Archive for the ‘Fridays’ Category

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.

The Vinturi Spirit Aerator: a little afternoon fun

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonJohn recently reminded me that I was going to try out the Vinturi Spirit booze aerator we received about six months ago. Well, here I am on another of this winter’s snow days, and it seems like a perfect time to pull it out and have a go at it.

Comes with a base; doesn't come filled with whisky.

Comes with a base; doesn’t come filled with whisky.

First look: it’s clear plastic, but quite weighty. It looks like Magneto’s prison in X-Men 2, which is appropriate, because the button that activates the valve is not connected to the valve: it works by magnetism, so that no metal parts touch the whiskey, and there are no seals to leak whiskey. Unobtrusively cool, that. The Vinturi’s inventor, Rio Sabadicci, says that the “proprietary material” it’s made from is “more inert than glass,” which is either hard to believe…or scary, I thought glass was pretty darned inert.

Anyway, after fiddling with the magnetic button for a while, and rinsing it well with water, it’s time to play. First up was a Balblair 2001, bottled in 2012, uncolored, non-chill filtered, at 46%. Straight up: orange nougat, wet meadow, wildflower honey, dried pear, and a light piney tang, with some cocoa/fudge in the mid-palate; a thin entry that grows in the mouth. Into the Vinturi with it! The only difference I notice is that the pine backs off quite a bit, and the mouthfeel is a bit fuller. So what the heck, I ran it through again. This time the whisky tastes a bit sweeter, the fruit has backed off somewhat, more malt is coming to the fore, and the finish is warming up.


(Click on the video link to hear the odd sound it makes as the Balblair aerates.)

Let’s try something else: Jim Beam Single Barrel. That’s pretty different: 47.5% single barrel bourbon, around 6 years old. Light orange and cinnamon blend with warm caramel and dry oak in the nose, a pleasantly light corn, caramel, and citrus sweetness in the mouth, spiked with more cinnamon and some pepper, drying with oak toward the finish. Whatever: let’s whirlpool it! Erk. Something herbaceous has crept in, stemmy and rank…and then it’s gone. What happened there?! Now it’s like before, with maybe a bit more orange. The flavor, like the Balblair, seems sweeter after the aeration, and similarly, the finish seems hotter. Odd.

I’m not done, though. I have a new craft whiskey I haven’t reviewed yet: Ranger Creek .44 Rye, one of their “Small Caliber Series” of young, small bottle format whiskeys. This is Batch #1, 7 months old, and 47%, “distilled from 100% rye mash.” Very grassy, oily nose, with a floral touch to it. Crackling bitterness up front, followed by a wildly wrenching transition to a big sweet finish; like the .36 bourbon, this is not for the faint of heart, exciting whiskey. Let’s load this wildcat round in the Vinturi and pull the trigger. The nose seems more minty than grassy now, and the mouth is less bitter, the mint comes out, and again, the finish seems hotter. This is more changed than the other two, but the differences are still rather small.

What to make of this? The Vinturi Spirit sells for $20 on Amazon; $30 at stores. I’m sold on the value of aerating red wine, but on aerating whiskey? Not so much. The results of these three experiments make me think of something a brewer once said to me, after suggesting what I might be tasting in his beers. “They’re dog whistle flavors,” he said. “You don’t really hear them, you hear them because I told you they were there.” I’m not sure there’s really any difference in what I’m tasting pre/post-Vinturi, but there’s supposed to be a difference, so I look for one.

I think the Vinturi is like the Whisky Rocks; something a well-meaning friend or relation will buy you as a gift. You’ll play with it a couple times, and then put it away. That’s what I’m going to do. And then I’m going to finish these whiskies and call it a day!

Valentine’s Day: My Dram, Your Dram, Our Dram

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonToday is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day for flowers, and candy, and cards; romance and quiet dinners, and maybe a nice tot of whisky at the end of the day to put a bit of a glow on things. But when you have a sweetie who doesn’t necessarily love the same whisky that you do, the evening drink can be a time for loving compromise. You might want one thing, they might want another…but you can usually compromise on something that both of you will enjoy.

I asked some of the Whisky Advocate crew how this would play out at their homes, and gave my own likely scenario as an example.

My Dram: Redbreast, because the fruit and the feel is a favorite.

Your Dram: Ardbeg 17, because that’s her bottle (she’s holding out on me, dammit!).

