Yellow Rose nears Kickstarter goal in bid to open Houston's first whiskey tasting room

By ANGELA SHAH
Texas Editor / BourbonStory.com

HOUSTON -- It takes a crowd to build a tasting room.

Yellow Rose Distillery in Houston is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to build out a bar where whiskey enthusiasts can have a glass or two after touring the distillery. 

“The process of building this distillery was building a community,” says Ryan Baird, Yellow Rose’s co-founder. “We had a lot of people coming in, saying, ‘Hey, how can I help. What can I do?’”

So far, Yellow Rose has raised $23,000 of its goal in the campaign that ends Wednesday. Prizes and thank-you gifts for investors include glasses and t-shirts as well as whiskey-barrel tables and distilling classes.

Texas state regulations were changed last year to allow distilleries to sell alcohol for on-site consumption, and the idea for a tasting room took hold. Yellow Rose even hired longtime bartender Houston Farris as its resident mixologist earlier this year.

The money would also be used to help build out the 10,000-square-foot distillery, including the addition of barrel and bottling rooms and larger distilling equipment.

Houston, while better known for its oil-and-gas fortunes  and its heat, has a thriving cocktail scene, with some of its top bars -- Anvil Bar and Refuge is an example -- frequently touted as one of America's best. Alba Huerta, a former Anvil manager, has just opened Julep, which judging by its spirits list means business.  

Yellow Rose is upping the city's spirits game from another angle. Founded in 2010 in Pinehurst, just north of Houston, Yellow Rose released its first whiskeys two years later. It now produces four lightly-aged whiskeys, with two of them---the Outlaw Bourbon Whiskey and the Straight Rye Whiskey---winning a Best in Class award at the American Distilling Institute and a double gold award at the San Francisco Artisan Spirits competition, respectively.

Baird and his co-founder Troy Smith made the move into town earlier this year to open what they say is Houston’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. A soft opening is planned for early September, and if Yellow Rose can raise the funds, the tasting room could be open six weeks later.

For Baird, the distillery’s upcoming opening is a significant milestone since he and Smith---longtime friends who had been distilling in their garages for fun---gave up their corporate day jobs to pursue their hobby full-time. “I’m really excited about what we can build and being part of the Houston community,” he says.

Wild Turkey sales slip, failing to buoy bad quarter for Campari

Campari expects rebound

Editor's note: This piece was published initially on May 15 on the Financial News pages of BourbonStory.com. We're streamlining the content, so it all flows through the home page, and have moved this story as a result. 

By Michael A. Lindenberger
BourbonStory.com

WASHINGTON --The boom in bourbon has been so strong that it's eye-opening to read of a giant whiskey brand and its parent company reporting sharply decreased year-over-year sales. But that's exactly what happened Thursday when the Italian conglomerate Grupo Campari announced that its sales have slumped during the first three months of 2014 compared to last year. Overall it earned $28.4 profit against $395 million in sales worldwide. Last year, it earned $54 million in the same quarter on $432 million in sales.

Campari owns Austin Nichols Distillery in Nicholasville, Ky., makers of Wild Turkey bourbon. 

It says that about 2/3 of its revenue decrease comes from currency exchange costs, and says turmoil in Russia triggered a near-50 percent decline in sales in that country. 

So how did Wild Turkey do? Not as well as you might have expected. In Australia, the firm announced, ongoing weakness in the demand for brown liquors took its toll.  

The Wild Turkey line accounts for 9 percent of Campari's total sales, and about half (51 percent) of that is the traditional bourbons. The rest is split evenly between Wild Turkey Honey and Wild Turkey Ready to Drink single-serve beverages. 

Overall, Wild Turkey sales were down 6.5 percent this year versus last, a decline that actually hit the company's pocket books as if it were 15.4 percent due to the currency exchange risks.

Other notes

  • The bright spot for the company, which says its sales in April have already rebounded overall, was single-serve products in Italy, its largest market.

  • The company is closing on its purchase of Canadian distillery Forty Creek Whisky, in Ontario.

  • Wild Turkey's visitor center opened this month, as noted by the Lexington Herald-Leader's bourbon writer, Janet Paxton

Michael Lindenberger (@bourbonstory) is Editor of Bourbon Story Magazine. Send him ideas, compliments or complaints at bourbonstory@gmail.com.


