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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sipp’n Corn Review – Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Battle Royal

Over the past few years, American Straight Rye Whiskey has begun to experience a renaissance much like the early years of the Bourbon craze.  And like the Bourbon market, distillers and other producers are clamoring to repackage earlier, lower-shelf brands as premium, super-premium, and limited edition offerings.  Jim Beam “yellow label” Rye was a cheap option that was phased out in favor of a new green label option, reimaged to include the slick marketing claim that it is crafted from a “pre-Prohibition recipe.”  And Beam did not stop there; it also released a super-premium Booker’s Rye limited edition with a suggested retail price of $299.00, which was named 2016 “Whiskey of the Year” by many.  That all sounds eerily similar to what happened with Bourbon …

For this review, I wanted to take a large cross-section of Rye Whiskey from usually-available to scarce (but attainable), and from young to old.  Every one of my selections was bought at retail prices without going to the secondary market or waiting in line for a chance to purchase.  Even without lotteries and lines, I was able to get a Booker’s Rye and a Willett 25, so keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to camp outside of a store.  It might have been nice to include the strictly-allocated brands that flippers clamor to get, but then this comparison wouldn’t be realistic for the vast majority of consumers.

I decided to go with all American Straight Rye Whiskies so that I was comparing apples to apples, and so that I could be assured that there were no coloring or flavoring additives.  I also avoided anything finished in other barrels; this is pure Straight Rye Whiskey.  To further narrow the field, I went with Kentucky Straight Rye (sorry MGP), even if it is not labeled as Kentucky (like Pikesville).  This knocked out most merchant bottlers, including – admittedly – some that might have challenged for high rankings.

This undertaking was big enough that I knew I needed help, so I assembled a panel of friends with trusted palates for a blind comparison.  I arranged the samples by proof, but did not tell the group anything about the order.  They only knew that they were trying Straight Rye Whiskey.  My own initial tasting and scoring was also blind, but I re-tasted non-blind after compiling and averaging all of the rankings. 

Here are the contestants, ordered by proof:

A.     
Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Small Batch
Distillery:  Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age:  6 years
Proof:  90 proof
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $45.00

B.      
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Distilled at Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky and bottled at Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  90.4 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $40.00

C.      
Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  100 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $35.00

D.     
Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Heaven Hill New Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky and aged in Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  100 proof
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $30.00

E.      
Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Undisclosed (but maybe Old Bernheim)
Age:  25 years
Proof:  100 proof
Barrel No. 1773
Bottle 73 / 84
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $350.00 (more recent releases cost $750)

F.       
Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel (Liquor Barn)
Distillery:  Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  104 proof
Barrel No. 16
Warehouse E, 2nd floor
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $69.00

G.     
Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel (Bourbon Crusaders) (via Joyal’s)
Distillery:  Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  104 proof
Barrel No. 35
Warehouse E, 2nd floor
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $65.00

H.     
Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Heaven Hill New Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky and aged in Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  6 years
Proof:  110 proof
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $50.00

I.        
Willett Family Estate Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Willett Distillery, Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  2 years
Proof:  111.8 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $35.00

J.        
Booker’s Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Distillery:  Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky
Age:  13 years
Proof:  136.2 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown (but not standard Beam)
Cost:  $320.00

And the Winner is…

In this comparison of ten Kentucky Straight Rye whiskies from across the age spectrum, from two years old to aged as long as you’ll ever see, and from affordable to market-leading expensive, I wondered whether the two heavyweights could withstand the challenge.  They mostly did, but what I really learned was that after the top three and bottom two were established pretty conclusively (but my no means unanimously), personal preference was the key.  Between those bookends, the panelists had some dramatically-different reactions to the same whiskey, although it’s also true that the averages were fairly delineated from top to bottom.

