Old Potrero

Think of single malt whisk(e)y and you think exclusively of barley, right? Wrong. Think of American whiskey, and if your mind travels only as far as Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Kentucky, then think again. Because if your mind had come to rest in Louisville, a not unnatural thing for it to have done, let it travel on further west. Another 2,330 miles, to be exact.

Over the course of this century, San Francisco may have become renowned for its earthquakes. But now shock-waves of a different sort are emanating from there, reaching as far east as New York and joyously rumbling through those four distilling states en route. The city famous for its Golden Gate is today in a liquid Golden State: California now makes whiskey.

It is no ordinary whiskey, either. This is rye. Not the type of rye which law demands must be a minimum 51% of that grain, the remainder made up of what other cereals the distiller fancies to yield the desired flavor and alcohol. No, this is made from 100% rye that has been malted first before being crushed, mashed, and fermented on its journey to the copper pot. It is called Old Potrero and, as a bottled whiskey, is a world one-off in every way, sufficiently removed in character and much bolder and flavor-explosive than the sweeter, more comparatively bourbony Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Old Overholt ryes.

Seeing that this is such a remarkable whiskey and one that genuinely deserves that most overused tag of unique, it does not take much figuring to work out the guy behind it all. Step forward Fritz Maytag, President of the ground-breaking and now legendary Anchor Brewery. Yet, in fact, Fritz – who has never been shy in making his point of view known – is for once disinclined to make much of a public song and dance about his newest creation. Not because he is in any way ashamed of this whiskey. On the contrary: “This really is the best whiskey in the world,” he announces with the pride, delight, and unbridled affection one normally associates with first-time fathers. It’s just that the man who pioneered so much in the way of American brewing, only to see his thunder stolen slightly over the last decade by the mushrooming of microbreweries all over the USA, wants to keep the secrets of his latest masterpiece to himself just a little longer.

Masterpiece is not a word to be trifled with here. It has long been my contention that rye whiskey is the world’s one seriously overlooked spirit and probably the finest and most flavorsome of all generic whisk(e)y types. This first battalion of 1448 bottles to leave Anchor Distillery to fight their corner in totally new markets contains some really top rate stuff.

Whiskey drinkers may be pretty amazed, shocked even, to learn that this whiskey exists. So are many in the bourbon industry. Had a Klingon cloaking device been available, there is little doubt Fritz would have invested in one, such was the stealth with which his distilling activities were conducted. In April of 1995 I was the first outsider to be shown the tiny, almost cramped, copper pot still which acted as womb to the embryonic spirit, and be conducted around the maturing stocks. I managed to get a nose and taste of some precociously luscious six-month-old. But all this on the strict understanding I said nothing until the whiskey was on the market. It was a difficult but fair exchange. It is unlikely that any other LEGAL distillation has been carried out amid such secrecy.

In truth, though, Fritz, by accident or design, has successfully added a perfect piquancy to the mystique of whiskey. Dive into a glass of Old Potrero and your tastebuds and not your reading glasses will have to get things in focus and do some working out for you.

This tantalizing glimpse of some world whiskey-making history coupled with Fritz’s single-minded refusal to fill in the details was both exhilarating and frustrating, yet understandably so. Perhaps with the exception of just what spices do go into his differing “Christmas Ales,” he has been open-handed about all his brewing practices, something that may have eventually worked against him. Consequently, brewing has lost a little of its sheen: “It’s not such a challenge,” he says with a definite hint of sadness in his voice. “The waters have become muddied: it’s grown into a stampede.”

From Kentucky to Canada, from Ireland to the Isle of Skye; distillers will fall over backwards to tell you not only all about the grain they use, but how it is malted, even what field the grain came from. In Fritz’s case, there are no details forthcoming on the rye or where it is malted; fermentation and distillation times remain a blank. He wants to keep any potential stampede over his stillhouse as far into the future as possible.

But Fritz still regards himself a brewer above all else. His interests and knowledge beyond beer, however, are diverse. It was his great grand-father who founded the giant Maytag Appliance Company. He can tell you all you need to know about cheese as his father was responsible for creating one of the country’s most appreciated delicacies, Maytag Blue. He and his family still own and run the farm in Newton, Iowa, where it is made, although he lives in a 125 acre vineyard which sits astride the Napa and Sonoma counties, north of San Francisco. Naturally enough, his York Creek red wines have become much prized and Fritz enjoys the thought of being the only man in the USA to commercially make wine, beer, and whiskey. He even grows his own olive trees on the land and although the oil he produces from them is rarely seen in a store, you will find it liberally sprinkled on his salads.

Now he is a distiller, too.

“I’ve been drinking rye whiskies for 25 years,” he says. “I always wanted to do it better.” And with that wish came a train of thought that led to the distilling of Old Potrero. Just like his beers, he wanted to get back to basics and origins: he wished to recreate a whiskey which the pioneers and frontiersmen of the American continent might instantly recognize: a celebration of America’s great whiskey-making tradition. “I carried out a lot of research and found that the first whiskey in America was almost certainly made from rye. Also, that rye would have been malted. The distillers would have worked from a single copper pot and it would have been quite small. Well, that is what I have done here.”

Fritz has let the 20th century in with the use of stainless steel mashing and fermentation vessels (curiously, his is the nearest whiskey distillery to the pine forests of Oregon, so valued by traditional Scotch malt distillers as the material for their washbacks, where fermentation occurs) and in 1994 his first, experimental distillations took place. “We single-distilled, double-distilled, triple-distilled and more – though not on purpose. Our first efforts were not exactly covered in glory, half the time we didn’t know what we were doing.”

