The second stop on this year's toddle down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was at the venerable site of the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg. A few years back, Campari purchased Wild Turkey for well over half a billion dollars. Since then, they have put more than a hundred million dollars into the brand and the site. I was curious to see how much that new international corporate influence I'd perceive on our tour. Those perceptions, good and bad, are all interesting. The first place a visitor sees that money at work in the new visitor center, where tours begin and end. This is a great facility. It is filled with entertaining displays of bourbon and Wild Turkey history, a cathedral of a tasting room with a fabulous view the Kentucky River, and a shop with all manner of entertaining (and/or delicious) inventory on offer. I'll come back to this location when I get to the tasting outlay, but I'll note one cool thing from when we first arrived. An elderly gentleman wandered into the lobby as our tour was getting ready to go. An elderly gentleman named Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey for about as long as I've been alive. The visitor center made no fuss about his appearance, he just ambled in for a few minutes. This left most of the tour group standing around awkwardly, wondering why about five of us were treating this little old man like he was Elvis.... It seems that Jimmy makes this visit often when he is in town, but I wouldn't absolutely count on meeting him. The tours leave on the hour, and from the outset, that new corporate ownership showed. Don't get me wrong. Most all big Kentucky outfits are owned by multi-nationals now. But for virtually all of them, job one is concealing this from visitors' subconscious. History, heritage, and craft are the bywords that other Bourbon Trail distilleries tend to shape their tours to convey, and more importantly, it is what virtually all visitors are looking for. The tour itself at Wild Turkey is industrial. It felt more like I was on the Ford F-150 plant tour as part of a visit to the Henry Ford in Detroit. (Caveat: I love the Rouge plant tour. It makes you proud to be a human being. If you've never been to the Henry Ford, it's worth a trip to Detroit all by itself. The plant tour is only a part of it.) The Wild Turkey tour is a fine industrial tour, and I certainly enjoyed it. Parts of it are extremely well done. But it left me unsatisfied, so let's examine why. The tour commences with a ride on a comfortable bus up to the top of the hill to the new distillery building. The bus thing is the first discordant note. I'm used to walking the entire tour. It makes many of these giant facilities seem almost intimate. I like to wander, but at Wild Turkey, every time I strayed out of a straight line from bus to door, I felt almost naughty. This new facility was actually under construction before the Campari acquisition. (I think. The timeline of the plant expansion and the sale are both a little murky.) The new distillery features all new and up to date stills and fermenting vats. The plant is capable of producing double the old facility—nearly 11 million gallons of whiskey a year. The new still runs at the same rate as the old one. The increase in production comes from the truly vast collection of fermenters that produce enough mash to keep the new still running for much more of the day. Wild Turkey is now a three-shift operation when it is not shut down for Summer maintenance. Upon entering the building, there is a nice little display that demonstrates the grains in Wild Turkey's mash bill. Out of all the distillery tours I've been on, this segment is actually one of the more cogent and educational descriptions of what the raw ingredients of bourbon are, and how they are handled that I've seen. But it takes place in a cinder block room with fluorescent lighting. If you saw this exact display at Makers Mark, they'd have it in an unlit, decrepit shed with dented scrap copper and a wooden plow in the corner.... Next you go up the stairs to the only actively disappointing part of the tour: The big still itself. How on Earth do you make a giant piece of state of the art copper equipment boring? You don't let me into the room with it. You see the still through a set of large plate glass windows—large, slightly dirty, definitely wet windows. [caption id="attachment_11420" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] This lovely picture of the countryside is brought to you by the fact that the view of the new still is so obstructed I couldn't get a single usable photograph of it.[/caption] Of all the quirks of this tour, the wall between us and the still was the only one that I was consciously annoyed by at the time. You can't see the still properly, but worse, you can't hear it. You can't feel its vibrations. (I assume. It wasn't running, due to the calendar.) You can't breathe the same air. There's a condom joke here, but I can't quite nail it down.... After the still room, you do get to walk amongst the truly vast arena of fermenting vats. This room is truly impressive, and you do very much get to breathe the same air here. I can't imagine how glorious (or overpowering) the aroma would be on a hot spring day. It also was the place where I learned my "one new thing" on this tour. I've been on so many distillery tours, I've heard virtually every detail before. But I always get something new, and the one I learned here is a doozy. Whenever you enter a fermenting room, the floor is just a few feet below the top of the giant tubs, and it is always a metal grid or sports widely spaced floorboards. I always assumed this was so you could easily access the top of the vats, but it is really so you don't die. So much CO2 roils out of the fermenters when they are running, it is dangerous. Fortunately, CO2 is heavier than air. The floor is elevated to keep you from literally drowning, and it has lots of room for air flow so that the CO2 can easily sink down where people don't walk