Monday, July 29, 2013

The Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands

Steve Ury, known online as 'SKU,' has done all of us a great service. He has compiled and published (and pledged to maintain) a list that many will find very useful. He isn't paid to do this. In fact, I suspect there are people who would pay him to take it down. He did it because this is what he does. And it's a fine piece of work.

SKU calls it 'The Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands.' Making the 'complete' claim for a project such as this takes chutzpah, but it is without doubt the most complete and accurate list of its kind ever compiled.

As he explains, it is two lists. The first is companies who actually make the stuff, distillers. It's a long list because, big or tiny, everybody is in the pool. This list is broken down by state. The second list is companies who sell whiskey they didn't make. It is alphabetical. In both cases, he lists the brand names under which the products are sold.

Many people, myself included, have taken stabs at the 'who makes what' question. As you've read here many times, eight companies (the 'Big 8') operating thirteen distilleries make all of the bourbon and rye you can buy. Since the advent of micro-distilleries that statement needs a small caveat, a 'virtually' before the 'all.'

The key issue for most people is getting a handle on who the non-distiller producers (NDPs) are and the even tougher nut, which distiller's juice is in those NDP bottles. This matters because some NDPs want the public to think they're distillers. SKU doesn't judge, he just reports the facts.

For the most part, by which I mean 99.9 percent, he's right as far as I can tell. Where he's not sure about something, he says so.

The list isn't perfect. The bulk of the bulk whiskey market remains a mystery. We know so-and-so isn't a distiller, but we don't know whose whiskey they're using. Likewise we know it's all coming from the 'Big 8,' but those customer lists are well guarded. Even SKU hasn't cracked that nut -- not yet.

Though imperfect, SKU's list is the best we have and imminently more useful than the one ADI recently issued. SKU's list is so good, it may render the whole idea of a certification system unnecessary. It turns out you don't need a trade association to do this. All it takes is a guy with grit, determination, good internet search skills, and maybe a touch of OCD.

Whenever this subject comes up, someone inevitably comments that they don't care who makes it, just what it tastes like. There's nothing wrong with that. You don't have to care. But if you do, bookmark SKU's list immediately.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In Michigan, Two Sides to Micro-Distilling: Red Cedar and Journeyman

I paid a brief visit to two Michigan micro-distilleries earlier this week, Red Cedar and Journeyman.

Michigan has a lot of micro-distilleries. The American Distilling Institute lists twelve and Red Cedar, the state's largest, isn't on that list, so there are at least thirteen.

Good for Michigan. Although most of the country associates Michigan with manufacturing, the automobile industry, and the problems of its largest city, it primarily is an agricultural state with a lot of tourism. Unlike the rest of the Midwest, which mostly grows corn and soybeans, Michigan grows fruit and vegetables too. Really good ones. Michigan already has many wineries and breweries, so distilleries are a natural fit.

Distilleries, like any other business, pay taxes, provide jobs, and generate economic activity. States that want them make sure their laws allow distilleries to do business and be successful. Most important, and usually the last in place, are laws permitting licensed distilleries to sample and sell their products at the distillery, by the bottle and by the drink.

Something else states do when they want this kind of economic development is make sure their tax-supported academic institutions support local enterprise through research and extension services, and through training for the distillers of tomorrow. At this, Michigan is unsurpassed.

If you haven't heard of Red Cedar Spirits, it's the new public face of the artisan distilling program jointly run by Michigan State University (MSU) and LuleƄ University of Technology (Sweden). It is directed by Kris Arvid Berglund, Ph.D. The program has been around for about 15 years but they have deliberately kept a low profile. That's changing a little with the recent opening of their public tasting room in East Lansing.

'Red Cedar' is the name of the river that flows through the MSU campus. It is celebrated in song and verse.

Red Cedar is a big operation. Their column still has about the same capacity as the one at Maker's Mark, except Maker's Mark has two of them. You get the idea. They're approximately half the size of the smallest Kentucky macro-distilleries, which makes them among the biggest micro-distilleries in the country, and the biggest beverage distillery in Michigan. They have a range of equipment, mostly from Christian Carl, including a 50-galloner, so they can operate on many different scales.

