The Chuck Cowdery Blog

November 27, 2007

Blogger Is Better.

On August 18, I started a blog on Blogger. It was simply this blog, also posted there. Since then I have been posting everything to both places. I said then that it was an experiment to determine if it is "better on Blogger." I have come to the conclusion that it is. Therefore, from now on, new posts will be made there only. To get there click here.

Obviously, I'm also changing the link on my home page to point only there.

So, if you are reading this, it probably is because you bookmarked the blog page, rather than my home page. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog postings, you need to change your bookmark to point here, because there will be no new posts to this page.

The Chuck Cowdery Blog has existed in this form since 2005. I'm going to leave this page here as well as the 2006 posts and 2005 posts. The posts on Blogger start with August 18, 2007.

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November 22, 2007

Kentucky Brandy.

In the 1980s, as the rye business was drying up and all of the rye whiskey distilleries in Pennsylvania and Maryland were closing, what little remaining rye whiskey production there was shifted to Kentucky. The Kentucky distilleries had always made rye whiskey, but when the last of the Maryland and Pennsylvania concerns closed down, only Kentucky remained. Although venerable brand names like Old Overholt, Pikesville, Rittenhouse and Mount Vernon continued to be sold, the whiskey was coming from Kentucky.

Now the same thing is happening with brandy.

Well, not exactly the same thing.

Brown-Forman has long owned Korbel. Heaven Hill owns Christian Brothers and Barton owns Paul Masson. Of the four best-selling U.S.-made brandies only one, Gallo's E&J, is not closely linked to a bourbon producer. All four companies use California grapes and the distilleries are there too. Gallo and Korbel also do their aging there, Korbel in used Jack Daniel's barrels.

Heaven Hill and Barton both ship their new-make brandy to Kentucky, enter it in used bourbon barrels there, and age it in their Kentucky warehouses. Both use warehouse locations for brandy that they prefer not to use for bourbon, specifically the lower floors of Barton's warehouses, and Heaven Hill's brick warehouses in Louisville. Most of the brandy is bottled and sold after two years of aging.

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November 17, 2007

Mother's, Warn Your Children.

The following is presented as a public service.

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November 15, 2007

Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

Ponder that statement for a moment.

Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

Look for the qualifier that isn't there.


I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but not long ago Jack Daniel's surpassed Johnnie Walker as the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who think whiskey means scotch I say, Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who say whiskey should be spelled without an "e" I say, Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who think all American whiskey is bourbon I say, Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

To all of the people who think American whiskey will always be second fiddle to scotch whiskey I say, Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

I'm not saying Jack Daniel's is the best whiskey in the world, I'm not saying it is the model for what whiskey should be, I'm not saying everybody else should be like Jack Daniel's. I'm just saying this. Everybody in business is in business to succeed and Jack Danielís is the best-selling whiskey in the world.

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November 13, 2007

Heaven Hill Releases 23-year-old Rittenhouse Rye

For those of you who like really old, really expensive whiskey, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Heaven Hill is releasing a 23-year-old, 50% ABV, not chill filtered, single barrel, Kentucky straight rye whiskey, called Rittenhouse Very Rare.

Last year, under the same name, Heaven Hill brought out a 21-year-old.

The 21-year-old went for $150. It sold out (at wholesale, there is still some in stores). The 23-year-old is shooting for $170.

It is shipping now, on allocation to major U.S. metro markets. Also to Eaux-De-Vie in the UK and La Maison du Whisky in France.

The package, a tall gold-printed bottle in a delicate balsa wood box, is almost identical to last year's.

The whiskey is from the same batch of rye, made in October of 1984, as last year's release. When the 21-year-old came out it was just a little shy of its 22nd birthday. They waited a little longer with these, so they're just barely 23.

All of them (both sets) were aged on the lowest floors of rickhouse OO. (That's "Oh! Oh!")

The 21-year-old release was of 32 barrels. The 23-year-old is just 25 barrels. It is single-barrel, so each bottling could be slightly different. It's fun to tell what bottle you have. I have bottle number 70 from barrel number eight.

Like the 21-year-old, the 23-year-old is 50% ABV and not chill-filtered.

They aren't saying if they have any more barrels still aging from that 1984 batch. Will there be a Rittenhouse 25? I have been told there is other old rye in the pipeline. You never know with Heaven Hill. They're a very nimble company that can spot an opportunity and move quickly to take advantage of it.

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November 12, 2007

Although it just finished changing its corporate name to Beam Global Spirits and Wine (its new web site just debuted last week), another new name is coming since the "and wine" part is going away, sold to Constellation (parent company of Barton) for $885 million. Beam is getting out of wine to concentrate on spirits, while Constellation, already the world's biggest wine maker, is now bigger. The sale was announced this morning.

Beam makes bourbons Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Maker's Mark. Barton makes bourbons Ridegmont Reserve 1792, Ten High and Very Old Barton.

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October 18, 2007

The New Democrats Are the Old Republicans.

Daniel Gross has a great essay in the current Newsweek. The headline is "Dems Are the New Republicans." The gist of it is that, this time around, the establishment candidate is a Democrat, Hillary Clinton. So-called Wall Street Republicans are frustrated with the Bush administration's incompetence and fiscal irresponsibility. The business elite traditionally has been fiscally conservative but socially moderate. As the Republican Party has become more and more extreme in its social policies, as well as spendthrift, it has alienated that key part of its base. Right now it matters because those individuals are big donors, but they represent a lot of votes too.

Unfortunately, the Democrats face the same risk. As they move to fill the vacuum left by the Republicans, they move further and further away from what it is fair to call their Socialist wing. Conceivably, a leftist splinter third party candidacy could have the same effect Nader's had in 2000. Working against that scenario is the fact that the 2000 election came at the end of an eight year Democratic administration. Now the electorate is suffering from Bush fatigue, so a leftist third party candidacy seems unlikely to get much traction.

And although Hillary Clinton grew up as a Goldwater Republican in Park Ridge, Illinois (which is known locally as Park Rigid), it seems hard to imagine that a Hillary administration won't be Democratic in most traditional senses. Having grown up a Goldwater Republican myself, I'm not too worried.

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October 15, 2007

When Bigger Isn't Better.

You see them everywhere: in stores, bars, restaurants, airports, and hotel rooms. Iím talking about big screen televisions; specifically, wide screen flat panel video displays.

They look great, in that televisions have always been way too bulky and a screen only a few inches thick that can be hung on the wall is terrific. The problem comes when you turn them on. A bad picture made bigger is not an improvement.

In public places like bars itís not so bad, because youíre usually sitting much further away from the screen than you would at home. The flat panel screens tend to be very bright, so the fidelity loss isnít too noticeable when youíre sitting 15 or 20 feet away from the screen.

But put one of these things into your home or, as Iíve experienced several times recently, into a hotel room and the illogic of it become as clear as the picture is fuzzy. Most hotels I have been in recently have had fairly modest-sized 26-inch units, but one proudly advertises its "42-inch HDTV flat screen televisions" in every room. It fails to mention that they are not feeding the units an HD signal, so the picture is terrible.

Even the smaller units, which usually are bigger than the conventional TVs they replaced, look like crap if theyíre being fed by the same old distribution system, as every one of them Iíve experienced has been.

Even less of an improvement is a 4:3 aspect ratio picture stretched to the much wider 16:9 ratio. Yes, it fills the wider screen, but the stretched out Silly Putty images look ridiculous. If you have access to the remote control itís usually easy enough to figure out how to reset for the correct aspect ratio, but the default setting appears to be 16:9 and most people seem content to leave it that way.

Iíve frequently experienced pixelization, where the picture breaks up in places into lines or blocks of random pixels. This occurs, to paraphrase a crude expression, because they are trying to stuff 10 pounds of video signal into a 5 pound distribution system. Since all video display systems work by processing only difference information, i.e., the things on the screen that change, this problem is especially noticeable in programs like sports broadcasts and action movies, where everything on the screen changes at once and quickly. In other words, the very thing most people are buying these units to watch, they reproduce the worst.

Even many of the stores that sell this equipment canít seem to get a good picture on it. I have commented on this in stores and had salespeople tell me that their internal video distribution system isnít as good as what you can get at home. If thatís the truth, itís insane. If youíre trying to sell the things, shouldnít you make sure the picture on every single unit in the store is as good as that particular unit is capable of producing?

And the displays are capable of producing good pictures. Iíve seen it done. In some smaller stores they donít use distribution at all. They have DVD players attached directly to each display and get a good picture that way.

Unfortunately, I believe this phenomenon is happening because most people canít tell the difference. Picture size they understand, picture quality they donít. I have worked as a video producer so I know, from working in professional facilities, how good even a standard definition picture can look with well-maintained equipment and a high quality signal. Sadly, that isnít what most people are watching and all of the new stuff coming out now isnít much of an improvement, not because the HD displays arenít capable of producing a terrific picture, but because most of the entities responsible for getting a video signal to the display (whether in a bar, store, or home) are either incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to deliver a signal of the highest possible quality.

I donít have HD at home, but I noticed when sporting events started to be broadcast in HD, the picture on my conventional TV got better. Itís not magic. I know my display is not capable of reproducing an HD picture. What happened was that the program producers simply started originating a better picture, which looks better all the way down the line, even on conventional televisions. (For the record, my TV is a Sharp 4:3 ratio CRT thatís about 20 years old, and my signal is digital cable from RCN. Yes, the TV overscans a little, but the picture overall is better than what Iíve been seeing in hotel rooms.)

How bad are the pictures in these hotels? Have you ever copied a VHS cassette onto another VHS cassette? Yeah, they look that bad. In my experience last weekend, in a very nice hotel, the local broadcast channels looked especially bad. The cable channels looked better, but they werenít HD. Even the very expensive movies the hotel sells through an on-demand system werenít HD. At least the previews for them were not. I wasnít about to spend the money to see if the films themselves were any better. There is no reason to believe they would be since the problem is with the distribution system the hotel is using.

But, like I said, apparently most people canít tell the difference. Iíve never been able to understand why someone would buy one of those "big screen televisions" that are based on a rear projection system. Those have been around for many years. Again, what good is a big picture if the picture quality sucks? Those suck particularly because they lose brightness as well as resolution in the transition from projector to screen.

