The 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.
It 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.
“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.
Nine 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.
Franklin 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
Today 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.
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.
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!”
I 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 I’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.
In the crisp morning light of southern Ireland, we regard the sentinel oak that has stood anchored to this hillside near Stradbally, Co. Laois for the past 150-200 years. Season after season, her buds have burst into leaf, unfurled, and stretched up for the light, the broad canopy sheltering the forest floor far below. But she has seen her last summer.
Today, bright pink spray can markings signal the end for this swaying Irish giant. The buzzing of chainsaws breaks the morning stillness and in less than ten minutes, she is felled with a splintering crump. Don’t get too sentimental: she was chosen selectively and the coopering grade timber harvested here is destined to flavor new pot still Irish whiskey.
There is a historical precedent for using Irish oak to mature native whiskey although it has probably not been practiced since the 19th century. Sure, you may remember that Cooley produced Connemara Bog Oak whiskey a few years ago, but that was never likely to lead to an industry revolution. At Midleton distillery, master of maturation Kevin O’Gorman had been nurturing the idea of Irish oak maturation for many years. As Billy Leighton, their master blender, recalls from a conversation seven years ago, “One thing that sticks in my mind is that Kevin said, ‘I don’t want to do this, unless we do it right,’ which is the way we do things at Midleton.”
O’Gorman began to assemble the expertise he needed, beginning with Paddy Purser, consultant forester, to help identify a suitable supply of quality Irish oak and to ensure its sustainability. Tentatively, they undertook a series of maturation trials in small Irish oak casks made by Ger Buckley, their stalwart master cooper. Paddy explained the need to choose knot free, straight-growing trees, free from unsuitable spiral grains. His search for the best led them to Grinsell’s Wood on the Ballaghtobin Estate, Co. Kilkenny. Landowner Michael Gabbett owns a map drawn in 1820 that clearly shows an established wood in that location nearly two centuries ago. Today, there are about 200 mature oak trees in Grinsell’s Wood and they harvested just ten back in April 2012.
Ireland has relatively few remaining ancient forests. Currently, landowners are encouraged to apply for afforestation grants from the government to establish new woodlands. After witnessing the felling, Paddy takes us to see a stand of slender, silvery oaks in Ballykilcavan Forest, near Stradbally to explain what we might see growing in the cleared woodland in 20 years’ time. Trees are taken in groups of four or five to remove enough of the canopy to create enough light for regeneration to occur. The entire project is managed sustainably, meaning that the regeneration of the forest is actively managed to produce high-quality replacement oak trees in the future. For every tree taken out, there may be ten more oak trees planted. Clearly, there is never any intention to take more than the forest can regenerate.
Regeneration is a natural process, though there can be active planting to ensure the right species diversity. In 2010, these saplings in Ballykilcavan were thinned to take out competitors. Daubs of red and white paint encircle the trees that have the best potential to become quality oak for whiskey casks in a century or more. The lower branches are pruned so that when the tree’s crown develops, the growth is concentrated in the better quality stems.
Oak is a light-demanding species and needs light to grow. Holly and beech trees are shade-tolerant species that grow beneath the canopy of oak in the understory and middle story respectively. These shade the oak trunks, preventing the formation of unwanted epicormic branches that could result in knots that limit the value of the cooperage oak. Epicormics are produced if the crown is suppressed and the tree tries to produce a new crown, or if the tree is suddenly exposed to a lot of light and tries to take full advantage of the conditions.
Ballykilcavan Forest is managed close to nature, meaning they encourage a mixed forest with a diversity of species and tree ages, making it more resilient than a monoculture of oak. The mild, wet Irish climate provides a long growing season, with faster growth rates than the U.S. or Spain. This produces a hardwood that is a little less dense but more porous. A more open structure results in a greater oak contribution to the flavor of whiskey. O’Gorman and Leighton have found that Irish oak produces higher lignin breakdown products in the whiskey creating flavors of caramel, toffee, and vanilla.