The large, nondescript structure used to be a public works building for the city. It is not on the Michigan State campus, but close, and a little hard to find. Right now their hours are limited and while you can taste some of their products, both straight and in cocktails, they don't give tours yet.

Journeyman, in Three Oaks, is a more typical micro-distillery or, rather, typical of the best ones. Three Oaks is a picture-perfect small town a few miles inland from New Buffalo, a major Lake Michigan recreation area. It's in a beautifully renovated 19th century factory where they originally manufactured Featherbone, a whalebone substitute used for stays in women’s corsets. The re-development includes a theater and some shops.

The distillery presents itself primarily as a restaurant and bar. The distillery part is behind glass and visible--whether it's operating or not--from the dining room. Its centerpiece it a gleaming Kothe still. The space is stuffed to the gills with equipment, barrels, and bags of grain. They only give tours on the weekend, but you can see just about everything from the dining room, while sitting down with a sloppy joe and bourbon.

Because my visit was unannounced I didn't speak to anyone except the lovely bartender, who sold me a shot of their Featherstone Bourbon for a very reasonable $5. It was rich and flavorful, a little sharp around the edges, but pleasantly so. You won't mistake it for a conventional bourbon, but in this case that's all to the good. It's its own thing, original, but well-balanced and satisfying.

Red Cedar and Journeyman represent two points on a continuum. Red Cedar supports the whole industry through research and training, while Journeyman demonstrates how an artisan distillery can be a successful local business by making an honest product and providing a quality experience for its customers.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

ADI's New Certification System; A Step In the Right Direction Or More Mud In The Water?

Over the weekend, the American Distilling Institute (ADI) announced a new certification program for craft spirits. You can read what ADI has to say about it here.

Clay Risen, in his 'Mash Notes' blog, describes the two certifications ADI is offering as "'Certified Craft Distilled Spirits' — distilleries that make everything in-house — and 'Certified Craft Blended Spirits' — which buy distillate or aged product but then add a step, like redistilling or further aging, that 'shows significant craftsmanship in the creation of flavor.' Of note, ADI insists that 'simply buying bulk spirits on the market and watering it to proof does not constitute craft and those spirits are not eligible.'"

If only the actual definitions were as simple and straightforward as Risen's paraphrase. Alas, they are not.

To be effective, a certification system has to be a couple of things. 'Trustworthy' is probably foremost, but 'unambiguous' and 'easy to use' are critical too. Unfortunately, ADI's new system raises questions on all three fronts.

The fact that ADI has launched this program with hundreds of products already certified hints at a not-very-rigorous verification process. According to the website, these were "pre-certified by ADI staff." Dig deeper and you'll see that what ADI offers is essentially self-certification. The producer submits an application and if they answer all of the questions correctly, they get certified. This is sometimes called first party certification. It is, in effect, an honor system.

As you read further, you learn that the only sin ADI seeks to banish is when 'large liquor conglomerates' create 'pseudo-craft brands' to 'share the spotlight' with craft brands. They continue:

"At a recent tasting in California, a major distributor operating in several states released the menu for their craft portfolio. It included such venerable 'craft' brands as Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Rittenhouse Rye and Jack Daniels Unaged Rye. These are all good whiskeys -- but craft? Apparently, there is some confusion here and education clearly needs to happen. If we don't educate the public, others will. ADI is taking a stand to inform the distributors, the retailers, bartenders and general public, to clear up the confusion as to what brands are craft and what are not. To protect the distiller and aid consumers and buyers, who may have difficulty researching the background of every label, we have created a certification for craft produced spirits."

Certainly an admirable goal, but in what way is Breuckelen Distilling Company New York Wheat Whiskey, to pick one at random, more craft than Rittenhouse Rye? In other words, what is craft?

It's a question this blog has been asking so-called craft distillers since at least 2008.

