Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Tragedy of Old Cabin Still


The history of American whiskey is full of stories with all the human drama of Shakespeare's plays.  There are triumphs and tragedies; tales of creation and destruction.  There are also skeletons in the closet.  This is one of those stories.  It's the story of a murder - but not the murder of a person; the murder of a historic brand of Bourbon.  Like in most murders the motive is mundane, indeed prosaic.  It is simply greed.  The general outline of the story is simple.  Old Cabin Still - a venerable brand originally from William LaRue Weller came, via Pappy Van Winkle, to Stitzel-Weller and was a respected brand for decades. Then a huge food corporation, Norton Simon, that had been clumsily dabbling in Bourbon found themselves in a jam with a bunch of bad whiskey they couldn't sell so they bought Stitzel-Weller so they could gradually dump the boondoggle failure whiskey into their bottom of the line Old Cabin Still brand.  This ruined the whiskey - effectively murdering the brand.  When United Distillers dumped 70 brands to Heaven Hill in 1993 (who immediately dumped a bunch to Luxco) with Old Cabin Still listed among them, it fell away into the mists of obscurity.  Currently the brand name "Cabin Still" doesn't appear on either Heaven Hill's or Luxco's web site.  It's not distributed in my area (although it is still made and distributed in the midwest and Europe.  It's a moribund brand, while plenty of other brands with less excellence in their histories are still plugging along.

A word about the brand's name.   Originally "Old Cabin Still" It gradually dropped the prefix "Old".  It started in the 1950s - with the word getting smaller and sometimes being replaced by "Weller's", until it fully disappeared sometime in the 1970s - apparently after the sale to Norton Simon.  I'll attempt to use the appropriate name for whatever historical period we are discussing.

Old Cabin Still was one of William Larue Weller's brands when Pappy Van Winkle joined the firm.  It wasn't one of the brands registered in 1905 and 1906, implying that it was previously registered - one of the really old brands.   Pappy clearly liked it.  He had A. Ph. Stitzel produce some as medicinal whiskey during Prohibition.  A nice bottle and photograph appear on http://www.historicbottles.com/miscellaneous.htm  They appear as follows:

"Here is a quite interesting - and quite rare and historically fascinating - early machine-made whiskey bottle with the label, original box AND is still fully sealed with around 85%+ of the original contents - all of which date prior (barely) to National Prohibition! The fully intact tax label (covering the cork stopper) notes that the whiskey was "made Spring 1915" and "bottled Fall 1919" - mere weeks before Prohibition was fully in effect in January 1920 (though most liquor was already off the market by early 1919)."

In "But Always Fine Bourbon" by Sally Van Winkle Campbell, Old Cabin Still appears one of the stable of brands produced by Stitzel-Weller Distillery at its inception in 1935.  It was the entry level expression.  The same juice as Old Fitz, but aged less.  It was marketed as the "sportsman's" choice (see the ads, above, sporty with hunting dogs).  I imagine the idea is that sportsman in the field might nip from the bottle or flask without the luxury of the long airing Old Fitzgerald needed.  Having had the opportunity to have tasted some of the Old Cabin Still made in the Pappy era very recently, I can attest it was very good indeed, but more about that later.

My first experiences with it were very different.  Personally, I came across Cabin Still in my Sophomore year of college, 1983.  My suite mate, Kenneth Kurtz, a dazzlingly intelligent man who is now the staff architect of The Brooklyn Museum, had a penchant for it.  But not, as you might expect, have a penchant for it because it was good.  Rather, because it was bad and fading.  His nickname for it was "Stab 'n Kill".  It was an Old Man's liquor - a foul rotgut, and a symbol of what had
Ken Kurtz (in a Belleville, NJ cemetery)
gone wrong in America.  You have to understand that Ken Kurtz is a connoisseur of America's decline.  He hails from Randolph, NJ and starting in 1982 when I first met him he led me on a series of excursions the likes of which have become a staple of "Weird NJ" magazine (but years before that magazine's founding).  We drove to abandoned or semi abandoned industrial facilities, insane asylums, and the like.  We drove to Allentown and Bethlehem PA to witness the rust belt first hand.  In recent years he leads walks into places like the abandoned rail lines of the Meadowlands swamps northern NJ and the rusting drawbridges of Jersey City.  We walk the vast cemeteries of Queens and the industrial decay of Maspeth creek.  There is beauty in such places - but an ironic beauty informed by the punk aesthetic.  It's about acknowledging the rust and the loss and irony.  This is Ken Kurtz's aesthetic.  So his selection of "Stab 'n Kill" for our Friday night 1980s poker 'n bourbon 'n all you can smoke sessions must be understood as an ironic selection too.  I don't remember much about the Bourbon we drank those evenings.  We were shooting it, with grimaces and mock toughness.  We were also just kids getting drunk and I don't remember much about those evenings at all, generally.  But the long term outcome was: 1) I never bought a bottle of Cabin Still ever again.  2) I stopped drinking Bourbon pretty much entirely for about 20
Jersey City
Drawbridge abstract
years.  I turned to single malt Scotch for the most part and never looked back until 2006 or so when Paul Pacult invited Wild Turkey to host a tasting at Keen's Steakhouse in NYC when my love affair with Bourbon properly began.

