Is there a shortage of bourbon? Will there be one soon, as booming demand dumbs down age statements and kills off favorite brands? Or is there plenty of good bourbon, with just a few hyped bottles in short supply as the collectors scurry to fill their shelves? We knew two writers with very different opinions, so we invited them to have it out. This Friday, in the Plenty O’ Bourbon corner, Colonel Charles K. Cowdery. Next week it’s Fred Minnick’s turn to argue the gloom and doom side of the issue. Feel free to leave your own opinions in the meantime!
“Is there a whiskey shortage looming?” The Tennessean asked last summer. Yes, they answered. Then came ten paragraphs about how bourbon is booming, but nothing about a shortage until this: “To underscore the possibility of a shortage, gains in whiskey sales are outpacing production increases by at least 2-to-1, industry experts say.” Said experts remained unidentified and the vague statistic remained unexamined as we learned about a fledgling Tennessee micro with all of 200 barrels in storage.
It’s not just The Tennessean. That’s the overall state of whiskey shortage journalism today. Why? Because editors love the idea of a whiskey shortage. They want the words “whiskey shortage” in the headline, even if the story won’t support it.
It’s called ‘clickbait.’
In December, the Wall Street Journal got the words “Bourbon Shortage” into a headline by reporting about how bourbon enthusiast fears of a shortage are provoking panic buying. “Fear is a motivating factor,” said Edward Johnson of Simpsonville, South Carolina, as he picked up a Blanton’s and a Henry McKenna at Harvard’s Liquor & Wine.
We have a name for that in bourbon country: Whiskirexia nervosa. It is characterized by a distorted whiskey inventory image and an obsessive fear of running out of whiskey. Individuals with whiskirexia nervosa tend to already own more whiskey than they can ever drink, even as they continue to buy more.
Whiskirexia nervosa, though it may be a facetious name, exists. It may even be on the rise, but it is not evidence of a looming whiskey shortage.
Yes, bourbon is booming. According to a recent report by Vinexpo and the IWSR, sales of bourbon are expected to soar by almost 20 percent, to 45 million cases, by 2018. Bourbon is the fastest growing category in the distilled spirits industry.But that doesn’t mean there is a shortage now, or that there will be one in the foreseeable future.
It is impossible to prove a negative, but consider this. New bourbons are appearing on the market every day, sold by people who didn’t make them. If you owned bourbon, and knew there was a shortage coming, would you sell it to someone else so they could sell it to the public? Of course not.
It’s true that because of the aging cycle you can’t ramp up the production of whiskey like you can, say, Skittles. This has always been the case. Several times a year, producers update their sales projections, compare them to their inventories, and adjust production accordingly.
Some writers have cited as evidence the fact that products are being discontinued, prices are going up, and age statements are going away. Some of that is just normal course of business while some of it does, indeed, represent steps producers are taking to adjust inventories and production so no shortage occurs.
It is also in the nature of whiskey that even as supply tightens, oversupply is always a risk. A lot of whiskey will mature in the next few years whether there is a market for it or not and if it doesn’t all sell, the pipeline will clog up fast. In the robust market we have now, a little price cutting should quickly unplug it, but that’s a long way from a shortage.
What does a shortage look like? We nearly had one 30 years ago. American whiskey was dying. Companies were merging, brands were disappearing, and American whiskey sections were shrinking in liquor stores. In bars, it was just Jim and Jack and maybe Maker’s or Wild Turkey if you got lucky. More than once I was forced to drink Jameson.
What bourbon drinkers can expect for the next several years is the occasional disappointment, when the desire for a certain brand or expression will be temporarily frustrated. The solution? Buy something else. You’ll have plenty of choices.
Whisky Advocate’s Spring issue’s Buying Guide is brimming with reviews; 114 of them to be exact. We’re going to give you a sneak preview by revealing the 10 highest-rated whiskies right here, right now. We start with #10 and conclude with #1.
