered with cinnamon, clove, and crisp mint. Soft finish, with lingering creamy vanilla. Not as great as the legendary 2013 release, but close.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
Fitzgerald_Reserve LR

#1 – John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve 20 year old, 45%, $300/375 ml

Distilled at the now legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery. Rich aromas of vanilla toffee, marzipan, cocoa, nutmeg and cinnamon. Similar follow-through on the palate, with black raspberry, maple syrup, teaberry, and dusty dried corn thrown into the mix. Warming cinnamon and polished oak on the finish. The sweet notes balance and integrate nicely with the oak. An exemplary rendition of an ultra-aged wheated bourbon.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

MORE Table Bourbon…and Rye

November 4th, 2015

author-lew-brysonCharter101750mlMy “In Praise of Table Bourbon” piece that ran in the current Value issue of Whisky Advocate got a fair amount of positive comment in social media and in letters to the magazine. That’s the good news; people get that bourbon is for drinking, for enjoying, for simple pleasure.

The better news is that when I wrote it, I left some of my other choices for table bourbon out of the piece, simply because there were so many good ones that the piece was starting to sound like a laundry list. But in the interests of spreading the gospel of table bourbons — bourbon you like, that’s widely available (where you are), at a reasonable price — I thought I’d run the whole list here, since people liked the abbreviated list in the magazine.

Without further ado: my full list of table bourbons, which may or may not be the same as yours. But they’re all worth trying, especially since you may well find a bourbon you can enjoy at leisure, and always find, and afford to pour with wincing. (The ones in boldface were in the magazine piece.)

Beam Bonded — Revived for the mixologists, but we can drink it too.
Buffalo Trace — Not on allocation! Keep drinking.
Charter 101 — Tasty. Powerful. Perhaps the least coveted Buffalo Trace whiskey (so don’t tell anyone).
Evan Williams Black — Low-cost high-quality standard, a table bourbon yardstick.
EW White 750Evan Williams 1783 — Another one we don’t really want to tell people about…
Evan Williams Bonded — More BiB goodness from Heaven Hill, and great in cocktails.
Four Roses Yellow — Almost too mellow: tastes so good and drinks so easy it’s dangerous.
George Dickel No. 8 — Yes, I know, “not bourbon,” so leave it to those of us who don’t care about such trivia. Yum.
Heaven Hill 6 YO Bonded — Might be my favorite cheap bourbon. So rich, so raw, so good.
J.T.S. Brown Bonded — Saved a wedding party with a handle of this one time.
J.W. Dant Bonded — Stands up to ice and talks back. Good private eye whiskey. My desk whiskey.
Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 — Bottle of Jack in an ice-fishing shack, three frozen fishing buddies…many grins, no worries.
Jim Beam White — Works mighty fine in a highball; good summertime whiskey.
Jim Beam Black — Even as an NAS, still suitable for sipping.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded — Keep drinking it, Beam will make more. No worries about this one running dry.
Old Charter — A mixer, but you might like it right over ice, too.
Old Forester — Don’t understand why this continues to be overlooked. Solid value.
Old Forester Signature — This one? Even more so: great whiskey, great price.
Very Old Barton — maybe a bit diminished without the full 6 years, but still the ruler of Kentucky’s bottom shelves.
Virginia Gentleman — Very much out there on the shelves; rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
W.L. Weller Special Reserve — All you want in Texas at around $20; sometimes it’s all about where your table is.
Wild Turkey 101 — Not just for shooting and hollering. Everyday Turkey.

Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye - 750ml


And yes, table whiskeys don’t have to be bourbons.

Beam Rye — New 90 proof bottling is the hot ticket; it’s Manhattan time.
Mellow Corn — Quite different, very American, real good with apple cider or Pepsi.
Old Overholt — Great highball rye; top it up.
Pikesville — The regular, black & white bottling. Hard to find outside of Maryland; hard to pass up when I’m there.
Rittenhouse Rye — In demand; still a good price in some spots.

