And now a word on Whiskey

As I noted before, there’s been a bit of an explosion in the bourbon and American whiskey market in the last few years. As a consequence, there’s lots of bullshit on the shelves — bottles made by marketers, full of sourced juice, with utterly fictional histories and backgrounds, positioned in such a way as to ABSOLUTELY mislead customers.

This is shitty behavior.

Fortunately, the liquor world is one of the first places to have gotten actual truth-in-labeling laws, and so the words on a liquor bottle actually MEAN something if you know what to look for.

Probably the most egregious label bullshit is hiding the provenance of the whiskey. N.B. that the word “produced” really just means “bottled.” If the bottle doesn’t say where it was distilled, then the odds are the marketers don’t want you to know. Pick another bottle; good whiskey is proud of where it comes from.

The next thing to look for is what the bottle claims it contains. The truly shitty operations will sell things like “spirit whiskey,” which is basically grain alcohol with some flavorings designed to mimic actual aged whiskey. This stuff is bullshit, and you should not buy it. Look for things that actually claim to be bourbon whiskey or rye whiskey.

But that doesn’t solve much; the “bourbon” name doesn’t mean as much as you think it does (for example, it doesn’t have to be from Kentucky). To be called bourbon, according to the Feds:

  • Produced in the US
  • The mash bill (mix of grain) must be 51% or more corn
  • It must be distilled at less than 160 proof
  • It must be age at 125 proof or below
  • It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels

Note that there is no minimum aging required, nor is there anything about additives and flavorings. Adding shit to bourbon is completely legal, and shitty distillers and “producers” do it all the time.

The next step is what you need to look for: if it says “straight bourbon,” it can contain no additives and must be aged in those barrels for at least 2 years. Realistically, there’s no reason to buy something that isn’t straight.

A straight bourbon with no age statement on the bottle must be aged more than 4 years. (Oh, and the age statement must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle; blending is okay, and is done all the time to produce a consistent product.)

A bourbon labeled “blended” may have coloring, flavoring, and other spirits (i.e., grain alcohol) added, but at least 51% of the product must be straight bourbon.

“Bottled in Bond” is an even more serious distinction. You won’t find a lot of marketing whiskey done this way, but (hilariously) the 1897 Bottled in Bond act was passed to regulate unscrupulous whiskey sellers who used coloring and flavoring and whatnot to dupe customers. Sound familiar?

BIB bourbon must meet all the requirements of straight bourbon, plus:

  • It must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least 4 years
  • It must be bottled at 100 proof
  • It must clearly state the identity of the distillery and, if different, the bottling location
  • It must be the product of a single distilling season and one distiller at one distillery

Dept of Whiskey Dishonesty

We’ve been watching the bourbon boom for a while now, and enjoying it very much. The sudden growth of the market, though, has led to some very shady practices. Chief among them is the creation of “Potemkin” distilleries that exist only on shelves. What I mean by this is a whiskey brand that doesn’t actually make any of its own whiskey — they just buy juice from elsewhere and apply marketing. (This is distinct from distilleries like Yellow Rose that are using sourced whiskey (e.g., their rye) to secure brand identity and shelf space as they ramp up their production of actually no-shit distilled-in-Texas bourbon. YR isn’t too honest about the provenance of the rye, but they’re doing it in service of a properly labeled product, at least.)

Chuck Cowdery explores one such example from right here in Texas: the “1835 Bourbon” you may have seen around that, unbelievably, asserts right on the label that it’s made in Texas. It is not.

I’ve had it. It’s pretty good whiskey, and only a little overpriced for the quality. But it’s not by any stretch from Texas; it’s absolutely sourced juice from Indiana or Kentucky. The fact that the bottle doesn’t include a distillation site is the only piece of actual honesty on the label.

Moreover, it’s got no age statement, and omits the “straight” portion of the appellation, which is a confusing set of markers if you know how to read a whiskey bottle.

The lack of an age statement means, by law, the whiskey must be at least four years old. But the absence of “straight” usually means the produce is less than TWO years old, or fails to meet other rules regarding the term (additives, etc.).

Dept. of Petty Goons

I mean, how else do you describe the guy who, single-handedly, approves or denies your beer label?

[He] has rejected a beer label for the King of Hearts, which had a playing card image on it, because the heart implied that the beer would have a health benefit.

He rejected a beer label featuring a painting called The Conversion of Paula By Saint Jerome because its name, St. Paula’s Liquid Wisdom, contained a medical claim—that the beer would grant wisdom.

He rejected a beer called Pickled Santa because Santa’s eyes were too “googly” on the label, and labels cannot advertise the physical effects of alcohol. (A less googly-eyed Santa was later approved.)

He rejected a beer called Bad Elf because it featured an “Elf Warning,” suggesting that elves not operate toy-making machinery while drinking the ale. The label was not approved on the grounds that the warning was confusing to consumers.

