While I am a history fan, I’m not someone who tends to do much original research. There are a lot of stories that I am interested in that have already been told. I haven’t gotten around to researching the ones that haven’t yet. But being a fan of history has led me to find some pretty interesting people. One of those people is Brian Haara of the blog Sipp’n Corn.
Brian is one of those writers that, unlike me, is actually doing original research and telling stories about bourbon that seem to have been lost in the shuffle. The stories that Brian tells are told through the lens of historical lawsuits. It is amazing how many times the names we all know from bourbon labels sued one another and how often that helped change bourbon into the product we all love today. If you aren’t reading Sipp’n Corn, you should be. I, for one, am a huge fan.
So without further ado, Brian Haara.
Hey Brian, thanks for agreeing to be the third interview in this series. First things first: who are you, anyway?
First, thanks for including me as a part of your interview series! It’s an honor.
As for me, when I’m not solving legal problems for clients (yes, I’m an attorney), I write about the law and lawlessness of Bourbon at Sipp’n Corn. I have bigger plans though; my goal all along has been to write a book! This is new territory for me, so I can’t say that I know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m enjoying every minute of it.
I live in Louisville, but I’m not a native Kentuckian. This month actually marks the point where I’ve lived an equal number of years in Michigan and Kentucky. I was born and raised in Michigan, in a small town right on Lake Michigan, where you learn to drive a boat before a car. I’ve lived in Kentucky since 1993 when I arrived here for law school. Now I’m a partner in a business litigation law firm in Louisville, where I like to think that we’re the type of firm that Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. would have hired for his overabundance of litigation.
We’ve spent some time together in real life, so I know you are a bourbon fan. How'd you get into it?
It’s hard to not be into Bourbon as a Kentuckian. It’s part of our culture, part of our pride in the Commonwealth, and certainly part of our economy. But I actually had to warm up to Bourbon. My initial experience with Bourbon was bottom-shelf rot gut, and I wasn’t a fan. After moving to Kentucky and starting law school in the early 90’s, Maker’s Mark was my introduction into good Bourbon, but we were all still on student budgets, so there was still plenty of swill. Once I had a paying job in 1996, Maker’s was a mainstay, and by the early 2000’s I was expanding my horizons and enjoying some remarkable Bourbon. Remember, this was a time (at least in Kentucky), when we could buy Van Winkle brands anywhere. My law firm even bought cases of custom-labeled Van Winkle as client gifts.
Then, in the last decade, my love of Bourbon really hit full stride, leading to today, where I collaborate with different retailers to help select private barrels, and where family, friends, and some clients treat me as their Bourbon resource. I’m not exactly sure how it happened.
You write about bourbon and its history at sippncorn.blogspot.com. What I find most interesting about Sipp’n Corn is that you tell that history through the lens of lawsuits. What's the history of Sipp’n Corn? Where did this idea come from? And how about that name? It’s one of the more poetic out there for a whiskey blog.
Thanks – it’s very perceptive of you to say that the name “Sipp’n Corn” is poetic, because its inspiration is indeed poetry. Kentucky attorney, poet and Civil War scholar William H. Townsend wrote “The Squire” in the 1950’s, dedicated to his friend J. Winston “Squire” Coleman, Jr., who displayed “real Bluegrass charm” at Winburn Farm, where the Squire would talk about Kentucky history as he and his guests “sip our corn.” The poem spoke to me, and the name “Sipp’n Corn” is a tribute to the Squire.
Much later, just over two years ago while I was researching some unrelated topic, I happened upon a case from 1881 where James E. Pepper had sued Labrot & Graham over Labrot & Graham’s continued use of the name “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery,” which had been owned by James’s father and grandfather, but which James lost in bankruptcy after Oscar died. The story played out better than fiction, and I was hooked.
