Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Makes The Water of Life Whisky Event Extraordinary?

Matt Lurin hosts The Water Of Life Event
What is the best whiskey event in the world?  Indeed, what makes a great whisky event?  Great whisky to be tasted, to be sure.  But comfort, decadence, and camaraderie have evolved, for me at least, to be almost as important.  I'm going to make the case that Matt Lurin's Water of Life just might be the ultimate whisky event.  I'm going to lay out my reasoning in detail and back it up with photos and descriptions of last year's astonishing event and details of this year's which continues a dramatic evolution towards whisky event greatness.  This event is going down May 18th 2017 and you'll want to attend and pony up for one of the VIP ticket options (and there are more than one).  Read on.
Malt Maniac Peter Silver gets the story from Raj Sabharwal on the VIP Terrace
Why go to a whisky event at all?  The usual answer is - to taste a widely among current offerings - learning a lot.  The other reason is to reconnect with friends - and make new ones. The classic format, which I associate with the parent of modern whisky events: WhiskyFest, involves a large bourse with many tables each devoted to a given distillery, brand, or distributor.  People crowd around - Glencairn glasses extended - vying for a pour.  Presenters run through their spiel quickly - stating the same thing over and over to a disorganized swirl of people.  Over the course of such an evening, you spend most of the time standing.  Most of the drams are drunk too quickly - and too soon after the pour, lacking time to open up.  You run into friends, connect, lose them again in the crowd, and if you're lucky to reconnect.  Most whisky events - even the best ones (like the extraordinary Whisky Jewbilee) - tend to run like this.  They often have VIP sessions which are classroom style with sit-down tastings - but they tend to be at the beginning which means cutting out of work early to make them a challenge.

Diageo rep and fount of human warmth,
Joe Gratkowski, pours the extraordinary
Lagavulin 8.
The Water of Life is inherently different, and the difference comes from the central mission which is charitable.  Matt Lurin, the whisky enthusiast doctor who created it, developed it for a cause: helping cure a rare form of stomach cancer (GIST - gastro-intestinal stromal tumors) by supporting The GIST Cancer Awareness Foundation.  Every attendee is helping this charitable cause and this higher calling imbues the evening with a sense of celebration and meaning.

The main event (the non VIP ticket) is a sit-down format 'speed-dating' type of event where you sit with small group of 4-5 people at a table and at intervals move to a new table.  At each, you sit down and have the whisky representative's undivided attention for a chunk of time.  This eliminates the crush and creates a more leisurely comfortable tasting session that fosters real conversation, whiskies opening up, and a feeling of luxury and ease.  There are hors d'oeuvres, dinner, and dessert and the option to buy an additional ticket for cigars and terrace access (normally a VIP only perk).

This year, Matt has something special planned with different focuses available for both the standard and the VIP tickets.  You can choose either "The American Whiskey Trail"(which debuted last year) which is about Bourbon and rye, or the "Island Getaway" which is about Islay Scotch.  You can also choose "A little bit of everything" which omits the specific focus.  You can specify Kosher or non-Kosher meals.  The food was excellent in 2015 and 2016.  VIP adds special pours, a beautiful cut crystal glass and that cigar terrace (which has special pours).

Rare Japanest from Flavien's
private collection in the ultra-VIP sessions
If you want to really experience what makes The Water of Life amazing you need an ultra VIP ticket - even more than at just about any other whisky event.  It comes back to the charity angle again.   This basis of the event in charity motivates presenters in a special way.  At the 2016 ultra VIP sessions, extraordinary people brought extraordinary drams.  A 50 year old Dalmore was served at the apex of an extraordinary flight.  Josh Hatton, impresario of The Jewish Whisky Company, Single Cask Nation, creator of the Whisky Jewbilee, and also brand ambassador for Impex, led a VIP session with the very cream of Impex's offerings.  The impresario behind New York's greatest whisky bars, The Brandy Library and Copper and Oak, Flavien Desoblin brought an astounding array of Japanese whiskies from his private collection - most of which I had never heard of or seen before.  They were incredibly delicious.  And, most amazingly of all from my perspective, was Joe Hyman's session which included a pre-Prohibition Belmont Bourbon - one of my unicorns, and medicinal pints, WWII era Scotches and Canadian whiskies and more.  You just don't see whiskies of this rarity and caliber at ordinary whisky events.  Unlike Germany's dusty smorgasbord Limberg where rare antiquities are on sale by the dram, to be had standing, these VIP sessions were included with the VIP ticket and were convivial, seated, leisurely, and extraordinary.  These VIP sessions came out of the love the NY whiskey community has for Matt Lurin and his cause.  It evokes generosity and people came with their A-game and it really showed.
The view from the cigar table at the 2016
Water Of Life VIP Terrace