Whisky in Space

October 23rd, 2015

Author - Gavin SmithSpace—Captain Kirk’s ‘Final Frontier’ —seems to be occupying the minds of whisky distillers around the world, and three have taken practical steps to engage with the hard vacuum void that exists more than 62 miles above Earth’s sea level.
First out of the blocks was Ardbeg, which in 2011 sent vials of what were described by the distillers as “Ardbeg-crafted molecules” and samples of charred oak to the International Space Station, where said vials orbited the planet at 17,227 miles per hour, 15 times a day.
An Ardbeg spokesperson explains, “The vials contained a class of compounds known as ‘terpenes.’ Ardbeg was invited by U.S.-based space research company NanoRacks LLC to take part in testing these micro-organic compounds in a maturation experiment (the interaction of these compounds with charred oak) between normal gravity on Earth and micro-gravity, i.e. space.”

Photo source: NASA

Planet Earth is blue, and there’s whisky in a tube…

The vials returned to earth on September 12, 2014, at which point a bevy of scientists assembled in Houston to evaluate the findings of the experiment, comparing them with the control vials, which had been stored in Ardbeg’s Warehouse 3.
Leading the research for Ardbeg was Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation & whisky stocks, Ardbeg. His findings were subsequently published in a white paper titled “The Impact of Micro-gravity on the Release of Oak Extractives into Spirit.”
Lumsden summarized the results of the experiment as follows: “The space samples were noticeably different. When I nosed and tasted the space samples, it became clear that much more of Ardbeg’s smoky, phenolic character shone through—to reveal a different set of smoky flavors which I have not encountered here on Earth before. Ardbeg already has a complex character, but the results of our experiment show that there is potentially even more complexity that we can uncover, to reveal a different side to the whisky.
“Our findings may also one day have significant implications for the whisky industry as a whole,” he added. “In the future, the altered range of wood extractions could lead scientists to be able to detail the ratios of compounds expected in whiskies of a certain age.”
Following on from Ardbeg’s foray into space, Japanese distilling giant Beam Suntory is undertaking a similar experiment, having sent six samples of Suntory aged single malt and recently-distilled spirit to the International Space Station in August. As with Ardbeg, control samples are being held in normal maturation conditions for comparison with the space-aged variants when they return to Earth in 2016.
Suntory’s existing research shows that whisky develops additional mellowness when placed in an environment where liquid convection is suppressed, and a company spokesperson says, “With the exception of some items like beer, alcoholic beverages are widely known to develop a mellow flavor when aged for a long time. Although researchers have taken a variety of scientific approaches to elucidating the underlying mechanism, we still do not have a full picture of how this occurs.” It is hoped that evaluation of the samples which spend time on the space station will help clarify that picture.
Space GlassIf you are going to have whisky in space, you clearly need something from which to drink it, and Pernod Ricard’s Ballantine’s blended scotch offers a solution. Ballantine’s has commissioned the Open Space Agency, a collective of what are termed ‘astropreneurs,’ to design the Space Glass and overcome the challenge of drinking whisky in zero gravity or microgravity conditions.
According to James Parr, founder of the Open Space Agency, “Our brief was to develop a whisky glass that worked under the conditions of microgravity. It was important that we focused on creating a ritual around how you drink from the Ballantine’s Space Glass to give a familiarity of what we are used to here on Earth. The end result is one that incorporates several elements of that ritual, from the liquid entering the glass through to sipping from it.”
Additionally, master blender Sandy Hyslop has created Ballantine’s Space whisky, and he explains that, “In space you are unable to pick up on the same smell and taste intensity as on Earth. I had to make the blend more robust, heightened in flavor, and more concentrated so one could emulate the experience of drinking Ballantine’s on Earth.”
The only drawback, of course, is that the consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden on the International Space Station. But who knows, one day someone might drink Ballantine’s Space whisky, Ardbeg Supernova, or a Suntory 21 year old from such a glass many miles above Earth’s atmosphere.

