Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

Buffalo Trace Continues to Lead

Friday, June 5th, 2015

author-lew-brysonI’ve just spent two days at Buffalo Trace with other journalists, learning more about the Single Oak Project, the coming distillery expansion, and the philosophy that drives their continued experimentation. It’s been a great time, and really makes me feel good about bourbon’s future. Here’s what happened.

First, I added two words to my vocabulary: “de-ricked” and “re-ricked.” Buffalo Trace has bought back Warehouses R,S,T, and U, the remaining original buildings on the distillery campus. They had been built fast and filled fast in the late 1940s, when the distillery owners didn’t want to get caught in another lack of stock similar to what had happened in World War II.

But bourbon sales dropped in the 1970s, so the buildings were sold and rebuilt as office buildings in the 1980s, which is when the de-ricking took place; all the ricks were taken out, carpet and drop ceilings installed. But lately the occupancy—mostly state government workers—had been slipping, and the real estate company lost the buildings to the bank…Buffalo Trace’s bank. The distillery offered the bank a dollar more than the note on the buildings, and the deal was done.


Two of the warehouses are in the process of being re-ricked now (the other two won’t be cleared of the current tenants until 2017, under the terms of the deal), and the work is proceeding at a furious pace. Construction teams were working hard on the fifth floor, bolting together pine 4X4s, while the first floor was already filled with 10,000 barrels. In January, that first floor was still offices!

A small part of the new land; field is the new white corn crop.

A small part of the new land; field is the new white corn crop.

That’s only four additional warehouses, though, and Buffalo Trace is finally flexing the full muscle of their impressive distilling capacity. Those warehouses won’t be empty for long. That’s why the decision was made to buy 282 acres on the ridge above the distillery. At least 30 warehouses will be going in on the new property, at 50,000 barrels each, a new warehouse every five months for ten years. They’re already growing corn up there, a non-GMO strain of white corn dating back to the 1860s, to make an estate bottling of bourbon.

There’s only a tightly-winding narrow road up to the property now (which is apparently how the former owner liked it). That’s why they bought a parcel of 50 acres that connects out to Rt. 127, which will become the main access to the site for construction, emergency, and — eventually — barrel trucks. Although…Brown is still toying with the idea of either pumping bourbon up to the site for barreling there, or with a conveyor to get the filled barrels up the hill.  Big ideas are bubbling.

Warehouse X garden: barley in front, rye in back, corn along the wall

Warehouse X garden: barley in front, rye in back, corn along the wall

There’s one more warehouse that’s of special interest at the Trace. Remember the Warehouse X project, the five-chambered test warehouse? 150 barrels of bourbon are in there now, testing the effects of light on aging. Light? The barrels are opaque, solid oak! But light is energy, and light on barrels warm the whiskey. So some chambers are in total darkness, one’s in natural light, and one’s at half-natural light. What if light makes a positive difference? We discussed, bemused, the possibility of completely redesigned warehouses with walls of glass.

The air-handling systems at Warehouse X, which can heat or cool or change the humidity separately in each of the four chambers not open to the outside, are capable of quickly matching the sudden swings in temperature and humidity common in this part of Kentucky (and were fully half the expense of the construction). Probes in two barrels in each chamber measure temperature and pressure. Fascinating whiskey aging research is being done. (You can read more here.)

But all these new developments—plus a new automated shipping warehouse, expanded gardens and an archeological survey of Col. Albert Blanton’s gardens, an expanded Visitor Center, and another restored building from the 1790s—weren’t even the main reason we were in Frankfort. We were there to taste the top five whiskeys from the Single Oak Project.

A quick reminder: the Single Oak Project was designed to test variables in bourbon aging, in what president Mark Brown puckishly called “Project Holy Grail,” a search for the way to make the perfect bourbon. Bourbons were barreled in oak from single trees, split into bottom and top halves, but varied by things like which mashbill (wheat or rye bourbon), what type of warehouse floor (concrete or wooden rick), and entry proof (105 or 125). (You can learn a lot more about the project here.)

3-BT Single Oak

The five winners; our top pick was the upper left, #80

This produced 192 bourbons, all at 8 years old, which were released in batches over the past four years. People who tasted them were encouraged to review them online at the project’s website. The data were collected, put in a spreadsheet, and examined. Recently the last batch was released, and the results of all the reviews were weighed. The five bourbons which scored the highest (with at least ten reviews each) were presented to our group of 9 spirits writers…plus Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, Harlen Wheatley. We sniffed, tasted, swirled, added water and repeated, and them Brown polled us to call out our 5-star ratings on each one.

