Archive for the ‘Fridays’ Category

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

Friday, March 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Michael!

Coffee Whiskey, Whiskey Coffee

Friday, March 20th, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I’m going to make some pancakes.

There Is a Bourbon Shortage

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickWhen I agreed to take the affirmative for the bourbon shortage argument, the words of Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge echoed in my mind: “We are having trouble meeting demand.” There’s a thought that the bourbon shortage is a bunch of bull mess smelling of marketing foul. But Rutledge is the one guy in this business I trust above all. His words are the golden truth.

Fast forward a few months after Rutledge uttered his comments, I broke the story of Four Roses discontinuing its Limited Edition Single Barrel on my blog. That’s when I knew that the bourbon shortage was real, so it took me awhile to understand this was not hype.

The problem is, these two words—“bourbon shortage”—lack a definition or statistical data to support a shortage exists. In fact, all we have to conclude that there is a shortage is the yearly Buffalo Trace press release saying there is one, which gets diced up and published all over the world, and anecdotes from several master distillers and brand managers. We also have solid evidence of brands discontinuing products—see Early Times 354 and Ancient Age 10 Year Old—to use these earmarked stocks for more popular brands. We have examples of proof lowerings and age statements being dropped to make the whiskey stretch out a little further per bottling, while brands place products on allocation and consumers stand in long lines just to put their names in the hat for a harder-to-find bourbon lottery. Meanwhile, consumers complain they cannot acquire once everyday bourbons such as Weller 12 year old.

For the past three years, with the continuing bourbon shortage conversation, we’ve heard all of this and the never-ending complaining that goes along with it. But nobody has provided statistical data to show the depths of this shortage.

I have done just that. In two separate surveys, my company, Minnick Media Inc., polled bourbon enthusiasts and retailers. The data suggests both groups indeed feel there is a bourbon shortage in perception and what they’re able to purchase.

This data should be viewed similarly to the U.S. unemployment rate. American citizens become fearful of the economy and job situation when the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent to 12 percent. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was 24.9 percent. That means 75.1 percent of the working population was employed. Sure, they endured lower wages and perhaps did not work in their desired career field, but three-quarters of the working people had a job. Today, Grenada, Kenya, Kosovo, Macedonia, Nigeria, Nepal and many other countries endure higher unemployment rates than the United States during the Great Depression.

I offer these labor stats as a contextual perspective: Consumers are able to buy bourbon, but not the bourbon they necessarily want—just as most Americans had jobs during the Great Depression just not at the craft or salary they desired. So if your measure of the “bourbon shortage” is there is bourbon sitting on the shelves and in the warehouses, then, there is no shortage. But the bourbon shortage is not about everyday bourbons sitting on shelves—Jim Beam White Label, Wild Turkey 101 or standard Evan Williams. According to the surveys, the lack of bourbon availability exists in the mid-tier to premium brands.

About the consumer survey: 85 percent respondents were male, 50 percent lived in a household earning between $100,001 and $200,00 a year and 31 percent were between the ages 21 and 44 with the majority living in the Southern or Midwestern United States. Respondents were verified bourbon enthusiasts with 42 percent enjoying bourbon between 6 and 15 years.

Key findings from the consumer poll:

  • 86 percent said they have entered a store with an intent to buy a product but the bourbon was not in stock.
  • 82 percent said they have been unable to find bourbons they once easily found.
  • 67 percent said they have purchased multiple bottles in fear they’ll be unable to buy this product next time.

As expected, some brands showed greater availability than others, but your average bourbon enthusiast visits stores that do not or cannot carry Weller 12 year old and Old Charter. And 97 percent of the responders said their store did not carry George T. Stagg.

Where's all the bourbon?

Where’s all the bourbon?

None of that surprised me. What shocked me was that of the random twelve bourbons selected for this survey, Jim Beam White Label was only available in 85 percent of the respondent’s store of choice. I don’t think I’ve been to a liquor store that didn’t carry Jim Beam White. To go back to my unemployment analogy for a minute, how would this country react to 15 percent unemployment?

