Is the Future Bright for Bourbon Distillers?

On Sunday, the Associated Press had a story headlined “Kentucky Bourbon Makers see Bright Future.” This headline implies that bourbon distillers have large sales ahead of them. While it is true that bourbon, along with rye, has been riding a wave of popularity after some hard years, the body of the article presents the more complicated picture that is bourbon distilling.

Bourbon is by definition, a whiskey whose fermented mash contains at least 51 percent corn, is distilled at not more than 160 proof and is aged in new charred barrels.

It is the aging that represents both risk and benefit for bourbon manufacturers. Since 1958 distillers have been able to bond or store their product for twenty years without paying taxes. As the article points out, “Distillers are putting up the tab for millions of rounds of bourbon years before they are even ordered.” They are confident because last year they filled the most barrels since 1970.

The risk is that twenty years from now there may not be a market for what the distillers are currently producing. Bourbon distillers have faced this dilemma since the late nineteenth century. The bonding period dates back to 1868 and was part of compressive reform of liquor taxes.

From 1868 until the onset of Prohibition bourbon distillers suffered through repeated boom and bust cycles where they were often left owing taxes that they could not pay back. These cycles continued after Prohibition and into the 1950s. The Forand Bill, which raised the bonding period to 20 years, was a response to the plight of distillers, who had produced too much and could not pay the taxes they owed.

A bonding period of twenty years did provide more stability to the industry but as the article points out, “The last time the industry spiked production in the 1970s, distillers ended up with a glut when demand fell sharply.”

Today’s bourbon distillers are optimistic but they may face the same issue as the distillers of the 1890’s. In August of 1893 Bonfort’s, a trade journal, wondered, “Just how distillers are to meet taxes on May and June ’90 whiskies is a problem that perplexes them and their customers.”[1]

 

 

[1]Bonfort’s Wine and Liquor Circular, 40 (Aug 10, 1893): 372, 374.

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Right now a fried egg sounds great: Third Week of VB6

Tjalf Sparnaay,  BMG Fried Egg

Tjalf Sparnaay, BMG Fried Egg

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We have completed two full weeks of VB6. I was doing pretty well but yesterday I had a lot of food cravings including visions of fried eggs, bacon, and macaroni and cheese. Yesterday morning I made “hoe cakes” – Mark Bittman’s version of corn cakes. After eating them my verdict was that they would have tasted a lot better with an egg in the batter, fried in butter and slathered with maple syrup.

Sticking to the diet is complicated because it is not just about eliminating animal products but it is also making a commitment to eat whole grains and minimally processed foods. This is not so easy to accomplish.

Mark Bittman is a writer who makes his living cooking, eating and writing about food. For the rest of us it is not so easy to find the time to make homemade vegetable stock since all commercially available stock and cubes contain more than 5 ingredients and a lot of sodium.

Time or the lack of it is the biggest factor to making VB6 not a diet for many people. Most people will not have the time to cook the lunches he has recipes for and also may not be able to find the ingredients he requires. If anyone can tell me where to find whole-wheat couscous I would really appreciate it.

As far as meat-eating goes Bittman presents compelling arguments about the negative environmental impact of such a diet. This is not a new story. Over forty years ago Frances Moore Lappe wrote several impassioned books about the harmful consequences of meat eating and the much better path of vegetarianism.

Although I don’t think even part-time veganism will appeal to most Americans, I think Bittman’s incremental approach has merit. Some contemporary writers maintain that the American diet, which Bittman labels as SAD (Standard American Diet) has developed because it is what the public wants, a heavy focus on inexpensive meat. That may be true but it does not follow that it cannot be changed.

Because we are a market based society I think changes for environmental and health reasons must be market based. Also the more familiar the new thing is the more likely people are to do it. In terms of energy consumption by cars, if there are fill-up stations that look just like gas stations but provide electric cars with electricity this will be easy for people understand and then respond positively.

In terms of food many of Bittman’s vegan recipes are familiar – they are salads with fruit in them. It is fairly easy to put the beans in and leave the chicken out. The problem for me has become the monotony of it. In the fourteen meals we have prepared we had a cooked, hot dish only four or five times.

