Friday, September 30, 2011

Cowdery Farms Three Sisters Pizza.


While my wrist heals, I'll have other family members carry some of the freight here on the blog. One benefit of having an unusual surname is knowing that most other people who have it are related to you in some way.

In this case, Larry and I share Ethan Cowdery (1788-1848), whose parents brought their family to Southeastern Ohio in 1808 from Hartland, Connecticut. Ethan was my great-great-great-grandfather.

The family settled in what is now Meigs County. Larry's branch stayed. Mine left in about 1886. My link to Ethan, his son Josiah, seems to have forsaken farming for town life. According to Josiah's eldest son, who left, they lived in Coolville, Ohio.

I don't actually know Larry and Kim, although I have corresponded with them and with Larry's parents. This is a story about a pizza made with vegetables grown on their farm.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Beam Announces Two New Red Stag Flavors.

The original black cherry flavor Red Stag by Jim Beam was just named to Shanken's 'Hot Prospects' list — the U.S. market’s most promising wine and spirits growth brands. Winners (announced in Shanken's Impact Newsletter) must have annual depletions of at least 50,000 cases and no more than 200,000 cases, while having achieved at least 15% growth in 2010 and solid progress in the two years prior to that.

A total of 72 brands are on this year’s list, 28 of which sold more than 100,000 cases. Several are likely to pass the 200,000-case threshold and enter Impact “Hot Brand” territory by year-end—including Red Stag,

So, naturally, having proved flavored bourbon is a viable segment, Beam is preparing to release two new flavors. Here's what Rob Mason, Director, U.S. Bourbons, Beam, had to say in an email received yesterday.

"Red Stag Black Cherry by Jim Beam has been one of our greatest success stories in years, and it helped us pioneer a new segment in the category. Now we’re adding two new members to the herd! Coming in early 2012, we’re extremely excited to announce the launch of not one, but TWO new Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskeys infused with natural flavors: Red Stag Honey Tea and Red Stag Spiced."

This also marks a new policy by Beam. Last year it got silly when they fully announced Knob Creek Single Barrel to the trade but wouldn't confirm it for the consumer press. These days you just can't keep something like that bottled up, and Beam seems to have figured that out. Good for them. Smart companies learn from their mistakes. (Hear that, Diageo?)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Detour For Kentucky Visitors.

As I told you last month, fall is a great time to visit bourbon country, but there is a ground transportation problem you need to know about.

One of the three Ohio River bridges at Louisville, the Sherman Minton (I-64), is closed for repairs for the foreseeable future. This is an unplanned, emergency closure, so detour plans are being improvised.

Traffic is mainly being diverted to the John F. Kennedy Bridge (I-65), which is leading to long backups on it, depending on time of day, especially for drivers trying to access I-64 or I-71 on the Kentucky side. My tip is stay to the left as you cross and exit at either Liberty Street or St. Catherine Street, and take surface streets back to the interstate. You'll need a good map, of course, but it's pretty easy.

As for alternatives, there are bridges between Cincinnati and Louisville at Lawrenceburg and Madison, Indiana. The next one south of the Sherman Minton (I-64) is the Matthew E. Welsh Bridge at Brandenburg, KY. These are two lane bridges not directly connected to any interstate and, as such, probably won't be the publicized detours.

Brandenburg is an especially good choice if you are coming from the west and heading to Bardstown or anywhere south of Louisville, as it is just west of Fort Knox. Work your way from there to Elizabethtown, where you can pick up the Bluegrass Parkway to points east.

There is also the William Natcher Bridge at Owensboro, KY, which is new and a real beauty.

These detours have the added benefit of taking you through some very scenic countryside and while the roads aren't interstates they are generally pretty good.

The third bridge at Louisville, by the way, is just west of the Kennedy. Officially it's the George Rogers Clark Bridge but locals call it Second Street Bridge. It might be an alternative. It's easy to find on the Louisville side (just go north on Second Street), a bit harder in Jeff (local shorthand for Jeffersonville, Indiana).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The New Normal At Stranahan's.

I am pleased and relieved to report that things seem be settling down and returning to normal at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

Even though it’s a new normal, that’s good news for everybody.