This all jibes with Mike Jasinski's (master dusty hunter) tasting notes for this 1972 Ducks Unlimited ceramic decanter.  When I first met him last autumn he walked me through a tasting.  I blogged about it and wrote this:  

"One of the most provocative things the Mike has said on line recently is that Old Cabin Still is both the best and worst Bourbon he's ever tasted. He attributes this to the fact that it was sourced from Stitzel-Weller glut stocks and, alternately, Seagram's lower end stocks. My impression of this brand is the yellow-label stuff from the early 1980s which my college buddies and I used to shoot. It's not a good impression so I was very curious to taste the difference. Mike lineup up drams of both. The 1980s Seagram NAS stuff was terrible. Insipid, thin mouth feel, harsh alcohol bite, and a flavor dominated by wet cardboard notes. The 6 year old age dated 1966-1972 Ducks Unlimited decanter Old Cabin Still, however, was very much in the mode of the contemporary Old Fitzgerald decanter I had just tasted - but if anything incrementally more honeyed, with a richer mouth feel. All the classic Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon flavors were in play: caramel, toffee, butter braised brown Betty, demerara sugar and rum. Sandalwood perfume, and, on the finish, a clear note of light and sweet coffee and cream. Too much? Not a chance. Brilliance."
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2013/11/a-day-with-master-dusty-hunter-driven.html

(Notice the mistakes (probably my own) confusing "Seagrams" for "Canada Dry".  The whiskey that ended up conflated into Old Cabin Still is not Seagrams.  It's Canada Dry - a different company entirely with only the concept of "Canadian" in common.  That shows you need to take the factual content in this blog with a grain of salt.)

Ads for Canada Dry Bourbon start popping up in the mid 1960s.  Her's an example from 1967:
1967 Magazine ad for Canada Dry Bourbon - Nicholsville
The tone of the ad is one of apologetic regret for how poor the branding is.  The text reads "Fine sounding names are a tradition in the world of Bourbon.  But fine sounding names don't do anything for the taste of Bourbon.  Canada Dry has done something for the taste of Bourbon.  We made it smoother. ..." The tacit acknowledgement that the name (and the label and the bottle and everything) is completely lousy branding for Bourbon is covered by the bluster of their claims for the taste.  But having tasted it, and finding it among the most pathetic and forgettable Bourbons I've EVER tasted it's no surprise that the brand quickly disappeared.  But that left Norton Simon - the huge food conglomerate that owned Canada Dry at the time, with a problem.  What to do with a bunch of Bourbon that had tax liability hanging over it?

Canada Dry was a soda company that had started in Toronto in the 1890s by druggist and chemist John J. McLaughlin.  In 1904 he created "Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale" which began shipping to New York in 1919.  The timing was brilliant.  Prohibition meant that many drinkers were getting lower quality liquor and Americans found that most any liquor was pretty palatable when blended in with Canada Dry Ginger Ale.  Norton Winfred Simon (1907-1993), Californian food industrialist of tremendous success and market power (Hunts foods, Avis rental cars, McCall's publishing, Max Factor cosmetics, etc...) , merged his Norton Simon corporation with Canada Dry in 1964.  The bourbon appears the very next year.  I can only imagine some kind of competitiveness with Sam Bronfman (in the whiskey world in the 1960s everything comes back to Sam Bronfman so even though I don't have a shred of evidence for this I can't imagine it not being so).  The escapade was failure and soon Norton Simon is looking for a place to dump the inferior product that didn't sell.

