Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Paul McDonagh. Paul is passionate about his Scotch whisky and the owner of Glasgow’s finest whisky bar, the Bon Accord. A man who’s enjoying the bar life.
What’s the view from your office window – if you have one?
I don’t have one but I do have some nice bottles of whisky to look at.
Good answer! How long have you been owner at the Bon Accord?
This is my 14th year but it seems like only yesterday that I took over. Am having a great time.
Good to hear. Customers & drinking habits—anything different now from when you took over?
We sell more whisky than before. 14 yrs ago we had only 5 malts, now we have 380; the trend seems to be for more sherried whisky.
That’s some increase! Any thoughts on why an interest in sherry matured?
I think it’s because they may be sweeter and easier to drink.
Fair point—easier than some Islays for some people! Years ago the bar was known for real ales rather than whisky. Still big on beers? Numbers?
We are still big on ales—800 different beers a year and we host 4 ale festivals each year.
Busy life. Noticeable whisky industry price increases in shops in recent times. Have these affected you much, or bars generally?
Not a bit. People who drink good whisky know it comes at a cost and the older, the dearer.
Scottish government keen to get minimum unit pricing for alcohol in shops. If it happens, how would that affect your business: good or bad?
Not at all—people will still want to go out to the pub to meet friends. Most shops don’t sell the range of beer and spirits that we do and I think the plan is a good thing.
Why a good thing?
We have a problem in this country and in others with alcohol that we should do something about. Pricing is not the only answer but it’s a start.
Fair enough. You’ve won many awards as a whisky bar. How important are they and do they help increase business?
It’s great for me, staff and customers. We take pride in the pub’s achievements. The more you win, the more new customers come, but it’s hard work keeping high standards.
Much to live up to! Your best selling whiskies? And the rarest / most expensive?
Best selling: Macallan, Bowmore, Dalmore. Rarest is 70 YO Glenlivet at £900 per 35ml measure.
That one’s not for my pocket. What info do you have in bar to help customers choose a whisky?
Whisky menu on iPad with tasting notes, whisky distilleries and region map…and great staff!
Good innovation. How important is staff training on whisky and what form does it take?
Staff get basic training from day 1 and for the rest of the time they are here. They go to whisky tastings, distillery visits, but most training takes place in-house.
Does that include in-pub training sessions from brand owners too?
Yes, we have a lot of tastings in the pub with brand owners; we also have 2 whisky clubs that I run—and staff can join in—and 3 other whisky clubs which meet here.
I was going to ask about the Whisky Clubs: what do they do?
At my two, we have dinner and a 6-malt sampling. I do most of the tasting but bring in brand owners too.
And the other clubs?
The other clubs don’t have a meal each time, but always a 6 dram tasting with brand owners. The 5 clubs have a combined membership of 320.
Wow! How much tourist business do you get and does any one country predominate?
We are a global pub in terms of brands and customers. We get a lot of people from the US & Europe as we’re in various guides.
I hear one outside interest is football. Any particular team and why?
It’s Glasgow Celtic. I was taken along to Celtic Park aged 8 and have been going ever since: 47yrs. It’s in my blood; just like the pub business.
Giving away your age! Another interest is dining out. Where’s the best place you’ve eaten a) at home and b) overseas?
Best place in UK, Roux at the Landau: 5 courses and 5 malts, private dining room with Albert Roux as host. Overseas: the Waldorf Astoria, New York.
Good taste. From any international travels, do you think issues for bar owners are pretty much the same everywhere?
Yes, we all want more trade mid-week and have too much at weekends, but we must always stay on the ball with new trends and products/producers.
Any ideas gathered or lessons learned from bars elsewhere?
You always pick up something. Every bar has a unique selling point. Was in an Amsterdam bar and they let me go behind the bar to get my photo taken. Been doing that 20 years.
Anything you’d like to do at the Bon Accord that you currently can’t?
No, I’m very happy with the way we are trading.
Any future ambitions there?
Ambition? Yes: to do what am doing for as long as I can. This is THE LIFE.
Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Just one!
Old Pulteney 23 YO sherry cask. There’s a picture of a boat on the label; that could be handy! LOL.
Oh, very funny…
The other night I was sitting at a bar, a hushed, handsome space awash in wood and leather, tucked behind an unmarked door upstairs from a more raucous joint dominated by a flat screen blaring the World Cup and gals in too-tight dresses. I could have been in a speakeasy-style lair anywhere in the world, except I was in Taipei, at Alchemy, in the slick Xinyi district. It is here that I watched a large group of dolled-up friends, tipsy from a wedding, keep the party going by passing around a bottle of the Macallan and greedily sipping it like water.
Soft and sweet, the Macallan, I learned a few days prior, is the single malt of choice among Taiwanese imbibers. Instead of feeling fierce pride for the lovely whiskies being turned out at Kavalan, a little over an hour away from Taipei, many locals are skeptical of single malts from their homeland.
It is precisely this status-conscious demographic González Byass is targeting with its brand new whisky, Nomad. The Spanish wine producer, best known for its range of sherries, has decided to amp up its spirits collection—most notably marked by the London No. 1 Gin—with Nomad, a whisky crafted by Whyte & Mackay’s zany Richard Paterson.
