Brown Colored Piss in a Bottle

To be very frank – I am growing increasingly more worried about the state of the craft distilling movement all the time. The urgency to get a product to market is doing the craft movement no favors at all. The vendors that play into this urgency need to dial it back. Case in point – craft distillers have discovered that they can buy staves and cubes and chips of toasted oak from a number of N. American sellers and toss this crap into a tote of distillate. After 3-4 weeks….et voila….Whisky !! But, it is not Whisky. It is brown colored piss in a bottle. Craft distillers then run around blathering about small batch, handcrafted and somewhere in there is usually a colorful marketing tale about someone’s grandfather being a gun-totin’, cattle-rustlin’ Moonshiner. To the consumer – all of this is very new and very attractive. But, if the whisky is piss in a bottle, how does that benefit the consumer? How does that benefit anyone? Sadly, there is a reluctance on the part of craft distillers to embrace science. Maybe it is more of a fear? Who knows. My message in all of this is – you do not have to be enrolled in a M.Sc. program at Heriot Watt to understand the science. You do not even need to be enrolled in the IBD exam offerings. All you need do is read a basic book on Microbiology and then apply some of what you learned to reading scientific papers. And these papers are readily available to you. Case in point – last evening I went to Google Scholar and typed in something about Oak Aging and Whisky. Next thing you know I was pulling out my credit card and spending $10 to buy a 1981 research paper written by a gentleman at the Seagram’s Research Center in Kentucky (back when Seagram’s actually still owned production facilities). A read of the paper reveals some key mechanisms. In an oak barrel, ethanol oxidizes to acetaldehyde and thence to acetic acid. It is the combination of the acid and ethanol that generate esters (flavor and aroma). The wood lignins break down under the influence of ethanol into aromatic aldehydes. The hemicelluloses break down into various polysaccharides that impart sweetness to a Whisky. Adding distillate to the barrel at between 55% and 65% is shown to be the optimal strength. Add the distillate at higher proof and you accomplish nothing. Charring of the oak alters the celluloses and hemicelluloses and makes them more reactive with the ethanol. Hence, charred barrels will deliver a better flavor profile. Time in the oak is also key. A good amount of the color and flavor is developed in year 1 of aging, but the extraction of color and flavor continues for years on end. The temperature of the aging room affects the extraction of color and flavor too. Age at a warmer temperature and the relative proportions of esters and aldehydes will shift. Hence temperature can be used to help a distiller arrive at a desired flavor profile. Re-using a barrel again also is a risk. I see a lot of craft people running around wild-eyed and crazed in search of used barrels from Jack Daniels. Hello? Jack Daniels has already used that barrel for maybe 6 years. Adding your distillate and leaving it sit will earn you nothing. The barrel needs to be re-furbished. I saw this recently in Scotland where it was made very clear to me that the incoming used Bourbon barrels from the USA are sent to a cooperage in Inverness for refurbishing.

So this whole reading process of this one 1981 paper took me all of an hour and the information gleaned is amazing. With such data and information so readily available to us in this information age, why take shortcuts by adding sticks and cubes and staves to distillate? Embrace the science and make a truly fantastic product. Take that truly fantastic product and wrap it in the story about your gun-totin’, Moonshinin’ ancestor and believe me you will have people breaking your door down to buy your Whisky. Then, the big commercial distillers will really have something to fear….

Philosophical Thoughts on Whisky in Canada

This we trip to Scotland has given me pause for thought. I am struggling with the question – what is whisky?

Technically it is an alcoholic spirit beverage made from barley and other cereal grains. But, the bigger issue is how is it made and to what degree is it elevated?

Technically the definition for Whisky in Canada says that aging 3 years in small wood earns one the right to call it a Canadian Whisky. There is nothing that sets any restrictions on ingredients. A Canadian distiller could use barley, wheat, corn, rye, oats…etc…

The generally accepted protocol seems to be for a big commercial distiller in Canada to bring the distillate off a column still at 95% (almost a Vodka-like material) and then blend that base with distillates of other grains that are perhaps less than 95%. After that, it all gets aged in small wood (casks less than 700 liters), which are oak for the most part. Where this column still notion came from, I do not know. What drove the urgency to create a spirit so clean that it only needed 3 years of aging, I do not know. The 3 years in itself seems to hearken back to Canada’s days as a British colony where the Brits set the laws. But the 3 years is simply a minimum. The urgency is then further added to when one realizes that by Canadian law we can actually add up to 9.09% of other stuff (including wine…) and caramel color. Add artificial flavor and the law says only 2 years of aging is needed. So the next time you are having a Canadian whisky – ask yourself what are you drinking. If the label does not explicitly say how old it is…you might be shocked at what is in that libation. Now I understand why 2 years ago when I was at a spirits conference in London, speaker Dominik Roskrow went on a wicked tirade against Canadian whisky makers, whom he regards as a bunch of mad laboratory scientists.

