Whisky Advocate

Making Barrel-aged Beer at Weyerbacher Brewing

May 22nd, 2015

We have an article in the latest issue, Summer 2015, titled “Big Beer, Whiskey Chaser,” about the popular practice of aging beers in bourbon barrels. We talked to a number of the foremost brewers of such beers, like Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing, Todd Ashman of Fifty/Fifty and Eclipse, Matthew Brynildsson of Firestone Walker, and Chris Wilson of Weyerbacher.

I decided it would be cool to get some video to go with the piece, and Weyerbacher is just over the hill from our offices — okay, over about five hills, but who’s counting! — so one morning I went up there and shot some video. It happened to be their 20th anniversary year, which is interesting for me: John Hansell introduced me to Dan Weirback, the brewery founder, all the way back in 1995. I’ve known Dan ever since, interviewed him numerous times, drove up to Albany with him one time to do an event together…and sure enough, wound up standing at the brewery’s tasting room bar with him this morning, sampling Sunday Morning Stout (SMS), the barrel-aged beer I’d come to get a closer look at. It’s a coffee beer, great stuff for 10 AM!

They were disgorging barrels of SMS that morning, and I took some fairly mundane video of that, but the audio is interesting. It’s brewery production manager Chris Lampe explaining what type of beer SMS is, and how they take one last step to make sure they don’t get a sour barrel into the blend. Have a look and listen; warning, it’s kind of loud, we were shouting over the noise of the bottling line, right beside us.

After that, I went back to the lab. Weyerbacher was the only brewery I talked to for the story that was of the opinion that barrel-aged beers had to be watched carefully to prevent an infection that would create sour beer. Sour beers are a quite popular niche right now, and Weyerbacher makes some very good ones, like Riserva, and their new session beer, Tarte Nouveau. But they do NOT want beers like SMS going sour; they’re in wood for the rich character that bourbon-soaked oak can give. The other breweries said that a variety of natural defenses kept the beer from going sour. Weyerbacher, it turns out, had experience of a barrel going sour, and with the cost of the beer and the barrel, decided that wasn’t going to happen again.

Chris Reilly, their quality assurance/quality control manager and lab manager (and, full disclosure, my former neighbor who used to drop by with brewery and homebrewing samples!), told me about the process and equipment they were field-testing for a Philadelphia company that did fast analysis of beer spoilage precursors to stop infections in their tracks. Kinda geeky, but kinda cool; and nowhere near as noisy!

If you’d like to see more of this added detail in the future — if we have it to provide — let us know in the comments. Thanks!

Bourbon Security: making theft more difficult

May 21st, 2015

Author - Chuck CowderyWhen Ray Schuhmann, president of Louisville’s Kinetic Corp., bought the National Distillers maturation and bottling plant now known as Distillery Commons about 35 years ago, one of his first acts was to remove all of the fixtures associated with its former use. He intended to convert the buildings into photography studios, laboratories, offices, and other uses. He told me that every time he removed a fixture or opened a wall, he discovered dozens, sometimes hundreds, of empty Old Grand-Dad pints.

All businesses have to contend with employee theft. At distilleries, it’s usually limited to individual bottles of whiskey, a theft compounded by another prohibited activity: drinking on the job. Once the contents have been consumed, making the empty bottle disappear completes the perfect crime. It’s one that has been committed thousands of times in every era and at every distillery.

So distillery workers stealing whiskey is nothing new in Kentucky and Tennessee. Sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes it’s money, embezzlement. I remember one occasion when it was $20,000 worth of AV equipment. Usually it’s handled quietly. Nobody benefits from that sort of publicity.

Stolen whiskey

Brazenly stolen: how to stop it?

Sometimes whiskey still in the barrel is stolen, but there has never been anything like the recently exposed ring that stole barrels and finished goods worth more than $100,000 from two distilleries over a period of several years. Stealing barrels is brazen. “The thefts of full barrels of whiskey in this recent case are striking,” says Jay Erisman, vice president of New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky. “Full barrels are hard to get away with. The things weigh 500 pounds when new and simply cannot be manhandled, you have to have mechanical assistance, i.e. a forklift or other hoist.” They are big, heavy, awkward, and obvious.

No doubt this unprecedented crime has every whiskey producer reviewing its security systems.

Knowing no one would comment on the current case, I asked instead how they generally protect against this sort of threat. Curiously, Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) and Wild Turkey (Campari), the two victims, answered identically, word for word: “We have already conducted and continue to conduct an audit of all existing security measures. As a result of the audit, we have made adjustments and improvements to our security program which obviously we are not prepared to discuss in public.”

Other producers were willing to say a little more. Here is Larry Kass at Heaven Hill. “We have video surveillance of all key access points at all facilities, including entrances, shipping and loading docks and finished goods warehouses, which are both monitored live on camera and recorded. We have extended this video monitoring capability to all warehouse locations, including Glencoe, T. W. Samuels, and Bernheim. In addition, there is a card reader security system for all employees that also tracks who goes in and who comes out. Finally, all premium items above a certain FOB price level are kept in a locked cage only accessible by supervisors.”