I can understand using front projection systems in meetings and such. If you need a big picture because of the size of your audience, itís acceptable to give up some quality. But in your home where youíre probably going to sit six to eight feet from the screen, why is a big fuzzy picture considered more enjoyable than a smaller sharp picture?

One more thing I just donít get.

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October 11, 2007

I'm Trying to Start a Trend.

Whiskey is one of those English wordsólike aging, center, color, maneuver, and many othersóthat Americans and Brits spell differently. American writers often struggle to use the British spelling when referring to scotch whiskey (i.e., 'whisky,' no 'e'). UK writers occasionally return the favor. An American would never think of spelling color with a 'u' just because the subject is colors used by an English painter, for example. Why should whiskey be any different?

I'm trying to start a trend in which American publications spell whiskey the American way, regardless of the type of whiskey being discussed. I would expect publications in Canada or the UK to do the same, favoring their spelling.

The sole exception would be that when stating the proper name of a specific product, the word will be spelled the way the producer spells it, and also be capitalized as befits a proper name.

Example: That sure was some good scotch whiskey.

Example: Pass me another drink of that Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky.

Why do I think a change of practice is needed? The problem is that maintenance of the dual spelling protocol suggests that "whiskey" and "whisky" are two different words with different meanings when they are not. There is no definition difference between them. They are merely alternative spellings, with one preferred in the United States and the other preferred in Great Britain, along with a long list of other words about which nobody has this problem.

However, the maintenance of this pained protocol, which leads us to write things like "whisk(e)y" to feel like we're covering the category with a single word, also leads many people to conclude that, in fact, they are two different words with two different meanings, and they imagine all sorts of nutty distinctions.

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October 10, 2007

MLS Playoff Picture.

Of the thirteen teams in Major League Soccer (MLS), eight make the playoffs. By comparison, eight teams make the Major League Baseball playoffs, but baseball starts with 30, not 13.

So MLS is pretty generous.

But, still, playoffs are playoffs, anything can happen in the postseason, and a close playoff hunt at the end of the regular season is always good drama.

As of right now, every team has either two or three regular season games remaining. My team, the Chicago Fire, has two.

Six teams have clinched playoff berths and two teams have been mathematically eliminated. That leaves five teams fighting over the two remaining playoff spots. That's exciting for any sports fan. Chicago is one of those five teams, currently ranked second among them with 36 points. (Teams get three points for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss.)

Our two remaining games are against DC United, in Washington, and against the LA Galaxy here, in that order. DC is one of the teams that has clinched. LA is now at 30 points but has three games to play, so they are with us in the hunt. (The other three are Kansas City, Colorado and Columbus. If teams end the regular season tied, the first tie breaker is their record against each other.)

There is every chance it will all come down to the final match of the regular season in front of a capacity crowd at Toyota Park. I already have my tickets.

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October 9, 2007

The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

Please indulge me as I brag on myself a little bit. Volume 7, "Foodways," of the New Encyclopdia of Southern Culture, is now in print and I'm very proud to have written the Bourbon Whiskey entry (page 127). I'm proud to be associated with the whole enterprise, which is a very nice balance of serious scholarship and fun reading. If you are interested, as I am, in the general subject of Southern foodways, this is a must-have book. Click on the link below to buy it from

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September 29, 2007

Cubs v. Indians?

Coming home last night after dinner with a friend, we noticed four or five helicopters flying and hovering nearby. We speculated that it might be something for the new Batman movie, which has been filming here all summer. Instead, it was the TV stations getting shots of the crowd gathering in front of Wrigley Field to celebrate the Cubs National League Central Division Championship. All of the local stations alternated between scenes of the celebration at Wrigley and the champagne showers in the Cubs locker room in Cincinnati. Today, the Cubs announced theyíre holding a rally on Monday in Grant Park.

A rally? My first reaction was that these celebrations are all terribly premature, but maybe not.

With 85 wins, ten fewer than the Indians and Red Sox, the Cubs have the worst record of the eight playoff teams. If the Cubs hadnít won the division, they would have been fourth in the National League Wild Card hunt. Of the eight playoff teams, the worst team in the American League has a better record than the best team in the National League.

(None of the regular season games remaining to be played this weekend will change any of the above.)

So, the Cubs are the eighth best team in baseball. Not even, by record, but they did win their division.

Celebrate while you can.

I have lived in the shadow of Wrigley Field for twenty years, but I was born and raised a Cleveland Indians fan. I believe baseball fans are born, not made. I also believe that if you canít be with the one you love, love the one youíre with, hence I am a Cubs rooter.

I don't think the Cubs chances are very good, but anything can happen in the playoffs. Therefore, I think I need to declare now.

Go Tribe!!!

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September 27, 2007

Dems at Dartmouth

Biden, Dodd and Richardson -- babbling idiots. The sports term is "pressing." The theatrical term is flop sweat. Biden and Dodd have moments of lucidity; Richardson has none. Way out of his depth. Couldn't even think up his own Bible verse, had to copy off Obama.

Biden -- 300,000 cases of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome a year. Seemed high to me. That would be like 1 in 13 births. I looked it up. The real number is, outside estimate, 80,000 (1.9%, Abel and Sokol study).

Biden -- first to say, "torture doesn't work" in response to the trick torture question. Obama missed the chance. "Torture bad" not as good an answer.

Kucinich -- funny, knows his voters. How great would it be to have Dennis Kucinich and his hot wife in the White House? What are all of those little books he has in his pocket? A tiny constitution? A St. Francis prayer card? "Strength through peace"(?) What else? Energy through kindness? Equality through faith? Freedom through hope? How naÔve are his voters?

Gravel -- "Get off gas in 5 years, off carbon in 10." "Hey you kids, get off my lawn."

Obama -- smooth.

Clinton -- smoother.

Edwards -- also pressing. Apparently trying to get to the left of Kucinich on Iraq(!) Making no impression on me except as a potentially dangerous populist demagogue.

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September 26, 2007


My people are from the part of Germany where you can't possibly drink more beer in October than you do every day of the year, so we don't see the point of Oktoberfest.

If I never see an old man in lederhosen again, it will be too soon.

A holiday when you drink beer? On what holiday don't you drink beer?

People at Octoberfest drink like they have either just that day discovered beer or have just learnt it's about to be discontinued.

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September 20, 2007

In 1885, Burnham and Root designed a building for the Central Safety and Deposit Company. At twelve stories high, the Rookery was the tallest building in the world. It remains as one of the most beloved buildings in Chicago's Loop.

The grand lobby space was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905 and has recently been restored to the splendor of Wright's 1905 design.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of the remaining structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, through education and advocacy.

You can visit them at

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September 18, 2007

On Saturday, October 13, Heaven Hill is unveiling its Evan Williams Single Barrel 1998 Vintage at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. I don't know when they announced it but I hear it's already sold out. The ad on the web site says, "Meet Master Distillers Parker & Craig Beam and noted Bourbon experts." I'm pretty sure I'm one of the noted Bourbon experts.

Heaven Hill does something like this every year. Good for them and that's what's so great about the vintage concept; each annual release is 'news.' True as that is, it's hard for me to get all worked up about it every year. It's always good whiskey, it's always interesting to compare it to previous releases, but let's just say it's not up there with Christmas.

This year is different. I'm really looking forward to this one, and the one after that, and the one after that, for the next few years. Why? Because Heaven Hill's distillery in Bardstown (DSP-31) was destroyed in a fire in 1996. They don't like to talk about it but I do, because it's bourbon history in the making.

EWSB always has a barrel entry date on the label. Anything entered after November of 1996 isn't DSP-31 bourbon. Some of the 1996 and all of the 1997 is bourbon whiskey made at Jim Beam to Heaven Hill's specifications and supervised by Parker and Craig Beam (P&C). Subsequently, Brown-Forman also made whiskey for them, supervised by P&C, etc. Sometime in 1999 they began producing in their new home, the Bernheim facility in Louisville, but it took maybe another year or more before P&C got the operation there the way they wanted it. Because Heaven Hill needs more whiskey than Bernheim alone can produce, they have continued to use Brown-Forman's plant in Shively too, so who knows where the next EWSB was made. That's why these next few years of EWSB will be so interesting. They will be the only legacy of the 96 fire that you can taste and take home with you.

What we're going to see is a transition. Heaven Hill has pretty much committed to making EWSB represent the best single-barrel whiskey they can produce in nine years. Each year the pool changes but the criteria doesn't. You pretty much expected them to clear the bar every year at DSP-31 after they got this thing going. With DSP-31 out of the picture and not one but possibly three different distilleries in the mix, it starts to get interesting again.

There seems to be nothing to be concerned about, as the 1997 is good and perhaps superior to some of the last DSP-31 vintages. I'm looking forward to tasting the new one next month, much more so than I have looked forward to it in years. Heaven Hill was good about telling us that the 1997 was made at Beam and I expect they will be equally forthcoming about this and subsequent vintages.

I'll let you know what I think after October 13.

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September 17, 2007

Among we fans of American whiskey, 'blend' is a bad word, connoting both the 'imitation' whiskeys of the past and the unedifying American Blended Whiskeys of the present day.

Even in Scotland, where the art of whiskey blending began, today it gets no respect. Real whiskey enthusiasts don't care about Johnnie Walker, regardless of label color. It's all about single malts. But as my friend Gary Gillman often reminds me, blending gives us an unlimited variety of flavors, some of which are wonderful and can be achieved no other way. As his fellow Canadian Sam Bronfman once said, "distilling is a science, blending is an art."

What I have realized just recently is how influential Scottish blending techniques have been, especially in some unexpected places, especially the practice of combining very flavorful pot-distilled spirit with more neutral column-distilled spirit. This is, of course, the way Scottish, Canadian and Japanese whiskey blends are made, but as I recently learned it also is the way fine rums are blended in the former British colony of Jamaica by Appleton Estate. Different varieties of sugar cane are processed, their molasses separated from their pure sugar content, then the molasses is fermented, distilled in either a pot or column still, and aged in used Jack Daniel's barrels. These different, aged rums are then blended to a desired taste profile, exactly the way Scottish whiskey blends are made, except with rum.

