Monday, March 30, 2015

Lies my whiskey told me about stealing someone's legacy

So you want to be a rectifier, but don't want to go to all the trouble of waiting for your grandchildren to be able to represent yourself as having been in business for generations.

Then check out a site like's trademark database (or the less-subtle Poke around until you find a sexy sounding trademark with a status like
710 - Cancelled - Section 8
900 - Expired
Then search for that trademark again, in case some other freeloader has beaten you to it.

Hard to believe "the whiskey without regrets"
is yours for the asking.
You may find a gem like "Pa Wilken's Special Straight Bourbon Whiskey" just sitting there for you to appropriate. Are you really going to rest easy tonight now that you know this once-great nation has left "Mello Age" to lie mouldering in the grave?

If that's not enough to call your rich college buddy about starting up an NDP, I have two words for you;

Fan Dango.

So nice they canceled it twice.

Don't tell anyone, but I've got my eye on Old Pimlico. Maybe with a horse on the label. Who could object?

If you need some suggestions for defunct whiskey brands, you could do worse than tour the MiniVodkaGuy website.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Maybe it's in dog years?

The other night, I decided it was time to crack my bottle of "Bison Ridge Special Reserve Canadian Whisky, Aged 8 Years."

It was pretty bad.

Like "this is why people don't like whiskey" bad. Maybe even "this is why people who like whiskey don't like Canadian whisky" bad.

The worst part was how young it smelled and tasted. I know 8 years for Canadian whisky isn't like 8 years for bourbon, but can't it at least be like 2 years? Were the summers too cool? Were the barrels too old? Did the shipment of flavouring whisky not arrive in time for this batch?

I did a quick Google search to see if I was completely off base. It turns out lots of folks think Bison Ridge is lousy, and lots of folks think it's pretty good. I couldn't quite shake the suspicion that Crosby Lake Spirits Co., the Minnesotan bottler, has a financial stake in a ginger ale company.

When the whiskey's own webpage quotes reviews calling it "Mildly flavorful" and recommending you "drink it tall with lots of ginger ale," you know you're not bracing yourself for a world beater.

On one website, I came across the claim that Bison Ridge 8 yo and Ellington Reserve, also aged 8 years and reputedly a big favorite of Total Wine salesfolk, are the same whiskey. I happened to have a miniature of Ellington Reserve 8 yo, so I thought I'd put that theory to the test with a side-by-side tasting.

Pick your poison.
I don't want to leave you in suspense. They weren't the same whiskey. I don't say Ellington Reserve is any better than Bison Ridge. I do say it's different.

Bison Ridge Special Reserve (8 yo) Canadian Whisky
Nose: Faint, grass, sugar, soap
Palate: Medium mouthfeel, not much flavor at all, kind of a bland sweet light grain whiskey flavor (why Canadian whisky doesn't have a good reputation)
Finish: Alcohol prickles, followed by generalized sourness

Ellington's Reserve (8 yo) Canadian Whisky
Nose: Faint, spirity, dishwasher detergent, sweet apple
Palate: Sweet, vanilla (and not in an extracted-from-oak way), peppery
Finish: Short and unpleasant

The Bison Ridge was so bland, in fact, that I decided to try seasoning it with a few grains of salt. (Yeah, I taste whiskey in my kitchen sometimes.) The salt actually did kick up the flavor a bit, especially the sweetness, and the sourness on the finish was all but gone. I suppose if I -- heh, when I use this in cocktails, I might think of adding just the tiniest pinch of salt, if only to be sure I can tell I didn't use vodka.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Art of American Whiskey, by Noah Rothbaum

I am fairly shameless when it comes to asking publishers for copies of books I can review on my blog. I learned a long time ago that the publishing business is nuts, and if that means they'll give me something to read and something to write about, fine by me.

An explanation of the business case for sending review copies to bloggers.

But "fairly shameless" is not "utterly shameless," and when I saw Noah Rothbaum's The Art of American Whiskey in the Ten Speed Press catalog, I couldn't bring myself to ask about it. As much as I would like a picture book of whiskey ads and labels, I didn't think I'd be able to review it. What could I say, "Nice pictures"?

