Tag - Whiskey

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Controversy Over Tennessee Whiskey
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SideBlog: The Number One Whiskey Consuming Nation in the World is… France
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Real or Hoax?
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SideBlog: The Top Ten Cheap “Bourbons”
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GQ Reveals the Bourbon Family Tree
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Business Insider Shows Off Its Cocktail Chops… or Lack Thereof

Controversy Over Tennessee Whiskey

“… and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In case you missed it, there is a big legislative slap fight going on in Tennessee right now between corporate distilling giants Brown-Forman and Diageo. Diageo makes George Dickel brand whiskey, and Brown-Forman runs a little micro-distillery called Jack Daniels. (Disclaimer: I happily own a chunk of Diageo stock.) The dust-up is over a new bill currently pending in Tennessee that would remove all restrictions on how distillers make whiskey that will be labeled as “Tennessee Whiskey”.

Diageo is pushing the new law, and while their motives are murky (Dickel is already made in compliance with the current standards), please don’t think that this is some corporate ninja assault by Diageo on long-time tradition. It is a corporate ninja assault by Diageo on a very new law, which was itself a corporate ninja attack by Brown-Forman to begin with.

Estimable whiskeyblogger Chuck Cowdery has posted both company’s press releases on this pissing match, and a bigger pack of disingenuous corporate posturing you will not see this side of the insurance industry or government labor unions. Cowdery explicitly refrains from commenting on the debate (though his post titles reveal his leanings rather amusingly), so I will jam my oar in here.
Chuck’s post of the Brown-Foreman press release: Diageo’s Latest Mischief: Screwing Up Tennessee Whiskey
Chuck’s post of Diageo’s reply: Diageo Says It Supports “Return to Flexibility, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in American Whiskey”

First off, in a remarkably amateur mistake, Brown-Forman lists the wrong house and senate bill numbers! The listed legislation is about liquor licenses and repeat offenders. Blame the PR firm here. I can’t find the germane bill myself, but it appears to be a simple removal of any restriction on what can call itself Tennessee Whiskey. (Correction: See update below)

The Brown-Forman release glosses the current restrictions, but here they are in detail:

  1. Manufactured in Tennessee
  2. Made of a grain mixture that is at least fifty-one percent (51%) corn
  3. Distilled to no more than 160 proof or eighty percent (80%) alcohol by volume
  4. Aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee
  5. Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging
  6. Placed in the barrel at no more than 125 proof or sixty-two and one-half percent (62.5 %) alcohol by volume
  7. Bottled at not less than 80 proof or forty percent (40%) alcohol by volume

On the merits, this mostly makes sense. Without the charcoal filtration, you essentially have bourbon, for instance.
But as for being aged (and manufactured) in Tennessee, I don’t see it. A rick house being located in Tennessee, as opposed to North Carolina for example, imparts no unique flavor or character to the product. It is at best pointless state pride used to help pass the designation, and at worst it is protectionism.

Designations, like Trademarks, are often misunderstood. They are not created in order to provide special rights to makers of products, though they do provide those rights. They are in fact a form of consumer protection, designed to eliminate confusion in the marketplace by ensuring that certain words and phrases, and images, always something specific. In this case, adding restrictions which do not affect the end product weakens the usefulness of the designation. It also in some ways ghettoizes the designation. Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, which makes that designation more robust. But whatever problem I or anyone else may have with items One and especially Four, remember the debate here is whether to have any required characteristics or not.

Important Update: The debate may have already advanced beyond where I thought it was this AM. I was wrong that Brown-Forman’s PR department got the wrong bill number. It is in fact SB2441. It was the right one in that it simply showed the proposed Chapter and Section of existing law, with all the language reserving the label for certain manufacturing processes stripped out. But now Chuck Cowdery has posted a new version of the bill that puts back all the restrictions with the critical omission of the word “new” in the barrel clause. This newer version does not, as of right now, appear on either the State of Tennessee’s legislative website or LegiScan. This probably just means that they haven’t updated the sites yet, or the amendment has not been approved. In any case, the overwhelming majority of the important stuff and the snark in this post stand. I do apologize to the PR firm in question for mocking their numeric acumen.

Brown-Forman goes on to don its tinfoil hat and describe Diageo as a bunch of scurrilous furriners who are out to destroy Tennessee Whiskey’s good name so they can sell more bourbon and scotch instead. Personally, I doubt this. Remember, Dickel is Diageo’s brand, and one they have invested heavily in making into a legit competitor to Jack Daniels, to some extent successfully. They may have decided to give up this effort and Seagrams-ize Dickel as a product. I hope not. I suspect that Diageo has other motives.

Whatever Diageo’s motives are, they do not include a sincere love for the tradition of craft whiskey distilling in Tennessee. Giant British conglomerates do not spend good money to buy, er, lobby state legislators on behalf of small-batch distillers it does not own. (Lobbying is really more of a rental operation, isn’t it?)