Wikipedia offers this observation that's not quite a definition but addresses the dilemma well. "The mass production of goods by large-scale industry has limited crafts to market segments in which industry's modes of functioning or its mass-produced goods would not or cannot satisfy the preferences of potential buyers." That suggests that a craft-made product is one that has identifiable characteristics that cannot be found in mass-produced goods of the same type. It talks about the product, not the producer, and the product's characteristics.

Unfortunately, there is very little in the ADI certification process that ensures or even defines a ‘craft’ product. Instead, craft is equated with small and independent. If you are small and independent (and those terms are defined) then you're craft. The requirements that might be interpreted as referring to ‘craft’ are so vague, broad and contradictory that they include everything and exclude nothing, process-wise. For example, "Craft distillers produce spirits that reflect the vision of their principal distillers using any combination of traditional or innovative techniques, including fermenting, distilling, re-distilling, warehousing, infusing, or blending."

Warehousing? Infusing? Blending? In the definition of 'craft distilled spirit'?

Elsewhere, ADI seems to get at the crux of the matter. The 'craft distilled' definition requires that the product be "PHYSICALLY distilled and bottled on site." (Emphasis in the original) One wonders in what other state, other than physically, could the product be distilled and bottled on site? Is there some way a product can be distilled and bottled on site other than physically? Metaphysically?

The 'craft distilled' certification also requires a TTB-approved ‘distilled by’ label statement. That's more like it. Is ADI at least requiring applicants to submit their COLAs to prove compliance? There is no evidence that they are and some evidence that they are not. (The application doesn't ask for it.)

For example, a search of COLAs at TTB’s web site was unable to find a COLA for 'Widow Jane Wapsie Valley Whiskey,' a product on the pre-certified list. Window Jane is a brand name under which Cacao Pietro in Brooklyn is currently selling a rebottled Kentucky bourbon that they obviously did not distill. They also have an approved COLA for a 'Widow Jane Whiskey' that is distilled at Cacao Pietro. Using the same brand name for both would seem contrary to the desire for simplicity and transparency for the consumer. It's more like a bait and switch. Clearly, ADI's intention is for producers who sell both homemade and bulk products to clearly differentiate them. Is Cacao Pietro acting in that spirit? Or are they trying to obscure the difference, using the 'craft distilled' halo to sell a product made by one of the evil 'liquor conglomerates'?

A worse offender appears to be Old Smoky Distillery. They have 32 approved COLAs on file. They all say 'bottled by' not 'distilled by' on the label, yet there are four Old Smoky products on the ADI 'pre-certified' list that are 'certified craft distilled.' One is just identified as 'Old Smoky Moonshine.' Are there, in fact, four products in the huge Old Smoky portfolio that say 'distilled by' on their labels? Even if there are, how is the consumer supposed to separate them out? And doesn't Old Smoky, America's most-visited craft distillery, want everybody who buys a souvenir of their visit to believe that juice was all made right there?

It is widely known if perhaps not readily admitted that the Old Smoky Distillery makes only a fraction of the spirit it sells, which it supplements with very non-craft grain neutral spirit (i.e., vodka), bought from a 'large liquor conglomerate.'

So how useful is this certification to consumers? Perhaps the answer is here, in the ADI's explanatory materials: "The license to use this mark is now a benefit of full membership for qualifying DSPs that complete the application process." If you're little, and independent, and a full dues-paying member of ADI, then of course your products are craft. Here's a sticker that says so.

This is a brand new program and all of these issues can be addressed. Here's hoping that happens soon.

Friday, July 12, 2013

You Don't Need To Know Anything About Scotch to Enjoy Bourbon

The way Louisville is quickly mophing itself into the gateway city of bourbon country, it might be tempting to call it 'the Glasgow of Bourbon.'

Please don't.

For as long as people have written about whiskey, they have considered scotch first, then defined all other whiskeys by how they are not like scotch. This is not a slam at scotch, scotch is great, but if you are primarily interested in bourbon and rye -- American whiskey -- you don't really need to know anything about scotch.