Proximo (the new owner) is now talking and so is Jess Graber, Stranahan’s founder and chief brand ambassador. Graber was willing to share a little more than the ‘nothing will change’ mantra that has been the answer to every question for the past year.

This follows the departure of Jake Norris in August and his replacement as distiller by Rob Dietrich, who had been assistant distiller for the past five years. Pete Macca is the new general manager. Graber will continue as brand ambassador but won’t be directly involved in day-to-day operations or sales.

Asked by Sean Kenyon on Westword why he left, Norris replied, “I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.”

Kenyon’s interview with Norris is a good capsule of the whole Stranahan’s saga.

Here is the even shorter version. Stranahan’s, located in Denver, Colorado, is one of the pioneers of American micro-distilling, especially micro whiskey-making; and one of the early success stories. Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is unique, distinctive, and very drinkable. It is malt whiskey aged for at least two years in new, charred, standard-size (53 gallon), white oak barrels.

Just about a year ago, the grapevine began to buzz with rumors about a sale, either impending or consummated, of Stranahan’s to Proximo, a small company itself but a much bigger one than Stranahan’s. By the end of 2010 the sale was confirmed through evidence in the public record, such as the transfer of intellectual property. Neither party had said a word.

Eventually an anonymous Proximo executive and an uncharacteristically terse Jess Graber made statements. Then silence. Word came from retailers that Stranahan’s whiskey was becoming scarce in Colorado, and impossible to get elsewhere. In June, Macca announced that Kalamath Street would triple its capacity by the end of the year.

Last Wednesday, Elwyn Gladstone, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Proximo, introduced himself. “We're doing great things with Stranahan's,” he wrote. “Major investment in new stills, more barrels and in the infrastructure of the building.”

Asked why the sale, a year-old at this point, went down the way it did, he replied, “We are a (very) privately held company and as such, we never discuss any of our acquisitions or other business transactions. It’s just our policy – nothing sinister.”

So no harm done? That, apparently, is a matter of opinion.

Sensing my dissatisfaction, Gladstone suggested an interview with Graber.

I have known Jess Graber for a few years, not well but we have talked whiskey a few times. He says the sale will enable Stranahan’s to implement his 10-year plan in about a year. He says both sides wanted secrecy and a formal announcement just never got made.

You still won’t find anything about it on the Stranahan’s web site.

Graber believes the tight supply is because Proximo wants to build up a finished goods inventory so they can deliver a more steady and reliable supply going forward. He concedes that when he was running things, he sold whatever they could put into bottles, as fast as he could, until it ran out.

By the end he was selling it in 36 states. Proximo has retrenched into Colorado, Chicago, and New York City.

On the barrel goods side, they are trying to build up inventory of older whiskey so they can increase production without changing the product. The Stranahan’s we know and love contains whiskey that is three, four and five years old, in very particular proportions. Graber says that mix won’t change and every drop will be made at Kalamath Street so long as he is on the payroll.

When Proximo feels they have enough product to sell that they need to promote it, Graber will go back out as brand ambassador. “For now I’m happy not being on the road 200 days a year,” he says.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One-Handed Typing Sucks.

I broke my wrist a few days ago, so posts may be less frequent and definitely shorter until it gets fixed. Too bad, because I have quite a bit to tell you, from the Bourbon Festival and beyond.

I'll get it all written and posted eventually. 

Now I know what they mean about the one-armed paper hanger.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Whiskey For Dummies, By Dummies.


I was having some fun with friends recently, counting the number of mistakes per paragraph in Whiskey for Dummies, part of that ubiquitous series. Perhaps, someone quipped, they have started a new sub-imprint called “For Dummies, By Dummies,” acronym “FDBD.”

The book is simply bad, as in mistake-ridden. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of whiskey can play this game. I had a lot of fun with the definition of 'sour mash.' That short paragraph contains at least seven errors.

Unfortunately, we can’t take the author to task because he died two years ago. His name was Perry Luntz. Apparently he was a big wine guy. Good for him, but he had no business writing a book about whiskey.

Despite Luntz’s demise, misinformation, it seems, is eternal. An obituary of Luntz by Ron Kapon, who calls himself The Peripatetic Oenophile (www.ronkapon.com), contained this personal note: “I have quoted his Whiskey and Spirits for Dummies book in several magazine articles and use it as a texbook (sic) for one of my classes.”