This statement from Kevin Smith, Vice President, Kentucky Beam Bourbon Affairs at Beam-Suntory (and formerly Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark), is so confident he almost sounds cocky: “Many years ago we implemented a number of stringent security measures at all of our distilleries, including full-time security guards, numerous monitor alarms and 24/7 surveillance camera protection. We are extremely confident in these security measures, however, we continually review our processes to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect Jim Beam, which is the world’s number one selling bourbon.”

Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller at Four Roses, is similarly confident, especially about the distillery’s employees: “I believe in the integrity and credibility of our employees and staff, and I can’t recall the last time we had to deal with a theft issue. Our barrel warehouses are totally enclosed and secured, and we have guard service 24/7 at both operating facilities. Surveillance cameras are installed in critical areas of operations, especially in areas which may be exposed to outside personnel, and our employees are okay with this policy.”

Rutledge is confident but also realistic. “Unfortunately, all businesses are exposed to potential internal thefts and it is improbable to think they can all be secured and safeguarded; otherwise, complacency may set-in and open the door to temptation and possible theft. It is best to be proactive when it comes to protecting company interests and operating profits.”

Here is what the biggest dog, Brown-Forman, had to say: “All of Brown-Forman’s distilleries and other production locations (bottling, shipping, etc.) have security officers on-site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they perform several tours through the facilities during each shift to monitor safety and security. We also have security cameras and card reader systems installed at most facilities to electronically monitor security as part of the overall security program, in concert with security tours.

“From a barrel security standpoint, all warehouses are double-locked and no one person is ever allowed to sign out both keys to a warehouse. All warehouses are covered by security cameras feeding to DVR’s and monitored 24/7.

“At Jack Daniel’s, we have guards manning stations at the Distillery, Bottling and our Tract 3 warehouse area as well as a 24/7 roving patrol. When barrels are entered or removed from a warehouse the truck drivers and either entry foreman or dump room foreman must count the barrels handled and both must sign off on the count. Theft would require collusion among several individuals. Warehouses are cycle counted by accounting personnel each month with every warehouse counted at least once each year.

“While not full-proof, the security protocols at our distilleries and other production facilities strike a balance of sound security measures while allowing the business to operate efficiently.”

When the recent theft ring was busted, many observers assumed the victims were caught napping, yet they and Kentucky’s other distilleries all have robust technological and human security systems in place. If the distilleries aren’t proactive enough about security, they hear about it from their insurers. Security is taken seriously. Maybe someday we will learn how a ragtag gang of softball buddies (and, we’ve now learned, at least one compromised security guard) successfully thwarted those systems on multiple occasions.

Tragedy in Kentucky

May 13th, 2015

We were sad to read of the death of Kyle Rogers on Monday. Kyle, only 27 years old, was caught in the explosion at Silver Trail Distillery last month. The Hardin County (Kentucky) distillery exploded and burned to the ground on April 24. Rogers and his cousin, distiller Jay Rogers, were caught in the blast; Jay remains in stable condition at the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville. Spencer Balentine, the founder of Silver Trail, paid tribute to Kyle on the distillery’s Facebook page, saying he “left a legacy etched in our minds.”

Working as a distiller means a certain amount of truly dangerous risk: heavy machinery, heavy barrels, explosive vapors and dust, live steam, fire. You try to minimize it through proper safety procedures, but nothing is perfectly safe. Kyle and Jay met that risk face to face. In recognition of that common danger, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association has created a “Lifting Spirits Fund,” a way to donate money to cover the medical bills for the two men’s families. Every dollar collected will go to the families. You can make your donation here.


The 10 Highest-Rated Whiskies of the Summer Issue

May 11th, 2015

Today we present the ten highest-rated reviews from the summer issue of Whisky Advocate magazine. This issue’s Buying Guide is Redbreast Mano a Lamhbrimming with 110 whiskies reviewed and 19 beers. We start with #10 and conclude with the highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Redbreast Mano a Lámh, 46%, €65

Oh, hello there. Meaning hand in hand in two languages, this Redbreast was solely matured in Galician oak seasoned with oloroso for 2 years at the Páez Morilla bodega in Jerez. A slightly closed nose of eucalyptus, menthol, and apple pre-empts a rich, fruity, cherry bomb of dark sugars, strawberry laces, morello, and clove. The fabulous pot still character ends on a sliver of mint as the fruit gently dulls. (2,000 bottles exclusively for The Stillhouse, Midleton’s single pot still club)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

TLD_48YO_bottle_new[1]The Last Drop 1965 Blend 48 year old, 48.6%, $4,000

Originally blended, then recasked into fresh bourbon wood three decades ago, the nose of ripened peaches, cooked pear, pecan nuts, menthol, clove, and vanilla make for a compelling combination. A surprising lift of red summer fruits as this bright whisky sashays around the mouth, the complexity measured out in installments: plum sauce, toasted oak, coffee bean, gingersnaps, clove, licorice, and hints of savory juices. It dances on and on with the whirling wood spices in no hurry whatsoever. (592 bottles)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91Forty Creek Double_Barrel_750_bottle_clip

Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve (Lot 252), 40%, $47

Finished in wet, freshly-dumped bourbon barrels, Double Barrel shows strong bourbonesque vanilla and a slippery, almost syrupy lushness. This latest batch is even creamier than the early ones made by John Hall himself. After a deceptively simple start, a mouth-filling toffee sweetness broadens into ripe tropical fruits with fleeting under-notes reminiscent of earthy dragonfruit. Hot, peppery flares punctuate the soft fruitiness as it moves to the fore and the creamy mouthfeel subsides.—Davin deKergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

141031_OrphanBarrel_Bottle_forged_oak_KW01Forged Oak 15 year old, 45.25%, $65

The fifth release in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series (and the youngest of the releases so far). Distilled at the “new” Bernheim distillery and, once again, matured most recently in Stitzel-Weller warehouses. Complex flavors are well-integrated, with lovely spice notes (cinnamon, vanilla, mint, nutmeg), nougat, caramel, and subtle fruit. Long, satisfying finish. Not as distinctive as some previous Orphan Barrel releases, but more rounded and balanced. Nicely done!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

Douglas Laing Extra Old Particular (distilled at Mortlach) 22 year old, Douglas Laing Extra Old Part Mortlach 2257.1%, £191

Deep amber. Generous sweet sherried nose; very ripe, with dried orchard fruits, chestnut puree, and indeed chestnut honey, then a little touch of meat and a pungency akin to Guyanan pot still rum. Sumptuous. As it opens there’s a fluxing mix of sticky toffee, game, pomegranate, and dried red fruits. The palate is deeply savory, with floor polish and cooked plums, finishing with fragrant pepper. The cask has a huge say in things, but the spirit copes. Excellent.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

SANKT CLAUS 2014-10-14Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus, 53.2%, 975 SEK

Handpicked from over 100 casks, this is a belter! Puréed prune, dunnage, black licorice, clove, coffee bean, and raisin-studded chocolate. It’s like scorched earth after a wildfire. There is a syrupy, dark rum-like sweetness, a medley of cinnamon, cocoa, raisin, and vanilla essence. Water flushes out some gentle smoke and adds smoothness, but by god, it’s wonderful neat. The best yet from Spirit of Hven. (294 bottles)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Canadian Club 1960s, 40%, A$164

Fifty years on, the standard Canadian Club becomes very complex and Canadian Club 1960's Whisky 750mL-1in-your-face delicious. Barley sugar sweetness blossoms into creamy caramel in a dark, heavy, full-bodied whisky with cinnamon, hot chewing tobacco, and sizzling spice. Acetone, dry wood, and peaches on the nose give way to musty perfumed sandalwood and fresh crisp oak, with glowing embers in the throat. Floral, sweet, and a bit nutty, it finishes slowly in leather and furniture polish. (Australia only)—Davin deKergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Mackillop’s Choice (distilled at Mortlach) 1991, 56.6%, £198

Full gold. Weighty, but not oppressed by wood. Full, rich rancio aroma, which brings to mind an ancient cognac. It is rich and powerful, but has great finesse and perfect balance: cooked fruit, some spice, a lot of waxiness, licorice…and then the distillery’s signature meatiness. The palate starts sweetly with ripe old autumn fruits, and soft tannins. This has everything you want from a mature whisky, and from Mortlach, with added elegance. Highly recommended.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93Forty Creek Confederation_Oak_750_rt_bottle_clip

Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve (Lot 1867D), 40%, $50

If you worried what would happen when Forty Creek ran out of Canadian oak barrels, you will be pleased to know John Hall found more local oak trees and had new barrels made; this time in Canada. This tightly integrated dram is rich in woody maple syrup, with raisins, almonds, and vanilla ice cream that softens a peppery glow. Silkier than the original, slightly restrained, and ever so quaffable. A longish, pithy finish begs another sip. Still a classic.—Davin deKergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

Midleton Very Rare 30th Anniversary Pearl Edition, 53.1%, €6,000

A marriage of a single cask of grain from 1981 with a cask of pot still from 1984 to celebrate 30 years of Midleton Very Rare, the job undertaken masterfully by Barry Crockett and Brian Nation. The expressiveMidleton box with bottle nose is redolent of polished antique violin, warm gingerbread, the herbal tinges pricked by spices. Delicate honey, rich vanilla, toasty oak, and tendrils of cinnamon segue into a dry, spicy conclusion. La Peregrina of Irish whiskey. Ain’t she a beauty? (117 bottles)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

The Blenders’ Gathering

May 7th, 2015

Jonny McCormickJonny McCormick reports from “An Evening with the Blenders” at the Scotch Whisky Experience, Edinburgh.

Seated before us, high above Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, was what can only be described as a smoothness of master blenders.* We were spending an entertaining evening in the company of these men and women, little knowing it would be the final time for one of them. But before all that, let me take you back to the start of the evening.

As we sipped our cocktails, a man slipped unnoticed through the crowd at the Scotch Whisky Experience, armed with a microphone. It was John Ramsay, Edrington’s former malt master for Glenrothes. Following Ramsay’s welcome, he revealed his esteemed panel of fellow blenders standing on the balcony above us to spontaneous applause from the one hundred assembled guests. And well they might, for we were in the presence of living legends.

