Authors Posts by Geoff Kleinman

Geoff Kleinman

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+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of DrinkSpirits.com. He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist, a reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine and has contributed to Playboy Magazine. Geoff is Bar Certified with the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, has judged many major spirits and cocktail competitions and is a Kentucky Colonel.

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DeLeón Tequila
DeLeón Tequila

Trying to catch lightning in a bottle in the spirits industry is nearly impossible. What worked once for one segment of the industry often doesn’t work in another. This is one of the many challenges facing Sean “Diddy” Combs (aka P. Diddy, Puff Daddy), Diageo, and their co-operative new brand, DeLeón Tequila. Together Combs and Diageo have achieved meteoric success with Ciroc Vodka. In an ocean of failed celebrity spirits, Ciroc stands as an anomaly: an unmitigated success which has found a home not only with Diddy’s core fan base, but also with drinkers who may not even know ‘whose daddy this puff character is’. Although Ciroc and Combs are intimately intertwined, the Ciroc Vodka brand has succeeded in having its own life and identity, one which could arguably survive with or without Combs’ involvement.

The thing about success in spirits is, once you achieve it, there’s a lot of pressure to try to repeat that success. It’s very similar to a musical artist who has a smash hit debut album, and then suffers immense pressure to prove that it wasn’t some sort of fluke. Sophomore efforts are incredibly tough, because often the environment that surrounded a debut effort simply doesn’t exist anymore. Can a musician really crone about heartache and failure when no Saturday night is complete without bottle service? Now that Diageo and Combs are riding high on Ciroc Vodka, can they start again and build a new tequila brand from the ground up?

While DeLeón Tequila isn’t a brand-new brand, it’s pretty close. Prior to its acquisition, DeLeón existed primarily as a relatively small tequila brand known for astronomically expensive tequila. Combs and Diageo have taken this existing line of tequila and rebranded it as the DeLeón Luxury Line, which includes: DeLeón Diamante ($150), a joven tequila which is a blend of anejo and blanco tequila; DeLeón Extra Anejo ($350), a cask strength tequila (108 proof, 54% AVB) aged for 36 months; and, DeLeón Leóna ($850), a private reserve anejo tequila finished in French Sauternes casks.

While DeLeón’s Diamante is expensive, it’s not completely out of the stratosphere, given Casa Dragones is $299 and Patron “Gran Platinum” Tequila is $250. Prices on DeLeón Extra Anejo and Leóna, however, are pretty hard to swallow. An $850 tequila, in this phase of the tequila market, is nothing short of ridiculous, especially when you consider one of the finest anejos in the world, Tres Quatro Cinco Tequila Anejo, and even Patron’s Gran Patron Piedra Tequila, top out in high $300, low $400 range.

Recognizing that the market for ultra expensive (or more tastefully titled “luxury”) tequilas is limited, Diageo and Combs have expanded DeLeón’s offerings with three more traditional tequilas under the DeLeón Ultra-Premium line: DeLeón Platinum ($60), Reposado ($65), and Anejo ($70). Although the line is considerably less expensive than DeLeón Luxury line, it’s still well above the core offerings of other key competitors in the space including, most notably, Patron and Tequila Avion.

The first of the new DeLeón Ultra-Premium Line of tequilas to launch is DeLeón Platinum Tequila. Officially launched in November 2014, DeLeón Platinum is a blanco tequila presented a perfume-like bottle similar to the ones used in DeLeón’s Luxury line. DeLeón is using a less expensive glass and a plastic top (versus the Luxury’s metal tops).

Deleon Platinum Tequila
DeLeon Platinum Tequila

DeLeón Platinum Tequila (NOM 1535, 40% ABV, 80 proof, $60) – the nose is very representative of a highland (Los Altos) tequila, with soft pepper and roasted agave. In the center of this is light lime peel. The entry for DeLeón Platinum is soft and lightly sweet with vanilla and roasted agave combined with some nice black pepper to really balance things out. The black pepper spice ramps up into the midpalate where it’s joined by cinnamon and lime peel. For the most part, the midpalate does a nice job of presenting this intensified spice while still maintaining the undercurrent of the sweet roasted agave.

Unfortunately, towards the end of the midpalate things take an unpleasant turn. All the sweet and affable notes established from the opening completely drop off, and the the pepper spice is considerably dialed back. What we’re left with is an overly dry and fairly acidic finish with lime and eucalyptus, absent of many of the enjoyable flavor notes established in this tequila.

When you put it in context, the finish isn’t a complete surprise. DeLeón Platinum has clearly been crafted to lure premium vodka drinkers over to the premium tequila space. It’s a smart move as an increasing number of premium vodka drinkers have become disenfranchised as they’ve seen the equity in calling out premium vodka brands really erode. Unfortunately, with their Platinum, DeLeón has unnecessarily mortgaged a good tequila experience in favor of luring new customers. The ultimate cost may be in the longevity of keeping those new customers once they start really exploring the tequila space and discover offerings with more complete flavor experiences. 80 points.

DeLeón Reposado Tequila
DeLeón Reposado Tequila

DeLeón Reposado Tequila (NOM 1535, 40% ABV, 80 proof, $65). Pale gold in color, DeLeón’s reposado tequila is aged conventionally in American Oak and then finished in French Oak casks. On the nose the presence of the French Oak cask aging is unmistakable, with strong sawdust combining with light dill, caramel, roasted agave, oak, and black pepper. The wood from the nose is immediately presented on the palate in the entry with sawdust and oak combined with roasted agave and black pepper. The sawdust note subsides, giving way to a nice mix of cinnamon, caramel, roasted agave, black pepper, and oak. As with DeLeón Platinum, the reposado does a good job of balancing and integrating the sweet and spicy flavors. Also like Platinum, the reposado takes the same sharp left turn at the end of the midpalate. All the nice established flavors get the boot and all we are left with is a puckeringly dry and fairly vacuous finish.

It’s a real shame, since combining both French and American Oak does net some really nice flavors for DeLeón’s reposado, but again, they are mortgaged for a finish that’s just too dry, too neutral, and too discordant with the rest of the tequila’s taste experience. 80 points.

From a liquid point of view, DeLeón Tequila does fall short of what we’d expect from tequila at this price point, but this isn’t a brand that will win or lose on the quality of its liquid alone. The tequila market is ripe for an explosion. Diageo knows this, and it’s why they’ve given away Bushmills, an amazing brand in the Irish Whiskey space, a blockbuster category, to fully own Don Julio Tequila. It’s the same reason they picked up Peligroso Tequila and are doing this 50/50 split with Combs on DeLeón.

Unlike whiskey, where brands have been able to attract new consumers with flavored offerings, tequila hasn’t had a single flavored offering that’s resonated with consumers in any way. The strategy that seems to have more traction is to attract consumers over to agave with soft, mellow, and generally restrained expressions. Some may call it the dumbing down of tequila, but like the flavored whiskey space, it provides a drawbridge to consumers who never thought of themselves as a fan of the category.

Tequila also still seems to carry some of the baggage from the old Jose Cuervo Mixto days. Many still wrongly associate drinking tequila with a major hangover the next day. This class of crossover tequila is cut down far enough that traditional vodka drinkers are more likely to have a more positive experience with it. For many, this will be a revelation, and a reason to swap tequila in for the falling out of fashion vodka.

Having both Diageo and Sean Combs behind DeLeón is a huge advantage. Combs is still very much an all-star when it comes to the spirits space, but he’s about to find out that tequila is a much tougher sell than vodka ever was. The net effect, though, should be very positive for the tequila category in general, especially if Combs is successful in preaching the gospel of agave as something that’s as fun and ‘clean’ as vodka. The big question is, will DeLeón be able to hold on to those crossover consumers once they’re sold on tequila?

Read our Interview with DeLeon Tequila Distiller Miguel Cedeño Cruz

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DeLeone Distiller Miguel Cedeño Cruz.
DeLeón Distiller Miguel Cedeño Cruz

The response to our DeLeón Tequila review was so great, it lead to this follow-up interview with DeLeón Distiller Miguel Cedeño Cruz, who helps shed some light on the production process for DeLeón.

How many times is DeLeón Platinum Distilled?

DeLeón Tequila is produced using Alembic-style pot distillation and is twice distilled, allowing the tequila to retain its richness and nuanced character.

Does DeLeón use a diffuser in the production of its tequila?

No diffusion band extraction is utilized in the process of producing DeLeón Tequila. We employ traditional techniques – it is not a quick process. It takes time to create DeLeón and the process cannot be rushed using diffusion.

