Archive for the ‘Fridays’ Category

John Campbell of Laphroaig – In 140 Or Less

Friday, June 13th, 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 from Laphroaig distillery manager John Campbell. (This was a special one for me, as the brand’s former marketing manager from some years ago.)  

What’s the view from your office window?
I have a great view, looking out over Laphroaig bay and it’s a beautiful day today on Islay.

Lucky you. We know you can get all 4 seasons in one day! Did you always want to be a distiller?
Yes, we can have variable weather, and nope:  I wanted to be a mechanical engineer first!!

Really! What was your career path to becoming Laphroaig’s manager?
Well, I started off on that path when I was 16 but it was too soon, became a lobster fisherman on Islay, then a distiller.

So did you ever expect to be Laphroaig’s manager, then?
No, not a chance.  I started off stenciling the numbers on the barrels, but have just kept sticking my hand up as time passed.

A serial volunteer, then.  Islay distillery managers seem to be more involved with consumers/visitors than the mainland ones? Would you say that’s right? If so, why?  
I am not sure, we probably are and it’s because we have much more charisma.  Oh, and we are nosy!

John Campbell and his son Murray.

John Campbell and his son Murray.

 

Very honest! You seem a very quiet person. Do you enjoy all the public facing part?
Ileachs [Islay natives] are very open too…I am quiet and understated, just like Laphroaig….but I enjoy meeting people and having fun. Who doesn’t?

True. Under Beam there were more new expressions of Laphroaig. Will this continue under Beam Suntory?
Not sure if the strategy will change under new ownership, we will be integrating shortly, then we will know.

Of which expressions, from your tenure as manager, are you most proud? Do you get involved much in the creation process?
Yes, sometimes involved.. so Triple Wood, PX or An Cuan Mor are the best. Had to choose all 3!!

What have been trade and consumer reactions to Laphroaig Select and An Cuan Mor (I prefer the latter)?
We generally get positive reviews. These 2 are for different types of consumers. Select is for novices, not purists.  An Cuan Mor gives fantastic European oak effects.

And it goes well with food too. Friends of Laphroaig now has over 600,000 members and is quite an online community too. Are you aiming for world domination here?!
Yeah, whisky does work well with food. FOL has given us world domination in peaty whiskies, yes… Ha ha – you guessed!!

I was just thinking you might take over and run the world from Islay. What about John Campbell off duty. I hear you play golf – much time for that?
Islay is the center of the universe, right? I used to play a lot of golf, not so much now…run a little and muck about with my kids.

The running: just for fitness or marathons?
Just fitness right now, but I will see where it goes, never know… if my knees last.

I’ve just spent a week walking round Paris; no knees left. I’ve noted family and travel as other interests. What do you like to do as a family?
Well, I like to take my boys and do fun stuff, so live sport is always good, football, rugby, American football, and generally just have wee adventures.

Sounds magic. I have little nieces but they live overseas so we don’t see them often to do stuff. Favorite place to travel for a) work and b) leisure?
So, fave place I have been to for work is hard! I like the U.S. a lot and I will say Seattle and for leisure I love Portugal – food and weather are great.

I liked Seattle too. Lovely relaxed feel to the place. Where will the next Laphroaig Live online broadcast come from (if there is to be one)?
There is and I am not sure if I can say yet. It will be in Sweden tho!!! Whoops ☺

The frozen north! Any plans yet for the distillery’s bicentenary in 2015 or are those a secret?
Not secret, just not fully completed yet, but we’ll have stuff throughout the year to celebrate with.

So we’ll look forward to hearing more before 2015 and for next year’s Islay Whisky Fest. Social media – friend or foe?
Social media is instant, so can be both… but mainly positive I feel.

Lastly, what would be your ideal desert island dram? It can either be one of your own or from somewhere else.
Bit boring and maybe predictable with desert island dram, but it has to be 10 year old Laphroaig. It has a depth of flavor that you get in only 3 or 4 other single malts.

