Showing posts with label micro-distillery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label micro-distillery. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Something Awesome Is Happening in Oregon

Unless you are in or a frequent visitor to the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably never heard of McMenamin’s, and certainly not their Edgefield Distillery. Yet it is quite possible that Edgefield has made some of the best whiskey of the young craft distillery era.

A few years back, a four-year-old Edgefield rye won gold at the annual American Distilling Institute (ADI) competition. According to the distiller who accepted the award, Booker Noe (Jim Beam’s grandson, himself a legendary whiskey-maker) helped them with the recipe. It was superb. Asked if, when, and how it would be sold, they answered, “It won’t be. We kind of drank it all.”

Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin started with a pub back in 1974. Today, McMenamins is a chain of resort hotels, restaurants, bars, music venues, golf courses, movie theaters, and probably a few other endeavors. They brew beer, distill spirits, and vint wine. They grow a lot of the food they serve in their restaurants and grow the grapes from which their wines are made. They’re way into preventing waste and promoting energy savings and efficiency.

The distillery was established in 1998. It is part of Edgefield, a 100-year-old historic McMenamin's resort hotel, located about 20 miles outside of Portland.

Last month, at their annual St. Patrick’s Day blowout, they released a whiskey called Devil’s Bit, made from malted wheat and barley, and aged for twelve years. It is heart-breakingly good, clearly recognizable as malt whiskey, yet different from anything you’ve ever tasted before. The nose alone is a revelation. They could sell it by the sniff.

If you want to become a distiller, and make great whiskey, get thee to Troutdale, Oregon. If you just want to taste what the craft distillery movement can become, same advice.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Group, the American Craft Distillers Association, Is Announced

The existence of the new American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) was announced on Tuesday, from Denver, Colorado, just four days after the conclusion of the American Distilling Institute's (ADI) annual conference in that same city.

In Tuesday's announcement, Rory Donovan, interim president of ACDA, explained that ACDA was formed "of, by, and for licensed craft distillers" in order to "promote and protect craft distilling in the United States."

It noted that craft distilling is a phenomenon that is sweeping the country. With more than 320 distilleries in existence and more on the way, products run the full gamut from brandy to bourbon, and all are gaining popularity with mixologists, restaurants, and consumers around the country.

According to Penn Jensen, ACDA executive director, "Our focus will be on brand building, public outreach, and legislative action on national and state levels to support the entrepreneur craft distillers everywhere in the U.S."

Officers and directors of the new organization are: President Rory Donovan, Peach Street Distillery; Vice President Ted Huber, Starlight Distillery; Secretary/Treasurer Brett Joyce, Rogue Brewing and Distilling; Ralph Erenzo, Tuthilltown Distillery; Lee Medoff, Bull Run Distillery; Tom Potter, NY Distilling Co.; Chip Tate, Balcones Distillery; Rick Wasmund, Copper Fox Distillery; Andrew Weber, Corsair Distillery; and (Ex Officio) David Pickerell, Oakview Consulting.  

The ACDA website is

The elephant in the room, of course, is the aforementioned ADI, which would seem to occupy most of the same space ACDA is claiming for itself. Penn Jensen, ACDA's new executive director, just retired from a similar position at ADI. Many of the new organization's directors have been active in ADI, some since its formation ten years ago. Huber Distillery, represented by ACDA Vice President Ted Huber, has been the site of many past ADI conferences. Unless the two groups differentiate, there's probably no need for both of them. The marketplace will decide who survives.

If you've read this far expecting to get the inside skinny, you're about to be disappointed. All will be revealed in the fullness of time, perhaps.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Quincy Street Distillery Is On Its Way to Somewhere

If you're going to start a micro-distillery, try to put it in an attractive older building in an attractive older part of an attractive older suburb of a major city. Visitors can be crucial to a distillery's success. Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam know this and so does Quincy Street Distillery, a new micro located in historic Riverside, Illinois.

When you think about your visitor experience, remember that it begins long before the guest crosses your threshold. That industrial park may have practical advantages for you and your employees, but it probably wasn't designed by Frederic Law Olmstead. Downtown Riverside was. Your customers will be much more likely to enjoy your place and your products if they've already begun to enjoy themselves before they get there.

Quincy Street is very new and very small but they have some interesting ideas about using old recipes and using their town and its history for inspiration. They sell a white whiskey, a lightly-aged bourbon and rye, a gin, and some unique spirits. Every product has a rich back story. At this point you can mostly get them at the distillery, but last month they got a distributor.

Sure, Daniel's has Lynchburg, but one thing the giants can't do is provide an intimate and idiosyncratic experience tied closely to a particular place. That's where micros such as Quincy Street have an advantage.