In some tequilas, a diffuser is used to extract inulin in raw agave without cooking, followed by acid hydrolysis to release fermentable sugars. Using this method creates a more neutral profile and does not yield the desired baked notes, given there is no cooking of the piñas. Additionally, some distilleries also utilize a column still to achieve a more neutral profile and expedite the production process – DeLeón does not employ either of these methods.

DeLeón employs traditional yet lengthy techniques to fully develop a number of nuances of flavor. Rushing the process by using a diffuser does not yield the desired result. DeLeón’s taste profile is crafted through each and every step of the traditional batch process, which has been perfected over multiple trials and rounds of product testing.

Does DeLeón use a tahona to grind their roasted agave?

We do not use a tahona – the agaves used to produce DeLeón tequila are pressed using traditional mills.

What technique was used to focus the spirit in the flavor direction it is in?

The traditional tequila production methods that we utilize involve a very energy-intensive batch process which takes approximately 3 full weeks from the time of harvest to the point where the liquid is ready to be bottled. There are a number of techniques employed throughout DeLeón’s process that lend themselves to the final flavor profile you taste from the bottle.

One of the things that sets DeLeón Tequila’s flavor apart is use of exceptional ingredients – agaves are hand-selected at harvest for highest quality and peak ripeness so the plants yield the sweetest piñas, giving the tequila its abundant character and balance. DeLeón’s agave grows anywhere from 6-8 years in direct sunlight in the soil. Because conditions are not equal in all fields, the plants mature independently and are harvested individually as they reach prime maturation. Overripe plants begin to decay and develop off-tasting notes.

Because each agave is unique, once they arrive at the distillery they are cut into halves, thirds or quarters dependent on the size of the particular agave. This is to ensure that we will have even baking in the clay ovens. The central part of the plant, known as the Cogollo, is removed as it adds bitterness to the final product. This isn’t a standard industry practice and helps DeLeón become a smoother, sweeter, and less-bitter tequila.

Next, the agave is transferred to the traditional brick and clay ovens where it is slow roasted. During the cooking process, I carefully decide where to cut the bitter syrup in order to remove herbal notes & bitterness. The length of cooking is important as agave needs to be baked for the perfect amount of time in order to ensure the desired delicious caramel flavors, but without any burnt notes.

Following cooking, the baked agave is transferred to the press where a traditional mill extracts most of the sugars present. Steel mills spray curtains of water over the now soft agave while pressing to remove all the juice, in order to extract the sugars.

Next, slow fermentation under my guidance, contributes enriched depth and complexity to the agave’s natural sweetness, creating a remarkably nuanced character. In our process, the temperature is controlled to allow for a long fermentation (6-7 days) which is known to produce less fusel oils and develop more complex flavor compounds.

After the fermentation period, the liquid is transferred batch by batch to be distilled in alembic pot stills. DeLeón Tequila achieves its exceptional smoothness and purity in just two distillations—allowing the tequila to retain its rich character acquired during the fermentation process.

Finally, with relentless attention to detail, I cut the beginning and end of the distillation, allowing only the absolute best portion, or Corazón, to find its way into every bottle, creating a subtle taste profile with exceptional smoothness. For most of the aged expressions, an unconventional process blends the art of tequila with the mastery of French winemaking through a unique combination of bold American Oak and fine French wine casks to impart a distinctive, balanced character.

Is there anything special being done in the filtering process?

DeLeón Tequila employs a slow, chill filtration that removes fatty acids that produce heavy vegetative notes which cover up DeLeón’s defining lighter fruity notes, fresh green agave notes and warm spice notes. The finished tequila is filtered using a proprietary unique chill filtration method, which takes some time to complete.

The Leona comes from “estate casks”, which estate and what makes them special? Why is it $850? Please help my readers understand why a tequila should be priced this high!

Reserve Añejo tequilas are selected from my private reserve and blended to capture the ultimate essence of DeLeón’s tequila making style. This exceptional tequila is aged in robust American Oak, and finally rested for more than a year in the finest French Sauternes casks. The result is a deep amber color with notes of fresh fruit, warm cinnamon and an elegant sweet brown spice finish.

Why is DeLeón Platinum neutral in its core, more akin to a tequila-vodka hybrid?

The vision for DeLeón Platinum was to create a tequila with very complex, rich flavor attributes while maintaining a subdued and smooth finish that tequila aficionados and vodka consumers alike can enjoy.

What is DeLeón’s brand architecture strategy?

In general, as you move up the ultra-premium or luxury portfolios the tequilas increase in complexity and richness of flavor (see below for rationale for each variant). Longer aging normally develops a greater depth of flavor, except for in the case of Leóna (which is an añejo but develops very intense and complex fruit and spice notes from aging for over a year in Sauternes barrels, making the flavor very similar to cognac).

Ultra-Premium Line:

  • Platinum: this blanco is the definition of smooth with unrivaled richness and complexity; appeals to discerning tequila drinkers who want the next level in sipping tequila
  • Reposado: blends the craft of the French wine master with the art of fine tequila to create a reposado with the incredible richness and complexity imparted by aging in both American and French Oak; appeals to discerning drinkers of fine whisky and cognac
  • Añejo: blends the craft of the French wine masters with the art of fine tequila to create an añejo with even more richness and complexity and a bolder expression of the honeyed character and rich fruit imparted by aging in French Oak; appeals to discerning drinkers of fine cognac

Luxury Line:

  • Diamante: DeLeón’s signature Blanco is blended with extremely rare Añejo’s (including Leóna) that were aged in both American Oak and find French Sauternes casks, giving this joven tequila a touch of additional richness without masking the fresh and herbaceous agave flavor of the Blanco at its core
  • Extra Añejo: aged for three years in bourbon barrels and bottled at cask strength, this extra añejo has a warm toffee, sweet spice and dry oak finish; the ultimate whisky lover’s tequila
  • Leóna: aged first in American Oak and then again in fine French Sauternes casks, this Añejo tequila is blended from a very small number of barrels that were selected by the master distiller for their nuanced character and depth of flavor; appeals to drinkers of fine cognacs

You use a variety of cask types for DeLeón, what’s the thinking behind this?

The Diamante Joven does not use bourbon barrels, it uses Añejo aged in French wine barrels. The Extra Añejo uses ex-bourbon barrels & is the only product in the line that does not see French wine barrels during aging.

As for the strategy, the craft of French winemaking ties everything together, excepting Extra Añejo. This liquid formulation for Extra Añejo was “inherited”, and was such a wonderful spirit with a “bourbon” style finish that it was decided to keep the profile the same, building off the original amazing liquid to make a fine cask strength tequila, the first of its kind.

Read our complete DeLeón Tequila Review.

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Frey Ranch
Frey Ranch, Fallon, Nevada

Before Prohibition, it would be commonplace to see a still on a farm in America. A significant number of early American farmers were immigrants, and many of them (including, most notably, the ones from Ireland and Germany) brought along the tradition of distillation. The farmhouse still used to be a very important piece of farm equipment, just as important as the plow or silo. Stills enabled farmers to preserve a part of their crop for sale during the winter months. This grain spirit wouldn’t spoil, got better the longer it was stored, and often fetched a higher price than the grain itself.

Prohibition just about wiped out the farmhouse still, and now it’s rare to see a still at any farm in America. This is part of what makes the Frey Ranch Distillery so important. Located about 45 minutes outside of Reno, Nevada, right outside a little town called Fallon in Churchill County, Frey Ranch Distillery is first and foremost a farm. Colby Frey, 31, along with his wife, Ashley Frey, 29, oversee over 2,500 acres of farmland at Frey Ranch.

The Freys are fifth generation Nevada farmers, dating back to the 1850s with the first deeded property in Nevada (still referred to by the state as Ranch 1). The Frey Family come from extremely modest roots – Colby’s grandfather, the original owner of Frey Ranch, literally lived in a dirt dugout.

The Original Dirt Dugout
The Original Dirt Dugout

This dugout was located on land given to Colby’s grandfather. The land was nearly valueless and considered un-farmable because it was densely packed with large trees. Inventiveness is something that clearly runs in the Frey family, and Colby’s grandfather designed and built a stump puller from the scrap material he had on hand. He then cleared the land by hand, one tree at a time, and sold it to get the funds to buy the land where the Frey Ranch is today.

