Spirit award shows are all crap

A local craft distiller told me they get at least one phone call or letter every week asking them to participate in a spirit award show.  They all function about the same.  Send them a check for $500 per spirit entered along with 2 bottles. Practically all spirits entered will ‘win’ some type of award.  One show mentioned was the Beverly Hills Award show.  This is promoted as an “elite competition recognizing the very best”; winners could promote they ‘won’ an award from a prestigious address – Beverly Hills.  I did a little research and discovered their prestigious address was a rental post office in Beverly Hills. This rental post office advertised they specialized in folks wanting a Beverly Hills address and would forward mail/packages to wherever needed.  This is a complete pay to play sham.

Uneducated spirit buyers (i.e. whiskey taters) do like to see ‘awards’ on retail shelf talkers. It makes them feel good about their purchase. Most also have no clue there is more than 1 award show or anything about how they work.

A huge flaw in every award show is that they depend on the producers to select send in bottles for award consideration vs the award show buying the bottles.  Lots of whiskies are single barrel products that have variation between barrels. It’s very easy for a producer to pick a honey barrel to be judged.  That barrel might not taste anything like the rest of the barrels bottled. Even if it’s not a single barrel whiskey, there is nothing stopping a less scrupulous producer from gaming any bottle submitted.

Another way these shows are flawed are by the categories they purposely create.  How about Single Barrel Wheated Whiskey from 2 to 4 years old? If the field is limited to just a few possible entries, every whiskey will ‘win’ an award.  I’ve never seen a shelf talker that states the category the spirit won an award in. Since not all spirits are entered in every award show there is never a true best of award; it’s only best of what was entered.

The largest award show is the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  In 2017 2,253 spirits entered this competition and 2,083 of those ‘won’ a medal.  That’s a 92.4% win rate; guess the judges are not very strict.  That year the winner of best whiskey went to an unreleased to retail honey barrel product.  I know a judge, Fred Minnick, in this competition. I do give them credit that spirits are truly blind tasted, but judges do talk to each other and try to sway influence.  The founder was recently interviewed by Kenny Coleman on his Bourbon Pursuit podcast show;  Kenny’s Interview  Kenny did ask about producers entering honey barrels bottles and the founder sidestepped the question and does not think it happens with spirits.  In 2017, Ben Milam won a double gold, SFWSC’s highest medal, for their Single Barrel Bourbon. Ben Milam sourced this whiskey from MGPi. I don’t know what they turned in to be judged but I bought a bottle at retail. I put in a blind tasting of 15 participants with a total of 20 whiskies, all blind to participants.  It finished 12th; hardly worthy of a double gold award. So who are you going to trust? The 2018 award winner was again another producer submitted single barrel product.

How long should these awards last?  Producers change production methods over time and NDP’s switch sources which means the whiskey changes as well.  Tito’s entered the San Francisco World Spirits in the second year of the competition, 2001.  Tito’s did ‘win’ a double gold medal. They never entered again and yet to this day still brag about that gold medal and the other Vodkas they beat in their advertising.  What they don’t say is 2 other Vodkas also ‘won’ double gold. The top winner also is stated as Best Vodka and that year it was not Tito’s; it was Wodka Wyborowa Vodka from Poland.

The only award the really matters is the one you give a whiskey. Tasting whiskey is very subjective; you may or may not agree with any so called expert panel.  That leads to the question of how to know if you like a whiskey before purchasing it? I have a goto bar that always brings in new whiskies and generally will give me a small taste to sample.  In my market there are several whiskey shows which is a great way to try new products. Another option is to have whiskey get togethers in your local town where everyone brings a bottle to share. I’ll repeat the only award the really matters is the one you give a whiskey.

This leads us to whiskey tater reason #6. Purchase a bottle of whiskey because a shelf talker mentioned it ‘won’ an award

So, you want to give a whiskey drinker a gift of a bottle of bourbon?