The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All: a review

October 16th, 2015

author-lew-brysonThere’s a lot to learn about whiskey—distilleries, still geometries, types of peat, rye vs. rye malt, blends vs. singles and straights, new and old barrels—and an overwhelming number of different expressions. If you’re new to whiskey, or if you want to help someone who’s new to whiskey, it can seem overwhelming.

That’s what the creators of The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All were looking to overcome. Unfortunately, the book’s publisher gets it off to a bad start right away with a title that jars terribly: “know-it-all”? The implication is clear: whiskey knowledge is either made up, overvalued, or something people use to pump up their ego. The book’s construction as a thick-paged cardboard picture book only adds to the condescension.

Surprisingly then, this is actually a relatively serious attempt to concisely explain what whiskey is, what makes them different, and how to explore new whiskeys that you might like, all centered on the scratch-and-sniff examples of what the distinctive smells of whiskey are like (and that’s why the picture-book construction, to hold the smell patches). They did a better job than you’d think, given the limited space they have to work with, though there are some rough spots.

thumbnailThere’s a quick explanation of pot stills and column stills that is just as detailed as it needs to be for a fast pass. We get introduced to the major whiskey grains, which is where we also get the first scratch-and-sniffs. I have some problems with the smells. The rye smells like the surface of the page, and so does the malt. The corn, though? Smells like corn! Turn the page for a discussion of new charred vs. used barrels (nicely done), and the vanilla, cinnamon, and toast spots smell proper. Then it’s on to whiskey vs. sherry barrels, and the smells are pretty good, though the hazelnut smell from sherry casks is mighty strong.

But it’s the next page where the smells just go off the rails. Right in the middle of a great discussion of the different aging temperatures and new/used barrels differences between American and Scottish whiskies, there’s an explanation of peat and iodine. The smells just don’t work. The “iodine/ocean” patch smells like soap, and the “peat/smoke” patch smells like dirt; like peat instead of peat smoke. That’s more of a disservice than a help.

The smells don’t really help that much. The ones that come across best, the honey, apple, cinnamon and hazelnut, are all smells that most people are familiar with already. The ones that people would need help with—rye, malt, peat, brine—mostly smell like those elements do in their most unprocessed state, not how they smell when they’re in the whiskey. Maybe the person who told them how to capture the smells was a whiskey know-it-all who didn’t really understand how those ingredients take part in the process.

The rest of the descriptive parts are pretty good, explaining single vs. blended scotch, finishes, chill filtering, bottled in bond, even the Lincoln County Process, with an appropriate blend of basics and details. Sore spot: they muffed sour mash, as so many do. It is definitely not “kinda like sourdough starter,” that gives entirely the wrong idea.

The best part comes at the end, where they explain how to find out what you like with the help of a large, fold-out, easily understood flavor wheel (“The Map To Your Whiskey Desires”) that puts a LOT of whiskeys in the various categories, graded around the wheel as they match the flavors. This makes it easier to do ‘if you like this, try this´ explorations. Very helpful to the novice indeed, more helpful than the smells, really.

With the holidays coming up, if you’re looking for something to get a friend who’s learning about whiskey…but who doesn’t want to work too hard at it, this might be the ticket, bundled with a bottle of something you suggest. Then invite yourself over, open the bottle, and start covering the small flaws mentioned above. Should make for a good evening.

The Dustybid Phenomenon

October 9th, 2015

Jonny McCormickShortly before Whisky Advocate managing editor Lew Bryson finished the first draft of his Tasting Whiskey book—sometime around August, 2013—we had a conversation about what might go into the chapter on rare whiskey collecting and auctions. Ahead of the curve, I promised him that American whiskies were going to be huge. At the time, most bourbons at auction were shabby-looking Prohibition bottles peppering the numerous pages of single malts in the Bonhams catalog.

