Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bourbon History, Republished.

The University of Kentucky Press is republishing Henry Crowgey's 1971 Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking.

Crowgey's Kentucky Bourbon is one of the few serious, scholarly works ever done on the subject, and is a very thorough and credible account of the industry's development in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The release is scheduled for February 1, 2008. Amazon is accepting pre-release orders now. (That's the link.)

I won't lie. If you buy it here, you will put a few pennies in my pocket, but the cost to you is the same.

Especially at the price Amazon is offering, you can't afford not to buy this if you have any interest in bourbon history. I'll be buying, since I have been working for 15 years from a Xerox I made of a library copy.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What Is Really Going On With George Dickel No. 8?

Whiskey is weird.

How many other products can you name that take four or more years to manufacture? We always talk about this, how the whiskey aging cycle challenges distillery production planners. The story of George Dickel No. 8 Brand Tennessee Whisky demonstrates what can go wrong.

In the early 1990s, United Distillers was a company with big plans. The spirits division of Guinness & Co., it had been built by acquisitions over the previous decade. It was an international company with major brands in the scotch whiskey and American whiskey categories, as well as gin, rum, and others.

Among its assets was George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey.

One of the company’s big plans was to take selected American whiskey brands and give them a big marketing push in Europe and Asia, where American whiskey was starting to grow as a category, unlike the U.S. market, where it was doing nothing. One of the brands selected was George Dickel.

As a Tennessee whiskey, Dickel is a unique product. Unlike United’s many bourbons (at the time), the George Dickel recipe is shared by no other brands. Because of the whiskey aging cycle, any long-term sales growth strategy has to be accompanied by steady production growth, so that when the marketing plan succeeds, you have enough product to sell. United started to make more Dickel, a lot more.

The effort to sell more Dickel overseas wasn’t a failure exactly, but it didn’t meet expectations either. Part of the problem was that the newly huge company was unwieldy and often lacked focus. Dickel was too far back in the portfolio to get the attention it needed. Because the whiskey made at Dickel could only really be used for the Dickel brand, the stocks built up, and because nobody was paying close enough attention, they just kept producing.

In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo. To accomplish the combination, the company assumed a lot of debt. It soon had to start selling assets to generate cash and also cut costs wherever it could. It decided what its core business would be and, by 1999, it had decided that American whiskey was not part of that picture. Early that year, it sold off all of its American whiskey assets except two brands, I. W. Harper and George Dickel. It also stopped production at the Dickel distillery.

In addition to the excess whiskey inventory, Dickel had some environmental issues in Tennessee, having to do with wastewater disposal. They weren’t a huge deal but would require a significant investment to fix. Because of that, the company couldn’t casually crank up the distillery for a few weeks each season, just to keep some current production in the pipeline. They had to stay completely dark and take their chances.

When they stopped Dickel production, they pretty much stopped marketing it too. That will tell you what the underlying strength of a brand is. Maybe that was their plan, maybe there was no plan beyond stopping the bleeding and making the brand profitable again. With the distillery closed and the marketing budget at zero, it wasn’t too hard to make the brand profitable in the short term.

At that time, now almost nine years ago, product availability seemed like the least of their problems.

In 2002, Diageo began to pay some attention to Dickel again. The brand got a marketing budget and started to make some noise. Either the marketing worked, or it was just time, you never know exactly, but Dickel sales suddenly picked up here, there, and everywhere. They got their environmental problems fixed and resumed production in fall of 2003.

The new marketing program featured the premium Dickel expression, known as No. 12, but the less expensive No. 8 continued to be the main seller. In about the middle of 2007, Dickel No. 8 drinkers began to notice bare shelves. In some cases there was a note on the shelf explaining that No. 8 was in short supply because of the 1999-2003 distillery shutdown. Ads in a few markets explained that the shortage was being caused by the shutdown, combined with “an incredible surge in demand for George Dickel No. 8."

No company gets itself into a situation like that on purpose, but when you find yourself with that kind of problem you try to make the best of it. One tactic has been to generate publicity about the shortage itself. Nothing makes people want something like telling them they can’t have it. Another has been to release a temporary stop-gap, a new product called Cascade Hollow Recipe, aged three years. The strange thing is, the Cascade Hollow label looks almost exactly like the No. 8 label and it is being sold for the same price. It’s obvious that many shoppers, grabbing for the familiar black label, will never notice it’s a different product, a fact no doubt anticipated by the brand’s management.

Since the company could easily have made the Cascade Hollow packaging look completely different, why make it virtually indistinguishable from the No. 8? The strategy, it appears, is to have it both ways. They’re being upfront with the people who are paying attention while hoping to slip one past the people who aren’t.

Here are some simple facts the people at Diageo aren’t talking about.

No Dickel product except the new Cascade Hollow carries an age statement. It has one because it is required to, by law, because it is less than four years old. Unofficial statements by distillery personnel have pegged the top-of-the-line Dickel Barrel Select product as containing whiskey 8 to 12 years old, the No. 12 as 8 to 10 years old, and the No. 8 as 4 to 6, but those ages are all unofficial. They are trying to match a taste profile, of course, and if the whiskey starts to taste a little younger they hope no one will notice. Having no age statement gives them a lot of flexibility. With no age statement, all you know for sure is that the whiskey is at least four years old.

Regardless of what age it actually is, the oldest and most mature whiskey they have is going into the more profitable No. 12 and Barrel Select expressions. Those are reporting no shortages.

On Monday, the Associated Press (AP) ran a story in which a Diageo vice-president acknowledged the “temporary” shortage and promised that No. 8 will return early in 2008.

What seems underway, then, is an effort to turn a problem into an opportunity, always a good idea. By next year, Dickel hopes to be in greater demand than ever thanks to publicity generated by the shortage. The AP story alone was picked up by thousands of print and electronic outlets. When No. 8 returns, the company will have a new entry-level product on the shelves and its best-seller, the No. 8 Brand, will reappear, maybe at a higher and more profitable price. Then maybe they will start to change the two labels to give the two products more separation. They’ll transition price-sensitive shoppers to the Cascade Hollow product and get a little more scratch from No. 8 loyalists.

Let’s hope for their sake that all this works out better than their last master plan.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Delete the "& Wine" Part

In 2005, when Jim Beam Brands Company partnered with Pernod Ricard to acquire and divide between them the assets of Allied Domecq, Beam became a major international player in spirits, but also in wine. A new corporate name followed in 2006 that reflected the change: Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Inc. Now, new facts have made the new name obsolete, as Beam has divested itself of its wine portfolio.

I blogged about this in November, when an $885 million sale of wine business to Constellation Brands was announced. I just received a press release announcing that sale closed today, but it noted an earlier sale I had missed, to E. & J. Gallo Winery. At any event, Beam is now out of the wine business and has close to a billion dollars to spend on other things.

Constellation got Clos du Bois, Geyser Peak, Wild Horse, Buena Vista Carneros and Gary Farrell. Gallo got William Hill and Canyon Road. Constellation is the parent company of Barton, a full-line spirits company with a whiskey distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky.

This exit from the wine business is a little surprising, mainly because such a big deal was made of the new corporate name barely a year ago. If at the time they had intended to get out of the wine business, they could have come up with a less specific name. This suggests that the decision was opportunistic rather than part of a long-term plan. Press releases from Beam parent company Fortune Brands invariably point out how profitable the premium spirits business is, without saying what everybody knows, which is that the wine business isn't.

As a rule, investors hate surprises, so publicly-traded companies usually try to avoid them, but investors like profits even more than they hate surprises, so this surprise sale doesn't seem to be a problem for Fortune. It does, however, suggest that if Beam is thinking about using the proceeds of these sales to make a major acquisition in the spirits business, such as Absolut Vodka, it may not publicize its intentions in advance.

