Monday, September 15, 2014

Deep In the Heart of ... Not Texas

This should be easy, right? It says 'Texas Made' on the front label. And 'Texas' is part of the name, isn't it? Plus, who would be crazy enough to claim something is made in Texas when it's not? Texas pride doesn't take that sort of thing lightly. I mean, 1835 is the year Texas began its struggle for independence from Mexico. What kind of person would debase that hallowed year by using it to sell Potemkin whiskey? In Texas? What sort of low-down varmint would do such a thing?

And yet, read what Lauren Drewes Daniels wrote in the Dallas Observer last November.

"Take the whiskey called 1835, which is bottled by North Texas Distillers in Lewisville. The name is a salute to the year settlers in Gonzales stood their ground against Mexican troops in what is historically considered the start of the Texas Revolution. The label also reads, 'Come and take it,' on both the back and front, along with a picture of the iconic cannon that was the seed of the conflict. The words "Texas Made" are printed front and center on the label.

"It's unlikely that a single speck of Texas, much less the battle of 1835, is actually in any of those bottles. Stretching the term 'Made in Texas,' the drink is a blend of whiskeys, most or all of them likely from Kentucky, and is only bottled in Texas. The highly astute label reader or whiskey aficionado would be able to discern this, but the average consumer might not. Despite all the Texas banter, the label lacks one key word that is all-telling: 'distilled.'"

In this case, the telltale word 'distilled' tells its tale by its absence. Instead, the label says "Bottled by 1835 in Lewisville, Texas." That's a dead giveaway.

As the TTB uses 'made,' you 'made' something even if you just bottled it, so nothing on the label is illegal except its lack of a 5.36(d) disclosure. But that's not how Bunny and Hoss use the word 'made' out at their ranch. You 'make' something when you actually make it. You don't make whiskey by putting whiskey somebody else made into a bottle.

At least they don't claim they're cutting it with Trinity River water.

Do all those proud Texans who have purchased this bourbon at Specs for about $27 a 750 ml bottle know that it was not distilled in Texas? Probably not. Would they care? What do you think?

A lot is missing from the label, like a company name. There is no company called '1835.' And where is the website URL? Who doesn't have a web site? Even North Texas Distillers only has a placeholder site, with no content. Yet even that tells you a little something. Under the name it says, "A Texas Bottling and Spirits Company."

Not "Distillery."

"But wait," say you. "'Distillers' is part of the name."

Yes it is, Grasshopper. Shall we go through the list of all the other Potemkins that have 'distiller' or 'distillery' in their name?

Texas 1835 Bourbon Whiskey has been on the market for about two years and appears to be successful. They are moving a lot of it. Yet as one observer noted, "They aren't pumping all that volume out of some little pot still in Lewisville and charging $27 a bottle for it." The micro-distillery whiskeys actually made in Texas are in the $50 to $80 range, so that price point is another dead giveaway. This is sourced whiskey, sourced from Kentucky, Tennessee, or Indiana more likely than not.

There might be another rule violation, as you see no age statement on the label. That is supposed to mean four-years-old minimum, yet the product is just 'bourbon whiskey,' not 'straight.' Why not? 'Straight,' if a product qualifies for it, is an optional word, but most producers like to use it if they can. If they can't it's usually because either it's not two-years-old, not all from the same state, or contains additives permitted in 'bourbon whiskey' but not in 'straight bourbon whiskey.'

Or they just neglected to put an age statement on a label that needed one.

But that's not what Texans care about, I reckon. They don't much care what some government regulators in Washington think either. They care about Texas grains, Texas yeast, and Texas water. They care about Texas-distilled whiskey maturing in the Texas heat. They care about Texas jobs. And they don't buy whiskey that says "Made in Texas' when it's not.

Just like they don't buy salsa made in New York City.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Mystery at 9,600 Feet

What is in a bottle of Breckenridge Bourbon? Some say every drop is distilled and aged at the World's Highest Distillery in that ski resort town. Others say it is young bourbon from a Kentucky distillery, or maybe Indiana. Still others say it is both, some locally distilled liquid mixed with liquid made elsewhere.

But wait, here is a written statement attributed to Breckenridge owner Bryan Nolt in 2013. "Due to demand we function at max capacity but over deplete our Bourbon barrel inventory at times. When that happens we contract time at other distilleries to produce the identical mash bill, fermentation, and distillation process. And while I'd say there's a lot of KY tradition in our Bourbon, we've never made, bought, or contracted any Bourbon in or from KY."