#10: Tomintoul Reserve 37 year old, 43%, $600
Not what you’d expect from a malt at this age. Instead of oak dominating the nose, it’s citrus in focus, with orange marmalade, candied orange, and even orange blossom. On the palate this whisky is light and delicate, leading with the citrus notes from the nose. This symphony of orange is followed with toffee, ginger, oak, and rancio in a combination that’s well balanced and integrated. Unique for its age, a definite treat for those who prefer lighter and more delicate whiskies. (U.S. only, 600 bottles)–Geoffrey Kleinman
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
The fourth release (and best so far) in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. This bourbon was distilled at what was then called the George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace) and spent the last several years maturing at Stitzel-Weller. It’s nicely balanced and not over-oaked, with spice (clove, cinnamon), oak resin, and leather, along with sweet notes (honeyed fruit, soft vanilla, coconut custard) and a nice creamy texture. Better than most 20-plus year old bourbons on the market.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#8: Glenfiddich Rare Oak 25 year old, 43%, £250
A classic mature ‘Fiddich nose, that mix of chocolate, sweet fruits, and funkiness. Dried apples, a little currant, but also a pure thread of sweetness. In time, a little fresh mushroom. Complex. Soft on the tongue, so you need to concentrate on what’s happening. Later becomes minty, with supple tannins and a little artichoke on the finish. Water needs to be handled carefully to bring out green herbal notes. I’d probably keep water on the side. Excellent. (Travel Retail only)—Dave Broom
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#7: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 year old wheated bourbon from floor #9, 45%, $47/375ml
Darker, more intense and mysterious in personality when compared to its two siblings. Notes of barrel char, roasted nuts, polished oak, and tobacco, peppered with dried spice. Fortunately, sweet notes of toffee, maple syrup, and caramel stand up to the dry notes and provide balance.—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
It’s the intensity of flavor that just grabbed me by the lapels and spun me round. It harbors intense tangelo juiciness; that unparalleled concentration of deep citrus skillfully mingled with dark vanilla, dried apricots, and gentle smoke. This goes the distance, delivering wave after delicious wave: peach juice, mandarin, pineapple cubes, and lemon zest. A firm, unctuous finish shows a little charred wood and dark sugar cloaked in fine smoke. Tongue pleasing and very special indeed.—Jonny McCormick
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
#5: Wiser’s Red Letter 2014 Release Virgin Oak Finish, 45%, C$100
Pencil shavings, then vanilla, caramel, barley sugar, and bitter candied orange peel. Mild white pepper persists in a spicy fusion, from which a subtle but energizing pithiness teases out delicate smatterings of cloves, ginger, and allspice. The fruitiness of canned peaches, apricots, and sour green apples adds dimension and balance. Complex and so tightly integrated that rich as it is, individual flavors are little more than nuances. Finish is long and gingery with refreshing citrus pith. (Canada only)—Davin de Kergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#4: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye 10 year old, 55.1%, $180
Redemption delivers a 10 year old, barrel proof rye (sourced from MGP); the bottled whiskey is mingled from only six barrels. Nose of hot, bitter rye spice and caramel with oak. Great whambam! feel of sweet whiskey followed immediately by oily, spicy rye, which then controls the flavor and finish without dominating. Not over-oaked, and these older MGP barrels are finally showing what 95% rye can do. At 6 years, it could be a high-rye bourbon; this simply shouts rye. Fascination.—Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#3: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye (Batch #1), 61%, $80
Redemption repeats their barrel-proof MGP-sourced 95% rye, now at 7 years old. Has a year significantly changed last year’s 90-point outing? Oak is more subdued and the pepper floats on sweet, light caramel. It is still quite nice at full-bore, no water needed. Sweet vanilla and bitter rye oil blend surprisingly well; this is hitting the bells, and it’s better integrated. Big, swaggering, and sporting big-barrel maturity. Can go toe-to-toe with almost any rye out there.—Lew Bryson
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93
#2: Lot No. 40, 43%, $40
Corby’s latest Lot 40, this one undated, comes from the same distillation batch as the 2012 release, but with a couple of extra years in wood. The familiar flavors are all there: dustiness, sour rye, hard wet slate, floral notes, exotic fruits, sweet spices, and biting white pepper. Over these, time has sprinkled licorice root, dried dates, oatmeal porridge, vanilla, hints of bike tires, and mango peels. Flavors remain fully integrated with faint tannins underscoring a long sour-rye finish.—Davin de Kergommeaux
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Nicely balanced flavors, and complex. Spices dance on the palate (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), balanced by underlying caramel and butterscotch, and subtle honeyed orchard fruit. Lingering, well-rounded finish. A fabulous wheated bourbon!—John Hansell
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
With the mantle of America’s Spirit comes not only support and loyalty, but a certain amount of historical responsibility. Bourbon has been entwined with the history and making of the United States for almost as far back as the Constitutional Convention, but perhaps never so much as when Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” represented the Bluegrass State in Washington.