Our Dram: Parker’s Golden Anniversary, because even my peat-freak darling recognizes that this stuff is brilliant.

They got the idea, and here they are, just for fun. What happens at your home?

 

Davin de Kergommeaux

My Dram: Gibson’s 18; something elegant for Valentine’s Day

Your Dram: Black Velvet Toasted Caramel, a creamy sweet dessert whisky.

Our Dram: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, because we discovered it together at a whisky dinner.

 

Sam Komlenic

My Dram: the recently reintroduced Wild Turkey Rye 101, as good as ever.

Your Dram: Maker’s Mark, because she loved the distillery tour.

Our Dram: High West Son of Bourye.  Compromise: the secret to a good relationship (and a happy Valentine’s Day!).

 

valentineIan Buxton

My Dram: a nicely matured old Glenfarclas from the Family Casks series because I love the depth, the richness, the weight (and the price).

Your Dram: a Highland Park 40 year old because Orkney holds many happy memories (and because I’m buying).

Our Dram: a Glengoyne, any Glengoyne, because that’s the distillery we visited on our modest honeymoon, long before we knew the part whisky would play in both our lives! The whisky matters less than the memories for that particular dram.

 

Fred Minnick

My Dram: I’m planning to enjoy some 1970s-era Wild Turkey neat.

Your Dram: I’m fortunate to be married to a woman who loves, and I mean loves, bourbon. When we went to the hospital in December to deliver our first child, Jaclyn was wearing an Old Forester t-shirt. She’s keeping it light, but demands a “proper” whiskey sour, with Buffalo Trace, an egg white, and a dry shake over the rocks.

Our Dram: Booker’s, with a large ice cube. Booker’s doesn’t last long in our house.

 

Terry Sullivan

Valentine’s Day calls for red stuff; roses in most places, blood on the garage floor here in Chicago. So…

My Dram: the very last drops from my bottle of Macallan Gran Reserva, which I’ve been husbanding for years. It’s the reddest thing ever put in a bottle without adding chemicals. You don’t have any, of course, because you don’t husband as well as I do, so you should just get the new 1824 Ruby Macallan.

Your Dram: The Steadfast Monica will go with her usual cocktail, which is as red as South Carolina on election night. Immortalized as The Steadfast some years ago in GQ, it’s a Sazeracish take on an Old Fashioned without the fruit. Here’s how: in a rocks glass, saturate a teaspoon of bar sugar with—yes, really—12 to 15 dashes of Peychaud Bitters and dissolve with a little water. Add a couple of ice cubes and fill with bourbon (usually Evan Williams black or Wild Turkey, because the Steadfast Monica has a soft spot for both Parker Beam and Jimmy Russell) and maybe another splash of water, depending on whether it’s a school night.

Our Dram: don’t tell anyone, but since this February is so cold dogs are exploding in the streets, I plan to pour us both a couple glasses of Phil Pritchard’s cranberry rum. It’s warming and tasty, and I understand it’s quite high in antioxidants.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of us!

But Is It Malt Whisky?

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhat is malt whisky? Pretty simple question; almost stupidly simple. It’s whisky made from malt. If you put anything else in besides malt, it’s not malt whisky. That’s why single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky doesn’t have a “mashbill.” It’s 100% MALT. Just malt.

Barley

Barley

Well, then, what’s malt? We use the term generally to refer to malted barley: barley that has been wetted (“steeped”), allowed to germinate while being turned, and then kilned to drive off the moisture and kill the sprout (before it eats anymore of those valuable starches that will become the water of life).

But other grains are malted as well: rye and wheat, mostly, but other grains like oats and triticale can be malted, even corn. The Scotch Whisky Regulations wisely specify that barley malt must be used to make single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky, but the U.S. Standards of Identity have a few more loopholes for other malts. They note that “malt whisky” must be 51% malted barley and “rye malt whisky” must be 51% malted rye grain…but they don’t specify what the other grains must be. There’s also that odd little catchall phrase that they tuck in there: “…and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.”

I’m thinking that a whisky made from a mashbill of 51% barley malt, 35% rye malt, and 14% wheat malt would qualify to be labeled as “malt whisky” in the U.S., and that it could further have a fanciful name like “All Your Malts Are Belong To Us!” or “Malts-a-Million,” or simply “Malts Whiskey.”