Huh? That doesn't make sense. If he said that, what was he trying to say? Or was it deliberate doubletalk? The problem is you can't suddenly make bourbon when you don't have enough of your own to meet demand. That new bourbon still has to age. So unless you're contracting via time machine, that statement doesn't make sense.

He does say unequivocally that not a drop of Breckenridge Bourbon was made in Kentucky. That leaves Indiana unless the contractor was another micro-distillery. Micros don't often do contract, but some now have enough capacity (usually due to the addition of a column still) that they can, and a few have.

Maybe the contract distiller is another one in Colorado. If Breckenridge is getting its 'extra' whiskey from another Colorado distiller, there is no 5.36(d) problem.

But we just don't know. It's a mystery.

People have asked, but the answers are all over the map, even from seemingly official sources. One person says it's all local. Another says it used to be all sourced but now they're mixing in local-make, increasing the percentage as capacity allows, on the way to transitioning to all local-make. Still another person says their sales are growing so fast they'll never be able to make it all themselves.

That's not the only mystery. How old is Breckenridge Bourbon? Nobody seems to think it is more than two or three years old. It doesn't have an age statement on the label and it is supposed to have an age statement if it is less than four years old. So does that mean it is more than four years old? It would be nice to know.

The evidence against Breckenridge is circumstantial but here it is. The label does not say 'distilled by Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colorado.' It says 'produced and bottled by Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colorado.' 'Produced' is not a synonym for 'distilled.' You can use 'produced by' even if all you did was bottle it. The wording 'produced and bottled by' is often used by artful dodgers to make it look like they did more than they did. It's used because many consumers think words like 'made' and 'produced' mean the same thing as 'distilled,' but they don't.

Legally, the producer is the company that puts the product into distribution by selling it to a distributor. They don't really have to 'do' much of anything to legally say they 'produced' or 'made' the product.

The web site says the mash bill for Breckenridge Bourbon is 56 percent corn, 38 percent rye, and 6 percent barley. Since that is no one's standard mashbill, that is a point in favor of Breckenridge.

The label featured on the web site (pictured above) says "Special Release." Do they all say that? Is there a 'regular' release?

It costs $50 a bottle here in Chicago.

Much has been made about Caskers declaring Breckenridge Bourbon 'better than Pappy' when they did no such thing, they merely reported that Breckenridge scored one point higher than Pappy 23 at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge (USC) in New York City. If anybody declared Breckenridge Bourbon 'better than Pappy' it was the USC judges, not Caskers.

If you knew anything about the way those competitions are run, you wouldn't be impressed.

Based on all the evidence, the consensus seems to be that it is a young bourbon, some of which was made there, some elsewhere, that was cut from barrel proof (about 65% ABV) to bottling proof (43% ABV) with that precious Rocky Mountain snowmelt water. The water routine we've heard before from Tin Cup and Widow Jane.

What does Breckenridge Distillery owner Bryan Nolt say about all this? I've asked. He hasn't answered.

You can usually figure these things out but Breckenridge is a tough nut to crack. Ultimately all of this detective work is a pain in the ass. They should just tell us, damn it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

We Pause to Collect Our Thoughts About 5.36(d) and Potemkin Distilleries

It has been an interesting two weeks, and an interesting seven years.

I coined the term 'Potemkin Distillery' in January of 2008 to describe a producer that does everything it can to convince you it distilled something when it didn't. This blog goes back to 2007 and it's searchable, so you can follow the progression if you wish.

Templeton Rye started it, so maybe it's nine years, since they began in 2005. I first tasted Templeton at WhiskeyFest. My first words were, "that's good, but it's six years old at least. They didn't make this." That began the quest to figure out who did. At the time, the former Seagram's distillery in Indiana wasn't on anyone's radar because only a few people knew the new owner, Pernod, was selling bulk whiskey, something Seagram's never did. Templeton kept the source a secret as long as it could.

Two weeks ago the owner of Templeton Rye, Vern Underwood, admitted that the whole Templeton Rye story has been a lie from the beginning. They don't make it in Templeton, Iowa, and it isn't made from a secret, Prohibition-era family recipe.

