Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

There's a lot of history and 'lore' behind bourbon so discuss both here.

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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Jan 30, 2010 11:21 pm

John,
You missed the point in that Schenley did lighten the flavor of I W Harper by raising the barrel proof. This also made a cheaper product by saving 5% on barrels, but I don't think money was the sole motivation here. Also don't under estimate Knebel Kamp's experience with marketing since he did go on to be the President of Churchill Downs - a position that needs a strong marketeer.

I think there was a change in taste in America at the time. I think the over aged, woody whiskey of the end of prohibition gave the public a mental impression of all rye and bourbons being that way and by comparison Scotch and Canadian were very light. The question I have is this: Blends were sold during the times of shortage of age whiskey, but if the public wanted only a light flavorless whiskey, then why did the category shrink as aged straight whiskey became available? In the 40s blends were very much part of the market. In the 50s they became less so and in the 60s only Seagram was making blended whiskey in lieu of straight whiskey. By the 1990s blended whiskey became a very small share of the American whiskey market, yet blended whiskey is "lighter" and "cheaper to make" than straights.

John's refernce to Frost 8/80 is really nonsense to the question of what was happening at the end of prohibition. Those products (8/80 etc.) were in response to the growing light beer/vodka/wine cooler market and not the change in tastes in whiskey. Whiskey drinkers never cared for those products and they were not designed to attract whiskey drinkers. They were designed to get those people who were not drinking whiskey to drink a whiskey.
Mike Veach
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873
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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Jan 31, 2010 12:26 am

Well, first I should say (or should have said earlier) that I appreciate John that you have brought all these thoughts forward and indeed that Mike is writing this book: I look forward to buying it when it comes out and having him autograph it.

About the public taste thing vs. what distillers want to sell again, I think it is true bourbon is a minority taste but distillers could have tried harder to boost straight whiskey. They jumped (IMO) too fast on the blended bandwagon, sometimes with silly, ultimate results, e.g., ads showing a 100 and 86 proof bourbon next to each other and trumpeting the weaker one as suitable for those who want a lighter bourbon. I am all for marketing inventiveness, but I think something about the nature of the product got lost there. Maybe as industries get larger that is inevitable but not always: the great Pilsner Urquel (famous Czech lager) has been owned for many years by a large international concern but the beer is as good as when it was owned by a state company in the old Czechoslovakia. And the clout of the current owner enables it to be sent around the world quickly (even in kegs) tasting great. Bourbon could have done that on a larger scale than it did. Perhaps it lost confidence. I guess Jack Daniels fills that niche, and fair enough - but Jack Daniels (which I like) is not bourbon.

Gary
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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Jan 31, 2010 12:30 am

Mike: it is true blended whiskey faded but this occurred as a function of the rise of vodka: you cannot separate the two. Plus, Canadian whiskey is a partial exception (since it is still thriving) and really it took the place of the American blended product.

John: it's an understandable omission since it was never a large seller, but Seagram also made Benchmark Bourbon and it was an excellent product, I have some courtesy a member of the other board. This bourbon was the dark rich rummy kind, a bit like Beam's Choice in the 70's, very good.

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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Jan 31, 2010 8:50 am

Perhaps I should recognize that the difference between Jack Daniels and bourbon is essentially terminological. Even so, there could have been 20 or 50 big international straight whiskeys like that. Instead, we have Jack Daniels, and to be sure Jim Beam, and Maker's Mark and a host of other brands (mostly for the domestic market) at different price points. I am not taking away from any of this success or market availability of good bourbon. But again in comparison to vodka sales, it could have been so much bigger. Maybe one day it will again.

Just for some context, here is an impressively detailed report from the British Columbia Liquor Stores:

http://www.bcliquorstores.com/files/att ... Review.pdf

Look at the pie charts on page 30. Vodka sales were approximately 5 percentage points higher than whiskies of all categories. I would view this as more or less typical of established beverage alcohol markets today.

To view this from a different prism, is the majority of the beer consumed today clear and tasteless? No, not even mass-produced beer was ever reduced to that. As a fan of fine beer I want to anticipate the possible objections that mass market lager became fairly tasteless - to be sure this is all relative but even the big national brands are still beer and do not taste like seltzer water. The brewers kept the essence of beer as beer. Perhaps a better example is the international wine market. Wine was never turned into something not tasting of wine. Certainly a product has evolved today which is rounded and fruity (for the mass market I mean) but it is certainly wine. I suppose one could say that wine just naturally tastes better to people than straight whiskey decently matured. But I am not convinced of that.