But by December 1994 they evidently did. Because it is the small batch of double-distilled spirit from those runs which today appear in the bottle – as a 13-month old Single Malt Rye Whiskey. Fritz had no hesitation at bottling at that age, at full strength of 124 proof (62% Alc/vol.), and without chill filtration: it was fun, different, similar in age to how some of the finest whiskeys would have been drunk a couple of centuries back. But above all, it was ready. Despite its youth, having been matured in charred virgin oak barrels, it had already picked up color enough to turn it honey-gold.

The making of 100% pure malt rye whiskey was not an entirely lost art in America, although even an 81-year-old distiller I know who once made rye in Maryland cannot remember an all malt version coming onto the market in his lifetime. Some Canadian distillers still do it from time to time. Seagram makes it over at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, to blend into their Seven Crown brand. However, unlike Old Potrero, this is distilled through column stills. As an eight-year-old, the Lawrenceburg flavoring whiskey outscores it in aroma: in fact, with its labyrinthine depths it is probably among the finest three whiskey noses in the world, while the San Francisco whiskey cannot quite totally disguise its immaturity. But on the palate the Old Potrero wins, especially when warmed to hand temperature. Then it hits the palate running, and while the Indiana rye feeds splendidly off the oak Old Potrero spreads itself oilily across the palate with very juicy, ripe fruit and soft spices, all neatly underpinned by a subtly brittle hardness, with licorice and very dark, bitter chocolate to finish. It is stunning and, for its age, truly remarkable.

Now the big problem for connoisseurs is in finding it. Because Fritz knew he could never meet demand if he got it on general sale in America’s liquor stores, yet wanted as many people as possible to get the opportunity to try it, he restricted himself to personally selling it to well-regarded restaurants. The sad news for most of us is that it is only those found in the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Washington DC, and Baltimore, where it will be greatly welcomed.

Another batch distilled in December 1995 will be finding their way into more restaurants by spring 1997. It doesn’t come cheap. Being supplied wholesale at $66.50 a bottle, diners are asked to pay anything between $8.50 and $17 a shot: it is probably worth skipping the meal and savoring a double. In a few years time there may be older versions available and more widespread.

And for the whiskey’s name? Well, Potrero was taken from the hill-top part of San Francisco where the distillery is located, in a walled-off section behind the brewery within an attractive, late Prohibition-era building. The “Old” prefix is an example of Fritz’s notoriously dry humor. “I once learned that by law you can’t give any product a name indicating great age unless you can prove its corresponding antiquity. Except for one word anyone can use: Old. . . .”

All this from a man who desired once to do something so very different: “When I was young I wanted to be a chemist. I later wanted to become an alchemist.”

His wish has been granted.

Just an Old Kentucky Custom

While location, location, and location, are the three factors traditionally used to distinguish among single malt Scotches, such factors just don’t apply when it comes to straight Kentucky bourbons. Though a single malt Scotch is always described by its specific area, down in the Bluegrass State, it just ain’t so. The nine Kentucky distilleries that make bourbon rely on some incredibly fine-tuned, fairly modern equipment working in tandem with some true-blue American whiskey-making traditions that have been passed down for, in some instances, over 200 years, in order to make their whiskey’s different styles sing.

Many spirit aficionados will raise an eyebrow when they realize that bourbon goes through its primary distillation in a continuous still–something that would never happen in a Scottish malt whiskey distillery, where the less-efficient pot still, renowned for producing highly flavored spirits, is the only type of alembic used. However, I have seen such eyebrows swiftly relaxed when Scots learn just how their Kentucky counterparts use their equipment. The exact processes can be rather complicated, but if you bear in mind that American whiskeymakers have been tinkering with continuous stills for well over a century, you come to understand that these guys know their equipment like Keith Richards knows his fretboard–they understand every last nuance of their stills. At the bottom of one such still lies a wrench, left there decades ago by a maintenance man. No one dares touch it lest it changes the whiskey that the still produces.

The factors that differentiate the bourbon from one distillery from the next one are many: The water source is a prime factor, as is the mashbill (the grain recipe that denotes the percentage of each grain) and the differing amounts of setback (sour mash) added. Some distillers use a doubler (a type of pot still) for their secondary distillation while others choose a thumper (a different type of pot still), and various other intricacies are employed by each and every master distiller in Kentucky to make sure that their particular whiskey is distinctive in its own right. One of the most fascinating aspects of bourbon-making, however, occurs in the small white-washed rooms where yeast, the lifeblood of every bourbon, is cultivated. They are known as “dona” rooms, and they are somewhat sacred among the distillers who use them.

Up a few rickety wooden stairs at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky lies a dona room where Earl Beam (Jim Beam’s nephew) used to celebrate “jug yeast day” (the day on which the yeast is cultivated) by cooking a “fry-up” for himself and his helper. He may not have realized how significant his ritual was, but some primordial force drove Earl to reward himself with food on the day that he nurtured his yeast. These days, Earl’s son and grandson, Parker and Craig, still cultivate the yeast in that same room, and although they don’t cook lunch in there, they understand that the space is hallowed ground. When I visited the distillery with my wife last year, we were told in no uncertain terms that not many people are allowed into the dona room.

Six distilleries in Kentucky–Maker’s Mark, Early Times, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Four Roses–have dona rooms; the others prefer to use specific strains of dried yeast. And although the “dried yeast” distilleries produce distinctive whiskeys in their own right, nothing can compare with the romance of the dona room where master distillers perform intricate procedures to keep their yeast strains alive, feeding it with various grains and adding a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that in order that their particular whiskey remains true to its roots.