American whiskey is its own thing, with a tradition almost 400 years old, that developed largely unaffected by European influence for most of that time.

The comparison between bourbon and scotch fails because the differences are so fundamental. They start with the basic ingredients; corn for bourbon, malted barley for scotch.

They couldn't be more different.

Malted barley, of course, has a tradition that goes back about 8,000 years, to the brewers of the Fertile Crescent. When the distillation of fermented beverages began to catch on, in about the 12th century, the most common fermented drinks were beer, made from malted barley, and wine made from grapes.

Corn or maize, on the other hand, was unknown to Europeans before Columbus, although it had been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years. Getting it to ferment was tricky. The starches in corn are tough, they don't want to dissolve. Americans themselves abandoned corn whenever something easier came along: apples, molasses, rye. Americans only turned back to corn for whiskey-making when they found themselves deep in the post-Revolutionary frontier with a lot of corn and very little of anything else.

One other thing they had plenty of was white oak, a particular species also unique to the Americas. They eventually decided they liked the flavor of whiskey aged in first-use barrels that were deeply charred on the inside. Barrel aging was an old idea but using the barrel just once was a new one, an American one. (Before you say anything about waste, the barrels get re-used, just not for bourbon or rye.)

Similarly, the column still was invented in Scotland but by the time it got to Kentucky, they found a completely different way to use it. Instead of using it to make a different kind of spirit, like the Scots did, they used it to make their style of whiskey more efficiently.

You can learn about American whiskey by constantly comparing it to scotch, but why should you? It's much easier and better to learn about it in its own right. References to scotch are simply unnecessary.

That, in a nutshell, is what motivated me to start writing about bourbon more than 20 years ago. Back then, if you wanted to learn about bourbon you had to learn about scotch first. Since the writers were primarily scotch experts, they didn't always get the differences right. It was a frustrating course of study.

But I was lucky. I didn't have to rely on books and articles alone. I had lived in Kentucky and knew many people in the business. I could get my information directly from the guys who sat next to the still and turned the valves, or who walked the barrel warehouses looking for leaks and opening or closing windows. I could get it from the scions of families who had been making it for hundreds of years. So that's what I did.

Plus when I was there we were always drinking, tasting overaged whiskey, underaged whiskey, whiskey straight from the still, and whiskey that was just right.

I found the history I wanted, not in books, but in little county historical museums. I remember a women in Woodford County who reached into a drawer and handed me an unpublished manuscript by a former editor of the local newspaper, a biography of Dr. James C. Crow, the most celebrated master distiller of the 19th century.

I wasn't alone. There were other people trying to rediscover America's native spirit, at a time when most American consumers had abandoned it, people such as Gary Regan, Chris Morris, Michael Veach, and John Lipman.

Americans declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and won it in 1783. By the early 19th century, writers such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe had begun to establish an American voice in literature. Meanwhile, American whiskey struggled to survive. In the 19th century it suffered the depredations of the Whiskey Ring, then the Whiskey Trust. In the 20th century it was almost killed twice, first by Prohibition, then in the 1970s by major cultural changes. Only now is American whiskey finally finding its own voice as a distinctive spirit with a worldwide reputation.

One thing American whiskey is not, not anymore, is scotch's provincial cousin. They are both whiskey (or 'whisky' if you prefer) but the comparison ends there.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Whoops, Wrong Architect (and Other Angel's Envy News)

Yesterday's post about Angel's Envy contains an error that seems to merit a new post so you can compare the two designs. The Luckett & Farley design pictured yesterday, which the architects like well enough to post to their web site, is not the one selected by Angel's Envy/Louisville Distilling for their new distillery and 'brand experience center,' according to a company press release issued today. The winner, from Joseph & Joseph, is pictured above.

In the press release (marking today's official 'groundbreaking' announcement) Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson noted, “I feel blessed to do what I truly love to do. It is a dream come true to have my own distillery on Main Street in downtown Louisville."

