Who is Dante and Who is Virgil and the Value Proposition of Bourbon

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This really took a left turn as I worked on it and crammed in some other concerns I’ve been having. Its been dawning on me that the spirits industry has a tenuous relationship with beauty. When Arroyo used complex pH buffering on a rum wash, he was making his spirit more suave. When Bourbon producers adopted similar methods, they were making a spirit that would merely mature faster to squeeze out value.

What path do you take when you’re a new distiller? And how can we mature the new scene so it compares to the better aspects of fine wine production culture? I think we need to put beauty at the center of things and build science around it. Things should flip so beauty is distiller driven and not merely reliant on drinkers.

[The drinker with most distillers] Who is Dante and Who is Virgil is not what you’d think.

In my last few posts on American whiskey, I described the rein of a generation of practical distillers who built their whiskeys like a brick house so the next generation of scientific distillers and their financiers would have a strong value proposition for buying them out. This was all supported by tax structure, production processes, and the fact that barely any producers even drank the stuff. We are certainly in a new era (that I’ve even named guided traditional processes) [Virgil was Dante’s guide BTW], but the investigation did deflate a lot of my romanticism for American whiskey of yore. I didn’t find much concern for beauty.

Beauty is the composite of extraordinary sensoriality and exemplary human behavior. –Leonard Koren

Today I present two papers that support the value proposition theory and shed details on the stripping of Bourbon. Don’t let me seem too pessimistic, a lot of this could be improvement. Whiskeys of the practical era were not built to be their progressive best, instead they were practical. The passing of the torch saw a lot of improvement and we can only start to ask specific questions on what lines they crossed and where.

I don’t explain, I explore. -Marshal McLuhan.

The first paper is Whiskey Losses During Aging (1942) by the Seagram’s team of Milton Gallagher, Paul Kolachov, and Herman Willkie.

The second paper is Whiskey Aging: Effect of Barreling Proof on the Aging of American Whiskeys (1959) by the Hiram Walker team of C.S. Boruff and L.A. Rittschof. Remember, this is from many years later, but C.S. Boruff was the condescending scientist with horrible disdain for the practical distillers.

The beginning of the Seagram team’s paper even starts with the claimed savings of $750,000 over three years. Their main methodology of capturing the savings was to reduce the angel’s share and gravitational leakage. They did this by control for temperature in the warehouses and dropped it fairly significantly. They also controlled for humidity. Finally, what seems practical, but was overlooked in the old school by their claims, they increased scrutiny of barrel quality and were better about checking for leaks.

I just reread their paper and it is really enjoyable. Anything Willkie and Kolachov touched has been really good. When I’m down on American whiskey they inadvertently build it back up. They describe how foolhardy and extravagant it is to store your whiskey in such poor containers, yet we do. The excess and inefficiency of whiskey makes it pretty much art and probably most like a poem when you consider the similar roundabout processes. It is a unique type of art, because its our art, that of the drinker. We are its patrons and it was commissioned by us. Who some think are the artists, are not. They are reluctant, often do not touch the stuff themselves, and have a disdain for the poetic flourishes we want.

The paper moves on to describe the Carlisle Tables from the “80’s and 90’s”. These are tables of allowances for soakage and evaporative losses, but they are described as inaccurate and in need of updating. As it was, the system made them pay taxes on nonexistent whiskey because the losses experienced were actually higher than what was provided for in the tables.

Therefore, the distilling industry must make the best of a bad situation. Every opportunity must be taken advantage of to reduce whisky losses during the warehousing period.

Flavor be damned! I myself am an artisan and I get commissions I often don’t agree with. I kick and scream as I execute them. My work (please share) is nothing profound. Recently, a self designing home owner, the artist, gave me an 1890’s Corbin door set to strip and polish. Well, I’m in the Wabi Sabi camp. The century plus old patina was stunning. This artist and I were aesthetically opposed. The symbolism of impermanence plus the extraordinary sensoriality of patina are something more profound than the puritanical morality of ordinary polished brass (me versus them). They got charged ambitiously for violating all my life principles, just like y’all get charged ambitiously by whiskey makers that have a disdain for your wasteful decadent aesthetic.

We poets make Homeric offerings to our angels and let the oak also take a drink and they just don’t get it. The IRS has to step in to protect our speech from being squashed. All the sudden, we have new producers that actually like making whiskey and there is no kicking and screaming, and to be honest, for some reason, I’m just not into it. If you’re an artist that wants a stronger more straight forward bond with your artisan, drink rum (I actually say that idly, just to tease you).

The Seagram paper is great and even shows a little data on different tiers of whiskey stacked six high. Their modernization started in 1939.

The temperature of 55°F. was arrived at from two considerations. One was the fact that men in the warehouses do not work effectively or with any degree of comfort if the room temperature is much below 55°F. Another consideration was the possible decrease in the aging rate at the low temperature. The effect of temperature on rate of aging has always been the subject of discussion in the distilling industry. It seems logical to believe that aging proceeds faster at somewhat higher temperatures. Yet no controlled experiment has yielded conclusive data.

