Tommyrotter Triple Barrel American Whiskey plus an interview with Bobby Finan of Tommyrotter Distilling

I state in my Statement of Ethics that if I accept a review sample, I will disclose it at the beginning of the article. I’d like to thank Bobby Finan and Tommyrotter Distilling for providing this sample to me with no strings attached.

A few months ago, Bobby Finan of Tommyrotter Distillery in Buffalo, NY reached out to me to see if I would like to receive a sample of their products. Because I rarely say no to the opportunity to try something that I cannot get at home, I gladly accepted the offer. And because I’m a curious fellow who enjoys talking with people who are passionate about what they do, I decided to ask him some questions in return. He was gracious enough to answer them.

That’s right, I got free whiskey and then got him to write half of this post to boot.


Eric: So, Bobby, tell me a little about yourself and Tommyrotter distillery. We live in the age of superheroes on the big screen so what is the origin story of Tommyrotter?

Bobby Finan: I’m a born and raised Buffalonian and own Tommyrotter with my business partner. We’ve been at it for 4 years and are expanding our footprint throughout the Northeast and outward to other key markets in the US. I got turned onto distilling while living in NYC interning at an investment bank. I learned pretty quickly cubicle life was not for me and happened upon the distilleries that were popping up in Brooklyn. I was infatuated with them. After I completed college, I worked at a Central NY craft distillery that was moving towards opening and got to experience the start up phase of launching a distillery. I soon moved back to my hometown of Buffalo, where I met my business partner and we launched what would become Tommyrotter Distillery. In attempting to come up with a name we dove into old stories about our city - we wanted a name that alluded to “craft production,” “quality,” tied into Buffalo and was totally unique. We came across the story of the Tommyrotter’s Club, a group of rebellious artisans who worked on the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, NY (the rural suburb that I grew up in just south of Buffalo) back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Roycroft was the birthplace of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, a kind of counterculture to the Industrial Revolution, where artists and craftspeople lived, worked and made their high end goods by hand. The Campus is still functioning today and is a pillar of the Western New York arts community. We dug the Tommyrotter name because these guys kind of bucked the rules - they we’re known for sneaking out of work to go adventure seeking, create for creation’s sake and maybe enjoy a couple drinks while doing it.

Eric: After looking at your website, I know that you produce a couple of whiskies and you sent over a sample of a gin, What else do you produce? And what would you consider your “specialty?”

Bobby: We distill a vodka, one type of gin (and barrel it for a second product) and we blend and finish whiskeys Our specialty is definitely gin, our American Gin is our top selling product and our Cask Strength Bourbon-Barrel Gin gets a lot of press, awards and cocktail menu placement due to how unique and delicious it is. The American Gin has developed a really loyal following due to the botanicals we use. We infuse 12 botanicals through vapor distillation and utilize a lot of baking spice (think nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon) and balance it out with citrus and juniper. In Buffalo, NY, our hometown, we’ve got Hendricks on the ropes in most local liquor stores and have a lot of people who say, “Tommyrotter is the only gin I’ll drink.” The Cask Strength Bourbon-Barrel Gin is the exact same gin as our American Gin, just thrown into a brand new white American oaks #3 char barrel for about a year and bottled at 122 Proof. It’s a one-of-a-kind spirit, a real category bender and is one of the most complex spirits on the market in my opinion (but the critics say so too!).

Eric: Tonight I’ll be reviewing the Tommyrotter American Whiskey. You labeled it “Triple Barrel.” Tell us the story behind that. What is a Triple Barrel American Whiskey at Tommyrotter?

Bobby: “Triple Barrel” really has two meanings or two points of significance as they pertain to the product and name. Our American Whiskey is a blend of two mash bills of bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey - three types of whiskey or three barrels. That blend is then finished in French oak that previously housed red wine (we’re typically utilizing ex-Cab Sauv and ex-Cab Franc barrels). As you might assume, the two bourbons are aged in brand new white American charred oak. The Tennessee is aged in recharred next use American oak barrels that previously housed bourbon. In total, the whiskey we blend, finish and bottle is product of three types of barrel treatment…and so we again arrive at “Triple Barrel.” On a geekier note: One of the bourbon is a high corn mash bill and when we started rolling out whiskey was a little north of 1 year old, that input is now regularly 2+ years old, the second bourbon is 5-6 year old high wheat mash bill, the Tennessee is 7 years old and also has a pretty high corn level in the MB. The weighted average of the mash bills by function of blend ratio balances out at 81% Corn / 9% Wheat / 5% Rye / 6% Barley.

