The Casks v.2.0

Home, sweet home...

Ah, so it appears I haven’t disappeared after all. Sorry for the hiatus. Once again, real life reared its beautiful head and offered up some far more important things to do than write about whisky. This time around, the important thing just happened to be a small, old building that my wife and I purchased to keep our family and all our crap in. Getting our family and all our crap from the old small, old building to this new, slightly less small, old building was also important and surprisingly took up a little bit of time. In many ways, it was a bit of a lost summer. Indeed, there was about a five week period where I’m not sure I drank any alcohol at all, let alone whisky, though why anybody would go through a house-hunt and subsequent house-buying completely sober is beyond me.

In any case, I am now back at it once again, hopefully with a little more gusto than I’ve been able to muster up over the last year or so, but perhaps not. I’ll make no promises. Life is filled with many more important things than whisky, and while I can’t think of any off the top of my head, I’m sure something may come up in the near future to slow things down around here again, but until then, here’s more of the same old stuff jazzed up with a new look…

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Obligatory April Fool’s Day Whisky Blog Post.

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Ship of Fools"
Hieronymus Bosch, “The Ship of Fools”

Despite knowing that a number of humorless curmudgeons find this kind of thing annoying, I’ve always enjoyed concocting some cockamamie story about some preposterous whisky-related something or other for April Fool’s Day. I’ve enjoyed it despite occasionally not going far enough, or perhaps more accurately, underestimating how ridiculously far the whisky/booze/bar industry goes and ending up writing something kind of plausible despite its implausibility. So this year when I sat down to write something funny, it took me all of about three minutes to realize that whatever it was I had in mind, the industry had already beaten me to it.

I could’ve written a story about a new major release that comes in special 500ml “compact” bottles but costs even more than most other standard-size releases…but that just sounds stupid and no one would think getting less for more was funny.

I could’ve made up some bullcrap about a big whiskey heist, some Smokey and the Bandit caper where two charming guys in tight pants make off with a large amount of over-hyped bourbon…but no one really thinks stealing overrated whiskey is worth going to jail for, that’s just silly.

I could’ve gone macabre and made something up about a blended whisky brand creating a scant few, customized, presumably collectible bottles to house their cheap blended whisky. Instead of the usual fancy wooden box, or overblown Lalique crystal decanter, these special bottles could be made to look like tattooed skin because, you know, nothing says class like drinking cheap scotch out of some tattooed guys leg. Nah, nevermind, that’s gross.

I could’ve spun a yarn about a guy who walks into a liquor shop and buys a bottle of readily available Scotch for $90 and goes home to find that the same bottle just sold for three times that much at auction…and a mini of the same whisky sold for four times what he paid. People are stupid, we all know that, but a story like that…that’s going too far, people are not that pathetic, are they?

I could’ve written a hypothetical scenario wherein some huge, impossibly greedy company decides it’s ok to suck up the valuable legislative time of a state’s government by “persuading” a congressman to introduce a doomed-from-the-start law that attempts to weaken the standards by which a rival company makes a product. Nevermind the fact that the rival company sucked up valuable legislative time creating the standards in the first place, ostensibly to protect the heritage of the state, but really just to protect their own brand. The rival company got there first, so fair play to them. Nobody likes to read fiction about big companies forcing politicians to do their dirty work.

If I was really clever, I would’ve followed up the above story with another bit of farce wherein the huge, impossibly greedy company, stung by the legislative loss, decides to sue the state they previously had cozied up to for having a 77 year-old law that just doesn’t fit into their money-making…er, sorry, doesn’t allow them to make the best whisky they can. No one would think that kind of thing would happen in real life. Whisky companies don’t spend all their time influencing lawmakers and hiring armies of lawyers, they spend their time coming up with brainy schemes like expensive 500ml bottles of NAS whisky.

Speaking of armies of lawyers, maybe there could’ve been a funny story about a big company getting sued for using a name like “the Explorers Club” when there already was an Explorers Club. Instead of firing the intern who didn’t do the due diligence in researching the name, the big company could argue that their “Explorer’s Club” has a possessive apostrophe and the original does not – a semantic difference, yes, but an important one, especially since one club is dedicated to the exploration of the land, sea, air, and space, and the other club is dedicated to the exploration of overpriced  travel retail booze and business class amenities.

