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Monday, December 24, 2012

Creation v. Production and the future of intellectual property

As a photographer, I produce a lot of work.  What I mean by that is that the vast majority of what I do is take pictures that people pay me to take.  I show up at a particular place, at a particular time, and take a picture of something because somebody wants an image of that thing, person or event.  In order to do this properly, I must possess a certain set of skills and certain equipment.  I'm paid because there is only a certain supply of individuals with the time, talent and equipment to do that.  There is both a supply and a demand for these services.  I'm making a product.  It's not particularly different from somebody who produces any other product or service.  Sure, I have to have certain knowledge and skills and equipment, but so does a guitar luthier, for example.  

I don't have to worry about this work being stolen from me, because if I'm not paid, I simply don't take the images.  This is the key to producing a consumable product, you can demand payment because it's made to fulfill a demand, and it can simply be not made.  The laws of supply and demand can easily enough make a price that will either be paid or not.  

On the other hand, I also make some creative art as well.  A lot of it is moody cityscapes, but there are many other types as well.  These images are made simply because I feel a personal need to capture the feeling I felt at the time and place.  To capture something of myself in an image of the world.  The reward is in the capture and the release.  The capturing of that thought, emotion, idea.  The release of it to the world so that I might communicate a little bit of who I am to the larger world in a way that I can't just merely say out loud.  Most people will probably never care for these images.  But when they are appreciated by others, it's a special type of communication.  It's often a communication that can't be had with language and normal discourse.  It's a feeling that I made something of myself that somebody else gives their time and attention to.  When the creative art I make isn't appreciated, it's typically because these feelings aren't interesting, understood or otherwise valued, or perhaps I haven't the skill to adequately communicate through my visual images, or most likely some combination of all of the above.  But the first reward is the capturing and the release.  Sometimes the second reward is in the communication, appreciation and replication by others of something of me in the world.  A third benefit may be in the incidental payment from some other individual to me because of this artI made.  Perhaps they enjoyed it enough to want a higher quality print, maybe they want it signed, maybe they just liked it so much that they just felt I deserved some sort of monetary payment.  Those things are fine, but for real creative art they're incidental.  

Sure, download this image if it says anything to you.

This isn't to say that there is a firm, sharp dichotomy between creative art and productive work.  Many times things are a blend of the two.  When I cover a football game, I'm there for a purpose, to produce images that I believe the people paying me to be there will enjoy.  But I also use my eye, creativity and vision to that end, and I create images that I will like and enjoy creating as well.  But there isn't any secret or confusion about any of that.  

However, I think there can be a problem when creative art and productive work are conflated and/or confused.  If a woman in her mid thirties hires me to create a beauty shot of her, but I think her wrinkles are more interesting, and I take an image that brings her wrinkles to the surface, while she paid me for a standard beauty shot, I've conflated productive work and creative art.  I can argue with her all day long about which image would be better, but I've failed as a producer of work product.  She wanted X, she paid me to do X and I agreed to do X, but I did Y.  I failed.  Her tastes didn't fail.  I did.  

Then there's the idea of selling out.  We often enjoy the creativity of others.  We like to see them take something of themselves that's beautiful or interesting or empathetic and share it with us.  We don't so much consume that type of art as much as we experience it.  We learn something of ourselves and the artist.  It's both an individual and shared experience, when it's done right.  But part of the enjoyment of such art is the unstated agreement that we are experiencing something that's genuine, that they're not simply pandering to our tastes, but that the shared enjoyment and understanding is real and not them pulling our strings and pushing our buttons.  Part of the enjoyment of Pearl Jam's Alive is the belief that Eddie Vedder really felt this way, that those emotions were real, and we're having a shared experience every time we listen to it, that he wasn't simply applying formulaic emotive techniques designed to make us like it.  Part of the enjoyment of Duane Allman's fiery crescendo in the live at the Fillmore East version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is the belief that the fiery crescendo was his emotional release.  Not just a mindless replication of scales he practiced that he knew worked, but a musical expression of feeling and emotion.  It's that we like that we believe that they felt that way, and we appreciate it.  It's a connection, enhanced by the feeling that the music creates.  

But why doesn't anybody still really listen to Creed?  Or why won't anybody really listen to Nickelback in 20 years?  Because they made/make a product.  Because they're applying well worn formulas for music that a lot of people enjoy.  I don't really think there is anything wrong with that.  I can enjoy formulaic, pandering music.  You'd be hard pressed to really describe a technical way that the music of Pearl Jam and Creed differs (as Pearl Jam's critics often point out).  However, there is a difference and it's that Pearl Jam mostly (though not entirely) created music they liked and wanted to release, and if people bought it or enjoyed it, that was great (or not so great), if they didn't, they didn't.  Whereas Creed saw what Pearl Jam did, reduced it to a formula for success, and then created a product to be consumed.  The problem is that when you create a product, sometimes people want a different product.  People never tire of sharing genuine feelings and communicating real felt thoughts and emotions through art.  

To be fair, we don't really know that Pearl Jam didn't pander to our tastes and that Creed did.  However, that's missing the point.  The point is that that is how the two are perceived, and when it comes to art, perception is reality.  Creed was perceived as making a consumable product, while Pearl Jam was viewed to be making real art. It's a sticky line between the two.  Ultimately, this is part of the issue whenever you blend consumerist production with artistic creation.  If you're charging for your art you have no real grounds to complain when somebody accuses you of selling out or not being genuine.  Sometimes you get lucky and people view your calculated art as genuine, but more often your genuine art may be viewed as faked, a sell out.  Well, you are selling it, so you have no real way to refute such accusations.  If you're selling art, you give up all grounds to dispute that you're selling out, to whatever detriment such an accusation may be.