In Scotland, technically 3 years is also required. But, so many of the distillers have stayed true to the old method of distilling using goose-neck pot stills and then aging for 10,12, 15 years and more. Somehow, this artistry got lost when Canada became a nation.

In the USA, the artistry was partly maintained as the USA became its own nation in 1776. US law demands that bourbon, for example, shall come off the still at 80% or less. Then, law further states that a “new” oak cask shall be used. Then law says the maximum alcohol strength in the aging cask shall be 62.5%. Then the law says, age it 4 years minimum or face the embarrassment of posting an age statement on your label. This has served to elevate the status of American bourbons and whisky’s on the word stage.

And now we have the craft distilling revolution unfolding before our eyes. Craft distillers are relying on our lax laws and are calling their whisky products grain mashes, moonshines, spirit drinks. Some have even found a weakness in the law that technically allows one to call it whisky without even aging it. Excise Canada officials are trying hard to get that “horse back into the barn”. What worse, I see craft distillers now throwing oak sticks and chips into a container to give their so-called whisky some color and oak notes in a hurry. Add some toasted oak chips to some clear distillate sometime and count the days until the liquid is brown, to see what I mean…

These craft distillers, in my not so humble opinion, are making PISS IN A BOTTLE. I am growing ever more worried that the craft movement is going to collapse under its own weight. Consumers in this day and age of readily available information via the internet and easy travel opportunities are getting savvy quickly. I fear they are going to turn their back on craft if craft does not move fast to understand the science behind spirits making. As I caution people in the Distillery Workshops, “Betty Crocker has left the building”. In other words, if you think that making spirits is like baking a cake out of a cardboard box, then maybe craft distilling is NOT for you.

I am now seeing a rumbling of sorts coming from at least one of the big boys. Pernod Ricard owns the Wiser’s brand name and their Vice President is Don Livermore. By the way, Dr. Livermore obtained his pH.D. from Heriot Watt where I am currently working on my M.Sc. Dr. Livermore was quoted in a recent edition of Quench magazine as saying he “hates craft”. I say look out! This is a man who understands the science and who has the corporate horsepower to start bringing some uniquely innovative products to market that will take a nasty swipe at the idea of craft.

So craft people, I say the time to bid farewell to PISS IN A BOTTLE has come. It is time to play the long game and start making whisky that is properly nurtured. The French even have an expression for this. They call it ‘elevage’, meaning to raise or nurture. Forget about running to vendors looking for oak chips from old Scotch barrels and old Bourbon barrels. Get off your lazy asses and embrace science. You want some smokiness in a whisky? Buy some smoked barley with a high phenol content and add it to your mash. How much to add? You figure it out. Betty Crocker has left the building. Better yet, build a little cold smoker and smoke your barley with local woods from your area. Want something that tastes like Bourbon? Never mind adding chips and stuff. Figure out a mash that will give you a nice tasting Bourbon. Better yet – read my book called The Recipe. I give you all that you need. In short – start playing the role of the craftsman. That is what craft distilling is all about. It is not about cutting corners and trying to sneak one by the consumer. The customer is still early in his relationship with craft. Based on the number of craft distillery failures I am now starting to see in the USA, I say this relationship is about to go through a rough spell, even here in Canada.

On on this dire note, I have a wee dram of 15 year old cask strength calling my name. If I listen carefully, I think I can hear choirs of angels singing….

My Faith in Corporate Whisky – Restored……

Last week I was supposed to have done a tour to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery, but at the last minute the tour company advised they had to cancel due to the fact I was the only one who had signed up.

Last evening, sitting at my hotel desk writing a term paper on the use of Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy as a tool to help malting companies, an email popped up advising that there would be a Glenkinchie tour today (Oct 13th).