during operations. Wild Turkey has huge ventilation systems to clear out the gas from down below. However, our guide said that there are still days when all vats are going that the CO2 levels are so high, they can't even conduct the tours on the elevated floor. After the fermenters, you spend more time in a cinder block stairwell, with a display of Wild Turkey products, past and present. The actual story the guide tells is pretty fun, but again the environment is... stark. After than, it is back on the bus. You ride past the brand new, ultra-modern bottling facility on the way to the rick houses. Note that I say that you ride past. They brag about how awesome it is, and how when bourbon production is down, they run tanker trucks full of Skyy vodka through there. But they don't take you in! I kept expecting them to take us in on the way back, but no dice. The ricks are great. To a certain extent, ricks are ricks, but the house Wild Turkey has chosen to show off is a beaut. The view from it is that bridge picture I petulantly stuck in above. The exteriors have just the right amount of whiskey mold to look cool but not too nasty. Inside, there is good light and great smells. I like the fact that there has been some recent wood replacement right where the tour stops inside, which illustrates very nicely the amount of engineering and maintenance has to go into these expertly designed buildings that look to the casual observer like beat-up old sheds full of barrels. (Caveat: They are beat-up old shed full of barrels. The twin facts that their design makes for some pretty amazing chemical reactions happening within, and that they don't fall down and kill everyone nearby, make for the engineering marvel aspect.) It was a cool bit of chance that as we were entering the rick house, we ran into Jimmy's son Eddie as he was leaving. He had been in there before us, checking on the progress of some unknown number of barrels, and took a few moments to say hello. It was a neat little add-on that reminds you that for all that this is a half-billion dollar operation, it also remains a deeply personal, hands-on one. [caption id="attachment_11426" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Is it just me, or does this man look sheepish to have been observed drinking bourbon right out of the barrel at 11:20 in the morning?[/caption] After we left the rick, we boarded that bus again, and it was back to the visitor center for the best part of the tour: the tasting. And I mean that in all seriousness. I don't just mean the products are good, though the tasting did provide a good reminder that Wild Turkey's products, top to bottom, are a helluva lot better than most people imagine they are. (More on that issue in another post.) But also, the tasting room is a cathedral. [caption id="attachment_11427" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Almost literally.[/caption] The sunlight-drenched tasting room has a view that in a single glance explains why they thought it was a good idea to put the visitor center so far away from the actual heart of the distillery. Inside, the space is dominated by the massive copper form of the old column still Wild Turkey employed for decades before the renovation. I will admit this exhibit does make up a smallamount for that big wall between you and the current still. You can get right up to it, look inside, and get a feel for the scale of the thing. The samples themselves are all quite tasty. As I said, Wild Turkey is a much better product than many people, especially outside their old-line demographic, believe. When was the last time you saw a craft bartender grab a bottle of Wild Turkey to make a drink? That's a shame, really. The only oddity I felt during the tasting was an almost sneer at their own rye product. Or not at their product, but at rye as a category in comparison to bourbon. Wild Turkey was one of the only American distilleries that kept the beacon of rye burning during the category's long sojourn in the wilderness, before its current resurgence. I would expect that they would do more to emphasize both their part in making sure there is rye to drink, and in making such a good rye. We enjoyed the tour, but I can only give a qualified recommendation for a visit to Wild Turkey. If you are a fan of Kickin' Chikin, by all means, go. And for Bourbon Trail veterans, it is a pleasant stop on the way to seeing it all. But for the casual visitor, who might only visit one or two distilleries on an isolated trip to or through Kentucky, there are many better, more entertaining choices for a good time. Simply put, this tour could be so much improved. The bus is unavoidable, given the spread out nature of Wild Turkey's plant. But for goodness sake, take the bean counters out and give them a high colonic with Russell's Reserve. Spend some money on the currently dreary spaces in which the tour spends most of its time. Make it feel like a Kentucky distillery, and not a mall parking garage in Chicago. There are wineries in California who make less wine in a year than Wild Turkey distills in a day, yet have multi-million dollar "chateaus" whose only purpose is to provide visitors with the impression of age and class. All of the Kentucky distilleries, except for Makers Mark, fall a bit short in this regard, but none so starkly as Wild Turkey. Let us get a view inside that high-tech bottling plant, or pretend it doesn't exist. One or the other. A lot of work clearly went into designing this tour, and I'm sorry to say that a lot more is needed to get it right. I know this was a lot less positive post than I usually write, but I have a follow-up coming with a whole lot good and fun to say about Wild Turkey. That one will reference a lot of things in this one, so I hope you stick around to read that one too.abc
I've got two fun videos that entertain yet say a lot about drinking tastes and booze-making skills on either side of the Atlantic. The first is about beer, and the second is about whiskey vs whisky. In each we watch as a group of Irish hipsters...
