November 13, 2008

The 100-Point Pitfall

Recently, John Hansell opined about a bad reaction to his giving a whisky a low score. There wasn't any indication on who did it, but it was evident that it happens enough times to give him trouble. People's bad reactions to scores below their expectation is not surprising. It's like lowballing a seller when you're buying a house: the seller is taking it personally that you don't think his home (note the emotional attachment) is worth as much as the seller feels it should be. The buyer has no attachment to the house so his price is probably more accurate, but that doesn't mean the seller's feelings aren't hurt.

So this is one of the major reasons I don't score alcohol: No matter how objective the scoring system, someone is going to take offense at it. I might not care if they get offended, but why make up a system that, by design, causes such a negative emotional reaction?

Along the same lines, I don't actually make tasting notes. Sure I'll throw some together for a tasting event, but that's largely because they're expected. But I find comparative analogies to be more helpful. People know what they like, and tend to like things similar to their existing tastes. Do you like Irish Whiskey? You'll probably like Springbank more than Lagavulin. Big fan of Macallan? Try a Glenfarclas, and you'll probably be happy. Not a big fan of the "pine cone" gins? Try G'vine, it's the anti-gin gateway drink.

This comparative approach feeds into the closest thing I do to an actual score: suggesting something is or isn't a good buy. Any liquor that's not as good as its closest comparison AND costs more money just isn't worth the money. On the flip side, if there's a liquor that's better than its closest rival and costs less, then it's a good buy. Why pay $25 for something that isn't better than something that costs $15? Call it a different approach to buyer's remorse, but knowing that something is both good and cheap is a delight.

My point in all of this is that we all have our own versions of tasting notes and they're internalized memories of what we've had in the past. We all rate these drinks in a massively subjective way because smells cause such emotional reactions. This is why comparative analogies work so well when you're talking about alcohol. The "tastes like" comparison is rarely so far off the mark that people will think you're smoking crack. But if you say something has a "leathery" texture and someone else thinks that it tastes like "wet dog playing in mud", they're going to think the first person is off their rocker. Even though, really, they're probably the same taste.

November 6, 2008

In Search of Old Tom

It's not every day you get to taste a piece of history, or at least a piece of history that's unaged. But it's hard not to be grandiose about tasting a gin that hasn't been available in the Unites States for over a half century. Old tom gin was once the most popular gin in the world. It was the original gin of England as genever transformed into the gin we know today. For this reason, it's seen as the missing link of the gin world.

Why Old tom? When gin came into prominence in England, the gin houses would put black tomcats on their signs. The "old" is a nod to it being the old standard gin of its time. It's also why so many gin cocktails have "tom" in their name. So, in a way, today's London Dry could be called "new tom" gin. But as London dry gained in popularity, old tom suffered. Then, as vodka started to supplant gin in drinks like martinis and gimlets, old tom faded from view.

But now it's back, thanks to the transformation of the American bartender. There's a growing set of bartenders who are seen more as mixologists than drink slingers. Within that population, there's a subset known as the historical mixologist. They research the drinks that were popular a century ago, and finding that the ingredients aren't around anymore. Old tom came back because these mixologists wanted to make the original Tom Collins, and more importantly the martinez, widely considered the progenitor of the modern martini.

Enter Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz importers. His young business focuses on importing rare and niche liquors like old tom. He was able to secure import rights to Hayman's Old Tom Gin, and its been gradually coming into markets around the country. It's a bit ironic that Eric is based in Minneapolis and I've been in search of this gin for months now. Not until late last month was it possible for places here to buy it, and Town Talk Diner happened to be the first place to offer it on-sale.

Old Tom and His Children

So I'm sitting here, at the bar, staring at seven bottles of gin. Old tom is sitting on the end, with representation from all stripes of gin and genever lined to the left. I gotta say there's a reason why it's back - none of these gins taste like it at all. Well, Bluecoat from Philadelphia is close, but only because it has such a bold profile. The obvious closest relatives are the Boomsma jonge or the Old Raj, but I can't make the link. This gin really does belong in a class by itself. A class that has sadly been under-attended for decades but, hopefully, will expand as people try it again, for the first time.