Jim Beam claims it does not have a shortage problem, of course, but why did the company drop the age statement on its Jim Beam Black? Of course, the particular liquor stores could just not like this product or the respondents simply don’t recall seeing Jim Beam White Label, but other mainstay brands with strong national presences showed signs of a lack of availability. According to the responders, Elijah Craig 12 year old and Noah’s Mill were unavailable in 15 percent and 58 percent respectively of their preferred stores.

In the “other” section of brand availability, Elmer T. Lee, Willett and Van Winkle dominated the write-ins, indicating they were widely unavailable.

The consumer survey was completed with 149 people. The liquor store survey is ongoing, but so far it’s darn near unanimous across the country. Of the respondents, 100 percent said they are unable to fulfill a consumer’s bourbon request at least once a day and the most requested product is Pappy Van Winkle, followed by Four Roses Limited Editions and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Liquor stores are unable to stock brands they once normally stocked and believe the lack of product availability hurts their bottom line. Perhaps most importantly, 100 percent of the liquor store owners / managers believe there is a bourbon shortage. Interestingly, nearly 70 percent of the liquor store respondents said they are “tired” of the industry’s excuses.

Liquor stores would know better than anybody. They are the front-line salesmen and women who interact with consumer.

With that said, the bourbon shortage must not be measured in quantity sitting in warehouses and new brands hittingBourbon Shortage the shelves. The shortage should be an actual statistical rate that can be measured and studied. This shortage narrative should be about consumer data just like the Nielsen TV ratings system or the unemployment rate.

My data confirmed what we’ve always known: Limited Edition bourbons were hard to come by. But it also offered a glimpse into the state of mainstay bourbons that are not available in more than 15 percent of the stores, while more than three quarters of bourbon enthusiasts are unable to find bourbons they once easily found.

With the continued bourbon demand, Elijah Craig 12 year old will become the new Weller 12 year old, which will become as scarce as Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, which will become Pappy Van Winkle, which will become, well, you get it.

The bourbon shortage equals a combination of the limited edition bourbon availability, in-store availability of mainstay products and the rate at which a consumer cannot find a product. These three core data identifiers represent the consumer, not the brands, and the data clearly shows they cannot purchase premium products, mainstay products are becoming harder to come by and they’re often unable to find what they want.

The bourbon shortage is real. It’s felt every day.

There Is No Whiskey Shortage

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Is there a shortage of bourbon? Will there be one soon, as booming demand dumbs down age statements and kills off favorite brands? Or is there plenty of good bourbon, with just a few hyped bottles in short supply as the collectors scurry to fill their shelves? We knew two writers with very different opinions, so we invited them to have it out. This Friday, in the Plenty O’ Bourbon corner, Colonel Charles K. Cowdery. Next week it’s Fred Minnick’s turn to argue the gloom and doom side of the issue. Feel free to leave your own opinions in the meantime!

 

Author - Chuck Cowdery“Is there a whiskey shortage looming?” The Tennessean asked last summer. Yes, they answered. Then came ten paragraphs about how bourbon is booming, but nothing about a shortage until this: “To underscore the possibility of a shortage, gains in whiskey sales are outpacing production increases by at least 2-to-1, industry experts say.” Said experts remained unidentified and the vague statistic remained unexamined as we learned about a fledgling Tennessee micro with all of 200 barrels in storage.

It’s not just The Tennessean. That’s the overall state of whiskey shortage journalism today. Why? Because editors love the idea of a whiskey shortage. They want the words “whiskey shortage” in the headline, even if the story won’t support it.

It’s called ‘clickbait.’

In December, the Wall Street Journal got the words “Bourbon Shortage” into a headline by reporting about how bourbon enthusiast fears of a shortage are provoking panic buying. “Fear is a motivating factor,” said Edward Johnson of Simpsonville, South Carolina, as he picked up a Blanton’s and a Henry McKenna at Harvard’s Liquor & Wine.

We have a name for that in bourbon country: Whiskirexia nervosa. It is characterized by a distorted whiskey inventory image and an obsessive fear of running out of whiskey. Individuals with whiskirexia nervosa tend to already own more whiskey than they can ever drink, even as they continue to buy more.

Whiskirexia nervosa, though it may be a facetious name, exists. It may even be on the rise, but it is not evidence of a looming whiskey shortage.

Yes, bourbon is booming. According to a recent report by Vinexpo and the IWSR, sales of bourbon are expected to soar by almost 20 percent, to 45 million cases, by 2018. Bourbon is the fastest growing category in the distilled spirits industry.