In referring to established spirits markets, I want to except Russia and numerous eastern European countries since vodka is traditional in, indeed derives from, those places. In the 1800's, the norm in Britain and North America for spirits was whisky. However long it was aged - and obviously there were different qualities from the beginning - whisky was inherently highly flavorful by comparison. Even the least matured moonshine (or potcheen in Ireland) had taste galore. True, by the later 1800's, methodical blending became common in Canada and the U.S.. I have heard that around, say, 1900, the majority of whiskey sold was blended, not straight. I haven't seen hard figures on that, but even if it was true (it appears to have been in Canada at least), I would say two things. First, the blended whisky of 1900 was probably pretty good in relation to today's version. Second and more important, it was still a form of whisky. It will always be a conundrum I guess to know exactly why even this attenuated form of whisky became a much smaller thing than it was originally in the national spirits markets. I have an older relation who used to drink Wiser's. In the last 20 years, he drinks only vodka. I once asked him why. He said, "I don't know, that's what everyone was drinking". My point is that straight whiskey producers in the 1930's-1970's might have made a greater effort to explain what they were selling, how to drink it, and why it was a valued part of the heritage of spirituous drinks. (Some did, e.g., Maker's Mark, Stitzel-Weller, but very few. Most of the ads from the 30's-70's I have seen from the large companies for bourbon speak to status, or historical pedigree in a vague way. At most they might mention "rich" taste or something like that). Cognac makers had always done this. Perhaps the legacy of Prohibition and the always Janus-faced side of the alcohol question inhibited them.
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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby bourbonv » Sun Jan 31, 2010 12:20 pm

Gary,
As always you have some very interesting points. I think the answer to your question of "why" is simply prohibition. Before prohibition the straight whiskey people were doing (and quite successfully, I might add) just what you suggested. Yes, most whiskey sold in the 1890s and 1900s was "rectified" or as we would say "blended". The bottled-in-bond act of 1897 and the Taft Decision of 1909 helped to seperate the two styles in the minds of the consumer public. Educational advertisement was in the market explaining why straight whiskey was superior to the blends. Straight whiskey had captured the majority of the whiskey market by 1918 but then prohibition hit.

After prohibition the American public thought of straight whiskey as medicinal whiskey which was very much over aged and heavy with wood tannins as well as the natural heaviness of flavor found in the pre-prohibition stocks. The public wanted "lighter" products in the form of Canadian and Scotch whiskies. It should be noted here that before prohibition Irish whiskey out sold Scotch whisky in the U.S. by a fairly large margin. After prohibition Irish pretty much dissappeared from the market and Scotch grew. The reason for this as explained in the 1930s was that Irish whiskey is a heavier flavor than Scotch. I would add that in my opinion, Irish is much closer in flavor to bourbon or rye than Scotch whisky. I think if prohibition had not interupted the sales, then straight bourbon and rye would have remained in its pre-prohibition position and blends would have never became as popular.

Gary, I also agree with what you say about the decline of blends and vodka, but of course that does not take place until the 1960s. Vodka sales were so small in the United States the Internal Revenue Service did not even bother to keep track of them until about 1968. I would also argue that the further decline of the blend can be traced to the industry reacting to the growing vodka sales by removing even more flavor from their products by using more neutral spirits. I remember that right after prohibition, Glenmore used to make Old Thompson Blended whiskey that was "Wed in the Wood". They would blend the whiskey and return it to the barrels for another year of aging before bottling it. About 1970 they quit doing this for Old Thompson in order to "lighten it up" in flavor. You can tell the difference in an Old Thompson from the 50s versus and Old Thompson from the 80s.
Mike Veach
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873
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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Jan 31, 2010 3:45 pm

Good points in turn, Mike.

In the U.K. where Prohibition had no writ, whisky remained the dominant spirit at least until the 1970's. I believe today (although I should check) vodka outsells scotch there, but it took longer surely than in North America. Anyway the analogy is not perfect since scotch blends (even in their allegedly reduced form post-war) were always more flavourful than the American whiskey blends I would argue, more taste, more character.

Irish pot still is a very pungent taste and you might be right that the lighter scotch blends ousted it after Prohibition (Cutty Sark is the exemplar, quite light indeed) due to alteration of tastes in the 1920's under influence of gin, cocktails, Canadian whisky and (some) scotch whisky.

Still, I feel the industry could have done a lot more to explain straight whiskey - I guess it lost confidence when reduced to impotence during Volstead. Whiskey I suppose too had retained its bad boy image (and still does to a degree) and perhaps those stodgy ads showing ancestors in frock coats and leggings (Mount Vernon rye used themes like that) were as far as distillers felt they could go.

Anyway, bourbon and rye are still here - that's good.

Gary
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Re: Mike Veach's Book: Repeal and After

Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Feb 06, 2010 1:14 pm

Gary,
Very good points in turn. I do think you under estimate how much Scotch whisky was sold in the United States during prohibition. I don't recall where, but I remember one source claiming that they actually increased sales in the United States during prohibition compared to the pre-prohibition import figures. I am not sure that I am buying that unless the sales were much less than I think before prohibition, but it does indicate that a lot of illegal scotch was sold during prohibition. I do know that drinkers would purchase Scotch whisky during prohibition because it usually was sold without alteration. The legend of the "Real McCoy" came from the rum runner named McCoy who sold only Scotch whisky of the finest quality.

I agree that the industry could have done more, except that they were still reeling from prohibition. I think the stigma of distilling was still prevelant enough that they simply did not want to call attention to the American distilling industry. That stigma is still with us today and rears it ugly head everytime they want to raise the "Sin" tax on alcohol. I hate that prohibitionist term. There is no more sin in drinking alcohol than there is in eating. The "sin" is in drunkeness just like the "sin" in eating is gluttony. If drinking alcohol is a sin, so is eating, especially fast food. Put an excise tax on Big Macs.

In any case, the industry did not promote its heritage and difference after prohibition and fell into the trap of "lightening up" their flavor.
Mike Veach
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873
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