Editors pick five smart bourbons under $20

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The capital city isn't what you might call a bourbon town -- not yet. But it is changing. Step into Batch 13 liquor and wine shop on 14th Street, and you'll see a dizzying array of bourbons and ryes for sale. There's Masterson's. Over there is Whistle Pig. And you'll find a batch of Michter's bottles that would make home bar proud. Prices of $75 and up aren't uncommon. 

But try finding a cheaper bourbon that it's the ubiquitous Jim Beam or Wild Turkey in Batch 13 or any of the other nicer liquor stores in DC's trendier neighborhoods and you're going to be looking for a while. Welcome to the Bourbon Boom, where the excitement is focused on high-end bourbon, the pricier the better. 

There's good reason for that. Much of the expensive bourbon tastes good, and packs a good story too. And from retailers'  point of view, precious shelf space ought to be used to present as much of the high-margin good stuff as they think will sell. After all, it's what Americans are buying. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States sales numbers show that super-premium bourbon -- roughly, bottles that sell for $30 or more -- jumped 87 percent between 2008 and 2013. Value brands -- roughly, bottles under $13 -- sales stayed comparatively flat, rising 14 percent over six years. 

A $12 bottle with character isn't easy to find, though there are plenty of example sod contenders. Last June, a tasting of 20 low- to mid-priced bottles finished with Old Heaven Hill Bonded placing nicely.  

We're not ready to deny anyone, ourselves least of all, the pleasure of the very small batches, the pricy pours that come with such great history and, when hitting their stride, artisanal attention to quality. Pour us the Pappy, the Michter's, the Reservoir -- and make it neat, or with a big fat ice cube. Thank you.  

But what of the old favorites? The long-lived brands that were good enough for bartenders and boozers alike for generations? Are they really so uninteresting? We don't think so. Spare a spot in your home bar for these bottles. Some are old names and some aren't. But they are all bottles you'll be happy to pour, and even happier replacing them will be so easy on your wallet.

Our editors fanned out across the country and did some tastings and talking. Here are five suggestions for your bar. 

Heaven Hill 6 Year: Bottled-in-Bond

Name: Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond        Owner: Heaven Hill                                         Price: $10 to $12

Matthew Landan, owner of Haymarket Whiskey Bar in downtown Louisville, is a big fan of bottled-in-bond bourbon and a blunt advocate for bargain whiskey. Those two factors come together nicely in the Heaven Hill 6 Year—refreshingly smooth and simple over ice on a humid spring night, refreshingly kind to the wallet.

The Haymarket is featuring several affordable bottled-in-bonds when I visit. These are bourbons that have been produced in accordance with a set of legal regulations established by the U.S. Congress in 1897 to ensure authenticity and quality. It’s an old standard of quality but a reliable one -- and it also means it's exactly 100 proof.

While Landan is happy to sell the premium hooch to curious customers, he says there is much to explore on the lower shelves. And in so many ways, he explains, it’s all the same stuff.

“Have you been to many of the distilleries?” he asks. It’s only a few days after Derby Day and Landan is admittedly “lethargic” after Derby Week and the service industry parties that followed. He’s perhaps a little grumpy, too.

“I mean, it’s all made the exact same way on the exact same day. It’s all put in the barrels the same way. It’s just the matter of: When do you pull the barrel, and how much marketing money you put toward the product … Bourbon’s bourbon. I don’t care what fancy **** you put on the bottle. It’s just whiskey.” 

Maybe. But, quoting the Stones, “I like it, like it, yes I do!”

Heaven Hill is bottled at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Ky. A 750 ml bottle will cost you $10 to $12. 

Why it’s underrated: Too often we associate “inexpensive,” or “affordable,” or “bargain-priced” with something that is poorly or cheaply made. Don’t let Heaven Hill 6 Year’s forgiving price tag fool you. It is a “bottled-in-bond bourbon,” adhering to an old, tried-and-true standard of quality—a standard that was the industry’s highest for much of the 20th century. -- by Kevin R. Hyde, Kentucky Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Kirkland Signature Bourbon: Costco's house brand

Costco secretly sources its 100-proof Kirkland small-batch bourbon, and our man in Chicago says it's worth the $20 a liter they get for it. (Photo by Allen Helm / Bourbon Story Magazine.)

