Friday, May 30, 2008

When It's All Said and Done

Today was our last day of touring distilleries. We visited Wild Turkey and Four Roses. I'm worn out so there will be no pictures until later....

Wild Turkey was one that I was really looking forward to. We got to tour the distillery with Eddie Russell, who is Jimmy Russell's son. Jimmy is the Master Distillery and has been working at the distillery for 54 years. Eddie, who has only been there a short 27 years is probably next in line to take the job. He is currently the Assistant Distillery. Besides a few small differences, the tour was the same as all the others, not that it was a bad thing, but what I really enjoyed about this tour was Eddie's stories about the generation of master distillers that are either retired, passed away or on their way out: Elmer T. Lee (Buffalo Trace), Parker Beam (Heaven Hill), Booker Noe (Jim Beam) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey). It was really great.

We then headed to a restaurant called Kavanaugh's School Diner. It was a former school, that was a house previously, that is now a diner. They serve everything buffet style - and it was fantastic.

After lunch we headed to the Four Roses Distillery. Four Roses was a brand that was HUGE around WWII, but shortly there after put all of its focus in exporting - and turned the whiskies that were in the U.S. into garbage - before long all U.S. product was gone. Then the Japanese brewery Kirin bought the distillery and has started turning it around. Products have been reintroduced into Kentucky and the surrounding states and are supposed to come to CA in July of this year, but who knows as the date has been pushed back several times already. The tour was ok - nothing really new except that they distill 2 different mash bills and have 5 yeasts - which make 10 different whiskies. These whiskies are then combined in various ways to create their releases. We were able to taste the 3 main products they make: Yellow Label (which is around 6 years old and contains 8 different whiskies - Small Batch which is around 7 years old and contains 4 different whiskies - and the Single Barrel which is around 8 years old and only has one whiskey.

After Four Roses we headed back to Louisville to have dinner at Bourbon's Bistro. Good Lord, after eating and drinking at this place I want to open a Whiskey Restaurant SO BADLY! They featured around 100 bourbons or so - which cost anywhere from $5 for a pour, up to $75. They also let you pick three whiskies to taste as a flight - smaller pour but at half the price listed. I did a flight of Buffalo Trace 9yr Single Barrel, Parker's Heritage and Wild Turkey American Spirit. Shannon had a whiskey sour with Maker's Mark. All four were fantastic. I had Ahi Tuna and Shannon had a pork chop stuffed with chorizo for dinner. Both dishes were amazing. We left so full we could barely walk and broken hearted that there is no place like this in CA (until I open my restaurant!)

We fly out at 10:30am tomorrow and are excited to get back - its been a fantastic trip, but I am ready for my big screen TV and my comfortable bed.

See ya soon!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spitting Out Bourbon and Other Strange Happenings

Following our own example, we started off the morning eating our usual breakfast (see post below) and hitting the road - we were on our way to Buffalo Trace. Flash back to a month ago...Being one of the two distilleries that I didn't have a supplier contact for - I was originally afraid that we would have a hard time getting in. Luckily my friends at Young's Market were able to pull a few strings and get us in. I was very appreciative as some of my favorite whiskies are created here: Buffalo Trace, George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare, WL Weller, Van Winkle, and the list goes on and on.

Alright, back in the present. I knew that we were going to have a chance to meet Mark Brown, the president and CEO of Buffalo Trace - so I was very excited to arrive. Who would have thought that our experience there is something I will never forget. As we walked in, I asked the lady in the gift shop for Margeret as she was our contact - turns out that she was her (bad english I know). She was amazingly nice - greeting us with a huge smile and bringing us into her ongoing conversation with a few other BT employees about an article in Delta airline's magazine which highlights Lexington and includes bits on the distillery. She then introduces Shannon and I to Carey, the gentleman that will be taking us on the tour - but first we had to go up and meet Mark.

We walk up to Mark's office - he and two other employees are in the middle of a meeting, but take a break just to sit and talk to us. We chat about business on the west coast, the economy, how Safeway is doing, etc. Then we turn to talking about Bourbon and what we like, what we find interesting, etc. He kept saying that it was such a pleasure having us at the distillery, which blew me away, because I was in awe of who I was sitting in front of.