Today this issue is also becoming one of practicality as well.  When you charge for creative art today, you risk the 'problem' of it being 'stolen' and disseminated without payment to you or with your consent.  If I post a photo on flickr, and people love it, it can easily enough be downloaded and 'stolen' by just about anybody.  If I'm a musician and I produce a song, and people like it, it will almost certainly be illegally copied and shared.  

What's the solution?  Well, the solution is to deny the problem and quit trying to demand payment for creative art.  Accept that the payment for creative art is that part of you is out there in the world.  This doesn't mean that artists have to starve.  Almost every art can also serve productive purposes as well.  Musicians can perform live shows, where people pay them to produce a musical product for their enjoyment.  Because the performance, in real time and place, is the product, it can't be stolen.  Photographers will always be called upon to take great portraits that look a certain way.  Because you're better at it and have better equipment than most, there will always be some market for it.  Painters will always be called upon to make murals and paintings of certain things for certain purposes.  Because they're products with a demand, for a purpose, they can't be stolen.  Heck, you can even sell convenience and other aspects of the product.  A musician can sell a great vinyl record with a great cover image, with great artwork, and a great story, combined with the music.  A photographer can sell a signed print of some creative art you made, printed with special techniques.  Just realize that the age of selling creative art for the purpose of profit, to the extent that it ever really existed, is probably over.  We will never be able to put the genie back in the bottle of illegal downloading.  As long as images and music are able to be put in the digital world, they'll always be stolen easily, and be nearly impossible to 'punish' the 'theft' thereof.  And in many ways, that realization will enhance art, instead of becoming the ruination that many herald it to be.  If we are to create art, let it be for ourselves, and maybe we hope that others enjoy it, and maybe even want to just give us money, but realize if we want to demand money we should be making a product, and not creating art.  The two are different.  

Despite all the claims that illegal downloads will push musicians not to create, we have more music available to us than ever before today.  The amount of music I can find right now, produced within the last year, is greater than all the music available for easy consumption in the entire decade of the 1980s.  Despite the easy downloading of images on the internet, there are more photographers, producing more outstanding art than ever before.  There are more artists producing more art than ever before, not less.  Real art doesn't need a monetary carrot to be produced.  

If you want to make money you, like all other businesspeople and workers, must figure out how you will produce a product that people will buy.  If you want to create art, you must figure out how to express yourself in a way that satisfies yourself.  People just aren't going to pay for creative art any longer, unless you give them some reason why they might want to.  Then whatever caused that desire to give you money is the product, not the actual art itself.  If you want to sell a product, you need to make sure that it's something people want to buy and can't easily enough obtain without payment.  You can no longer really complain that your art is stolen.  At this point it's simply becoming an irrelevant, incoherent complaint.  The whole thing about creation of art is that once created, you don't really own it any more.  It's not yours to be stolen.  Sure, the physical vinyl record is yours.  The music that's on it isn't.  The platinum print may be yours, the picture and idea behind it isn't.  It belongs just as equally to anybody who has ever seen or heard it.  Whether they have a 'copy' of it is immaterial,  As soon as they heard it or saw it, it just as equally belonged to them.  

Creative art isn't produced and it isn't consumed.  It's created and it's experienced.  Conflating it with a consumed product only leads to problems.  I think we can view the digital revolution as a solution to this problem, not a problem to be solved.  We can get back to making products that people want to consume, and creating art for people to experience.  I think we'll all be better for it.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bourbon Review: Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel

Continuing this week's Heaven Hill Series

Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel - 90 Proof; Aged 18 years; Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$48

Preface: A single barrel bourbon, made from a barrel selected from the absolute middle of Heaven Hill's warehouse, this is probably the most affordable 18 year old whiskey of any sort you can buy.  66% of the volume in these barrels is evaporated away by the time this is bottled.  Meaning that for every barrel they mature this long, they only get 1/3 of a barrel's worth of bourbon.  Usually when bourbon is aged this long the oak turns it a bit bitter.  To avoid this, the barrels that were in the most stable temperature area were selected this, so that the bourbon didn't go as deeply into the oak as it would in an area where the temperature swings were more extreme.  Essentially three things happen when bourbon is aged: 1) Alcohol is evaporated off 2) water is evaporated off and 3) the bourbon draws more of the barrel flavors.  The primary flavors that are drawn from the barrel are caramelized sugar, from the charring of the sap; vanilla from a mix of the wood and non caramelized sap; and oaky-ness, from, well, the oak.

The surface of the inside of the barrel is where you get most of your caramel taste, so bourbon doesn't have to deep soak for that as much, even relatively young bourbons quickly pick up a nice caramel flavor.  The layer right past that is where you get the vanilla flavor, you can get this flavor from either large temperature swings or long aging.  Oaky-ness is the deepest layer and usually requires long aging and at least moderate temperature swings.

When whiskey evaporates, the two things that evaporate off are usually alcohol and water.  Especially water.  Thus, as a bourbon ages, it tends to have its flavors intensified.  It will also see a mild increase in its proof, since water evaporates faster than alcohol.  What typically doesn't evaporate are those caramelized sugars.

Putting this all together, what you will typically have from an older bourbon is a more intense bourbon, with more concentrated flavors.  Usually a powerful caramel flavor, with very present hints of vanilla and a very full feel in the mouth.  Unfortunately, if the barrels aren't chosen very carefully, a lot of older bourbon can also turn bitter, from the oak flavors.  While a hint of oak can be quite pleasant, when it is in extreme amounts, it isn't particularly good tasting (though some aficionados have convinced themselves to 'appreciate' extreme oaky-ness, most master distillers view it as a deep flaw of poorly made heavily aged bourbons).

