Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

The Balcones Controversy

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

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

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

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

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: darkrye.com

The Vote For Scottish Independence

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has some thoughts about the upcoming vote on Scottish independence. Not surprisingly, they center on its effects on Scotch whisky. Be honest; that’s exactly the way many people who read this blog evaluate it!

At last! At last, the Scotch whisky industry has woken up to the potential dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum (you can explore the issues, facts, opinions, and polls on a BBC site here).

In summary, on September 18th, voters in Scotland will give a YES/NO answer to a simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

The question is a momentous one, involving the break-up of the 300 year old United Kingdom and turning Scotland and England into foreign countries. The debate has run on for nearly two years, with no final and satisfactory answers to questions such as ‘what currency will Scotland use, and on what basis?’, ‘will an independent Scotland be part of the European Union?’ and ‘how will all this be paid for?’

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

The expectation is that if Scotland breaks away it will follow a more left-wing political and social agenda than has previously been the case for the United Kingdom as a whole. The nationalist case is that Scotland, a country rich in natural assets, can well afford to stand on its own. The North Sea oil fields are frequently mentioned as a major source of income, though as the No campaign loudly responds, eventually the oil will run out. No one knows exactly when, but that the wells will finally run dry isn’t in dispute.

That leaves whisky as one of the few remaining national assets that can’t easily get up and leave (a large part of the significant Scottish financial community could well decamp to the City of London). The fact that Scotch whisky has to be made and matured in Scotland means that it will inevitably be a long-term tax target for any future government of an independent Scotland.

The political arguments are good: the industry uses Scotland’s water but currently pays relatively little tax in Scotland itself and, while it creates employment, the high-value management jobs tend to be out of the country. Much of the economic benefit of Scotch whisky flows not to the people of Scotland, but to anonymous global multinational corporations. A tax on water extraction would be easy to measure and very hard to avoid. Why shouldn’t they pay their share?

It’s a seductive argument. What’s more, as well as a water tax, one could easily anticipate a ‘storage tax’ on every barrel slowly maturing in a Scottish warehouse (similar to Kentucky’s ad valorem tax on aging bourbon; you could expect many more NAS whiskies if that ever came in!). The current political administration of the Scottish National Party, who run the present Scottish administration, are also deeply committed to higher taxes on alcohol on grounds of health and social policy, so the price of a dram or a bottle could shoot up after a Yes vote.

You might have thought then that the Scotch whisky industry would have been lobbying hard against the independence vote and stressing the benefits of the union. But until very recently we’ve heard little; the corporate line has been “it’s for the people of Scotland to decide.”

At last, however, they have started to fight. First to break cover was former Scotch Whisky Association chief Gavin Hewitt, who has set out a clear personal position in mainstream and social media. He’s no enthusiast for an independent Scotland. “Scotland would lose influence in the world and the clout that a big country has with [EU headquarters in] Brussels; lose access to a superb network of UK embassies and trade support, and I am concerned about the consequences [of a ‘yes’ vote] for whisky. If it ain’t broke,” he argues “then don’t fix it.”

But Gavin is just one man. That’s not the case with William Grant & Sons’ donation of hard cash to the Better Together campaign and other pro-Union groups. Earlier this year they gave £185,000 (more than $300,000) and have been vocal in support of the status quo.

Now they’ve been joined by a number of distillers who were part of a joint letter to The Scotsman newspaper signed by 120 leading Scottish businesses which argued the case for the continued union with England. It included some impressive names such as the chief executives of the Edrington Group (Famous Grouse, Macallan, Highland Park), Inver House, Burn Stewart, and William Grant & Sons, as well as smaller concerns such as Tomatin, Adelphi, Ian Macleod Distillers (Glengoyne), and so on.

Well done, I say… and where are Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Bacardi? This issue is simply too important to let go by default. It’s my opinion that the companies are making a mistake: they should have a view and they should express it, quickly and clearly. Their employees and customers deserve no less. This is too important a subject: Scotch whisky does not belong to Scotland alone, and the drinkers of England and Wales, let alone the wider world, want to hear the distillers’ voice: loud and clear.

Scottish Independence, if it comes, may well be good for whisky’s image, yet also, as I have suggested, push up prices. Whisky drinkers may welcome a greater strength of national identity and the proud confidence of a newly-formed nation, but will those drinkers be willing to pay more to toast an independent Scotland?

That’s the key question that no one can answer. But one thing is sure: if Scotland votes to go it alone, there will be no way back and nothing will be same ever again for the nation’s most famous export.

On September 19th we will know for sure.

photo: http://photoeverywhere.co.uk/

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

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

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

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

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

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

And then there’s this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mastering the craft

Mastering the craft

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

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

Now we’re getting somewhere.

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

DISCUS Briefing Confirms Surging Growth of American Whiskey

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

It’s Not Like That!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has a bit of a shout about the persistent idea that Scotch whisky marketing is all tartan and bagpipes.