It was written in the stars: accumulated years of over-subscribed releases of limited-edition bourbons were being received by a world waking up to the fact that bourbon was a thing again. Then it became the thing: the Pappy Van Winkle craze threw gasoline on the fire of American collectible whiskey. There’s no way anyone can put that back in the box now.

Bourbon is enjoying enormous growth, especially in the super-premium segment. When demand outstrips supply, people figure out another way to get their quarry. One way was eBay, but when a policy change ended that hoopla, whiskey collectors were driven deeper into the web: deals were made in whispers using secret codes on clandestine forums.

Dustybid glassFortunately, Dustybid offers hope to the bourbon collector. Lifelong bourbon fan and attorney Matt Rueff helped a friend acquire a decanter of antique Old Rip Van Winkle at short notice for a client. His friend was deeply impressed. “At that point, I was convinced there was market demand for a one-stop shop for the bourbon connoisseur in search of hard-to-find or ‘dusty’ artifacts,” says Matt.

He took his idea to entrepreneurs in the bourbon community: Justin Sloan, Dan Donoghue, and Seth Thompson. Dan and Justin were already running BottleBlueBook.com, a laudable attempt at tracking trading activity in rare bourbon dependent on voluntary declarations of re-selling. Collaboratively, Dustybid was devised with the goal of delivering a reliable, consistent marketplace for bourbon collectibles. With its smart logo, free listings, and easy navigable website, the new marketplace went live on August 1st, 2015.

Matt admits there is a gray area when it comes to selling bottles that may contain alcohol, “The ambiguity lies in the fact that the value flows from their antiquity,” he maintains, “not from the liquid inside. Our customers are passionate collectors and utilize our site to access a reliable marketplace to bolster their collections, not simply to buy a drink.” Dustybid’s partners are not auctioneers, never take title to any products, and all parties must agree that they are purchasing bottles in compliance with all applicable laws in their jurisdiction. Sensibly, an adult must sign for products on delivery.

The site has cultivated a passionate audience who, like the founders, are obsessed with American whiskies. Here is the place to find earlier editions of Parker’s Heritage Collection, aged Elijah Craig, Pappy’s, Jack Daniel’s curios, squat bottles of Elmer T. Lee, and sealed bottles of George T. Stagg from way back when. Heck, even the odd bottle of scotch pops up for sale from time to time!

The distinguishing feature of Dustybid, aside from the combined expertise on bourbon, has been the dedication, behind-the-scenes, to both parties in the transaction: that might involve making personal phone calls to verify identities, for example. That integrity gives users the reassurance that someone from Dustybid is supervising each transaction, not just leaving it to automated webservers.

Run by whiskey fans for whiskey fans, the enthusiasm around Dustybid is reminiscent of the early days of Scotch Whisky Auctions in Glasgow, which started as on offshoot to a liquor shop and grew to become the market leader. It’s bringing new opportunities to the American whiskey collector and helping to shape the landscape for rare bourbon. See Lew, my prediction came true!

Top sales in the first two months of Dustybid

  1. Full set of Pappy Van Winkle (6 bottles) $6,825
  2. Old Rip Van Winkle 1977 Decanter – $6,025
  3. Full set of Van Winkle (6 bottles) – $5,000
  4. Pappy Van Winkle 2014 vertical (5 bottles) – $4,500
  5. Old Rip Van Winkle 67/78 – $4,000
  6. Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (7 bottles from 2007-2009) – $2,800
  7. Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old & 23 year old – $2,050
  8. Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old gold wax – $1,875
  9. Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2013 – $1,775
  10. Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old pre-2006 – $1,700


The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spirit Hound Distillers

October 2nd, 2015

stephen beaumont

Here’s a feel-good Friday story for you; how a Colorado craft distillery bounced back from a potentially business-ending flood and stayed on track to release their first aged whiskey. For all our friends on the East Coast today, batten down the hatches and stay dry!