Thus, not only does older bourbon lose a lot of its volume while aging, it also must be very heavily monitored or it can end up being a huge waste of money for the distiller.  The high price of older bourbon is only partially a marketing ploy, it really is very expensive to make, in both time and effort.  Sadly, on top of that, a lot of older bourbon simply isn't very good.  We are about to see if Parker Beam's Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel can hold up.

Packaging: Lovely bottle, though a tiny bit feminine for my tastes.  Gorgeous mahogany top with a cork.  very soft contour to the bottle.  The label is very simple, but elegant.  the painted on lines are a nice touch, and from the back you can tell they even continue underneath the label.

Appearance: Medium dark amber.  One of the darkest 90 proof bourbons you'll see

Smell: Oak, Vanilla and caramel are all there.  Slightly odd to smell oak pre taste.  Usually that's something you can only pick up on after you've taken a sip or two.

Taste: Caramel is very present yet not overwhelming.  Not nearly as corn syrupy as a lot of heaven hill products are.  Vanilla is there throughout.  After about a second the oak comes in.  Tiny bit of fruitiness comes in as well.  Overall a very balanced, rich taste.  Smooth, without being boring.

Aftertaste: gets a bit spicy at the end, with oak.  The caramel stays for a while and is still there throughout the aftertaste.  Not at all bitter.

Overall: In my mind, this is right up there with the very best, if not the very best.  I prefer this to the other main heavily aged bourbons that are widely available, Jefferson Presidential select and Pappy Van Winkle.  That Heaven Hill was able to get such a complex, full bodied bourbon, without even a hint of oak bitterness really evidences Parker Beam's skill.  A lot of the ultra premium bourbons end up not even tasting like bourbon, as they try to get overly fancy.  That never happens here.  This just tastes like really, really, really great bourbon.  Even though it's not cheap, I'd still call it a bargain, as it clearly blows away most everything in it's price range and even bourbons that are much more expensive.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bourbon Review: Elijah Craig 12 Years Old

Continuing this week's Heaven Hill Series

Elijah Craig 12 Years Old - 94 Proof; aged 12 years; Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$27 (as always, price reflects a 750 mL bottle)

Preface: Elijah Craig is a famous name in bourbon, though likely mostly for apocryphal reasons.  Legend has it that this Kentucky preacher was the first to make what is legally considered bourbon today, by aging it in charred oak barrels.  The legend has it that a distillery fire (distillery fires are very real, even in modern times) burned some barrels, but without money to buy new barrels Craig put his bourbon in the least damaged barrels he had.  When he tried the product he was wowed and had thus found the secret to great bourbon, charring them, as an accident.  This is almost certainly not true in any sense.  First, how would the barrels become burnt on the inside without burning through the barrel first?  As I said in a previous post, the firing of the inside of the barrels was almost certainly done to either remove taste from a previous spirit that was stored in the barrels or to simply remove any bacteria or mold that had accumulated in the barrel. However, the fact that this tale most likely isn't true doesn't stop it from being a great name and story for Heaven Hill to tell in their marketing of Elijah Craig bourbon.

Elijah Craig is Heaven Hill's upscale brand counterpart to their cheaper and better selling Evan Williams Brand.  The 12 Year old is considered a small batch bourbon, meaning that it's blended from a choice af around 50-70 different barrels that are selected by Parker Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hill, they typically come from the middle of the rickhouse, where temperatures are more stable, which enables slower aging.  The grain mix is the same as Evan Williams, and it is a similar flavor profile.  It's somewhat similar to the approach Jim Beam takes with Booker's, except this is also aged for significantly longer than Evan Williams.

Packaging: The bottle is handsome, with a soft shoulder look under a wide mouth neck.  The top is plastic, with the Elijah Craig signature on top and a huge cork.  The label is simple, yet tasteful.  A raised glass Elijah Craig 'signature' is just above the label, classing the appearance up just a tad.  The red lettering of the number 12 really stands out, as everything else on the label is written in brown.  They're very proud of this being a 12 year old bourbon, or at least want to push that as the major marketing point. It's a nice bottle, but not one that is going to wow anybody either.

Appearance: Medium dark amber.  About what you would expect from a 12 year old 94 proof bourbon.

Smell: Vanilla, slight caramel

Initial taste: Smooth, caramel, corn syrup, vanilla.  Nice full feel in the mouth.  Oak comes in after a couple of seconds.  The oak is nice and balanced by the sweetness of the corn syrup and caramel flavors.  A lot of times oaky means bitter, but not the case here.

Finish: very long.  Oaky with some cinnamon spice.  The sweetness of the corn syrup and caramel still linger, though the vanilla is gone by this point.  Despite the oaky-ness it never got bitter.

Overall: among the very best.  Value wise it simply cannot be beat.  This bourbon has stood its own in tasting competitions with others costing four times it's price and with good reason.  Such a balanced taste, great feel in the mouth and a great finish.  It tastes the way bourbon should, sweet, perfect balance of vanilla and caramel, full bodied, with a hint of oaky-ness to give you something to think about.  Never gets bitter despite the age.  Parker Beam has created a star here and somehow manages to sell it for 25 bucks.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bourbon Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2000

This week will be focused on Heaven Hill products, as after this review I plan on reviewing Elijah Craig 12 and 18 year old and Fighting Cock, which are all Heaven Hill products.  Heaven Hill is one of the big boys, and is also a branch of the Beam family with Parker Beam serving as the master distiller.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2000 - 86.6 Proof; aged 9.5 years (barreled 11-16-00, bottled 6-3-10); Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$25

Preface:  Evan Williams has long been known as one of the better selling cheap bourbons.  Many referring to it both lovingly and hatefully as "Evil".  The release of their single barrel premium bourbon under the Evan Williams name was a bit curious.  The traditional playbook for bourbon manufacturers when producing a premium bourbon has been to create an entirely new name for it, in order to distance itself from the reputation of the cheaper, more mass produced bourbons.  Heaven Hill does this already, where the Elijah Craig name is thought of very highly, and all but the most dedicated drinkers are completely unaware that Elijah Craig is essentially "just" an upscale version of Evan Williams (I mean this as no disrespect to Elijah Craig, which I believe is some of the best bourbon you can buy as you will see later in the week).

