Saturday, January 31, 2015

Filtration: a Way to Improve Whiskey, or Destroy It?

Filtration is a part of whiskey-making that is rarely discussed. Virtually all whiskeys are filtered in some way before bottling. Mostly cosmetic, it is the last chance to make sure your whiskey glistens on the shelf.

Filtration also affects flavor. Some believe that's a bad thing and a few whiskeys choose to be slightly less beautiful so they can be slightly more flavorful.

The manipulative filtration of whiskey turns out to be a special skill of Michter's Willie Pratt, which he demonstrated through ten tastes of a 10-year-old rye whiskey Michter's was preparing to bottle. By varying the filter material, its density, the use of charcoal, and other factors, he produced ten distinctly different flavors from the same whiskey sample. The tasting panel's job was to select the one that showed best.

Everyone does this sort of thing, Michter's was just nice enough to provide a demonstration.

'Rectification' means to fix or correct. In the late 19th century, 'rectifiers' bought whiskey from distillers and 'fixed' it, i.e., they made it more palatable and, therefore, more marketable through blending, redistilling, filtering, and flavoring.

Some rectifiers took good whiskeys from different makers and batched them together into a product greater than the sum of its parts. Others created what came to be called compound whiskey which was, in fact, not whiskey at all but neutral spirit flavored to resemble whiskey. In those days before truth-in-advertising regulation it was passed off as the real thing, much to the chagrin of whiskey purists.

All of these techniques still exist but are regulated and must be disclosed when used. Filtration is the exception. It has always been considered a legitimate part of the production process. Since some kind of filtration almost always takes place as one of the final steps before bottling, it doesn't have to be disclosed. Even when it is deliberately used to alter the flavor of the spirit, the producer does not have to reveal what was done, how it was done, nor even that it was done at all.

The most ubiquitous type of filtration is chill filtration, the purpose of which is to remove certain fatty acids that can cause the whiskey to appear cloudy, especially when the bottle is cold. The whiskey is cooled to about 32° F and passed through a fine filtering medium (e.g., silk), usually coming into contact with activated carbon. This is supposed to have only a minor effect on flavor but it can be manipulated to deliberately affect taste in a significant way.

One reason filtering is not regulated is because it is a subtractive process, taking flavor (and color, odor, etc.) out, but not adding any. However, in the complex mix that is a whiskey's flavor, the elimination of one flavor can highlight those that remain. Long thought to mainly diminish a whiskey's flavor overall, skilful filtration can alter a whiskey's taste (presumably for the better) more than you might think.

Skill in the art of filtration is important for anyone who deals in older whiskeys, which in the case of bourbon and rye is anything that has spent more than a decade in the barrel. Old bourbons and ryes have their charms but because they are aged in new barrels, wood flavors tend to overpower, beginning in about year ten. The older a whiskey gets the more tempting it is to tone it down a bit through filtration, but an unskilful job can ruin the whiskey with blandness. Rectify a whiskey too much and you get vodka.

There is a subset of bourbon and rye drinkers who subsist almost entirely on whiskeys in their teens and twenties. Unless a whiskey's maker states that it is not filtered, it probably is, and a denial of chill-filtering doesn't tell you what is being done to it at room temperature. Presumably, the drinkers of these whiskeys want them to be all that they can be and if they can be improved by a little filtration, why not? Or maybe that's not how they feel, but that's how it is.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The New Bourbon Country Reader Is in the Mail

If I have any credibility left after yesterday's blunder, I would like to announce the publication of a new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, my idiosyncratic bourbon newsletter.

Regular readers of my work know I can be hard on Diageo, the Big Galoot just keeps asking for it. In this issue we uncharacteristically congratulate the world's largest drinks maker for turning lemons into lemonade. Instead of paying a fine of $10,000 a day, they created the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company. It is on the connection between those two things that this tale hangs.

But wait a minute, I can't help it. If an 'Orphan Barrel' is so-called because its 'parent,' the distillery that distilled it, is now defunct, then how can the outfit that 'adopted' them be a distilling company? Aren't all of the whiskeys they're selling already distilled? How can you give birth to an orphan?

Back to the newsletter.

One question Diageo has never answered about Orphan Barrel is why? Nobody lets whiskey get that old on purpose unless they're servicing a product in that age range, which Diageo is not. This is the sort of thing Diageo doesn't talk about, but the industry assumed they held onto so much of the whiskey made by the companies they acquired so they could use it in their Canadian whiskies such as Crown Royal.