There’s a ritual of sorts to the procedures carried out in dona rooms that even the distillers themselves don’t fully understand: each one knows exactly how to propagate their yeast in order that their whiskey will be absolutely consistent, and each one knows exactly what the end product should be, but most carry on this process, step by step, week after week, simply because “that’s the way my Daddy used to do it.” Even the word “dona” isn’t fully understood, although Ed Foote, master distiller at United Distillers’ Bernheim plant, suggests that the word could be tied to the Latin root donna, meaning “mother.” It’s certainly the best explanation I have heard since the distillers are, in fact, “mothering” their yeasts–feeding, nurturing, and watching them grow. But what actually happens in these hallowed rooms? And how does what they do affect the whiskey we drink? We’ll start out by looking at how Steve Nally, master distiller at Maker’s Mark, cultivates his particular yeast strain.

According to Bill Samuels, Jr., president of Maker’s Mark, the yeast strain used at Maker’s was saved by his father and kept alive during prohibition to be used again when the Samuels family re-fired their stills in 1933. Every bourbon man knows that his yeast strain must survive at any cost. Nally keeps his “jug yeast” refrigerated, in a covered brass vessel where it lays dormant in a solution of liquid malt, and come jug yeast day he removes a portion of the yeast mixture and starts the process of multiplying the yeast cells.

To accomplish this, Nally must literally “feed” the yeast: First, he heats some liquid malt in his dona tub, a double-walled container that can be heated or cooled by the introduction of steam or hot water to the tub’s “jacket.” While the malt is cooking, he throws some hops in there. That’s right–hops. How this practice began is somewhat of a mystery, but it’s possible that hops were initially used to ward off harmful bacteria. These days, however, they are used to add certain nuances to the whiskey. (For the record, hops are used by Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, and Jim Beam; the alternative, sour yeast mashes, are used by Early Times, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey. Seemingly, if hops are used, the mash shouldn’t be soured.) When the malt has extracted some hop flavors, the yeast is added and the mixture is allowed to stand at room temperature for about 24 hours (actually, the mixture is cooled occasionally since the yeast creates heat as it multiplies and the idea is to maintain a somewhat constant temperature).

Meanwhile, Nally prepares his “day yeast,” quite simply a “porridge” of cooked grains, in this case, malted barley and wheat. (Terms can get rather confusing, some distillers call Nally’s “day yeast” a “yeast mash.”) Most other distilleries use rye as opposed to wheat, but at Maker’s Mark, they prefer the somewhat subtler flavors of wheat to produce their bourbon (the only other “wheated” brands–W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Kentucky Tavern–come from the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville). Next, Nally transfers the yeast, which has doubled in quantity every two to three hours, from the dona tub to the larger vessel that contains his day yeast. He leaves it there for around three hours to give it a chance to multiply one more time in its new environment. After this period, the yeast mixture is ready to use. It is added to the fermenter where a cooked mash of corn, wheat, and malted barley awaits. In three to four days time, the new mixture, the “distiller’s beer,” will be distilled to make the whiskey. There now, that wasn’t too difficult was it? But what about those hops–do they really make a difference to the whiskey?

If you listen to Lincoln Henderson, master distiller at the Early Times distillery in Louisville, the hops do matter–a great deal. Henderson makes Early Times bourbon (available for export only) as well as Old Forester bourbon, and all the whiskeys he makes use a jug yeast cultivated in a dona tub. At one point Henderson experimented with hops in his yeast mash, and he swears that the whiskey it produced was totally different from his regular style. He stopped the hops experiment immediately; consistency of product is vital to the whiskey business. Was adding the hops a bad thing? No, but it just didn’t work for Henderson. The fact is that each distillery is merely producing their particular style of whiskey, and any alteration in their procedures changes that style. Similarly, if a distillery that uses dried yeast switched to a jug yeast, chances are they’d have a whole new whiskey.

At Early Times, Henderson uses a “sour yeast mash” to cultivate his yeast strain, and he does that by adding lactic bacteria to his yeast mash–it’s a similar method to that used by Ova Haney, master distiller at the Four Roses distillery (another bourbon available only in the export market). Jimmy Russell, however, keeper of the stills at the Wild Turkey plant, sours his yeast mash by holding it at a constant temperature for about 22 hours, popping in to stir it every three hours or so. Once again, we see different methods–largely similar but with small differences–yet each produces a distinctive style of bourbon.

On the technical side of these procedures, each distiller works overtime to produce and maintain an environment that is perfect for its particular strain of yeast. The pH levels are key, and by varying their yeast mashes (as well as by the addition of setback), this level can be lowered to the desired point. Yeast enjoys more acidity than is usually produced by merely cooking the grains, although too much acidity is just as harmful to the organism as too little. It’s the “three bears syndrome”–everyone is out to get it “just right.” And they all have their own way of accomplishing their goal for their specific strain of yeast.

While it would be impossible to sift your way through every nuance used in the making of Kentucky bourbon to discover which methods work “best,” it does pay to look at the care that goes into making each one. The best bourbon you ever taste could be from any one of Kentucky’s nine distilleries–it’s totally subjective, a matter of personal preference. Nevertheless, it is interesting to discover who does what at various stages of production, and the “dona” process, to my mind, is one of the more interesting arts of the American whiskey distiller. So, next time you find yourself savoring a drop of red liquor from Kentucky, spare a thought for the traditions of American whiskey–it’s one of the very few spirits that can be traced back to its origins. Bourbon’s heritage, like most American institutions, is one of tradition and progress, and although those two “factions” are locked in a constant struggle for dominance, the result is purely American.