Name: Kirkland Small Batch Bourbon
Owner: Costco
Price: $20 or so, for 1L.

Most people don’t consider Costco as the go-to place for quality liquor.  However, its Kirkland Signature Bourbon is worth investigating.  Running about $20 for a liter at the Chicago stores, you can afford to drink a lot of it. Costco isn’t doing any distilling so someone is making it for them. The mystery of which exact distillery makes it has led to quite a bit of discussion in the bourbon press.  Last December, Insider Louisville pointed out that the label lists Clear Springs Distillery and the towns of Clermont and Frankfort, Ky.  They determined that it is made by Buffalo Trace, which also makes Pappy Van Winkle. 

Mike Veach, official Bourbon historian at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville told Insider Louisville it reminds him of Jim Beam, which is also made in Clermont.  I tried it and I think it’s more robust than Beam, or at least Beam White Label. At seven years old and 103 proof it should be. This is a great bourbon neat, on the rocks, and the proof should give it enough heft to stand up in a Manhattan. -- By Allen Helm, Chicago Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Four Roses, a treat for the Japanese, now available here 

Name: 4 Roses
Owner: Kirin Brewery Company
Price: $19

This 116-year old gem was for decades the top selling bourbon in the United States. When Seagrams bought the old Frankfort Distilling Company in the 1950s, it discontinued the brand in the U.S., though it was still the sales leader here, and instead sent all of the whiskey to Japan and other markets in Asia. American forgot about the brand. The rest of the world did not; it rose to the top across the seas, becoming one of the biggest bourbons in the world. Yet it was not sold stateside.

Reintroduced in the U.S. in 2002 when Kirin bought the Kentucky distiller, the brand is overshadowed by its more famous Kentucky neighbors, but is just as good. It should be, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was a member of the inaugural class of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and has been at the distillery for more than 40 years. Whisky Magazine once noted that one in six bottles of whiskey sold in America between 1920 and 1932 was a bottle of Four Roses, which like Old Forester below, had been available -- by prescription -- during Prohibition. By Hudson Lindenberger, Colorado Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Old Forester: Good whiskey, uninterrupted. 

Name: Old Forester
Owner: Brown-Forman Corp.
Price: $18 

Old Forester, the workhorse bourbon that built Brown-Forman Company, is the oldest continuously bottled bourbon in the world. It's been available by the bottle since before, during (with a prescription) and after Prohibition.  

For many it's the house brand for Louisville bourbon lovers. At 86 proof, it's thin for a crowded cocktail, but it's nice over ice, or with a bit of water.

Chris Morris, Brown-Forman's master distiller, said in an interview with Bourbon Story that one secret to Old Fo's staying power has been the consistency with which it has been made for 144 years. Morris notes that it's not that today's Old Forester is exactly the same as the one first made in 1870. Insisting on that point, he said, is pointless. Who would know what something tasted like exactly so long ago? Instead, he said his teams strive to pay enough attention to detail to keep the flavor profile consistent enough that a customer who had a glass of Old Forester 20 years ago is not going to be disappointed when he or she orders another one tonight. -- Michael Lindenberger, Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Old Grand-Dad: A recommendation with a caveat

Name: Old Grand-Dad 
Owner: Beam Suntory
Price: $19

Here's a final recommendation, but it's one you'll need to pay attention to. Beam inc., the brand's owner, lowered the proof in mid-2012 from 86 to 80. Executives said it needed to do so to keep the price low and to keep enough of its whiskey for its 100-proof bottled-in-bond expression.

I'd stick with the 86 proof, while you can find it. Last week, I stopped into Christopher's Hitchens's favorite spot in Washington, a classy but pretty casual Italian restaurant in DuPont Circle named La Tomate. The bar is fine, with a regular crowd. It's fine on scotch, Hitchens's posion, but its keeper knows very little about bourbon. Still, I picked the Old Grand-Dad and was pleased to find that they poured the 86-proof variety. It went smooth over some ice. 

