Archive for the ‘Whisky Advocate Blog’ Category

Fire Water

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonA while back I got a box from Darek Bell, the co-founder of Corsair Distillery. It wasn’t a big box, just about the size of a shoebox, and not that heavy. On opening, there was a lot of smoke-gray bubblewrap, a piece of paper, and ten little sample bottles of whiskey. The paper had a key to the contents of the bottles. Some had a fanciful name, like Smokejumper, Pyro, or Hydra, and each was whiskey, smoked with a different combustible: black walnut, pear, blackberry root, Hickory Amaranth, lemon balm, “5 Smoke blend.” I thought back to our 2012 Craft Whiskey of the Year, Corsair’s Triple Smoke, and sat down and started opening bottles!

Hydra — 5 smoke blend — The “smokiest” of the batch, bonfire, chimney smoke, but with a depth of different characters that keep it perky and bright: citrus, flower.

Now Bell follows up with Fire Water, Experimental Smoked Malts and Whiskeys, a focused companion book to his earlier Alt Whiskey. These two books share what’s constantly bubbling through Bell’s brain: Innovate or Die. He’s been quoted many times as saying that Corsair’s goal is to make whiskeys that have never been made before. Fire Water represents new territory indeed, by approaching smoke in whiskey as something far beyond peat.

Salamander — muira puama bark — Muira Puama is an Amazonian shrub used in herbal medicine. Floral, bosky, like leaves underfoot or old books without the acidity, and only gently smoky.

Fire Water is directly aimed at the people who want to make whiskey, and these days, illegal though it may be (and it is, very illegal), I run into people every week who tell me they’re distilling at home. (I tell them, you know, whether you sell it or not, even if you make just a little, it’s very illegal.) But the point of the book is to provide a guide particularly to the people who want to try something very different, not just a different mashbill, or making their own malt whiskey; this is for people who, like Bell, really want to rock out with their whiskey-making.

Firehawk — oak maple muira puama blend — Vetiver, cologne, a sharp smokiness with bright notes.

FireWaterThe first part of the book is a detailed look at smoking. What do you smoke, how do you smoke, what changes the amount of smoke a grain will absorb, and the various techniques — including direct injection — of getting smoke flavor into the distillate. I was surprised to learn that frozen grain will absorb more smoke flavor. This is nuts and bolts stuff that will excite the distiller and curious drinker both.

Efreet — lemon balm — very lemony, but with a sweet smokiness; gentle, but firm and refreshing.

Then the meat of the book is the tasting notes: what does distillate made with these smoked grains smell and taste like? The notes are done by two experienced ‘noses,’ Nancy Fraley and Julia Nourney. They give notes independently on an array of distillate made with the different ‘smokes,’ from woods, herbs, barks, and roots. One thing you learn is that fruitwood doesn’t always smell like the fruit. “Where’s the pear,” reads one nosing note under pear wood.

Pyro — pearwood — Fresh, delicately smoky, a surprising hit of olive brine.

The last part of the book approaches blending; putting these different flavors together to make a greater whole. This is the Canadian approach crossed with craft-based explosive variety. It reads not unlike a discussion with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head about his herb and fruit-based beers that seem to defy common sense to work beautifully; Calagione planned his beers, he didn’t just throw things together. Plan for greatness, Bell says, don’t stumble on it, and then lays out a philosophy for blending. Blending has gotten a bad name in whisky circles, and anything that gives it respect is a good thing.

NAGA — clove and barberry blend — Big smoke and spice, explosive, tangy, and shocking. Flavored whiskey that is 100% whiskey.

My one complaint with Fire Water is the design and editing. This was a self-published book, and it shows in spots. There are editing oversights that should have been caught, and the design looks rushed and jammed. The illustrations are good, colorful and illustrative, but don’t always lay well on the page. The production quality is good, though, and the cover is particularly striking.

Smokejumper — black walnut — Perhaps the purest smoke; firewood burning, sweet barbecue smoke.