In the United States, where we value straight whiskey above all else, and where pot stills are usually used only for secondary distillation, there are still some parallels. Four Roses makes ten different bourbon formulas by combining five different yeasts with two different mash bills. Everything is aged in new, charred barrels; i.e., everything is straight bourbon. Still, they have ten different taste profiles, more if you factor in different ages, which they combine (i.e., blend) into an ideal final product.

Most American whiskey-makers do something similar, though less ambitious. They make only one formula but they achieve different flavors through the natural process of aging, both through time and warehouse location. They then select and mix (i.e., blend) whiskeys of different ages and from different warehouse locations until they match their brand's taste profile. The only exceptions are bottled-in-bond bourbons, which are increasingly rare, and single-barrel bourbons, which are increasingly common.

By American law, any combination of straight whiskeys of the same type, made in the same state (why this is important I can't explain), is still a straight whiskey of that type. Therefore, a mixture of different straight bourbons, even made at different distilleries, is still straight bourbon. Which brings us naturally to Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select is even closer to the Scottish model, in that it combines pot-distilled straight bourbon with column-distilled straight bourbon and mixes (i.e., blends) them in much the same way as Appleton blends rum. It's no accident that Brown-Forman, whose controlling Brown family is proud of its Scottish ancestry, makes both Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Appleton Rum.

Finally, I learned recently that Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, creator of Old Forester, which was originally (in 1870) a blend of straight bourbons from different distilleries, opposed the part of the Bottled-in-Bond Act that requires bonded whiskey to be from one distillery during a single season. He valued the ability to mix whiskey of different ages and from several distilleries together to achieve the best possible flavor. Old Forester Signature is 100į proof, the traditional proof of American straight whiskey, but it is not bottled-in-bond, as whiskeys of different ages are combined (i.e., blended) to achieve the desired taste profile. Taking this principle even further, Brown-Forman uses different taste profiles (i.e., blends) for its Signature and standard 86į proof expressions. Most whiskeys sold at different proofs are the same profile diluted to different strengths.

As E. H. Taylor said a century ago and in support of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, where American blended whiskey went off the track was by emphasizing cheapness. Though some of the worst practices of that era were eliminated, the typical American blended whiskey today combines a little bit of straight whiskey (about 40 percent) with a lot of grain spirit (about 60 percent). Grain spirit is vodka that has spent a few months in used bourbon barrels, to take the edge off. American blends also have flavoring and coloring agents added, which straight whiskey never does.

Considering the current size of the American whiskey industry--seven companies operating eleven distilleries--blending good straight whiskeys is a way to achieve a greater variety of flavors. Maybe the word 'blend' has been debased but the practice shouldn't be. Blending may also be a way for craft distillers, still struggling with how to make a legitimate 'craft' American whiskey, to get into the game, by combining their aged distillate with good bulk whiskey from one of the majors.

We should all keep a open mind.

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September 10, 2007

Craig files to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming that in a "state of intense anxiety" following his arrest, he "felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer" and plead guilty to the disorderly conduct charge. This is an improvement? "I'm not a closeted homosexual, but I am an emotional basket case who breaks down under the slightest pressure and, in that state, can be railroaded into doing irrational things that are manifestly contrary to my own self-interest." Yeah, that's what I look for in a public official.

Plus, General Petraeus is on the Hill ("I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level ... by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve." What a gift for the Democrats!), the Family Secrets verdict is coming in ("We're not gangsters, we were just pretending to be gangsters."), implanted microchips cause cancer (No, really?), and Ronald Regan's first wife has joined him in, well, take your pick.

What a day! (And it's barely half over.)

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September 9, 2007

It strikes me as I have gone back and re-read my post about Elvira Arellano that it sounds less sympathetic than what I actually feel. I feel badly for her and I feel guilty, as an American, because it is primarily the U.S. government's failure to enact and enforce a rational immigration policy that is the cause of both her anguish and America's undocumented immigrant problem.

I also should probably explain why I find preposterous the claim that she is "the Rosa Parks of the immigration rights movement." If the comparison merely means that both are the personification of their movement, then although the jury is still out on Arellano, I'll say okay, maybe, but so what? I believe they want it to mean more than that. They are trying to borrow some of Ms. Parks' aura of righteousness, and that is the part that falls somewhere between preposterous and offensive. Rosa Parks stood for the proposition that an oppressed people should not be complicit in their own oppression, regardless of the risk. What does Elvira Arellano stand for? Put kindly, perhaps for the proposition that if you want something badly enough you can convince yourself that you are entitled to it.

Maybe Arellano's supporters are guilty of nothing worse than the modern tendency to overstate just about everything, the subject of one of my first blog posts.

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August 31, 2007

Some follow-up to yesterday's post about the distilling done this week at Mount Vernon.

They didn't make much, maybe ten gallons.

Gerry Webb is Diageo's Master Distiller. He oversees their bourbon production as well as Smirnoff and their rums.

Harper is no longer being made at Four Roses, although Bulleit (also Diageo) still is. Bourbon for Harper is being sourced from Barton and Brown-Forman.

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August 30, 2007

Michael Jackson died last night in his London home. He was 65. Although no official cause of death has been announced yet, he is known to have suffered from Parkinson's Disease for the past decade. Details of his death are still sketchy, but he had been in poor health for years and was doing less and less, especially traveling.

I didn't know Michael personally although our paths crossed a few times. The world knew him as "the other Michael Jackson," if it knew him at all, but he was the Michael Jackson to those of us who care way too much about beer and whiskey. Although he was more famous for his beer activities, he cut an equally wide swath through the whiskey world. His World Guide to Whisky, first published in 1987 and recently updated, was the starting point for me and, probably, many others. He seemed to be the first person to write about it who didn't just parrot what the producers told him, who took that in but found other sources too, synthesized it all, and gave something back to his readers that was more than the sum of the parts.

Michael Jackson was the first person who made me think it might be possible to make a living studying and writing about whiskey.

He was the father of us all.

And in other news...

DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.) likes to have an annual event, about this time of year, at the George Washington Distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia. This week, whiskey was made for the first time in the reconstructed distillery that officially opened in March. Master Distillers from different DISCUS-member companies made the rye-mash spirit. They were Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey; Joe Dangler of Virginia Gentleman; Ken Pierce of Very Old Barton; Gerry Webb of I.W. Harper and Dave Pickerell of Makerís Mark. I know everybody expect Gerry Webb. I'm not sure who he might be. I. W. Harper is a Diageo product, but it's made by Four Roses.

Although the new whiskey has to age for a few years first, they intend to bottle and sell it in the Mount Vernon gift shop. This is good news because the whiskey made there in the past (in a makeshift still while the distillery itself was under construction) was sold at high prices for charitable fund-raising, so most whiskey enthusiasts never got close to it.

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August 27, 2007

Wild Turkey (Pernod Ricard USA) is about to release a new straight rye, under the Russell's Reserve banner. It will be a six-year-old straight rye whiskey. Retail price will be about $24. I don't know the proof yet, but I suspect it will be 90 proof, same as the Russell's Reserve bourbon. I'll know more for sure in a couple of days. It's being bottled now.

Russell's Reserve Rye is scheduled for late September release. Whether or not it will be around during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (9/10-16) I don't know, but I suspect the Turkey folks will have some, even if it's not in the stores yet.

This product will be positioned slightly above the Wild Turkey rye and is a new expression, not a replacement for WT rye. Presumably, WT rye will continue at 4+ years old and RR Rye will be 6+ years old.

I think this is a great development and I'm looking forward to it.

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August 24, 2007

The ongoing story and recent deportation of Elvira Arellano has affected my thinking about immigration.

In case you haven't followed it, Arellano is a Mexican national who has been living in the United States without documents for about ten years. While in this country she gave birth to a son, who is therefore an American citizen. She first made headlines a year ago when, facing deportation, she took sanctuary in a Chicago church. Last weekend she left the church and drove to L.A., where she was swiftly apprehended by immigration officials and returned to Mexico.

The angle of Arellano's specific complaint is that she ought to be allowed to stay in the United States because her eight-year-old son is an American citizen, so forcing her to leave would split their family. That has been enough to get her story heavy exposure; when something happens in the case it leads the news. Her supporters have dubbed her "the Rosa Parks of the immigration rights movement."

It's so easy to poke holes in Arellano's argument that it's not even sporting to do so. Likewise the ridiculous comparison to Rosa Parks. Arellano's side disproved its own central thesis when her son joined her in Mexico the next day. But it made me think, about this case, and others, and the debate itself as it has unfolded and been framed by various parties. My conclusion is that we Americans need to focus on three fundamental questions:

  1. Do we, the citizens of the United States, have the right to regulate and restrict entry into our country?
  2. If we have that right, are we obliged to exercise it?
  3. If we decline to exercise it, is the right diminished or lost?

The first question is familiar. Most people can answer it readily and probably would answer it yes. The second and third questions are ones most people haven't considered and may regard as specious, yet there are many legal precedents for certain rights being diminished or lost because their possessor didn't take timely steps to defend them when they were threatened. Trademark rights are one example.

Arguably, we, the citizens of the United States, are guilty of neglect on immigration. Through our negligence, we have permitted 12 million non-citizens to enter our country and establish lives here. We have allowed it through our failure to prevent it. I have thus far avoided the term "illegal" for a reason. The way "illegal" is used requires a yes answer to my first question and total disregard of the others. The problem is, when you put a widely abused regulatory regime on one side (abused by everyone, including government), and the legitimate expectations that come naturally from a long, settled existence on the other, the "illegal" tag starts to look a little lame.

I also eschew the term "illegal" because it suggests that being undocumented is a criminal offense. It's not. Many people don't understand this. They assume being in the U.S. without permission is a criminal act. In reality, the seriousness of being here without legal status is similar to that of a parking ticket. Under the law, deportation isn't considered a penalty, just a correction of status. Yet in reality it can be devastating.