Beam Rack House

That sure is one hell of a lot of bourbon, folks.

But that doesn’t mean there is a shortage now, or that there will be one in the foreseeable future.

It is impossible to prove a negative, but consider this. New bourbons are appearing on the market every day, sold by people who didn’t make them. If you owned bourbon, and knew there was a shortage coming, would you sell it to someone else so they could sell it to the public? Of course not.

It’s true that because of the aging cycle you can’t ramp up the production of whiskey like you can, say, Skittles. This has always been the case. Several times a year, producers update their sales projections, compare them to their inventories, and adjust production accordingly.

Some writers have cited as evidence the fact that products are being discontinued, prices are going up, and age statements are going away. Some of that is just normal course of business while some of it does, indeed, represent steps producers are taking to adjust inventories and production so no shortage occurs.

It is also in the nature of whiskey that even as supply tightens, oversupply is always a risk. A lot of whiskey will mature in the next few years whether there is a market for it or not and if it doesn’t all sell, the pipeline will clog up fast. In the robust market we have now, a little price cutting should quickly unplug it, but that’s a long way from a shortage.

What does a shortage look like? We nearly had one 30 years ago. American whiskey was dying. Companies were merging, brands were disappearing, and American whiskey sections were shrinking in liquor stores. In bars, it was just Jim and Jack and maybe Maker’s or Wild Turkey if you got lucky. More than once I was forced to drink Jameson.

What bourbon drinkers can expect for the next several years is the occasional disappointment, when the desire for a certain brand or expression will be temporarily frustrated. The solution? Buy something else. You’ll have plenty of choices.

Kentucky Bourbon: “The Spirit of Compromise”

Friday, February 6th, 2015

author-lew-brysonWith the mantle of America’s Spirit comes not only support and loyalty, but a certain amount of historical responsibility. Bourbon has been entwined with the history and making of the United States for almost as far back as the Constitutional Convention, but perhaps never so much as when Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” represented the Bluegrass State in Washington.

Clay served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State, argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, and gained his greatest fame in the Senate, where he successfully brokered a compromise between the northern and southern states that held off the Civil War for over ten years. Clay’s secret weapon may have been the barrels of bourbon he had specially shipped to the Willard Hotel. Clay brought opponents to agreements that met in the middle with skillful application of brilliant arguments and delicious Kentucky bourbon, “the spirit of compromise.”

Filling the Decanter of Compromise with The Spirit of Unity

Filling the Decanter of Compromise with The Spirit of Unity

In that tradition, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) worked with Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, to bring a new spirit of compromise to the Willard Hotel. On Monday, February 2, the new barrel was filled with bourbons mingled from Kentucky distillers (lightly; Virginia’s liquor laws prohibited more than four liters in one container to cross state lines!) at Clay’s Ashland estate, with the cooperation of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. The barrel, with a number of bourbon’s top folks, made its way (across Virginia’s state lines) to Washington for a ceremony on Tuesday the 3rd.

The room was filled with folks like Al Young (Four Roses), Bill Samuels Jr. (Maker’s Mark), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Jerry Summers (Beam Suntory), Tom Bulleit (Bulleit), Joe Magliocco (Michters), Pearse Lyons (Town Hall/Lexington), and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), with Eric Gregory representing the KDA. After some fine bourbons (and a little business being discussed, inevitably), the guests of honor took the stage.

We heard from one of the Henry Clay Center interns—who had the courage to remind Senator McConnell of the Congress’s low approval ratings, to which the senator responded that Congress richly deserved them—and then Gregory presented the senator with a crystal decanter in commemoration of the event. (He had very carefully filled it from a bottle of the Spirit of Unity bourbon that was created by Parker and Craig Beam last year to raise money for ALS research; there was “a little left over,” he said. We watched closely, and not a drop was spilled.)

Senator McConnell speaks about bourbon.

Senator McConnell speaks about bourbon.

Senator McConnell noted that the Willard was about halfway between the Capitol building and the White House, an appropriate spot for talking about compromise, and gave tribute to “two of Kentucky’s greatest contributions to America: bourbon, and Henry Clay.” He reminded the crowd that today’s problems pale in comparison to those the country faced because of “America’s original sin: slavery.” He quoted Clay as appropriate to today as to his own time: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what’s right with America.”

