Truth or Taste?

On Whiskey as Metaphor
for What Matters

plus new notes on
Forty Nine Mile Bourbon

In October 2019 I posted an article here called “Good Story. But is it good whiskey?” The focus was on the truth or lack thereof in claims companies make about their whiskey with regard to origin stories, what’s actually inside the bottle, and how marketing impacts the tasting experience.

The article pointed to a handful of whiskeys as examples—Elijah Craig, Horse Soldier, and Bertie’s Bear Gultch. For the latter, I included detailed tasting notes and research into the makers, Saint Liberty Whiskey. That the article remains among the few extended online write-ups of the still relatively new Bertie’s Bear Gultch explains, I believe, why it’s consistently among the top viewed posts on The Right Spirit blogsite each week. People are curious about Saint Liberty Whiskey and its unique mission. I hope the article also leaves readers considering the question of truth in marketing and its wider implications beyond whiskey.

Marketing and lore aside, there is an inherent honesty to whiskey. It’s very elemental. Water, earth, wood, grains, yeast, and time. That’s it. In some countries, adding caramel coloring is allowed. Like stories on labels, adding color to a whiskey is also marketing. The belief is that a consistent color from batch to batch is more appealing to consumers. But other than unquestioned habit, I don’t know why distillers continue this practice. Whiskeys without added color constantly demonstrate a beautiful spectrum of appealing hues—and they sell!

I don’t know if this practice of adding color originated in consumer focus groups, a closed-door meeting of suits and ties, or a hunch. I do know that in America, at least, adding tobacco spit and other questionable substances was once a way to make hastily distilled moonshine look more appealing. Multiple laws were eventually put into place to protect consumers from such haphazard practices.

Over the course of roughly 1897 to 1909, what “whiskey” even is got its legal definition—down to distinguishing what constitutes bourbon versus rye, what “straight” whiskey means, etcetera, in addition to standards of manufacture. The integrity of American whiskey and whiskey making was determined on a federal level. Now whiskey was fully legit, and consumers were protected by law from the threat of “rot gut” resulting from the various poisons that had until then been common tricks of a questionable trade.

For me, in actual practice the taste of a whiskey is not derived solely from those basic elements of water, earth, wood, grains, yeast, and time. There is also the regional landscape and weather, or terroir—a factor that is arguably an umbrella over the other six—as well as that region’s culture. And there are the people you share it with, and the event that occasioned the uncorking. Memories of these get infused into the aroma, taste, and lingering finish.

And then there is the reputation of the whiskey, its story and history, and how these get marketed. When producers follow the letter of the law in their making and labelling, and yet angle the marketing such to bend the truth, it leaves a metaphorical bad taste in my mouth, making the whiskey itself less pleasurable. Because the truth matters. So when a whiskey’s story or stats veer into outright spin, even when not crossing legal boundaries, for me the integrity of the product—and of the people who make it—comes into question. And I taste these questions when I sip the whiskey.

As I write this, I’m feeling the reverberations of the forty-sixth president of the United States having been elected, rather than the forty-fifth re-elected. The now departed forty-fifth did much in four years to solidify—even define—the “post-truth era,” itself well underway long before 2016. Arguably, it was social media that actually ushered in this era. Then Forty-five put it to its natural use.

At first a boon to communications and a Wonderland for curiosity, we now know social media openly courts the worst in us—our most saccharine sentimentalism, most simplistic confirmation biases, most extreme reactionary impulses. It allows us to curate our public personae, with carefully selected photos and a cross-contaminated stream of highly crafted and stupidly spontaneous commentary. Through social media we can attack from afar without the tangible threat of in-person consequences. Social media readily accommodates boldfaced lies in rapid and blurry succession, and our forming beliefs without a concern for actual, verifiable evidence. Despite what good it also accommodates, social media is arguably the key structural element of the post-truth era, its foundation and scaffolding, not just by use but by design.

Is social media democratic? Arguably yes—democracy jacked up on massive doses of capitalism and entertainment. Is it good? Well, if the truth no longer matters, and if people increasingly limit their perspectives to one truth (incidentally a mark of fascism) rather than allowing for the possibility of multiple truths to stand side by side (incidentally a mark of democracy) then the promise of liberty and justice “for all” becomes increasingly difficult to finally make good on.

What’s any of this got to do with whiskey?

Though I agree with my fellow whiskey fans who believe whiskey is a unifying gathering tool, I stop short of agreeing that when drinking whiskey we should leave our politics at the door. Like any other art, whiskey is irrevocably connected to politics. A reason to engage with art is to encounter new, interesting, other, sometimes even very challenging ideas, and, through the art, to imagine, even to practice, how we might think or behave in life.