What is cool here is that even as man tries to dominate the terroir of whiskey storage with refrigeration, it cannot escape human terms. The crew must be literal blue collar comfortable. The industry hides this kind of detail from us, because they know that we as patron’s of the arts wouldn’t be happy. I’m glossing over some details. They actually let it get warmer than 55°F in the summer months. They do however go on to describe a 2500 barrel experiment in progress where the whiskey is kept at year round temperature of 50°F.

The impact of humidity worked very different from what I would have thought. Changes in humidity do not effect evaporation so much as tightness of the barrel joints. High humidity being not so terrible, but hard to maintain so it stresses the joints and creates leakage that way. High humidity was also tied to mold growth and sanitary conditions which probably has a bigger impact on the workers than it does on the whiskey.

A communication with the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory is acknowledged which is the government organization where I obtained the paper on Whiskey Aged in Plywood Barrels. This also brings us back to Public Foundation for Private Spirits Companies.

The care which barreled goods receive during warehousing was intensified. The practice in the distilling industry is to inspect every barrel of whisky periodically throughout the storage period. This inspection period was shortened so that each barrel is inspected every ten calendar days. Inspectors on these ten-day cycles repair minor leaks, patch cracked staves, and generally perform preventive maintenance. In cases where the leak is too large to repair in passing or a head is badly buckled or a cracked stave shows probability of leaking, these barrels are removed from the racks and the defective parts are replaced with sound staves or heads. In addition, newly filled barrels are inspected for leaks daily until they have been stored for two months. From then on they are cared for in the ten-day inspection cycle.

This could be looked upon as more Puritanical neuroticism, but it is hard to argue with. This type of spillage is not an offering. A buckled barrel is not a happy barrel. This also makes me wonder what new distilleries are doing. They obviously encounter these same challenges, but do they have any minor coopering skills?

To get an idea of the monetary saving represented by this decrease in excess loss, a calculation was made to show what the excess taxes should have been if the rate of excess loss had remained at 0.70 proof gallon per barrel. During this three year period 729,536 barrels were tax paid. If these had each been 0.70 proof gallon excessive, the quantity of nonexistent whisky subject to tax would have been 510,675 proof gallons. Over this period the rate of tax varied from $2.25 to $4.00 per proof gallon. Thus, the tax collected on nonexistent whisky would have been $1,425,256. From actual figures during this period the excess loss was only 272,917 proof gallons. Figured at the same rate of tax, this quantity of loss was taxed $725,328. Thus the saving of excess tax was $699,928. In addition, the actual whisky saved was 237,757 proof gallons. Figured conservatively at $0.30 per proof gallon, this saving was worth $71,327. Thus, it can be said that the value of the change amounted to $771,255, roughly three quarters of a million dollars, over the past three years.

The value proposition now has numbers and they’re big. You tell this to your finance guys and it all the sudden makes sense to buy up a bunch more distilleries and squeeze them. What did we gain and what did we lose?

The next paper is from 1959, but represents work that started eight years prior. It immediately raises some I don’t know how I feel about this.

Three whiskey distillates were barreled for aging at 1 10 (control) and distillation proof. Experimental barreling proofs were 118, 127, and 154. During 8-year aging in new charred oak barrels the percentage losses of whiskeys barreled at proofs above 110 were slightly lower than the controls; the tendency was not statistically significant because of the relatively small number of experimental barrels. Chemical characteristics developed during aging of whiskeys barreled at 118 and 127 proofs fell within normal limits, but at 154 proof were lower than normal. Flavor after aging 8 years was normal in the whiskey barreled at 118 proof, slightly less mature at 127 proof and different at 154 proof because of a spicy green oak taste. An industry-wide experiment is now under way.

Uh, industry-wide? I cannot opt out? I have to wait for Wild Turkey to start up to find an artisan I trust to commission my whiskey art? Are any of you even familiar with Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is The Highest Form of Art. There is a rigorous conceptual foundation for all of my beauty ideas and who is the artist arguments. I actually called up Tom on the phone many years ago to talk about conceptual art and cocktails. Many renowned painters and sculptors use studio assistants who end up doing a lot of the actual painting and the sculpting.

Liquor turns out to be no different. I drink both heavily and very discriminately thus commissioning a lot of works. These Bostonapothecary writings also pull a lot of puppet strings and so many distillers reading these writings inadvertently become my studio assistants. If we stretch it conceptually, so many are underneath my benevolent educational wing (muhahaha). I’m even going to commission more works when I teach a new skill set coming up that I’ve been holding out on people.

The grasping point here is that I’m both empowering you and liberating you. Drink consciously and become the artist. It is open to anyone. And watch your studio assistants. They can be a bunch of penny pinching dorks. They have no vision, they need the artist. If left to their own devices, they come up with marshmallow vodka and cherry bourbon.

Well, back to the second paper, this C.S. Boruff, I just don’t trust the guy. He would sell you that stretched cocaine at the regular price. Don’t bring him into my studio. Read it for yourself to see what I’m talking about. Look what happened to the Hiram Walker liqueurs before the cocktail renaissance (and still largely now). All the artists were gone. With no drinker driven vision to keep them honest, the Hiram team was left to their own devices and of course they ran it into the ground. When I keep saying guided traditional processes, who is Virgil?

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