Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

Happy anniversary, Jimmy Russell

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

I was in Kentucky on Tuesday for the grand opening of the new Wild Turkey visitor center. At least, that was the big billing for the day to the press, and Kentucky Governor Beshear was there for the event, as was the head of Campari North America, Jean Jacques Dubau. It was cocktails and toasts all around as we stood in the glass-wrapped structure, high on the bluff over the Kentucky River; the view was tremendous, the whiskey exceptional, and the engagingly open rickhouse-like interior of the center, all raw, unpainted wood and steel supports, was a reflection of the honesty of the product being celebrated. It’s the crowning touch of $100 million worth of expansion and improvements that Campari has made at Wild Turkey, and that kind of investment is noteworthy.

But the real reason I was there, and the real reason people like Fred Noe (Beam), Al Young (Four Roses), Mark Coffman (Alltech’s distiller), Greg Davis (Maker’s Mark), Craig Beam and yes, even Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) were there, was something more momentous. We were celebrating Jimmy Russell’s 60 years with Wild Turkey; a little early, maybe, since he started at Wild Turkey on September 10, 1954…but that just means we’ll get to do it again in five months.

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

If there was any doubt about how important Jimmy has been to the long-term success of Wild Turkey, the billboard over the river at the west end of the Rt. 62 bridge should dismiss it. “Welcome to the house that Jimmy built.” We toured the new distillery, and Jimmy pointed out the reassuring sameness. The still is built just the same — five feet wide, 52 feet high — as the old one (which is on display in the visitor center with the hatches open so visitors can get a rare look inside a column still), the fermenters are bigger and more numerous (there are twenty 30,000 gallon wells) but still open, the barrels are still air-dried white oak burnt to a #4 ”alligator” char, and the yeast is still grown up fresh from the same strain that was being used in 1954.

The house that Jimmy built

The house that Jimmy built; the new distillery.

So what exactly was it that Jimmy did, if everything is the same? That’s the point: he kept it that way. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular when bourbon sales were sinking badly through the 1980s. But Pernod Ricard went with his solidly stated advice, and it has turned out to be right, much like the oft-quoted advice of Dickel’s first distiller, Ralph Dupps: “Don’t change a damn thing.”

Now, there have been some changes at Wild Turkey, and not just building a big new visitor’s center to replace the old 2-bedroom house that used to serve that function! The entry proof is a little bit higher than it used to be; some are going in as high as 57.5%, though most are going in at 55%, where they used to be down around 52.5%. Eddie Russell (he’s been there for 33 years himself, of course) said he had to get the proof up a bit; he wasn’t getting a high enough proof out of the barrel often enough to make the higher proof Rare Breed and Single Barrel bottlings.

That’s another change: up through the early 1980s, the flagship 101 bottling was the only bourbon they made, along with the rye and the liqueur (which is now bottled as American Honey). More bottlings were added, including the 80 proof bourbon…which is now gone. “Jimmy and I didn’t even drink the 80,” Eddie said. It was 4 ½ years old, the new 81 is about 6 ½ years old (Jimmy likes to add a half year, “an extra season,” to every barrel). The 101 is 7 ½ years old, and the Rare Breed is a mingling of whiskeys between 6 and 10 years old.

IMG_20140415_151622788Which brings us to the new whiskey we got to taste: the Diamond Anniversary, a 91 proof bourbon that’s a mingling of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys. That’s pretty well-aged for Wild Turkey! It was definitely Wild Turkey — hot honey sweetness, a bit smoky, and strongly smooth — but with much more wood character — drying spiciness — than I’ve ever encountered in a Wild Turkey bottling. There’s not a lot of it, and at $125, I believe it’s the most expensive bottling they’ve ever done, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever had from this distillery.

Did I like it? We tried it at a tasting in the distillery (there’s a small gallery right by the yeast room) along with five other whiskeys, and I not only finished the Diamond, I figured there was nothing to be lost by asking for more. Ask and ye shall receive, it turned out, and I finished that one, too!

It was a pleasure to be there to wish Jimmy the full congratulations he deserves for his long, illustrious run at Wild Turkey. He’s not slowing down, either; Eddie’s feeling the pressure to not retire before Jimmy, and he admits that may be quite a while yet. After all, it’s getting busy. That was one of the biggest changes Jimmy noted from when he started. “We were making around 60 to 70 barrels a day when I came,” he said. “We had four storage buildings, we had about 70,000 barrels in storage. Now we’re making 560 barrels a day, we have 27 warehouses, and we have over half a million barrels in storage right now.” He seems to figure, why stop now?

As Jimmy said, several times during the day, and again during his acceptance of the key to the town of Lawrenceburg and an honorary plaque from the Governor, “It’s been a blessing for me.” He honestly seems to be the luckiest kind of person, someone’s who’s enjoyed their job so much that he’s never worked a day in his life. Happy anniversary, Jimmy.

Burning Down the Rumor Mill

Friday, April 18th, 2014

By Fred Minnick

Author - Fred MinnickCovering bourbon is a lot like covering sports. In my brief time as a sports reporter, I dealt with rumors and dishonest coaches who specialized in saying nothing. Well, bourbon fans love a good rumor, and distillers can be skillful spin doctors, hiding in supposed confidentiality clauses, and overselling history vs. what’s in the bottle. But as a writer, I can’t deal in rumors. I have to take the distillers at their word until they’re proven wrong.

With that said, the Internet, especially social media, loves a good bourbon rumor. I’ve examined some of the prevalent rumors found on barstools, forums, and social media; let’s have a look at the facts behind them.