A First Glimpse of the new Ardnamurchan Distillery

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

There is an undulating, skinny ribbon of asphalt running along the north shore of Loch Sunart. It’s barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two, but it stretches all the way out tJonny McCormicko the most westerly point in mainland Great Britain. In this stunning locale, distilling is set to commence at the brand new Ardnamurchan Distillery in Glenbeg, Lochaber. The independent bottlers Adelphi Distilling Ltd will finally see their dream realized and join the rank of those who can proudly call themselves distillers. This is no farm distillery by any stretch of the imagination. Underneath the twin pagodas, the Ardnamurchan Distillery will have the capacity to make 500,000 liters of alcohol per year.

Graeme Bowie

Distillery manager Graeme Bowie gave me a tour of the site. He was assistant manager at Balblair Distillery for six years, and has progressed his way to distillery manager from distillery operator following six years at Balmenach and sixteen years at Glen Grant. As you might imagine, he is relishing the job at hand.

The distillery will produce peated and unpeated Ardnamurchan whisky in equal quantities, although at the outset, Graeme predicts it could be eight years until the company considers the whisky to be ready for release. Boldly, there will be no gin or other distractions produced for short-term cash. They are straightforward whisky men; nothing more, nothing less. Meanwhile, there will be a visitors center with a bar and tasting area where you will be able to find Adelphi’s latest independent cask strength bottlings.

The company is named after the Adelphi distillery, a Lowland distillery that operated on the south side of the River Clyde in Glasgow from 1826 until 1907, drawing its water from Loch Katrine. In its day, it had two mash tuns, up to twelve washbacks, and two stillhouses containing a Coffey still and four pot stills. In addition, the 19th century Adelphi distillery boasted its own cooperage and maltings (though the bulk of the malt came from Port Dundas). When Alfred Barnard paid a visit in the 1880s, Archibald Walker & Co, then Adelphi’s proprietors, owned Limerick Distillery, Ireland and the Vauxhall Distillery in Liverpool, England. The Adelphi name was revived in 1993 by Archibald Walker’s great grandson.

Like other newly opened distilleries, Ardnamurchan will have a private cask ownership scheme whereby whisky enthusiasts and clubs can order a cask of peated or unpeated spirit filled into either a bourbon barrel or sherry butt. Final prices are being confirmed, but they are expected to be approximately £1,750 for the bourbon barrel and £5,000 for the sherry butt, so it should prove popular.

Inside the biomass burner

Graeme pointed out their four 15,000 ton grain silos, which will receive the barley deliveries. With different malt specifications, supplies will come from Bairds Malt, and from malting on site. Production will begin with milling in the compact Alan Ruddock AR2000 four roller mill, the same model as you will find at Wolfburn distillery. Adelphi have installed a two-ton, copper-topped, semi-lauter mashtun with a manhole and double hatch. Power will come from the Swiss-built, one megawatt Schmid biomass wood chip burner, whose fiery hunger will be fueled by the local forestry companies. The yawning hatch to the deep pit of the chip store in the yard is motor-driven and opens effortlessly at the touch of button, like the malevolent plaything of a Bond villain. The burner can take up to an hour to get up to its running temperature of 800°C, but then it will reliably produce steam bountifully. This is conveyed to the space age looking Steam Accumulator.

Ardnamurchan’s pagodas

Each heating tank holds 9,000 liters of water in preparation for mashing. The first water will be 6,500 liters at 65°C, followed by a second water of 4,000 liters which will slosh in at 82°C. The 6,500 liters of the third water will gush in at 90°C. Production will start modestly at one or two mashes per week, but in time, production will be ramped up to six days a week.

Unique to Scotland, the fermentation will be carried out in four oak washbacks resized from ex-cognac vats by the J. Dias cooperage in Paramos, Portugal, plus three Forsyth-built, stainless steel washbacks complete with switchers. Anchor dried yeast will be used (10 kg for every 10,000 liters). The fermentation times are planned to be reassuringly long to build flavor, envisaged to be 55 hours for the short runs, then 88-90 hours for long runs over the weekend.

The pair of virgin copper stills look magnificent. Built by the experienced coppersmiths of Forsyths, they sit resplendent behind picture windows. The wash still holds 10,000 liters and has a silhouette reminiscent of those at Highland Park. Meanwhile, the spirit still has a body contoured like the Glen Grant stills, and has a capacity of 6,000 liters. Everything is controlled by hand, so you will find no automation here. The vapors will funnel down a Lyne arm sloping away at 15° into two shell and tube condensers tucked away at the back, before the spirit is pumped into the spirit receiver warehouse vat.