Craig Engelhorn will readily admit that it takes a special kind of crazy to open a whisky distillery, given that the act is committed with the certain knowledge that it will be years before your product is ready to sell. Even so, Engelhorn and his four partners had no idea what kind of chaos awaited Spirit Hound Distillers a mere nine months after they finally got their whisky distillery up and running. Like, over two feet of water sort of chaos.

Lyons, Colorado’s first distillery, Spirit Hound was first conceived by Engelhorn back in 1999, when he was working at the local Oskar Blues Brewery and imagining what might result were the company’s Old Chub Scotch Ale to be run through a still. Over a decade later, having left the brewery, he and his former co-worker Wayne Anderson hatched a plan to open a business of their own together. Anderson favored a brewery; Engelhorn wanted to make whisky.

Whisky won and over the next two years the duo assembled their partners, secured a location and began building their still. It was ready at the end of 2012, and even though they then had to have their wash produced under contract at a Colorado craft brewery, by the start of 2013 the distillery was up and running.

Head distiller Engelhorn was able to get six barrels of whisky made in those early months of 2013, along with a coffee liqueur and a variety of clear spirits that allowed the company to stay afloat while the whisky matured. Then September arrived and with it the rains that wreaked destruction on much of northern and eastern Colorado.

Faced with a dead battery in his truck, Engelhorn had elected to spend the night on the second floor of distillery on September 11, aware of the rain but oblivious to the fact that its overnight intensity would cause the close-by St. Vrain River to swell to banks-bursting volume.

“The next morning I woke up to some gurgling sounds,” he says, “It put me right in a bad mood because I thought we had plumbing problems.”

The problems were decidedly larger than mere plumbing. The main floor of the distillery had been submerged in flood water, ruining inventory and supplies and causing major damage to the walls of the building. The bright spot? “The tanks were fine, just had to be cleaned out and made functional again,” Engelhorn says.

Another bright spot: By a quirk of fate, the company had recently invested in flood insurance after their mortgage holder had happened to notice that the property overlapped a flood plain. As a result, Spirit Hound was able to decline all offers of assistance and direct those funds towards other, harder hit members of the community. Their own reparations they financed themselves.

When the town was functionally restored two months later and water and sewage services returned, Spirit Hound Distillers was, in Engelhorn’s words, “ready to press the button and get started again.”

Spirit Hound’s Craig Engelhorn bottles the pre-flood whiskey

The next chapter of the distillery’s rebirth took place just a few weeks ago, when Spirit Hound threw a party to celebrate the release of their Straight Malt whisky, the bottling of five of those initial six pre-flood barrels. The other barrel, the very first, remains in the warehouse for an as yet undetermined time because, as Engelhorn says, “you’re only ever going to have one barrel no. 1.”

The whisky release was seen by the Spirit Hound partners as less a simple product launch and more an elaborate block party for the town, since to a great extent all of Lyons has been through the recovery together. As Engelhorn says, “We’re happy to just be here. The fact that the community is here and we are here and the whiskey is here – that’s cause for celebration!”

Scotch Missed: a review

September 23rd, 2015

Author - Caroline DewarThis fourth edition of Scotch Missed: The Original Guide to the Lost Distilleries of Scotland has an encouraging start, in that even the introduction is a good read. So many books are killed off by a dull intro. But the intro makes it clear that this is not just the history of whisky distilleries, but industrial, economic, and social histories too.

Townsend states plainly that he won’t describe the whisky making process in detail; but he does show how it was written about in Victorian times, quoting the florid prose of a 19th century commentator. Indeed, there isn’t much difference now, just fewer people, greater efficiency, and better ingredient research — and computers.