However, Jack Daniel's may have led the way here, with their Gentleman Jack proving that a relatively middle brow whiskey can create a higher tier product that does well, and actually elevates the brand's reputation in the process.  It's no coincidence that about the time Brown Forman (makers of Jack Daniels) began selling Gentleman Jack, the price of regular Jack Daniels went up in relation to chief rivals, Jim Beam White Label and George Dickel.

That must be what Heaven Hill is hoping for here, that putting out a higher quality bourbon under the Evan Williams name elevates the cachet of Evan Williams in the process.  However, it is a tricky play, as Jack Daniels had a much stronger brand image than Evan Williams to begin with.

The single barrel vintage series from Evan Williams aims to allow users to compare vintages.  However, unlike the previously reviewed Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, they don't aim for distinct bourbon from year to year, so any differences are going to be very subtle variations.

Packaging: A very attractive, simple bottle.  The label is very straightforward and is hand numbered on the back with dates it was put into barrels and then bottled.  The neck is hand dipped in black wax, very similarly to Booker's.  The top is plastic with Cork.  I could do without the faux rough edges on the label, but overall a very elegant, understated package that holds up well sitting next to much more expensive bottles.

Color: a slightly more red medium amber, fairly dark for an under 90 proof bourbon.

Smell: Vanilla, mild caramel; alcohol kick

Initial taste: Very smooth, a bit of rye/cinnamon kick.  Decent balance of caramel and vanilla, though less in amount than most Heaven Hill products.  Decent amount of oak comes in after a second on the tongue.  Not quite as corn syrupy as some Heaven Hill products, but that's not necessarily a good or bad thing.  Nice balance in the mouth.  Tiny hint of astringency at times, but not to a bad degree.

Finish: nice and spicy with a really oaky, very faintly bitter finish.  I'm not huge on oaky finishes, but this one is very nice.  Again, a much less sweet finish than I'm used to from Heaven Hill products.  The bitterness isn't negative by any means, but if you're looking for a sweet caramel-y bourbon with a sugar coated finish, look elsewhere.

Overall: Very good and excellent for the price.  I had to remind myself several times that I was drinking a $25 bottle of bourbon, not a $40 bottle.  It's not especially sweet, as compared to most of the Heaven Hill/Beam family taste profiles, but it is nice and smooth.  Nice oak taste to it, seems that it would have been getting on the verge of overaged had it sat in barrels much longer, as just a hint of oak bitterness was starting to find its way in.  Has a nice feel in the mouth for an 86.6 proof bourbon (usually I think that bourbons under 90 proof are too light in the mouth).  If you want something a little more oak-y but you don't want to break the bank to try it out, this is a good choice.  You really can't go wrong here given the price point.  They could easily put this under a different name and charge $10-20 more.

Mixing:  Mixes extremely well with coke and a sweeter ginger ale such a Vernors, which isn't a tragedy given the price point.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Budget Bourbon Review: Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace - 90 Proof; unstated aging (can thus assume it to be 4 years old); Distilled at Buffalo Trace Distillery; Price ~$20

I've decided that on the weekends I will review lower priced bourbons.  Because of the ubiquity of many of these, in some sense you might say it's kind of pointless to review them.  However, I think it is helpful to see how they stand in relation to the higher priced bourbons.  And you may find a low price gem that becomes your go to mixer.  Also, I plan on going in to how the cheaper bourbons mix with Coke and ginger ale, as that will likely be how most people drink these.

I'm starting with Buffalo Trace.  I'm actually fairly new to the Buffalo Trace, though I am very familiar with many of the higher shelf products from the distillery (Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare, and Van Winkle, amongst others are all made at Buffalo Trace Distillery; so they have a bourbon stable as top notch as any distillery in Kentucky).  The distillery was formerly known as George T. Stagg, but it seemed a questionable marketing move to name the distillery after an extremely limited production bourbon, so parent company Sazerac renamed it to Buffalo Trace and then began production of Buffalo Trace bourbon in 1999.

Packaging - The label design is fairly modern, but not in a bad way.  a black and white pencil drawing of a buffalo makes up the majority of the front label, which is otherwise very minimalist.  The bottle shape kind of reminds me of the Dewar's Scotch bottle.  The size of the bottle is fairly perfect for grabbing in a hand and taking a shot straight out of the bottle.  So there's that.  The bottle looks more high class than the price range would suggest.

Appearance - Copper/gold.  Or a light amber.

Smell - Vanilla is predominant

Taste - Very muted taste.  There's vanilla and there's caramel, but it's not nearly as present as I'm used to.  There's a touch of cinnamon burn, but again, it's not particularly strong.  Fairly smooth, especially for its price range.  It's okay to drink neat, unlike a lot of bourbons in its price range, but nothing excites me about it.  I think that even though its 90 proof it would benefit from upping that to about 95-100, to firm up the taste some.  Its a bit watery as is.  I guess it's no coincidence that George T. Stagg is made there, which is ~140 proof and tastes good neat.

Aftertaste - a bit of vanilla, but some astringent taste.  The astringent taste isn't particularly bad, but it does seem slightly weird.  It doesn't make me make a face, in either a bad or good way.  Again, the key here is very muted.