Diageo’s response leads with an example of political chutzpah worthy of David Axelrod with a blank check from George Soros or Karl Rove on a Koch binge. In reply to Brown-Forman’s contention that new oak barrels (expensive items, these) make Tennessee Whiskey a premium product, they say

Interestingly, according to the website of Brown-Forman owned Early Times whiskey, the brand is aged and barreled in “used oak barrels”. Therefore, by their logic, Brown-Forman has deemed its own product inferior.

They go on to add

Despite being a competitor to Early Times, Diageo has rushed to Early Times’ defense.
(emphasis mine)

Lee Atwater just called from the Great Beyond to say, “Oh well done, y’all!”

A further disclaimer: My father drank Early Times. A lot. Too much, in fact. Any attempt to call Early Times an “inferior whiskey” around these parts is fightin’ words.

That said, Early Times is inferior whiskey. Dad knew it, too. Everybody knows Early Times is an inferior whiskey. But Brown-Forman (who knows this better than anyone) does not want, under any circumstances, to call Early Times a bourbon. This is because it would be illegal, but more importantly because doing so would dilute the premium reputation of every real bourbon Brown-Forman (and everyone else) makes. Incidentally, BF does make an Early Times straight bourbon whiskey. I’ve tasted it. It does enough on its own to damage the reputation of bourbon all by itself, thanks.

Diageo’s second, less ballsy but just as immaterial, major point in their release is, to paraphrase, “hey, Scotch is aged in used ‘rejuvenated’ barrels, and no one would argue scotch is inferior!” Again, in the same vein as anything James Carville says, this sounds extremely fair to the uninformed.

Scotch is not Tennessee Whiskey. Besides the fact that it stays in the barrel for at least twice as long, if you laid up your scotch in new oak barrels, it would taste nothing like scotch when you took it out. Chemistry tells political and economic desires alike to piss off with the same breezy ease that Math told the Indiana legislature it could not make Pi equal 3.2 just because they wanted to. Macallan’s use of used barrels has as much to do with Tennessee Whiskey as nixtamalization has to do with Creme of Wheat.

Look, both companies, tumescent prose of their PR firms aside, have some good points, and both certainly know how to make good, even great booze. Likewise, both have screwed with consumers and with their own products on multiple occasions. Whether Diageo is trying to destroy the Tennessee liquor industry to save the scotch and bourbon varieties from the Tennessee Whiskey juggernaut (spoiler: This is not the reason), or wants the chance to ruin its own George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey (again, I doubt this), or if they just have plans to manufacture an Early Times analogue in Tennessee (this is my guess), it is immaterial to whether this existing law, and ones like it, are good government or not.

I happen to think such laws are good government, absent immaterial restrictions like the Tennessee aging provision that isn’t even the controversial element here (I think).

But Doug, many of your friends and readers are now scoffing at you, saying “You are Mr. Free Market! How can you justify restricting innovation and speech like this!”

I expect they are. But this law does not stifle innovation. It does not, despite the words put in the mouth of Dickel’s master distiller, restrict in any way the manner in which you can make whiskey in Tennessee. It merely restricts how you must make whiskey that you wish to call Tennessee Whiskey. And yes, that is an imposition upon a maker’s language choices, but words are powerful things, in sales and in politics. Both sellers, and especially buyers, are best served in a marketplace that ensures that words mean what they say.

SideBlog: The Number One Whiskey Consuming Nation in the World is… France

Per Capita, the number one whiskey-drinking nation in the world is… France. To be beaten out by the Wine Guys is bad enough for the United States, the UK, and Ireland, but check who clocks in at number 2.

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!

Update:
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….)

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.”
H/T: @JMGIII

GQ Reveals the Bourbon Family Tree

bourbon-family-tree-large
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.

No.

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.

Business Insider Shows Off Its Cocktail Chops… or Lack Thereof

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I like Business Insider. It is an interesting source of all sorts of information on business and even politics. In their new cocktail post, 8 Tips for Drinking Whiskey Without Looking Like a Newbie, Business Insider really shows off its knowledge chops as a… business and politics site.

The post seems based on a visit to Noorman’s Kil, a whisky and grilled cheese bar in Brooklyn, New York City.

Wait. Just wait.
A grilled cheese bar?
I’m going to take a wild guess and say this place must be located in Williamsburg, not just any random neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Googling now… Yup. Williamsburg.

And that just gives further credence to my opinion about pieces like this one by Business Insider: No journalist writes anything about Williamsburg that does not make knowledgeable readers want to laugh derisively… or hit something while laughing derisively. To be clear, I’m not slamming Noorman’s Kil, or the concept of a Whisky and Grilled Cheese bar. I may in fact try a nice grilled cheese with a Manhattan this evening, as I suspect the flavor profiles will mesh nicely.

I don’t know what it is about writers who go to the Burg and publish about what they find their, but they either find the most ridiculous things and write about them credulously, or they misconstrue what they hear is ridiculous ways. This is not my first time posting on weird Williamsburg writing, by the way. I just guess that rampant hipsterism achieves its central goal of being subtly incomprehensible to, well, everyone.