I’m beginning to wonder if my fellow scribes haven’t watched too many episodes of Mad Men. It pains me to say it, but some of them appear stuck in the 1960s as far as whisky marketing is concerned.

Now I know I’m a grumpy, middle-aged (at best), white male and that automatically disqualifies me from having an opinion about anything, but I’ve got to get this off my chest, because the same tired old clichés keep appearing. It’s lazy writing and it’s neither right nor fair. This is the myth that will not die. Watch out: you’ll see it again and again.

bagpiperWhisky ads evoke “scenes brimming with tartan and sheep dogs, the chilly Scottish hills” according to one recent article. And here it is again: “the iconic image of an old man sipping neat whisky, preferably in a tartan kilt by the fireside, somewhere in the Highlands, has been used time and again by whisky brands.”

But really? When was that, then? We haven’t seen the old boy by his cozy hearth for at least 30 years! As for tartan, I flicked through the current issues of three different whisky magazines to see what I could find. Not a scrap of the stuff in sight. No kilts. No plaids. And what’s more, no old men either, no bagpipes, and only a distant glimpse of what might have been a fireside.

Perhaps it’s all to be found online and on our TV screens. So I took a look. Johnnie Walker’s film The Man Who Walked Round the World seemed a good place to start. It begins with a misty glen and a kilted piper. Maybe it’s all true then? Except that he lasts about 30 seconds, whereupon in strides a cross-looking Robert Carlyle, who snaps “Hey, piper! Shut it!” And that’s the last we see of him.

Now given that Johnnie Walker is the best-selling and most heavily advertised Scotch whisky in the world you’d imagine they’d be as guilty as anyone of living off the tartan-clad clichés that seem to obsess my colleagues. Not if their stunning TV commercials are any guide; work such as Android, Leap of Faith and Take the First Step (check them out on YouTube) are incredible pieces of film-making, far removed from the land of hills and glens. Not to mention F1 sponsorship and their stylish luxury yacht Voyager.

Maybe it’s lesser brands? William Lawson’s is a blended Scotch doing well in Europe and making huge gains in Russia’s burgeoning whisky market. Their TV work has plenty of kilts and strong, silent men. But again, check it out. It’s an unusual take on a kilt that has Sharon Stone giggling, that’s all I’ll say. And by all accounts, the New Zealand rugby authorities weren’t impressed with Lawson’s Haka commercial.

Fact is, Scotch whisky marketing moved on from tartan, bagpipes, and heather and weather years and years ago. Brands like Cutty Sark take pleasure in exploding that image, literally blowing up a cozy study, complete with decanters, leather armchair, and fireplace before going on to host parties in London’s trendy Brick Lane with a hip crowd of edgy artists, DJs, and burlesque stars.

Scotch isn’t conquering new markets, engaging with new audiences, and defining itself as the spirit of the age by living off past glories. So let’s let go of the clichés. Scotch isn’t for old men.

Except for me, obviously.

Some new whiskeys I like, and some I don’t like (part 1)

Monday, August 12th, 2013

John HansellWhiskeys might be more expensive (and perhaps harder to find) these days but, after tasting my way through some new releases, it’s pretty clear that there are still plenty of high quality whiskeys coming on the market. Here’s a run down of the ones I like, don’t like, and why.

Part 1 focuses on American Whiskeys. Part 2, which I will publish in about a week or so, will address some new single malt Scotch whisky, blended Scotch whisky, and a new Indian whisky I’ve recently tasted.

Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskeys

Four Roses Small Batch 2013Let’s start with new bourbon releases. There are quite a few of them. For those of you who enjoyed the Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch (I did–I named it Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year last year), I think you will like the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch. It  is similar in flavor profile, with a little more oak spice and a touch less honey. This whiskey is already on my short list of favorite new bourbons for 2013.

Similarly, I am equally impressed by the new Elijah Craig 21 Year Old Single Barrel review sample that I have (Barrel No. 42). Heaven Hill has discontinued the most recent 20 year old offering and has replaced it with a 21 year old release. As you will recall, two years ago I named the Elijah Craig 20 Year Old  Single Barrel (Barrel No. 3735) our American Whiskey of the Year. The new 21 year old single barrel is very similar in profile to the award-winning 20 year old with a bit more oak influence. It’s elegant, subtly complex, with some intriguing tropical fruit, and–most important of all–not over-oaked, which is something we all need to be concerned about when buying bourbons that are 20+ years in age.