Early this morning, I made my way into Edinburgh and found the tour office. Soon enough the bus arrived and we all boarded. The driver announced that straight away we would be heading to Glenkinchie – a Diageo owned distillery.

What ??????? Oh….no….here we go again I thought. I very nearly got off the bus and called it quits…My Blair Athol experience of earlier in the week was just that bad !

When we arrived at Glenkinchie we were met by our tour guide Gavin and sure enough there were the words I was dreading…” sorry folks, but this is a working distillery, so no cameras allowed…”.

But, Gavin turned out to be extremely knowledgeable and he had a very good presentation manner. And…he answered my questions – even the tough technical ones. At the end, there was none of the Blair Athol high pressure sales crap (as I encountered earlier this week) where you were more or less told what the dram of Scotch tasted like. Gavin was very good and he reminded us that we would all taste something different depending on our taste buds.

To that end…the Glenkinchie 12 year old aged in ex-Bourbon and finished in sherry butts gave me a great big beautiful face-full of fresh raspberries & black currants. Very nice!!

I went so far as to ask Gavin what Diageo products he enjoys when at home. His answer again was very forthright. He apparently drinks Dailuaine Single Malt and Benrinnes Single Malt. He have me a wee taste of both and wow! – I was hearing choirs of angels sing. Needless to say, a bottle of each is coming back to Canada with me. And no, I will not share if you come to visit. You can drink my home-made Bourbon aged 12 months in oak. I will take care of the 15 and 16 year old Dailuaine and Benrinnes.

As I was about to leave, I was introduced to one of the managers on site. I took the time to tell him of my miserable Blair Athol experience. I thanked him for being open with questions and I thanked him for a great tour. I asked Gavin for some corporate photos that I can use in my Workshops and presentations. I hope (fingers crossed, breath held…) that Gavin can find me some.

I am glad I went on today’s tour. My faith in Diageo has been restored. I look forward to visiting other Diageo sites on my next study trip to Heriot Watt in February 2018.

Oh…and by the way…the following photo is of Kinchie Burn, the wee creek from whence some of the distillery water is taken from.

Edradour Distillery – You Gotta Tour Here !

Spending a busy week in Edinburgh holed up in the Library at Heriot Watt University working on assignments for my M.Sc. program. But all work and no play is a bad thing, so I took the time the other day for a couple distillery tours.

Not wanting to get dragged around on a tour bus with other tourists, I contacted Paul Mclean at Mclean Tours and arranged for a private driver / tour guide. Costly? Yes. Worth it? Indeed – worth every pence that I paid. I highly recommend Paul’s company for distillery tours. If possible, ask to see if Andy is available to be your guide and driver.

Our first stop was Edradour near the village of Pitlochry. 30 years ago when I took up Whisky drinking in a serious way, Edradour was my first ever Scotch. I had a great time being toured around by tour guide John and he was very accommodating to me when he found out I was an M.Sc. student at Heriot Watt.

This tiny ( by current corporate standards) makes only 100,000 Liters a year. No wonder I cannot find it in Canada anymore. The mash tank is the old cast iron design from the 1800s. The lautered mash is cooled in a Morton chiller from 80 C to 18 C. The fins shown in the photo following have creek water flowing through them to act as the coolant. The fermenter is made of 3 inch thick Oregon Pine planks. No glycol cooling on this fermenter ! The ferments start at 18 C and at the peak of temperature, the tank is only at 32C, so no harm occurs to the yeast. Distillation is in 2 steps – a wash still run and a spirits still run, 3600 Liters size and 2100 Liters size respectively. In the Distillery Workshops I drive home the point that less surface area in a still allows more heavy molecular weight alcohol molecules to pass into the final distillate. These then take extra time to mature, but they also generate more flavor ( distillates in Scotland usually come off these goose neck stills at 68-70%). Contrast this to Canadian Whiskies where the distillates come off the still at 95%. This then demands the addition of artificial things to make the Canadian Whisky suitable for the customer to mix with Coke. ( I need to be careful here…I may end up wanting to work for one of these big boys when I get the M.Sc. done). But, I digress.

At Edradour, the distillate is aged in ex-bourbon and / or ex-Sherry casks. There is a limit to how often these used casks are re-used. And so there should be a limit, for wood only has so much wood sugar in it to help the Whisky. Again, contrast this to more corporate producers who re-use the casks many, many, many times over.