Whiskey has been flowing in and out of world politics for generations. The core mash bill that distinguishes Irish pot still whiskey from scotch, for example, came about as a means of getting around stifling British taxes on malted barley that made it hard for Irish whiskey distilleries to make a living. So the Irish added unmalted grains to their mash, and voila, the malted barley tax no longer applied, and Irish whiskey found the base of its flavor profile that we still enjoy today. This historical political anecdote could easily serve as the launching point of a great conversation about the complex history between Ireland and Great Britain. Having that conversation around a bottle of Red Spot could help keep things congenial, like the taste of Red Spot whiskey itself.

With regard to America, as Susan Cheever points out in her great book, Drinking In America: Our Secret History, whiskey has played a decisive role in a number of key American stories, among them the Mayflower journey, Alexander Hamilton’s first federal tax proposals, the multifaceted debacle that was Prohibition, McCarthyism, and more… So a nice bottle of Remus Repeal Batch could make a great opener for debates around what Prohibition revealed about American democracy and culture, and what still holds true today.

Or maybe the subject of conversation had around the given bottle is not a matter from the historical past. Maybe it’s something very present. Two estranged friends catching up after many years apart, the Booker’s burning away the weeds of time, revealing hilarious memories beneath the mulch. A parent and child with very different voting habits hearing each other out—not even rescinding their vote in the end, but agreeing at least that Wild Turkey is indisputably good, and raising a glass of it to their differences and to what they’ve come to understand of one another’s perspectives.

A colleague of mine in the theater recently said something that really stayed with me. He said that for people to work well together they need to “move at the speed of trust.”

How fast is that?

My inclination is that it’s slow. Unhurried. Not compelled by preconceptions but responsive to the precise people gathered at the table. Surely the speed of trust must vary, determined not by any individual agenda but by the collective needs at play.

Something I appreciate about whiskey is that it slows me down. Tasted neat and entirely on its own terms, whiskey naturally compels contemplation. But if the whiskey on the table is untrue, then just like a contrived work of art, I believe it’s less likely to inspire a truly compelling response or experience in those who partake of it.

One afternoon, in a whiskey shop I irregularly frequent, I caught sight of an attractive, unfamiliar bottle:

FORTY NINE MILE STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY

MASH BILL – unstated 21% malted rye bourbon mash bill

PROOF – 90

AGE – 7 years

DISTILLERY – San Francisco Distilling Company

PRICE – $65

I knew from the name alone it was local. The 49 Mile Drive is a famous San Francisco landmark, a comprehensive scenic route winding in and around the city for 49 miles. Priced at $65 tax and all, the bourbon wasn’t cheap. And the front and back labels were not very revealing.

From the front we know it’s a “straight” bourbon—at least two years old and unblended with anything else. That there is no other claim to age tells us it’s at least 4 years old.

The back label infers the bourbon comes from Kentucky, and was aged for some amount of time in California—apparently somewhere within the winding 49 Mile Drive.

However, the label also says “distilled and bottled by San Francisco Distilling Co.” Logically that would mean the bourbon originated in San Francisco. So how does Kentucky figure into the mix?

Another detail complicates things further. The company’s address is in Elk, a city in Mendocino County. That’s a 3+ hour drive north from San Francisco. And though the coastal county of Mendocino has its own rolling fog, it is many miles away from “the rolling fog of San Francisco’s famed 49-mile route.”

From the company’s website I learned that the bourbon is aged for 7 years. The website description is less San Francisco specific than the label, referring not to the city and its fog specifically but rather “the rolling hills and coastal fog of northern California.” Here’s the description in full:

Combining the traditions of a Kentucky bourbon with strong Pacific influences, our high rye Forty Nine Mile bourbon has matured in the rolling hills and coastal fog of northern California. Seven years of aging creates rich vanilla and charred oak aromas with full-bodied butterscotch flavor and citrus notes. We trust you will enjoy Forty Nine Mile as much as we have creating it for you.

Other than that, no substantial information is provided about the bourbon or the company.

Clicking further around the Internet, I found an August 2020 Spiritedbiz article that itself referenced the bourbon’s press release. The article mostly reiterates the company’s website and labelling, including the ambiguous reference to Kentucky, adding the crucial detail of a “21% malted rye” bourbon mash bill.

My online search for Kentucky distillers that use a 21% rye mash bill, whether malted or not, proved fruitless. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It only means my obsessive deep-dive Googling didn’t turn any up.

The most prominently known 21% rye bourbon mash bill hails not from Kentucky but from Indiana’s famous MGP, supplier of whiskey to innumerable secondary bottlers and blenders. However, the MGP website does not specify that its rye is malted.