Overall, though? Fire Water is jam-packed with ideas that will open up imaginative doors for innovative distillers of all types. There is brilliance here, with daring and excitement. These whiskeys won’t be for everyone — neither are Islay whiskies — but they may well burn out a whole new category of American spirits. And that’s worth a look.

Balcones Founder Chip Tate Speaks Freely

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickFor the first time since the August 8 temporary restraining order, Balcones founder Chip Tate can talk about the legal battle with his investors. He’s been under a strict media gag order, while the 170th Texas State District Court sorts out the disagreement between Tate and his investors, who alleged Tate refused to attend board meetings and even threatened to shoot board chairman Greg Allen. Allen’s legal team changed the terms of the temporary restraining order, Tate says, and he spoke with Whisky Advocate writer Fred Minnick.

By now, you’ve likely seen Allen’s side of the story. The Waco Tribune, bloggers and other media outlets published court records. We wrote about it here on the Whisky Advocate blog.

Last year, Balcones announced expansion plans for its Waco, Texas, distillery, making it one of the most-promising craft distilleries with award-winning whiskey. Allen and Tate seemed to be off to a great start and the press release offered incredible optimism with Tate saying he was “proud” to call Allen a partner.

But other things happened in a short span of time, and this is Tate’s side of that story.

Minnick: What is going on?

Tate: They were trying to make my life exceedingly difficult for a long while. Ever since I gave them a sense of what the distillery expansion was going to cost, I got a weird vibe from them. These are the investors who were going to fund the expansion. That was the whole premise. So, when I got that weird vibe, I put the figures together … {showing} cost between now and 2022, which is a lot. They’ve been strategically trying to get me out of the business since that moment. They’ve tried different proposals and board action to take over the company.

What did they do specifically?

{They were} trying to make me do daily reports on daily things and busywork. The board meetings were supposed to be quarterly, and this idea of having board meetings every few days is nonsense in itself and is clearly to make my job {difficult}. They said, ‘we need to get multiple signatures on checks and put new policies on travel.’ I asked: ‘Is there a problem with travel?’ This was draconian control based on no particular complaint. I proposed to diligently come up with a plan to meet their concerns. The {board} said, ‘nah. Voted. Seconded. Boom, boom.’ At this moment, they weren’t even going through the motions anymore.

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

But in July 2013, the investors come in and have majority control. Don’t they have final say in what goes on at Balcones?

No. When you do an LLC, you have an operating agreement on how you’re going to conduct business. Basically, there was some explicit language in there. They can’t do certain things without my consent. They can’t financially reorganize the company, which they were trying to force.

They said you threatened to shoot an investor.

The whole thing was absurd. When it came to August 5, Greg Allen stormed into the distillery very abruptly with two sheriffs. They said they would give me a period of time to buy them out. … When I got the written leave agreement, I was to resign presidential powers during a 60 day period and thereafter. When they couldn’t coerce me… they made up a bunch of allegations. They said I wouldn’t give them the passwords they literally took at gunpoint. They said I kept coming to the distillery. And they said I threatened to shoot Greg Allen. The funny thing is they said they had me on tape, and I said, ‘great!’ because I know what I said. What I actually said was in reference to when Greg busted into the distillery, I was talking to one of the other investors and said ‘I could have shot the guy, but instead I greeted him, was friendly and talked to him even though he had two armed sheriffs standing next to him.’ If you listen to the whole conversation, I told {the investor}: ‘you better do something about Greg here. They keep flying off the handle and going crazy, and I try to keep calming everybody down and react reasonably, and we don’t get anywhere. Rinse and repeat. But this can’t go anywhere good, and it can go somewhere bad.’

Do you have plans to sue them for slander or damage to your reputation?

One of the fun things about the American justice system: as long it’s done in court filings, you can’t get libel or slander. … with a few exceptions. I’ve been waiting for the circus to settle down. They released me from the injunction. They’re more envious to strike a deal than originally. Leading up to all of this was me saying, ‘hey, I don’t think you guys are happy. If that’s the case, one of us needs to leave the business before this gets to a bad place. I’d really like to stay. I founded it. If you are amendable, let’s talk about that.’ They turned down one offer after another.