Like any Scotch whisky, this cross-cultural creation is distilled, blended, and aged in Scotland. But then, in a romantic twist, it’s shipped off to balmy Spain, where it’s finished in Pedro Ximénez casks. For the debut of Nomad, González Byass first set its sights on Taipei, the world’s sixth-largest single malt market. The Taiwanese, I am told, have the power to turn their drink-swilling neighbors in Hong Kong and China onto new products and habits, making them an even more captivating audience.
For Nomad’s grand launch, González Byass brought writers from around the world—luckily including myself—to Taipei to taste the much-buzzed whisky, discover what makes it stand out from the bombardment of new releases on retail shelves, and give them a feel for Taiwanese nightlife in between dumpling runs.
Via Skype, Paterson, donning a suit in the middle of the night, UK time, walked curious attendees through the particulars of Nomad. For example, he told us he melded 25 single malt and six grain whiskies that are 5 to 8 years old for this blend, then aged it in oloroso casks for a year. Once shipped off to Spain, the whisky did time in the Pedro Ximénez barrels for up to another year. Although most bottles of booze boast 40 or 43% ABV, Paterson determined Nomad’s should be 41.3%.
I was almost scared to taste it. After all this anticipation, imagine what a letdown it would be to fly across the globe for a swig of something hot and one-dimensional. But it did not disappoint. Paterson kept emphasizing its heady raisin and marzipan notes, and the pastry buff in me was delighted each rich sip conjured a loaf of warm Christmastime Stollen and brown sugar-packed sticky toffee pudding.
He also encouraged us to resist the urge to plunk ice cubes into our glasses, and drink Nomad neat. This will not be a problem because it’s an approachable whisky, something I would have no qualms about opening on a Tuesday night while in yoga pants. At around $45, it’s not something you need to save for a white tablecloth feast, but guests will most certainly relish it when you bring it over for a potluck. They may even strike a conversation over how closely the flat, flask-like bottle resembles Knob Creek’s.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Nomad’s arrival is that it has given González Byass the opportunity to carve out a new category of whisky called Outland. The name exemplifies wanderlust and adventure, and it’s interesting to think of the future cross-cultural collaborations that will undoubtedly ensue. More whiskies making their way to Spain is inevitable— González Byass may have the audacity to take Scotland-meets-Spain whisky to a new level, but Paterson is no stranger to such international tinkering; he did this before with Sheep Dip—yet is Irish whiskey aged in Kentucky a possibility? Or maybe Japanese whisky will get sent off to Canada?
Lest bartenders be excluded from all of this intrigue surrounding Nomad, the González Byass folks asked local barkeeps to show off how they weave the whisky into clever concoctions. One of them even found Fireball a fine complement. With Paterson’s words warning us to drink it in as pure a state as possible, I only wanted to try it in an Old-Fashioned. Surely Nomad will make a splash on Taipei’s burgeoning craft bar scene—and New York’s when it hopefully hits the States in the fall. Dessert notes coupled with a European fairytale of a narrative might just get Taipei bar-goers to look beyond their beloved Macallan.
Truly the whisky gods have smiled on me. Great are their blessings, as I bring you tidings of five (yes, five: read it and weep) interesting new releases that I have tasted recently on your behalf. To be even-handed, I’ll mention them in alphabetical order.
First up, then, is the Balvenie Single Cask 15 Years Old expression, the second in Balvenie’s Single Cask line. Drawn from a sherry butt, cask number 16293 (not that any of us would know the difference, but it lends corroborative detail to the label), this full-flavored 47.8% dram drew me in with its rich, warming color, and then engaged my palate with an explosion of spices and sweet dark fruits (think candied pineapple and chocolate coated raisins) that lingered gently for minutes afterwards.
With a mere 650 bottles available worldwide, and a comparatively modest $99.99 price point, I don’t expect supplies will last long, but a further Single Barrel release, drawn from a refill American oak barrel and aged 25 years, will complete the range at the end of 2014. These Single Cask releases are another sublime illustration of the hand of a master; in this case, Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart. Grab one while you have the chance.
Straight on to another from the William Grant & Sons’ stable, this time Glenfiddich Excellence, a 26 year old from the world’s best-selling single malt brand that, a trifle worryingly, they described as a “luxury expression” (worryingly, because that’s generally bad news for wallets). All too often, such language from the PR folks speaks more to ritzy packaging than the quality of the liquid.
This is the first time Glenfiddich have released a whisky wholly and exclusively matured in bourbon casks. It struck me as a curiously subtle whisky, strangely pale for its age, and one that will slowly seduce you with its evolving complexity rather than make an immediately dramatic entrance. It’s none the worse for that, but I imagine buyers will need to take some time to fully get to know and explore its undoubted depths. (43%, around $600).
My third selection is from a distillery as obscure as Glenfiddich is well-known: Glen Garioch. Part of the Morrison Bowmore stable, it tends to be over-shadowed by its more famous Islay cousin. I rather fancy that if it was in Speyside it would enjoy greater fame and appreciation but, as it is, somewhat tucked away in rural Aberdeenshire with no near-neighbors, it languishes in obscurity as a result, with much of the output historically going into blends.