McCormick Ardnamurchan distillery stillThe first delivery of American oak barrels has already arrived from Jack Daniel. Ardnamurchan’s traditional dunnage warehouse will bear casks three racks high, but it is eerily empty at the moment. The steel frame of the warehouse is covered with Kingspan; insulated, metallic panels to help keep a cool, damp interior temperature for maturation. Eventually, the warehouse will hold 6,500 casks over two floors but it will take six years to fill up before they need to build another one.

The warehouse footprint has been physically hewn out of the solid rock of the hillside, some 12 meters deep. The excavated rock has been utilized to lay a rough road up to the distillery’s water source. Before I depart, Graeme zooms me a mile up the bumpy track in an all terrain vehicle to show me the source of the production water from the Glenmore River.

As the inaugural distillation is still a few weeks away, the only undertaking I’m denied today is a taste of the new make Ardnamurchan spirit. However, that intrigue gives me the perfect excuse to return.

A Whirlwind Canadian Whisky Tour

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Author - Davin de Kergommeaux

Davin de Kergommeaux is a tireless chronicler of Canadian whisky, and one of his best attributes is that he very much wants to share the good news. Here he takes Whisky Advocate writers Dave Broom and David Wondrich along on a tour of some big Canadian distilleries: Crown Royal (Gimli and Valleyfield) and Canadian Mist.

I meet Dave Broom at the baggage carousel at Winnipeg airport. Dave’s flown in from England for a first-hand look at Canadian whisky, beginning at Crown Royal’s distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, 55 miles north of here on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

It may well be May, but the ice lies thick on the lake. That’s fitting. In the late 19th century, Icelanders fleeing volcanoes and other woes settled here. The very name Gimli is Icelandic for “Haven From Hellfire,” and this haven feels like the coldest place on earth to make whisky.

Gimli distillery: the core

Gimli distillery: the core

Jan Westcott from the industry group Spirits Canada joins us as we head to the plant where twelve massive columns produce 90,000 liters of five different distillates daily. Local Manitoba corn is used for continuous base whisky, producing a light, sweet, and nutty flavor with a floral essence. It comes off the still at 94.6% ABV and turns crisp, woody, and spicy after 8 years in barrel.

A second, batch base whisky contributes Crown’s signature creaminess. Batch base starts with the same all-corn mash as continuous base and is distilled to the same ABV, but in a column and kettle still. Low wines boil in a large sideways pot, which slowly feeds vapors up a tall 54-inch diameter column where heads and tails are discarded. Already creamy as new make, with hints of juicy fruit and butterscotch, 8 years in wood adds cedar, grapefruit pith, and nutty elements. With skillful additions of flavoring whisky, these bases become seven expressions of Crown Royal.

Rye flavoring comes from a mash of 95% rye and 5% barley malt, and corn flavoring from a mash of 65% corn/30% rye/5% malt. Both are distilled in a beer still to 64% ABV.

The pièce de résistance is the Coffey rye. Distilled to a low ABV, it transforms into stunning rye whisky after 11 years in wood. Remarkably, it’s made from the same mash bill as the corn (yes, corn) flavoring, but distilled in an improvised Coffey-style still transported from Seagram’s shuttered Waterloo distillery. Each of the three flavoring whiskies is fermented using proprietary yeasts grown on-site. Corn and rye flavoring mature in 80% new wood barrels and 20% one-time bourbon dumpers, Coffey rye matures in new wood.

Davin Oakenshield and Dave Skullsplitter

Davin Oakenshield and Dave Skullsplitter

Dropping by the Icelandic Museum we sample Icelandic hard fish, washed down with Brennivin – Black Death. Then, Toronto, 1,400 miles to the east where we meet David Wondrich and drive north to Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood.