What’s the end result here? Somebody buys them out? You get bought out?

If there’s a future, any future for Balcones, one of us is leaving. That’s for sure…. We {both} have to accept what we planned to happen isn’t happening. We’re not going to live happily ever after. We need to act like grown ups. And what we need to do is basically not pull each other’s shit out in the front yard, light it on fire and have the cops call—that’s not the productive way to handle this. {Using a divorce analogy…} What we need to figure out if I’m going to keep the house or they’re going to. The relationship is over. Let’s be grownups and focus on how we’re going to move forward. Either they’re going to buy me out and let me have my freedom. Or they get bought out.

How much to buy you out? And how much to buy them out?

I can’t really talk about that because we’re about to go in mediation.

The consensus from many lawyers on social media is for you to not fight this and to start fresh when the non-compete ends. Why have you decided to make this your life’s fight?

This isn’t my life’s fight. It’s been going on for two months. Anybody who thinks this is World War III has never started a craft distillery. This is a major skirmish approaching a war.

You’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from colleagues. Somebody even started a crowdsourcing site to raise money for your legal fees. What has that meant to you?

That’s huge. I can’t say how much I appreciate it! The support has kept me going. But still, even for legal reasons, I can’t really spill the beans, but these guys have a lot stuff they don’t want me to say. They misunderstood how carefully I handled them for the last six months. I am not going to lay down for these guys and let them steal from me.

The charge of contempt of court…

That was partially a reporting error. The judge makes final decision, {saying} I’m going to hold you in contempt, but I have some real questions on the restraining order.

Speaking of the restraining order, the temporary injunction is on hold now. What does that mean?

Basically, I’m not allowed to lie, cheat and steal or knowingly hold property that belongs to them. I can’t call up the employees and can’t go to the distillery. They have changed their tune very notably. They ran a full-court press on me and now that they’re done, I’ve said, ‘Is that the best you got?’ Because when I start talking, I want to make sure everybody is listening.

Are you confident you’re going to win?

Yes. If the law works the way it should, we would come to some sort of resolution. I just want to make whiskey again.

66Gilead: going up to the County

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxCrimson Rye is the latest whisky from 66Gilead, one of my favorite Canadian micro-distillers. This rural distillery takes its name from its street address in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The distillery sits on 80 tranquil and beautifully maintained acres in the heart of this popular tourist destination. Year round, visitors smile for photos among a scattering of grey-weathered outbuildings. In summer they amble across the broad green lawns, accompanied by an ever-scurrying flock of multi-colored chickens.

The main attraction at 66Gilead is clearly the frequently packed tasting room on the main floor of a restored 19th century home built by a wealthy hop farmer, Bert Cooper.

The 12 Barrel delivery wagon is being restored.

Today, in order to meet fire code, the distillery itself occupies a new metal structure, though the rest of the outbuildings remain as they were in Bert Cooper’s era. There’s an oast house – a hop drying kiln – complete with slatted floors and brick ovens that provided gentle heat for drying. It’s an education to see how hops were dried over a century ago and how large the scale of brewing operations was, even then.

I first visited 66Gilead a couple of years ago. “The County” was built by hard-working farmers, and recently it has become home to some of Canada’s elite writers and musicians.

My day began when I joined a few dozen well-heeled, back-to-the-earth retirees and aging hippies for breakfast and single-estate coffee at the Tall Poppy Café in Wellington. Some long-time residents are not amused that these newcomers beautify their properties with brightly painted old farm machinery and heritage vegetable stands.

I’m back in The County for the launch of Crimson Rye. It’s a luscious big whisky, mature well beyond it’s 42 months in barrel. “It’s the heat,” Peter Stroz explains as we walk around in the distillery. After filling, the barrels are stacked in the distillery building to mature. Even though the stills are not working today, Peter concedes, “It’s hot in here!”

Michael, son of Peter Stroz, has a theory about why the spirits from 66Gilead distillery are so consistently good. “You really have to want to do this,” he tells me. “There are so many government regulations and obstacles that you really have to be determined to succeed.”

