Monday, April 17, 2017

Come See Me this Saturday (4/22) in Ann Arbor, Michigan


Tickets are still available for my talk and tasting this coming Saturday at The Last Word, 301 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM. We'll talk bourbon and drink some too, an interesting selection including Weller Antique (a The Last Word barrel selection), Elmer T. Lee, Buffalo Trace, and Four Roses OESV (a The Last Word/Tippin's barrel selection).

What will we talk about? Whatever you want, pretty much. I like to get a conversation going. It will mostly be about bourbon whiskey, I'm pretty sure. I also promise not to give a long speech with a quick tasting at the end. We'll start to drink right away. I may also bring a few books to sell and sign.

The weather forecast calls for cool temperatures and rain that afternoon, so come inside and have a drink with me. What could be better?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Size Matters


The new beer still at the Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville.
You may have heard that bourbon is booming. Over the last decade, most of the majors have increased their production capacity to satisfy exploding demand. More recently, many new distilleries have opened or are in progress, such as Diageo's new Bulleit Distillery, which debuted last week.

It is hard to get a handle on what all of this means to industry-wide capacity and actual production volume going forward. Right now, demand is outpacing supply, but supply is racing to catch up as fast as it can, considering the limitations of the bourbon aging cycle.

Yes, the big distilleries have all gotten bigger and many of the new distilleries are big too. How big? Let's put that in perspective.

To compare the capacity of bourbon distilleries, one specification is paramount: the diameter of the beer still. The actual day-to-day operational capacity can be limited by other specifications such as grain handling capacity, the size and number of cookers and fermenters, boiler capacity, and warehouse capacity, but the ultimate bottleneck in the system is the beer still.

A beer still cannot be enlarged. To increase capacity you have to buy either a bigger one or an additional one and they are expensive.

Since Diageo is the world's largest distilled spirits company and since it hasn't had an operating distillery in Kentucky for nearly 20 years, everyone assumes the new Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville is huge.

It isn't small, but that is where perspective is needed.

The new beer still at Bulleit, pictured above, is 42 inches in diameter. That's big, but how big compared to other producers?

The largest whiskey distillery in America, as you probably know, is Jack Daniel's in Tennessee. Jack operates six beer stills at the Lynchburg distillery, all of them bigger than Bulleit's one. With one exception, the biggest stills used for American whiskey are 72 inches in diameter. Jack has two of those behemoths, plus four 54-inch columns.

The next-largest producer of American whiskey is Beam Suntory, operating three distilleries in Kentucky. They also have multiple stills, all of them bigger than the one at Bulleit. They have one 72-inch beer still at Clermont and two at Booker Noe in Boston. Their Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto uses three 36-inch columns. (They call it "purposeful inefficiency.")

Heaven Hill has two at 60 inches each, with a third one that size coming on line this summer. Heaven Hill, like Maker's Mark, has found that the best way to increase capacity while maintaining a consistent flavor profile is to build a new distillery exactly like the existing one.

The Brown-Forman Distillery in Shively has two stills, one at 48 inches and one at 60 inches. They are building a new distillery in downtown Louisville, specifically for their Old Forester brand, and it will have a 24-inch beer still.

Everyone other than the Big Three has just one beer still. At Buffalo Trace it is the mother of all beer stills, at 84 inches. Sazerac's other distillery, Barton 1792, has one at 72 inches. The beer still at Wild Turkey is 60 inches in diameter. While I don't have numbers for MGPI and Four Roses, they are in that same neighborhood.

Among the slew of new and rehabilitated distilleries, O. Z. Tyler in Owensboro is the largest, with a new 54-inch column. It has been making whiskey since August.

The still at Bulleit is exactly the same size as the one at Diageo's other American whiskey distillery, George Dickel; 42 inches. Diageo, the biggest distiller in the world, is the smallest major in terms of its U.S.-based distilling, even with the new facility.

Now we get to stills that are smaller than Bulleit's. Bardstown Bourbon Company, which also started to distill last year, has a 36-inch beer still. The under-construction Lux Row (Luxco) Distillery nearby is the same.

