Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Is This Stuff, Really?

It may sound sometimes like I'm on a crusade against micro-distilleries. I'm really not. Quite the opposite. I have great hopes that small distilleries will revitalize the American distilled spirits industry. Problem is, most micro-distillery operations seem to be pushing out bullshit faster than any other product, which is perhaps not surprising since it is the easiest thing to make.

(Followed by their next-most-popular product, vodka.)

Now comes an outfit in Park City, Utah, called High West Distillery. Their premier product is a rye whiskey called Rendezvous Rye. It is 92 proof and selling for $40 per 750 ml bottle. The back label specifies a blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 17-year-old 80% rye.

It also uses the category designation "a blend of straight rye whiskeys." This, by itself, raises some alarms. That classification is for a mixture of straight rye whiskeys which, for some reason, does not conform to the standards for being called straight rye whiskey. Since any mixture of straight rye whiskeys made in the same state should qualify for the better classification of "straight rye whiskey," one wonders why this mixture was non-conforming. The frustration, of course, is that the makers aren't talking because they want to preserve the illusion that they made the product, which is impossible since they've only just gotten both their license and still.

But let's look at the rest of their claim: "a blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 17-year-old 80% rye." Although not crystal clear, the reference to a percentage would seem to refer to a mash bill. The problem is, nobody makes rye whiskey that way.

So here is a reality check and I encourage Scott Bush (Templeton) and David Perkins (High West) to address this issue. Get around these facts if you can:

Over the last 20 years, only five American distilleries have made rye whiskey. One of them, Anchor, can be set aside because they make very small quantities of a very idiosyncratic spirit that has very little to do with the tradition of American straight rye whiskey. The other four are Heaven Hill (using, at the moment, Brown-Forman's distillery), Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) and Jim Beam.

That's it. Those are the usual suspects. The Templeton Rye had to have been made by one of those four. Most likely the High West was too.

All of them make a mash bill that is about 51 percent rye, the balance being corn and barley malt.

Some of the very old ryes on the market today were made more than 20 years ago at the Medley Distillery in Owensboro and at the old Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, so there are two more suspects, but that's it. We can't be sure what their mash bills were, but they probably weren't more than about 60 percent rye.

What is left of that whiskey resides at Kentucky Bourbon Distillers LTD (KBD) in Bardstown, Kentucky, which has bottled it under a number of different labels, and sold it to others wishing to do the same. Setting aside the mash bill claims, KBD may have acquired some 6-year-old rye from, most likely, Heaven Hill and mixed in a little of its elderly whiskey (maybe, in fact, a 17-year-old) to make the High West product. That, based on the known facts, is the most likely scenario.

Personally, I hope it is that, because that would be an interesting product that might actually justify the price. I find most of KBD's very, very old bourbons and ryes too old, too woody, but take a little of that and add it to some good 6-year-old rye? That could be just the thing. I would be interested to try that product.

But back to the original issue. The bottom line is that any fully-aged rye whiskey on the market today has to come from one of the sources named above. That unavoidable fact is the reason why people like High West and Templeton aren't saying who made their whiskey. It's not only because they want you to think they made it. It's also because then it becomes easy to say, "Oh, that's Heaven Hill's rye? Well, you can pay $35 for it in a bottle that says 'Templeton,' or $40 in a bottle that says 'Rendezvous Rye,' or $12 in a bottle that says 'Rittenhouse,' which would you prefer?"

More than a decade ago, when Brown-Forman reopened what is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery, they wanted a Woodford Reserve product on the market right away, so they used whiskey made at their other Kentucky distillery. While they didn't print banner headlines about the whiskey's real source, the information was always there, and if you asked they always told you the truth.

I'm all for this micro-distiller thing, but when it seems like all of these characters are coming out of the box lying to the consumer, I'm already less than enthusiastic about their next act.

But that's just me, the grumpy old man. You kids, knock yourselves out.

6 comments:

don said...

As a small distillery owner I am constantly amazed by the number of people who try to boondoggle the public by selling things that are either blends of spirits they BUY or flavored Neutral Grain Spirit produced by a large distillation company.
We may be little, but we damn well have some pride as well. Everything we make is made from local raw grains. We then ferment and distill to an end product. Somewhat of a novel concept with todays small distillers. Maybe our process is inefficient or not economical. We call it craft distilling.
We make whiskies, vodka, and gin from scratch and do our best to make sure that they represent the intended targets.
So it's not all BS. Some of us are dong it the hard, and right way.

Don Poffenroth
Dry Fly Distilling
www.dryflydistilling.com

Michael said...