That’s a shame, but perhaps this latest release will win it a few fans. This is the Glen Garioch 1998 Wine Cask Matured which (the hint’s in the name) has spent the last 15 years aging in the finest ‘tonneaux de vin rouge’ (that’s red wine casks to you and me) from an anonymous Bordeaux chateau; annoyingly, they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me which one. Never mind; while plenty remains of the distillery’s fruity and spicy Highland character, the casks have added loads more intriguing flavors: berries, chocolate, ginger, and coconut to name just a few that rolled over my palate. Bottled at 48% abv, the 5,400 bottles available will be shared between the UK, the U.S., and, fittingly, France. Look for them this Fall at around $170.
Next up is the only blended whisky of the five, but a notable one. This is John Walker & Sons Private Collection, the first in a series of limited releases from this Diageo behemoth. While the Johnnie Walker brand is huge, the folks behind it have also cleverly managed to introduce some variety with the Private Collection and, if this new release is anything to go by, there’s every chance they will even please single malt mavens. This is an exquisite blend specially prepared to highlight different facets of the brand’s character: master blender Dr. Jim Beveridge has showcased the smoky Highland and Island single malts in the blend, but introduced a delightful sweet note into the bargain.
Just 8,888 bottles will be available worldwide, and while that number might suggest Diageo have their sights set firmly to Far Eastern markets, their spokesman assured me that the U.S. will be their most important market. This isn’t a cheap whisky by any stretch of the imagination—expect a retail price of $750+—but unusually for products with this premium position, the packaging is relatively restrained, letting the whisky do the talking. As, in my view, it should.
Beveridge drew on some rare experimental casks for the blend and gave the whiskies a long marrying period to integrate their complex flavors. No age has been declared, as is the current fashion, but there are some very mature whiskies to be found in the blend, which will never be reproduced, so scarce are the constituents.
And, finally, back to William Grant & Sons (haven’t they been busy?) for a very rare and special release of their little-known Kininvie single malt, from a distillery opened in July 1990 essentially to supply the blenders. If you’ve ever visited their distilling complex at Dufftown, Kininvie is housed in the anonymous building behind the Balvenie tun room. If you didn’t know it was there, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, and the guides don’t generally point it out.
They are offering two expressions, at 17 and 23 years old respectively, both with an identical cask mix (80% hogsheads and 20% American oak sherry; both at 42.6% abv). The younger whisky is reserved for travel retail, but the older version will appear in whisky specialist shops in domestic markets. With very limited quantities released and a price point of over $300 for a bottle equivalent (sold only in half bottle sizes), Kininvie is never going to be an everyday drinking whisky.
No doubt single malt enthusiasts will welcome the overdue arrival of this rarity, though, and will be interested to try what Kevin Abrook, Grants’ global whisky specialist for innovation, described to me as a hitherto “hidden secret jewel.” I found lots of vanilla sweetness, floral, citrus, and cut grass notes in my dram, finishing with a suggestion of fragrant sweet lemon mint.
STOP PRESS: As I file this report, Highland Park have sent me their new Dark Origins release. The whisky gods really are working overtime.
Another day, and another Scotch distillery project appears. No doubt funding will come from an issue of founders’ bonds or future cask sales, and a diverse group of private investors, while early income will be predicated on sales of gin and new-make spirit. You get the picture.
So we look at the case of Mossburn Distillers Ltd. with a slightly seen-it-all-before eye. We chat with chief executive Neil Mathieson, who outlines two distillery projects, one on the Isle of Skye and another near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders. Talk turns to likely expenditure; and Mathieson mentions that the Borders plans involve spending between £35 and £40 million ($60 to $68 million), and that no external funding will be required.
Did he say £35 to £40 million? More or less what it cost Diageo to build its largest and most state-of-the-art distillery to date at Roseisle? Yes, he did.
Clearly we need to know more about the man and his plans. Mathieson was born in Scotland into a family with over 100 years of involvement with Scotch whisky. Moving to London, he trained as a chef, also getting involved in law, accountancy, and hotel management. He then opened a restaurant with his chef wife.
For the past 30 years he has been running Eaux de Vie, which he set up in 1984, growing it into the UK’s leading independent importer of spirits. Eaux de Vie now in the hands of Marussia Beverages BV, which ultimately belongs to the privately owned Swedish investment company Haydn Holding AB. Marussia operates vineyards in Europe and a brandy distillery in Eastern Europe, while additionally working with Caribbean rum producers.
Neil Mathieson points out that, “We started looking at having our own involvement in whisky distilling in Scotland five years ago, so we’re not jumping on a bandwagon.” In order to further these distilling ambitions, Mossburn Distillers Ltd. has been set up to create and operate the two new distilleries.
“At Torabhaig on the southeast coast of Skye, more than £5 million ($8 million) will be spent building a new malt distillery in a listed farm steading,” notes Mathieson. “The aim is to produce half a million liters of spirit, using traditional pot stills made for us by Forsyths. The restoration of the buildings has commenced and the first distillates will be produced in 2016. We expect that the flavor profile will be confirmed over the next year as we work on the still shape and height, malt sourcing, and wood program.”
By coincidence, distilling guru and former Diageo production director Alan Rutherford already had an existing interest in both the Jedburgh and Skye distillery projects. He was involved with the Torabhaig distillery venture before Mossburn came along, when all permissions were in place ready for work to commence. At an earlier stage Rutherford had identified the Jedburgh site as an ideal location for whisky-making in the Borders. Joining forces with the Mossburn team as technical director, it was decided that both ventures should go ahead.