2013FourRoses125AnniSmallBatchBourbonFour Roses – Out of the Honey Barrels?

By now, you know that Four Roses’ 2012 and 2013 Limited Edition Small Batches have dominated the awards circuit. But there’s been a nasty rumor floating about that the older bourbon in these small batches will soon be gone. What does master distiller Jim Rutledge have to say about that?

“It is true the exceptional lot of 18 year old OBSV recipe that has been used in some of our recent Limited Releases has been exhausted,” Rutledge says. “However, because of the unique single story rack warehouses used by Four Roses distillery, we do not have special, or limited, warehouse locations in which ‘honey’ barrels are found. Exceptional distillation lots are found in all 20 warehouses, and even without the referenced honey barrels I anticipate the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch will be another excellent bourbon.”

Very_Old_Barton_KSBW_6_Year_80prf_750ml_GlassVery Old Barton—Where’s the Age Statement?

For those who love the price:quality ratio of “value bourbons,” 6 year old Very Old Barton was one of our last hidden treasures. The age statement has disappeared from the bottle. What gives?

“The 80 proof VOB lost the age statement years ago. For the 86, 90, and 100 proof, many bourbon distillers are moving away from age-declared products because delivering a consistent taste profile is more important than the age statement,” says Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for Sazerac, which owns a slew of bourbon brands. “In the case of VOB, sometimes that means 6 years old, sometimes 7, sometimes 5. With no age statement, VOB can better avoid product shortages. Sitting around waiting for a barrel to turn 6 years old when the bourbon tastes fine at 5 years and 10 months is silly. Consumers have told us over and over that a consistent taste is more important than an age statement and certainly more important than them running out of supplies. That being said, VOB will continue to be 6 year old whiskey for the foreseeable future; the same great bourbon.” 

Is it Pappy? (Or is it Weller?)

You could start a media company (and keep it busy!) just by covering the rumors on Pappy Van Winkle. One of the more popular Pappy rumors is that Weller bourbons are now being used for Pappy, because they have the same wheated grain bills. That’s not true, Comstock says. “Each brand has its own sales forecast out until 2047 and its own reserved inventory,” he says. “Weller and Van Winkle share the same wheated recipe, but the barrels are aged in different warehouse locations and for different periods of time.”

Speaking of Weller…is the 12 year old Being Discontinued?

Buffalo Trace President and CEO Mark Brown told me Weller 12 is not going anywhere. But there’s no denying that it is hard to find these days. If you want to find it for 2014, here’s a hint: It will be released in August or September.

AncAge10yrBrbnWhisk750mlHow About Ancient Ancient Age?

Ancient Ancient Age—the beloved ‘Triple A’—is another value bourbon that you just can’t find anymore. Does it have a future? “We have no plans to discontinue AAA 10 Star, as demand is strong,” Comstock says. “Unfortunately, demand for AAA 10 Year has dwindled to the point where it is no longer commercially practical to bottle.” Okay, who stopped drinking it?

Old Grand-Dad 114: Put Out to Pasture?

You can probably find someone who’ll tell you that Old Grand-Dad 114 is on the way out, too, but that’s just a rumor. The folks that own Old Grand-Dad, Jim Beam, tell me the OGD 114 is doing exceptionally well and is staying put for the foreseeable future. In fact, the 114 is up 30% (dollar value) in the last year.

Elijah_Craig_12Elijah Craig 12 year old – Is The Age Statement Being Dropped?

With age statements dropping like flies, anything with an age statement is subject to this rumor. Heaven Hill spokesperson Larry Kass says Elijah Craig 12 year old is not losing its bright red numerals. “I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe the fact that for space reasons we had to move the 12 year old mention to the back label of the Barrel Proof?), but one of the reasons EC 12 is on hiatus from our full barrel program is to keep stocks for the regular case goods,” Kass says.

Heaven Hill Green Label—Going Away?

Is Heaven Hill Green Label on its way out? This rumor hasn’t even hit the social media circuit yet; I picked it up sitting on a barstool. Kass says Heaven Hill Green Label is not being discontinued and contiues in most markets as a no age statement 80 proof whiskey, and in a couple markets as a no age statement 90 proofer. But the national Heaven Hill Green Label will become the no age statement 80 proof, while the Kentucky market will continue to enjoy the 6 year old Heaven Hill Green Label at 90 proof.

Elijah Craig Barrel Strength – Please Tell Us It’s Coming Back!

Last year, the Elijah Craig Barrel Strength swept America’s bourbon-loving palates at incredible value. Some thought it was too good to be true. Rest assured, bourbon lovers, Elijah Craig Barrel Strength will return. In fact, a February release of a 132.4 proof quietly hit shelves. Another release arrives May 1, but proof is not yet determined. The suggested price is $45.

Very Special Old FitzgeraldOld Fitzgerald line – What is the future?

With Larceny essentially becoming the focal point for Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon, will the distillery be completely discontinuing or trying to sell its other wheated bourbon, Old Fitzgerald? “No, we will keep selling Old Fitz Prime 80 proof, Old Fitz Bottled-in-Bond and Very Special Old Fitz 12 year old in current markets,” Kass says. “We are eliminating the Old Fitz 1849 SKU, but that was a very small number of cases.”

Maker’s Mark – A New Product

Wait, what? Maker’s Mark is coming out with something new? (Talk about burying the lede!) This rumor started back before the Suntory deal, but Maker’s Mark has kept quiet on the whiskey. Maker’s Mark officials have alluded to the fact a new product is on its way, but have yet to divulge more than that. Perhaps a single barrel? A higher proof older version of Maker’s Mark? That’s just all speculation, of course; let’s start our own rumors.