Or maybe instead of an army of lawyers, there could be a navy of lawyers from one big company shouting, “avast!” to another big company for using a suspiciously similar sea-faring character to sell cheap rum. Everyone likes a good courtroom drama and the climax to this poop deck would be when the prosecutor, coolly antagonistic in a pretty nice suit practically mounts the witness and with all the confidence of Trafalgar square behind him, queries, “did Admiral Horatio Nelson actually wear an eyepatch or did you just make that shit up to compete with our mustachioed pirate?” High drama to be sure.

That courtroom stuff is pretty good. I could’ve written something about packs of whisky bloggers, egos running amok, snapping at each others throats and constantly fighting off accusations of ethical sluttiness and industry crony-ism by people who apparently hate whisky blogs yet spend all their time reading and commenting on them, or even “writing” their own, but there’s no story arc there. The characters are flaccid, the rising action tepid at best, and the denouement more concerned with page views and web rankings than anything else.

No, in the end, this year there will be no April Fool’s post. In the same way one red-blooded, cross-waving faction of American politics keep preempting the lampoonists and satirists by saying unbelievably stupid things, the whisky industry keeps churning out crap that sets the bar mighty high in terms of churning out lampoonist and satirical crap that makes fun the of whisky industry.

Reckless Moments in Booze Marketing, Vol. 1

I’d like to think this would become a regular feature around here, but seeing as I, myself, am powerfully irregular… there’s really not much hope in that. The fact is, pretty much every piece of booze related marketing/advertising/PR contains something at least a little silly and worth calling out…it would be impossible to track them all. But there are occasions when the silliness over-reaches and becomes downright stupid and even mildly enraging. The past week, there were two such pieces of booze “news” that came to my attention, one because of its big-time desperate inaccuracy, the other because of its big-time steamrolling greed.

Let’s go with the greedy one first. Back in December of 2013, Diageo announced that they would be doubling the capacity of and introducing a new range of four malts from cult-favorite distillery Mortlach. On the surface, this seemed like kind of good news, a renowned distillery usually laboring in the shadow of blends, finally gets to see more light of day. My immediate feeling, however, was, “they’re going to ruin this for everyone.” They announced that the range would be made up of two “no age statement” (NAS) whiskies and two older expressions. The NAS whisky trend has come under a lot of fire for being generally over-hyped, under-matured, and over-priced so that was warning sign #1. Warning sign #2 was the fact that Diageo really doesn’t do expanded ranges with their single malts. Usually, there’s just one or two core expressions from the Classic Malts line. The fact the there was going to be four core Mortlach expressions was a sure sign that Diageo was going big, and going big is never inexpensive. Warning sign #3 was when Diageo announced that there would be substantial price increases in its core single malt range to go along with the large and largely unpopular price jumps in their 2013 Limited Release editions. Whisky’s popularity is soaring, Diageo obviously think it’s time to cash in on existing brands, why would anybody think they’d do differently with the new Mortlach’s? It was depressing writing on the wall, but trying to fault a publicly traded company for making big profits any which way they can is like trying to fault a train for heading down the tracks.

This past week, Diageo offered up pics of the bottle design (hey, rectangular, how unique!) and details on pricing, and the whisky community just about crapped in their collective elastic waist-banded khaki pants. I’m sure some of the older ones swooned while the younger ones jumped to their feet and angrily pounded their chests. How dare they try to make money?!? Oh, the horrible injustice of it all! One blogger, one of the best commentators on the industry out there, was so embittered he seemed to lose his mind for a minute and practically demanded restitution because he felt it was the efforts of the tiny whisky geek community that allowed this billion dollar multi-national corporation to even attempt to re-brand the Mortlach name in the first place. Rising prices and NAS whiskies are nothing new, so why the increased outrage over this Mortlach stuff, why were people positively apoplectic? Here’s why. Because, with the exception of the US market, the bottle size for the Mortlach range will be 500ml. Yeah, you read that right. The prices for all four expressions, including the “Rare Old” NAS, entry-level (meaning it will be the easiest-to-find and the youngest…rare and old, indeed), are considered quite high for normal size bottles…and these new bottles are going to be a third smaller. Gosh, thanks, Diageo, how nice of you to try to sell us less for more. Who knows what the prices for the 750ml bottles that will be available here in US will be, I shudder to think about it.