He then did speak briefly about bourbon, and about the expansion that’s taking place, and how it’s reaching more people, around the world. “It really is wonderful to see what’s happened in this industry,” he concluded, “which is employing so many people, and helping us all reach a lot more compromises.”

It really was wonderful to see bourbon on this national stage. The powerful came to dip their cups: Senate Majority Leader McConnell, almost the entire Kentucky Congressional delegation, and Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped in at the end as well. Bourbon wields a powerful influence: as an industry, as an historical icon, and indeed, as a “lubricant to the wheels of government,” as Clay used to say. The barrel, by the way, will stay at the Willard, and it is to be hoped that from there it will spread a spirit of compromise up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Desk Whiskey

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Author - Lew BrysonThere’s a lot of talk these days of how whiskey’s back; back in sales, back in fashion, back in cocktails. It’s great, and it means we can find good whiskey in so many more places, more than just the same five bottles — Jack, Jim, Johnnie, Jameson, and Crown — and almost every town of any size has a specialist bar. Whiskey’s on television, it’s in the movies, it’s all over the gosh-darn Internet.

But there’s one place where it’s not “back” like it was, and that’s a shame: the desk drawer.

The bottle in the desk drawer was a staple of hard-boiled fiction, like this:

He opened his desk drawer and lifted three glasses out of it and a bottle of imported scotch whiskey [sic]. ‘You two care for a spot of nerve medicine?’ he asked as he began to pour himself a shot from the bottle. — The Destitute, by T.R. Hawes

I took the bottle of Dewar’s out of my desk drawer and put it on the desk along with a lowball glass. He took a couple of deep breaths as if to steady himself and carefull poured some.” — Sixkill, by Robert B. Parker

It wasn’t just private eyes, either.

Now I moved to the third drawer, the bottom, where hard-boiled detectives keep pistols and hard-boiled editors keep whiskey bottles and hard-boiled reporters keep novel manuscripts. — Gone Tomorrow, by P.F. Kluge

1-IMG_20150123_130014076

“Pull up a chair”

Why, even my boss back when I was a librarian (it’s true; in a former life I was a librarian) at the Armor School Library at Fort Knox kept a bottle of Maker’s in the bottom right-hand drawer of his government-issue gray steel desk. Friday afternoons when it got toward quitting time after we’d had a long week of eager-beaver lieutenants and budget-cutting majors, Bill would catch my eye and broadly beckon me into the office.

He’d pull open the drawer, all the way, and reach in behind the hanging files of staff evaluations and loony letters (every library has them), and pull out the bottle and two glasses. “Pull up a chair,” he’d always say, and pour two glasses; no water, no ice, just two stiff pours of Loretto’s finest. We’d discuss the week, or the lieutenants and the majors, or the weather, and relax. We never had more than one, and we didn’t do it every week, and once or twice we did it during the week when things were particularly stressful or rewarding. But the bottle was there.

I don’t believe many people have a desk bottle anymore. Because as much as whiskey is back, it’s still not okay to drink it.

I remember telling people I loved landing at the airport in Louisville because folks there didn’t giggle when I said “bourbon.” That’s not such a problem anymore (some people react with a reflexive “Pappy!”, but I can get past that), but I’ll tell you, if you suggest having one drink at lunch…people look at you like you’re crazy, and they do giggle.

One drink? Open up the drawer, pull out the bottle — it doesn’t have to be anything amazing, because it’s going to sit in there, and you don’t know who might be in the office — grab two glasses and wipe them out with paper towels, and there you have an oasis in your day. One drink of whiskey.

What happens? You’ve brought a person into your confidence, you’ve strengthened a bond with them. There’s no harm done, and if the company policy is ironclad on no drinking; well, maybe you’re working for the wrong company. You’ve got a bottle in your desk, you’ve got something there to steady the brain and nerve the arm. Adults do this, and I believe that if we don’t giggle about it, we’re less likely to be silly about it.

…think of Ed Asner, as news director Lou Grant, occasionally pulling a bottle out of the drawer on the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. It didn’t seem irresponsible at all, did it? It was the way it was in newsrooms. — March 1939: Before the Madness, by Terry Frei

I am not saying you should start to drink on the job. But there are rituals to work, and there are rituals to whiskey. So I got Mr. Venn to draw you a diagram.