When the time came for Coldby’s grandfather to retire, he sold the farm to his son, Charlie Frey. Following the family tradition, when Charlie Frey was ready to retire, he sold it to Colby. “There’s no way we could do what we do on this land if we didn’t own it. The mortgage alone would be much more than anything we could produce on it,” remarks Colby.

Frey Ranch
Frey Ranch

As a farm, Frey Ranch is impressive. Spanning 2,500 acres of both owned and leased land, the farm extends almost as far as the eye can see. Initially focused on producing cattle feed, Frey Ranch grows corn, wheat, rye, barley, and alfalfa – the first four being crops that just happen to be the key grains in whiskey.

In 2001, the Freys added grapes to their crops, augmenting the vines which historically grow around the farm’s main house. In 2004, the Freys began to produce wine and bottle it under the brand Churchill Vineyards. “There was already a Frey wine on the market, although they pronounce it ‘fry’, so we didn’t want any confusion,” explains Colby.

Churchill Vineyards
Churchill Vineyards

Their wine was a hit, especially in the local area. Between the bountiful number of white grapes grown on the property, and the red grapes brought in from Sonoma, the Freys found themselves with a surplus of wine. The Freys looked at the possibility of distilling those wines into brandy, but in 2006, it was still illegal to distill in Nevada. “We lobbied the legislature to change the laws so we could get an experimental distilling license. This meant we could distill, but couldn’t sell,” says Colby.

Their efforts were successful, and in 2006 the Freys began to make brandy, the first legally distilled spirit in Nevada since Prohibition. In 2011, the Freys decided it was time to take things to the next level, so again they lobbied the Nevada legislature and helped pass a craft distilling bill. They were successful, and in September 2014, the first spirits rolled off the Frey Ranch Distillery still.

Frey Ranch Distiller Russell Wedlake
Frey Ranch Distiller Russell Wedlake

For a craft distillery, Frey Ranch Distillery is incredibly impressive. Built in the former location of the farm’s horse corral, and using a great deal its reclaimed wood, the distillery spans 4,700 square feet. At the heart of the distillery is a Vendome still, which is a trifecta of a 500 gallon pot still, a vodka column, and a 24-foot continuous still. To feed that, Frey Ranch Distillery has four 5,000 gallon fermenters, one 5,000 gallon mash cooker, and one 5,000 gallon beer well. “We oversized the distillery so we could run it all winter, then shut it down during the summer and focus on farming,” explains Colby.

Frey Ranch Vendome Still
Frey Ranch Vendome Still

As with almost everything that the Freys do, they completed the design, configuration, and installation of the distillery themselves. “We wanted to plumb our steam lines under the floor, and when we called the plumbers to ask how exactly to do this, they said we can’t. After explaining how we figured we could, they realized we were on to something,” remarks Colby.

After going through the painstaking task of floor malting their first batch of whiskey, Colby worked with a local welder and machinist to help design their own malthouse. “We’re using the same tools we do to weigh grain. You can figure out the humidity better in a malting drum by how much it weighs, and this is more accurate than taking the reading at one end of the malter, which may be different than another end.”

The Grain is the Star at Frey Ranch
The Grain is the Star at Frey Ranch

As impressive as the distillery is, the real star of the Frey Ranch Distillery is the grain. With deep experience growing barley, corn, rye, and wheat, the Freys shifted their focus from feeding cattle to making vodka and whiskey. “We grow wheat, rye, barley, and corn, so it made sense to make our whiskey from what we grow.” Both Frey Ranch Vodka (currently on the market), and the future Frey Ranch Bourbon Whiskey are made from the same mash bill: 66.6% corn, 11.4% rye, 10% wheat, and 12% barley. “We actually baked a bunch of bread, and the one we liked the best, we used as our mash bill.”

Churchill Brandy and Frey Ranch Vodka
Churchill Brandy and Frey Ranch Vodka

While the Frey Ranch Distillery Whiskey probably won’t be on the market for a few years, Frey Ranch Vodka is a sneak peek of what’s to come. Frey Ranch Vodka can easily be classified as a premium craft vodka; instead of being neutral, it showcases the four grain blend from the mash bill. From the wheat there’s a wonderful vanilla creaminess, from the corn there’s an underlining sweetness, the barley gives it beautiful cereal grain flavors, and the rye adds some spice. The entire taste experience of Frey Ranch Vodka is soft and round, full of soft grain flavor, solid structure, and a nice clean finish.

We had an opportunity to taste some of the spirit coming off the Frey Ranch still that’s destined to become Frey Ranch Whiskey and it has extraordinary promise. Like the vodka, the whiskey showcases the four grains from the mash bill, but here they are the full and complete expression. We’ve never tried a white whiskey that had a better and clearer expression of the grain.

Colby and Ashley Frey
Colby and Ashley Frey

That’s what it all comes down to. First and foremost, the Freys are grain farmers. They’ve made their living for generations growing, harvesting, processing, and selling these grains. They understand the entire equation, from the best way to fertilize their crops, to which varieties grow best, and when to harvest them. “The saying in the vineyard is, you can’t make good wine out of bad grapes. It’s the same thing with the grains you make into distilled spirits. We have total control, we can sacrifice quantity for quality, and that’s what we do very often, and it’ll show in the end product. Having total control from planting the grains, the types and varieties, the way it’s grown, the fertilizers, the pesticides, all that stuff really adds up and shows in the final product.”

The Freys aren’t just a new and important voice in the craft distilling movement, they represent the resurrection of one of the essential elements of small American farming: the farmhouse still. If more farms follow suit, it could create an interesting and vibrant segment of the craft distilling movement and a range of spirits that are grown, harvested, fermented, distilled, bottled, and sold all in the same place.

Watch our video From Grain To Glass: Behind The Scenes of the Frey Ranch Distillery:

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Oban Little Bay
Oban Little Bay

Diageo has a funny relationship with the single malt distilleries it owns. On one hand, their malt distilleries primarily exist to help quench the never-ending thirst for Johnnie Walker. Brands like Caol Ila have had entire offerings, like Caol Ila 18, wiped off the map to feed the thirsty Walker beast, and had their entire distillery re-tooled to keep up with Walker’s demands. On the other hand, Diageo has presented their malt distilleries as something special, with great reverence and respect, especially under their annual Single Malt Special Releases Collection. Diageo’s malt approach has been a little bi-polar, but it’s nice to see them swing back around and give their malts more time and attention in the marketplace.

Oban is a great little distillery located in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Compared to the time and attention given to some of their other malts, Oban really hasn’t been in the spotlight for Diageo. That changed recently when Oban was included in Diageo’s big viral video series, My Tales of Whisky, starring comedian Nick Offerman. The video series featured a couple of Diageo’s malt brands, but it focused primarily on Lagavulin and Oban (in one of the videos, Offerman plays the various maker’s of Oban Whisky).

While Oban 14 Year Old Single Malt Whisky has been on the market for some time, there’s been little fanfare over it from Diageo. In late 2013, Diageo saw some solid success with a refresh of another of their malt brands, Talisker, with the release of Talisker Storm. Storm served two very important purposes for Diageo: it helped breath new life and excitement into the Talisker brand while showing that a non-age statement release could actually be good.

There been a lot of controversy over non-age stated Scottish Single Malt Whiskies, and Diageo has done a solid job of navigating that storm with Talisker Storm. Now with Oban Little Bay, Diageo looks to see if they can again refresh one of their malt brands and continue to move the malt market toward offerings that don’t bear an age statement.

Oban Little Bay (43%, 86 Proof, $75) – labeled as “small cask”, this non-age stated release takes “mature small batch Oban single malt and gives it time in small oak casks”. While Diageo doesn’t disclose the age of this mature Oban or specify the small casks, we’re assuming they took inspiration from Laphroaig’s immensely successful Quarter Cask product for Oban Little Bay.

Dark amber in color, Oban Little Bay has a rich and vibrant malty nose with dried apple, dried plums, caramel, honey, allspice, and oak. There’s a solid balance between the rich and spicy characteristics. The entry is very flavorful and expressive, matching the nose quite well with toasted malt, green apple, dried apricot, salt, chocolate, and orange peel. In the midpalate the real impact of the small cask finish is quite apparent as the spice elements noticeably increase with clove and oak without abandoning the sweet dried fruit underneath. After the peak of the midpalate, Oban Little Bay backs off quite a bit for a lightly acidic and slightly spicy finish. It’s a fairly light and slightly dry finish that ends fairly clean.