David Stewart, pouring a dram

David Stewart, pouring a dram

Upstairs, each blender manned a table and personally filled your glass, affording attendees unprecedented access to ask the blenders any whisky question they liked. David Stewart, the Balvenie malt master for William Grant & Sons, was the first face I saw on entering the bar. He was pouring Balvenie Doublewood 17 year old after a third day of judging more than 100 whiskies. Opposite him, a smiling Billy Leighton, master blender for Irish Distillers, had two open bottles of Crested Ten to pour. It’s a hidden gem of an Irish blend, with a higher pot still content and higher proportion of sherry casks than regular Jameson and I was glad to be reacquainted with it.

There was Angela D’Orazio from Mackmyra, who had brought some new expressions including Mackmyra Sommartid (meaning summertime). As the canapés from the Amber restaurant circulated under my nose, I made my way through to see Gordon Motion, the man who assumed the mantle of master blender for Edrington after John Ramsay’s retirement. Gordon had a busy evening as he was dispensing drams from the Art Deco bottles of Cutty Sark 33 year old and many guests found that one taste was simply not enough.

Richard Paterson in Diageo's glittering whisky cave

A rare picture of Richard Paterson in short sleeves

Next, I entered the brightly lit chamber that holds more than 3,500 bottles of the Diageo Claive Vidiz collection, one of Whisky Advocate’s Seven Wonders of the Scotch Whisky World. Richard Paterson was holding court, educating attendees on how to nose and taste Dalmore 15 year old. At least I think it was Richard Paterson…the nose and moustache looked right, but where was the knotted silk necktie? Where were the gold cufflinks? I was unaccustomed to seeing Richard so casually attired in a black polo shirt. What would his tailor think?

Back to back with Richard was Caroline Martin of Diageo, her bottles of Haig Club glowing in the light. Working tirelessly in the adjacent tasting room were both Shinju Fukuyo, chief blender for Beam Suntory, and Tadashi Sakuma, chief blender for Nikka (a former panelist at WhiskyFest New York), sending guests between the Yamazaki 18 year old and the Nikka 12 year old, despite their companies’ great historic rivalry.

After the session concluded, we trooped upstairs to the conference room that has been recently refurbished at a cost of $750,000. One by one, the blenders stood up to regale us with humorous anecdotes from their years in the industry. John Ramsay treated us to some uproarious tales from when he worked at Strathclyde distillery in the 1960s including a former colleague’s attempt to beat the excise man by slyly swallowing a significant quantity of siphoned grain neutral alcohol (ABV 96%), and a hilarious (though unprintable) tale about the time John was persuaded to take part in a police identity parade on his way home from his shift.

The smoothness: D'Orazio, Leighton, Motion, Ramsay, Martin, Paterson, Stewart, Fukuyo, Sakuma (back to front)

The smoothness: D’Orazio, Leighton, Motion, Ramsay, Martin, Paterson, Stewart, Fukuyo, Sakuma (back to front)

Gordon Motion, who worked as Ramsay’s assistant for many years, recalled the time both men were presented with a bale of Glenrothes tartan. John followed the advice of his boss and had his tartan fashioned into a stylish sports coat but that wasn’t really Gordon’s style: he confessed (to much laughter) that instead, he had re-covered his dining room chairs in the fabric. With a knowing wink, Gordon presented John with a gift to thank him for serving his final year as ISC chairman: a footstool (‘time to put your feet up’), made from wood taken from the washbacks at Highland Park and covered in the aforementioned Glenrothes tartan.

Richard Paterson took to the mike to lead the room in a tasting of Jura Turas Mara, the audience trying to second guess his trademark weather reports whenever he brought up a historical date. Despite stern warnings from Susan Morrison, the venue’s Director, who has overseen the transformation of this building into a top tourist attraction, Paterson still cleansed his glass in his inimitable style, flicking a dram across the pristine bespoke carpet (and several unsuspecting guests). Susan scowled from the back of the room while the audience whooped and cheered for more.

Despite the jocularity, the audience Q&A still tackled some serious issues; challenging the master blenders on non-age statement whiskies and their prices, the preservation of the historic Kennetpans distillery site, the role of computers in the blending lab, and the disappearance of Johnnie Walker Green Label from many markets. (A hat tip to Martin, who wound up fielding most of the tough questions.)

What else did we learn? The blenders have enormous respect for one another and relish their rare get-togethers. As they are all at the top of their professional game, there are no egos and no company rivalries. Blenders across the board feel subordinate to the marketing departments, which clearly creates a degree of friction. Master blenders like, nay, prefer the creative freedom of non-aged statement whiskies because they can use the casks they desire with the flavors they seek, rather than be restricted to the portion of the inventory that’s passed an arbitrary number of years. Intriguingly, Shinju Fukuyo responded affirmatively to my question inquiring if Suntory had ever conducted maturation experiments filling Scotch whisky into mizunara (Japanese oak) casks and a product may not be too far away. I would love to try that some day, for sure.

With Ramsay retiring from his chairmanship, it is clear that this particular panel of blenders will never convene again, which made this congenial evening very special indeed. As the guests filed out into the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, the blenders could finally unwind. Out the corner of my eye, I spotted Richard Paterson relax and slip into something a little more formal, pulling on a smartly tailored jacket complete with patterned pocket square. Ah, that’s better!