If you’re wondering what got me thinking about this, it was a sample that came in for review from Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Colorado, their Tenderfoot Whiskey. They’re calling it ‘our single-malt whiskey,” and it’s made with 77% barley malt, 10% wheat malt, and 13% rye malt. I guess it’s “single-malt” in that it’s all made at their distillery; me, I’d call it a “single-triple malt.”

320px-Ear_of_rye

Rye

It just makes me think. The Scotch Whisky Regulations were updated in 2009, and made some substantial changes. There have been no changes to the Standards of Identity in almost 20 years, nothing at all since the explosion of whiskey experimentation that has been taking place at distilleries big and small. We still don’t have good definitions to cover the unaged “white” whiskey (or the aged and filtered stuff, like White Owl and Jacob’s Ghost), the multiplicity of grains, and experimentation with wood.

So should the Standards of Identity tighten up, with sharper definitions designed to let consumers know more exactly what they’re getting? Should they stop insisting on new charred oak barrels for everything (everything with prestige, that is)? Should they have an outright “Experimental Whisky” category? While we’re at it, should they recognize that this is America, and start using the “whiskey” spelling in the regs?! There is increasing interest in changing the Standards of Identity: who gets to write those changes?

It’s Friday; have at it.

 

Barley image: © Lucash / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Rye image: © LSDSL / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Wax, Blood, And Crumbling Corks

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhisky makers: while we want secure whisky, whisky that can be collected or consumed with confidence, we’ve got a problem with getting at the stuff in the bottle. We need less wax, and better closures.

I’m on the warpath. It all started with this furious Tweet I sent out just after the new year, one that was retweeted and well-commented upon:

I’m COMPLETELY serious: stop putting wax on goddamned whisky bottles! I almost sliced my hand, and your dumb wax is in my toaster!

What happened was that I was opening one last sample bottle to review, and it was waxed. Thickly. With that hard, resin-like “wax” that’s really more like some kind of plastic armor plate, and no pull-tab or scoring ring or zip-strip or even a single damned clue on where to start…just a forbidding navy blue cocoon.

The whisky, the wax, the toaster

The whisky, the wax, and there in the back, the toaster

I attacked it with the short blade of a waiter’s friend-type corkscrew. I tried to carve a ring around the top of the glass to separate the top from the cocoon, but the wax wasn’t carving, it was spalling: chips and chunks were flying off (and yes, one did flip into the top of the toaster), and the knife slipped and skippered about on the hard, slick surface. I gripped the bottle tighter, and bore down—suddenly the bottle shifted, wax cracked, and the knife shot past the knuckle of my thumb. Cussing ensued. I finished the job with a pair of pliers, and when I finally had the thing open, I was not in a generous mood. Luckily, it was quite nice; saved the day.

Look, I have nothing against the famous red wax top on Maker’s Mark. It’s pretty, and more to the point, it’s soft and zip-stripped and easy to open. They know how to do it. And I get why distillers do it. It looks “premium” and yes, it may even keep out oxygen and other taints.

Wax done right

Wax done right

But for every easily-opened bottle of Maker’s Mark out there, there are more annoyingly bloody difficult impenetrable damnable awful son-of-a— Yes, as I was saying, there are these poorly thought-out chunks of stuff. Baker’s, for instance, love Baker’s, a favorite bourbon, but the wax they use brings me to screaming, and there’s no excuse: it’s the same parent company! Go steal the Maker’s Mark secret wax technology, guys!

Craft distillers are terrible offenders; the bottle I wrestled with was a craft distiller’s. They use the armor-coat stuff, they use ugly colors, sometimes they use what looks and feels like candle wax. Yuck. I wind up scraping it off, or scoring it and twisting with a large amount of hope, and no matter what I do, there are scraps and shreds and slivers of wax all over. It’s a mess, and not conducive to happily sitting down with a dram from a fresh bottle.

Friends have told me I need to warm the wax (a good idea), cut it “the right way” (with a bandsaw?), and—my favorite—get a champagne saber. That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it be easier and more consumer-friendly if we could just get rid of the wax altogether? Especially if the bottlers aren’t going to make it properly easy by using the soft wax with the nylon strip helper?