In other words, drink what you like and what makes you happy, and just use ratings, rankings, and reviews as a guide, except maybe for the extremes. With that said, the oldest, rarest Rye won in an absolute landslide:

Rye Battle Royal Results:

1.      Willett Family Estate 25-year Rye
Boom – this Willett was ranked 1st by five out of the seven panelists.  Believe the hype about these extra-aged Ryes that have been trickling out from Willett.  The color – a dark mahogany – ranks as dark as I’ve experienced.  Intense aromas of brown sugar, dark fruits, tobacco, and heavy oak previewed a thick, syrupy mouthfeel with rich, layered flavors.  Those who don’t like oak might want to move on (although it’s not as oaky some other extra-aged whiskies), but it also nails dark fruit (plums, cherries), dark chocolate, pralines, brown sugar, and rich caramel for a true desert quality.  The finish has a remarkably long swell.  Enjoy a whiskey like this neat, over a long, relaxing time.

2.      Pikesville
Even though the oddsmakers had Pikesville coming in third, this is a major upset for it to come in second, barely nudging out Booker’s Rye by only 0.14 points.  It’s basically a tie (and using the median would have reversed the order), but I had to go with the mathematical winner.  Pikesville barely qualifies as Rye Whiskey with 51% rye grain and 39% corn, which in many ways makes it similar to a high-rye Bourbon.  In part because of the corn percentage, it’s sweeter than I often think of for Ryes, but it’s extremely well balanced with rye spice, black pepper, and mint, so it’s not just a “sweet Rye.”  It’s simply a fantastic whiskey, beginning with well-rounded nose and continuing with a great mouthfeel and solid warming finish.  If you’re looking to spend $50 on a Rye, Pikesville makes your decision easy.  Pikesville was scored consistently high by the panel, never dropping below 4th by anyone, but not garnering any first-place votes, either.

3.      Booker’s Rye
2016 Whiskey of the Year?  That’s something that I contemplated when I reviewed it last summer, and it has since received this accolade from the big-time reviewers.  We certainly can’t dispute those who think so, but it fell to an average of 3rd place here by the thinnest of margins, with one 1st-place vote, and one much lower ranking by a panelist who thought it smelled like “cinnamon flavored paint thinner” and was too hot and tannic.  Still, there’s no denying that Booker’s Rye is a legitimate Whiskey of the Year.  Comments remarked on its “dark and sultry nose,” and it absolutely bursts with layers of spice.  Plus it also has outstanding balance and a fantastic finish (one panelist wrote the finish spread like “ripples on a calm lake”).

4.      Russell’s Reserve Rye – Single Barrel (Liquor Barn)
The profiles of some Russell’s Reserve Bourbon private barrels have varied greatly, so I wanted to see whether the Rye would be more consistent, and I wanted to compare two of the best sources of private barrel selections.  It turns out that they share some similarities, but this one was much sweeter, with butterscotch, buttered popcorn, and vanilla playing the primary role with nuttiness and spice in the backbone.  The Liquor Barn barrel also has a much more prominent Big Red cinnamon flavor.  While receiving rankings mostly straight down the middle, this Russell’s Reserve received one 2nd-place vote and one 10th-place vote, both probably due to the sweetness.

5.      Russell’s Reserve Rye – Single Barrel (Bourbon Crusaders)
This is a great Rye, so 5th place surprised me more than any other result, and it’s much lower than my personal scoring.  This is a classic Rye where it’s spicy without screaming heat, and sweet without sugary candy.  Starting with aromas of oak and black pepper, the taste continues with oak, pepper, and baking spices balanced by cherry, crème brûlée, and crisp fruit with cocoa that hits at the tail end right before the beginning of the medium finish. 

6.      Knob Creek Rye
Already the volume King of Bourbon, Jim Beam is making a run at Rye King with its Booker’s Rye, and a very respectable Knob Creek Rye.  Leather, woody and spice balanced by nougat, with noticeably high ABV, were common comments.  Knob Creek Rye has a medium finish that holds onto the rye spice and pepper throughout.  Claiming the second-lowest price of the contestants, Knob Creek Rye certainly takes the title of price performer.