*I don’t believe there is a recognized collective noun for master blenders, so I simply made one up. Alternative suggestions are welcome in the comments below.

Jim McEwan Retires

April 24th, 2015

Author - Dave BroomThe term ‘legend’ is one which is bandied around rather too freely these days. There are, however, a few figures who richly deserve that accolade. Jim McEwan is one. After 52 years in whisky, he has announced that he will be retiring. It seems a strange term to see, as “retiring” is hardly the term anyone would ever use to describe Jim. Countless whisky lovers the world over have been educated and entertained with his stories, peppered with the surreal absurdity of Scottish west coast humor, stories which grew longer and more hilarious with each retelling.

His whisky life started on August 1st, 1963 when he was taken on as an apprentice cooper at Bowmore. After working in every other area of the distillery, he ended up as cellar-master, and then trainee blender. In 1986, he was made the distillery’s manager.

It was in this role that I first met him…on the back of an inflatable banana. You see, surreal. It was the start of a cherished friendship. Spending any time with Jim gets you immediately swept up in his enthusiasm and passion for whisky, ideas and schemes pouring from him. Within the space of a few hours he had arranged for me to work night shift for a week at Bowmore, with the days spent driving around the island with him, meeting distillers and the people who made the island the place it is. It as the start of my whisky education, because he drilled into me the lesson that people make whisky.

In time, he became ambassador for Bowmore, but more importantly (and perhaps not always to the delights of his bosses), an ambassador for Islay. He knew that whisky is about community, something which is even more important on an island. It has always been more than just ‘whisky’ or ‘product’ to him.

Jim-McEwan-_X2A2797It was a philosophy which he then applied when he became master distiller at Bruichladdich on its reopening in 2001. Bruichladdich was a chance to put his dreams into place: experimenting with different peating levels, getting barley grown again on Islay, looking at casks, designing a still and making gin, bringing employment to the island.

He may have been the public face of the Laddie, but in conversation he would always deflect the attention to the team. He was having fun, asking questions, creating a new community. He was hard-headed, but he was right. Behind the fun at the tastings was genuine passion for whisky, its history, its flavors, its inextricable links to Islay.

Once, when filming at Bruichladdich, I asked him to tell us about the mill. Now, the thing about filming is the need to be succinct. Jim started to talk. 20 minutes later, in an uninterrupted stream, he had taken us from the history of Bruichladdich, to biodynamics, organic farming, terroir, through the family history of the island’s farmers, then into Celtic mythology and the Vikings. He paused for a second. “Now,” he said. “The mill…” We all fell about laughing. It was the most difficult editing job the team ever had. Eventually they just let it run. It was Jim, after all.

The next generation is ready to take over. Time to nip across the burn to the house next door and his always supportive wife Barbara, his daughters and the grandchildren.

Dave Broom and Jim McEwan give the Highland Toast at WhiskyFest NY 2013 (photo credit: Sharon Sturgis)

Dave Broom and Jim McEwan give the Highland Toast at WhiskyFest NY 2013
(photo credit: Sharon Sturgis)

“The distillery is in great shape,” he told me. “I’ve done as much as I can here. We’re making great whisky and the whole team are fantastic: Allan Logan, Adam Hannett, Duncan MacGillivray, the Budgie, John Rennie…there’s 80 folk working here now. It’s a good feeling.

“It’s been a fantastic journey but now it’s time for the family. It’s time to see my grandchildren grow up. I want to see them become wee Ileachs. I realized when they left the last time that I didn’t want there to be another summer when I wouldn’t see them because I was working.”

There is a sense of an era now over, but I hope, like Frank Sinatra, he’ll never fully disappear. We wish him well.

Thanks Jim, it’s been a blast.

Bourbon Thieves Indicted in Kentucky Today

April 21st, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickNine people were indicted in Franklin County today for stealing more than $100,000 worth of bourbon from the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries. The press conference announcing the indictment felt like a scene straight out of “Justified.” Bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, jugs of bourbon, and several containers, including a stainless steel barrel, surrounded the Franklin County Sheriff’s podium. All that was missing was a few rifles and a couple silencers. But as you will read, there were guns and silencers. They just didn’t bring them out for the press.

Pappy Gate 8Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton called the theft an “organized crime” effort that involved steroids, stolen Wild Turkey and Eagle Rare barrels, as well as cases of Pappy Van Winkle and Eagle Rare. A grand jury indicted the nine defendants on several felony counts, ranging in a Class C Felony of “receiving stolen property $10,000 or more” to second degree, first offenses of “complicity trafficking in a controlled substance.”

Melton said this “criminal syndicate” was formed at softball games and included a long-time Buffalo Trace employee. Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, 46, was considered the ringleader, and had worked at Buffalo Trace for 26 years. Mark Searcy, who worked for Wild Turkey, and Chris Preston, who worked for Buffalo Trace, were also indicted.

The indictment indicates this alleged syndicate operated between January 1, 2008, and April 7, 2015, to collaborate to steal bourbon from Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace. They then allegedly sold the spirits for as much as $1,500 per barrel. Assistant Franklin County prosecutor Zachary M. Becker said all products were sold below market value, and the sheriff said no product was sold through a licensed retailer.