Bourbon Tax Credit Passed

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickAs Tennessee legislators are in the middle of a used barrel fight, Kentucky lawmakers are taking concrete steps to improve the commonwealth’s cherished bourbon whiskey industry.

On March 31, Kentucky passed House Bill 445, which allowed distillers a corporate income tax credit for the ad valorem barrel taxes paid on aging whiskey. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, distilleries pay $13 million a year in barrel taxes.

Although ad valorem taxes—“according to value,” usually a tax on real estate or property—on Kentucky distilled spirits have existed off and on since 1906, the current system has been in place since 1990, when the General Assembly raised the rate from $0.001 to the current rate of $0.005. This 24-year-old legislation also allowed county and cities to tax the aging spirits, creating significant taxation liability without the ability to write off these contributions on their corporate income taxes.

Thus, HB 445 is an historic piece of legislation for the bourbon industry. But the distillers will not receive the tax credit if they do not reinvest the money, says Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association.

“There’s a list of capital improvements that can be utilized for the credit. All our members agreed to that,” Gregory says. “We wanted to show the legislature that we’re serious about using this money to strengthen our industry, create jobs, and compete on an international scale. I think that’s important. The state Revenue Cabinet also is required to report to the legislature’s Interim Joint Appropriations & Revenue Committee each year on who has taken the credit, how much and what capital improvements for which it was used.”

Since Kentucky distillers are the only alcohol manufacturer in the world required to pay aging barrel taxes, Gregory says, this new law will at least allow distillers to better compete in the global marketplace with non-tax-burdened brands. It will allow them to reinvest that money in their Kentucky operations, create jobs and spur production, Gregory says, and allow the Bluegrass State to better compete with other states for new craft distilleries.

“Distilleries will still pay these taxes, so both the local communities and state will receive their money,” he says. “It will simply allow a tax credit on the distillers’ corporate income tax. We strongly believe that the reinvestment credit will actually create more than it will cost. Bourbon is a great investment for the Commonwealth. We have one of the state’s highest job spinoff factors; surprisingly, higher than other signature industries like tobacco, coal, and horses. For every distilling job, three more are created down the line.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaks with reporters in the Kentucky Senate.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaks with reporters in the Kentucky Senate.

But no matter how much the KDA, its distillery members, or non-KDA member Buffalo Trace Distillery’s lobbyists—who all actively pursued this legislation for seven years—campaigned for change, a Kentucky legislator needed to take action. That man was Kentucky Senate president Robert Stivers (R-Manchester, a dry district), and I spoke with the president the day after the bill passed.

Tell us about the ad valorem tax credit. Why was it important?

Years go, a particular legislator wanted to add more funding to his local school system, so he got the legislature to pass an ad valorem tax on barrels in the warehouses aging. It’s how they funded their school systems and has gotten to the point that the school systems have developed their budgets on this. You couldn’t repeal [the local tax] because the schools would lose their money. What we’ve done is create a credit at the state level. [Distillers] get a dollar for dollar credit on their state corporate tax liability and are supposed to reinvest part of that into their operations. It’s what they’ve been wanting for years.

For all these years, distillers have not been able to write these taxes off. Was that fair?

Their bourbon was sitting there unusable for six to eight years and they’re paying taxes on it. That’s the only product like that you have. It wasn’t fair.

I’ve been told you’ve been working on this bill behind the scenes for a while.

When I got into leadership five years ago, I started looking at it. I thought it was an unfair tax and saw an opportunity in this session, so I took advantage of it. People in the House have been saying for they’re for it; I just gave them an opportunity to prove they were for the tax credit.

In private meetings, Senators and House members indicated they wanted to give distillers a barrel tax credit?

They would say they were supporting this, but you never saw anybody doing anything about it. Actions speak louder than words.

Were there any organizations or distilleries that helped make this happen?

The KDA and the distilleries, but I saw this opportunity and I took it.

How did you put this in motion?

As an amendment to a House Bill that the House Leadership really wanted. They basically saw the amendment and said we’re willing to talk. It passed with large numbers in senate.

Would this have passed if bourbon were not so popular?

I think you’re onto something. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become so popular and accepted. Bourbon is a true signature industry in Kentucky. It creates employment, peripheral jobs, and there’s also the image of Kentucky bourbon.

What is next? Are there other bills for bourbon?

We’ve are working on an option for state parks to go wet. But right now, the bourbon industry is on solid footing from a legislative standpoint.

I can’t let you off the hook without asking: What’s your favorite bourbon?

I have a lot of Woodford Reserve, but I also like to drink a little Maker’s Mark every now and then.

Finger Lakes Whiskey Ramble

Friday, March 28th, 2014

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I’ve been a fan of New York’s Finger Lakes region for years. The unique views afforded by these long lakes and the bluffs above their shores, the startling white deer in the woods of the Seneca Army Depot, the wineries that cling to the frost-free microclimate of the lakeside hills…it’s a great place to spend an afternoon, a weekend, a whole vacation.Author - Lew Bryson

Recently it’s become an area for whiskey distilling as well. As New York loosened regulations on distilling, including the creation of a “farm distillery” license, the agricultural bounty of the area and the hordes of tourists that travel the wine trails around the lakes proved to be a draw to people who saw an opportunity. I visited two of them recently—Myer Farm and Finger Lakes—and a micromaltings that is helping to supply locally-grown malts to sustain these new distillers.

Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo

Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo

Farmhouse Malt is in Newark Valley, N.Y., south of Ithaca. Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo got a farm brewing license, which the state first made available in spring of 2013. Most brewers using such a license just grow their own grain and hops; very few malt. Marty’s been malting since 2008, when he was getting serious about his homebrewing. He asked other homebrewers about it, and they were perplexed. “They said, ‘You can buy malt so cheap; why bother?’” Marty told me. He went ahead anyway, to learn more about how beer was made.

Fast-forward to 2012, when he and Natalie were getting serious about the brewery. They saw the farm brewery license coming, and decided they would malt grain as part of their operation. Once again, other brewers said, ‘Why bother?’ They were right, to some extent; malting doesn’t make sense for a brewery on the small scale the Mattrazzos were planning. But they realized that they could malt for other small brewers and distillers who were growing their own grain, and that did make sense.

They had to learn the difference between distillers malt and brewers malt (“Distillers malt is just converted and then dried, not roasted,” Marty said), and find customers, but once the word got out, customers found them. The size adds a personal touch that appeals to distillers (they were steeping a batch of malt for Five and 20 Spirits when I stopped by); “After a week of turning over a bed of malt by hand,” Marty said, “I know each grain by name!” They can also do custom malting of non-barley grains like rye, corn, wheat, and triticale in small batches. (They’re pretty good brewers too; I liked the samples they had, and they’ll have a tasting room open in nearby Owego soon…right on the route to the Finger Lakes.)

John and Joe Myer

John and Joe Myer

Myer Farm Distillers is located in Ovid, N.Y. (pronounced “Oh-vid”),  where the Myer family have been farming the land since 1868. “We’re small grain and bean farmers,” said John Myer, who said he’d bought a book on distilling 30 years ago to look into the possibilities.

But it was just a thought until he and his brother Joe went to conferences on fermentation and distillation in 2010. “We saw the craft distilling wave and got going,” Joe said. When they started in June of 2012, there was only one other farm distillery in New York. John knew the land he farmed, knew where the different grains grew best, and said that he now saves the best grain for the distillery.

The Myers make spirits—whiskey, vodka and flavored vodka, gin—using corn, rye, wheat, and barley, all grown organically on their farm. They don’t malt on the farm, so they convert with enzymes, ferment, and then distill on grains in a Christian Karl hybrid pot still.

The distillery sits right on State Rt. 89, which runs along the west shore of Cayuga Lake, a road dotted with wineries (as is the east shore of Seneca Lake, across the neck to the west). “Being on the wine trail gives us a flow of visitors,” Joe said. “Visitors doubled in the fall of 2013 from the fall of 2012. The wine trail’s growing, and the locavore movement feeds into it.” They do about 85% of their sales right there in the distillery. (I didn’t taste the whiskeys on this trip, but there are reviews in this issue’s Buying Guide.)

I cut west across the neck and coasted down the eastern shore of Seneca to Burdett, where Finger Lakes Distilling sits above the road, an impressively tall building with a smaller barrelhouse below. I was met by Thomas McKenzie, the distiller, who took me in to show me what he knew I wanted to see: their 12-inch Vendome column still.

Thomas McKenzie and the 12" column

Thomas McKenzie and the 12″ column

He was just starting a run, and getting it dialed in: by hand, there’s no automation on this one. Thomas controls the proof — he wants it coming off around 50%! —by hand-regulating the flow of the steam coming in at the bottom and the amount of cool wash coming in at the top. “I’m distilling,” he said. “You put those PLC  [programmable logic controller] probes in there, and they’re doing the distilling. I think the only big distiller doing it this way anymore is Dickel.” I told him how Jimmy Russell had told me about distilling by sound and touch, with a foot against the column and a hand on each valve; Thomas said that gave more control.

He has a lot of ideas about distilling the old way; the column still, for instance. Finger Lakes got a pot still first, and still uses it for brandy, but Thomas wanted a column still, because that’s how bourbon’s been made for over a century. He had Vendome build it, then had them come out and fix it till it ran right (not Vendome’s fault; they’d never made a column this small, and some things just didn’t work the same). He’s very pleased with the spirit coming off it, much more so than the pot still, he said.

We sampled some spirit—clean, but still flavorful—and some 3 year old bourbon that was some of the best young whiskey I’ve had. “Low entry proof,” he said, and grinned. He’s constantly tinkering with his whiskey to find the old ways that he feels many of today’s distillers have abandoned; his office overflows with bottles of bourbon and rye from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, his own collection that he uses to help find that character in his own whiskey.

As we walked down the hill to the barrelhouse (where we smelled some of his dark ‘funky’ rum he’s making for blending), he turned and grinned, and said something that crystallized what he’s doing here. Waving his arm around to indicate the lake and the hills behind him, he said, “It’s all Appalachians, don’t matter what state it’s in. You got guys making whiskey in the woods!”

I made a couple more stops along the lakes—had a few beers at a brewpub, bought some farmhouse cheese for the ride home—and reflected on how distilling (and malting, and brewing) with a farm license, which allows on-premise sales, sales at farm markets, and the on-premise sales of other farm license spirits, beers, and wines, is transforming and expanding this area, which is sadly marked by abandoned barns. The farm license gives these farms a chance to add value to their crops and get them to new markets, just like whiskey did 200 years ago. You can find a guide to many of them here; you’ll find interesting stops and beautiful scenery, just like I did.