If you can't find the 86 proof, look for the bottled-in-bond variety. -- Michael A. Lindenberger, Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Batch 13 liquor and wine shop in Washington's trendy 14th Street corridor is expanding its shelf space to make room for n even wider stock of high-end bourbons and other spirits. But as the focus -- and shed space -- is increasingly turned over to premium bourbon, have we forgotten old standbys that remain worth the pour? Above, Four Roses is the welcome exception to the rule. (Photo by Michael Lindenberger / BourbonStory.com.) 

In Chicago, a homesick homage to the working man's bourbon

By Allen Helm
Chicago Editor / BourbonStory.com

CHICAGO – The 140th Kentucky Derby has come and gone, and already attention has turned beyond Louisville and onto Madison Square Garden, where the NFL had its draft last weekend, and onto next Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Soon, they’ll be running the fast cars at Indianapolis, and bourbon drinkers will just have to get used to the idea that it’ll be another long year before the return of the annual festival to their favorite drink – which is one way, and a pretty good one, to think of the Derby.

That means, for me, it’ll be another year before I drink the drink of the Derby, the muddled-mint-and-sugar that turns Kentucky brown into a mint julep. The mixture ought to be an abomination – and it is at any other time of year. But I readily grant a dispensation on Derby Day.  Not only will I drink them but I will enjoy them. Timothy Leary described psychotropic experiences being about “set and setting.”  I’ll say the same thing about mint juleps, and the Derby (or a Derby party) is THE set and setting. 

With the Derby gone, it also means it’ll be at least another year before I am welcomed into a special kind of Derby party, held annually at a bar in Chicago that you’ve probably never heard of but, but ought to get to know. It’s a bar that stands out against a backdrop of cult-cocktails, premium pours and handcrafted drinks. 

Home Tavern in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood is none of those things, and every bit your father’s (and grandfather’s) bourbon bar. That’s not much in fashion these days, when a 750 ml bottle of bourbon aged in a boat for a year can be sold for $80. It is a place worth celebrating, especially at Derby. It reminds bourbon drinkers that the industry – and the beverage – was here long before bartenders had to measure it out one ounce at a time.

Once, I would have endearingly called it “a dive,” but that term seems to have been re-appropriated recently.  People now often refer to any establishment that lacks either a velvet rope in front, a live band, or a bank of plasma screens as “a dive.”  I reject that.  This place is a tavern…where people from the area congregate to celebrate, lament or just shake off a tough day.  There was a time when places like this were the anchors of the community, and in some cases they still are.  Their histories should be respected and exalted.  Chicago is described as a “city of neighborhoods”, and the Home Tavern is a neighborhood joint from an era where each neighborhood had many joints. 

It opened in 1938, and Michael and Kathie Ziwei bought it in 1966, eight years after they arrived from Germany. They’ve passed on, but their son Michael continues to run the bar and he prides himself on his Derby parties.  Years ago the Home Tavern served food.  There are stories of workers from this then-industrial stretch of Lincoln Avenue waiting in long lines for Kathie’s schnitzel and a beer or two (and maybe a shot) for lunch. Now, the factories are condos and Starbucks and the Home Tavern only serves food when Mike feels like it, and when he does he gives it away.   Fortunately, Derby Day is one of those days. 

There is an outstanding selection of good German beers on tap and a reasonable selection of liquors (including quite a few bottles of German schnapps).  But joints like this don’t mess with super premium brands, and I’d be disappointed if they did.  There are plenty of places in town to order high-end bourbon for sipping and that’s great, but this is a place where you come to knock back a few.  

I had reviewed the horses for most of the races the night before and made all my wagers early Saturday afternoon online.   It was now time to go to the Derby - Chicago style.  Ziwei is a horse enthusiast and knows his way around a racing form as well as anyone I know, so it’s not uncommon to come in and see a horse race on the TV.  It is less common to walk in and smell ham cooking and see Ziwei prepping a large bunch of mint for juleps.  It is just before the sixth race of the day and I enter with racing form in hand and an official Churchill Downs 140th Derby glass that my mom sent me as part of a Derby care package.  Mint juleps always taste better in these glasses!