7.      Woodford Reserve Rye
Woodford Reserve’s core brands of Distiller’s Select and Double Oaked Bourbon enjoy great popularity for good reason (and I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a barrel-strength offering from Woodford), but the Rye hasn’t caught on yet.  After a nice nose, most panelists thought that the taste was thin and weak.  One panelist noted an acetone finish with “cinnamon that coats your nasal passages.”  One of the best comments that I’ve ever read (good or bad) about whiskey described the “funky” finish in these terms:  it “tosses you about like a wagon ride over a cobblestone street, with each wheel shaped differently.”  Woodford Reserve Rye was ranked 10th by a couple of panelists, but other higher rankings nudged it up to 7th place.  In some respects, this was a polarizing Rye.

8.      Russell’s Reserve Rye – Small Batch
Wild Turkey nails a sweet Rye with its six-year Small Batch.  The proof seemed a little low for this Rye, and I can’t help but wonder what this would be like at the 101 that Wild Turkey has made famous.  Light bananas, macadamia, and well-rounded candy notes made for a delicious – albeit sweet – Rye.  A less-than-subtle nose and the lack of a rye-grain kick makes this less of what we expected in a Rye Whiskey, but it was enjoyable in its own right.

9.      Willett Family Estate 2-year Rye
Great things are happening at Willett, and I can’t wait for its earliest batches of Rye and Bourbon to mature.  This one might be the best two-year Rye that I’ve had, but when compared to Rye with age, many panelists thought that it could have used more time in the barrel.  A couple of panelists loved it though.  The “love it” or “hate it” impression was shown by the widest spread of votes in two distinct camps (2nd and 3rd place, versus 9’s and 10’s, with nothing in between).  Comments for this polarizing Rye ranged from “crisp and lively” and “lovely golden raisin,” to “fish oil pills” and “vile stuff.”  Personal preference for young whiskey – or an aversion to it – probably explains these two extreme camps.

10.  Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye
It’s a shame that Rittenhouse BIB fell to 10th place because it did not receive a single 10th-place vote; consistent 8’s and 9’s spelled doom.  Rittenhouse was mistaken as a young craft Rye with muddled flavors and an orange marmalade quality, and there’s some green wood, but there’s also dark fruit, cinnamon, and the expected rye spice.  While by no means a show-stopper, Rittenhouse BIB hits the Rye Whiskey criteria, and as the lowest-priced Rye out of the ten, it is often considered a great value.  I think this would fare well in a $30-and-under Battle Royal, but it fell flat with this group.

If your favorite Rye isn’t on this list, spend some time in 2017 comparing it with Pikesville, a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, or Knob Creek, or any of the other readily-available Ryes, and you might be surprised.  As Rye continues to expand, you’re bound to have plenty of choices.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sipp’n Corn Review – Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey (Bourbon Crusaders Private Single Barrel)

I’m veering away from Bourbon again for something out of the ordinary – a Charbay whiskey distilled from multiple craft beers.  Because inclusion of hops in the beer make this whiskey more than “an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain,” 27 C.F.R. § 5.22(b), federal law requires it to be labeled as “hop flavored whiskey.”  That might be a little confusing or misleading though, because there are no flavoring additives in this Charbay.  All of the flavors come from the distillate and aging.

This particular Charbay has numerous components, ranging from Hop Rod Rye Beer, Red Rocket, Racer 5 IPA, and Big Bear Black Stout, all distilled in 2009, to more Big Bear Black Stout and Two-Row Malt Whiskey distilled in 2011, all blended and aged in a Missouri White Oak barrel with #3 char.  Bottled at a whopping 73.5% ABV (barrel proof), it was not chill-filtered and again, it has no added flavoring or coloring.

