Lies, and The Lying Producers That Tell Them

liar
A liar

The last time Liz and I were on Leelanau Peninsula we visited a winery we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t yet. We got a chatty, but professional pourer. I didn’t mention my blog, as usual. I usually don’t mention it at the beginning of a tasting because 1. I don’t want to get special treatment and 2. Nobody knows or cares who I am.

We were tasting through the menu and we came across a wine that had no appellation visible on the label. I asked our pourer whether the wine was American or Michigan or Leelanau. Our pourer replied by kindly asking me if I knew how to read a wine label. I said, yes, I asked because I didn’t see an apellation on the label. Pourer’s response was, “If you know how to read a wine label, then you already know the answer. Don’t make me lie.”

I was taken aback. Our pourer went on to explain how in 2014 and 2015 that winery, like many others in Michigan, did not have enough local grapes (due to the dreaded Polar Vortex) to produce their usual array of varietals and blends, so they had to buy out-of-state grapes to stay afloat. The owner of the winery felt weird about this, apparently, and so omitted any statement of origin on those labels at all. This is in contrast to most wine makers who put “American” on the label in the same place where the usual appellation appeared, since most bought grapes from Oregon.

That is annoying, but what our pourer told us next was shocking. They said that the owner had told them to lie about the wine’s origin to tasting room visitors who asked. “I wish I didn’t have to lie. I wish I worked for Charlie Edson. He’s very honest.”

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The true view from Bel Lago, Charlie Edson’s winery. 

Why would a winery want its employees to lie about the origin of its wines? One reason may be marketing. Many Michigan wineries, large and small, use local-ness as a large part of their marketing. If their grapes aren’t locally grown, that could be embarrassing. That said, many Michigan wineries aren’t embarrassed about that at all. Black Star Farms, Round Barn, Brys Estate, Mackinaw Trail and many others have regular offerings that use out-of-state grapes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t believe most Michigan wine customers care either. Personally, I’m less likely to buy a wine from a Michigan winery if it’s “American”, but I don’t think any less of wineries that do.

The lying and obfuscation in the realm of Michigan wine will probably die down with the recent run of two (and probably three) good, warm vintages in a row (2016, 2017, 2018?). With rising demand for Michigan wine and the inevitability of a few bad vintages every decade, the temptation to lie will rear its ugly head again, though.

Lying about place of origin is not confined to the wine world, of course. It’s quite common in whiskey, especially in the shady world of sourced “craft” whiskey. One of the most common ways of lying, or at least obfuscation, is for the bottler to “forget” to put the state of distillation on the label, as is required by law. A surprising number of producers make this mistake. When confronted about this they usually either ignore the warning or hide behind the fact that the label has been approved by the TTB. Approval by the TTB doesn’t mean the label is correct, though, as producers know. Like many other government agencies under the austerity regimes of the last thirty years, the TTB is understaffed and underfunded. It relies on consumers and the producers themselves for policing. There’s also this little bit on the bottom of the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) form:

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

More egregious than that is the phenomenon of Japanese whisky that’s not actually made in Japan. Margarett Waterbury at The Whiskey Wash breaks it down here. Due to limited stocks and the unfriendly duopoly of Japanese whisky, Japanese distillers frequently import whisky from Scotland and Canada to stretch their stocks.

Why do whiskey producers lie? The reasons are not very different from why wine producers lie. It has to do with marketing. Some distillers do market themselves as local, even using a local place-name while buying their local product from elsewhere. It only takes a second or two of boredom for a consumer to look at the back label and see that their local hero was actually born and raised in Indiana. The “craft” aspect of craft spirits is also vulnerable to accurate labeling. Articles like this one from the Daily Beast have been drifting around the internet for a few years, explaining how many craft producers buy their product from MGP’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While these articles did blow the lid off of this practice for the general public, it may have made distillers even more afraid of producing accurate labels than they were before.

What can be done about this? One thing we can do as consumers is to warn and report whiskey label violators. Universally beloved* Texas bourbon enthusiast and blogger Wade Woodard has made it his personal quest to file complaints of whiskey labeling regulations. He’s been making progress, but many still ignore regulations. With so whiskey booming and so many new labels hitting the market every year, it’s hard to keep up.

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People questioning what they are told.

Regarding wine obfuscators, I think it’s important to always ask where the grapes come from if no appellation is listed on the label. lf at a tasting room, ask your way up the chain of command. If not, call or send an email and ask. If you get lied to, then press the owners or managers in person, or on social media. Business owners who are unrepentant liars should be shamed.

It’s important that this is done responsibly, though. It’s counterproductive and just plain shitty to do so in a way that gets someone fired or punished at work. Tasting room employees aren’t responsible for marketing or labeling of the wines they pour. That’s why I haven’t named the winery in question. It would take a minimal amount of snooping around on social media and going over work schedules to figure out who our pourer was once I disclosed the winery.

What should producers do to avoid being reported or shamed? Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, folks: TELL THE TRUTH. Disclose what you’re supposed to disclose. Disclose even more than you have to even. If truth-telling and disclosure interfere with your marketing strategy, change your marketing strategy. Being truthful to your customers should always come first. Most people don’t like to give money to people they don’t trust.

As for me and this blog, even though I did buy some bottles at the winery, I will not be reviewing any of those bottles here anytime soon. Maybe I will if the winery in question shows that they have changed their ways when the next bad vintage rolls around, but without a change in ownership, I’m not holding my breath.

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A Visit to Lux Row

Now that our youngest is getting older, our regular trips to Kentucky have been slowly becoming regular again. Last April, friend, cocktail enthusiast, and StraightBourbon.com Bourbonian of the Year Bruce organized a couple of tours of Luxco’s new Lux Row distillery for all the SBers who had gathered in Bardstown that weekend.

The bourbon boom has seen a lot of activity around Bardstown and Louisville on the part of whiskey start-ups and even old players. One of those older players that is now making the transition from non-distiller producer (NDP) to distiller is Luxco. Luxco was known as the David Sherman Corporation for many years. It was founded in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1958 by…wait for it…David Sherman along with his partner Paul A. Lux. The Luxes gained control over the company over the years and it was renamed Luxco in 2006. The distillery is named Lux Row because it’s owned by Luxco and they, uh, like to arrange things in rows. No joke, that’s literally what our tour guide said.

Luxco/DSC has long been a large NDP in the bourbon business. Its brands currently include Ezra Brooks, Rebel Yell, Blood Oath, Yellowstone, and David Nicholson (infamous for its labels stating that it was distilled at DSP-KY 16 long after it actually was). Luxco is also now 50% owner of Limestone Branch distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. Tightening of the bulk and contract markets companies like Luxco rely on for their brands has forced some to start distilling for themselves. Luxco’s plans are ambitious. They told us they were planning to build six warehouses on the Lux Row site (they had one completed when we were there), one being completed every six months. They planned to transition to filling their brands entirely with their own stock in a few short years. The numbers didn’t seem to add up, but math isn’t my strong suit and I don’t own stock in the company or anything so I don’t really care.