Eric: I notice that the sample you sent me says that it was distilled in Tennessee and Indiana. I have a good guess as to what those distilleries might be, but can you confirm?

Bobby: One of the distilleries doesn’t like us mentioning their name, the other doesn’t care. For the sake of enjoying a good wink and nod opportunity, I’d say if you made a quarter-way educated guess, you’d likely be right.

Eric: As a follow-up, since this is a barrel-finished whiskey, you obviously have access to barrels. Are you buying fully matured whiskey from your suppliers or do you buy new-make and age in in-house?

Bobby: The answer to that “or” question is: Yes. Building a whiskey program takes a lot of planning. You’re buying older/matured whiskey to finish and package now. You’re buying slightly less old whiskey to bottle next year and so on and so on. Simultaneously, you’re buying new-fill whiskey and aging in house or in contracted bonded-warehouses due to scale to be of age when you hit the bottom of your less aged product that is coming to age every year. I was trying to description the shape of the curve you follow on purchasing, but it’s really a three dimensional curve and the variable where getting overly wordy to explain. In summation, there is a decent amount of algebra based on projections and an understanding that you may be offloading excess or scrambling for supplementary barrels until you really dial in demand and growth.

Eric: Are there plans to transition your whiskey to ones made from your own distillate in the future? If so, how far along that process are you? Can you give us any hints about what to keep an eye out for?

Bobby: We’d like to build a new facility and actively moving in that direction - may be two years out or so - but at the new facility we’d have full whiskey production capability and eventually moving towards our own juice. It takes a long time to fully make that transition.

Eric: Finally, where can an interested reader learn more about Tommyrotter and your products?

Bobby: Give us a follow on Instagram or Facebook - we come out with a limited release whiskey product each fall and are making a concerted effort to expand our single barrel program for our Cask Strength Bourbon-Barrel Gin beyond upstate NY. The single barrels of our CSBBG are awesome. Just really, really awesome.

Eric: Thanks for answering a few questions for me. I, and the readers, appreciate it.

Tommyrotter Triple Barrel American Whiskey

Purchase Info: This sample was graciously provided for review purposes by the distillery. This product can be found for $35 for a 750 mL bottle.

Details: 46% ABV. Age stated at 1 year old.

Nose: Sweet with buttered popcorn, spearmint and caramel.

Mouth: Cornpops cereal, cinnamon and black pepper

Finish: On the shorter side of medium. Lingering spearmint.

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Thoughts: This is a very grain forward whiskey but I wouldn’t necessarily say it tastes “young” as there are no rough edges at all. I tasted this neat and it reminds me of a good quality corn whiskey. I also made a small old fashioned with it and it performed well. I liked how the sweetness of the whiskey played with the spice of the aromatic bitters I chose. Overall, I’d recommend this to people who like sweet, grain forward whiskies.


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Bird Dog 10 Year Old Very Small Batch

My first introduction to the Bird Dog brand was a while ago. I liked to stop by the Burnsville location of one of our local chains because the guy they had working in the bourbon department was top-notch. We had fun whiskey conversations all the time. 

Often, the chat would start with me asking what new stuff they'd gotten in recently and what they were expecting. During a lull one time, he pointed to something new they'd gotten in. It was one of the flavored Bird Dog whiskeys: peach, blackberry, something like that. 

I was going through a deep philosophical dislike of flavored bourbon at the time. And since in my mind, Bird Dog was a "flavored Bourbon company" I never really gave them another thought. I've since softened immensely on the idea of flavored bourbon, figuring that I needed to shut up and just let people drink what they like. But for some reason, that initial impression of the brand was hard to shake. 

Well, that is until I was walking through the store last week looking for something to review. I was walking down the bourbon aisle, waiting for something that I hadn't had before to catch my eye. 

Yes, sometimes this really is how things get on the site.

