Two new aquavits to try

It’s getting harder for me to keep up with all the new aquavit coming on to the American market, which is a great thing considering how few bottles were available just a few years ago. When I first started writing about aquavit, there were only four producers in the United States. Now there are at least twice that many, with several of them making multiple expressions. Imports from Europe have increased too. Not long ago Linie was the only one left; in the past year at least three additional imports have come ashore. As I make plans for Aquavit Week 2014, here’s a look at two of the new arrivals.

If you’d told me a year ago that there would be aquavit distilled in Montana before it was made anywhere on the East Coast, I would have been skeptical. But to the best of my knowledge, no American distiller east of Illinois has taken up the challenge of making aquavit. Montgomery Distillery in Missoula, Montana has. My friend Paul Willenberg smuggled back a bottle of their Skadi aquavit on a recent business trip and it’s become one of my favorites.

Named after the goddess of “bowhunting, winter, mountains, and justice,” (how’s that for a resume?), Skadi is vapor-infused with caraway, dill, lemon peel, and other botanicals. The caraway is pleasantly assertive. The spirit would probably be good in cocktails, but I’ve already finished too much of my bottle to try it out. This is one to store in the freezer and drink straight. I only have a couple pours left, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed someone I know is headed to Missoula soon.

The most recent aquavit I’ve purchased is Brennivin, a.k.a. the “Black Death” of Iceland. This is the stuff of legend. Anthony Bourdain drank it on “No Reservations.” It shows up in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Dave Grohl says it makes you feel “like you’ve done acid… like you can’t feel your feet.” One of the first media outlets to cover its arrival in the United States was Vice, of all places. Brennivin is metal.

At least it is if you’ve never tried aquavit. At the risk of destroying its image, to me it’s nice and well-balanced. This is another aquavit I’d gladly drink straight from the freezer, and it also works well in a Negroni-type cocktail. It’s good stuff, and really one of the more approachable aquavits I’ve tried. The label is striking, and at about $35 a liter it’s affordable too.

But most people haven’t tried aquavit. And Iceland, especially, has a weird relationship with alcohol. The country was an early adopter of Prohibition. They legalized liquor in 1935, but didn’t get around to allowing beer until 1989. With beer unavailable, one can imagine why unaccustomed visitors might have found this schnapps intense as the plague. If Dave Grohl promising people that they won’t feel their feet is what it takes to popularize aquavit, then I’m all in favor. Drink that Black Death.

Announcing Cocktails on Tap

If it seems like I’ve been writing very little this year, there’s a good reason for that. I’ve actually be writing more than ever, but that effort has been going into my first full-length book. Since 2011 I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a book on beer cocktails. The road to publication is long and winding, and for a long time it looked like the project was not going to happen. Then in the fall of last year everything finally clicked into place, thanks to the work of my agent Jud Laghi. In December we signed a deal with Stewart, Tabori, and Chang to publish Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer.

The upside of being patient is that the book is far better than it would have been had I written it a few years ago. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang makes beautiful books, and my editor there, Laura Dozier, has been supportive the entire way of making this the definitive book on mixing with beer. You can see that commitment to quality in the cover above. And on the inside? Full-color photographs shot by David L. Reamer, whose most recent work includes the Toro Bravo and Le Pigeon cookbooks. A foreword by Stephen Beaumont, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and The Pocket Beer Guide 2015. A deep dive into the weird history of beer cocktails, the best of my original drinks and collaborations with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik, and contributions from some of the most creative bartenders I know. More than fifty recipes for cocktails and punches made the final cut. I’m sitting in a coffee shop now approving the final color proofs and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s all turned out.

Cocktails on Tap will be released on March 17, but you can pre-order it now. And please do! This book has been in the works for a long time and I can’t wait to get a copy into your hands.

GMO labeling in Oregon

My latest makes the case against the Oregon ballot measure to require labeling of food made with GMOs:

Whole Foods would like to sell you on the virtues of the Rio Star organic grapefruit. “For juicing, Rio Star is the stand alone grapefruit” and is “widely viewed as the best” grapefruit grown in Texas, home to “some of the sweetest grapefruit in the world.” And despite originating from a breeding program that blasted grapefruits with radiation to scramble their DNA, eating them probably won’t kill you.

Read the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly, my views haven’t changed since this same debate came up in Washington last year.

Playing with the Novo Fogo Caipirinha Kit

The Caipirinha — a simple, rustic combination of muddled limes, sugar, and cachaca — is one of the world’s most popular cocktails. It’s also one of the easiest to prepare, tolerant of some imprecision in measurement and requiring no straining whatsoever. Just muddle the limes and sugar, add cachaca and ice, shake, and pour the whole thing into a glass. A basic recipe:

2 oz cachaca (Novo Fogo of course!)
1/2 lime, quartered, trimmed of pith
1 tablespoon superfine sugar

That’s pretty easy. To make it even easier, Novo Fogo Cachaca recently introduced a new Caipirinha Kit containing a bottle of their silver cachaca, a nice wooden muddler, and two mason jars in which to make and serve the cocktails. The jars eliminate the need for even having a cocktail shaker; shake everything in the jar, pop the lid, and drink. It’s so easy, even a pug can do it.

Well, almost.

Since I work with Novo Fogo, they sent me a few of the kits to play around with and try out in some seasonal variations. Another great thing about the Caipirinha is that it’s incredibly versatile. The simple base of sugar, lime, and cachaca lends itself to lots of possibilities, pairing nicely with fresh fruit, herbs, and other spirits. I took the kit out to a few parties to see what we could come up with.

First up was meeting with my friends Tom, Kristen, and Porter the Pug. Taking advantage of end of summer Oregon produce, we hit the backyard with a bunch of berries. A couple combinations that worked: A Caipirinha with huckleberries and basil, and another with blueberries and St. Germain. In both drinks a handful of fruit was muddled along with the lime and sugar, then everything shaken together.

The next stop was a picnic with the Portland Culinary Alliance at Goschie Hop Farms in Silverton, Oregon. This was right at the beginning of fresh hop season, so hops were everywhere. As you can imagine, the place smelled amazing. (Yes, that’s an entire room filled with hops.)

This gave me the idea of making a fresh hop Caipirinha. The Caip-beer-inha, a Caipirinha topped with a splash of IPA, is a cocktail Ezra Johnson-Greenough and I have served many times, so this seemed like it could work. It turns out that muddling hops doesn’t actually extract a ton of flavor, although the drink was nice enough. A fresh hop cone does make a killer garnish though. When they’re in season, I could imagine using them to decorate a Caip-beer-inha.