The high prices and NAS whiskies, I would hope most people saw coming. The small bottles for even more money…I don’t think anyone saw that coming. That’s awful. It will be even more awful if it sets a trend and we see more brands on the shelves in smaller bottles with bigger price tags. High prices are one thing, but to be blatantly told you’ll be paying more for less is just relentlessly offensive. Lately, it’s felt to me that the whisky community in general has forgotten that the whisky industry is there for one reason and one reason only – to make money. It’s not there to make inexpensive, high quality whisky for a relatively small number of people. People yelp and howl about the greed of the industry and then post pictures of their huge collections online – it all seems a little naive and disingenuous at the same time. This time, though, this time the ranting and raving is well deserved. Diageo…you have gone too far. Hopefully this time whisky drinkers will more or less turn its back on this new level of greed.  This isn’t a call to boycott, it’s just a wish that people will recognize that they’re being taken for fools and react accordingly. It’s usually hard to say if something as subjective and luxurious as whisky is “worth the money” – by what and whose standard do you judge that? Then there are those rare times, however, like this one, when the standard is clear, when you don’t even have to try what’s in the bottle to know that the money-grubbing is too crass, too egregious, and the cost is way, way too high.

The second reckless moment in booze marketing was a lot less enraging and depressing. Thankfully it came not from the whisky industry, but from the beer industry. In mid-February, Miller rolled out their new Miller Fortune beer in a large, and somewhat desperate and obvious attempt to…I don’t know…do something! Big Beer, and by that I mean A-B InBev (Budwiser) and MillerCoors (Miller and…uh, Coors), control the large majority of beer sales in the US. But recent years have seen a small but steady decline for these ubiquitous brands. While the numbers are not staggering, the trend is clear, these big beer brands are losing market share to spirits, wine and even a little bit to craft beer. Young drinkers have turned away from these brands and they not likely to turn back. In an effort to appeal to these young whippersnappers who like their brown water and fancy beers, Miller has come up with “Fortune”…and it’s pretty much gone downhill after that.

The idea was that Fortune would appeal to spirits drinkers, specifically whisky drinkers apparently, and those cocktail enthusiasts who look for more complex beverages. I guess it didn’t occur to them that whisky drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts are…whisky drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts and therefore perhaps prefer whisky and cocktails. If they are into beer, they’ve already found a more complex beverage than Bud and Miller Lite…it’s loosely called “craft beer” and there’s approximately 9,458,345 different kinds out there.

According to the press release, Fortune “is an un-distilled, spirited golden lager”. This was shocking news to me. I mean, when was the last time you had an un-distilled beer? What would that even taste like? Like Diageo’s smaller-bottles-for-even-more-money-ploy, I sincerely hope MillerCoor’s un-distilled beer fad doesn’t take off, that would ruin beer for…oh wait, ALL BEER IS UN-DISTILLED! If you distill beer, you know what you have? Whisky (kind of, more or less…in a rough manner of speaking). While trying to snare drinkers who aren’t going to be interested in the product anyway, the PR people managed to cleverly state the obvious and confuse the issue all at the same time.

Mentioning the words “distilled” and “spirited” put the new brand into some early trouble when an inaccurate Bloomberg News Service article clumsily made references to the “bourbon-like lager” with flavors “hinting at bourbon” and made a big deal out of the idea that this is a beer you’re supposed to pour into a rocks glass, not a beer glass. MillerCoors had to come back out and do a little damage control to clear-up the erroneous notion that this was a flavored or bourbon barrel-aged beer. They didn’t clear up the beer in a rocks glass thing, though; that was their idea. Seriously. In their effort to recapture the palates of those who have turned away from beer and towards spirits, they’ve decided that Fortune’s amber color looks bourbon-like and therefore will appeal to bourbon drinkers if you put it in a rocks glass. Here’s what bourbon drinkers actually like to see in a rocks glass: bourbon. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on getting marketing degrees, a big company like MillerCoors supposedly hiring the best and the brightest of ’em, and what they can come up with is, “maybe we can get knowledgeable spirits drinkers to drink our beer if it looks like bourbon and we tell ’em to put it a bourbon glass! Hell, it’ll sell on looks alone!”  People drinking spirits and cocktails are doing so because they like spirits and cocktails, NOT because they like to have something amber-colored in a rocks glass…that seems obvious to me, but then again, I don’t have a marketing degree.