October 31, 2008

Checking Your Octane

No, this isn't about proof, it's more about something with little proof at all. This may come as a shock to some people, but much of what we drink is driven by marketing. People generally need a better reason than "It's there" to try something new, so drinks firms will pay a lot of money to convince people that they need to buy something. One way they do this is classify something as being a "Premium" spirit.

Around Minnesota, Premium means something entirely different - but to the general population it's implied to be better than your average product. In gasoline, it's assumed that premium fuel is better than regular so people will pay more for it. The reality is that you buy the minimum octane for your car because anything higher than that is unnecessary. A similar analogy can be said for premium spirits: There's no need to use a premium spirit in a cocktail that'll mask the flavor of the spirit.

But like any good marketing arms race, premium doesn't cut it anymore. Now we have an "ultra" or "super" premium spirits category. This is when there's too many "premium" brands in a sector and the company wants to charge more for something that's probably on par with any of the premium brands. Take the oft-maligned Trump vodka, the first ultra-premium vodka. The market effectively pushed it down into the premium vodka's price range. Now an ultra-premium vodka needs something more than a name... like filtering your spirit through crushed diamonds. Nevermind that diamonds are inert and activated charcoal's porosity is the reason it's used as a filter. It looks good on a label.

Calling a spirit "ultra-premium" means something different to me. It's a sign that an under served market has finally hit the big time. The introduction of Patron meant that Tequila had finally shed its "shooter and worm" persona and had the kind of respect given to Scotch and Bourbon. The market conditions that made Patron possible now means you can have Tequila bars, much like there are whiskey bars.

So that's why the coincidentally timed announcements of (rī)1 and Beefeater 24 means that both rye and gin have finally hit the big time. For (rī)1, it's a sign that bartenders are looking for a better rye to use in their classic mixed drinks. Of course Black Maple Hill has been selling ryes in the $40 range for years now, this is considered ultra-premium because it's better than Beam's yellow-label rye. Beefeater 24 is a different beast entirely, but still a welcome sign. This is the first major brand's gin that's meant for sipping. It's Pernod's reaction to the craft distillery movement that has embraced gin as something more creative than a race-to-the-bottom vodka. Granted, by these terms there have been ultra-premium gins on the market for years, but having a major brand seeking the sipping market means that gin should earn more respect from your everyday consumer.

October 6, 2008

NOM NOM NOM

The old saying goes, “What’s in a name,” but when it comes to Tequila, the question really should be: “What’s in a NOM?” NOM, which is an acronym for “Normas Oficial Mexicana”, is a set of obligatory regulations to ensure Mexico’s emblematic products meet certain expectations. And one of Mexico’s most emblematic products is its Tequila. The Normas standardizing Tequila production were first introduced in 1974, with the latest update coming in 2006. The Normas cover all areas of production, from the cultivation of the agave to the packaging requirements. The Normas for Tequila is the major reason why I claim that Tequila is one of the most regulated drinks in the world.

But why does it matter? Sure, there can be some bad Tequila, but that can be avoided by paying attention to the label. In fact, you can learn a lot from the labels because of the Normas. If the Tequila isn’t made from 100% agave, the label needs to say it’s a “mixto”. Likewise if it’s unaged Tequila with color added, it needs to be labeled an “oro”. Not that these are bad, but if you’ve only had mixto, then there are much higher quality Tequilas to be had.

The most important part of the NOM for Tequila is the requirement that every bottle of Tequila will have a registration number and the name of the distillery. While it’s rare that a single malt Scotch will have a name other than the distillery, this is the most common feature of Tequila. The oft quoted statistic is that there are over 700 brands of Tequila, but less than 150 distilleries. Do you like Herradura? El Jimador is made at the same distillery, though nowadays it’s a mixto. Don Eduardo is also produced there, though this is a recent change as it used to be produced by El Mejor. Confusing, isn’t it? Generally speaking, the distillery’s flagship will bear the same name as the distillery, while the secondary brands and ones produced on contract will have a different name or a generic distillery name.