 

Collingwood

Distillery manager David Dobbin guards the secret mash recipes carefully, but clearly there are several. The base is made from local corn and barley malt, the flavoring from corn, barley malt, and Ontario rye, all fermented using proprietary liquid yeast. Canadian Mist and Collingwood whiskies are distilled in a single beer still and two columns inside a tiny stillhouse.

Canadian Mist: Tom Hartle, Gay Arsenault, and David Dobbin

Canadian Mist: Tom Hartle, Gay Arsenault, and David Dobbin

Production at Canadian Mist is increasing, evidenced by rows of new barrels in a warren of twelve cinder block warehouses under a common roof. Forklifts thread pallets of newly filled barrels down long narrow rows. Others transport mature whisky for dumping. This involves drilling holes in the heads then vacuuming out the whisky, four barrels at a time. In winter the warehouses are heated to 50° F for continuous maturation. Once blended, Collingwood is shipped to Woodford Reserve for bottling, while Canadian Mist is bottled in Louisville, by Brown-Forman.

In the lab we sample Canadian Mist. “Highly improved,” declares Wondrich. Next: Collingwood. Suddenly, quality control manager Don Jaques pulls out a bottle of cask-strength Collingwood 21 year old rye. Dobbin’s eyes widen. “Where’d you get that?” he asks.

“I kept a few extra retains,” Jaques grins, as glasses are thrust forward faster than any last-call tippler at a whisky show. Rich, spicy, and smooth, with hints of ginger, cinnamon, and chocolate, you wish they’d bottled this one-batch-only 100% rye-grain whisky at more than 40%.

Davids Broom and Wondrich on Lake Huron, the water source for Canadian Mist

Davids Broom and Wondrich on Lake Huron, the water source for Canadian Mist

That evening, Wondrich introduces us to Normie’s, a recently renovated, brightly lit dive whose owner, Janet, overhears our discussion of libations. “Last time I drank tequila I ended up in handcuffs, and not for a good reason,” she confesses. Wiser’s it is, we decide. Next morning it’s Montreal, 400 miles east.

 

 

Valleyfield

Barrel pyramids at Valleyfield

Barrel pyramids at Valleyfield

Distillery manager Martin Laberge greets us at Valleyfield, Diageo’s other Canadian distillery, outside Montreal. Each day, 200 employees turn 260 metric tons of corn into the annual equivalent of 28 million liters of pure alcohol. In classically Québecois-French style, this distillery is a long narrow strip of 22 buildings stretching back from the road.

Valleyfield makes base whiskies only, importing flavoring whiskies from Gimli for the Diageo blends made on site, including V.O., Five Star, and Crown Royal Maple. They also bottle the low-volume Crown Royal blends, such as XR.

Eight thousand kilos of local corn make up a mash and it takes eight mashes to fill one of the twelve fermenters. Two proprietary yeasts take 55 hours to convert the corn into alcohol. Batch base whisky is distilled in a beer still and then a kettle and column still. Continuous base travels through four columns: a beer still, aldehyde column, rectifier, and fusel oil column.

Huge, nine-story warehouses hold a million barrels of maturing Valleyfield whisky, on racks, pallets, or offset rows of barrels piled in pyramids.

Sampling is the best part of any tour and master blender Andrew MacKay offers five versions of Crown Royal. Based in Valleyfield, he is also responsible for the Gimli blends. Creamy texture defines Crown Royal, though each whisky exhibits its own flavor spectrum. My favorite? The one-batch-only Monarch 75th Anniversary, containing the most Coffey rye ever in Crown Royal. “You would expect that if you put more flavoring in you’d get more flavor but it kind of smudges together,” MacKay explains. Base whiskies open up these flavors. This is regal whisky, rich in butterscotch and pine-cedar complemented by chocolate fudge and rich spices.

Our Canadian whisky whirlwind ends on this high note and then we follow Andrew MacKay to Montreal’s Trudeau airport. Broom is New York bound for a book launch, Wondrich to Nashville to judge cocktails, Westcott home for family time. And me? Ottawa and this blog. Ahh, the whisky life!

George Grant of Glenfarclas – in 140 or Less

Friday, May 9th, 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 from the Glenfarclas brand ambassador. George Grant is the sixth generation of the owning family to work at Glenfarclas.

Here we go: what’s the view from your office window?