So, what's the group word for hipsters? You know, a Murder of crows, a Bloat of hippos, a Congress of Owls...Heh. A "Congress of owls"... You know, because owls are supposed to be wise, and Congress is, um, demonstrably not.
Yeah! Wait... You're getting me off topic in the middle of my interruption!Now you know what it feels like!
Harumph. Names like this usually come from what the group is or does, like a Skulk of Jackals. And since a Nuisance of housecats is already taken...OK. So these videos present us with a Pose of hipsters from Ireland blind-tasting booze. [caption id="attachment_10803" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Frasier T-Shirt in 2015? Yep, they're hipsters.[/caption] The first, I found via LikeCool. They take our Pose of Irishpersons two at a time and present them with an American beer in plastic cups. First they get all squee over the quaint, silly American custom of drinking out of cheap, convenient, clean, and safe drinkware. Then, they try Budweiser, High Life, Brooklyn Lager, Coors Light, and Sam Adams. Watch: I was initially surprised about how kind they were to the King of Beers, but only a little. See, here's my own little mental test of a drinker's character, when they start talking about beer. If they trash Budweiser, I know they are a snob with self-awareness issues. Budweiser is the very definition of drinkable, when it comes to fermented grain. No, there is nothing interesting about it, because there is nothing objectionable about it. If you can't enjoy an afternoon drinking a bucket of cold Buds, you have lost the capacity to just enjoy beer. and I feel sorry for you.
Some of you who know Doug are realizing about now that he has judged you in just this way in the past. Now, don't you feel ashamed?As for the rest, the Miller and the Brooklyn get mocked, the Sam Adams get a little love, and the Coors Light gets exactly what it deserves. It's all fun and games as they mock American beer in every way that is reasonable to the Irish, and quite understandable to Americans. But here's the thing: they know all the beer they are trying is American. It gets a lot more interesting in the second video. Here, our intrepid drinkers are presented with a side-by-side samples of one American and one Irish whisk(e)y, and must choose which they prefer. They pick up little signs to signify their choice. If they see our guy, who-wishes-he-were-a-king-but-isn't-so-suck-it-Barack, they chose the Whiskey, and if they see their pasty white guy, who-totally-isn't-the-Queen-and-we'll-totally-punch-you-in-the-nose-if-you-suggest-he-might-as-well-be, they chose the Whisky. The results? Yeah, Michael Higgins doesn't get a lot of face time. The American's just crush the Irish in this test, folks. [caption id="attachment_10806" align="aligncenter" width="448"] USA! USA! USA![/caption] To be fair, there isn't a lot of practical applicability to this kind of test. I would personally make the American choice in all three of these comparisons. But. Whenever I walk into a place and the bartender is clearly in the weeds, or just look like they couldn't mix a Rum and Coke without help, I always, always order a Jameson neat. Why? See my comments about Budweiser above. The Irish, they know brown liquor, though it might pain them to acknowledge it in the context of the contest we just watched. Why? Well, re-watch the first four seconds of that second video, or try out this little music video I made back when this blog (and my kids) were new to the world. abc
labels and marketing strategies, I for one rather like the product. And were there any remaining doubts that the minds behind it were not filled with creativity, this story should put them to rest. Every time we think we've reached Peak Bacon in the meme department, someone comes along to top it. In the cocktail world, bacon fat-washing has been the leader in the clubhouse for so long, it is practically ho-hum now. But if making your whiskey taste like bacon is fun, thought the people at Templeton, how awesome would it be to make your bacon taste like whiskey? Rye. Flavored. Pig. The idea is fairly simple: If you feed your pigs on spent rye mash, and they will grow up to possess a flavor hearkening to the spicy undertones of the whiskey that mash was used to make. It makes a sort of brilliant sense; after all, you are what you eat, right? Popular Mechanics has a fun little writeup on how Templeton put this to the test. On first read, you'd think that these 50 mash-fed porkers (now gleefully consumed) were the culinary equivalent to the Alfa-Romeo 4c. But alas, PM leans more to the Popular in its moniker than the Mechanics in this article. The sad truth is in there, though. "'There's no way for anyone to take a bite of the pork and taste that it has 20 percent Templeton mash in the feed,' says Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, who cooked one of the pigs for a themed dinner at her Little Goat Diner, in Chicago." So no whiskey-flavored pork loin just yet, cocktail folk. You may return to your regularly-scheduled fat washing until further notice. abcWhatever troubles Templeton Rye may have concerning its