In Louisville, Michter's and Angels Envy check in at 32 and 28 inches respectively.

In addition to Old Forester, the distilleries sporting 24-inch stills include Castle & Key, Willett, New Riff, and Fulton County.

If you don't see your favorite distillery on this list, you can be confident that its capacity is less than those listed above.

Diageo says the annual capacity of Bulleit is 1.8 million proof gallons. (A 'proof gallon' is one gallon of 100° proof spirit.) Back in the day, that was about the size of a 'starter' commercial distillery. Most of the new distilleries going up today are smaller than Bulleit and although hundreds of new distilleries have opened in the last decade, the vast majority are tiny. Now and for the foreseeable future, the majors we know and love will produce most of the liquid we drink. Their hegemony is not threatened.

But nothing is carved in stone. Diageo is already talking about expansion at Bulleit. Many of the new distilleries that had planned to ramp up their production over years are reaching capacity in a few months. Louisville's Vendome, which makes virtually all of the big column stills used in American whiskey distilleries, has never been busier. Likewise the small group of builders and engineers who do most of the distillery work. There is no sign that anything is slowing down.

In the end will it be enough or too much? Your guess is as good as mine.

NOTE: (March 22, 2017) Based on information subsequently received from producers, I have made some updates to what was posted yesterday. If you own a distillery that belongs on this list, please contact me.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Come See Me At the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, March 24-26



The New Orleans Bourbon Festival is a new addition to the annual whiskey show calendar. It is unusual for several reasons. It is a bourbon festival, not a whiskey festival. It is in New Orleans which is, well, New Orleans. And I will be there.

My official presentation is at 10:30 AM on Saturday morning, when I'll speak about "The State of the Industry." We'll look at bourbon's rich history and dynamic present, and make a few predictions about the future. I'll allow plenty of time for Q&A.

In addition, I expect to be around all weekend at the grand tastings and other events. Feel free to come over and say hey.

Most festival activities are at the New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center. Weather-wise, this is just about the best time of year to visit New Orleans. I hope to see you there.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The New Reader Is Here! The New Reader Is Here!



Yes, loyal subscribers, it has been a long time between issues, but never fear. The new Reader is here. Current subscribers should receive their copies in the next few days. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

In this issue, we dive deep into a new project from Campari America, the company behind Wild Turkey. They are reviving two pre-Prohibition brands once made in Anderson County, Kentucky, where Wild Turkey is made today. One of them is Old Ripy, named for the family that started the distillery now known as Wild Turkey. The other is Bond & Lillard, one of Anderson County's oldest brands.

We also look at the recent burst of investments by major producers in smaller craft operations. The money is big, $160 million in the case of Constellation's acquisition of Utah's High West. All of this new money should help the small producers overcome one of their most formidable obstacles: whiskey aging.

Finally, we offer some thoughts on bourbon's only essential accessory: the glass.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring tradition, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes.

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.)

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50. Since the new issue is Volume 17, Number 6, that means Volume 17 is now available as a back issue volume.

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, February 15, 2017

Don't Cry for Old Grand-Dad 114



Fans of Old Grand-Dad 114, this is for you.

The folks at Beam Suntory have been mulling over the fate of this small but beloved expression of their high-rye bourbon. Late last year, the word was that it 'probably' would be discontinued in 2017, but the final decision hadn't been made. Shipments from the distillery were stopped for a few months due to supply constraints while the number-crunchers worked out whether or not it made sense to continue the product going forward.

They decided that it does.

Shipments will resume shortly and availability should improve in the second quarter.

Nothing is forever, of course. They'll probably look at it again in a year or so. Supply will be a prime consideration. The high-rye recipe used for Old Grand-Dad is also used for Basil Hayden.

The widespread confusion and concern about 114 has led to rumors that the entire Old Grand-Dad line is being discontinued. There is no truth to those rumors. In fact, Old Grand-Dad is doing very well despite virtually no marketing spend.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Punch, the Ancestor of All Cocktails



Any deep rumination on cocktails leads back to the beginning and where it all begins is punch.