Michael is a recent graduate in software engineering, and minds the distillery during the week while the owners (his parents Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi) work at their day jobs. Both are radiologists in Toronto, a commute that takes them about two-and-a-half hours.

Distiller Sophia Pantazi with her still.

This is a genuine small batch distillery and here that means one to three barrels. “Why should I do more?” asks Sophia, “I want quality not volume.”

That attention to quality and detail is reflected in the oil paintings that hang in the distillery guesthouse. Sophia is also an accomplished painter. She may spend weekdays reading x-rays, but in her soul, I think Sophia is an artist.

“Sophia is the creative one,” Peter confirms, “I’m just the property manager.”

In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for at least three years before it can be called whisky. Crimson Rye is the first mature rye to come from 66Gilead. Even so, their rye spirit – what some would call “white rye” – has been available in local liquor stores for several years. Don’t tell martini or whisky snobs, but it makes a heck of a great dirty martini.

Bradford counts to twelve as the barrel chars.

As chickens run clucking around the property, a clanging sound from the Carriage House Cooperage tells me that Pete Bradford is pounding hoops onto a new barrel. I venture back to find some 40 people gathered around his charring furnace, a single barrel late-18th-century working antique. He is about to finish a newly made local-oak cask.

Carefully he places the barrel over the fire and soon it is crackling. “When it starts to ping it’s ready to ignite,” he tells the intrigued onlookers. But this one is a slow starter. It takes almost ten minutes for those distinct pinging sounds to begin then Bradford gets into position. Once the barrel ignites he lets it burn for about 12 seconds then douses it with a pail of water. Even the fire is hand crafted. It’s fueled with 100% white oak scrap.

This is physically challenging work and Bradford tells me he will pass the cooperage on to a new apprentice cooper before year’s end. Canada’s last working cooperage will remain in operation, though he explains that it will likely move elsewhere in The County.

It’s now 2 in the afternoon and a busload of tourists has arrived for a distillery tour and a tasting. Canadian distilleries are notoriously disinterested in tours. 66Gilead is an exception. Visitors are more than welcome here and there’s plenty to keep them occupied.

“Our conversion rate is outstanding,” Sophia grins. I wonder for an instant if our conversation has suddenly turned religious, until she points to the visitors.

“Look at that, over half of them are taking a bottle or two home with them.”

In addition to Crimson Rye and Wild Oak Whisky, 66Gilead also serves vodka, gin, shochu, and barrel-aged rum in the tasting room. “We distil every drop on site,” says Sophia. “It really hurts the craft distillery image that some people use grain neutral spirits.”

Peter nods in agreement. It’s obvious to see how satisfying it is for them to make spirits that are hand crafted in minute batches. I have to remind myself that Peter and Sophia spend most of their week in white coats, tending to patient’s medical needs, and not looking after these barrels.

I ask Peter about their dual focus. “I’m just as passionate about medicine. But here I can chat and joke and share stories with people. At the hospital there is always that element of doctor-patient confidentiality.”

They are genuinely welcoming hosts, Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and spending a day at 66Gilead in Prince Edward County is certainly worth the drive if Toronto is your base. Experience their hospitable spirit and taste their distilled spirit and you’ll likely end up discovering a bottle worth bringing home with you.

Fall Bourbon and Rye Whiskey Limited Release Overview

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

john hansellIt’s that time of the year again, when all the major bourbon and rye whiskey producers release their limited edition whiskeys, and consumers scramble to find a bottle before they disappear. Your time and money is valuable, so I thought I’d offer some guidance on which whiskeys you should concentrate on buying.

I’ve tasted my way through the following whiskeys. My formal reviews will appear in the upcoming issue of Whisky Advocate, but here’s a quick overview of them, in no particular order.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (All $80, in theory)

My favorite of the line is the George T. Stagg (69.05%). The past two years have shown a tamer, more rounded and balanced Stagg. This one is a classic.