We still want to keep the cork in there with more than friction, of course. Shrink-wrap plastic works fine, and can be clear—nothing wrong there—or smartly clad in graphic style. Does it look anachronistic on a bottle of whisky? Take a look at the label; think that printing’s in 19th century style, especially that barcode? How old do you want the closure to look? Anyone want to go back to springtops? Two seconds work with a pen knife (which anyone should be carrying, in my opinion), and a plastic seal’s gone, whether it’s perforated or not.

Of course, then you’ve got the cork to deal with (unless you’ve got a screwtop, in which case, I hope it’s sturdy enough to thread back on when you’re done, and make sure it doesn’t get bent!), and that’s another sore point. We had a bottle of very expensive, very highly-anticipated whiskey that couldn’t be poured at San Francisco WhiskyFest this year because when it was opened…corked!

Cork taint from TCA is an ongoing problem, no matter what the cork producers say. We’re told by producers that tainted corks are down to 1% (or less), while people not in the industry say it’s closer to 3-5%. Even if it is 1%, that means that — statistically! — the fellow who stole 225 bottles of Van Winkle a few months ago may have gotten two corked ones! Serves him right, the jerk.

Even if the cork’s not tainted, I’ve encountered a disturbing number of crumbling corks lately, some in new bottles. Pull off the plastic wrap, twist the cork topper, and kluhbup…you’ve got the topper and about a centimeter of crumbling cork in your hand, and the rest of it is still in the neck (if you’re lucky and it’s not crumbled into the whiskey).

What to do about that? Buy better cork? Maybe, but here’s a thought. I’ve had a lot of craft whiskeys with synthcorks lately, and aside from an odd quality to the sound when they’re pulled and the odd look of them, I haven’t noticed a difference.

I’m sure there’s someone who will tell me they can taste the plastic (and the caramel, and the salt air, and the stillman’s lunch…), but I’m standing here with a $70 bottle of whisky in one hand and half a cork in the other; I’m willing to be the guinea pig for that. Otherwise, at this point, I’m left with buying replacement corks at the hardware store (quite reasonable, and I always keep five or ten in a little bag in the desk drawer), but that’s hardly the kind of thing I should have to do.

All I want is to get at that spirit, and once I have, to be able to seal it back up again for a bit till I can get around to finishing it. Wax gets in my way. Corks are apparently a fallible solution. Work on this, whisky industry, will you please?

IRON DRAMS

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Author - Johnnie McCormick“I can’t stand the stuff” my cab driver said as we hung a left a little fast, pressing me tight into the door. “It’s so strong.” It’s a frequently heard refrain when a whisky drinker gets talking about libations with a stranger. So it got me thinking as I rattled around the backseat. You can divide whiskies up by country or by region. Sure, you can split them up by cereal or cask type. Then again, there’s another dividing line. Most whiskies sold in the world today are still bottled at 40% ABV. And they call that the hard stuff! We may clinch a small victory whenever a classic range is refreshed and comes back at 46% and non-chill filtered, but that’s just small fry really.

Let’s face facts: some drams are bigger than others. These are Iron Drams: high-strength muscle whisky which is more alcohol in the glass than anything else. These bottles brim with vigor and potency. Be careful, and approach with ritualistic trepidation. Iron Drams demand deference because who knows what apocalyptic hellfire will befall those who dare to put that glass to their lips? We’re after aroma and flavor, not some Bill Bixby transformation. Yet the mind is primed to expect a tornado of intensity, like consuming a ball of fire with cartoonish results; the eyeballs poking out on stalks amid a fiery, scarlet complexion, smoke jets emitting from both ears.

Iron Dram Stagg2_McCormickOf course, there are technical reasons for Iron Drams. Where the distiller chooses to make their cuts during distillation, the number of distillations, through to the filling strength as the spirit enters the cask all set the wheels in motion. Maturation matters too, as the evaporation of water over alcohol will depend on the type of vessel, the condition of the oak, the position in the warehouse, and the temperature fluctuations within. Alcohol strength typically falls over time in Scotland, but hotter climates promote greater evaporation of water than alcohol, as we observe in a Kentucky rickhouse or among casks of Amrut maturing in India. Cost plays a part too: producers get many more cases from their batch if they bottle down at 40%. It’s about physics, chemistry, geography, history, and economics—it’s quite an education!

You do get a great deal of alcohol for the money though. The strongest George T Stagg release—the 2007 edition—was bottled at 72.4% ABV. That bottle contained 54.3 units of alcohol (a unit is defined in the UK as 10 ml of pure alcohol); six times as much as a $45 bottle of Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut champagne. Now that’s a celebration!

