Archive for the ‘Craft whiskey’ Category

Where Whiskey Comes From

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Author - Lew BrysonI got a box from Michael Reppucci at Sons Of Liberty Spirits in Rhode Island last week. I’d reviewed some of their whiskeys before, noting that their take on craft distilling is to take craft beers and distill and age them. He was reaching out with “an experience that we think is pretty freaking cool.” Turned out that I agreed, because what they’d done was take two of the “beers” they make to distill, and instead, carbonated and bottled them. You know, like beer. The idea was to try the beers with the whiskeys.

In the box were four bottles: two whiskeys, two ‘beers,’ the before and after of Uprising and Battle Cry. I took the box home, chilled the beers, and waited for a quiet moment to do a tasting. When it came, I carefully poured the unfiltered beers, and the whiskeys, and tasted.

Uprising

Uprising

Uprising stout: Chocolate, coffee, slightly burn graham crackers, toast. Not any forward hops. Soft carbonation, flavors carry through on aromas. Sweet, no bitter grip on the finish, but no real husk/burnt bitterness, either. Sweetness is balanced by the coffee and roasted barley flavors, but still sweeter than most commercial stouts. I’d drink this in a bar.

Uprising whiskey: Oak and vanilla in the nose, but a hint of that chocolate, too. Tastes young, but the maltiness is there, and the chocolate comes through in the finish. Kinda yummy, actually.

Battle Cry

Battle Cry

Battle Cry Belgian: Smells tripelish, looks tripelish, though a bit of a sour edge to it. Oh, hey, that’s very refreshing! I was expecting something much thicker from the smell, but this is light, nice citrus cut to it, and yet enough body to cling just a bit.

Battle Cry whiskey: oak and honey on the nose, and quite a light whiskey on the tongue. The orange is there, but muted.

So does this work? I can’t taste the beers hugely in the whiskeys, but when you’re aging in small barrels (10 and 30 gallon new charred oak), you’re going to get a lot of oak; is it hidden? The chocolate came through in Uprising, the citrus not so much in Battle Cry…but I really like that light body. I also think it was wise to pick non-hop forward beers.

A unique opportunity, an interesting idea. Thanks, Sons of Liberty!

 

 

Big (Little) Changes at Bowman

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonIf you know A. Smith Bowman, you know about Mary. Mary is the pot still with the big reflux ball and tiara of pipes that the distillery has used for secondary distillation of column-stilled spirit for years. Bowman is a rare—if not unique—character in small distilleries in that they do no mashing; they take distilled spirit, made elsewhere, then run it through Mary and age it on their premises. When the late Truman Cox took over as master distiller, he told me with no little excitement that there were plans in the works for changing that; there was going to be mashing at Bowman. Truman never got to see it, sadly, but the plans continued; there is going to be mashing and primary distillation at Bowman.

When I was at Bowman last month, I saw the evidence. Master distiller Brian Prewitt walked me through the facility, pointing to where the mash cooker and fermenters would be installed, where they’d be putting the new hybrid pot/column still—to be named “George”—and a new warehousing space, twice the size of the current space (which is almost packed full of aging whiskey). It was quite impressive.

George, set up at Vendome

George, set up at Vendome

I talked to Brian recently about details. He’d been out to Vendome in Louisville, taking a look at George. It’s a 500 gallon hybrid still, with a 4-plate column on top of the pot, and a 20-plate bubble cap vodka column off to the side, and an optional gin basket. “I can pull a draw off any plate, pull at a lower proof, it gives me the option to do all kind of different things,” Brian said.

On the fermentation side, there’s going to be a 500 gallon mash cooker, with rakes and a false bottom so they can run wash or the whole mash. “We want to be able do anything and everything,” said Brian; he said it several times, actually. “The fermenters are jacketed [cooled], so we can do all kinds of fermentation profiles, or we can do it all natural if we want. We’re getting a hammer mill and a roller mill; I’ll run corn through the hammer, malt through roller. Whatever combination of grains we want, we’ll be able to run.”

It should be delivered and set up in January (after a few tweaks at Vendome), then up and running in February. All timelines are dependent on TTB approval, of course, and he’d heard nothing yet on the warehouse expansion.

I asked Brian if this is the new Bowman. Yes and no. “It will yield about 65-66 proof gallons [per batch], which, lo and behold, is just about a barrel,” he said. “The core products will be from Buffalo Trace and Mary, but we want to have an experiment going, well, every week if we can. One week a rye, then a wheat, and maybe a local rum, who knows?