This brings us to the beer itself, which is technically an American Amber Lager, a lighter style not really known for deep complexity. It’s 6.9% alcohol which means, technically because of the lager style, you wouldn’t be wrong in calling this a malt liquor…also a style not really known for deep complexity, certainly not known for being a rocks glass worthy beer. So, in the end, we have a relatively simple style of beer wrapped up in an edgy bottle and silly, confusing marketing speak, made by a huge beer company that seems to be just lobbing shit out there and hoping it sticks in an effort to recapture a bit of market share that they probably don’t have a chance of recapturing no matter what they do. Why? What the hell was MillerCoors thinking on this one? Trying to have a beer compete in the spirits arena is like throwing a cat into a tank full of sharks. The cat is just not going to make it. This is not a slam against cats, cat-lovers, if the shoe was on the other paw and you tossed a shark into a sandbox full of cats, chances are the shark’s a goner.

So there we have it, two reckless moments in booze marketing, one depressingly, relentlessly and aggressively money-grubbing, the other desperately flailing, ill-conceived, and silly. Unfortunately, Diageo knows exactly what’s it’s doing. MillerCoors, apparently not so much.

Far North Spirits – Profile and Interview

FNS_logo_Skane_lockup_grayNow that I’m a resident of the great state of Minnesota, I thought I’d show a little local pride by profiling a new Minnesota distillery. Tucked way the hell up there in the hinterland-ish, northwest corner of the state, not far from the small town of Hallock, Far North Spirits broke ground in the Spring of this year and is poised to be one of the northern-most distilleries in the U.S. In the last couple of years, the craft distilling movement has gone from being a burgeoning trend to what is today a delightful, occasionally delicious, full-blown epidemic. It’s become far easier to open a distillery in pretty much any town in the county. Laws have been loosened, nobody wants to drink rail cocktails anymore, and locavore foodies are feeling good (and smug) about boozing again. With any kind of movement like this, at some point the explosion is always followed by the real contenders separating themselves from the pretenders. We haven’t reached that point yet. To be sure, there are some great craft distilleries out there, but there are also some that need a little help. There are also some that are just downright full of shit. There seem to be quite a few “craft” brands that imply small-scale distilling but in reality are actually just bottling and labeling juice they’ve purchased from a large-scale commercial distiller…most likely the large-scale commercial distiller located in Indiana. Slapping a label on a bottle can’t really be called a craft…sure, there might be some skill to it, to get it on straight and all, but it’s not a craft. Many true craft distillers are also quite vocal about trying to control as much of their own process as they can, and often this unfortunately leads to rather inflated claims of doing everything from “grain to bottle”. It’s only on very rare occasions that you find a distillery actually growing their own grain, processing it, fermenting, it, distilling it, maturing it, bottling it, and skillfully slapping a label on a bottle of it. With their upcoming rye whisky, Far North intends to do just that.

Swanson Rye Harvest 2013
The Swanson Farm 2013 Rye Harvest
Far North Spirits
Far North Spirits

Located on their fourth generation family farm, Far North Spirits is the brainchild of the husband and wife team of Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese. With their respective backgrounds in bio-chemistry and sustainability, and PR and marketing, the couple decided to return to their roots and create a business combining the locally focused, sustainable sensibilities of traditional farming and experimental craft distilling. They are looking to begin production by October of this year, and like many small distilleries do, they hope to release a rye-based gin and a spiced rum by the end of the year to generate some early cash-flow. They will be producing a rye whisky that they intend to release in the Fall of 2014. The rye, wheat, and corn (thankfully, all non-GMO) will all be grown and milled at the farm, while the botanicals for the gin and spices for the rum will be sourced as locally as possible. Believe it or not, there is a bit of Scandinavian heritage in the state of Minnesota, and Far North has taken that family heritage and incorporated it into the naming and packaging, and in the future, hopes to create special editions of traditional Scandinavian liqueurs.

Fairly exciting stuff, if you ask me. As if running a farm and building a distillery wasn’t enough work, Michael graciously took some time to answer a few questions The Casks had for Far North Spirits

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The farm has been in the family for a while, but when and why did you decide to start the distillery?

Yes, almost 100 years (1915); the idea started with the desire to live more simply and seasonally. Research on making a finished product with grains from our family farm turned up the old farming model of turning grain into whiskey, which sounded like a helluva lot more fun than scaling up acreage and playing the commodities market. In 2009, while getting my MBA at St. Thomas, I wrote a mini-business plan on making whiskey, seed-to-glass, for an entrepreneurial class. The idea never went away.

What is your background in distilling?

