Monday, March 31, 2014

New Volleys Fired in Tennessee Whiskey War

A few weeks ago I wrote about the battle between Brown Forman, owners of Jack Daniel's, and Diageo, owners of George Dickel, over the definition of Tennessee Whiskey taking place at the Tennessee legislature.  Last week, the original bill was tabled, but the battle heated up again yesterday as both sides filed new bills aiming to amend the law defining Tennessee Whiskey.

First, Brown Forman brandished an amendment providing that, in addition to the requirements already present in the ten month old law, no whiskey could be labeled Tennessee Whiskey "unless it is released in a square sided bottle upon which is affixed a black label prominently displaying the phrase 'Old No. 7' thereon." 

When asked why this bill was necessary, Brown Forman spokesman Jasper Newton responded, "Jack Daniel's is about upholding the integrity and tradition of Tennessee Whiskey.  If people start drinking other whiskeys that use that term, and George Dickel in particular, they'll start to think that Tennessee Whiskey tastes good, and that goes against everything Jack Daniel's has stood for in its over 100 year history."

In response to the Brown Forman amendment, Diageo countered with an amendment further liberalizing the definition to include "any whiskey distilled and aged in Tennessee or Scotland and composed of at least 51% corn or a blend of Scotch whiskies."  Diageo spokesman Frank Humor explained, "We are here to defend the small craft distillers like the Bulleit Distillery. Furthermore, we believe in embracing flexibility and are getting ready to release our new Jack Walker Tennessee Blended Scotch Whisky Orphan Barrels."

Things got ugly when the two lobbyists ran into each other after a press briefing.  Brown Forman's spokesman fired first, "Come on, Diageo can't even spell the word whiskey right," to which Diageo's lobbyist responded, "Do you seriously think we should take direction from a whiskey brand whose founder was so dumb he died from kicking something too hard?"

Members of the Tennessee State Legislature were stymied as they tried to figure out which wealthy, out-of-state corporation to support.

We will keep you posted as this drama unfolds.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Blind Black Bowmore

What happens when you put what's arguably the most legendary single malt into an otherwise unassuming, unhyped blind tasting?

This is the question posed by Adam of the LA Whiskey Society on a new blog post in which he describes what happened when he did just that at a blind tasting I attended.  Blind tastings are always revealing, stripping away all bias, hype and other issues, but this may have been my favorite blind tasting ever.  Check it out!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blog of the Month: Sipp'n Corn

Sipp'n Corn is a blog that caters to my twin loves of law and history; the tag line is "Blogging about bourbon as told through the rich history of American lawsuits..."   Kentucky lawyer Brian Haara has done some great research and presented some fascinating reports on old legal cases about bourbon.  You can learn a lot of history through court cases, and Haara uses published decisions to tell an interesting history of the Labrot & Graham Distillery (now Woodford Reserve) and demonstrate how, a century ago, sourcing whiskey and not disclosing the distiller was considered by one court to be "a fraud on the public."

If you have an interest in whiskey history, Sipp'n Corn is a must-read.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Welcome to Flavor Country - The Flavored Whiskey Boom

When whiskey geeks talk about new trends in whiskey, we talk about things like finishing, age statements, reductions in proof and craft whiskey.  Living in the whiskey geek bubble, though, it's easy to forget that probably the biggest and most important trend in whiskey in the last ten years, at least from a sales perspective, has been flavored whiskey.  Hardly a day goes by when I don't see a report of startling new whiskey growth figures inevitably led by flavored whiskey sales. Yes, whiskey of all types is booming, but flavored whiskey is on fire. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, in 2013, 45% of growth in the whiskey category came from flavored whiskey sales. 

Jack Daniel's is undertaking a major distillery expansion, largely to satisfy demand for its Tennessee Honey. Nearly every major American brand has a flavored category and Canada, Scotland and Ireland are starting to catch on to the flavored whiskey trend as well.

Of course, flavored whiskeys and whiskey liqueurs are nothing new.  Brands like Drambuie, Bailey's and Southern Comfort have been around for decades (though Southern Comfort no longer uses a whiskey base) and Wild Turkey introduced its American Honey back in 1976.  But the new wave of flavored whiskey took off with Red Stag.  Jim Beam introduced Red Stag, a cherry flavored bourbon, in 2009, and it's been an enormous success.  It was followed by other big brand flavor extensions, including more Red Stag flavors, numerous flavored whiskeys under the Evan Williams label, flavored Seagram's 7 from Diageo and the aforementioned Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey.  Even premium brands have gotten into the act with Beam releasing a smoked maple version of Knob Creek.