Pappy Gate 3

Franklin County assistant prosecutor Zachary Becker laid out the charges

While Franklin County officials confirmed the bourbon was the moneymaker of the operation, it was likely the steroid business that raised suspicions. According to Melton, the United States Postal Service found anabolic steroids from China addressed to one of the defendants. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said in a taped telecast that the Commonwealth’s cyber crimes division aided in investigation, indicating that this was a multi-agency state investigation. Through a search warrant, law enforcement confiscated cell phones, hard drives, guns and silencers, and five barrels of Wild Turkey on March 11.  Tips led to other products and barrels being recovered.

In addition to the Wild Turkey, Becker said the syndicate allegedly obtained and distributed 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle, 50 to 70 cases of Eagle Rare, nine stainless steel barrels from Buffalo Trace, and four types of anabolic steroids. Despite working with law enforcement in Indiana and West Virginia, surrounding counties, and a federal agency, Becker said the U.S. Attorneys Office has not expressed interest in the case.

Pappy Gate 2

Evidence, to be destroyed.

The investigation remains ongoing with more “persons of interest,” said Melton, who would not comment on who the persons were or where they’re located.

As for what happens to the bourbon, officials said the barrels and the contents will be destroyed, because the state cannot guarantee the barrel’s contents. But Melton said he is trying to save the stolen Pappy Van Winkle bottles for the Van Winkle family. “We’re hoping the family can get the bottles back since they’re sealed,” Melton said.

For the time being, Pappy and the soon-to-be busted barrels sit in evidence, awaiting the trial of Curtsinger and his alleged syndicate.

Craft Distilling Needs Distillers

April 13th, 2015

author-Camper-EnglishCraft distilling continues to recapitulate the history of craft brewing. Just as the explosion of craft brewing in the 1990s, and then again about twelve years ago resulted in a shortage of skilled brewers, craft distilling’s rapid growth has led to a shortage of savvy distillers. Here’s how some are dealing with it. 

“Every few weeks I am contacted asking if I am interested, will I consult, or if I know a distiller for hire.  The offers are big and keep rising every year- six figures is common now,” says Maggie Campbell, head distiller for Privateer Rum.

With 905 distilled spirits plants (distilleries, rectifiers, bottlers) now operating or under construction in the US according to the American Distilling Institute, this makes for a whole lot of start-ups run by people new to the business.

Maggie  Campbell, of Privateer Rum

Maggie Campbell, of Privateer Rum

The majority of the new distillery owners I meet fall into one of three categories: former engineers and other technical people looking for a mid-life project, brewers looking to expand into distilling, or wealthy people looking for creative business outlets. They bring a set of skills to their new pet projects, but nobody comes into the industry knowing everything to get from grain to glass successfully- and that’s where consultant distillers come in.

Campbell says, “I recently stumbled across two young people with massive potential (to become consultants), but they are rare and there is a shortage of experienced distillers. Not only are you a technical brewer, you need to be an adept distiller, and you need much of the insight of a winemaker for barrel aging, tasting, and selection.”

Like any type of consultant, some of the new distillers-for-hire are specialists. Former chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits Joel Elder announced this month the formation of his consultancy Quinta Essentia Alchemy, “focusing on small scale craft distillation and agriculturally sound practices.”

Elder trained as a brewer’s apprentice, then studied progressive agriculture and got interested in “value-added agriculture” that includes distilling, which brought him to Tuthilltown. He says one of his consultancy’s specialties will be building farmer relationships for small distilleries and looking into sourcing/distilling regional/heirloom grains for whiskey, for example.

Dave Pickerell has also found himself spending time with farmers lately, installing stills on actual farm properties including WhistlePig in Vermont, Hillrock in upstate New York, and Ragged Mountain Farm Distillery in Charlottesville, Virgina.

Dave Pickerell

Dave Pickerell

Since Pickerell left his position as master distiller at Maker’s Mark in 2008, he has built about 50 distilleries by his estimation. Because of his experience, he says, “I’m kind of in the catbird seat. I do get first dibs in a way.”

Pickerell says he has three main criteria for choosing whom to work with: Their personality, their business plan, and their willingness to learn. “They don’t have to do everything I say but they do have to listen. Beyond that it’s simply: ‘Do I have the bandwidth?’” he says.

When we talked consulting, the actual distilling part of being a consulting distiller didn’t come up too much. Instead, Pickerell talked a lot about construction codes and equipment installs. Apparently he is now a wizard with a forklift.

As for the most difficult part of being a consultant, Pickerell says it is, “getting people to do their jobs. It’s not mean- spirited people; it’s people who don’t know what’s going on because they haven’t had to deal with it before. It’s not unusual for me to build the first distillery that’s ever gone into a city. So you can’t expect the fire marshal to know how the code applies to barrels.”

Much of the work (and fun) of being a distiller seems to come from figuring things out oneself and engaging with other distillers in the field to solve issues as they arise. But once someone has gone through it all a few times, the job offers undoubtedly come in.