There are a number of large and reputable brands who are distilled on contract. Cabo Wabo, for example, does not own a distillery. Until a few years ago Patron didn’t either. Casa Noble switches its distilleries from time to time without losing too much in the way of quality. Industry consolidation contributes to this as well, when Brown-Forman bought Casa Herradura it made more sense to have its second Tequila brand, Don Eduardo, made in their facility. So if you notice your favorite Tequila has chaged a little since the last time you had it, it might be because they changed distilleries.

So if you’re a fan of Tequila, especially a specific Tequila, it pays to pay attention to the label. You might be surprised and happy to find that there are siblings that you enjoy just as much.

September 25, 2015

Bonding with your Whiskey

John Hansell's recent request for good whiskey deals resulted in a couple of suggestions for Bourbon that was "bottled in bond". If you've spent any time browsing a decent selection of Bourbon, you'll have seen this before, but what does it mean?

Simply put, a "bonded" spirit is one that was aged and bottled in a warehouse that's under the supervision of government agents. Specifically, 27 CFR 5.42 states that it must be:
1. Composed of whiskies that are of the same type
2. Those whiskies be produced within a single distilling season
3. Stored for at least four years in a bonded warehouse
4. Unaltered after leaving the cask, except for filtering
5. Reduced to 100 proof by only adding pure water
6. Bottled at 100 proof

But why? What's the big deal? Well, to understand why the label is around, you have to take in the context of when the original law was passed. The Bottled-in-Bond Act was signed into law in 1897, back when there weren't any regulations on what you put in a bottle. Unscrupulous retailers were more than willing to mix together tobacco and iodine and put it in a bottle and call it whiskey. The real distillers of the time felt this was unfair, so they looked to Congress for help. The law effectively carved out a tax exemption for distillers willing to let the government supervise their production process. By having the government supervise the warehouses, the producers didn't pay taxes on production until the bottles left the building. Then consumers would know that the product in the bottle met the six criteria mentioned above, and to ensure that things were kept clean, they'd put a green tax stamp over the top of the bottle to make sure you knew that it hadn't been tampered with.

The effect was staggering. Once the bonded whisky became available in 1901, the non-bonded whiskey dried up. The success of the law dovetailed into the others that regulated food labeling and the formation of the FDA in 1906.

But much has changed in the last century. Now we have legal definitions for all spirits and close supervision to ensure that we don't get fooled by what's on the label. The tax exemption proved to be so great that practically all aged spirits produced in America are done in bonded warehouses. So producers can get the tax benefit and avoid the extra requirements by merely flouting one of the six rules.

Today, a bonded whiskey means something else. It's the producer taking the challenge of bottling a whiskey that might change between seasons. It also assures a very small amount of blending is involved, which cannot be said for "small batch" whiskies. In short, those bonded whiskies are a treat because they're so rare. But unlike the fake whiskies they replaced, they aren't going away any time soon.

from @ModernBartender

September 18, 2008

Keeping an Ear to the Ground

Alcolog hasn't really been a news-based website. There are plenty of news sources on the Internet, and there's no need to re-invent the wheel. But I never realized until a few days ago how much news about booze I read on any given day. There are times it can take a good two hours to catch up on just one day's news. New product releases, reviews and tastings of special bottlings, and the occasional blog post. How does someone burn two hours reading about alcohol? Here's a good start:

Just Drinks
Between Olly Whering's blog posts and the news feed, there's about two dozen stories a day. It's not liquor-specific, and so a lot of the stories are about wine (Constellation Brands pops up a lot) and soft drinks. But they usually are the first to announce new things emerging in various markets. They also help brush up on drinks business lingo with terms such as RTD (ready to drink cocktails), alcopops (similar to RTD, but usually involve cola or spritzer), and functional drinks (soft drinks that include health benefits). They also get credit for teaching me that "Travel Retail" is considered a regional territory in the business. Who knew?

Google Alerts
Due to some create filtering on Google's News Alerts, I can get a pretty consistent stream of newspaper articles about booze. Sure, some of it tends to be repeats and they also cover Just Drinks, but the geographic diversity of the news is pretty strong. This is also where I learn about new craft distillers all around the country, the most prominent was learning about Templeton in 2006. Any time I know I'll be traveling to some place, I'll check the archive of stories to see if there's something I should buy while I'm there.