None. Like a lot of craft distillers, we are coming in absolutely new to this process. Strange thing is, everything I’ve learned is useful – the bio/chemistry degree, writing about food/drink, cooking, marketing, not to mention being a farm kid and working with lots of different kinds of equipment. That’s probably been the most helpful because after talking with dozens of distillers (and training with 45th Parallel in New Richmond, WI, Koval in Chicago and Spring 44 in Denver), I’ve realized that they’re a lot like farmers. Everyone has their own way of doing this – there’s no wrong way. At the same time, it’s similar to talking with farmers about crop rotation, everyone thinks their way is best. You talk to any one of the 10+ distillers starting up in MN right now, and every one of them is getting there in a slightly different way, but a way that works for them. 

The phrase “grain to bottle” is oft-used, and frankly sometimes abused by craft distilleries, could you take us through, step-by-step, your farming, harvesting, milling, and distilling process?

We are a true seed-to-glass distillery. I sourced each of the seed varieties we’re growing myself — organic corn, winter rye and winter wheat (no GMO). I planted 140 acres of rye on Section 4 of the family farm; 7 acres of corn is growing right outside our distillery door. I plan on harvesting the rye soon – probably by second week of August. From there, once each of the grains have been cleaned and dried by a local seed dealer, I’ll mill them at the distillery, mash, and ferment for 3-4 days, then distill. The rye will be the neutral spirit for the gin and the base of the rye whiskey. The rye whiskey will be mostly rye, with a bit of corn to sweeten it.

Speaking of the rye, are you using a particular variety of rye and what are its distinct qualities?

We started with a variety called AC Hazlet. This is a winter rye, and I chose it based on yield, winter hardiness, and resistance to lodging (stands up well, literally, against the wind and rain – ed.). It’s a bit shorter in height than older varieties of rye, and this is primarily what helps with the lodging. There are dozens of rye varieties, and I’ll likely give a few of them a try next year and see how they like it on our ground.

Not knowing much about farming (ok, not really knowing anything), how much distilling capacity does your grain crop allow? Are all the crops used solely for the booze-making?

We’re only using a fraction of the family’s 1,500 acre farm for the distillery operation. One can make a surprising amount of booze from a small amount of grain. I’ll use approximately 25 bushels of grain (about 1,500 lbs) per 500-gallon mash. If yields are average, I calculate that I can produce all the grain I can distill in a year on less than 100 acres. And you can only distill grain from the current year – keeping it longer can reduce your alcohol yield. I’ve already had other distillers ask me if I’ll have any extra rye this year, and it looks like we will so we’ll either sell the excess to other distillers, or on the open commodities market.

What type of still(s) are you using and what is the distillery’s capacity?

We’re using one 500-gallon and one 50-gallon copper pot stills custom-made by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky. We’ll start by producing around 8,900 proof gallons, or 4,700 cases. Our capacity without additional expansion is around 19,000 proof gallons, or around 10,000 cases.

When will the first spirit be run?

Legally, we can’t run until we get our Distilled Spirits Permit (DSP). We can purchase equipment and set everything up, but we can’t operate any of it until the permit is in place. That will likely take place in early September if the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau – ed.) grants us our permit according to schedule.
 
Now that said, one can do a significant amount of experimentation that doesn’t involve direct distilling. Infusions of spices and botanicals can be done using high-proof neutral spirit (Everclear), or high-proof rum. This gives a significant amount of information about flavor and blending characteristics. For the gin, I’ll be distilling each of my botanicals separately, and then blending them together to make the final product. This process is more time-consuming, but I think it yields a superior gin. When you talk about botanicals you’re talking about plants after all, and this represents a multitude of variability. Location, seasonal effects, environmental changes, etc. Distilling the “sweet spot” of each botanical gives you much more control over your product, and helps maintain consistency batch to batch. 
 
With the spiced rum, I’ll infuse some of the spices separately. Some of the flavor characteristics that I’m looking for show up sooner or later in the infusion process depending on the spice.

What types of casks are you using and where are you sourcing them from?

New American oak. We’ll be sourcing from the Barrel Mill and Black Swan cooperages, both located in Minnesota.

There’s some thought that using smaller casks to decrease the maturation time is “rushing” it, in a way skipping a step, and there’s a resulting lack of complexity, what are your thoughts? Will you be using “full-size” barrels in the future?

