Tag - bourbon

Real or Hoax?
Pappy Van Winkle Heist Update—$10,000 Reward Now Offered
SideBlog: The Top Ten Cheap “Bourbons”
GQ Reveals the Bourbon Family Tree
The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist
How Bourbon Got Its Name

Real or Hoax?

I’m going with hoax…

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure.

OK, I can find nothing about an Oak Ridge Distilling Company on the web… but “high-tech” as this operation would have been, let’s face it, their web penetration would still have been, um, limited. Also, maybe it was only available at the plant, and thus ultra, kill-anyone-who-even-looks-German-level classified.

I can’t imagine how any form of radiation would make whiskey age faster. But I’m no chemist, and I don’t want to ask my wife and have her laugh at me, so maybe it could.

Who would want to drink radioactive whiskey? But people thought radiation was the answer to everything for a while, so why not turbo barrel-aging?

Why 150 proof? It seems excessive. Look, we are talking about a product that is “Tested by Geiger Counter”, and you are worrying about it having too much alcohol?

Then there’s this photo (no embedding allowed, darn it!) Does that stopper have a plastic cap? Maybe it is just a replacement…

Look, it’s got to be a hoax, because… none of it makes sense!


But I want to believe!

It is real! (Sort of)

Commenter Emtilt of Thinking While Playing (and the sadly blogbandoned Astrophysics is Better With a Drink) possesses greater Google-Fu than I. He found it at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities Museum website. The bottle is a real product. The radiation-aged whiskey, alas, is mythical. It was a novelty toy bottle, produced in 1963, that rattled and shook when you touched it. (You know, like radioactive things are won’t to do….)

Pappy Van Winkle Heist Update—$10,000 Reward Now Offered

George Clooney Danny Ocean seen leaving Buffalo Trace
His entire crew still at large… with a price on their heads!

Just a quick update on the Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist, just because I love this story. Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton has announced a reward of $10,000! That’s about 50 bottles of Pappy… if you could get it. I doubt they’ll let you take your reward that way, though. The reward money has been put up by an anonymous donor whom I picture in my mind as a elderly gentleman colonel in a white suit who was told by Buffalo Trace that he won’t be getting his own personal annual supply due to the theft.

Angry Colonel Sanders
Far up the big fryer, boys! Ah’ve got an ideah foah the perpahtraitahs who stole mah Pappy!

Said Sheriff Melton, “We just want to bring Pappy home.” I’m sure the sheriff is enjoying the attention brought by a nationally high-profile, non-violent crime, but I also think he really wants to solve this lest he end up seeming like the guy who got beat by the booze bandits. They thought they had a suspect recently, but he’s been cleared. It turns out said suspect is a high school principal who went to a local liquor store to try to buy a bottle. I can see the suspicion though. Even back when I was “rich”, I wouldn’t have been buying this liquor. Where does a public school administrator get the scratch to be buying Pappy?

In the interim, don’t feel bad for Buffalo Trace. They are getting hundreds of times the value of that stolen booze in free, hugely positive media, which in turn is setting off a bit of a Pappy frenzy. Last week, 600 people showed up at an Atlanta liquor store for chance to win a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.
I found out about the reward while watching CBS This Morning, which devoted several minutes of national airtime to the story, including copious b-roll glamor shots of the distillery, shot by Buffalo Trace’s own marketing people.

And don’t feel sad for CBS’s intrepid, hard-boiled reporters, slogging through the horrid, red state sticks of Central Kentucky to get the story on these thieves, either. The main original reporting done by CBS for the piece consisted of going to a bar in Manhattan with a fellow reporter from the New York Times, where they drank Pappy Van Winkle at fifty bucks a shot on their expense account. They’ll do anything to get the story, those intrepid CBS guys….

There is no clip up of the CBS segment yet, so here is their Louisville affiliate’s piece on the reward, below the fold since it blows up the blog’s formatting: Read More

SideBlog: The Top Ten Cheap “Bourbons”

The top ten cheap “bourbons”, ranked. Of these, only my father’s brand, Early Times, has ever passed my lips.
“Have you ever had a Boulevardier? It’s like a Negroni but with bourbon in the gin’s place. It’s a great drink, but you have to make it at home lest you find yourself pronouncing “Boulevardier” in public.”

GQ Reveals the Bourbon Family Tree

Source: GQ

GQ is not my magazine. Despite my occasional outbursts of sartorial grace, I get little value from a magazine that chiefly specializes in articles on how athletes and rappers fail to dress like gentlemen, and how actresses and supermodels barely dress at all…. But, via a Gizmodo link, I discovered a recent article of theirs that is worth a discussion.