Although there is attraction in the argument that we shouldn't reward illegal behavior, perhaps "rewarding illegal behavior" is exactly the penalty we U.S. citizens deserve to pay for our long and continuing neglect of the problem.

Consider the following. You live on a large plot of land in a semi-rural area. You notice that someone has started to build a small house on what you believe is your property, near the property line. Instead of investigating it and, if it is on your property, taking timely steps to stop the construction, you forget about it. The house is completed, people move into it, they have a family, the family grows, and they continue to maintain and improve the property.

Twenty years pass. You want to get your affairs in order before you die and one of the things you decide to do is get rid of that house that you now can prove was built on your land without permission. Can you? The short answer is no, you can't. How are the equities in a case like Arellano's any different?

With that in mind, I propose a fairly simple solution to the whole immigration mess. If a long-term undocumented non-citizen resident can prove that he or she has been here for five years or more, lived a good life, been a productive member of society and generally stayed out of trouble, fine, they're a citizen. Easy, low-threshold test, virtually automatic acceptance. Stay under the radar for five years and you're in.

If you don't like that proposal, then do something about catching and deporting the people who don't qualify, and do something about securing the borders.

Why do people take great risks to enter the United States? Because they believe their lives will be much better here. They believe it because it's true. Getting into the United States doesn't guarantee a poor Mexican, Guatemalan, Greek or Pole a better life, but it increases the odds significantly. If that ceases to be the case, if the odds change, and getting-in and staying-in becomes a genuine ordeal and, ultimately, a crap shoot, one with heavy odds in favor of the house, the incentive to come here will be reduced.

Lower the incentive and simultaneously increase the difficulty by tightening the border and increasing detection and deportation efforts, and you're bound to reduce the number of new arrivals. It's fair to be tough about keeping people out, but we also have to be fair to the people who we have allowed, through our neglect, to build a life here.

Here's my other proposed solution. Offer Mexico statehood. Make a sincere offer, with appropriate terms, and see what happens. My prediction is that while there will be many loud objections, the majority of Mexican voters will want to accept. It will be similar to the reunification of Germany; not without problems, but doable. If the rest of Central America wants in too, I don't see the problem.

The fact that you, personally, have had a tough position on immigration all along counts for nothing. I don't care if you're the President of the United States or Joe Windbag down at the corner, neither one of you has fixed the problem. You're on the hook with the rest of us. We let them get in and, more importantly, let them, over time, build up a reasonable expectation that it will all be okay, that the life they've built here won't be suddenly ripped away from them.

This is how you get past the idea that they are not entitled to that life because it was built on a tainted base. To so rule is genuinely unfair, as in unbalanced, as in the penalty not fitting the crime. The current immigration laws are a pathetic travesty. Yes, the law is the law, but when you weigh the fact that no federal, state or local arm of government has addressed illegal immigration in an even remotely realistic or effective way, and weigh that against the substantial investment many undocumented immigrants have made in their American communities, that one arguable transgression counts for very little against their exemplary performance since then as the best kind of Americans. That has to count for something.

Although my proposals probably sound radical and unrealistic to you, think about what happens now. Instead of citizenship being granted after five years, we simply grant it to the next generation, no questions asked.

Which brings me back to Elvira Arellano. Right or wrong, her son will remember how we made life hard for his mother. He's one of us, with exactly the same rights as you or me. He's a fellow American. Don't we owe him something? Won't we build a better future citizen by being fair to his mom now?

Every American citizen shares responsibility for the immigration mess, all of us. Only when we accept that responsibility will we be able to solve the problem once and for all.

(This is what I was working on yesterday when the power went out.)

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August 23, 2007


That's the scariest storm I've been through in a long time. Especially here, in my home near Lake Michigan on the north side of Chicago. First time I've ever been scared enough to move to the hallway that runs through the center of the apartment, away from all the windows and outside walls. I even took a chair with me.

This building, built in 1902, is a rock, and I'm on the first floor. I wasn't worried about it blowing down or anything like that. But I could see enough flying debris to worry about something smashing into a window.

There's a tree out back, old, trunk about two feet in diameter.

At least it was there. Now it's on its side, in the driveway, snapped off at its base. When I saw that huge tree go down, that's when I quickly moved away from the window. (The tree in the picture is a different one, a small one on Irving Park Road that also snapped in two, but its trunk is maybe nine inches in diameter. The one in back is much bigger, but I didn't get a good picture of it.)

The Waterford, a high-rise about two blocks north of here, lost its entire roof. Half of it landed on the smaller building next door. The other half landed on Lake Shore Drive, on top of an unlucky SUV. The woman whose SUV was under the tree in my back yard got lucky. Only the very top of it landed on her car and did no damage.

My building, called The Pattington, has a tile roof, which now has many fewer tiles on it than it did. The grounds around the building are littered with them, also chunks of limestone, brick and tin from about five chimneys that blew off.

All over the neighborhood and no doubt all over the region, lots of trees lost big branches and many trees, big ones like the one behind me, went down completely; some snapped in two, some pulled out by their roots. (The soil here, below a couple inches of top soil, is all sand.) Several buildings lost chunks of roofs.

Park Place, a high-rise across from us on the south side of Irving Park Road, had a temporary "now leasing" sign at the corner of Irving and Pine Grove. The sign was half-inch masonite, about 3' x 5', screwed to three steel poles. The poles are still there but the sign broke in half and sailed about 30 feet, one half staying on the south side of Irving, the other half coming to rest on the north side.

The storm came up fast, in the middle of the afternoon. My desk faces away from the window, but I suddenly could hear the wind and noticed it had gotten almost dark. Then the power went out. It was out for five hours.

I knew I had candles and flashlights, and was proud of myself for being able to quickly locate an old, all-analog, battery-powered radio I have. I probably haven't used it in ten years or more, but it performed perfectly. I knew from the radio that more weather was on its way and, sure enough, about 7:30 PM it started up again, not quite as ferocious, but with almost continuous lightening flashes. The power came back on about 8:15 PM.

It seems to have settled down somewhat, but only temporarily according to the Weather Service. It may, they say, keep going like this, on and off, until Saturday.

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August 18, 2007

Here's good news for all the people who want to know what some liquid treasure they pried from their grandfather's dead hands is really worth.

New York law now permits permits auction houses, such as Christie's, to auction rare distilled spirits.

Christieís, in fact, immediately announced its plans to hold in December the first liquor auction in New York since Prohibition began in 1920.

"We are currently accepting consignments of vintage cognac, armagnac, Scottish, Irish and American whiskies, bourbon and other traditional spirits," said Richard Brierley, Head of Christieís Americas Wine Sales.

The Distilled Spirits Council estimates that millions of dollars in exclusive spirits sales have been lost to London, Paris, Glasgow and other auction centers around the globe because spirits auctions have been against the law in New York, costing the state large amounts in lost sales taxes.

The new law also allows spirits tastings at the auctions, just as is already allowed for wine auctions. Nationally, seventeen states permit wine auctions, but New York becomes only the eighth state to authorize spirits auctions.

This will be interesting to follow. Obviously, Christie's won't be handling the type of thing that makes up most of the traffic on eBay, but it will be interesting to see how this develops and what, if anything, made-in-the-USA even gets on the board.

Anyone out there with a big bunker who's ready to cash-in?

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July 30, 2007

Speaking as a fat man, I'm bothered by the new study that shows obesity is catching. If your friends are fat, the study concludes, your chances of being fat increase by 57 percent. So, if you want to stay thin, drop your fat friends immediately.

Researchers studied a network of 12,067 friends and relatives between 1971 and 2003, monitoring their weight over the 32-year period. They found that weight gain in one person apparently influenced weight gain in their close friends or partners.

Buried in the study is an irony. Same-sex friends and siblings had a greater influence than did partners of the opposite sex. So it's apparently safe to date the obese, heterosexually, at least, not that anyone does.

Researchers James Fowler of Harvard University and Nicholas Christakis of the University of California in San Diego report their conclusions in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

And to anyone who has gained weight due to their friendship with me, I'm really sorry. Luckily, I'm not that well liked.

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July 28, 2007

In September, during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Four Roses will release a new, limited-edition, single barrel bourbon in honor of Master Distiller Jim Rutledge's 40th anniversary in the industry.

Only 1,700 bottles will be filled. Each will be hand-numbered. The bourbon will be 13.5 years old, bottled uncut and unfiltered. The proof will be 104.2. Right now, at least, they're calling it simply Four Roses Barrel Strength.

As a single barrel, this represents just one of Four Rose's ten "flavors." This also will be the oldest Four Roses product on the market, at least here in the U.S. I haven't seen final packaging yet, so I don't know if there's going to be an age statement on the label. They're saying 13.5. That will be a first. I don't think anyone has ever age-stated a half-year. In fact, some distilleries don't even talk "years." They talk summers, since that's when the aging whiskey is most active. No Four Roses product, at least none sold in the U.S., carries an age statement currently.

I've tasted it. It's very good, as you might expect, and is well-balanced as you expect of anything from Four Roses. Surprisingly, considering its age, there is very little taste of char, none of soot, and none of the astringency that is expected from something this old. It is on the dry side, showing a lot of spice. Think pumpkin pie.

Since Four Roses is only sold in Kentucky and metro New York, those are the only markets that will get the limited-edition Barrel Strength product. If you have access to either of those markets, start sucking up to your favorite whiskey-monger now. They'll go fast.

Rutledge, by the way, isn't retiring or anything. They're just marking the 40-year milestone, sort of like Wild Turkey did for Jimmy Russell with Tribute. As with Jimmy, they made Rutledge select his own "tribute" bourbon.

Here's an interesting fact from the press release. Four Roses sales volume in its two US markets has doubled each year since the brand's reintroduction in 2002.

The important thing about these "limited editions" is that they are toes in the water for the companies. They're trying to figure out what the magic numbers are. Sure, 1,700 bottles doesn't sound like much, but that's for two markets whereas Tribute and some of these other things have been national and even international, at least ostensibly. The best thing for us as enthusiasts is that when these small releases create a lot of buzz and sell out instantly, that emboldens the companies to do more of them.