George up close

George up close

“It’s exciting, it’s turning over a new leaf for the distillery,” he said. “We’re getting back to making some good whiskey, with the flexibility to experiment one barrel at a time. We can try all sorts of stuff, pulling out the stops and trying the old favorites too. It’s twice the size of the Taylor [microdistillery at Buffalo Trace]; it’s a similar design. But they have a packed column, they can only really run vodka through it. We’ll be making gins, different eau de vies; Virginia has a lot of grapes, and we don’t even have a brandy in our portfolio. Why not do it?

“We originally thought, hey, let’s get a whiskey still,” he said, and laughed. “Well, what if we want to do a gin or a rum? We wanted something we could easily clean to get the other flavors out of, and do anything!”

It’s a major step for Bowman, and it brings the question of “what is a ‘craft’ distiller” into sharper focus. Is Bowman craft? They’re small, they innovate. Is it important that they’re wholly owned by the Sazerac Company, when they operate with such a wide degree of independence? Which parts of the identity of a “craft distillery are important? Tough questions.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Craft Whiskey of the Year

Friday, December 5th, 2014

St. George Single Malt Lot 14, 43%, $80

There have been a significant number of “American malt whiskeys” popping up recently, and a fair amount of talk about them. Are they a new class, are they “Scotch” (they’re not, period, end of discussion), and more importantly, are they any good? I don’t think any new type of American whiskey is going to be a class or a category for at least five years—it’s just too soon to tell—but I can taste them now…and this one’s most definitely good.

St George Single Malt_Lot14The St. George Spirits (Alameda, California) single malt releases have been on my short list for this award for the past three years, but this year’s stood out. The bottlings—the “Lots”— before were good, but I felt that they had integration problems; too much of one flavor, uneven transitions. The whiskeys that went into this Lot—eight different casks, 4 to 15 years old—don’t argue or mumble, they all sing in balanced choral harmony. There’s an overture, a beautiful middle section that recapitulates and enhances the overture, and a hauntingly teasing finale that brings it all to a circling completion.

For more detail, here’s the heart of my review. “Delicate fruit, nuts, and sweet malt combine like a perfect pastry in the nose. Add a bit of unsweetened chocolate on the palate, finishing with a lingering reminiscence of every bit of flavor, and you have a beautifully integrated whiskey that is unmistakably St. George. Delightful.”

I said “unmistakably St. George” and I meant it. Whatever small flaws the previous Lots have had, they have had an underlying consistency of malt purity and light fruits. The fruit was lost in the somewhat singular voice of the pear eau de vie-casked XXX release two years ago, but it’s nicely framed this year. I’m looking forward to more of the same from St. George…and even better whiskeys to come. —Lew Bryson

The American Whiskey of the Year will be announced tomorrow.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards To Be Announced

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

The Whisky Advocate Awards are less than two days away!

wa.awards2015.logThe 21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards will be announced right here on the Whisky Advocate blog beginning this Friday, December 5th. As the awards are announced, they will automatically be published to the Whisky Advocate Facebook page and the Whisky Advocate Twitter feed (@whiskyadvocate).

The Whisky Advocate Awards exist to recognize excellence in the world of whisky. Now in its 21st year, the program is simply about the world’s greatest whiskies and distilleries, and the individuals who make and promote them. As always, these awards are not simply assigned to the whiskies that get the highest ratings in our reviews. The winners might be the highest-rated, or they might instead be the most significant, or the most important, or represent a new direction for a category or niche. The awards process is not, in short, a mere numbers-based formula. It is recognition of a combination of excellence, innovation, tradition, and…simply great-tasting whisky. Our Buying Guide reviewers reach a consensus on the awards.

These awards are the oldest and longest-running annual whisky awards program. We taste and sample over the course of the year, at year’s end we consider and confer, and then we make our decisions based solely on the merits of the whiskies…as we have done for over twenty years. We give you our word: that’s how it will continue to be.

Stop by each day to get the winner and read our commentary on the whisky and why it was chosen. Here’s how they’ll roll out, starting with the American whiskeys and progressing around the world to wind up in Scotland, followed by our Lifetime Achievement Awards and the big one: Distiller of the Year!