Finally, at a cocktail fundraiser event at Fish Sauce, Tommy Klus, Will Ray, and I dialed in a Caipirinha made with kummel, a liqueur flavored with caraway and other savory herbs, proving that Caipirinhas really can work with just about anything. This one had cachaca, lime, sugar, kummel, and Angostura bitters, and was surprisingly tasty. (Recipe coming soon; the photo above is our old-style mason jar.)

The Caipirinha Kits are already available in a few states, including Oregon, with many more on the way.

(Some photos courtesy of Tom and Kristen. Check out Kristen’s Etsy design store for wedding and party ideas.)

A visit to Diam’s high-tech cork facility

Most of the press trips that wine, spirits, and beer writers are invited on focus on what goes into the bottles we drink. In July, I was invited to Spain for a trip dedicated instead to the part that seals so many of those bottles: cork. Corks are one of those things we tend not to think about until they malfunction by crumbling apart, oxygenating a wine, or introducing “cork taint.” The growing acceptance of screw caps and synthetic corks is partly a response to the challenges of using natural cork. Our host in Spain, Diam, is a company that makes a sort of hybrid technological cork, combining natural cork material with new techniques for removing impurities and increasing consistency. They brought us to their facility in San Vicente de Alcantara to show off the process.

Preparing for this trip, I had romantic visions of the cork forests of Spain and Portugal. These visions were eventually fulfilled on an evening trek into the countryside, as seen in the photos above.

However most of our visit was spent here to learn about Diam’s technological process for transforming bark from cork trees into reliable stoppers that won’t ruin a bottle of wine. This was more industrial than romantic, but it was a fascinating learning experience.

We arrived a little too late in the season to see the local cork harvest, but the photo above (provided by Diam) shows how it’s done. The bark of cork trees is rich in suberin, a rubbery, waxy substance. In nature, the suberin prevents water loss by keeping moisture inside the tree. This same quality makes it great for keeping wine locked inside bottles.

Slaking the world’s thirst for wine requires a lot of cork. (Above: piles of fresh cork bark awaiting processing at Diam; you can barely make out a few people working on top.) Fortunately, harvesting bark doesn’t kill the trees, and after reaching maturity each tree can be harvested about once every decade. Driving through this region of Spain and Portugal, the brightly colored trunks of recently stripped trees stand out along the roadside.

After processing, traditional corks are made by punching through the bark. Obviously punched corks can only be extracted from sufficiently thick bark and much of the material is left behind. This can be put to other uses, including the technological corks made by Diam.

Here my friend Baylen demonstrates his invention of cork knuckles. Not a product offered by Diam — yet.

The Diam process begins by grinding the bark and sorting out the suberin-rich powder, which they call “cork flour,” so that it can eventually be reformed into a cork shape with food safe binders and microspheres. Agglomerated corks have been around in some form for years; it’s the step prior to agglomeration in which things get interesting.

Diam’s biggest innovation is treating this cork flour with supercritical carbon dioxide. In a supercritical state, created under very high pressure, fluids take on properties of liquids and gases. They are able to both permeate a substance and dissolve materials. By fine-tuning pressure and temperature to control its density, supercritical CO2 can be used to extract some substances while leaving others behind. If you drink decaffeineated coffee, there’s a good chance the beans you brew were treated in this way. The CO2 process is one of the main methods used to selectively extract caffeine from green beans.

Diam uses this same process to remove impurities from cork. The most important of these are TCA and TCB, the chemicals associated with cork taint. But lots of other stuff gets removed too, resulting in a cork that is neutral in its potential flavor impact on wine. (Above: quality control testing of corks by infusing them in water.)

A neat advantage of making corks this way is that other characteristics can be controlled too. By varying the elasticity of the corks, Diam can design them for less expensive, short-term aging, or for higher end wines intended to age for years. The box above shows their 1, 3, 5, and 10 year corks; they’ve also recently introduced a cork designed to last for 30 years.

They’re also able to control the permeability of the corks. Corks are naturally permeable, but a cork allowing too much air into a wine can ruin it. On the other hand, depending on the wine, a little bit of oxygenation could be a good thing. These corks come in varying degrees of permeability, allowing wine makers to choose the corks best suited to their wines.

Though conversation about corks tends to revolve mostly around wine, Diam also uses its process to make corks for beer and spirits (photo above courtesy of Diam). The corks for spirits raised an interesting question for me. I’ve rarely come across spirits I’d identify as suffering from cork taint, but on the few occasions I have the off aromas have surpassed anything I’ve come across in wine. Since spirits are much higher in alcohol than wines, and since alcohol is such a good solvent, I’d have thought that TCA would be an even bigger problem for spirits than it is for wine. Yet we rarely hear about spirits being “corked.”

As it turns out, I was half right. Spirits are a more effective solvent. But the team at Diam directed me to a scientific paper evaluating tasters’ ability to detect TCA in cognac, and it turns out the threshold level for perceiving it is much higher. The paper is in French, but in loose translation the tainted spirits had aromas of “mold, mushroom, wet mop, etc.” However the concentrations needed to perceive these notes unambiguously appear to be an order of magnitude larger than for wine. Higher alcohol seems to have a masking effect for the TCA. (I suspect that the tendency to store wine on its side, in contact with cork, and to store spirits standing vertically may also be a factor, but I don’t know for sure.)

One funny aspect of the Diam corks is that, at the insistence of wine makers, they have striations printed on them to mimic natural cork. A casual consumer could pull one out with a corkscrew and never notice the difference. Seeing the unfinished Diam corks come out and then get printed to resemble their purely natural punched cousins reminded me, of all things, of Howard Roark’s critique of the Parthenon in The Fountainhead:

“Look,” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns — what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood — when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”

Because wine is tied up with tradition, that’s why. Despite the rise of synthetic stoppers, screw caps, and wine that comes in kegs and boxes, people still want to pull a plug of wood out of a bottle neck, even if that means occasionally dumping a corked bottle down the drain. And for wines that are meant for aging, corks are still one of most proven tools.

Are all these new high-tech corks really necessary? Claims about the rate of cork contamination are controversial. For one thing, cork isn’t the only source of TCA; it can enter wine at other stages of the production process, but the final consumer will declare the wine to be “corked” regardless of whether the cork is the actual source. Other defects, real or imagined, may also be attributed to the cork. (Working for several years in a top wine bar, it wasn’t uncommon to have “corked” wines returned that seemed fine to me. Did customers imagine it or just not like the wines? Am I less sensitive to TCA than other consumers? I suspect it was a little of both.)