Although drinking from a communal bowl goes back to prehistory, the English word ‘punch’ is about 375 years old and describes a specific kind of drink, not just the practice of making a big batch of something and serving it in a bowl, although that was part of it too.

'Strong waters' (i.e., distilled spirits) as a beverage and intoxicant were just starting to emerge in Europe in the mid-17th century. It was then that a clear spirit, flavored with juniper and sweetened with another new vice, white sugar, first became popular. They called it gin. It also was the period when European colonists in the Americas first began to make rum; and when brandy shipped from the region of France now known as Cognac first began to be exported.

Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic were discovering the pleasures of distilled spirits.

In England, punch was the first big drink craze based on a distilled spirit. It was a custom the English brought back from their colony, India. One story says the name comes from the Hindi word for “five,” because punch always has five ingredients: alcohol, water, citrus fruit, sugar and spices. That story has been told for a long time even though it can’t be proved and has many doubters.

True or not, it was what punch drinkers in England believed. Punch had to be served from a communal bowl and it had to have those five ingredients, which left plenty of room for creativity.

Alec Waugh, brother of Evelyn, claimed that the classic formula for punch was one part citrus, two parts sugar, three parts spirit, and four parts water.

The alcohol of choice was Indian arrack, an un-aged distilled spirit, probably about 50% ABV, which though generally made from fruit or sugar cane could be made out of anything from coconut milk to mare’s milk.

As punch evolved, spices were the first ingredient to go. They had been things like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and coriander. Indian-made arrack was replaced by brandy or rum. By the 19th century, gin punch was popular with the English literary set.

When it comes to punches, ancient or modern, recipes are merely suggestions. First, pick a spirit. Vodka is a good substitute for traditional arrack, but brandy and rum are popular, and whiskey, especially bourbon, is not unknown. Next, toss in some citrus juice; orange for body, lemon and lime for pucker, grapefruit, tangerine, whatever. Keep it simple. Give it some sparkle with seltzer or lemon lime soda. Taste often and make adjustments as necessary. Garnish it with fruit slices and keep it cold with a big chunk of ice.

A simple mixture of vodka, juice and ginger ale combines all of the elements–even a little spice–of the earliest punches. Substitute bourbon for more flavor.

Cocktails evolved from punch much the way birds descended from dinosaurs, or how the martini went from a specific drink to anything served in a martini glass. Although punch was their inspiration, the cocktails of the late 19th century began to use more local ingredients (brandy, rum, whiskey, gin), reduced the spices to a dash of bitters, and transformed the citrus juice into a twist of lemon skin. The water became bubbly and, sometimes, it had sugar in it.

Today, the popular cocktail that may best recall the taste of punch’s origins is the gin and tonic.

The trend to making drinks in glasses was inevitable in our individualistic culture, but something was lost. The greatest modern chronicler of punch history, David Wondrich, has called punch drinking a ritual of secular communion. He also describes such popular drinks as the whiskey sour, daiquiri, sidecar, cosmopolitan, and margarita, as “essentially, Punches cut to Cocktail shape.”

Monday, January 23, 2017

Daddy, Where Does Alcohol Come From?



Alcohol, specifically ethanol, is the stuff we drink. Beer, wine, whiskey, vodka, tequila, schnapps, it doesn't matter. The alcohol itself is all the same.

But where does ethanol come from?

Yeast. Yeast make alcohol. How they do it is pretty amazing.

Yeast are micro-organisms, living things. Like all fungi, they have some plant characteristics and some animal characteristics. Yeast make alcohol through a biological process. Sugar, dissolved in water, is ingested by the yeast organism. The sugar is metabolized, generating energy for the organism's life processes such as reproduction. The waste product it discards consists of alcohols (primarily ethanol) and carbon dioxide.

This process is called fermentation.