Whiskey:
Charbay Bourbon Crusaders Hop Flavored Whiskey

Age:
NAS, and varies

ABV:
Cask Strength 73.5% (147 proof)

Cost:
Good luck

Tasting Notes
Appearance:
A pleasant amber, with absolutely no relevance or way of warning you about the forthcoming experience. 

Nose:
Don’t inhale too vigorously; the high proof is evident.  After some air and adjustment to the high proof, oak comes through, but mostly fragrant hops, grapefruit, and black licorice.

Taste:
Hops!  While still noticeably hot, I’ve had other whiskies that taste like they’re higher proof, and this Charbay is drinkable neat.  There are more flavors going on here than any whiskey that I can recall, from the dominant grapefruit and other citrus like orange zest, to sweetness of tootsie rolls and almond snickers, to roundness of cola and rich coffee, all layered over a base of hops and herbal flavors.  What a wild ride!

Finish:
The finish is the least hot part of the experience, but it’s long with a balance of citrus and oak.

Bottom Line

“Unique” is too obvious.  “Complex” doesn’t do it justice.  “Exotic” is an understatement.  The best that I can offer is an analogy.  If I were to classify most of the whiskey that I drink as a type of vehicle, many would be new, powerful pickup trucks, and some would be elegant sedans, but there haven’t been many sports cars (maybe a muscle car or two, though).  In contrast, this Charbay isn’t just a sports car; it’s a Ferrari doing hairpin turns through the mountains.  This is a glorious ride that you need to experience for yourself, however you’re able to find a bottle or a sample.  Personally, there’s no doubt that I’m sticking to my Bourbon for the long-term, but the ride was worth it.

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Yellowstone 2016 Limited Edition

Steve and Paul Beam at Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky (which partners with Luxco), have spent the last 18 months or so reviving their family history with the Yellowstone brand.  After releasing a 105 proof Limited Edition last year, they followed up this Fall with a 101 proof blend of 7-year and 12-year Kentucky Straight Bourbon (both with rye as the secondary grain), and finished in wine barrels with varying levels of toast (i.e., not charred).

Bourbon:
Yellowstone 2016 Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Toasted Wine Barrels

Distillery:
Unknown

Age:
Seven-year age statement, but blended with 12-year

ABV:
50.5% ABV (101 proof)

Cost:
$100.00

Tasting Notes

Appearance:
Not really dark, but a nice heavy amber.

Nose:
Vanilla, sweet tea, brown sugar, and light fruits, with some oak in the background.

Taste:
The flavors shift immediately to rye, black pepper, oak, and strong tea, with sweetness playing the chorus role with cherry cola, cocoa, and vanilla.  There are also some nuanced flavors that come and go, so this is best sipped slowly to enjoy those flavors and the creaminess.

Finish:
I apologize for burying the lead; the finish drives the 2016 Yellowstone Limited Edition.  While rye spice dominates, there’s more sweetness (finally some caramel, but a rich, non-candied caramel) to balance it out as the warmth builds and spreads, but not aggressively. 

Bottom Line

This is a great follow-up to the Yellowstone 2015 Limited Edition by being different than its predecessor.  The 2016 Limited Edition is more nuanced and probably more approachable.  It provides rye spice galore, balanced with oak and sweetness, albeit not equally in the aromas and flavors. 

Thanks to a friend, I compared the 2016 Limited Edition with a sample of Old Ezra 101 7-year Bourbon, which is also a Luxco-sourced brand, but costs just under $20.00 in most markets.  The Old Ezra was pleasant with most of the expected aromas and flavors, and it’s tempting to get into my rotation for that price point.  It was an interesting comparison, but night-and-day different due to blend with older Bourbon and the wine barrel finish.


Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  4.0

The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Swill.  I might dump the bottle, but will probably save it for my guests who mix with Coke.
2 – Hits the minimum criteria, but given a choice, I’d rather have something else.
3 – Solid Bourbon with only minor shortcomings.  Glad to own and enjoy.
4 – Excellent Bourbon.  Need to be hyper-critical to find flaws.  I’m lucky to have this.
5 – Bourbon perfection.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – David Nicholson Reserve

I had never really heard much about the David Nicholson brand before, other than having the dim recollection of it being sourced from Stitzel-Weller back in the day.  I received a bottle for review back in August as part of a brand refresh over the summer, and while intrigued, I hadn’t posted in a couple of months and had a backup of reviews to do, so I had to wait.  Then this fall, I had the 10-year, 100 proof brand extension of Rebel Yell, and my interest in Luxco wheated Bourbon shot through the roof.  I had to see if the updated David Nicholson was as impressive.

When I checked my bottle though, I had received “David Nicholson Reserve,” which uses rye as the secondary grain, instead of “David Nicholson 1843,” which is the wheated version that I had in mind.  But like the new Rebel Yell, it is bottled at 100 proof, and it is “extra aged.”  You can expect to pay $5 – $10 more for Reserve compared to 1843.

Bourbon:
David Nicholson Reserve
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Distillery:
Undisclosed (possibly Heaven Hill)

Age:
NAS

ABV:
50% (100 proof)

Suggested Retail:

$34.99-39.99  

Disclaimer: The brand managers kindly sent me a sample
for this review, without any strings attached. 
Thank you.

Tasting Notes

Appearance:
Brown side of amber with nice legs.

Nose:
The aromas are pleasant with leather and char, balanced with a little black pepper, but more sweetness like cinnamon apples and brown sugar, in addition to the standard caramel and vanilla.

Taste:
There is much more age in the backbone of this Bourbon than I expected.  After brown sugar sweetness and creamy nuttiness, oak, rye grain, pepper, and earthy flavors take hold.  Mellowing with a splash of water gives way to more sweetness, especially toffee and cocoa.

Finish:
Oak and spice carry the medium-length finish too.  Although it leans toward being an overall dry finish, dark berries and toffee balance out the oak and earthiness very nicely.

Bottom Line

This is a solid Bourbon.  With the age shown in David Nicholson Reserve and Rebel Yell 10-year, it’s nice to see that Luxco had the foresight to be able to increase ages in the midst of the current Bourbon craze.  Options in this price range are getting a little crowded, but David Nicholson Reserve should be able to push its way in with this kind of quality.

Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  3.5

The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Swill.  I might dump the bottle, but will probably save it for my guests who mix with Coke.
2 – Hits the minimum criteria, but given a choice, I’d rather have something else.
3 – Solid Bourbon with only minor shortcomings.  Glad to own and enjoy.
4 – Excellent Bourbon.  Need to be hyper-critical to find flaws.  I’m lucky to have this.
5 – Bourbon perfection.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10-year


Wait, wrong image…  Still, in remembrance of the November 10, 1983 release of the Rebel Yell album, it’s high time to review the newest member of the Rebel Yell Bourbon family.

I haven’t been a particular fan of Rebel Yell in the value Bourbon segment.  Years ago I had a small pour of old Stitzel-Weller / Ed Foote Rebel Yell, and that was excellent.  But I haven’t been impressed lately, even with the upgraded Rebel Reserve.  Being the eternal Bourbon optimist, however, I was intrigued by a new release this fall by Luxco of an age-stated 100 proof Rebel Yell.

Bourbon:
Rebel Yell Single Barrel
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Distillery:
Undisclosed (possibly Heaven Hill)

Age:
10 years

ABV:
50% (100 proof)

Cost:
$49.99

Tasting Notes

Appearance:
Deep amber.

Nose:
I really liked the nose.  It goes far beyond the one-dimensional noses of many wheated Bourbons, with more honey and somehow a creamy sensation reminiscent of fresh pancake batter and butter (in addition to the standard caramel and vanilla).  It also has prominent oak and leather, and a tell-tale dark cherry aroma found in some of the classic wheated Bourbons.