Hello Mr. Cowdery -

I wanted to take the opportunity to respond to your blog and address many of the "facts" you presented.

First off, we have never tried to hide the fact that we make some of our product in another distillery. However, our product is not made by any of the distilleries you mentioned and your “unavoidable fact” is flat wrong.  We choose to keep this location private, just as generations before us have done.

Secondly, there is no corn in our mash.  Templeton Rye has never been made with corn. Another of your stated “facts” that is flat wrong. We have chosen to adhere to Templeton Rye’s rich tradition that has been upheld for over 80 years. We choose to keep our specific recipe a secret, just as generations before us have done.

Third, you insinuate that we are a blend of older whiskeys.  We are not a blend.

Fourth, your claim "that any fully-aged rye whiskey on the market today has to come from one of the sources named above" comes after your mention of 6 year old and 17 year old product.  Our product is neither 6 years old nor 17 years old.

Finally, you insinuate that we have taken an "off the shelf" product and called it Templeton Rye, and that a person could order any number of products and actually be consuming the same product with different names.  Frankly, this leaves us shaking our heads.  Either you have never tried our product or you are not qualified to be a whiskey taster as our product tastes like nothing else on the market.

The bottom line is that we are very proud of what we are doing and are working extremely hard to bring Templeton Rye back to it's former prominence.  We are making as much as possible in Templeton, Iowa.  We have a genuine pot still like in the old days.  We have the son of one of the original "kingpins" making our product.  We employ almost 20 people in rural Western Iowa and are working to make our distillery a great destination in an area that needs it.  We are planting our own rye this year for the first time and hope to achieve a very sustainable facility.  Finally, because of our small size and ability to be nimble, we are producing extremely unique batches for individuals and even inviting folks to choose their own mash bill and come help us make a barrel.

In closing, I am disappointed in the accusations, insinuations and blatant mistakes in your article. I am disappointed that you did not attempt to contact us before writing it.  I am disappointed that you find it necessary to try to discredit our product that we are very proud to have resurrected. Both Keith and I have family ties to Templeton Rye and we are working very hard to return “The Good Stuff”, as it was once called by Al Capone, to it’s former prominence. Our whiskey has met with rave reviews by very educated and respected connoisseurs in the US and abroad. The most important opinion of all is that of the public and we have built a loyal following of Templeton Rye fans who are ecstatic about our product and what we have done to resurrect this great brand and piece of American History.

By the way, I know David Perkins and have great respect for him.  He is a gentleman and has been working his tail off to start a unique, legitimate craft distillery in Utah. Maybe neither of us are doing things exactly how you would choose to but there is always the opportunity for you to move out of the cheap seats and into the arena.

Scott Bush
President
Templeton Rye Whiske

Chuck Cowdery said...

Scott, or is it Michael?

First, you responded to a post that referred both to Templeton and to High West's Rendezvous. A lot of what you are rebutting was about Rendezvous, not Templeton, which I think is pretty clear if you read it in context.

Second, you say, "we make some of our product in another distillery," which makes it sound like your company has another distillery. Does it? Or did you buy whiskey from another producer? That's what you told me the first time we talked about it.

Third, if your whiskey is 100 percent rye, then I concede it wasn't made by one of the usual suspects, because that's not what they make. See, telling us that didn't hurt so much, did it?

Who does make a 100% rye? Fritz Maytag makes a 100 percent malted rye whiskey. Mostly it's Canadians who make mono-grain whiskeys, not Americans. Could you sell something made in Canada as straight rye in the U.S.? I don't see why not, "rye" is not protected like "bourbon," nor could it be, probably. Maybe Alberta Springs made it? I know you won't say, but it's fun to speculate.

Fourth, I have tasted your product and it is good, I like it, but "like nothing else on the market"? I don't think so. It tastes like a good, solid straight rye whiskey, and that's a good thing.

Fifth, please tell me where can I buy at retail a product made by you (i.e., your company), from a mash made and fermented by you, at your distillery in Templeton?

whitedog22 said...

Chuck,
I was excited tonight when I read with interest an e-mail on the progress in the endeavor that my good friend, David Perkins, set off on. He is starting a distillery, in all places (!?), Utah. The Salt lake Tribune wrote an article about his venture (http://www.sltrib.com/Features/ci_9173145) and when I read this I really felt proud to know David. The reporter messed up on a few facts, but that’s expected these days with all the new people learning about the spirit both you and I love: American straight whiskey. Then I did something I never do, I made the mistake of reading the useless comments below the article. I guess I couldn’t sleep. Scrolling down I came to a reference to you and your blog (which I have to admit I didn’t know this important blog existed). It talks about a “dialog” between you and David Perkins. Knowing David, I had to go to your blog and find out what it said.