Campbell says, “Having a happy team you love is the secret to keeping talent right now, because you will be out-bid. If I was not married to our assistant distiller he surely would have been hired away by now.”

It’s International Whisky Day: a Toast to Michael Jackson

March 27th, 2015

author-lew-brysonToday is International Whisky Day. More importantly, to some of us, even those of us intimately entwined with whisky, it is Michael Jackson’s birthday. Michael died seven years ago, but we celebrate his birth, his life, rather than mourn his death.

Despite what you may be told, Michael was not the first person to write about whisky or beer, not even the first person to write about them as a consumer, for consumers, and take them seriously. What he did was write about the whole of whisky and beer, the way all the history and current practice fit together, and give the long view, right up to the much-diminished days when he started writing. The fact that those much-diminished days are only a memory, that whisky is booming and beer is blossoming in a rich panoply of revival and invention, owes much to the way his writing reached people.

John and I were deeply influenced by Michael. He encouraged both of us to always travel to where beer and whisky was made; he insisted on it. It only took a few such trips filling our notebooks and sense memories to realize that he was right. You can learn a lot from a bottle, but to understand what’s in that bottle, to really meet it, know it, encompass it, and yes, judge it, you must see where it is made. You have to breathe the air, meet the people, see the machinery and the building, walk the ground…you must touch things.

That was one lesson we learned. Another was about the writing itself. Michael would write about the unique food in a town (and the customs and cant around it), the vagaries of the weather, the swiftness of the river or the lowering influence of the mountains, the crops and the industries and the people who worked them. Beer and whisky were, for him, not metaphors for life, for people, but mirrors of history and civilization.

I had the honor of editing Michael’s column when he wrote for us, a column that we called “Cask Strength,” to signify that it was pure Michael Jackson, uncut and unfiltered. It was a title he was never really comfortable with; I believe because he would rather it had been a title that reflected whisky less directly, and life more so. I edited him with a gentle hand—I was learning my trade at the time, so that seemed best—and let him run. Oh, where he took us! To an ancient stone bridge in France that he deemed significant in the history of Chartreuse; to a breakfast with honeymooners in Scotland; to a dark night of the soul in a hotel in Germany; to trains, airplanes, and sidewalks where he had a journalist’s knack for striking up a conversation that would yield insight.

John and I were among the first to learn of his disease, the Parkinson’s that would kill him. His last column was about it, and the memoir he had started to write (which he planned to title I’m Not Drunk, Really, in reference to the effects of the disease and the assumptions it led to). He continued to work, hard, almost as if he had so much to say, and was trying to get it all out while he still had breath.

Michael at Monk's Cafe no, he didn't arrive in the limo; he walked)

Michael at Monk’s Cafe (no, he didn’t arrive in the limo; he walked)

The picture you see here is the last one I took of him, the last day I saw him, about four months before he died. He was doing a beer dinner at Monk’s Café in Philadelphia. I had run into him and fellow writer Carolyn Smagalski about a block away at Spruce Street Market, admiring their sidewalk floral display. Michael was cheerful, and seemed more energetic and lucid than he had the previous year. We walked on to Monk’s together, and he gave a strong performance at the dinner.

Afterward he kept going, and invited anyone who was interested to the back barroom and took questions for another hour. We nodded, we clapped, we laughed. It was as if Eric Clapton had left the stage, then walked to a pub next door and grabbed a guitar off the wall and kept playing…because he just couldn’t stop, not so long as there was still music to play, and the strength to play it.

I suppose it’s inevitable that given the enormous tributes paid to him—awards named for him, endless encomiums praising his influence, the signal honor of the timing of today’s International Whisky Day—that revisionism has begun. Did Michael Jackson really influence things that much? Was he impartial, or did he favor companies and individuals who helped him? Wouldn’t this all have happened without him?

Speaking for myself, what I do, every day I write or edit or review or speak to an eager group of whisky lovers, is because of Michael Jackson. If he hadn’t been there to fire my interest, to show me a path that could be taken, I’d most likely still be a librarian. I might well be happy with that, but I wouldn’t have had the fun, the late nights with great people, the indescribable satisfaction of holding the first copy of a book I wrote, or the pleasure of opening someone’s eyes to a great drink, if not for Michael Jackson. I know other writers feel the same way; I know brewers who feel that way; I know distillers who feel that way.

Michael is the man who put non-wine drinks writing in front of the world. How much did that influence things? Hard to say. I embrace the questioning of the revisionists, and yes, maybe his influence is overestimated. But I do not believe we can honor him too much.

In that sense, then, we suggest that if you can, join whisky drinkers all over the world today in toast to Michael Jackson’s memory. Then join whisky drinkers all over the world in donating to Parkinson’s UK for medical research at the JustGiving page that’s been set up for today. And thank Michael for whatever he may have done to help put that glass in your hand.

To Michael!

Coffee Whiskey, Whiskey Coffee

March 20th, 2015

author-lew-brysonThe best part of waking up, is whiskey in your cup!