Staying Local in Eastern Iowa

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Author - Sam KomlenicFor more than 150 years, Le Claire, Iowa had been known primarily for one reason. The picturesque Mississippi River town was the birthplace of Buffalo Bill Cody, and there’s a street named after him…a road, actually: Cody Road. More recently, Le Claire, located just north of Davenport, has become more widely known as the home base for the History Channel’s popular American Pickers series. In just the last couple of years though, another business has become a must-visit destination in this charming small town: Mississippi River Distilling (MRD).

Perched above the river at the eastern edge of town, MRD has made a pretty sizeable splash in the craft distilling scene of late. Their gin, vodka, and aged whiskeys have gained distribution across the Midwest and into the mid-Atlantic in the three short years they’ve been up and running. The founding Burchett brothers, Ryan and Garrett, are justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished in that time. They consider their distillery a “grain to glass” operation, with every kernel of their corn, wheat, rye, and barley being sourced from family farms within 25 miles of Le Claire, in Iowa and across the river in Illinois.

The brothers come from pretty non-traditional backgrounds for a run at the whiskey business. Their family owns a long-standing road construction company headquartered in Iowa. Garrett had been a transportation planner in Dallas prior to moving back, and Ryan was a television meteorologist in Iowa’s Quad Cities and other markets. But they’re also a couple of guys who love whiskey, and they sensed a potentially profitable business opportunity. They were the first to enter the distilling business after the legalization of tastings and retail sales of spirits at Iowa distilleries in 2010, and now they mash, distill, greet customers, and hit the road as the sales team for MRD.

Rose and her two columns.

Rose and her two columns.

Along with a small staff, they run the mash through a beautiful 1,000 liter handmade Koethe pot still they’ve named Rose. The Burchetts and Rose produce two whiskeys, a bourbon and a rye, neither of which is sold as white dog. The brothers prefer to age the distillate in 30-gallon barrels for at least a year before bottling. The bourbon is 70 percent corn, 20 percent wheat, and 10 percent unmalted barley, while the rye is 100 percent rye grain. Because of their quest to use all local grains, and the lack of any locally kilned malts, enzymes are used to enable fermentation. The cuts off the still are very tight, allowing the grain to shine through. Both whiskeys carry the name Cody Road in honor of Le Claire’s favorite son and the street that passes in front of the distillery.

Aging takes place in a smallish room on the lower level of the building that holds about 300 tightly-packed barrels. The operation is already running out of space, and plans are underway to expand in partnership with a local craft brewer on the current site in 2014. Great River Brewing of Davenport uses MRD whiskey barrels in their barrel aging program, and the prospect of a joint venture in shared quarters presents a host of compelling possibilities. The new facilities will include an event room and a bigger barrel warehousing area for MRD, and a specialty brewery and pub for Great River.

In the mainstream distilling business, tradition is an accessible commodity and tends to be something most brands hang their hat on. Craft distillers have to rely on innovation and creativity to stand out, and the Mississippi River crew has been doing a fair amount of both recently. Last summer they brought in a half-ton of bananas and soaked them in their aged rye whiskey to produce the first batch of the “Still Crazy” series, an ongoing project that will eventually feature other variants. This “Mono Loco” (crazy monkey in Spanish) version produced just over 1,000 375 ml bottles; a pound of bananas for every bottle! Mono Loco debuted during VIP Hour at WhiskyFest Chicago to crowd acclaim, and I was fortunate to be able to taste it at the distillery even though it had been a quick sellout. Wonderful stuff, and more whiskey weirdness will follow.

Ryan Burchett

Ryan Burchett

Another direction they’re heading in is the intriguing “My Whiskey” program, where the customer has the ability to have the team distill a single 30-gallon barrel of a standard or custom mashbill fermented with their choice of three yeasts, then whatever entry proof, level of barrel char, aging regimen, and bottling proof they choose. Custom labeling is part of this personalized package, and you get to keep the barrel. They’re also offering a hands-on Whiskey School in early 2014 and have an ongoing Adopt-A-Barrel program available to keep their customers engaged.

If it sounds like they’re having fun, trust me, they are. The place was buzzing with tourists the day I was there, and the team was doing their best to keep them entertained and informed. The tasting room, which offers a great view of the Mississippi out one window and of the distillery (and Rose) through another, was filled with guests asking questions, sampling the wares, and enjoying the scenery, all while barrels were being filled and jokes tossed around on the other side of the wall.

Creativity is indeed the buzzword in the world of craft brewing and distilling, and the brothers Burchett seem more than ready to take it to the next level. I expect they’ll continue to mess around with grain and wood (and fruit!) to help shape the next generation of American whiskey.

A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxWhen Robert Simonson alerted me recently that the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean” and confirm that the whiskey* they bottle is from Canada, I was skeptical. However, in an article written for the upcoming summer 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, Simonson quotes WhistlePig’s master distiller, Dave Pickerell, saying that the original WhistlePig came from Canada’s Alberta Distillers (ADL), and that some of it still does.

Here’s some of what that piece will say:

“It’s fairly common knowledge that that’s where we started,” Pickerell said of ADL. “What’s not common knowledge is that’s not where we are now. We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada.” One of those Canadian distilleries, however, is still ADL.

Has several years of badgering from American whiskey bloggers softened the stance at WhistlePig? Finally, Pickerell has stated for the record that at least some of the whiskey is from Canada. He also went on record in 2010 that this is the very best rye whiskey in the world.