Holy Water of Life

Where the Romans crossed the river Isere, between two sub-ranges of the Alps, is a corner of Europe that was in Italy before the risorgimento and is now in France. Here, the university city of Grenoble grew among the walnut groves and chestnut trees. One of the ranges is called the Chartreuse mountains. Nearly a thousand years ago, a clergyman walked 20 miles into this “wilderness” in search of isolation and tranquillity. He founded a settlement that became the abbey of Chartreuse, and he was later canonized as St. Bruno. I was recently in Grenoble, and went to take a look at Chartreuse.

Even by car today, the winding, climbing, rocky roads took me more than a hour to negotiate. Monastery buildings dating from the foundation in 1084, have been heavily restored as a tourist reception centre. Visitors can see empty cells, with hatches through which meals were passed, and tiny, walled gardens. The monks could scarcely have talked over those garden walls. Higher up the hillside, it is possible to climb a mound, topped by a crucifix, and look down on eight acres of tiled rooftops. It looks like a medieval town, but it is the present-day abbey of Chartreuse.

From this eyrie, the monks today use computers to blend their famous liqueurs at the Chartreuse cellars 20 or 30 miles down the mountain in the small town of Voiron. This was once a silk-making town, but now manufactures skis. From the monks’ cloistered limestone cellars, lined with ceiling-high tuns of Vosges oak, come a range of fruit liqueurs, and the famous herbal liqueur called simply Chartreuse. The key elements of the liqueur are mountain herbs, but its blend of leaves, flowers, twigs, honey and brandy is a secret said to be known to only three monks. In her 1979 Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, Pamela Vandyke Price feels certain that sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is a significant ingredient. When I asked my host, he said: “It could be , but I don’t know”.

The most basic form of Chartreuse is a concentrated elixir with intensely bitter rooty, leafy, rindy, flavours. This was originally something of a cure-all, and is still treated in this way, served on a cube of sugar. The liqueur itself comes in a dry, green, version and a sweeter yellow style. The green is still quite bitter, with, to my palate, piney notes. The latter is cedary and limey, with suggestions of anis and licorice.

The green can be taken very cold as an aperitif or at room temperature as a digestif. The green is good as an after-dinner liqueur, but both are used in a wide variety of cocktails. I have particularly enjoyed a dash of the green in Champagne, again as an aperitif, but also been served it with ice-cream or hot chocolate. There is a long, complicated, story to the development of Chartreuse-the most sophisticated of liqueurs, made by the strictest and most private of monastic orders-yet no one expresses surprise that it exists. Nor are eyebrows raised over a liqueur called Benedictine, said to be based on a monastic recipe. So why are people surprised when other drinks are produced by monks?

Holy men have gone into the wilderness since at least the time of Christ , but monasticism was codified by St. Benedict (480-547), who established his abbey at Monte Cassino, in southern Italy. The rule of St. Benedict said that monks should work to support themselves. In pre- industrial times, they farmed, and in Italy grew wine grapes. In any case, wine was customary at the table, and water in those days not necessarily fit to drink. At a time when the church was the only vehicle for literacy, monasteries were havens of study and knowledge, precursors of universities.

In medieval France, monks owned many vineyards that are today famous, and at the end of that period Dom Perignon was credited (dubiously) with having invented Champagne. Even today, there are well known vineyards owned by monks in Italy, Austria and Germany. Even in chilly Britain, the Benedictines of Buckfast make tonic wine. Had the Benedictines spread the gospel far south, they would soon have soon been in the sea. When they moved north, they often found themselves beyond the sunny grape and in the land of grains. That is why Italy’s northern neighbor Austria still has one brewing monastery and another that has beer contract-brewed. The Swiss abbey of St. Gallen had no fewer than three brewhouses in the 800s. Farther north still, the most famous brewing city in Germany is, after all, called Munich, which means “Monks” (if it were in France, it would be called Des Moines). In Munich itself, the present-day Augustiner, Paulaner and Spaten-Franziskaner breweries all take their names from monastic orders. Just north of Munich, the Weihenstephan brewery, dating from at least 1040, has its origins in a Benedictine abbey. Bavaria still has eight breweries run by either monks or (in two cases) nuns, and countless others with ecclesiastical origins. The Jesuit brewer Benno Scharl, born in 1741, wrote a standard textbook on brewing as recently as 1814. Germany is not the only country with a rich history of monastic brewing.

Benedictines from Southern Italy established the first monastery of Orval, in what is now Belgium, in 1070, though it is today a Trappist abbey. The Trappists are a very closed order, and I believe that may help explain the distinctiveness of their beers. In the period after World War II, the Chimay monastery’s brewer, Father Theodore, carried out highly influential work on the selection of yeast. He is now in retirement, but it is open to question whether we will see his like again.

Throughout Continental Europe, monasteries were closed by Napoleon, and in Britain by Henry VIII. Those that survive today are subsequent revivals, but in the meantime the relationship between church and state has changed and industrial capitalism has been born. England’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame, founded in its present form in 1698, may have earlier origins in monastic brewing at the beginning of this millennium. The university city of Oxford traces its origins to a convent, and monks made beer in at least the 1400s on the site of today’s local brewery, Morrell’s. England’s present brewing capital, Burton, is also believed to have had a brewing monastery at that time. Scotland’s oldest brewery, Belhaven, founded in 1719, may trace earlier origins to monks in 1415.