Since yeast eat sugar, it is easier to make alcohol from sugar sources (fruit, honey, sugar cane juice) than from starch (grain, potato). Saccharification is the process of converting starch into sugar, thereby making it something yeast can eat. It is a prerequisite for making beer and whiskey.

Grains are seeds. To grow, new sprouts need sugar, just like yeast do. So at the beginning of the germination process the new sprout produces diastatic enzymes that convert the starch surrounding it into sugar. The process of sprouting grain to capture those enzymes is called malting. Any grain can be malted but barley is particularly good. The enzymes produced are so effective that a relatively small amount of malt (about 10%) will convert a mash of unmalted grains.

In Scotland, the law requires that only barley malt be used in the production of whisky. In the United States, enzymes derived from other sources may be used and sometimes are, but most whiskey makers use malt. Some use both.

Enzymes are proteins that promote chemical reactions. All chemical reactions within cells are controlled by enzymes, so enzymes are also involved in the biological process by which yeast make alcohol. You might think that modern science could just synthesize all of these different chemicals and make alcohol in some kind of machine. Maybe it can, but all of the alcohol we drink is still made the old-fashioned way, by feeding sugar to yeast.

All of these processes take place in water so before anything else can happen the starches have to be dissolved. First they are ground to the consistency of corn meal, then water is added. Most starches have to be cooked to fully dissolve. This is especially true of corn, the main ingredient in bourbon whiskey.

Some solids, mostly cellulose, remain undissolved. Most brewers and some distillers discard the solids. Bourbon makers typically do not and they continue through the distillation process. What is left after all of the alcohol has been removed can be used to feed livestock.

Finally, it should be disclosed that I am not a scientist, just a scribbler, but one with a strong interest in most things having to do with the production and consumption of ethanol. It is a subject about which there is great interest and also much misunderstanding. I hope this helps.

CLARIFICATION (1/24/17): In Scotland, the law requires that only barley malt be used in the production of whisky, for saccharification purposes, and for the production of malt whisky. Scotland also produces an enormous amount of grain whiskey for blending, using unmalted wheat, corn, barley, or any other available grain. The enzyme source for that whiskey also must be malted barley, but the rest of the mash can be and usually is unmalted grain.

Friday, January 13, 2017

MGP Is Not Doomed, Nor Is American Whiskey


A report was released today by Spruce Point Management that says investors considering a purchase of MGPI stock "should be cautioned not to extrapolate recent earnings performance. We believe there are numerous business risks and cracks in the growth story that are not being adequately discounted."

Some are interpreting this report as foretelling doom for MGP and, by extension, the presently booming American whiskey industry.

They are mistaken.

Spruce's guidance is that the facts don’t support MGP’s current share price, i.e., investor enthusiasm for the stock is overblown. That doesn’t mean MGP’s business model or, by extension, the American whiskey industry is on track to collapse. It doesn't mean MGP isn't managing its assets wisely. If a stock is overvalued, that doesn’t mean it is not a good investment, i.e., not a good company, it just means its stock is over-priced at the moment. The mistake, if there is one, is with the investors, not the investment.

That's what the market is for, adjusting that sort of thing. There is a level, i.e., a price, at which MGP is a great investment. The report's caution against extrapolation should apply as well to those using it to predict a looming disaster in the industry as a whole.

There have been other recent analyst reports that seem to worry about overcapacity in the American whiskey industry. It is true that the industry as a whole is much more optimistic and consequently much less cautious about investing in future production increases than it has been historically (in the modern era). That may mean that some stocks, such as MGP's, are overpriced at the moment. It doesn't necessarily mean the companies are wrong to expand capacity as much as they are.

One problem is that many people don't understand MGP. It has become the dominant player in the commodity whiskey segment, to the point where many believe they invented it. They didn't. That segment of the industry has always existed. Most of the major American whiskey distillers have supplied that market at one time or another, in one way or another, but always in a very low-key way. It's a small part of their business and they don't like to talk about it. Some of the major participants in that segment, such as Heaven Hill and Sazerac (Buffalo Trace), are private companies that aren't required to be as transparent about their business as are public companies such as Diageo, Brown-Forman, Pernod Ricard, and MGP.