Still, what are they going to do about that name and their new web site?

On a slightly different subject, corporate press releases like the one I got today from Fortune invariably end with a paragraph that describes the corporation's business. It was a big deal a few years ago when the phrase, "Major spirits brands include Jim Beam bourbon.." was changed to read, "Major spirits brands include Jim Beam and Knob Creek bourbons..." It was a way of saying that Knob Creek had arrived as a successful brand. Sadly, Knob Creek has been bumped and replaced by Maker's Mark, one of the key brands in the Allied deal.

Friday, December 14, 2007

More Knob

My post Tuesday attracted some attention at Beam Global. They wanted me, and you, to know that, "Knob Creek is a product of such quality and aged a full 9 years that demand has exceeded any imaginable supply forecast. We are now managing allocations very closely as we are product constrained and will certainly not be lowering price. We are doing everything possible not to gouge our loyal consumers, but in some key markets we have raised price and will continue to do so to control overall demand."

I specifically mentioned Knob Creek in Tuesday's post because sightings of higher prices on Knob were reported to me by several consumers in different markets around the country. My point then was that, historically, Beam has been one of the more aggressive companies at using short term promotional deals to gain floor stackings and drive volume. A few years ago, a brand like Knob didn’t have enough volume to make that worthwhile. Now it does.

Most companies will run promotional deals just after a price increase to take some of the sting out for regular customers. In saying that, I didn't intend a knock on Beam or Knob Creek. That's just good business, especially for building volume. Beam does that as well as any and better than most.

When the tight supply situation for well-aged bourbon was first developing, about two years ago, some industry leaders expressed concern to me that using price to control demand might be counter-productive, as it risked stifling the current boom. They suggested that allocation was a better solution. In fact, we're seeing a combination of allocation and price increases.

An argument can be made that American straight whiskey has long been underpriced. It certainly remains, at least for consumers within the USA, the best value in fine aged spirits.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Like Day Follows Night

...price increases follow supply shortages.

Because of the whiskey aging cycle, sales increases can't always be matched by supply increases. It is a nice problem to have and American whiskey producers haven't had it for a long time, but they do now. More and more brands are on allocation and we're starting to see higher prices at retail.

Two things we probably need to get used to are: less availability of long-aged whiskey at bargain prices, and higher prices for American whiskey across the board.

One bright spot is that we probably can expect to see more frequent deals on mainstream premium brands such as Knob Creek. With Knob Creek especially, since that is how Beam operates.

What we are seeing now is cyclical, though that may be small comfort since this expansion could be a long one. If China, India and some other markets develop as they are expected to, there could be supply pressure on whiskey for the next decade.

Producers are moving cautiously, in terms of both price and production increases, so a major backlash seems unlikely. At least here in the USA, American whiskey remains a bargain compared to other aged spirits. Higher prices will have an effect but it is hard to predict what that effect will be.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Check Out the Midwest Wine Connection.

I write a column about distilled spirits for the Midwest Wine Connection, a monthly publication out of Minneapolis. You can pick it up for free at most beverage retailers in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The current issue is also always available, in PDF format, at the wineheads.com web site. A new issue comes out about the first of every month.

For the season, my column this month (December issue) is about punches, mostly about their history, but with some tips for making them too.

I've now been doing the column for almost two years. I like the publication and like being associated with it. It's mostly about wine but they also feature articles about food, the arts, and other subjects. You might want to check it out.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My Recent Adventure In Health Care Land.

I had a colonoscopy about two months ago. If you are over age 50, you should have one too.

Happily for all of us, that’s not what this is about. There will be no further mention of my colon in this post.

The procedure is routine. Mine was performed at a hospital here in Chicago, by a gastroenterologist who happens to be the Gastroenterology Section Chief at that hospital. He was recommended by my internist. It was out-patient, in and out in a few hours. Everything was normal. Routine, routine, routine.

My health insurance is with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL). As I am self-employed, it is an individual policy. I’ve had it for about 20 years, ever since I came to Chicago. It is a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plan so I can see any doctor, but I have to use in-network hospitals. There is a deductible and, after that, it pays at least 80 percent of covered charges.

For purposes of this post, that’s enough detail. The coverage is pretty standard, nothing exotic, and it’s not cheap.

My plan does not, as some do, require advance approval for this type of procedure, but I called BCBSIL anyway to make sure everything was covered. They assured me it was.

I’m a pretty healthy guy, but I’ve had enough medical care of various kinds over the years to know the drill with billing and insurance. Everybody gets your insurance information and sends their bills first to the insurance company, which pays the amount it believes it owes. Then the providers come after you for the rest. You expect to receive separate bills from the doctor and hospital, maybe another one for outside lab services, and maybe one or more from other practitioners, such as a pathologist or anesthesiologist.

When the bills start to come, the easiest way to process them is to take the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) reports from the insurance company and match them up with the provider invoices. You should have an EOB for each bill and all of the numbers should agree, including the number you care most about, the amount you owe.

This is my first gripe. When I take my Buick in for repairs, I don’t get separate bills from the mechanic, garage, and parts department. If the work is covered by warranty, I don’t get another envelope full of paperwork about that. I get one bill and it says, “here’s what we did, here’s how much you owe us.” There is no real reason health care can’t be just as straightforward.

But it isn’t.

Although everything should have been routine, in the case of my recent procedure there was a billing problem. BCBSIL disallowed almost $1,500 in lab charges that the EOB labeled “routine lab services.” I immediately called BCBSIL and the representative explained that “routine lab services” are not covered by my policy. I countered that the lab services were not “routine” but were a necessary part of a covered procedure. She agreed that what I described sounded like something which should have been coded as “medical lab” or “surgical pathology,” not “routine lab services,” but at any rate they could not change the coding. That would have to be done by the provider who submitted the charges.

Gripe number two. I maintain that “customer service” in most businesses means “solve the customer’s problem,” but that’s not what it means in the health care business. The ball was back in my court.

So I called the hospital. Their representative agreed that it sounded like a coding error. She conferred with the hospital’s coding department and everyone seemed to agree that pathology services rendered as part of this procedure should not be considered “routine lab services” by anyone.

The coding department’s suggestion, forwarded to me by the hospital’s customer service representative, was that I ask my physician to fax his orders from the procedure to the coding department. Presumably, this would allow them to recode the charges and resubmit them to BCBSIL.

Once again, an opportunity for a customer service department to provide actual customer service was missed.

Gripe number three. The system seems designed so that everyone can say, “it’s not my job, it’s not my fault,” and pass the buck.

I spoke with my physician, explained the situation, and told him the proposed solution. He stated that he understood the problem and would contact the hospital to resolve it. After our initial conversation, he called me back two more times just to let me know he was still working on it, and finally, about two weeks later, to say that it was resolved.

It was a coding error, as everyone knew it would be. It got fixed but the person who fixed it wasn’t a customer service representative, it was a board-certified gastroenterologist with 25-years of practice experience, who had to spend his valuable time resolving a coding error. Gripe number four, in the health care industry, everything will be done in the most expensive way possible.

My story is as common as it is tedious. The needless complexity of health care billing adds tremendously to the already absurdly high cost of health care here in America. Liberals seem to think a government-run plan of some sort is the solution, while Conservatives are entirely focused on thwarting the Liberals.

While I share their distrust of government programs, I don’t see how we can accept the status quo either. The free market has worked its magic in terms of providing quality, but the cost is breaking our backs. It’s not that great health care isn’t worth paying for, it’s that we can see exactly where all the waste is, but no one can seem to root it out. For individual consumers, when even the simplest problem occurs, it takes a task force to solve it.