(Pictured: Owner Derrick Mancini and distiller Daniel Maguire.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Willetts Are Back

During last year's Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I was driving down Loretto Road, leaving Bardstown, and noticed that where the sign for Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) always is, there was a new one that read "Willett Distillery." The ground around the sign looked freshly tilled.

The next day I saw Henry Preiss (formerly of Preiss Imports, which brought A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon to the masses), who I knew was staying with a member of the Willett family. I mentioned that I had seen the new sign. "It looks like they just put it up yesterday," said I. "They did," said he. "I helped."

Because Martha Willett married Even Kulsveen in 1972, the Willetts are now the Kulsveens. Martha and Even's two children, and their daughter's husband, run the company with their father.

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and the Willett Distillery are slightly different entities. KBD has been in business for 30 years, the Willett Distillery has been in business for about one. It is on the same site as the original Willett Distillery, which before that was the Willett family farm. Just outside of Bardstown, it sits across the road from Heaven Hill.

The new distillery is in a new building. The rest of the property looks about like it did when the original distillery stopped operating 30 years ago, although one of the aging warehouses and some of the other buildings have been refurbished. That's all good, because while the new distillery has a unique and very personal style, the rest of the site looks exactly like a typical Kentucky bourbon distillery from the post-Prohibition period.

The new Willett Distillery filled its first barrel of bourbon on January 27, 2012, the 103rd birthday of Thompson Willett, Martha's father, who founded the original Willett Distilling Company in 1937.

Willett is a micro-distillery member of the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) and a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Their still, a copper pot, is larger than what most other Kentucky micros have.

Willett is one of the easiest craft distilleries to visit because it is so close to Heaven Hill and other Bardstown-area whiskey-related attractions. Tours are offered daily.

Another thing Willett has that other micros don't is a sales force with a 30 year track record. KBD, which started as an exporter, is a well-established independent bottler and whiskey broker. Their customer list is a who's-who of non-distiller producers. KBD buys bourbon and rye from distillers, aging some in its own warehouses. It then sells some of that whiskey to its customers, also bottling it for them, and the rest it sells as its own brands, including Old Bardstown, the original Willett Distillery's flagship bourbon. .

There is a lot more to the Willett story, which they tell very well on their fine web site.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Distilled Spirits Epicenter Joins Kentucky Distillers' Association as First Educational Member

Distilled Spirits Epicenter; an educational, training, and craft distillery; announced yesterday that is has joined the Kentucky Distillers’ Association as the group’s first-ever Educational Distillery member.

"Education is a core principle of the KDA’s mission to promote and protect our signature industry, from legislative advocacy to economic and tourism development to the responsible consumption of spirits," said Jeff Conder, Chairman of the KDA’s Board of Directors.

"Now, with the creation of an Educational Distillery membership, the KDA adds a vital component through research and training opportunities to develop the next generation of our iconic industry," said Conder, Vice President, Global Supply Chain, for Beam, Inc. "We proudly welcome Distilled Spirits Epicenter as a partner in this goal."

"We are pleased to be joining such a legendary organization that shares our commitment to innovation," said Marty Snyder, CEO of Distilled Spirits Epicenter and its sister company, Flavorman. "Just as KDA and its Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure has fueled global interest in the Bourbon phenomenon, our content-rich distilling courses will highlight the artisanship of spirits production."

Kevin Hall, Operations Manager at Distilled Spirits Epicenter, said the company has positioned itself as a one-stop-shop for distilling needs and resources at its downtown Louisville headquarters. "Every Bourbon brand has its own recipe, taste and history, and every project at the Epicenter is unique," Hall said. "Our resources enable us to provide a customized experience for each client, no matter how big or small."

Distilled Spirit Epicenter resources include:

Grease Monkey Distillery, an artisan distillery furnished with state-of-the-art Vendome equipment that may be rented for full scale spirits production or to run small test batches.

Challenge Bottling, an on-site bottling line designed to accommodate smaller production runs and various packaging requirements.

Moonshine University, an educational resource and training facility that provides expert instruction on everything from technical operations to business planning.

The first Moonshine University distilling course, scheduled for Jan. 14-18, will provide hands-on instruction on distillate production and business management. The third day of the course will be dedicated to whiskey production, with presentations from Master Distillers and industry experts from several of the KDA’s member distilleries. Registration is underway at

Distilled Spirits Epicenter is the KDA’s 15th member and sixth new member in 2012. KDA members include Beam, Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark); Brown-Forman Corp.; Diageo North America; Four Roses Distillery; Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc.; and Wild Turkey Distillery.

Craft Distillery members include Alltech’s Town Branch Distillery, Barrel House Distilling Co., Corsair Artisan Distillery, Limestone Branch Distillery, MB Roland Distillery, The Old Pogue Distillery, Silver Trail Distillery and Willett Distillery.