Mark is one of the most forward thinking people in the whiskey industry in my opinion. He is constantly experimenting with different concepts and whiskey making ideas. To read more about his experiments check out the blog What Does John Know and also the most recent Malt Advocate magazine. BT has even bottled some of the experiments, most of which are whiskies that were aged (for at least some time) in used wine barrels. Much to my surprise, Mark presented me one of the Zinfindel finished bottles as a gift. Considering that some of these are going on eBay for upwards of $80 for a 375-ml - I was extremely grateful as they are next to impossible to find in any store.

We then headed down to meet Carey for the tour. We got the "hard hat" tour which took us through the entire process. We had this experience once before at Maker's Mark, but Buffalo Trace is HUGE so the parts involved in the process are even more incredible. Too much to go into detail but it was just amazing.

Following the tour, we were brought up into the experiment lab. Buffalo Trace has nearly 1500 barrels dedicated to their experiements - and are always trying to create something new. In addition to the barrels they also have a new micro-still that will be used in creating the whiskies. In the lab we were allowed to taste some of the experimental whises that they are considering releaseing in 2009 and 2010. We tasted 4 different batches, and at least two of those, no one, outside of BT employees, had ever tasted. Simply Incredible. Now they weren't all great, but they certainly weren't bad - but I was just in awe that we got to taste them. I don't really want to say what they were as I'm not sure if BT would want the info getting out, but they definitely have some wild ideas. By the way - the lab was "taste & spit" no getting drunk while at work! So they had several large spitoons spit the bourbon into - pretty cool.

After the tour and tasting we headed back down to the gift shop, bought some souviners and then headed back up to Mark's office. We sat there for another half hour to hour just going over the tour, asking questions, talking about everything from Kentucky to the upcoming WhiskeyFest. He signed a bottle of Eagle Rare for us and we went on our way, amazed by the experience we just had.

We then headed over to Woodford Reserve (after our good friend Garmin gave us bad directions). Compared to Buffalo Trace that has 11o buildings on the premise, this place was TINY! The majority of the "work" is done in two rooms. This is one of the few places that "creates" their seasons by heating and cooling the rack houses. Every other distillery lets nature take its course. We then headed back to the gift shop & visitor's center for a sample of the bourbon.

The drive to and from Woodford was amazing - the distillery is surrounded by horse farms - and is landscaped just beautifully. It was a wonderful drive.

We are back at the hotel now gearing up for our last day when we will visiting Wild Turkey and Four Roses. See ya tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Little Slice of Heaven (Hill), (Coconut) Pie and Jim Beam

Today, we made our way down to Bardstown, KY after our typical breakfast of biscuts and gravy, eggs, sausage for me and biscuts and gravy and cereal for Shannon.

We had a 10 o'clock appointment at Heaven Hill to tour through their rack houses (the distilling is done in Louisville, and the bottling line is off limits to visitors) and do a tasting. They also have a nifty little history of bourbon display in one half of the giftshop/heritage center. The rackhouses were pretty cool, had some pretty old barrels - up to 27 years old....

We then headed into their tasting room and in addition to the usual tastings of Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18 yr, we were able to taste Bernhiem Wheat Whiskey and Evan Williams Single Barrel 23 yr. The later is only available at the gift shop and in Japan - and sells for $350... it was FANTASTIC! - but no, I did not buy one. However I did get another bottle of one of my favorite whiskies - Parker Heritage Collection Cask Strength Bourbon. Not sure if I can drink it though - as it is signed by Parker Beam, the semi-retired Master Distiller. It will go next to my Evan Williams Single Barrel that is signed By Craig Beam, the full time Master Distiller.

We took off from Heaven Hill and headed into Bardstown to see what small town life is like... had lunch at a restaurant that was opened in the 30's. Back then, the family lived upstairs and ran the restaurant downstairs. The same family still owns it, but they live somewhere else (I think). We went to the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum that has all sorts of cool stuff - whiskey bottles (some still full) from the late 1800s / early 1900s - prohibition and anti-prohibition propaganda - various marketing tools from a number of distillers.

Afterwards we went to a bar/tavern that has been opened since 1779. Some say the Old Talbot Tavern is haunted - and we - NO JOKE - saw a half full pint glass slide off of the table next to us, right after the lady sitting in the seat that the glass landed in got up to go "ghost hunting" - the husband looked at us and said "did you see that?!?!". So that was pretty crazy... history has it that everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Jesse James spent time in the tavern/hotel.