So what’s the reason I’m squelching through the woodland in a hard hat with my homecoming Dubarry boots caked in mud? The new whiskey is called Midleton Dair Ghaelach: Grinsell’s Wood, the first in the Virgin Irish Oak Collection (I can help you with the pronunciation: try saying Der Gway-lack with conviction and you’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about). Attending the tree felling is the owner of the Maderbar sawmill in Barella in north-west Spain who will oversee the quarter sawing of the Stradbally trunks.
The foresters quickly calculate the volume of the fallen trunk by measuring its girth and length with tape measures (like the volume of a cylinder, they use πr2h). They determine that it should produce 4.4 tons of wood (the secondary wood has other commercial uses and the crown goes for firewood). The Co. Kilkenny trees from Grinsell’s Wood left Barella for the heat of Jerez, to be air seasoned over 15 months to get the moisture down under 16%. The Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage made 48 Irish oak hogsheads with a medium toast from those ten trees. Then they were repatriated to Ireland.
The virgin casks were filled with Midleton whiskies from 100% second and third-fill American oak barrels (typical casks of the Midleton style). These were mature batches of pot still, ranging from 15-22 years with a full range of styles from the lighter, more herbal end of the pot still character, through to the heavier styles that bring leathery and peppery notes. The casks were carefully watched and sampled over 10 months by Leighton and O’Gorman before bottling. Timing was critical to get the balance right.
With a tangential nod to the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, each bottle is marked with the tree number so that each whiskey can be traced back to a tree stump in the woods. Remarkably, we visited the stump of the tree that made the casks that finished the very whiskey we were drinking; something I’ve never experienced before. Each tree’s casks have been bottled separately, so there is some variation in strength from tree to tree (strength ranges from 58.1% to 58.5%).
Cooperage oak need not always come from Spain, France or the U.S. as whiskies from Glengoyne Scottish Oak to Hammer Head Czech whisky have proved. It’s a small step, but Irish Distillers believe there is no reason that Irish oak cannot play a greater role in the maturation of their whiskies in the future. As Kevin O’Gorman concluded, “It’s our barley, our water, our oak. It’s tasting history.”
Jonny’s full review of Midleton Dair Ghaelach will appear in the summer issue of Whisky Advocate.
In case you’re not glued into the American whiskey world, let me fill you in: these NDPs purchase whiskey from X distillery by the barrel and bottle it. Sometimes they slap a phony backstory on their label. Sometimes they try to hide the state of distillation on the bottle. And almost always, consumers, bloggers, and class-action lawyers will paint the Internet with “fraud” and “phony” comments about said NDPs.
This exhausting NDP narrative continues to play out with new companies trying this stuff every day. Just last month, Hatfield & McCoy launched a whiskey that was made from the two family recipes. According to the press release, the two feuding families “have century-old recipes written down in the backs of bibles and the backs of their minds. Until now, those recipes of the two clans have never met.” This whiskey is made by Charleston, South Carolina, Local Choice Spirits, which uses the TerrePure technology that rapidly matures whiskey outside of the barrel. While this Hatfield & McCoy whiskey may very well be from the family recipes, they most certainly did not use high-tech filtration technology to craft their whiskey. In the defense of the Hatfield & McCoy, they are not hiding their TerrePure connection and are merely making a sound business decision to take advantage of their family history.
With that said, the Hatfield & McCoy Whiskey is already catching flak on social media and merely permeating the anti-NDP sentiment that exists in the hardcore whiskey consumer culture.
Meanwhile, the whiskey is a victim. If tasted blind and without hearing the questionable backstories, the TerrePure and sourced whiskey fare well in competitions. Perhaps more importantly, business owners who are not making up phony backstories are getting lumped into the fake story group. The fact is, these bottlers are purchasing barrels from great distilleries, most notably the MGP Ingredients facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which uses the same “V” yeast as Four Roses. (MGP and Four Roses were once owned by Seagram’s.)
I’m a big fan of MGP’s whiskey. Several companies have done a nice job selecting splendid stocks, and some are getting really fed up with the never-ending NDP conversation. Redemption co-founder Dave Schmier says NDP is often used as a derogatory term, and he much prefers “merchant bottler” or “brand owners.”