He rejected a Danish beer label that featured a hamburger, which was turned down because the image implied there was a meat additive in the beer.

He rejected a beer that was marketed as an “India Dark Ale,” a takeoff on the IPA, because it implied the beer was made in India (even though the label had a line with the words “Product of Denmark”).

He rejected an “Adnams Broadside” beer, which touted itself as a “heart-warming ale,” because this supposedly involved a medical claim.

Frankly, you pod-coffee freaks deserve what you get

Those goofballs who make the execrable Keurig machines are annoyed that people make “compatible” pods, so they’re working out a way to keep them from working by using something akin to DRM.

But since people aren’t generally very excited about reduced functionality, they’re lying about why they’re doing it. What tools.

But, as the title says, you pod-coffee people deserve whatever you get. Grind your own, use a pour-over device, and be done with it. Cheap AND delicious!

Case in point for why we prefer honest whiskey

Diageo is prevaricating and dissembling again about their “orphan whiskey” program.

Cowdery:

Based on what we know, what’s most peculiar about Orphan Barrel is how closely it resembles something Diageo predecessor United Distillers & Vintners tried 20 years ago. That time it was called the Rare American Whiskeys Collection. It was intended to be a series of one-off releases of the most outstanding, unique, and rare whiskeys in their warehouses, which they had because they had acquired so many distilleries while building their empire. They planned to release a few every year, but the plan died a swift death at Diageo’s birth. The new company changed direction and within a few years, Diageo had essentially exited the American whiskey business.

The even more odd thing about both Orphan Barrel and Rare American Whiskeys is that in both cases Diageo decided to create brand names that are unrelated to the whiskeys. In that earlier case, they took names from defunct distilleries–Joseph Finch and Henry Clay–and used whiskey from other not-identified defunct distilleries. The whiskey called Joseph Finch was not made at the Joseph Finch Distillery, the whiskey called Henry Clay was not made at the Henry Clay Distillery, and the actual distilleries were not revealed. It seemed crazy then and it does this time too. This time it is what appear to be newly-created brand names with an old-timey feel.

What is Diageo thinking? You have this supposedly great and rare whiskey but you won’t tell us anything about its provenance? Then you wrap it in a package that suggests a false provenance?

Why doesn’t Diageo understand that most “discerning whiskey adorers” don’t appreciate being zoomed? Save the malarky for Jeremiah Weed and Captain Morgan, please. If the whiskey is as great as you say it is, why not just let it speak for itself? A Diageo rep said they’re not sure where it’s from. It’s written on the barrel head, stupid.

It seems sometimes that Diageo is incapable of doing anything (a) original, or (b) honest.

Marcella Hazan, 1924-2013

If you’ve eaten at my house, you’ve certainly eaten a bolognese or a risotto. They were the first things I learned to cook well enough to serve confidently, and remain staples of my kitchen.

I am not a great cook, but I can follow directions. If you’ve enjoyed those dishes at my table, you have Marcella Hazan to thank, because the recipes I use are from her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, first published in 1992. There is no better starting place. Prickly and opinionated, Hazan’s recipes may chide you for using the wrong pot, or the wrong kind of pasta, but it’s useful to know how to do something right before you launch out on your own.

Serving from her book, I also extend a chain of reference, friendship, and food; I learned of the book from my friend Carl sometime in the late 1990s, whom I suspect picked it up from his friend Chris, who in turn credits another friend he was visiting in Milan in 1994. I’m sure the chain goes ever backward, and includes many more links forward — I know I’ve given copies as gifts many times myself.

Food and friends and fellowship are the essence of a good time. Hazan’s book helped me create no small number of delightful evenings including all three, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

Marcella Hazan died on Sunday in her home on Longboat Kay, in Florida. She was 89.

HOWTO: Win Any Bourbon Argument

Many, many Heathen have called my attention to this surprisingly witty bit from Esquire:

Ex:

Create a founder’s legend.

  • It was Stonewall Jackson’s favorite bourbon, but they only started making it again in the 1960s after the owner talked to his great-granddad, who fought at Chancellorsville, and only gave up the recipe in a cloud of dementia and the certitude that all Yankees were dead and wouldn’t be able to drink it.

  • The owner is a hardcore Libertarian who began making this for barter because Jimmy Carter was going to impound all American gold. You haven’t heard of it, because until recently he wouldn’t let anyone buy it with fiat currency.

  • The recipe was a total accident. It only turned out this way because a colt kicked a barrel and changed the mash at just the right moment. That horse’s name? Citation.

Or, under lines to use about mouth feel and taste:

  • If you drink it in a perfectly still room, you will get hints of lily, mocha and leather, and you can hear the first time your mother smiled when she looked at you.

Shocker . . . er, not

Yet another tale of a giant corporation behaving like a jackass: Booze giant Diageo extorts award out from under rightful winner.

More at Financial Times and the Telegraph.