What about the distillation of grapes and grains? In his book Drink-An Informal Social History, Andrew Barr explores the theory that Gnostic Christians used spirits to perform a literal “Baptism of fire”. The more common theory has distillation being practised for medicinal purposes, and spirit drinks evolving in the course of the current millenium. In the 1200s, Dominican monks made beer from a spring close to the present-day Strathisla malt whisky distillery. Not far away, a present- day priory occupies what is said to have been the first site of the Miltonduff distillery. The first undisputed mention of distillation in Scotland is in the rolls of the national exchequer, in which it is recorded that in 1494 a friar called John Cor, at an abbey in Fife, bought malt to make aqua vitae (water of life). What of Ireland? The Irish missionary monk St. Columba (521-597) mentions beer in his rule. He is also remembered in a stream or “rill” from which water is taken to distill Bushmills whiskey. The distillery claims that it dates from 1608, though Jim Murray’s Irish Whiskey Almanac makes a good case for 1784. All the same, I like the sense of holy water from St. Columb’s Rill.

I was reminded of it when I visited Chartreuse. The wooded lane to the monastery crossed a creek called Ruis de St. Bruno.

The Birth, Life and Sudden Death of American Prohibition

What do you think you know about Prohibition? Maybe you’ve heard something like this.

Prohibition happened 76 years ago. A bunch of backwoods holy-rollers somehow rammed through a Constitutional amendment while all the drinkers were off serving in World War I. Breweries all made illegal beer, moonshiners made corn likker in the hills, and the police looked the other way. People drank more during Prohibition than they did before, and bought all their booze from organized crime. Then the Depression came, and booze was made legal again to stimulate the economy.

That turns out not to be the case. The amount of good information available on this important social struggle is curiously small, and the amount of misinformation is shocking. To begin with, national Prohibition was a massively popular idea. Many states had already enacted prohibition, but wanted a national measure to stem far remove, it is difficult to understand how a bar could be considered a national threat. Wasn’t this the golden age of drinking, a time of oysters, and cheap delicious beer, and cigars, and fine liquor, all served up in a dark, comfortable, wood-paneled saloon? Perhaps it was for the still-small middle class who had time to read the contemplative drinking reveries of H.L. Mencken, but the working-man’s experience was different.

The working man drowned his sorrows in taverns like those described in Sinclaifar remove, it is difficult to understand how a bar could be considered a national threat. Wasn’t this the golden age of drinking, a time of oysters, and cheap delicious beer, and cigars, and fine liquor, all served up in a dark, comfortable, wood-paneled saloon? Perhaps it was for the still-small middle class who had time to read the contemplative drinking reveries of H.L. Mencken, but the working-man’s experience was different.

The working man drowned his sorrows in taverns like those described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: seedy, stinking warrens of adulterated, mislabeled liquor and beer, salty ‘free’ lunches which stoked a raging thirst, rigged games of chance, and ready connections to prostitution. These excesses drained the pockets of the working man to a shocking extent, and were sometimes physically dangerous as well. They were repeated across the nation, from wharfside holes in New York to rough lumberman’s shacks in the Northwest.

The ‘three-tier’ system of separating manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer, developed after Repeal, was a direct attack on the ‘liquor trust.’ This octopus of brewer/distiller and retailer connections made it practically impossible for any saloon owner to run a ‘square house’ even if he wanted to. The taverns were symbiotically entwined with a web of political and police corruption. Calvin Coolidge made his national reputation by busting a Boston police strike which occurred when the saloons were closed during World War I and officers could no longer supplement their low wages with saloon bribes.

It truly was a bad time, by any objective standards. The temperance movement grew from the grassroots as a reaction to these excesses. The temperance movement began as just that, a movement encouraging temperate use of beer and wine. But extremists took over the movement and quickly turned it into ‘bone-dry’ prohibition. The bemused disdain and disorganized resistance of the Wets were no match for the conviction and intensity of the Dry regiments.

The Drys made some apparently convincing arguments. Absenteeism in the workplace, shoddy work, criminal and domestic violence, family problems would all disappear when the demon of alcohol was removed from the picture. Families would be able to save more, and to purchase more of the mass-produced goods now coming off American assembly lines. Farmland devoted to hops, grapes, and barley could be converted to ‘more wholesome’ use for food crops. Industrialists such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller became solid backers of the ASL, captivated by visions of healthy, happy, sober workers.

The concept and reality of prohibition was tightly entwined with money. Money that would be saved by eliminating alcoholism, money that would be lost in alcohol tax revenues, money needed to enforce Prohibition, money donated to and spent by the ASL in their campaigns, and, finally, the money in paychecks which were cashed and spent at saloons. The large sums of money spent on booze-costs, profits, taxes-went underground during Prohibition. All that cash greased the wheels of crime and the palms of corrupt officials. Asked why a man wanted the job of Prohibition enforcement officer (at its low salary), an unusually honest grafter replied “He wants the job to get his [cut], the same as the rest of them in this prohibition racket.”

 

The huge sums of money to be made and subsequent corruption of enforcement officers was but one factor in the failure to enforce Prohibition. America’s extensive land and sea borders made smuggling by boat, car, and airplane almost impossible to stop. The huge amounts of alcohol needed by burgeoning industries and the millions of barrels of ‘real’ beer destined to become near beer made diversion to the black market a near certainty. The simplicity of the brewing and distilling processes made illicit production easy and cheap. Most of all, ordinary citizens proved all too willing to break the law on a daily basis. This ‘criminalization’ of the populace had far-reaching social effects.

“Thirteen years of Prohibition. Americans turned to bootleg and home-brewed beers frequently made with corn which gave these brews a lighter taste and a sweet flavor. . . the only taste an entire generation of beer drinkers knew.” This recent Anheuser-Busch advertising copy puts the finger squarely on another lingering effect of Prohibition: a sea-change in American’s tastes for beer and whiskey. Gresham’s Law applied to booze as well as money: cheap low-quality booze drove out ‘the Real McCoy.’