I haven't heard a suggested retail yet. My guess is it will be north of $50, maybe way north. I wouldn't be surprised if they match or exceed Woodford Reserve's $90 for the new Sonoma-Cutrer finish.

Although Four Roses in the U.S. is available only in Kentucky and metro New York, it is one of the top-selling American whiskeys in the rest of the world. The brand's U.S. positioning is actually more upscale, overall, than it's positioning outside the U.S. From what I've seen, it doesn't appear that any non-U.S. markets will get this expression, good news for those American enthusiasts who suspect (sometimes with justification) that all of the best stuff is being exported. Not this time.

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July 24, 2007

There ought to be a word for when you start out looking for something and accidentally discover something else entirely. Boy, did that happen to me today.

It began when I was tipped that the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) in Frankfort, Kentucky, has put some of its photo archives online. The photos seem to be in no particular order, which probably means they are in the order they were in when KHS received them. I was interested in the photographs of old distilleries, naturally, but mixed in with them were other things, including this picture.

It didn't come with a lot of information. The title is "Kiwanis Club Womanless Wedding." Under "description" is says: "Shot of 'bride' and groom. The man dressed as the bride is of much larger stature than the man playing the groom." It was taken in 1940, in Frankfort, by Cusick Studio.

What, I wondered, is a "womanless wedding" (beyond the obvious)? Why is a Kiwanis Club having it? And why is it photo-worthy?

A little bit of research finds Kiwanis clubs and other, similar groups putting on womanless weddings throughout history. In one case, the skit was performed by Civil War re-enactors as an example of the ways soldiers amused themselves. Now that I think about it, I recall there was some kind of drag show at the heart of the Broadway musical "South Pacific," put on by a Navy unit during World War II.

Apparently, a "womanless wedding" is a "play" to which people buy tickets, and thus it is used for charitable fundraising. The members of the wedding party are usually prominent local citizens. They dress in drag, mince and vamp broadly, and otherwise make fools of themselves for the amusement of the audience, which includes children.

Many accounts of this phenomenon come from the South, although I never encountered it during my time in Kentucky. Apparently, variations on the theme include the "womanless beauty pageant" and the "Tom Thumb" wedding, in which all of the participants are children.

It's hard to know the subtext of a group of prominent male citizens in 1940 putting on a drag show to support local charities, but it seems bizarre today that such things are still commonplace in communities where homosexuality and homosexual marriage are routinely condemned.

And yet, why am I posting this picture? Because it's funny, of course.

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July 21, 2007

Florida Marlins left-hander Scott Olsen, 23, was arrested this morning in Florida after failing to stop when a patrol car observed him traveling 13 miles over the speed limit in a 35-mile per hour zone. Olsen is a graduate of Crystal Lake South High School. He resisted arrest by kicking the officers, who ultimately used a taser to restrain him. Olsen failed a field sobriety test and refused to blow.

Earlier this evening, a Lake County jury found Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell, of Deerfield, guilty of allowing their son's friends to drink in their basement one night last October. Two teens died in a car accident shortly after leaving the party.

Also this evening, Deerfield police announced that three teens ó- one who testified at the Hutsell trial and two others who were on the witness list ó- were arrested just last night for alleged alcohol-related offenses at a party.

Crystal Lake and Deerfield are both affluent Chicago suburbs.

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July 12, 2007

"The Spindle" is a sculpture by Dustin Shuler. It was erected in 1989 in the middle of the Berwyn Plaza Shopping Center parking lot as part of a group of innovative works of public art and architecture at various locations. The piece consists of eight actual, full size automobiles seemingly stacked on a tall, silver spindle. The shopping center, located just east of the intersection of Harlem and Cermak in Berwyn, Illinois, is showing its age and would like to revitalize itself in part by removing the sculpture and developing that space commercially. Their stated intention is simply to scrap the work.

Like the shopping center, "The Spindle" is showing its age. It has survived 18 Chicago winters. Considering that, it actually looks quite good. The shopping center isn't being aggressive about the issue. They want it gone by the end of the year. They seem as though they would be very receptive to someone willing to take it off their hands, at no cost to them. They probably will be less receptive to efforts to preserve the sculpture where it is.

I think it's a great piece and I'm not alone. People are already starting to talk and organize to try to save it.

Today I drove down there and took a few pictures. Click here to watch the slide show. (The slide show will open in a new window. When you are finished watching, just close the window to return here.)

The work belongs where it is. The site and the work's placement on the site are part of the work. But art will not always be served, especially when mammon wants some. Relocation is certainly preferable to destruction. Relocation nearby, in Berwyn, would be good for Berwyn and perhaps ultimately good for the piece. If efforts to save it are successful, I imagine people will want to put it in a park, surrounded by grass. That would be too bad. It belongs in a parking lot, as it is now, in the middle of the lot and surrounded by a lot of space.

While Berwyn's mayor says he is "not a fan" of "The Spindle," he does seem to 'get it,' as in understanding that the work is internationally known and a uniquely valuable asset for Berwyn's image. Reading between the lines, it looks like the shopping center's management is saying, "if you can figure out a way to remove it without busting it, not on our dime, knock yourselves out." The announcement a few days ago, and resulting publicity, was meant to shake the bushes and see what emerges.

What, indeed.

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July 11, 2007

It's not enough that we may go to heaven, others must go to hell. Thanks for clearing that up, Pope Benedict XVI.

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June 20, 2007

Five months ago, there was a story in the Chicago media about a local anti-alcohol group that was accusing beverage makers of targeting youth-oriented media with ads for so-called "alcopops" such as Bacardi Silver, Smirnoff Ice, and Mike's Hard Lemonade. Of course, this group was demanding government action and my State Senator, Carol Ronen, was carrying their water.

I called this "Lying for a Worthy Cause." I wrote about it here, but I also put more-or-less the same sentiments into letters to both the director of the complaining organization, and Senator Ronen. I emailed Senator Ronen and USPS-mailed Mr. Sandusky, the director of the anti-alcohol group. In all versions I called Mr. Sandusky a liar. I was deliberately provocative because I find that sort of dishonest political grandstanding offensive and because I wanted a reaction. I think my overall tone was reasonable, but decide for yourself. It's all right here.

When you call somebody a liar, you need to be prepared for anything and I was. The one response I didn't expect was ... none. One typically expects at least a non-committal form letter from one's own representative, but there was nothing. I haven't otherwise corresponded with Senator Ronen, that I can recall. I know she captured my email address, because now I get her email newsletter.

As sponsored by Ronen and several other legislators, Senate Bill 1625 prohibits Alcopop sponsorship of athletic events where the intended audience is primarily youth and bans billboard advertising of Alcopops within 500 feet of schools, public parks, amusement parks, and places of worship. It passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly yesterday.

As I'm writing this (it's actually 6PM "yesterday" right now), this hasn't been reported yet in any media I've seen. Maybe it's not considered an important story, although the opening salvo in January was well covered. We'll see. The law as it ultimately passed is fairly innocuous, but it will inconvenience the beverage makers and its benefits to the public, especially "the children" are dubious.

Meanwhile, the state's largest public transportation systems are in crises, the state isn't meeting its obligations in pension, health care, and education funding, the governor and the legislature are barely speaking about anything, and Illinois government is its usual corrupt mess. But at least the kids will have to walk 500 feet from the playground before being subjected to a billboard for Mike's.

We get the government we deserve.

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June 19, 2007

I have written before about the Ten Commandents, but never saw this coming. Apparently, Pope Benedict XVI went up the mountain, talked to God, and came back in a Hummer H3 carrying this, inscribed on a pair of oil pans:

The Vatican's Ten Commandments for Drivers:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.

7. Support the families of accident victims.

8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.

9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.

10. Feel responsible toward others

This new, special purpose Ten Commandments was released today by the Vatican's Office for Migrants and Itinerant People, according to the Associated Press. Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the office, told a news conference that the Vatican felt it necessary to address the pastoral needs of motorists because driving has become such a big part of contemporary life.

Cardinal Martino noted that the Bible is full of people on the move, including Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus ó and that his office is tasked with dealing with all "itinerant" people ó including refugees, prostitutes, truck drivers and the homeless.

"We know that as a consequence of transgressions and negligence, 1.2 million people die each year on the roads," Martino said. "That's a sad reality, and at the same time, a great challenge for society and the church."

The document, "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road," extols the benefits of driving ó family outings, getting the sick to the hospital, allowing people to see other cultures.

But it laments a host of ills associated with automobiles: drivers use their cars to show off; driving "provides an easy opportunity to dominate others" by speeding; drivers can kill themselves and others if they don't get their cars regular tuneups, if they drink, use drugs or fall asleep at the wheel.

I am not making any of this up. Okay, the Pope Benedict/H3 part (not his style anyway), but none of the rest of it. If you don't believe me, Google "Vatican Ten Commandments Drivers."

Personally, I welcome this, but not because it will make the roads safer or kinder. I'm glad the Vatican has finally recognized the franchise value of the Ten Commandments. There should be more sequels, and it shouldn't take another 5,000 years before the next one.

Oh, by the way, all of the announced Republican presidential candidates have already called for copies of the Ten Commandments for Drivers to be posted in all Department of Motor Vehicles locations.

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May 5, 2007

I went to high school in the late 1960s and started college in the fall of 1969. One recurrent theme, throughout all of the campus unrest, was that schools, as a rule, bring in outside authorities only as a last resort. If possible, they try to keep all problems within the "family," meaning faculty and staff, students and parents. There is a sound reason for this bias and it is pedagogical in nature. Kids make mistakes. That's how they learn. No one understands this better than parents and educators and, therefore, no one is better qualified to help students learn from their missteps. Outsiders, who have other agendas, just muddy the water.

Focusing on what is best for the student is supposed to be the highest priority. If a problem can be corrected, every effort should be made to correct it. That is not to say that there are not students whose problems cannot be contained within the school community, but schools usually set that tipping point very high.

Not, apparently, at School District 155 and Cary-Grove High, where calling the cops about "violent essay writer" Allen Lee (as the headline writers now call him) was a first resort. Based on the facts that have been made public, it appears that Cary-Grove and District 155 officials never reached out to either the student or his parents, either before or since the arrest. Negotiations for Lee to return to school were conducted by the family's lawyer.