Now a little about me. My name will stay anonymous here because I don’t want you writing bad things about me. I work at a distillery in Kentucky. I am not high up on the totem pole so you probably don’t remember me but I have met you. I have had the pleasure of working with David who has visited our distillery several times to come work with us, learn the craft of distilling, and even put his gloves on and roll barrels. He’s one of the most honest, brightest, and nicest individuals I have ever met. Not to mention passionate about distilling whiskey and having a background in biochemistry, very capable of distilling a great whiskey as well. He took it on his own to contact me a few years ago and I now consider him a friend. I called David tonight after I read your “blog” and told him he should respond. He said he responded to you privately so he wouldn’t make you look bad and you’d have a chance to correct your errors on your own. He’s just a polite guy. After your reply to him, he felt you weren’t a win-win type so he was probably better off just letting you be “grumpy.” I told him if he didn’t write something, I would. He asked me kindly not to, but I couldn’t help myself.

So here goes: I have actually read your stuff for a few years now and subscribe to your Bourbon Country Reader. I’ve always considered your stuff pretty good and factual, but after reading both your blogs, I don’t know if I can trust what you write. You are a “grumpy old man” and I am canceling my subscription. The blog you wrote about David was mean spirited, lazy, arrogant (well all your stuff is really), and insincere. I think you owe Perkins more of an apology than your lame attempts in your reply to him.

Let me take those one at a time:
Mean spirited: David has it hard enough trying to start a business without you defaming him with outright lies and arrogant statements. He is not “pushing out bullshit faster than any other product.” All his material is forthright and right there in plain view for anyone to read if they aren’t too lazy to either call him or google him.

Lazy: Did I mention I think you are lazy? You mentioned you “tried to find him but failed, though perhaps I didn't try hard enough. However, just now I Googled "High West Distillery" and got a lot of references, including this blog, but not the one-page High West web site.” Did you go to page 2?

Insincere
- I commend you for an apology right up front to David. He certainly deserved it.
- However, how insincere you are! It sure felt like you didn’t want to with your retort “However, they're not discouraging publications like the Park Record from giving the impression that they did [distill the rye they are selling].” Give me a break! If people had to try and discourage/correct all the incorrect statements by reporters (like you), nothing else in life would get done. That’s pretty arrogant.
- You also wrote that “[Perkins] complained that I should have contacted him first. I tried to find him but failed, though perhaps I didn't try hard enough.” First of all, the facts speak for themselves regarding Perkins “complaining.” The fact that he didn’t write publicly and point out to everyone else how lazy you are shows how polite he is. You just wanted to twist it your way to ease your pain of being wrong.

Arrogant:
- You suggested Perkins needed a “reality check” and challenged him to “get around the…unavoidable fact” that “any fully-aged rye whiskey on the market today has to come from one of the sources named above.” I was pleased to read that you apologized to David after he got back to you with the answer “Barton”. But then you downplay that as well: “I often forget them because the Fleishmann's is in such extremely limited distribution and not very good.” Everyone I know that has ever had it loves Fleishmann’s and lament the fact that it is not widely available. This was the strongest assertion in your original blog and Perkins clearly “got around the unavoidable fact”. An apology here would go along way towards people starting to get their respect back for you.
- You were confused by the 95% and 80% rye references on the back label. I knew exactly what those meant when I read them. David even goes on to say in the next sentence “a higher proportion of rye…” Not too tricky to know that refers to a mashbill, especially for someone “in the know.”
- Next, you basically say David is lying about the high rye mashbill and you arrogantly state that “The problem is, nobody makes rye whiskey that way.” Well, you are just plain wrong on that. You sure think you know it all but it seems as though you have a lot more to learn. I personally know the people at the two distilleries where David purchased his whiskey. These types of rye have been made for a long time. You are correct, they aren’t very common, but you are wrong.
- You disagree with Perkins statement that “Straight Rye Whiskey' isn't necessarily a better classification" than "a blend of straight rye whiskies." That’s pretty arrogant and just plain ignorant. The key term on Perkins’ part, “isn’t necessarily better”, is a soft statement that suggests you could have a better tasting and higher quality “blend of straight rye whiskies” that one being sold as only a “Straight Rye Whiskey.” In fact, you ought to compare Perkins’ High West Rendezvous a “blend of straight rye whiskies” with just about any “Straight Rye Whiskey” on the market. Its damn good. Moreover, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition happens to agree. Perkins “non-conforming” whiskey won a Double Gold. Pretty hard to achieve with an inferior whiskey. His Rendezvous is in good company with the other double golds: the 23 year old Rittenhouse Rye ($170!!) and the Thomas Handy Rye ($55). On to the ignorant part, what’s the difference between Perkins’ Rendezvous and 2 straight whiskies “mingled” at one distillery (Four Roses makes 10 different straight bourbons with 2 mashbills and 5 yeast strains and mingles these in different combinations to create their wonderful whiskies). Kind of the same thing, although the latter comes from one distillery and Perkins’ comes from 2. The key is ”were the 2 straight ryes that got blended or mingled or whatever, good whiskies? More important, is the result a better whiskey?