December 5: Craft Whiskey of the Year

December 6: American Whiskey of the Year

December 7: Canadian Whisky of the Year

December 8: Irish Whiskey of the Year

December 9: Japanese Whisky of the Year

December 10: World Whisky of the Year

December 11: Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year

December 12: Speyside Single Malt of the Year

December 13: Islay Single Malt of the Year

December 14: Highland/Islands Single Malt of the Year

December 15: Lowlands/Campbeltown Single Malt of the Year

December 16: Lifetime Achievement Awards

December 17: Distiller of the Year

Be sure to check in every day, and join the lively conversation that these announcements always set off!

Fire Water

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonA while back I got a box from Darek Bell, the co-founder of Corsair Distillery. It wasn’t a big box, just about the size of a shoebox, and not that heavy. On opening, there was a lot of smoke-gray bubblewrap, a piece of paper, and ten little sample bottles of whiskey. The paper had a key to the contents of the bottles. Some had a fanciful name, like Smokejumper, Pyro, or Hydra, and each was whiskey, smoked with a different combustible: black walnut, pear, blackberry root, Hickory Amaranth, lemon balm, “5 Smoke blend.” I thought back to our 2012 Craft Whiskey of the Year, Corsair’s Triple Smoke, and sat down and started opening bottles!

Hydra — 5 smoke blend — The “smokiest” of the batch, bonfire, chimney smoke, but with a depth of different characters that keep it perky and bright: citrus, flower.

Now Bell follows up with Fire Water, Experimental Smoked Malts and Whiskeys, a focused companion book to his earlier Alt Whiskey. These two books share what’s constantly bubbling through Bell’s brain: Innovate or Die. He’s been quoted many times as saying that Corsair’s goal is to make whiskeys that have never been made before. Fire Water represents new territory indeed, by approaching smoke in whiskey as something far beyond peat.

Salamander — muira puama bark — Muira Puama is an Amazonian shrub used in herbal medicine. Floral, bosky, like leaves underfoot or old books without the acidity, and only gently smoky.

Fire Water is directly aimed at the people who want to make whiskey, and these days, illegal though it may be (and it is, very illegal), I run into people every week who tell me they’re distilling at home. (I tell them, you know, whether you sell it or not, even if you make just a little, it’s very illegal.) But the point of the book is to provide a guide particularly to the people who want to try something very different, not just a different mashbill, or making their own malt whiskey; this is for people who, like Bell, really want to rock out with their whiskey-making.

Firehawk — oak maple muira puama blend — Vetiver, cologne, a sharp smokiness with bright notes.

FireWaterThe first part of the book is a detailed look at smoking. What do you smoke, how do you smoke, what changes the amount of smoke a grain will absorb, and the various techniques — including direct injection — of getting smoke flavor into the distillate. I was surprised to learn that frozen grain will absorb more smoke flavor. This is nuts and bolts stuff that will excite the distiller and curious drinker both.

Efreet — lemon balm — very lemony, but with a sweet smokiness; gentle, but firm and refreshing.

Then the meat of the book is the tasting notes: what does distillate made with these smoked grains smell and taste like? The notes are done by two experienced ‘noses,’ Nancy Fraley and Julia Nourney. They give notes independently on an array of distillate made with the different ‘smokes,’ from woods, herbs, barks, and roots. One thing you learn is that fruitwood doesn’t always smell like the fruit. “Where’s the pear,” reads one nosing note under pear wood.

Pyro — pearwood — Fresh, delicately smoky, a surprising hit of olive brine.

The last part of the book approaches blending; putting these different flavors together to make a greater whole. This is the Canadian approach crossed with craft-based explosive variety. It reads not unlike a discussion with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head about his herb and fruit-based beers that seem to defy common sense to work beautifully; Calagione planned his beers, he didn’t just throw things together. Plan for greatness, Bell says, don’t stumble on it, and then lays out a philosophy for blending. Blending has gotten a bad name in whisky circles, and anything that gives it respect is a good thing.

NAGA — clove and barberry blend — Big smoke and spice, explosive, tangy, and shocking. Flavored whiskey that is 100% whiskey.

My one complaint with Fire Water is the design and editing. This was a self-published book, and it shows in spots. There are editing oversights that should have been caught, and the design looks rushed and jammed. The illustrations are good, colorful and illustrative, but don’t always lay well on the page. The production quality is good, though, and the cover is particularly striking.

Smokejumper — black walnut — Perhaps the purest smoke; firewood burning, sweet barbecue smoke.