If you start doing a lot of tater things in whiskey, your normal friends will eventually have an occasion to buy you a gift and they will decide another bottle of bourbon would be perfect.  They will then try to find that ‘perfect’ bottle.  In the past, I’ve often been gifted either Basil Hayden’s or Blanton’s.  Basil Hayden’s has very elaborate bottle packaging and Blanton’s has very pretty bottle.  I’m pretty sure those shopping for me bought based on packaging.  I prefer Blanton’s of the two, but I’m not going to complain about free Straight Bourbon.

Sometimes the person will turn to online bourbon groups for a bottle suggestion.  This is a huge mistake.  The online tater groups will likely suggest all kinds of bottles that are rarely available at retail.  The gifter will venture to their local liquor store where they will become frustrated because nothing on their list is available.  I witnessed this plenty of times in the bourbon aisle of my local store.  Yes, the store salesman will take and place their name on the list for that bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23.  The Blanton’s I was gifted before is now on this hard to find list.  Or the taters will suggest expensive shelf turds like Whistlepig Boss Hogg if the gifter’s budget allows it.

I recall the days 12 years ago where I could ask for BTAC bottles from relatives as Christmas presents and they could easily go buy these.  Sadly, those days are long gone.  The $100 price point is one that is often given as the gift amount.  The $100 price point of bottles that are likely to still be on the shelf is also the home of some biggest tater bottles out there like Blood Oath or several of the Jefferson’s.  I suspect those producers pick that price point for this reason.

I think it’s unrealistic to expect the occasional gift giver to venture into secondary markets.  So, I’ll make some basic suggestions of good solid Straight Bourbons that are easy to find in most markets as of 2018.

$30 – Elijah Craig
$45 – Wild Turkey Rare Breed
$65 – Booker’s

There is really no need to spend any more than this.  I know if I were gifted any of these bottles and I would be very happy.  Now to post this to Facebook so all my friends see it.

Did my bourbon change in the bottle?

I often see posted in bourbon social media sites people comment that the initial first taste from a new bottle of bourbon was not good but after letting it ‘open up’ a few weeks later it was completely different and so much better.  Bourbon ages for years in permeable oak barrels, so this theory that it changes after opening a bottle made little sense to me. What I have always suspected is that this difference is due to changes in your palate. Your palate, or how you perceive taste, changes constantly.   

I wanted to test this and it’s an easy enough test to perform by purchasing 2 identical bottles of bourbon.  Open one up and drink from it.  Keep the other one sealed.  At some point in time later, have a drink from both bottles side by side and see if there is a difference.  I did this myself a few times and could never tell any difference, but I’m only one person, so it was a very limited dataset for proof. In 2017 I decided to test this with a larger group.   I also introduced a triangle test to this.  Testers would taste 3 samples; 2 from the previous opened bottle and 1 sample from the just opened, or vice versa.  Either way, one of the 3 samples is the odd sample and if change was perceptible enough then it should be identified.  This test is objective in that it is designed to test if any change has occurred.  It does not test if that change is better or worse which is much more subjective.

My first test of this was with Old Weller Antique which is 107 proof.  The timeframe from the bottle being opened to test was 37 days.  The result was that there was no discernible difference.  I posted more details on this here OWA change test

I shared that result in several bourbon groups.  Many were convinced that my study was flawed.  They commented that a wheated bourbon would not change much, or my timeframe was too short or it needs to be a barrel proof bourbon.  I listened and setup up another round of testing.  This time it was with bottles of a 124.4 barrel proof Four Roses Single barrel pick.  Picked by a bar in Houston named Little Dipper.    One bottle I opened and took small pours of about every other day until the bottle was half empty.  The time frame was increased to 52 days.

Little dipper bottles a

We had 12 testers.  4 said they could not tell any differences.  6 testers thought they perceived a difference but their pick was 1 of 2 identical samples in the triangle test.  2 testers correctly identified the odd sample.  Since odds of random guessing would be 4 correct answers in this test, the conclusion is no discernable difference found.