It’s not just machismo for machismo’s sake. Iron Drams should still be approached responsibly, and hopefully, they encourage people to pour smaller measures. Appreciative of the production reasons, whisky connoisseurs prefer the versatility and the opportunity to drink their drams at cask strength and find their own preferred dilution. It’s the difference between playing piano using the whole keyboard or being restricted to an octave. It feels more authentic, rather than have someone else decide what strength you’ll have your drink. The scope for experimentation is greater as you can explore the full spectrum of flavor by adjusting the water you add (an aspect taken out your hands with 40% ABV). It feels better to be in the driving seat, right?

Iron Drams – a quick guide of where to go hunting for big game.

1) George T Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Since 2002, every one of these bourbons has been bottled at a strength over 60%, with the majority over 70%. These are so strong that they even breach the TSA regulations for carrying on board an aircraft in your checked baggage.

2) Bruichladdich X4. This quadruple distilled spirit was reduced from 92% to 50% before being sold as an unaged spirit. Bruichladdich once assisted a TV show to film a thrilling publicity stunt by using their unreduced X4 spirit to fuel a Le Mans race car to roar past the distillery. Three years later and Bruichladdich X4+3 was released at 63.5%, to date the only available quadrupled distilled single malt whisky. Mind you, their Octomore and Port Charlotte releases have been no shrinking violets either.

Iron Dram Karuizawa_McCormick3) Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Editions. The strongest bourbons from Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses; many of these bottlings hold an ABV in excess of 60%. It’s a great way for bourbon drinkers to gain insight into the subtleties of their ten recipes of different mashbills and yeasts.

4) Karuizawa single malt whisky. Japan is the perfect place to explore lengthy maturation and high strength. The closed Japanese distillery has attracted a cult following in Europe and Japan but it requires some effort to get hold of a bottle if you live in North America. Whether it’s a vintage release or Noh bottling from Number One Drinks Company, these long aged and heavily sherried beasts typically weigh in somewhere north of 60%.

5) Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Over the past 30 years, the SMWS have delivered thousands of single cask releases for their members, bottled at natural cask strength. Other independent bottlers produce specifIron Dram Mortlach_McCormick (1)ic cask strength lines too but this is the raison d’être for the SMWS. You will find most of the Iron Drams in the young, powerful bottlings matured for less than a decade.

6) Rare Malts Selection. One of the more collectible whisky series in their distinctive livery, you might find a Mortlach at 65.3% from 1972, a Teaninich at 64.95% from 1972, or a St Magdalene at 63.8% from 1979 if you hunt hard enough. These days, these official releases are only to be found at auction or at a premium price through specialist retailers.

7) World Whiskies. Whisky importers recognize that world whiskies are most likely to be bought by established whisky drinkers looking for new experiences beyond their regular tipple. Producers are obliging by supplying some high strength beauties such as Taiwan’s Kavalan Solist series, Amrut’s Peated Cask Strength 62.8% or Portonova 62.1%, Tasmania’s Lark Single Cask bottlings, and Overeem Cask Strength releases from the Old Hobart Distillery.

8) White Dog. The fashion for unaged whiskey and rye seems to have abated though they remain popular among some bartenders (and people who bought one of those home maturation kits). As a constituent of a mixed drink, that high bottling strength will be tamed before it’s served to the customer anyway. As an individual drink, most drinkers’ curiosity is satisfied after the first few sips.

9) Aberlour A’bunadh. This classic heavily sherried whisky is approaching its 50th batch, but it was batch 33 at 60.9% that proved to be the strongest. A classic Iron Dram.

10) Islay single malts. Some people (like my cabbie) might equate peaty, smoky whiskies with being stronger, though that’s a myth. The peating of the malted barley doesn’t automatically equate to the phenolic content of the final spirit, let alone the alcohol strength. However, if you want to check out Islay’s Iron Drams, get hold of a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova 2010 at 60.1%, Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength, or Lagavulin 12 year old which was strongest in 2002 at 58.0%.

Have you any Iron Dram recommendations? Do you find high strength is your preference or do you avoid such liquid dynamite? What’s your opinion on the relationship between more alcohol and flavor? Do you have any favorite producers who you feel could benefit from adding an Iron Dram to their range? Jump right in!