The U.S. is the biggest market for Canadian whisky and Canadian whisky sold in the U.S. can contain up to 9.09% American whiskey, for which the producer receives a tax break from the U.S. government.

For whatever reason, Diageo had way more whiskey than it needed, and found itself with a lot in the 15-25 year age range, though nobody knew how much. They could have sold it when it was younger but didn't. Why not and why now?

The answer, it turns out, is Baudoinia compniacensis, also known as the whiskey fungus. (It's the black stuff in the picture above.) For the rest, you'll have to subscribe.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year (six issues) for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. It is quaintly old-fashioned and published six times a year, or thereabouts.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.) For the record, the new one is our 94th.

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Don't Write Blog Posts Late at Night

The original version of this post had the math backwards, as an astute reader pointed out. Sorry about that. The real news is that, based on a sample of 450 products analyzed by the U. S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for the 2014 Alcoholic Beverage Sample Program (ABSP), 31 percent of the beer, wine, and spirits products sold in the United States do not comply with TTB rules. The 2013 results were about the same.

The 2014 sample included 190 distilled spirits, 155 malt beverages, and 105 wines. One-hundred-thirty-nine products were non-compliant; 73 distilled spirits, 46 malt beverages, and 20 wines.

The most common offense? Alcohol content that did not match the label. In some cases, the actual alcohol content places the product in a different tax classification.

Another common violation is labels that do not match their approved Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) due to changes that are not allowable revisions. Approximately 25 percent of the non-compliant labels contained such changes in information. As least one product in the sample went on the market without ever submitting a COLA.

Is 69 percent compliance good enough? Is that even a fair way to read this report? Four-hundred-fifty is a small sample size when TTB reviews more than 100,000 labels, advertisements, and other material each year. But it’s the only measure we have of TTB’s effectiveness at "assuring that alcohol beverages sold in the United States are properly described on the container."

(My statistics consultant advises that a sample size of 450 should be 95 percent accurate, regardless of the size of the universe.)

I know what TTB’s mission is because I read it in the TTB labeling brochure, under the heading “How TTB Protects the Public.” It begins:

“American adults who enjoy an occasional alcohol beverage of their choice do so without fear that the product they are consuming might not be labeled properly. Why don't they need to worry? Because a small Government agency takes pride in assuring that the alcohol beverages sold in the United States are properly described on the container.

“TTB takes tremendous pride in its strategic mission to ‘Protect the Public,’ which is designed to assure the integrity of alcohol beverages in the marketplace, verify and substantiate industry member compliance with laws and regulations, and to provide information to the public as a means of preventing consumer deception.”

I apologize to everyone who read the original post. My problem with math is that I often miss obvious mistakes, especially late at night. I should also give you the link to TTB's original release, so you can figure it out for yourself.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

There Is More New in the TTB Labeling Guidelines than Previously Thought

The labeling FAQ discussed here on Monday contains nothing new concerning the rules as written, but it does represent major changes in how TTB has been enforcing those rules. Several producers have told me that TTB advised them that only straight whiskey needed an age statement if less than four years old, and many products have been mislabeled as a result of that advice.

Here is the easiest way to understand the rule. If the label says 'whiskey' on it, and the product contains no neutral spirit (i.e., vodka, as in Seagram's 7 and similar products), and it is less than four years old, it needs an accurate and specific age statement, which is the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.

That's pretty much it. No exceptions. An age statement is required if the product meets all three of the following.
  • 'Whiskey' on label.
  • No vodka in the product.
  • A whiskey in the product that is less than four years old.
TTB will not require producers to recall mislabeled product, but it is in the producer's best interest to correct all labels as soon as possible.

TTB has, of course, not acknowledged that it has regularly mis-applied its own rules. Let's just hope they get it right going forward.

Monday, January 19, 2015

TTB Issues New Guidelines for Age Statements on Whiskey Labels

There is nothing truly new about the labeling guidelines published on December 29th by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). (On the FAQ page, scroll down to S11.) Those have always been the rules. This is, however, the TTB's way of putting the industry on notice that its lax enforcement of these provisions is in the past. It remains to be seen if their bite matches their bark.