The distillery/visitor center is a pleasant, modern-looking building inside and out. After years of touring one hundred year old, industrial-style plants, it was eerie to tour this neat and clean new building.  No drips, no rust, and no low-hanging pipes to hit my head on.

 

As with most distillery tours, this one started out with a look at the cookers and fermenters. Lux Row has two 4,000 gallon mash cookers and twelve 8,000 gallon fermenters. Four of the fermenters are uncovered and the rest are closed. They are only running two mashbills currently, a rye recipe bourbon (for Ezra Brooks and David Nicholson Reserve) and a wheat recipe bourbon (for Rebel Yell and David Nicholson 1848). Our guide told us they only run one at a time. He also said that the fermentation usually takes three to four days.

 

Next we got a look at the still, which was made by Vendome and is a beaut, as they say. The column is 43 feet tall with a 36 inch diameter. It has 19 copper plates inside. According to our guide, the distiller’s beer is added at the third plate from the top.

 

 

We then went on to the barrel filling room and saw the equipment and a few barrels there. 90% of their barrels come from Independent Stave and rest come from Speyside cooperage and a few others. A level 3 char is used. The bourbon enters the barrels at a whopping 124.5% alcohol by volume.

 

On to the warehouse. It’s beautiful on the inside with a large open entryway allowing visitors to see all six stories to the top. It’s an impressive sight. Less impressive is the nearly empty warehouse behind those barrels.

 

Bottling takes place at the Luxco bottling plant in Missouri, so our next stop was the tasting bar. As you can see it is decorated in the same slightly old-timey modern style. We tried just about everything they had. The standouts were David Nicholson Reserve and Blood Oath. Blood Oath was very good but not worth the high price tag in my opinion.

We exited through the gift shop, which was full of well-designed apparel and glassware.

 

The tour was quite good overall and our guide was knowledgable, more so than many of the walking automatons that pass for guides at other places. The worst part of the tour was the tasting, simply because most Luxco bourbons just aren’t very good. That’s not the fault of the guides and other staff at Lux Row though. The tour at Lux Row distillery is recommended. Big thanks to Bruce for organizing the tour!

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The old barns. Home to peacocks, or so we were told.

A Visit to Castle & Key: A Photo Essay, pt. 1

Back when I first started going on annual/semi-annual pilgrimages to Kentucky, I heard tale of two abandoned distilleries on McCracken Pike, near Frankfort Kentucky and even nearer to the Woodford Reserve (aka Labrot & Graham, aka Oscar Pepper) distillery. To get there, you turned left out of the Woodford reserve parking lot and kept going until you thought you were lost in the woods and needed to turn around. Then you went around a bend and a giant castle-like building virtually lept out of the woods at you. That was the Old Taylor Distillery (shuttered in 1972). Just a little down the road was the Old Crow distillery which was also interesting in its own right, but not nearly as impressive as the Castle, as it was called. You could park across the road at the collapsed office building if you wanted to take a look at the castle, but you had to look out for The Guy in the Red Truck, who was guarding the place. The Guy in the Red Truck was not a monster, though, and you could reason with him and he might let you get close and take pictures. He would also show you the grave of a Revolutionary soldier that he preserved nearby.

The Castle was wild looking and a little sad and occasionally spooky like in this picture I25784_422752045399_76845_n took on a rainy day in 2010. “Legit” whiskey bloggers (i.e. actual journalists) would occasionally get a chance to wander around and take pictures. At the time, we bourbon lovers all wondered what it would take to restore the building. The conventional wisdom was that the building would be too expensive to ever restore, let alone reuse.

We were wrong. The Old Taylor Castle is now being restored, thanks to the partners who own what is now called the Castle and Key (after the key shaped spring house) Distillery. In 2014 it was purchased for less than a million dollars from an Atlanta investor group that was selling the distillery buildings for scrap. The destruction was stopped and restoration was begun. The invester group managed to snag Marianne Barnes, rising star at Brown-Forman (makers of Old Forester, Early Times, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels), to be their master distiller. The intention is to produce gin, vodka, rye and bourbon. The Bourbon, at least, is going to be released as a mature, bottled-in-bond product.

In late April of this year (2017) a group of folks from StraightBourbon.com including yours truly, Mrs. Sipology Blog and friends of the blog Amy and Pete were graciously allowed a tour of the campus, even though it’s not open to the public yet. Here are some pictures I took. I hope you like them.

For a concise, illustrated history of the property check out http://www.distillerytrail.com/blog/castle-key-distillery-rising-ruins-old-taylor-distillery-narrowly-escaped-wrecking-ball/

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Botanical garden for gin on the site of a collapsed rickhouse near the parking lot at the back gate.
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Other side of the botanical garden. “World’s Longest Rickhouse” in background.
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Walking over to to World’s Longest Rickhouse (WLR), completed in 1917 with a capacity of 32,000 barrels (quite large for a rickhouse). It’s their main warehouse at present. Currently mostly occupied by other people’s whiskey (the rickhouse is highly regarded and a source of income for them), but C & K is now aging their whiskey in there too.
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The front tower of the WLR with tracks for rolling barrels around.
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My wife Liz peaking into the WLR at one of the 13,000 barrels currently stored there.
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Looking up at the WLR.
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Walking down the broad pathway flanked by old buildings over to Warehouse E (center right) and the distillery building (center).
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My friend Brian and I snuck off into one of the buildings on the side and discovered this picture of the castle.
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Same building as above. Strange but cool green glass panels.
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Building with barrel tracks going over the road. According to our guide, locals tell of when barrels would pop off the track onto the road for enterprising folks to recover.
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Toward Warehouse E
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The concrete monster that is Warehouse E.
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Inside the entrence to Warehouse E, which I dubbed “World’s Creepiest Warehouse”. Cave-like enviroment. Looks like a set out of one of the Blade movies.
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Taylor used brass bands for his barrels so Castle & Key sometimes use them for special ones.
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Walking over to the distillery building under the crenellated water tower.
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Had no idea my ex worked here! But seriously folks, more pics, including the castle itself, the springhouse, sunken garden and more next week!

 

Ask SKU Anything

SKU of SKU’s Recent Eats recently had a fun post in which he answered any questions from any readers of his who wanted to ask. I thought this might be a fun thing to do for my blog too. On the other hand, I have fewer readers than he does, and when I’ve tried things like that in the past the response has been almost nonexistent. So to avoid embarrassment, I’m going to answer the questions that SKU’s readers asked him.

As I was writing this, I learned that SKU is unfortunately ending his long running blog, so I figured what better way to pay tribute to him than to rip him off? After all, I’ve been doing that for a very long time.

So without further ado,

Years ago, you wrote an article for one of the whiskey magazines titled “Craft Whiskey Sucks.” Now, many years later, would you write the same thing? Do you still think it mostly sucks? 

