Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Chuck Schumer's Gaffe and Why It Matters To New York Whiskey

On video it doesn't look like much of anything.  Chuck Schumer, Senator from New York, in a suit, at a conference in Kentucky addresses Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell:

"Brooklyn, where I was born, raised and proudly live, produces some of the best bourbon in the world."

Then he hands him a bottle of Widow Jane Bourbon. McConnell replies

"There's no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon," 

which gets a laugh.  But Chuck Schumer committed a gaffe today that has the whiskey world slapping its head in frustration and hilarity.  Widow Jane is one of those famous examples of a distillery that sources whiskey from a distillery somewhere else (in this case, supremely ironically, Kentucky of all places) and then lied (I'm using the past tense here) about being made locally in Brooklyn.  When people talk about "Potemkin Distilleries" (Chuck Cowdery's coinage), Widow Jane in Redhook is one of the famous, classic examples.  Chuck Schumer actually gave Mitch McConnell Kentucky Bourbon in a New York bottle and erroneously crowed about it being Brooklyn whiskey.  It's just awful, or hilarious, or pathetic, depending on how you look on it.

Newsweek got the angle first at 11am - well ahead of most of the press, in a piece by Gersh Kuntzman which gleefully points out that Widow Jane is Bourbon sourced from Kentucky.  The story spread from here.  Amusingly, Mr. Kuntzman makes sure to tell us in 3 separate parenthetical asides that he has been drinking the whiskey actively while writing up the story, and he really likes it.  He likes it a lot.  e.g.:

<<...Widow Jane is (full disclosure) exemplary whiskey...>> and <<...a taste of honey and cherrywood and a finish of charred oak and orange peel" (fuller disclosure: That is deliciously accurate).>>


By now, it's a talking point about what an idiot Chuck Schumer is.  But here is a moment when much of America is actually talking about and thinking about whiskey and they are getting exactly the wrong lessons about whiskey.  First of all, Mitch  McConnell's retort "There's no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon," is simply factually wrong.  That "Bourbon must be made in Kentucky" is one of the most common fallacies.  The legal restrictions governing the production of Bourbon only specify the mash bill, strength, and wood of maturation and the United States as the nation of origin:

27 CFR 5.22 - The standards of identity....
l, class 12, section 1: "...That the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States."

There is Bourbon made in every State in the Union (except Hawaii and Nebraska - thanks Susannah Skiver Barton!)   And there are plenty of Brooklyn Bourbons.  King's County Distillery was the first legal distillery in New York since Prohibition and has been making some really good Bourbon in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for years.  Other Brooklyn distilleries making true Bourbon include Van Brundt Stillhouse, and even Widow Jane itself (with their Wapsie Valley, Bloody Butcher and other boutique corn variety bottlings - which I don't recommend btw).  And there are plenty of other Bourbons in New York State, including some really good ones made at Finger Lakes Distilling by Tom McKenzie (who left the distillery last year).  There was zero reason for Schumer to make this error.  Anyone could have spent literally five minutes on the Internet and figured this out.

Chuck's gaffe makes Brooklyn looks bad to people who don't know whiskey because it seems apparent that if the Senator from New York can't even grab a bottle of New York Bourbon when he has set out to rib Kentucky about Bourbon then clearly there isn't one. They will all say "everyone knows Bourbon comes from Kentucky".  Mitch McConnell's error that "Bourbon only comes from Kentucky" will be reified.  

Coppersea Straight Malted Empire Rye
But there's a deeper irony here; and it's the big story in New York craft distilling this year: the creation of the Empire Rye designation.  New York just laid down the gauntlet, claiming a long tradition of rye whiskey production and leveraging that into a new era with some serious efforts by seven (and counting) craft distillers.  I recently sipped through seven of the new Empire Ryes (or their immediate predecessors)  and was extremely impressed.  These don't drink like the flawed raw Craft Whiskeys you'd expect from a new standard.  A big reason for that is because New York's craft distillers aren't new.  They have climbed the learning curve and are making some really good whiskeys - and in particular - rye whiskeys.  Coppersea's malted rye was dusky and complex with rich mouth feel and rich flavors imparted by malting the rye.  King's County rye was a powerhouse, with a rich clean rye flavor and a lingering bracingly herbal finish.   New York Distilling Company's Ragtime Rye was softer, but with really pleasing flavors and good balance.  Hillrock's Double Cask Rye was more austere - but still elegant and tasty.  The Empire Rye designation stands for something real:  At least 75 percent of its grain must be New York-grown rye. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof; put into a barrel at no more than 115 proof (which is below the industry standard of 125 proof); and aged at least two years in charred, new oak barrels.  The original six members of the Empire Rye consortium — Coppersea, Tuthilltown, Black Button Distilling, New York Distilling, Kings County Distillery and Finger Lakes Distilling have been joined by three more distilleries since.  This is a real story for New York whiskey and it hasn't gotten enough press.