We then headed to the Jim Beam Outpost (the visitor center at the Beam Distillery). We got there 15 minutes before they closed - so we ran in, looked around, bought a Booker's T-shirt and headed back. But not before we snapped a few pictures with Booker Noe himself.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Maker's Mark with a Bulleit Chaser

Today was our first day of distillery touring - and that took us to Loretto, KY - home of Maker's Mark. We showed up right at 10am and were greeted by Leah, who would turn out to be our tour guide. Before starting the tour we went and spent about 20 minutes chatting with Kevin Smith, the new Master Distiller at Maker's Mark. He was an assistant master distiller up until a couple months ago when Dave Pickerell left the company. Was able to tell us a lot of the history of the Samuels family and show us letters to and from Abe Lincoln - one of them from 1859 had Lincoln writing about how he didn't think he was going to run for President - of course a year later he became president. There was also the "dark side" where the Samuels family was married into the James family... as in Jesse James. Very interesting stuff... We talked about business, Maker's Mark special releases (besides special bottles - its not happening) and just the love of bourbon.
The tour was next and took us through the fermenting rooms, the distilling room, the barreling room, one of the rack houses (where the bourbon is stored) and finally the bottling line.

We ended the tour in their tasting room - trying 2 year old Maker's Mark, Maker's Mark (the stuff found in stores, which is an average of about 6 years) and 9 year old Maker's Mark. Due to the high wheat content of Maker's mash bill the 9 year old really wasn't that good, as wheat is a very delicate grain that is too easily overpowered by the oak. We then dipped a few bottles ourselves, got a few souviners and we were on our way!

Next stop was the Pendennis Club to have drinks with Mr. Tom Bulleit, of Bulleit Bourbon fame. We got there a couple of minutes before he did so we had a few minutes to look around this fantastic building. We didn't take pictures but follow the link above to check it out - its amazing.
Tom arrived with his son, Tucker a few minutes later and we took a tour of the place, going upstairs to see the ballroom, downstairs to see the main dining room (coat & tie required) - Tom also gave us the history of the place as his family has been members off and on for generations. We went to the Grill (the less formal area) to have a few drinks and talk. Seriously, was one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Gave a good overview of the bourbon market and had nothing but nice things to say about his competitors. It's actually amazing, both Tom & Kevin Smith talked up their competition almost as much as they did their own brands... it is honestly one big family down here. Tom was saying that a few years back when Heaven Hill (I believe) had one of their rack houses burn down - within a few hours every distillery had called offering their services to ensure that a beat wouldn't be skipped. He also presented us with a few gifts: a Bulleit hat, some Bulleit glasses and a 1.75 of Bulleit bourbon that he was kind enough to sign. I am looking forward to October when he is coming out for WhiskeyFest - as, hopefully, we can hang out a little more.

After leaving Tom & Tucker - we drove over to the Maker's Mark Lounge - and had some appatizers and drinks. I had the Four Roses flight, as I have never tasted the brand before. There was their regular 80 proof Yellow Label, the Single Barrel and the Small batch. All were VERY good... We are back at the hotel now - relaxing and getting ready to watch a movie - so thats all for now.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Kevin & Shannon Go To White Castle

We headed out this morning around 10am to drive down to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. On the way we saw a sign for White Castle. Having never been, but always hearing about the chain in random forms of media, etc. we decided to stop. The burgers were 57 cents each and were worth about that much. the meat was so scarce it looked like they put a beef spread across the bun (at least I hope it was beef). Nonetheless, I enjoyed the experience and plan on going at least one more time.

Back to the Shaker Village... Shakers are (or were is more accurate) a bunch of religious folk who decided that God was calling them to build furniture and live a life of celibacy. While the furniture part is cool, they were kind of doomed with the whole no sex thing... not only can you not bring new Shaker's into this world, I'm guessing converts were pretty hard to come by. Beginning in the 1770's they came to American - in the mid 1800's the Shakers set up shop in Kentucky and by the early 1900's they were a goner. But now they have people that dress up in the Shaker clothing and do a little recreation. The place is now an inn and a restaurant, along with being a historical monument. Lots of cool buildings, fun animals and good food...