I didn’t write that article, SKU did, but I will answer the question. Yes, they still suck, almost all of them. The best ones have reached the level of “not bad” but they’re still almost entirely awful, overpriced garbage. Ones that have reached “not bad” include Union Horse Reunion Rye, most of Journeyman’s output, Grand Traverse Distillery’s bourbon and ryes and a handful of others whose names escape me right now.

Sku – at what point does a whisky that you own become too expensive that you don’t open the bottle? For instance, I have a 2012 FR Small Batch that I’m told now sells for over $700 – that seems a ludicrous amount to spend on a bottle, and I wouldn’t spend that amount on it and I’m happy I got it at retail back then. But now I find that decision to open is harder and harder, and I might not ever.

I understand the desire to cash out while one can, but the only whiskey I own that comes close to that is Four Roses 2009 Mariage (what I still think is the best bourbon ever made), but I will eventually open and drink it. It might be twenty or thirty years from now, but I am drinking it.

Do Armagnac houses/domaines have recognizable profiles? For example are there specific differences in notes between Chateau de Gaube and Domaine de Busquet that you could expect to find despite the vintage?

Sure, why not.

How many spirits bottles do you tend to have in your personal collection at any given time (more or less)? of that group, what percentage consists of whiskey v. brandy v. other spirits at this point? do you have any favorite spirits categories other than whiskey or brandy (e.g. mezcal or Jamaican rum)?

-JCR 

I don’t know. I’m guessing between 50-100. That’s a big range, I know. The total number is smaller than most people I know who have been in the hobby for as long as I have. I’m not really a hoarder when it comes to spirits. I like to always have certain things on hand and I like variety, but I’m not the guy buying a case of every BTAC every year for fifteen years or whatever.

I like every spirit, pretty much. Most (by a long shot) of my collection is bourbon but I have a growing stash of brandy and always make sure I have multiple bottles of rye, Canadian whisky, Tequila/Mezcal, rum, and Single Malt on hand.

  1. in your opinion are micro-distillers pricing their bourbons too high?
  2. is the bourbon renaissance a bubble? 2a. if it is a bubble how bad will the pop be
  3. are “tech” whiskies like cleveland viable? that is, in the long run, can a “whisky” that’s aged for an hour really compete on price/quality with a bourbon that’s aged for 10 years? in fact, i have seen cleveland priced higher than eagle rare and laughed all the way home.
    regards,
    -dan

1. Yes. 2. No, but there is a bubble on the high end being driven by the secondary market. 2a. I could see a 20-50% drop in price for top shelf tater bait. 3. No. No, that will never happen. If the bubble bursts these operations will be among the first to go under. They’re all examples of the idiocy of the cult of #innovation in late capitalism. “Tastes like shit” becomes “Disruption!” Need to make a better whiskey? No, we just need to “educate” consumers that they should believe our marketing and not their own lying tastebuds. The angels don’t like being cheated.

Simple: 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?

WTF

How does it feel to be the dean of American whiskey bloggers? How much longer do you think you’ll keep going? Do you think blogging about whiskey is still relevant?

I’m not going to lie, it feels really good. I’ll keep posting until they pull the laptop out of my cold dead hands. Whiskey Blogging is only relevant when Dave Driscoll does it.

  1. What is the next big thing in spirits and why is it Armagnac?
  2. Do you believe that dusty bourbon/rye has a familiar profile that you don’t find in today’s products, i.e. “dusty notes”? If so, do you believe that’s due to bottle conditioning or some other factor(s)?
  3. Given the current boom and scarcity of anything allocated or limited edition, are there bottles you regret passing on years ago that you wish you would have bought more of? -signde 

1. Rum is the next big thing in spirits and it always will be. Rum’s problem is also part of what makes it interesting. It isn’t a distinctive product of any one country. Despite what our libertarian friends often say (assuming libertarians have friends for the moment), good state regulation can be beneficial to a spirit. It ensures consistent quality and structures an industry in such a way that makes it easy for enthusiasts to explore and understand. The French wine and brandy regulations are good examples of this as are bourbon and Scotch regulations in the US and UK respectively. No regulatory regime is perfect, but those are mostly good. Example of bad or mediocre regulation are Canadian Whisky, which is governed by a patchwork of regulations on the provincial and national levels and American wine, which has at once too many and not enough appellations, among other problems. Ironically the Canadian VQA system is better than the American system for wine and much better than the Canadian system for whisky!

Rum’s diversity makes it hard to explore. The rewards are great for those with the patience to do so, but it requires time and focus that few people have. There are dozens of countries regulating the manufacture of Rum. Some are good and some are bad, but they’re all different. There’s little consistency from country to country or label to label, even with things as seemingly straightforward as age statements. It’s hard for a newbie to know what she or he is getting when grabbing an unfamiliar brand from the shelf.

Can this be overcome? Maybe. One way to address these problems would be for all the rum producing countries (or at least the big ones) to come together with reps from the countries that are big markets for rum (US, EU, etc) in some kind of rum summit and come to an agreement on consistent labeling and marketing of rum worldwide. In the meantime, writers like Fred Minnick and Josh Miller are doing a great job of educating consumers to help us get over the many obstacles to rum connoisseurship. So will rum ever arrive? I don’t know but I hope so!

I think brandy might be the next thing after rum or at least concurrent with it. Cognac is already ubiquitous and well positioned for a boom as are lower shelf American brandies like Christian Brothers or E & J. Where the biggest expansion may come is in Armagnac and craft American brandy. Too many craft distillers in the US are trying to ride the bourbon and rye wave right now just to stay afloat instead of looking to the future. Brandy is going to be a part of that future. Instead of seeing a crowded market and saying “me too!” distillers in places like Michigan, New York and Southern Ontario should be seizing the opportunities presented by the abundance of fruit in their areas and distilling brandy now so that when the brandy wave hits they will be ready with aged product. As it is, producers in Indiana and Kentucky are getting the better of the Northern fruit belt distillers, often with northern fruit! Brandy should be a part of the distilling identity of Northeastern North America.

Now what was I saying?

2. I do believe that bottle conditioning is a part of it, but never forget that most of these “dusties” were glut era whiskey that was much older than what the label said and older than what is being bottled today.

3. I once had the opportunity to buy half a case of Russell’s Reserve 101 for $35 a bottle. It seemed expensive to me at the time, so I just got two bottles. That was a mistake. I also feel like I had opportunities to stock up on Weller 12 and Pappy 15 that I should have taken but didn’t because, hey that’s really expensive and there’s always next year!

Why “Sku”?

SKU likes to pretend that his initials are S-K-U but he was actually nicknamed SKU after something that happened that happened when he was a toddler. His parents were shopping at a Target store when he wandered off and they couldn’t find him. They searched the store until they heard a squeaky voiced teen stocktaker shout out, “What’s the SKU for THIS?!” They ran over to the aisle, and there was baby SKU sitting on a shelf. Everyone laughed and laughed.