If anybody has been transparent about the whiskey, it’s been Schmier and Redemption. When Schmier and industry veteran Michael Kanbar launched Redemption in 2010, Redemption’s low price point and mixability made it an immediate bartender favorite. They told everybody it was whiskey made in Indiana, even—get this—putting it on their label. Then, all the scuttlebutt came about the sourced whiskey dilemma, and Redemption, as well as several other brands, found themselves in the crosshairs of an angry whiskey-drinking mob.
Things have calmed down a little, and Redemption survived.
Now, as Lew Bryson’s recent ratings accurately illustrate, Redemption is reaching new levels of stardom with its sourced whiskey. But there’s more to this whiskey than Indiana. Redemption’s latest releases have been extraordinary and some have a connection to Stitzel-Weller, the famous distillery once owned by Pappy Van Winkle. Redemption’s recent 6 year and 7 year old rye releases were distilled in Indiana and aged at the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. For the record, Redemption didn’t put this on their bottle as some have; I simply gleaned this from conversation with the owners. In fact, these barrels were aged at Stitzel-Weller for four years.
As for the ultra delicious 10 year old rye, it was aged almost exclusively in Indiana. Redemption will also be releasing 17 year old Redemption Rye later this summer and 8 year old rye sometime in the near future. All aged in Indiana.
The brand also purchased significant amounts of bottled 1978 bourbon that it intends to “fine tune” with younger bourbons. Not sure what that means, but I’ll sign up for a partial whiskey made in the 1970s!
Redemption had a distillery planned, but like many plans, things changed and continued its contract distillation at MGP. A distillery is still a hope, but for now, Redemption is sticking to Indiana.
Don’t expect a strange backstory to come about, though. Schmier and Kanbar have had successes and failures; Redemption is essentially their second chance. As it turns out, whiskey was their thing.
When I agreed to take the affirmative for the bourbon shortage argument, the words of Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge echoed in my mind: “We are having trouble meeting demand.” There’s a thought that the bourbon shortage is a bunch of bull mess smelling of marketing foul. But Rutledge is the one guy in this business I trust above all. His words are the golden truth.
Fast forward a few months after Rutledge uttered his comments, I broke the story of Four Roses discontinuing its Limited Edition Single Barrel on my blog. That’s when I knew that the bourbon shortage was real, so it took me awhile to understand this was not hype.
The problem is, these two words—“bourbon shortage”—lack a definition or statistical data to support a shortage exists. In fact, all we have to conclude that there is a shortage is the yearly Buffalo Trace press release saying there is one, which gets diced up and published all over the world, and anecdotes from several master distillers and brand managers. We also have solid evidence of brands discontinuing products—see Early Times 354 and Ancient Age 10 Year Old—to use these earmarked stocks for more popular brands. We have examples of proof lowerings and age statements being dropped to make the whiskey stretch out a little further per bottling, while brands place products on allocation and consumers stand in long lines just to put their names in the hat for a harder-to-find bourbon lottery. Meanwhile, consumers complain they cannot acquire once everyday bourbons such as Weller 12 year old.
For the past three years, with the continuing bourbon shortage conversation, we’ve heard all of this and the never-ending complaining that goes along with it. But nobody has provided statistical data to show the depths of this shortage.
I have done just that. In two separate surveys, my company, Minnick Media Inc., polled bourbon enthusiasts and retailers. The data suggests both groups indeed feel there is a bourbon shortage in perception and what they’re able to purchase.
This data should be viewed similarly to the U.S. unemployment rate. American citizens become fearful of the economy and job situation when the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent to 12 percent. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was 24.9 percent. That means 75.1 percent of the working population was employed. Sure, they endured lower wages and perhaps did not work in their desired career field, but three-quarters of the working people had a job. Today, Grenada, Kenya, Kosovo, Macedonia, Nigeria, Nepal and many other countries endure higher unemployment rates than the United States during the Great Depression.