‘The Real McCoy’ is a reference to a famous rumrunner, Bill McCoy. Noted for his honesty, McCoy dealt fairly and always delivered his liquor uncut and under its true label. This was so outstanding in a time of rampant fraud that ‘the real McCoy’ became synonymous with a fair deal and the genuine article. This also explains some of our lingering preference for imported booze over American: during Prohibition, imports were practically the only ‘real McCoy’ available.

Even when good quality booze did come into the country, it was ‘cut’ with water, industrial alcohol, and various noxious substances (creosote for ‘Scotch’, oil of rye for ‘bourbon’, and juniper oils and glycerine for ‘gin’) to the point where it was merely the figment of a drinker’s memory by the time it got to the bar. Beer was brewed as cheaply as possible, and using as few beer-related ingredients as possible: the less malted barley and hops used, the less likely it was that the ‘brewer’ would be traced and arrested. This is a major source of America’s turn to less-hoppy barley-poor beers, and the turn from American rye and bourbon whiskeys to light blended Scotch, gin, and Canadian ryes. After thirteen years of drinking these lighter-flavored products, Americans had developed a taste for them.

In the end it was not thirst that killed Prohibition, but a disgust with the hypocrisy it represented. Everyone knew that the law was being broken on an hourly basis by everyday people. The corruption it caused was painfully obvious. Far from keeping working-men sober, it was killing them with doctored rotgut. Repeal organizations gathered strength, and when pro-Repeal women’s groups appeared the Dry forces were staggered. The Depression put the final nail in the Dry coffin: Repeal promised both good jobs and tax revenues. It passed even faster than Prohibition.

Looking back, Prohibition was an extreme measure in the struggle to wipe out the saloon. Like all such simplistic laws (laws forbidding keg sales to private citizens come to mind), it merely pushed down a problem which immediately popped up in a different guise: the speakeasy. Post-Repeal liquor laws proved to be more effective, and more easily enforced.

The Drys did win a Pyrrhic victory. Saloon ‘culture’ was doomed by Prohibition’s glamorization of drinking, which brought women into the speakeasies. It was also left behind by the shift towards drinking at home. New York passed a law forbidding the use of the word ‘saloon’ in the name of taverns, but it was pointless. The saloon was as dead as the speakeasy.


References:

The Alcoholic Republic, W.J. Rorabaugh. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Ardent Spirits: The rise and fall of Prohibition, John Kobler. Putnam, 1973.

Deliver us from Evil, Norman H. Clark. W.W. Norton, 1976.

The Dry Decade, Charles Merz. 1931 (Americana Library, 1969)

The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, Herbert Asbury. Doubleday, 1950

Pressure Politics: Story of the Anti-Saloon League, Peter Odegard. 1928 (Octagon, 1966).\

Cult whiskies

They’re out there. If you can find them, that is. You see them on display at specialty whisky shops, but they’re often not for sale; if they are, you’re going to pay dearly for them. Whisky collectors show you pictures of them with pride, as if they were pictures of their firstborn child. They also command exorbitant prices during specialty whisky auctions.

Welcome to the world of cult whiskies.

What is it that makes a whisky so special that enthusiasts will go to extremes to get it—spending countless hours searching, paying unbelievable prices to procure it, traveling across the world to pick it up—and then not even open it for years? As one of the many enthusiasts seeking out these whiskies, I can tell you that they all meet some, if not all, of the following criteria:

The distillery has a stellar reputation. This reputation is earned by producing consistently high quality whiskies for many years, if not decades.

The whisky in question frequently garnishes high ratings and reviews by respected whisky writers and whisky publications.

The whisky is often unique in some way with regards to its production method or flavor profile, and it is usually complex—sometimes challenging—in nature.

Cult whiskies from Ireland

The whisky’s production is limited in quantity. Either the distillery is small, operates intermittently, or the whisky is a special limited release.

Not all whiskies that command a high price at auction are what I would consider cult whiskies. Many collectors purchase whiskies as an investment based solely on the whisky’s rarity, regardless of the quality. Their intention is purely financial, and I’ve met many collectors who don’t even enjoy drinking whisky. So, the difference between a rare whisky and a cult whisky is the ultimate intention of the procurer. An enthusiast purchases a cult whisky with the ultimate intention of actually drinking and enjoying the whisky. Therefore, a cult whisky is usually both rare and exceptional in quality.

For example, for the past several years, United Distillers and Vintners (UDV) has been releasing limited cask-strength whiskies called the Rare Malt Selection. Two of the earlier releases included a 1969 vintage Lowland whisky called Hillside (better known as Glen Esk) and a 1972 vintage Northern Highland whisky called Brora (the original Clynelish distillery). Both are from distilleries no longer in production and stocks are limited. As a result, both meet the criterion of being rare and are highly collectible.

However, it is the Brora that would be considered a cult whisky. Why? To start, the distillery (and the new Clynelish distillery across the street that replaced it) has enjoyed a reputation for producing good, complex, often difficult to find whiskies. Add to that the special nature of this specific bottling. This Brora was very heavily peated to levels similar to the peat smoke-infused Lagavulin from Islay. In the early 1970s, the parent company feared that they wouldn’t be able to produce enough Lagavulin to meet the demand, so they experimented with the possibility of making a Lagavulin-like whisky at Brora. The end result was a fabulous whisky that combined the spicy, coastal character of Brora with the peat smoke of whiskies from Islay. It meets all the criteria for a cult whisky—rare, respected, complex, challenging, and unique. This whisky was released nearly six years ago, and its cult status just continues to increase.