As a French vintner might remark, “Quel dommage.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Proximo Is Not That Big.

As I posted here on Tuesday, I have followed with interest the saga of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which was sold by its founders about a year ago to Proximo Spirits. I think it's a cautionary tale for any current or prospective micro-distillers, as Stranahan's was one of the success stories of this young industry.

But I have to take issue with one small fact that has been widely reported. Many of the articles in Westword and elsewhere describe Proximo as "a big company" or, even, "a huge company." Everything is relative, of course. Proximo is certainly much bigger than the independent Stranahan's was. But Proximo is not a big company.

Proximo is a young company, about three years old. It is private so detailed information about it isn't readily available, but in the distilled spirits business it would be called a specialty or niche producer. It has a range of products in some currently-popular segments (tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey), all of which are premium-priced, hence very profitable for everyone in the distribution chain, from producer to retailer, even if sales volume is small. 

None of its products are household names or category leaders, although it is currently spending about $18 million dollars to make its 1800 Tequila brand more recognizable. There are a lot of companies like Proximo in the beverage business. They thrive on the desire of bars, mostly, to carry something the guy next door doesn't have. Sometimes they luck out and one of their brands goes major, as Jagermeister and Grey Goose did for Sidney Frank; but overall, in dollar and volume terms, they are not big companies nor big players in the distilled spirits business.

Proximo isn't a pimple on Diageo's ass.

The size of Proximo isn't really the point. What's fascinating about this story is that the PR was handled about as badly as possible, and we still have no idea why or what really happened. Craft distilleries thrive by developing an intimate relationship with both their trade and end-user customers. Their openness, transparency, and accessibility is what distinguishes them from the majors. They are invariably and proudly local. That's what they can do that a major cannot.

Stranahan's excelled at this. I never met George Stranahan, but Jess Graber and Jake Norris were terrific brand ambassadors. Graber, who made that his primary job, was very good at it and cultivated an appropriate Colorado cowboy image. You could always spot him at a WhiskeyFest or ADI convention.

Then the sale went down. There was no warning and no announcement. A few months earlier, I interviewed Graber about Stranahan's future plans and he gave me a detailed five-year projection that said nothing about selling the company. People like me and the folks at Westword figured it out when things like trademarks began to be transferred, which is a matter of public record.

Then Graber and Stranahan disappeared. Graber sent me a new email address, but he hasn't responded to any inquiries sent there. Norris hung around until a couple weeks ago, but was close-mouthed. The Proximo folks never said much either. All anyone will say is "nothing will change, it's going to remain the same great product it has always been," which really isn't enough. You don't have to go very far to hear the disappointment from the bar owners and others, mostly in Denver, who supported the brand from its earliest days.

They aren't upset because it was sold. They are upset because they were kicked to the curb in the process.

By contrast, Tuthilltown in New York, one of the other bright stars in the micro-distillery firmament, sold its Hudson Whiskey brand to William Grant & Sons a few months before the Stranahan's sale. Both companies announced it, I wrote about it, nobody left Tuthilltown, there were no mysteries, no hard feelings, and it has been an overall very positive transition. 

Perhaps Stranahan's can recover from this, but Proximo is virtually starting from scratch to rebuild the brand image. They have squandered most of the goodwill and 'ownership' feeling Graber and Norris built up over the years among the people who matter most, the loyal bartenders and drinkers of Denver.

What does Proximo think it bought? A name? A recipe? A production facility? In the past year, Proximo has shown they don't value at all what the old guard at Stranahan's valued most, the loyalty and affection of their local community. That's a shame.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival Is Next Week.

Technically, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky, starts Monday. Not much happens before Friday, though, which is when the only festival-like part opens up; the booths, rides, and food stands on the Spalding Hall lawn. Most everything before that is a ticketed event.

To refresh your memory about how I regard the festival, read this post from June.

I'll probably go down on Wednesday. Before I head to Bardstown I'm going to check out the new Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

The Festival gets a lot of well-deserved criticism from me, but I always go. My favorite official event -- one that is both public and free -- is the barrel rolling competition. It takes place on Saturday morning on a sports field adjacent to the festival grounds.