Clay served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State, argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, and gained his greatest fame in the Senate, where he successfully brokered a compromise between the northern and southern states that held off the Civil War for over ten years. Clay’s secret weapon may have been the barrels of bourbon he had specially shipped to the Willard Hotel. Clay brought opponents to agreements that met in the middle with skillful application of brilliant arguments and delicious Kentucky bourbon, “the spirit of compromise.”
In that tradition, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) worked with Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, to bring a new spirit of compromise to the Willard Hotel. On Monday, February 2, the new barrel was filled with bourbons mingled from Kentucky distillers (lightly; Virginia’s liquor laws prohibited more than four liters in one container to cross state lines!) at Clay’s Ashland estate, with the cooperation of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. The barrel, with a number of bourbon’s top folks, made its way (across Virginia’s state lines) to Washington for a ceremony on Tuesday the 3rd.
The room was filled with folks like Al Young (Four Roses), Bill Samuels Jr. (Maker’s Mark), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Jerry Summers (Beam Suntory), Tom Bulleit (Bulleit), Joe Magliocco (Michters), Pearse Lyons (Town Hall/Lexington), and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), with Eric Gregory representing the KDA. After some fine bourbons (and a little business being discussed, inevitably), the guests of honor took the stage.
We heard from one of the Henry Clay Center interns—who had the courage to remind Senator McConnell of the Congress’s low approval ratings, to which the senator responded that Congress richly deserved them—and then Gregory presented the senator with a crystal decanter in commemoration of the event. (He had very carefully filled it from a bottle of the Spirit of Unity bourbon that was created by Parker and Craig Beam last year to raise money for ALS research; there was “a little left over,” he said. We watched closely, and not a drop was spilled.)
Senator McConnell noted that the Willard was about halfway between the Capitol building and the White House, an appropriate spot for talking about compromise, and gave tribute to “two of Kentucky’s greatest contributions to America: bourbon, and Henry Clay.” He reminded the crowd that today’s problems pale in comparison to those the country faced because of “America’s original sin: slavery.” He quoted Clay as appropriate to today as to his own time: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what’s right with America.”
He then did speak briefly about bourbon, and about the expansion that’s taking place, and how it’s reaching more people, around the world. “It really is wonderful to see what’s happened in this industry,” he concluded, “which is employing so many people, and helping us all reach a lot more compromises.”
It really was wonderful to see bourbon on this national stage. The powerful came to dip their cups: Senate Majority Leader McConnell, almost the entire Kentucky Congressional delegation, and Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped in at the end as well. Bourbon wields a powerful influence: as an industry, as an historical icon, and indeed, as a “lubricant to the wheels of government,” as Clay used to say. The barrel, by the way, will stay at the Willard, and it is to be hoped that from there it will spread a spirit of compromise up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Partisanship nearly defines America today. But on Tuesday morning, the Distilled Spirits Council of the US offered some information that all parties can applaud: the American whiskey can claim a banner year. Again. The total whiskey category was flat for years, then in 2011 it picked up steam and it hasn’t shown signs of flagging.