I’ll be putting away whiskey in small (10 gallon) and large (30 & 53 gallon) barrels, depending on how long I plan to age it. I don’t think that aging whiskey in a smaller barrel is rushing it, necessarily. As long as the whiskey has a chance to move through the extraction and reaction phases with the wood, and you fermented and distilled it with a smaller barrel format in mind, you have a lovely whiskey from a small barrel. In fact, using a small barrel for a longer aging period can be detrimental; you start pulling flavors out of the wood that you don’t want.

How long will the first run of rye be aged for?

Our first whiskey release will be aged for 12-16 months in 10-gallon barrels. 

Do you plan on holding on to some maturing stocks?

Absolutely. I’ll be putting away whiskies in 30 & 53-gallon barrels for longer aging. I plan on releasing “straight” whiskies in the future, and this requires a minimum of 2 years per TTB regulations.

Being that far north, with the long, cold winters, and shorter but potentially quite hot summers, what challenges do you foresee the climate having on distilling and maturation and likewise, do you see any advantages?

Well, the climate has a lot more challenges to farming than distilling! In fact, there are some distinct advantages for distilling. The temperature swings from season to season actually help the aging process – the expansion and contraction of the barrels allow for greater interaction between wood and whiskey, yielding a greater depth of flavor. For this reason, our aging room is not climate controlled.
Distilling and agricultural production complement each other quite well, if you think in terms of energy flows. In agriculture, a short summer means that you “make hay while the sun shines” (harness the available energy for plants). You really have to have your act together to get the most out of the growing season – there are narrow windows of opportunity to plant, cultivate, and harvest each crop. In distilling, the energy flows are “flipped”. Distilling equipment produces quite a bit of heat, and ramping up production during a long, cold winter means that you can treat that heat as an asset rather than a waste stream. 
Winter is also a traditional time for reflection, and I think it leads to greater creativity as we ponder future recipes.

Do you have any role models/mentors/idols that have inspired you along the way?

Definitely. I’ve been particularly inspired by Bill McDonough, whose book Cradle to Cradle was very influential to me. In fact, it played a large part in my not going to medical school, and pursuing a career in corporate sustainability instead. But over the years, again and again I would find myself thinking about our family farm, and I had to admit I was the most enthusiastic about experimenting with sustainable agricultural practices. We’re planting native prairie grass and wildflowers both as decoration as well as discharge water processing around the distillery. If all goes well, I’d like to expand the native prairie areas around the distillery. I like the idea of reverting some of our farmland back to the prairie that existed here prior to the late 1800’s. During our time in the Twin Cities, I developed a real respect for Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant, and talking with him and tasting the fantastic things he could do with local ingredients was a revelation. Dave Pickerell has also been inspiring, and his “own your backyard” approach to product development has fit perfectly with what we’re doing with the farm.

Outside of your own, of course, what’s your favorite whisky? Gin? Rum?

Whiskey: Toss-up between Whistle Pig and Hillrock Estate
Gin: Right now it’s dead even between Leopold Bros American Gin and Grandten Distillery’s Wireworks Gin
Rum: Tough one! Lately I’ve been liking some Demerara rums like El Dorado, but I’m particularly fond of Montanya Rum (Colorado) and Folly Cove (Ryan & Wood – Gloucester, MA). 10 Cane as well.

Favorite music to distill by?

After I run the first few batches, I’ll send you a playlist. There will also be a separate playlist for the barrels (I plan on playing them music during the day to keep them company).

Favorite book to read whilst drinking whisky on a cold Winter night?

The winter months of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life.

In this land of 10,000 lakes, which one is your favorite?

I practically grew up on Lake of the Woods. In particular, Whitefish Bay is my favorite part of the lake – the water is clearer, and the scenery is more dramatic. In fact, back when I was in college I used to scuba dive there because the visibility was enough to make it worthwhile. After doing my open water certification while it was snowing (true story), Whitefish Bay was like a dream. But Lake Superior has the sound of the surf, which makes it really hard to choose.

Being that far north, which of the nine and a half months of Winter is your favorite?

My favorite time is from the winter solstice to the 15th of January. Basically I want to see one full moon on the snow, and then I want the whole winter business over with.

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Like I said, exciting stuff! The return to the traditional roots of farming and farmhouse distilling is certainly a compelling story. The most recent news from Far North is that their stills have arrived and are being installed. With any luck, that first run of spirit will happen very soon. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more (and tasting more) from these distilling neighbors to the north and I’d like to thank Michael and Cheri for taking the time to talk with me about Far North Spirits.