You may have read about the problem here back in September. The most egregious offense is the "Aged less than four years" convention, which clearly violates the rules, but which TTB was approving left and right. Now it says that form will not be allowed because it, "may mislead consumers as to the age of the product."

As stated in the new guidelines, "The TTB regulations at 27 CFR 5.40(a) require an age statement on the label of any whisky that has not been aged for at least four years. This requirement applies to any whisky produced by mixing or blending if the youngest whisky in the mixture or blend has been aged for less than four years. An age statement is optional for any whisky that is four years old or more."

In law school, my struggle with legal writing was aided by this advice. "In legal writing, unlike most other forms, it pays to state the obvious." The new labeling guidelines are in that spirit. For example, they define 'age' as "the period during which, after distillation and before bottling, distilled spirits have been stored in oak containers. For bourbon whisky, rye whisky, wheat whisky, malt whisky, or rye malt whisky, and for straight whisky other than straight corn whisky, the 'age' is the period during which the whisky has been stored in charred new oak containers." (Emphasis mine.)

In that same spirit, it might have been useful to point out that these rules apply to all whiskeys, and not just straights as many seem to believe.

If a spirit has been aged for a very brief period simply to qualify it as a whiskey, that period "must be stated in hours, days, months, or years, as appropriate." Age may be understated but never overstated.

One question is stated in the form of an example which I think someone sent to me a few months ago. I hope I answered correctly. Here it is: "I am bottling a straight whisky that consists of one straight whisky that has been aged for 3 years and another straight whisky that has been aged for 2 years. The older whisky makes up 60% of the mixture, on a proof gallon basis, and the younger whisky makes up the remaining 40%. Can I simply label the product as having been 'Aged for less than 4 years'?"

The answer is, of course, no but with this additional guidance: "You may choose to label the product with an age statement that reflects the age of the youngest whisky ('Aged 2 years') or you can set out the percentage of each whisky, with its age ('60% straight whisky aged 3 years; 40% straight whisky aged 2 years')."

Any questions?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Something Else That's Great About Kentucky: Ginseng

Ginseng is a perennial plant with fleshy roots that are used in a variety of folk medicines. It is also an ingredient in many energy drinks. Medicinal qualities are attributed to ginseng leaves too.

The Chinese are the world's biggest consumers of ginseng. South Korea is the number one producer and also a big consumer of the herb. Canada and the United States are the other big producers, but most of our harvest is exported to Asia. Ginseng has been used in Asian medicine for thousands of years.

Ginseng, Kentucky, is an unincorporated community in LaRue County. The town was so named because wild ginseng was once harvested there for sale in nearby Elizabethtown. This is the part of Kentucky where Abraham Lincoln was born. It is close to the Catholic-dominated Kentucky Holy Lands and many of Kentucky's historic and contemporary bourbon distilleries.

There are many types of ginseng with different attributes. The type found in Kentucky is American ginseng, which according to traditional Chinese medicine promotes yin energy, cleans excess yang and calms the body. Although ginseng can be cultivated, wild ginseng is considered the most potent and, therefore, most valuable type. It thrives in deeply shaded woodlands where the soil is moist, well drained, and high in organic matter. Kentucky is the largest ginseng producer in the United States. Eighty-five percent of the U.S. ginseng harvest is exported to China via Hong Kong. In China, wild ginseng sells for $1,500 to $2,000 a pound. Chinese demand drives the market for Kentucky ginseng.

The wild ginseng harvest season in Kentucky is from September 1 to December 1. Because it is seasonal, ginseng gathering is not a fulltime job, but a lot of people do it. A successful ginseng gatherer can make good money, $300 to $350 per pound.

Limiting the harvest season is one way Kentucky tries to protect its ginseng crop. There are rules about harvesting only mature plants (you can tell by the leaves) and planting berries when they are found.

In season, you may harvest ginseng on your own land, or on other private land with permission. Ginseng gathering on public land is prohibited except in the Daniel Boone National Forest. You need a permit and can only take ginseng there for personal use.

For more information go here and here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey Has Left the Building

It's always nice to know how a story ends, so I am pleased to report that the producer of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey at long last has no more of it to sell. The last three bottles, numbered 998, 999 and 1,000, are now owned by a small restaurant chain called The White Chocolate Grill. The picture above is of the tag on the box containing bottle number 1,000.

I won't try to tell the whole story of A. H. Hirsch Bourbon here, but I wrote a book about it if you're interested.