 

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First Week of VB6

We have completed a week of vegan dinners as part of our plan to follow Mark Bittman’s VB6. I basically used his lunch recipes from the book and made those for dinner. Out of seven nights we had salads as the main course two nights and salads with another dish three nights. Two nights we had soup and every night at least one of the dishes had beans in it.

I was pretty anxious about having so many salads and beans but it worked out pretty well. Unlike most diets Bittman lets you eat as much fruit as you want. Salad with fruit is very good. Spices help as well.

In our scheme lunches can be non-vegan and even have meat. This past week, because I had cheese at some of my mid-day meals I was vegetarian but not vegan. I didn’t have any meat or eggs for a week. My husband was completely vegan for the whole week. Today, as I am writing this, I am having a turkey sandwich with some of the cabbage salad from Saturday night’s tacos.

Before deciding to try this approach to eating, I looked online to see if other people had done it and what their experiences had been. I wanted to go beyond the level of Amazon reviews. One blog was thekitchn.com. The blogger did not lose any weight but didn’t gain any either. Bittman does say if you eat more grains, the weight loss will go more slowly. Her description of how she ate was heavy on grains because she had a grain salad every day for lunch.

HashandEggs was the other blog I read. He needed to lose a decent amount of weight; after a month he lost at least seven pounds. He cheated a lot since even for the non-vegan meal you are supposed to eat healthy and in moderation. I don’t think chicken nuggets count. To be fair he was doing this based on an article because the book hadn’t come out yet.

I was skeptical about the weight loss aspect of this and actually I still am. According to the scale I lost five pounds but I don’t know if I believe that. If I did I think it is more of a short-term diet effect and less life-changing. It remains to be seen whether this experience will ultimately yield a long-lasting change.

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On the Road to Health: VB6

I have decided to write about something that is a little more personal than what I have usually posted on this blog. It is not about beer (except indirectly), women (except that it is about me and I am a woman), nursing, (except that health maintenance is a big part of nursing)or history (except that patterns of food consumption is a very complicated historical subject). Anyway …

Today my husband and I are starting to follow Mark Bittman’s VB6. The short version of this is that he became a part time vegan several years ago and lost thirty pounds and got healthier. He wrote a book about it and then a cookbook.

We decided to do this because I would like to eat healthier. Last year, because of various medical issues, I went from March to June not eating soy or cow diary. That was quite an eye opener as I discovered that soy is in everything we eat and use.

Of course, like most people, I would like to lose weight but I don’t think his weight loss was typical. I totaled up the calories for one day of his 28 day diet plan and it was 1800 calories. If I ate 1800 calories a day I would gain weight. I think his weight loss came from giving up alcohol which I bet he drank a lot of. I am not saying he was or is an alcoholic but I am pretty sure that people in the food business drink a lot.

Bittman’s plan is for you to eat vegan for breakfast and lunches and then healthy dinners that can have animal products. He also wants you to try as much as possible to eat “real” food; if commercially prepared it should have five ingredients or less. His final stipulation is no alcohol or a lot less. He says; “More than anything else in the VB6 diet, alcohol is a judgment call: definitely off limits during the day, and up to you at night. But if you’re seriously trying to lose weight, very limited drinking – or none at all – is something to consider.”

Bittman’s admittedly arbitrary division of vegan before 6 p.m. really doesn’t work for us. The lunches seem like they take a long time to cook and if you are not at home for lunch how do you do that? We decided to try to be vegan for dinner because that is the meal it seems we can handle. Breakfast is pretty much vegan without trying unless you have bacon and eggs which I usually don’t. For now we are leaving lunch as the meal that can be non-vegan but we will see how that goes.

I am writing this before we have had our first dinner. I will let you know how it turns out.

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Black Friday

This Facebook post by Robert Reich  https://www.facebook.com/RBReich about all the stores that will be open on Thanksgiving made me reflect on how I have spent Thanksgiving and the day after over the years.

Before I  was a nurse, I briefly had a job as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.  People didn’t call the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” then but it was a huge  shopping day and  the kickoff for the holiday season.  Now the holiday season starts before Halloween which is one sign that our economy is not doing great.  It felt funny to me, as a Jew, to be ringing the bell for this Christian organization but people didn’t realize that I was being paid and thanked me for my service.