Newswire Feeds
Some less-fruitful news sources are places such as Drinks Business Review and Drinks Media Wire. They tend to be either low volume or news poor, but they're also free and that helps. Drinks Business Review tends to have analysis on what kinds of products were big in the last quarter or if a company is changing CEOs. Pretty dry reading. Drinks Media Wire is all press releases with a bit of a faulty filter because it's mostly restaurant and hotel announcements.

Blogs
Blogs tend to be low traffic, but give a good idea of what everyone else is talking about. Here's who's currently on my reading list:
Art of Drink
Liquor Snob
Luxist Spirits
Templeton
The Scotch Blog
What Does John Know?

It's pretty thin compared to, say, what The Cocktail Nerd reads, but most alcohol-related blogs on the web are focused on mixed drinks and not so much on just liquor. Liquor blogs also suffer a risk of going stale and not updating for long periods of time. Heck, even Alcolog has had that problem in the past. But they're nice because they don't tend to be very filtered opinions about what's happening in the business. Blogs are also nice because they're interactive. I'll occasionally respond to a posting if I feel there's something useful to add to the conversation. Mostly just reading, though.

So do you want to kill two hours of your days? For the hardcore folks out there it's the most fun you can have without actually drinking. Enjoy!

September 12, 2008

Role Call

The average consumer of alcohol tends to be unaware of what kinds of roles exist within the liquor business, but they should already realize that alcohol is not like apples or iPods. The same sets of laws that limit where and when you can buy alcohol also create major roles in how alcohol gets from the brewery/still and into the home. Within the industry, this set of roles is referred to as the “Three-Tier System”.

This system of liquor sales and distribution came about with the passing of the 21st Amendment. After the end of prohibition, the US government ceded control over liquor sales directly to the individual states. The consensus at the time was that liquor needed to be controlled in two main ways: producers should not be able to sell their products directly, and no one should be able to control the end-to-end process of liquor sales. Thus the unspoken “fourth” tier became the local and state governments who oversee the restricted flow of alcohol within its jurisdictions.

The first tier is the producers. These are the breweries, wineries, distillers, and bottlers who create the finished product. For non-domestic production, the importer takes on the role of being a producer. Domestic producers have two masters: the state’s liquor control board and the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The ATF regulates things such as bottle size, labeling requirements, and assessment of taxes and fees. The states also will regulate the producers through licensing and state-level taxes.

In order to stand between the producers and consumers, states require that there be a distributor/wholesaler that buys the alcohol from the producers. Distributors tend to be much larger than producers, but it’s rare to have a distributor with a presence in more than a few states. In about half of the states, the distributor is the state’s liquor control board, or LCB. Depending on the mentality of the LCB, this can be good or bad. LCBs can buy larger amounts and more diverse selections of alcohol, thus giving the state’s consumers more options for less money. The flip side is when the LCB’s role is to severely restrict the options and access to alcohol. In these states, the average consumer might never experience any liquors beyond a handful of famous labels.

The final layer in the system is the retailer, where the consumer finally has access to alcohol. Retailers are classified as “on” and “off” sale, which merely refers to where the alcohol is consumed. On-sale would be bars, restaurants, and events where the alcohol is consumed on the premises. Off-sale establishments are the liquor stores, gas stations, and grocery stores where you don’t consume the alcohol on the premises. In many of the LCB states, the LCB controls the off-sale stores. For example, the Pennsylvania LCB owns the “Wine and Spirits” stores within the state. Since the local governments control the licensing of off-sale stores, some of them choose to own the liquor stores. This used to be more common, but has fallen out of vogue as local governments look for ways to save money. If you ever see a city’s name in a liquor store, it’s either currently or formerly owned by the local government.

So what does this mean for the average liquor consumer? The more layers in any distribution system, the more expensive the product will be for the consumer. It also greatly reduces a consumer’s selection, no matter how progressive the state or distributor. It’s just impossible to have every option available from the distributor. The obvious solution to this would be to have consumers able to purchase directly from the producer. Unfortunately this is only an option for vineyards, so getting rare beers and liquors from their producers is illegal.

There is hope, though, as state governments relax the laws that limit consumer choice. It’s been 75 years since the end of prohibition in 1933. It may be that in another 75 years the term “Three-Tier System” will be as arcane as the “Speakeasy” is today.