I have some professional experience in the health benefits field and know a lot more about it than the average person does, so I probably handled the situation as efficiently as it could have been handled. I still had to make several telephone calls, wait for call-backs, sit on hold for extended periods of time, and do other time-consuming tasks. At least two different customer service representatives spent some time on it, as did the physician, and who knows who else. The hospital has a customer service department, a billing department, and a coding department, but they couldn’t fix it without the physician getting involved too. All of that “service” had to be paid for out of the proceeds of that procedure. I wonder how much it would really cost, with all due safeguards, but without all of the “extras,” such as layers of billing complexity, the indigent care “tax,” the cost of excessive liability insurance, and everything else that gets larded into the cost of basic health care.

Everyone agrees that the system is broken but all proposed solutions have so far eluded consensus.

As important as health care is, and as good as the product itself is, the system through which it is delivered is ridiculous. The best symbol of its absurdity is the fact that critical therapeutic information is still communicated from one highly-trained and highly-compensated practitioner to another solely through scribbles on scraps of paper, physically carried from one practitioner to the other by the patient. Only now is the system starting to figure out how to get prescriptions from doctors to pharmacists electronically, and that’s only happening because the Federal Government mandated it as part of the Medicare Part D program.

As usual, politicians are talking about all of the wrong things. It’s not about getting coverage for the uninsured. It’s about reforming, from top to bottom, all of the non-medical parts of a badly broken system so people can afford the care they need.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lying for a Worthy Cause.

Every time this comes up, I get worked up about it all over again. Today I received a constituent newsletter from my State Representative, Mr. Greg Harris. One of the things he is bragging about is legislation he sponsored "to ban the promotion, marketing and advertising of alcoholic beverages to children."

To me, that phrase is like waving a red cloth in front of a bull. So, of course, I sent Rep. Harris a stern letter of complaint, as follows:

Dear Representative Harris:

Although alcohol abuse is a serious social problem, and preventing children from obtaining and consuming alcohol is a worthy cause, I am disappointed to see that you support a phony solution. I know Senate Bill 1625 is now law, but I wanted to let you know my opinions on this matter anyway, as I expressed them to Senator Ronen when this legislation was introduced back in January.

It always bothers me when well-meaning people lie in support of a genuinely worthy cause, especially when kids are involved, but that is what the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (IADDA), and now The State of Illinois, has done with this legislation to supposedly “ban(s) the promotion, marketing and advertising of alcoholic beverages to children.”

Lying to kids, even when it is for their own good, almost never works out the way we want it to. Let there be no doubt that I consider keeping kids away from psychoactive drugs of all kinds, including cigarettes and alcohol, to be desirable. But teaching kids to tell the truth is worthwhile too and we do kids no favors by lying to them. When they find out that we have lied to them about something like this (and they always find out), why should they believe us when we tell them about all the real harm the misuse of psychoactive substances can cause?

When this legislation was introduced, IADDA spokesperson Allen Sandusky accused beverage makers of targeting youth media with ads for so-called "alcopops" such as Bacardi Silver, Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade.

"This is just like Joe Camel cigarettes that were advertised to kids years ago," said Sandusky. Senator Ronen made almost the identical statement at her subsequent press conference announcing the introduction of SB 1625.

They are the same, in that anti-tobacco crusaders lied about Joe Camel and now anti-alcohol crusaders are lying about “alcopops.”

The truth is as follows.

Advertising that used the character dubbed "Joe Camel" was deemed to be directed at children solely because the character was illustrated. Illustrations, especially those that can be characterized as cartoons, appeal to children, ergo Joe Camel was being used to advertise cigarettes to children. It became an article of faith among anti-smoking crusaders, then came to be treated as a statement of fact. There was never one iota of evidence presented that Joe Camel was intended to influence children or ever used in such a way as to reach children. The charge was based solely on the assumption that Joe Camel must be targeted at children because he is a cartoon character.

Likewise, "alcopop" is a term of derision coined by anti-alcohol crusaders. It is meant to describe flavored malt beverages such as the brands mentioned. These products start out as beer but are processed in a way that removes the characteristic flavor and color of beer, which is then replaced by other flavorings and sweeteners. The flavoring is usually some kind of citrus fruit, such as lemon, lime or orange. Consequently, they taste like a soft drink (e.g., 7Up) but contain alcohol, about the same amount as beer. These products have been around for many years – the Coors product Zima was the prototype. They have become more prominent recently, but have not been the success many in the beverage industry expected.

These products are deemed by their critics to be directed at children solely because they taste good, and taste similar to soda pop. However, these products also appeal to a great many legal age drinkers who want to consume a beverage alcohol product but don’t like the characteristic taste of beer. Functionally, these products are little different from a mixed drink that combines a neutral spirit, such as vodka or white rum, with a soft drink such as 7Up. The fact that most of these products bear the names of well-known distilled spirits brands is further evidence that they are not trying to pretend they are anything other than alcoholic beverages intended for legal age adults.

The beverage industry has never called them “pop” or used any terminology that would lead anyone to compare these products to soft drinks. The anti-alcohol crusaders have done all of that.

Two additional facts of relevance. First, most beverage alcohol advertising is directed at young adults, as is most advertising for automobiles, music, electronics, clothing, health and beauty aids, and a wide range of other consumer products. Young adults are attractive to advertisers because they are still forming their brand preferences. This is Marketing 101. Also fundamental is that there is no way to create advertising that will appeal to persons of legal age but won't appeal to anyone younger than legal age. There is not some kind of switch that is thrown at age 18 or 21. Kids, especially older kids, like many of the same things young adults like. It is not possible to effectively advertise to persons at the low end of the legal age scale without some of that advertising reaching individuals at the high end of non-legal age.

All of this is common sense that anyone short of a blinkered fanatic should be able to accept. It is why most claims that certain products or ads are nefariously "directed at children" are, at best, an unfounded personal opinion and, at worst, a deliberate falsehood.

The second fact is this. There is one objective way to determine if advertising is "directed at children," and that is by examining the medium in which it is run and determining who views or hears that medium. The standard followed by the beverage alcohol industry (similar to that followed by the tobacco industry before cigarette advertising was effectively banned) is that advertising for those products is placed only in magazines, on television shows, or on radio shows where at least 70 percent of the audience is expected to be adults. The Federal Trade Commission has consistently found that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to those guidelines and, therefore, does not market to underage consumers.

I am aware that SB 1625 primarily targets outdoor advertising, not the specific media mentioned above, but it still is fundamentally dishonest and a disservice to the very people it is meant to protect. With a little bit of honest examination, I think you can see that SB 1625 and the noise surrounding it has been simple demagoguery, wholly empty and phony. The law is so vague that it probably is unenforceable and it will not do anything remotely like what you and its other supporters say it will do to “help prevent alcohol abuse.”

I am very disappointed to see my state representative associated with such a sorry piece of work. I continue to expect better.

Sincerely,
Charles K. Cowdery

Blogger Is Better.

On August 18, I started this blog on Blogger. I already had a blog, that I had been doing since 2005, that was a plain black-type-on-white-background design, very simple. Since August I have been posting everything to both places. I said then that it was an experiment to determine if it is "better on Blogger." I have come to the conclusion that it is. Therefore, from now on, new posts will be made here only.

Up until today, the "My Blog" link on my home page pointed to the original version. It now points here.

For posts made prior to August 18 go here. For 2006 posts go here. For 2005 posts go here.