Side by side with Oban 14, Oban Little Bay does a good job of holding its own. Oban 14 has a richer, deeper mouthfeel, spicier midpalate and longer, stronger finish, but Oban Little Bay adds more complexity to the mix. It’s slightly sweeter, more fruity, and better balanced. While the finish on Little Bay is a little drier than we prefer, it’s a perfect example of how taking the handcuffs off on age allows a blender to create a new, complex, balanced, and interesting product.

The old adage used to be that a movie sequel was never better than the original, then The Godfather Part 2 came around and changed the game. The Godfather Part 2 was followed by The Empire Strikes Back, and then Toy Story 2, and eventually, people stopped saying that sequels are always inferior. That’s what’s happening in the non-age stated Scotch Whisky space – first there was Laphroaig Quarter Cask, then Talisker Storm, now Oban Little Bay. It’s a pretty compelling argument that you can have offerings without an age statement that are just as enjoyable and enticing as ones that do. 90 points.

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DISCUS is no Watchdog
DISCUS is no Watchdog

How alcohol is handled in the United States is nothing short of chaotic, piecemeal, and absurd. Although the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol was repealed in 1933 by the Federal Government, the dismantling of Prohibition was handled by each individual state. This lead to a nation with a patchwork of rules, laws, and regulations, including one of the most absurd facts that one of the nation’s largest spirits, Jack Daniels, is made in a “dry” county that still observes some of the laws of prohibition.

To manage this hodgepodge, the Federal Government created the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The core function of this body is to ensure that the Federal Government receives a national excise tax for the sale and distribution of all alcohol in the US. In order to properly tax this alcohol, the TTB had to create a set of rules and regulations aimed at classifying, typing, and controlling the manufacturing and sale of spirits. These rules weren’t really about consumer protection or cutting through the chaos of a dysfunctional system, they were established to prevent alcohol producers and distributors from playing a cup-and-ball magic trick with their products to avoid paying taxes.

Here’s the formal mission of the TTB (note that it starts with its core, tax):

Collect the taxes on alcohol, tobacco, firearms and ammunition;
protect the consumer by ensuring the integrity of alcohol products;
and prevent unfair and unlawful market activity for alcohol and tobacco products.

When a new distillery is founded, the TTB will inspect the facility to ensure that it’s compliant with the rules and eliminate any sort of trickery to avoid tax. Inspectors have been known to try to search for hidden doors and walls, and accuse distillers of attempting every form trickery with how they handle their spirits. The TTB isn’t interested in the safety of the people working in the distillery – that is handled by local fire and government – it’s all about making sure they get paid.

This is also the focus of the TTB’s infamous label approval process, whose aim again isn’t really to make sure that customers aren’t getting harmed, but to make sure that the label is clear and the classification is correct so the TTB can get their tax. Beyond tax issues, the Federal Government under the TTB does not generally get involved with enforcement of alcohol laws, responsible marketing, or consumer protection (although they create the perception that they are there to protect consumers). Their advertising rules are more focused on making sure spirit companies don’t engage in “interstate or foreign commerce”.

Yes, some of the TTB rules end up being consumer friendly, like making sure alcohol manufacturers disclose if they’re using neutral grain spirits, and the prohibition of health claims on products. But when it comes to where the rubber actually meets the road, including when spirit makers market their products to kids, or when a product adds over 30% sugar without disclosing it,  the TTB isn’t involved. Neither is the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA doesn’t consider alcohol a food or drug and as such doesn’t require it to adhere to any of its food labeling or safety laws.

To “police” the industry, the TTB looks to the Distilled Spirits Council of The United States (aka DISCUS). DISCUS is a Washington, DC based national trade association (aka lobbying group) supported by many of the major spirit brands (known as “member companies”). These brands support DISCUS, whose major focus is lobbying the Federal Government to enable spirit companies to be increasingly free to sell their products without the further encumbrance of additional taxes and regulations.

Their mission statement makes that pretty clear:

Our team of economists, scientists, lobbyists and public affairs professionals works to support laws that increase adult market access for spirits products, provide greater convenience and choices for our adult consumers and encourage responsible consumption. We protect the hospitality industry from higher taxes and work diligently to reduce tariffs and trade barriers across the globe.

The problem, though, is that this “trade association” is also responsible for policing the marketing practices of the spirits industry. That’s right, the lobby group that spends the majority of its time refuting studies on the harms of alcohol and getting more states to allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays (aka rolling back Blue Laws) is also supposed to be the “watch dog” of the industry. It’s like asking a football team to call their own penalties – it just doesn’t work.

In the past 4 years, DISCUS has only ruled on 14 complaints, and in 14 complaints, no punitive action has ever been taken. In the rare circumstance where a spirits company has been found to be in violation of the Distilled Spirits Council Code of Responsible Practices, the result has been for DISCUS to work with the company to resolve the offense.

When you consider the thousands of products that came to market over that period and the myriad of marketing and sales tactics used by brands, the fact that there have only been 14 filed complaints is pretty mind blowing. But when you actually read over these complaints, it’s clear why there are so few: DISCUS isn’t a watchdog, they’re a lobbying group, and their rules are so loose, you could drive an 18 wheeler through them.

To illustrate just how toothless the system is, we decided to put it to the test. In November 2014, Phillips Distilling, makers of UV Sugar Crush Vodka, and their PR Firm Formula PR, sent out a cocktail pitch to tie their product to the new Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1. The pitch went as follows:

Hi Geoffrey,

Get your bow ready because The Hunger Games: Mockingjay hits theaters on November 21st and Katniss Everdeen won’t be taking any prisoners! There’s no better way to celebrate the opening of this highly anticipated movie than with UV Vodka’s Hunger Games inspired cocktails.

So whether you’re #TeamPeeta or #TeamGale, UV Vodka has over 20 innovative, first-to-market flavors ranging from UV Sriracha to UV Sugar Crush that everyone can agree to love. Try a few of our recipes below, perfect for any tribute.

If you are interested in learning more about UV Vodka, would like high-res images, product samples or additional recipes sent to you, please do not hesitate to ask! I can be contacted at 212.219.0321 or weeg@formulapr.com.

May the odds be ever in your flavor,
Jess
Formula PR for UV Vodka

HUNGER GAMES INSPIRED COCKTAIL RECIPES

The Nightlock Sleeper
1 part UV Sugar Crush
1 part pomegranate juice
1 part club soda

Mockingjay Bloody
2 parts UV Sriracha
2 parts tomato juice
1 part celery salt
1 part tabasco sauce
1 part worcestershire sauce

District 13
1 part UV Blue
1 part creme de cacao
1 part triple sec
1 part lime juice

The pitch was a pretty clearly out of the bounds of acceptability. Using a movie that’s based on a young adult book series to promote a vodka isn’t just in bad taste, it should be illegal, right? You’d think so.

Our first stop was the Feds, and we contacted the TTB by phone and email. After a few attempts to levy our complaint we were told:

TTB does not generally regulate where advertisements are placed or the types of entertainment with which products are associated (in this case the Hunger Games movie). For TTB to have any recourse, the advertisement itself would have to be contrary to a particular TTB regulation at 27 CFR Part 5, Subpart H.

We suggest you contact the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) to determine if this would be an issue under their industry Code of Responsibility at http://www.discus.org/responsibility/code/.

Jeffrey A. Salisbury, Specialist
Advertising, Labeling and Formulation Division
Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

We then contacted DISCUS, who asked us to file a formal complaint which they would review. We did this on November 4, 2014. We asserted that Phillips Distilling, via its brand UV Vodka, was clearly trying to appeal to young, underage drinkers both through their Hunger Games promotion and through the Sugar Crush product which features cartoon candy on the label.  The response came a full 2 months later in a publication on the DISCUS web site.  While DISCUS has a defined policy on how long a response should take, Lynne Omlie, DISCUS Code Staff Liaison, cited holidays and “computer problems” as a reason why it wasn’t responded to within the defined period of time.

As you’d expect, DISCUS agreed that pitching Hunger Game Cocktails couldn’t be seen under any light as acceptable.

After careful consideration of the complaint and the advertiser’s response, the Code Review Board found that, regarding the first component of the complaint, the marketing materials for UV Vodka’s “Hunger Games Inspired Cocktails” violated Responsible Content Provision No. 2 of the Code, which provides that “[t]he content of beverage alcohol advertising and marketing materials should not primarily appeal to individuals below the legal purchase age.” As set forth in the Code, “[a]dvertising or marketing material is considered to ‘primarily appeal’ to persons below the legal purchase age if it has special attractiveness to such persons beyond the general attractiveness it has for persons of legal purchase age.”