“At Mossburn, our aim is to produce up to 2.5 million liters of malt and grain spirit per year,” says Neil Mathieson. “The design of the distillery buildings is currently subject to gaining planning permission, although work has begun on the other buildings at the site we own, based around the former Jedforest Hotel. We hope to start on the production buildings next year with distillation commencing in 2017. As with Torabhaig, we have yet to confirm the flavor profiles for production.
“It’s going to be a unique, statement building, which will incorporate a malt plant, a grain plant and a ‘hybrid’ plant; three distilleries under one roof, in effect. Ultimately, there will also be maturation facilities, a bottling hall and 1,000 square meters of hospitality space. We aim to have the largest whisky shop in Scotland and conference space for a spirits academy. If all goes to plan, we are talking about a 2015 build, while in 2016 the equipment will be put in place, and during 2017 the distillery and visitor center will open.”
Given that both distillery ventures are being “internally” funded by a clearly cash-rich enterprise, there are fewer pressures to obtain short-term returns for Mossburn Distillers Ltd than in the case of other fledgling whisky distillers. “We are working on a 25-year fully-funded business plan, just as we would for our other vineyard and distillery enterprises,” explains Mathieson.
“There will be no founders’ casks or sales of new-make spirit. We will market single malt, single grain, and blends, and the aim will be to build brands and create international sales prospects. The first limited release bottlings will probably be of five year old whisky before a standard ten or twelve is chosen. This will depend on the flavor profile the team decides on, and the development over the first five years.”
Some observers of the Scotch whisky scene foresee problems when all of the emergent ‘craft’ distilling operations begin fighting for their slice of the market. After all, each is likely to be offering consumers pretty much the same product, namely three of four year old, ‘limited edition’ bottlings from a predictable variety of casks, all with price tags of $120 and upward.
It appears that Mossburn is in the position to avoid such a situation, but what does Mathieson suggest for others embarking on their whisky-making dream? “I would advise them to concentrate on the costs of grain, wood, and cask storage over their aging plan, rather than the initial outlay on distilling equipment, and not to consider unrealistic retail prices or expect them to continue increasing,” he says. “Also, forget the U.S., as our distribution and retail models are different. Perhaps if we all took the initial expected financial requirement, doubled it, and then doubled it again, we would all be securely funded for the future!”
Diageo officials explained their company’s distillery plans, including state-of-the-art fire protection measures, significant economic benefits, and environmental considerations that include the planting of 2,450 native trees and a bio retention basin. But at the June 17 public hearing, several citizens offered cynicism toward Diageo’s claims and raised several issues over odor, traffic, noise pollution, water usage, black fungus, and sewage.
At the center of the community’s issue is the Guist Creek Lake, a 317-acre reservoir five miles east of Shelbyville. Diageo plans to use 180,000 gallons a day from the lake and says feasibility studies indicated this will not impact local water supplies.
But Bill Roberts, a 25-year resident of the Guist Creek Lake area, says past droughts have impacted its usage. “I can remember twice the lake was so low Shelby County had to keep the farmers from pumping water for their crops,” Roberts said. “How can [the county] allow another company to take 180,000 gallons a day from that lake and use it?”
The water commission determined the distillery’s lake usage would take out less than two inches of level, said Guy. L. Smith, executive vice president for the company, who was the lead Diageo presenter at the hearing. “If there was a drought, we’d be a part of the community that would be sensitive to that and would not just carry on,” Smith said.
There’s also the issue of the lake residents tapping into the new infrastructure.
“For 25 years they’ve been telling us we’re going to get sewers and fire hydrants,” said Linda Casey Stevenson, a resident who lives two blocks from the proposed distillery entrance on Benson Pike. “Diageo is coming in and they’re building all this. But we will not be allowed to hook into that. Obviously, they have declared Shelby County is open and for sale.”
Stevenson says she’ll continue to voice her opinions.
But there’s little that can be done. Smith says Diageo plans to be breaking ground in three months and wants to support the community as “good neighbors.” Diageo is now pursuing approvals for building permits, but it’s met all county and state requirements to begin the project, Smith says.
In addition to the area’s tree plantings, the company says it went above and beyond the county’s newly adopted zoning requirements for a distillery, which required at least 25 percent of the property to be dedicated to agricultural use or preserved as a conservation area.
Diageo said it will have a zero waste to landfill and that at least 100 acres will serve as a natural barrier to the operation. Diageo also explained buildings will fit in the natural landscape and will contain fire as well as alcohol leaks.
Company officials said in the case of a fire or massive barrel leaks, the warehouse’s concrete dikes would contain the fire or liquid. The water retention basin would act as a secondary containment area, they said.
“The entire area of disturbance in the distillery area and warehouses is drained to the water bio retention basin,” said Kevin Young, a site planner working with Diageo. “All storm water goes through a filtration system before it exits the site. This is not required by [the zoning], but something we’re doing above [requirements].”
These extra efforts have not gone unnoticed. Outside of the Guist Creek Lake residents, Shelby County Tourism and residents expressed support for the new distillery.
“I appreciate the dilemma of [residents] and their concerns. However, this distillery has gone above and beyond what most companies try to do within our regulations and to support this community,” said Shelby County resident Katy Shabdue. “I’m very much in favor of this.”