Schools have historically gone outside the school community only reluctantly, in part because they understand that the criminal justice system does, and must, look at the student differently. If putting a student into that system cannot be avoided, so be it, but real educators consider that outcome a failure.

Everything worth doing in life carries risks. Educators, like parents, often take risks when a student's future is at stake. Usually the danger is that they will risk too much. Nobody has to worry about that at Cary-Grove and District 155. They're not willing to risk anything.

The other thing that has been sticking in my craw about this is that the state's attorney's office is still pretending it has a case. Asked if the state is willing to drop it, the most Assistant State's Atty. Tom Carroll will say is, "We're willing to consider the matter." He's probably just being coy, because the defense's case is about as open-and-shut as you can get. The relevant elements of the offense (720 ILCS 5/26 1) are: "A person commits disorderly conduct when he knowingly does any act in such unreasonable manner as to alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace." Since no breach of the peace was provoked, no offense occurred. It is arguable that, in fact, Lee intended to "alarm or disturb" the teacher, Capron. But since the two elements are connected by "and," not "or," both have to be present and the second element clearly is not. Summary judgment to the defense. Who does Carroll think he is kidding?

But back to yesterday's "teaching opportunity." What the parents and other citizens of Cary and Fox River Grove have the opportunity to learn from these events is just how committed local school officials there are to the welfare of students. Allen Lee may recover from and succeed in spite of all this, but no thanks to the top officials of his school and school district, who threw him into the maw of the criminal justice system with barely a thought. Assistant State's Atty. Carroll is just doing his job. Too bad for Lee that Cary-Grove and District 155 officials didn't do theirs.

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May 4, 2007

I'm not a parent but my friends who are sometimes speak wryly about "teaching opportunities." The wryness comes from the fact that "teaching opportunity" typically describes a situation in which something the child has done or attempted has gone terribly wrong and learning is about the only possible good that could come of it.

As we find out more about what happened at Cary-Grove High School last week, it appears educators there squandered a teaching opportunity and instead created a nightmare for the student that is still unfolding.

The people least at fault would appear to be the student, Allen Lee, and his English teacher, Nora Capron. Most at fault are the senior faculty members at Cary-Grove and the District 155 administrators who escalated an overly-creative writing assignment into a police emergency and criminal charges against the student.

Here are some key facts we didn't know immediately after the incident. They come from a series of articles published on, part of the Chicago Sun-Times network of suburban newspapers.

The teacher, Nora Capron, is a rookie who made a rookie mistake. She gave a creative writing assignment in which she told students to write an essay on "whatever came into their minds, and to not judge or censor what they were writing." Contrary to initial reports that said the essay's violence was "not directed toward any specific person or location," Lee in his essay described Capron as a "control freak intent on setting a gap between herself and her students," a teacher who might "(inspire) the first cg shooting."

Was Lee sincere or was he, as a smart teenager will do, playing mind games with a naÔve newbie teacher? It is exactly the type of stunt I would have pulled in high school. Hopefully, Capron learned that telling students to write whatever comes into their heads, and not judge or censor it, is a recipe for trouble. As a newbie, she can't really be faulted, either for making that mistake or for kicking the problem upstairs, but that is where the real problems began.

Long story short, the only crime here is that the supposedly savvy and experienced education professionals who caught the problem next overreacted, big time. They never attempted to contact either the student or his parents. Instead, after discussions involving several veteran educators, they decided that the correct pedagogical response was to call the police and have the kid arrested. That is unconscionable. As a result of their massive overreaction, the student has been arrested, missed school, and had his enlistment in the Marine Corps revoked because of the pending criminal charges.

If he was not genuinely angry before, he has a right to be now.

Lee's mistake, like Capron's, was a typical one of youth. He took the teacher at her literal word and, although we don't know this for sure, saw it as an opportunity to give the needle to a teacher he did not particularly like. Despite the teacher's directive against self-censorship, a smart 18-year-old should have known he was asking for trouble by writing what he did. He should have known better, but didn't or, rather, he used poor judgment, like a normal teenager.

Both of them, Lee and Capron, made mistakes. They should have been reprimanded and "taught," but it should have stayed within the Cary-Grove "family" of students, parents, teachers and administrators. Bringing in the police inevitably brought in the press, because all arrests are public record and checking the daily police arrest logs is about the most basic kind of journalism there is.

Sadly, the adults who should have known better still don't seem to get it. Jill Hawk, District 155 superintendent, hasn't said much about the incident and what she has said seems intended to obfuscate the real issues. "Our first priority is student safety," she is quoted to have said. "It will continue to be our top priority." If that's how they want to play it, let's play it that way. Did the actions of Hawk and her crew enhance student safety? Were they, in retrospect, correct in judging Lee to be such an imminent threat to student safety that his immediate arrest was the appropriate reaction? It's all being blamed on the kid, no one else did anything wrong.

"We are more confident than ever that the safety and security provided at Cary-Grove High School and the district's three other schools is at an unprecedented level." That's what it says on the district's web site, in an obtuse reference to the Lee incident. They are not owning up to the teacher's error in judgment in wording the assignment as she did, nor are they taking responsibility for the very negative consequences for the student of their overreaction. At least so far as their public statements are concerned, they seem to be saying that if the same thing happened tomorrow, they would react the same way.

That's just wrong. They overreacted. Because this incident occurred just a week after the Virginia Tech shootings, the overreaction is possibly understandable, even forgivable, but not if they won't admit it. That is what I find so outrageous. They are still trying to defend what they did.

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with the Chicago area, Cary is a suburb that is about 20 miles, as the crow flies, from downtown. "Grove" refers to Fox River Grove, an adjacent suburb. This is not the inner city, these are very affluent communities. That doesn't mean they can't or don't have discipline problems, or violence or crime, but these are not the impoverished, hopeless hell holes that surround many inner city schools, where teachers often are so overwhelmed by daily threats that their personal safety is a constant concern. Cary-Grove is, in fact, about as far from that as you can get.

It is the kind of place families move to for the schools.

So, for me, the bottom line here hasn't changed. The people who made the decision to immediately take this to the police badly abdicated their most basic responsibility to this student. They threw him under the bus to cover their own asses. It's as simple as that.

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April 25, 2007

According to today's Chicago Tribune, Allen Lee, an 18-year-old straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School (Home of the Trojans, in the Chicago suburb of Cary), was arrested yesterday near his home and charged with disorderly conduct for an essay police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location. The essay was written as a school assignment and submitted to a teacher. It was not posted nor published.

The English teacher who assigned the essay read it and reported it to a supervisor and the school's principal. The principal kicked it up to the district office, where several officials read it and talked about it. They reported it to the police. The police decided to pick the student up under a disorderly conduct charge, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Let's hope this is as far as the pendulum swings in this particular direction as people react to last week's Virginia Tech shootings and the overheated, sensationalized media coverage of the tragedy. In the past week in the Chicago area, there have been bomb threats at two high schools that caused evacuations, and extra police were on duty at a third area high school because a threatening note was found in the bathroom of a McDonald's restaurant a half-mile away.

The student's essay has not been published nor even summarized in the press, so it is hard to second-guess school officials or police, but the facts we do know suggest that the arrest, which automatically became a matter of public record, was ill-considered. Despite content that school and public safety officials found disturbing, the essay was responsive to the assignment, and was completed and submitted appropriately, meaning it was submitted to the teacher and not otherwise disseminated. It wasn't published, it wasn't passed around, it wasn't posted on the internet. The officials have announced that the content was violent but not specific as to any person, time or location. To characterise it as "threatening," then, would seem to be contrary to the undisputed facts.

Since no one knew about the essay except the student who wrote it and then school and police officials, no public disturbance was caused by the essay itself, although the arrest sparked protests. Again, on the face of it, relying only on the facts we know, it would appear that the only "trouble" or "disturbance" caused by this essay was caused by the ham-handed response to it by school and public safety officials.

Nothing to this effect has been reported, but the only way an arrest makes sense is if there was some reason to believe an immediate and severe danger loomed, time was of the essence, and only armed and trained law enforcement officials could safely approach the student to discuss the subject. Maybe that will turn out to be the case, but does it seem likely, given the facts we know?

I'm not saying action shouldn't have been taken. What about school officials contacting the student's parents and requesting an immediate audience with them, the student, school officials, and public safety officials. The police could have attended and participated in such a meeting privately, without the public reporting required by an arrest. In other words, someone might have considered that the student and his parents had a legitimate interest in avoiding the stigma and publicity of an arrest if possible. If that option was even considered, why was it rejected?

The tentative conclusion I draw, again knowing only the facts reported, is that school officials wanted to get responsibility for the matter off of their shoulders as quickly and thoroughly as possible, so they passed the buck to the police. The police felt that if they were going to grab the kid they needed to charge him with something so they came up with a reliable catch-all, disorderly conduct. The problem is, conduct, to be considered disorderly, aught on its face to cause some disorder and the only disorder in this case was caused by the putative grown ups.

The responsible parties in this case appeared to be interested only in dodging their responsibility to this student and his family. Their primary concern was making sure that if something bad happened, they couldn't be blamed for it. Covering their own asses, that's all they cared about.

Overreaction in the wake of something like Virginia Tech is inevitable. Let's just hope this incident represents the worst of it.

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April 2, 2007 has a feature called "What do customers ultimately buy after viewing this item?" The meaning is pretty obvious. I was looking at a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. It's a serious book by a psychologist about how ordinary people--ordindary, basically decent people--can commit atrocities such as Abu Ghraib. In other words, pretty serious stuff. Here, according to Amazon, is what most people who looked at this book ultimately bought:

94% buy the item featured on this page: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo $16.77

2% buy A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah $12.10

2% buy How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman $15.60

2% buy Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't by Stephen Prothero $14.97

2% buy "Happy Feet" (Widescreen Edition) DVD ~ Carlos Alazraqui $15.99

In most cases, all of the alternatives make at least a little sense--same subject, same author--but every so often you get a laugh.