Teams from the different area distilleries compete in events that closely mimic how full barrels are managed in the aging warehouses. Barrels used in the competition are the same barrels they really use, only empty.

There usually are some master distillers hanging around, cheering on their teams. It's a lot more fun and authentic than the stupid prom on Saturday night that is supposed to be the Festival's signature event.

If you're in the area, like within a couple hours drive, it wouldn't be crazy just to run down there as a day trip to check it out. Even on the weekend, when the festival is at it's peak, getting in and out and around in Bardstown isn't too difficult.

Woodstock it's not.

You can even make an overnight stay a spur-of-the-moment decision. You probably won't be able to find a room in Bardstown proper, but there are tons of lodging choices at every exit on I-65 near there that will have vacancies.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Stranahan's. Another Shoe Drops.

If you've been following the Stranahan's saga like I have, you'll want to read the latest in Westword.

The news? Distiller Jake Norris has followed founders Jess Graber and George Stranahan out the door.

Beam Maybe Not In Play After All.

As I have written about here before, and also in the current (No. 97) issue of WHISKY Magazine, Fortune Brands will shortly become Beam Inc., a pure-play spirits company as opposed to a diversified conglomerate.

Ever since this plan was announced, industry observers have speculated that some rival will almost immediately acquire Beam Inc. and take it apart. The folks at Beam haven't commented but one can assume that is not what they have in mind. I have always said that such an outcome is not as likely as many people think.

Just-Drinks speculates that the price would be about $9 billion. Now Just-Drinks is also reporting that the two most likely suspects, Diageo and Pernod, both say they are not interested, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Diageo is devoting its resources to developing markets, such as China; while Pernod is still trying to reduce the debt it took on to buy Absolut three years ago.

Many factors bear on whether or not any public company will become a takeover target. A big one will be how Beam Inc. stock trades when it is finally on the Big Board without golf balls and faucets holding it back.

News From Templeton Rye.

Here is some news from Templeton Rye President Scott Bush that came by way of their email newsletter. I thought it interesting enough to pass along.

Templeton has taken a lot of heat for not being able to keep up with demand in its home market of Iowa while it tries to expand into other areas. To rectify this, they announced they will greatly increase their monthly allocation to the State of Iowa in October, November and December, "so you should have an easier time finding a bottle of The Good Stuff for the holidays."

They say they are on pace to sell 22,000 cases in Iowa in 2011, up from 7,100 in 2010. This is one of the first tangible numbers I've seen for Templeton's sales. Twenty-two thousand cases of a premium whiskey in a smallish market like Iowa is pretty impressive. Whatever else Templeton might be, they are effective marketers.

Bush also points out that Templeton is only sold in four states: Iowa, Illinois, New York, and California. They are a pretty big deal here in Chicago, so they are in my face more than they are for most people. They've been in New York and California for less than a year and their distribution there is pretty much limited to high-end bars in New York City and San Francisco.

The news about that is that they don't intend to add any more markets until at least 2014.

Since this is Templeton, I can't resist a small dig.

Their email newsletter is called "Straight From The Still." That's a laugh since the still in which every drop of Templeton Rye is made is not even in Iowa and is not owned by them. Every drop of Templeton Rye is and always has been made at LDI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. That's why Templeton has supply problems, they are limited by how much whiskey LDI has to sell.

Templeton is bottled in Templeton, Iowa, and at least some of it is partially aged there as well. They also claim, in one of their videos, that they throw some rye grain grown on Templeton-area farms into the hoppers at LDI.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Revised TTB Rules? Be Careful What You Wish For.

Some craft distillers are frustrated by the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, a set of labeling rules enforced by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury Department. They think the rules squelch creativity and should be changed.

This is a story about an effort more than 40 years ago to do exactly that. It was supported by some of the largest and most powerful companies in the distilled spirits business. There were no micro-distilleries then, but those arguing against the proposals were the relatively smaller, family-owned distilleries that specialized in straight bourbon, straight rye, and Tennessee whiskey.

It was a battle between modernizers and traditionalists, and the traditionalists won.

The changes were proposed in response to foreign competition. The argument was that the whiskeys of Scotland, Ireland, and Canada had significant cost advantages because they were generally distilled at much higher proof (ABV), entered into barrels at higher proof (ABV), and aged in used barrels.