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

When WhistlePig was released in 2010, the firm’s publicist was blunt that they did not want people to know that the whiskey was Canadian. So I was surprised when WhistlePig brand owner Raj Bhakta contacted me last week wanting to talk. Speaking of his whiskey’s Canadian heritage he was quick to say, “That’s not something I’ve shied away from,” although he did later concede that might not have been his approach in the beginning. In any case, he is talking now, and is completely candid that the whiskey they are bottling today is still from the same single Canadian source, not five distilleries as Pickerell implies.

“Yes, we’ve been growing our own grain,” he continued, “and we have been contracting others to distill it for us. We wanted to see how it turned out. That whiskey is currently maturing on the farm in Vermont, but it is not yet ready for release.” And the whiskey in the bottles? It’s still all Canadian rye whiskey, and will be for years to come.

“We’re deeply in bed with Canada, it’s just not our lead,” he continues. “WhistlePig is a Canadian-U.S. collaboration to the core. The latest batch has spent four years on the farm in our own barrels, so much of the flavor is from wood we put it into in Vermont.”

Shortly after Bhakta bought WhistlePig farm in 2007, he began casting about for business ideas. A mutual friend introduced him to Pickerell. He had found what he called “the best rye whiskey in the world,” in Canada and wanted to bottle it. However, try as he might, Pickerell could not convince any of the big players to sell Canadian whiskey at a premium price. Bhakta, meanwhile, wanted to create “America’s first luxury rye.”

Rye growing at WhistlePig Rye Farm

Rye growing at WhistlePig Farm

“Dave had the product and the pedigree, I had the entrepreneurial gusto,” he told me. But after so many rejections, Pickerell wasn’t sure how to tell people the whiskey was Canadian.

“I’ve never not wanted to disclose,” Bhakta told me, citing what he called “the Templeton debacle.” But, he added, “you don’t start out saying, ‘This is Canadian whiskey.’ It’s looked down on. It’s been an interesting navigation. It’s a tricky piece—the people who react are the geeks of whiskey—but we don’t want to confuse the general public.

“Look, I’m a salesman with a bit of P.T Barnum in me,” Bhakta continues, “and I like that.” According to Bhakta, rather than talking about the Canadian connection, they decided to focus on their long-term vision of making rye whiskey in Vermont. “We’re not trying to dance around the issue, but how do you navigate this?” he wondered.

“We have the opportunity to sell younger whiskey,” he noted, “but we are storing our stocks and doing barrel experimentation. Five years from now the critics will come to see there was a much greater vision here. I feel I am getting attacked for building the thing the right way.”

One thing is certain from my conversation with Bhakta. There are no stills at WhistlePig. Although they have applied for a permit to open a distillery, they are still awaiting approval. For now WhistlePig is a farm, pure and simple, and not a drop of the whiskey bottled under the WhistlePig label was actually distilled by Dave Pickerell: sourced, selected, and approved, but not distilled.

 

*Rather than switch back and forth between the American “whiskey” and Canadian “whisky,” this one time we decided to just use the American spelling. Davin, no shy Canadian, approved, for which we thank him.

If you hate flavor-added booze; here’s another reason

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonPresident Obama delivered his annual budget proposal to Congress earlier this week, and while — as usual with presidential budgets — it’s given little to no chance to pass, it does contain one proposal that would directly affect American whiskey drinkers, and whiskey producers here and abroad…and drinkers of those drinks we love to hate: flavored vodkas, and yes, flavored whiskeys. The president proposes repealing the “excise tax credit for distilled spirits with flavor and wine additives.

Ha! Bet you didn’t even know that existed! Why would you; excise taxes — tax policy in general — are convoluted and confusing, often involving arcane percentages and policy goals, and this one’s no exception. Here’s how the the Distilled Spirits Tax Revision Act of 1979 — the foundation for the credit we’re talking about –works, as explained in an Esquire piece by Nate Hopper from last year (when Obama also put this in his budget):

“The bill did two things: it taxed foreign distillers (from friendly trade partners) at the same rate as domestic ones, and it rewarded manufacturers that, instead of letting the flavors become infused naturally in their spirits like through fermentation, instead added wine and outside flavoring to their product, like blended whiskies, but also cordials, liqueurs, vodkas, and gins. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress in 1990, that meant that some producers could lower their tax rate from $12.50 per proof-gallon to as low as $6.30.”

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Tax-driven drop?

When the taxes on a bottle of liquor can be over half the price, you can see that cutting those taxes by half would make a big difference in profits. Why did this go through? Support from California vintners was one big reason; getting a tax break if you put wine in your spirits means a lot more producers putting wine in spirits (and remember, “wine” can mean something very different from what you sip with your steak). Another reason is that every industry loves a tax break, and they do what they can to score one. It also helped Canadian whisky makers, who could add unaged “wine” (very light in flavor and color, and blended to taste like the non-wine-added product) to whisky destined for the U.S. market and reap the tax advantage. Hopper blames the tax credit for kicking American whiskey when it was down and accelerating its decline; the category was in the midst of a monumental slide that wouldn’t turn around until the late 1990s. That seems to be overstating the case; there were more factors involved than just this tax, but it’s possible it did have an additional effect.

What effect would repealing it have (other than bringing in an estimated $1.09 billion in taxes over the next ten years)? A Huffington Post writer guessed that “…it’s possible that consumers would be hit with a price increase as distillers pass on the cost.” I say ‘Ha,’ again! Yes, if taxes on booze production go up, it’s pretty much assured that distillers will pass on the cost, with a markup. That’s how things work. So shelf prices of flavored booze would go up (and technically, most gins are flavored vodkas, so there goes the martini…). Will that kill the flavored whiskey boom? Doubtful, but it could take some of the wind out of its sales. Would it mean more whiskey sales? Doubtful, as we’re already buying almost all they can make. So mostly what it would mean is that things would stay pretty much the same, and flavored booze would cost more.