While there have always been cult whiskies to some degree, there seems to be more now than ever. What is it that is propelling this cult whisky craze to new heights? And what could cause this trend to cool off faster than whisky served over ice?

There are several factors driving this demand. Let’s start with a booming global economy. The so-called “wealth effect” of the stock market and a strong job market has some of us feeling a little richer. Because of this, we’re spending more. A lot more, according to recent statistics. So, why not indulge a little with a good bottle of whisky, right? No use being frugal just so our kids can spend all our money after we’re dead. That’s how many people are looking at it, anyway.

Another source of whisky-itis is the amazing benefits of the Internet. For example, I participate in a single malt mailing list consisting of more than 300 whisky fanatics all over the world, and it’s the Internet that brings us all together. Fifteen years ago no such opportunity existed. Now we have news groups, mailing lists, chat rooms, and websites—all fueling the fire of whisky.

A third forum for whisky exchange is whisky auctions. More specifically, it has been the semi-annual whisky auctions conducted by Christie’s, held first in Glasgow and now in London. These auctions have brought the whisky buyers and sellers together, allowing an efficient exchange of cult whiskies and social interaction by their owners. Other whisky auctions are also developing.

A fourth venue is the specialty whisky retail outlets located throughout the world. Many have made it their personal mission to offer the widest array of whiskies—often traveling to distilleries and collectors to get the really rare ones—and offering them at the appropriate price, of course.

Finally, we have to credit the obliging whisky companies. While many cult whiskies are created from unintentional production activities at a given distillery (e.g., low production runs at small distilleries or changing the age statement of a given expression), many of the larger, reputable whisky distilleries have been offering limited releases of exceptional qualities. For example, limited expressions like The Macallan 1874 or Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage boosts the distillery’s cult status.

Cult whiskies fromthe United States

So, what could bring a whisky down from its heavenly perch? There could be an event significant enough that would bring the entire family of cult whiskies back to reality. For example, if the United States or other leading whisky-consuming countries would experience a recession, the demand for higher-end whiskies would certainly wane. Also, if the industry incorrectly projects the demand for higher-end whiskies and overproduces, such excess supply would cause the entire category to become less glamorous.

On an individual distillery basis, a gradual decrease in the overall quality of the whisky, with a corresponding increase in mediocre or poor product reviews would certainly cripple the cult status of that distillery’s whiskies. Also, a quality reduction due to management or ownership change can have a dual effect. In this case, the whiskies before the change will become more coveted, while the whiskies produced after the change will be ostracized. Of course, the opposite could also occur if the change is for the better. Even if there is no real change in the whisky, a management or ownership change could temporarily affect the cult image of a given whisky until the consumer’s anxieties are allayed.

Finally, are cult whiskies worth the price of admission? That depends on a couple factors. The first one—and this is a critical one—is whether the whisky was already a cult whisky when it was initially released. Over the past 20 years, many whiskies were released at very reasonable prices and didn’t become cult whiskies until years later after the prices were marked up by specialty retailers or at auction. The challenge wasn’t the price tag, but rather having access to procure the whisky. Often it is just being at the right place at the right time, like being at the distillery when a special bottling is released.

This leads us to the second factor. How much you can afford to spend? If you are very wealthy, you can buy cult whiskies at today’s going prices. Many people do, and they buy a lot of them. I know people with thousands of whiskies in their collection. Some have built libraries—even museums—for their collections. Others have actually written books about their collection. For the rest of us, we’ll have to pick and choose, and hopefully be in the right place at the right time. Some whiskies might seem relatively expensive when they’re first released, but their value can increase several fold within a few years. Being aware of what’s going on, knowing what new releases are coming on the market, and having a venue where you can procure these whiskies will help increase your odds.

 

While not all-inclusive, below is a list of some of more coveted cult whiskies within the past two decades (In alphabetical order).