On Straight Bourbon there is an old (2004) thread discussing the following bottle of what is labelled "Stitzel-Weller's Canada Dry Bourbon". There is a comment by noted Bourbon historian Michael Veach that speaks straight to this issue and backs up Mike Jasinski's account of Old Cabin Still being ruined by having Canada Dry Bourbon mixed in:

"Right after the [Van Winkle] family sold the [Stitzel-Weller] distillery the company [Norton Simon] also acquired a distillery in Nicholasville, Kentucky that made the Canada Dry spirits. They bottled Canada Dry Bourbon, Gin and Vodka. The whiskey from that distillery was not very good at all and they put most of it into Cabin Still, starting the downfall of that brand. - Mike Veach"

http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/showthread.php?3139-Stitzel-Weller-Canada-Dry-Bourbon

But I received dramatic and fully independent corroboration for the tale from an employee of Stitzel-Weller who made the shift to Norton-Simon and witnessed these events first hand.  The gentleman is named Dale Hamilton.  In his own words:

"I went to work for Stitzel Weller in October - 1970 as Controller/Accounting Manager. When the company was purchased on June 28, 1972 most of the accounting functions were transferred to the New York offices of Somerset Importers. I was asked to take a position in the Finance Offices at Somerset but since I had no desire to live in New York I didn't accept the position. I was allowed to stay in Louisville and set up a purchasing department. I remained as Purchasing Manager thru the mergers with the Canada Dry Distillery Nicholasville, ky. Later when Somerset Importers took over the operations of Distillers Corporation in the U.S.A.  Sometime later I took on the duties of packaging development in addition to the purchasing.  Thru the years the company name was changed to United Distillers Production and later with the purchase of Schenley the name changed to Schenley Distillers , Inc.
...
The distillery at Nicholasville or Camp Nelson, KY was originally the Curley Distillery and later the Kentucky River Distillery.
...
Paul Burnside was the President of Somerset Importers at the time and their production operation was the Canada Dry Distillery at Nicholasville, Ky. The operation distilled bourbon and bottled gin & vodka for the Canada Dry brand..They also bottled some brandy for the Domeq brand.
As I recall Burnside had produced more bourbon for the Canada Dry Bourbon brand than was needed and he also wanted to get Somerset into the bourbon business. I was told that some of the bourbon was not of a good quality (musty) due to some warehousing problems. I was not an expert on the quality of bourbon, but I didn't care for the taste of the Canada Dry produced bourbon made with rye ,since I had been used to the Old Fitz bourbon produced with wheat.
Somerset was owned by Norton Simon at the time and money tied up in inventory didn't fit their plan. So now the Stitzel Weller Distillery could cease production for some time and the excess Canada Dry bourbon could be used in the newly purchased Cabin Still brand. The bourbon that was produced for the Cabin Still brand could now be used for some of the other Stitzel Weller brands.
...
As I recall the Canada Dry Bourbon, Gin, and Vodka labels were only sold in the control states. I don't recall exactly ,but sometime near the end of the brands in seems to me that the soft drink company, no longer connected to liquor division, the Canada Dry named was dropped and replaced with the name "Stitzel Weller" for a short time."


- Dale Hamilton (in several private e-mails.  Emphasis is my own).

 But what about this "distillery at Nicholasville or Camp Nelson, KY - originally the Curley Distillery and later the Kentucky River Distillery"? The Curley Distillery was built around 1880. Sullivan notes it as

"The Boone Knoll DistilleryRD #15, 8 th District Jessamine County, KY"
with the following photograph:
http://www.pre-pro.com/midacore/images/inserts/dist_DST233.jpg
The photograph resides at The Kentucky Historical Society where it is described as follows:
"Curley Distillery at Camp Nelson Bridge, Jessamine County, Kentucky, ca. 1905."http://www.kyhistory.com/cdm/ref/collection/PH/id/1099

Of this distillery Sam K. Cecil writes: "E.J. Curley & Company RD No. 15, Kentucky River, RD No. 45 Canada Dry.  Built in 1880." But by 1889 Curley's horses and wagons were impounded for non-payment of taxes although it managed to stay open until Prohibition when AMS bought the brands and remaining stocks.  In 1923 the distillery building was converted into a resort.  It was converted back into a distillery after Repeal, operating as "Kentucky River" RD No. 45."  It ended up sold to Norton Simon "sometime in the 1960s".  "Norton Simon continued to operate the plant as Canada Dry until the late 1970s, when they bought the Stitzel-Weller Distillery RD No. 16 in Shively, Jefferson County."  (the actual year of the purchase was 1972, thus showing that you sometimes have to take Cecil with a grain of salt).  The narrative concludes "The distillery building burned, and the warehouses were leased for a time to Seagrams to house production from their Anderson County plant.  Since then, they have leased to Bourlevard of Anderson County for their "Wild Turkey" whiskey".
http://www.amazon.com/Bourbon-The-Evolution-Kentucky-Whiskey/dp/1596527692