So I just told the Ten Speed Press publicist to keep me in mind for any whiskey or cocktail books they might have in the pipeline, and she replied with a PDF of The Art of American Whiskey. (Emailed PDFs make a whole lot more sense to me that UPSed hardcovers, but as I say: nuts.)

The lesson I learned is, don't judge a book by its subtitle, which in this case is A Visual History of the Nation's Most Storied Spirit, through 100 Iconic Labels. It is both a written and visual history. It does have nice pictures, but also a lot of good words.

The book divides American whiskey history into seven eras: the start through the early 1900s; prohibition; post-repeal; the '40s and '50s; the '60s; the '70s, '80s, and '90s ("a.k.a. the dark ages"); and "the new golden age" of this century (so far). (The book ends just before the bourbon shortage reduces us all to savagery.)

Each era gets a chapter, comprising a few pages of written history, many pages of artwork (mostly labels), and a few recipes for "cocktails of the times," contributed by well-known bartenders. There are also brief profiles of some "distilling legends": Heaven Hill's Shapira family, Margie and Bill Samuels; Booker Noe; and Pappy van Winkle.

The artwork is definitely the focus of The Art of American Whiskey, but the text makes it a complete book. Rothbaum includes a short bibliography -- Veach, Cowdery, Lubbers, you many know the names -- if you need more than an hour's reading on the topic, but he himself covers the story in broad strokes and a straightforward reportorial style, throwing in a bit of editorializing suitable to the subject:
[After World War II, b]rands did everything they could to get bottles back on the shelves. On February 9, 1947, the New Yorker ran a story about the American Distilling Company petitioning the Connecticut Supreme Court to approve its Private Stock Whiskey bottle label. The front label was regal and talked about the history of the brand, but on the smaller label on the back of the bottle was the truth: "Whisky colored and flavored with wood chips. This whisky is less than one month old." The court, fortunately, did not rule in the American Distilling Company's favor.
Life was ever thus.

As I say, though, you get this book for the pictures. With "100 iconic labels," this is a survey rather than an encyclopedic collection, and Rothbaum's commentary is that of an observant whiskey enthusiast, not a graphic design historian or art critic. He provides a little context, maybe a remark on style or motif (old Kentucky and stock certificates are perennial favorites), then lets the reader do their own looking.

I found the Prohibition chapter most interesting. Everyone makes jokes about all the (ahem) "medicinal" whiskey prescribed, but I'd never thought about how medicinal the packaging of the whiskey was required to be -- viz, not at all. Each bottle had to be packaged in a cardboard box, which gave the companies that much more room to call attention to their product. My favorite is probably "Golden Wedding," for the sheer incongruity, though I don't know how appealing a la grippe sufferer would have found it ninety years ago.
Nothing says effective medicine like renewing wedding vows . [1]
While a lot of brands from the 1800s are still around today -- in name, at least -- there's also a good selection of labels for brands that, as far as I know, are no longer sold (the steamer trunks with the recipes are, no doubt, waiting to be discovered). One of the book's panels shows a set of concept labels developed for Heaven Hill brands prior to 1946 (they don't know whether any of these were ever used). It's quite a selection, both straight bourbons and younger. I do like Coon's Age boast, "This whiskey is 1 year old."
I'm going to guess it was generally worth paying the premium for straight bourbon even then. [2]
Um... [3]
A few labels touch on some of the lowlights of the U.S. whiskey industry, made around 1970, but the less said about those the better.

The final chapter does a good job at covering both the major players and the craft distillers, with a wide variety in bottle and label design, from Four Roses Single Barrel and Maker's 46 to Hillrock and Tin Cup.(Implicit in the pictures but not really discussed in the text is the relatively recent increase in bottle variety to help brand whiskeys.)

The Art of American Whiskey will add a key visual dimension to a whiskey book collection -- and a respectable amount of historical information, too, particularly to a collection that's missing some of the classic sources Rothbaum references. Publication date is April 28, 2015; it can be pre-ordered in Kindle or hardback editions.