Glenfarclas No.1 Duty Free Warehouse door, in our beautiful red.

Sounds cheerful! What’s happening at Glenfarclas this spring?

At this rate, we will be doing a rain dance. Winter never happened at Glenfarclas.

Soggy for the visitors, then. But good for the distillation. You’re in a family business. How old were you when you started?

Joined the payroll in 1997 at 21. But I was working for Muntons Malt, Inver House, and Fine Vintage Far East Ltd in Hong Kong. I started at Glenfarclas in 2000 aged 23.

That answers my next two questions! You travel a lot. How many weeks each year are you away?

I would say I am away 6-7 months a year, it works out about 15/16 days a month. Some months are obviously worse than others.

GSGsndSGHard. How does family life fit in round that?

Grab it as you can. I have 2 girls and off to Crieff Hydro at weekend. Still all the usual activities to squeeze in: swimming, tai kwan do, tennis, Brownies, ice skating…

Lovely. I know they’re still little. Is either of them interested in distilling yet?

Luckily not yet: 2 and 7 years old. 7 yo knows what Daddy does: “Makes whisky.” One of her first words was “Glenfarclas.”

Chip off the old block. In future will Glenfarclas be owned/managed by women? As some were in 19th and early 20th century?

Will have to wait and see. Wouldn’t be the first time. Granny Grant used to run this place.

And other women ran/founded others, not to mention champagne houses. What are your key markets for Glenfarclas?

All markets are key! Just at different times. Our current markets UK, U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Russia, Oz, and powerhouse Germany.

Quite a spread; no wonder you travel so much  and so far. On website, you say your favourite is 21 YO. Does that ever waver?

Yes, when we put the website up it was the 21, now my tipple is the 15 YO or 40 YO. Liking my whisky more at 46% nowadays.

Our palates do change and new expressions do come up. What about the Family Casks? I have one from my birth year. They seem to go well.

They continue to go from strength to strength. Currently 1954 to 1999, 52 and 53 gone. We are currently doing 28 new family casks for years we’re currently out of.

Do you mean in terms of bottled stock?

Yes, out of bottled stock currently with 28 years. Will be back in end of summer.

We’ll look forward to hearing more then. Do you acquire your sherry casks from only one source? Can you say where? (Don’t just say Jerez!)

Our casks currently come from Jose y Miguel Martin. We have used the same family owned bodega since 1990. All oloroso sherry. Prior to that bought where we could.

Your washbacks are steel, not wood. How long ago did you change over? And why? 

Dates get hazy. Switched to stainless steel 42-45 years ago, for consistency. We get the same result every time from steel. Wooden ones have more variables and risks.

Point taken. A number of distilleries are being expanded. Any plans that way?

We are quite a large production plant. We can produce 3.5 million lpa. Last year we were around 3.3m.

So no expansion, then.

No plans for physical increase. We still sell to blenders. Simply reducing what we sell to them increases what we make for ourselves.

Yet, you’re perceived as a small and beautiful operation. You were visitor center pioneers and offer great tours. How is the new 5 Decades one shaping up?

People sometimes get a shock ref. capacity when they visit. We also do a 7 decade tour now. The customers get a dram per decade from 1950’s – 2010’s. Quite mind boggling.

I’m in for that one! What are your ambitions for Glenfarclas?

Continued growth, maybe not at the speed we have seen in the last 5 years. Developed in new markets. To get every whisky drinker to know the name Glenfarclas.

You celebrated the 175th birthday in 2011. Plans already in hand for 200th?

Yes, date in the diary and an access ramp for the warehouse so I can roll in my father!

Hope he appreciates that!

2015 also special for us – 150 years since my great, great great-grandfather bought the company for £511.19s. Will just be a quiet celebration!

4Z9F9553Well, that was a bargain! Changing tack, you shoot game birds in season. Do you cook them yourself too?

Of course. We sponsor the game menu with Shooting Times so lots of great recipes there. The slower you cook them, more tender they are. Can’t beat an Aga to cook them on.

I’ll just turn my normal ovens right down. After family life, lots of work and travel, plus shooting, any time for anything else?

