Thursday, December 5, 2013
I am generally not a fan of bourbons and ryes aged more than 12-years. When I do like one, it's usually in the sense of "it's pretty good for something that old."
I did a lot of camping in my youth and when a whiskey starts to taste the way I smelled after several days in front of a campfire, it loses me.
Earlier this week, I expressed this view in a somewhat forceful way in a different forum and got a lot of pushback. People who like very old whiskey tend to be passionate and perhaps a bit defensive. So let me be clear. This is about what I like. You may like something different. That's okay.
This is an issue limited to American straight whiskey, bourbon and rye (and Tennessee whiskey too), because the new charred oak barrel imparts so much flavor. Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Japanese and just about every other whiskey species aged in used barrels tend to always get better with age, although there are exceptions.
With scotch, heavy peating might be parallel. It's a very strong flavor that you either love or hate.
Long aging is very risky and expensive for distilleries as so much is lost to evaporation and there is always a question mark as to how what is left will come out. We had a lot of very old whiskey in the recent past because of the post-collapse glut, some good - some not, but distilleries will try to avoid that if they can.
I'd say the 'sweet spot' is 8-12 years and distillers have been bottling more in that range in recent years. For me, it's about balance. I prefer whiskey that has a good balance of all the elements and is not super-heavy in one or another of them.
It's okay to have a different preference.
There's also a bit of a trick involved with very long aging as it's done now (i.e., post-glut). Barrels intended for long aging are put into the lowest and most central warehouse locations; which are cooler, with less temperature variation, and higher humidity. Some producers are experimenting now with very large casks, which might also lend themselves to long aging.
I'm all for offering many different styles, whether I happen to like them all or not.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Many micro-distilleries say they sell 'legal moonshine,' but since 'moonshine' is defined as 'any distilled spirit made illegally,' what is 'legal moonshine'? And is moonshine, even unofficially, a particular 'style' of distilled spirit?
The people who regulate such things, at both the state and federal levels, allow producers to call their products 'moonshine' as long as the product is also identified by its actual, official classification.
Theoretically, a producer can use the term 'moonshine' on anything, but 'legal moonshine' is usually one of these three recognized distilled spirit types.
If you read the label closely you will see, for example, that Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon is actually 'grain neutral spirits.' That, friends, is another name for vodka. Vodka, aka grain neutral spirits, aka GNS, is typically made from corn. Although any grain may be used, it's almost always corn because corn is cheapest.
After fermenting in the usual way, the spirit is distilled to neutrality (i.e., above 95 percent alcohol). By law it must be without distinctive color, aroma, or flavor.
If a 'moonshine' product isn't vodka, there's a good chance it is corn whiskey. Again, it will say this somewhere on the label. Corn whiskey must be at least 80% corn and can be 100 percent corn, but unlike GNS it is distilled below 80 percent alcohol, so it retains some of the flavors created in the fermentation. Georgia Moon, a Heaven Hill product, is corn whiskey. So is the original, unflavored version of Ole Smoky, but their many flavored products appear to be flavored GNS.
Corn whiskey is the only type of whiskey that doesn't have to be aged. However, unaged corn whiskey is generally not recognized as whiskey outside the United States.
The third type of legal moonshine, and arguably the most authentic, is made from table sugar. As Max Watman explains in his excellent book, Chasing the White Dog, real moonshiners (the illegal kind) use table sugar almost exclusively because it is cheap, readily available, and ferments easily.
A few legal moonshiners make what they call 'sugar shine,' using table sugar. In some cases they will throw in some corn for flavor. Limestone Branch and Barrelhouse are two Kentucky micro-distilleries that make it that way.
It should be noted that when corn is used in this way it generally is not converted to sugar first, so it does not ferment. It does convey some flavor to the final spirit, assuming it's not distilled to neutrality. Technically, sugar shine products are rum, but most producers don't want to label them that way so they use terminology like 'cane spirits.'
For the most part these products are good clean fun, albeit nothing special as drinks. Their principal danger is that consumers will not exercise suitable caution if they are ever offered real (i.e., illegal) moonshine, which can be very dangerous.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
This mass email arrived yesterday from a marketing agency that works for Diageo.
Before you unplug and enjoy a couple days with friends and family, we wanted to share a quick update regarding an exciting new endeavor we’re working on with DIAGEO. It’s called The Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project and you may have heard whispers or read early reports about it stemming from statements made by DIAGEO CEO Ivan Menezes during their recent investors meeting.