So what was the consequence? Nothing.

The advertiser immediately withdrew and ceased the “Hunger Games Inspired Cocktails” promotion. In addition, the advertiser instituted proactive measures to ensure all external communications thoroughly are reviewed against the Code provisions.

Two months after a promotion ran, DISCUS just asked them to stop it. There was no form of punitive damages, no fines levied, no teeth. A company did something so clearly in violation of even the loosest code of conduct and the result is DISCUS saying, “Hey, stop it…”

What’s worse is that the wall that this one sailed over was so tall that most complaints over products aimed at young drinkers don’t meet the standard. The code’s caveat is that a spirits marketing material must “primarily appeal to persons below the legal purchase age”. That’t right, a complaint must show that the PRIMARY target is kids. So if you were to prove in any way that adults were also possibly a target, then the ad passes muster. This was the justification to OK the cartoon candy design on a product where the company was caught red-handed marketing primarily to persons below the legal purchase age.

The advertiser further stated that “Sugar Crush tested favorably with our millennial target, and our use of bright colors is reflective of what they shared they love when they talked about the ‘grown-up’ retail candy trend in shops such as Dylan’s Candy Bar and Sugar Factory.”

All Phillips Distilling had to do was argue that there are some retail stores that sell candy to adults and that was compelling enough for DISCUS to say, oh, okay, even though we’ve caught you red-handed trying to market a cartoon candy product to kids, the fact that people sell candy to adults means you aren’t primarily marketing to kids, so you’re good to go. It’s the same kind of thinking that made them give the go-ahead to Adult Chocolate Milk.

Without any real consequences, the liquor industry has no motivation not to skirt the line and market their products to young, underage drinkers. And in the case of UV Vodka, it’s working. A recent post in the /r/alcohol section of Reddit is just one example of UV’s success in selling to underage drinkers:

I just turned 21, and I want to celebrate. I also just got my own crib and I just got a huge severance from my last job and I don’t start my next job for a week so now I’ve gotta party, right? I think so. The only issue I have is I don’t really ever buy my own alcohol, the only alcohol I’ve ever bought was to bring to other people’s parties. I bought a lot of UV in high school and beer of course, but I want to stock my bar with a few bottles and I don’t know a lot about high-quality liquor.

Underage drinking is a real problem, and it’s no wonder: there are precious few people whose job it is to prevent it.

I think it’s time that the alcohol industry had some sort of real watchdog, because DISCUS isn’t it. It’s a shame that the Federal Government defers to a lobby group to enforce the trade practices of the companies who fund it. As a watchdog, DISCUS not only has no bark, it literally has no bite. Even when you compare DISCUS to its UK counterpart, The Portman Group, it’s clear just how limp DISCUS’ commitment to responsible marketing is. During the same period from 2010 to the end of 2014, The Portman Group heard more than twice the number of complaints. This is a country with 20% of the population of the US with less than half the alcohol products on the market.

I’m not advocating some major re-haul of the TTB, or even moving alcohol over to the FDA (which I’m told would single handedly eliminate craft distilling in America), but it’s time that the alcohol industry had consequences for breaking the rules, and there need to be better rules for them to follow. It’s simply not unreasonable to hold alcohol companies’ feet to the fire so that in no way do any of their marketing efforts appeal to underage drinkers. It’s also time that they were compelled to disclose what’s in their products, where they come from, and exactly what’s added to them. Alcohol companies try to hide behind trade secrets, but consumers consume significant quantities of these products, and they ought to know what they are consuming.

If DISCUS isn’t up to this task, then there needs to be another watchdog, perhaps one that isn’t funded by the brands it watches, and it’s got to have teeth. Without real consequences for breaking rules, liquor companies have absolutely no incentive to do anything but what’s in their own best interest, and for spirits, that’s acquire customers as close to the point they can (legally or illegally) buy it.

 

 

 

5

Looking Into Our Crystal Ball

As we peer into our crystal ball for 2015, we see another wild and wonderful year for spirits . Although we see some of the trends from 2014 (be sure to read our recap of 2014) continuing into 2015, including the whisk(e)y boom, the vodka bust, Fireball’s dominance, and heavy millennial marketing, there are some game changers on the horizon that will dramatically impact how and what we drink.

The two things we think will have the most impact in 2015 is the opening of Cuba and a war on sugar. Both these things will deeply impact the rum industry in profoundly good and bad ways.

Cuba Libre

It’s been a long time coming, but the walls are now starting to come down with Cuba. While we don’t expect a flood of Cuban rum to hit the market right away, the sheer looming reality of Cuban rum coming to the US will deeply impact the rum industry. First, there will be fighting as Pernod Ricard, owner of Havana Club, will go toe-to-toe with Bacardi, who owns the rights to sell the Havana Club brand name in the US (even though what they have been selling doesn’t come from Cuba). The battle will be epic and will surely leave both sides battered and bruised.

At the same time we expect to see every island rum brand do anything and everything to get attention. It’ll be an hour of desperation as rums from Barbados, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Jamaica, Brazil (Cachaca), and Martinique (Rhum) all do anything and everything they can to remind drinkers that there’s more in the rum space than the previously forbidden fruit, Cuban rum.

The War on Sugar

In 2014, the movie “Fed Up” made its mark with a battle cry against sugar. The war against sugar will deeply intensify in 2015 with lawsuits, “Super Size Me” style movies, and an increasing number of experts reiterating just how bad sugar is.  The most profound indicator of this is Coca Cola’s major move into the milk space with Fairlife, their new premium milk. Coke sees the writing on the wall and they’re making a massive bet on milk.

The impact of the war on sugar will be twofold. First, it’s going to have a real negative impact on rum. Even though the sugar is consumed in the fermentation and distillation processes, confused consumers are going to wrongly equate rum with sugar and opt out of having rum in their glass. Secondly, we expect to see more consumers look for “healthy” cocktail alternatives, with some bars adding calorie counts on their menus.

Pappy’s is Passé

While Pappy Van Winkle was the king of 2014, we expect the shine to start to wear off the penny and instead see the buzz shift to the next wave of American craft whiskey. Look for epic lines at distilleries with people camping out for days to snatch up the precious drops of some craft whiskeys.

We also expect more players to emerge in the ultra-premium whiskey space (like Barrell Bourbon), all in hunt of the mythical honeypot casks of American whiskey.

The Year of the Scandal

In 2014 the spirits biz was flooded with lawsuits, and in 2015 it’s going to be rife with scandals as illegal pay-for-pour schemes are uncovered and penalized with some shocking realizations about just how much money some companies are paying to have their products in certain bars.

While we expect Tito’s to survive the “handcrafted” lawsuit against them, we expect a scandal over some bombshells that will come out in the trial about exactly where they get their neutral spirits to make their vodka.

Finally, we expect a brewing scandal over at Whistle Pig to blow up, taking out Raj Bhakta in the process.

Focus on Fun

The craft cocktail revolution has been fought and won, and now it’s time for those buttoned-up bartenders to loosen their bow ties and roll up their sleeves, because in 2015 consumers are going to want to have some fun! Many craft bars act like Prohibition theme parks, and in 2015 drinkers will be hungry for new rides. This bodes well for other themed bars like Tiki, but we expect some wild and wonderful new concepts. Country and Western Craft? Mancave-A-Topia? Ringling Brother’s Drinking Circus?  Expect the unexpected as talented bartenders spread their wings and try to bring going out for drinks in wild and wonderful directions.

Tequila – It’s Time to Party 

The table is set, the players are ready, and 2015 is finally going to be the year that Tequila has a run. With a continued shifting focus on “fun”, drinkers (especially millennials) are going to look to tequila as the centerpiece of their fun-filled nights out. In 2015 it won’t just be P. Diddy running around saying tequila is cool: look for millennial-friendly stars like Usher and Iggy Azalea to declare their love for agave.  Look for this tequila lovefest to also include the uber high end, as we see more and more ultra-premium options.

All this agave love could very much spill over to mezcal, which could take the renewed enthusiasm for agave and combine it with a compelling craft story. The combination might be just what the category needs to finally start breaking out.

Hello, American Brandy

While 2015 won’t be a big year for American Brandy, it’s going to be a very important one. Perhaps one of the most influential craft distillers in the US, Chip Tate, will be putting his craft whiskey wizardry on pause (until March of 2016) to focus on another great American spirit: brandy. Tate is the right person with the right microphone at the right time to get people to pay attention to the always overlooked American Brandy category. Look for his first bottle to become the “shot heard around the world” in a move that will begin the long march to American Brandy’s revival.