Only one resident claimed to have an issue with the whiskey fungus. The young man presented the commission with a picture of black mold. The commission did not address him and later voted in favor of the distillery.
Construction is expected to be completed within three years, Diageo says. The company still has not named the distillery.
Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Laphroaig distillery manager John Campbell. (This was a special one for me, as the brand’s former marketing manager from some years ago.)
What’s the view from your office window?
I have a great view, looking out over Laphroaig bay and it’s a beautiful day today on Islay.
Lucky you. We know you can get all 4 seasons in one day! Did you always want to be a distiller?
Yes, we can have variable weather, and nope: I wanted to be a mechanical engineer first!!
Really! What was your career path to becoming Laphroaig’s manager?
Well, I started off on that path when I was 16 but it was too soon, became a lobster fisherman on Islay, then a distiller.
So did you ever expect to be Laphroaig’s manager, then?
No, not a chance. I started off stenciling the numbers on the barrels, but have just kept sticking my hand up as time passed.
A serial volunteer, then. Islay distillery managers seem to be more involved with consumers/visitors than the mainland ones? Would you say that’s right? If so, why?
I am not sure, we probably are and it’s because we have much more charisma. Oh, and we are nosy!
Very honest! You seem a very quiet person. Do you enjoy all the public facing part?
Ileachs [Islay natives] are very open too…I am quiet and understated, just like Laphroaig….but I enjoy meeting people and having fun. Who doesn’t?
True. Under Beam there were more new expressions of Laphroaig. Will this continue under Beam Suntory?
Not sure if the strategy will change under new ownership, we will be integrating shortly, then we will know.
Of which expressions, from your tenure as manager, are you most proud? Do you get involved much in the creation process?
Yes, sometimes involved.. so Triple Wood, PX or An Cuan Mor are the best. Had to choose all 3!!
What have been trade and consumer reactions to Laphroaig Select and An Cuan Mor (I prefer the latter)?
We generally get positive reviews. These 2 are for different types of consumers. Select is for novices, not purists. An Cuan Mor gives fantastic European oak effects.
And it goes well with food too. Friends of Laphroaig now has over 600,000 members and is quite an online community too. Are you aiming for world domination here?!
Yeah, whisky does work well with food. FOL has given us world domination in peaty whiskies, yes… Ha ha – you guessed!!
I was just thinking you might take over and run the world from Islay. What about John Campbell off duty. I hear you play golf – much time for that?
Islay is the center of the universe, right? I used to play a lot of golf, not so much now…run a little and muck about with my kids.
The running: just for fitness or marathons?
Just fitness right now, but I will see where it goes, never know… if my knees last.
I’ve just spent a week walking round Paris; no knees left. I’ve noted family and travel as other interests. What do you like to do as a family?
Well, I like to take my boys and do fun stuff, so live sport is always good, football, rugby, American football, and generally just have wee adventures.
Sounds magic. I have little nieces but they live overseas so we don’t see them often to do stuff. Favorite place to travel for a) work and b) leisure?
So, fave place I have been to for work is hard! I like the U.S. a lot and I will say Seattle and for leisure I love Portugal – food and weather are great.
I liked Seattle too. Lovely relaxed feel to the place. Where will the next Laphroaig Live online broadcast come from (if there is to be one)?
There is and I am not sure if I can say yet. It will be in Sweden tho!!! Whoops ☺
The frozen north! Any plans yet for the distillery’s bicentenary in 2015 or are those a secret?
Not secret, just not fully completed yet, but we’ll have stuff throughout the year to celebrate with.
So we’ll look forward to hearing more before 2015 and for next year’s Islay Whisky Fest. Social media – friend or foe?
Social media is instant, so can be both… but mainly positive I feel.
Lastly, what would be your ideal desert island dram? It can either be one of your own or from somewhere else.
Bit boring and maybe predictable with desert island dram, but it has to be 10 year old Laphroaig. It has a depth of flavor that you get in only 3 or 4 other single malts.
Diageo still doesn’t have a name for its new Shelby County distillery, but the liquor giant somewhat revealed its American whiskey strategies at a public gathering at the Shelbyville Country Club on June 10.
Diageo officials said they’re investigating the possibilities of moving its Stitzel-Weller stills from Shively to the new location. These stills have not been used since the early 1990s, but produced some of the greatest bourbon ever made. Meanwhile, Diageo has tapped Vendome to build a 60-foot-tall column still, and Fluor Engineering to construct single story warehouses, which will be 27 feet tall and 55,000 square feet, with slight heat in the winter to keep the fire protection sprinklers from freezing. The heat will not influence aging, officials said.
The 300 acre, $115 million distillery will yield a projected 750,000 9-liter cases or 1.8-million proof gallons annually, but the officials were quick to point out that this volume is just an early estimate and the selected site—Benson Pike—offers growing room.
As for the upcoming master distiller, well, Tom Bulleit, founder of Bulleit Bourbon, had something to say about that. “It wouldn’t be me. I’m just the founder, just the business guy like Bill Samuels [of Maker’s Mark],” Bulleit said. “It will take two or three years just to get going. There will be a great national distiller here, a representative of Kentucky.”