Stay tuned as I have another test and that timeframe will be 1 year.  The results will be posted around June.  I suspect this one will have a noticeable change, but I won’t know for sure until tested.  As far as short term, under a month or two, I will call this myth busted.

 

Basics American Whiskey Types

The TTB with its Beverage Alcohol Manual, BAM, defines 35 different types of American whiskies. Before the whiskey boom of the past 10 years only a handful of these were actively produced. Between all of the craft distilleries and NDP’s, Non Distilling Producers, introducing new brands we are now seeing many more of these 35 types being introduced. An example is class type ‘Whisky distilled from Bourbon Mash’. Whenever you see a ‘distilled from XYZ mash’ statement on a label, you know the whiskey has been aged in a used barrel. For my money, I want the genuine article so therefore I purchase Straight Whiskey. The word ‘Straight’ carries much legal meaning; it means the whiskey has been aged at least 2 years in a new charred oak container, with an exception for only Straight Corn Whiskey. It also means no flavors or coloring has been added and that it is the product of only one state. A few years back, I put together this spreadsheet based on the CFR’s and the BAM showing the differences between the most common whiskey types.

basic whiskey types

link to google sheet – Basic American Whiskey Types
A side note about our spirits labeling laws. The BAM is the TTB’s simplified interpretation of the actual labeling laws found in the CFR’s. If you want to read the BAM here is the link BAM. The TTB also writes regulatory rulings and other guidance such as FAQ’s.

Want to buy an allocated bottle of whiskey?

How should retailers approach sales of limited/allocated whiskey?  And I’m speaking of truly limited bottles where demand far outpaces supply; not the stuff that Casker’s hypes like limited Whistlepig releases. Here are the 5 most common scenarios:

1. Just put it on the shelf at SRP and sell to some lucky bastard that just happens to walk in at the right time.  This is the tater’s dream and it does happen on a rare occasion.  The reality is this does not help the store to build long term profitable relationships with their customers.

2. Conduct some type of raffle/lottery system at SRP. Everybody that participates has equal shot. This does build some good will; even if you lose you at least had a chance. But taters know even these stores hold back a few bottles for their best customers.

3. Announce the release date and sell the bottles, generally 1 per person, to those who line up first.  This is the black Friday sales approach with overnight camping and it seems popular with a few big KY retailers.  Taters have taken to paying folks to line stand.

4. Stores only receive very small amounts of these allocated bottles.  It’s often based on their sales of that brand’s complete portfolio.  This may include cases of vodka or cinnamon whiskey brands they have a hard time moving.  So, they decide to make the most money they can on these allocated bottles. Stores have an idea of secondary prices and will set price even above this.  They know someone is likely to pay it; they usually do.  This approach infuriates taters.  Many seem to think this is price gouging. Whiskey is hardly a life necessity so price gouging laws do not apply.  Taters see the bottle and think they have come so close.  Of course, the only reason the bottle is still on shelf is because the price is so high. It’s capitalism, and consumers are free to take all their business elsewhere.

5.  Reserve these bottles at SRP for the best/most profitable customers. This could be a guy that buys $20,000 of wine a year but wants his bottle of Pappy once a year. Or in some states like Texas where bars/restaurants buy from retailers, this means taking care of these large volume accounts first.  Some stores a use point system that track your purchases.  In smaller stores owners are often working the floor and they know who their regular profitable customers are.

In my opinion, option 5 is by far the best approach for a store owner.   The tricky part is taters often think they are great customers of every store in town.