Craft’s Crazy Year

By the end of 2015, we expect most Americans to have consumed at least some sort of craft spirit, and you won’t be able to hit the end of 2015 without reading countless stories about craft distilling in America. But make no mistake, we expect 2015 to be a crazy year for craft spirits.

As some craft distillers begin to bottle “the good stuff”, we expect the frenzy around them to get to all new heights. At the same time we expect to see the kind of implosions and infighting that claimed the life of Balcones. Look for long-winded arguments over what exactly is craft, and big moves by major companies to cherry pick some of the best of the craft distillers out there.

2015 will end with some real craft success stories but also a good number of distilleries crumbling, some due to their success (it’s odd, but it will happen).

Oh, Yeah – Whiskey

Don’t think we forgot about whiskey, because it isn’t going anywhere but up, and fast. We expect 2015 to be another banner year for whiskey with enthusiasm starting to spill over to new high-end Canadian Whisky releases, smaller Irish whiskey brands, a dizzying array of new Scotch whisky offerings, and, of course, the big one, American Whiskey.

2015 won’t be a year of great shortages, it’ll be the year that we see even more unique offerings from the major whiskey producers. New Single Barrels? Check. Special Cask Finish? Check. Really, really old Whiskey? Check. Honeypot? Check. Also expect to see a ton of new +$100 offerings in the American Whiskey space.

Of course things can happen during a year that you just can’t forecast, but we’ll come back at the end of 2015 to see how we did (we have a good batting average).

4
2014 Was Pappy's Year
2014 was Pappy’s Year

2014 was a wild and wonderful year for spirits. While some categories saw explosive growth (yes, we’re looking at you, American whiskey), old standards like vodka saw their marketshare begin to crumble. Gin and tequila had their moments, but neither had the breakout year that they should have. The story of the year, of course, was whisk(e)y, but the demand was so great that the cream of the crop got harder and harder to find, and in their place came a sea of flavored whiskey.

American Whiskey Ruled The Year

The whiskey boom – more specifically, the American whiskey boom – was massive. Drinking bourbon became cool, and anything American, old, and expensive flew off the shelves. You couldn’t say the word “Pappy’s” without getting everyone’s attention. Companies like Wild Turkey struggled to keep up demand (especially with their rye), and even Maker’s Mark considered lowering their proof to be able to stretch out their whiskey stocks.

And while the great whiskey shortage of 2014 never came to pass, it seemed harder to get a bottle of ultra premium American whiskey than to get tickets to a Foo Fighter’s club show.

Scotch Whisky Says “You Don’t Need To See My ID”

Even though the boom over American whiskey was the real story, Scotch whisky makers started to really feel the pinch of their success with shrinking stocks of older whiskies (even 18 years ago no Scotsman could have predicted how popular their product would become). A big part of this success was the king of Scotch, Johnnie Walker, which outpaced even its own ability to produce older malts and had to adjust their line to accommodate.

Across the board, Scotch whisky makers responded to the supply crunch with a ton of non-age stated releases, some of which were designed to hide young malt, but others reveled in the freedom of being able to use a wide range of malts in their blend. The best of the bunch were Talisker Storm and Highland Park Dark Origins.

Flavored Vodka Goes Bust

Aside from the boom of whiskey, the other big story was the bust of flavored vodka. Flavored vodka went from the unstoppable, invincible, will sell no matter what, to yesterday’s news. The peak and fall not only impacted flavored offerings but took a bite out of the core of many notable brands, sending both Smirnoff and Absolut scrambling. By the end of the year most drinkers couldn’t order that rainbow frosted cookie dough crunch vodka anymore, and instead yelled “Fireball!”

Flavored Whiskey Fireball to the Rescue

Flavored whiskey tried to step in where flavored vodka left off, but the category quickly showed that it wasn’t going to be anything like flavored vodka. While the sheer number of new flavored whiskey options made our heads spin (and our palates cringe), very few found any real traction in the marketplace. When the dust settled, it was Fireball that decimated everything else in its path. Yes, there were some flavored whiskey hits, including both Jack Daniel’s Fire and Jim Beam’s Kentucky Fire, but nothing could stop Fireball (not even Finland).

Moonshine Explodes (Just Don’t Ask Too Many Questions)

The amorphic category of “moonshine”, which encompasses everything from corn whiskey to neutral grain spirits, exploded in 2014. Unfortunately, with no real official definition of what moonshine is exactly by the TTB, a wide variety of products hit the market, many of which were just flavored vodka dressed up in a mason jar (we kid you not, there was even French Toast Moonshine). How they are made and where were often not disclosed, or they were put behind so much smoke and mirrors, that you never knew exactly what you were buying. For many, moonshine was close enough to whiskey that it felt cool, so those jars sold.

Drink, Heck No, I’ll Sue

In a bizarre twist of events, 2014 seemed like the year that litigious imbibers felt obligated to sue. Beyond some legitimate claims over companies saying that their spirit came from one place (when it was coming from another), the core of many suits was questioning if large scale spirits can say they are “handmade”. Perhaps the most unlikely target of all this was Maker’s Mark, who reportedly settled (but had a good case that it was, like most of these, nothing more than a frivolous lawsuit).

On the other side of the equation, we saw the first victim of what surely will be a long and tough craft whiskey war, with Balcones Whiskey and founder Chip Tate in a virtual shoot out at the OK corral. Chip seemed to survive it, but Balcones won’t, and this won’t be the only craft whiskey company to end in a battle, courtroom, or tears.

The Healthy Bartender

With the craft cocktail revolution now truly national, more bartenders have started to think long term. The term “career bartender”, which was once an unimaginable term, became commonplace. In 2014, bartenders really began to think of health, wellness, and longevity in an industry that never really considered itself anything more than hedonistic. Influential groups like Barma on Facebook brought together well-respected influencers like Sean Kenyon, Todd Richman, and Patricia Richards who mentored bartenders from around the world with advice on balance and wellness. Belvedere also made a massive move in this space with their Drink, Eat, Live program, the first of any major brand to truly say “we care”.

Big Bets on Tequila

While 2014 wasn’t as explosive a year for tequila as maybe it should have been, big companies made some major moves to show that they believe in tequila’s future. First, Pernod Ricard snapped up a majority share of buzz brand Tequila Avion. Then, Diageo did some tequila shopping of its own, picking up the tiny but well regarded Peligroso Tequila, and then gobbling up the other half it didn’t own of Don Julio from Jose Cuervo.

Aside from purchases, 2014 was a big year for high-end tequila. Although it had been around for a while, Don Julio’s 1942 became buzz worthy, selling like a hot commodity. Standout, high-end releases like Tequila Avion Reserva 44 and Patron’s Roca line showed that just how significant the demand was for high-end tequila.  The year for tequila ended with spirits all-star P. Diddy throwing down his tequila battle cry with the announce of his high-end DeLeón Tequila.

Hey Millennial, Will You Like, Instagram, and Tweet with Me?

In 2014 more millennials came of drinking age, and brands spent a lot of time and a great deal of money trying to attract them.  For Diageo, the focus was YouTube with Smirnoff’s long form mini-movie/commercial, The Party, with millennial friendly Adam Scott and Alison Brie, and Nick Offerman’s My Tale of Whisky, which managed to make buttoned up brands like Oban and Lagavulin seem downright cool.  Beam Suntory’s Laphroaig also got in the game asking their new customers to interact with them on social media under the moniker #OpinionsWelcome (which they then set to Christmas carols).  Nothing came close to Bacardi’s effort in this space with the mega island concert extravaganza Bacardi Triangle, a party for two thousand bloggers, influencers, tweeters, instagrammers, youtubers, tumblers, and even G+ ers, all with hopes of reaching millennials where they live (which is online).

Auld Lang Syne 

While the year may have been lacking in standout, blockbuster products, it was one of the most fascinating years in spirits to date. More people were exploring their horizons, trying new things, and learning about spirits than ever before. Drinking spirits became woven deeper into the fabric of our culture with whiskey firmly implanted as spirit’s rock star.

For us here at Drink Spirits, we saw an amazing 80% growth in our traffic and passed the major 1 million user reach through our site and social networking channels, a number almost unimaginable when we started over 4 years ago.

What does 2015 have in store? Take a look into our crystal ball with our 2015 Spirit and Alcohol Trend Predictions.