The biggest success in flavored whiskey has been Sazerac's Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey which has been around for years but didn't take off until after Red Stag's introduction.  Fireball sold nearly 2 million cases globally in 2013, and earlier this month, Brown Forman announced it would introduce a new cinnamon flavored whiskey in the Jack Daniel's line which was largely seen as an attempt to compete with Fireball. 

How much has the category taken off since Red Stag came out?  Looking at TTB label approvals, for the entire year of 2008, the year before Beam introduced Red Stag, I found only one label approval for a flavored whiskey.  In contrast, in 2013 there were close to 100 unique label approvals for flavored whiskey of various types.  Cinnamon, honey and fruit flavors are the most popular, but I've seen labels for coffee, ginger, coconut, chocolate and even green chile flavored whiskeys, among others.

Whiskey geeks turn their noses up at flavored whiskey, and while I don't drink it, I've always defended it. It's no skin off my back if someone likes flavored whiskey, and good for the companies for finding a cash cow that can hopefully subsidize more premium products.  At this point, though, it's become so popular that you have to wonder whether the lure of easy profits is contributing to the general shortage of quality whiskey stocks.  At some point, when companies face limited stocks and the choice of releasing premium, high proof brands or stretching their stock with flavored whiskey (with its 60 proof minimum), the temptation to use those stocks for flavored whiskey might be irresistible.

Who's not making flavored whiskey?  Among the major American companies, only Four Roses doesn't have a flavored whiskey.  How long will they be able to stand up against the pressure of easy profits and enviable growth figures?

So should we be worried about the growth in flavored whiskey or will this rising tide lift all the whiskey boats?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lists - We've Got Lists

If you haven't checked out my big lists lately, you might want to as I am constantly updating them.

The Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries & Brands now lists 325 distilleries making whiskey in the US.  That's up from 190 a year ago which shows pretty amazing growth.  In addition, the list includes 115 independent bottlers (also known as non-distiller producers or NDPs).

Meanwhile, The Complete List of Whiskey Blogs lists 495 blogs as well as assorted other whiskey sites.  I like to click randomly through it and read a few posts from who knows where.

As always, please let me know if I've left anything out!  I get lots of great tips from readers, though please do check the list thoroughly first.  You won't believe how many emails I get asking me to include companies on the distilleries/brands list that are already there (usually in the bottlers section) or that only make vodka.

Check 'em out!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tempest in a Tennessee Teapot

There have been a lot of pixels spilled in the whiskey blogosphere lately about a new bill in Tennessee to amend the definition of Tennessee Whiskey.  Most commentators have portrayed this as a cynical move by Diageo, owner of George Dickel, to undermine their big competitor Brown Forman, owner of Jack Daniel's.  There are a lot of accusations flying on both sides, so I thought some background might be helpful.

Before May of last year, there was no legal definition of Tennessee Whiskey.  None.  While Dickel and Daniel's both made a spirit that complied with the federal definition of bourbon, there was nothing stopping anyone from marketing any other whiskey as Tennessee Whiskey.

What was it that necessitated a new law last year?  Some speculated that it was the craft distillery movement and Popcorn Sutton in particular.  Popcorn Sutton was a legendary Tennessee moonshiner, and the his namesake brand was making an unaged whiskey and marketing it as Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey.  This may not have sat well with Brown Forman, who moved the bill to create a definition of Tennessee Whiskey based on how Jack Daniel's (and George Dickel) made it.

That law's definition mirrored the federal definition of bourbon except that the whiskey (1) had to be filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging; and (2) had to be manufactured and aged in Tennessee.  When the law came up last year, Prichard's, a Tennessee craft distiller that does not use the Lincoln County process of sugar maple charcoal filtering, objected.  As a result, a special clause was added to the bill exempting any distillery that was licensed in the year 2000, a very narrow bracket that included only Prichard's.