This year, Ziwei made his simple syrup a day in advance and boiled it with fresh mint in it to extract the flavors.  He must not have heated it too long because there is no hint of bitterness that can accompany overly steeped mint.  He fills my glass with ice, fills it about ¾ with Maker’s Mark and tops it off with the syrup and a sprig of mint.  Fantastic.   Maker’s wouldn’t be my first choice in a mint julep because I find the bourbon’s sweetness a bit much with the syrup and mint.  But Ziwei’s heavy hand on the whiskey increased the punch, decreased the sweetness, and the flavors blended really well. As I walk in, the crowd is still fairly sparse.  A couple regulars are sitting at the still-subdued bar.  There is a salesman who has been coming to the Home Tavern since he moved from New England years ago and the other is a pedicab driver who is still deciding the best time to go out and pick up those in want of an open air “cab “ ride on this sunny spring day that Chicagoans have been dreaming about since October.  The salesman made his bets last night and is relaxing with his first julep of the day.  A former Bostonian, it’s not surprising that Wicked Strong is his pick of the day.  The pedicab driver is not drinking yet (he still has work to do) but anticipates coming back as the place gets more crowded and the food is served.  The place itself reminds me of the basement bar that my great-aunt Honey used to have back in Louisville when I was a kid.  Even before I could drink, it was a fun place to hang out, with all the trinkets behind the bar and on the wall, the dirty joke ashtrays, and drink-mixing paraphernalia.  The only difference is the Home Tavern hasn’t had ashtrays since Illinois banned smoking and Aunt Honey never had Cubs gear hanging up everywhere.

As the races continued, and my worthless wager tickets became tiny paper airplanes, I talked to Ziwei about bourbon while he concocted more juleps. Mike says his favorite bourbon in a julep is Woodford Reserve, but he adds that it is too expensive for many of his regulars who come in for the races.  He’s not shy about his views on much of anything, bourbon included, even the relatively newly fashionable brands like Pappy Van Winkel, Pappy might age its bourbon for 15, 20 and 23 years – but he’s not having any. When asked why not, Ziwei says he’s too old for that.  “Old people don’t drink new things.  I wear old pants.  Hell, I’m 10 years away from wearing polyester pants.”  In his mid-50s I wouldn’t say he’s old – but he is set in his ways.  Normally a beer drinker, he told me that when he drank more bourbon he enjoyed Cabin Still (from Heaven Hill) and Walker’s DeLuxe, which Hiram Walker and Sons made until its Peoria distillery closed in 1981, several years after the bottom had fallen out of the bourbon market. I hate to break it to him.

His take on higher-proofed bourbons is equally direct:  “All bourbon should be 86 proof.  When you go higher your customers get fucked up and you end up with a bunch of drunks on your hands.”  When I remind him that sometimes it’s OK to just have one or two he smirked, shook his head, and asked if I was nuts. 

The man behind the bar at Home Tavern isn’t a bourbon connoisseur—and neither are many of his customers. There was a time when most bourbon drinkers weren’t. Derby Day is as good a day as any to remember the role they played in keeping the industry alive when it was down.

In the 1960s, as attitudes among young people changed, appetite for bourbon fell steeply. Distilleries closed and brands died. The crisis deepened throughout the 1970s as bourbon was cheap, overstocked and not especially respected. Mike Veach, the Louisville-based bourbon historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon History, told Bourbon Story in March that it wasn’t until the rise of premium single-malt scotch in 1980s that a brighter path appeared ahead for the bourbon industry. That path was all about changing the image of bourbon to a drink fit for finer company, and that’s exactly what distillers have succeeded in doing over the past 25 years. 

But Veach also noted that before the bust in the late 1960s, there was a boom. He calls the 1950s “the golden age of the Kentucky bourbon industry” – a time when a bust seemed as unlikely as one does today. When it came, many distilleries closed – but many remained, and those that did owed a large debt of gratitude to hard-core loyalists like Mike Ziwei and his parents, and their clientele. They kept the market going, sluggish as it was, and they were doing so in places like Home Tavern all over the country.  Sometimes, with the headlines full of shortages and buzz over hard-to-find 23-year-old bottles of Pappy, it’s easy to forget that.

Last year, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey supplies took in $2.4 billion in revenue, about the same as rum suppliers and more than any other kind of whiskey. Most of those sales, though, came from the high-end juice. Value brands accounted for just $172 million in sales, and shipped just 3 million cases, about one sixth of the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey total.