New Release: Stagg Jr. from Buffalo Trace

StaggJrThe Casks is not necessarily in the business of posting every press release that floats across my expansive oaken desk, but on the rare occasion when something tickles my fancy and I actually have a spare moment, I like to throw out exciting tidbits such as the news about this new release from Buffalo Trace. If you love bourbon, you know all about the legendary George T. Stagg bottling from Buffalo Trace’s yearly Antique Collection. It’s undeniably sky-high quality and, let’s be honest, it’s undeniably flammable high alcohol content has made this a perennially hard bottle to get ahold of. In the beginning of this year, rumors started circulating that a younger, more widely available version was in the works and whisky geeks started drooling all over themselves as they are unfortunately wont to do.

That drooling will now reach its high water as the first batch of Stagg Jr. is set to be released. Like its famous forebear, Stagg Jr. will be a high-proof, un-cut and un-filtered bourbon. Unlike its famous, approximately 18 year old forebear, Stagg Jr. will be aged for 8 – 9 years and will be released in several small batches a year. The price will be around $50 a bottle. Here’s the official press release in full:

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BUFFALO TRACE DISTILLERY ANNOUNCES

THE RELEASE OF STAGG JR. BOURBON

Uncut, Unfiltered Bourbon is a younger version of the legendary George T. Stagg Bourbon

FRANKFORT, FRANKLIN COUNTY, KY (July 25, 2013) At long last, Buffalo Trace Distillery releases Stagg Jr. Bourbon, an uncut and unfiltered bourbon whiskey with a renowned family name.

The first batch of Stagg Jr. is comprised of barrels aged for eight and nine years. The proof weighs in at a whopping 134.4 proof (67.2% ABV). Future releases will undoubtedly be different proofs, as each batch is unique and no water is added. Just like George T. Stagg Bourbon, this new whiskey is not filtered and offers all the rich and complex flavors of bourbon right from the barrel.  Bottles of Stagg Jr. will be limited, but several batches each year are planned.  This new Stagg Jr. offering will not affect the stock of barrels already set aside for future George T. Stagg releases.

Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley describes that taste as, “rich, sweet, chocolate and brown sugar flavors mingled in perfect balance with a bold, rye spiciness. The boundless finish lingers with hints of cherries, cloves and smokiness.”

“We’ve been aging these barrels for years in anticipation of this Stagg Jr. offering,” said Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director. “George T. Stagg has won countless awards, but we’re delighted to introduce Stagg Jr., which should be a bit more accessible.”

George T. Stagg is one of the legendary craftsmen of Buffalo Trace Distillery, and is responsible for building the most dominant American distillery of the 19th century on the banks of the Kentucky River, now known as Buffalo Trace Distillery.  In 2002, Buffalo Trace introduced George T. Stagg Bourbon Whiskey, an uncut, unfiltered bourbon that has won numerous awards including World’s Best North American Whiskey, Number One Spirit in the World, and World Whiskey of the Year. Now the Distillery is offering a line extension through Stagg Jr. that still maintains the integrity of the brand – a big, bold whiskey bottled at barrel proof but at a more affordable price.  Stagg Jr. will be available starting in August. Suggested retail price is $49.99 for a 750ml bottle.

About Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery is a family-owned company based in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky. The Distillery’s rich tradition dates back to 1786 and includes such legends as E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp, and Elmer T. Lee.  Buffalo Trace Distillery is a fully operational distillery producing bourbon, rye and vodka on site and is a National Historic Landmark as well as is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Distillery has won seven distillery titles since 2000 from such notable publications as Whisky Magazine, Whisky Advocate Magazine and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. It was named Whisky Magazine 2010 World Icons of Whisky “Whisky Visitor Attraction of the Year.” Buffalo Trace Distillery has also garnered more than 200 awards for its wide range of premium whiskies. To learn more about Buffalo Trace Distillery visit www.buffalotracedistillery.com.