Overall - Neat this is a very smooth, yet very bland bourbon.  I'd guess the mix of barley was fairly high (it's a mix of corn, rye and barely).  It's probably one of the smoothest budget bourbons you can buy.  If somebody likes vanilla, this would be a good bourbon to get them into bourbon with.  For me it sits in a weird category of not good enough to drink neat, but not what I look for in a mixer (for bourbon mixers I like the rye - cinnamon kick, which is almost completely absent here).  I probably won't buy it again, though for many people's palettes, I could see it being exactly what they're looking for in a cheap bourbon.

As a mixer:

Coke - If you want something to get you fairly intoxicated without even really realizing you're drinking it, mix this with coke.  It makes the coke taste a lot like vanilla coke actually.  No alcohol 'kick' at all, even when mixing this at fairly high levels.  You can mix it well past half and half and almost not realize you're drinking alcohol.  Though it's still a little too bland for me, many will like this about this bourbon.

Ginger - I did not like the way the muted vanilla flavor mixed with ginger at all.  Just a weird taste that I actually couldn't even drink.  The aftertaste was especially unappealing, as the cinnamon kick of many bourbons' finish is the key to mixing well with ginger, and this didn't have that at all.  It just sort of fell flat and weird.  Though extremely smooth.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bourbon Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2008 Edition

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2008 Edition - 94 Proof; aged 13 years (bottled in 1995); distilled at Brown-Forman Distillery Louisville, KY; Price ~$35

Preface- Old Forester was the first bourbon to be sold in individual bottles.  It was marketed mostly towards physicians, as the varying levels of quality control in standard barreled bourbon had become a problem for them.  Prior to Old Forester, bourbon was sold by the distilleries in barrels to resellers, who then went from city to city selling the bourbon in barrels to bars, who then let people buy individual glasses or bring their own reused bottles.  At several points along this chain there was every opportunity to water down the bourbon or otherwise adulterate it by the resellers or the bars that bought the whole barrels.  So the move to selling bourbon in individual bottles from the distillery was bourbon's first real move to quality control.  Being consistently good bourbon, it also attracted the wealthier f those who enjoyed good bourbon, like Mark Twain, who was fond of Old Forester.

These days Old Forester is owned by Forman-Brown, which is perhaps better known as the company that owns Jack Daniels (and Woodford Reserve).  Old Forester is still a very good bourbon name, though it obviously doesn't have 1/100th of the strength of the Jack Daniels brand.  Birthday Bourbon is a special release that has been put out once per year to celebrate the birthday of George Brown.  It is very interesting, because every release has been radically different.  It is my goal to find several more vintages of Birthday Bourbon.  It's an interesting concept, putting out a limited release once a year that is purposefully wildly different every year.  No other distillery is really doing anything like this.  At the very least Old Forester and Forman-Brown should be applauded for doing something different.

Packaging - The bottle is handsome, though not particularly attractive.  The top is completely made out of cork, from the grip on the top, to the actual part that does the corking.  This is a little abnormal, but I think it's a cool touch, again setting it apart from the more standard wood top with a cork glued on.  The label color scheme varies from year to year, and this one is black with green accents.  I find it slightly unattractive, but not awful either.

Appearance - Dark Amber

Smell - Apples and caramel, with alcohol.  Literally smells like you dipped a caramel apple in bourbon.

Taste - Again, it tastes like a bourbon flavored caramel green apple.  The apple taste isn't overwhelming by any means, but it's perhaps one of the clearest secondary flavors I've ever tasted in a bourbon, my friend Maria Merritt noticed this right away the first time we tasted it (secondary flavors are flavors that aren't almost uniformly associated with bourbon, that is, not the primary flavors, which are caramel, vanilla, corn syrup, cinnamon, alcohol and (in infortunate cases) astringent/mouthwash).  Perhaps this is why the label has the green in it?  To hint at the green apple flavor?  It's also fairly smooth, as would be expected from a 13 year old bourbon.  Cinnamon also finds its way into the taste as well, giving it a spicy little kick.  The feel in the mouth is average thickness, as would be expected from a 94 proof bourbon.

Finish - the apple and caramel taste fades faster than the cinnamon, meaning the finish is much spicier than the initial taste.  It's not a long finish at all.  Perhaps even a touch short for my tastes, but isn't bad.  Only a tiny hint of astringent in the finish.  Solid, though not spectacular finish for the price range.

Overall - A very good bourbon that is very unique.  I've tasted a lot of bourbon, and I can honestly say I've never tasted a bourbon with this strong of a green apple taste to it.  If you're one of those people who believe that secondary flavors in bourbon don't exist, try this.  The apple taste is undeniable.  I'm not sure if it was an oddity to the yeast mix, the barrel or the grain mix, or most likely a combination of all the above.  It's not a bourbon I would want to drink every day, however, for the serious bourbon drinker, it's worth getting for a collection if you like a variety of bourbons.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bourbon Review: Jefferson Presidential Select 18 Year Old.

Jefferson Reserve Presidential Select 18 Years Old - 94 Proof; aged 18 years; Distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery; Price: ~$100  Also, a point of interest is that the bottle tells you that it is a wheat based bourbon.  Which means that the secondary grain is wheat whiskey (since by law bourbon must be at least 51% corn whiskey, we must assume that they mean that the other percentage is wheat, though it's impossible to tell exactly what the corn/wheat ratio is).  For most bourbons rye is the primary secondary grain.  I will go into more detail with this in the taste section.

Packaging - This is a gorgeous bottle.  Everything from the plastic/wax stamp, to the silver clasp around the neck, to the wooden top, the elegant lettering.  If you collect bourbon, you almost want this one just for the bottle.  The label has the relevant details written by hand (the batch and bottle number), which is a nice touch when it's actually done.

Appearance - medium gold/amber in color.

Smell - faint vanilla and alcohol.  Very subtle smell for bourbon.