Oh yeah - Craziest thing.... we also ran into Ron while we were down there....

Reminds me of Mark Twain

So Saturday night after we got in we headed out to Ruby Tuesdays to eat dinner. I was excited because we always see the commercials at home but there isn't one close by (at least to my knowledge). The food was great, the beer was cold - all in all a really good meal. When then headed out to the local Liquor Barn, a liquor store chain that actually was owned by Safeway at one point, and was run by the guy that started BevMo. Tons of alcohol and bourbon paraphernalia, of course, since this is Bourbon Country. Got a few things there (well more than a few) and headed back to the hotel.

Sunday Morning we got up and headed to downtown Louisville - we walked around a while and had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was crazy - the only open restaurants we saw were Hard Rock and TGI Friday's. Everything else was either not open yet, or closed on Sundays. Very different from CA - it seems that southerners actually enjoy taking a day to rest - weird!

After lunch we headed over to the shore of the Ohio River and boarded the Belle of Louisville. The steamboat used to not only ferry people back and forth, but was also used to ship bourbon to states up river. The trip was quite uneventful, which was just fine as I like to do nothing while I am on vacation. They had a bar on board and I ordered a Maker's Mint Julep - yet it wasn't the actual cocktail... who knew that Maker's Mark had a Mint Julep Liqueur???

Shannon and I relaxed on the boat, watched crazy kids run around, and enjoyed looking at the houses, etc. on the shore. The river police were stopping just about every little boat out on the river (my guess looking for drunken boaters on the holiday weekend). - it was fun to watch and hoping that something crazy would go down...

Today we are headed out to a few antique malls and down to the Shaker Village. Tomorrow the distillery tours start. Yahoo!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Howdy Y'all

Well we made it to Louisville - woke up around 3:30 this morning, Charles picked us up at 5am, and we headed out!

The SFO to Chicago flight was loooong, especially with three of us in the row - however Chicago to Louisville was nice and quick and with only Shannon and I in the row I had plenty of legroom.

Tomorrow we are cruising the Ohio River (I think) on a Steamboat.

Oh yeah we got an Impala SS (i think it stand for Super Sweet) as our rental - not bad!!!

More later - I need to eat and go to bed...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Interesting Article on Vodka...

World's Best Vodka? It's Anybody's Guess

Vodka's taste notes are so subtle that people make their choices based on bottle and label design, country of origin-and brand story
Source: BusinessWeek

May 23rd

by David Kiley

French wine and spirits giant Pernod Ricard (PERP) recently acquired Swedens's Vin & Spirits for $8.9 billion, the lion's share of which was for the previously state-owned company's Absolut vodka brand. Meantime, Diageo (DEO) paid $900 million for half the worldwide distribution of Dutch vodka Ketel One. And Stolichnaya is looking for a new distribution partner since Pernod will have to give up its rights to the Russian vodka after its Absolut deal clears. Stoli rights could go for a few billion easy. Grey Goose sold for $2.2 billion in 2004.

I admit that when I see prices for vodka range from $8 per bottle for the lowly Popov to $60 for Gold Flakes Supreme, my bull-hockey antennae go up. Vodka is, as it says on the label, a "neutral spirit." There's no aging involved. No oak barrels. But then I am reminded that good branding counts in this world. The brand imagery, billions of dollars, and hype surrounding Grey Goose, Absolut, Ketel One, and of course even Trump Vodka, have all created very definite preferences for something that is meant to be odorless, colorless, and tasteless. If Perrier and Dasani can do it, why not vodka?

With spirits, especially vodka (because there is so little to distinguish one product from another), the design of the bottle and label is crucially important, along with the country of origin and "brand story." Each vodka I tasted had its own brand story that helps deliver the product as much as a lemon wedge or olive.

A Waste of Money?

For all the money that is changing hands over vodka these days, and a recession in full force that might prompt some drinkers to reevaluate how much thy are spending on spirits, I thought it a good time to take a fresh dive into the crowded world of vodka over the course of a few weeks to see which ones really do taste better, and if drinkers of branded vodka are full of good and discriminating taste or wasting their money.