2014 BTACSazerac 18 yr. Rye (45%) is similar, but not identical to, previous years. And I really like it. To me, it’s still the best example of a classic ultra-aged rye that’s released on an annual basis. This is the same whiskey that has been tanked in stainless steel and released annually over the past several years. It will continue to be until a new 18 year old rye is released in 2016.

Both Eagle Rare 17 yr. (45%) and William Larue Weller (70.1%), two perennial favorites, are showing more age this year. By this, I mean there’s more wood spice and resin. They are still very nice whiskeys, but to me the extra oak is gratuitous and unnecessary.

The disappointment this year is the Thomas H. Handy Rye (64.6%). This year’s release is thinner and less complex on the palate, with unintegrated spice, botanical, and feint vegetal notes dominating. Yes, there are other flavors thrown in the mix, but it doesn’t help. It’s easily the weakest whiskey in this year’s Antique Collection.2014LESmallBatch_Front

Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch, 55.9%, $90

There’s more oak and dried spice when compared to the 2013 release (our American Whiskey of the Year last year) and, while not quite reaching that caliber — it’s not quite as seamless, drinkable, or complex — it gets close. Very impressive.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 56.6%, $40

This is what I wish the standard Maker’s Mark would be: more mature, spicier, more complex, and with a richer finish. This was initially released in Kentucky only, but rumors are that it will get a wider distribution in the future. The best Maker’s Mark since the now extinct Maker’s Mark Black, which was released for export only. If you can track down a bottle, you won’t be disappointed. (Except for the fact that it’s only in 375 ml bottles.)

2014_OFBB_BottleMockupElijah Craig 23 year old (Barrel No. 26), 45%, $200

Yes, 23 years is a long time to age bourbon. And yes, there’s plenty of oak influence. But there’s an underlying sweetness that balances the oak spice (with this particular barrel; others may vary). I suspect that some of the barrels will be over-oaked, so be careful.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2014 release), 12 year old, 48.5%, $60

This whiskey’s signature over the last several years has been wood-dominant, with plenty of dried spice (the exception being the 2013 release which I really enjoyed—it was chock full of balancing sweetness). The 2014 release is similar to the pre-2013 releases; a dynamic bourbon, but still leaning heavily on the oak spice.

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2014 Release), 59.65%, $170

The third cask strength release and, like all Angel’s Envy bourbons, this one is finished in port barrels. When compared to the standard Angel’s Envy bourbon, this Cask Strength release is packed with more of everything: alcohol, port fruit notes, and oak. While very enjoyable, it pushes the envelope of the port finishing. If port finishing isn’t your thing, then you should think twice before buying.Parker's Heritage Collection Original Batch 63.7

I’ll throw in a bonus wheat whiskey too:

Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 year old, 63.7%, $90

Heaven Hill’s straight wheat whiskey, Bernheim Original, is a pleasant drink, but I always felt that some extra aging and a higher proof would give it additional richness and complexity to propel it to a higher level. That’s what this new whiskey accomplishes. If you like Bernheim Original, you’ll love this one.

The Templeton Case: let’s talk to a lawyer

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I visited Templeton, Iowa, to cover this hot rye whiskey that Al Capone supposedly liked. At the time, I knew they were purchasing bulk whiskey from what was then called LDI, the former Seagram’s facility that gave the world beautiful 95% rye mashbills, but I had never approached the company about this. Going into the interview, I half expected them to be confrontational. Keith Kerkhoff, one of the founders, played college football and tried out for an NFL team; and let’s just say, his lineman shoulder could crush my spine.

When questioned, the founders, Kerkhoff and Scott Bush, were honest about the sourcing process and I later found their sales reps disclosed the whiskey origins. Templeton even disclosed this fact on its Website, producing a video captured at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and openly discussed the fact on social media. But for whatever reason, the company never disclosed the state of distillation on the label. Instead, Templeton sold the small town’s infamous Prohibition heritage.

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

For years, even before my 2011 visit, hardcore whiskey geeks called foul on Templeton’s marketing efforts and even the locals didn’t care for Kerkhoff’s and Bush’s attempt to bring unwanted attention to the town. (Illicit whiskey makers are still very much in business in Templeton!) All of this would be chalked up as noise or slightly bad publicity for a brand that became a consumer favorite.

