For a few months, it was the most sought-after piece of writing since the last Harry Potter novel, as beer lobbyists tried in vain to obtain an advance copy. Finally, on September 10, the National Academy of Sciences released its Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility.
There were few surprises in the 303-page document, which was two years and $500,000 in taxpayer money in the making. Most distressing to the beer industry was the call to raise state and federal taxes. The National Beer Wholesalers Association wasted no time in releasing its rebuttal. “According to the NAS study, the majority of underage drinkers get their alcohol from adults,” noted NBWA president David Rehr. “If this is true, then how will raising the price of alcohol serve as a deterrent?”
In all fairness, the report isn’t a neo-Prohibitionist screed. It firmly rejects the notion that alcohol should be regarded as “an enemy of the public’s health,” the way tobacco is. While the tobacco industry “has misled its customers for decades,” the report states, “the alcohol industry…uniformly acknowledges the dangers of underage drinking.”
The panel’s chairman, Dr. Richard Bonnie, insisted that “there is a lot of potential common ground” in spite of the impasse over taxation. One of the report’s recommendations is that the alcohol industry join with the government and private foundations in setting up “an independent nonprofit foundation with the sole mission of preventing and reducing underage drinking.” The report suggests that alcohol producers contribute 0.5 percent of their gross revenues ($250 to $500 million annually) to bankroll the foundation.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen, says Rehr. “We’re afraid that [neo-Prohibitionists] would use it as a Trojan horse and staff it with their own people.” The beer industry, he insists, already spends “hundreds of millions of dollars every year” to discourage drinking by minors. “The really disheartening part is that the NAS didn’t look at any of our programs.” A package of material sent to the panel was left languishing in the shrink-wrap, Rehr charged.
Beer and the Movies. Another recommendation of the NAS report is that the Motion Picture Association of America take into account “unsuitable alcohol content” in rating films G, PG or R. Rehr cautioned that if such a policy were taken to extremes, “any movie with any adults in a bar where beer is on tap could automatically get a PG rating.” Indeed, even Disney animated films like “Peter Pan” or “Beauty and the Beast” might be affected.
Beer and TV Sports. The Beer Institute in Washington, DC, recently amended its marketing code to limit beer ads to media where at least 70 percent of the viewers are adults. But that isn’t enough for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is trying to get the NCAA and colleges to ban alcohol ads from college sports entirely. In the industry’s defense, Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, counters that according to Nielsen Media Research, 88 percent of those who watch college football and 87 percent of viewers of college basketball are over 21.
Just Like Old Times
George Washington was a successful gentleman farmer, and one of his most profitable farm activities was distilling. In 1799, Mount Vernon turned out 11,000 gallons of spirits—mostly rye whiskey, with some brandy.
On October 21, after a lapse of more than 200 years, distilling resumed on Washington’s estate—for one day, anyway—as a team of 12 master distillers met to reproduce Washington’s whiskey. The recipe consisted of 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent barley, as specified in the first president’s farm records.
Kenneth Pierce, chief chemist for Barton Brands, took a sip of the “low wine”—the first runnings from the still—and said of the raw whiskey, “It definitely exceeds my expectations. I’m pleased with it.”
The whiskey—made in a replica of an 18th-century copper pot still—was to be aged for several years in port wine casks, bottled, and auctioned off to raise funds for the educational mission of Mount Vernon.
Over the next three or four years, Mount Vernon hopes to reconstruct Washington’s distillery with help from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
President over a Barrel
President Bush, on the campaign trail, was in Greer, SC, holding one of his roundtable talks on the economy. Among the local employers attending was Stephen Thies, CEO of Spartanburg Stainless Products. According to the Washington Post account, Thies claimed, “We’re the only American beer keg manufacturer in North America.”
Bush, who was something of a hell-raiser in his youth, mentioned that he quit drinking in 1986.
“Well, we did notice a dip in demand at a point in time,” laughed Thies, who quickly added, “Probably no relationship.”
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Wahington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.