Overall, though? Fire Water is jam-packed with ideas that will open up imaginative doors for innovative distillers of all types. There is brilliance here, with daring and excitement. These whiskeys won’t be for everyone — neither are Islay whiskies — but they may well burn out a whole new category of American spirits. And that’s worth a look.

Balcones Founder Chip Tate Speaks Freely

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickFor the first time since the August 8 temporary restraining order, Balcones founder Chip Tate can talk about the legal battle with his investors. He’s been under a strict media gag order, while the 170th Texas State District Court sorts out the disagreement between Tate and his investors, who alleged Tate refused to attend board meetings and even threatened to shoot board chairman Greg Allen. Allen’s legal team changed the terms of the temporary restraining order, Tate says, and he spoke with Whisky Advocate writer Fred Minnick.

By now, you’ve likely seen Allen’s side of the story. The Waco Tribune, bloggers and other media outlets published court records. We wrote about it here on the Whisky Advocate blog.

Last year, Balcones announced expansion plans for its Waco, Texas, distillery, making it one of the most-promising craft distilleries with award-winning whiskey. Allen and Tate seemed to be off to a great start and the press release offered incredible optimism with Tate saying he was “proud” to call Allen a partner.

But other things happened in a short span of time, and this is Tate’s side of that story.

Minnick: What is going on?

Tate: They were trying to make my life exceedingly difficult for a long while. Ever since I gave them a sense of what the distillery expansion was going to cost, I got a weird vibe from them. These are the investors who were going to fund the expansion. That was the whole premise. So, when I got that weird vibe, I put the figures together … {showing} cost between now and 2022, which is a lot. They’ve been strategically trying to get me out of the business since that moment. They’ve tried different proposals and board action to take over the company.

What did they do specifically?

{They were} trying to make me do daily reports on daily things and busywork. The board meetings were supposed to be quarterly, and this idea of having board meetings every few days is nonsense in itself and is clearly to make my job {difficult}. They said, ‘we need to get multiple signatures on checks and put new policies on travel.’ I asked: ‘Is there a problem with travel?’ This was draconian control based on no particular complaint. I proposed to diligently come up with a plan to meet their concerns. The {board} said, ‘nah. Voted. Seconded. Boom, boom.’ At this moment, they weren’t even going through the motions anymore.

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

But in July 2013, the investors come in and have majority control. Don’t they have final say in what goes on at Balcones?

No. When you do an LLC, you have an operating agreement on how you’re going to conduct business. Basically, there was some explicit language in there. They can’t do certain things without my consent. They can’t financially reorganize the company, which they were trying to force.

They said you threatened to shoot an investor.

The whole thing was absurd. When it came to August 5, Greg Allen stormed into the distillery very abruptly with two sheriffs. They said they would give me a period of time to buy them out. … When I got the written leave agreement, I was to resign presidential powers during a 60 day period and thereafter. When they couldn’t coerce me… they made up a bunch of allegations. They said I wouldn’t give them the passwords they literally took at gunpoint. They said I kept coming to the distillery. And they said I threatened to shoot Greg Allen. The funny thing is they said they had me on tape, and I said, ‘great!’ because I know what I said. What I actually said was in reference to when Greg busted into the distillery, I was talking to one of the other investors and said ‘I could have shot the guy, but instead I greeted him, was friendly and talked to him even though he had two armed sheriffs standing next to him.’ If you listen to the whole conversation, I told {the investor}: ‘you better do something about Greg here. They keep flying off the handle and going crazy, and I try to keep calming everybody down and react reasonably, and we don’t get anywhere. Rinse and repeat. But this can’t go anywhere good, and it can go somewhere bad.’

Do you have plans to sue them for slander or damage to your reputation?

One of the fun things about the American justice system: as long it’s done in court filings, you can’t get libel or slander. … with a few exceptions. I’ve been waiting for the circus to settle down. They released me from the injunction. They’re more envious to strike a deal than originally. Leading up to all of this was me saying, ‘hey, I don’t think you guys are happy. If that’s the case, one of us needs to leave the business before this gets to a bad place. I’d really like to stay. I founded it. If you are amendable, let’s talk about that.’ They turned down one offer after another.

What’s the end result here? Somebody buys them out? You get bought out?