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March 20, 2007

Bob Uecker's stalker showed up today at a Brewers-Cubs spring training game in Arizona, according to the Chicago Tribune. She was asked to leave.

I know what you're thinking. Bob Uecker has a stalker? In addition to announcing Brewers baseball games on radio, Uecker has had a minor career as a movie and television actor, commercial spokesperson, and talk show guest. His shtick usually involves making jokes about his own forgettable professional baseball career.

The woman, from the Chicago suburb of Prospect Heights, has been bothering Uecker for years. Last fall, he obtained a court order prohibiting her from attending any of the team's games.

As celebrities go, Bob Uecker is small-time, as he would be first to admit. This makes his stalker seem even more pathetic. She must be an embarassment to all the other stalkers, the ones who harass A-list celebrities like Madonna and David Letterman. She makes them look bad. Okay, worse. She's probably ostracized when she goes to the stalker bar, the other stalkers won't talk to her and they make fun of her behind her back. Being a stalker is one thing, but stalking Bob Uecker? There apparently are no standards anymore, even among stalkers.

What's worse, taxpayer money is being spent to keep someone away from Bob Uecker.

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February 21, 2007

Here's your personal update on the Jamar Smith story.

The car he was driving? A 1996 Lexus, that is registered to his grandparents.

Yeah, it's a Lexus, but it's an old Lexus.

Smith has been charged with two felonies, including causing great bodily harm while driving under the influence. His BAC was 0.176.

Smith never called 911. He thought Carlwell was dead. Smith drove back to his apartment and went inside, leaving Carlwell unconscious in the car. A witness in the parking lot called 911.

And now, the punch line.

"This was a case of extremely poor judgment by Jamar," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Officials were silent about what effect this might have on Illinois recruiting.

Will anyone stand to defend the integrity of college basketball? Anyone? Anyone at all? No thanks, Coach Knight. Anyone else?

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February 20, 2007

"Adjunct beer" is one of those terms that seems innocent enough but is really value-loaded.

The term is derived from a belief -- some might call it a prejudice -- that "beer" is made from malted barley, yeast, hops, water, and nothing else. For some people, "and nothing else" is, itself, an ingredient, and the most important one at that. A beer that contains unmalted barley or any other grain, such as wheat or rice, is not beer, it is adjunct beer.

The objection to this dichotomy can most easily be expressed this way. Name five beers. Chances are the five you named are all adjunct beers. Most of the best-selling beers in the world are adjunct beers.

My purpose is not to argue the merits of all-malt beer versus adjunct beer. It is rather to reveal the true meaning of the term "adjunct beer." When people say adjunct beer, what they mean is, "that's not real beer." They believe the only drink that deserves to be called beer, without a modifier, is the kind that contains malt, yeast, hops, water, and nothing else.

Some people, most of them Scots, have a similar attitude toward American whiskey. When they say "whiskey," they mean scotch. If they mean bourbon, they'll say bourbon, maybe even bourbon whiskey, but when they just say "whiskey," without a modifier, they always mean scotch. They expect you to know that too. Don't dare ask, "what kind?" (Unless you're like me and you just want to needle them.)

If you read WHISKY Magazine, you'll see it often in quotations from industry leaders and sometimes in articles and columns, where someone will make a reference to, say, "the international growth of whisky and bourbon." They don't mean to be snarky. That's just how they think. "What we make is whiskey, what the Yanks make is bourbon."

You will even, on occasion, hear a Scot refer to bourbon as adjunct whiskey, although in fairness they consider blended scotch adjunct whiskey too. To them, the only drink that deserves to be called whiskey, without a modifier, is Scottish single malt whiskey.

I shouldn't pick on the Scots. I'm sure there are non-Scottish whiskey snobs. By "whiskey snob," I mean anyone who regards Scotland as the only source of real whiskey. The whiskey of Scotland is Scotch whiskey, just as the whiskey of the United States is American whiskey. Bourbon is a type of whiskey just as single malt scotch is a type of whiskey. Both are whiskey and one is not more whiskey than the other. If you just say "whiskey" when you mean "scotch," you are saying that you consider the whiskeys of the USA, Ireland, Canada and Japan to be inferior, if you consider them to be whiskey at all.

At least for the Scots it's nationalistic snobbery, jingoism, if you will. For everybody else it's just snobbery. The problem, as always, is the masses. They know what "beer" is, but they don't know what "adjunct beer" is. Their use of the term "beer" is all-inclusive. With whiskey there is still a lot of confusion about types, which many people who know better encourage. Many times I have been asked, "what's the difference between bourbon and whiskey?"

The industry may be hoist on its own petard right now in India, where they make distilled spirits from sugar cane -- what we would call rum -- and call it whiskey. The Scots don't like that. But how to define whisky in international law? It's a problem.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) already prohibits the false use of place names, so calling any spirits made in India "Scotch whisky" or even "Scotch-style whisky" is already illegal, but that particular agreement does not define whiskey per se, nor can I find any WTO agreement that does.

U.S. law says whiskey is "an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190[deg] proof." It further requires that the distillate be "stored in oak containers," but it doesn't say for how long. It exempts corn whiskey from the aging requirement.

The European Union (EU) defines whiskey as "a spirit drink produced by the distillation of a mash made from malted cereals, with or without whole grains of other less than 94.8 % vol." and aged "for at least three years in wooden casks not exceeding 700 litres capacity." (That particular wording is part of a proposed revision likely to be adopted this spring.)

These rules apply just within each jurisdiction, but they mean that both domestically-manufactured and imported products must meet the definition. The EU is becoming very influential in international law and there are other countries not in the EU that have adopted the EU definition, such as Singapore.

The differences between the U.S. definition and the EU definition are small and harmonization probably is not necessary. Unaged corn whiskey cannot be sold as whiskey in Europe, nor can a product such as Hudson Baby Bourbon. More significant would be an American blended whiskey such as Seagram's Seven, which probably cannot be sold in the EU because it contains grain neutral spirits and un-aged whiskey. Every major American straight whiskey product is "whiskey" under the EU definition, no problem.

The big action right now is between the EU and India, and The EU is arguing that high tariffs, contrary to WTO rules, are unfairly denying imported whiskey access to Indian markets. The Indians are counter-arguing that the EU is unfairly preventing Indian whiskey from accessing the European market through its insistence on the "cereals only" definition.

Worldwide, Scottish whiskey outsells American whiskey about five-to-one, but American producers can live with the EU definition and will benefit in like ratio if the Indian tariffs are eliminated or reduced.

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February 11, 2007

I am a big fan of John Kass, a columnist in the Chicago Tribune. In today's column, Kass talks about the "negative space" surrounding yesterday's announcement by Barack Obama that he, Obama, is running for President.

As Kass explains, "negative space" is a concept in visual and performing art -- he uses the example of modern dance, I know about it from graphic design; it's also called "white space" -- a name for what isn't there. What "isn't there" in any of the reporting about Obama is who his "people" are, or, if they are identified, what isn't mentioned is who are the people behind them.

In short, Barack Obama is a creature of the Chicago Democratic political machine whose chief string-puller is Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. David Axelrod, one of Obama's primary spokespeople, is a long-time Daley media advisor. The Mayor's brother, Bill Daley, likely will be named as Obama's campaign manager, unless the machine decides that is too visible a role for a Daley family member to hold, in which case someone else will be given the job in name while Daley pulls the levers behind the scenes.

There are many others, since one cannot be active in Democratic Party politics in Illinois without being part of the Daley organization.

Kass suggests that even the media is complicit in the headlong enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy. I don't know about that, but I did notice that on Channel 5ís newscast Saturday night, in their report on Obamaís announcement, they included a short interview with Axelrod, but he was not identified, either by the reporter or by an on-screen name super, as part of Obamaís team. It was treated as if they had just accidentally plucked him out of the crowd and he was just another anonymous enthusiastic onlooker. Possibly it was a technical glitch, but it seemed all part of the program.

The thing about this that is most distressing to me is that I like Obama. I like his style and I like his message. But living here in Chicago and knowing what I know, knowing what I know about Axelrod, Daley, Tony Rezko (a now indicted political fixer who "helped" Obama buy his house), and a lot of the other people who have Obamaís ear (and who knows what other body parts), I canít help feeling he is little more than a front, a Potemkin candidate maybe not so unlike the last handsome young man the Daley family rode into the White House now almost 50 years ago.

This is an election year for city offices, such as mayor and city council (i.e., aldermen). Because the Daley machine has been so effective at eliminating any semblance of political opposition, the city a few years ago switched to a "non-partisan" system for electing city offices. There is a primary on February 27th. If a candidate wins a majority of the votes cast, that's it. If they don't, there is a run-off in April between the two candidates who received the most votes.

In the last few weeks, most of the machine-endorsed candidates have been rallying support, not for themselves, but for Obama, in that every appeal to come to a meeting or rally is an appeal to "help Barack Obama's candidacy." I receive a recorded phone message from one of them just about every day. The fact that they are using enthusiasm for Obama to recruit bodies to work in contested aldermanic districts could not be more obvious.

I am reminded of some of the political activities I engaged in as a young man, now more than 30 years ago. Most revolved around trying to end the Vietnam War. That was a broad-based movement, as is the current movement against the Iraq War, but at its core was an extremely well-organized and well-disciplined group from the YSA -- Young Socialists Alliance -- the youth arm of the Socialist Workers Party. Attend an anti-war rally today, here or in Europe, and they won't be hard to spot. What I experienced was that even though they were always a small minority in the much larger movement, they were so well organized and disciplined that they were able to control events through various tactics. The problem with that kind of organization, and here is where I tie it back in to the Daley machine, is that it is only possible when there is centralized authority. Someone at the top, an individual or small steering committee, is calling all the shots. Party discipline requires absolute obedience to the leadership. The rest of the members are just sheep or, if you will, lemmings, obedient drones doing their duty in hopes of someday getting into the leadership themselves.

With a machine like Daley's, there are other ways to inspire loyalty and squelch dissent. One of the big ones is money, in the form of jobs, contracts, or outright cash in an envelope. There is also intimidation in various forms. The Daley machine is rumored to have ties to the Chicago Outfit and whether that is true or not, it is useful to both of them if people suspect that it is.