More Kentucky Brandy

A correction to my Kentucky Brandy post: Brown-Forman owns neither Korbel brandy nor Korbel Champagne. Korbel Vineyards is privately owned by a guy named Gary Heck. Brown-Forman handles sales and marketing for the California Champagne line. It used to market and sell the brandy too, but turned that business back to Heck a few years ago. Brown-Forman has no relationship to Korbel Brandy except they sell them used Jack Daniel’s barrels for their aging.

According to Korbel Brandy's web site, "a new barrel is simply too strong in the harsher oak characteristics." It also says they char the barrels. This, however, may be a misstatement. The barrels are charred, of course, by the manufacturer before the Jack Daniel's goes in. Does Korbel char them again? I doubt it.

So, all of the top four U.S.-made brandies are distilled in California from California grapes. Korbel and E&J are aged in California, Korbel in used Jack Daniel's barrels. Paul Masson and Christian Brothers are aged in Kentucky in used bourbon barrels. Paul Masson and Christian Brothers also are bottled in Kentucky.

This business, the partial production of domestic brandy (the aging and bottling part), is in Kentucky providing jobs and tax revenue because bourbon whiskey production is located there. So, whiskey production doesn't just provide the whiskey-making jobs and revenues, it also brings other business to Kentucky, business that could be anywhere.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kentucky Brandy

In the 1980s, as the rye business was drying up and all of the rye whiskey distilleries in Pennsylvania and Maryland were closing, what little remaining rye whiskey production there was shifted to Kentucky. The Kentucky distilleries had always made rye whiskey, but when the last of the Maryland and Pennsylvania concerns closed down, only Kentucky remained. Although venerable brand names like Old Overholt, Pikesville, Rittenhouse and Mount Vernon continued to be sold, the whiskey was coming from Kentucky.

Now the same thing is happening with brandy.

Well, not exactly the same thing.

Brown-Forman has long owned Korbel. Heaven Hill owns Christian Brothers and Barton owns Paul Masson. Of the four best-selling U.S.-made brandies only one, Gallo's E&J, is not closely linked to a bourbon producer. All four companies use California grapes and the distilleries are there too. Gallo and Korbel also do their aging there, Korbel in used Jack Daniel's barrels.

Heaven Hill and Barton both ship their new-make brandy to Kentucky, enter it in used bourbon barrels there, and age it in their Kentucky warehouses. Both use warehouse locations for brandy that they prefer not to use for bourbon, specifically the lower floors of Barton's warehouses, and Heaven Hill's brick warehouses in Louisville. Most of the brandy is bottled and sold after two years of aging.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Jack Daniel’s Is the Best-Selling Whiskey in the World.


Ponder that statement for a moment.

Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

Look for the qualifier that isn't there.

American.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but not long ago Jack Daniel's surpassed Johnnie Walker as the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who think whiskey means scotch I say, Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who say whiskey should be spelled without an "e" I say, Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who think all American whiskey is bourbon I say, Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who think American whiskey will always be second fiddle to scotch whiskey I say, Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

I'm not saying Jack Daniel's is the best whiskey in the world, I'm not saying it is the model for what whiskey should be, I'm not saying everybody else should be like Jack Daniel's. I'm just saying this. Everybody in business is in business to succeed and Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Heaven Hill Releases 23-year-old Rittenhouse Rye

For those of you who like really old, really expensive whiskey, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Heaven Hill is releasing a 23-year-old, 50% ABV, not chill filtered, single barrel, Kentucky straight rye whiskey, called Rittenhouse Very Rare.

Last year, under the same name, Heaven Hill brought out a 21-year-old.

The 21-year-old went for $150. It sold out (at wholesale, there is still some in stores). The 23-year-old is shooting for $170.

It is shipping now, on allocation to major U.S. metro markets. Also to Eaux-De-Vie in the UK and La Maison du Whisky in France.

The package, a tall gold-printed bottle in a delicate balsa wood box, is almost identical to last year's.

The whiskey is from the same batch of rye, made in October of 1984, as last year's release. When the 21-year-old came out it was just a little shy of its 22nd birthday. They waited a little longer with these, so they're just barely 23.

All of them (both sets) were aged on the lowest floors of rickhouse OO. (That's "Oh! Oh!")

The 21-year-old release was of 32 barrels. The 23-year-old is just 25 barrels. It is single-barrel, so each bottling could be slightly different. It's fun to tell what bottle you have. I have bottle number 70 from barrel number eight.

Like the 21-year-old, the 23-year-old is 50% ABV and not chill-filtered.

They aren't saying if they have any more barrels still aging from that 1984 batch. Will there be a Rittenhouse 25? I have been told there is other old rye in the pipeline. You never know with Heaven Hill. They're a very nimble company that can spot an opportunity and move quickly to take advantage of it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Beam Sells Wines to Barton

Although it just finished changing its corporate name to Beam Global Spirits and Wine (its new web site just debuted last week), another new name is coming since the "and wine" part is going away, sold to Constellation (parent company of Barton) for $885 million. Beam is getting out of wine to concentrate on spirits, while Constellation, already the world's biggest wine maker, is now bigger. The sale was announced this morning.

Beam makes bourbons Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker's Mark. Barton makes bourbons Ridegmont Reserve 1792, Ten High and Very Old Barton.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The New Democrats Are the Old Republicans.

Daniel Gross has a great essay in the current Newsweek. The headline is "Dems Are the New Republicans." The gist of it is that, this time around, the establishment candidate is a Democrat, Hillary Clinton. So-called Wall Street Republicans are frustrated with the Bush administration's incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility. The business elite traditionally has been fiscally conservative but socially moderate. As the Republican Party has become more and more extreme in its social policies, as well as spendthrift, it has alienated that key part of its base. Right now it matters because those individuals are big donors, but they represent a lot of votes too.

Unfortunately, the Democrats face the same risk. As they move to fill the vacuum left by the Republicans, they move further and further away from what it is fair to call their Socialist wing. Conceivably, a leftist splinter third party candidacy could have the same effect Nader's had in 2000. Working against that scenario is the fact that the 2000 election came at the end of an eight year Democratic administration. Now the electorate is suffering from Bush fatigue, so a leftist third party candidacy seems unlikely to get much traction.

And although Hillary Clinton grew up as a Goldwater Republican in Park Ridge, Illinois (which is known locally as Park Rigid), it seems hard to imagine that a Hillary administration won't be Democratic in most traditional senses. Having grown up a Goldwater Republican myself, I'm not too worried.

Monday, October 15, 2007

When Bigger Isn’t Better.

You see them everywhere: in stores, bars, restaurants, airports, and hotel rooms. I’m talking about big screen televisions; specifically, wide screen flat panel video displays.

They look great, in that televisions have always been way too bulky and a screen only a few inches thick that can be hung on the wall is terrific. The problem comes when you turn them on. A bad picture made bigger is not an improvement.

There's nothing wrong with the display panels themselves. The problem is with the signals they're receiving. Garbage in, garbage out.

In public places like bars it’s not so bad, because you’re usually sitting much further away from the screen than you would at home. The flat panel screens tend to be very bright, so the fidelity loss isn’t too noticeable when you’re sitting 15 or 20 feet away from the screen.

But put one of these things into your home or, as I’ve experienced several times recently, into a hotel room and the illogic of it becomes as clear as the picture is fuzzy. Most hotels I have been in recently have had fairly modest-sized 26-inch units, but one proudly advertises its "42-inch HDTV flat screen televisions" in every room. It fails to mention that they are not feeding the units an HD signal, so the picture is terrible.

Even the smaller units, which usually are bigger than the conventional TVs they replaced, look like crap if they’re being fed by the same old distribution system, as every one of them I’ve experienced has been.