If there’s a future, any future for Balcones, one of us is leaving. That’s for sure…. We {both} have to accept what we planned to happen isn’t happening. We’re not going to live happily ever after. We need to act like grown ups. And what we need to do is basically not pull each other’s shit out in the front yard, light it on fire and have the cops call—that’s not the productive way to handle this. {Using a divorce analogy…} What we need to figure out if I’m going to keep the house or they’re going to. The relationship is over. Let’s be grownups and focus on how we’re going to move forward. Either they’re going to buy me out and let me have my freedom. Or they get bought out.

How much to buy you out? And how much to buy them out?

I can’t really talk about that because we’re about to go in mediation.

The consensus from many lawyers on social media is for you to not fight this and to start fresh when the non-compete ends. Why have you decided to make this your life’s fight?

This isn’t my life’s fight. It’s been going on for two months. Anybody who thinks this is World War III has never started a craft distillery. This is a major skirmish approaching a war.

You’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from colleagues. Somebody even started a crowdsourcing site to raise money for your legal fees. What has that meant to you?

That’s huge. I can’t say how much I appreciate it! The support has kept me going. But still, even for legal reasons, I can’t really spill the beans, but these guys have a lot stuff they don’t want me to say. They misunderstood how carefully I handled them for the last six months. I am not going to lay down for these guys and let them steal from me.

The charge of contempt of court…

That was partially a reporting error. The judge makes final decision, {saying} I’m going to hold you in contempt, but I have some real questions on the restraining order.

Speaking of the restraining order, the temporary injunction is on hold now. What does that mean?

Basically, I’m not allowed to lie, cheat and steal or knowingly hold property that belongs to them. I can’t call up the employees and can’t go to the distillery. They have changed their tune very notably. They ran a full-court press on me and now that they’re done, I’ve said, ‘Is that the best you got?’ Because when I start talking, I want to make sure everybody is listening.

Are you confident you’re going to win?

Yes. If the law works the way it should, we would come to some sort of resolution. I just want to make whiskey again.

66Gilead: going up to the County

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxCrimson Rye is the latest whisky from 66Gilead, one of my favorite Canadian micro-distillers. This rural distillery takes its name from its street address in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The distillery sits on 80 tranquil and beautifully maintained acres in the heart of this popular tourist destination. Year round, visitors smile for photos among a scattering of grey-weathered outbuildings. In summer they amble across the broad green lawns, accompanied by an ever-scurrying flock of multi-colored chickens.

The main attraction at 66Gilead is clearly the frequently packed tasting room on the main floor of a restored 19th century home built by a wealthy hop farmer, Bert Cooper.

The 12 Barrel delivery wagon is being restored.

Today, in order to meet fire code, the distillery itself occupies a new metal structure, though the rest of the outbuildings remain as they were in Bert Cooper’s era. There’s an oast house – a hop drying kiln – complete with slatted floors and brick ovens that provided gentle heat for drying. It’s an education to see how hops were dried over a century ago and how large the scale of brewing operations was, even then.

I first visited 66Gilead a couple of years ago. “The County” was built by hard-working farmers, and recently it has become home to some of Canada’s elite writers and musicians.

My day began when I joined a few dozen well-heeled, back-to-the-earth retirees and aging hippies for breakfast and single-estate coffee at the Tall Poppy Café in Wellington. Some long-time residents are not amused that these newcomers beautify their properties with brightly painted old farm machinery and heritage vegetable stands.

I’m back in The County for the launch of Crimson Rye. It’s a luscious big whisky, mature well beyond it’s 42 months in barrel. “It’s the heat,” Peter Stroz explains as we walk around in the distillery. After filling, the barrels are stacked in the distillery building to mature. Even though the stills are not working today, Peter concedes, “It’s hot in here!”

Michael, son of Peter Stroz, has a theory about why the spirits from 66Gilead distillery are so consistently good. “You really have to want to do this,” he tells me. “There are so many government regulations and obstacles that you really have to be determined to succeed.”

Michael is a recent graduate in software engineering, and minds the distillery during the week while the owners (his parents Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi) work at their day jobs. Both are radiologists in Toronto, a commute that takes them about two-and-a-half hours.

Distiller Sophia Pantazi with her still.

This is a genuine small batch distillery and here that means one to three barrels. “Why should I do more?” asks Sophia, “I want quality not volume.”

That attention to quality and detail is reflected in the oil paintings that hang in the distillery guesthouse. Sophia is also an accomplished painter. She may spend weekdays reading x-rays, but in her soul, I think Sophia is an artist.

“Sophia is the creative one,” Peter confirms, “I’m just the property manager.”