Templeton Rye also has never followed TTB Rule 5.36(d), which requires that the state of distillation be disclosed on the label if it is not the same state as the address on the label. Templeton's label is required to say 'distilled in Indiana,' but it doesn't.

When asked about that by the Des Moines Register, Underwood said the label had received approval without qualms from the TTB. The motivation for the label change came purely from a desire to address confusion, not after inquiries from the TTB, he said. That's a poor excuse. You'll see why in a minute.

On Tuesday, September 2, Tin Cup was in the spotlight, as that seemingly Colorado-made whiskey is also a proud product of Indiana and the company behind it is Proximo, which is not exactly your neighborhood craft distiller. Proximo is based in New Jersey. Its portfolio includes Stranahan's, which is made in Colorado. It also includes Jose Cuervo Tequila, a mega-brand.

Tin Cup's face is Jess Graber, who made whiskey once. He is now a brand ambassador, like Tom Bulleit.

The point once again is that every effort is made to convince the consumer that Tin Cup is a Colorado product when it is not. Tin Cup's label also does not obey 5.36(d).

On Wednesday, it was Widow Jane's turn. We got another bite at that New York apple on Friday. Between Wednesday and Friday I communicated with someone at Widow Jane who wrote, among other things, "It does not make sense to me that they [TTB] approve labels that lack information they claim to require."

Well, here's the thing, Jane. Every single person who has submitted a COLA to the TTB has signed the following declaration:

"Under the penalties of perjury, I declare: that all the statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31. Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval."

In other words, as a DSP license holder, you are expected to be familiar with the law and to follow the law in every particular. You or your agent signed a declaration (above) to that effect when you submitted your Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). You are supposed to be motivated by the fact that your license can be revoked if you screw up too much, which will put you out of business.

If you had a lawyer prepare your COLA, and that lawyer knew your state of distillation and your label address didn't match, and he or she didn't tell you about rule 5.36(d), that lawyer has some explaining to do. This is not legal advice, of course, just a little general information for the education and edification of the public.

Mixed in there over the last two weeks was an announcement about a new ethics code proposed by the American Craft Spirits Association but not yet adopted by its members (which include Widow Jane), and an announcement that virtually every trade association in the alcoholic beverage industry is urging Congress to fix TTB right now by giving it enough money to do its job.

I have no illusions that our little grassroots 5.36(d) movement influenced the united front on TTB funding, or anything else, but it was an interesting convergence of events nonetheless.

Finally, if you don't care about this issue, why on earth did you read this far? The easiest thing in the world is to not know something. Drink what you like, pay what they ask, believe their story or don't. The drinking helps with the not caring and not knowing. If you don't care then I didn't write this for you. I wrote it for the people who do.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Come See Me in Hancock, New Hampshire on Saturday, September 20

If you will be anywhere near Hancock, New Hampshire, next Saturday, September 20, you should come see me at the Hancock Inn. It's a lovely place, the oldest inn in New Hampshire. We'll taste some bourbon and have some dinner. It will be fun. You should come. Details are here.

On Friday, October 10, I'll be teaching a master class at Indy's Whiskey & Fine Spirits Expo, sponsored by Vine & Table. I'll post more details on that as they become available.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Celebrates Its Whiskey Heritage November 7 - 8

From 1803 until the present day, the City of Lawrenceburg, Indiana has been home to many distilleries, thus earning it the name 'Whiskey City.'

The one distillery that remains in operation, the former Seagram's plant now known as MGP of Indiana, has been in the news recently because many non-distiller producers (NDPs) are using whiskey made there to establish fake microdistilleries. It's a reprehensible practice, which we try to expose, but MGP is blameless as they can't control what happens to the whiskey they make once it's sold. In fact, MGP is a fine company and Lawrenceburg is justifiably proud of its 211 years of whiskey history.

In addition to MGP, Proximo Spirits operates a distilled spirits bottling plant in Lawrenceburg. That facility also used to be part of Seagram's. The other major post-Prohibition distillery in Lawrenceburg was Old Quaker, owned by Schenley, which during Prohibition was owned by the notorious bootlegger, George Remus.

To celebrate it whiskey heritage, the City of Lawrenceburg, Lawrenceburg Main Street, MGP, Hollywood Casino, and the Dearborn County Visitor Center have come together to create the inaugural 'Whiskey City Festival,' to be held on Friday, Nov. 7, and Saturday, Nov. 8, at the new Lawrenceburg Event Center. Each day will feature whiskey tastings, industry experts, food, beer, cigars, music (including nationally recognized entertainment), as well as historic displays featuring the local story of the industry and its workers.