Even less of an improvement is a 4:3 aspect ratio picture stretched to the much wider 16:9 ratio. Yes, it fills the wider screen, but the stretched out Silly Putty images look ridiculous. If you have access to the remote control it’s usually easy enough to figure out how to reset for the correct aspect ratio, but the default setting appears to be 16:9 and most people seem content to leave it that way.

I’ve frequently experienced pixelization, where the picture breaks up in places into lines or blocks of random pixels. This occurs, to paraphrase a crude expression, because they are trying to stuff 10 pounds of video signal into a 5 pound distribution system. Since all digital video display systems work by processing only difference information, i.e., the things on the screen that change, this problem is especially noticeable in programs like sports broadcasts and action movies, where everything on the screen changes at once and quickly. In other words, the very thing most people are buying these units to watch, they reproduce the worst.

Even many of the stores that sell this equipment can’t seem to get a good picture on it. I have commented on this in stores and had salespeople tell me that their internal video distribution system isn’t as good as what you can get at home. If that’s the truth, it’s insane. If you’re trying to sell the things, shouldn’t you make sure the picture on every single unit in the store is as good as that particular unit is capable of reproducing?

And the displays are capable of producing good pictures. I’ve seen it done. In some smaller stores they don’t use distribution at all. They have DVD players attached directly to each display and get a good picture that way.

Unfortunately, I believe this phenomenon is happening because most people can’t tell the difference. Picture size they understand, picture quality they don’t. I have worked as a video producer so I know, from working in professional facilities, how good even a standard definition picture can look with well-maintained equipment and a high quality signal. Sadly, that isn’t what most people are watching and all of the new stuff coming out now isn’t much of an improvement, not because the HD displays aren’t capable of producing a terrific picture, but because most of the entities responsible for getting a video signal to the display (whether in a bar, store, or home) are either incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to deliver a signal of the highest possible quality.

I don’t have HD at home, but I noticed when sporting events started to be broadcast in HD, the picture on my conventional TV got better. It’s not magic. I know my display is not capable of reproducing an HD picture. What happened was that the program producers simply started originating a better picture, which looks better all the way down the line, even on conventional televisions. (For the record, my TV is a Sharp 4:3 ratio CRT that’s about 20 years old, and my signal is digital cable from RCN. Yes, the TV overscans a little, but the picture overall is better than what I’ve been seeing in hotel rooms.)

How bad are the pictures in these hotels? Have you ever copied a VHS cassette onto another VHS cassette? Yeah, they look that bad. In my experience last weekend, in a very nice hotel, the local broadcast channels looked especially bad. The cable channels looked better, but they weren’t HD. Even the very expensive movies the hotel sells through an on-demand system weren’t HD. At least the previews for them were not. I wasn’t about to spend the money to see if the films themselves were any better. There is no reason to believe they would be since the problem is with the distribution system the hotel is using.

But, like I said, apparently most people can’t tell the difference. I’ve never been able to understand why someone would buy one of those "big screen televisions" that are based on a rear projection system. Those have been around for many years. Again, what good is a big picture if the picture quality sucks? Those suck particularly because they lose brightness as well as resolution in the transition from projector to screen.

I can understand using front projection systems in meetings and such. If you need a big picture because of the size of your audience, it’s acceptable to give up some quality. But in your home where you’re probably going to sit six to eight feet from the screen, why is a big fuzzy picture considered more enjoyable than a smaller sharp picture?

One more thing I just don’t get.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I'm Trying to Start a Trend.

Whiskey is one of those English words—like aging, center, color, maneuver, and many others—that Americans and Brits spell differently. American writers often struggle to use the British spelling when referring to scotch whiskey (i.e., 'whisky,' no 'e'). UK writers occasionally return the favor. An American would never think of spelling color with a 'u' just because the subject is colors used by an English painter, for example. Why should whiskey be any different?

I'm trying to start a trend in which American publications spell whiskey the American way, regardless of the type of whiskey being discussed. I would expect publications in Canada or the UK to do the same, favoring their spelling.

The sole exception would be that when stating the proper name of a specific product, the word will be spelled the way the producer spells it, and also be capitalized as befits a proper name.

Example: That sure was some good scotch whiskey.

Example: Pass me another drink of that Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky.

Why do I think a change of practice is needed? The problem is that maintenance of the dual spelling protocol suggests that "whiskey" and "whisky" are two different words with different meanings when they are not. There is no definition difference between them. They are merely alternative spellings, with one preferred in the United States and the other preferred in Great Britain, along with a long list of other words about which nobody has this problem.

However, the maintenance of this pained protocol, which leads us to write things like "whisk(e)y" to feel like we're covering the category with a single word, also leads many people to conclude that, in fact, they are two different words with two different meanings, and they imagine all sorts of nutty distinctions.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

MLS Playoff Picture.

Of the thirteen teams in Major League Soccer (MLS), eight make the playoffs. By comparison, eight teams make the Major League Baseball playoffs, but baseball starts with 30, not 13.

So MLS is pretty generous.

But, still, playoffs are playoffs, anything can happen in the postseason, and a close playoff hunt at the end of the regular season is always good drama.

As of right now, every team has either two or three regular season games remaining. My team, the Chicago Fire, has two.

Six teams have clinched playoff berths and two teams have been mathematically eliminated. That leaves five teams fighting over the two remaining playoff spots. That's exciting for any sports fan. Chicago is one of those five teams, currently ranked second among them with 36 points. (Teams get three points for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss.)

Our two remaining games are against DC United, in Washington, and against the LA Galaxy here, in that order. DC is one of the teams that has clinched. LA is now at 30 points but has three games to play.

There is every chance it will all come down to the final match of the regular season in front of a capacity crowd at Toyota Park. I already have my tickets.

The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

Please indulge me as I brag on myself a little bit. Volume 7, "Foodways," of the New Encyclopdia of Southern Culture, is now in print and I'm very proud to have written the Bourbon Whiskey entry (page 127). I'm proud to be associated with the whole enterprise, which is a very nice balance of serious scholarship and fun reading. If you are interested, as I am, in the general subject of Southern foodways, this is a must-have book. Click on the link below to buy it from Amazon.com.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cubs v. Indians?

Coming home last night after dinner with a friend, we noticed four or five helicopters flying and hovering nearby. We speculated that it might be something for the new Batman movie, which has been filming here all summer. Instead, it was the TV stations getting shots of the crowd gathering in front of Wrigley Field to celebrate the Cubs National League Central Division Championship. All of the local stations alternated between scenes of the celebration at Wrigley and the champagne showers in the Cubs locker room in Cincinnati. Today, the Cubs announced they’re holding a rally on Monday in Grant Park.

A rally? My first reaction was that these celebrations are all terribly premature, but maybe not.

With 85 wins, ten fewer than the Indians and Red Sox, the Cubs have the worst record of the eight playoff teams. If the Cubs hadn’t won the division, they would have been fourth in the National League Wild Card hunt. Of the eight playoff teams, the worst team in the American League has a better record than the best team in the National League.

So, the Cubs are the eighth best team in baseball. Not even, by record, but they did win their division.

Celebrate while you can.

I have lived in the shadow of Wrigley Field for twenty years, but I was born and raised a Cleveland Indians fan. I believe baseball fans are born, not made. I also believe that if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with, hence I am a Cubs rooter.

I don't think the Cubs chances are very good, but anything can happen in the playoffs. Therefore, I think I need to declare now.