Taste:
The ten years of aging appears to have done wonders for Rebel Yell.  It picked up the right amount of brown sugar along with the forecasted dark cherries, caramel, and vanilla, followed by oak, cinnamon, and more leather/tobacco.  Like the nose, it was such a relief to not find one-dimensional flavors.  There’s a lot going on here.

Finish:
The finish was impressive too.  The age is more pronounced here with more oak, char, and leather, and it is more savory than sweet.

Bottom Line

I knew from the first sip that this was going to be a great Bourbon, and now I’m ready to declare Rebel Yell Single Barrel the best new brand of 2016 (non-limited edition special release).  I just hope that Luxco has the stock to keep up so that this doesn’t turn into a limited edition. 

Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  4.0

The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Swill.  I might dump the bottle, but will probably save it for my guests who mix with Coke.
2 – Hits the minimum criteria, but given a choice, I’d rather have something else.
3 – Solid Bourbon with only minor shortcomings.  Glad to own and enjoy.
4 – Excellent Bourbon.  Need to be hyper-critical to find flaws.  I’m lucky to have this.
5 – Bourbon perfection.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Four Roses 2016 Limited Edition Small Batch

Whereas OBSV and OESK at Four Roses are often used in blends (and often sought-after in private barrels), the OESO recipe is not typically seen in Limited Edition Small Batches.  However, it’s always part of the standard Small Batch, showing that it is a trusted component of finding a great profile.  The 2016 Limited Edition Small Batch is also Brent Elliott’s inaugural release of this storied line as Master Distiller, so there has been and will continue to be a focus on how this batch of 9258 bottles compares to previous Limited Editions.

Bourbon:
Four Roses 2016 Small Batch Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Distillery:
Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Age:
OESO 12 years; OBSV 12 years; OESK 16 years

ABV:
55.6% (111.2 proof)

Cost:
$124.99

Disclaimer: The brand managers kindly sent me a sample
for this review, without any strings attached. 
Thank you.
But I also bought my own bottle from the Four Roses Gift Shop.


Tasting Notes
Appearance:
Standard amber; nothing unexpected.

Nose:
The aromas are predominantly floral and fruity, and in particular light fruits like honey crisp apples and white peaches, with an indication of oak to follow.  Overall it is light and subtle.

Taste:
There’s more light fruit on the palate too, but it combines with a rush of candy sweetness and vanilla cream, along with an interesting balancing act of tart citrus.  Heat on the tongue dissipates as the flavors shift to black pepper, rye spice, and some clove, while maintaining the sweet foundation.

Finish:
Staying true to the aromas and flavors, the finish is sweet too, with great length, and a nice transition to oak and mint for welcome dryness and spice at the very end.

Bottom Line

Master Distiller Brent Elliott has another solid hit at about his one-year anniversary.  As we all know, the Four Roses Limited Editions have set the bar extremely high and not many Bourbons can compare to the recent legendary streak from Four Roses (more than just the back-to-back Limited Editions in 2012 and 2013), but this means that expectations each year are for consensus whiskey of the year.  The 2016 Limited Edition Small Batch probably won’t get those accolades, but it’s a solid pour worthy of its heritage.

Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  3.5

The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Swill.  I might dump the bottle, but will probably save it for my guests who mix with Coke.
2 – Hits the minimum criteria, but given a choice, I’d rather have something else.
3 – Solid Bourbon with only minor shortcomings.  Glad to own and enjoy.
4 – Excellent Bourbon.  Need to be hyper-critical to find flaws.  I’m lucky to have this.
5 – Bourbon perfection.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Working in a Distillery at the Turn of the Century; Unsafe at any Proof.

I’ve written previously about how Bourbon gave the United States its first consumer protection law with the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, and how the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was influenced by the conflict between “straight” and “rectified” whiskey, but Bourbon lawsuits also give a glimpse of distillery working conditions at the turn of the century, which helped shape future workplace safety laws.