For 2017 the Ultra-VIP ticket gets a whole second evening (May 17th) dedicated to those amazing pours. That way ultra VIP session attendees don't have miss time at the speed dating portion.  There is also a separate kick-off party on May 17th.  Get the details here:
http://www.wateroflifenyc.org/ticket-info.html

Last year the VIP venue was gorgeous and the cigars were delicious.  I love that he has created a way for standard ticket holders to get access to this.

All this luxury and charity doesn't come cheap.  But this isn't a regular whisky event.  It's for a cause - and it's something special.  The standard tickets are $275 and the VIP tickets are $400.  Use this discount code to get $25 off standard tickets and $50 off VIP ones:  "gcaf2017"
Get tickets here:
http://www.wateroflifenyc.org/ticket-info.html

Here are a few more photos of the 2016 event.  Notice the smiles.  The warmth and joy are real.  It was the best whisky event I went to in 2016 and may have been the best I have ever attended.  I'm excited to see Matt's assault of whisky event greatness continue to evolve in 2017.



Extraordinary pours courtesy of Raj Sabharwal
of Purple Valley Imports on the VIP Terrace


Steph Ridgeway spreads HP joy.
This was standard pour at WOL
but not at any other show.

Prohibition medicinal half pint and 1950s dusties at The Water Of Life ultra VIP
Yoni Miller, Ari Susskind, and Josh Feldman
Ari Susskind pours Tomatin, and also something dusty and special in his copper flask.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Whisky Gets Glamorous Tomorrow Night in Harlem

That Harlem Rensaissance vibe... Photo by Clay Williams

 Jazz and dance.  Photo by Clay Williams
I'm headed to the Harlem Whiskey Renaissance 2017 tomorrow, Thursday March 30th, 2017.  It's a whiskey show - where you get an engraved Glencairn glass and can visit tables where brand ambassadors will take you through their lines - but you also get a lot more.  Live jazz music by Dandy Wellington and his Band with burlesque acts by The Maine Attraction and Calamity Chang.  Also an awesome raffle and charity auction, cigars, chocolate, food, and a great vibe.

There are a ton of whiskies on offer (I'll put the list at the bottom).  There are VIP tickets which include a master class tasting five different Heaven Hill mash bills and another contrasting Corsair, Leopold, and Charbay offerings.  Also, VIPs receive the book "Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions" by Brian Hoefling.

Last year's VIP tasting featured Alan Roth presenting Glenfiddich - photo by Clay Williams 


Proceeds from this event will benefit a worthy charity which helps kids in Harlem: The Boys & Girls Harbor. http://www.theharbor.org/

The venue is conveniently located right on 116th St at MIST-HARLEM, 46 W 116TH ST, NY, NY

Visit the event's web site to learn more:
http://www.harlemwhiskeyrenaissance.com/


Here is the link to get tickets:  http://www.harlemwhiskeyrenaissance.com/tickets

Dancer joins in - photo by Clay Williams 
Some of pours and other attractions will include:
Dandy Wellington and his band jazz up the joint.
photo by Clay Williams 


Aberlour
Andullo Cigars
Bain's
Bernheim
Black Bottle
Bunnahabhain
Crown Royal
Dad's Hat
Deanston
Elijah Craig
Evan Williams
Filibuster Bourbon
Four Roses
Glenlivet
Glenrothes
Glen Scotia
Jake Cahill pouring Four Roses Kentucky Bourbon.
photo by Clay Williams 

Harlem Chocolate Factory
Harlem Swing Dance Society
Henry McKenna
Hudson Whiskey
Johnnie Walker
Kavalan
Kinahan's
Larceny
Ledaig
Loch Lomand
Magnum
Meyer's Alsatian Whisky
Nikka
Old Portrero
Pikesville Rye
photo by Clay Williams 
Sonoma County Distilling Co.
Tomintoul
Tullibardine
Wolfburn


Sounds like a fabulous time.  Join me there.
That link for tickets again:
 http://www.harlemwhiskeyrenaissance.com/tickets




David Bailey pouring elegant Scotch. - photo by Clay Williams 

photo by Clay Williams 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

New Study "Proves" You Can't Taste The Difference Between Single Malts And Blends. Or Does It?