A weird little bit of booze tax law that we bring up to remind you that for the governments of the world…it’s not about how the whiskey tastes, it’s about how much they can tax it. Press on, have a good weekend.

Diageo Announces Restoration Project at Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Friday, February 21st, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWe’ve heard that Diageo intended to make the fabled Stitzel-Weller distillery the “home” of Bulleit whiskey. Bulleit’s been a very successful brand, but that’s starting to become a problem, because Bulleit fans who want to go see where it’s made are finding out that there is no Bulleit distillery. It’s a pretty poorly-kept secret that Bulleit bourbon is made at Four Roses; it’s open knowledge that Bulleit rye is made at MGP in Indiana.

But Diageo had a couple options to solve that problem, and this is one of them. Although the only operating American whiskey distillery owned by the world’s largest drinks company is George Dickel in Tennessee, Diageo also owns the Stitzel-Weller distillery, even if the place has been silent since the end of 1991. So the plan became to develop Stitzel-Weller as the Bulleit home.

Wednesday we learned that Diageo would be investing $2 million to renovate the original administrative building at the distillery, “to bring to life the history of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery through artifacts from the site’s archives; a whiskey education section; an homage to the people, land and water of Kentucky; and a celebration of the heritage, brands and people behind Diageo’s award-winning collection of American whiskeys.” That would be Bulleit and what Diageo is calling their “evolving craft whiskey portfolio,” which includes the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project.

S-W MI_Mosaic imageDiageo plans to begin the work immediately, in order to have this first phase finished in time for Derby Day, which is when Stitzel-Weller opened, in 1935. There will be a visitor center and gift shop.

All things being equal, we’d rather see Bulleit get a distillery than a gift shop, but it’s a start. It’s a bit disturbing to hear all this talk about “craft whiskey” coming from the world’s largest drinks company (they referred to this as “another step in our support of and leadership within the American craft whiskey movement”), and we suspect the country’s craft distillers are greeting it with either gloom or hysteria.

But Bulleit has a home, and we’ll be able to walk the grounds of Stitzel-Weller again.

Whisky Advocate’s Spring Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Here’s a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate magazine’s spring 2014 issue Buying Guide. Today we reveal the ten top-rated whiskies. We begin with #10 and conclude with the highest rated whisky in the issue.

BT Extended Stave Drying experiment#10: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Extended Stave Drying Time, 45%, $47/375 ml

Richer and fuller when compared to the Standard Stave Drying Time variant in this Experimental Collection. Sweeter too, with creamy layers of vanilla and caramel. The extended drying time influence tames the dried spice and oak resin and is proof that extended stave aging really benefits older bourbons that might otherwise be dominated by oak. Sadly, with whiskey in such demand, I doubt many bourbon producers will take the time to age the staves longer.—John HansellPM10 BottleShot

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#9: Compass Box Peat Monster 10th Anniversary Limited Edition, 48.9%, $130

Peat Monster is a staple Compass Box blended malt whisky, but this raises the bar significantly. The nose is “as you were”: peat reek, seaside, very Islay. But on the palate John Glaser’s added some peaty Highland whisky—probably a signature Clynelish—to add a hint of licorice, a softer, fruitier smoke base, and through some virgin French oak, a delightful spiciness. Compass Box is in a purple patch. Again.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

35YO_Dec_Box_White_Front2#8: Glengoyne 35 year old, 46.8%, $4,640

Glengoyne 35 year old has been aged in sherry casks and just 500 decanters have been released. The nose offers sweet sherry, maraschino cherries, honey, sponge cake, marzipan, and soft fudge, turning to caramel in time, with a whiff of worn leather. Slick in the mouth, with spicy dried fruit, and more marzipan and cherries. Long in the finish with plain chocolate cherry liqueur; still spicy. Finally a buttery, bourbon-like note. No negative cask connotations in this well-balanced after-dinner dram.—Gavin Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#7: Aberfeldy Single Cask (Cask No. 5) 16 year old, 57.4%, $250

From a sherry cask. Bright and lively. Quite fruity, with notes of golden raisin, pineapple, nectarine, and tangerine. The fruit is balanced by honeyed malt and light caramel. A dusting of vanilla, cinnamon, and hint of cocoa, with black licorice on the finish. Lush and mouth-coating. The best of the Aberfeldy whiskies I’ve tasted to date. (New Hampshire only)—John Hanselltalisker1985

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#6: Talisker 1985, 56.1%, $600

This 27 year old Talisker has been aged in refill American oak casks, and the nose offers brine, wood smoke, wet tarry rope, slightly medicinal, with the emergence of milk chocolate. Big-bodied, with lots of peat accompanied by chili and smoked bacon, with sweeter notes of malt, fudge, and apple. A hint of fabric Elastoplast. Long in the finish, with rock pools, bonfire ash, and sweet, tingling spice notes which carry to the very end. A powerful beast, even by Talisker standards. (3,000 bottles)Gavin Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#5: Signatory (distilled at Laphroaig) 1998, 60.8%, £100

Any sherried Laphroaig is welcome, and this does not disappoint. Rich, resinous, medicinal, with underlying soft fruits, the smoke is all-pervading, but never dominant. In other words, it isn’t just complex and balanced, but has that other dimension which elevates it in mind (and marks). With water, there’s antiseptic cream mingling with oxidized fruits and nuts; think manzanilla pasada. The palate shows storm clouds gathering over Texa. Rich dried fruits, cacao, and a ferny lift on the finish. Fantastic.—Dave BroomLongmorn

