Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

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

Friday, March 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Michael!

Non-Distiller Producers? Or American Independent Bottlers?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickWhen it comes to sourced whiskey bottled by the so-called Non-Distiller Producers (NDPs), the whiskey is sometimes lost in the conversation of transparency.

In case you’re not glued into the American whiskey world, let me fill you in: these NDPs purchase whiskey from X distillery by the barrel and bottle it. Sometimes they slap a phony backstory on their label. Sometimes they try to hide the state of distillation on the bottle. And almost always, consumers, bloggers, and class-action lawyers will paint the Internet with “fraud” and “phony” comments about said NDPs.

This exhausting NDP narrative continues to play out with new companies trying this stuff every day. Just last month, Hatfield & McCoy launched a whiskey that was made from the two family recipes. According to the press release, the two feuding families “have century-old recipes written down in the backs of bibles and the backs of their minds. Until now, those recipes of the two clans have never met.” This whiskey is made by Charleston, South Carolina, Local Choice Spirits, which uses the TerrePure technology that rapidly matures whiskey outside of the barrel. While this Hatfield & McCoy whiskey may very well be from the family recipes, they most certainly did not use high-tech filtration technology to craft their whiskey. In the defense of the Hatfield & McCoy, they are not hiding their TerrePure connection and are merely making a sound business decision to take advantage of their family history.

With that said, the Hatfield & McCoy Whiskey is already catching flak on social media and merely permeating the anti-NDP sentiment that exists in the hardcore whiskey consumer culture.

Meanwhile, the whiskey is a victim. If tasted blind and without hearing the questionable backstories, the TerrePure and sourced whiskey fare well in competitions. Perhaps more importantly, business owners who are not making up phony backstories are getting lumped into the fake story group. The fact is, these bottlers are purchasing barrels from great distilleries, most notably the MGP Ingredients facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which uses the same “V” yeast as Four Roses. (MGP and Four Roses were once owned by Seagram’s.)

I’m a big fan of MGP’s whiskey. Several companies have done a nice job selecting splendid stocks, and some are getting really fed up with the never-ending NDP conversation. Redemption co-founder Dave Schmier says NDP is often used as a derogatory term, and he much prefers “merchant bottler” or “brand owners.”

barrel proof  7yo- no backgroundIf anybody has been transparent about the whiskey, it’s been Schmier and Redemption. When Schmier and industry veteran Michael Kanbar launched Redemption in 2010, Redemption’s low price point and mixability made it an immediate bartender favorite. They told everybody it was whiskey made in Indiana, even—get this—putting it on their label. Then, all the scuttlebutt came about the sourced whiskey dilemma, and Redemption, as well as several other brands, found themselves in the crosshairs of an angry whiskey-drinking mob.

Things have calmed down a little, and Redemption survived.

Now, as Lew Bryson’s recent ratings accurately illustrate, Redemption is reaching new levels of stardom with its sourced whiskey. But there’s more to this whiskey than Indiana. Redemption’s latest releases have been extraordinary and some have a connection to Stitzel-Weller, the famous distillery once owned by Pappy Van Winkle. Redemption’s recent 6 year and 7 year old rye releases were distilled in Indiana and aged at the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. For the record, Redemption didn’t put this on their bottle as some have; I simply gleaned this from conversation with the owners. In fact, these barrels were aged at Stitzel-Weller for four years.

As for the ultra delicious 10 year old rye, it was aged almost exclusively in Indiana. Redemption will also be releasing 17 year old Redemption Rye later this summer and 8 year old rye sometime in the near future. All aged in Indiana.

The brand also purchased significant amounts of bottled 1978 bourbon that it intends to “fine tune” with younger bourbons. Not sure what that means, but I’ll sign up for a partial whiskey made in the 1970s!

Redemption had a distillery planned, but like many plans, things changed and continued its contract distillation at MGP. A distillery is still a hope, but for now, Redemption is sticking to Indiana.

Don’t expect a strange backstory to come about, though. Schmier and Kanbar have had successes and failures; Redemption is essentially their second chance. As it turns out, whiskey was their thing.

There Is a Bourbon Shortage

Friday, February 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key findings from the consumer poll:

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

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

Where's all the bourbon?

Where’s all the bourbon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Is No Whiskey Shortage

Friday, February 20th, 2015

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

 

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

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

It’s called ‘clickbait.’

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

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

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

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

Beam Rack House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desk Whiskey

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t just private eyes, either.

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

1-IMG_20150123_130014076

“Pull up a chair”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desk Whiskey

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.