It is a classic truism in the malt whisky world that single malts are "better than" blends.  The usual reason given is that single malts are free of the "inferior" grain whisky.  It's been popular in the whisky blogosphere to debunk this conclusion, usually by pointing to certain high-end blends and grain whiskies which are so good they stand up to any spirit.  The point is valid: high-end grain and blended whisky can be as good as all but the most incredible single malts.  However, the reputation of single malts as a category remains, and for good reason.  Single malts have an extraordinarily wide gamut of flavors: from 'honey and heather', to 'richly sherried', to 'powerfully peated' and all sorts of distinctive flavors in between.  Alternately sweet, or dry, or phenolic, grassy, smoky, floral, shy or huge, malt is a chameleon which is a terrific carrier for flavor factors such as malting method, wood management, and terroir.  For many single malt enthusiasts, this wide gamut is the exactly the point.  Where bourbon, rye, rum, and brandy can often win out on richness and intensity of their distinctive flavor signature, no spirit can hold a candle to malt for such kaleidoscopic variety.

Could you tell single malts from blends if you were tasting blind samples?  Experience has taught me that it can be devilishly hard to identify what you're drinking when you aren't told anything up front.  (I did a double blind tasting of American and Canadian rye whiskies and failed to tell which was which.  Then, there was the time that I mistook a rye for a Bourbon (see sample #1 in a Smoky Beast blind tasting).  And, one time I actually won Dramming.com's first blind tasting competition - and I didn't get a single identification right, just attributes like ages and proofs.)  Still - single malts and blends and single grains whiskies.  You should be able to tell them apart, right?

Jennifer Lucille Wren (left) and Emily Ross-Johnson (right) at one of the USA tasting sessions involved in the research.
Recently a piece of formal academic research came out which takes on this question and hopes to settle it empirically.  The paper is called "The perceptual categorisation of blended and single malt Scotch whiskies" by Barry Smith et.al and it was published in a journal called "Flavor", put out by Biomed Central (sadly Flavor is due to cease publication after the next issue) - (DOI: 10.1186/s13411-017-0056-x).
http://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13411-017-0056-x

The paper notes that "a firm distinction exists in the minds of consumers and in the marketing of Scotch between single malts and blended whiskies" but asks "But does this category distinction correspond to a perceptual difference detectable by whisky drinkers?"  In order to tell, expert and non-expert tasters in three different countries (UK, France, and the USA) were asked to apply standardized descriptors to the nose and palates to the following whiskies tasted blind

Four single malts Scotches:
  1. Cardhu 12 
  2. Mortlach (Flora & Fauna 16 yo)
  3. Glenlivet 18
  4. Glenmorangie (10 - although erroneously stated as 12)
Four blended Scotches:
  1. Chivas Gold 18
  2. Ballantine's 17
  3. Johnnie Walker Black 12
  4. Johnnie Walker Platinum 18
and one grain whisky:
  1. Cameron Brig (6 years old) 
The standardized descriptors allowed the researchers to compare results across 92 different tasters in the three different countries and to chart the results.  Here are the charts for the results of nosing these whiskies by experts (top chart) and non-experts (bottom chart) for example.  Single malts are in blue, blends are in black, and the lone grain is in red.  Single malts and blends are all mixed up - although I notice that the experts and the non-experts put a number of the whiskies in the same general areas (although not the grain - which veers drunkenly).



I had the pleasure of sitting on one of the tasting panels, along with some very distinguished members of the New York whisky community at that time (September 2014), including Matt Lurin, the man behind what is probably the best whisky event on the planet at the moment, The Water of Life (more on this blog about that event very shortly - meanwhile click the link to buy tickets), Emily Ross-Johnson who, at the time, was the founder of the Astoria Whiskey Society (now she is the founder of the Portland Whiskey Society - and you should join if you're out there - click the live link), Jennifer Lucille Wren, a whisky blogger and event organizer then, who is now the West Coast brand ambassador for Glenfiddich, and Susanna Skiver Barton, whisky blogger, journalist, and now manager of the Whisky Advocate's web presence.  The experience of participating in the tasting gives me a personal perspective on how this study operated because I was there.
Lead author, Barry Smith, explains the tasting procedure to Matt Lurin (left) and Jennifer Wren (right)
Susanna Skiver Barton (left) and Josh Feldman (the author of this post) at one of Smith et al.'s NY tastings.  The blind samples in the study are before us.  Photo by Emily Ross-Johnson (thanks)

Smith et. al.'s conclusion is that people can't taste the difference between single malts and blends:

"The present study shows that the distinction between blends and single malts, which is central to the production, presentation and marketing of Scotch whisky, does not correspond to a clear cut perceptual distinction for tasters."