In this case, I find it difficult to believe that these 8 rules are ungarbled advice from Marcel Simoneau, because if you were to follow them as written, you may not look like a newbie, but you will look like a maniac. Not all are bad, but some are awful. Oh, and the first step to not looking like a newbie, oh Williamsburg Writer, is to know that when referring to Scotch, do not use an ‘e’ in whisky!

Spell-check always rejects ‘whisky’, but spell-check is known to have terrible taste in liquor. I hear it drinks schnapps-based Appletinis….

Let’s start with number two: “Relax. You’re not doing it wrong.”
I think, I pray, that point two is one of those times where the subject says one thing, and the writer understands something else entirely.

Simoneau has seen every request, from a Laphroaig 10 year Manhattan (a cocktail usually prepared with rye) to Johnnie Walker Blue and ginger ale.

Wha?
Wha?
WHA?
I’m sure Simoneau has seen every request. I strongly doubt, however, that he up and suggested that anyone wanting to learn more about whisk(e)y just throw whatever sounds nice in a glass and experience the magic. If he did, do not go to his bar! Both of these are wrong, for different reasons.
A Manhattan is not usually made with rye, but with bourbon. (As it happens, I make most of my Manhattans with rye, because it is better that way. But I’m not most people.) Casually dropping the statement that the Manhattan is “usually” a rye drink is a great way to appear to be a newbie. Say, “Manhattans are better if you make them with rye instead,” and you sound like you know what you are doing.

See what he did there?

And more to the point, a “Manhattan” made with scotch is a Rob Roy. It already has a name. If you want to arbitrarily call one drink by another’s name, why not just f’n call it a Mojito?

And I’d now like to apologize to the mighty Angus Winchester, from whom I totally stole that joke.

Also, Rob Roys are usually made with blended whisky, and for a reason. Throwing the second peatiest single malt in the world into one will leave the impression not that you are a noob, but that you are a dangerous lunatic.

As for the idea of placing Johnny Walker Blue in the same glass with ginger ale…! A reasonable scotch lover would beat up the perpetrator for using a high end scotch like that in such a way as to make it indistinguishable from J&B. (If you don’t want to be mistaken for a newbie, one of the most important things you must learn is that sweet sodas will make the finest liquor indistinguishable from its cheapest mainstream competitor.) And a real Scot would beat up ginger ale boy twice. Once for ruining the Blue, and once for wasting so damn much money! We are a frugal folk, if you hadn’t heard.

How about tip number three? “Look for ‘distiller’s editions’.”
Um… Look, if you are seeking advice from a column about how not to look like a newbie, it kinda implies that you in fact are still a newbie, or at least still unsure of yourself. A quick way to look like a newbie is to assay an advanced maneuver you can’t carry off for sure. Yes, there are plenty of “distiller’s” or other special edition whiskies. Yes, many are indeed a “tasty, rare, and expensive treat.” But until you’ve worked your way through understanding most of the bigger, common bottlings of various genres of whisk(e)y and know what the hell you actually like, the emphasis will be on “expensive”, not on “tasty”. Drive some regular sports cars before you pop for the Maclaren.

Incidentally, the article casually refers to un-aged grain liquor, or “white dog”, as “whiskey”. This sort of thing will not get you branded as a newbie, since all too many people in the industry itself have lately begun to do it. Regardless, all right-thinking me and women need to stamp out this dangerous affectation right now. Alcohol which has not at least seriously made out for a while with some charred wood is not whiskey. In fact, make sure at every turn to denounce this practice with all the inquisitional fervor of a medieval Catholic bishop confronting the Aryan Heresy. No one will suggest you are a newbie, and you’ll be doing God’s work….

Tip number eight is, “It’s fine to shoot flavored whiskey.”
No. No, it is not. Unless you are doing it like this....

In fact, I can think of no finer use for flavored whiskey.

Tip seven, “Get Local”, will either save you from the newbie label, or brand you with it indelibly. Yes, craft distilling is in a renaissance right now, but it is in the early stages, especially when it comes to whiskey. Craft brewing is much more mature than distilling, and there are still a huge number of craft beers that taste like ass. Add in the fact that distilling is much, much harder than brewing in terms of skill, time, and governmental overhead, and noble an effort as craft distilling is, the results are very spotty. Confidently ordering one of those disasters while thinking that it’s “local and artisinal”, will get you pitying looks behind your back. Pitying looks and a glass of ass… overpriced, poorly aged in too-small barrels, ass. On the plus side, on a later date when some other poor schmoe orders the same poorly executed “bourbon”, you can share condescending looks with the bartender and whisper, “noob!”

Tips one, four, and five are pretty solid, for what it’s worth. One points out that for most vodka or other non-whisk(e)y drinkers, bourbon is the place to start. Move on to scotch (or rye) once you get used to the effects of wood. Four notes correctly that the age listed on bottles is not a reliable indicator of the relative quality of the liquid inside. It kind of glosses over why and how this is, or what you should do about it, so while true, it’s not exactly useful. Five is very true, in that it notes the joy of experience you can have when you “branch out” to more and more different labels and varieties of whisk(e)y. Again, it’s kind of unimportant for the purposes of this list, since, once you’ve drank enough to be able to “branch out”, you will by definition not be a newbie!

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