To balance out my “blog” to you, I would like to mention that you finally got around to being nice to Perkins. Good for you. You stated: “I like the idea of mixing an old straight rye with a young one, ideally to capture the best of both” and “I never denied this might be a good, even exceptional whiskey.” I applaud that. It just took you a long way in your article to get there. You also state: “that [the “blend of young and old) would be an interesting product that might actually justify the price. I find most of KBD's [Kentucky Bourbon Distillers ] very, very old bourbons and ryes too old, too woody, but take a little of that and add it to some good 6-year-old rye? That could be just the thing. I would be interested to try that product.” Well, here’s what you could have said:
- I applaud Perkins for taking a risk and buying rye whiskey before it came back into vogue. He’s either stupid or prescient.
- I also applaud Perkins for finding this exotic stuff with the high rye content that no-body seems to know anything about and being brave enough to bring it to market for all to enjoy. How did he find what doesn’t exist?
- I also applaud Perkins for doing something really different, that is, creating a “blend” when [blend] is considered a “dirty word in any context.” Hooray for innovation. [I just wish I did it before Perkins thought of it. Brilliant]

Finally, you slumber on and state:
“The final and, perhaps most important question? Has High West distilled anything? Have they laid down any rye whiskey that they made? The web site makes it clear that the answer to that question is no. They bought an old stable in Park City, which they are restoring as a "distillery and saloon."”
Well again, you were lazy. On the High West site, there are several clear references to distilling that you’d have to be really lazy to not see:
- In the Rendezvous paragraph, it states clearly “while we age our own whiskey”
- In the Vodka 7000 paragraph, again, it states: “Our manually operated Copper Pot Still…”
- Moreover, when you google High West, again on the first page, a YouTube video comes up that the local TV station posted. Clearly on here you can see David Perkins sitting in front of his still. Or did you not know what a still looks like? You can’t say it wasn’t there when you wrote your article as it was posted 12/28/07.

I can’t believe I spent all this time writing back to someone as lazy as you but I felt someone had to set the record straight. I can’t wait to hear of David’s success and visit him in what is undoubtedly one of the more ballsy ideas I have ever heard of – a distillery in Utah. Give me a break!

I know you probably won't post this but it did need to be said. Shame on you.

Signed,
An anonymous distiller friend of David Perkins and someone who has met Chuck before and doesn’t want you to write bad things about me!

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha!

In light of the fact that both High West and Templeton have been outed as bottlers of factory-made (LDI) whiskey from Indiana, these self-righteous defenses of those products are laughable.

Scott Bush's comment about his re-packaged product is particularly galling in light of the revelations about the source of his whiskey. Here, let's have another look at his nonsense:

"Finally, you insinuate that we have taken an "off the shelf" product and called it Templeton Rye, and that a person could order any number of products and actually be consuming the same product with different names. Frankly, this leaves us shaking our heads. Either you have never tried our product or you are not qualified to be a whiskey taster as our product tastes like nothing else on the market."

Yeah, Mr. Crowderly 'insinuated', and guess what? He was right. You buy whiskey someone else distilled - the same whiskey that's bottled by literally dozens of other 'brands', and market it with some bullshit story about Al Capone, pot stills and kingpins. Notice that there is no outright denial, he's just 'shaking his head'.

Screw you, buddy. You're a marketer with a bullshit Disney World schtick, not a distiller. Your product is fiction.

And I don't care how many 'experts' have praised your industrial-grade hooch, its bottom-of-the-barrel sourness isn't fit for a TGI Friday's Old Fashioned (and your 'pot still', if you even have one, is about as functional as the gewgaws dangling from the walls of a TGI Fridays, too).

Chuck Cowdery said...

I would just point out that this post and all of the comments except the last one (and this one) are six years old. There is more recent material to read on the subject.