Barry Smith and his colleagues have structured an empirical blind study with a good methodology - so have they settled this topic?  In my opinion, absolutely not.  The problem has to do with the types of single malts and blends they selected for the study.  All of the single malts selected - with the sole exception of Mortloch, fall squarely in the "honey and heather" flavor profile, and that's exactly true of the blends selected too.  This isn't representative of those overall segments.  When you walk into a liquor store and peruse the blended Scotch, many of the options are considerably lighter and less distinguished than Johnnie Walker Platinum 18, Chivas Gold 18, or Ballantine's 17 - or even Johnnie Walker Black 12.  The likes of J&B, Johnnie Walker Red, Passport, 100 Pipers, Bell's, Clan McGreggor, Dewar's White Label etc... are far more grainy and less honeyed and floral than the unabashedly high-end blends in the study.  Conversely, many single malt enthusiasts will often opt for single malts well outside the "home plate" honey and heather flavor profile - going for sherry bombs like Glendronach, Aberlour, or Macallan, or peat monsters like Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin, or dozens of different interesting variants (the rubber of Ledaig, the pheolic Strathspey, the salt and honey of Old Pultney, Springbank's fungal notes... etc...) rather than the gentle likes of Cardhu, Glenlivet, and the base Glenmorangie.  These single malts, delicious as they are, tend to be close to the center of the "honey and heather" "Highland" flavor profile that is exactly what the blenders at Diageo and Pernod Ricard are aiming for.

To some extent, there is no way to structure a piece of scientific research which adequately captures this broad flavor gamut - precisely because it would be so easy to pick them out blind which would muddy the central question of whether something specific about single malts versus blends is objectively detectable.  It's clear that the designers of this study selected whiskies for the blind tasting deliberately to have a very similar flavor profile with the specific aim of trying to see if tasters could identify the sole distinction with flavor signature held constant as much as possible.  And, in that aim they have succeeded.  I couldn't tell the difference.  The preponderance of the other tasters couldn't either.  And I bet you couldn't reliably tell the difference blind with this set of drams either.  But, I argue that these selections don't represent the nature of blended Scotch whiskies and single malt whiskies generally.  Looking at the segments as a whole, you and I would be far more likely to be able to pick out blends versus single malts when the full gamut of flavors is in the mix.  Select J&B and Bells as the examples of blends, and Laphroaig 10 and Glendronach 15 as the single malts, for example, and then taste those blind.  I bet I could pick the single malts and blends in that example that every time and you probably could too.  It's those real perceptual differences that gave rise to the generalizations that aren't always true - but are true often enough to make them commonly held - which is why whisky bloggers are still writing pieces about how good blends can make you question those assumptions.

So where does that leave us?  Is there some Platonic ideal of "single maltness" which can be differentiated from "blendness"?  No.  Barry Smith et. al. have scientifically proved that, when flavor signature is held relatively constant, tasters cannot distinguish between single malts and blends.  My complaint is that they left that qualifying clause out of the language of their published conclusion, and I find that omission misleading.  It implies, to someone not carefully reading, that all this whisky epicureanism is some kind of snobby mirage and that no one can really taste the difference between the carefully crafted and inexpensive bulk stuff.  That isn't the case at all - and it's not what Barry Smith et. al. meant to imply either.  But they left the door wide open to that misinterpretation.  In social media where many people will only read the headline, that incorrect message will be the one that people will learn most from this study.  In the real world, you can actually taste the difference between many many single malts and many many blends all day long.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Cedar Brook Plankington Reserve - The Whiskey at the Intersection of Old Judge McBrayer's and the Whiskey Trust's Julius Kessler's Stories

Cedar Brook Plankington Reserve - photo by Chad Hartsfield
Bourbon, like America, evolved from humble roots on frontier farms to something big and industrial which, in the era of America's robber barons, meant trusts.  Farmers were replaced by corporate titans.  This is a story of two men who owned a particular Anderson County, Kentucky, distillery - Cedar Brook - at different times.  A new kind of American hero was replacing an older one.

A Cedar Brook ad from the early days of the Bottled In Bond Act - under Kessler's control.