Then I found the Distiller.com entry on Forty Nine Mile Bourbon, which reads:

Forty Nine Mile Straight Bourbon is the first release from San Francisco Distilling Co. It is distilled by MGP in Indiana with a high-rye mash bill (75% corn, 21% malted rye, and 4% malted barley). Then it is aged and blended in California. The bourbon is matured in new, toasted & charred American oak barrels (char #3) for 7 years. It’s bottled at 90 proof. Initial availability limited to California.

Where did Distiller.com get the info about MGP? It’s not mentioned in the Spiritedbiz article, which prominently references the press release. Did Distiller.com make an assumption based on the 21% rye mash bill?

I emailed San Francisco Distilling Company asking for a press release. They replied with it, and indeed the Spiritedbiz posting was not an article at all but a word for word sharing of the press release.

I emailed San Francisco Distilling Company again, asking if they could clarify the Kentucky/Indiana question and verify what their label means by “distilled and bottled by…” Specifically, the questions I asked them were:

  • The label and press release’s reference to Kentucky seems to indicate the bourbon was distilled in Kentucky before being shipped to California for aging. The back label on the bottle states the bourbon is “distilled and bottled” by your company. In addition to your facility in Elk, CA, does the company own a distilling facility in Kentucky where it distills the bourbon?

  • On a similar note, the 21% malted rye in the mash bill made me think of MGP in Indiana (though they don’t specify their 21% rye bourbon mash bill as “malted.”) And indeed the Distiller.com entry on Forty Nine Mile states it is sourced from MGP. Is this an error on their part? Or was the bourbon distilled at MGP? In which case, where does Kentucky come into the process?

  • The bottle states the bourbon is aged in San Francisco. The website specifies only northern California. In your social media posts I’ve read Mendocino. Could you clarify where the bourbon is aged? And, if possible, whether it spends its full 7 years there?

I also acknowledged that, if the bourbon is sourced, I understood there might be information they are contractually obliged not to divulge. Here is their reply:

I understand the confusion. We will be making this more clear in our next label run. Sometimes literary expression unintentionally gets in the way of some of the details. We use sourced bourbon that we ensure follow the same techniques traditional Kentucky bourbon distillers follow (no funny additives or flavoring) but aged, blended and bottled at our distillery in Elk, CA, along the Mendocino coast which offers a unique aging experience with hot days and cold foggy nights. Our own bourbon of the same mash bill is aging as we speak and will become our own expression in a few years.

Though they acknowledged the label is confusing, they did not clarify the Kentucky/Indiana question, essentially paraphrasing the label. And the example they gave of techniques traditional to Kentucky—no funny additives or flavoring—is a matter of federal law, not Kentucky tradition.

Why not confirm the state of origin? Kentucky has so many distilleries, large and small, naming the state would hardly reveal the exact source. And if it is Indiana, and they don’t wish for anyone to know the bourbon was made by MGP, why? There is no shame whatever in sourcing from MGP. It’s widely known that a great many new companies do it.

They did confirm the aging takes place in Elk, not San Francisco. But they did not clarify the length of aging at their facility. With this reply’s and the marketing’s wording, whether the bourbon aged in Elk for years, months, or mere days, to say it is aged there is technically true.

The blending and bottling is explicitly stated as taking place in Elk. And it’s interesting to know they’re in the process of making their own fully in-house product featuring the same mash bill.

So the label is openly misleading in at least two respects. The bourbon is not aged in San Francisco at all. And San Francisco Distilling Company does not distill the bourbon. It’s not actually legal for a distillery to put factually untrue information about the contents of a whiskey on their label, so I’m not certain how this got through, nor why the company would do this in today’s increasingly open bourbon climate.

San Francisco Distilling Company’s equivocal approach strikes me as rather old fashioned for a brand new company. Transparency is the new wave in whiskey. Even big operations like Bardstown Bourbon Company have embraced it, going so far as to print mash bills, blend percentages, and ages up front on their labels—no Googling necessary. It’s a trend whiskey fans appreciate, and one that goes refreshingly against the grain of the post-truth era.

But what does the bourbon taste like? And, given my bias against false advertising, can I assess it fairly? Can I separate the tasting experience from the marketing? Literally, yes. I can describe the color and list out the flavor notes I get from the nose, taste, and finish. But the marketing, and the email reply to my questions that repeats the marketing’s equivocations, do not then go away.

In any case, let’s get to the bourbon already! Here are some notes in brief, taken about a week and a half after uncorking and three pours into the bottle, tasted in a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – a range of clear honey ambers

NOSE – rustic rye florals and spices, toasted cinnamon, dry cut oak, some vanilla and caramel in the background, a hint of fruit like apricot

TASTE – the rye florals and spices, a bundle of sweet dried herbs, the dry cut oak, the caramel a bit stronger behind all this than it was on the nose

FINISH – dry spices, herbs and oak

OVERALL – if you’re in the mood for a basic, dry autumnal bourbon this will satisfy that mood.