The label above is, by the way, wrong on at least two counts, both in the second line. The bourbon was famously distilled in Pennsylvania, not Kentucky, and though it was always claimed to be pot distilled it was, in fact, not.

In 2009, Preiss Imports decanted their remaining stock of the 16-year-old gold foil expression and rebottled it in crystal bottles, which they packed in wooden humidors, with a suggested retail price for the set of $1,499 each. The sets were individually numbered and there were exactly 1,000 of them.The humidor set was the last release of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

In 2011, Henry Preiss sold his company and his interest in A. H. Hirsch to Anchor, including the remaining inventory of Hirsch humidors.

In April, 2013, in a thread on StraightBourbon.Com, it was established that Anchor still had 800 of the humidor sets in inventory, still at the original price. The mystery at the time was why they didn't lower the price and blow them out. It had taken four years to sell 20 percent of the inventory, how long would it take to sell the rest?

There were also reports of a few more in distributor and retailer inventories, but no more than a handful. Nobody was coming off the original price by very much. The lowest retail price reported was about $1,350.

The White Chocolate Grill originally wanted to buy two sets but their distributor, per the producer, said they had to buy a four-set case, which they agreed to do. Bottle number 997 was accidentally broken by the distributor. (A moment of silence, please.) So they got three.

When The White Chocolate Grill tried to buy more they were told that was it, the cupboard is now bare.

They paid $925 each for them. Presumably, that was the original wholesale price. It is available at The White Chocolate Grill in Scottsdale, AZ. They plan to charge $89 for a 1.5 oz. pour.

This news just means the producer, Anchor, has exhausted its inventory. It is possible there are still a handful out there in distributor or retailer inventories.

There is a secondary market in A. H. Hirsch and bottles have also shown up in some auctions. The market seems to value the humidor and crystal bottle at $0. The value is in the whiskey, which Bourbon Blue Book shows at $883 for the 16-year-old gold foil, regardless of the packaging.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Developers of Stave & Thief Curriculum Revealed

Yesterday, the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) announced the Stave & Thief Society, a new bourbon certification program targeted at Louisville's hospitality community. They also announced that Louisville's Distilled Spirits Epicenter is coordinating the curriculum and will administer the workshops, learning materials, and exams.

The press release had this to say about the program's origin:

"The inception of Stave & Thief Society came as part of a Bourbon & Food Work Group consisting of business executives, chefs, distillers and tourism leaders assembled by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer to further the city’s image as a top food and beverage destination. The bourbon certification curriculum was then developed by an advisory panel that included master distillers, restaurant owners, beverage directors, and spirits industry veterans in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association."

Neither the press release nor the website itself named names, but upon request they were swiftly provided. They are:

Advisory Panel

CHRIS MORRIS - Master Distiller, Brown-Forman
RICHARD WOLF - Wolf Consulting
PEGGY NOE STEVENS - Bourbon Women, Peggy Noe Stevens and Associates
ERIC GREGORY - President, Kentucky Distillers’ Association
CHRIS ZABOROWSKI - Owner, Westport Whiskey & Wine
KRISTOPHER THOMAS - AGM/Director of Food & Beverage, Louisville Marriott East
ANDREW OTT - Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse
COLIN BLAKE - Creative Director, Distilled Spirits Epicenter
KEVIN HALL - Operations Manager, Distilled Spirits Epicenter


STACY YATES - Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
ADAM JOHNSON - Director, Kentucky Bourbon Trail
BRIAN SUR - Charr’d Bourbon Kitchen & Lounge
JACKIE ZYKAN - Doc Crows Southern Smokehouse & Oyster Bar

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What the New Year Brings

I've been taking a little break. Here are some odds and ends by way of gradually working my way back into things in 2015.

First, some housekeeping. You now have the option of subscribing to 'The Chuck Cowdery Blog,' to instantly receive all new posts via e-mail. Just scroll down and look for 'Follow The Chuck Cowdery Blog by E-Mail' in the right-hand column, just below the 'Search' window. The service is provided by FeedBurner. Type in your email address and click 'Submit.' FeedBurner will send you an email asking you to confirm your subscription. Your email address won't be used for any other purpose.

And now, some news.