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Le Cœur du Chêne – French Boutique Oak Cooperage

acorn3It stands to reason that in this day and age of boutique/artisanal/craft spirits someone would eventually take the leap into boutique/artisanal/craft cooperage as well. What might surprise you is that Le Cœur du Chêne, a new French forestry and cooperage, has actually been around for quite some time, indeed, its mission predates the whole “craft spirits” thing by more than half a century. Located in the Corrèze department of Limousin, Le Cœur du Chêne was founded  shortly after World War II ended by a young man named Jean Pépin-du-Pomme who had returned from his tour of duty to find himself the heir to large railway fortune. Pépin-du-Pomme’s family also owned successful vineyards and as a boy, he was fascinated by both the barrel-makers work and the deep forests of oak in his home region. With his inheritance burning a hole in his poche, he dedicated several years to the study of oak stewardship and of cooperage, and ultimately bought an enormous parcel of deforested land and set about planning the planting of the most ambitious oak farm to date.

Pépin-du-Pomme did not just simply plant trees, he carefully selected the species best suited for wine and spirits maturation and painstakingly prepared the land to grow wood that would help showcase the finest booze in the world. In a large stand of American White Oak (Quercus alba), he carefully combined shredded vanilla beans and organic orange rinds with the rich soil to enhance that wood’s inherent qualities. Likewise, groves of European Oak (Quercus petraea and Quercus robur) were grown in soil that was fertilized solely with grape must from the finest estates. Prior to planting, each acorn was soaked for a period of 24 hours in an emulsion of pure spring water, hand-milled oak dust and Italian passito wine, thereby “super charging” the seed’s growing potential as well as its vanillin and tannic producing capabilities. Pépin-du-Pomme watered each sapling by hand, a process that often kept him awake and walking to and from his artisanal well for weeks at a time. To ensure continuity of purpose, the water he used was also infused with either the vanilla and orange, or grape must that each species required. Initially, Pépin-du-Pomme inspected and cleaned each leaf of his saplings, intending to do so until they reached their harvestable maturity, though it quickly became clear that maintaining such diligence was not only impossible but fairly boring as well.

Unfortunately, Pépin-du-Pomme miscalculated either his health or the many years it takes for an oak tree to reach harvestable maturity. He sadly passed away in the early 90’s having never seen his lovingly tended trees hewn down and coopered into their final purpose. Luckily, his son Jean-Jean Pépin-du-Pomme inherited not just his father’s business but his passion as well, having wandered the beautiful oak groves with his father since before he was a young boy. Until recently, Jean-Jean has been reluctant to harvest more than a scant few trees, steadfastly declaring, “Leur temps n’est pas arrivé!”. However, in the last several months, he has deemed several acres of trees ready, excitedly declaring, “Leur temps est arrivé!”. Trees have been felled and trees have been milled, and as of this writing, oak for more than 400 barrels is drying in Pépin-du-Pomme’s patented outdoor Aqua-Kilns. The revolutionary Aqua-Kiln suspends a lattice of boards above water which simultaneously dries the wood more quickly by virtue of sunlight reflection, and more slowly by rehydrating the wood by virtue of water’s high humidity. In approximately 12- 25 months, this carefully tended wood will be ready for the cooper’s adze. There is no doubting the earnest passion, committment, and heart of Le Cœur du Chêne, but will such meticulous attention to detail and hackneyed science actually help to create a far superior product? Only time will tell if Jean Pépin-du-Pomme’s magical oak garden will bear any fruit.

Where the hell have I been, you ask?

Yes, I realize this blog’s been a little quiet lately…sorry about that. I don’t like to make excuses but I’ve got plenty of them, and since I make excuses all the time, I’m certainly not going to stop now. So what gives, where the hell have I been? Well, for the better part of the last few weeks, I’ve been home in San Francisco, chasing my 15 month-old son all over town, simultaneously trying to be that cool parent who doesn’t over-protect their kid while also frantically trying to prevent him from doing any more damage than he already has. I’ll be honest, I like my son a hell of a lot more than I like whisky so given the choice…he wins pretty much all of the time. That said, I have a lot of whisky to guzzle and hanging out with a toddler for any decent amount of time is enough to drive anyone to drink, so it was only a matter of time before I got back to the Water of Life.

I was also lucky enough to visit Scotland for just under a week. The excellent people at Inver House/International Beverage and Alembic Communications had decided, quite clairvoyantly I might add, that I needed to tour their Pulteney, Balblair, Speyburn, and Knockdhu distilleries. They were absolutely right, I DID need to tour these beautiful distilleries and I’ll be eternally grateful to all involved for the opportunity. You can bet that I’ll be writing a bit more on that subject in the (hopefully) near future. In the meantime…whisky, I’m back, baby…