Now, Diageo has proposed an amendment to the law which makes several key changes, eliminating the requirements that Tennessee Whiskey must be:  (1) aged in new barrels; (2) aged in Tennessee; and (3) filtered through maple charcoal, replacing that provision with a requirement that it be filtered through charcoal (i.e. not necessarilly maple charcoal). It also includes an exception for any whiskey that includes words between "Tennessee" and "Whiskey."  This would make it clear that "Tennessee White Whiskey" is a permissible usage, but that merely codifies the interpretation given by the Tennessee ABC, which advised last year that it would allow the terms Tennessee White Whiskey, Tennessee Corn Whiskey and Tennessee Unaged Whiskey to be used without complying with the law's requirements for "Tennessee Whiskey."

It appears that the amendment hadn't even been formally introduced when Brown Forman fired the first shot, accusing Diageo of trying to weaken the standards of Tennessee Whiskey. Diageo responded saying that they were trying to maintain flexibility.  Both Chuck Cowdery and Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast have covered the back and forth extensively.

For my part, I think this is a much smaller deal than it's being made out to be.  People have been quick to beat up on Diageo, and that's always fun, but I'm not sure I buy it.  Chuck Cowdery opines that permitting aging in used barrels is an attempt by Diageo to weaken Jack Daniel's not because of Dickel but because Daniel's is challenging Diageo's flagship brand, Johnnie Walker.

The problem with this theory is that allowing some producers to reuse barrels doesn't hurt Daniel's at all. The amendment doesn't require Daniel's to age in reused barrels so nothing they do would have to change.  And I don't see how other Tennessee Whiskeys aging in used barrels hurts Daniel's.  Let's face it.  For most of the world, Jack Daniel's is Tennessee Whiskey (and probably bourbon too).  They don't know or care how it's made.  No change in what the other, comparatively tiny brands do is going to hurt Daniel's or its giant slice of market share.

Second, as noted above, this law has been in place for less than a year. A year ago, nothing was stopping anyone from aging Tennessee Whiskey in used barrels, and no one seemed to think the sky was falling the way Brown Forman seems to think it is now.  If this truly is an attack on Jack Daniel's, it's a weak and ham handed one.

Curiously, everyone is talking about used barrels, and almost no one is talking about the fact that this bill eliminates the requirement that Tennessee Whiskey use the Lincoln County Process, the thing that has been the single defining feature of Tennessee Whiskey.  The new law substitutes "charcoal" filtering for "maple charcoal filtering."  That's a small change with a big impact.  Maple charcoal filtering is the Lincoln County Process traditionally used for Tennessee Whiskey.  Charcoal filtering would include that but presumably would also include filtering through activated charcoal (think Brita), which is the chill filtering process used by many bourbons.  From the perspective of the integrity of Tennessee Whiskey, I would be more worried about the elimination of the Lincoln County Process requirement than the used barrels.

While Diageo may be facing a barrel shortage that would make it beneficial to age in used casks, the real benefit for them could be aging whiskey out of state.  On WhiskyCast, Brown Forman's spokesman noted that Diageo has been shifting some aging to the Stitzel-Weller site in Kentucky.  Perhaps Diageo would like to shift some of its Dickel barrels to Kentucky and just threw in the used barrel and other provisions to try and secure allies among the craft distillers.

The other reason that this strikes me as silly on everyone's part is that none of this impacts what whiskey can be made, just what it can be called.  Nothing is stopping Dickel from aging whiskey in used barrels or aging the whiskey out of state; they just couldn't call it "Tennessee Whiskey."  Would anyone really notice if Dickel changed their label to say "Whisky Distilled in Tennessee" or something similar?

To summarize, Diageo's amendment is unnecessary and Brown Forman's reaction is overblown.  Add to that the fact that it is very unlikely that a whiskey bill can pass the Tennessee legislature without Brown Forman's support, and I'd say this is the archetypal tempest in a teapot.

Liquidated Liquid: Three New Bladnochs from K&L

I've always felt Bladnoch was one of the more underrated Scotch distilleries.  Like a number of distilleries, this Lowlander was shuttered briefly in the '90s (by Diageo) and then restarted under new ownership.  K&L, which previously brought us an excellent Bladnoch from Chieftain's, went straight to the source this time and got the Bladnoch distillery to bottle three different single barrel expressions for them. K&L's three bottles represent different ages, different peating levels and different eras of the distillery.

When I first wrote this post, I thought it would be a good opportunity for folks to try some Bladnoch distillery bottlings, since the US doesn't get them.  It turns out, it may be the last chance to try distillery Bladnochs given yesterday's sad news that the distillery is going into liquidation.