American producers could make a similar product, but the rules required them to label it in ways that diminished its marketability. There were certain terms they were not allowed to use in regard to such a product, such as ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ and ‘straight rye whiskey;’ and certain terms they were required to use, such as ‘aged in used cooperage.’ The imports merely had to be labeled here the same way they are labeled in their home countries.

So the big companies tried to get the Federal government to change the rules, so they could make American whiskey more in the foreign style, but still label it ‘straight bourbon,’ etc.

They wanted the top distillation proof raised from 80% ABV to 95% ABV, and the rules regarding maximum barrel entry proof and new charred oak barrels eliminated altogether. They wanted to relax the standard for straight whiskey to permit blends of straight whisky, even of different types, to be labeled as straight whiskey without the words ‘blend’ or ‘blended.’ One petitioner wanted a new rule requiring a minimum aging period of two years, another proposed a four-year minimum.

In January, 1968, the agency rejected most of the proposals and explained its reasoning in a nine page Industry Circular (No. 68-03).

It said that spirits made in the proposed way would “generally lack the distinguishing characteristics of such whiskies.” To call these products ‘straight bourbon’ or ‘straight rye’ would be misleading and not “in the interests of the consumer.”

The agency found that higher distillation proof “produces a distillate containing less pronounced natural flavoring components (both desirable and undesirable ones).”

On the minimum age requirement proposals the agency observed that, “there are no appreciable amounts of immature whiskies currently being sold,” a statement that is not true today. They did note, however, that “the present regulations protect the consumer by requiring all whiskies less than four years old to bear a true age statement.”

The most surprising fact about the 1968 circular is the extent to which the agency concerned itself with the balance and flavor of American whiskey. Although the regulators usually insist that their sole interest is truth-in-labeling, not quality per se, that does not appear to be the case here.

Perhaps there was some tasting involved.

Friday, September 2, 2011

More Thoughts About Elijah Craig.

Reading back Tuesday's post about Elijah Craig, I got to thinking about it.

Since Collins is the sole source for such a pivotal claim in bourbon history, it bears closer examination. First, Collins (in 1874) uses the term 'bourbon whiskey' without defining it, either there or anywhere else in the book. That suggests he was confident his readers would understand the term the same way he did. Although we don't know exactly what that was, the inclination is to assume that 'bourbon whiskey' meant then what it does now. Did it? Is that a fair assumption? Maybe not.

Second, why did he clearly point to Craig without naming him? If you read the rest of the page, it is what in 1874 may have passed for a light diversion in the midst of a serious enterprise, a sidebar meant primarily to entertain. Therefore, I have always assumed, he was sloppy about it, just making a list from odds and ends in his notes, but not treating it as seriously as he did most of the work. What if I'm wrong? What if he was more purposeful than I've ever suspected? And, if so, what was he trying to say?

Henry Crowgey in his book, Kentucky Bourbon, The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, mentions a 1789 letter from Craig to his legal representative that may shed some light.

In the letter, Craig announces that he has a man from Pennsylvania "coming to make corn." Who was this man, and why was the event so memorable? Are we right to assume that "to make corn" means to make corn whiskey?

Perhaps Collins is coy about naming Craig because he is referring to something done by this "man from Pennsylvania" at Craig's behest, but not by Craig himself.

Craig is usually ruled out as the 'inventor' of bourbon because routine aging in new, charred oak barrels came much later, probably in the mid-19th century.

But maybe Collins is talking about something else. We know Kentuckians were making whiskey from corn before 1789, maybe the 1789 innovation was the deliberate addition of rye to the recipe. Perhaps that was the initial distinction between corn whiskey and bourbon whiskey.

Today, most bourbons contain a little bit of rye, 8 to 15 percent in most cases, to give the beverage a little more flavor and, more to the point, a distinctive flavor that is neither corn whiskey nor rye whiskey, but bourbon whiskey, even with little or no aging. Pennsylvania was known for making rye whiskey just as Kentucky was known for corn. Perhaps this mysterious man at Rev. Craig's fulling mill brought the two together and that is what Collins was really memorializing on his page of 'Kentucky Firsts.'