The Lawrenceburg Event Center, at 91 Walnut Street, is part of the complex that includes the Hollywood Casino and the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel.

To prepare the historic displays, the organizing committee is asking current, former and retired employees of the local distilleries and bottling plants, both past and present, to share their stories and experiences of working in the industry. "Your stories are an important component in documenting and displaying on a personal level just how significantly this industry impacted our community and the people who worked within it," said Pat Krider, Lawrenceburg Main Street Director.

"If you're worried that your writing skills aren't up to par, please don’t worry, we can help with that," said Krider. "What really matters here is the story and the personal experience.”

A selection committee will review the submitted stories and the best five will be featured in The Dearborn County Register, one each week, in the weeks leading up to the Whiskey City Festival. In addition, a 'memory wall' will be featured at the event, displaying the selected stories. Winning entrants will be entered into a drawing for tickets to some of the events that will be part of the celebration.

Submit stories to the Whiskey City Festival Committee, c/o Lawrenceburg Main Street, 118 Walnut Street, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025.  For more information call 812-537-4507 or email

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Alcoholic Beverage Industry Unites to Urge Full Funding of TTB

The alcoholic beverage industry in the United States is highly regulated. The national regulator is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the Treasury Department, which is known by the acronym 'TTB.'

The alcohol part of TTB has several responsibilities. It collects the Federal Excise Tax (FET), issues licenses to distilled spirits producers, and ensures accurate labeling of alcoholic beverages through its Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) process. Due to industry growth, especially in the micro-distillery segment, TTB has fallen down on that third part of its mission. In this space we have focused on one particular problem area, Rule 5.36(d) enforcement, which concerns state of distillation disclosure.

Recognizing that TTB is broken, the major trade organizations representing all three tiers of the beer, wine, and spirits industry (producers, wholesalers, and retailers) have formed a coalition to urge Congress to pass the full $101 million requested by the administration to fund the TTB.

In a letter sent to appropriations committee chairmen in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, the coalition praised the successful working relationship between the beverage alcohol industry and its primary federal regulator.

In addition, the industry groups pointed out that TTB is the federal government’s third-biggest revenue generating agency behind the Internal Revenue Service, and Customs and Border Protection. It also noted that TTB officials review well over 100,000 labels and thousands of product formulas each year, as well as completing all license review and background checks.

"[TTB’s] ability to respond swiftly and properly to changes in the alcohol industry has a direct impact on jobs, consumer protection, the innovation of new products, and the collection of federal excise taxes,” the letter said. It noted that TTB’s workforce had been cut by more than 50 full-time staff members at a time when the number of companies and products in the sector has increased by more than 53 percent.

“We need a well-funded TTB to be able to process label requests quickly in order to get new products to market in this highly competitive global marketplace. We also need a well-funded TTB to prevent and guard against unscrupulous actors from entering our marketplace who otherwise could harm the public with dangerous products, which has occurred outside of the United States with counterfeit alcohol,” the letter stated.

Hal Rogers, who represents Kentucky's Fifth Congressional District, is Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Organizations that signed the letter include: American Beverage Licensees, The Beer Institute, Brewers Association, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, National Association of Beverage Importers, Inc., National Beer Wholesalers Association, The Presidents’ Forum of the Distilled Spirits Industry, Wine America, Wine Institute, and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America.

The letter itself is here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eating in Ohio

I’m going to give the fake distilleries a break today and write about something completely different. Food. Specifically, Ohio food.

I am a born and bred Buckeye. I haven't lived there full time since 1978 but I get back often, mostly to see family. Although I'm from Mansfield, in North Central Ohio, I've lived in Dayton, Columbus, and Oxford (near Cincinnati). My family's roots are in Cleveland (mom) and the southeastern corner of the state around Coolville (dad).

This is my personal perspective, not the result of objective research, so to other Buckeyes I may put too much emphasis on some things and miss others altogether.

We people of Ohio have named ourselves, and our most popular professional sports organization, after a tree whose nuts are poisonous to humans. Consequently, Ohio's favorite candy resembles that poisonous nut.