Once I became a nurse I often worked on Thanksgiving. If I was working a 7-3 shift when I got home we would go out to eat. One year my husband and one of my sons cooked dinner which was a real treat. When I worked 7-7 my family met me at the hospital and ate in the cafeteria with me.

This year my Thanksgiving  and Hanukkah will be spent with family and not shopping. Thanksgiving is a nice holiday because it is non-denominational and a time to relax. In our 24/7 society we need days of rest and no commercial activity.

 

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Legalizing Marijuana

Another one of the session I attended at the Alcohol Drugs History Society conference, Under Control?, was on “Prohibiting Cannabis”.  Neil Boyd spoke about Vancouver and the status of legalizing marijuana use in Canada. Many people in Vancouver support decriminalization and promote taxation and regulation in place of criminal penalties.

There were several other papers at the conference which looked at the history of cannabis use and regulation. They all left me with a series of questions about what legal marijuana would look like. If we tax and regulate marijuana in a similar way to alcohol and tobacco will we get the commercialization that those products have engendered?

Further what are the social and public implications if marijuana becomes legal? Drinking alcohol in most societies is a social activity which has produced institutions where the drinking takes place. Will spaces similar to cafes, pubs, and bars develop for consuming marijuana?

At the same time that drinking is a social activity societies have enacted rules that create boundaries for drinking in public spaces. What will be the legal equivalent of open container laws?

Many municipalities in North America have enacted legislation which prohibits smoking tobacco in restaurants, hotels, and often outdoor spaces near hospitals and other facilities. Will these laws simply be extended to the smoking of marijuana?

As states consider legalizing recreational use of cannabis answers to these questions may begin to emerge.

marijuana plant

Cannabis plant

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Methylated Spirits

Denatured alcohol

Denatured alcohol

At the Alcohol Drugs History Conference, Under Control?, held in London from June 20 to June 23, Stella Moss gave a very interesting and somewhat horrifying talk about “Methylated spirit consumption and the control of deviant drinking in interwar Britain.” Methylated spirit is denatured alcohol. Hospitals and businesses use this product for cleaning and other things.

In Britain, the Customs and Excise department regulates methylated spirits. Denatured alcohol is not meant to be drunk. In fact it contains methanol and other additives to prevent consumption. It is 19 per cent alcohol. At the present there are about 500 prosecutions a year in Britain for meths drinking.

Drinking denatured alcohol can cause blindness and other problems. During Prohibition many people drank denatured alcohol which is poisonous and I imagine tastes awful.

Methylated spirits is a surrogate drink; other products that serve this functional are antifreeze and hand gel. What all these products have in common are that they are cheap, relative to commercially produced alcohol.

Denatured alcohol is a byproduct of the tax code. Because states tax ethanol, drinkable alcohol, it would be too expensive for business to use ethanol for industrial purposes.

Restrictions on pubs and British drinking during World War 1 had led to moderate drinking during the 1920s. Because habitual drinkers had less access to alcohol in mainstream establishments they turned to methylated spirits.

Often people mixed the meths with other substances, using some form of ethanol. A red biddy was red wine and meths while a red Lizzie was meths mixed with Lisbon wine. Most meths drinkers were very poor.

There seems to have been lot of compulsion assisted with drinking methylated spirits. Because it is a purple color the meths drinker had a distinctive look with purple lips.

Society saw the meth’s drinker as deviant, as other. This is very similar to the current portrayal in America of the crystal methamphetamine user.

 

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Queen Bee: Drinking Practices in a British Pub

One of the most interesting talks I heard at the Alcohol Drug History Conference, Under Control? was by Amanda Fine, a Ph.D. student in anthropology. She is doing an ethnography of young people and alcohol use in a new town. It is a study of drinking practices.

The new town has a center purposely built for the night-time economy. She is studying one particular pub which has a music venue attached to it. A young woman, Jenny, is the landlady of both establishments. She started running the pub when she was eighteen and has been doing it for four years.

Amanda Fine is examining the culture around Jenny who she has designated the Queen Bee. She is a participant-observer and has, to some extent, become part of Jenny’s inner circle. The inner circle functions as informal surveillance and protection for Jenny.

I found this study very interesting because not that much is written about drinking practices and what actually goes on in pubs and bars. The idea of consciously creating night-time activities which have an economic purpose is, to me, a new way to look at social and cultural activities. Several other papers at the conference also used this term.