Release #80 was the clear winner: what was it? Surprisingly close to the distillery flagship, Buffalo Trace! It was the rye bourbon mashbill, aged in a barrel from the bottom half of the tree (the bottom half bottlings did better overall), at a 125 entry proof. We didn’t discuss our tastes, but I found this one to be complex, with wood and grain in good balance and a very nice finish. Apparently the group agreed: #80 garnered five 5-star ratings, and the most any other bottling got was two.

Does the research end there? Of course not. For one thing, there’s a lot of research to be done on warehouse design and siting. Almost every company builds the warehouses the same way, but there’s been no rigorous testing done on whether that’s the best way. Orientation, top of hill vs. valley, in the woods or in open fields? No one really knows, and you get the distinct impression that this ignorance—their own, not just the industry’s—really bothers Wheatley.

Then there’s the whole issue of supply: are they making enough whiskey? Well, who knows? Brown was quite frank about that. “None of us really know what we’re doing,” he said at one point. “We don’t, Beam doesn’t, Brown-Foreman doesn’t. We’re just betting people will keep buying bourbon.”

On a trip where the differences between what things were like 20 years ago—when a younger Harlen Wheatley abandoned the distillery laboratory facility because of a steam leak no one had the money to fix—and today—when Buffalo Trace has the money to have 17 full-time gardeners on staff—kept coming up as a head-shaking topic, it was clear that the bet was just that: a wager, not a prediction.

In the heart of thoroughbred country, maybe that’s just how it’s going to be; betting’s in the blood. Given the depth of research and commitment and experimentation at Buffalo Trace, they seem like favorites in the long run.

About That Barrel Shortage

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickLast week, the Wall Street Journal wrote a brief, yet detailed, story about a bourbon barrel shortage. The piece quoted a university professor, a Brown-Forman executive, the Hardwood Market Report and respected coopers, all of whom pointed toward fewer white oak trees and stave mills to turn logs into barrel staves. It was a reasonable story that got chopped up into unreasonable pieces that became what Chuck Cowdery calls clickbait.

But people wouldn’t click if they were not interested. And the entire world is interested in… bourbon barrels. Who knew?

Before long, neighbors were texting me about this barrel shortage and the story was trending in places where comments take on a life of their own. I came across one commenter who called the Americans inability to reuse barrels “waste.” He was quickly put in his new charred oak place, so kudos to the keystroking whisky police.

Beyond its interest level to the normal people, though, this story caught me off guard. Sure, I’m known to sling the word shortage from time to time, but I stay on top of my bourbon barrel news. I am always asking distillers where they’re procuring wood, what are the prices, etc. At the Bourbon Classic event I emceed, I specifically asked Four Roses, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and a few other companies if they were having barrel shortages. They all said no.

Thus, this story surprised me. Did the WSJ reporter scoop me on my own beat?

“I have actually read about the shortage (or potential shortage) of white oak trees and bourbon barrels. I have not heard anything different from our barrel supplier than we discussed at the Bourbon Classic events,” says Jim Rutledge, the master distiller for Four Roses. “I don’t know if a possible shortage of barrels is being felt by the numerous small distilleries that have started up in recent years, but as far as I am aware, none of the eight major Kentucky bourbon distillers are feeling a pinch on supply at this time.”

So, who is feeling the supply pinch? Apparently, as Rutledge said, it’s the smaller distillers.

Brad Boswell, president of the Independent Stave Cooperage, says the established whiskey distillers make up the lion’s share of the demand for new barrels. “These established distillers have long-standing relationships with their coopers and for the greatest part their demand is being met by the cooperage industry,” Boswell says. “I’m certain that greater than 95% of the global demand for new American oak whiskey barrels is being met at this time.”

Boswell says the smaller distillers are caught in the gap and are making the “great amount of noise regarding their shortage of new barrels.”

Leroy McGinnis, founder of the Cuba, Missouri-based cooperage McGinnis Wood Products, adds that the competition among the cooperages and the loss of loggers hurts their ability to fulfill new orders. But McGinnis makes about 600 barrels a day for wine and whiskey producers, charging $150 for the average bourbon barrel. He refuses to take on a “highest bidder” approach and simply maintains his existing customers. McGinnis’ largest customer is Heaven Hill Brands, but he also services the Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville and several craft distillers. He must say no a lot.