We often talk about the downsides of the bourbon boom? From your perspective, what are some of the positive aspects?

The positive aspecst are more knowledgeable consumers, Four Roses available stateside (I’ve been in it long enough to remember when it wasn’t!), more single barrel selections, more barrel proof iterations, less gas money spent traveling to Kentucky to buy my favorite bottles because Michigan carries almost everything I want, improvements and expansions at the Kentucky distilleries, the possibility of new, good medium sized distilleries coming online, Stitzel-Weller reopening to visitors, the restoration of the Old Taylor Castle, the list goes on. As annoying as things like dropped age statements and the secondary market are, this is a pretty good time to be a bourbon drinker, on the whole.

Does MAO still make you swoon? -Jealous in Jersey

More of a Trotsky guy myself.

 

SKU’s Recent Eats was one of the first independent bourbon blogs by an enthusiast who wasn’t also a whiskey writer or some guy pretending to be a journalist (we all know who I’m talking about). He’s always been a pretty laid back, honest and forthright guy whose work was a big inspiration to me. Cheers Steve!

Just the Tip

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Walloon Lake Winery

Lots of interesting things are going on in the Michigan wine scene right now. The latest big news is that as of 2017 Michigan will have a new AVA.

What’s an AVA, you ask? AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. The program was begun in the early 1980s as an answer to the French AOC appellation system and other European systems. The first AVAs were awarded in 1982, and they continued to roll in at a good clip through 1991. There are 238 total, with 138 (58%) of them in California. In addition to AVAs, a number of counties and all fifty states are allowed to put their names on a bottle as a legally defined place of origin. At least 85% of the grapes going into the wine have to be from the place in question. If the wine is bottled as a varietal (Old Mission Peninsula Riesling, for example), at least 75% of the grapes of that variety must come from the place on the bottle. Currently Michigan has four AVAs. By way of comparison, New York has nine and Virginia has seven. Indiana has one entirely to itself and shares another with Ohio and Kentucky. In Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula and Fennville were established in 1982, Lake Michigan Shore in 1983 and Old Mission Peninsula in 1987. The fifth, dubbed “Tip of the Mitt” will become official in 2017.

So this is a good thing, right? It’s certainly getting a lot of publicity, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, not all publicity is good publicity. I believe that the Tip of the Mitt AVA is unnecessary and may even end up hurting the reputation of Michigan wine overall. It’s too large to be meaningful and its inability to produce vinifera does not warrant the spotlight of AVA recognition. Recognition for a marginal (at best) area occupied by marginal winemakers drags down the reputation of Michigan wine as a whole.

AVAs don’t just fall from the sky, they’re the result of a long process that starts with a 20161103_112649.jpgpetition from winemakers in that particular area. In this case the Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA) petitioned the federal government for this designation. SAGGA is made up of wineries in the area included in Tip of the Mitt. All those wineries are also members of Michigan’s newest wine Trail, Bay View, named for the Chautauqua resort community near Petoskey, Michigan. Ironically, the Bay View community does not allow the consumption of alcohol in public spaces within its borders.

Granting an AVA to an area is a federal recognition of a geologically distinct region where wine grapes are grown. It gives the marketing advantage of having a name on the bottle that consumers can recognize and seek out. It comes with the added bonus of being able to use the “estate bottled” (the American equivalent of the French mise en bouteille au chateau) designation on the label if all the grapes that went into the wine were grown in vineyards owned by the winery.

All this is supposed to give a marketing advantage to wines produced within an AVA, but the marketing for TotM has been confused from the outset. The wine trail is Bay View, the AVA is Tip of the Mitt and the trade association is Straights Area. Three completely different names are being used for the same region. The name of the wine trail itself is confusing since its wineries are not only in Bay View but stretch across the region. Tip of the Mitt sounds silly and is only readily understood by Michiganders who are used to referring to the lower peninsula as “the mitten” because of its mitten-like shape. Michigan Straights or Mackinac Straits might have been a better name. In the short term, changing the name of the trail and the growers association might be a good fix, but that’s not the only problem TotM has.

Tip of the Mitt is huge, the largest AVA in the state by far. It stretches from Charlevoix to Alpena and north to Cheboygan, encompassing six counties and over 2,700 square miles. It is a little larger than the state of Delaware. Lake Michigan Shore is about 2,000 square miles, Leelanau is around 117, and Old Mission about 30. Fennville (which is entirely inside LMS) is tiny, but I can’t get a good number for its actual area. Online sources say 117 square miles, same as Leelanau, but that can’t be right. At any rate, there are many larger AVAs around the country, but they are either umbrella AVAs with many smaller ones within them (e.g. Central Coast in California or Finger Lakes in New York) or they are like the 6,000 square mile Mississippi Delta AVA which barely produces wine except a little from the Muscadine grapes, a pungent native species.

Like other far north areas (the 30,000 square mile Upper Mississippi Valley AVA for example) Tip of the Mitt is too cold to grow anything other than hybrid grape vines. Not even relatively cold hardy varieties like Riesling or Chardonnay will grow. As Cortney Casey writes in her excellent article on TotM in Hour Detroit Magazine:

In fact, the AVA is too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling, [Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards’ Brendan] Prewitt says. Instead, the area’s growers depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties like Marquette, La Crescent and frontenac gris “that can provide a full crop … in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.

Note how Prewitt avoids the H-word: “hybrid” and instead calls them “new grape varieties”. This is probably because hybrids have a bad reputation among wine enthusiasts.

20161103_112026.jpgHybrids are crosses between two different species of grape, usually the European one (vitis vinifera or vinifera for short) and a North American species. The best known varieties of wine like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot et al are all different varieties of the vinifera species. Think of the differences between breeds of dogs. They’re all the same species, but they can vary a lot from each other.

Hybrid grapevines are grown because they are generally more disease resistant and are more reliable producers in marginal climates than vinifera. The tradeoff is that they usually don’t taste as good. I’m not anti-hybrid. I’ve had good wines made from hybrid grapes. Some, like Chardonel and Traminette, work well bottled as a varietal but I think most are best used in blends or special applications like sparkling or ice wines. The hybrid grapevines used in northern climates are mostly ones developed by the University of Minnesota like La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac.

I’m all for bringing hybrids to respectability and using them for “the production of top quality wines” but that’s a long journey, one that none of the TotM producers seem to be taking at the moment. None of the wines from SAGGA members that I’ve tasted have conveyed a “mastery of growing grape in a challenging climate”. Many of them were made with grapes grown elsewhere, even the ones made with hybrid grapes. At best they’ve been boring wines. In fact, two of the worst wines I’ve ever had were from producers in TotM. One was an unintentionally sparkling Merlot that also tasted bad and another was a red hybrid blend of some sort that smelled like store brand bacon. Highlighting these wineries by giving them an AVA, at least as they are now, isn’t exactly putting Michigan’s best foot forward. A Michigan wine newcomer could get a poor impression of Michigan wines after drinking something from Tip of the Mitt.