My favorite ( and I have some in my suitcase…) is 15 yr old, finished in Italian barolo wine casks. And no, I will not be sharing – so stay away !

After Edradour, we went 2 minutes up the road to Blair Athol Distillery. Owned by Diageo, this was corporate to the core. Everything our tour guide Jill uttered was carefully scripted – I dare say by the top dogs at head office. Photography was forbidden. My technical questions were avoided and evaded. I was dis-heartened to say the least. What would be wrong with a couple pics and a few straight answers to some serious questions. Anyhow, guess which Scotch I WILL NOT be bringing home with me!

This tight lipped, stuffy corporate attitude at Blair Athol really ruined my day. As I think about it more deeply, I suppose this corporate attitude is what is driving the craft movement around the world. So sad that the “suits” at head offices just don’t get it…

Anyhow, back to the Library now to do more research into yeast metabolic pathways and also beer spoilage microorganisms.

I plan to tour a few more non-corporate distilleries in February when I am back here. And – yes it will be Paul McLean and his crew that will be taking me around.

Cheers

Alcohol – now a commodity item

This week I had the distinct pleasure of touring the North West Bio Energy ethanol plant in Unity, Saskatchewan.

The raw material used is wheat and the wheat is ground in a disc mill to a fineness not too far different from what any craft distiller would use. But, that was where the similarities ended. The plant employs 4 mash / fermentation vessels that are each about 400,000 Liters in volume (yes you read that number correctly !!). The yeast used is a specially cultured strain of S. Cerevisiae similar in many ways to what craft distillers use, except this stuff spins off daughter cells faster than normal which means a 36 hour ferment will consume all available fermentable sugars in the mash tank. The contents of a completed mash are transferred to a beer well holding tank which feeds the distillation process. The distilling is accomplished by way of 8 columns and the net result is 96% ethanol. In fact, some 75,000 Liters a day of ethanol. The vast majority of this product gets sent to gas refineries. The next time you pull up at the pump and the label on the pump says this gasoline may contain up to 10% ethanol, now you know where the ethanol comes from. To produce fuel grade ethanol, the 96% stuff is passed through a molecular sieve to remove water and make it 99% ethanol. More and more, North West Bio Energy is sending 96% ethanol to custom blending and bottling plants in the USA where it is proofed to 40% and bottled under the guise of “craft distilled” Vodka. There is one plant in the USA that is doing work similar to the one in Unity and it is owned by MGP Products in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. You like Tito’s Vodka? Well, it is just 96% ethanol from Indiana. You like Ketel One? Yep – Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In Canada, you like Banff Ice Vodka? Yep – Unity, Saskatchewan. You like Highwood Rye Whisky? – which Highwood proudly says is based on Wheat distillate with Rye blended in. Yep – Unity, Saskatchewan.

We have now crossed the rubicon as it were, the point of no return. Alcohol is now a commodity and the spoils of victory will go to he who can make it cheapest. Want to be a craft distiller? Go ahead…bust your ass grinding grain and cooking mash. Some guy down the street is going to start making Vodka using the distillate from Unity, Saskatchewan. While you are too busy to get out and sell your product because you are enslaved to a mash tank, the guy down the road who is using Unity’s distillate will have plenty of time to get out and sell his product. In this commoditized game, he wins, you lose.

For the past several years, I have taken a hard stance against craft people who use NGS. But, even crusty old stalwarts like me can soften up. Thanks to this week’s tour of Unity, Saskatchewan I have now come to accept the commoditization of alcoholic spirits. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I now accept it.

Each month I hear the same mis-guided enthusiasm from people in our Distillery workshops. They say ” yep – gotta make Whisky, Gin and Vodka!!”. My message to them is now going to be made more clear. Whisky, Gin and Vodka are commodities. If you want to be a craft distiller, you need to make variations of these products that are not currently and may never be commoditized. And that is fodder for a future blog post…

Has the Bubble Burst ?