Go Tribe!!!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dems at Dartmouth

Biden, Dodd and Richardson -- babbling idiots. The sports term is "pressing." The theatrical term is flop sweat. Biden and Dodd have moments of lucidity; Richardson has none. Way out of his depth. Couldn't even think up his own Bible verse, had to copy off Obama.

Biden -- 300,000 cases of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome a year. Seemed high to me. That would be like 1 in 13 births. I looked it up. The real number is, outside estimate, 80,000 (1.9%, Abel and Sokol study).

Biden -- first to say, "torture doesn't work" in response to the trick torture question. Obama missed the chance. "Torture bad" not as good an answer.

Kucinich -- funny, knows his voters. How great would it be to have Dennis Kucinich and his hot wife in the White House? What are all of those little books he has in his pocket? A tiny constitution? A St. Francis prayer card? "Strength through peace"(?) What else? Energy through kindness? Equality through faith? Freedom through hope? How naïve are his voters?

Gravel -- "Get off gas in 5 years, off carbon in 10." "Hey you kids, get off my lawn."

Obama -- smooth.

Clinton -- smoother.

Edwards -- also pressing. Apparently trying to get to the left of Kucinich on Iraq(!) Making no impression on me except as a potentially dangerous populist demagogue.

Oktoberfest

My people are from the part of Germany where you can't possibly drink more beer in October than you do every day of the year, so we don't see the point of Oktoberfest.

If I never see an old man in lederhosen again, it will be too soon.

People at Oktoberfest drink like they have either just that day discovered beer or have just learnt it's about to be discontinued.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Rookery


In 1885, Burnham and Root designed a building for the Central Safety and Deposit Company. At twelve stories high, the Rookery was the tallest building in the world. It remains as one of the most beloved buildings in Chicago's Loop.

The grand lobby space was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905 and has recently been restored to the splendor of Wright's 1905 design.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of the remaining structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, through education and advocacy.

You can visit them at www.savewright.org

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Is Exciting Again.

On Saturday, October 13, Heaven Hill is unveiling its Evan Williams Single Barrel 1998 Vintage at the J. B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville. I don’t know when they announced it but I hear it’s already sold out. The ad on the web site says, "Meet Master Distillers Parker & Craig Beam and noted Bourbon experts." I’m pretty sure I’m one of the noted Bourbon experts.

Heaven Hill does something like this every year. Good for them and that's what’s so great about the vintage concept; each annual release is 'news.' True as that is, it's hard for me to get all worked up about it every year. It's always good whiskey, it's always interesting to compare it to previous releases, but let's just say it's not up there with Christmas.

This year is different. I'm really looking forward to this one, and the one after that, and the one after that, for the next few years. Why? Because Heaven Hill's distillery in Bardstown (DSP-31) was destroyed in a fire in 1996. They don't like to talk about it but I do, because it's bourbon history in the making.

EWSB always has a barrel entry date on the label. Anything entered after November of 1996 isn't DSP-31 bourbon. Some of the 1996 and all of the 1997 is whiskey made at Jim Beam to Heaven Hill's specifications and supervised by Parker and Craig Beam (P&C). Subsequently, Brown-Forman also made whiskey for them, supervised by P&C, etc. Sometime in 1999 they began producing in their new home, the Bernheim facility in Louisville, but it took maybe another year or more before P&C got the operation there the way they wanted it. Because Heaven Hill needs more whiskey than Bernheim alone can produce, they have continued to use Brown-Forman’s plant in Shively too, so who knows where the next EWSB was made. That's why these next few years of EWSB will be so interesting. They will be the only legacy of the '96 fire that you can taste and take home with you.

What we're going to see or, rather, taste is a transition. Heaven Hill has pretty much committed to making EWSB represent the best single-barrel whiskey they can produce in nine years. Each year the pool changes but the criteria doesn’t. You expected them to clear the bar every year at DSP-31 after they got this thing going. With DSP-31 out of the picture and not one but possibly three different distilleries in the mix, it starts to get interesting again.

There seems to be nothing to be concerned about, as the 1997 is good and perhaps superior to some of the last DSP-31 vintages (though '94 is still the one to beat). I'm looking forward to tasting the new one next month, much more so than I have looked forward to it in years. Heaven Hill was good about telling us that the 1997 was made at Beam and I expect they will be equally forthcoming about this and subsequent vintages.

I’ll let you know what I think after October 13.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Blending; The Scottish Influence


Among we fans of American whiskey, ‘blend’ is a bad word, connoting both the ‘imitation’ whiskeys of the past and the unedifying American Blended Whiskeys of the present day.

Even in Scotland, where the art of whiskey blending began, today it gets no respect. Real whiskey enthusiasts don't care about Johnnie Walker, regardless of label color. It's all about single malts.

But as my friend Gary Gillman often reminds me, blending gives us an unlimited variety of flavors, some of which are wonderful and can be achieved no other way. As his fellow Canadian Sam Bronfman once said, "distilling is a science, blending is an art."

What I have realized just recently is how influential Scottish blending techniques have been, especially in some unexpected places, especially the practice of combining very flavorful pot-distilled spirit with more neutral column-distilled spirit. This is, of course, the way Scottish, Canadian and Japanese whiskey blends are made, but as I recently learned it also is the way fine rums are blended in the former British colony of Jamaica by Appleton Estate. Different varieties of sugar cane are processed, their molasses separated from their pure sugar content, then the molasses is fermented, distilled in either a pot or column still, and aged in used Jack Daniel's barrels. These different, aged rums are then blended to a desired taste profile, exactly the way Scottish whiskey blends are made, except with rum.

In the United States, where we value straight whiskey above all else, and where pot stills are usually used only for secondary distillation, there are still some parallels. Four Roses makes ten different bourbon formulas by combining five different yeasts with two different mash bills. Everything is aged in new, charred barrels; i.e., everything is straight bourbon. Still, they have ten different taste profiles, more if you factor in different ages, which they combine (i.e., blend) into an ideal final product.

Most American whiskey-makers do something similar, though less ambitious. They make only one formula but they achieve different flavors through the natural process of aging, both through time and warehouse location. They then select and mix (i.e., blend) whiskeys of different ages and from different warehouse locations until they match their brand’s taste profile. The only exceptions are bottled-in-bond bourbons, which are increasingly rare, and single-barrel bourbons, which are increasingly common.

By American law, any combination of straight whiskeys of the same type, made in the same state (why this is important I can’t explain), is still a straight whiskey of that type. Therefore, a mixture of different straight bourbons, even made at different distilleries, is still straight bourbon. Which brings us naturally to Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is even closer to the Scottish model, in that it combines pot-distilled straight bourbon with column-distilled straight bourbon and mixes (i.e., blends) them in much the same way as Appleton blends rum. It's no accident that Brown-Forman, whose controlling Brown family is proud of its Scottish ancestry, makes both Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Appleton Rum.

Finally, I learned recently that Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, creator of Old Forester, which was originally (in 1870) a blend of straight bourbons from different distilleries, opposed the part of the Bottled-in-Bond Act that requires bonded whiskey to be from one distillery during a single season. He valued the ability to mix whiskey of different ages and from several distilleries together to achieve the best possible flavor. Old Forester Signature is 100° proof, the traditional proof of American straight whiskey, but it is not bottled-in-bond, as whiskeys of different ages are combined (i.e., blended) to achieve the desired taste profile. Taking this principle even further, Brown-Forman uses different taste profiles (i.e., blends) for its Signature and standard 86° proof expressions. Most whiskeys sold at different proofs are the same profile diluted to different strengths.