In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for at least three years before it can be called whisky. Crimson Rye is the first mature rye to come from 66Gilead. Even so, their rye spirit – what some would call “white rye” – has been available in local liquor stores for several years. Don’t tell martini or whisky snobs, but it makes a heck of a great dirty martini.

Bradford counts to twelve as the barrel chars.

As chickens run clucking around the property, a clanging sound from the Carriage House Cooperage tells me that Pete Bradford is pounding hoops onto a new barrel. I venture back to find some 40 people gathered around his charring furnace, a single barrel late-18th-century working antique. He is about to finish a newly made local-oak cask.

Carefully he places the barrel over the fire and soon it is crackling. “When it starts to ping it’s ready to ignite,” he tells the intrigued onlookers. But this one is a slow starter. It takes almost ten minutes for those distinct pinging sounds to begin then Bradford gets into position. Once the barrel ignites he lets it burn for about 12 seconds then douses it with a pail of water. Even the fire is hand crafted. It’s fueled with 100% white oak scrap.

This is physically challenging work and Bradford tells me he will pass the cooperage on to a new apprentice cooper before year’s end. Canada’s last working cooperage will remain in operation, though he explains that it will likely move elsewhere in The County.

It’s now 2 in the afternoon and a busload of tourists has arrived for a distillery tour and a tasting. Canadian distilleries are notoriously disinterested in tours. 66Gilead is an exception. Visitors are more than welcome here and there’s plenty to keep them occupied.

“Our conversion rate is outstanding,” Sophia grins. I wonder for an instant if our conversation has suddenly turned religious, until she points to the visitors.

“Look at that, over half of them are taking a bottle or two home with them.”

In addition to Crimson Rye and Wild Oak Whisky, 66Gilead also serves vodka, gin, shochu, and barrel-aged rum in the tasting room. “We distil every drop on site,” says Sophia. “It really hurts the craft distillery image that some people use grain neutral spirits.”

Peter nods in agreement. It’s obvious to see how satisfying it is for them to make spirits that are hand crafted in minute batches. I have to remind myself that Peter and Sophia spend most of their week in white coats, tending to patient’s medical needs, and not looking after these barrels.

I ask Peter about their dual focus. “I’m just as passionate about medicine. But here I can chat and joke and share stories with people. At the hospital there is always that element of doctor-patient confidentiality.”

They are genuinely welcoming hosts, Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and spending a day at 66Gilead in Prince Edward County is certainly worth the drive if Toronto is your base. Experience their hospitable spirit and taste their distilled spirit and you’ll likely end up discovering a bottle worth bringing home with you.

The Templeton Case: let’s talk to a lawyer

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I visited Templeton, Iowa, to cover this hot rye whiskey that Al Capone supposedly liked. At the time, I knew they were purchasing bulk whiskey from what was then called LDI, the former Seagram’s facility that gave the world beautiful 95% rye mashbills, but I had never approached the company about this. Going into the interview, I half expected them to be confrontational. Keith Kerkhoff, one of the founders, played college football and tried out for an NFL team; and let’s just say, his lineman shoulder could crush my spine.

When questioned, the founders, Kerkhoff and Scott Bush, were honest about the sourcing process and I later found their sales reps disclosed the whiskey origins. Templeton even disclosed this fact on its Website, producing a video captured at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and openly discussed the fact on social media. But for whatever reason, the company never disclosed the state of distillation on the label. Instead, Templeton sold the small town’s infamous Prohibition heritage.

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

For years, even before my 2011 visit, hardcore whiskey geeks called foul on Templeton’s marketing efforts and even the locals didn’t care for Kerkhoff’s and Bush’s attempt to bring unwanted attention to the town. (Illicit whiskey makers are still very much in business in Templeton!) All of this would be chalked up as noise or slightly bad publicity for a brand that became a consumer favorite.

But all of that changed in late August when a class-action lawsuit was filed against Templeton in Cook County, Illinois, citing “deceptive marketing practices” and that Templeton violated consumer protection laws. The plaintiff claimed he was led to believe that the whiskey was made in Iowa. This lawsuit was given the green light to proceed and two additional class-action suits have been filed, with the most recent one being filed this week in Iowa. Tito’s Handmade Vodka faces a similar class-action lawsuit.

To understand the depths of the suit and how it might impact the future of the spirits business, I reached out to attorney Joel Ard, an alcohol attorney specialist with Foster Pepper PLLC in Washington.