Anyway, I was walking, and I noticed right next to Bookers was a bottle that said "10 Years Old" big and bold right across the label. Glancing down at the price, I saw that it was $35. "Well, shit," I said, "no matter who is putting this out, 10-year-old and under $40 is interesting." So I grabbed the bottle of Bird Dog 10-year-old and went on my merry way. 

Now, once I got home, and I did have a few questions for the producer. I knew this was a sourced bourbon and was put out by the same people as the Calumet so I reached out to them. I figured if I had these questions, you would too. Jon Holecz, Vice President of Marketing at Western Spirits (the Bird Dog brand owner) was kind enough to answer my questions. 

First, noticing the lack of Straight on the label, I asked: "There is no mention of the word straight on the label. Was this a marketing decision or does this not qualify for that designation? As it is a sourced product, I know that it can't be called straight if it is sourced from multiple states, etc. And speaking of sourcing, are you at liberty to disclose where it is from?"

Jon: "This was a marketing decision, and all of our bourbon is distilled and aged in KY. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to disclose our source for this bourbon. Sorry!"

My wife noticed the "very small batch" near the bottom of the label and wondered "how small is your very small batch?"

Jon: "Each batch uses less than 100 barrels in the Bird Dog 10 Year Old Very Small Batch."

And finally, I was shocked by an age stated bourbon for an affordable price: "A 10-year-old bourbon at an affordable price is something of a rarity these days. I applaud you for being able to pull that off. I guess my final question is how did you accomplish it?"

Jon: "We are very proud of our Bird Dog 10 year old.  As Bird Dog is still a new brand to many consumers, we do not want to over price ourselves in the super competitive market."

I want to thank Jon for taking the time to answer my questions.

Bird Dog 10 Year Old Very Small Batch Bourbon

Purchase Info: $34.99 for a 750 mL bottle at Total Wine in Burnsville, MN.

Details: 10 Years Old. 45% ABV.

Nose: Bubblegum, mint, vanilla and a little dill.

Mouth: Good spice in the mouth, mint, vanilla, and oak tannins. 

Finish: Medium length. Nice spice at the back of the tongue. Lingering dark chocolate notes.

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Thoughts: This is a ten-year-old bourbon that I bought for $35. That alone makes this worth a look. The fact that it is pretty tasty helps too. It is a very solid, well-crafted bourbon that has a nice "well-aged" flavor. Good oak which is not overpowering, good vanilla sweetness, and good spice. It works well neat and holds up well in a cocktail. If you are trying to find something to compare it to, it sort of reminds me of a Barton bourbon. Yeah. I like this one.  


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Getting Geeky with Union Horse Distilling Company, Part One: the Interview

As I state in my Statement of Ethics, I seldom accept review samples. And that if I do, I will disclose it at the beginning of the article. Please consider it disclosed. I would like to thank FleishmanHillard for putting me into contact with the distillery and providing the bottles being discussed and reviewed this week. 

So yes, I broke my “No Review Samples” rule. I seldom do this, but when Union Horse Distillery agreed to get a bit geeky with us and answer some questions, I felt that the exchange was worth it. The following questions are a combination of reader questions and my own. They were answered by Patrick Garcia, Master Distiller for Union Horse Distillery and Damian Garcia, Director of Sales and Marketing for Union Horse. Enjoy!


Eric: Let’s start at the beginning of the process with the water. Your press release mentions that “Union Horse is rooted in an appreciation for the unified spirit it takes to run a homegrown business and the force which runs through its products.” It then specifically mentions water along with grain and barrels. A lot of distilleries in Kentucky make claims about the quality of the water they are drawing from, even though in many cases it is just the city water. So what’s going on with your water? Was that poetic license or is there something special about the Kansas City aquifer? If not, is there a specific adjustment that you take to help the fermentation process?

Patrick: We use regular city water which is carbon filtered. All of our mashes are sour mashes which helps with adjusting the pH for fermentation. 

Eric: Along those same lines let’s talk about grain. Where do you source your grain from?

Damian: We mill locally sourced grains of the finest quality we can get from the Midwest, in particular from Kansas and Missouri farmers. And, we donate the spent grain to local Kansas dairy farmer. We like keeping it local as we believe it strengthens our local economy, and highlights the amazing products we have in the region. 