KDA President Eric Gregory said he has been impressed with Distilled Spirits Epicenter’s vision, dedication and camaraderie in exploring partnerships to keep Kentucky’s distilling tradition alive and to secure the integrity of the industry. "Kentucky truly is a Bourbon epicenter, and we look forward to working with the professional team at Distilled Spirits Epicenter to promote our rich heritage, to advocate fair treatment of our industry, and to continue our commitment to responsible drinking."

Founded in 1880, the KDA is a non-profit trade association and Kentucky's leading voice on spirits issues.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tips On How To Label An Unaged Rye Whiskey.

A micro-producer writes, "just read your whiskey blog concerning the new Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye Whiskey. This is very interesting. My husband and I own a small artisan distillery and have had our labels in for approval with the TTB. We received our second rejection and, lo and behold, it's about the wording for our Unaged Rye Whiskey."

It seems a shame that while modern distillers can make a product their ancestors would have called rye whiskey, we can’t call it that today.

Until the second half of the 19th century, most whiskey was not aged. Folks probably didn't call it 'rye whiskey,' they probably just called it 'whiskey.' But it was spirit straight from the still. You can make such a product today, but you can't call it 'whiskey.'

By the time Federal rules about the standards of identity for distilled spirits were being written, early in the 20th century, the aging of whiskey in oak barrels had become so common and expected that whiskey was defined as a distilled spirit made from grain that had been stored in oak containers. Rye whiskey, furthermore, had to, among other things, be aged in new and charred oak barrels.

Before you start to complain about damned government regulations, recall that these rules were written to protect consumers from dishonest or misleading labeling and they have worked pretty well. The problem is one typical of government regulation. It has a hard time keeping up with changes of attitudes and ideas among the people it's supposed to protect.

Setting aside the desirability of unaged rye whiskey, it is a historically legitimate style and not that hard to understand, so the possibility of consumers being confused about it is small.

We've learned from the recent Jack Daniel's experience that the only suitable classification available from TTB is 'Distilled Spirits Specialty,' which is a catch-all for any distilled spirit that can't qualify for one of the other existing classifications.

Although it makes sense that there should be an 'unaged rye whiskey' class, none exists. Since spirit classified as ‘rye whiskey’ must be aged, ‘unaged rye whiskey’ is a regulatory impossibility. Many people have blithely said TTB should just create and define such a category, but it doesn't work that way. It might actually require an act of Congress. Maybe not, but it certainly requires going through a long and arduous regulatory rule making process.

Part of TTB’s problem is that for the first 70 of its 80 years of existence, it dealt mostly with big companies, with compliance departments and lots of lawyers, who were making me-too products. Consequently, TTB is not well equipped to deal with hundreds of small producers who are, in many cases, trying to push the envelope on everything.

But all is not hopeless. Here's how other producers have solved this problem.

When the folks who run Washington's restored distillery at Mount Vernon wanted to sell unaged rye whiskey, they actually aged it, very briefly, in new, charred oak barrels.

This is called gaming the system or, more charitably, finding a work-around. Under the rules, although aging is required, the length of time is up to you (24 hours is plenty) as is the size of the barrel. It just has to be new, which means you can use it only once for rye whiskey. It also has to be oak and charred.

This can, of course, be expensive and you have to pass that cost along to your customers. The folks at Mount Vernon didn't care, they planned to charge a lot anyway.

Another alternative is to age in a used barrel. Again, how long it’s in the wood doesn’t matter. You can't call it 'rye whiskey' but you can call it ‘whiskey,’ as the class, and use ‘rye’ in the name, you just can’t put the words ‘rye' and 'whiskey’ together. You can, for example, call it 'Chuck's Old Rye, An Illinois Whiskey.'

This way is much less expensive because not only does a used barrel cost about 40 percent less than a new one, you can use the used barrel an unlimited number of times, so you only need one no matter how much whiskey you make.

Another alternative is to make corn whiskey instead of rye whiskey, since corn whiskey is already an exception in the rules. It doesn't have to be aged at all.

One idea no one has tried yet is getting a cooperage to make cheap, piece-of-crap oak containers. Essentially, disposable barrels. Since TTB doesn't care how long the spirit is stored in the container, how good does is have to be? It doesn't even have to be a barrel. The rule just says, 'charred new oak containers.' Any vessel that meets those requirements and can hold the whiskey for even a few seconds should pass TTB muster.

Then you can knock the containers down and burn them to fire your boiler.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is White Whiskey Just About Over?

Savvy investors know that when the general pubic hears about a hot stock, that usually means it's done. Some of that is insider hubris, of course, but trends go through phases and mass popularity blunts leading edge by definition.

In one of the early reviews of Jack Daniel's new unaged rye, Kevin Gray of Cocktail Enthusiast writes that the product "helps to legitimize the unaged whiskey category." Does it? Or does it mark the beginning of the end?

Let's leave aside for a moment the absurd decision of the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to classify Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye as a neutral spirit. We all know what it is, even if the increasingly irrelevant TTB does not.

Kevin Gray is clearly a fan of micro-producer white whiskeys, especially since he thinks the new Daniel's rye delivers "easy-drinking mellowness." Everything is relative.

Whether from micros or majors, most white whiskey is simply white dog, spirit straight from the still that's hot and harsh and badly in need of long years in wood.

Gray's analysis of the marketplace is intriguing. "For Jack to be playing in this space at all means something. It shows that the [white whiskey] category isn’t just for fringe players who cannot afford to let their whiskeys sit in barrels for upwards of four years. But a category worth the interest of the industry’s biggest brands."

As he notes, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and even Maker's Mark have toyed with unaged products, but this Daniel's rye and the impending Jacob's Ghost from Jim Beam take it to a different level due to the immense power of those two brands.

Gray hopes "this doesn’t hurt the micro distillers. Companies like Death’s Door, Finger Lakes and Woodinville each make a fine unaged whiskey. But with Jack Daniel’s and others on the playing field, it could raise interest and visibility of the category as a whole, thereby helping the small guys gain a better foothold."

Or not.

One white whiskey producer confided surprise at the Daniel's and Beam moves, because he is beginning to think the whole white whiskey thing is just about played out. Whether or not it is would seem to depend on how consumers respond to the Daniel's and Beam products.

Meanwhile, micro-producers might want to think about installing filtration systems. Though still extremely harsh by fully aged whiskey standards, the new Jack Daniel's Rye is certainly milder than a typical white dog due to the charcoal mellowing all Daniel's new make receives. Often described as a jump start to aging, charcoal mellowing tempers, transforms, or removes many of the harsh congeners responsible for white dog's challenging taste. Beam's Jacob's Ghost is actually one-year-old bourbon that has been extensively filtered to remove its color and harsher flavors.

Unless you prefer a spirit that takes off the top of your head, both are an improvement over the typical micro-producer white whiskey.

Does any of this bode well for micro-producers, as Gray hopes? Or is it the death knell for their white whiskeys?

It could be both. White whiskeys may need to change. Luckily, the ability to reinvent oneself quickly should be a micro-producer advantage. Instead of trying to make their products more palatable with short aging in little barrels, micro-producers might try filtration. It's a completely natural, legitimate, and historically authentic way to process whiskey, and it doesn't take years to work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Small Barrels Still Produce Lousy Whiskey.

My personal experience with this particular Buffalo Trace experiment is well known.

About this time last year, Buffalo Trace invited me to the distillery in Frankfort to taste the results of a 'failed experiment' involving small barrels. I tasted the whiskey that came from the barrels and talked about it with Sazerac President Mark Brown, Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, and Brand Manager Kris Comstock. I wrote about the experience here and in my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. Lew Bryson, Managing Editor of The Whisky Advocate Magazine, was also in attendance and also wrote about it.

The experiment and our reports created quite a stir, especially within the micro-distiller community, where the use of small barrels abounds. I expanded the Reader article into a small ebook, which has sold well.

Today, Buffalo Trace Distillery sent out a short press release about the experiment and its results. This is not a new small barrels experiment. It's the same experiment, they just waited until now to write about it.

Here's what they have to say:


Not all experiments are successful. Buffalo Trace Distillery learned this the hard way with its small barrel experiments started in 2006.

Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a warehouse for six years.

The results were less than stellar. Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.

While Buffalo Trace is NOT releasing these experiments, the Distillery did feel it was important to release their findings. The company hopes others can learn from such an experiment, just as they have.

“As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons. Even though these small barrels did not meet our expectations, we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes,” said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time. Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned.

“These barrels were just so smoky and dark, we just confirmed the taste was not going to improve. The largest of the three barrels, the 15 gallon, tasted the best, but it still wasn’t what we would deem as meeting our quality standards. But instead of just sweeping this experiment under the rug and not talking about it, we felt it was important to share what we learned, especially in light of the debate about usage of small barrels. It’s one experiment we are not likely to repeat,” said Wheatley.

These small barrel experiments are part of the more than 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in the warehouses of Buffalo Trace Distillery. Each of these barrels has unique characteristics that differentiate it from all others. Some examples of these experiments include unique mash bills, type of wood and barrel toasts. In order to further increase the scope, flexibility and range of the experimental program, an entire micro distillery, named The Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. “OFC” Micro Distillery, complete with cookers, fermenting tanks and a state-of-the-art micro still has been constructed within Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lexington Micro Joins Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

The Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) announced today that Town Branch Distillery in Lexington has become the seventh distillery, and first micro-distillery, on the KDA's official Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour.