“We get emails everyday wanting barrels,” McGinnis says. “We have plenty of timber. We just don’t have the loggers anymore.”

Dunaway Timber Company, Fordsville, Kentucky

Now that’s good white oak.

The Kentucky-based Dunaway Timber Company acquires timber from private land owners and turns them into logs and then into barrel staves for the Brown-Forman Corporation. Dunaway owner Henry Christ says there’s not even a lack of loggers for his operation. “The logging community (at least in our area) has enjoyed a good logging winter season and stavemills are competing stronger than we have seen in recent years to attract the logs in their direction so that they to can take advantage of this growing market,” Christ says.

As you may recall from a 2013 Whisky Advocate article, I traveled with Christ and Woodford Reserve’s Chris Morris to learn what kind of a tree makes a great bourbon tree. That field research was done more than three years ago and Christ says his stave production has increased 10 percent since then. He says Dunaway pays more per stave log, but the inventory remains strong.  “A log hits my yard today and will be inventoried for two to three months before processing,” Christ says. “But the cooperage inventory is so low due to increased barrel production that we are producing and selling this week and delivering next week. The demand for barrels both domestic and export is at record levels and cooperage production is running the same direction. ….For the most part, the stavemill is prepared to ramp up production if and when the loggers can get in the woods.”

There’s even promise for the oak growing in Kentucky, Christ says, with the U.S. Forest Service saying that Kentucky is growing at twice the harvest rate, offering a slight glimpse into the future supply of oak—at least for Kentucky. “We are not experiencing a shortage of timber or logs here in Fordsville, Ky. We can find the timber,” Christ says. “The real question is can we afford it and get it harvested fast enough to meet our current production needs.”

Of course, like anything, money talks. Boswell says his company has continued to raise its pay for white oak logs. At the same time, Independent Stave is developing new suppliers and territories to find cooperage-quality logs.

Since the majority of the oak used for bourbon barrels comes from private landowners in the Ozark and Appalachian areas, there’s likely a significant number of lumber mills driving through oak-friendly towns and seeking land with 65- to 80-year-old straight white oak trees that could be turned into stave logs right now. These landowners are positioned to receive bids from several companies, eventually increasing the price for the log. Independent Stave even has the No. 1 spot on Google for the search term “selling white oak logs,” with this online solicitation.

If you’re sitting on a gold mine of white oak, perhaps it’s time to sell. The value is based on state. A Grade 1 Stave Log in Tennessee  averaged $817 per log last year, according to the September Tennessee Forest Products Bulletin, while the Missouri Department of Conservation indicates some stave logs sold as high as $1,400 apiece last year compared to the top price of $415 in 2012.

“Loggers, log brokers, and sawmills are all very motivated to sell white oak logs to our industry at these prices,” Boswell says.

So while there’s a national perception of a bourbon barrel shortage, the world’s largest cooperage says it’s “getting more volume” of white oak logs. And the larger distilleries are not experiencing a shortage. Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller Denny Potter tells me that the barrels are there, but are expensive.

However, for the newer 1 to 50 barrels-a-day distilleries, the barrel shortage is real. The major cooperages are giving barrel preference to their long-time customers, or may also be charging a premium for barrels. So many craft distillers are finding themselves on the outside looking in, either having to make a difficult financial decision to pay more than they can afford or to be put on a waiting list. “The craft spirit industry has a ton of energy and they’re wanting more barrels,” Boswell says.  “While they are relatively small players in the industry, their cumulative voice is very loud and rightfully so.”

Meanwhile, as the bourbon boom continues and so-called craft whiskey is beginning to compete against the industry stalwarts, the barrel could become the great equalizer, and I really hope the distillers facing barrel concerns are able to stay afloat until barrels are affordable and available again. I’d hate to see good up-and-coming craft whiskey distillers make the shift to vodka.

Nobody wants to see that.

Bourbon Security: making theft more difficult

Thursday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Monday, 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

Bourbon Thieves Indicted in Kentucky Today

Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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.”

Coffee Whiskey, Whiskey Coffee

Friday, 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.

Non-Distiller Producers? Or American Independent Bottlers?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickWhen it comes to sourced whiskey bottled by the so-called Non-Distiller Producers (NDPs), the whiskey is sometimes lost in the conversation of transparency.

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.”

barrel proof  7yo- no backgroundIf 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.

There Is a Bourbon Shortage

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickWhen 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.

Where's all the bourbon?

Where’s all the bourbon?

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 hittingBourbon Shortage 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.