Initial Taste - Tastes like slightly sweeter, smoother Maker's Mark.  Extremely easy to drink.  Almost no burn.  Taste is a subtle mix of vanilla, very light corn syrup and caramel.  Feel in the mouth is lighter than many premium bourbons, but heavier than your average bourbon.  A very balanced feel in the mouth.  The taste is smooth and subtle.  I don't know that I would call it complex, as there aren't many different flavors here.

While the smoothness isn't surprising, given that this is a wheated bourbon, and wheat whiskey is generally smoother than rye, it is fairly extreme here.  If you want your bourbon smooth, this is it for you.  While I don't mind the smoothness, I feel that the bourbon lacks character.  When I was in college I really enjoyed Maker's Mark, but slowly I began to feel that it was a good tasting, but ultimately boring bourbon.  And that's what I feel about this Jefferson.  While it is smooth, subtle, sweet and tastes good, there just isn't anything there that wows me.  It seems a bit odd to me, because this is a bourbon that is obviously geared towards aficionados with its price tag, and most aficionados don't enjoy that flavor profile.  However, it is different from other super premium bourbons, and perhaps therein lies the angle.  Until Maker's Mark introduced their Maker's 46, there simply wasn't a super premium wheated bourbon.  Many of the super premiums tasted fairly similar, most being a variation on the vaunted Jim Beam flavor profile.  Here it was decided to take a different approach.  And while it's not my favorite, it is different and could find its place in a well balanced collection, as a counter balanced to the more usual rye based super premiums.

Finish - Oaky and cinnamon, with some lingering corn syrup.  Not a particularly long finish, but if you like oak and cinnamon with a touch of sweetness, it's a good one.  No mouthwash astringency taste at all (what most people refer to as simply 'bad aftertaste' when referring to bourbon).

Overall - I don't love it.  It's a little too subdued for my tastes in bourbon.  But it is extremely good at what it does.  You won't find a smoother bourbon, with an easier aftertaste.  I find it a bit weird, because this is the kind of flavor profile that non-bourbon drinkers would really love in bourbon.  It seems almost marketed to two very different groups: 1) People who don't drink much bourbon, but want super high quality of whatever it is that they drink.  ie the rich, yet casual bourbon drinker and 2) The completist.  The kind of bourbon drinker that just has to try a bottle of everything, if for no other reason to say he's had it and have it in his collection.  This is a bourbon I want in my collection but doubt I will find myself turning to very often.  More there for guests who complain of my other bourbons being too much for them to handle, yet still wanting them to try something nice.

Ultimately it's hard for me to come down too hard on this bourbon, because it hits the mark it shoots for very well.  I don't care for the flavor profile, in the same way that I don't love Maker's Mark any more.  However, if you are one of Maker's Mark's legion of fans, you owe it to yourself to try this bourbon out.  It's the Maker's Mark flavor, but with extremes in richness, smoothness and great taste.  And it's certainly a conversation starter as well.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Understanding the aging process of bourbon

Nothing quite gets the juices flowing of a bourbon connoisseur like bourbon aged 15 or more years.  Expectations are raised.  It's very easy to feel like you are about to be drinking something special when you see a number that's approaching the age of consent on a bottle of nice bourbon.

However, a lot of intermediate bourbon drinkers are shocked when an old bourbon tastes flat, yet harsh and mediocre or a young bourbon is full and smooth.  This even leads some bourbon drinkers to the view that all bourbon is more or less the same and if you buy premium bourbon, you're just paying for marketing.  It's a complex issue, so let's dive into the multiple facets:

First, let's consider how bourbon is aged.  In order to be called straight bourbon, the bourbon must be made of at least 51% corn whiskey and aged in new (never used before) white oak barrels for at least two years (though if aged between 2 and 4 years, the maker must put exactly how many months old the bourbon is, which practically means almost all bourbon is aged at least four years, since very little bourbon that clearly says '2 years old' would sell).  These barrels are also required to be 'fired' or 'charred', meaning that they are burnt on the inside.  Legend has it that this was due to a fire at Elijah Craig's distillery, where they then tried to salvage some of the partially burnt barrels and found them to produce superior product.  This account is almost certainly apocryphal.  If you think about it, the insides of the barrels couldn't have become charred without first burning through the entire barrel first.  No, the charred insides were almost certainly a method of sterilizing the barrels prior to usage, as a nice quick burn would kill any bacteria in the wood that might otherwise ruin the product.  It was then a happy discovery that charring the insides of the barrels cause the sap of the white oak to caramelize on the outer surface of the inside of the barrel, just underneath the char.  When the bourbon was then put in the barrel for aging, the bourbon would soak into the wood, and then would pull out much of the caramelized sugary white oak sap, giving bourbon its distinctive amber color and carmel/sweet flavor.  

What caused the bourbon to go into the wood in the first place?  Heat.  When the storage temperature of the bourbon barrels rises, this causes the wood to expand and pull the bourbon in.  When the temperature drops, it pushes the bourbon back out.  These swings in temperature govern the aging process.  If the bourbon merely sat in the barrel, without going into and out of the wood, virtually no aging would occur (unlike wine, grain alcohol itself doesn't continue to ferment once distillation is finished).  Considering the drastic swings in temperature you find in Kentucky, this makes for relatively quick aging.  Temperature swings play such an important role in the aging process that experienced tasters can often tell the difference between a bourbon stored in the middle of the rick house from a barrel stored on the outer edge, where temperature swings are more pronounced.  Some distillers rotate their barrels throughout the rick house to give a more consistent bourbon, while some use these differences to create different varieties and levels of quality (for instance Booker's only comes from one small part of Jim Beam's rick houses).  