This year’s industry review, which the trade organization presents each February, revealed that the total supplier sales in the US were worth $23.1 billion. With American whiskey, it’s the same happy story: the category is booming and it’s the high-end and super premium brands that are driving the growth. Supplier sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey across price segments grew 7.4% over 2013 to approximately 19.4 million cases, a jump of 1.3 million cases. That increase accounts for a massive chunk of the 4.4 million cases by which the overall industry grew in 2014.
The revenue growth for American whiskey tells its own story. Last year, supplier sales rose 9.6% to $2.7 billion, up $230 million over 2013. Breaking it down by price segment proves DISCUS’s oft-repeated dogma: premiumization, which is shorthand for “people aren’t drinking more, they’re drinking better,” drives the industry. Revenue on value products ($12 or less at retail) grew a mere 5.5%, about $181 million on 3.1 million cases. Revenue on high-end ($18-$30 per bottle) products, were up 8.1% to $1.6 billion (yes, billion). But the truly jaw-dropping growth quotient comes in the realm of the super-premium brands ($30+/bottle). These sales leaped 19.2% to $325 million.
Combined whiskey sales growth is accelerating (numbers include imported and flavored whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)
Flavored whiskey was a factor in the surge. Sales of an increasing selection of flavored American whiskey products grew by 140,000 cases. But a more significant is the thriving export market. Christine LoCascio, DISCUS senior vice president for international trade, apologized for being repetitive year after year as she reported more record-shattering stats: the $1.12 billion revenue that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey bring home to producers accounts for 70% of the $1.56 billion spirit exports market.
The top export markets are Canada—which, with $212.6 million of sales, marked a colossal growth of 111% over the past ten years—and the UK ($177.6 million). Germany and Australia pretty much tie with their spending of $136.7 million and $131.2 million, respectively. Then there’s the bureaucratic activity (or mumbo-jumbo, depending on your appetite for granular examination of international relations.) Trade agreements in recent years have reduced or eliminated tariffs in countries like Korea and Australia, which open up more export opportunities.
All this American whiskey talk, however, didn’t drown out the news about Scotch.
“When you listen to single malt Scotch drinkers talk, it’s almost like they’re having a religious experience,” said David Ozgo, DISCUS chief economist. He proceeded to explain that, as with bourbon, high-end and super premium brands are propelling the whole category. While revenues from “premium” single malts (the least expensive brands), fell by 13.4%, high-end and super premium rose by 6.8% and 6.3%. respectively. This came as little surprise just days after the Scotch Whisky Association announced that the Scotch industry is worth more than £5 billion in the UK, which outpaces two of the UK’s giant industries: computers, and iron and steel.
A small but increasing role is played by America’s boutique brands. In 2010, there were 109 independent distilleries operating; today there are more than 700. With sales of about 3.5 million cases last year, these producers account for 1.7% share of the spirits market’s volume. Ozgo noted that estimated supplier revenues was between $400 and $450 million, a sum he calculated based on data from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which indicates taxes paid.
The information presented at the briefing skirted the ongoing debate around the increasingly contentious terms “craft” and “handcrafted,” which have generated class action lawsuits against false claims. DISCUS uses the term “small distillers,” which it defines as the 712 producers turning out less than 50,000 cases (the average in that group being an astonishingly small 3,000 cases). The data, however, also takes into account seventeen distilleries that produce an average of 80,000 cases.
When, after the presentation, this reporter asked about the “handcrafted” debate, Frank Coleman, DISCUS senior vice president of public affairs, noted, “Let them fight about it. Some of the finest craft products in the world are made by large companies. [Glenmorangie master distiller] Bill Lumsden is making handcrafted whisky.” It is a distinction almost unique to whisky that makes the category even more intriguing.
We just learned that Beam Suntory is releasing a new bourbon — another one! — and while it’s very affordable at $24 the bottle, it’s also pretty special. Jim Beam Bonded is the first new bottled in bond bourbon (that I know of) that’s been released in years. It’s good to see Beam’s keeping this new bonded in the general price range, too.