Desk Whiskey

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!

 

 

Ewen Mackintosh — In 140 Or Less

Friday, October 31st, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers. Ewen Mackintosh is the new managing director (CEO) of Gordon & MacPhail, the renowned independent whisky bottler based in Elgin on Speyside and owned by the Urquhart family. Ewen will be the first non-Urquhart for four generations to be running the company. 

 

What’s the view from your office window?

Today: beautiful blue skies and Boroughbriggs Football Stadium – home to Elgin City FC.

No need to buy match tickets then. What’s it like living on Speyside?

It’s a great part of Scotland – sandy beaches in one direction, mountains in the other and peppered with golf courses and distilleries.

Paradise for many. You’re going from Chief Operating Officer to Managing Director. Please explain the differences, task-wise.

No, I remain as COO for the business. However I do take on more Executive responsibilities, such as Export Trade.

20614_G&M_001_-_smlSo it’s basically the same but more. You’re the first non-Urquhart family member in charge for 4 generations. Any nervousness?

Nervous, no. Excited, yes. However, it will be business as usual, no point changing a winning formula.

True! Sounds like a nice place to work. You went there straight from university. Was whisky already in the blood and what rôle did you start in?

Niblick Bar in St Andrews must take some credit for introducing me to malts as a student.Actually started with G&M as a student during summer holidays.

But first post-university role?

First permanent role was implementing Quality Management Systems.

And on from there, obviously. G&M sales/turnover/profits all well up this last year. Some of the big guys seeing some brand/country downturns. What’s your secret?

We have products to suit all wallets/purses — from our entry level 8YO malts, up to the 70YO, and of course Benromach continues to grow.

Malts are so popular so is it easier or harder to get casks fillings from other producers these days for your own bottlings? Or just more expensive?

We have good, long standing relationships. Filling our own casks ensures highest quality. Important to us that we complement official bottlings, not compete.

You’ve done that well for a long time. You must be thrilled with the success of Benromach. How was that achieved?

Our desire was to re-create a traditional Speyside style from the 1950s and 1960s — this character has proved very popular.

Indeed it has. 100º Proof is new. Organic, Peat Smoke, Heritage and more. Are you allowed to tell us what’s next?

We’re still catching our breath after introducing all the new packaging, however there are some wood finishes on the horizon.

On the G&M side: Connoisseur’s Choice, Generations etc. — about a dozen ranges. How do you choose what stock goes where?

A very good question and one difficult to explain in Twitter length! For example, some labels are historical…

Maybefor a longer interview another time but please go on…

Certain labels are agreed with particular distillers, others are for styles (cask strength and wood finishes). Generations is right at the top for the oldest.

I hear you like sport. Care to elaborate? Player or spectator?

Much more enjoyment playing than watching. Unfortunately my rugby days are behind me and so golf is the passion.

More of a spectator myself. Told other interests are travel, food & drink and socialising. Does that mean you’re a party animal?

No — definitely quality not quantity. Enjoy visiting new places, trying new things. Inevitably when people find you’re in the whisky business, socialising follows!

Gordon_&_MacPhail_Directors_250413_0162_-_smlA lot of us would agree with that last bit. Do you like to pair whisky with food or is that a step too far?

Certain things work for me, cheese and chocolate pair well with whisky. It’s all about personal tastes, I never see whisky replacing wine at the dinner table.

Nor I, despite my whisky industry background. Still like it though. Travel — most of it for the job? When travelling — books or music?

For holidays, definitely a book. For work travel, mainly music. Unfortunately the emails never stop, so these generally replace the book.

Sounds familiar! Future ambitions for the company?

Benromach – keep telling our story, introduce new people to it. G&M – many “independent bottlers” out there. Want to ensure people understand what makes us different.

Unfulfilled ambitions for yourself — what’s on the bucket list?

Personally, the list is quite long, however right at the top is getting my golf handicap down to single figures.

All sounds achievable. Nothing scary there!
Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

The golf handicap is quite scary! I’ll take my golf clubs and a few bottles of Linkwood with me to the desert island.

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.

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.