Eric: Continuing with grain and moving into the cooking and fermentation process, the mash bills on your website state that your rye whiskey is 100% rye and that your bourbon is made with “a sour mash recipe consisting of corn and rye.” So my question is: are you using commercial enzymes in place of malted barley, as they do in Canada, or are you malting one of the other ingredients such as the rye or corn? In either case, can you touch on why that decision was made instead of using the traditional malted barley?

Patrick: Yes, we are using commercial enzymes in place of malted barley. We chose to use enzymes because we can control a mash a lot easier without the need for additional grain like malted barley. Enzymes enable us to more accurately control the liquefaction, and saccharification stages. Viscosity is also another issue easily controlled with enzymes especially with a Rye Mash. 

Damian: This also makes our whiskies very different in flavor than most traditional whiskies, with the corn and rye grains being richer within the foundation. The floral notes that the malted barley brings maybe absent, but the sweet, bold and spicy notes are very prevalent. 

Eric: Let’s stay with fermentation and move into the other necessary ingredient to making fermentation happen: yeast. I’ve talked with a range of distillers. Some (like many of the large whiskey makers) who take great pride in their yeast and some who admittedly just use whatever they happened to have purchased last time. Where does Union Horse land on that spectrum? Over the years you’ve been doing this, have your thoughts about what yeast to use changed at all?

Patrick: When we first started we tried multiple yeast strains from wine to champagne, beer to whiskey. There are a lot of choices out there and we narrowed it down to a couple of strains that we liked the best and tasted the best. We have a certain yeast strains, and certain combinations of them, we use for each of our products but that information is proprietary. 

Eric: I’d like to skip distillation for a moment and move on to the other ingredient you mentioned in your press release: barrels. A lot of readers like to know about barrels so there are going to be a few of them here. First of all your press release mentions your “signature barrels.” So what make these barrels special? What size barrels do you use? What char level are they?

Patrick: The 53-gallon signature oak barrels come from Missouri forests and are made from primarily White Oak. Union Horse Distilling Co. requires that they are produced from 24 month, air dried, outdoors seasoned, aged wood at a char level of #3, with lightly charred heads and branded with the UHDCo. logo. 

Eric: One reader who I shared a sample with, asked if you used toasted barrel heads as the flavors reminded him of toasting?

Patrick: With them being lightly charred, the whiskey will bring flavors of a low-medium toast.

Eric: Skipping to aging process. Do you age in a climate controlled environment or do you just let nature take it’s course?

Patrick: Our barrels are stored in our non-climate controlled warehouse that gets extremely cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. The drastic climate shifts we experience in Kansas City (Midwest) is perfect for the maturation of our whiskey. The barrels expand and contract throughout the years adding continuous depth and complexity with each cycle. 

Eric: Now onto the whiskey in the bottle. I was sent a bottle of Batch 1 of the Rye and Batch 2 of the bourbon. How big are your batches and how long do you let them marry before bottling?

Patrick: One batch could be anywhere from 1000-2000 bottles. We will blend different lots of barrels to create a batch and then yes we let it marry or rest for a period of time before filtration and bottling. 

Eric: I’ve talked with other craft distillers who, for marketing reasons, have decided to not use the word “Straight” on their label. Union Horse uses it prominently on the label. Whiskey lovers everywhere applaud that, but what was your reasoning for including it?

Damian: We started distilling and aging our whiskies back in the spring of 2011. Our plan at that time was always to move into a “Straight” whiskey when the whiskey was ready and that time has now come. We feel these whiskies not only highlight the maturation of the spirit, but the maturation of our distillery. 

Eric: I get this reader question a lot when I review craft whiskies. Mostly because, unfortunately, some bad actors have poisoned this well and trust levels are low among a section of whiskey geeks. So to stave off the inevitable, I like to ask this. Union Horse doesn’t add any flavorings or additives to their straight bourbon or straight rye whiskey, correct? 

Patrick: No, no flavorings or additives are added. The #3 char caramelizes the natural sugars in the wood giving the whiskey a sweet caramel, smoky spice and vanilla flavor during the aging process.