In the 5-day distilling Workshops, I like to show the parabolic growth curve of craft distilling start-ups. I repeatedly caution that as a former stock broker, I am wary of things that go parabolic. I point out, usually to glazed-over eyeballs in the room, that the cheap-money, stupid-money Central Bank policies of the current time are fueling all things parabolic. Back in the 60’s and 70’s we had various fads. Today, fads have been replaced by short term parabolic bubbles all fueled by easy credit. With the stroke of a pen right now, I could mortgage my house. With one phone call I could drain my investment accounts. With that money in hand, I could easily find some flimsy financial institution to lend me even more. I could then go on to launch a craft distillery. Experience? Recipe development? Marketing strategy? Hell – who needs any of that when you have a bagful of money!

I am not then shocked to see on average two craft distillers a month in the USA going under. I watch the discussion forums on-line and it pains me to see people obviously going through angst as they liquidate equipment and even barrels of product. The bubble has burst. The wave has crashed over the bow.

So what to make of it all?

My message is simple. A bursting bubble is a good thing.

Remember way back in the 90’s when the Nasdaq tech bubble broke? Did all tech firms go under? No – they did not. The smart ones actually benefited by acquiring the assets of the failures. Remember the 2008 sub-prime mortgage implosion? Remember the more recent oil price implosion? In both these cases, the smart players who saw the trend changing were able to capitalize on the failures of the weak players.

And so it shall be with craft distilling.

Thinking about starting a craft distillery are you? Good! Now – relax and take a breath. Your timing is fortuitous. The urgency for fast action is off.

Take the time to develop recipes. Take a 5 day course! Take the time to develop a sound marketing plan and brand image. Look for used equipment that is being liquidated. Even if you have to store it for a while somewhere – no worries. The craft beer brewing movement went through a multi-year pause in the late 90’s as the first parabolic wave broke. Then, the marketplace caught up, the consumer became more savvy and a new phase of growth unfolded.

I suspect we will see something similar in craft distilling. There will be now a multi-year pause in net numbers of craft distilleries. Th weaker players with their poor recipes, poor websites, poor brand image and inferior equipment will be flushed away like grain kernels down a floor drain. But, the strong will survive. The consumer will catch up and eventually a new growth wave will unfold. To those aspiring new entrants that properly prepare for this new wave – the benefits will be many. It is just unfortunate that so many rushed in so fast on this initial parabolic wave and are now getting hurt. But, such is the nature of our fast money, stupid money economy. As the old saying goes….caveat emptor.

Craft Distilling – What is It?

In the 5 Day Distilling workshops that I am involved with, I waste little time on Day #1 in posing a philosophical question to the class. The question – “What does it mean to be a Craft Distiller?”.

As the week progresses, answers slowly start to materialize. By week-end, the consensus emerges that a Craft Distiller is a person creating something unique that a customer typically would not find on offer from one of the big, multi-national purveyors of distilled spirits.

This inevitably then leads to the very tricky subject of commercial alcohol or as it is often called Neutral Grain Spirit (NGS). Are you a craft distiller if you make use of NGS that comes from a large ethanol distillery such as Commercial Alcohols in Tiverton, Ontario or Western Bio-Fuels in Unity, Saskatchewan? Tough question.

Various Provinces in Canada have already dealt with this issue, while some have given it a wide berth. British Columbia, for example, says to be a craft distiller you must manufacture your alcohol from B.C. grown agricultural goods. So – that’s pretty clear. NGS is not allowed at the craft level. Alberta has placed a limit on how much NGS a craft distillery can employ and I do reckon that amount to be 20% of your distillery output. Manitoba and Ontario have also placed similar limits. Quebec allows for exclusive use of NGS to make craft distilled products, although they are now tightening the noose as it were with tax incentives to those who manufacture their alcohol from Quebec grown agricultural produce. The Maritime Provinces to the best of my knowledge do not have clear policies yet on the use of NGS.

And this brings us back to Saskatchewan where I continue to draw fire from the craft community for comments I leveled a couple years ago in which I made it clear that I was opposed to the use of NGS at the craft level. In fact, it seems fair to say that I am downright reviled in Saskatchewan for this NGS position. Good thing I have thick skin. You see, Saskatchewan allows for the full use of NGS by craft distillers. What prompted this policy shift, I do not know and I doubt that I will ever be enlightened on the matter by the good folks at SLGA.