Not a lot currently. Looking forward to my youngest being out of nappies then envisage we travel a little more as a family. Have 2 Labradors that also take up a lot of time.

Dog walking and little girls must be compatible. Social media: fan or foe?

Mmm, fan, I think. Don’t think I use it for all it’s worth but certainly do have some fun with it. We are now 10,000+ on Twitter and 8,000+ on Facebook. Both @glenfarclas.

It can take up time. And what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

First distillery I ever worked at was Knockdhu so An Cnoc 21 YO has a special place. My McDonalds Whisky is JW black label (can get it everywhere).

And from your own: is it the 15 or 40?

Every day 15, once a week special 40 YO.

TV and Image and Visitor Centers — Oh My!

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I was shadowing Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell at the Kentucky Derby Festival. Is there anybody more interesting to shadow? Adoring fans walked up to the legend, one after another, and he signed all their bottles, caps, posters and an occasional T-shirt.

Claire and Wade Pascoe from Melbourne, Australia had planned their honeymoon around this moment, to meet Russell and share a whiskey. I asked them why in all the places in the world, they chose the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for their honeymoon. “It’s a dream come true,” Claire said, hugging Jimmy. Some people love the Rolling Stones; the Pascoes wanted to meet Jimmy Russell, bourbon’s orneriest gentleman rock star.

Maker's Mark's new artwork.

Maker’s Mark’s new artwork.

A few booths over, I witnessed a man lift his shirt showing off his sagging skin and a faded Four Roses tattoo. I’ve seen Jim Beam tattoos and witnessed Maker’s Mark fans call former CEO Bill Samuels “Jesus Christ,” and a woman on an airplane nearly accost a fellow passenger for adding Coke to Woodford Reserve.

Bourbon fans are a special breed. I know, because I am one. But are we fans because of what’s inside the bottle, or is it the image the bourbon portrays?

In the coming years, I believe we’ll learn if marketing dictates what we drink or if it’s the sweet nectar enticing those heavy pours. The past five years has seen an incredible growth in visitor centers, TV commercials and branding campaigns. According to industry statistics, bourbon sales have also increased 20 percent over this period. So the hype is paying off, and the investments continue.

Master distiller Chris Morris toasts the revamped Woodford Reserve visitor center.

Master distiller Chris Morris toasts the revamped Woodford Reserve visitor center.

Every major brand has built new visitor’s centers or refurbished old ones. Maker’s Mark is getting swanky with art in tasting rooms and rickhouses, Wild Turkey invested more than $100 million in their new one, and Woodford Reserve is unearthing its surroundings to recover lost Pepper family artifacts. And in case you missed my article on the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in the latest issue of Whisky Advocate, I kind of liked it. Every major distillery receives more than 100,000 visitors a year and it’s only going to increase with these shiny new facilities.

The latest spend has been on the television. Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam’s Devil’s Cut, and Evan Williams have all aired television commercials in the past year. Katar Media data suggests bourbon brands accounted for $52.5 million in advertising in 2013, a 6.3 percent increase compared to 2012. No data is available for 2014, and brands are mum on what they’re spending to reach people watching ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Walking Dead,’ but I’m estimating we’ll see double-digit percentage increases. Jim Beam didn’t hire celebrity Mila Kunis to not let her face shine in primetime!

But these investments—even Kunis—are all a gamble. Most of the whiskey coming off the still today will not be on liquor shelves until somewhere between 2018 and 2022. By then, the millennials may have moved onto tequila, rosé, or Mastika (a resin liquor.)

Buildings fade. Commercials are lost in the multitude of media. And consumers are just fickle. These marketing investments to reach new customers concern me because of the moves made on the production side.

Wild Turkey's new visitor center

Wild Turkey’s new visitor center

We continue to see the growth in flavored whiskey, the dropping of age statements and the lowering of proofs, illustrating that distilleries care more about the short-term gains than maintaining a lasting bourbon standard.

The future of bourbon’s taste does not rest upon the marketing director’s shoulders or the visitor center architect’s; it belongs to the production managers, warehouse crews, distillers and engineers who smell grains, turn knobs and valves, and check barrels. Are these people getting the same budgets to improve the whiskey as the marketers are to improve its image?