I offer these labor stats as a contextual perspective: Consumers are able to buy bourbon, but not the bourbon they necessarily want—just as most Americans had jobs during the Great Depression just not at the craft or salary they desired. So if your measure of the “bourbon shortage” is there is bourbon sitting on the shelves and in the warehouses, then, there is no shortage. But the bourbon shortage is not about everyday bourbons sitting on shelves—Jim Beam White Label, Wild Turkey 101 or standard Evan Williams. According to the surveys, the lack of bourbon availability exists in the mid-tier to premium brands.
About the consumer survey: 85 percent respondents were male, 50 percent lived in a household earning between $100,001 and $200,00 a year and 31 percent were between the ages 21 and 44 with the majority living in the Southern or Midwestern United States. Respondents were verified bourbon enthusiasts with 42 percent enjoying bourbon between 6 and 15 years.
Key findings from the consumer poll:
- 86 percent said they have entered a store with an intent to buy a product but the bourbon was not in stock.
- 82 percent said they have been unable to find bourbons they once easily found.
- 67 percent said they have purchased multiple bottles in fear they’ll be unable to buy this product next time.
As expected, some brands showed greater availability than others, but your average bourbon enthusiast visits stores that do not or cannot carry Weller 12 year old and Old Charter. And 97 percent of the responders said their store did not carry George T. Stagg.
None of that surprised me. What shocked me was that of the random twelve bourbons selected for this survey, Jim Beam White Label was only available in 85 percent of the respondent’s store of choice. I don’t think I’ve been to a liquor store that didn’t carry Jim Beam White. To go back to my unemployment analogy for a minute, how would this country react to 15 percent unemployment?
Jim Beam claims it does not have a shortage problem, of course, but why did the company drop the age statement on its Jim Beam Black? Of course, the particular liquor stores could just not like this product or the respondents simply don’t recall seeing Jim Beam White Label, but other mainstay brands with strong national presences showed signs of a lack of availability. According to the responders, Elijah Craig 12 year old and Noah’s Mill were unavailable in 15 percent and 58 percent respectively of their preferred stores.
In the “other” section of brand availability, Elmer T. Lee, Willett and Van Winkle dominated the write-ins, indicating they were widely unavailable.
The consumer survey was completed with 149 people. The liquor store survey is ongoing, but so far it’s darn near unanimous across the country. Of the respondents, 100 percent said they are unable to fulfill a consumer’s bourbon request at least once a day and the most requested product is Pappy Van Winkle, followed by Four Roses Limited Editions and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Liquor stores are unable to stock brands they once normally stocked and believe the lack of product availability hurts their bottom line. Perhaps most importantly, 100 percent of the liquor store owners / managers believe there is a bourbon shortage. Interestingly, nearly 70 percent of the liquor store respondents said they are “tired” of the industry’s excuses.
Liquor stores would know better than anybody. They are the front-line salesmen and women who interact with consumer.
With that said, the bourbon shortage must not be measured in quantity sitting in warehouses and new brands hitting the shelves. The shortage should be an actual statistical rate that can be measured and studied. This shortage narrative should be about consumer data just like the Nielsen TV ratings system or the unemployment rate.
My data confirmed what we’ve always known: Limited Edition bourbons were hard to come by. But it also offered a glimpse into the state of mainstay bourbons that are not available in more than 15 percent of the stores, while more than three quarters of bourbon enthusiasts are unable to find bourbons they once easily found.
With the continued bourbon demand, Elijah Craig 12 year old will become the new Weller 12 year old, which will become as scarce as Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, which will become Pappy Van Winkle, which will become, well, you get it.
The bourbon shortage equals a combination of the limited edition bourbon availability, in-store availability of mainstay products and the rate at which a consumer cannot find a product. These three core data identifiers represent the consumer, not the brands, and the data clearly shows they cannot purchase premium products, mainstay products are becoming harder to come by and they’re often unable to find what they want.
The bourbon shortage is real. It’s felt every day.
Is there a shortage of bourbon? Will there be one soon, as booming demand dumbs down age statements and kills off favorite brands? Or is there plenty of good bourbon, with just a few hyped bottles in short supply as the collectors scurry to fill their shelves? We knew two writers with very different opinions, so we invited them to have it out. This Friday, in the Plenty O’ Bourbon corner, Colonel Charles K. Cowdery. Next week it’s Fred Minnick’s turn to argue the gloom and doom side of the issue. Feel free to leave your own opinions in the meantime!