Eric: The press release mentions that there is whiskey up to five years old and the label states the whiskey is two years old. So I’m assuming that these contain whiskies of varying ages (as most non-single-barrel whiskies do). Yours being from 2-5 years old. What’s the distribution of the whiskies in question? Is it mostly 2-3 year old whiskies with some 4 and 5 year olds thrown in to give it some depth? Or does is trend older than that?

Patrick: The ratio really depends on the taste of each lot ranging up to 5 years. We’ll test (taste) each barrel individually, then blend, proofed down to spec and test again to see what flavors are being brought to every single batch. 

Eric: As a follow on question, are you holding back some of those older stocks to release on their own some day?

Patrick: Our first barrels that were laid down are being used in these whiskies, but we also have others that we’re saving for future use; we’re really anxious to taste those in the next few years to see what they will continue to do.

Eric: I have another reader question regarding style. What style of whiskey are you aiming for? For example, some places want more oak, some want to be cocktail friendly, etc.

Damian: The aim is for our whiskies to be as well rounded as possible so that they can be enjoyed, neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail. 

Eric: What have you guys at Union Horse learned since the beginning? Have your processes changed between the older stocks you are using in these batches and the younger ones? Fermentation times, barrel entry proof, barrel size, etc. 

Patrick: There’s always growth in anything you apply yourself too and yes we’ve evolved and continue to do so, but we’ve pretty much tried to keep the processes the same from day one. Before we started our distillery we did a ton of research and worked behind the scenes on this craft which has enabled us to keep things pretty consistent.

Eric: And finally, where can we buy these whiskies? Is this a regional release or are there plans for going nation-wide with it?

Damian: These spirits are distributed in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, in and soon to be in Oklahoma, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Anyone not in those states can visit unionhorse.com/where-to-buy to see where our spirits can be purchased online.

Eric: I would like to thank Patrick and Damian for getting geeky with us and answering questions from both your fellow readers and myself. And once again thank FleishmanHillard for putting us into contact. Looking for the reviews? Due to the length of the article, I've broken it into two parts. The next part, coming Thursday, will be the whiskey reviews.


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Blog about a blogger who's blogging whiskey: Brian Haara

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. 


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Blog about a blogger who's blogging whiskey: Josh Feldman

I first ran across Coop (Josh Feldman of CopperedTot.com) a couple years ago as I was starting to scope out the whisky blogs before I started my own. I was (and am) obviously interested in the topic and wanted to get other points of view. What I didn’t realize as I clicked on that link for the first time was that I was also going to gain a friend. We started talking on twitter. He and my wife started talking on twitter. We commiserated about the awfulness of watching someone we love suffer through cancer. He helped me get through it and helped my wife as well. Then, all of a sudden, one day he was gone from twitter. In a massive outpouring of goodbyes, I realized that my new friend was everyone’s new friend. And that he was a pretty special guy on top of that.

Fast forward a few years and Coop has been back on twitter for a while. He’s blogging again and though it isn’t with the frequency he had at first, the posts are longer, more thought out and more interesting. He hits topics dealing with whisky history, the treatment of women in whisky advertising, old dusty whiskies, and local New York whisky coverage. And he’s still a great guy. 

Hey Josh, thanks for agreeing to be the second guinea pig for this series. First things first: who are you, anyway?

Hi Eric. I'm a dilettante - a person with many many passions and interests but who has lacked the ability to make a truly deep study of any of them. The downside of this is that I lack any advanced degrees, work in IT without being a master in any particular area, and partake in many subjects, ranging from whisky, climate science, jewelry making and design, astronomy, climate science, evolution and genetics, history and literature - all without an demonstrable expertise. The upside of my scattered (more generously, "Renaissance Man") approach is that I'm something of a polymath. My knowledge of many different areas allows me to make connections between areas that don't often get connected. When I encounter other writers and researchers doing that it really excites and inspires me. Examples include Adrienne Mayor's "The First Fossil Hunters" which is about how ancient myths of chimera creatures and the remains of giants actually represents how ancient peoples studied fossil remains of extinct giant mammals and reptiles. Another example is Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred" which is a fusion of philosophical commentary about the schism between religion and science in Western civilization and how the science of Emergence provides a way to knit up that schism because of the inherent mysticism in the science. A final example is Fred Minnick's "Whiskey Women" which fuses history and social commentary about the evolution of whiskey culture. Books like these can really expand your world view. That's what excites me and, I hope, is the silver lining my butterfly approach to my studies of things. I want to write like that. Recently I've found a voice on my whisky blog that brings some of this to bear.