In The Bourbon Family Tree, GQ excerpts an excellent illustration and some good information from the The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining. Most of that volume (which I’ve ordered for my own library) is a rundown on the how-to of home distilling, an illegal (shakes tiny fist and overweening big government) and daunting task, which the book is unlikely to give me the courage to undertake. It also has a bunch of likely valuable information on craft distilleries and other segments of the modern American whiskey market.

The chart you see atop this post, hopefully an indication of how well author David Haskell communicates information in his book, shows a truly useful “distillation” of the corporate and chemical relationships between most of America’s commercial, non-craft bourbons, ryes, and assorted other brown liquors. Click the image atop this post to pop up a larger version. In thirteen years of booze nerd-dom, I’d already learned most of the information on this infographic, but I think I’m garnering some new insights from seeing it presented all together here. In case you refuse to click through to GQ (you know, because you are afraid you might accidentally run into the aforementioned pictures of hot women in few clothes), you read the chart from the bottom up.

Discuss the bottom row with your broker, as it details the corporate ownership of your favorite brown liquor. Diageo (DEO) has done quite well for me, for instance. How many rednecks out there who argue relentlessly on the relative merits of Jim Beam versus Maker’s Mark would be yanked up short if they knew both were kissing cousins? Thank God, Ford and Chevy still have different stock symbols….

The next row shows the major American distilleries each corporation owns. There are a lot fewer than I think most Americans believe, but happily, a couple more than I had previously thought. The trunks shooting up from each of these distilleries first branch out into whiskey varieties, then individual labels. The farther up the chart, the older, and generally more expensive, the product. The chart prominently features Buffalo Trace’s three mash bill family, but totally glosses over Four Roses’s ten bourbons to make three bottles process. Probably because it would have turned that tree into some futuristic-looking topiary that would better belong in Tomorrowland.

The most important concept for the whiskey drinker to take away from this graph to make him or her a better consumer is how many of these labels can be found on the same stems, representing that they all have essentially the same mash bill, and that bottles as disparate in taste and reputation, such as Knob Creek Bourbon and basic Jim Beam, or RI(1) and Old Overholt, may well have come off the same still, from the very same batch. Nothing could more clearly show the defining truth of whisk(e)y, that having a good white dog may be important, like a good foundation for your house, but most everything interesting and unique happens after it leaves the still. “While the four mash bills contribute to the flavor, the more significant differentiation among brands is done in the warehouse, where the type of construction, placement within the warehouse, and duration of aging have a stronger impact on the finished spirit,” says GQ about the Buffalo Trace bourbon family.

In whiskey, nurture wins out over nature, or Elijah Craig would just be Evan Williams in a fancier bottle.

Which of course leads me to my ding about this article. (I can’t write about someone else’s writing without finding fault. Feel free to find fault with me about this.)

Can’t find Pappy? Go for Weller
Pappy Van Winkle is frequently described by both educated and uneducated drinkers as the best bourbon on the market. It is certainly aged for longer than most premium bourbons, and has earned a near hysterical following of people scrambling to get one of the very few bottles that are released each year. Of the long-aged bourbons, it seems to be aged very gently year-to-year, and this recommends it enormously. But if you, like most people, can’t find Pappy, try W. L. Weller. There’s a 12 year old variety that retails for $23 around the corner. Pappy 15-year sells for $699-$1000 even though it’s the exact same liquid as the Pappy (same mash bill, same spirit, same barrels); the only difference is it’s aged 3 years less.


The only difference is not three years. GQ’s own article, two paragraphs before notes that it is more than just toss the barrels in a rick house and yank ‘em out after the requisite months have passed. Barrels are different. Their placement in the rick house, and the rick house they are in is different. Over the years, the distillers taste each, and determine which are coming along how, slowly segregating them by of what destiny they are becoming worthy. At the end, barrels (in most cases) are blended together to further refine different characteristics for each bottling.

There’s more in GQ’s article, most of it better and more informative than that last quote. And there is more for you to glean on your own from the chart. I especially love details like the honest family tree twining of branches, where you notice things like how George Dickel’s rye whiskey looks an awful lot more like the MGP milkman than George, and his Bulleit bourbon looks more like the handsome neighbor with the rose bushes… Mrs. Dickel gets around, I guess.

Have fun with this, and be sure to read GQ’s article, or Haskell’s book, so you can make sense of things like the dotted lines atop the stump (sapling?) growing up from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.

The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist

George Clooney Danny Ocean seen leaving Buffalo Trace, scene of the heist
Possible suspect seen during the Hard Hat tour at Buffalo Trace

Dateline, Kentucky: In further evidence of the mainstreaming of liquor and cocktails in the modern culture, we are now facing the dire specter of elaborate heists of beloved hooch, as if it were Vermeer’s The Concert. In this case, we are staring down the barrel of a theft of 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, the bourbon nerd’s bourbon for obscenely wealthy bourbon nerds. In other major theft news, I totally stole the joke behind the Photoshop above from Tim Read on Twitter.