If you’re not clear on what makes a bourbon “bottled in bond,” here’s a quick rundown. As well as conforming to all the regular rules for bourbon, all the spirit in the bottle must have been distilled at one distillery, under supervision of the same master distiller, in one season. It must be at least 4 years old. It must be bottled at 100 proof/50% ABV. Most of the remaining bonded bourbons are inexpensive, because they don’t get much promotion or advertising spent on them.
But the most noticeable thing about bottled in bond bourbons is that there aren’t many of them, and most of them are ‘heritage’ brands, ones that were bought up as distilleries failed. Heaven Hill is unusual in that they have two bonded bourbons under their own name, plus the Evan Williams bonded, the Rittenhouse bonded, and a couple others. Beam, of course, has the Old Grand-Dad bonded, which has been a staple at my house since I discovered it two decades ago.
So the very first question I asked Fred Noe today was “Why?!” Why bring out a new bonded bourbon now, when it seems clear that they’d seen their day, despite the efforts of folks like me, and Chuck Cowdery, and Heaven Hill spokesman Bernie Lubbers to revive them.
“It came from bartenders wanting bottled in bond, people digging up old recipes calling for bottled in bond,” Fred said. “Hell, that’s an easy hit for us; just do what we used to do. It’s not that hard to develop: 4 years old, one season, one distillery, 100 proof. We age pretty much everything 4 years already, just a matter of designing the package. It’s been well-received, they’re excited to get hold of it.”
The package design is a bit of a throwback as well. The old Jim Beam Bonded had a gold label as well. Fred said he used to carry a bottle around with him, the strip stamp was dated 1957, the year he was born. “My daddy (Booker Noe) gave it to me because of that,” he said. “I used to use it to show people what an old bottle of bourbon looked like.”
Fred explained why they were putting another bourbon in the same general price category as Jim Beam White, the 7 year old, Jacob’s Ghost, and Red Stag. “We’re always looking for new ideas,” he said. “But instead of coming up with new stuff, we can go back to the old stuff. We made good stuff back then! Like Old Tub, that’s what my daddy drank. We brought that back just to sell at the visitor’s center. And people buy it! People want the full-flavored bourbons.”
Yes, yes we do. I know I’m ready to get a bottle of this stuff and pour it over a big chunk of ice and take it for a ride. I never thought I’d see the day. First rye comes back, now maybe it’s the return of bonded bourbon. We live in interesting times.
I got a box from Michael Reppucci at Sons Of Liberty Spirits in Rhode Island last week. I’d reviewed some of their whiskeys before, noting that their take on craft distilling is to take craft beers and distill and age them. He was reaching out with “an experience that we think is pretty freaking cool.” Turned out that I agreed, because what they’d done was take two of the “beers” they make to distill, and instead, carbonated and bottled them. You know, like beer. The idea was to try the beers with the whiskeys.
In the box were four bottles: two whiskeys, two ‘beers,’ the before and after of Uprising and Battle Cry. I took the box home, chilled the beers, and waited for a quiet moment to do a tasting. When it came, I carefully poured the unfiltered beers, and the whiskeys, and tasted.
Uprising stout: Chocolate, coffee, slightly burn graham crackers, toast. Not any forward hops. Soft carbonation, flavors carry through on aromas. Sweet, no bitter grip on the finish, but no real husk/burnt bitterness, either. Sweetness is balanced by the coffee and roasted barley flavors, but still sweeter than most commercial stouts. I’d drink this in a bar.
Uprising whiskey: Oak and vanilla in the nose, but a hint of that chocolate, too. Tastes young, but the maltiness is there, and the chocolate comes through in the finish. Kinda yummy, actually.
Battle Cry Belgian: Smells tripelish, looks tripelish, though a bit of a sour edge to it. Oh, hey, that’s very refreshing! I was expecting something much thicker from the smell, but this is light, nice citrus cut to it, and yet enough body to cling just a bit.
Battle Cry whiskey: oak and honey on the nose, and quite a light whiskey on the tongue. The orange is there, but muted.
So does this work? I can’t taste the beers hugely in the whiskeys, but when you’re aging in small barrels (10 and 30 gallon new charred oak), you’re going to get a lot of oak; is it hidden? The chocolate came through in Uprising, the citrus not so much in Battle Cry…but I really like that light body. I also think it was wise to pick non-hop forward beers.