Scotch Missed coverThe narrative of the book is that many distilleries which started up in the 19th and 20th centuries closed as the conditions of the times simply couldn’t bear the numbers in operation. But there is a lot more on the journey. There was some natural wastage due to poor management or product not suited to consumer tastes, and there were other reasons: increased taxes, wars, reduced pub opening hours, temperance movements, and closures of local industries which affected a distillery’s operation. One such was Campbeltown where the exhaustion of the local colliery meant no more cheap fuel.

The author points out much the same happened in the 1980’s and draws parallel with the hi-tech industries which rose and plummeted. Some distilleries which closed around the 1980’s never returned to production. The recession from 2007/08 onwards didn’t have the same effect but, like the 19th century, with new distilleries appearing like mushrooms, it will be interesting to see what happens if we such face problems again.

The Victorian times were awash with great developments, we are reminded: the railways, industrial use of steam, mass production of glass bottles, Coffey stills for grain whisky distillation. And we can’t forget the import – unwitting? – into France of the phylloxera louse. Whoever was responsible for that is owed a great debt by the Scotch whisky industry.

Beyond the introduction, the first few chapters look back at how things were, the move from farm distilling into larger concerns and the move into the Golden Age of the 19th century, then decline from just before World War I to the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and the peaks and troughs that have since followed, with a note of hope for the future with newly built and planned distilleries.

Some distilleries, we discover, were razed to the ground, their foundations now buried under housing developments or yet another supermarket. Some were redeveloped into housing or offices. The most poignant moments, for me, were learning of parts of old distilleries like Gerston II, still standing in the countryside like sentinel doorways to a ghostly past.

The story is told with sympathy and an eye for the difficulties of those who owned and worked in them but also with some subtle flashes of humor. The picture drawn by the tale of Banff distillery catching fire after being strafed by German fighter planes, and the resultant drunken local wildlife is one you won’t forget.

The writing does not follow modern day whisky regions but smaller geographical units covering The North; Speyside and the North East; The East Coast and Tayside; Central and Lothian; Fife; Edinburgh; The South and Borders; Glasgow; Strathclyde and the West of Scotland; West Highlands, Islands and Islay, then Campbeltown, in that order. Campbeltown suffered particularly badly. It was an area of over 30 distilleries which now has only 3. The list given for that region is so much longer than the others and all the worse for being one of the smallest areas.

The format is charming, concise pen sketches of brave beginnings and, often, sad, sudden ends or slow decline, not to mention the “musical chairs” ownership as premises transferred from company to company over the years. Each sketch is as fact-packed as possible but never leaden in style and tone. At the end is a useful index and helpful maps to plot the places you have been reading about. The illustrations too are well chosen, a mix of photographs, drawings, cartoons and advertising posters. It’s worth some time just to sit and flick through the pictures.

Behind these stern Victorian exteriors were hope, passion, inventiveness, social conscience (for some) but also perhaps greed and maybe even betrayal. Who knows? Some distillery closures are, quite simply, a mystery with not enough information available, leaving you wanting to know more.

Near the start the author invites us to sit down, dram in hand to relive the dramas of distilling days past and I cannot think of a more enticing invitation as we move into autumn. This is a book you can read in order in one go, from start to end – very tempting – or simply dip in, region by region. He says at one point that further information would require an encyclopaedic length. If he ever decides to write that, I’ll look forward to it.


Scotch Missed, from The Angels’ Share (Neil Wilson Publishing), is available in the U.S. at $29.99 from Interlink Books; it is also on Amazon.


Michter’s ‘Barrel-a-Day’ Distillery Comes Home, Sort Of

September 15th, 2015

Author - Chuck CowderyTwo weeks ago, the name ‘Michter’s’ was reunited with a tangible piece of that storied distillery’s past, the barrel-a-day distillery made in 1976, which since 2011 has been on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio making bourbon, rye, and apple brandy at the Tom’s Foolery Distillery.

“It’s more distilling capacity than I need,” says Tom Herbruck about selling the equipment to Michter’s. “This will allow us to get back to our original plan of staying very small.” Tom’s Foolery is moving soon, to a farm where they already grow grain. They will keep making whiskey and other spirits, but on a smaller scale.