As E. H. Taylor said a century ago and in support of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, where American blended whiskey went off the track was by emphasizing cheapness. Though some of the worst practices of that era were eliminated, the typical American blended whiskey today combines a little bit of straight whiskey (about 40 percent) with a lot of grain spirit (about 60 percent). Grain spirit is vodka that has spent a few months in used bourbon barrels, to take the edge off. American blends also have flavoring and coloring agents added, which straight whiskey never does.

Considering the current size of the American whiskey industry—seven companies operating eleven distilleries—blending good straight whiskeys is a way to achieve a greater variety of flavors. Maybe the word ‘blend’ has been debased but the practice shouldn’t be. Blending may also be a way for craft distillers, still struggling with how to make a legitimate ‘craft’ American whiskey, to get into the game, by combining their aged distillate with good bulk whiskey from one of the majors.

We should all keep a open mind.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Elvira Arellano vs. Rosa Parks.

It strikes me as I have gone back and re-read my post about Elvira Arellano that it sounds less sympathetic than what I actually feel. I feel badly for her and I feel guilty, as an American, because it is primarily the U.S. government's failure to enact and enforce a rational immigration policy that is the cause of both her anguish and America's undocumented immigrant problem.

I also should probably explain why I find preposterous the claim that she is "the Rosa Parks of the immigration rights movement." If the comparison merely means that both are the personification of their movement, then although the jury is still out on Arellano, I'll say okay, maybe, but so what? I believe they want it to mean more than that. They are trying to borrow some of Ms. Parks' aura of righteousness, and that is the part that falls somewhere between preposterous and offensive. Rosa Parks stood for the proposition that an oppressed people should not be complicit in their own oppression, regardless of the risk. What does Elvira Arellano stand for? Put kindly, perhaps for the proposition that if you want something badly enough you can convince yourself that you are entitled to it.

Maybe Arellano's supporters are guilty of nothing worse than the modern tendency to overstate just about everything, the subject of one of my first blog posts.

Big News Day!

Craig files to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming that in a "state of intense anxiety" following his arrest, he "felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer" and plead guilty to the disorderly conduct charge. This is an improvement? "I'm not a closeted homosexual, but I am an emotional basket case who breaks down under the slightest pressure and, in that state, can be railroaded into doing irrational things that are manifestly contrary to my own self-interest." Yeah, that's what I look for in a public official.

Plus, General Petraeus is on the Hill ("I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level ... by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve." What a gift for the Democrats!), the Family Secrets verdict is coming in ("We're not gangsters, we were just pretending to be gangsters."), implanted microchips cause cancer (No, really?), and Ronald Regan's first wife has joined him in, well, take your pick.

What a day! (And it's barely half over.)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Mount Vernon Follow-Up

Some follow-up to yesterday's post about the distilling done this week at Mount Vernon.

They didn't make much, maybe ten gallons.

Gerry Webb is Diageo's Master Distiller. He oversees their bourbon production as well as Smirnoff and their rums.

Harper is no longer being made at Four Roses, although Bulleit (also Diageo) still is. Bourbon for Harper is being sourced from Barton and Brown-Forman.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mount Vernon Fires Up Its Stills.

DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.) likes to have an annual event, about this time of year, at the George Washington Distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia. This week, whiskey was made for the first time in the reconstructed distillery that officially opened in March. Master Distillers from different DISCUS-member companies made the rye-mash spirit. They were Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey; Joe Dangler of Virginia Gentleman; Ken Pierce of Very Old Barton; Gerry Webb of I.W. Harper and Dave Pickerell of Maker’s Mark. I know everybody expect Gerry Webb. I'm not sure who he might be. I. W. Harper is a Diageo product, but it's made by Four Roses.

Although the new whiskey has to age for a few years first, Mount Vernon intends to bottle and sell it in the gift shop. This is good news because the whiskey made there in the past (in a makeshift still while the distillery itself was under construction) was sold at high prices for charitable fund-raising, so most whiskey enthusiasts never got close to it.

Michael Jackson RIP

Michael Jackson died last night in his London home. He was 65. Although no official cause of death has been announced yet, he is known to have suffered from Parkinson's Disease for the past decade. Details of his death are still sketchy, but he had been in poor health for years and was doing less and less, especially traveling.

I didn't know Michael personally although our paths crossed a few times. The world knew him as "the other Michael Jackson," if it knew him at all, but he was the Michael Jackson to those of us who care way too much about beer and whiskey. Although he was more famous for his beer activities, he cut an equally wide swath through the whiskey world. His World Guide to Whisky, first published in 1987 and recently updated, was the starting point for me and, probably, many others. He seemed to be the first person to write about it who didn't just parrot what the producers told him, who took that in but found other sources too, synthesized it all, and gave something back to his readers that was more than the sum of the parts.

Michael Jackson was the first person who made me think it might be possible to make a living studying and writing about whiskey.

He was the father of us all.

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Russell's Reserve Rye

Wild Turkey (Pernod Ricard USA) is about to release a new straight rye, under the Russell's Reserve banner. It will be a six-year-old straight rye whiskey. Retail price will be about $24. I don't know the proof yet, but I suspect it will be 90 proof, same as the Russell's Reserve bourbon. I'll know more for sure in a couple of days. It's being bottled now.

Russell's Reserve Rye is scheduled for late September release. Whether or not it will be around during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (9/10-16) I don't know, but I suspect the Turkey folks will have some, even if it's not in the stores yet.

This product will be positioned slightly above the Wild Turkey rye and is a new expression, not a replacement for WT rye. Presumably, WT rye will continue at 4+ years old and RR Rye will be 6+ years old.

I think this is a great development and I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Elvira Arellano Makes Me Think.

The ongoing story and recent deportation of Elvira Arellano has affected my thinking about immigration.

In case you haven't followed it, Arellano is a Mexican national who has been living in the United States without documents for about ten years. While in this country she gave birth to a son, who is therefore an American citizen. She first made headlines a year ago when, facing deportation, she took sanctuary in a Chicago church. Last weekend she left the church and drove to L.A., where she was swiftly apprehended by immigration officials and returned to Mexico.

The angle of Arellano's specific complaint is that she ought to be allowed to stay in the United States because her eight-year-old son is an American citizen, so forcing her to leave would split their family. That has been enough to get her story heavy exposure; when something happens in the case it leads the news. Her supporters have dubbed her "the Rosa Parks of the immigration rights movement."

It's so easy to poke holes in Arellano's argument that it's not even sporting to do so. Likewise the ridiculous comparison to Rosa Parks. Arellano's side disproved its own central thesis when her son joined her in Mexico the next day. But it made me think, about this case, and others, and the debate itself as it has unfolded and been framed by various parties. My conclusion is that we Americans need to focus on three fundamental questions:

1) Do we, the citizens of the United States, have the right to regulate and restrict entry into our country?

2) If we have that right, are we obliged to exercise it?

3) If we decline to exercise it, is the right diminished or lost?

The first question is familiar. Most people can answer it readily and probably would answer it yes. The second and third questions are ones most people haven't considered and may regard as specious, yet there are many legal precedents for certain rights being diminished or lost because their possessor didn't take timely steps to defend them when they were threatened. Trademark rights are one example.

Arguably, we, the citizens of the United States, are guilty of neglect on immigration. Through our negligence, we have permitted 12 million non-citizens to enter our country and establish lives here. We have allowed it through our failure to prevent it. I have thus far avoided the term "illegal" for a reason. The way "illegal" is used requires a yes answer to my first question and total disregard of the others. The problem is, when you put a widely abused regulatory regime on one side (abused by everyone, including government), and the legitimate expectations that come naturally from a long, settled existence on the other, the "illegal" tag starts to look a little lame.