 

Templeton’s labels were approved by the TTB. How are they vulnerable for a lawsuit?

That’s a surprise often to a lot of people, certainly among smaller craft producers, but even among larger industry participants. This idea that a government agency has approved their label and then they can get called on it for alternative reasons is often a bit of a surprise.

But isn’t the TTB to blame for not catching an improper label?

The reality is that the TTB is the Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s not a Trademark Office. It’s not an advertising office. It’s not a consumer protection office. They collect excise tax on ethanol and their primary concern about labels is the Surgeon General’s Warning is on it, in the right font, in the right size and that the percent alcohol by volume is accurate.

There are a bunch of regs about no obscenity, no nudity. Just start looking at wine labels for what stuff gets through. There’s a lot of stuff that can get through because they’re pushing through an enormous volume of labels; it’s not primarily a place for judging the accuracy of advertising or the consumer protection statute.

On to the Templeton lawsuit; what kind of case is this?

This is the kind of lawsuit where an enterprising lawyer dug up a more or less imaginary plaintiff and sued somebody and he’s going to pocket the proceeds in the lawsuit. Pick a consumer protection statute, find a target and sue them.

Will this become a trend? Will enterprising lawyers start dissecting alcohol labels for violations of regulations?

I’m sure that somebody could come up with a particularly creative claim that somehow a person was harmed because a wine bottle had the American Flag on it and that’s forbidden by regulation. Hard to imagine what the claim would be. What’s the harm to the consumer?

Now, you might say, where is the consumer harm that Tito’s Vodka is actually not made by hand; and Tito’s lawyers and the California consumers will fight over that, maybe there’s no harm, maybe it’s really bad.

It seems like a lot of this could be fixed if the TTB had more authority to police labels for accuracy.

I’m not sure it would be the best thing to try to give them more authority. A few years back, the label approval backlog was huge. If you are a startup distillery, you need to get a label approved pretty quickly. You can’t afford to wait for your label and don’t have the resources to have an army of lawyers push them through TTB. So, my concern would be if you were [adding] authority, it’s going to hurt the little guys. The big guys have plenty of resources to get their labels approved. The way the TTB runs now, there’s very little legal involvement.

The TTB right now is a decent balance of making sure that people aren’t misled about alcohol content, poisoned by strange distilled spirits, or blatantly obviously lied to on labels. For the broad run of the rest of it, most of the time the market’s going to sort it out. If you put bad stuff in a bottle, it doesn’t matter how cool your label is.

The Balcones Controversy

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Author - Dave BroomThe extraordinary reports coming out of the Balcones distillery in Waco, Texas may yet be seen as the first of many such scenarios as venture capitalists set their sights on the craft distilling industry. The distillery founder, Chip Tate, has refused to attend board meetings with the venture capital group that owns a majority stake in the company; the VC group has, in turn, accused him of what amount to terroristic threats. Whiskey-lovers are up in arms, fearing the outcome for this iconic craft distillery; the Twitter hashtag #nochipnobalcones is spreading.

Here’s what’s happened. The distillery was established — indeed, was literally built — by president and head distiller Chip Tate in 2008 and has subsequently become one of the flagships of the U.S. craft scene internationally. With demand for the Balcones range rising, Tate needed to increase capacity and in, 2013, he and second round investor Michael Rockafellow accepted a substantial offer from a group headed by Greg Allen, along with a number of smaller investors, which bought out Stephen Germer (Balcones’ initial investor), giving them a majority stake in the company.

Allen’s background is with his family’s food processing business. Prior to that he worked in Goldman Sachs’ mergers and acquisitions department and as an attorney specializing in venture capital financing and emerging growth companies.

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

It appears that a combination of differing philosophies as to future strategy, a clash of personalities, and concerns over the rising costs of the distillery expansion has resulted in a deterioration in relations between Tate and the new board, with them moving to significantly reduce his role within the company he founded. As a result of this, Tate refused to attend board meetings.

On August 22nd, the boardroom battle ended up in court, where judge Gary Coley granted a temporary restraining order enforcing a 90-day suspension on Tate. According to the board, his “unconscionable and reprehensible” behavior could delay the $10 million distillery expansion project. They also alleged that Tate had threatened the life of chairman Greg Allen and suggested he would rather see the distillery burn than have it wrested from his control, claims which most commentators feel were made in the heat of the moment and are hardly credible.