Young Bladnoch, distilled 2009, heavily peated, 61.3% abv ($55)

Obviously, this is really young.  The nose is new makey with buttered popcorn.  The palate is bold and peaty with a touch of sweetness, and all of that sweet peat carries into a nice, long finish.  This is surprisingly good considering its age.  It could easily pass for a Kilchoman or a young Ardbeg.  It still has a lot of new make notes, but it's got a lot going for it.  It's good now, but it has huge potential.  I hope someone holds onto a few casks of it, because I'd love to try it in 10 or 20 years.  

Bladnoch 11, distilled 2002, lightly peated, 51.5% abv ($70)

Whoa, this is some funky stuff.  The nose is briny and mildewy, like a damp basement near the ocean.  The palate starts with peat and then gets very sweet and a bit chemically, like artificial sweetener.   By the finish, it's downright perfumey in character with some light peat on the palate.  This is weird stuff.  Tasting blind, I would probably have guessed Connemara, the peated Irish Whiskey. 

Bladnoch 23, distilled 1990, 44.4% abv ($120)

This one, of course, comes from the previous owners of the distillery. The nose is really gorgeous, equal parts malty and fruity.  The palate isn't quite as complex.  It starts with clean, malty notes, move to some graininess, and a bit of soapiness.  The finish is buttery and filled with oak notes.  This is the only one of the trio that falls into the traditional Bladnoch flavor profile, and it does it well.

This was a nice trio of three different styles from the distillery.  The 23 year old was my favorite and the one that will appeal most to Bladnoch fans, but the Young Bladnoch is fun stuff that deserves attention.  While the 11 year old was not bad, it was a bit of a mess flavor wise and was certainly the weakest of the three (though Connemara fans might like it).

This distillery was clearly going in some interesting directions, and it saddens me that it's having problems (although apparently the problems are not of a financial nature).  Hopefully, someone will step in and rescue the distillery.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Year Old - Strangely Inoffensive

The Jim Beam Signature Craft line came out last year with a 12 year old bourbon and a bourbon combined with Spanish brandy.  This is the 12 year old version, officially titled the Signature Craft Small Batch 12 year old (with a name clearly designed to use as many meaningless buzz words as possible). 

Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 yo, 43% abv ($38)

The nose on this is very Beam with honey, berries and floral notes.  The palate is also very solidly in the Beam wheelhouse, but the extra age shows its impact.  It starts light and sweet like a regular Beam, but quickly gets some oak good oak notes.  By late palate, the oak notes have grown a bit bitter, but there's enough sweetness in the finish to balance it out.   

I'm not a Beam fan and have pretty low expectations of their new releases, but this is actually pretty decent, showing some balance and complexity, and a solid step up from the standard Beam line.  And to give credit where credit is due, Beam added an age statement bourbon in a world where age statements are rapidly becoming and endangered species.  It's not something I would covet, but I certainly wouldn't mind ordering it in a bar, and it's priced pretty fairly by today's standards for a bourbon if its age.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Angel's Envy Cask Strength: The Angels Can Have It

Angel's Envy Cask Strength was one of the most popular releases of last fall's bourbon season, at least on Facebook bourbon pages.  It is a casks strength version of the Angel's Envy port finished bourbon.  As with the regular 86 proof version, it has no age statement and is made by an undisclosed distillery.

Angel's Envy Cask Strength, Batch 20, bottled 2013, 61.5% abv ($150)

The nose is very similar to the regular Angel's Envy with sweet corn notes and some chemical notes.  The palate starts out with nice caramel but it quickly develops a burning plastic note, sort of similar to sulfur that you'd get in a sherried malt (maybe the port barrels were sulfur treated?).  It's quite hot and needs a dash of water, but even then, that burning chemical note is quite strong and off-putting.  After taking notes, I looked at Tim Read's review on Scotch & Ice Cream (and thanks to Tim for this sample), and he describes the off note as a hair salon smell which is a perfect description; it's like burning hair.