Town Branch, also known as the Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company, is in downtown Lexington, which is Kentucky's second-largest city and home of the University of Kentucky. “We’re thrilled to add Lexington as a host community to greet thousands of visitors to our trademark attraction," said Jeff Conder, chairman of the KDA Board of Directors and Vice President of Americas Operations for Beam, Inc.

Like Louisville, Lexington is a good home base for whiskey tourists who want to enjoy urban amenities after a long day of visiting distilleries. In addition to Town Branch, it's convenient to Wild Turkey and Four Roses in Lawrenceburg and Woodford Reserve in Versailles, not to mention Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, which chooses to operate outside of the KDA trademark but has a great distillery tour nonetheless.

Alltech, led by President and Founder Dr. Pearse Lyons, is a global leader in animal health and nutrition. Its distilled spirits products include Town Branch Bourbon, Pearse Lyons Reserve malt whiskey, and Bluegrass Sundown, a Bourbon-infused coffee drink.

Town Branch is named after the stream that runs under downtown Lexington, from which many early distillers drew their water supply. The new $6 million, 20,000 square-foot distillery is scheduled to open in September, with tours starting Oct. 1. It is built with Kentucky limestone and features glass walls on three sides to showcase the copper stills and fermentation tanks to outside viewers. It’s the first new distillery to be built in Lexington in more than 100 years.

“Kentucky Bourbon is a red-hot industry, and we are proud to support its continued growth around the world,” said Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear. Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries have recorded more than 2 million visits in the last five years, with 450,000 in 2011 alone, said KDA President Eric Gregory. Visitors have traveled from all 50
states and more than 50 countries, he said.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Silver Trail Distillery Joins KDA.

On Wednesday, Silver Trail Distillery announced that it has joined the legendary ranks of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Commonwealth’s leading voice on spirits issues for more than 130 years.

“It’s taken years and a lot of hard work to realize his dream, but Spencer Balentine has persevered and brought distilling back to the Land Between the Lakes region for the first time in a century,” said Jeff Conder, Chairman of the KDA Board of Directors and Vice President of Americas Operations for Beam, Inc. “We are proud to welcome him to the KDA and congratulate him on his efforts.”

Silver Trail, located in dry Marshall County in far Western Kentucky, opened in 2011. Balentine, a former champion motorcyclist and aspiring screenwriter, toured Maker’s Mark Distillery several years ago and decided to get into the spirits business based on his family’s colorful moonshine past. His distillery’s still is a recreation of one originally designed by his great uncle in 1947. His first product is 100-proof “LBL Most Wanted Moonshine,” packaged in ring-handled jugs. He has plans for an apple pie moonshine to be called “Apple Cin.”

“It’s a distinct honor for Silver Trail to be accepted into such a historic organization that represents the finest distilleries in the world,” Balentine said. “This has only added to my determination to showcase our proud Between the Rivers heritage.”

Silver Trail becomes KDA’s 12th member and the sixth Kentucky craft distillery to join. The KDA is a non-profit trade association founded in 1880. Members include Beam Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), Brown-Forman, Diageo North America, Four Roses, Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc., and Wild Turkey. Craft distillery members include Alltech, Barrel House Distilling Co., MB Roland Distillery, Limestone Branch Distillery and Corsair Artisan Distillery.

The KDA’s craft membership is available to licensed Kentucky distillers that maintain an inventory of less than 25,000 barrels of distilled beverage spirits, according to KDA President Eric Gregory.

“Our craft members are an important part of our organization,” Gregory said. “As small businesses, they often bring a different perspective on issues that affect our industry. We now have operating distilleries of all sizes in almost every corner of the state.”

Friday, March 2, 2012

Musings On A Couple Of Recent Posts.

Reading back through some recent posts, I had a few thoughts that seemed to be worth sharing.

On the subject of the Old Fashioned, I know what I'm about to say is blasphemy, but whiskey and Sprite, with a few dashes of bitters, is a reasonably authentic shortcut for an Old Fashioned. The only really inauthentic thing is the carbonation. After all, the drink is whiskey, water, bitters, sugar, and citrus. To keep it, again, reasonably authentic, you have to use a light hand with the soda. A ratio of about one-to-one seems to work pretty well, and I'm also generous with the bitters.

Most recipes that call for bitters call for a 'dash.' Gaz Regan taught me to disregard that. Watching him make a Manhattan once, I counted 14 dashes. The folks who have looked into this sort of thing say bitters are essential, both in the drinks that traditionally call for them, and in many that don't. I find the bitterness is what gives the drink its sophistication.