Now, let's compare this to Scotch whiskey, which is aged in used barrels, in Scotland, which has much less extreme changes in temperature, due to the gulf stream, and is also just generally colder than Kentucky.  In order to get the same level of effective aging, the Scotch is going to have to sit in the barrel for substantially longer in most cases.  While the two processes are difficult to compare, you can roughly figure that aging 1 year in Kentucky is roughly equivalent to aging 1.5 in Scotland, in so far as how much the whiskey goes into and out of the barrel it is aging in.  A single malt Scotch aged for just 6 years is quite rough in most circumstances (though not inherently bad), whereas many bourbons aged 6 years are extremely smooth.  

Single malt Scotch is mostly where the 'aging craze' for whiskey started.  Because scotch takes so long to age properly, a lot of inferior Scotch was legitimately rushed to market, since legally only 3 years of aging are required.  Furthermore, older whiskey must be more expensive, because of three factors:1) The time value of money indicates that whiskey makers are putting up a substantial amount of capital up front for a return that is several years off.  Simple interest would indicate that this would make it more expensive.  2) Storage space, the cost of barrels and other factors make simply storing the stuff expensive.  Storing a barrel of 25 year old scotch for 25 years comes at an opportunity cost of not storing 3 barrels of 8 year old scotch.  And finally, 3) Every year a percentage of what is in the barrel evaporates.  This is euphemistically referred to as 'the angel's share'.  Thus causing an aged barrel to produce less product than a younger barrel.  

So, because many times older Scotch was genuinely better, and it was more expensive to produce, and thus demanded higher prices, it began to be associated as a luxury item.  Gradually the age of the scotch was viewed as an indicator of worth, in and of itself.  Even though some scotches required less aging for the same level of quality, they were aged longer, because older Scotches fetched higher prices.  For example, many people feel that Balvenie 12 year old is actually inferior to the former Balvenie 10 year old, but the 10 year old was discontinued when the 12 year old was released (at a higher price).  

Slowly, this age obsession creeped into the world of bourbon.  For many years, bourbon was aged at 4 years and left at that.  Some distillers would occasionally age a few barrels to blend in and give greater consistency between years, but for the most part all bourbon was aged about 4 years.  Just enough to not be required to post the age, but not any longer.  And this wasn't entirely detrimental.  As we talked about above, Kentucky bourbon ages quickly.  Especially if the rick houses are  left with free ventilation to the outside air, as they typically were.  However, a part of the issue was that following prohibition, bourbon makers simply were playing catchup, as virtually all stock of bourbon had been depleted.  Thus, while bourbon did age faster, it was also pushed out the door as fast as could be in the years following prohibition, more or less all the way through the 80s.  

In the 80's the popularity and reputation of bourbon began to fall, quite a bit.  When people drank bourbon, they usually didn't even drink bourbon, they drank Jack Daniels (which is Tennessee Whiskey, though it's an open debate as to whether or not Tennessee Whiskey actually qualifies as bourbon, but since Jack Daniels has no desire to be labelled as bourbon, one that will never be tested).  The bourbon industry needed a kick start for both sales, and reputation.  They were getting killed on the low end by the growth of vodka as the cheap mixer of choice, especially as more females began to drink cocktails, and there essentially wasn't a high end bourbon on the market.  

Along came Elmer T. Lee.  Elmer T. Lee was the master distiller at Leestown Distilling, which was formerly ancient age.  Lee knew from years of experience that certain barrels that he mixed into his blends were much, much better than others, or even the final blended product.  He went to the distillery brass with the idea of creating a brand of bourbon that was selected, by him, from the very best barrels as he tasted them.  Thus, Blanton's (and less well known Elmer T. Lee) were born.  This was not only the founding of the single barrel movement, but more broadly the move in bourbon towards top shelf bourbon.  

It is unarguable that the move towards creating a top shelf bourbon movement did in fact lead to substantially higher quality bourbon.  However, it was when this movement mixed with the growing obsession with age in the scotch whiskey community that marketing began to take over.

Jim Beam has constantly, and respectfully, held the line that if done right, bourbon doesn't gain much anything from being aged over about 9 years.  Booker Noe even going so far as to claim that some barrels don't gain a thing after 6 years.  Yet, the age craze has somewhat taken off and just a couple of brands can be examined for it.

The biggest 'culprits' of the age craze are undoubtedly the Van Winkles.  Makers of pappy Van Winkle 20 year old.  Consider that for a second.  20 years old is old for scotch, but Kentucky bourbon?  It's unthinkable in some ways.  That would be the equivalent of something like a 30 year old scotch, which only a handful of those exist, and are considered to be extreme luxury items that often fetch in the thousands of dollars.  However, one must ask, was 20 years of aging really what makes that bourbon so great?  I've had Pappy Van Winkle 20, and while it's certainly good, I actually have slightly preferred Pappy 15 year old (and several other top shelf bourbons).  The 20 years of aging is primarily a marketing ploy.  That makes it the oldest bourbon out there that is semi-easily available (though Pappy Van Winkle can be hard to find, one must usually know a liquor store owner and have the store owner either save you a bottle or call you as soon as it comes in).  In the case of most bourbon that is older than about 10 years old, it isn't so much the aging that makes the bourbon great, it is that it was simply great bourbon to start with.  If Booker's was aged another 6 years, it would be excellent bourbon, but it likely wouldn't be substantially better than it is now.  Elijah Craig 18 year old is among my favorite bourbons, but it's mostly quality control that puts it a small notch above it's younger (but still old) sibling, Elijah Craig 12 year old.  In fact, Heaven Hill is known to actually slow down the aging process, by keeping the barrels that will become Elijah Craig under a more consistent temperature.  The issue is slightly more complicated than this, but clearly a lot of the reason is so that they can slap the '18 year old' label on the bottle and sell it for $50, as opposed to $25.  