September 4, 2008

The Reserve Bank of Alcolog

As alluded to a few times now, liquor does not go bad. There are exceptions due to poor handling, but if you are mindful of the conditions you keep the bottles, they'll last for a very long time. So what kinds of things do I buy and sit on?

The Reserve Bank of Alcolog

Generally speaking, it's stuff that I don't expect to see again. But rather than being super expensive stuff, I tend to save the "good and cheap" stuff. This trend started a few years ago when Signatory's Vintage line started getting scarce:

Signatory Vintage

These are mostly eight years old and from unnamed distilleries within the regions. Some of them are pretty easy to figure out (There's only one distillery on Mull), but others vary over the years. But the key to their charm was that they were respectable single malt Scotches for about $20 a bottle. Why are they so hard to find anymore? Distilleries are severely cutting back on the numbers of casks they're selling to independent bottlers, and thus the casks for the Vintage line are either sat upon to bottle later in life or just aren't available at all.

I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I also collect Templeton's bottlings:
Templetons

The love affair with this company unfolded on here years ago, and I've made a point to get examples of everything they've bottled. There are two bottles from the first year (they're the ones labeled "Single Barrel"), three bottles from the second and current year (They're "Small Batch"), and two from their "Quasquicentenial" batch. That last one isn't technically a rye whiskey, since its mashbill was predominantly cane sugar.

The Rest

I've posted about the Black Bull and All Saints brands never coming back, and I've made sure to grab some of their bottles for my reserves. Looking back at the first pictures of the All Saints bottles, it's good to note that their levels haven't changed in the last year and a half. The Bruichladdich is the most expensive bottle in the reserves, but that's because I've considered it one of the best bottles of Scotch I've ever bought. There have been two more Peat Proposals since this one, and they just haven't been as good as the first one. And finally there are two bottles of John Hall's Three Grain from Forty Creek. John is very adamant that he'll never make it again because of the labor involved. What's odd about the two bottles is that they were imported by different companies and have different labels.

It's a decent collection, and I'll keep adding to it as time goes on. But now it's time to lug the boxes into the basement and keep them safe again.

August 28, 2008

Birthday Wishes

I'm not one to pick favorites, but I must admit I have a soft spot in my heart for Delilah's in Chicago. It started last March when I was planning my WhiskyFest trip, and was curious about why there were so many events planned at this bar. I assumed it was like most bars with whisky tastings: decent Scotch selection, copious amounts of tanned leather seating, and a warm lighting with a tone similar to bright candlelight. Marty Duffy was having a tasting Monday night, so I decided I go there, grab a bite to eat, and attend his event.

First mistake? They don't serve food. But that's okay since there's a Gino's East less than a block away. So after communing with some classic Chicago pizza, I went back to Delilah's to abolish the rest of my presumptions.

Layers, man... layers.

Delilah's could be best described as a neighborhood punk bar, but that misses many of its quirks. It's not a Scotch bar, better to be described as a whiskey or Bourbon bar. But that doesn't stop it from having more Scotch options than most/all of the bars in Minneapolis. And, unlike most whiskey bars, the Bourbon drastically outnumbers the Scotch. The total number of whiskies floats around 300-350, but hard to keep track of them as the stocks shift on a weekly basis. One of the most ingenious and unpretentious ways the bar helps out the staff is by writing the per shot cost on the bottle. It's so simple I'm surprised other places don't do the same thing. The lighting? Mostly nonexistent, save a few lights strewn around the seating area, the lights under the bottles behind the bar, and two television sets showing old B movies.

Cocktail

Another way to describe Delilah's is one man's passion, that man being Mike Miller. Ultimately he runs Delilah's as an extension of his personality. It's his love of obscure whiskies is the basis for his selection. He genuinely loves sharing his finds with anyone willing to try something new. Which makes us a perfect fit because I'm always in the mood for first experiences. It also makes Delilah's a required stop for any liquor-industry folks who find themselves in Chicago. Why a punk bar? He's an old punker and loves music. This passion contributed to opening his second club in town: the new Bottom Lounge in the west loop. As a result he's busier than ever, splitting his time between the two bars. Finally, Mike is a warm and friendly type of guy, and his bar reflects that. The accommodations are cozy, but nothing claustrophobic.