This covers tater reason 15.  Camp out overnight for Pappiez

Diageo responds

From my last blog post, I noted I had sent an email to Diageo’s compliance officer.  My email was forwarded to their Director of Consumer Affairs.  I received a message from him explaining the surrendered COLA.  Although the TTB initially approved the COLA, they later asked Diageo to surrender it.  Because Diageo already had product ready to go with launch events, packaging and promotional material, they came to agreement with TTB so they could use this label for period of 1 year.  They are required to be clear in any promotions or marketing material that this is not a bourbon.  After the 1-year period if they continue to sell this product, it must be under a different label and name.

So that’s the story.  I’m disappointed that the TTB approved this label to begin with.  Are they overworked or just staffed with some employees that don’t understand our laws?  I’ve seen TTB COLA label approval for low proof fruit flavor liquor that had Bottled in Bond on the label. Another time they approved a ‘whiskey’ that was distilled from potatoes.  Both of those support they don’t understand our laws.  What I suspect happened is when another big bourbon producer like Sazerac or Heaven Hill found out about this label, they contacted the TTB and pointed out why it broke our law.

This leads us to tater reason:

  1.  You purchase a crappy Canadian whiskey because you found out from Tater-Talk that it is now a limited-edition whiskey

Diageo done screwed up

In this industry one of the things I am known for is pointing out producers when they violate TTB federal labeling laws on spirits.  I do so as a consumer advocate.  Prior to 2007 there were about a dozen companies producing whiskey in the US.  Per the American Craft Spirits association as of 2017 there are now 1589 craft distillers in the US.  When a distiller wants to create a new label, they submit a COLA application for approval to the TTB.  Under penalty of perjury, they swear that the label meets all US labeling laws.  Now one might think that the TTB would know all these laws and only approve labels that met them, but that have proven time and time again that don’t.  I however have studied our labeling laws extensively and know them inside out.

Almost all of the labeling mistakes I see are from these newer small craft producers.  Often it is an honest mistake in that they were not aware of a particular portion of the law.  I have pointed out mistakes and had many appreciate it and update their label accordingly.  Others violate label law on purpose because to follow them would mean telling their potential customers more than they want to and potentially hurt their sales.  I rarely see mistakes from the big producers because I suspect they have teams of lawyers that review these labels and know the laws. So that brings us to Diageo, the world’s largest spirit company.

One of Diageo’s brands is Crown Royal.  Crown is introducing a new product in the US called Crown Royal Bourbon Mash Blended Canadian Whiskey.  It’s imported from Canada.  Bourbon is red hot these days so I can see why Crown Royal wants to jump on the Bourbon bandwagon.  The problem is they broke the law in doing so.  Bourbon is distinctive product of the US as declared by the US congress in 1964 and signed by President Lyndon B Johnson.  NAFTA contains a section where Canada agreed to recognize Bourbon Whiskey as a distinctive product of the US.  American law is found in 27 CFR 5.22 (b) (2) – ‘Whiskey distilled from bourbon mash produced in the United States’.

27 CFR 5.22 (l) (1) is the smoking gun.  It states That the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States.  This is exactly what Diageo did.  They used Bourbon to describe a product that was produced in Canada.

Here is their COLA approval – CR Bourbon Mash Label  In my state Texas, it is required to have state approval as well.  Here is their Texas approval – CR Bourbon Mash TX approval PDF  If you notice the Texas approval was approved Jan 04, 2018 and is based off the Federal COLA approval #17206001000359.

This label should have never been approved by the TTB. It should have never even been submitted by Diageo.  And now it gets even more interesting.  This label status is now ‘surrendered’, which means it is no longer valid – picture of this CR label surrendered

When the label was surrendered is unknown.  I have searched the TTB database extensively and I have not found any replacement COLA approval.  Yet, Diageo is continuing to sell this product.  There is even a launch party for it tonight in Houston.

Diageo is the 900 lb gorilla in the room in the spirits business.  Maybe they think they are too big for the law to apply to them.  I for one will call them out on their shenanigans when appropriate.

Update – Diageo’s compliance officer name was on the original COLA label application, so I sent her an email asking about this.  Screenshot of email here email to Diageo