The still and small fermenters, loaded up

The once and future Michter’s still and small fermenters, loaded up

The Michter’s equipment “is going to a place where a lot of people will get to see it and enjoy it,” says Herbruck.

He’s talking about the Michter’s visitors center that is being built in the Fort Nelson Building on Louisville’s ‘Whiskey Row.’ Restoration work on the beautiful, circa 1890 building has been slow because of structural problems discovered only after Michter’s bought it. Now completion is almost in sight, according to Michter’s President Joe Magliocco. The plan is to install and run the still, what Michter’s is calling ‘M1,’ at the Fort Nelson attraction.

M1 will be stored at Michter’s Shively distillery until downtown is ready. Fort Nelson is a few blocks from the Evan Williams Experience, which has had a similar small distillery in operation for about two years. Others are in the works for Jim Beam and Old Forester. Two larger distilleries, Peerless and Copper & Kings, are just outside the downtown area.

On hand in Ohio to oversee the transfer were members of the Sherman family, whose Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville designed and built the system for Michter’s 39 years ago. They refurbished it for Tom’s Foolery in 2011.

According to the Shermans, M1 was the first all-pot-still distillery built in the United States after Prohibition. Essentially, it was the original American micro-distillery. It consists of two alembic pot stills, three fermenters, a mash cooker, condenser, and all associated tanks and other accessories. The beer still has a capacity of 550 gallons. It is called ‘barrel-a-day’ because it can produce about 50 gallons of distillate per run.

In 1976, the distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania was struggling. The entire American whiskey industry was in the doldrums, with sales down across the board. Companies were consolidating and distilleries were closing. All of the other whiskey distilleries in Pennsylvania were gone or would be soon. The industry was dying.

Established in 1753, Schaefferstown had a good claim as America’s oldest continuously operating whiskey maker. The distillery had many different names over the years but was always at the same location. It officially became Michter’s in 1973. American history was hot in 1976 with the American bicentennial celebrations and Michter’s, located in tourist-rich ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ country, was by then hanging on more as a tourist attraction than a whiskey maker.

Because business was so bad, the stills at Michter’s ran for only a few months every year. Tourists who came to the distillery expecting to see whiskey being made were frequently disappointed. Thus the idea for the barrel-a-day distillery was born. As a pot still system, it was more like the pre-Prohibition distilleries that had been at the site than the wholly modern Michter’s plant that was there then. It would be human scale and easier to understand, and as a batch system it could easily be run every day during tourism hours at minimal expense.

Naturally, the demonstration distillery was opened with great hoopla and did create a significant though short-lived increase in visitors. Uniquely in Pennsylvania, Michter’s had special permission from the state’s Liquor Control Board to sell its whiskey in the distillery gift shop. More tourism meant more whiskey sales too.

Willie Pratt (Michter's) and Tom Herbruck (Tom's Foolery)

Willie Pratt (Michter’s) and Tom Herbruck (Tom’s Foolery)

Michter’s shut down in February of 1990. So catastrophic was the final collapse that the owners simply vanished, abandoning the property, equipment, and aging whiskey. They also abandoned the intellectual property, including the Michter’s name, which was claimed a few years later by Chatham Imports. Since then, the new Michter’s has built a fine reputation as a non-distiller producer (NDP) with a well-regarded portfolio of mostly high-end bourbons and ryes sourced from unidentified distilleries.

Unlike most NDPs, Michter’s is making the transition to distiller. The brand new Michter’s distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively is now producing. Its first barrels were filled during the last week of August. The Shively distillery is large by micro standards, but small compared to Wild Turkey or Jim Beam. It will, of course, be years before anything distilled there is sold.