This year marked the 45th anniversary of when the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, better known by the acronym for its administrative agency, “OSHA,” went into effect.  The Act was passed to prevent workers from being killed or seriously harmed at work, and OSHA sets and enforces protective workplace safety and health standards.

By the mid-19th Century, distilleries were becoming mechanized, and like other factories of the time, they could be dangerous.  Industrialization in the United States has a record of pushing for higher productivity, often at the expense of worker safety.  Accidents typically did not deter owners because lawsuits could be defended easily; owners could defend claims by arguing that the worker was at fault, that a fellow employee was the cause (instead of the employer), or that an employee should have known better. 

While mines, railroads, and textile factories rightfully take their place in history as some of the most dangerous places to work, whiskey was not necessarily produced at the bucolic distilleries projected today by many brands and marketers.  Distilleries and warehouses were dangerous places, with plenty of opportunities to fall to your death down warehouse shafts, to be crushed by milling equipment, or to be burned in explosions or scalded by boiling hot liquid. 

Making matters even more dangerous, the distilleries were factories, but they combined the risks of emerging industrial farms and milling operations with the mechanization of “modern” industry.  There were plenty of ways to die in these old distilleries.

Lawsuits from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s paint a vivid picture of distillery working conditions as they describe the inner-workings of distilleries and warehouses, and then how gruesome accidents occurred.  In Trumbo’s Adm’x v. W. A. Gaines & Co., 33 Ky. L. Rptr. 415 (1908), for example, a worker stepped through an uncovered hole in a dark warehouse elevator platform at the Old Crow Distillery, where his leg was caught in a 35-inch fly wheel and “ground in pieces.”  The court described in detail the elevator shaft and machinery, how the accident happened, and how “after his injury Trumbo was given large quantities of whisky to drink in order to enable him to endure the pain he was suffering until medical assistance was obtained.”  The worker soon died from his injuries, but his estate recovered nothing in court.

The Old Crow Distillery’s “dry house” was also described in detail because of another injury case, W. A. Gaines & Co. v. Johnson, 32 Ky. L. Rptr. 58 (1907).  The court described the 60-foot long shafting system with pulleys, sprocket wheels, run belts, and chains, and how Johnson was caught up in a 12-inch sprocket wheel that was spinning at 100 revolutions per minute, and permanently injured.  Although the worker won at trial, the Court of Appeals reversed, telling the trial court to revisit the possibility Johnson was negligent himself.
  
Poorly-lit working conditions seem to be a recurrent factor in these early cases.  The Pogue Distillery was one of the most popular and prolific distilleries of the time, and it needed to run an overnight shift to keep up with demand.  The worker in Dryden v. H. E. Pogue Distillery Co., 26 Ky. L. Rptr. 528 (1904) was assigned to the milling room, where “he was put to work by Will Mays [the miller] in raking the meal from what he calls the ‘shaker’ into rollers, by which it was ground, and which were about five inches below the shaker.”  The problem was that it was 3:30 a.m. and there were no lights, and Dryden was unfamiliar with this particular job or the danger of the rollers.  As might be expected, Dryden’s hand was caught and crushed by a grain roller, requiring amputation. 

Crushing injuries were just one of many ways to be maimed and scarred working at a distillery.  The J. & J. M. Saffell Distillery operated just south of Frankfort on the Kentucky River.  When the distillery superintendent asked a 13 year-old boy, who had come to the distillery with friends to pick up loads of slop, to help wash out a vat filled with scalding hot slop, catastrophe could have been expected.  He asked the boy to climb to the top of the vat to help guide a hose, and he fell in, suffering third-degree burns to his waist, and “rendering him a cripple for life.”  The boy’s story is told in a trio of cases, Wells v. Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co., 144 Ky. 438 (1911), Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co. v. Wells, 149 Ky. 275 (1912), and Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co. v. Wells, 149 Ky. 287 (1912), including a detailed description of the slop tubs and distillery’s slop procedures.