So I looked for more cases, and I found that Bourbon law really tracks the development of the United States, from conquering the wild frontier, to rugged individualism, to the entrepreneurial spirit, to establishing a nation of laws. U.S. legal history was often developed around whiskey, covering so many substantive areas of the law, like trademark, breach of contract, fraud, governmental regulation and taxation, and consumer protection. American law basically developed along with the Bourbon industry, which both in turn track the evolution and growth of the United States. Whiskey, American law, and U.S. history are incredibly intertwined, and I was finding it all right in front of me in case reports from the 1800’s.
At the same time, I had become pretty jaded about Bourbon marketing stories and misrepresentations on labels. There’s plenty of incorrect and conflicting information out there about Bourbon history, and I realized that if a fact made it into a case, that meant it had been supported by actual evidence – documents, testimony, etc. – and that I found reliable history. I love reading old cases and finding tidbits (and sometimes more) that debunk current marketing stories.
You tell a lot of really interesting historical stories that many of us have never heard told before. Where do you find these stories? Do you spend your days prowling through old law libraries?
Sometimes I wish that was the case, because I love old libraries, and I can picture myself with a stack of leather-bound books, and a green table lamp, as I sip my corn. In reality, I’ve learned where to look and I can do most of my research online. The exception is finding really old Kentucky court files, many of which are archived in Frankfort, Kentucky.
I’m always on the lookout for hidden old lawsuits, and I look forward to the day when I have the time to spend time combing through dusty archives.
Being a fan of history myself, I often notice that one can gain additional insights into modern events by viewing them through a historical lens. Knowing that you’ve done extensive research into bourbon history, what is going on in bourbon today that could stand to be viewed through the lens of history?
I couldn’t agree more. In many ways, we’ve come full circle, or at least we keep experiencing the same Bourbon issues over and over again. Today – particularly because of the Bourbon boom – we’re seeing a resurgence of gimmicky quick-aging attempts and claims. Making young whiskey (or neutral grain spirits) taste like mature Bourbon has been a goal of short-cutters since at least the 1800’s, and it was a major thorn in the side of people like Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Col. Taylor helped solve that problem with the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, and then subsequent blows were dealt by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Taft Decision of 1909.
However, after the repeal of Prohibition, short-cutters added charred oak chips to barrels, agitated the distillate in barrels, and tried other ways to speed up aging to address the shortage caused by Prohibition. Now, some new producers are making the same sorts of claims about how they’ve found ways to make young Bourbon taste like it’s been aged for six or so years. Maybe they haven’t learned that it really does take time to create excellent Bourbon.
Established distillers are also responding to the Bourbon boom by increasing production. In fact, we’re now at an all-time high for production and aging barrels. While well-aged Bourbon might be harder to find now, I can’t help but think that this increased production will result in a glut. The industry has dealt with shortages and gluts before, so ten years from now, I’ll be very interested to see if the producers made the same mistakes as in past decades, resulting in bankruptcies and mass consolidation.
More generally, what's your take on the state of the bourbon industry right now? What would you like to see happen?
I lean more toward being a purist, so I’m concerned about trends that dilute Straight Bourbon Whiskey as a class. I’m not particularly concerned about non-distiller producers (NDPs) in general, but when they mislead consumers, I’m all for making them pay. NDPs are another set of people who ought to view what they’re doing through the lens of Bourbon history.
Certainly some NDPs have done it right, and some also happen to distill their own spirits too (I’m thinking, in particular, of Willett and Smooth Ambler). But other NDPs have misrepresented both their history and the provenance of their product, so I’ve recently drawn a bright line for myself that I won’t support the worst offenders through purchases.
In my opinion, the purest major brand now on the market is Four Roses. Four Roses only produces three brands (plus limited editions and a private barrel program), and each one is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. No flavoring; no finishing; no gimmicky names; no fake history; no price-gouging; and no fear of transparency. I’d like to see Four Roses stay that way as Jim Rutledge retires and Brent Elliott takes the reins as Master Distiller, and I’d like to see other brands try to emulate this style, instead of succumbing to the temptation of “the next big money grab.”