Diageo, if you’re not familiar, is a Brit multinational and the world’s largest producer of distilled spirits, as well as a giant in beer and wine. Here’s a helpful list of their brands, in the event that you, like Heathen Central, wish to avoid them in the future:

  • Beer: Guinness, Tusker, Smithwick’s, Red Stripe, Harp, Kilkenny
  • Scotch: Johnnie Walker, Carhu, J&B, Caol Ila, Oban, Talisker, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore, Haig
  • Vodka: Smirnoff, Ciroc, Popov, Ketel One
  • Gin: Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Gilbey’s, Booth’s.
  • Rum: Captain Morgan, Myers
  • Bourbon: Bulleit
  • Canadian whisky: Crown Royal, Seagram’s
  • Irish whiskey: Bushmill’s
  • Tennessee whiskey: George Dickel
  • Wine: Sterling vinyards, Beaulieu, Chalone, Acacia

I think all I’d miss is the occasional Guinness and, sometimes, Lagavulin (though I prefer another malt).

What Yelp Is, and Who Yelp Are

Local Heathen idol @GunsAndTacos has a great article in the Free Press about what a raging, awful, useless, extortionate clusterfuck Yelp is. Highly recommended. Representative quote:

Revolting, slanderous reviews of local businesses are the lifeblood of the Yelp platform. The sales model would be defunct without them. It’s really a clever model, because trolls don’t cost anything, and they’re a sustainable resource.

(Astute Heathen will notice Mr Tacos is also the proprietor of the previously-mentioend One Block Off Washington, his Q-Beam illuminated Tumblr starring and endless array of club-going douchebros. He’s a national treasure, goddammit.)

Topical.

John Mulaney on Girl Scout Cookies kills me:

There’s something that’s always bothered me about Girl Scout Cookies. Why can’t you just buy them in a supermarket? Why are they only available once a year, through some weird organization? It’d be like if they only sold Coca-Cola in July, and you could only buy it from the Knights of Columbus.

More than you ever wanted to know about the McRib

Seriously, though go read this. It’s fascinating, in a morbid and awful way. Put short, it’s perhaps the apotheosis of the weird logrolling aspect of American food business, wherein perfectly usable food — like fruit, or meat — is processed beyond all recognition to be resold as something much less healthy, useful, or cost-effective so that an entity like McDonald’s can suck more dollars from the consumer. A taste:

Barbecue, while not an American invention, holds a special place in American culinary tradition. Each barbecue region has its own style, its own cuts of meat, sauces, techniques, all of which achieve the same goal: turning tough, chewy cuts of meat into falling-off-the-bone tender, spicy and delicious meat, completely transformed by indirect heat and smoke. It’s hard work, too. Smoking a pork shoulder, for instance, requires two hours of smoking per pound–you can spend damn near 24 hours making the Carolina style pulled pork that the McRib almost sort of imitates.

And for its part, the McRib makes a mockery of this whole terribly labor-intensive system of barbecue, turning it into a capital-intensive one. The patty is assembled by machinery probably babysat by some lone sadsack, and it is shipped to distribution centers by black-beauty-addicted truckers, to be shipped again to franchises by different truckers, to be assembled at the point of sale by someone who McDonald’s corporate hopes can soon be replaced by a robot, and paid for using some form of electronic payment that will eventually render the cashier obsolete.

There is no skilled labor involved anywhere along the McRib’s Dickensian journey from hog to tray, and certainly no regional variety, except for the binary sort–Yes, the McRib is available/No, it is not–that McDonald’s uses to promote the product. And while it hasn’t replaced barbecue, it does make a mockery of it.

The fake rib bones, those porky railroad ties that give the McRib its name, are a big middle finger to American labor and ingenuity–and worse, they’re the logical result of all that hard work. They don’t need a pitmaster to make the meat tender, and they don’t need bones for the meat to fall off–they can make their tender meat slurry into the bones they didn’t need in the first place.

DEATH TO BENNIGAN’S

No, really. Apparently they — along with many other crappy chains — are in serious dire straits. The linked article notes that the ersatz Irish pub grub chain’s sales are down 88% since 2001. Ouch.

Why? First, people eat out less in a recession. Second, easier access to information about better local options via sites like Yelp made those who DID dine out more likely to choose independent restaurants over corporate crap.

I am completely astonished and pleased by this.

In which we remind you that “marketing” means “lying”

As it turns out “all-natural” Snapple Apple contains no actual apple.

Here’s the thing: If you want juice, just drink juice. If you want water, just drink that. Drinking some goofball concoction that’s meant to taste like juice, but isn’t, is just silly — and its sheer existence is a symptom of our larger food problem. Food companies exist to process ingredients into something else, and call it adding value — even when they don’t actually add value. If we ate fewer processed foods, and more foods in their natural or less-processed state, we’d all be better off.

Well, all of us except the lying “food” companies. But we can do without them.