That Mike and his clientele are out of fashion is easy to see. According to numbers supplied by Frank Coleman, top spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, some 18 million cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold last year. That’s 5 million more cases than were sold in 2002. The good news for the distilleries is that all of that growth happened in the premium, high-end premium and super-premium categories. Value bourbon? It sold just about exactly the same number of cases in 2013 as it did a decade before.

The loyalists who like their Old Fo’ or Old Crow are still at it, plugging and chugging (and enjoying) while the Super Premiums often bask in the glory.
This brings me back to the Home Tavern.  While Ziwei’s bourbon selection is not shabby, you’ll not see any Willett’s Single Barrel, Michter’s or Blanton’s.  What you will see are the workhorses of Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey 81 – all of which you can pick up at your corner liquor store for $15 to $20, give or take a few bucks. And you’ll see them continuously emptied, replaced, and emptied again…day-after-day…Bourbon boom or not. 

As they call the horses to the post for the 11th race of the day (the Kentucky Derby) they start playing “My Old Kentucky Home” and the goose bumps rise.  The smell of the ham really starts to permeate the place and I go for another julep.  The race goes off, California Chrome rides to the finish, and once again my picks are left in the dust.  The place has started to fill up with regulars and non-regulars alike.  

Following the race, Ziwei sets up the buffet with his ham, a pork shoulder that he slow-roasted the day before, some German-style coleslaw and assorted other sides.  I brought over some Benedictine spread that I made the night before (I had no idea it was basically glorified artificially-colored cream cheese).  Even though I was over 300 miles away from Churchill Downs I was enjoying some pork products with friends, noshing on a Benedictine sandwich, and sipping on a mint julep with a pocketful of worthless betting slips.  It doesn’t get more Derby than that, no matter where you are.


Dr. Allen Helm (@bourbonstoryAl) is Chicago editor for Bourbon Story Magazine. Email him with suggestions at rahelm01@gmail.com.

Texas aims for Kentucky-like devotion to its whiskey, but wants to keep Texas flavor

By ANGELA SHAH
Texas Editor / BourbonStory.com

HOUSTON -- My first newspaper job out of the University of Texas was writing about municipal bonds. Never mind that I knew next to nothing about the topic. It was a recession and a job was a job. In order to get to know the denizens of my new world, I set up meetings with investment bankers, plying them with questions as I plied them pours of Macallan and Glenfiddich. Lucky for me, my then-bosses didn’t bat an eye at the accumulated $100 tabs, usually at the now departed Beau Nash at the Crescent, that I was submitting for a single night’s source meeting.

That was also my introduction to world of Scotch whisky smoky and sweet, mellow and peppery. In time, bourbon found its way into my glasses, too.

Those brands still reign today, of course, and premium bourbons are commanding as much attention as the single-malts of early encounters. But mumblemumble-years later, the focus on craft-distilling and locavore nourishment has spurred a homegrown whiskey industry in Texas, one that has brought new bourbons and other whiskeys to Texas palettes. In just the last few years, half a dozen homegrown distilleries have begun producing Texas-style whiskey and bourbon, drawing on Kentucky’s traditions but embracing local agriculture and tapping our harsh summers to create a unique Texas flavor.

“The idea is to make a Texas product, not to just try to copy what’s going on in Kentucky,” says Ryan Baird, co-founder of Yellow Rose Distillery in Houston, which makes four spirits, including a rye, that sell for as much as $65.

The result is attracting fans—and recognition. Yellow Rose, which produced its first batch only 18 months ago, was named best in category at the American Distilling Institute’s most recent judging of artisan spirits last fall. Balcones Distilling in Waco last year took home a trifecta of accolades, including World Single Malt of the Year, in the Wizards of Whisky awards in London.

At a time when legacy whisky brands are scrambling, unable to keep up with drinkers’ thirst, the emergence of Texas-based distillers is helping to fill the void. “I keep Balcones in the back,” says Everett Lynch at the Houston Wine Merchant of the distillery’s signature Baby Blue corn whiskey. “People have to ask for it.”

It’ll be a while before Texas distillers will command the devotion of their Kentucky brethren—and even longer before their sales measure up to the millions of barrels already aging in the Bluegrass State. Long lead times in production and a prevalence of smaller bourbon barrels mean a lot of room for tinkering. Baird acknowledges that a Texas pedigree needs 10 or 20 years to be fully formed.