I also seem to be drawing heavy artillery bombardment of late from one particular craft distillery in Saskatoon for my open encouragement that people contemplating becoming craft distillers ought to practice making alcohol at home first. This is a position that I will not recant any time soon. The irony of this situation is the image on the front cover of my self-published textbook that I use in my classroom teachings bears the image of this very distillery! This book continues to sell all over the world and thus de-facto is providing free, very positive, publicity to this distillery. I even use products from this distillery in my classroom tastings and people comment very warmly on how well their products taste. Maybe it is time for a change of artwork on the textbook cover? Maybe time to revamp my tasting lineup?

I have seen far too many people rush out of the 5 Day Distilling Courses and dive off the deep end of the pool. They end up buying sub-standard equipment and in many cases wrong equipment. And what’s worse, they end up producing sub-standard spirits that verge on undrinkable. What’s even more troublesome, they quickly find that they have amassed huge debt-loads and are faced with an uncertain financial future. Had these folks followed my advice and actually done some home experimentation, they very likely would have discovered that distilling was not for them. They could have avoided the precarious debt position they now find themselves in. On the flip side of this argument, those that have taken the 5 Day Course and have actually taken the time to play at home on a small still are now off to a glorious start producing some top-shelf products.

But – back to the main topic of NGS. I continue to grapple with the NGS question here in this Province that allows for its exclusive use. I have watched other jurisdictions and lobby groups also grapple with the issue. I have taken careful note as to how others have dealt with this thorny issue.

After much thought and careful consideration, as of here and now I would like to go on the record as saying… I am content with the use of NGS or any other 3rd party alcohol provided that the craft distiller in question makes open, honest, transparent explanation (when and if asked by a customer) as to the use of such alcohol. A little bit of open transparency won’t hurt you – will it? Explain to the inquiring customer that although the alcohol may have come from somewhere else, you the craftsman have taken it through additional processing steps and even some carefully created flavor formulation steps to produce a product that is otherwise unavailable from the big multi-national players. Keep the customer educated, and they will develop brand loyalty towards you and your craftsmanship abilities.

I would also like to go on record as saying…it is my strong wish that the regulators at SLGA take a page from the Quebec (RACJ) playbook and extend a small tax incentive to any craft distiller who manufactures alcohol from locally grown materials With the precarious budget situation in Saskatchewan these days, I am not holding my breath waiting for such a policy change. But – no harm in asking for it…

Readers of this blog post are invited to call me directly to openly and transparently discuss any of the above comments and positions.

Rum – Sidestepping the Canadian Definition

In the 5 Day Workshops I assist with at Urban Distilleries in Kelowna, BC we spend a chunk of time digging into the legal definitions for the various spirit types. For example, Rum is defined as being made from sugar cane and its products (ie molasses) and aged in small wood containers (less than 700 Liters in size) for 1 year. Obviously placing any distillate in a wooden cask will cause a coloration change in the distillate. So how then is White Rum created? My answer used to be that in all likelihood the casks being used were very old and quite spent. Any trace amounts of color change were then filtered out prior to bottling. But, I have found a more elegant way and Captain Morgan White Rum (marketing tagline = finest Caribbean Rum) is an example of this lawyer-assisted elegance. Captain Morgan appears to have sidestepped the CRC section 870 definitions and leaned towards the 2005 Spirit Drinks Trade Act. This Act says that if one imports Rum distillate from a Commonwealth Caribbean nation and blends it with other Rum distillate from another Commonwealth Caribbean nation and then proofs to a drinkable strength with water, the resulting product can be called Caribbean Rum. No mention of 1 year of aging is there? And what about the White Rums ( ie Lambs) that do not bear the moniker “Caribbean” but are White nonetheless. Sure, maybe these Rums are passed through old, spent casks. But, I have found a clever way to sidestep the issue here as well. The USA Rum definition is similar to that of Canada, except nowhere in the USA definition is there mention of aging in a wooden cask. So, if I were seeking to make White Rum for sale in Canada, I would distill it in the USA and proof it to a drinkable strength. My Canadian corporate entity would then bring the product into Canada. Simple.

I find it sad that our legislation has so many loopholes that favor the large corporations. I further find it sad that we have the CRC 870 definitions and the 2005 Spirit Drinks Trade Act working at cross purposes to each other. I would be curious to see what would happen to a small micro-distiller who tried to emulate the above described tactics being used by the big corporations. I somehow doubt all would end well. It is time in Canada to clean up and rectify the definitions. As I am on record as saying – I like the USA definitions in 27 CFR Chapter 4. They are clearly stated and there is no ambiguity. This framework is a good starting point for a Canadian definition overhaul.