Old Judge McBrayer

"Old Judge" William Harrison McBrayer was born in 1821 into a family of 11 children in a log cabin on the frontier, a mere generation after Kentucky became a state.  W.H. McBrayer was a true native Kentucky son.  Both his father and his grandfather probably made whiskey on their family spreads.  By the age of 18 he had joined his brothers in owning and running a general store in Lawrenceburg, KY (an Anderson County town about a dozen miles west of Lexington.  He used the proceeds to buy a parcel of land in the early 1840s from a freed slave who had inherited the land from his owners who had died childless.  He started off raising cattle there - and operating a still on the spread in the way he had been raised.  Sam Cecil reckons distilling operations started in around 1844.  It was RD No. 44 in Kentucky's 8th district.  I wonder what that whiskey tasted like.  I imagine it might have been pretty good, at least by the standards of the day, because he became popular enough that he was elected Judge of the county in 1851.  He would be referred to by that title for the rest of his life.  By 1856 he had parlayed that influence into a seat in the State Senate.  He was able to put more money into upgrading the distillery operation on his spread.  By 1861 Cedar Brook appears as a registered trademarked whiskey brand.  The details of the story about he created a superior product that we would recognize as fine Bourbon today are not known to me - but he had created something which impressed a global audience in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  That show was of major significance.  It was the first World's Fair on US soil in the golden era of World's Fairs and to win the whisky category's gold medal must have been a very big deal.  It shows up in family histories to this day.  McBrayer bought the distiller at the time, Newton Brown, a gold watch as a reward.  
The Centennial Exhibition Award Medal - 1876
Business was good and the distillery expanded again to 570 bushels a day by 1887.  In December of 1888 W.H. McBrayer died, still at the helm of his distillery - and a strange inheritance drama played out because in his will he specified that he allowed his heirs to use his name in association with whiskey for only three years and then he wanted his name removed from what came after.  Was he a religious man who didn't want his name to stand for whiskey?  He was an officer in a teetotaler church and his widow had anti-liquor views (a bit ironically given her source of income).  This story is admirably told by Sullivan on Pre-Pro Whiskey Men blog:
"Moore, as manager of the distillery and co-executor of the Judge’s will with the widow, attempted to nullify the clause. He argued that the McBrayer name was worth at least $200,000 to the Judge's grandchildren (millions today). Nonetheless, Mary took him to court."

"When a lower court agreed with her, Moore appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The judges there were more sympathetic, apparently well acquainted with McBrayer’s Cedar Brook. While their opinion suggested that the quality of the whiskey had suffered with the Judge’s death, they agreed with Moore that he had never intended to disadvantage his beloved grandchildren. The McBrayer name stuck."

http://pre-prowhiskeymen.blogspot.com/2011/10/wh-mcbrayer-judge-of-good-whiskey.html

His son in law Colonel D.L. Moore, who was already in the whiskey business, ran it for a few years and then sold it to the Whiskey Trust in 1899.  The trust expanded it again to 1800 bushels a day. Meanwhile, the term "Old Judge" became associated with whiskey broadly - and a host of copycat brands used the term - hoping to catch some of the glamour of of the quality of what William Harrison McBrayer had created in his lifetime - exactly what McBrayer had been trying to avoid.

The irony is that Judge McBrayer didn't want his name associated with whiskey.
Kessler went whole hog on marketing Cedarbrook's whiskey.
Ad in El Paso Morning Times (El Paso, Tex.), Thursday, September 11, 1913

Julius Kessler

Julius Kessler was a Hungarian Jew, born in Budapest in 1855, who had immigrated to the US and came to dominate the Colorado whiskey trade in the mining boom era of the 1870s.  By 1899 when Julius Kessler bought Cedar Brook, he was a major veteran of the whiskey business and had become among the most powerful people in the industry.  He had led the reorganization of the remnants of Joseph Benedict Greenhut's first whiskey trust - the Distillers & Cattle Feeders' Trust - in 1896 and named the new entity, initially, "The American Spirits Manufacturing Company".  In 1899 the Kentucky Distillers and Warehouse Company emerged out of a complicated merger of 4 different companies including "The Distilling Company of America".  The complexity of the corporate formation was necessitated by the need to evade Federal attention.  Thus, the reboot of the Whiskey Trust required a lot of paper trail cover.  To understand that we have to go back a decade.  The first Whiskey Trust ran from 1887 to 1895.  The largest distillery in the world, Greenhut's Great Western, and 65 other distilleries merged to form the Distillers & Cattle Feeders' Trust with the goal of controlling the price of the commodity alcohol.  The problem was a large number of small distillers who dumped onto the market without tactics or control, lowering prices at awkward times.  The Trust aimed to buy them all up and close down the smaller less efficient ones and run the larger more efficient ones to higher profits.  The problem was that whiskey distillers were ornery people and many chose not to sell out.  The usual array of strongarm tactics were employed: threats, arson, killings, lawsuits.  Trusts were the Zeitgeist of the era and social reformers battled them.  The Sherman AntiTrust act of 1890 began the legal edifice which ultimately tore it down.  Greenhut bailed out in 1895 under the heat of Federal prosecution.  Kessler found a way to assemble the trust back to together and evade prosecution.