But such immaturity, so to speak, hasn’t dissuaded Texas whiskey’s loyal following. “People in Texas like things from Texas,” says Lynch at the Houston Wine Merchant. “And they’re willing to pay premium prices for it.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, a growing gaggle of Brooks Brothers-besuited young men gathered at Leon’s Lounge, chugging on beer bottles and sipping single malts. As I asked the bartender about the interest of patrons in Texas whiskeys, we overheard one of them say to another, Hey, I heard they’re pretty good. What’s that one you had?

And so begins a tradition.

Of the group of us at Bourbon Story, I am the official novice. But I do know that Texans’ enthusiasm for their compatriots along with a healthy competitive spirit means I’m in for a lively learning curve. I’m looking forward to coming along this journey with you.

Angela Shah (@angelashah) is Texas editor of BourbonStory.com. Email her with ideas, suggestions or complaints at angela.shah@gmail.com.

 

 

Betting big on bourbon: Louisville aims to stake its claim as heart of the booming industry

LOUISVILLE -- This week in Louisville, Derby fans will be betting big and buying up plenty of ultra-expensive bourbon all over the city. After all, dozens of restaurants and bars are now official stops on the Urban Bourbon Trail, which according to the rules means they must keep at least 50 brands of bourbon behind the bar.

Last Christmas, I bellied up to one of the best places in town to eat, or drink, or talk with someone who knows his bourbon. The bartender at Jack Fry's told me that sure, he keeps Pappy Van Winckle on hand -- just not in view. "It's under the bar, where we keep it until Derby time. That's the only time people are foolish enough to pay what we can charge for it."

(By people, he meant out-of-towners. Louisvillians like their Pappy, same as anyone, but they remember just a few years ago when the good stuff was easy to find -- and for under $100 a bottle.) 

A few days later, I met some friends at the Bristol Bar & Grille, a casual-but-cozy place in the city's old Highlands neighborhood that's been around for longer than I've been legally entitled to order a drink. When the waitress asked for orders, my friend ordered a Pappy 12 year old, neat. No, he called her back a few moments later, make it a 20-year. It was Christmas and he was throwing money around.

The waitress came back and inquired. "Do you want that mixed with coke?"

I relay this story to tell you something you should know. The bourbon boom in Louisville is real. There's good bourbon at more places, and in more variety, in its restaurants and bars than in any city in the world. Trust me on this. But it's also a city whose enthusiasm for bourbon is rising so quickly, that even well-known spots like the Bristol find themselves capable of both being a stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail and of hiring servers who ask a drinker if he wants his Pappy served in a class of soda pop. 

Inside that juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible truths is a warning: The Bourbon Boom is as likely to be a bubble as it is to be the Start of Something Real. Looked from that perspective, a waitress asking a diner to drink his Pappy with his coke is nothing if not an exhibition of irrational exuberance. 

Two men at a Louisville still. Image used courtesy of city of Louisville. 


And yet, there's plenty of signs that suggest smart people in Kentucky understand this risk, and working to both minimize it and to survive it should the boom turn into a bubble that can, as so many in the past, burst. 

The stakes are high that they do. Louisville's leaders are betting big that by fully embracing its bourbon heritage, it can do more than earn a place in the hearts of drinkers like me and you. They are betting that the boom in bourbon is going to shake the city free of a long period of doldrums. They are betting on booze to bring jobs, tourism and taxes.

The city's mayor is a forward-thinking former business executive. He helped invent an ice machine that turned a small business his father set him up in into a major concern. He keeps a bar full of bourbon in City Hall, one so well stocked that it would make Prince Charles ask for seconds. He also knows that the bourbon boom isn't guaranteed to last. 
  
“As we all know, bourbon is ‘hot’ right now,” said Mayor Greg Fischer, in releasing a report Monday about the future of the bourbon industry in Louisville. “Fortune Magazine recently said we’re in a ‘Billion-Dollar Bourbon Boom.’ But while trends come and go, bourbon is a proud part of Louisville’s history, a big part of our present and, with this plan, will be an even bigger part of our future. This is our chance to increase the momentum so that Louisville and bourbon are as classically paired as Napa Valley is to wine.”

Now's the chance, he said. And Louisville better grab at it. 