I also eschew the term "illegal" because it suggests that being undocumented is a criminal offense. It's not. Many people don't understand this. They assume being in the U.S. without permission is a criminal act. In reality, the seriousness of being here without legal status is similar to that of a parking ticket. Under the law, deportation isn't considered a penalty, just a correction of status. Yet in reality it can be devastating.

Although there is attraction in the argument that we shouldn't reward illegal behavior, perhaps "rewarding illegal behavior" is exactly the penalty we U.S. citizens deserve to pay for our long and continuing neglect of the problem.

Consider the following. You live on a large plot of land in a semi-rural area. You notice that someone has started to build a small house on what you believe is your property, near the property line. Instead of investigating it and, if it is on your property, taking timely steps to stop the construction, you forget about it. The house is completed, people move into it, they have a family, the family grows, and they continue to maintain and improve the property.

Twenty years pass. You want to get your affairs in order before you die and one of the things you decide to do is get rid of that house that you now can prove was built on your land without permission. Can you? The short answer is no, you can't. How are the equities in a case like Arellano's any different?

With that in mind, I propose a fairly simple solution to the whole immigration mess. If a long-term undocumented non-citizen resident can prove that he or she has been here for five years or more, lived a good life, been a productive member of society and generally stayed out of trouble, fine, they're a citizen. Easy, low-threshold test, virtually automatic acceptance. Stay under the radar for five years and you're in.

If you don't like that proposal, then do something about catching and deporting the people who don't qualify, and do something about securing the borders.

Why do people take great risks to enter the United States? Because they believe their lives will be much better here. They believe it because it's true. Getting into the United States doesn't guarantee a poor Mexican, Guatemalan, Greek or Pole a better life, but it increases the odds significantly. If that ceases to be the case, if the odds change, and getting-in and staying-in becomes a genuine ordeal and, ultimately, a crap shoot, one with heavy odds in favor of the house, the incentive to come here will be reduced.

Lower the incentive and simultaneously increase the difficulty by tightening the border and increasing detection and deportation efforts, and you're bound to reduce the number of new arrivals. It's fair to be tough about keeping people out, but we also have to be fair to the people who we have allowed, through our neglect, to build a life here.

Here's my other proposed solution. Offer Mexico statehood. Make a sincere offer, with appropriate terms, and see what happens. My prediction is that while there will be many loud objections, the majority of Mexican voters will want to accept. It will be similar to the reunification of Germany; not without problems, but doable. If the rest of Central America wants in too, I don't see the problem.

The fact that you, personally, have had a tough position on immigration all along counts for nothing. I don't care if you're the President of the United States or Joe Windbag down at the corner, neither one of you has fixed the problem. You're on the hook with the rest of us. We let them get in and, more importantly, let them, over time, build up a reasonable expectation that it will all be okay, that the life they've built here won't be suddenly ripped away from them.

This is how you get past the idea that they are not entitled to that life because it was built on a tainted base. To so rule is genuinely unfair, as in unbalanced, as in the penalty not fitting the crime. The current immigration laws are a pathetic travesty. Yes, the law is the law, but when you weigh the fact that no federal, state or local arm of government has addressed illegal immigration in an even remotely realistic or effective way, and weigh that against the substantial investment many undocumented immigrants have made in their American communities, that one arguable transgression counts for very little against their exemplary performance since then as the best kind of Americans. That has to count for something.

Although my proposals probably sound radical and unrealistic to you, think about what happens now. Instead of citizenship being granted after five years, we simply grant it to the next generation, no questions asked.

Which brings me back to Elvira Arellano. Right or wrong, her son will remember how we made life hard for his mother. He's one of us, with exactly the same rights as you or me. He's a fellow American. Don't we owe him something? Won't we build a better future citizen by being fair to his mom now?

Every American citizen shares responsibility for the immigration mess, all of us. Only when we accept that responsibility will we be able to solve the problem once and for all.

(This is what I was working on yesterday when the power went out.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Worst Thunderstorm Ever!

Wow!

That's the scariest storm I've been through in a long time. Especially here, in my home near Lake Michigan on the north side of Chicago. First time I've ever been scared enough to move to the hallway that runs through the center of the apartment, away from all the windows and outside walls. I even took a chair with me.

This building, built in 1902, is a rock, and I'm on the first floor. I wasn't worried about it blowing down or anything like that. But I could see enough flying debris to worry about something smashing into a window.

There's a tree out back, old, trunk about two feet in diameter.

At least it was there. Now it's on its side, in the driveway, snapped off at its base. When I saw that huge tree go down, that's when I quickly moved away from the window.

The Waterford, a high-rise about two blocks north of here, lost its entire roof. Half of it landed on the smaller building next door. The other half landed on Lake Shore Drive, on top of an unlucky SUV. The woman whose SUV was under the tree in my back yard got lucky. Only the very top of it landed on her car and did no damage.

My building, called The Pattington, has a tile roof, which now has many fewer tiles on it than it did. The grounds around the building are littered with them, also chunks of limestone, brick and tin from about five chimneys that blew off.

All over the neighborhood and no doubt all over the region, lots of trees lost big branches and many trees, big ones like the one behind me, went down completely; some snapped in two, some pulled out by their roots. (The soil here, below a couple inches of top soil, is all sand.) Several buildings lost chunks of roofs.

Park Place, a high-rise across from us on the south side of Irving Park Road, had a temporary "now leasing" sign at the corner of Irving and Pine Grove. The sign was half-inch masonite, about 3' x 5', screwed to three steel poles. The poles are still there but the sign broke in half and sailed about 30 feet, one half staying on the south side of Irving, the other half coming to rest on the north side.

The storm came up fast, in the middle of the afternoon. My desk faces away from the window, but I suddenly could hear the wind and noticed it had gotten almost dark. Then the power went out. It was out for five hours.

I knew I had candles and flashlights, and was proud of myself for being able to quickly locate an old, all-analog, battery-powered radio I have. I probably haven't used it in ten years or more, but it performed perfectly. I knew from the radio that more weather was on its way and, sure enough, about 7:30 PM it started up again, not quite as ferocious, but with almost continuous lightening flashes. The power came back on about 8:15 PM.

It seems to have settled down somewhat, but only temporarily according to the Weather Service. It may, they say, keep going like this, on and off, until Saturday.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What Came Before.

This is my debut on Blogger, but The Chuck Cowdery Blog has existed on my own site since 2005. Is it better on Blogger? That's what I'm here to find out. From now on, I intend to post to both sites. To see what has gone before, go here.

New York Legalizes Spirits Auctions


Here's good news for all the people who want to know what some liquid treasure they pried from their grandfather's dead hands is really worth.

New York law now permits permits auction houses, such as Christie's, to auction rare distilled spirits.

Christie’s, in fact, immediately announced its plans to hold in December the first liquor auction in New York since Prohibition began in 1920.

"We are currently accepting consignments of vintage cognac, armagnac, Scottish, Irish and American whiskies, bourbon and other traditional spirits," said Richard Brierley, Head of Christie’s Americas Wine Sales.

The Distilled Spirits Council estimates that millions of dollars in exclusive spirits sales have been lost to London, Paris, Glasgow and other auction centers around the globe because spirits auctions have been against the law in New York, costing the state large amounts in lost sales taxes.

The new law also allows spirits tastings at the auctions, just as is already allowed for wine auctions. Nationally, seventeen states permit wine auctions, but New York becomes only the eighth state to authorize spirits auctions.

This will be interesting to follow. Obviously, Christie's won't be handling the type of thing that makes up most of the traffic on eBay, but it will be interesting to see how this develops and what, if anything, made-in-the-USA even gets on the board.

Anyone out there with a big bunker who's ready to cash-in?