Make good whiskey, and you can air all the TV commercials you want. Of course, the price will increase, but we’ll pay for the whiskey. We always do.

Make good commercials and produce inferior whiskey, and you’ll see a gradual decline of enthusiasts who brought bourbon to the current dance. Oh sure, bourbon may still be profitable because you’re telling people how great it is, but those who know sweated barrels from a honey barrel will just sit around the campfire talking about bourbon’s good old days.

Marketing is extremely important to bourbon’s growth. Let’s just hope we’re not sacrificing production dollars for TV time.

Burning Down the Rumor Mill

Friday, April 18th, 2014

By Fred Minnick

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

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

2013FourRoses125AnniSmallBatchBourbonFour Roses – Out of the Honey Barrels?

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

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

Very_Old_Barton_KSBW_6_Year_80prf_750ml_GlassVery Old Barton—Where’s the Age Statement?

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

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

Is it Pappy? (Or is it Weller?)

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

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

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

AncAge10yrBrbnWhisk750mlHow About Ancient Ancient Age?

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

Old Grand-Dad 114: Put Out to Pasture?

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

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

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

Heaven Hill Green Label—Going Away?

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

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

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

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

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

Maker’s Mark – A New Product

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

The Rush of Flavor

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonStick with me; this is going to be about whiskey, but first we need to make a detour. I’ve done some writing about vodka and FMBs — what’s an FMB? It’s like an RTD. RTD? Well, it’s an alcopop. You know: like Smirnoff Ice. An FMB is a “flavored malt beverage,” which is basically beer with all the beer flavor stripped out and replaced with a variety of fruit flavors. (“RTD” means “ready to drink,” which seems redundant to me, but then, I’m not a marketer.) Anyway, the vodka category is dominated by the talk and advertising of flavors (though unflavored vodka is still the dominant seller), and FMBs are, obviously, all about flavors.

To look at a backbar these days, you’d think that flavored vodkas were a brilliant move. They take up a lot of real estate, they’re available in a broad assortment of different flavors, from fruits to confections to spices to the simply bizarre, like tobacco, and meat, and “fresh cut grass.” The FMBs had a similar rush of flavors, and still maintain growth in the market with that strategy, albeit at a large cost of promotions.

But look back a bit to the beginning. There were flavored vodkas going back to the 1950s; often colored, and flavored with a heavy hand. They were cheap booze, usually for kids or novelty cocktails. (We’re overlooking the original flavored vodka — gin — deliberately, of course.) It was a similar situation with FMBs: beer with cherry flavor, a horrible citrus concoction called Hop’n’Gator, and again, the weird, like Cool Colt, a menthol-flavored malt liquor, and the gin-flavored StingRay.

It always starts small...

It always starts small…

Each category was changed by a singular product. Flavored vodka changed in the late 1980s when Absolut put out Peppar, followed quickly by Citron. Suddenly flavored vodka had solidity, it had subtlety, and it was supported by an ad campaign that won awards for its simplicity and artistic nature; people framed these ads. Other vodka brands quickly added similar flavors; some, like Three Olives, were focused on flavors.

FMBs had flash in the pan success with Two Dogs, Zima, and DNA (which was essentially an alcoholic club soda), but the breakout product was Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored cloudy white beverage, followed by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They were huge successes, and spawned imitators.

But a funny thing happened; people got bored. Whether it was the drinkers, or the marketers, or the squirrely guys down in the flavor labs driving it, the flavor introductions accelerated. Vodka brands became literal rainbows of flavors (and colored labels), and new ones popped out every month: cherry, raspberry, lime, pear, peach…and then whipped cream, Swedish fish, “Dude,” tobacco, and, no kidding, Electricity!! The FMBs went through the same frenzy, albeit mostly limited to fruit flavors; the latest from Seagram’s Escapes is “Grape Fizz.”

There was howling from the neo-prohibitionists that flavored booze was on the market only to attract underaged drinkers (I honestly believe that’s not true, but…Grape Fizz? You gotta wonder), there was a ton of money spent on advertising, and round and round things went. The categories are big, but they’re a churning mess, and there are only a few flavor brands that retain any consistent traction in the market.