I know you are a whiskey fan, you're active in the comments section of a ton of blogs, write your own, keep a Facebook group, etc. How'd you get into it?

When I was in college in New York I drank copious quantities of beer and bourbon like most of my peers. Having come from Berkeley's epicurean scene I knew a little about gourmet beer and undertook to taste ALL of the world's beers. I tasted hundreds and kept notes in a small binder - sadly now lost. After a while I realized the futility of the endeavor but along the way I explored, extensively, Scottish, English, and Irish ales, porters, stouts, and lagers, German wheat beers and lagers, Czech pilsners, Belgian Trappist ales, and so on. It was an object lesson in the creativity of diversity of the way brewers approach the craft of making alcohol. A few years later (late 1980s) I noticed that new single malts were being imported. I picked up a few: Glenfiddich Special Reserve (NAS), Macallan 12, Bowmore 12, Bruichladdich 12, and the Diageo Classic Malts Collection which in those days was Talisker 10, Lagavulin 16, Dalwhinnie 15, Oban 14, and Glenkinchie 12. I fell in love with Talisker right off the bat (how many times have heard that?) I was on my way. I didn't pursue Bourbon, however. I had drunk too much of it at a weekly card game where we made a point of killing a bottle before leaving the table as a display of macho stupidity. We were doing shots of what I now know was very good National Distillers Old Grand Dad, Stizel-Weller Cabin Still, Jim Beam White, 90 proof Jack Daniels and the like. In doing shots I missed the flavors. In getting drunk I established adversity. I didn't rediscover Bourbon until an event at Keen's steak house in 2006 when Paul Pacult had Wild Turkey take us through the line. Kentucky Spirit and Rare Breed were a revelation when properly aired, nosed, and sipped in a glencairn. I fell in love and my exploration of Bourbon began shortly thereafter. If only I had known what was coming I would explored the high end of Bourbon and the dusty world more vigorously in those days. So many things were available then which are absolutely gone (or insanely expensive) now.

You write about whiskey at CooperedTot.com. What's the history of The Coopered Tot? 

In the late 2000s I was a fierce Amazon reviewer. At my peak I made it into the top 50 ranking briefly. I reviewed a lot of different things, but also reviewed whisky. This was a frustrating enterprise as Amazon didn't actually sell whisky in the USA (as it does in the UK). They hosted listings from liquor stores and I put my reviews on those. These listings frequently expired and were deleted, and my reviews along with them (Amazon stopped listing hard spirits entirely in the US in 2012). To save my reviews I started a blog on blogger and just dumped the major portion of my Amazon reviews as blog posts. This is why I have a hundred or so reviews in my first few months of blogging. I wasn't expecting the social connection that the blog opened. Soon I was interacting on Twitter and Facebook with whisky people from all over the world. This led to a wealth of connections, learning, and great drinking. It has only built from there. This is the golden lining of Internet addiction.

You've recently transitioned from straight reviews to taking more of a historical bent. You've recently covered advertising, sexism, historical bourbons, etc. As these are my favorite posts, I have to ask, what's the cause of the switch?