The USA Today has the story thus:

Roughly 65 cases of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon were stolen in what looks to be an inside job from a secure area at Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Frankfort, Ky., facility, said Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton.

Melton said the theft was reported Tuesday and appears to have occurred over the past couple months. Detectives believe that in addition to the inside personnel, access may have been gained by a diminutive asian acrobat who folded himself into a barrel.

I may have added that last sentence….

A case of Pappy Van Winkle consists of only three bottles, so if the thief was Bilbo Baggins instead of Danny Ocean, perhaps he just stuffed the less than 200 bottles into a couple of barrels with some straw and tossed them into the river below the warehouse at Buffalo Trace. Retail for a bottle of Pappy is $200, but since only 7,000 cases come out a year, eBay gets a serious workout with the stuff at significant markup. The whiskey has achieved legendary status in the bourbon community. All of my boozenerd friends who’ve tried it get the same look in their eye and whisper in their voice that Pentecostalists get when discussing the Book of Revelations. Booze writers who want to impress with their “access”, or “industry friends”, or “huge bank accounts”, like to write about Pappy like this: “Ok whiskey world, get ready to pitch your tents, change your diapers, and drain your bank accounts.” Or this: “As far as I am concerned, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve (20 year old) is the holy grail of bourbon.” It’s good stuff, is what I’m surmising.

And stealing it was also apparently hard work, since the crew also took off with an additional nine cases of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (a mere $80 a bottle) for casual after work drinking, I guess.

Incidentally, a bombshell allegation embedded casually in the USA Today’s version of events is that Pat Melton, the sheriff of Franklin County, Kentucky does not drink bourbon. I had written a whole long bit about the sheriff was obviously lying and therefor in on it himself, because the chances that an elected sheriff of any Kentucky county (much less Franklin) not drinking bourbon are slightly worse than seeing Barack Obama and Ted Cruz together, deep in their cups at Applebee’s, giggling in whispers about the waitress’s ass.

But I got rid of it all because I then read in the Lexington Herald-Leader that Melton just doesn’t drink Pappy. Now it is obvious to me that Melton is on the up and up, since his reasons for not drinking Pappy are the same as mine.

“I’ll be honest, if I like something, I like it a whole, whole lot,” he said. “It scares me. I’ve never had it just for that reason.”

I don’t try the really stratospheric boozes like Pappy because, while I can buy Pappy, I cannot afford to buy Pappy. I’ve got my house and my kids’ college fund right where I want them.

So what will be the effect of this theft? Well, it is less than 1% of the annual production, so a simple economic analysis would suggest not much. But simple economists can’t afford Pappy. Buffalo Trace had already been warning that supplies of PVWFR were getting tighter before the theft. Since every drop of the stuff had been selling out upon release for years, I can only assume that announcement was just a friendly reminder, and not a fiendish marketing plot designed to further chum the water in advance of this year’s release….

Anyway, the real result will be everybody watching eBay. The cops will be trying to catch the perps by identifying sellers who seem to have too much of the stuff. The perps will, looking for ways to hide the scale of their sales. (They can afford to be patient, since they have all that rye to drink while they wait for the cops to lose interest.) And buyers will, too.

The interesting thing will be, will buyers hesitate to buy grey-market Pappy because they don’t want to be receivers of stolen goods? Or will they buy more of it, at higher prices, and have the bottles shipped to anonymous PO boxes? And once they have the hooch, will they drink it all quick and then destroy the bottles with their damning serial numbers? Or will they in turn hide their booty away in the dark, telling no one, like whoever has the above mentioned The Concert?

How Bourbon Got Its Name

Maker's Mark Barrel Distribution Wagon
You learn something new every day. Today I learned a very convincing new (to me at least) theory about where the Great American Spirit got its name. I found the story via the Smithsonian (yes, I’m reading their Food & Think blog a lot suddenly), who got it from Michael Veach, whiskey historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.

Bourbon is not named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. That is simply one of those stories that just makes so much sense, everyone sort of fell into believing it. (This is a common phenomenon with theories likely formed under the influence of bourbon.) No, much as it kills me to further inflate that city’s already bloated ego about its place in the cocktail world, bourbon got its name from New Orleans, Louisiana. And in particular, from Bourbon Street, which has been the concentrated booze consumption champion of the universe since its founding (every town in Russia excepted).

Food & Think distills Veach’s tale thusly:

In the 19th century, the New Orleans entertainment district was Bourbon Street, as it is today. “People starting(sic) asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’” he says, “which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.’”

Cool, no?