I recall this emphasis on the drier flavor aspects at uncorking as well. But I also recall there being more complexity—stronger stone fruit notes, chocolate, vanilla that darkened in the finish. Even with those additional flavors, it struck me then as it does now—a familiar tasting, unremarkable bourbon. Not bad. Even nice. But fine.

At 90 proof it’s a bit watery, and I’m curious what it might be at 100 proof. Could be the dry oak and herbs really overwhelm things at that proof point, and perhaps the lower proof softens their edge. Some sweeter notes in the mix would create a more balanced experience. Not that balance is everything. I have enjoyed whiskeys that lean heavily in one direction or another. Certain Booker’s batches and Old Potrero Rye single barrels come to mind. But in this instance the one-sidedness isn’t quite satisfying.

Speculations about other variations aside, despite its respectable age—unusual for bourbons put out by new craft companies—the bourbon currently in my glass is neither here nor there. The dryness does conjure for me something of the arid Northern California landscape. So there is a potential here for a particular contribution from the local aging—again, not knowing how many of its 7 years the bourbon spent locally. And given the flavor profile’s notable shift in under two weeks since uncorking, it could be in another two weeks I taste this again and it’s evolved further…

So let’s try that.

Here is a second round of notes, taken two more weeks after the first round above, and again tasted in a traditional Glencairn. I did it in two ways. The first was as the evening’s initial pour, breaking in my palate while making dinner and watching the news—real world distractions to let it be just bourbon, not the central and sole event. In other words I drank it, rather than formally tasting it, and then jotted these notes from memory:

FIRST POUR OF THE NIGHT:

NOSE – a very pleasant oak note, with faint caramel in the background

TASTE – the oak, only a hint of the caramel now warmed a bit, and lightly roasted almonds

FINISH – the oak, and now a distinct roasted cashew butter note… after some time the cashew note fades leaving the soft oak notes…

OVERALL – an oaky, nutty, easy to drink, dry bourbon

The second try was after dinner, having done the dishes, and some time and water to rinse my palate. This time rather than just drinking it, I tasted it more formally, taking notes as I went along:

AFTER DINNER:

NOSE – the oak, a faint juicy dried apricot note that gets stronger with coaxing, some almond nutshell

TASTE – the oak and apricot notes spar a bit for dominance but I’d say the apricot wins out overall, none of it terribly strong at this proof, and with an edge of bitter tannins on swallowing

FINISH – oak and oak tannins, some cream and nut butter, a whiff of the apricot notes, everything fading fairly quickly, leaving a very light peppery tingle…

OVERALL – an oaky, okay, uneventful bourbon

BUY AGAIN? – I wouldn’t, no. There’s simply not enough there for me, and it’s not particularly unique as a tasting experience, especially for the price.

The shift over time is curious, staying with the oak but moving from chocolate and stone fruit accents into a dry herbal field, and then into nut butters and apricots. But tried in various conditions, it’s not been compelling enough to warrant a second purchase. It’s certainly not a bad bourbon. It’s just not interesting. Yet it’s priced such that it really needs to have something more to offer to justify its cost.

Conclusions

Without the equivocal and false marketing, this would simply be another pleasant but ultimately average bourbon. With that advertising, however, it becomes something of a sham. Not only did someone at San Francisco Distilling Company choose—in an era when any whiskey geek like myself has access to a significant amount of online information—to put misleading key details on their label, they also bottled a bourbon that’s notably not as spectacular or unique as the city they’ve associated it with. Having lived in San Francisco since 1989, I experience little in the Forty Nine Mile bourbon taste profile that connects to the immense personality of this city.

What I’m left wondering is, why start things off this way? Taste is taste, and the people behind Forty Nine Mile might truly love the taste profile they’re achieving here. That’s fine, and, assuming it’s true, I can’t argue otherwise. But why the misleading marketing? It can’t merely be a series of oversights, or, as the email sent to me suggested, a case of “literary expression unintentionally [getting] in the way of some of the details.” Someone made a decision to blur the truth.

Whiskey is the truth. And what happens in the barrel, which no master distiller has ever been able to totally explain or control, is the greatest demonstration of that truth. People then mess things up. Whiskey doesn’t spin itself. People in the marketing department do that. The whiskey itself simply is.

And I appreciate the distilleries and producers who embrace that fully, and seek to do their work in emulation of the integrity demonstrated by the water, earth, wood, grains, yeast, weather, and time, which together do the most inherently honest aspect of the work that goes into whiskey making.

Cheers to the truth. It’s what matters.

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