The team is still working on pulling together final press materials as details surrounding the project are still being finalized. However, in the meantime, we did want to share an official statement from DIAGEO – see below.
The goal of The Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project is to share old and rare whiskey from our barrel houses with discerning whiskey adorers. The first two whiskies to be released from the project will include the 20-year-old Barterhouse and the 26-year-aged Old Blowhard. Both are American Kentucky Bourbons, hand bottled in Tullahoma Tennessee and are expected to begin appearing on select shelves throughout the U.S. in early 2014 under strict allocation due to limited supply.
Additionally, DIAGEO is creating a separate new-to-world bourbon called Blade and Bow. Blade and Bow is anticipated to hit shelves in the second half of 2014 and is not a part of the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project.
We appreciate your patience and will be in touch when additional information is available to share.
You may have read the quotes from Menezes here last Friday. Bourbonblog posted pictures and what reads suspiciously like a press release on November 3. The additional information reported here, about what reps are telling bars in Chicago, came from a very reputable source who was on the receiving end of those pitches.
Based on what we know, what's most peculiar about Orphan Barrel is how closely it resembles something Diageo predecessor United Distillers & Vintners tried 20 years ago. That time it was called the Rare American Whiskeys Collection. It was intended to be a series of one-off releases of the most outstanding, unique, and rare whiskeys in their warehouses, which they had because they had acquired so many distilleries while building their empire. They planned to release a few every year, but the plan died a swift death at Diageo's birth. The new company changed direction and within a few years, Diageo had essentially exited the American whiskey business.
The even more odd thing about both Orphan Barrel and Rare American Whiskeys is that in both cases Diageo decided to create brand names that are unrelated to the whiskeys. In that earlier case, they took names from defunct distilleries--Joseph Finch and Henry Clay--and used whiskey from other not-identified defunct distilleries. The whiskey called Joseph Finch was not made at the Joseph Finch Distillery, the whiskey called Henry Clay was not made at the Henry Clay Distillery, and the actual distilleries were not revealed. It seemed crazy then and it does this time too. This time it is what appear to be newly-created brand names with an old-timey feel.
What is Diageo thinking? You have this supposedly great and rare whiskey but you won't tell us anything about its provenance? Then you wrap it in a package that suggests a false provenance?
Why doesn't Diageo understand that most "discerning whiskey adorers" don't appreciate being zoomed? Save the malarky for Jeremiah Weed and Captain Morgan, please. If the whiskey is as great as you say it is, why not just let it speak for itself? A Diageo rep said they're not sure where it's from. It's written on the barrel head, stupid.
It seems sometimes that Diageo is incapable of doing anything (a) original, or (b) honest.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The word 'landmark' is thrown around a lot, but the National Park Service only recognizes about 2,600 National Historic Landmarks in the entire United States. Kentucky has about 30. Three of them are distilleries.
The latest to join this exclusive club is Buffalo Trace, using its historic name of the George T. Stagg Distillery. The other two are the Burks Distillery (today known as Maker's Mark) and the Labrot and Graham Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (today's Woodford Reserve).
The designation describes the Frankfort distillery as a "highly intact" example of pre-Prohibition industrial architecture that also shows how distilling expanded once the federal ban was repealed. The buildings, which are still in active use, feature distinctive quarry-faced stonework and decorative brickwork in a 1930s-era factory style. Many barrel warehouses and other buildings are much older, dating to the 1790s. Officially, the distillery was established in 1857-58 and acquired in 1870 by E.H. Taylor Jr.
Buffalo Trace now offers a National Historic Landmark Tour that highlights the site's history.
To learn more about the distillery's Landmark designation, read Janet Patton's excellent article from this summer in the Lexington Herald Leader.
A lesser designation by the Park Service is inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Buffalo Trace received this honor in 2001. You can read the detailed application, which covers most of the same ground as the National Historic Landmarks application, here.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Early in 2012, Wild Turkey introduced a 40.5% ABV rye and announced that the original 50.5% ABV rye was in short supply and on allocation. Allocation plus panic buying soon created a widespread shortage and bottles of the 101 rye have been thin on the ground ever since.
Last week, with modest fanfare, Wild Turkey announced its return, sort of. It will be available in only 21 states and only in the one-liter bottles preferred by bars and restaurants.
“I have been working in this business for 60 years and if someone told me just five years ago Rye Whiskey was going to be one of the hottest categories in the spirits industry, I would have balked at the notion,” said Jimmy Russell. “To be completely frank, we didn’t realize bartenders had such a passion for it.” It’s true that rye whiskey has been booming. It’s up 41 percent in the past 52 weeks (according to Nielsen data).