There’s room in the Michigan wine world for table wines. I don’t object to unambitious, or unbalanced wines for weeknight dinner or porch sipping. If the AVA designation is to be meaningful it should denote a certain level of quality, though. Contrast TotM with the situation of winemakers in Southeast Michigan. Many of them are making very good wine, especially reds, but all they can do is put “Michigan” on their labels, with no AVA or estate grown designation. The value of an AVA is undermined when a marginal area receives one but an area producing high quality wine grapes has to soldier on without. AVAs should be granted to areas that are already producing quality wine as a recognition of the quality and distinctiveness of their area, not handed out to areas that might, under some circumstances, produce decent wine at some point in the future.

All this makes me wonder if the creation of the new AVA was for wine reasons or for tourism reasons. When the Bay View wine trail was created, I questioned the wisdom of creating a wine trail to promote wineries in a marginal area that were producing marginal wine. By “questioned” I mean that I made snarky remarks about it on Twitter. I called it the “tourist trap wine trail” because I think what motivated the creation of the Bay View wine trail and Tip of the Mitt was vitis envy. The Lake Michigan Shore and Northern Michigan are popular tourist areas. Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City (home to the Old Mission Peninsula) have their own AVAs, as does the Lake Michigan Shore to the southwest. Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cheboygan and Boyne City to the north didn’t, even though tourism has been just as important there as it has been elsewhere in Northern Michigan. SAGGA may have wanted the AVA and wine trail to keep their tourists from driving south to spend their wine tourism dollars. The first paragraph of this article implies as much.  A trail and AVA help in that regard but the quality of wine in the area needs to improve quickly or momentum and tourist dollars will be lost. As much as I snarked about the Bay View wine trail, a wine trail is an instrument for tourism. Its creation is appropriate for the goal of promoting wine tourism in the area. An AVA should be about the wine itself, not tourism.

What the Tip of the Mitt AVA has brought into focus for me is the need for Michigan winemakers and the state department of agriculture to work together to develop a unified strategy for increasing the number of AVAs in the state (among other things). Letting regional wine organizations like SAGGA go it alone will result in a crazy quilt of AVAs some of which will be TotMs types. Luckily a new organization has brought together winemakers, famers, retailers, tourism boards and others for support and cooperation. It is the called the Michigan Wine Collaborative. It has the potential to prevent such a and advance a unified strategy for Michigan’s expanding wine industry. Yours truly inquired about being on the board, but all the positions were already filled at the time. Also, taking care of a six-month old baby sucks up a lot of my time.

I already mentioned the need for an AVA or AVAs in Southeast Michigan but another possibility for expansion could the subdivision of existing AVAs. Lake Michigan Shore is big itself and is ripe for further division. Maybe an arrangement similar to the villages in Beaujolais or Cote de Rhone could be adopted. It would be great to see Baroda, Paw Paw and Coloma join Fennville as AVAs within LMS. Perhaps there could even be an LMS Villages designation for wines made from a combination of grapes from near those towns. Leelanau could benefit from a similar arrangement or it could be divided into three parts based on the Sleeping Bear, Northern and Grand Traverse Bay loops of the Leelanau Wine Trail. These subdivisions could also add another layer of interest to wines made by Michigan’s growing stable of garagiste style winemakers.

If Michigan wine is to continue to grow its regional and national reputation, its wine producers and the state need to be strategic and deliberate about adding AVAs and wine trails. It might even be a good idea for to meet with winemakers from Ontario and New York to come up with regional strategies as well. Then, hopefully, we avoid any more Tip of the Mitts. Or is it Tips of the Mitt?

All photos by me.

The Sipology Whiskey Blog Name Generator

Ever thought of starting your own whiskey or whisky blog? You’re not alone! Thousands of people start their own whiskey blogs every day. Anybody can do it, not just unemployed, rich and/or crazy people (although all those help). The first thing you need is a good name. Sipology Blog is here to help with that. To pick the first part of your nom de blog, find your birth month below:

January- Whiskey

February- Whisky

March- Bourbon

April- Scotch

May- Sip

June- Booze

July- Coopered

August- [Your first name]’s

September- [Your full name]

October- Sku’s

November- Dram

December- Red, White &

Now, for the second part, pick the date of your birthday.

  1. Blog
  2. Manifesto
  3. Tot
  4. And Ice Cream
  5. Whisky Whisky
  6. Guy
  7. Dude
  8. Bloke
  9. n’ Corn
  10. Bruh
  11. Woman
  12. Lady
  13. Lassie
  14. Mistress
  15. Girl
  16. Witch
  17. Recent Eats
  18. Opinions
  19. Truth
  20. Tot
  21. Reviewerer
  22. Jug
  23. Jugs
  24. Drinker
  25. -ator
  26. -ology
  27. -r
  28. -ing
  29. Fellow
  30. Republic
  31. Bourbon
  32. Whisky Whisky
  33. Whisk(e)y

If the name you picked already exists, just roll six dice and subtract three from the total. Then find the number above. Add that onto the name you already had.

Now pick a blog hosting site, get a twitter handle, pick a fight with a well-known blogger or distiller and then sit back and watch the samples come rolling in! Best of luck!

City of Riesling Weekend: Part 1- Leelanau and Mesick

I was lucky enough to be able to attend this year’s City of Riesling event (festival? gathering?) in Traversewpid-2015-08-03-08.15.24.jpg.jpeg City, Michigan this year. The official dates were July 26 and 27, but since those were a Sunday and a Monday, we decided to make a weekend of it. We in this case being my wife Liz, our friends Amy and Pete, and myself of course. I’m probably the biggest Riesling fan in the group but we’re all wine lovers, so it didn’t take much convincing to get them to accompany me up north that weekend. Traverse City in July is an easy sell on its own.

This was the second City of Riesling event. I was unable to attend last year’s due to a glitch in the date of my twentieth high school reunion. It’s a long, dull story that doesn’t need to be told here. Anyhow, City of Riesling is intended to be a celebration of all styles of the wine from all around the world. I tasted Rieslings from eight different countries and six U.S. different states at official events over the weekend. I tasted ones as old as the 1994 vintage (the year I graduated high school), as young as 2014 and in every possible style of Riesling, of which there are many. That’s what makes this such a special grape. Not only is it a “noble” grape that thrives in cool, relatively high latitude climates but it can be made in a style anywhere from bone dry to dessert.