King's County Rye 51% ab
New York Distilling Ragtime Rye
Hillrock Double Cask Rye.

Last October I got to geek out about the history of rye whiskey in New York at an event called "New York Whiskey - Past, Present, Future" - part of the Empire Rye appellation celebration and New York State Craft Beverage Week, held by Josh Richholt at his cavernous super-bar "The Well" in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  Dave Pickerell (master distiller formerly of Maker's Mark but who now works on many distilleries including the Hillrock Rye project and, formerly Widow Jane), Christopher Briar Williams, master distiller (and I don't use the term lightly here) of Coppersea Distillery - one of the founders of the Empire Rye idea, Reid Mitenbuler (author of Bourbon Empire, and a serious whiskey geek), myself, and Josh Richholt (dusty enthusiast, owner of The Well, and another serious whiskey geek) - right to left in the photo below - discussed the long and fascinating history of rye whiskey in New York State.

PhotoCredit: nycwhisky.com

It begins with farm distillery production of rye.  In the pre-industrial era there were literally hundreds of small distilleries in the original 13 colonies of the US - with strong concentrations in the heavily populated areas like New York.  Rye whiskey was the traditional form for people coming from central Europe and rye grew well in the colder environment of the NorthEast.  Josh Richholt brought a fascinating example from the end of that period - an 1892 vintage dated bottle of Emerson's Old "5x" Pure Rye Whiskey.  It was produced at Brotherhood Wine (which still exists, operating a vineyard out of Washingtonville, NY (Orange County) founded 1839.  The Emerson family purchased the wine made by the Jaques family according to the Brotherhood wine history for 60 years (until apparently 1899 or 1900) when the Emerson family purchased the winery. They named it after the Brotherhood of New Life Utopian community in the Hudson Valley.  They apparently operated a wine and liquor shop out of Soho because this bottle of 5x whiskey says so.  Was this whiskey made in New York or sourced from somewhere else?  Who can say?  This might be local New York farm distilled whiskey, part of that long tradition, or it might be sourced whiskey from somewhere else and bottled in New York by New York City merchants - also a long tradition associated with some of the greatest names in whiskey.

For example, H.B. Kirk & Co. of 69 Fulton St. New York City extensively advertised Old Crow and Old Hermitage rye from the Old Hermitage distillery Frankfort KY.as exclusive distributor.  This  1884 ad (right) states: "We have taken every barrel made since January 1872".  Josh Richholt brought (and cracked) a bottle of Old Crow Rye from the 1940s that was still bottled in New York even then.  (It was pretty damned good and deserves its own post).

Another example you might have heard of is a New York merchant named Austin Nichols who operated a famous (and vast) warehouse in 184 Kent St. Williamsburgh Brooklyn that was built in 1915. The famous Turkey shoot story that Jimmy Russel always tells everyone dates from 1940s. Austin Nichols First bottled Wild Turkey in 1954 (the year that Jimmy Rusell began working there.)  They used sourced bourbon from many distilleries at that time, and throughout the 50s-60s. Later on, in 1971, they bought the Boulevard Distillery (previously JTS Brown, originally Old Moore, & Ripy Bros) to make Wild Turkey.  So Wild Turkey, even though it's a Kentucky whiskey brand, is a New York company with a New York story.

Dusty bottles of New York rye - and other whiskeys just bottled in New York - courtesy of Josh Richholt.

There is a lot more to this history story.  Park & Tilford appears in Richholt's lineup.  Schenley too.  Both were New York companies.  (Tasting notes will follow in another post).  Wine & Spirits Bulletin in the pre-pro era shows dozens of distributors on the Manhattan & Brooklyn waterfronts.  The famous "Kevin Bacon" of the 20th century whiskey world, Sam Bronfman, who is in just about every American whiskey history story somewhere, built the Seagram's Building in Manhattan.  JP Morgan's cellar books in 1884 show New York State rye and winter wheat whiskey in wicker demijohns.  The more you look, the deeper the story goes.  New York State is making seriously good whiskey, it has a serious whiskey history.  If Chuck Schumer had just researched a little bit - or had talked to any of us who know and love the ongoing story - he could have delivered a real whiskey gauntlet to Mitch McConnell, and everyone in America might be talking about whether New York just might actually be a whiskey power, instead of laughing at Schumer and at the idea of New York whiskey.  This was a lost opportunity for New York and for Chuck Schumer - and for America.

On a panel with awesome whiskey people talking about
New York whiskey history... Yeah - I took a selfie.