Do Your Due Diligence…First…

Thinking about starting a craft distillery can be chock full of emotion. Think about it – you…your own business…a gleaming Copper still…you making alcohol….

But, in my opinion, the emotion should be checked at the door. It is critical to keep your head screwed on while your fully contemplate a craft distillery.

As I pen these words, I am in Kona, Hawaii and yes the thought of a craft distillery here has got my mind racing. So, over the past couple days, I checked my emotion at the door. I screwed my head on and decided to take a trip to the local grocery store. There are some 2 million tourists that come to the Big Island every year. Surely the grocery store must be a treasure trove of valuable data, not to mention unique spirits?

But here is the reality that slapped me in the face.

Rum – surely the tourists must be drinking gallons of Rum? Maybe not. Sailor Jerry Rum (not made by a Sailor at all…but rather made by proofing down industrial Rum distillate in Edison, New Jersey) was on sale for $16 (all prices quoted herein are 750 mls), marked down from its regular $30. A Hawaiian craft distilled Rum was slashed to $11 from its regular $23. At a regular price of $23, I fail to see how the distiller is making money. Captain Morgan ($18), Don Cristal from Puerto Rico ($15),Whaler’s (made in Bardstown, Kentucky $18), Kraken ($20), Mt. Gay (Barbados $23) and Myers ($20).

Vodka – ahh yes that mixture of ethanol and water that is so highly over-rated. A craft Vodka made from pineapple slashed to $20 from its regular $26. At $26 – again after stripping out Federal Excise taxes, cost of bottles, labels, corks, boxes, materials, labor, debt payments, rent payments, profit margin for the distributor, profit for the grocery store – the poor craft distiller is sucking wind. Other Vodkas I saw were Stoli ($22), Tito’s ($22), Absolute ($26), Smirnoff ($18) New Amsterdam ($18), Grey Goose (slashed from $45 to $26). Not a pretty picture at all…

Whisky – maybe the tourists are drinking Whisky? At these prices, there should have been riots in the store as customers fought each other to get a bottle. Crown Royal (the pride of Canada $19.88), Dickel Whisky ($20), Jack Daniels ($20), Jim Beam ($17), Maker’s Mark ($34), Wild Turkey ($27). How would a craft distiller making whisky even compete at these price levels?

Gin – maybe that’s the answer? Ohhh here we go again….Bombay Dry ($23), Bombay Sapphire ($19), Sapphire East ($19), Tanqueray $33. How would a craft distiller making good Gin compete with prices at these levels?

But, then I noticed something. Beer….lots of it…lots of people buying it….and a typical 6-pak was $13-$15. Hawaii is a hot climate. People in hot climates drink beer. People might drink a mixed cocktail, but beer goes down cold and is refreshing.

Next, on my due diligence trip is to meet with the Hawaii Alcohol Commission next week. I plan to fully review with them the entire craft distilling landscape state-wide. I will post another blog next week with my findings.

Meantime, my emotion remains tucked away and my head remains screwed on.

Who Says Vodka isn’t Interesting ?

In my 5-day Workshops, I repeatedly mention that Vodka lends itself to some brief exposure to wood. I cite the example of the walnut rested Vodka I recently had from Poland.

Recently whilst on the Queen Mary 2, I made another fortuitous discovery – Chase’s Vodka from Herefordshire, England that has been exposed to an ex-Islay Scotch cask. Not sure how long the Vodka rested in the cask, but the notes of the Islay Scotch sing through in beautiful harmony. Well done !

Craft distillers in Canada – take note. The market is being flooded with craft distilled Vodka. Craft distillers are resorting to utter nonsense in many cases by claiming their product is distilled 16 times etc….all in an effort to lure in the naive consumer. A perfect case in point, in my opinion, is that of Big Rig distilling in Alberta.

I say skip the nonsense. Get busy crafting some uniqueness into craft Vodka. How about exposing some Vodka to apple wood or cherry wood ? What about Pecan wood? Get ex-Scotch barrels from a few different regions of Scotland. Have a go at that. Think outside the box. Give the consumer something to really savor…..

Take a page from the team at Chase Distillery.