Before we get to the tasting results, a few anecdotes: A friend of mine, Charles, says he knows his vodka. A confirmed martini drinker who favors Absolut, I had him test his palate. First, I had Charles sample, in a blind taste test, Absolut, Popov, Ketel One, Smirnoff, and Vox. I served them frozen, which, to me, is the best way to drink straight vodka. When asked to pick out Absolut, Charles actually chose Smirnoff. Next, for the martini test. We made martinis the way Charles likes them, with a half-shot of dry vermouth and two olives over ice made from distilled water. In this test, we made the drinks with Skyy, Absolut, Smirnoff, and Belvedere. Again, Charles got it wrong, choosing the martini made with Ketel One as his Absolut martini.
I then assembled three regular vodka drinkers who order by brand when they order at a bar or restaurant. One is a confirmed Ketel One drinker, one orders Grey Goose, and another orders drinks made with Belvedere if the bar has it. His back-up brand is Absolut.

This group orders everything from martinis to vodka and tonics to vodka and cranberry juice.

A Lucky Guess

First I served frozen shots to the group in a blind test. Grey Goose, Absolut, Belevedere, Ketel One, and Popov. One, the Ketel One drinker, successfully picked his brand out of the pack, but only after considerable angst and anguish, so much so that I made the group repeat the exercise. It seemed like he guessed and got lucky. In the second pass, none successfully picked their brand.
Next up was one-to-one mixtures of vodka and cranberry. To be cute, I made all the drinks with Popov. I told the panel that we hadn't changed the lineup of vodka brands.
"I like that," said one, who asked the brand of cranberry juice. By now, the panel of drinkers who thought themselves discerning imbibers were getting antsy, as though they were contestants on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader and couldn't remember which planet is closest to the sun or who Ronald Reagan's Vice-President was.

Looking at the tasting cards of the group, it was plain to see they were guessing. There were a couple of right answers, but no one in this round said, "I think these are all the same."

Pure and Clear

It isn't surprising to find such results in a vodka taste test. The goal of vodka distilling, according to the spirits executives and distillers I have spoken with over the years, is to come up with a spirit that is as pure and clear as possible. The taste notes of vodkas can be so slight and subtle, most often depending on the grain used, and the number of times the spirit is distilled, that they really only exist when drunk straight with purified ice, at room temperature, served straight up or frozen straight up. Having drunk every brand of vodka we tested over the course of a few weeks, I can honestly say that drinking it frozen is by far the most pleasant way to drink straight vodka. In this, the Russians are right.

The other conclusion I drew was that when it comes to mixing vodka with fruit juice, or unpurified ice, you might as well as save your money and keep a bottle of Popov around. After mixing with fruit juice, muddled mint, simple syrup, or tap-water ice, the slight subtleties of the vodka in these concoctions go out the window faster than the promise of a contractor who says he'll come to your house every day to work until the job is done.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Its all coming together...

Well I've been on the Beer desk for three weeks now. I am getting the hang out it, and wondering how I can make it a little more challenging. I currently manage the Vons (Socal), Texas and Portland divisions. I am still learning about who owns what, who the contact person is, etc. The whole three tier system (Supplier-Distributor-Retailer) is much different than Spirits... In California we had two major distributors that had about 97% of the business. For beer there are 70+ distributors in California. The distributors are constantly buying each other, consolidating, makes things a little tricky when it comes to the correct authorizations for each store.

We leave for Kentucky this coming Saturday. We are quite excited - we have a load of distilleries ready to give us tours. It will be exciting to pick the brains of the master distillers... I just need to come up with some questions! Apparently there are also some abandoned distilleries that are in disrepair, but look just amazing in the open fields of Kentucky - I'm excited to see those as well...
Here is a little breakdown of the schedule so far:

Saturday: Arrive in Louisville (prounounced loo-uh-vul, from what I hear...or read)

Sunday: Jim Beam Outpost and exploring Louisville

Monday: The Shaker Village

Tuesday: Maker's Mark

Wednesday: Heaven Hill

Thursday: Buffalo Trace & Woodford Reserve

Friday: Wild Turkey & Four Roses

Saturday: Fly home

Quite a busy trip but we are ready... hopefully I'm not bourbon-sick when we get back...

Oh yeah - check this out (it would make a good birthday present for me - if you can find where to buy them...). Tyler sent this to me - its bourbon barrel furniture made by a company named Uhuru - its their Kupe line...