So what, right? Let them do their foolishness, we drink whiskey!

Yeah. You know where I’m going now. Flavored whiskey. Or, thanks to Dewar’s jumping off the high board (followed by J&B Urban Honey), flavored whisky. Sorry, flavored “spirit drink,” though the front label of Dewar’s Highlander Honey says, “Dewar’s Scotch whisky infused with natural flavors; filtered through oak cask wood.” Which, I would argue, is actually a more honest description of what’s inside than “spirit drink.”

But I’m not here to make fun of the labeling hoops the SWA sets up for companies to jump through. I’m here to wring my hands about the possibility of whiskey/whisky sliding down that disgustingly slippery flavor slope that vodka is whooshing down now. Because it starts with honey, and cherry, and cinnamon, then it’s maple, and tea, and barbecue, and mango, and actual heather…and the next thing you know, we’re coating our young whiskeys in dipping sauces and sucking them down raw, still wriggling as they slide down our throats, and they’ll never get to be fully mature and beautifully naked.

Think I’m exaggerating? Does anyone else remember Vijay Mallya at the 2008 World Whiskies Conference (back when people still cared what he thought about whisky), suggesting that for Scotch whisky to attract more young drinkers it needed “a spectrum of flavors”? Yeah, well…turns out that not everyone was repulsed by that. The folks in the stillhouse, the warehouses, and the tasting rooms figured “that’s crazy talk,” made faces, and went back to making the real item, sure. But in the offices? The suits looked at the vodka market, and proceeded to think the unthinkable: Hey guys? That crazy stuff Vijay said? Why not?

They made it happen, and flavored the whiskey. Some of them sold like mad, to the point where almost half of last year’s whiskey category growth in the U.S. market was from flavored whiskey. Beam’s rolling out new flavors, Jack Daniel’s is rolling out new flavors, Canadian Mist is in on it, and who knows where it will stop? Or if it will?

I’ll admit my complicity: I didn’t hate Red Stag, I used a bottle of it to make faux Manhattans. I didn’t even hate the Highlander (maybe because I thought, there can be only one! Whoops, I was wrong). All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea how successful they’d be.

That’s the real issue. It’s not that they exist, it’s that they’ve picked up a sizable number of drinkers. We’ve all seen what that did to Irish whiskey: proliferation of brands, expansion of production facilities, more more more. Money chases success. Flavored whiskey is exploding; and so, money chases success.

There will be more flavored whiskeys. To make them, barrels will be emptied that would have otherwise stayed in the warehouses and become our 15 year old whiskeys and whiskies. Sure, the big distillers are expanding production capacity, but flavored whiskey was not part of the expansion equation, and I hear there’s maybe a barrel shortage. They’ll make the money while they can! It’s not that we’re drinking our young; someone else is drinking our young, and they don’t care about the consequences. Whee! Cinnamon shots! I’m drinking whiskey!

The worst thing? There’s not really anything you and I can do about it. Don’t drink it? Don’t be absurd, you’re already not drinking it! Do you think the people who are drinking it — by the bottle! — read reviews of it? Do you think the companies are going to be able to resist the profits? Do you think the brands will survive becoming a rainbow of flavors? I don’t think whiskey will become the punchline vodka is, but it’s going to have an effect. Paint and dress a Cabinet secretary like a clown for a year, and no one’s going to take them as seriously again.

What to do, what to do? I don’t know…like I said, I’m wringing my hands here. Appeals to decency aren’t going to work when we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cases of sales. But man…I hope they make enough for us. I’d like to be able to afford 18 year old whiskey in 2030. Unflavored 18 year old.

Finger Lakes Whiskey Ramble

Friday, March 28th, 2014

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

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

Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo

Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo

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

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

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

John and Joe Myer

John and Joe Myer

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas McKenzie and the 12" column

Thomas McKenzie and the 12″ column

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Local in Eastern Iowa

Friday, March 21st, 2014

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

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

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

Rose and her two columns.

Rose and her two columns.

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

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

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

Ryan Burchett

Ryan Burchett

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 7th, 2014

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

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

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

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

Tax-driven drop?

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

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

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