1
Barrell Bourbon Whiskey
Barrell Bourbon Whiskey

When a whiskey producer puts their whiskey in a barrel, they are making an informed bet. They are betting that what will come out of that barrel will be a whiskey that matches the flavor and character profile of their product line and that the whiskey will age “as expected”. Distillers have a deep understanding of the journey that whiskey takes in a barrel through its aging process, what stages it goes through, and what destination it should reach. The problem, of course, is that even though we understand how aging works, it’s not something that can be tightly controlled. Two barrels of whiskey distilled from the same mash, on the same day, on the same run, aged right next to each other, in the same row of the same rackhouse can age completely differently. Sometimes this difference is so extreme that the barrel isn’t usable by that distiller, and so he sells it.

At any given time, there are millions of barrels of whiskey aging in places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Scotland. At the same time, there can be thousands of barrels for sale on the open market. If someone buys this whiskey and then bottles it, it’s considered “merchant whiskey”. This category of whiskey has been dicey over the years with a number of notable companies not disclosing that the whiskey they are releasing was produced elsewhere.  Although there are some bad apples in the merchant whiskey bunch, there are a number of examples of companies who have mastered the merchant whiskey space. The most notable is Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, whose Willet, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and Johnny Drum have helped set the standard for the space. Recently, Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey line has also helped moved merchant whiskey further into the mainstream (although they had acquired companies and not just barrels) and shown that consumers are willing to buy whiskey with brands that don’t reflect where they are made.

The Barrell Bourbon Company is a relatively new merchant whiskey company focused on delivering different barrel strength whiskeys from a variety of sources.  To date, the Barrell Bourbon Company has released three batches. Due to the nature of merchant whiskey, the exact source and age of the whiskey isn’t disclosed, although the state it’s from is. The Barrell Bourbon site breaks down the mash bill for each of its releases.

Barrell Bourbon Batch #1: Straight Bourbon Whiskey (121.6 proof / 60.8% ABV, $84.99) – This single barrel whiskey was distilled in Tennessee, although it is NOT a Tennessee-style whiskey. It was aged in Kentucky for 5 years and is bottled at cask strength. It’s mash bill is 70% corn, 25% rye, 5% malted barley. Although it’s a cask strength whiskey, you wouldn’t know it from the nose, which is aromatic and balanced without being aggressive or edgy. The nose is a beautiful blend of charred oak, cinnamon, caramel, marzipan, green apple, and black cherry. The presentation of the oak on the nose is spot on and is another compelling argument that 5-7 years is really the sweet spot for bourbon.

The entry for Barrell Bourbon Batch 1 is flavorful and lush with cinnamon and caramel leading things off. As with the nose, the strength of this whiskey isn’t immediately apparent on the entry. The mouthfeel of the entry is also exquisite. As we move to the midpalate, the oak spice begins to really emerge and is joined by allspice and cherry. As the spice and oak intensify, the mouthfeel transitions from lush to more dry. It does this without losing balance. The integration in the midpalate is exquisite as the oak and cinnamon combine in perfect harmony and are well supported by the accompanying spice. It’s also in the midpalate that we really get the heat from the underlining proof of this whiskey. This dash of heat helps drive a medium dry finish which spotlights the oak and cinnamon spice with a touch of brown sugar.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 1 really started things off with a bang with a whiskey that captures some of the best of this style and age. 93 points.

Barrell Bourbon Batch #2: Straight Bourbon Whiskey (117.8 proof / 58.9% ABV, $84.99) – As with Batch #1, this batch was distilled in Tennessee with the same mash bill ratio. It was aged 5 years, although where it was aged isn’t disclosed. Even though it shares the same mash bill and age with Batch 1, the nose on this second batch is decidedly different. While there’s still solid oak and marzipan, here it’s more vanilla than caramel, and orange peel rather than cherry.

Although the nose for Batch 2 seems lighter, the whiskey is every bit as lush on the palate as Batch 1. The entry for batch 2 has that “oooooh this is good!” mouthfeel that’s well balanced and lush without being oily. In the entry it’s vanilla, brown sugar, marzipan, and oak. The oak spice intensifies towards the midpalate where it’s joined by some ginger, clove, and orange peel. The midpalate is much spicier than the first batch with more heat, even though it’s at a very slightly lower proof. This level of heat works here as the brown sugar note is much more pronounced in the midpalate, and so the balance is much stronger with more heat.

The heat spikes significantly at the end of the midpalate and then drives a fairly dry finish. The finish is dry enough that some of the accompanying flavors kind of evaporate, but it leaves a nice cooling sense on the palate, a mark of good distillation. A touch of water helps elongate the finish and enhances some of the more charred aspects of the oak.

Great flavors, solid integration, a great mouthfeel, and an acceptable finish round out another compelling argument that the folks at Barrell Bourbon have a real knack for picking good whiskeys with great flavor and character. 91 points.

Barrell Bourbon Batch #3: Straight Bourbon Whiskey (122 proof / 61% ABV, $84.99) – This batch was distilled in Kentucky and shares the same mash bill ratio as the other two releases: 70% corn, 25% rye, 5% malted barley. It was aged for 5 years (it’s the only one that states this on the bottle, though) and bottled at cask strength. Even though it is the same age as the other Barrell Bourbon releases, the presence of oak is much more pronounced on the nose, even driving it. The nose is solid oak plank combined with cherry and light brown sugar.

The oak from the nose is immediately there on the palate along with strong cherry, vanilla, and light brown sugar. The mouthfeel for Batch 3 isn’t as lush and sweet as the first two Barrell Bourbon batches, but it’s still delightful. As we head towards the midpalate the cherry note really intensifies along with the oak. In the midpalate it’s joined by cinnamon, black pepper, and clove. Even though it’s 122 proof, there isn’t really an intense heat spike in the midpalate. It’s spicy, yes, but it’s balanced and well integrated. The finish is fairly long and slightly dry, and manages to maintain the cherry and oak notes that linger for quite a while.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 3 has a completely different character from the first two batches, but it still manages to maintain the same kind of appeal. The presentation of oak here is exquisite, much better than some of the much older releases we’ve reviewed this year. 90 points.

While there’s been a lot of chatter about where people source their whiskey and the disclosures that surround it, Barrell Bourbon proves that you can indeed deliver compelling merchant whiskeys while still being forthcoming about what you are doing. With a greater focus on what’s in the bottle over where the barrel comes from, Barrell Bourbon has the potential to curate some great whiskey. Their first three batches show that they have the knack to spot and buy good whiskeys. The big question is, can they keep that ball rolling?

Barrell Bourbon is currently sold in retail stores in NY, CT, and MA and is also available online via Caskers and Drink Up NY.

3
Q Drinks Mixers
Q Drinks Mixers

It makes no sense: imbibers often spend a great deal of time and money to acquire quality spirits, and then throw them into a glass with a commercial mixer that’s full of crap (i.e. high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings). Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Drinks, recognized the opportunity to deliver higher quality mixers made from natural ingredients and sweetened with agave. His line includes core cocktail mixers Q Club Soda, Q Tonic, Q Ginger Ale, Q Ginger Beer, and Q Kola.

The Q Drinks line was designed to be mixed in cocktails, so they aren’t generally meant to be consumed on their own. Q Ginger Ale, however, is so good and such a stand out, it works quite well both mixed and on its own.

Q Club Soda (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water and Himalayan salt) – You don’t realize how harsh and salty most soda waters are until you sip the wonderfully balanced and flavorful Q Club. Balanced and flavorful aren’t words that are typically associated with a mixer that’s often unpalatable on its own. By using Himalayan salt, the saltines is softer, sweeter, and much less chokingly sharp than most other commercial soda waters.  As with all of the Q Drinks line, Q Club is jam packed with carbonation. The carbonation is a rushing effervescence with small bubbles. Carbonation is what Q Drinks does best, consistently, across the entire line of mixers.

We mixed Q Club Soda with Reyka Vodka (our go-to mid-range vodka). Q Club helped draw out some of the sweeter, softer elements of the Reyka while complementing its minerality. Using a slightly softer and sweeter salt really helps make Q Club Soda a very affable mixer, and with the level of carbonation it really is a stand-out among the other options available.

Q Tonic (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, natural bitters, handpicked quinine, citric acid. 12g of sugar) – For all Q Drinks Mixers that contain a sweetener, Q Drinks uses agave. Agave is much sweeter than sugar and much higher in fructose. While agave can be a good sweetener (especially for tequila drinks), it does have a habit of reading slightly syrupy and very sweet. That’s the case here with Q Tonic.