Let me be clear about one thing though, regarding these Elijah Craig 21 year old single barrel offerings: I’m giving you my thoughts on whiskey from just one barrel (Barrel No. 42), and I don’t know what the other barrels are going to taste like. Hopefully, they will be similar in profile. However, after I tasted our award winning EC 20 single barrel two years ago, I tasted two other barrels after that and both–whiles still very nice bourbons–definitely showed more oak in their flavor profiles. I am hoping to taste more of the Elijah Craig 21 year old single barrels as they come out. If I do, I’ll offer my thoughts here in the comment thread. Bottom line here: the barrel that I’m reviewing (and that other writers are reviewing right now) are review samples sent directly to us from Heaven Hill. Could they have cherry picked the best barrel or barrels? It’s possible. Fair warning…

EC 21I’ve been checking out the recent Booker’s Bourbon offerings. There’s one in particular I wanted to tell you about that I think really stands out. It’s richly flavored and nicely balanced. It’s my favorite Booker’s so far this year, and it’s just about get into circulation. (I’m not sure exactly where, though. Sorry.) It’s bottled at 127.1 proof and is Batch No. 2013-4.

You may have heard rumblings of a new George Dickel Barrel Program. Well, it’s definitely a reality. I’ve always been a big fan of George Dickel (especially the Barrel Select), and when I heard that they were going to start offering older, single barrels to retail accounts for purchase, I got very excited.

At the moment, there are two different ages of single barrels available to retailers to chose from: a 9 year old (bottled at 103 proof) and a 14 year old (bottled at 106 proof). Diageo was kind enough to send me two barrel samples from each year, and I’ve just tasted them. They are delicious! If you’re a Dickel fan, then you’ll want to track down a bottle. Based on the samples I was sent, here’s my advice: go for the 9 year old if you can find one. I think they’re a little more balanced (i.e. not as oak-driven) as the 14 year old and I suspect it will cost less too! (If any of you know where to find the 9 year old, let us know. I’d like to buy one myself!)

BTEC Wheat Mash Enrty ProofThe newest release of Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection is out, and this time there are four of them. They’re all wheated bourbons and the difference between them (from a production standpoint) is the barrel entry proof (125, 115, 105, and 90). In short: if you can find yourself a bottle of one of these, give it a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed, if you enjoy wheated bourbons. (My favorite is the 90 proof entry expression.) Some will rate a 90 or more when I eventually review them formally.

STAGG JR FrontOkay, and now for the bourbon that didn’t impress me: the new Stagg Jr. by Buffalo Trace. It is, according to my press release, a younger sibling to the more mature George T. Stagg releases. There’s no age statement, but it contains whiskeys aged for 8-9 years. Yes, Stagg Jr. big and bold like the original George T. Stagg, but it is harsher and more aggressive (with the spice and oak notes) than George T. Stagg. I just don’t enjoy it.

Don’t get me wrong. George T. Stagg is certainly no wimpy whiskey. But it’s usually also incredibly complex and well-balanced. Stagg Jr.’s aggressiveness crosses to line. My advice: save your pennies and spring for the older George T. Stagg if you are choosing between the two.

The downside to single cask bottlings

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

John HansellScotch distillers do it. Bourbon distillers do it. For many independent bottlers, it’s their livelihood: bottling whisky one barrel at a time.

This is generally thought to be a good thing by most whisky consumers. After all, those generic “bottom shelf brands” are bottlings of many barrels mingled together, not one barrel at a time. They lack individuality, distinction. And some of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted have been single cask bottlings.

So, what’s the problem then, you ask? Well, let me use the analogy of a choir and a soloist. If you’re a great singer and you’re in a choir, you certainly will help make the choir sound better, but you’ll be lost in the crowd and not fully appreciated. You’re better off singing solo, so everyone can hear and appreciate your talents.

But what if you’re not a great singer and you sing solo? Everyone hears you. Your faults are fully exposed. You have no place to hide, no other voices to compensate for your weaknesses. And let’s face it: very few of us are great singers.

The same goes for whisky. Sure, I’ve had some amazing single cask bottlings of whiskies, and I am so glad they were able to “sing solo.” But for every amazing bottling I’ve tried, there’s probably ten I’ve tasted that would have been better “mingled” with other barrels before being bottled, to help hide their flaws or compensate for their weaknesses.

Sure, buying from a reputable producer (or independent bottler) increases the odds that you will be satisfied with your purchase, but each cask of whisky is unique in it’s flavor profile. That’s what makes them so much fun to try, but that’s also where the risk lies. It’s a two-edged sword.

Additionally, I find that the whiskies from many distilleries taste better when the bottling consists of a mix of both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, not just one or the other. (Not always–I still love Glenmorangie aged exclusively in bourbon oak, for example.)

I was recently sent review samples of single casks from an independent bottler. One was distilled at Tobermory and aged in a sherry cask; the other was distilled at Longmorn and aged in a refill bourbon casks. The sherry dominated the Tobermory whisky, and the Longmorn, because of its extensive aging, was dry on the palate and could have used some sherry sweetness and fruitiness to balance the flavor profile. These are just two examples to explain my point, but it happens all the time.

Bottom line: buying a bottle of single cask whisky is exciting, but it’s also risky. If you can, “try before you buy” so you know what you’re getting. If you can’t try it first, stick with producers and bottlers you trust.