But all of that changed in late August when a class-action lawsuit was filed against Templeton in Cook County, Illinois, citing “deceptive marketing practices” and that Templeton violated consumer protection laws. The plaintiff claimed he was led to believe that the whiskey was made in Iowa. This lawsuit was given the green light to proceed and two additional class-action suits have been filed, with the most recent one being filed this week in Iowa. Tito’s Handmade Vodka faces a similar class-action lawsuit.

To understand the depths of the suit and how it might impact the future of the spirits business, I reached out to attorney Joel Ard, an alcohol attorney specialist with Foster Pepper PLLC in Washington.

 

Templeton’s labels were approved by the TTB. How are they vulnerable for a lawsuit?

That’s a surprise often to a lot of people, certainly among smaller craft producers, but even among larger industry participants. This idea that a government agency has approved their label and then they can get called on it for alternative reasons is often a bit of a surprise.

But isn’t the TTB to blame for not catching an improper label?

The reality is that the TTB is the Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s not a Trademark Office. It’s not an advertising office. It’s not a consumer protection office. They collect excise tax on ethanol and their primary concern about labels is the Surgeon General’s Warning is on it, in the right font, in the right size and that the percent alcohol by volume is accurate.

There are a bunch of regs about no obscenity, no nudity. Just start looking at wine labels for what stuff gets through. There’s a lot of stuff that can get through because they’re pushing through an enormous volume of labels; it’s not primarily a place for judging the accuracy of advertising or the consumer protection statute.

On to the Templeton lawsuit; what kind of case is this?

This is the kind of lawsuit where an enterprising lawyer dug up a more or less imaginary plaintiff and sued somebody and he’s going to pocket the proceeds in the lawsuit. Pick a consumer protection statute, find a target and sue them.

Will this become a trend? Will enterprising lawyers start dissecting alcohol labels for violations of regulations?

I’m sure that somebody could come up with a particularly creative claim that somehow a person was harmed because a wine bottle had the American Flag on it and that’s forbidden by regulation. Hard to imagine what the claim would be. What’s the harm to the consumer?

Now, you might say, where is the consumer harm that Tito’s Vodka is actually not made by hand; and Tito’s lawyers and the California consumers will fight over that, maybe there’s no harm, maybe it’s really bad.

It seems like a lot of this could be fixed if the TTB had more authority to police labels for accuracy.

I’m not sure it would be the best thing to try to give them more authority. A few years back, the label approval backlog was huge. If you are a startup distillery, you need to get a label approved pretty quickly. You can’t afford to wait for your label and don’t have the resources to have an army of lawyers push them through TTB. So, my concern would be if you were [adding] authority, it’s going to hurt the little guys. The big guys have plenty of resources to get their labels approved. The way the TTB runs now, there’s very little legal involvement.

The TTB right now is a decent balance of making sure that people aren’t misled about alcohol content, poisoned by strange distilled spirits, or blatantly obviously lied to on labels. For the broad run of the rest of it, most of the time the market’s going to sort it out. If you put bad stuff in a bottle, it doesn’t matter how cool your label is.

Jackie Thomson — In 140 Or Less

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers Jackie Thomson, manager of Ardbeg’s visitor center and the Old Kiln Café. Known for her deep commitment and passion for her role and brand, Jackie tells us a bit about herself and the business there…. but she won’t say what her invention is.

What’s the view from your office window?
Glorious blue sky and puffy clouds and the pagoda from the West Maltings. Delightful.

Where are you from originally?
Originally Glasgow but moved to the Highlands when small. Consider Inverness my home and have great affection for this part of the world.

Jackie Thomson 2I hear of an exotic work past. Your career path and intentions before arriving at Ardbeg?
Was a wanderer. Burning desire for journalism, but missed university entry date so changed direction. Never totally career focused, but lots of life experiences!

Such as?
Oh, the Middle East, radio stations…

What were you doing in the Middle East and how did that come about?
Intrigued by kibbutz living; went with a friend. Backpacked, erected greenhouses in Gaza, dived in the Red Sea. Fascinating times; when ignorance really was bliss.