While Allen has made some documentation available to the court, the restraining order has gagged Tate, preventing his side of the story to be heard. (For the record, we have not attempted to speak to him, nor have we received any communication from him.) A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 18.

It leaves a number of questions. The extreme reaction of the board to the apparent rise in costs of the new facility (inevitable in any distillery build) has raised questions as to the financial stability of Allen’s investment group, and makes some analysts wonder whether the Allen-led consortium was investing in Balcones with the intention of selling it at a profit soon after the expanded plant was in production.

If so, this will not be the last time we will see this happen. Investors unfamiliar with the long-term nature of the whisky business are liable to only see potential profit, with no great understanding of the deep pockets required to invest in plant, warehousing, and inventory. What further complicates matters where craft distilleries are concerned is that they are not just buying into a brand, but a highly personalized vision. Without Chip Tate, is there — can there be — a Balcones?

Photo: darkrye.com

What Is Craft? Wouldn’t You Like to Know?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Author - Chuck CowderyI hate articles that begin with a dictionary definition, but defining ‘craft’ as it applies to whiskey making is our purpose here, so let’s see what the dictionaries say.

“An activity involving skill in making things by hand.”

“Denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company.”

“An art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.”

And then there’s this:

“Skill used in deceiving others.” As in, “He used craft and guile to close the deal.”

That last one is archaic but relevant, because everyone these days wants to claim the word “craft” and apply it to their company and its products. That includes the largest companies in the business. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The world’s largest beer makers have been trying to co-opt “craft brewing” for decades.

In a recent conversation with Chris Morris, he cited the dictionary. Morris is Brown-Forman’s master distiller and the occasion was a press event to launch a new craft series for Old Forester Bourbon. (It’s pretty cool, but more on that later.) Morris said, “The dictionary says craft is about experience, knowledge, and skill. We have all those things.”

Ewan Morgan, a Diageo brand ambassador for whiskies, puts it this way: “Craft is about artisanship, passion, experience, great liquid, great products.”

I’m not going to quarrel with the big guys — not here, anyway — but the problem with their point-of-view is this. “Craft” cannot merely mean “well made.” If everything is craft, then nothing is. The word becomes useless as a way to distinguish something from something else.

If the definitions above are vague as applied to craft spirits, the American Distilling Institute (ADI) has one that is very specific. It defines “craft spirits” as “the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases, where the product is physically distilled and bottled on site.”

Jackie Summers is a craft spirits producer in Brooklyn, New York, who makes an enticing liqueur called Sorel. He doesn’t distill anything. His craft is working with and combining botanicals and other natural ingredients to produce a drink that is original, even as it seems familiar. He is also skilled at crafting thoughts.

Mastering the craft

Mastering the craft

“Before the advent of public education,” he writes, “people learned a trade through the apprenticeship model. Apprentices would begin to study with a master in their mid-teens, and continue into their early twenties. It was not until you took on your own students that you could claim mastery yourself. By this method, generations of skills were handed from one to the next — you honed your craft — based on a simple principle: you don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by doing something over and over again, learning as you go. Greatness is a process. As Aristotle said, we are what we do repeatedly.

“Ultimately craft distillers see themselves as artists, their distillate being their art,” he continued. “Sure, you could start off with a concept, hire food scientists to chemically analyze and then reverse engineer a liquor. But what makes small batch production special is the tiny inconsistencies from batch to batch that give a product character; the miraculous way one bale of wheat may differ ever so slightly from the next, or how actual botanicals play and dance with each other in a way that chemical compounds can only imitate. Remove these tiny fluctuations, and the end result is sterile perfection.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan effects some kind of transformation. For something to be “craft,” an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The craft performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it. And the artisan himself or herself must do it, perhaps with assistance (e.g., apprentices, journeymen), but the unmistakable mark of the master’s hand must be on the final product.

Craft has nothing to do with the size of the company. It is the product that represents the craft, not the producer. A corporation may be a legal person, but a corporation cannot be an artisan. A corporation cannot be a master distiller.

The artisans working at the producers most recognized for their craft whiskeys — Balcones, Koval, Corsair, Few, Dry Fly — do it with their mastery of the materials, equipment, and processes; but also with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven’t been done before and create products unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before. That’s what the consumer wants from ‘craft.’

To make sure you get what you want when you want craft whiskey, get used to asking producers and promoters this question about their craft products: “What’s ‘craft’ about it?”