Estimates of the rate of cork contamination range from 7% at the very high end to under 1% on the low end. The Cork Quality Council claims that rates have dropped more than 80% in the past decade thanks to improvements in the industry; they have a website, CorkTaint.com, dedicated to rehabilitating cork’s image and promoting studies showing low rates of contamination. Diam, for its part, declined to wed itself to a particular number.

Still, no one likes to open up a special bottle of wine to find that it’s been ruined by a fault that could have been prevented. The market now offers a lot of options varying in price, consistency, and longevity for sealing different wines, all of which have their place. The Diam corks are an interesting addition to that spectrum. I’m not a winemaker, nor do I pretend to possess the expertise to say which closures are best for which wines, but after this visit I certainly wouldn’t mind finding a higher tech cork in the next bottle I open.

12 Bottle Bar comes to Portland

David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, authors of the 12 Bottle Bar weblog, have long been two of my favorite cocktail writers. After knowing them online for several years, we finally met in person at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Chicago last March, where we presented a panel together on the history of beer cocktails. And now they’ve turned their blog into a full-length book, The 12 Bottle Bar from Workman Publishing.

The premise of the book is simple: If you’re making drinks at home, you may not want to be like me and have an entire corner of your living room taken up with booze bottles, a kitchen counter covered in bitters, and a refrigerator so full of vermouth and other aperitifs that there’s barely any room for food. You may only want, say, twelve bottles.

The 12 Bottle Bar is their take on which dozen bottles those should be along with creative, engagingly written recipes for cocktails you can make with them. The picks aren’t all obvious. Genever makes the cut but tequila doesn’t. Lesley literally wrote the book on gin and genever a few years ago, and of course I’m glad to see genever getting more appreciation, but that choice will surely drive some conversation. The drinks include contributions from many of their friends in the industry, including a few from me (but don’t let that call their good taste into question).

David and Lesley will be in Portland this Thursday (September 18) to promote the book. At 7:30 they’ll be doing a signing at Powell’s on Hawthorne Avenue. Then around 9:00 we’ll all head down the street to Bazi Bierbrasserie for a few cocktails from the book featuring El Dorado rum and Bols genever. Come buy a copy and join us for a round.

Big Tobacco vs little e-cigs

Last month, the FDA closed its comment period for its proposed regulations on e-cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products. The three Big Tobacco companies are among the parties submitted comment. The submission from Reynolds was particularly self-serving:

Reynolds American Inc. has fired an expected shot across the bow of small vapor cigarette manufacturers.

A Reynolds division recommended to the Food and Drug Administration in a 119-page submission that the agency ban the use of vapor electronic cigarettes.

Traditional e-cigs are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a self-contained disposable cartridge and create a vapor that is inhaled. The manufacturers have provided few flavor choices, in part in expectations that the FDA would limit flavorings as they do with combustible cigarettes.

By comparison, vapor products can feature a liquid capsule that is inserted into a cartridge, known as an open-system format. Vapors offer consumers a wider variety of flavors, included fruits and candy.

The Big Tobacco companies have invested heavily in disposable cartridge e-cigs. These compete with the more customizable, DIY devices favored by many vapers and sold by small producers. But why try to win consumers over when you can persuade the government to ban the competition instead? The FDA’s new regulations give Big Tobacco the opportunity to try that, so of course they’re taking it.

This kind of regulatory capture has been baked into the FDA’s handling of tobacco from the beginning. The initial legislation was backed and negotiated by Philip Morris, owner of Marlboro; it benefited from new marketing restrictions and barriers to entry that protect its brands from competition. The market for cigarettes has been essentially frozen in its favor since the FDA’s extremely burdensome review process went into effect in 2009.

Reynolds is trying to repeat the same trick with e-cigarettes, stoking fears of an unregulated market to protect big brands from competition. They might succeed. Meanwhile the public benefits of FDA tobacco regulation remain extremely dubious.

Previously: My own comments to the FDA are here, and more detail on the FDA’s anti-competitive tobacco regulation is in my article for Reason.

Comment on the FDA’s cigar regulations

If you’ve been following my writing on the subject, you know that FDA regulation has the potential to devastate the market for cigars, pipes, and e-cigarettes. Tomorrow is the final day to submit public comments on the agency’s proposal to extend their authority to these products. Comments can be submitted here. Helpful suggestions for commenting can be found here from the site Halfwheel. My own comment, limited to cigars, is below.

Comments submitted for FDA regulations regarding premium cigars, Docket No. FDA-2014-N-0189:

As an avid, though only occasional consumer of premium cigars, I have been following closely the FDA’s regulation of tobacco products. The Tobacco Control Act empowered the FDA to review all new tobacco products before they come to market, with the aim of ensuring that these products are, at minimum, no more harmful to the health of society as a whole than the products already being sold in 2007. While this is arguably a laudable goal, in practice the implementation of pre-market review has been hampered by infeasible standards that render the market for tobacco less competitive without corresponding benefits to public health.

Though this consequence is unintended, it was not unforeseen. Testifying to Congress in 2007, then commissioner of the FDA Andrew C. von Eschenbach predicted that the law would not allow enough sufficient time for the agency to develop science-based rules regarding tobacco and would “unduly and unfairly raise the public’s expectations about what the Agency could accomplish.”

The agency’s record so far has shown that Eschenbach was correct. Since taking over regulation of cigarettes, the FDA has received nearly 4,000 applications for substantial equivalence. Only a tiny percentage of these have been approved, and these have mostly involved either very basic products (i.e. rolling papers) or very minor changes to existing products (i.e. substituting one type of cigarette paper for another). The vast majority of applications remain stuck in regulatory limbo.

The experience of companies trying to bring new products to market suggests that doing so is nearly impossible. Lorillard, one of the largest tobacco companies, was able to do so only after extensive delays going well beyond the 90 or 180 day deadlines implied by the Tobacco Control Act. The smaller startup Hestia has found itself mired in insurmountable bureaucracy. Documents provided by Hestia show that more than two years into the review of its substantial equivalence application, the FDA has not even begun to examine the physical characteristics of its cigarettes, focusing instead on marketing materials relating to identification of the predicate product. These details are irrelevant to the health impact of Hestia’s cigarettes and call into question the scientific basis of pre-market review. (Since pending applications are not made public, the experience of the vast majority of applicants remains unknown.)

The unintended consequence of this lengthy review process has been to freeze the market for cigarettes as it was in 2009, protecting the brands that dominated then from competition. The health benefits of restricting the entrance of competitors are unclear, especially when reviews do not reach the stage of evaluating the actual physical characteristics of new products.