Whether Diageo recruits a current master distiller from another company or pulls in George Dickel master distiller John Lunn (who has been known to be looking over Stitzel-Weller) remains to be seen. But all indications point toward this new facility being solely an American whiskey producer.
Diageo spokesperson Alix Dunn said the distillery will be used to make Bulleit and “innovative products in the pipeline.” It will most certainly not be used for distilling or aging George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey, Dunn said, adding “we can’t do that.” Diageo recently proposed a Tennessee whiskey law change that would allow the use of used barrels. Brown-Forman, the makers of Jack Daniel’s, said this was an effort to age George Dickel in Kentucky, among other things. Tennessee lawmakers said they will study the issue after the summer legislation ends. [UPDATE: the Tennessee legislature's investigation into this matter ended abruptly last night after Lunn testified that the liquor stored in Kentucky would be blended with other spirits and not used for George Dickel.]
As for why Diageo chose to build a new distillery instead of repairing the historic Stitzel-Weller facility, Dunn said, “It made the most sense for the future to start fresh on a new site that allows for more options as needed.” It’s also worth pointing out that the closest residential area to the proposed single story warehouses is about one mile away with the surrounding areas zoned for agriculture. This puts the new facility at a significant distance from potential whiskey fungus litigants.
“We’re not right on top of other people,” Dunn said of the proximity of the distillery. “[Whiskey fungus] is not something we’re in agreement with, but it remains to be seen what the courts have to say about it.”
It also remains to be seen what the future holds for Bulleit. Diageo has not named the Shelby County distillery, though the founder tipped his hat to the fact he might be campaigning for it to become the Bulleit Distillery.
Bulleit bourbon has been one of the most important growth brands, especially in the cocktail culture, and owns the wells in core markets like San Francisco. Bulleit Bourbon sold 600,000 cases last year. Bulleit says his immediate goals for the brand is to roll out a private barrel selection program this fall at Stitzel-Weller, where Bulleit bourbon and rye are currently aged, as well as at two other locations. Neither he nor the other Diageo officials knew exactly how much Bulleit would be aged at the new location, saying there are many steps left to be taken.
The Diageo facility has received the support of the Kentucky governor as well as local and county politicians. A public hearing will be held on June 17 at 6:30 pm in Shelbyville.
At the June 10 gathering, during the first two hours, nobody opposed the distillery. In fact, most locals seemed incredibly enthused, including the Radcliff Farm owners who grow corn for one of Diageo’s competitors. (They didn’t say who.) “It’s going into a beautiful area, very peaceful,” said Jim Tafel, the farm owner. “They’ll have nice neighbors.”
On May 8, Buffalo Trace sent a media-wide press release that detailed looming bourbon shortages. From there, serious journalists covered these tragic circumstances and whiskey shortage stories became a trendy subject on slow news days. So, if you’ve been wondering where all these stories came from, now you know.
With that said, the shortage is real, to some extent. The industry is feeling heavy demand with no end in sight.
But the world’s largest bourbon maker, Jim Beam, has been relatively quiet in these doom-and-gloom whiskey stories. There’s good reason. Suntory purchased the company in January, and it’s been quietly adding to its Kentucky distilleries, had the acquisition pass through regulatory bodies, and developed a new Beam-Suntory logo that offers a subtle contrast in American creativity and Japanese efficiency.
“We have been investing substantially over the past several years to increase our bourbon capacity, including the recently announced third still at Maker’s Mark and construction of new rackhouses,” Hine says. “Given the laydown decisions made years ago, we currently have supplies across our bourbon brands to support consistent healthy growth.”
But not all bourbons are created equal. According to Beam’s financial 2013 results, Maker’s Mark grew 17% and Knob Creek 14%, while Jim Beam paced at 4% growth and Basil Hayden’s threw a party with 29% growth.
Hine says Australia’s market softness impacted Jim Beam’s growth rate and the company’s marketing strategy for Basil Hayden’s led to consumers discovering the 80-proof whiskey for the first time.
“We made a strategic decision last year to boost investment behind Basil Hayden’s, particularly in the on-premise and in social media,” Hine says. “We believe the brand has the potential to be the next break-out star from the Small Batch Collection, building on the ongoing success of Knob Creek.”
Basil Hayden’s is certainly poised to capture the beginner’s market. People tend to find this lower-proof bourbon to be subtle and with a couple ice cubes, it offers the newbie little to no bite. In social media, the bourbon appears in photos set in places of relaxation, from a park bench to a bathtub, appealing to one’s inner tranquility, a refreshing attempt at presenting to new consumers.
Meanwhile, Beam-Suntory finds its new company in change. Starting July 1, Hine says, the company begins to transition distribution for the legacy Suntory brands into the old Beam routes to market in the U.S. and Germany.
“We expect that management of Suntory’s international spirits business outside of Japan will integrate into Beam Suntory in stages by the fourth quarter, with the Japan business to merge into Beam Suntory by the end of 2014,” Hine says. “Given the size and importance of the Japan business, Japan will become Beam Suntory’s fourth operating region.”
As for the American whiskey, well, Beam Suntory seems to be business as usual. Expect to see two new editions in the Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon collection this fall; one will add brown rice to the mashbill in place of rye, the other will replace rye with red winter wheat. Meanwhile, the trucks keep moving in and out of the Clermont and Boston, Kentucky, facilities with tankers of whiskey and barrels to stack. Beam seems to be perfectly under control.