There were two official parts to the City of Riesling. First was Sunday night’s Night of 100 Rieslings, a party with music, food and literally one hundred Rieslings on pour from certified professional sommeliers. The second part was Salon Riesling, four seminars/symposia on Riesling related topics featuring panels made up of sommeliers, industry insiders, winemakers and writers (well, at least one writer).  Between the second and third session was a rare Riesling luncheon featuring a vertical tasting of nine Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Auslese vintages (1983, 1990, 1999, 2001-2007) from wine writer Stuart Pigott’s private collection. I was only able to attend the first two sessions due to the work schedules of my fellow travelers. I was unable to attend the rare Riesling luncheon due to the tickets being $250 per person.

Since we were making a weekend of it, we decided to get some tasting room visits in while we were in the neighborhood. We drove directly up to Leelanau Peninsula on Saturday and then that evening we drove back to the closest reasonably prices hotel room we could find for that night, which was forty minutes or so from Traverse City. We stayed there that night, then we drove to Old Mission Peninsula and tooled around there until check in time at our hotel in downtown Traverse City. The Night of a Hundred Rieslings began at 6 that night near the beach in Clinch Park, and the first Salon Riesling session began the next morning at 10 am (or at least was scheduled to) at the Franklin restaurant. Our intention was to eat lunch at the Franklin after I got out of the second session, and hit the road directly.

We left Royal Oak about 8:30 am. Instead of taking I-75 N for most of the way as we usually do, we decided to exit near Midland and take an angled route, a combination of U.S. 10 and M 115, to Leelanau. We overshot it, though and ended up in Thompsonville for lunch. I’m glad we did because we ended up stopping at Rosie’s Country Café. It was just what a person wants in a place like that. It was clean, service was efficient, menu was full of rib-sticking selections (breakfast served all day of course), and nobody got sick afterwards. My fellow travelers got sandwiches, which they said were ok, and I got ham hash and eggs. Few restaurants will serve a ham hash, so I usually get it when I can. America needs more ham hash.

wpid-20150725_135829.jpgAfter filling our bellies, we backtracked to the road we needed and made our way along the winding backroads to Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery. I had wanted to go to Bel Lago first because it’s not near any other wineries and it’s a little tricky to get to from TC, the gateway to Leelanau for most travelers. It takes its name (Italian for beautiful lake) from the beautiful view of Lake Leelanau from outside the tasting room.

We tasted some excellent wines there. The tasting was complimentary, a rare luxury in Leelanau these days. They are well known for their Auxerrois (a grape rarely grown outside of France), their superb cherry wine (the gold standard for Michigan), and of course Riesling. They were also pouring a new 2014 rosé that was delicious. We bought a bottle of that, one of the Auxerrois, and the cherry wine (my new favorite cherry wine).

There’s good reason why Bel Lago’s cherry wine is so good. They practically invented it. Prof. Amy Iezzoni (of Michigan State University), did, that is. In days of yore, cherry wine in Northern Michigan and everywhere else was made exclusively from a sour variety called Montmorency. Amy made it her mission to break the sour cherry monoculture in the U.S. to improve the quality of the crop overall. While in Hungary, where cherries are a really big deal apparently, she discovered a semi-sweet variety perfect for making cherry wine. The only problem with this cherry was the name: Ujfehértói Fürtös. Amy realized this so she got approval to allow it to be grown under the name Balaton, after Hungary’s largest lake. Then she fell in love with a winemaker. Literally. She married Charlie Edson of Bel Lago in what has to be the ultimate act of synergy (see Chris Kassel, Heart and Soil: Northern Michigan Wine Country (2014) 52-58).

Charlie was in the tasting room that day. I introduced myself to him, and we had a nice talk. He told me a story about City of Riesling. Last year, Bel Lago was a sponsor of the event and they were excited about being involved. This year it slipped his mind and he only learned when the deadline for wine submissions was after it had already passed. By that time, he said, it was too far gone to get anything together so he didn’t try. That’s why there was no Bel Lago among the 100 Rieslings on Sunday night.

Our next stop was at Verterra. Unlike most tasting rooms in Leelanau, Verterra’s is not at the site of their vineyards. It’s in central Leland, a hamlet on the west coast of the peninsula. Leland is noteworthy for being the place to catch ferries to the Manitou Islands (a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and being home to the charming Fishtown historic area. Fishtown is a combination of cheesywpid-20150725_153745.jpg tourist shops and working docks. Commercial fishing boats, charters and the aforementioned ferries still use the area and its collection of weather-beaten early twentieth century buildings. It’s worth a stroll through on a sunny summer afternoon. We strolled through after our visit to Verterra.

Verterra is a short walk from Fishtown for a good reason. To catch tourists, as proprietor Paul Hamelin openly admits. Winemaking is an art and a science, but it’s also a business. What better way to introduce new customers to his wine than to go where the customers are and make his wine a part of the Leelanau tourist experience? Customers reluctant to drink because of concerns about drinking and driving may also feel better about using their feet to get a tasting room.

Verterra charged for their tastings as most did, but the tasting was comped if two or more bottles were wpid-20150725_160928.jpgpurchased. That seems like a sensible way to do it, if one is going to charge, but not everybody seems to agree with me. The wines I enjoyed there the most were the two different styles of Gewurztraminer (medium sweet and dry), Chaos Sparkler and the 2012 Dry Riesling. I also tasted a 2014 unoaked Chardonnay and a 2014 Sweet Riesling and found them enjoyable. They both had “American” on the label instead of Michigan or Leelanau.

I had a conversation with Paul about his plans for the future including the release of a traditional method blanc de noirs sparkling wine next year followed by another release of the same batch in 2017 and his plans for an event facility at the vineyard. I asked about the American Chard and Riesling and that opened up a conversation about the 2014 vintage. Those wines were made with half Washington State grapes and half grapes from Verterra’s own vineyards. The Polar Vortex winter did such damage to his vineyards that there weren’t enough grapes at the end of the season to maintain those labels on Verterra or Michigan grapes alone. Paul thinks 2015 is going to be just as bad.

Forty-Five North, one of my favorite Michigan wineries, was our next stop. As we exited the car, we noticed a huge bus was rolling up into the parking lot that very moment. Fearing a busload of bridesmaids or who knows what was about to overrun the tasting room, we ran to the tasting room and grabbed seats at the bar immediately. No drunken hoards descended on the room, but a group did seat themselves in the outside sitting area. As they did that a fairly tall middle-aged woman with poofy reddish hair walked into the tasting room and into the ladies room. She looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place her. When she walked out again, I realized it was the senior senator from Michigan, the Honorable Debbie Stabenow. She was holding some sort of meeting or town hall with a group of women on the patio. We couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but whatever it was, it was a relaxed affair.

The tasting room at Forty-Five North is decorated in an intentionally quirky rustic style. The high ceiling gives it a nice sense of space and the bar is very nice. There are purse hooks under the bar too, a big plus for 50% of our party. Forty-Five has long been a favorite of mine but I was not impressed with much of anything on the menu. Most of it was 2014 American (likely Washington) whites. I had the American Chenin Blanc which was fine but nothing special. The one that stood out to me was the peach crémant. It was a sweet fruit flavored wine, of course, but wasn’t a bad for what it was. We bought one.