Given that the market for premium cigars is much more dynamic than the market for cigarettes, with potentially thousands of new products being introduced each year, applying the FDA’s current rules and procedures to cigars would be devastating both to producers and to cigar smokers who value variety. It would also overwhelm the agency with applications, assuming producers bother attempting to navigate the review process.

This raises the question of how the FDA can regulate cigars without unduly burdening manufacturers. One possibility is to simply not apply the deeming regulation to cigars. This is my preferred course of action, though it is obviously unlikely that the FDA will accept it.

A second option is that proposed by the agency to exempt premium cigars from many of the regulations that apply to cigarettes (“Option 2” in the FDA’s proposal). This requires the creation of a legal distinction between premium and non-premium cigars. The agency’s proposal suggests eight factors that would distinguish premium cigars. They would be wrapped in whole tobacco leaf, contain 100% leaf tobacco binder and primarily long filler tobacco, be made by hand, lack any filter or mouthpiece, have no characterizing flavor other than tobacco, weigh no more than six pounds per 1,000 units, and retail for no less than $10 per cigar.

This definition shares many similarities with that in proposed legislation to exempt premium cigars from FDA regulation. The most glaring difference is the retail price requirement, which would set an effective price floor of $10 for all new cigars. This would be a very large price increase for consumers; one industry analysis finds that only about 15% of premium cigars currently sell for $10 or more.

The price of a cigar obviously has nothing to do with its objective characteristics that could affect a smoker’s health. A $5 cigar is no less or no more healthy than a $25 cigar. A $10 price floor would rightly be seen as politically expedient rather than scientifically justified, a means of keeping wealthy cigar smokers happy.

Another likely consequence of instituting a $10 price floor would be to incentivize black market sales. If all new premium cigars in the United States are required to retail for at least $10, consumers will be attracted to the greater variety and lower prices of cigars sold abroad (including those from Cuba, which are already illegal in the United States). Internet sales and in-person smuggling of foreign cigars would certainly increase. These black market cigars would not be regulated by the FDA at all, undermining the goals of regulation.

Nonetheless, the agency may conclude that some price floor is necessary to separate premium cigars from the cheap that allegedly draw in youth smokers. In that case, a compromise implementing a much lower price floor would better reflect the reality of the market.

A second objection to the proposed definition is the ban on all characterizing flavors other than tobacco. It is unclear what this would entail. Some flavors in cigars arise from ageing them in various woods. Many flavors such as whiskey or rum are not the kind one thinks of as being aimed at teenagers and are marketed to adults. A blanket ban on all flavors would be overly broad. Instead, the agency should work with the industry to identify types of flavoring that are of particular concern and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

A third objection is to the requirement that all premium cigars be produced entirely by hand. This also is unrelated to the health impact of cigars and would advantage producers in places with low labor costs. It would likely end some cigar production in the United States, which is often assisted by machine. This, too, is an area in which the agency could consult with the industry to refine its definition of premium cigars.

Finally, I would like to suggest broader changes to the way the FDA handles substantial equivalence applications. In current practice, applicants must identify a specific predicate product and provide detailed empirical analysis showing that their proposed new product is substantially identical to it, raising no new questions of public health. This is unduly burdensome on new producers and unfairly advantages existing players, who possess information about their own products and the funding to analyze them. Even when proposed new products raise no new questions of health, applicants may not have access to information about predicate products that would allow them to reach the empirical stage of FDA review. For example, applicants are expected to provide documents such as bills of lading from more than a decade ago to prove that their selected predicate product was marketed in 2007. If the owner of the predicate product is a potential competitor, they obviously have no incentive to assist in the provision of such materials.

To make the substantial equivalence application process more equitable, the agency should establish objective guidelines for new products that would allow them to be considered substantially equivalent to products already on the market. Current applicants do not know how much variation from predicate products is acceptable and often cannot access information about predicate products in the first place. Clear guidelines established by the FDA would give smaller producers a chance at navigating the process without sacrificing public health. The current substantial equivalence pathway would also remain open to those who prefer it.

Regardless of whether the substantial equivalence pathway is streamlined, I hope that the FDA will adopt some variation of Option 2, exempting premium cigars from most of the requirements of the Tobacco Control Act. The market for premium cigars is akin to those for craft beer, wine, or coffee, defined by skilled producers and specific origins of product, and completely unlike the relatively commodified market for cigarettes. It is incompatible with the expensive and time-consuming review currently required of new tobacco products. And as the FDA itself has noted in its proposal, requiring such review would likely accomplish little for public health, given that premium cigars are consumed and marketed to adults and that their use is less likely to lead to addiction. Existing research also suggests that moderate use of cigars is much less harmful to health than use of cigarettes.

The differences in the impact on population-level public health among individual cigars would be so small as to be impossible to ascertain. Given that the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products has limited resources, its employees’ time can be put to much better use than the review of countless substantial equivalence applications for premium cigars.

– Jacob Grier
Portland, Oregon
August 7, 2014

Recent reading, drinks edition

Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails, Tony Abou-Ganim with Elizabeth Faulkner — Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States, except among fancy mixologists. As craft cocktails have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, whiskey, gin, rum, bitter and herbal liqueurs, and other flavorful spirits have found favor with bartenders. Vodka, though in demand from many consumers, often struggles to find a place on the menu.

Vodka doesn’t have much presence in the canon of vintage American cocktails, which is one reason cocktail bars shun the spirit. Whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, and fortified wines abound in vintage books. Vodka arrived late on the scene, not taking off in the United States until enterprising marketers mixed it with ginger beer to create the Moscow Mule, served in frosty copper mugs. This early success set a smart strategy for vodka: Rely on other ingredients to provide flavor and present cocktails in a striking way.

Like many bartenders, I tend to avoid vodka on my own menus. There are a limited number of ounces to work with in a drink and it can seem a waste to use them up on a spirit that is legally defined in the United States as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” With the wealth of other spirits now available, there is almost always something available to complement the other elements of a drink and provide additional layers of complexity: The botanicals of gin or aquavit, the funky notes of rum or cachaca, the oakiness of cognac or whiskey. Why opt for vodka instead?

Thus Tony Abou-Ganim has his work cut out for him Vodka Distilled. Abou-Ganim aims to fix the disconnect between consumers who love vodka and the craft bartenders who often ignore it. With more than three decades in the industry, including landmarks such as Po and the Bellagio, there’s no one better suited to do it.