One thing that Amanda Fine did not really address was Jenny’s economic role. She is running a business which requires involvement with local licensing agents, potential interaction with the police as well as purchasing liquor and stocking the pub. As a woman, being a publican is not that usual. How does Jenny cope with that?

 

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Bourbon and Wine

As I have said, one reason I was in Paris and London was to give a paper at the Alcohol Drugs History Conference, Under Control? My paper was “Creating Bourbon: Distillers and the federal government 1862-1963.” I was part of a panel, “New drinks, new cultures”. The other panelist was Elizabeth Gabay, who spoke on “A side effect of gin regulations: the development of punch in Britain.

Elizabeth Gabay discussed how society viewed punch as a better drink than gin. The recipe she gave for punch showed that he drink could contain a variety of spirits as long as gin was not included. To make punch you had to use sugar not honey as your sweetener. Different classes of people used different spirits for punch.

An organization, Film Exchange on Alcohol and Drugs (FEAD) filmed our session. I will link to the video when it is available.

In brief, my paper looked at how bourbon distillers used government regulation such as the Bottled-In-Bond Act and federal bonding polices to carve out a market niche. Absent these government policies, bourbon distillers would have been slow to store and age their product. Aging gives the liquor its distinctive flavor and is now part of the definition of what makes bourbon, bourbon.

Much of the conference focused on social and cultural aspects of drug and alcohol use. Fewer participants gave papers on the economic or political issues surrounding the production and manufacture of alcohol and drugs.

One of the keynote speakers, James Simpson, spoke about the wine industry, globally, from 1880-1980. His talk focused on wine cooperatives which functioned as cartels. Although my paper didn’t look at the economic associations and combinations in the distilled spirits industry, they did take place.

A key to the success of a combination is agreeing to control, usually reduce production. In America, the California Wine Association (CWA) was able to effectively control production in the late nineteenth century. The distillers were less successful and had many different combinations prior to Prohibition.

James Simpson mentioned that the CWA was able to continue as a trust because most Americans did not drink wine and most of the wine the CWA produced went out-of-state. The distillers were once again less successful at avoiding scrutiny. The Whiskey Trust, a combination of neutral spirits producers, was the subject of Congressional investigations.

I enjoyed going to the conference and meeting people whose research interests are similar to mine. Comparing wine and distilled spirits shows the strong role government plays in shaping what we drink.

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Down and out in Paris and London

As you may be able to tell from my previous two posts I found being in London easier than being in Paris. Part of it was the language, of course, but there were other reasons as well. There was less visible evidence of poverty in London.

The first day we were there and walking around our neighborhood near Tavistock and Russell Square, a very persistent woman stood in front of us with a sad story about being from Greece ad needing money. She followed us for quite a while before she gave up. Her behavior was very aggressive.

Besides her we really didn’t see people in the street begging or sleeping in public areas. In Paris it was a different story.

There are a lot of people in Paris who try to scam you or live on the streets seeking money. We saw several people sitting on the sidewalk with dogs that seemed almost dead begging. One woman had an emaciated lifeless cat and several kittens. These scenes were very disturbing and unpleasant.

One day we were walking to the Orsay Metro stop and a woman approached us holding a ring. It looked like silver wedding band. She asked if it belonged to me. When I said no she offered to let me have it and placed it in my hand. As I was holding it she asked for money for finding it or giving it to me or for something. I handed it right back to her. The whole situation was bizarre.

Click here for a fuller description of the various scams in Paris. We saw them all. Reading the descriptions makes me nauseous.

Our hotel was right down the street from a church, Saint Roch. There was a man who lived on the steps. He was there every day. He had a suitcase and he sat there every day.

Eglise Saint Roch

Eglise Saint Roch

One day we went through a passage way to get to our block. A restaurant had some tables and chairs in the area. In corner the man from the steps was there urinating. I have no idea how he did anything else. I think he tries to sleep there but one evening I saw a policeman shaking him to get him to move.

Our hotel and the church were right down the street from shops selling $200 or more handbags and shoes. When I think of the man on the steps there is a pervasive feeling of sadness.

Poverty, unlike food, has always been global. The poor of Paris do not seem to have changed much from the poor Victor Hugo described in Les Miserables. That is a crime.

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