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

#4: Exclusive Malts (distilled at Longmorn) 28 year old, 51.6%, $250

The nose is fascinating, as if dust is cohering into form, and fruity form at that. When it emerges there’s baked banana, fruitcake, citrus peels, passion fruit, mango, mace flower, and nutmeg. A mossy edge anchors it to earth. Even livelier with water, this is a superbly balanced, mature whisky. The palate is pure, with big retronasal impact of the spice. Layered and long, it’s at its best neat; you need the intensity to amplify all the complexity. Superb.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 92

Bowmore 50 year old#3: Bowmore 50 year old (distilled 1961), 40.7%, £16,000

The whisky is sensational, a glorious mix of ginseng syrup, baked banana, semi-dried tropical fruits, and an exotic smoked edge. Without the last, you could believe it was a delicate Cognac. In time, there’s peppermint and guava syrup. A sip is all you need to reveal perfect, thrilling harmony: light nuttiness, pollen, subtle fruits, gentle smoke, and light fungal touches. It’s stunning, but it’s £16,000! Whisky this great, even in limited quantities, should be fairly priced. Points off.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 95Brora_35yo_2013_LowRes

#2: Brora 35 year old, 49.9%, $750

Maturation of this 1978 distillate has taken place in European oak and refill American oak casks. Fresh and fruity on the early, herbal nose; a hint of wax, plus brine, developing walnut fudge, and an underlying wisp of smoke. Finally, wood resin. The palate is very fruity, with mixed spices, then plain chocolate, damp undergrowth, gentle peat smoke, and finally coal. Mildly medicinal. Ashy peat and aniseed linger in the long, slowly drying finish. Brora at its very best. (2,944 bottles)Gavin Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 95

General-Dieline

#1: Compass Box The General, 53.4%, $325

With a name inspired by a 1926 Buster Keaton movie, only 1,698 bottles produced, and the news that one of the two batches is more than 30 years old, the clues were there that this blend was never going to be cheap. It isn’t, but it’s superb, rich in flavor that screams dusty old oak office, fresh polish, and Sunday church, with spices, oak dried fruits, squiggly raisins, and a surprising melting fruit-and-nut dairy chocolate back story.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 96

DISCUS Briefing Confirms Surging Growth of American Whiskey

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonAt the annual Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) industry review on Tuesday, February 4, the usual graphs and numbers on domestic sales of distilled spirits and export sales of American spirits were presented, and they told a great story about American whiskey producers. American whiskey is solidly on its way back, after thirty years of steeply declining sales. (see graphs 1 and 2). I started writing about whiskey in the mid-1990s, and much of what there was to write about back then was how the decline in whiskey sales was slowing down (I referred to it as “the glide path” to emphasize that it was a gradual decline, but I must have forgotten that glide paths always end on the ground!), and optimistically noting that there were some small niches in the overall category that were showing growth: single malt Scotch whisky, and small batch bourbon. Everything else was dropping.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Now things have turned around, and the DISCUS numbers were rosy indeed, especially in the export market for American whiskey. Exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion for the first time, and represented 2/3 of total U.S. spirits exports. The top six markets for export growth (by dollar sales) were Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Panama, while Canada remained the single largest export market by far. DISCUS attributed this export growth to economic recovery, a recognition of American quality, a drop in tariff barriers in key markets, and a continuing strong interest in classic cocktails. They also noted the Department of Agriculture’s promotion of American spirits overseas.

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Here at home, total spirits sales were up 4.4%, to $22.2 billion, and a lot of that stemmed from the growth in sales in the “High End” and “Super Premium” categories, the most
expensive bottles. It was noted that whiskey provides substantially higher revenues per standard 9-liter case (an average of $133, compared to $85 for vodka), and the whiskey category’s growth of 6.2%. In volume, total spirits cases sold were up 3.9 million cases, and whiskey’s 3.1 million case increase was 80% of that growth. It’s not all American whiskey, either. While total whiskey volume was up 6.2%, Irish was up 17.5%, “Blended” (which includes flavored whiskey; more on that shortly) was up 14.3%, single malt scotch up 11.6%, bourbon/Tennessee/rye was up 6.8%, Canadian up 2.9%, and blended Scotch whisky was up 2.0%.

Flavored whiskey continued to grow strongly, with 1.4 million additional cases sold, accounting for 45% of the total whiskey category growth. Straight whiskeys, however, accounted for 80% of the revenue growth, so you can bet that the distillers won’t abandon them in a rush to flavors. There was talk of how distillers are being cautious about introducing the rainbow of flavors that has typified vodka sales, and open speculation over whether vodka has gone too far with flavors, jumped the shark; it seems doubtful to me that the bottom of that well has yet been plumbed, but whiskey is going to be a different case. Don’t expect birthday cake bourbon anytime soon.

Where is all this growth coming from? It appears that a good chunk of it is coming from the decline in sales of beer, particularly traditional major brands. The folks from DISCUS saw this as a triumph of their focus on increasing accessibility (by encouraging Sunday sales where restricted and urging modernization of control state systems) and encouraging cultural acceptance of spirits. As spirits become easier to buy, as people don’t have to make a special trip out of their way to buy them, people are choosing them more often than they have in the past. But a lot of it, clearly, is coming from the increased appreciation for whiskey, and the increased innovation and choice presented by whiskey makers, both from the traditional regions and from the increasing number of craft distillers.

You can see the full report at the DISCUS website here.