“Is there a whiskey shortage looming?” The Tennessean asked last summer. Yes, they answered. Then came ten paragraphs about how bourbon is booming, but nothing about a shortage until this: “To underscore the possibility of a shortage, gains in whiskey sales are outpacing production increases by at least 2-to-1, industry experts say.” Said experts remained unidentified and the vague statistic remained unexamined as we learned about a fledgling Tennessee micro with all of 200 barrels in storage.
It’s not just The Tennessean. That’s the overall state of whiskey shortage journalism today. Why? Because editors love the idea of a whiskey shortage. They want the words “whiskey shortage” in the headline, even if the story won’t support it.
It’s called ‘clickbait.’
In December, the Wall Street Journal got the words “Bourbon Shortage” into a headline by reporting about how bourbon enthusiast fears of a shortage are provoking panic buying. “Fear is a motivating factor,” said Edward Johnson of Simpsonville, South Carolina, as he picked up a Blanton’s and a Henry McKenna at Harvard’s Liquor & Wine.
We have a name for that in bourbon country: Whiskirexia nervosa. It is characterized by a distorted whiskey inventory image and an obsessive fear of running out of whiskey. Individuals with whiskirexia nervosa tend to already own more whiskey than they can ever drink, even as they continue to buy more.
Whiskirexia nervosa, though it may be a facetious name, exists. It may even be on the rise, but it is not evidence of a looming whiskey shortage.
Yes, bourbon is booming. According to a recent report by Vinexpo and the IWSR, sales of bourbon are expected to soar by almost 20 percent, to 45 million cases, by 2018. Bourbon is the fastest growing category in the distilled spirits industry.But that doesn’t mean there is a shortage now, or that there will be one in the foreseeable future.
It is impossible to prove a negative, but consider this. New bourbons are appearing on the market every day, sold by people who didn’t make them. If you owned bourbon, and knew there was a shortage coming, would you sell it to someone else so they could sell it to the public? Of course not.
It’s true that because of the aging cycle you can’t ramp up the production of whiskey like you can, say, Skittles. This has always been the case. Several times a year, producers update their sales projections, compare them to their inventories, and adjust production accordingly.
Some writers have cited as evidence the fact that products are being discontinued, prices are going up, and age statements are going away. Some of that is just normal course of business while some of it does, indeed, represent steps producers are taking to adjust inventories and production so no shortage occurs.
It is also in the nature of whiskey that even as supply tightens, oversupply is always a risk. A lot of whiskey will mature in the next few years whether there is a market for it or not and if it doesn’t all sell, the pipeline will clog up fast. In the robust market we have now, a little price cutting should quickly unplug it, but that’s a long way from a shortage.
What does a shortage look like? We nearly had one 30 years ago. American whiskey was dying. Companies were merging, brands were disappearing, and American whiskey sections were shrinking in liquor stores. In bars, it was just Jim and Jack and maybe Maker’s or Wild Turkey if you got lucky. More than once I was forced to drink Jameson.
What bourbon drinkers can expect for the next several years is the occasional disappointment, when the desire for a certain brand or expression will be temporarily frustrated. The solution? Buy something else. You’ll have plenty of choices.
Whisky Advocate’s Spring issue’s Buying Guide is brimming with reviews; 114 of them to be exact. We’re going to give you a sneak preview by revealing the 10 highest-rated whiskies right here, right now. We start with #10 and conclude with #1.