Radio stations: are you Islay’s best/only DJ?
No. Worked at Moray Firth Radio in Inverness; sold advertising space but read the Highland League results too. Big footie fan then. But Islay FM has a ring to it. [Highland League is a soccer league]

 Ardbeg did “quirky” as a brand and website long before others. Are you all flattered by others following suit?
Love all the connotations which quirky captures — cool, smart, witty, intelligent — sum up Ardbeg. Not flattered, but proud.

You personally, the manager, and the whisky have all won awards. How much do they mean?
The awards are always for the team: quietly chuffed to bits. A dinner in London: even better!

You run the best distillery café EVER and I wish I could get there more than once a year. How do you keep standards up?
By keeping things simple, fresh, and making sure the service is just a little better than it could be. We pride ourselves on making good whisky-drinking food!

The team puts all into Ardbeg Day at the Islay Whisky Fest. Where does all the creativity come from?
From all of us via lots of juicy meetings. We love being able to have fun with the festival. We are on the last day so much of the serious stuff has been done.

How many members does the Ardbeg Committee have now? Plans for growth/running the world?
Over 100,000 members all over the world. Ardbeg is many things, but essentially a wonderful dram and we will continue to fill people with Ardbeg’s spirit.

Shortie

Shortie

Presumably literally and figuratively. How did you acquire Shortie and to whom does the lovely wee dog belong?
By default:  he lived near the distillery and spent much of his time outside the visitor center sniffing, licking, and greeting visitors!

Not many places where you get licked by the staff! How are reservations going for Ardbeg’s luxury cottage?
Great this year. Has taken a while for word to spread, but feedback is hugely positive. I would love to live in Seaview Cottage.

So would I; in middle of house improvements here. What are your interests outside work?
A spot of over indulgence — eating, drinking, fishing, walking, reading, inventing — nothing in moderation.

You probably never need to leave Islay then. Fishing: are you skilled and does your catch make it to the café?
Definitely need to leave sometimes. I get stir crazy! Our wee boat, Catch 22, has seen some action. I am very adept with a spinner, but keep my catch for our dinner table!

Cooking: assume you don’t do it all for the café? Any particular thing or style?
Certainly not; we have great chefs doing culinary gymnastics in the cafe. I love a small glass of wine and creating.

Reading…being on Islay with no bookstores, are you a Kindle girl?
Very recently converted, but love the smell of a good book. Classics on Kindle, contemporary fiction on paper, works for me!

Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Visitor Center ManagerWhere do you find time for all this and being Chair of South Islay Development group? [South Islay Development runs community projects and is raising some of the money toward the setup of a new community center for Port Ellen.]
Sometimes I swim and occasionally I sink. Time is a luxury but I really thrive on being busy. Have tried to slow down, but it doesn’t work for me.

And being a chairperson?
I don’t know if I am a good chairperson, but I really enjoy being one and the challenges it brings. We quietly try to make things happen.

When will we be able to buy Ardbeg Kildalton online and how much has it raised so far? [Kildalton, created by Dr. Bill Lumsden to aid the project, is currently available at the distillery only.]
No total yet. Plans for it to be available online later this year. Proud to be part of this project to raise funds to set up a community hub to benefit all in Port Ellen.

Is there anything you enjoy that Islay can’t offer? Do you crave retail therapy?
Not for clothes or shoes, but for food choice and big supermarkets! Love to go to Europe and wander the huge hypermarkets.

Seems reasonable. You’ve been at Ardbeg a while now. Of what are you most proud?
It has been a great privilege to watch a brand grow and flourish. Working alongside the team — past and present — who care deeply about the distillery.

Any unfulfilled ambitions for a) Ardbeg Visitor Centre (growing your own cafe produce?) and b) yourself?
To have the Old Kiln Café stand alone as a great eating place. To write a book; see my invention make me millions; watch my boys grow into confident, peaceful young men.