In that same year of establishment of the new Trust, 1899, Kessler also purchased Cedar Brook.  He renamed "Cedar Brook" "Kessler" and made its Bourbon his namesake product.  The Bottled in Bond Act had just passed in 1897 and Kessler made the most of it in his advertising.  He upgraded Kessler Distillery and was trying to build something big.  The first two decades of the 20th century were the good times.  Kessler advertised extensively and Cedar Brook was his top of the line.  True, the whiskey trust wasn't effective in controlling commodity alcohol prices, but whiskey was a good volume business in that era.  But it wasn't long until it was all shut down by Prohibition in 1920.  Kessler tried his hand selling women's underwear - but only a year later - 1921 - he had decided to give it up and retire to Austria (in some versions it's back to Hungary).   He languishes in the Old World - apparently running out money until 1934 when Sam Bronfman brought him out of retirement to front a huge new brand roll out.  The brand sold big and old man Kessler made a fortune and died rich in 1940 - with an obituary in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Kessler's portrait on a Repeal era mini bottle on
 http://www.czajkus.com/

The big question in that story is why Bronfman chose Kessler.  Many Jews had produced major and important brands of American whiskey (Kessler no less than anyone.)  But no one had ever put one of their Jewish names on any of the brands.  Kessler himself had gone with the court fought value of the name of Old Judge McBrayer when selling his own whiskey.  Now, in the first dawn of Repeal Bronfman was putting the might of Seagram's behind branding for a product that was always conceived of as a blend: i.e. a mix of Bourbon and grain neutral spirits (vodka).  Blends are always about glamour - and Sam Bronfman paid Kessler a fortune to be the name and face and ambassador of the brand.

Maybe it was the romantic story of Kessler's early career?

One liquor store site says - paraphrasing the WSJ obituary:  "Julius Kessler (born Gulag Kessler) ... is said to have gone saloon to saloon selling more whiskey than any man alive...  He personally used pack mules to haul whiskey over the Colorado Mountains to many thirsty silver miners in Leadville, Colorado."'

Another idea is that Bronfman may have been recognizing a kindred spirit in Kessler as a manager of the Whiskey Trust - with it's attempting to strong arm the market.  Bronfman played the same game.  There is the facts of their biographies:  both were Eastern European Jews who had come to the North America and had shot the moon in the liquor industry.  Or maybe it was just the whiskey itself.  Kessler had put his face all over Cedar Brook's whiskey advertising.  Maybe Bronfman loved the juice from the Kessler distillery (Cedar Brook) and felt that it was something that should be iconic.  The whole affair fills a section of  Stephen Birmingham's
"'The Rest of Us': The Rise of America's Eastern European Jews".  It's a fascinating story - with Kessler giving away the last of his money to a mysterious Hungarian and then embarrassingly trying to make a living by selling liquor consultancy services to American liquor barons.  Sam Bronfman didn't know Kessler, but apparently, after a visit by a mysterious Hungarian he created Kessler Distilling Corporation as a subsidiary of Seagrams with Julius Kessler as President and Seagram's Master Blender Calman Levine to create a special whiskey calculated to sell well in the marketplace.  Birmingham speculates that maybe Kessler "had something" on Bronfman - perhaps from back in their mobbed-up Prohibition days.  But he also recounts a warm friendship and an anecdote about Kesller giving his gold musical watch to little Edgar Bronfman who admired it.  There was a charming exchange reported where Kessler said "I'll give it to you on your Bar Mitzva", but when little Edgar replied "But you're an old man.  You might not be here for my bar mitzva", Kessler gave the child the watch on the spot.