#10: Tomintoul Reserve 37 year old, 43%, $600
Not what you’d expect from a malt at this age. Instead of oak dominating the nose, it’s citrus in focus, with orange marmalade, candied orange, and even orange blossom. On the palate this whisky is light and delicate, leading with the citrus notes from the nose. This symphony of orange is followed with toffee, ginger, oak, and rancio in a combination that’s well balanced and integrated. Unique for its age, a definite treat for those who prefer lighter and more delicate whiskies. (U.S. only, 600 bottles)–Geoffrey Kleinman
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
The fourth release (and best so far) in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. This bourbon was distilled at what was then called the George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace) and spent the last several years maturing at Stitzel-Weller. It’s nicely balanced and not over-oaked, with spice (clove, cinnamon), oak resin, and leather, along with sweet notes (honeyed fruit, soft vanilla, coconut custard) and a nice creamy texture. Better than most 20-plus year old bourbons on the market.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#8: Glenfiddich Rare Oak 25 year old, 43%, £250
A classic mature ‘Fiddich nose, that mix of chocolate, sweet fruits, and funkiness. Dried apples, a little currant, but also a pure thread of sweetness. In time, a little fresh mushroom. Complex. Soft on the tongue, so you need to concentrate on what’s happening. Later becomes minty, with supple tannins and a little artichoke on the finish. Water needs to be handled carefully to bring out green herbal notes. I’d probably keep water on the side. Excellent. (Travel Retail only)—Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#7: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 year old wheated bourbon from floor #9, 45%, $47/375ml
Darker, more intense and mysterious in personality when compared to its two siblings. Notes of barrel char, roasted nuts, polished oak, and tobacco, peppered with dried spice. Fortunately, sweet notes of toffee, maple syrup, and caramel stand up to the dry notes and provide balance.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
It’s the intensity of flavor that just grabbed me by the lapels and spun me round. It harbors intense tangelo juiciness; that unparalleled concentration of deep citrus skillfully mingled with dark vanilla, dried apricots, and gentle smoke. This goes the distance, delivering wave after delicious wave: peach juice, mandarin, pineapple cubes, and lemon zest. A firm, unctuous finish shows a little charred wood and dark sugar cloaked in fine smoke. Tongue pleasing and very special indeed.—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#5: Wiser’s Red Letter 2014 Release Virgin Oak Finish, 45%, C$100
Pencil shavings, then vanilla, caramel, barley sugar, and bitter candied orange peel. Mild white pepper persists in a spicy fusion, from which a subtle but energizing pithiness teases out delicate smatterings of cloves, ginger, and allspice. The fruitiness of canned peaches, apricots, and sour green apples adds dimension and balance. Complex and so tightly integrated that rich as it is, individual flavors are little more than nuances. Finish is long and gingery with refreshing citrus pith. (Canada only)—Davin de Kergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#4: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye 10 year old, 55.1%, $180
Redemption delivers a 10 year old, barrel proof rye (sourced from MGP); the bottled whiskey is mingled from only six barrels. Nose of hot, bitter rye spice and caramel with oak. Great whambam! feel of sweet whiskey followed immediately by oily, spicy rye, which then controls the flavor and finish without dominating. Not over-oaked, and these older MGP barrels are finally showing what 95% rye can do. At 6 years, it could be a high-rye bourbon; this simply shouts rye. Fascination.—Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#3: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye (Batch #1), 61%, $80
Redemption repeats their barrel-proof MGP-sourced 95% rye, now at 7 years old. Has a year significantly changed last year’s 90-point outing? Oak is more subdued and the pepper floats on sweet, light caramel. It is still quite nice at full-bore, no water needed. Sweet vanilla and bitter rye oil blend surprisingly well; this is hitting the bells, and it’s better integrated. Big, swaggering, and sporting big-barrel maturity. Can go toe-to-toe with almost any rye out there.—Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#2: Lot No. 40, 43%, $40
Corby’s latest Lot 40, this one undated, comes from the same distillation batch as the 2012 release, but with a couple of extra years in wood. The familiar flavors are all there: dustiness, sour rye, hard wet slate, floral notes, exotic fruits, sweet spices, and biting white pepper. Over these, time has sprinkled licorice root, dried dates, oatmeal porridge, vanilla, hints of bike tires, and mango peels. Flavors remain fully integrated with faint tannins underscoring a long sour-rye finish.—Davin de Kergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Nicely balanced flavors, and complex. Spices dance on the palate (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), balanced by underlying caramel and butterscotch, and subtle honeyed orchard fruit. Lingering, well-rounded finish. A fabulous wheated bourbon!—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94