In conclusion, my point is that bourbon should not be judged based on age.  Sure, some old bourbons are fantastic.  Elijah Craig 18 might be my favorite bourbon in the world.  But the judgment should be based on taste, not the number on the label or the price tag on the shelf.  As Jim Beam illustrates, some absolutely fantastic bourbons can be made in 6 years, if chosen properly.  As always, your best bet is to just sample as much as you can and see what you like and try hard to not be biased by the label (if you can, blind tastings are always fun, and often revealing).  Just because a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old is that old and costs $150, doesn't mean it's better than a $50 bottle of Booker's or even a $30 bottle of Elmer T. Lee.

Dusting the blog back off with a bourbon review: Booker's

Lately I've gotten the writing bug back, but have been too busy to really do it.  Also, I'm now writing over at Capitol Avenue Club which takes a lot of the time I do have to write.  However, I'm on a brief vacation and I want to write about bourbon a bit.  Writing about bourbon also seems to fit with the title of this blog fairly well, I think.

I've recently thought about keeping a bourbon journal.  Keeping track of my thoughts, notes, etc on the various bourbons I try.  Then I realized it's probably just as easy to write it here, so here's a random smattering of thoughts I've had about recent bourbons, we will start with Booker's:

Booker's - 124-128 Proof aged 6-8 years (this particular bottle was aged 7 years, 7 months and 128.6 proof, putting it towards the end of both the age and proof range for Booker's) Price ~$50

Packaging - comes in a wooden box with faux aged lettering.  A little hokey, but a nice touch for a $50+ bourbon.  Bottle is wax sealed on top, with black wax.  The top is plastic, which I guess is because of the wax sealing.  I'm used to a wooden top for a premium bourbon like this.  A cork is still employed, unlike the other Fortune Brands (Fortune Brands owns both the Jim Beam Distilleries and the Maker's Mark distilleries) bourbon with a wax sealed top, Maker's Mark.  I prefer cork, it may be an aesthetic thing, but I'm paying $50 for this, I like the touch of a cork, as opposed to a plastic screw top.  The bottle is wine bottle shaped and the glass is uncolored glass, which I like for really displaying the rich color that the actual bourbon has.  The labels are a bit corny, as Jim Beam tries desperately to hold onto the illusion that each bottle of Booker's is  labeled by hand.  I sort of hate that approach.  If you're really going to go for the pure hand made look, just get somebody to fill things out by hand.  If you're not, just design an elegant label that works.  This half way stuff lacks grace to me.  So while I love the wax that spills over on the 'B' medallion and the cork, I hate the Booker's label.  The box will make for a nice riser on my bar to elevate the second row of bottles I have for better display.

Appearance - Deep rich amber color.  Sticks to the side of the glass when circulated in a snifter.  Both indicate that this bourbon will be a mouthful of thick lushness.

Smell (I refuse to call this 'nose') - Vanilla and corn syrup are the two aromas that jump out to me.  More than anything else though, this smells like Jim Beam bourbon, just even more so than white label Jim Beam.  While some of the other premium Beam products, like Knob Creek and Baker's, are variations on the Jim Beam profile, at least smell wise Booker's seems to be pure 'premium Jim Beam Bourbon'.

Initial tase - Well, it's a cask strength bourbon, that's for sure.  The first thing you'll notice is the 128 proof, especially if you don't cut it a bit with ice or distilled water.  Also, if you don't cut it you'll quickly find that the inside of your mouth has been numbed.  I personally usually take a couple sips of it neat, then add an ice cube.  If Booker Noe (the bourbon's namesake) says it should be cut with water or ice, well then, I guess it's okay.  Once a single ice cube is added (which is how I personally take it) the bourbon reveals a lot more flavor than just the pure alcohol blast of the first neat sip.  The vanilla we smelled initially is there, along with the caramel/corn syrup flavor that is the trade mark of the Jim Beam flavor profile.  This isn't the most complex flavored bourbon, but it really gets it close to perfect in my mind.  The alcohol and caramel also can combine to give a slight citrus flavor, just enough to cut the sweetness a touch.  Really, to my palette, there are just 4 flavors going on here: Vanilla, Caramel, Citrus and alcohol.  And while that may seem a bit unrefined, it's the balance to those that's so perfect that makes this Bourbon.  Some bourbons go for all these complex flavors, but at the end of the day they just don't fit together well.  Jim Beam takes a relatively simple profile, but absolutely nails it with Booker's.  In a lot of ways you might view Booker's as the platonic ideal of bourbon.  It's not interesting in the sense that some other bourbons, like Four Roses, are but to me it just gets the flavor of bourbon right.

Body - This is a thick bourbon, as you would expect based on it being 128 proof.  Basically that means that in order to make this a 'normal' 80 proof bourbon, you'd have to add about 50% of the volume of the bourbon in water.  It coats your mouth and doesn't let go.  While tasting it doesn't so much slosh around as it rolls around.

Finish - long after you've taken your sip the thick, caramel, vanilla goodness continues to coat your mouth.  The finish is cinnamon-y (from the alcohol) but remains the hints of vanilla, citrus and caramel.  Several minutes later, your mouth still tastes sweet.  There is almost a complete lack of the 'astringent' mouthwash taste that some bourbons can have.  Which is perhaps the biggest mark of a truly premium bourbon.  Booker's manages to be both powerful and easy to drink, which is a rare feat indeed.

Overall - Among the best.  Jim Beam is, without a doubt, the most storied name in bourbon.  Booker's is not only their best bourbon, but also the one that best exemplifies the Jim Beam flavor profile: Vanilla, caramel, with a touch of cinnamon and citrus.  Booker's is by no means cheap, but it holds up to anything in the price range and many bourbons out of its price range.  It's not complicated, but it balances things just right.  Cut it with a single ice cube and you're tasting something that can make a good argument to being the exact way bourbon should taste.  If you like your bourbon sweet, smooth, powerful and to taste like bourbon, this is it for you.