Wild Turkey still sells Wild Turkey 81 Rye (40.5% ABV) and Russell's Reserve Rye (6-years-old, 45% ABV).
Before Prohibition, rye whiskey outsold bourbon in the United States. It was made primarily in Pennsylvania. Rye never really came back and nearly died out entirely during the 1970s and 80s, when the entire whiskey category went bust. The Pennsylvania industry died off and what little rye production remained shifted to Kentucky. Wild Turkey was one of the few distilleries that consistently produced rye throughout that period. The others were Jim Beam and Heaven Hill, and National until it merged with Beam in 1987. Others made rye sporadically.
The ryes made by Wild Turkey, Beam (Jim Beam Rye, Old Overholt, Knob Creek Rye), Heaven Hill (Rittenhouse, Pikesville), and Sazerac (Sazerac Rye) are 'barely legal' at 51 percent rye. Today you can also get a 95 percent rye made at MGPI of Indiana (Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, George Dickel Rye) and a 100 percent rye made in Canada (WhistlePig, Mastersons, Jefferson's Rye).
Look for Wild Turkey 101 Rye in the following states. Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York (NYC only), Ohio, Oregon, Washington, Washington D.C., Texas. (That doesn't add up to 21, but that is the list they provided.)
Saturday, November 23, 2013
This will be short and sweet. I was with Lew Bryson, Fred Minnick, and Dave Waddell on November 15th as the first outsiders to see the new experimental aging warehouse nearing completion at Buffalo Trace Distillery. (Left to right that's Waddell, me, Bryson, and Minnick.)
You should read Lew Bryson's article about it here, with pictures by Fred Minnick. I have little to add except that I admire the willingness of Sazerac/Buffalo Trace to invest real money in experiments that won't yield any useful results for decades, and maybe not even then. That's what companies do when 'long-term thinking' is more than just a commercially-attractive catch phrase.
One thing Mark Brown said that day that struck me: part of their preparation for this was to see what other research has been done on making bourbon. Virtually all of it, he said, was about how to age bourbon faster. None of it was about how to age bourbon better.
Fred 'took' the photograph above, even though he is in it. He set it up. Someone else pushed the button, which is an important job too.
Friday, November 22, 2013
According to Shanken News Daily, Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes revealed on Tuesday that the company is prepping two new bourbon brands for release next year. The first, Orphan Barrel, will be priced from $75 to $125 a bottle and is scheduled to appear in the first quarter of 2014.
The other will be called Blade & Bow and come out later in 2014.
Menezes provided no details about either product but Diageo reps are telling on-premise accounts that Orphan Barrel will be sold only to them. ('On-premise' means bars and restaurants, as opposed to stores.) It supposedly will be made up of 'lost' barrels 'discovered' at Diageo's Stitzel-Weller Distillery (SW). Diageo stopped distilling there in 1992 but has continued to use the facility for maturation and blending.
Diageo has long been secretive to the point of paranoia about what it's actually doing at Stitzel-Weller, so it's hard to believe anything they say. A Diageo rep also claimed Orphan Barrel will be given only to four exclusive accounts in the Chicago area.
Diageo is particularly secretive about what it matures at SW, but it is widely believed that Bulleit Bourbon is among the products aged there. In his remarks Tuesday, Menezes predicted that Bulleit will reach the precious million-case threshold "over time," which is not exactly a bold prediction. It's at 600,000 now. Sales in the U.S. grew by 27% last year, but 60% of Bulleit's sales are outside the U.S., in Canada, Australia, Mexico and the U.K.
In response to continuing speculation that Diageo will acquire Beam Inc., Menezes noted that Diageo's share of the North American whiskey market is 23%. Most of that is attributable to Crown Royal Canadian Blended Whisky. The next biggest chunk is Seagram's Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey. He claims that means Diageo and Brown-Forman are tied for #1. Brown-Forman's flagship, of course, is Jack Daniel's.
This week Diageo also announced "a multiyear marketing partnership with the NBA, which will make Diageo the exclusive spirits partner of the league." The main brand beneficiaries are Crown Royal and Ciroc Vodka with the men's league and Baileys with the women's.
“Our brands have the unique privilege of participating in some of life’s greatest celebratory moments the world over and what better partner to bring those moments to life than the NBA,” said Peter McDonough, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, Diageo. “From the players and competition to fashion, music and nightlife, the NBA opens the door for us to leave a lasting impression with adult fans in truly innovative and meaningful ways around the game.”