Seagrams produced Kessler's Blended Whiskey until WWII when it was taken off the market because of the demands of the war effort for alcohol.  But by 1951 it was back with aged stocks and fresh grain neutral spirits.  When Seagrams began breaking up most of their brands went to Vivendi (Pernod Ricard) or Diageo (via United Distillers) but Kessler's ended up with Beam and thus to Beam Suntory.  Quietly, Kessler's - as a bottom shelf well whiskey - remains a huge seller.  According to Beam Suntory, it's the #2 selling blended American whiskey in world.

On Beam Suntory's official web site for the Kessler brand they say that Julius Kessler was known as "Uncle Julius".  They also say his whiskey has always said "smooth as silk" and that it delivers on this promise to this day.  It's a blended American whiskey with high 72.5% level of grain neutral spirits (same stuff as everclear).  Josh Peters, over at Whiskey Jug, tasted it and didn't much like it.  It's a sad legacy - but perhaps the fact that it's a huge seller with a lot of bulk grain alcohol in it is true to the aims of the Whiskey Trust.
The current Beam Suntory product - and image of Julius K. 
Kessler is a puzzling figure in many ways.  Both warm and generous, and also potentially coercive and powerful.  He exists in the nebulous area between the glamour of the old West and the mobbed up world of machine politics and violent business tactics common in the "Boardwalk Empire" world of the early days of the 20th century.  I suspect the truth is complex.  As it turns out, so was his whiskey.


A glimpse of both Kessler's style and the positioning of Cedar Brook can be seen in an interview one of his marketing managers gave an advertising journal in 1902:

January 1, 1902 issue of  Printer's Ink (a "Journal for Advertisers"):
"THE JULIUS KESSLER COMPANY SYSTEM As a contrast to the usual methods of selling whisky which is appeal to the consumer a demand is created to which dealer must respond witness method adopted by Julius & Company That concern operating an aggregation of distilleries attacks the dealer and is never diverted from straight object of inducing him buy in lots of five barrels or in bond."  ...
" Our leading brands for instance WH McBrayer's Cedar Brook Atherton and Sam Clay Whisky has previously been sold to wholesalers only and if to the retailer at all only in the shape of a blend containing a small percentage of this whisky mingled with other brands and while our brands were known to the wholesale trade their sale in bond direct to retailers thus assuring absolute purity found friends so rapidly that our success during the past two years has placed us beyond doubt at the top of the ladder in our line "

FYI - the brands of that era in Kessler's Company control were some of the biggest and most respected:
"Anderson County", "Belle of Marion", "Belle of Nelson", "Big Spring", "Blue Grass", "Bond & Lillard", "Boone County", "Camp Nelson", "Cedar Run", "Chicken Cock", "Coon Hollow", "E L Miles", "Honeymoon Whiskey", "Hume Bourbon", "J B Wathen", "J M Mattingly", "J N Blackmore", "New Hope", "Old A Keller", "Old Boone's Knoll", "Old Darling", "S P Lancaster", "Spring Hill", "Sweetwood", "T B Ripy", "Taylor Whitehead", and "Wm Appleton & Co.."
So - what did that legendary old pre-Prohibition Cedar Brook taste like?  Well, thanks to whiskey enthusiast Chad Hartsfield, I actually had the opportunity to taste from a bottle of it that he opened.  Chad also has a 2 gallon carboy that is up for auction at Christie's right now:
https://onlineonly.christies.com/s/christies-wine-online-nyc-the-all-american-sale/cedar-brook-distillery-plankinton-reserve-whiskey-1903-1/30433

FYI - all the carboy and bottle pics to follow are Chad's photos (with the exception of the sample bottle and filled glass tasting note pic which is mine).

Chad's carboy currently on sale at Christie's.  Spring 1903-1915

Chad Hartsfield
Plankinton Reserve was the name of several bottlings of 10 and 12 year old bourbon distilled around 1902-1904 and bottled 1912-1916. I don't know much more about it than that - except that bottles and 2 gallon carboys and boxes infrequently turn up on auction sites - such as the old pre-liquor ban Ebay (some photos at the very bottom of this post). I didn't have a theory about Plankington Reserve but Chad Hartsfield did.  Chad had heard that "Plankington Reserve" was a special premium aged version of Cedar Brook made for Milwaukee's Plankington Hotel.  How do we know?  Well, John Plankington was one of the midwest's leading industrialists.  A guy who built a meat packing empire on sausage and canned ham in Milwaukee as an only slightly smaller version of what the Armour brothers were doing in Chicago at the time.  The Plankinton house itself was a grand edifice which has had at least 3 major incarnations over its century and a half of existence.  The photo below is of the form it would have had in the first decade of the 20th century when the Plankinton Reserve would have been sold there.