While this starts decently enough, it quickly goes down hill, and fast.  There are different batches of this bourbon so there may be some batch variation, but I certainly wouldn't recommend this one regardless of what you read on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Weird Whiskey Regulations: The No Flag Rule

 File this under the weird rules department.  Did you know that according to 27 CFR 5.42(b)(7) of the TTB regulations for distilled spirits:

Labels shall not contain any statement, design, device, or pictorial representation which the appropriate TTB officer finds relates to, or is capable of being construed as relating to, the armed forces of the United States, or the American flag, or any emblem, seal, insignia, or decoration associated with such flag or armed forces;
The only TTB ruling I found dealing with this provision involved a retailer who wanted to put stickers on bottles "bearing the slogan 'Fight Communism' and pictures of the Statue of Liberty and of the American flag with its staff transfixing a bleeding serpent." Classy! The TTB nixed the flag but said the rest of it was good to go, so I guess bleeding serpents are okay.

Of course, as with most rules, the TTB seems pretty lax about it these days, letting at least a few flags and military themes slip through.

Monday, March 3, 2014

March Madness: Knappogue Castle and Kin

It's March, which means one thing in most of the whiskey world:  Irish Whiskey.  Yes, you're allowed to drink Irish all year 'round, but let's face it, March is the one time in the year when non-whiskey people wake up and pay attention to it.

I've always been a fan of Knappogue Castle's Irish single malts, but haven't sampled any of their whiskey since they switched from vintage years to age statements, so I was quite pleased when Castle Brands sent me samples of their entire lineup.

Castle Brands is an independent bottler which also owns the Jefferson's line of bourbons.  Their Irish line includes Clontarf, a blend, as well as the Knappogue Castle single malts.  While they have not disclosed where these whiskeys are distilled, given that the Knappogue Castles are all triple distilled single malts, they are likely from Bushmills.  The only thing they say about Clontarf is that it comes from Dublin, which means it could be a Midleton product (while Midleton Distillery is in Cork, they have a presence in Dublin as well).

Clontarf 1014, 4 years old, 40% abv ($20)

Not part of the Knappogue line, Clontarf is Castle's budget brand.  Clontarf is a blended whiskey aged in bourbon casks.  It is 10% single malt and 90% grain whiskey (both pot and column distilled).

The nose is light with honey and malt, a very typical blended Irish Whiskey nose.  The palate is malty, a tad soapy, then later in the palate develops a nice mustiness and some briny coastal notes that dominate the finish.  I really wasn't expecting much from this, but it's a very nice Irish blend with some complexity, and for $20, a real deal.

Knappogue Castle 12 year old, 40% abv ($42)

This is a single malt aged in bourbon casks. It is "lightly chill filtered" at a higher than usual tempreature and has no coloring added.

The nose is malty and fruity.  Palate is soapy with a bit of pepper.  The finish is mostly peppery with some malt on the nose.  This is not at all bad but a bit on the bland side.  

Knappogue Castle Twin Wood 14 year old, 46% abv ($60)

The 14 year old single malt was distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2012. It includes malt aged in both bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks. The 14 year old is not chill filtered and had no added color.

The nose on this one has some malt but is dominated by chemical notes.  The palate is again a bit soapy with some floral notes.  The finish is floral and perfumy.  Despite the "twin wood" designation, there is very little sherry character on this whiskey.

I wasn't a big fan of this one.  It just didn't come together that well.  

Knappogue Castle Twin Wood 16 year old, 40% abv ($100)

This single malt was distilled in 1995 and bottled in 2012.  It spent 14 years in bourbon casks and 21 months in sherry casks. It is "lightly chill filtered" without added color.

The nose on this one is very nice with fruity malt.  The palate is malty and straight forward with some of that nice pepper going out and into the finish, which also has some salty notes.  Again, there is very little sherry character here.  This is decent enough but not particularly exciting.

Celtic Honey, 30% abv ($22)

Everyone has a flavored whiskey these days, and apparently, Castle Brands is no different. Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd give their Celtic Honey a try.  The nose has marshmallows in honey.  The palate is pure honey.  I mean, it's like drinking a watery honey.  I keep wanting there to be some spice, but I don't get any.  The finish is a bit bitter, like artificial sweetener.  Obviously, this isn't my thing, but I didn't feel this one was particularly good even for a flavored whiskey. 

Overall, I wasn't particularly impressed by the new Knappogue Castle lineup, particularly given that they have put out some really great whiskeys in the past.  The 16 year old was my favorite over the 12, though not by much, and $100 is a bit steep for it.

For a good Irish Whiskey at a very good price, I would recommend the Clontarf.  It's a straightforward blend, but it has some more complex notes, and it's a real bargain.