Wes Henderson, son of Lincoln Henderson and Chief Operating Officer added, “We are constructing a fully functioning distillery, from milling of grains to blending and bottling on site. The Angel’s Envy distillery will be a must-see experience on the Urban Bourbon Trail.”

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer also participated in the groundbreaking. Under Governor Beshear, Kentucky's whiskey makers have received unprecedented support and encouragement. Under Mayor Fischer, Louisville has been making a major effort to become the true 'gateway to bourbon country.' Several other whiskey-related attractions are either underway or in the planning stages for Louisville.

At today's event, Angel's Envy also announced that Louisville-based private equity firm Blue Equity, LLC has made a significant investment in the company. Blue Equity, LLC Chairman and Managing Director Jonathan Blue said, “We are very pleased to have joined the investment group at Angel’s Envy. In just a few years, Angel’s Envy has been recognized as one of the best bourbons on the market. With the launch of the new distillery and brand experience center, the future looks even brighter for this incredible brand.”

Although the Henderson family is its public face, the company's president is Mark Bushala, a Chicago-based real estate and entertainment entrepreneur. The investment group includes the Hendersons as well as a web of interconnected companies.

At present, Angel's Envy has three products. The original is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, distilled and aged by an undisclosed Kentucky distillery, then finished in port casks by Angel's Envy. Technically it's not bourbon, but 'straight bourbon with.' The second product is a barrel proof version of the original. The third product is a 'straight rye with,' distilled and aged at MGP of Indiana, and finished in rum casks.

It will be many years before Angel's Envy brings any of its own distillate to market, but it's something to look forward to. The site couldn't be better from a marketing and tourism standpoint. It's at the corner of East Main Street and Jackson Street, right across Main from Louisville Slugger Field, home of Louisville's minor league baseball team. The building is highly visible from the main approach to the I-65 bridge across the Ohio River into Indiana. Its billboard value alone is huge.

Originally a manufacturing facility for toolmaker Vermont American, the complex of buildings continued to be a local landmark as the home of Baer Fabrics. It has been vacant for several years and about half of it was demolished last year to make room for the approaches to a new I-65 bridge.

Although Angel's Envy still has a lot of work to do, one project that won't delay them is environmental cleanup. That has mostly been completed, according to Wes Henderson, paid for by Vermont American.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Angel Has Landed

Every picture tells a story, don't it?

Today at roughly 3:00 PM EDT, Insider Louisville posted this photograph. It shows three Angel's Envy signs being mounted on the former Vermont American building in Louisville, across the street from Louisville Slugger Field.

Wes Henderson, Chief Operating Officer of Angel's Envy, confirms that this means what it appears to mean; this is where Angel's Envy (Louisville Distilling Company, actually) will build its new distillery and visitors center. A formal announcement is pending.

The location became an open secret at the end of May, when Insider Louisville put the pieces together and reached that conclusion. Company executives would neither confirm nor deny on the record but indicated that the deal wasn't entirely done, and a premature announcement might hurt their negotiating position.

There is still a long way to go but Louisville architects Luckett & Farley say this is what it will look like when it's finished. Exactly when that will be is still TBD.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Old Fitz Diamond Bottle Mystery

"I have a bottle of Old Fitzgerald and I'm trying to figure out when it was bottled, could you help please?"

It's a common enough request but this, it turned out, was more interesting than most. It is a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond. The embossed diamonds on the shoulder stood out as unusual, as did something on the label.

One of the requirements for bottled-in-bond is that the label must show both where the whiskey was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled. The label says it was distilled at DSP-16. That's Stitzel-Weller in Louisville, which stopped distilling in 1992. You'd expect to see that. Old Fitzgerald was made at DSP-16 from 1934 until 1992. Since bonds must be at least four years old and usually aren't much more than that, it most likely was bottled before 1997.

Stitzel-Weller had bottling facilities but according to the label, this bottle was filled elsewhere.

DSP-24? That's the old Glenmore distillery in Owensboro. The distillery is long gone but the bottling house is still there, owned by Sazerac.

Did Glenmore and Stitzel-Weller ever have the same owner? Yes, but in whiskey terms only briefly, for about four years, from 1991 to 1995.