What I like about this story is that it points up a number of things about a subject near and dear to my heart: transportation. Moving crap from point A to point B is in my blood. Since American independence, my family has been making (then frittering away) fortune after fortune in transportation. Even when we’ve tried to make money in something else, like mining in California, the only assets we ended up with came out of moving stuff to and from the mines. The money we put into the ground pretty much remained there. The fact that I’m a writer, rather than a guy who moves boxes via ship, rail, or truck explains my relatively parlous bank balance.

What does this have to do with bourbon?

Transportation explains almost half of the history of booze in general, not just bourbon in particular. The important thing in understanding the overall history of booze is not that bourbon is named for Bourbon Street, but why all that Kentucky whiskey was in Louisiana of all places to begin with.

The other most important thing in the history of liquor is money, and the taxation thereof. Most of the men who started making the distinctive whiskey that came out of Kentucky set up shop there in the early 19th Century because of taxes. Specifically, they didn’t want to pay any. And George Washington had recently informed them in no uncertain terms that that wasn’t an option where they were living before.

Spirits are one of the great inventions in history for agricultural peoples. Why? Because transportation. Despite being the staff of life, grain is not very valuable by weight. Until advances in railroad technology, shipping grain very far was just not a very affordable proposition. But distilling a barn full of grain into a few, very valuable barrels of liquid, which not only could be relatively easily transported, but also didn’t spoil, turned the economic calculus on its head.

The problem for Kentucky’s whiskey makers was that they were so far out on the frontier that they still couldn’t get their product cheaply to the big markets on the east coast. Even smallish mountain ranges like the Appalachians are a formidable barrier to wagons. The cheap way to move product in those days was by water, which flows downhill, i.e. not over mountain ranges. Where water did flow, in great quantities, was down the Ohio and then Mississippi rivers, fetching up eventually in the port of New Orleans. A lot of the whiskey was supposed to go (and probably did go) to other ports, but the residents of New Orleans intercepted quite a bit and drank it themselves. Thus leading to bourbon’s name.

Veach notes that the particular treatment of bourbon barrels came in a response to market pressures, as over time, wood char works the same magic on corn liquor’s “taste” as it does on that of the otherwise crappy distilled wines of Cognac, which were the French-extracted Louisianians’ original favored liquor. And if your whiskey appealed to the thirsty throats of New Orleans, then you could more of it there, rather than pay shipping and/or a middleman’s cut to get it all the way to some place like Philadelphia. While this is all certainly true, improving the spirit was but a happy byproduct (like so many of mankind’s best inventions) of the real reason liquor, be it whiskey or brandy, was usually barreled in the first place: Logisitcs.

In early- and pre-industrial times, the barrel was the most efficient container for warehousing and transporting liquids. An enterprising young man could distill up a batch of good liquor in Kentucky, barrel it, lash the barrels together on the river bank, hop aboard with a sack lunch or twenty, and kick back for some quality fishing while the river did all the work to get you to New Orleans. Once there, you sold your hooch for a fortune, and bought passage on a river boat back home. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Rivers, especially back then, were dangerous places of course. Bulleit Bourbon’s marketing has been centered from the beginning on Tom Bulleit’s great-great-grandpappy Augustus’s expedition to market in New Orleans, from which… he never returned!

Ooga-booga. It is quite possible that Augustus drowned in the river, was hijacked and killed, or met his end in some other sticky way. I prefer to believe he got to New Orleans, sold his special booze at a huge premium, changed his name, and settled down in the French Quarter in preference to returning to a hot, dangerous still in some sparsely-populated hollow in Kentucky.

The point is, the barrel made the trade possible in the first place. That it then turned out to improve the product immeasurably came second. Today, of course, there are much better ways to store and transport liquids. That barrels are still used is due to tradition, yes, but mostly due to the fact they no longer are really part of the logistics chain, but the manufacturing. Transportation guy that I am, it never turns out well these days if you let the transportation guys (God love ‘em) mess with that formula.

So our interesting little piece of bar bet-winning trivia, that bourbon is named for Bourbon Street, not Bourbon County, ends up telling us so very much more. It tells us that George Washington, once the nation’s largest distiller himself, is responsible for the magical brown deliciousness that is bourbon! He crushed the Whiskey rebellion, which sent a bunch of crabby, parsimonious Scots and Scot-like distillers to frontier Kentucky. Once there, in order to sell their wares, they had to barrel them up and float them all the way to New Orleans. New Orleans needed some of their French heritage-induced charred oak flavors to make them really go over the moon for the product. That was easily done, because the stuff had to sit in barrels during transportation anyway, and the Kentuckians (those who made it back home anyway) spread the word how much better this made the liquor. As the practice matured with time, it became the only way of doing things, and even once the barrel’s utility, and New Orleans’ market demands, lost their importance, we are left with possibly the greatest spirit in the history of the world.

Was there nothing Washington couldn’t do?


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