A worker at the Nelson Distillery Company, who was normally assigned to the meal room, was assigned to the mash room on his fateful day.  The court in Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co. v. Schreiber, 24 Ky. L. Rptr. 2236 (1903) described the size of the mash room and the mash tub, and the precise location and operation of the pipes leading into the mash tub.  Specifically, the cold water pipe was turned on by reaching over the mash tub, but the scalding hot water was turned on out of sight in an adjoining room.  Schreiber was instructed to open the cold water valve, but as he leaned in to do so, another employee opened the hot water valve, which soaked Schriber’s head, neck, body, and arms, causing severe burns.

Explosions were common too (and, sadly, they haven’t been eliminated today).  In Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co. v. Johnson, 193 Ky. 669 (1922), the distillery was operating its bottling line overnight.  The foreman called an employee back in after the end of the work-day, at 8:00 p.m., to dump 10 barrels of Bourbon if the holding tank was empty, so that “the girls” on the bottling line would have work for the night.  Noting that federal regulations prohibited the distillery from blending Bourbon from different seasons (meaning that the whiskey was Bottled in Bond), the court explained that the foreman instructed Johnson to look into the holding tank to ensure that it was empty.

The holding tank was a covered with a lid, and the foreman knew that alcohol vapors would collect in the tank, and could be ignited by a flame.  Johnson, however, had never checked the tank before, and did not know about the dangers of using an open flame near the tank.  Still, the foreman told Johnson to use his own lantern – which was “an ordinary railroad lantern” with an open flame – when checking the tank.  Johnson testified that when he opened the lid and leaned in with his lantern, “It just caught me afire.  When the lantern exploded it just flashed out, popped about like a cannon.  … I was burned on my face and head; burned my hair all off; and both hands burned, too, there nearly to the elbow.”  The medical evidence was gruesome.  Johnson’s burns were so bad that his bones were exposed; the membranes of his nose, mouth, and throat were burned; and his hands were permanently deformed.

Other distillery workers suffered horrific injuries or died in countless ways, as reflected in this sampling of lawsuits:

·         Falling into holes while walking through dark distilleries, for example when mash tubs were removed for maintenance, but no temporary guardrails were installed (Anderson & Nelson Distilling Co. v. Hair, 19 Ky. L. Rptr. 1822 (1898));

·         Suffering broken bones or “mashed” legs when barrels of whiskey fell down an elevator shaft (Belle of Nelson Distilling Co. v. Riggs, 20 Ky. L. Rptr. 499 (1898));

·         Getting thrown from roofs while raising equipment on block and tackle (Old Times Distillery Co. v. Zehnder, 21 Ky. L. Rptr. 753 (1899));

·         Falling down elevator shafts along with full barrels because the ropes used were “old and rotten, and the pulleys out of order” (Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co. v. Leonard, 25 Ky. L. Rptr. 2046 (1904));

·         Getting hands caught in grain mills, necessitating amputation (Carey v. W. B. Samuels & Co., 28 Ky. L. Rptr. 6 (1905));

·         Falling down open isles in warehouse, because upper levels often did not have walkways, instead requiring workers to climb on the rick structure itself (Wood’s Adm’x v. Daviess County Distilling Co., 31 Ky. L. Rptr. 511 (1907));

·         Being violently dragged up a corn conveyor (Eagle Distillery v. Hardy, 120 S.W. 336 (Ky. 1909)); and

·         Falling down elevator shafts, in the dark, where there were no guard rails around the opening (Enos v. Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co., 189 F. 342 (6th Cir. 1911)).


Many of these lawsuits provide detailed descriptions of distillery equipment, methods, and job responsibilities, much of which has otherwise been lost as advances were made in the milling, distillation, and warehousing processes, so they are an informative guide to the inner-workings of a turn-of-the-century distillery.  The ghastly injuries, though, serve as a reminder of the progress we have made in workplace safety.