Chuck Cowdery summarized the history in a post on Straight Bourbon in 2000 thus:  "Built in 1880. In recent times, Norton Simon owned it in the 60s and operated it under the Canada Dry name until they bought Stitzel-Weller in 1972. The distillery building burned down. Seagram's used the warehouse for Four Roses until they built Lotus, at which time they leased them to Wild Turkey."
http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/showthread.php?64-Fire-at-Wild-Turkey-Warehouse!

A distillery building burning down happens from time to time, of course.  Still, I'm struck by the timing.  Norton Simon using this distillery to produce a failure of a Bourbon brand.  Then buying a struggling but well respected distillery (Stitzel-Weller) and then apparently camouflaging the bad whiskey by mixing it into Cabin Still - the bottom of the line expression from Stitzel-Weller starting in 1972.  Then, the now useless distillery burns down.  How convenient!  The warehouses still stand - serving a better purpose holding better juice.

So, given all this history, it probably comes as little surprise that when I came across a case or two of old, sad, dirty, somewhat sun-faded liter bottles of Cabin Still in a scary store in a scarier part of Roseville, NJ I bought a few of the better looking ones, bottle glass stamp dated "88".  I cracked one open and tasted deeply.  "Old Stab 'n Kill" truly.  I also shared a dram of it with Ken Kurtz himself.  Then I attempted to give him one of the liters.  He politely declined.  In light of having recently tasted 1966-72 Old Cabin Still and 1970s-80s Canada Dry Bourbon with Mike Jasinski and having recently completed a survey of Old Fitzgerald from the 1960s-1990s I felt ready to put this late 1980s Cabin Still in context:


1972 and earlier bottlings say "Distilled and Bottled by Sitzel-Weller Distillery".  Afterwards the wording is changed to "Distilled For And Bottled By Cabin Still Distillery" (emphasis mine).

Cabin Still Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey circa 1988 40% abv.  


Color: medium coppery amber.

Nose:  Initially a bit sickly sweet and watery, it opens with air. After about 20 minutes it is malty, and fruity (juicyfruit, and turkish delight) beneath toffee, solvent, and candy corn.  Not too bad.  I'm getting Stitzel-Weller richness in the maltiness.

Palate: off-sweet opening.  Given the fruity nose I was expecting more sweetness in the opening, but it pulls back.  In the expansion there are notes of cherry and malt that recall Stitzel-Weller as well.  But there is a watery mouth feel and lack of density and impact.  As the expansion proceeds there is a tinge of rye prickle - a kiss of Virginia blond tobacco chaw spit in a watered down glass of good S-W whiskey.  This is, after all presumably, a 4 grain vatting.  Then, at the turn there is a bitter cardboard note.  As the finish proceeds the bitterness and cardboard flavor (like a corrugated cardboard box smells) grows and grows.  The finish is disgusting with bitterness, glue, and dry brown paper.  A disaster.  Particularly bitter given the hints of malt and cherry and oak lurking around in there.  There was Stitzel-Weller juice being tossed into the cardboard bitter mess of Canada Dry bourbon even as late as 1988.  It's a crime.  It's a crying shame.   Getting rid of the finish by continually sipping  to keep those Stitzel-Weller flavors detectable in the front end of the palate is the way to go with this stuff.

Adding a drop of water greatly improves the nose which, after 10 minutes to settle down, becomes candied like a full wheater. But it ruins what little body or mouth feel this whisky had, while amping up the undesirable rye spices which don't fit with the wheater sweeter aspects.  Definitely do not add water.

Bottom line - a disaster both for what happened in the vatting and, especially, for the special juice that was squandered here.

*

(Updated to one star down from two as, in further tasting I can't stomach this stuff at all).