The report was the work of the mayor's hand-picked committee of 60 or so advisors on how to make the city a drinks powerhouse. It was chock full of distillery types and business titans. They made six major recommendations, and one of the first was to solve what I'll call the Bristol Bourbon Blunder Problem. 

Recommendation: Create a bourbon certification and recognition system in which the hospitality industry (especially front-line servers and bartenders) would become certified bourbon experts. The goal is for every hospitality employee to know the history of bourbon and be able to expertly discuss brands with customers. The Filson Club will be a key partner in this effort because it already has the Bourbon Academy. Emphasis theirs.

That might not sound like a big deal, but it does show that someone at the city, or on the panel anyway, is listening. I brought the Bristol problem up in March, when I toured Maker's Mark distillery with chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr., and it struck a nerve then. I'm glad he helped see that it was addressed in the report. 

Why does it matter? Louisville woke up a few years ago and realized that bourbon was back, and yet not one in 100 bourbon fans who could cite the pedigree of any seven of the distilleries in Kentucky knew that Louisville had played an important role in birthing the bourbon industry.

In short, it's heritage had disappeared from the common knowledge of even Louisvillians, who believed like everyone else that the bourbon industry started, or started to get serious anyway, in Bardstown and its environs just before and after Prohibition. 

But the state's largest city played an enormous role in the development of bourbon back from the frontier days -- it was founded in 1778, and stills were being licensed just a few years later. Heck, by 1783, my own ancestor James Patten would sell 660 acres of land to a distiller named Marsham Beshears, for the price of 165 gallons of whiskey.

By the 19th Century, scores of offices for distilleries stood one after another along the city's famous Whiskey Row. During Prohibition, 10 distilleries in America were licensed to keep making, and selling, whiskey. For medicinal purposes, you understand. One of them was Brown Forman, which is still controlled by the family who founded it. (Last month, I asked master distiller Chris Morris how the company got so lucky, when so many others nearby had not. His answer: Despite, years of effort to find out, the reason remains a mystery.

The last few years have seen Louisville move fast to rectify that historical oversight. The distillery tours -- first offered by Maker's Mark, and with others soon following -- will always be the main draw for bourbon fans seeking to get close to the source. But Louisville now boasts scores of locations to drink quality bourbon and -- in just the past year or so -- has begun opening tasting rooms and, in some cases, small distilling operations by the giant bourbon companies. The Evan Williams Experience, put on by Heaven Hill, is not to be missed. More facilities are opening this year, and more are planned for further down the road. 

There is a reason for all this: Bourbon means bucks. In 2012 alone, distilleries spent $50 million on capital projects in Louisville, where the report issued Monday says some 4,200 people are employed by the bourbon industry. The city's bourbon industry generates some $42 million in tax revenue, the report says. 

What the recommendations in the report are really, then, is proof that the city knows its chance to capitalize on its heritage is fleeting. Bourbon isn't going anywhere, but the boom we're seeing today doesn't have to last. The industry has certainly seen its share of booms and busts over the long history. What Louisville is hoping to do is to cement its place as the beating heart of the industry, a place where it's easy to find good bourbon -- and to find servers who know the good stuff isn't ever going to look good in a class of Coca Cola. 

(Editor's note: Thanks to the city of Louisville, office of the mayor, for use of images above, and to graphic designer Priscilla Daffin for her timeline (top) of the history of Bourbon in Louisville.) 

Once upon a time, Hunter S. Thompson walked into a bar in Kent ...

HUNTER-Study in Gamboge Hatjpg.jpg

Years after they first met in Louisville for the 1970 Kentucky Derby, the Welsh artist Ralph Steadman invited Hunter S. Thompson to his home in Kent, in southern England. He introduced Thompson to the artist's local publican, who poured measured out Thompson a scotch.

As the story in the audio clip above reveals, the prevailing custom when it came to portions were not Thompson's liking. An intervention was required, but Steadman reports Thompson and the barkeep became good friends. "He even offered me his daughter," Thompson later told him. 

For more on the friendship between Steadman and Thompson and for a longer clip of the interview I conducted for Beacon last fall, go here. There is also a story up about Louisville's weeklong Gonzofest here.  

Editor's note: This post was corrected to note that Steadman was living in Kent, not Wales, at the time of the visit.