Q Tonic’s carbonation level is on par with the Q Club Soda and that’s a huge advantage – the light, bubbly character helps balance the underlining sweet agave along with the citrusy lime peel. Q Tonic isn’t as bitter as some of the other tonics, and so may be preferred by drinkers looking for something softer and sweeter. Mixed with our benchmark gin, Tanqueray, Q Tonic did okay – the sweet agave did stand out when mixed, making it a little sweeter and rounder than we prefer. The bitterness of Q Tonic is light and doesn’t overwhelm the mix, although a slight increase would have balanced things out better.

Ultimately Q Tonic is hampered by the choice to use agave. Q Drinks has done a fairly good job managing it, but it’s simply the wrong sweetener for the task. This tonic with sugar and more bitterness combined with Q Drinks fantastic carbonation would be a rock star. As it stands it’s only a slight step up from the other options out there.

Q Ginger (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, ginger extract, extracts of coriander, cardamom, cayenne, orange peel and rose oil, citric acid. 15g of sugar) – By far the best of the Q Drinks mixers, Q Ginger Ale pulls together some great flavor from the ginger and spices, a dash of heat, great carbonation, and then balances it out with the right amount of sweetness.

With the Q Tonic the choice to use agave really hampered the mix, but here in Q Ginger it’s precisely the right tool for the job. Q Ginger manages to create a superb balance between the spice and the sweet while still finishing fairly clean and crisp. As with the other Q Drink offerings, the carbonation for Q Ginger is spot on.

We mixed Q Ginger with a variety of spirits including Reyka Vodka, Belvedere Intense Unfiltered, Goslings Dark Rum, and Bulleit Rye, and it mixed with each one perfectly.  Q Ginger is a clear upgrade over most of the other ginger ales on the market. It’s crisp, balanced, and clean enough to convert even the most obstinate vodka soda drinker.

Of all the Q Drinks, we found that Q Ginger worked best on its own as well as mixed. It’s a great product and by far Q Drinks’ best.

Q Ginger Beer (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, ginger extract, extracts of lime, coriander and cardamom, citric acid. 22g of sugar) – On the first sip of Q Ginger Beer, you’re really hit by strong ginger root. It’s much more earthy and sharp than in the Q Ginger Ale. Right behind the spice is a much stronger agave, making it much sweeter and less balanced than Q Ginger Ale. The ginger spice does linger on the palate a lot longer than with Q Ginger Ale, but it lacks any sort of balance.

We mixed Q Ginger Beer with Goslings Dark Rum and lime for a Dark and Stormy, as well as with Belvedere Intense Unfiltered and lime for a Moscow Mule.  In both cases the Ginger Beer tasted too sweet and unbalanced. Whereas Q Ginger Ale really intertwined with what we threw at it, Q Ginger Beer never seemed to really get along. The carbonation level with Q Ginger Beer is great, but it really lacks the overall mixability that the other Q Drinks have.

Q Kola (9oz, ingredients: carbonated water, organic agave, phosphoric acid, extracts of cinnamon, cloves, coriander, kola nut, lemon, lime, orange, and nutmeg, caramel and caffeine. 20g of sugar) – Trying to put out an alternative cola is like tilting at windmills – it’s an impossible task and you’d be crazy to do it. Most people aren’t just looking for cola, they’re looking for a specific cola (either Coke or Pepsi). Q Kola does a good job of blazing its own trail with an interesting mix of sweet, familiar cola notes along with a slightly spicy and citrusy finish.

As with the other Q Drinks mixers, Q Kola has very nice carbonation, much better than the harsher carbonation of conventional commercial sodas. Again, Q Drinks has turned to agave as a sweetener which gives it a slightly syrupy quality. We’re torn on this point: the agave does balance with the citrus and spice, but again we’re wondering if sugar would have been a better and more mixable choice.

Still, when we put Q Kola to the test, mixing it with Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey 101, Bulleit Rye, and Bacardi 8, it performed very well. As with the Q Ginger Ale, Q Kola did a good job of actually mixing with and complementing the flavors of the spirit.

On its own, Q Kola is a little bit of an oddball and the delivery of sweet and spicy don’t make as much sense as it does when mixed.

Overall, Q Drinks delivers on the promise of upgraded mixers. The two standouts are clearly Q Ginger Ale and Q Club Soda. These two represent the absolute best of what Q Drinks has to offer.

0
The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler
The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Perhaps one of the most vital ingredients in the Craft Cocktail Revival has been the open sharing of information.  It’s well known that you can’t really copyright a cocktail (although the names of a few dictate specific ingredients), but the techniques you use to create complex and innovative drinks can very much be kept secret and used to a competitive advantage.

Fortunately for fans of cocktails and the craft industry, the culture of craft hasn’t been to keep these things under wraps, but to share them with others. This has helped make modern bartending one of the more collaborative industries and helped the spread of complex and innovative cocktails to areas of the country which would otherwise be trapped in the liquid dark ages. A bartender in a small town with no real mentors now has the ability to go online, read detailed descriptions, watch videos of complex techniques, and replicate them.

One of the pioneers in the open sourcing of craft cocktails is Jeffrey Morgenthaler. His blog was an important launching off point for the craft industry. What made Jeffrey Morgenthaler important was that he’d visit someone like Tony Conigliaro and witness his mad and wonderful experiments, and then document them on his blog.  Ironically, even though Jeff Morgenthaler became “famous” for barrel aged cocktails, it was his documentation and sharing techniques (not innovating or creating) that he really deserves credit for.

In that spirit, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, along with writer Martha Holmberg and photographer Alanna Hale, have brought together a complete guide for the craft bartender (or craft enthusiast).

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique ($30) begins with an important nod to the fact that the techniques and recipes in the book aren’t all from Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

“This book is dedicated to the countless men and women all over the world whose bars I’ve sat at over the years, asking questions, borrowing ideas, and stealing recipes.”

It’s important to note that the genesis of many of the ideas in this book came out of an important gathering of bar professionals in Portland, Oregon which was called the Oregon Bartender’s Guild (aka OBG). This guild was launched in 2008 and included such key spirit folks as Daniel ShoemakerKevin Ludwig, Kelley Swenson, and Lance Mayhew, who along with Morgenthaler would spend hours figuring out how many times a negroni should be stirred or the best way to carve up citrus. This group was so passionate about ‘getting it right’ that ultimately arguments and infighting lead to the group disbanding (before it was reformed by other, young bartenders).

The Bar Book is laid out in three parts: prep, assembling the drink, and then garnishing and serving it. There’s a good mix of basic, fundamental techniques and more advanced techniques.  Although the book is clearly aimed at the bar professional, many of the tips and techniques are quite applicable to the home bar enthusiast, like shaking cream in a mason jar as the best way to make whipped cream, how to separate an egg, or how to use a salad spinner to juice a pineapple.

There are a spattering of cocktail recipes in the book (although not Morgenthaler’s famous Amaretto Sour), and they are there more to illustrate the application of the techniques shown in each chapter rather than anything else. The recipes are also wonderfully un-branded, a refreshing change from most cocktail-related books out there.

There’s also a fair amount in The Bar Book exclusively focused on the working bartender, including tables detailing yields of juice from differently stored citrus (including the average yields of certain types of citrus), discussions about speed pouring vs. jiggering, and conversions to help batch drinks. More experienced craft bartenders might find some of the information slightly rudimentary.

Ironically, Morgenthaler dedicates only a single page in the book to barrel aging cocktails, which he labels as “Wood Infusions, A.K.A. Barrel Aging” and it lacks much depth. His section on carbonation focuses more on making tonic than any real mention of carbonating cocktails, something that Morgenthaler is widely known for and has written extensively on.

Overall, Morgenthaler’s writing is fairly folksy and pretty closely matches the tone of his blog. There are sections that clearly show the touch of Martha Holmberg (especially in some of the more detailed breakdowns of techniques), which is great as these are well crafted and very clear. Alanna Hale’s stunning photography is a real stand out. Not only are the photographs themselves good, but she manages to capture the key breakdown steps without making the book feel too paint-by-numbers.

While The Bar Book isn’t the groundbreaking tome of Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book,  and doesn’t even come close to the painstaking detail of Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence, it’s a well crafted book that’s perfect for the cocktail enthusiast or bartender looking to bring their craft to the next level. The Bar Book has a lot of really good nuggets of information and tips, certainly more than enough to justify the purchase.

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique is available at Amazon.

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