On the subject of 'legal moonshine,' I did notice since I made that post that Short Mountain's label describes a spirit made at least in part from sugar, which I've seen in a couple of other labels and label applications, but have never actually seen on the street as a product.

Several of my critics say I'm behind the times. That people want a legal moonshine product and thus they shall have one. The problem remains, however, that there is no agreement about what moonshine is as a spirit type. Most real moonshine is made using 100% table sugar as the fermentable substrate. This has been true for as long as cane sugar has been plentiful and cheap.

Remember, moonshine isn't about 'craft' or 'quality.' It's about making money, which means making spirit as quickly and easily as possible without getting caught.

One hears about corn being added in some recipes but unless there is cooking involved, and the introduction of enzymes, the corn is just for show. You need to cook corn to get the starch to dissolve, then you need to add enzymes to convert the liquified starch into sugar. If you don't, the corn is just a prop. It has no effect on the final product.

Most of the products that have made it to market labeled as moonshine, such as Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, from Piedmont Distillers, are either vodka or corn whiskey. Midnight Moon is vodka, distilled from corn. Georgia Moon, a venerable product made by Heaven Hill, is corn whiskey.

Short Mountain isn't the only micro-distiller toying with the 'real' moonshine (i.e., sugarjack) idea, but unless they distill it out to something like vodka, it's probably going to taste awful. That's what people expect from moonshine, they think (mistakenly) that the bad taste means it's strong. (It doesn't, it just means it tastes bad.) It remains to be seen if people will actually buy a true sugarjack product and, most importantly, buy it again.

Under the rules, a distilled spirit made from cane sugar is rum. If it's not 100% cane sugar, then you probably have to call it a 'distilled spirit specialty,' which is a catchall category for products that don't fit any of the established types.

It should be noted that no product made from cane sugar, nor any product distilled above 95% ABV (i.e., vodka) is whiskey. Even the Piedmont product, which is made mostly from corn, is not whiskey because they distill it to vodka alcohol levels and, in fact, it is classified as vodka; which it says, in very small type, on the label.

And, as vodka goes, it's not bad.

But it's not whiskey, and it's not moonshine.

That's another thing that has been going on with the mirco-distillery movement, people griping that they want to call things whatever they want to call them and that the rules should be changed so they can. People have always wanted to do this, and that's precisely why the rules (laws, actually) exist.

I hasten to add that not all micro-distillers are this way. There are some terrific people running small distilleries, people who do things the right way, who are steeped in both the science and the history, and who work their asses off. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know many of them. The poseurs, we reassure ourselves, will surely wash out and go away in time.

It can't happen soon enough.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Micro Limestone Branch Joins KDA.

Limestone Branch Distillery today announced that it has joined the historic ranks of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Commonwealth’s leading voice on spirits issues.

“We’re proud to welcome yet another one of the state’s emerging and innovative Craft distilleries to the KDA,” said Jeff Conder, Chairman of the KDA Board of Directors and Vice President of Americas Operations for Beam, Inc. “Our Craft members are an important part of our organization, and we look forward to working with them to promote and protect our signature Bourbon and distilled spirits industry,” Conder said.

Limestone Branch was founded in 2011 by brothers Steve and Paul Beam, whose ancestral roots run deep in the Bourbon industry. Their great-great grandfather was Joseph Washington Dant, an early Bourbon pioneer, and their great grandfather was Minor Case Beam, the eldest son of Joseph M. Beam in the legendary Beam lineage.

Their small batch Craft distillery is producing a variety of whiskeys from heirloom white corn grown on its Marion County property. The first offerings will be T.J. Pottinger corn whiskey and T.J. Pottinger Sugar Shine, with plans for an artisan rum and vodka. “It is an honor to join this distinguished group of Kentucky distillers,” Steve Beam said. “As Craft distillers, we are fortunate to have such a valuable resource as the KDA and its members to draw upon. “We are very excited to return our family to the Kentucky distilling community.”

Limestone Branch becomes KDA’s tenth member and the fourth Kentucky Craft distillery to join. The KDA is a non-profit trade association founded in 1880. Members include Beam Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), Brown-Forman, Diageo North America, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey. Craft distillery members include Alltech, Barrel House Distilling Co. and MB Roland Distillery.

The KDA’s Craft membership is available to licensed Kentucky distillers that maintain an inventory of less than 25,000 barrels of distilled beverage spirits, according to KDA President Eric Gregory. “Craft distilleries bring a unique perspective on issues that affect our industry because they’re small businesses,” Gregory said. “Yet they’re an important part of our growth, and we’re thrilled that many are choosing Kentucky, the authentic home for Bourbon, to launch their business.”