I feel a bit like Kevin Bacon today, folks. There is a sudden surge of panic stricken articles and posts out there proclaiming the "Whiskey Apocalypse", and that the world is on "the Brink of a Whiskey Crisis". No less luminary a publication than Esquire suggests you start hoarding. Everybody freak out! Run in a panicked mob down the street to the nearest taverns and drink all the brown grain liquor before someone else does! Just let me get out of the way first, since I don't want to be crushed flat like a cartoonish Chip Diller. All clear? Good, for those of you still here, instead of lying face-down on a bar top, clutching the last empty of Jim Beam in your desperate fingers, let's calm down. Yes, there is a whiskey shortage. It has been going on for some time. It is only going to get worse for years to come. This is not news. As near as I can tell, the latest round of hand-wringing over how you won't even be able to buy a Manhattan in a few weeks stems from this press release by Buffalo Trace, a company which has recently become the indisputable king of marketing by media hype. It is entitled "BUFFALO TRACE DISTILLERY UPDATES BOURBON INVENTORY SHORTAGES", and every article written recently about the coming Bourbon Dust Bowl seems to lead back to it. The writer should get a raise. There is precisely one item of news in the seven paragraphs, and that is that Buffalo Trace has hired a new distribution guy... OK, a new "full-time barrel allocation manager", a move that is apparently part of their already existing business plan, not some Hail Mary pass to preserve the Republic. What is going on with Bourbon, and other premium American whiskeys, is called Capitalism and Market Forces, and everything is going to be all right. Can we please get straight what is going on? Several things that are commonly being freaked out about in the stuff being written in this latest wave of bourbon hysteria are either incomplete, or misunderstood. First off, there is the question of what is causing the shortage. Most people realize there are two sides to this, the supply of the product and the thirst for it. The proximate cause for the "crisis" comes from the demand axis of the graph. There has been, and will absolutely continue to be, a huge increase in the numbers of in the numbers of bourbon drinkers, and how much they drink. But it isn't because of this guy: It's because of these guys: If it was just the current Cocktail Renaissance fueling whiskey demand, the demand spike would be much smaller, probably already peaking, and possibly a bigger problem for the industry. But half the world's population is only now having its first taste of bourbon, and at the same time it is gaining access to the means to buy its subsequent tastes. It is a reasonable bet that foreign desire for American whiskey is going to continue to drive up demand. I suspect that this is actually a good thing. Human industry handles long-term growth in demand very well over the long haul, thank you. Look it up. (Kids, that's a turn of phrase people used before "Google It" came into vogue. To "look something up" you bike down to a storefront search engine called a "library". Be sure to stop off at the malt shop on your way down.) Demand spikes, as we would be looking at if this were really a hipster led issue, lead to bubbles. Bubbles lead to crashes. Crashes lead to economic dislocations and bankruptcies. Bankruptcies in the whiskey business lead to orphaned barrels of good stuff being sold off at fire sales and being diluted with water and caramel coloring and put in Early Times bottles. No one wants that. The challenge for the distillers is going to be balancing pricing with the new demand, not getting too far out in front of the price wave and getting a reputation for being over-priced or gougers, nor too far behind and becoming competitively disadvantaged because of all the money left on the table. Most of these guys are damn sharp businesspeople. So be happy that the economic health of the people who make the good stuff is largely assured, as long as they manage their businesses well and don't bollix up a good thing. If they do, screw 'em, it'll be because they deserve it for being bad at capitalism. So no, demand pressure is not a new thing. Nor is it a bad thing. Yes, bourbons are going to get a bit more pricey in the next few years. And yes, when Buffalo Trace's new full-time barrel allocation manager or one of his colleagues at other distilleries mess up, you may find your favorite bottle is not available during all given runs to the package store. But prices for bourbon will not get out