People have been putting whiskey in coffee (and tea) for a long time. It probably goes back to…oh, I’m guessing here, but probably about 20 minutes after the first time whiskey and brewed coffee were in close proximity. If it took that long. The Irish Coffee (which gets the David Wondrich Treatment in the Summer issue of Whisky Advocate) is a classic all-in-one real-to-life cocktail with coffee, whiskey, sugar, and cream, but most people just do what my old boss at the Timberline Bar used to do: brew a strong cup and pour a certain amount of whiskey right in it, cream and sugar optional. “Catch the buzz; stay awake to enjoy it,” he’d always say.

“Finishing” whiskey has only been around for about 25 years, in contrast, giving whiskey a twist at the end of its maturation by disgorging it from the barrel where it quietly slept, breathing deeply, exhaling for the angels’ enjoyment, and then introducing it to a new and different barrel: wine, rum, fresh oak. The result is a blend of flavors that — in the hands of a master — will enhance and change the base whiskey.

The idea of a mashup of these two combinations hit Brian Prewitt at A. Smith Bowman in Fredericksburg, Va., last summer. With the help of local coffee roaster Ricks Roasters he moved ahead with the idea of combining whiskey-finished coffee and coffee-finished whiskey. He dumped three barrels and sent them over to Ricks. “One was a 7 year old, and two 8 year olds, so they would have gone for Bowman Brothers,” Prewitt said, and noted: “Standard American oak barrels, #3 char.”

A few days later, John Freund at Ricks opened up the barrels and packed them with beans. “I do remember one we opened up had about a shot left in it,” he told me. “My daughter truly enjoyed it!”

Coffee_Beans_closeupI asked how the beans went in: green or roasted? “The beans go into the barrels after being roasted,” he said. “We have heard of others doing it with green coffee. I finally found someone who had tried [one of them] and ours. He said that our coffee picked up more of the bourbon flavor. The green going in was still good, but different.”

I can vouch for that. I tried the Ricks Bourbon Barrel Heritage beans today, along with some Cooper’s Cask beans, which co-founder John Speights told me went green into a barrel used for single malt whiskey at an undisclosed distillery (he has since revealed that it was from Rhode Island distillery Sons of Liberty), aged for 40-60 days, and then roasted. The Cooper’s beans were notably less darkly roasted than the Ricks; a house mark for Cooper’s. I tried both coffees freshly ground, and tasted them black. They were both good, but different.

Cooper’s Cask — Nose of cookie dough, toasted walnuts, milk chocolate. Not overly bitter, slightly acidic. Quite drinkable black. Whiskey influence is subtle; some sweetness up front, a twisting tease of whiskey on the finish. Not overdone.

Bourbon Barrel Heritage — Roasted beans, light notes of vanilla, caramel, pepper, and warehouse ‘reek’. Good level of acidity, bourbon character is present, but not dominant. Whiskey notes expand as it cools. Coffee enhanced by bourbon barrel depth.

Freund supplied his own tasting notes. “The barrels and bourbon add a rich sweetness and that vanilla character. The first taste is all bourbon, vanilla, sweet. Then the coffee mellows into berries and apples. At the end, the coffee flavor seeps in and takes control. That’s when you get the smoky richness and earthiness of the coffee itself. But the real treat is a few minutes later when the oaky butteriness really sneaks up on you in the aftertaste. I think of it as a desert coffee.

Speights notes that his partner Jay Marahao has been sourcing beans for years. “The quality of the bean is probably the most important aspect of the entire process. The tasting notes of the bean will be enhanced and complemented to the different types of barrels used. We are in the works with other barrels and bean combinations as we speak.”

The coffees were a fine tasting this afternoon as what I hope is the last major snowfall of the season is whitening up the outdoors. But there are better ways to enjoy it: I purchased some of the Ricks at the Bowman’s gift shop back in the fall, and I can tell you that it makes a great cup with a stack of pancakes covered in maple syrup!

But what about the other half of this barrel-sharing project? Once the beans had picked up the bourbon flavor from Prewitt’s loaned barrels, they were dumped at Ricks, and the barrels sent back to Bowman. Brian laughed at how hard it was to get every last bean out of the barrels without disassembling it.

That was essential if they were to call it a “finished” whiskey as opposed to a “flavored” whiskey. “Finished is what coffee-312521_1280I’m going to go for; there were no coffee beans harmed in the making of this whiskey,” he said emphatically. “We didn’t spend hours getting all of the coffee beans out of there to call it a flavored whiskey. If we have to, we will, but the idea was to use a barrel that had held something else, and to work with another artisanal creator to do that. Whether the TTB will see it that way or not is up to them. But it’s just an oak container; one that happened to hold coffee.”

Prewitt refilled one of the barrels, but not with the whiskey that had come out of them. “We put an older bourbon back into the barrel, a 9 year old, and it’s been in there a little over six months.,” he said. This Monday he’ll be tasting it to see if it’s going to be the next Abraham Bowman bottling, a series of one-barrel one-offs that push the envelope of what whiskey is.

I got to taste it with Prewitt and Freund at the distillery back in early November, when it had been in the barrel just shy of a month. The whiskey then was intriguing; picking up a fair amount of coffee already, but not overwhelmed by it at all. I’m hoping that what Brian tastes on Monday will be well-integrated, and worthy of bottling.

And then I’m going to make some pancakes.

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