“We applaud Limestone Branch on their opening, and we look forward to working with them to promote our rich heritage, to advocate fair treatment of our industry and to continue our commitment to responsible drinking.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cool Things Craft Distillers Are Doing Right Now.

Here are some cool things craft distillers around the country are doing right now.

Tom’s Foolery Distillery near Cleveland has established itself making apple brandy but since they got the old Michter’s barrel-a-day still, they’ve been laying down bourbon. Erik, their first employee, is a brewer by training so they’ve been experimenting with different malts and using two to three times the normal percentage of malt in their bourbon mashes. The first one was 64 percent corn, 14 percent rye and 21 percent malt. That was with a standard whiskey malt. They just finished running several batches with Vienna malt, and a mashbill of 36 percent malt, 57 percent corn and 7 percent rye. Next up: Pale Ale malt. They're getting help from the previous owner of the still, David Beam, and the last master distiller at Michter's in Pennsylvania, Dick Stoll. Beam never operated the still so the last man who did was Stoll, in Pennsylvania more than 20 years ago.

Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York has just added a warehouse building for both aging stock and finished goods, both of which had been stored in the distillery itself. Why? Because their aging stock has grown to more than 400 barrels and they were running out of space in the production area, which they need for additional fermenters that are coming soon. They also recently received a Good Food award for their McKenzie Rye Whiskey. The Good Food Awards honor "producers of exceptionally delicious products that also promote sustainability and social good."

Garrison Brothers Distilling will begin to bottle a new batch of its Texas bourbon on February 1st, so it won’t be long before new stock shows up in stores. It usually sells out fast and Texans trying to find it were frustrated in their hunt by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC), which had a crazy rule that prevented Garrison Brothers from telling consumers which stores still had it on the shelves. Garrison sued the TABC and won. That was just before Christmas. Now when stocks run low at retail, the distillery will be able to post on their website a list of stores that still have bottles to sell.

A few misguided micros think they can build themselves up by trashing the big whiskey-makers. The more enlightened envision a rising tide that raises all ships. Some of the latter are even sourcing ("curating" is the new term) whiskey from majors to sell as their own brands, alongside products they make themselves. Utah’s High West was a pioneer at this and has several, mostly using rye whiskey, the best-known being their original brand, Rendezvous. West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler has a new one called Old Scout that is a five-year-old straight bourbon bottled at 49.5% ABV.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Small Barrels" Now On Kindle.

Do you recall this post from last year, about the small barrels experiment at Buffalo Trace (BT)? It created quite a sensation. Well, it's now a book. A very small book (like the barrels) but also a very inexpensive one, just 99 cents on Kindle.

I have been looking at Kindle as a way to make some of the material I write for my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader, available to a wider audience. So this is, in part, an experiment.

By the way, you don't need a Kindle to read a Kindle book. You can download a free reader for PCs and other devices, or you can just read them using your web browser.

In addition to the small barrels article, the book includes a new piece about some of the reaction, plus a review of a couple of specific whiskeys aged in little barrels. There's also a piece originally posted here in December, 2010.

The recent post received a lot of comments, most of them from people who only (and in some cases, barely) read the post, not the actual article. You can find more people taking me to task over on the ADI Forums. Plenty of people are prepared to ream me for the headline alone. This way they can at least read the article first.

One familiar refrain is that of course whiskey aged in small barrels for five years is bad, you should never age whiskey in a small barrel for that long, yet I defy anyone to show me where anyone made such a statement before I started to publicize the BT experiment.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Meet Your Chicago Distillers, February 8.

There are now three micro-distilleries in the Chicago area and you can sample their wares on Wednesday, February 8, from 7 PM to 10 PM, at Jerry's in Wicker Park (1938 W. Division).

Participating are Koval (Ravenswood), Few Spirits (Evanston), and North Shore Distillery (Lake Bluff).

Leanne Strickler, of North Shore, is the guest bartender.

Your $10 entry includes one specialty cocktail, plus samples from the distillers.

One of the most exciting things about the micro-distillery phenomenon is how these craft spirits-makers relate to their local communities. They develop very loyal and ardent fan bases and this is an easy way to get a taste of that, quite literally, especially if you live in or near Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Micro-Distiller MB Rowland Joins KDA.

MB Roland Distillery, an innovative leader in Kentucky’s growing craft distilling industry, announced today that it has joined the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA).

"We’re proud to welcome MB Roland Distillery to the KDA, and we look forward to working with them to promote and protect our signature industry,” said John Rhea, Chairman of the KDA’s Board of Directors and the Chief Operating Officer at Four Roses Distillery.