I don't have time to write and do tasting notes on a regular basis. There a large number of great blogs out there doing tasting notes far more comprehensively and better than I can. I thought about what really interested me - and it's the history and the social context of whisky, distilling, and the culture of drinking. When I look into these back stories I find I'm able to make novel connections and really say something of value that's new. This excites me tremendously. I feel like I've found my voice as a whisky writer with these topics. I have a ton more in this vein in the works. Upcoming pieces include a riff on a 1994 academic paper by Adrienne Mayor about the iconography of the female body in Western art related to alcohol. I studied the topic and found I was able to extend her thesis (which begin in medieval European art) back to the ancient Greeks and forward through belle-epoque France and into the modern era in a host of areas ranging from fine art to stripper's dance acts. I've also indulged my obsession with the topic of how whisky expressions have changed over time by assembling a number of flights of certain brands that span many decades. I have bottles and samples of Old Overholt from Prohibition through the modern era. I have similar flights for brands ranging from White Horse, Teachers, Johnnie Walker Red and Black, Old Forester, Jim Beam, Old Grand Dad, etc... Some of these flights have big gaps (please send me samples of your dustys!) I'm a big fan of the bloggers who have done similar work - in particular Tim Read of Scotch and Ice Cream, Steve Ury of Sku's Recent Eats, Oliver Klimek's Dramming, and Serge Valentin's Whisky Fun. I'm also studying the pre-Prohibition and Prohibition era of American whisky. Important blogs for me in this area include John and Linda Lipman's Ellenjaye, and Jack Sullivan's Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men! I hope to eventually be able to contribute something new and important in the history of American whiskey space - particularly in the area of rye. There's a whole lot of stories left to tell. 

As a guy who follows this stuff, what's your take on the state of the bourbon industry right now? What would you like to see happen? 

It's an incredibly exciting time for Bourbon and American whiskey as a whole. Rapid growth has produced a mess, with Bourbon producers cutting age statement expressions and (related or not) a reduction in quality in many expressions. At the same time the explosion in American craft distilling is producing some fabulous new creative whiskies (Balcones, Westland, MacKenzie, Koval, St. George, and Charbay come immediately to mind - among many others). While, at the same time NDP producers threaten to confuse consumers and muddy the waters for the people legitimately doing the hard work of creating whiskey. The backlash against NDPs threatens collateral damage against rectifying houses that are doing real valuable and creative work (such as High West, Smooth Ambler, Angel's Envy, and Big Bottom). Chuck Cowdery, in particular, has been attempting to light a fire under regulators to enforce laws that make the State of distillation known on the label. I'd love a law that required the name(s) of the actual distilleries where the whiskies were sourced from to be listed. Marketing that makes confusion is obviously adaptive in the short term for building market share but is ultimately unhealthy for the American whiskey market over all. Object lessons include Michter's, who bottled amazing whiskies on the way to setting up their own distilling operation while generating ill-will from the Bourbon enthusiast community which is a shame, given the excellent stuff that they have out there. Other examples are Widow Jane, Whistlepig, Templeton, Calumet, just to name a few. Some of these places are actually making whisky, but have hopelessly muddled their names up with dishonesty about what their whiskies actually are. The one distillery that seems to have negotiated these perilous waters in an exemplary way is Willett's/Kentucky Bourbon Distillers - who have played all the roles, from broker, rectifier, blender, NDP, and distiller of their own stuff - in a fairly open and straightforward way. It doesn't hurt that the Kulsveens have excellent palates and have bottled a bunch of great bourbons and ryes. In the end the market will shake out of its own accord, but in the absence of clear intelligible laws and any kind of consistent regulatory enforcement, consumers and enthusiasts have been confused and misled and a lot of unnecessary anger has been produced. If you want to feel some of that anger, I highly recommend reading Bourbon Truth.

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?

This would be a dream come true for me. I'd absolutely love it and would do it if I could. I would love to write about American whiskey history, the whisky blogosphere beat, whisky in a wider cultural perspective, or, heck, tasting notes! I'm in love with all of it.

Plug time: where can people find you online and is there anything else you'd like to plug?

My blog is The Coopered Tot I have a bunch of great content on the blog (and don't miss checking out the blog roll on the left) - but I also have a ton of additional content related to tastings and my thinking and the accumulation of ideas for future posts on various other social media sites:

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/cooperedtot/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheCooperedTot

Instagram: http://instagram.com/cooperedtot

I help administer a closed Facebook group for whisky bloggers, vloggers, journalists and writers called "Whisky Bloggers". Any bloggers on Facebook who aren't members should consider joining. A URL is required, however, so if you don't have one, don't bother to apply.

A great open Facebook group for whisky bloggers to link their latest posts is "Whiskey Blogroll". I encourage everyone to check that out and join.

I would like to thank Coop for taking the time to answer a few questions and encourage everyone to check those out. I can honestly say, he’s one of my favorite people I’ve never met in real life.