What would be your desert island dram? Only one, mind, and it doesn’t have to be an Ardbeg!
Foraging for food, would be incongruous but delightful to procure elegant, sophisticated Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. Could read the historical insert whilst sipping!

Automated Whisky Dispense at Grane in Omaha

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Lew BrysonHow do you like your whisky? I don’t mean whether you like it neat, or watered, or in a cocktail; how do you like it socially, how do you like it served?

Grane, a new bar in Omaha, Nebraska, has a completely new way to serve whisky: by automated machine. Grane’s founder, Daniel Matuszek, explains that the whole bar is built around the system, developed by WineEmotion, a European company that developed the technology for wine dispense.

“We went to them over a year ago and told them about the growth of whisky,” Matuszek recalls, explaining that they were looking to use the technology for whisky instead of wine. “They resized and retrofitted the pistons that push the liquid. They used the same technologies, but remade for whisky bottles. We got an exclusive arrangement for spirits dispensing with this for a year, global exclusivity. We’re the first and only place to use this; not Chicago, LA, or NYC, not London: Omaha.”

Grane has a “speakeasy feel,” according to Matuszek, but the whisky dispensers are sleekly modern, hard-edged technology. A customer buys a smart card (see the video, below) and “loads” money onto it. It’s whisky, so you probably want to load heavy. Then you take a look at what’s on offer; there are currently 35 bottles available at any one time. “We have a world whisky machine, a bourbon machine, two Scotch whisky machines, and a high-end machine,” Matuszek says.

You choose a whisky, press one of three buttons (½, 1, or 1.5 ounce) above that particular spout, and the whisky pours into your glass. It’s quick, it’s accurate, and you can see the bottle directly below the spout. It’s all customer-operated; no bartender involved. “It breaks down some of the barriers,” he says about the direct operation. “People can read about the whiskies, and then they can try by themselves, at their own pace, their own judgment.”

You’re probably wondering the same things I was. Is there potential for the whisky to be harmed, or changed, or contaminated? Keep in mind that the same issues for whisky are there for wine: contamination, oxidation, and — prime importance considering the cost of whiskies — waste. The whisky is pushed by food-grade argon gas, with the uptake from the bottom of the bottle; the headspace fills up with argon. The spout will drip two or three drops, but cut-off is precise. There is very little to go wrong here.

“The majority of people have been hitting that half-ounce button; they want to try things,” Matuszek notes, which must not surprise anyone who knows whisky lovers. “We don’t keep them on for months at a time. we have a barrel of Dickel 9 year old we selected, and we’ll keep that on. But we go all the way from the biggest baddest Ardbeg to Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. We’re teaching people about Japanese whisky, Canadian whisky, and all that.”

Will people like getting whisky without a bartender? (Grane’s bartenders are fully employed making cocktails, of course.) Will automated dispense catch on outside of Omaha? Will this be the next thing where people will say they can taste the difference? Would you buy auto-dispense whisky?

Whisky Investing…the last time around

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonMy father died four years ago, and I have to say; he was a bit of a pack rat. More than a bit, really. It took us all day to clean out the garage (which hadn’t held a car since the Johnson administration); honestly, why did a man who rarely worked on his own car need five grease guns?

My mother’s been working her way through all the papers and letters he saved, and she found this one, and thought I’d find it interesting. Once I’d had a look, and chuckled, I thought you might find it interesting as well:

 

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It was sent, by air mail (a 4p stamp at the time), to my father’s RD1 address, in April, 1973. To the best of my knowledge, my father never drank an ounce of Scotch whisky in his life, and in 1973, his life savings amounted to his teacher’s pension (which was out of his reach) and about $1,000 in a savings and loan account that we would spend two months later on a family vacation we’d been planning for ten years. We were hardly investors, and certainly not Scotch lovers…yet Strathmore not only found us, but sent a hand-addressed letter to us.

In less than ten years, Scotland would be awash in whisky (which in 15 more years would become the bounty of under-priced mature whisky that some of us swam in, joyfully, for a happy, golden time).

We are being encouraged to “invest” in Scotch whisky again. I feel like I should check my mailbox. And keep a hand on my wallet.

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?”