They also had two apple ciders on tap (literally). One was a natural cider made with only wild yeast. It was interesting in concept but ultimately flat. The other was a citra hop infused cider that smelled like apple armpits, or well-aged sweat socks. I can’t stand the smell of citra hops though so your mileage may vary, but good on them for trying something different with their ciders, which are apparently obligatory for Northern Michigan wineries now. Most of the others I’ve had have been dull, and Forty-Five North’s were not that.

After the disappointing time at Forty-Five North, I was feeling kind of sad. We hadn’t planned on visiting another winery that day but we had some time so we went ahead and backtracked a little to Aurora. Wow, am I glad we did! Aurora Cellars was fantastic.

Aurora’s beautiful tasting room opened up just this year. The dark wood bar looked to be made from reclaimed wood and there was a big mirror at the back making it feel like an actual bar. Wines were sold by the glass too, so if one wants to have a glass of wine, it’s not necessary to chug a spit bucket á la Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. They didn’t have a spit bucket, anyway.

I was impressed with just about everything on the menu. There was one wine I didn’t care for, but it wasn’t bad, just dull. We started off with the two sparklers and Blanc de noirs and a brut, respectively. I preferred the creaminess of the Blanc but my friends preferred the noir. Both were excellent though. I loved the Gewurztraminer. It was exquisitely balanced. The semi-sweet Riesling was excellent too, so much so that we bought two bottles of it.

The service was great, even with the drunken bachelorette party arriving shortly after we did. They weren’t awful, they were just a drunken bachelorette party. In fact, as I walked out I noticed that I got charged $7 for a bottle of wine I bought when it should have been much more. I attracted my server’s attention. “Is this the right price of for this one?” “It is today!” she responded and then ran back over to the bachelorettes.

We didn’t have time to stop at any more wineries, but we wanted to be sure to stop in at one place in

The Leelanau Cheese cave behind the factory.
The Leelanau Cheese cave behind the factory.

particular before we left the peninsula: Leelanau Cheese. What kind of cheese does Leelanau Cheese make? They make both kinds, mild raclette and aged raclette. For those who don’t know raclette is a cow’s milk cheese traditionally made in the French speaking areas of Switzerland. It’s similar to Swiss or gruyere but more pungent and is best known as the basis of a traditional melted cheese dish by the same name originating in Valais. It is traditionally paired with Fendant (Chasselas) wine but does just as well with Pinot Gris or Riesling, making its appearance in Northern Michigan slightly less surprising. Samples of the mild raclette are available at the shop/factory. Versions with rosemary, green peppercorns and other herbs and spices, as well as the aged version are all available at the store along with estate grown lavender and t-shirts reading “In queso emergency, pray to Cheesus” among other delights. We were a little concerned about refrigeration, but the charming family member working in the shop at the time said it was not necessary.

For dinner, we went to a local gastropub. It had great atmosphere and a large outdoor seating area, but not much else to recommend it. Except the coleslaw. It was fantastic. I should have just ordered a bucket of that and forgotten about everything else. After the meal, Amy wanted to go dip her toes in a lake. We found a boat launch and waded in West Grand Traverse Bay for a few minutes, then headed back to our home for the night, Mesick, Michigan’s Mushroom Cap Motel or as Pete dubbed it, the MCM Grand.

The MCM Grand gets its name from the annual mushroom festival held annually in early May (morel wpid-20150726_080431.jpgseason). Our check in took a while, due to the loquacious proprietors, but otherwise service was solid. The outside was well landscaped with a few large, phallic looking carved wooden morels placed around the grounds. The motel was clean and neat, but as I walked in the door, a cabbage aroma that reminded me of my late grandmother’s apartment building greeted me. The decorating style was rustic with plywood paneling in the room (some of it printed with dune scenes) and pictures of game animals above the beds. Pete and Amy slept under deer and Liz and I under turkeys. The look was wpid-20150726_080504.jpgrounded out with an antler chandelier in the lounge on the second floor. The place was quiet, except for the loud A/C unit, and we all slept well that night. Next episode, Old Mission and Traverse City!
wpid-20150726_071536.jpg

An Evening with Dave Pickerell

In lieu of a whiskey review this Friday, I’d like to share some of the results of a fun outing with a friend to hear a veteran of the American whiskey industry.

Wednesday afternoon I received a text message from Amy of Bonne Amie Knits reminding me that Dave Pickerell (Maker’s Mark Master Distiller for 14 years) was making an appearance at The Sugar House, a cocktail bar in Detroit, that evening. If I ever knew about it I had completely forgotten, so I stuffed my mouth full of my dinner and we made our way down as soon as we could. The drink special that night was $3 shots of Maker’s and $4 shots of Maker’s 46 which was a damn good deal so I had a few.

Dave spoke and took questions for about two hours. He told stories and talked about his time at Maker’s and his time since 2008 acting as a consultant and Master Distiller at Whistle Pig, George Washington’s Distillery at Mt. Vernon and Hillrock Estate. Amy scored points when she asked what it was like working with George Washington. I tried to get Dave to reveal the source of WhistlePig but he didn’t fall for it (I’m still going with Alberta). I also asked him if he had thoughts on the Maker’s Mark proof reduction fiasco, and he did. He was in town doing some work with the Two James distillery in the Corktown area of Detroit (near where Tiger Stadium used to be, and a few blocks from the bar).

Instead of trying to recount everything he said as he said it, here are some highlights by topic:

Miscellaneous Information

-Dave won the Kentucky Bourbon Festival cocktail contest three years in a row, but the first cocktail he invented turned out to be an old cocktail that already had its own name, The Ward Eight. The third one he invented was supposed to be a cross between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. When Gary Regan tasted it, he said it wasn’t an old fashioned or a Manhattan but it was good anyway. He named it the Pickerell, but Dave had nothing to do with that since he doesn’t like to put his name on things.

-The bulk whiskey market (excess aged whiskey distillers will sell when they need to have it) is the tightest he’s even seen. The oldest whiskey available on the bulk/spot market is 15 months old. Basically, there is none to be had.

-Dave used to be a big stickler on drinking his bourbon neat but while working at Maker’s he came to the conclusion nobody has the right to tell anybody how they should drink their bourbon.

-He slowly sipped on a Maker’s sour while he was talking.

Microdistilling

-Dave on microdistillers making whiskey: “Eventually, it’s going to have to taste good.”

-Dave thinks the microdistillers are driving innovation right now. This is because they aren’t as constrained by the need to sell thousands of cases of a product to make it successful like the big producers are. For many micros, 100 cases sold of any product counts as a success. This means the costs of experimentation are much lower.

-He had never worked with rye before working at Mt. Vernon. The first time he made a batch there he noticed a little foam was forming on top while the rye was fermenting. So he put a sheet of plastic over the top of the fermenter and put a couple pieces of wood and a brick on top before he left the distillery for the day. The next morning when he walked into the room where the fermenter was the brick and wood were on the floor as was a two foot layer of foam. They lost that batch.