“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me to write this book,” writes Abou-Ganim in the introduction. He also disputes the popular notion that all vodkas are the same. “Think about tasting and comparing one vodka to another not, not as comparing apples to oranges but akin to comparing apples to apples — apples of the same variety grown in different orchards with differing geography and under various climate and nutrient conditions.” Though subtle, the differences are there.

Following his advice, I pulled out the myriad bottles of vodka I’ve acquired over the years, most of them never opened, and had an impromptu tasting. I tried them first neat at room temperature, then again after chilling in the freezer. It’s been a long time since I put much thought into tasting vodka, and I have to admit that it was a worthwhile experience. Subtle nuances were readily apparent and drinking them chilled was enjoyable.

The most valuable part of the book may be the chapter of vodka cocktail recipes. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, one’s guests (at home or in a bar) are likely to request vodka cocktails from time to time. It’s good to have some drinks up your sleeve. Vodka Distilled provides a good selection. And while I might be tempted to substitute gin in a few of them, they make a tasty collection of classics and a few new creations.

Other sections of the book look at vodka and caviar pairing — currently out of the budget of this reviewer; regulations and definitions; methods of production; and tasting notes on 58 different vodkas. Photographer Tim Turner’s work is elegant. I learned quite a bit from the book, and recommend it.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, Amy Stewart — How much fun can a book that’s essentially an orderly listing of plant facts be? If it’s about how plants are transformed into drinks and it’s written by Amy Stewart, quite a lot. I found myself eagerly consuming The Drunken Botanist — sassafras to sundew to sweet woodruff, to take a random selection — on a long plane trip. It begins with the plants used for fermentation of alcohol, moves on to those used for flavoring during productions, and ends with fresh ingredients added at the last minute in the making of cocktails.

The book includes recipes and tips for gardening, though I’m going to find the most use of it as a very thorough reference (at least until I move into a place more friendly to growing plants). It’s engagingly written and highly informative, easily one of the best drink books to come out last year.

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, Tom Acitelli — Maureen Ogle, who has been the go-to historian of American beer since the publication of her book Ambitious Brew, endorses Tom Acitelli’s history of modern American craft brewing: “My reign is over. Craft beer has a new historian, and I hereby hand my crown to him (and do so with good cheer).”

It’s a very thorough, well-researched book, and covers both the very early days of brewing at Anchor and New Albion along with recent developments. (Maybe I’m being provincial, but my one complaint is that the Pacific Northwest brewing scene seemed to be a bit neglected.) The history may be too detailed for a casual reader who’s not deeply into beer, but for those who are, this is the book to get.

Bar Jutsu: The American Art of Bar Fighting, James Porco — This book isn’t about drinking, but rather the potentially violent situations that arise when people drink too much. Having spent most of bartending career in genteel spots like The Carlyle and Metrovino, my qualifications for reviewing a book on bar brawls are extremely dubious. I did fence in college though, and took a year of aikido, so my skills may come in handy if a fight ever breaks out while I’m sabering a bottle of champagne.

James Porco, a professional bouncer and certified ninjitsu instructor, is qualified to write one. His book explains basic techniques, with an emphasis on ideally avoiding violent confrontation altogether and on ending it as quickly as possible with strategic grapples when fights do erupt. It’s written in a jokey style, sometimes veering too much into bro territory, with some amusing real life anecdotes involving pickle fights and drunken circus clowns (really). Techniques are broken down with photographs and instructions. You’ll need a partner to practice the maneuvers, and learning from a book is much harder than learning in person, but there seems to be enough detail here to try things out. It’s a fun book with some sound advice that, hopefully, one won’t have many occasions to use.

Brewing Up Cocktails Returns!

Nearly two year since our last event, Brewing Up Cocktails is back with a new menu of cocktails featuring beers from Ninkasi. Join us at Circa 33 this Tuesday for our reunion during Portland Beer Week.

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: This cocktail may produce discomfort in those who have a low tolerance for capsaicin, perceive cilantro as a soapy flavor, suffer from a real or imagined gluten sensitivity, are in a state of shock over the price of limes, or believe that putting beer in a cocktail will lead only to discord. All others may find it refreshing and enjoyable.

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo barrel aged cachaça
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz habanero syrup
small handful of cilantro leaves
2 oz wheat beer

Combine the cachaça, lime juice, habanero syrup, and cilantro in a shaker. Shake with ice and strain into a flute or cocktail glass. Top with the beer and stir gently to combine.

Habanero syrup:

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
5 habanero peppers, stemmed but not deseeded

Combine sugar and water over heat and stir until dissolved, bringing to a boil. Add peppers and remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain and keep refrigerated.

This cocktail was created for Novo Fogo’s Bars on Fire event in Washington, DC, where offense was kept to a minimum.

Cigars at The Daily Beast

My first contribution to The Daily Beast explains what’s at stake in the proposed FDA cigar regulations:

Ever since the FDA was given authority over cigarettes in 2009, cigar makers have been pushing a bill in Congress to keep stogies out of the agency’s purview. That an industry would try to protect itself from FDA regulation is not surprising. That the FDA might agree with them is. And given the agency’s record on cigarettes, keeping its hands off of premium cigars is the right idea.

Read the whole thing here.

Bars on Fire at Cafe Saint-Ex

Corrida de Cavalos

I’ve been too wrapped up in book duties to post many cocktails lately, but now that that’s mostly complete I’m back to blogging and tending bar. My next stop takes me back to my old home of Washington, DC where I’ll be guest bartending at Cafe Saint-Ex on Tuesday with Franklin Jones of The Gibson! We have a menu of Novo Fogo cachaça cocktails ready for our Bars on Fire event, happening 5-8 pm. Here’s a preview of one them, the Corrida de Cavalos. It wasn’t made with horse racing in mind, but the use of mint and the timing of the Kentucky Derby is such a nice coincidence that I’ll pretend it was intentional.

2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaça
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz mint vinegar
1/2 oz rich simple syrup (2:1)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 oz soda
mint sprig garnish, for garnish

Shake cachaça, lime, vinegar, syrup, and bitters with ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda, garnish with fresh mint.

To make the mint vinegar:

1 cup champagne vinegar
leaves from 5-6 mint sprigs

Bring vinegar to a boil, pour over leaves, and allow to infuse overnight or for a couple days. Strain and bottle.