Tom’s Foolery put away about 450 full-size barrels of bourbon and rye during the four years they ran M1. For proprietors Tom and Lianne Herbruck, that’s a lot. They believe it is the largest inventory of aging whiskey in Ohio. All of it was made in open fermenters using the sour mash process, exactly as the system was designed to do in 1976. (Most modern micro-distillers don’t use sour mash.) The Herbrucks hope to sell that whiskey in a few years as bottled-in-bond bourbon and rye.

Back to the history of M1 itself. It sat unused like everything else at Schaefferstown while the county government sorted things out. In 1996, the just-retired master distiller at Jim Beam, David Beam, bought it and moved it to Bardstown, Kentucky. He put it on display next to a motel he owned. He and his sons talked about hooking it up and starting a micro-distillery, but it never happened. Beam sold the motel and in 2011 sold the distillery equipment to the Herbrucks. He and other family members made several trips to Ohio to get it going. He was honored at the first release of Tom’s Foolery Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey in Cleveland in November of 2014. He died on June 29 this year.

“It worked out nicely for the time that I had it,” says Herbruck. “I’ve grown attached to the equipment. There’s that sentimental value, a little bit of sadness. It’s like sending a child off to college.” Herbruck’s oldest, Emily, is a freshman at Miami University in Oxford this fall. “I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Firenado! The New Viral Video (from 2003…)

September 14th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickOn September 3, Jim Beam found itself trending in social media circles for something that happened 12 years ago.
The Weather Channel had posted video of the 2003 Jim Beam warehouse fire on its Facebook page that offered apocalyptic-looking, spiraling flames on a pond, with a voiceover deeming it a “firenado.” In its post (to more than 5 million fans), the Weather Channel informed viewers that lightning struck a Beam warehouse and 800,000 gallons of the good stuff spilled into a retention pond. Weather Channel: “You have to have exactly the right conditions for something like this to happen. A body of water with flammable substance on top and other conditions to whip the fire into a funnel.”

In the text of the post, the popular cable channel did mention the date of the fire: August 4, 2003. But as it was shared on social media and other websites posted the video (see the video in this USA Today post) content creators conveniently omitted “2003,” leaving many people to believe that the fire just occurred.

Jim Beam’s parent company, Beam Suntory, said it received “a number” of media and consumer inquires about the fire. “For some reason, many media outlets reported this as if it were ‘new news,’ which certainly caused confusion,” a spokesperson said. “With that said, our distillery and bourbon supply and fully intact, and all of our barrels are aging to be enjoyed around the world in the future.”

So just how did a 12 year old video enter our newsfeeds?

The Weather Channel spokesperson Melissa Medori says the clip came from the Weather Gone Viral show that “uses video clips and interviews to demonstrate how meteorological moments around the world affect people in their everyday lives. … It doesn’t hurt that our audience loves fire — add a little bit of alcohol and … boom.”

Since the show is a third party production, Medori has been unable to track down who exactly made the decision to use the Beam footage. But it shook things up on the Internet. While it may not have broken the Internet as Kim Kardashian once attempted, it certainly opened a door for crazyville.

It’s rare when whiskey trends mainstream on Facebook and Twitter. But when it does, I love observing how society perceives whiskey.

The #firenado hashtag offers a close study of how a simple video can turn into larger debates on social media. Beam’s fire was used in global warming, taxation, and even presidential debates. People said the usual “this is a sign of the times.” And, of course, who could resist the obvious pun of the firenado actually being “Devil’s Cut,” a bourbon owned by Beam Suntory. Many said, perhaps predictably in a snob-trending fanbase: “oh, it’s only Beam.”

The comments were entertaining, but the fire was an all-too-real situation that occurred only seven years after Heaven Hill’s facilities burned to the ground in 1996. In 2003, Nelson County Assistant Fire Chief Robbie Blanford told The Kentucky Standard what was on his mind during the Beam fire: “Not again,” he said, reminded of the Heaven Hill fire. “I never thought I would have to hear that call again.”

Let’s all hope that’s the case from here on out.

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