The main difference between Daley I and Daley II is that the father preferred the stick while the son prefers the carrot. That's a big difference, but the son will use the stick when necessary.

The problem with all this is that it is no kind of democracy. It is as totalitarian, ultimately, as Stalin's Soviet Union or Hugo Chavez's Venezuela (a work-in-progress). I say "ultimately" because there are external checks on Daley's power, mostly from the federal government, a problem which President Obama might very helpfully solve.

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February 6, 2007

Here is the simple, frank message George Bush needs to deliver to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Mr. Prime Minister, I know you have a difficult job, but for the leader of a sovereign nation, there are a lot of things you don't have to worry about.

First, you don't have to worry about Iran. We'll take care of Iran. You don't have to worry about Syria, Turkey, Jordan, or any country other than your own. Don't worry about them. We'll take care of the borders.

Second, you don't have to worry about the Kurds. The Kurds are cool. Just leave them alone and you won't have any trouble with the Kurds.

Third, the Sunni Arabs. You need to get more of them (okay, any of them) on board. We'll help with that, but you need to get on it.

Fourth, and most important, you need to get your own guys under control, Sadr and anybody else who is causing trouble. I know it's not easy, but that is the only thing I'm asking you to tackle by yourself. Everything else we'll either do or help you with.

If you will just take care of those two matters, we can make this thing work.

Can you handle it?

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February 1, 2007

Joe Biden, the Democratic senator from Delaware, will be remembered for the shortest presidential candidacy in history. Having launched and then torpedoed it himself in less than 24 hours, it is a record unlikely to ever be broken.

If Biden ever had a prayer, a dubious proposition despite his being probably the best-qualified Democrat in the field, it was gone the moment he described Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

The statement produced a lot of chattering, most of it focusing on the word "clean." In my assessment, the problem isn't with the word "clean," it is with the words "African-American." As soon as Biden put his evaluation of Obama into the context of Obama as an African-American candidate, he was doomed, regardless of what he said next.

Why? Because it demonstrates Biden's Achilles' Heel, which has only gotten worse as he has aged. Biden thinks of himself as Solon, the wise man with all the answers. He is incapable of playing the roll of a candidate and thinking in that context alone. Candidate Biden shouldn't be talking about Obama or any of his other opponents at all, especially in the wee hours of his campaign. If he wants to compare himself favorably to Obama, he should talk about his own depth of experience and let someone else make the connection. If asked directly to comment on Obama, Senator Clinton or any other opponent, he should say as little as possible, such as, "They're all fine people."

But, no. Not Joe Biden. He has to play analyst. I don't care how qualified he is, or how much the people of Delaware admire him, his unfailingly tin ear has made him the first casualty of the 2008 campaign.

Put a fork in him, he's done.

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January 30, 2007

The picture above is of some kind of utility service box, mounted on a telephone pole, on a major thoroughfare about one block from my parents' home in Mansfield, Ohio. I took it because I found the graffiti scrawled on it fascinating. In case you can't read it, the side says, "Mia Stevens is a fuckin bitch and she a hoe." The front says, "Mia Stevens is a bitch and a hoe and a bad mother."

My purpose in posting it here certainly involves no wish to add to Ms. Stevens' woes. And for the record, I have no idea who she is nor who penned this very public assessment of her character.

Mansfield is small, but it isn't that small.

I guess what struck me most was that, crude though it is, the author put a very fine point on the sentiments expressed. It's very economical, crisp, rhythmic and unequivocal. What first caught my eye was that the author felt the need to add the "bad mother" part, which initially seemed superfluous what with "bitch" and "hoe" already out there.

Graffiti in some contexts has been reviewed as fine art and here it makes for a very striking kind of public poetry. One can even see the author's development. Assuming that the stanza on the side was written first, the one on the front is much stronger and shows a quickly ripening talent.

Ms. Stevens may, ultimately, be heralded as a muse, her substandard parenting notwithstanding.

The story, of course, is in what is left unsaid. We don't know if the author is male or female, a jilted lover, a rival, or just an observer and commentator on the passing scene. Presumably, there is a child involved. Is the author that child's father, or another relative, or perhaps the child itself? The myriad possibilities, coupled with the terse, muscular language, give the verse its frisson.

I don't, as a rule, approve of graffiti. In most cases it coarsens rather than enriches the urban landscape. Here, with the bright yellow utility box a bit of a blight already, albeit an officially-sanctioned one, and with the inscription fairly subtle as such things go (you don't notice it unless you're standing right there), I've warmed to the found poetry in it. Traveling in Eastern Europe not long after the fall of communism, graffiti was often the only color and the only spontaneous creative expression one could find amidst miles of commie concrete. The John Lennon wall in Prague was a veritable monument.

This reminds me of that.

It's different, of course, uniquely ours, but when something needs to be said so badly that it gets said in such an anti-social way, it's hard not to pay attention. In early 21st century America, "Mia Stevens is a bitch and a hoe and a bad mother" pretty much says everything.

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January 26, 2007

There are two interesting whiskey-related stories in the news today.

To most people, Gimli is the name of the character played by John Rhys-Davies in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, but Gimli also is the name of a town on Lake Winnipeg in the Canadian province of Manitoba, where Crown Royal Canadian Whisky is made. The brand and distillery are owned by Diageo, the world's biggest drinks company. Crown became part of Diageo after the demise of Seagram's in 2000.

This week, 98 percent of the Gimli plant's unionized workers voted to go on strike and the job action is taking an extremely bitter tone. "We're asking our fellow Canadians to tell this foreign company you can't stick it to Canadian workers just because your head office is in another country," says Calvin Firman, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, Local 200D. "If we go on strike we'll be asking the public to not just boycott Crown Royal, but Smirnoff and Baileys and Guinness beer and all the other brands Diageo makes."

A Diageo spokesperson counters that the company's current offer is "more than competitive."

The other interesting story in the news today is the announcement by Fortune Brands that, for the first time in that company's history, its spirits and wines division was its biggest profit contributor. That division, now known as Beam Global Spirits and Wine, makes Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Knob Creek and other American whiskeys.

The one thing these two stories have in common is that with industry consolidation, my interests as a whiskey drinker increasingly will be in the hands of huge, multinational corporations with a lot of irons in the fire.

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January 25, 2007

Lying for a Worthy Cause.

The Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (IADDA) held a press conference today. It was reported in the Chicago Tribune. At the event, the group charged beverage makers with targeting youth-oriented media with ads for so-called "alcopops" such as Bacardi Silver, Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade.

"This is just like Joe Camel cigarettes that were advertised to kids years ago," said Allen Sandusky, president of the board of directors of the IADDA.

It is the same, in that that was a lie, and so is this.

It always bothers me when well-meaning people lie in support of a genuinely worthy cause, especially when kids are involved. Lying to kids, even when it is for their own good, almost never works out the way you want it to. Let there be no doubt that I consider keeping kids away from drugs of all kinds, including cigarettes and alcohol, to be a worthy cause. But teaching kids to tell the truth is a worthy cause too and you do kids no favors by lying to them. When they find out that you lied to them about this (and they always find out), why should they believe you when you tell them about all the harm drugs can cause?

The truth is as follows.

Advertising that used the character dubbed "Joe Camel" was deemed to be directed at children solely because the character was illustrated. Cartoons appeal to children, ergo Joe Camel was being used to advertise cigarettes to children. It became an article of faith among anti-smoking crusaders, then came to be treated as a statement of fact, as Mr. Sandusky put it today.

"Alcopops" is a term of derision itself coined by anti-alcohol crusaders. It is meant to describe flavored malt beverages such as the brands mentioned in the article. These products start out as beer but are processed in a way that removes the characteristic flavor and color of beer, which is then replaced by other flavorings and sweeteners. The flavoring is usually some kind of citrus fruit, such as lemon, lime or orange. Consequently, they taste like a soda (e.g., 7Up) but contain alcohol, about the same amount as beer. They are deemed to be directed at children solely because they taste good, like soda pop.

Two additional facts of relevance. First, most beverage alcohol advertising, like most cigarette advertising, is directed at young adults, as is most advertising for automobiles and a wide range of other products. Young adults are attractive to advertisers because they are still forming their brand preferences. This is Marketing 101. Also fundamental is that there is no way to create advertising that will appeal to persons of legal age but won't appeal to anyone younger than legal age. There is not some kind of switch that is thrown at age 18 or 21. Anyone with half a brain knows this, which is why claims that certain products or ads are "directed at children" are, at best, an unfounded personal opinion and, at worst, a deliberate falsehood.

The second fact is this. There is one objective way to determine if advertising is "directed at children," and that is by examining the medium in which it is run and determining who views or hears that medium. The standard followed by the beverage alcohol industry, and by the tobacco industry before cigarette advertising was effectively banned, was that advertising for those products is placed only in magazines, on television shows, or on radio shows where at least 70 percent of the audience is expected to be adults. The Federal Trade Commission has consistently found that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to those guidelines and, therefore, does not market to underage consumers.

So, for the reasons given above, Allen Sandusky is a liar. A well-intentioned liar, but a liar nonetheless.

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January 8, 2007

In about 30 minutes, my beloved Buckeyes will meet Florida in college football's so-called "National Championship Game." My three lucky buckeyes are in my right pocket now, but they will be clutched in my fist as of kick-off. As we like to say, "I'll be squeezing my nuts."

This probably will prevent me from typing.

Go Bucks!!!

My thoughts have turned to college sports a couple of times recently, here, here, here, and below.

Yesterday's headline: "Dolphins Debacle With Nick Sabin Puts Pros Off College Coaches."

Today's headline: "Atlanta Falcons Hire University of Louisville's Bobby Petrino."

A tip to university athletic directors: if you want to hire a football head coach who will stay with your program long term, even when the pros come calling, get one who already has been a pro head coach. They will already know if it's for them or not. The ones who have never done it will always find the lure of the "big show" impossible to resist.

back to top - back to home - a note about links

And before that there was...

The Chuck Cowdery Blog 2006

... and ...

The Chuck Cowdery Blog 2005

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