Good news for wine growlers

Last month I noted that the Tax and Trade Bureau had issued a new ruling that would have made the increasingly popular practice of filling growlers with for wine for off-premise consumption a lot more complicated. Among other things, the rules would have required retailers to receive permission from the TTB to act as a bottling house and to keep up with various records and labeling requirements. Fortunately, the wine industry spoke up and the TTB has changed its mind [pdf]:

TTB recognizes that our existing regulations were intended to cover traditional taxpaid wine bottling activities, rather than the filling of wine growlers.

Accordingly, TTB has determined that it would be appropriate to engage in rulemaking on this issue so that we can modernize our regulations to specifically address the filling of growlers with taxpaid wine. This will allow TTB to evaluate what regulations are necessary in order to protect the revenue without unduly burdening businesses that wish to engage in this activity. This will also enable us to evaluate comments from all interested parties, including consumers, industry members, and State regulatory agencies.

In the interim, we are suspending TTB Ruling 2014-3 pending rulemaking on the filling of growlers.

Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter.

What proposed FDA regulations mean for e-cigarettes and cigars

I had a relaxing morning planned until the FDA announced its proposed regulations extending its authority to more tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars. Predictably most of the press is focusing on the former, but the proposals over cigars are also very interesting. The long PDF detailing the proposal is here. Since you probably don’t want to read that, read this post instead.

First, a little background on how the existing law works with regard to cigarettes. The most important power that the Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA was pre-market review. Before releasing a new cigarette, producers must now get explicit approval from the FDA. This created three classes of products:

1. Products that were already on the market as of February 2007 are grandfathered in and allowed to be sold without review, although the FDA could hypothetically order them off the market.

2. Products introduced between February 2007 and March 2011 are allowed on the market while under provisional review. Producers have had to submit applications, but they are allowed to continue selling while the FDA reviews them.

3. Since March 2011, all new products must receive FDA approval before being sold.

This has resulted in a freeze of the cigarette market since 2011. In the three years since then, only two new cigarettes have been approved for sale. The anti-competitive effect this has had on the cigarette market has been my primary criticism of the FDA’s handling of tobacco. It has been reviewing applications for four years, currently has more than 150 employees working on reviews, has received approximately 4,000 applications, and has managed to rule on only 34 of them. For more detailed information on this, see my coverage in The Atlantic and Reason. (Keep in mind, too, that the Tobacco Control Act was fully backed and negotiated by Philip Morris. They knew what they were doing.)

It’s also helpful to know what the FDA is looking for in new product applications. The law establishes two routes to approval. One is for completely new products (premarket tobacco applications) and requires extremely burdensome amounts of data; this is basically uncharted territory at this point. The other is “substantial equivalence.” To get approval by this route, a new product must demonstrate that it is substantially equivalent to a predicate product that was already on the market as of February 2007 or has since been approved by the FDA. “Substantially equivalent” is defined to mean having the same characteristics (materials, ingredients, design, composition, heating source, or other features) or raising no new questions of health. (To see why this is a huge obstacle to new producers, see my articles above.)

It’s been known for a long time that the FDA planned to extend its authority beyond cigarettes. The biggest concern is how the agency’s sluggish review process will affect these new products, especially e-cigarettes and cigars. These are both dynamic sectors of the market and applying the same standards that the agency uses for relatively commodified cigarettes is extremely problematic.

Impact on e-cigarettes: As mentioned above, substantial equivalence applications must specify a predicate product by which to compare the new product. That predicate product must have been on the market by February 2007. You can see the problem here. The market for e-cigarettes barely existed then. Thus the review process as it exists now is essentially a death sentence for e-cigarettes. As the agency notes in its proposal today, its hands are tied: “Because this date is written into the statute, we do not believe that we have the authority to amend it with respect to e-cigarettes or other products.”

Because of this, the FDA’s proposal gives e-cigarette companies two years after the date the rule goes into effect to submit a premarket tobacco application (PMTA). What happens after that is anybody’s guess. But unless the law changes, it looks like the substantial equivalence option is off the table for e-cigarettes and the variety of products that remain for sale will be extremely restricted. If any products successfully navigate the PMTA process, they will likely be those with lots of financial backing and perhaps the right connections.

Impact on cigars: The FDA’s proposals regarding cigars are intriguing. The agency offered two options. Option 1 is to treat cigars just like other tobacco products, subjecting them to all the same burdens of review. Option 2 is to carve out an exemption for premium cigars.

The first option, as I’ve been warning for a long time, would be disastrous. Hundreds of new cigars come out every year in distinct blends, shapes, and ages. Forcing them into a review process that has managed to approve only two cigarettes in four years would destroy the market as we know it. It would also require all cigars to be substantially equivalent to those already on the market in 2007, making the sector considerably more boring.

The fact that Option 2 is even being considered shows that the FDA is aware of this. Under this option, exemptions would be made for premium cigars. A cigar would be exempt if it:

(1) Is wrapped in whole tobacco leaf

(2) contains a 100 percent leaf tobacco binder

(3) contains primarily long filler tobacco

(4) is made by combining manually the wrapper, filler, and binder

(5) has no filter, tip, or non-tobacco mouthpiece and is capped by
hand

(6) has a retail price (after any discounts or coupons) of no less than $10 per cigar

(7) does not have a characterizing flavor other than tobacco**

(8) weighs more than 6 pounds per 1000 units.

This is not a perfect definition, but it’s a start. The biggest drawback is that it would create a price floor of $10 per stick and this price would be adjusted (i.e. increased) every two years. It’s still possible to get pretty nice cigars for under $10, especially if one buys them a box at a time, so this would be a substantial imposition on cigar smokers. At this point, however, I’m just glad that the option to exempt premium cigars from the FDA’s pre-market approval process exists at all.

Impact on pipes: Pipe smokers, now few and far between, did not put a substantial lobbying effort into influencing the FDA’s new regulations. As a result, pipes get very little discussion in the proposal. However pipe tobacco will be subject to the full authority of the FDA and, if I am reading it correctly, pipes themselves would be subject to pre-market review as well. That seems potentially problematic for unique, handmade briar and meerschaum pipes. Pipe smokers, stock up now or prepare to order from overseas!

What’s next: There are seventy-five days to comment on the proposed regulations. The biggest fight will be over e-cigarettes, which are the hottest topic in the press. In my view it’s a mistake for the FDA to wade into this until it gets its review process under control or can provide a workable alternative to the substantial equivalence path. The upside is that it will take at least two years before it takes enforcement action, which will allow more studies on e-cigarette’s effectiveness as a harm reduction tool to be conducted.

(Note also that the law requires the FDA to examine health impacts on the population level, not on the individual user, so it could order e-cigarettes off the market even though they are unambiguously safer than cigarettes. Remember too that the head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, Mitch Zeller, came directly to the job from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline, which makes nicotine replacement therapies that compete directly with e-cigs. Might pharmaceutical companies use the new restrictive review process to develop nicotine vapor devices of their own? I would not be at all surprised.)

Cigars have been almost completely off the radar of press and anti-smoking groups, but expect that to change as the debate over exempting them unfolds. Cigar smokers will have to continue keeping the pressure on lawmakers and the FDA to not destroy the industry. It will be important to show that premium cigars are primarily enjoyed by adults and have different health effects than cigarettes for the typical user. (For a summary of the latter, see here.)

Regardless of which option the FDA takes, I expect black market sales of cigars to increase. If it takes Option 1, the variety of cigars available in the United States will suffer greatly. If it takes Option 2, the price will rise to $10 a stogie.* Cuban cigars are pretty alluring already! If you enjoy the company of your local tobacconist, savor the next few years you have together. Their store may not be around much longer.

* Update to add that cigars could escape the price floor by winning FDA approval, but given the agency’s record so far I would not expect many to achieve that. Cigars that were on the market before 2007 could remain available at a lower price too.

** Additional note: I’ve asked the FDA several times whether ageing tobacco in cedar wood, a traditional practice for many cigars, would run afoul of the rule against characterizing flavors. They have not been willing to clarify this.

Tennessee whiskey, Tennessee Fire

Unless you don’t care at all about whiskey, you’ve probably heard by now about the debate in Tennessee. In brief: Last year the state legislature passed a law officially restricting use of the term “Tennessee whiskey” only to products that meet all the requirements of bourbon and undergo charcoal mellowing. This is the traditional definition of Tennessee whiskey and the law was backed by Jack Daniel’s, the brand owned by Brown-Forman.

On the other side is a new effort to relax the law, such as by allowing distillers to skip charcoal mellowing or age their whiskey in used oak barrels. This effort is pushed by Diageo, owner of the George Dickel brand of Tennessee whiskey, which also complies with the traditional definition.

The debate has divided whiskey enthusiasts and libertarians, two groups with substantial overlap on a Venn diagram. Purists like Chuck Cowdery come down in favor of Daniel’s and against Dickel. My libertarian-leaning friend Doug Winship does too, though with a few more caveats. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason notes that the existing law is a wee bit protectionist.

What’s a libertarian whiskey lover to think? I’m a bit conflicted myself. Below is my attempt at working it out, seen through the lens of a much easier case: bourbon.

Unless one holds that the position that there should be no legally defined standards of identity at all, one is probably OK with the standards for bourbon. (Basically, it has to be at made from at least 51% corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, and distilled and aged within certain ranges of proof.) Whether or not these were ideal standards at the time of passage, it would be a tough case to make that they should be changed now. Any distiller lobbying to do so would rightly be seen as trying to water down established standards.

With that in mind, here are five things I think the bourbon standard of identity has going for it:

1. Clearly defined processes within a well-established tradition among multiple producers.

2. Market recognition of the designation.

3. Long-standing law.

4. Broad geographic application (bourbon can me made anywhere in the US, not just Kentucky).

5. Doesn’t restrict competition from other distillers making other kinds of whiskey (they must simply refrain from using the word “bourbon”).

Now let’s compare this to Tennessee whiskey. Historically, this product is identical to bourbon in all but one essential aspect, the use of the Lincoln County process. This is the filtration of unaged spirit through charcoal, a step that mellows the finished whiskey.

Taking the five points above, how does a “Tennessee whiskey” designation compare to that of bourbon?

1. Clearly defined tradition among multiple producers: Tennessee whiskey definitely has the tradition part down. So much so, in fact, that despite my obsession with liquor laws, it’s easy for me to forget that it wasn’t legally defined until last year. Charcoal mellowing is deeply and historically entwined with Tennessee whiskey. The multiple producers part is not as solid. Until recently, there was only Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel (thank you, Prohibition). Now there is also Collier and McKeel and Prichard’s, the latter of which doesn’t use the process. Score: Daniel’s 1, Dickel 0.

2. Market recognition: This one’s more of a judgement call, but my impression is that consumer association of Tennessee whiskey is very strongly associated with Jack Daniel’s, and by extension with the processes used to make it. Moderately informed whiskey drinkers can tell you about the mellowing process that makes it unique. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

3. Long-standing law: There is no federal standard of identity for Tennessee whiskey. The Tennessee law went into effect less than a year ago. However NAFTA defines Tennessee whiskey as a bourbon produced in Tennessee, which does get at the requirement of using new barrels, but omits the charcoal mellowing. There’s a conservative case for not changing established law without good reason, but it’s weak here. I’m calling this a draw. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

4. Broad geographic application: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Tennessee whiskey, obviously, can only be made in Tennessee. This presents problems. What do you call charcoal-mellowed bourbon made in another state? What do you call a whiskey made in Tennessee that isn’t mellowed or doesn’t use new oak barrels? It would be nice if there was some other word for traditional Tennessee whiskey that didn’t involve a place name. Instead, non-traditional producers will have to use a work around like “whiskey distilled in Tennessee” (and is that really any less confusing for consumers?). Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 1.

5. Doesn’t restrict competition: Bourbon regulations apply equally to everyone. The Tennessee law doesn’t. It protects the three producers who follow the traditional recipe. It also protects Prichard’s, which doesn’t use the mellowing step, but was grandfathered in and is allowed to call its product Tennessee whiskey anyway. Any newer producers making a product otherwise identical to Prichard’s have to call theirs something else. This is a legal mess. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 2.

So the final score is a tie. I’m not saying that’s a definitive measure or that all of these considerations should be weighted equally, but after giving this some thought my reluctant conclusion is that I just don’t care that much. There’s a good case to be made that Tennessee whiskey and its associated processes have a long, well-established tradition worthy of legal protection (at least as worthy as many other standards of identity). There’s also a pretty good case that legal protection is unnecessary and that the existing, extremely young law is too muddled to be worth defending. Keep it in place and Jack Daniel’s will continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile. Repeal and it and Jack Daniel’s will also continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile.

The upshot is that unless you’re invested in Brown-Forman, Diageo, or another Tennessee producer, this law isn’t going to affect you. On the merits, I lean ever so slightly to keeping the law as is. But if it’s repealed, I’ll be fine with that too.

There are, however, a couple thoughts to take away from this. One is that regardless of how this plays out, other states should not follow suit. As the boom in small distilleries continues there is going to be a temptation in other states to impose new legal standards on their own products. I’ve already heard talk from Oregon distillers about the possibility of creating a standard of identity for “Oregon whiskey.” Given the huge diversity of distillers here — we’re at more than 60 now — I can’t imagine a definition that will work for everyone and reflect established traditions, of which there really aren’t any. Trying to define one would be putting the cart before the horse.

As a bartender and spirits writer, I can deal with a special designation for Tennessee whiskey. But if I find myself having to remember 50 different state designations, regret for this sort of thing is going to set in very quickly. If I wanted to memorize a bunch of arcane place-related trivia I would have become a sommelier. I’d much rather see what individual creative distillers come up with, regardless of where they’re located.

Secondly, neither company strikes me as particularly sincere in their efforts to sway consumers, legislators, and the press. It’s hard to believe that Diageo executives are truly losing sleep over the plight of small Tennessee distillers whose creative impulses are being stifled. They’ve already taken plenty of heat for that stance and I won’t pile on here.

But how about Jack Daniel’s? They are pitching their brand as the stalwart defender of the Tennessee whiskey tradition. From their press release:

“When consumers around the world see ‘Tennessee Whiskey,’ they expect it is a premium product representing a world-class standard and utmost quality,” said Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett. “What we have here is nothing more than an effort to allow manufacturers to deviate from that standard, produce a product that’s inferior to bourbon and label it ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ while undermining the process we’ve worked for nearly 150 years to protect.” [...]

“Using quality grains, quality water, quality barrels and other natural ingredients has been the backbone of Tennessee Whiskey and, frankly, the bourbon industry for decades. Why in the world would we want to change that now by inserting artificial ingredients into our processes? And why in Tennessee would we willingly give the bourbon industry the upper hand in quality by cheapening the process we use to make our whiskey,” Arnett said.

And that’s all well and good, but I just looked online and there are six different varieties of Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, two steak sauces, and four different EZ Marinaders. EZ what now?

If you like marinating, you’ll love Jack Daniel‘s® EZ Marinader®, the country’s first ready-to-use liquid marinade in a flavor-sealed bag. In three EZ steps and without any mess, you are ready to cook! All the flavor with none of the fuss.

But it’s made with genuine Tennessee whiskey, right?

The product contains no alcohol. We use Jack Daniel’s® Tennessee Whiskey flavoring, which keeps the bold, hearty flavor associated with Jack Daniel’s®.

OK then. Jack Daniel’s also makes a honey liqueur. And this arrived in my mailbox this weekend:

This, to be fair, isn’t labeled Tennessee whiskey. It’s a “finely crafted cinnamon liqueur blended with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey.” Which is fine. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make liqueurs with their spirits or to make money, the latter of which is pretty clearly the motive here. Cinnamon whiskey liqueur has become immensely popular and the company wants to get in on that. And though I don’t make a habit of drinking the stuff and haven’t done a side-by-side tasting, I can honestly say that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire is better than the others I’ve tried in the category.

The problem is that Jack Daniel’s case for legally defining Tennessee whiskey is that its brand has worked hard for decades to build that standard and establish it with consumers around the world. To a large extent, they’re right. But they’re also willing to slap that brand onto everything from EZ Marinader® to cinnamon whiskey liqueur. And if you can tell me with a straight face that small distillers ageing whiskey in used bourbon barrels are a bigger threat to the pure image of Tennessee whiskey than these heavily marketed items, then the first shot of Tennessee Fire® is on me.

Say “Grrr…” to new growler regulations

Avid beer drinkers are familiar with the “growler,” a big jug used for transporting beer from a tap to one’s home. Filled and sealed properly, they keep beer fresh and carbonated for short-term consumption. (With caveats!) They’re great for when you want to bring home a beer that’s only available on tap or want to entertain guests. Living in Portland, one of the best beer cities in the world, I’ve taken advantage of this convenience many times.

In recent years, wineries have also begun selling their wine in kegs. In some situations — properly equipped restaurants, for example — this can more cost-effective and less wasteful than dealing with bottles. And, naturally, some places with wine on tap have also begun filling growlers. Oregon and Texas have both legalized wine growler sales in various venues and Washington is following suit. Here in Oregon, licensed wineries, restaurants, bars, and retailers are all free to fill growlers with wine.

Last week, however, the Tax and Trade Bureau weighed in on the practice. First the good news: selling wine in growlers is legal under federal law. Although states had gone ahead with wine growler fills, this was apparently ambiguous. It’s good to have it clarified.

Then there’s the bad news: Selling wine in growlers is going to involve a lot more red tape than selling beer. Under federal regulations, filling a growler with beer is considered filling a large glass and doesn’t impose additional burdens. (State laws, of course, may vary.) The TTB’s new ruling [pdf] clarifies that it’s not going to be so simple for wine. Specifically, the agency has determined that filling growlers with wine for off-premise consumption is considered bottling or packing for tax purposes, and that any person engaging in the activity must first qualify as a bottling house of taxpaid wine.

This means that before they can sell wine in growlers, businesses will have to apply to and receive permission from the TTB. And once qualified as a taxpaid wine bottling house, additional regulations will come into effect for wine growlers that don’t arise with beer:

1. Proprietors will have to “keep records of taxpaid wine received, bottled or packed, and removed.”

2. Proprietors will be responsible for measuring customers’ containers and ensuring accurate fill level and alcohol content.

3. Proprietors will have to label each container with “the name and address of the premises where bottled or packed; the brand name [...]; the alcohol content; the kind of wine and the net contents of the container.” They will also be required to remove or cover any preexisting labels on containers that don’t accurately describe the new contents.

It’s not clear to me yet exactly how burdensome these regulations are going to be, but the decision does seem to put the kibosh on dreams of making wine growler fills as ubiquitous and easy as they are for beer. With more restaurants and urban wineries offering wine on tap, growler fills were poised to be a new and convenient option. Here in Portland, for example, the forthcoming Coopers Hall announced plans to open with forty different wines on tap for on-premise consumption or take-away.

Assuming they stick with the plan, they’ll have to comply with these new regulations. I’m guessing that large retailers like Whole Foods will also find it worthwhile to qualify. But depending on how much of a hassle it is to do this, I expect many other restaurants with wine on tap may not bother.

The TTB notes that the Internal Revenue Code has different provisions for wine and beer and that this is the justification for the differential treatment with regard to growlers. Absent a change in the law, their hands may be tied. But from a policy perspective, it will be disappointing if this turns out to be an effective obstacle to the further adoption of wine kegs and reusable containers.

[Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter, a great source for northwest wine news. Photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Kaitlyn Tierney.]