Here's how it happened.

The 1990s were a period of intense consolidation in the whiskey business. Here are the transactions that matter for our purposes. In 1984, Scotland's Distillers Company Limited (DCL) bought Somerset Importers, an American company, which owned Stitzel-Weller and Old Fitzgerald. In 1986, Ireland's Guinness & Co. bought DCL. In 1991, it bought Kentucky's Glenmore Distilleries, including the bottling house in Owensboro. In 1995, it sold that bottling house to Canandaigua Wine Co., parent company of Barton Brands, which later sold it to Sazerac.

So the two DSPs were only co-owned between 1991 and 1995. That doesn't absolutely mean this bottle was filled between those dates, but it probably was. Mystery solved.

Does that mean this is a valuable bottle? Perhaps. It is Stitzel-Weller bourbon, and the DSP-16/24 combo is rare.

Mostly it's just fun to figure these things out.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Louisville's Visual Past As Seen Through the Lenses of Caufield & Shook

Distilleries and distillers are just one part of Louisville's heritage preserved for all time by the photographers at Caufield and Shook.

From the advent of photography in the 19th century, most cities of any size had commercial photography firms. That's not unusual. What's unusual about Caufield and Shook is that, for the first half of the 20th century, they were the preferred commercial photographers for Louisville's establishment, they were very good, and their well-preserved 500,000-image archive was eventually donated to the University of Louisville. It has long been an invaluable resource for anyone preparing any kind of book or presentation about Louisville's history.

The image above is from 1936. It shows an automobile plastered with advertising for Louisville bourbon distiller Brown-Forman. Part of the distillery is in the background. At this time, the distillery was at the same location on Louisville's west side as the company headquarters, which are still there.

Caufield & Shook was founded in 1903 by James Caufield and Frank W. Shook, who later took in Will Bowers as partner and chief photographer. It ceased operations in 1978. Few aspects of life in Louisville escaped their lens.

Sally Van Winkle Campbell's excellent 1999 book, But Always Fine Bourbon, about the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and its owner, her grandfather Pappy Van Winkle, contains many fine Caufield & Shook images.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The CDC Is Out of Control

In the recent movie 'Contagion,' the good guys are the doctors and other professionals at the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In real life, we mostly hear about the CDC during flu season and whenever there's a new contagious disease scare.

So no one would have expected the CDC to suddenly become the scourge of demon rum, peddling junk science to advance a neo-prohibitionist agenda, but that's exactly what's happening. Their most visible campaign has been in Pennsylvania, where they're dishonestly pushing a position that isn't even credible, that liquor privatization will inevitably lead to significant upticks in alcohol abuse.

According to a new story in The Weekly Standard (so new it's dated July 8th), that's just the beginning. Between the stimulus bill and Obamacare, billions are being funneled to the CDC to do health promotion. That's a very broad mandate and for reasons unknown, CDC has decided to throw a lot of that money at alcohol, not by funding alcoholism treatment programs, or information programs urging people with alcohol problems to seek help, but instead by, as Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot put it in 1933, trying to make purchasing alcohol “as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”

The article points out why it is probably illegal for CDC to even take sides on a controversial political issue like Pennsylvania liquor privatization.

The CDC has been politicized before, as when they dragged their heels in the early days of AIDS, supporting the Reagan administration's denial agenda.

If the administration wants to do something useful involving alcohol, they might do well to send some of CDC's money to the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has an actual job to do, which it has had trouble doing due to an explosion of new label approval applications. Used to working with large corporations who have a vested interest in staying within the rules, the TTB is now working with hundreds of small producers, some of whom don't know what they're doing, some of whom are deliberately trying to deceive the public, and most of whom try to push the envelope wherever they can.

President Obama is known to enjoy a beer now and then, but there appear to be many in his administration who harbor the old Progressive belief that humans can be improved, even when they don't want to be, through the benevolent intervention of the government. That's exactly what led to Prohibition the first time around. No one should be looking forward to the sequel.