-The mix of whiskey from all the Kentucky distilleries Mt. Vernon released tasted terrible.

-The Mt. Vernon Rye currently being released is distilled at Hillrock in New York because it’s easier to do it in a more modern facility. The working conditions are pretty primitive at Mt. Vernon.

-Hillrock is currently making the world’s first ever Solera aged bourbon.

Other Master Distillers

-He didn’t know Elmer T. Lee well but said he was a gentleman and active at BT practically until the day he died. He had a greater impact on the bourbon industry than anybody else in his lifetime.

-He thinks BT should change the proof of ETL to 93 in honor of Elmer’s age when he passed away.

-Jimmy Russell is a good friend of Dave’s and has been a mentor to him throughout his career.

-Jimmy taught him the importance of pausing for a photo op (see below).

-Once Dave and Jimmy were at tasting. A guy got up and made a big show of swirling his bourbon in his glass, sipping it slowly and announcing that he tasted blackberries, winter fruit, leather and many other obscure flavors. Jimmy leaned over to Dave and said, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t put any of that shit in my bourbon!” Both then starting laughing hysterically, disrupting the tasting. [This story has made the rounds for a long time]

Maker’s Mark

-Bill Samuels Jr. is one of the most brilliant men he’s ever met.

-Bill knows next to nothing about making bourbon but is a masterful marketer.

-Before Dave worked at Maker’s he worked at an engineering firm that did some work for Maker’s. Dave didn’t like the way the way the company handled the business with Maker’s and told Maker’s about what happened. Later when Dave was in Loretto, Bill came up to him and said, “Did you know we are currently looking for a new Master Distiller?” Dave said, “No.” Bill said, “We are plum out of candidates and we didn’t like any of them. We like you, though. The job is yours if you want it.” He accepted and the next day told his former boss he was quitting and also that Maker’s was no longer going to be using that company’s services.

-He said the MM shortage is very real. He thinks the proof change was the right move to make and he is disappointed that they caved to public pressure. In his opinion the problem is not capacity but the surprising growth of the brand in the midst of a deep recession. Nobody expected that and so nobody planned on increasing production to meet that growth.

-He predicts that since the proof change was rolled back there will be “rolling shortages” of MM around the world.

 

After the formal talk was over he milled around for a while, chatting with the bar patrons and a couple old friends who showed up from Allied Domecq, former owner of Maker’s Mark (the company was acquired by Pernod-Ricard in 2005 with Maker’s being sold off to Beam).

Amy and I stayed at the bar and had a nice chat with Pete from Two James. They have a lot of exciting things planned including a vodka, gin and a Madeira finished bourbon. After we were done at the bar we took a stroll down Michigan Avenue and took a look at Two James.

Some photos from the evening:

Dave and his tattoo of George Washington's still
Dave and his tattoo of George Washington’s still
Dave and me. (Photo by Amy)
Dave and me. (Photo by Amy)
Two James at dusk.
Two James at dusk.

RIP Elmer T. Lee, 1919-2013

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention the passing of Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee on July 16, 2013. He was the MD there through some of the darkest days of the American whiskey industry when consumption was plummeting and the structure of industry was changing rapidly. What’s now called Buffalo Trace was right in the middle of all of that but the distillery emerged from that era as a leader and an innovator. Elmer T. Lee was one of the people responsible for that. Up until his death he was still picking barrels that would go into the single barrel bourbon that bares his name (and is one of the best values in the single barrel bourbon category).

While the early  death of Truman Cox was shocking and tragic, the death of Elmer T. Lee at 93 years of age is an occasion for celebrating a full life well-lived. Here are a few links pertaining to Elmer, his life and work:

A copy of the letter sent from Sazerac president Mark Brown announcing Elmer’s death (Posted on Lew Bryson’s Seen Through a Glass blog): http://lewbryson.blogspot.com/2013/07/rip-elmer-t-lee.html

An old interview with Elmer in which he talks a bit about himself and the runs through the entire bourbon making process (38 minutes).

2008 interview of Elmer for the Buffalo Trace Oral History project (52 minutes)

http://www.nunncenter.org/buffalotrace/2010/08/31/elmer-t-lee/

He will be greatly missed but as long as the bourbon continues to flow his legacy will too.

RIP Truman Cox

Recently I, as a (part-time) whiskey blogger, have been urged to take up the banner and “give Maker’s Mark shit” for lowering the proof of their bourbon. I’m not going to do that. The decision to lower the proof of Maker’s is unfortunate and disappointing, but the level of internet outrage regarding the proof change is completely out of proportion, surpassing even the Ebay/Pappy hysteria of 2012. I have no desire to contribute to this silliness any more than I already have.

Instead, I’m going to call attention to something much  more worthy of getting upset about: The death of A. Smith Bowman Master Distiller Truman Cox.

I didn’t know Truman very well. We were Facebook friends and I only recall meeting him once in person. He was the kind of guy who would greet you with a hearty handshake and a smile. As a friend of mine said, he was above all a genuine guy. He loved his family and he seemed to enjoy life immensely.

He was also a whiskey man through and through.  His prior position was at Buffalo Trace as chief chemist. He became Master Distiller at Bowman at a crucial time, as Bowman had recently moved to a new location, had a relatively new owner, Sazerac (also owner of Buffalo Trace), and was in the midst of a profound transformation. 10 years ago, Bowman was little more than a curiosity. It was the only large-ish bourbon distillery still operating in the state of Virginia and had only one (fairly) widely distributed brand, Virginia Gentleman. It came in 80 and 90 proof expressions.

When Truman moved to Virginia, the transformation of Bowman was well underway. The 90 proof VG had been replaced by Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon at 90 proof  and a 100 proof single barrel bourbon, John J. Bowman, was also introduced (review coming soon). Also made are Abraham Bowman Rye (I review the TPS barrel-stength version here) and Sunset Hills Gin. Under the brief period of Truman’s leadership the transformation of Bowman was completed, and Bowman began putting out some of the most highly regarded and sought after private bottlings of bourbons and ryes among enthusiasts. They were able to have the best of both worlds. They operated like a micro-distillery in many ways, but they were also able to draw upon the resources of a large spirits company like Sazerac and a large distillery like Buffalo Trace.

Truman was one of the brightest rising stars in the world of American whiskey and his sudden death is a great loss for the industry and bourbon drinkers alike. Here are some links:

The Spirits Business Article on Truman’s death.

Lew Bryson on Truman’s passing.

Chuck Cowdery on Truman’s death

Truman’s famous barrel dance.

Truman tasting Pappy Van Winkle 20 y/o

Truman’s autobiographical bit on the Bowman website

Members of StraightBourbon.com congratulate Truman on becoming Master Distiller

Here’s hoping he gets that bottle named after him at last.