“We’ve been very impressed with the leadership from Paul Tomaszewski and his team and their success in developing hand-crafted spirits using locally grown ingredients,” Rhea said. “They are an integral part of our future and the growing craft distillery industry in Kentucky.”

Founded in 2008 by Paul Tomaszewski, MB Roland is a small batch craft distillery located in Christian County that produces a variety of whiskies and other spirits.

The distillery has become one of the Fort Campbell area’s leading tourism destinations.

“It is truly an honor and privilege to be included as a member of such a distinguished and historic organization,” Tomaszewski said. “By the KDA allowing craft distilleries such as ourselves to join its ranks, they acknowledge that our industry is advancing in novel and innovative ways.

MB Roland becomes the KDA’s ninth member and the third Kentucky craft distillery to join. The KDA, a non-profit group founded in 1880, is the state’s leading voice on spirits issues, from taxes to tourism, technical matters and more. Members include Beam Inc. (Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark), Brown-Forman Corp., Diageo North America, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey. Alltech and Barrel House Distillery, both in Lexington, are the other craft distillery members.

KDA President Eric Gregory said the new craft distillery membership is available to licensed distillers in Kentucky that maintain an inventory of fewer than 25,000 barrels of distilled beverage spirits. There are more than 200 craft – or 'micro distilleries' – in the country, including several in Kentucky.

"Our craft members bring a unique perspective on issues that affect our industry," Gregory said. "We look forward to working with MB Roland to promote our proud heritage, advocate for fair treatment of our industry, and continue our commitment to responsible drinking.”

Pictured are (left to right) KDA Chairman John Rhea of Four Roses Distillery; Paul Tomaszewski, founder of MB Roland Distillery; and Chris Morris, Master Distiller at Brown-Forman.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Buffalo Trace Proves Small Barrels Don't Work.

Some time over the summer, I was asked by Buffalo Trace if I would like to come to the distillery in September, during the Bourbon Festival, to taste one of their failed experiments.

It's a measure of how strange this obsession is that I didn't hesitate. "Of course," I said.

Buffalo Trace has been experimenting for about 20 years. Everybody experiments, but Buffalo Trace has done things others don't, like release the results of some of the experiments as part of their Experimental Collection.

It's always been understood that some of the experiments are pronounced failures and the whiskey is discarded. Here was a case where they considered the experiment a failure, but thought I might like to taste its product anyway.

That's because the experiment involved aging bourbon in small barrels. Specifically, 5 gallon, 10 gallon and 15 gallon barrels. Yes, those are the sizes micro-distillers use.

I last wrote about small barrels in July, prompted by something John Hansell posted on his blog.

I write in depth about the Buffalo Trace experiment in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, which dropped today. You really should subscribe and read the whole story, but I won't keep you in suspense. The whiskey was standard Buffalo Trace bourbon and it was aged in the small barrels for five years. It tasted bad. The whiskey from the 5 gallon barrel tasted worst.

Tasting them, you could get some ideas about why they tasted so bad. I talk about that too.

The December, 2011, issue of The Bourbon Country Reader is Volume 14, Number 2. In it, we also tell the story of The Great Whiskey Glut, observe the changing of the guard at Virginia Gentlemen, and taste two limited edition releases from A. Smith Bowman and Heaven Hill.

Subscriptions to The Bourbon Country Reader are $20/year for U.S. addresses, $24.50 for Canada, and $28.50 for everybody else. It is published six times a year. Well, maybe not, but your subscription always includes six issues.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Stranahan's Licenses Name To Breckenridge Brewery.

The phenomenon that is Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey just keeps rolling along. Now, according to Westword, Stranahan's has given its Denver neighbor Breckenridge Brewery exclusive rights to use the Stranahan's name on barrel-aged beers. This is another first for Stranahan's. I know of no other micro-distillery that has extended its brand through a licensing agreement.

The first product will be called Stranahan's Well-Built ESB, which will be conditioned for three months in barrels that previously held Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey.

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey is unique in being a malt whiskey, like scotch, that's aged in new charred oak barrels, like bourbon. Since Stranahan's can only use the barrels once for its whiskey, it needs a re-use market for them. Breweries are a natural. Other distilleries have done that but I don't know of any who have turned it into a brand extension.

I have a personal history with Breckenridge Brewery at their original Breckenridge brew pub location. They were close to where I stayed, had good food and great beer, and we tended to go there daily apres ski, if not to eat then to at least pick up a couple of growlers for the evening.

That's another advantage Stranahan's has over micro-distilleries in, say, Illinois. Local products in major vacation areas are sampled by people from all over, who may not only like the product, but also its association with the place and pleasures of a fun vacation. They talk it up to friends and urge their local bars and liquor stores to carry it. Both Stranahan's and Breckenridge have access to that cachet, which is priceless.

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.