12 comments:

  1. Joshua, I recently acquired a pair of Cabin Still 750ml's that are certainly post '72 (I'd guess around VERY late 70's or early 80s seeing as they have real tax stamps but also a barcode, 88508). HOWEVER, they are 90 proof and state, "Distilled, aged, and bottled by Cabin Still Distillery Louisville KY. No mention of the word "For". Have you ever come across this variation? Is it possible this bottle bypassed a Seagrams vatting? I eventually will crack these open, but hope I have a prayer in avoiding the "Cabin Swill" curse.

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    1. I've seen that there are 86 and 90 proof versions. Cabin Still is a popular dusty find and many people really like it. It is entirely possible that the quality waxes and wanes and that there may even be periods in there where it was all or substantially more Stitzel-Weller in the mix than at other periods. It's also possible that this stuff would just taste better at higher proof. Or maybe it's all the same swill. I haven't tasted enough of this stuff to say (and I'd like to know more). Please post back after you've tasted it. Maybe we can swap tastes too. My e-mail address is on the "About" page.

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  2. This was a very interesting read. Thanks!

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  3. Cabin Still is currently distributed in Minnesota. It's not terrible. It just tastes like a dried corn cob that has been sweetened. I've bought it twice since moving here. The second time was to include in a tasting for new bourbon drinkers. Most of them liked it better than the Wild Turkey Rare Breed I finished with as it was gentler, sweeter and more accessible for them.

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    1. @arok! So glad to hear that Cabin Still is still being distributed and it's not bad. Is there anything on the label to suggest Luxco v.s. Heaven Hill? Would your palate indicate whether it's a wheater or a rye mash? I'll be on the lookout for some next time I'm far afield. It's definitely not here in NYC. I'll update the post accordingly.

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  4. Josh, good read to say the least. I have to say it put a bit of a damper on my find of 3 bottles circa 1988 I had today, lol. Anyway, the thrill is in the hunt and that seems to be very true in today's case. Thanks again.

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    1. Were they 80 proof (or 86, or even 90)? I'm curious to hear your tasting notes. Maybe they will be different from mine. Please comment back or let me know what you think when you taste it. Certainly the thrill is in the hunt and it's fun to find vanished expressions. The connection with Stitzel-Weller is tantalizing here, but the history is complex and checkered. But some people love this stuff which makes me wonder if there was variability.

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  5. Fun review.

    For me, when it comes to the "what have we learned?" department, my father accurately summarized: "nothin'", after telling him about my recent adventure in drinking a can of scotch (that's right, I said a CAN of SCOTCH). I hope that he's right but have to say, Stab n' Kill story (or "sorry" as my phone's auto correct attempts to force and here) is a similar teachable moment of both historical and palate reference. Somewhat of a learning through punishment type of experience. I feel that through your description, I too have already tasted Stab 'n Kill. Excellent descriptors. But in the end, knowing that whether it be may be musty warehouse packed with soggy sawdust and cardboard lined barrel flavor or an underaged, undisclosed distiller, single grain Scottish whisky bottled in Florida.... Excuse me, I meant CANNED in Florida, I still feel the need to experience it thinking I'll truly still learn something. I'm sure the stock has long since evolved into a wonder of sweet corn astringency designed to be masked with mixers and ice for economy drinkers and backwoods bars alike, not entirely dissimilar from "Five Low" (aka Ten High), it isn't "blended" per se and I may just have to purchase a bottle as punishment, or a poker night, camp trip, teachable moment, etc. Cheers.

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  6. Cabin Still is available in New York for around $15 a liter. It's not bad at all and a great mixer. I'm lining it up against four other el-cheapo 80 proofers this afternoon (Benchmark, Ancient Age, Four Roses and Old Fitzgerald) to see how it stands up.

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    1. True! I just ran across it earlier this week at Astor Place Liquors. But I swear it's the first I've seen of it in NY for YEARS! It's a Heaven Hill product now with a different mash bill than the old stuff. I'd love to hear how you think it rates against those others. I may pick some up myself and see what the heck it is now.

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  7. I have a decanter that looks exactly like the Cabin Still Sportsman's Series, with a pheasant on it. However, the Name of Cabin Still are not on the bottle anywhere. The only markings are on the bottom. "LIQUOR BOTTLE" written in one direction. Then, facing those words, is the number 2. Under that is "65" then a circle with something inside of it (I think), Then the numbers "72". Is this truly a Cabin Still bottle?

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    1. This sounds fascinating. Will you e-mail me pictures at josh[at]cooperedtot.com? Thanks!

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