Straight Bourbon Whiskey has made a comeback on its own merits, which is precisely how Col. Taylor promoted and protected it so fiercely. Brands that are eliminating age statements, adding flavoring, sacrificing quality in distillation, making up stories, or trying to artificially accelerate aging, are putting the entire Bourbon resurgence at risk. Straight Bourbon Whiskey is not about a quick hit or a quick buck.
Despite this sounding like a bit of doom and gloom, and despite missing my practically unlimited access to more reasonably-priced top-shelf Bourbon ten years ago, I’m ecstatic with the state of the Bourbon industry right now. The Bourbon boom has forced producers to bring their “A game,” resulting in some of the best limited edition Bourbons ever released. Even ten years ago, many honey barrels were blended into obscenely large batches, being lost forever in mediocrity. Now, with smaller batches and especially single barrel releases, more consumers have access to mythical honey barrels.
While this has also resulted in the loss of age statements and arguably a decline in quality of large-batch brands, I’ll take that trade-off any day of the week for Four Roses Limited Editions (or even private barrels), Willett Family Estate Single Barrels, Booker’s 25th Anniversary, some of the Parker’s Heritage Collections and other Heaven Hill special releases, and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. This is an unprecedented number of fantastic Bourbon releases, and they never would have seen the light of day without the Bourbon boom.
Hypothetical question: A new bourbon magazine comes calling and offers you a column. Would you be interested and what beat would you choose to cover?
I’d probably pass. I love my law practice and the flexibility it gives me to research and write on my own timeline. On the other hand, I can see freelance writing about Bourbon lawsuits, and hope that the popular press sees your interview and realizes the broad appeal that my subject-matter could have.
Better yet, if a publisher comes calling with a nice advance for my book, or if a studio wants help with a screenplay for an 1800’s Bourbon-themed period piece, that would make my day.
Plug time: where can people find you online and is there anything else you'd like to plug?
Your readers can check out http://sippncorn.blogspot.com/ to learn about Bourbon history through the lens of some incredibly interesting old lawsuits. Maybe your favorite brand doesn’t have the history you thought, or maybe you’ll find yourself rooting for the underdogs. I also publish Bourbon reviews ranging from $10 bottles to $300 bottles, and everything in between.
Your readers can also find me on Twitter, @sippncorn, where I focus more on current developments and news about Bourbon, new releases, current lawsuits, and sharing reviews from other bloggers. I stubbornly limit my tweets to whiskey-related topics, so you’ll never see political or social comments, which I prefer to keep to myself, or cat videos or Kardashian nonsense.
There are so many great whiskey bloggers and writers out there, far too many to list. Some take a caustic approach, others take a hilarious approach, some are super serious, and others tow the company line; I read them all. I’m not sure exactly how we all manage it, but there’s something for everyone.
I also read as many Bourbon books as I can get my hands on. The crop of new books has been great for the most part, but I also like finding older books at the discount retailers. This spring I read The Book of Classic American Whiskies, which although published in 1995, already qualifies as an older book because it predates the boom. Buffalo Trace was still Leestown Distilling Co., Four Roses was still Seagram’s, and the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery had just been repurchased by Brown-Forman and Woodford Reserve was about to launch. While this book contains some annoying errors, it paints a quaint picture of the Bourbon world, and reminds us of how much has changed in such a short time.
My favorite book of 2015 has been Bourbon Empire; The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, by Reid Mitenbuler. It’s the sort of legal-political review of Bourbon history that I wish I could have written.
Thanks for your contributions, too, Eric. You have a knack for straight talk and balanced criticism when it’s due. I’ll also be on the lookout for future installments of your interview series! It’s great to have insights into the writers we all follow.
Aww, thanks Brian! I would like to thank Brian for taking the time to answer a few questions and encourage everyone to check out his site. And if you hunger for just a little more of this conversation, Brian was nice enough to talk with me via Google Hangouts for another 10 minutes or so. I have made a video of it available to my patrons at patreon.com/arok.