Jim Beam Rye is the best-selling straight rye whiskey in the U.S. and Beam Suntory has just announced that it is repositioning Jim Beam Rye a little bit. It will now be called Jim Beam 'Pre-Prohibition Style' Rye. The new suggested retail price is $23. The idea appears to be to get more separation from Beam's Old Overholt, which is only three years old and usually priced below $20. Jim Beam Rye is and always has been at least four years old. Flanking it on the other side is Beam's Knob Creek Rye, at about $30. Proof is the other differentiator. Overholt is 40% ABV, the new Beam Rye is 45%, and Knob Creek Rye is 50%. This appears to just be a proof and label change. What makes it 'Pre-Prohibition Style' is still vague.

In 2014, most of the volume growth in 'whiskey' was in 'whiskey in quotation marks,' i.e., flavored whiskeys and similar quasi-whiskey products, led by Sazerac's Fireball, which was up 65.5% and sold almost 4 million cases, according to Impact Databank. Most Fireball drinkers think it is whiskey but it is actually a liqueur, as is Jack Daniel's Honey.

The Stave & Thief Society is a new bourbon certification program targeted at Louisville's hospitality community. Louisville's Distilled Spirits Epicenter is coordinating the curriculum and will administer the workshops, learning materials, and exams. The program is endorsed by the City of Louisville's Bourbon & Food Work Group and the Kentucky Distillers' Association. Details are at

Tourism at Buffalo Trace was up 26 percent last year. The Frankfort distillery welcomed 123,331 guests in 2014. Since the end of 2009, Buffalo Trace Distillery has grown its annual number of visitors by 145 percent. In 2015, the visitor's center will be enlarged by 5,500 square feet.

In a thoughtful piece on Drink Spirits, site founder and managing editor Geoff Kleinman takes aim at the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) for its lackadaisical enforcement of industry marketing standards. He sees it as very much a fox-guarding-henhouse situation, ripe for reform.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Below, Kirby Delauter's Name Is Used Without His Permission

Kirby Delauter represents District 5 on the County Council of Frederick County, Maryland. He was raised in Frederick County, graduated from Catoctin High School, and is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He is the owner of W. F. Delauter and Son, Inc., a construction company started in 1955 by his father and grandfather. W. F. Delauter and Son specializes in excavating, grading, utilities, and horizontal drilling. Mr. Delauter also has served on the Thurmont Police Commission and as Chairman of the Thurmont Board of Appeals.

Despite this sterling resume, Mr. Delauter is under the impression that his consent is required before he can be named and written about in a newspaper or other public forum, such as this blog. Bethany Rodgers is a reporter for the Frederick News-Post. Mr. Delauter doesn't like the way Ms. Rodgers has written about him in the past so he has ordered her not to contact him nor to use his name "in an unauthorized form in the future."

He did all this via a Facebook post. You can read it all here. Even after she, in a comment to his post, calmly explained both the law and basic journalistic practice, he doubled down and threatened to sue her if she ever writes about him again without his permission.

I don't know Mr. Delauter or Ms. Rodgers. I don't live in Frederick County. But I want in on this. I have not asked Mr. Delauter for permission to use his name in this post. Kirby Delauter Kirby Delauter Kirby Delauter Kirby Delauter Kirby Delauter Kirby Delauter.

Beating me to the punch was the Washington Post, which also courageously used Mr. Delauter's name without his permission. Doubtless he will sue them first since Jeff Bezos has more money than God.

Because Mr. Delauter is a public figure, you can not only use his name without his permission, you can say pretty much anything you want to about him. For him to sue for libel, he would have to prove that what was written was knowingly false and malicious. So since I am feeling pretty malicious toward this moron and petty tyrant right now, I better only write what is true, such as "Kirby Delauter is so unqualified for public office he should be removed immediately as he poses an imminent danger to the general public."

Imagine the legislation such a mind might propose.

Frederick County transitioned from a County Commissioner form of government to a County Charter form of government on December 1, 2014. Under Charter Government, there is an Executive Branch with a County Executive and a Legislative Branch with a County Council.

In the previous election, Mr. Delauter was elected a County Commissioner in an at-large election by all county voters. Under the new Charter Government, the County Executive and two of the seven County Council members are elected at-large. The remaining five are elected by district. Council members serve for four years and may hold no more than three consecutive terms. Their salary is $22,500 per year with no benefits.

The people of District 5 must be very proud to claim Mr. Delauter as their own.