Single Malt Scotch

Aberlour 1964 One of the first vintage whiskies sold in the United States and the first of a small, continuing series of Aberlour vintages.
Ardbeg All Ardbeg whiskies have cult status to some degree, given that the whisky has been in limited production during the past 20 years and because the whisky has historically been the smokiest whisky of them all. Enthusiasts are particularly obsessed with vintages from 1974 and earlier (when the whisky was consistently heavily peated), and with the 10 year old distillery bottling from the old Allied Distillers days. New expressions, like the new 10 year old, will ensure its continued cult status (if they can maintain high levels of peating).
The Balvenie “Classic” 12 year old Also known as Founder’s Reserve. It was a richly sherried, honeyed Balvenie sold in a tear shape bottle with a tall neck. It predates the current 10, 12, 15, and 21 year old expressions. Many have said that it is better than any cognac they’ve ever had, regardless of price.
Bowmore Three expressions of Bowmore from the 1960s and bottled by the distillery in the mid 1990s were known as Black Bowmore. The whisky was so heavily sherried and aged for so long that it appears almost black in color. Serious devotees with deep pockets have the entire set. Another cult whisky is Bowmore’s Bicentenary bottling, that was celebrated in 1979. Jim McEwan, who has worked at Bowmore most of his life, told me once that he’s going to be buried with his bottle.
Caol Ila Caol Ila in general is something of a cult distillery. This distillery’s spicy, phenolic whisky is hard to find. However, the 12 year old distillery bottling that predates the current 15 year old distillery expression is particularly cult-worthy. I got mine from a retired distillery worker who gave me a tour of the distillery nearly 10 years ago. A 20 year old 150th Anniversary cask strength whisky bottled in 1996 for the workers is also highly craved.
Glenmorangie Any of the earlier one-time runs from Glenmorangie are cult whiskies. In particular, the 1963 Glenmorangie (their first vintage offering), Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage (the first limited run Rhône wine-finished expression), and the Glenmorangie Sesquicentennial Bottling, celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the distillery (sold in 1993 in a stone bottle).
Lagavulin 12 year old The distillery bottling that predates the current 16 year old. This peat-infused whisky has always had a great reputation, and remaining bottles of the 12 year old are very rare.
Laphroaig Laphroaig is probably the most mainstream of the cult whiskies. Allegations that its peating level has diminished over time (whether true or not) have not helped its cult status of late. Still, the 10 year old (especially back when it was bottled at 45% ABV), some of the recent vintage offerings, and the current Cask Strength version are all worthy of cult status.
Longmorn 25 year old Longmorn is not a common name like its Speyside brother Glenlivet, but it is highly respected among enthusiasts. The 25 year old was a very limited distillery bottling with a gold label to celebrate the distillery’s Centenary in 1994.
Longrow Any Longrow is worthy of cult status due to its high quality and very low production levels. This peated version of Springbank combines the best of Islay and Campbeltown. Most cult-worthy are the distillery bottled vintages from its first two years, 1973 and 1974. The “last cask” bottling of the ’73 vintage and a Cask Strength Cadenhead’s bottling of the 1974 are probably the most coveted.
The Macallan Any limited production of The Macallan is highly sought after. Collectors trade older vintage 18 year old and 25 year old Macallans like baseball cards. The 18 year old is becoming more cult-like, now that supplies are limited. Of recent releases, The Macallan 1874 bottling qualifies for cult status, as does the Private Eye bottling. If you have a bulging wallet, the smoky 1946 vintage or the just released 50 year old will certainly make the guys down at the country club very jealous.
The Manager’s Dram The Manager’s Dram bottlings never were meant for retail. They were selected by the United Distillers’ Distillery Managers every year, bottled at cask strength, and offered to employees and special friends. Bottles surface at auctions every year, and collectors and enthusiasts quickly snap them up. Bottlings from cult distilleries (such as Caol Ila) are even more highly coveted.
Springbank Springbank has always been a cult whisky. Its limited production and high quality has ensured this. Because of production gaps over the years, specific ages become rare for several years and enhance the cult image. For example, Springbank 15 year old has disappeared from sight and will be unavailable for several years. When the 15 year old comes back, the Springbank 21 year old will no longer be available. I’ve already got my stash of 15s and 21s. How about you?
  Other cult Springbanks include the two simultaneous releases of “Green Springbank,” which was cask strength Springbank aged in two different rum casks. The first “Local Barley” release, where most of the ingredients and production processes came from the vicinity of the distillery, is also a cult whisky. Incidentally, that one was quite sherried, while the more recent Local Barley releases are from bourbon casks.

 

Irish Whiskey

Green Spot Distilled at the Midleton Distillery, but the label is owned by wine merchant Mitchell & Sons of Dublin. It is a pure pot still Irish that’s hard to find except at their shop on Kildare St. in Dublin.
Redbreast 12 year old Another pure pot still whiskey from Midleton, with very limited availability throughout Europe.

 

American Whiskey

Hirsch Bourbon distilled at the now silent Michter’s Distillery in Pennsylvania. Stocks are finite and consist primarily of 16 and 20 year old expressions distilled from 1974.
Maker’s Mark While the distillery enjoys general cult status, there are two cult whiskeys on enthusiasts’ minds. Neither of them was sold directly to the American public (duty-free export only). The first is Maker’s Mark Select, a more robust version of Maker’s Mark that brandished a black wax top. The second one, Maker’s Mark Gold was essentially the same whiskey as the flagship red wax top bottling, except it was bottled at 101 proof, not 90.
Old Potrero Extremely limited productions (called essays) of young, cask-strength whiskey from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing and Distilling Co. The first essay was only sold to a handful of restaurants, and is very cult.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old Rye whiskey is the American equivalent of the peat-infused Islay whiskies of Scotland. They are inherently cult-attractive, because of their extreme nature. For the past few years, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old has been the oldest straight rye on the market—and the best.

 

Possible Future Cult Whiskies

Aberlour A’bunadh A new cask strength, unfiltered Aberlour aged in sherry casks. If production remains limited, it could become a cult whisky.
Ardbeg 10 Year Old This new peat smoke monster picks up where the old Allied Distillers 10 year old left off. The fact that it is not chill filtered and is bottled at 46% just enhances its complex, rich, Islay flavors. It has the potential to knock the 10 year old Laphroaig off its throne as one of the more readily available (and affordable) cult whiskies.
The Balvenie 1966 Vintage This is Balvenie’s best kept secret. They are single cask bottlings of Balvenie at least 30 years old. The depth of flavor is astonishing. More recent bottlings have been from 1967. With supplies being low and quality being extremely high, it could become a cult whisky as long as the price doesn’t escalate.
Black Bottle This is a blended scotch whose single malts only come from the island of Islay. It has enormous flavors for a blend and, as you would hope, is infused with peat smoke, seaweed, and brine. I can think of no other blended scotch quite like this one. If supplies remain elusive (it is not even available in the United States), it could evolved into a cult whisky.
Bushmills Millennium The oldest Bushmills ever bottled and only available to those who bought an entire cask. It was a one-time bottling, and the quality of the whiskey is excellent.
Jameson Pure Pot Still 15 year old Like Redbreast and Green Spot mentioned earlier, the only pure pot still Irish whiskies being produced today. It is also a limited release item, which should make it increasingly harder to find.
Sazerac Rye 18 year old By the time you read this article, a new Sazerac 18 year old Rye will be out on the market that I expect to approach cult status very quickly, for all the same reasons as the Van Winkle Rye above.