Delilah's will probably be crowded tonight, since today is their 15th anniversary. Well wishers will gather from all around to toast Mike's vision, and in their glasses will be his new 15 year old whiskey. Starting two anniversaries ago, Mike has bottled his own whiskies to commemorate the years. In 2006 it was a 13 year old Scotch, and last year was a 14-year Bourbon. This year's edition is a rye, and from the sounds of it it'll be especially rare. I caught a few minutes of his time earlier this month, and it sounds like the distiller had scant supply for the bottling. Granted this may make buying bottles or even shots to be a bit expensive, but I trust Mike's taste and will need to try some the next time I make it back to Chicago.

So if you're a lover of whiskies and can't find the time to get to Chicago tonight, raise a glass in honor of Mike Miller and Delilah's. To fifteen years and many more into the future.

August 22, 2008

Buyer's Remorse

Ever regret buying a bottle of alcohol? Don't feel bad, the reaction is so common it has a name: Buyer's Remorse. The term is not specific to alcohol, and really is more frequently associated to big ticket electronics or cars. But its root causes have some interesting characteristics when applied to alcohol.

The most common example of this is the feeling you paid too much for a bottle of alcohol. This tends to happen when you're buying something that's either new to the marketplace or just new to you. They both rely on what we perceive to be the fair market value of a purchase; A personal sense of our collective buying experiences. When something enters the market and is new to everyone, the price is set by the producer. If a brand doesn't get repeat customers because they regret paying so much for that bottle, the price eventually fixes at a normal price near the fair market value. The best example of this would be Trump Vodka, which was introduced at around $70 a bottle. Last time I saw it, it clocked in at $28 a bottle... which is still overpriced.

If something has been around a while and you see a consistent price, you might be lulled into thinking this is its fair market value and decide to try it. But if you try it and regret it, it's probably because it didn't live up to its price. If you are a regular consumer of alcohol, you tend to lump similar alcohols into categories based on price. If you pay $20 for a bottle of Bourbon, you have some expectation that it'll be about as good as the $20 bottles of Bourbon you've had in the past. But not every established brand fits into its price point, especially when you factor in reputation and scarcity. If a brand has a regular customer base, they will pay above fair market value for their favorite drink. And if you're not part of that customer base, you might feel like a sucker when the bottle doesn't live up to the hype. This form of remorse even has its own alcohol-influenced name: The Chivas Regal Effect.

If you're one of those people who's always trying new things, you might have felt the regret of buying something twice. This isn't the end of the world by any means, but you feel pretty stupid if you bought something new, forgot you bought it, and buy a second bottle. These tend to be middling purchases because people are more likely to remember purchases that result in more extreme reactions. It also doesn't apply to personal favorites, since liquor doesn't go bad and you'll probably drink it eventually.

To quote Gibby Haynes, "[I]t's better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven't done." And while not buying something isn't technically buyer's remorse, the regret for not buying something when you have the chance is closely related to the regret of buying something you're not happy with. At its core, this regret is fueled by scarcity and squandered opportunity. Limited edition bottlings, defunct brands, and bootlegging all have scarcity at their core. When debating the decision on buying something, a bottle in your hand is better than two at the liquor store. Again, because liquor does not go bad, having it unopened in your home assures you will have it in the future. Leaving the store without that bottle means there's a good chance someone else will seize your missed opportunity.

Buying alcohol while traveling (I call it 'bootlegging' which gives it a little more charm) might mean forgetting to buy something that's impossible to get at home. The easiest way to avoid this remorse is to plan ahead. Many large liquor stores and progressive liquor control boards will have their stock and prices on a website. Making a shopping list for a liquor store isn't an indication of a problem, it's the best way to avoid that regret of not picking something up when you know you won't see a bottle of it back home anytime soon.

So while I regret not making a list and thus forgetting to pick up a bottle of Los Danzantes during my trip to Chicago; I do not regret seizing the opportunity to pick up a bottle of the Signatory's Laphroaig bottling I raved about months ago and is no longer available in Minnesota.