Throughout Ohio there are unique dishes, typically with an ethnic origin, that are very popular there and virtually unknown elsewhere. Cincinnati Chili is the best example of this. A meat sauce of Greek origin, it is not hot and contains ingredients such as cinnamon and chocolate. The ground beef isn't browned first so it has an unusual texture. It is served over spaghetti or on hot dogs, typically finished with a huge mound of cheddar cheese. Beans are available on the side.

There are several restaurant chains that specialize in Cincinnati Chili. Empress, the original, is a shadow of its former self but Skyline and Gold Star seem to be thriving, and there are several other, newer chains. It's on the menu at many other restaurants and people make it at home. It is popular within about a 100 mile radius of Cincinnati and nowhere else.

Johnny Marzetti is a dish that originated in a long-gone Columbus restaurant called Marzetti’s. The chef and founder was Teresa Marzetti. The widely-sold salad dressings of the same name also originated there. Johnny Marzetti is a casserole of onions, mushrooms, ground beef, cheddar cheese, tomato sauce, and macaroni. My mom made it, the school cafeteria served it, and some restaurants in the state still do. It was so ubiquitous when I was growing up, I thought it was universal. I just made a batch a couple days ago.

Ohio had huge immigration from Germany, Poland, and Italy. Around me it was mostly Germans and Poles. A lot of people still eat those foods. Bucyrus has an annual bratwurst festival. To me as a kid, stuffed peppers were as common as hamburgers. Lots of those immigrants were Catholic so Friday fish fries were a big deal, just like in Wisconsin, except in Ohio (at least in Northern Ohio), the fish is usually Lake Erie perch. It wasn't available for many years when the pollution was so bad, but it is now. It is my favorite fresh water fish.

Celebrity Chef Michael Symon is arguably the second most famous chef from Cleveland. The most famous is still Chef Boyardee (originally Boiardi). Like Teresa Marzetti in Columbus, he specialized in simple red sauce Italian. She put her salad dressing in jars to take home, he did the same thing with his red sauce.

People from all over Ohio and Indiana drive to Lebanon (near Dayton) to eat at the Golden Lamb, Ohio’s oldest inn (1803). They serve a popular steak salad, fried saurkraut balls are an appetizer, and braised beef short ribs are on the ‘light bites’ menu. Their specialties are Amish fried chicken, free-range roast turkey, and braised Pennsylvania lamb shank.

One of the few times my family ever ate out for Thanksgiving was at the Golden Lamb. My brother and I were both living in the area so my parents and sisters came to us. It was marvelous.

Two foods from my hometown of Mansfield that I still enjoy are Jones Potato Chips and Leaning Tower subs. The Jones family has been making potato chips at the bottom of the Bowman Street Hill since 1945. It's a wavy-style chip, they call it 'marcelled.' Great for dipping, great by themselves. You do not want to be the Frito-Lay salesman in Mansfield.

The Leaning Tower of Pizza has been a Mansfield institution since the fifties. It has always been at the same location, in the basement of a building that is now otherwise empty. It is carry-out only but during my high school years we usually just ate in the parking lot. At first it was considered a beatnik place, then a hippie place, and it is still pretty bohemian. The pizza is good but for me it's the subs, a large Italian loaf filled with salami, bologna, mozzarella, provolone, and pizza sauce. That's the standard model, I usually add pepperoni. They're wrapped in foil and baked in the same oven as the pizza.

Bologna? Yes, bologna. We ate it at home, at school, and even restaurants. Not fried bologna, that's a Southern thing. Just bologna on white bread with American cheese and Stadium Mustard.

To the extent that Buckeyes eat differently from other people, as they do less and less (just like everyplace else), it’s usually hearty farm fare -- heavy on the beef and pork -- or something ethnic. Yes, the German, Polish and Italian influences are still very strong, but currently my favorite restaurant in Columbus is Lavash CafĂ©, a terrific Mediterranean place.

And very soon, Cleveland (Chagrin Falls, actually) will have its own honest-to-goodness, craft-made, Ohio straight bourbon whiskey, made in the copper barrel-a-day stills Vendome built for Michter's in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, 40 years ago. In making it, the Herbrucks were assisted by Dick Stoll, the final master distiller at Pennsylvania Michter's, and by members of the Beam family. Tom's Foolery has built its fine reputation on apple brandy, but its whiskeys are approaching maturity. Every drop is as authentically craft as can be.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.