The reason I tell you this: the next time you hear your buddy talk about the whiskey shortage, you can tell them to calm down. If Jim Beam—excuse me, if Beam Suntory runs out of whiskey, then it’s time to panic.
William Faulkner is supposed to have said that civilization begins with distillation, but Adam Rogers isn’t having it. “I’d push even farther,” he writes in his new book Proof, “beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, sake…all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.” Rogers argues that understanding humanity’s relationship with alcohol is about understanding, well, everything, really: chemistry, biology, cultural norms, even the origins of civilization. Readers of Wired magazine, where he is articles editor, will recognize the tone: approachable, witty, and a bit obsessive.
Proof expands upon Rogers’ 2011 article “The Angel’s Share” about the mysterious black stain that appeared homes and other surfaces up to a mile away from Canadian Club’s whisky warehouses. The culprit, a fungus from the newly named genus Baudoinia, does what some of us only wish we could do; it thrives on the angel’s share escaping wooden whisky barrels. The unmasking of Baudoinia is just one of dozens of tales Rogers tells as he covers botanical, chemical, biological, technological, and historical facets of our spirits’ move from field to bottle.
It’s a lot of information to cram into one book and at times it can feel as if we’re lurching from topic to topic. If you enjoy James Burke’s old The Day the Universe Changed series, however, or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos reboot — as I do — you may find that conversational approach makes complex narratives that span millennia a bit easier to swallow.
Among his stories, Rogers tells of distillers and technicians trying to break the supply logjam of aging spirits by speeding the process. Smaller or honeycombed barrels, loud music, and a combination of forced oxygen and ultrasonic waves to remove unwanted congeners come into play. Though results are less than compelling, Rogers doles out plaudits for the technology. He traces one of distillation’s origin myths to ancient Alexandria and demonstrates just how plausible it was that the city’s engineers created early stills.
“Aroma wheels” now exist for Scotch, cognac, tequila, gin, and other drinks, but agreeing on the vocabulary of olfaction is an undertaking so difficult that a workable lexicon of how things smell only emerged in the last thirty years. California distilling consultant Nancy Fraley has developed one for small distillery craft whiskeys. “It’s one of the hardest things,” she tells Rogers, “I’ve ever done.”
It’s been a century and a half since publication of America’s first bartenders’ manual. Filled with recipes for cocktails, highballs, shrubs, nogs, punches, and countless other coolers and phlegm cutters, the thousands of drinks books that followed in its wake are ubiquitous on the shelves of today’s cocktail cognoscenti. Morgenthaler’s masterful The Bar Book, released this week, is the universal instruction manual for them all.
Despite more than 60 illustrative recipes, The Bar Book is a not a recipe collection. Rather, it is a grammar of sorts that explains — in clear, precise detail — techniques for preparing drinks. In just under 300 pages, Morgenthaler covers the intricacies of ice, how to select and prepare fruit, working with dairy and eggs, measuring, straining, shaking, and more.
If I had owned The Bar Book twenty years ago when first attempting to open a cold shaker, I’d have been spared one wicked blood blister; there’s a diagram showing how to pull off the maneuver. Yes, it works. So does the one for the dry shake. Between considerations about temperature, dilution, extracting flavors, filtering, manipulating texture, using sugar, and other common bar procedures, he calls out, by make and model, the equipment he prefers and explains why. It’s refreshing advice that stands in contrast with recipe books whose editors bend over backwards to avoid naming brands.
My own culinary library contains thousands of food and drinks books spanning centuries. When deciding what volumes to add, a constant consideration is whether, if I could only have a single book on the topic, the one in my hand covers everything I need to know. Cheers to Mr. Morgenthaler for allowing me say: Yes. Yes, it does.
Jeffery Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg (2014) The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. Chronicle Books, $30/£18
Adam Rogers (2014) Proof: The Science of Booze. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26/£15
We were invited to attend this year’s inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a set of events put together by the Kentucky Distillers Association (the KDA) and its members. As KDA president Eric Gregory explained it to me back a few months ago, it was something they’d tossed around as an idea, and they put it up to the individual distiller-members. The challenge: come up with an event that would give the guests a fun, inside look at some aspect of the bourbon business, of the making, the people, the places. The twist was that while everyone wanted to know what the other distillers were doing…but the KDA didn’t let that out till all the ideas were in. The result was a one-upsmanship competition that delivered a set of somewhat over-the-top experiences.
I missed the opening event, an evening gala that was to be held outdoors at Hermitage Farm, a gorgeous horse farm northeast of Louisville; that is, until heavy thunderstorms were predicted (and accurately, too; they were violent) and the decision was made to shift to the art-filled and whiskey-savvy 21C Museum Hotel. I also missed “The Golden Affair,” the black tie wind-up at the Pendennis Club. What an evening, with an array of bourbons (including “premium and rare” bottlings), a panel discussion with master distillers, the premiere of a new documentary (“Kentucky Bourbon Tales”), and a performance by renowned Irish tenor, Anthony Kearns.
