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I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?
Someone snagged some alcohol and took it, quite illegally, to where it shouldn’t have been taken. It wasn’t an impulsive crime of opportunity, however. It wasn’t someone knocking over the corner liquor store. This was planned. Planned by professionals who knew exactly what they were taking and exactly who would be drinking the illegally-obtained booze. And the people who would be drinking it would be paying top dollar for the privilege. Far more than the retail price.
Why? Because the alcohol in question was scarce. Not the sort of thing you could find just anywhere. Its scarcity is what made it valuable. Its scarcity likely even made it taste better to the folks who would eventually drink it. Better to them than it would taste to someone who drank from the same bottles obtained through legal means. Better than stuff that, objectively speaking, was not much different and may have in fact tasted better than the illegal stuff before its qualities were enhanced by the air of danger and intrigue which infused it with … greater complexities.
The booze in question: Coors beer. Obtained illegally by Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit.” It was illegal to ship Coors east of Texas in 1977 and that illegality made it a highly sought-after commodity to Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette, who bankrolled the racket in order to get the stuff to serve, quite appropriately, at a banquet in honor of the winner of the Southern Classic truck rodeo in Georgia.
It seems preposterous now that the plot to the second highest-grossing movie of 1977 was set in motion by someone coveting Coors beer. Because, with all apologies to the good folks at the MillerCoors Brewing Company, Coors is kind of crappy. A mass-produced light lager that your dad probably drank because that’s about as good as he could do for the price and which you probably drank when you were in college because, Jesus, you didn’t know any better.
But drive the plot it did. Its believability as a McGuffin supported by its scarcity east of Texas. Its value supported by a small handful of wealthy men who used its scarcity and their ability to overcome it as a means of showing off to their friends. When the Bandit and the Snowman smashed their way through that last police blockade with that truck full of Coors and handed their haul over to Big and Little Enos, the retail price of their load didn’t matter a bit.
The same goes for another bunch of booze illegally swiped: 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, stolen from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky back in October 2013. Those bottles go for anywhere between $40 and $250 at retail but, because of their scarcity, can fetch over $1,000 in private sales. Some sales have netted as high as $5,000. And those are just the sales between friends and acquaintances on the so-called “gray market.” There’s no telling what they’d go for on the truly black market.
It’s not that Pappy is so much better than any other bourbon. Oh, it’s good. Thanks to a good friend with family near Lexington I was lucky enough to have some back before the bourbon bubble truly inflated. I enjoyed it a great deal. But it’s not hundreds of times better than the next best thing. It really can’t be.
All bourbon, in order to be bourbon, has to have a mash bill (i.e. the proportion of grains used in the fermentation process) of 51% corn. Up to that point, the stuff is all identical. It’s what makes up the other 49% that gives different bourbons their different tastes.
But here’s bourbon’s little secret: there are generally only three different taste profiles once you get past the corn:
Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon. It’s a good one, usually aged longer – 10, 15 or 23 years compared to the 3-7 years of most bourbons – but it’s still a wheated bourbon. Unless you’re in the bourbon industry and have tasted multiple different bourbons hundreds of different times as a point of professional purpose, you’re not going to be able to identify a great many bourbons by taste alone. it’s safe to say that the occasional bourbon drinker couldn’t tell the difference between Pappy and, say, Willett Pot Still Reserve, W.L. Weller or a Maker’s 46. After they’ve already had a couple, a novice bourbon drinker could probably be fooled with a bit of Old Fitz. Maybe even some of those occasional drinkers.
Yet there Old Pappy sits at the top of the bourbon pyramid, coveted, sought after and, yes, even stolen. Not because it’s so great but because the folks at Buffalo Trace produce only 1% of the amount of it as the folks at Jim Beam 70 miles to the southwest make of their white label bourbon each year. Because celebrity chefs like David Chang, Sean Brock, and Anthony Bourdain have conspicuously endorsed it. Because its annual release has been well-marketed as “Pappy-Day,” creating a land rush effect.
Of course, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is not unique in this respect. Simple economics suggest that the low supply of any product combined with its high demand will beget a higher price. But there’s something else going on with Pappy Van Winkle. There the low supply and great demand is baked into the price. It comes before the price is set. But then an after-effect of exclusivity washes over it where either the price or the overall scarcity of the product works to make people think it actually tastes better than it really does. Ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to drink some Pappy recently. They’ll tell you it’s the best they’ve ever had. Mostly because they’ve been fortunate enough to have it.
It’s not simple snobbery at work here, however.
Back in 2008 some Caltech economics professors conducted a study which found that changes in the stated price of a given wine influenced how good volunteers thought it tasted. But it wasn’t just an instance in which vanity and exclusivity entered into things. The lead researcher, Antonio Rangel, concluded that "prices, by themselves, affect activity in an area of the brain that is thought to encode the experienced pleasantness of an experience.” Put differently: the price tag on the wine bottle literally made the person drinking it think it tasted better.
Another product which, I suspect anyway, affects brain chemistry is In-N-Out Burger. Here it’s not about price. In-N-Out Burger’s menu prices are pretty low, actually. It’s really about exclusivity. As a result of the company’s obsession with quality control and its refusal to franchise, In-N-Out’s reach has been limited to five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.
My brother worked at an In-N-Out burger in San Diego for several years. He can vouch for the quality of their food. But the taste? It’s good. Quite good! But are the burgers better than Shake Shack? Five Guys? Any number of other burger joints across the country which use fresh, high-quality ingredients? Maybe a bit. Maybe a good bit if your palette is simply more amenable to the extra Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties, and extra pickles of an animal style burger. But it’s not so much better than the next chain down to justify the frenzy and the hype, is it? My brother grew positively sick of the stuff after six months and started taking his lunch breaks at the Del Taco across the street.
I’m a baseball writer, and an annual tradition among baseball writers is for the ones sent to Arizona for spring training to gloat about the availability of In-N-Out Burger to the sad, unfortunate baseball writers who have to cover spring training in Florida. Whenever I travel from Ohio to California to visit my brother, I’m always asked by friends if I plan to stop at In-N-Out before or after I go to his house. And there those celebrity chefs again – among them Thomas Keller and our old friend Anthony Bourdain – singing In-N-Out’s praises, stoking that perception of quality and feeding that demand.
I’ll leave it to Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at Caltech to parse all of that. But for now I will try to find “Smokey and the Bandit” streaming online and giggle anew at the fact that the whole damn thing was set off by Coors beer. And wonder whether, if and when there is a reboot of the franchise, Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette will send the Bandit after Pappy Van Winkle, In-N-Out Burger or something else entirely.