As the majors, private and public, have seen demand for their branded products grow, they have had less capacity to devote to commodity production, which is always subordinate because it is less profitable. Some have gotten out of commodity and contract altogether but that is probably temporary. Commodity production may be less profitable, but it is more profitable than idle capacity.

This seems to be happening often in the whiskey world these days. A short-term, weather-related logging bottleneck gets blown up into a barrel shortage crises. Periodic out-of-stocks in a few fast-growing brands gets spun as a critical whiskey shortage. People predict that the growth of craft distilleries will kill the majors, when in fact the majors are growing faster than anyone and the production of every craft distillery in America doesn't match in a year what Jack Daniel's makes in a week. A few investments in crafts by majors suddenly spells the death of craft.

My caution to readers of this column would be that investors have to look at things somewhat differently than we whiskey enthusiasts do. At worst, all the analysts are saying to investors who have witnessed the industry's recent growth and want a piece of it is, "not so fast." There are reasons to suspect the return on your investment may be lower than you anticipate. You should do the math (or pay the experts to do it for you).

However, if your interest is simply in making sure there is an ample supply of high quality whiskey available at retail at reasonable prices, now and for years to come, you have nothing to worry about. In fact, things probably will only get better.

The trick for producers and, consequently, investors is to predict how much demand there will be for mature American whiskey in, say, the year 2022 (i.e., five years out). The factual basis for making such a prediction, especially for a worldwide market, is very thin. To a large extent it is a wild ass guess. But because of the whiskey aging cycle, those bets must be placed now.

I continue to stand by what I have said for years. If China and India develop as many have predicted, no one will have made enough. If they don’t, everyone will have made too much.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Beam Suntory Bungles Booker's Price Boost



Dumb.

What else can you call the Beam Suntory decision to raise the price of Booker's Bourbon by 100 percent and then, a few weeks later, to amend that to a mere 50 percent increase?

The previously announced production cut was not rescinded. Will it be? Who can say?

Only one thing could have forced Beam Suntory managers to backpedal on their original decision, heavy pushback from customers--not you and me but wholesale and retail customers. That should not have been a surprise. Capable managers don't announce such major, radical changes without first gauging the likely reaction of the distribution chain. To publicly make such a decision only to be forced to roll it back almost immediately is beyond embarrassing. It makes consumers, customers, and investors question the basic competence of the managers who are making, and un-making, those decisions.

The goal of the original plan was to push Booker's into the unicorn class, as exemplified by anything with 'Van Winkle' on its label, products that are so in demand and so allocated that retailers hold lotteries to choose the privileged few who get to buy one. Unicorns also drive an underground secondary market where bottles can fetch many times their suggested retail price.

Many doubted Beam could create a unicorn by fiat and they were right. Beam couldn't. What is striking is how quickly and strongly the answer arrived.

Some Booker's limited edition releases, such as the 25th anniversary bottling and more recently Booker's Rye, have enjoyed that kind of demand but regular Booker's never has. Booker's always has been released in batches but the decision a few years ago to give each batch a name and story, rather than just a batch number, was successful, as was the creation of the Booker's Roundtable, in which whiskey scribes (including yours truly) help select certain batches. Even so, stores rarely run out of Booker's and it is frequently on-deal. These facts made many question the wisdom of the original increase.

Instead of the intended image upgrade, Beam Suntory has made the brand look like a grasping wannabe, damaging rather than enhancing its status. Booker's is an excellent product with a proud legacy. Its stewards have failed it this time, big time.

Everybody makes mistakes and reversing course, as embarrassing as that can be, is better than stubbornly pushing forward, so Beam Suntory deserves some credit for that, but not very much.

Beam Suntory has had a great run. Thirty years ago it was a smallish subsidiary of a tobacco company and had only one major brand. Today it claims to be the world's third largest premium spirits company. The Booker's bungle won't sink the ship but it makes one wonder if the folks in charge over there in their new River North offices are really ready for prime time.