Poor me: all I got to go to were five memorable events that took place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (May 15-17). The fun started at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim distillery, where about ten of us (the lightest-attended event I would attend; the other times at Heaven Hill were sold out) started with a backdoor tour of this big, usually closed-to-the-public facility. We tasted mash, listened to the roar of the big beer stills, tasted new make right out of the spirit safe, and then boarded a van to the new Evan Williams Experience on Main Street.
After the impressively well-done multi-media program on the historical Evan Williams, we got a rare hands-on tour of the pot still-equipped microdistillery on the premises; one of the guests got to bung the day’s barrel of production (signed the bung, signed the log, pretty cool experience for him!). Then we sampled whiskeys in the speakeasy with brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers, and went up to the gift shop where the guests got a bottle of Heaven Hill’s “Select Stock,” an 8 year old wheated bourbon, finished in cognac casks (I took the opportunity to buy a bottle of Rittenhouse).
I had to run, and after picking up my car back at Bernheim, I drove down to Booker Noe’s house in Bardstown; I’d been there before, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect today. What we got was a chance to hang around in what the DIY Network show “Man Caves” had made out of Booker’s garage: big leather chairs, fireplace (good thing, because it was chilly that week in Kentucky!), big TV, and of course, a full bar. Mixology legend Bobby “Bobby G” Gleason was making drinks, and after I braced myself with a Knob Creek Rye Manhattan, we had the main event, another show of the long-running Great Whisk(e)y Debate, talking about Scotch vs. Irish vs. Canadian vs. Bourbon. It was a lot of laughs and good whiskey, and at the end, there was a nifty cocktail-making set handed out to all the guests.
After recovering overnight, I drove down to Lawrenceburg to the Wild Turkey distillery, where there were skeet-shooting traps set up right on the distillery grounds, and each of the guests got a chance to shoot some clays (after some excellent coaching, and before anyone had even the hint of a drink). I hadn’t touched a gun in over 20 years, and it all came right back to me; I had a blast! We went into the warehouses with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, rolled some barrels that were just arriving from the distillery, and sampled 101 and Russell’s Reserve in Warehouse A, the first warehouse on the grounds that dates back to the 1800s. Then we had lunch at the new Visitor Center, and Jimmy and Eddie answered any questions people had and signed bottles for the guests.
That evening I took in some craft distillery whiskeys at an event at Epicenter Distilling’s Moonshine University. This is where I noticed something pretty cool was happening. Not only did I get to taste some great whiskeys from the likes of Willett and Corsair and Old Pogue (and the bang-on accurate and fun taste of Limestone Branch’s Moon Pie Moonshine — I kid you not, it tasted just like Moon Pie!), I was running into people who’d been at the other events, and we were friends, we were bonded. I’ll tell you, you shoot skeet and drink bourbon in a warehouse with someone, and you’re catapulted into a certain level of friendship! (We also mixed up our own custom cocktail mix at the flavor lab next door; I made Dr. Lew’s Real Good Medicine, and it tastes pretty fair with a dose of rye.)
One more event was on my schedule — after an early breakfast with fellow writer Fred Minnick — a visit to the grounds of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the offices and grounds are being groomed and landscaped as a home for Bulleit whiskeys. Tom Bulleit was there to greet us, with a big bowl of punch that we were only too happy to partake of (at 9 a.m., hallelujah). The stillhouse is off-limits (I understand that there are problems with asbestos), but we did get to see the filling room, where the new make would flow from the distillery to be barreled. The workers had chalked up milestones on the wall — when the company was sold, when the last operational day was — and it was as if they had just walked away. In fact, we were allowed to nose a glass of “new” make that the folks from Diageo had discovered still in the pipes at the filling room when they started to do renovations last year. That’s what we were told, anyway, and it was a heady moment; pouring out a tiny bit of white dog and rubbing hands to release the still-fresh corny aroma. Stitzel-Weller juice! Diageo’s spruced up the offices, and while it was largely about Bulleit, there was one room dedicated to new product launches (currently done up in Orphan Barrel designs).
So…what did I come away with? First, this isn’t cheap; most events were at least $100. But that bought the kind of backdoor access and personal time that usually, to be honest, is the province of writers and media types. These few days, you could get in the same parts of Bourbonland that we do, and hang out with Jimmy, Eddie, Tom, and Fred. If they could give that kind of access to every bourbon drinker, I’m sure they would, but then it would be hard to make the whiskey! So this is a chance to get inside; as more than one person put it, a kind of fantasy baseball camp for bourbon.
If the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is wide-open and sometimes seems more about Bardstown than about bourbon, this is maybe the other way. This is bourbon for bourbon aficionados, people who want to get their hands into it, and, as I said earlier, maybe a bit over the top with it for some. I think there may be room for something in-between, but this does make a welcome addition.
As it stands now, this was an industry-controlled happening, not like the numerous “Beer Weeks” that have spread across the country recently. There were a relatively small number of events, pretty much ‘invitation only’ by arrangement with the KDA and the member distillers. It was also spread out very widely; from the western edge of Louisville well down into bourbon country, and loosely headquartered at the eastern Louisville Marriott, miles away from downtown. There was a lot of driving involved. I’m wondering what this could be if participation was opened to the growing number of bourbon-focused restaurants and bars in the area, with more effort to link the far-flung sites with a shuttle service.
But that’s for next year. This was the first year for the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, and it was a rollicking beginning. We’ll have to wait and see where it goes.