"In 1868, John Plankinton, founder and owner of the Plankinton Meat Packing Company, erected the Plankinton House Hotel on what is now the corner of Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues. In 1915, the building was razed and the hotel was rebuilt just south of the original structure. In its place was built the Plankinton Arcade, which consists of the basement and first two stories of the current building."  http://www.doorsopenmilwaukee.org/buildings/plankinton-arcade/

Plankington Hotel circa 1889
But how do we know that the Plankinton reserve bottlings were really meant for the Plankinton House Hotel?  A strong piece of independent circumstantial evidence is found in the tax statement on Chad Hartsfield's 2 gallon carboy.  As the photo below (Chad's photo) shows - it's a Wisconsin tax statement.
Wisconsin tax strip backs up Plankington Hotel theory.

Wisconsin's First District is in the southeast corner of the State - forming the southern part of Milwaukee itself.  This is strong evidence, indeed, that the Plankinton Reserve was really made for the Plankinton House Hotel.

Cedar Brook Plankinton Reserve - 1902-1916 (or possibly 1914)

Color:  medium coppery amber
Nose:  Phenolic, sweet and nutty.  Toffee, leather, corn, acetone, and sweet straw lead off, with sawn oak, vegetable oil, dried marigolds, bourbon vanilla pods, and chamomile underneath.  Elegant, herbal, and inviting.

Palate: It starts on bright sweet, vegetal tree sap sweetness, along with its tannin edge.  Bright heat and rich mouth feel give a 50% abv BiB sense of high proof.  Rich dark toffee with molasses and big black greasy vanilla influence glows honeyed sweet in the expansion.  There are coconut lignan flavors, along with bright herbal flavors of corn shucks, dried flowers, and sun dried meadows iterating that sweetness.  Herbal rye flavors creep in as we get close to the turn to the finish along with some effervescent mouth feel - almost like how carbonation feels.  I'd wager this was made from a high rye mash bill.  At the turn to the finish the oak hits and there is a bitter tannin note, along with a sense of oak char's bitterness.  I have no doubts that the age statement on the bottle is true.  This drinks like a mature 14 year old Bourbon. The finish is long, with a an interplay of the toffee sweetness and a whole ton of dark herbal flavors like the shadowy ivy places past the shed heading into the forest.  I get a feeling some of these dark bitter herbals have something to do with long maturation in barrels made of old growth wild oak.  The green and gamey taste of those trees sometimes get tagged as "wintergreen" but I read it more as "ivy and forest weeds".   I confess that I love how it plays against the rich dark sweet bourbon flavors up front.

Sniffing the glass after it's over reveals a richly oaked and sweet residual - almost like a sherried Scotch.

90 *****

How has age affected this century old dusty?  It's fresh.  The only tell as to age is that it starts to fade with extensive air time a bit more than I'd expect a contemporary BiB to fade.  Balanced, rich, dark Bourbon cut from the same cloth as 1960s-70s vintage Wild Turkey, or pre-mid-1980s dsp-ky-414 Old Forester, Old Prentice era Eagle Rare, or Old Taylor BiB from the 60s-70s.  None of the candied fruity sweetness of Yellowstone or IW Harper or Old Charter.  It's a big dark bruiser.  It has more herbal flavors and more obvious rye than the aforementioned dusties.  This darker, more herbal intensity might be the influence of old growth oak in the barrels where this bourbon spent a long time.  Old growth oak forests were still being cut down in that turn of the 20th century era.  Or it might be something to do with the production methods.  Corn and yeast strains from the Pre-Prohibition era are different than what followed for the most part.  A fresh and delicious peek at an old classic brand.  Might be a tad too bitter from herbal flavors, old growth oak wintergreen, and oak tannin.


Thanks, Chad, for a special opportunity to taste a bit of history.  In Cedar Brook we see the ambitions of two American whiskey pioneers.  They never met, but they shared a passion for a particular Bourbon flavor signature that was clearly and recognizably Bourbon - but was unique to a distillery that died with Prohibition.

Enjoy some more of Chad's photos of the historic carboy below...

Chad's other bottle (empty) was dated Spring 1903-1914










Stuff on Ebay previously:


Bottle (January 2015)  Ebay:



Box and Carboy in March 2015: