And Now the Conclusion of My Phone Interview with Reid Mitenbuler…..

Part IV Conversation, and the conclusion, with author of the book Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler

NBD: So you were pretty critical on small barrels in the book…

MB: Small barrels are like crack. Once you start using them and have distribution, it’s very hard to change. Places that start from the get-go have a hard time switching to large barrels and longer wait times. And once it’s working, it’s very hard to change. There are a lot of guys who start up an outfit, build a brand and sell it off. These guys are marketing first, and the product is the second consideration. Now, a lot of that is changing. I’d use Few as an example. The first time I tried it, I didn’t like it, but every time I try it is getting better.  Their product can be wildly different from bottle to bottle.

NBD: So are you working on a follow-up book?

MB: I’m working on something involving the entertainment industry, but it’s very preliminary and unrelated. I actually had been working on Bourbon Empire for over ten years and the timing was very fortuitous. Whiskey was blowing up and I was already working on the book. Most whiskey books come from the perspective of an educator, trying to teach about whiskey or about tasting. My angle was to be a storyteller of the industry, through whiskey. There was a lot of details that I cut out, I could have gone full geek, but I felt I would have lost of lot of the broader readership if I did that. I could have gone in incredibly detail on barrel aging and the different type of grains, but the story of the industry would have been lost. I learned more about connoisseurship of wine from reading The Billionaires Vinegar compared to a lot of the books on tasting that I’ve read. I had that in the back of my mind when I was writing this. I felt that you could get a better sense of why older isn’t always better from telling a story.

NBD: Or if you want a really expensive lesson on why older isn’t better, you could just pick up some of the Orphan Barrel Series… Or they can just come over to my house and try them too.

MB: Yeah, I know, and I didn’t put this story in the book, but there is a group of master distillers from all the big places in Kentucky, and they all meet for lunch a few times a year. They all bring fun bottles for everyone to try. There was one of these meetings and one of them pulls out this 23 year old bottle. And these guys are masters, these are the guys from all the big distilleries. The guy who is relaying this story to me says he tastes it and says it’s like sucking on a pencil. He thinks it ‘s just not that good, not balanced, too much wood, it’s gross. He makes eye contact around the room and his buddies give him a look that the whiskey is just beyond the pale. He then looks across the room and the other half their eyes are rolling back… but maybe the other guys are being polite or maybe they honestly like it. It’s a bottle that everyone knows by the way…

NBD: Reid, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. The book was great and I hope everyone reads it.

FullSizeRender(128)

MB: Thank you.

Reid Mitenbuler Part III: Pappy, Podcasts & Golden Age of Whiskey?

Part III Conversation with Reid Mitenbuler

NBD: So are we in a Golden Age of Whiskey or are we in a bubble?

MB: A little bit of both. I was talking to a friend about this about whether we are in a true golden age right now. If I could go back to any age in whiskey history, when would I go back? Part of me would go back to the early 2000s. It’s not just about Pappy—I’ve had plenty of Pappy. I had a friend who had a lot of it and anyone who asked he would give them a mini bottle. Half the people would think it’s good but it’s no big deal, while the other half’s eyes would roll back in their head and basically die. In the 90s it was the same with Scotch, you wouldn’t think twice about buying 18 or 20yr old because it wasn’t that expensive. Then you had the 60s, with the Whiskey Lake and the big glut years. Back then you still had more producers with different varieties. The 50s and 60s was perhaps another golden age. Today, I would argue we aren’t in a golden age because the demand is far outpacing the supply. To be in a golden age you need the ability to walk into a liquor store and the good stuff is available and you don’t have to do this big hunt for it. But we could be on the brink of one. People aren’t talking about gluts, but producers are coming up with more supply, and maybe in a few years we could get to a more balanced supply/demand dynamic. When the craft distilleries get better, get rid of the small barrels, age their stuff longer, then, we could be on the cusp of another golden age.

NBD: It seems that a lot of people are investing in new distilleries or brands, do you think now is the right time to invest in one?

MB: A lot of people have asked me similar questions, and I think it is a little late. There are a lot of people who have established the marketing and branding—branding is huge. It might be more important than the product itself. I was looking at a new brand that crowd-sourced $86k and were boasting about it.

NBD: You can’t open a distillery with $86k.

MB: I was looking at that number and thinking they need to multiply that by a hundred to do it right. From a business perspective, $86k, you can romanticize, but you can’t pay your bills with that. I look at some of the more promising craft distilleries and they are extremely well funded. It looks like there is family money behind a lot of them. I was ordering burgers with a friend of mine at a bar and we orders beers from Firestone-Walker brewery, and the story behind it is it’s the Firestone Tire guys. He could do whatever he wanted with it, and he didn’t care about the money, he just wanted to make awesome beer.

NBD: I’m sure they make money, they make phenomenal beer and their limited annual releases like Parabola, Velvet Merkin are always great.

MB: Yeah, and I’m extremely impressed by them. My friend basically said they weren’t too worried about the money side of it because of the funding, and he just wanted to focus on making the best product. The guys out there who have the capital are in it to win it to make the best possible product.

NBD: Seems like the way you used to spend a lot of money if you were rich was buy a vineyard and start a winery. The old adage of how to make a small fortune in the wine making business is to start with a large fortune.

MB: Yeah, or as a retirement project for a lot of guys.

NBD: Do you listen to any whiskey podcasts?

MB: I was just on WhiskeyCast and was also on Mark Bylok’s podcast, that was pretty fun. Mark Gillepsie is very professional, very nice guy. He has a career in news and he is very polished.

NBD: I listen to both of those and I agree Gillepsie’s WhiskeyCast is very professional, but I derive more enjoyment from Bylok’s; it’s just more fun. My wife also will allow me to play his in the car because she likes Jamie Johnson—mostly because Jamie says she goes to bed early and my wife can barely stay up past 9pm.

MB: Ha ha, very funny.

I will post Part IV, the conclusion to my interview with Reid Mitenbuler, later in the week.

FullSizeRender(127)

Reid Mitenbuler Part II: Bunkering, Weller 12, Barrell Bourbon & Unicorns

Part II of my phone conversation with Reid Mitenbuler:

NBD: So what is your special occasion bottle, hidden in the back of the bar, so your friends don’t drink it when they stop by?

MB: For that kind of stuff I have the Stagg, the special stuff from Buffalo Trace. Thomas Handy, the old Hirsch, that kind of stuff.

NBD: That’s a pretty good collection.

MB: Yeah, but I don’t bunker though. I have a lot of friends that have dozens of bottles just filling up a closet. I went through a phase where there was a lot of stuff I wanted to try. So I had a million kinds of bottles that were half full, but then as prices started to get a little crazy and people started hoarding bottles… I’d be talking to certain store owners and they’d say that people would walk into the store and as soon as something would get released, they would buy a case. And that is the kind of thing that is causing a shortage. There isn’t a real shortage, bottles are just sitting unopened in the basements and closets of all the whiskey geeks.   Just sitting there, unopened, the shortage isn’t real.

NBD: I know exactly what you mean. I tried to get Weller 12, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in the area, I had to trade someone for it on Craigslist.

MB: Right, because people are hoarding it. Speaking specifically about Weller 12, I went to a few liquor stores and the owners would say that when they would get it in stock, some people would just buy all of it. It’s annoying. It feeds on itself. People have this mindset that when the good stuff comes in, it’s gone. It never used to be that way. A lot of old time whiskey geeks complain and talk about the old days. The Van Winkle Lot B used to be my Friday night drink, but I used to get it for $38 a bottle. And when you were finished with it, every liquor store had it. So what I did was stopped buying booze for a long time and just was drinking down my open bottles—plus we were moving so that helped. So I no longer have a huge collection. I fee like I disappoint people sometimes when they ask me for my favorite, as if I’m going to reveal some big secret. I’m not trying to be cute, but stuff like Old Grandad and standard Buffalo Trace is very good.

NBD: I tend to prefer cask strength stuff these days. Speaking of standard stuff, I had the Maker’s Cask Strength and I thought it was really good.

MB: I tried that shortly after it came out and it is really good. It has a pretty heavy punch to it, so I would definitely bring it down with a little bit of water.

NBD: It seems that most of the special release cask strength stuff is the hardest to find, like the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and I’ve seen another one on the shelf, Barrel Bourbon.

MB: Yeah, I’ve tasted a couple different expressions of Barrel Bourbon that I had at a tasting. I thought Batch #004 was great. It has the wine thing going on with the different batches like vintages.

In Part Three Reid will let us know whether he thinks Bourbon is in a golden age or a bubble….

FullSizeRender(126)

Reid Mitenbuler Conversation Author of Bourbon Empire, Part I

Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire, was kind enough to take 40 minutes of his Sunday afternoon to chat with me about his book, Bourbon and life. Reid currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, but maintains his DC area code cell phone.

Side Rant to Everyone: Once you get a cell phone, that’s your cell phone number for life. There are some exceptions like moving abroad for work, etc., but if you live domestically, that’s what you get. If you leave Southern California for NYC, keep that 858 area code and cherish it. Don’t be that person who throws away their past for a 646.

For the sake of continuity, readability and length, I’ve taken the liberty of condensing some of the questions and answers:

NewBoubonDrinker: Reid, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I loved the book, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. There is a lot of honesty and truth in the book. As a consumer that is something that I really enjoyed, but I’m guessing there are a lot of producers that don’t want all the truth to be known.

Reid Mitenbuler: Thank you. The feedback has been very, very positive. Even though most of the book was very positive except for a few things like small barrels. No one has come back, even the producers that use shortcuts like small barrels, probably because they know they are taking a shortcut. Shortcuts are an elephant in the room: everyone knows about them, but they don’t focus on them. I always thought what if people talked about whiskey like they talk about sports. You can be critical, but not be mean.

NWD: That makes sense… I’m a Yankees fan, and I don’t like the Mets. Maybe you like Diageo instead of Beam, same idea.

MB: Exactly.

NWD: What I find interesting, and you mentioned this in your book, is that the vast majority of what people drink are from a few companies and a handful of distilleries.

But everyone wants to be craft, small.

MB: Yes, but also some of the big ones are craft, but craft isn’t always good. The big companies do a really good job—distilling is an industrial practice. I do feel that maybe in five to ten years some of the small craft stuff has a lot of potential. The optics of the craft industry is, they’re small, there in a refurbished warehouse in a gentrified part of the city, etc…

NWD: It’s interesting because it takes a long time to produce a good craft whiskey. Craft beer however, which there is a lot of out there, doesn’t take a long time to produce. Some of it is really great, while some of it is terrible. It only takes a couple months to go from start to a finished product.

MB: Yeah. Not to mention, the guys who are doing craft beer are perfecting their craft at home on a small scale. You can’t implement a fully industrial product at home like distilling; the home producer doesn’t have that ability. The scale that is required is a factor. Who at home is going to buy a huge barrel? The mechanics of spirits doesn’t allow the person at home to try it out before, while many of the craft beers did just that. You can’t really compare them.

I sometimes worry that I’m a little too hard on craft, but I talk to some people who think I’m not hard enough. If in sports everyone just told each other how great they are, no one would improve, they need to be pushed. There isn’t enough discourse like that in craft. Most comments out there about the craft guys are ‘it’s just awesome.’

NWD: What I like about craft beer is that you can go out and buy a few for $3-$12 each, and if they stink, it’s not a big deal, you can just pour them down the drain. If you buy a craft whiskey for $60 and it sucks, you don’t dump them out, it’s going to be sitting on your shelf for a long time.

So, what’s your go to drink right now?

MB: The stuff I have at home is pretty standard, although I do have some of those special occasion bottles. The stuff from Buffalo Trace is a favorite of mine. It was an early distillery tour that I felt was special. My benchmark is the Buffalo Trace regular label. When you look at it from a price point, it’s amazing they can put out something of that quality. That’s how I benchmark other whiskeys.

I will continue my conversation with Reid later in the week.

IMG_6668