of control, and supplies will not run out. Why? Because this exists. And so does this. And many others. In the long run, demand for bourbon will in fact be easily satisfied. Why? Because, Malthusians (Motto: Being utterly wrong about our core beliefs since 1798!) aside, the world is not running out of corn. Most people understand this last fact at a deep core level, so this current mini-hysteria wave has felt the need to discover two new, completely unheard of things that will not ever let bourbon production catch up to demand. Barrels and angels. Yes, not only are there ravening hordes of hipsters, roaming Williamsburg and guzzling Knob Creek like there is no tomorrow, but also God has sent a horde of Angels to punish us for our wicked ways by stealing half of all bourbon made from inside sealed barrels before it can be bottled! To hear all these writers go on about the Angel's Share, you would think this was something new that presents some sort of barrier to increased whiskey production. Please. You might equivalently say that we will have difficulty producing more milk in the future because we have to pump it out of cows. We have always had to pump milk out of cows, and always will. Likewise, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and the rest of the gang have been swilling barrel-strength Jack Daniels since the day Jack first put his whiskey in wood. Transpiration losses are simply a part of how whiskey is made. They are known and expected and nothing out of the ordinary, and they don't make it take any longer to make a good whiskey. If you are wondering how this sudden rash of heavenly drunkeness became a concern to anyone, may I suggest you check a certain press release mentioned above? Nearly the same goes for barrels. Yes, American cooperage operations are stretched tight right now, but in truth, they have been for a long time. Overall, cooperages are getting bigger, at a responsible rate in reaction to demand. We are not running out of white oak for making them either. (One of the ways that the US does a far better job of decreasing net carbon dioxide emissions than any other industrialized nation on Earth is our aggressive program of re-forestation. That's right, folks! Drink more whiskey and you can help stop Global Warming!) Distill all you want, the coopers will manage to make more barrels. Again, yes, increasing demand for barrels and for corn will put pressure on prices as well. It doesn't help that the government keeps spending our money on turning good corn into bad fuel, but again, not enough to really matter in this situation. So what is a drinker to do? First, do not follow the recommendation of Esquire. Don't rush out and put all your ready cash into cases of booze. That is a bad idea for the market and everybody else around you. When consumers start to hoard en masse, they end up causing the very circumstances they wanted to hoard to avoid. You get a huge spike in demand, which causes outrageous prices and shortages all over the place. So don't hoard, or my whiskey drinking self will end up like Kevin Bacon—squashed under your spooked feet. And in case your response is, "Hey bub! Every man for himself," don't hoard because it is stupid for the hoarder, too. A stock of booze, while it doesn't go bad, is a non-productive asset. It is not going to appreciate faster than the market. It does not improve with age. And the money you spent on it, you could have saved or spent on something you use to make yourself more productive, either of which would give you more money to spend on the same booze when it is more expensive later. In the mean time, your spouse will be yelling at your during the intervening years to give them back their storage space. If you are going to hoard some whiskey, lay down something like Jim Beam or Jack. Should the apocalypse come, that shade tree mechanic you need to fix your car so you can get out of town in front of the zombie horde will just as happily take a bottle of that as he will a bottle of Angel's Envy Rye. Second, there is lots that drinkers and bartenders can and will do to alleviate the issue. Look into rum... and gin... and brandy... and so on. Lotsa good stuff to drink out there besides American whiskey, people. That's called responding to a market signal. It fixes things. And in the process, tunnel-visioned whiskey aficionados may remember the rest of the world of fabulous spirits. Try coming up with some uses for less popular spirits. Convince the hipsters that Seagram's VO is the PBR of whiskey, and the ironic lifestyle requires consuming nothing else in their (not your or my) Old Fashioneds. Do all that, and the industry will be healthy, your bank account will be healthy, everything will work itself out in a few years, and I can still buy Bourbon without a bank loan I can't get anyway.abc
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