I'm told I'm supposed to mention that the photos are reprinted with permission from The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
1. Image courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery.
2. Image courtesty Heaven Hill Distilleries.
3. Image courtesy Beam Suntory Inc.
Credit where credit is due. I'd give credit for the "Numberwang" skit, but I'm not even sure what that would mean.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Supply, demand, and decoys

If you've made it this far down your blogroll, you've probably already seen Chuck Cowdery and Fred Minnick argue pro and con -- or rather, con and pro -- on the question, "Resolved: There is a bourbon shortage." (For me, the saddest part of this story is that Fred Minnick has a company; I kind of wanted to believe he made his living just by drinking whiskey.)

You've probably also seen Chuck's Minitrue followup on why the bourbon shortage we aren't having means more bourbon for everyone. In that piece, he links to Professor Cocktail's explanation of the elementary economics behind the bourbon shortage:
The reason that there is a shortage of particular types of bourbon is because they are generally sold at below-market prices.... Were the distillery/distributor/store to raise the prices of these bourbons, the surplus would disappear and an equilibrium price would eventually be reached.
In other words, all those SOBs who have been asking you what your favorite bourbon is have gone off and stocked up on it. If they went to the liquor store the week after the price was raised ten bucks, then that higher price is their own personal baseline. While you wince and hesitate, remembering those carefree prices of yesteryear, they brush past you and grab the last bottle.

Add to that the decoy effect of the higher price-point expressions.1 Suppose you go to the store and see Old Commonwealth Straight Whiskey for $30. It's a decent drink, you like having it on hand, but $30 is near the upper range of its value to you. You still have half a bottle at home, so you pass on it today.

Next week, events conspire to send you to the liquor store again, and you see the same whiskey for the same $30. But you notice that Old Commonwealth Reserve, which you've always found a bit syrupy, went from $45 to $50. Suddenly $30 doesn't seem like such a bad deal for a baseline OldCom. In a sense -- not common sense, but a sense nonetheless -- they've sort of lowered the price, haven't they? At least relative to the fancier expression. And when prices go down, demand goes up.

The decoy effect, I'm told, operates regardless of what people think might happen tomorrow, so there will be less OldCom on the shelf by the end of today. Add in the price-aware consumer, who knows whiskey prices are inflating, who foresees an OldCom price hike to match the OldCom Reserve's -- call it gouging if you like, if they can now sell OCR for $50 then OC probably is below market price at $30 -- and buys one or three bottles to bunker.

See? Plenty of whiskey on the shelves!
All of the above is typical (if not economically rational) consumer behavior. Bourbon availability is also affected by plenty of just plain nuts behavior, from more-money-than-sense newbies as well as panicky survivalists clearing out stores when they see something they don't expect to see a month from now. Dirtbag flippers and scuzzballs in the distribution chain help keep the top of the market sailing up out of sight, triggering the decoy effect followed by price adjustments in the undercard. Breathless reporting pumps oxygen into the fire.

So yes, both plenty of bourbon on the shelves and less than there used to be of what you want to drink for what you want to pay. Simple economics meets human nature.

What can you do about it? You can try to figure out your budget and what you're willing to pay before you go to the store, then stick to it (yes, yes, the preacher preaches to himself; I'm working on it). If you're in the has-more-whiskey-than-can-be-drunk-in-a-lifetime boat, you might drink your whiskey (sorry, didn't mean to shock you, sit down until the dizziness passes). You can start telling people your favorite bourbon is Distiller's Pride ("I know, I know, but for the price!"). You can make your peace with the fact that your thing is the hot thing right now and try to muddle through as best you can until the rum or tequila boom overtakes the whiskey boom.

Personally, I'm preparing a tuck-and-roll landing onto the apple brandy field. So far, the best I've found for the price is Hiram Walker.

1.The decoy effect makes Option A look more attractive than Option B by introducing an Option C that is unattractive compared to Option B but even less attractive compared to Option A. In this case, Option B is "anything other than Old Commonwealth Straight Whiskey." Is that a legitimate example of the decoy effect? I don't know, maybe. The point is, it sounds cool. Also, never learn economics from some hack whiskey blog; that's what Wikipedia is for.