A unique opportunity, an interesting idea. Thanks, Sons of Liberty!
Single malt producers do it routinely and so do America’s bourbon makers. Until now, however, no major Canadian whisky distillery has ever released a single barrel whisky. Finally, as 2014 drew to a close, Crown Royal became Canada’s first major brand to do so. To top that, each hand-selected barrel is bottled at a healthy 51.5% ABV. A whisky year already brimming with encouraging developments in the Great White North concludes with the Canadian whisky story of the year.
Crown Royal Single Barrel Whisky is more than simply a high-strength rendition of the standard bottling we are all familiar with. About 50 different mature whiskies are used to create that blend. One of these is the ultra-flavorful “Coffey Rye,” and it is this Coffey Rye that the brand has chosen to bottle for its single barrel program.
The liquid itself is everything you’d expect from hand-selected barrels, though at first sip you’ll not recognize it as Crown Royal. Still, if you have tried Crown Royal Monarch you already have an inkling of what Coffey Rye tastes like. It is the heart of that 75th anniversary blend.
Since it was first created in 1939, the secret of Crown Royal’s success has been the meticulous mingling of several dozen individual whiskies produced at the distillery. Each makes its own contribution to what many consider the most complex, balanced, and smoothest of Canadian whiskies. If Crown Royal De Luxe displays the elegance of a prima ballerina, Coffey Rye is its muscular NHL-enforcer cousin.
Unlike most Canadian whisky, Coffey Rye begins with a high-rye mash bill rather than a single grain. It is distilled to low ABV in an ancient copper Coffey still that was brought in from the defunct Waterloo distillery. Winters are long and cold in Gimli, Manitoba, where Crown Royal is made, so master blender Andrew MacKay leaves the Coffey Rye spirit in virgin oak bourbon barrels for seven years where it slowly absorbs their lusty flavors. On a recent visit to the distillery I tasted whisky from three of these barrels, and the differences among them were remarkable, varying from succulent butterscotch, through spices, to hard, brittle rye.
Rollout began in late November, in Texas, where liquor stores snapped up the first 519 barrels. Each barrel is exclusive to a single retailer. While there are no barrel numbers on the labels, if you are looking for a particular batch, a medallion around the neck of each bottle notes the retail outlet it was bottled for. Distribution will expand to include fourteen states beginning in February. But Canada’s reputation for keeping its best whisky at home has been dashed: it’s still fingers crossed that Crown Royal Single Barrel will be released in Canada at all.
There’s more. Interest in Crown Royal and Canadian whisky in general has grown to the point where something else that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible is about to become reality. Work is well underway on a visitor’s center, which will open later this winter at the Gimli distillery. Along with production overviews and a history of the brand itself, the center illustrates the story of the Coffey still and its inventor, Aeneas Coffey, and ends in the still house. Visits must be booked in advance and are restricted to groups. Details of minimum group size and how to arrange a tour will be announced once the center opens.
Rye whisky lovers have something very special to look forward to on that tour. Manager Dwayne Koslowski tells you that chocolate bananas are the signature aromas of Coffey Rye, then takes you inside where the first thing you notice is those very smells. Then, as you walk past the large column stills toward the glistening Coffey still at the far end, the scents of cloves and typical rye spices waft in. “We try to keep as much of these aromas as possible in the spirit,” says Koslowski, clearly enjoying the fragrance as much as his visitors.
Suggested retail price for Crown Royal Single Barrel Whisky (the label says “Hand Selected Barrel”) is $55.00.
Disclosure: Davin de Kergommeaux was invited to Gimli to select a barrel of Coffey Rye. He did not receive any compensation for this opinion.
If you know A. Smith Bowman, you know about Mary. Mary is the pot still with the big reflux ball and tiara of pipes that the distillery has used for secondary distillation of column-stilled spirit for years. Bowman is a rare—if not unique—character in small distilleries in that they do no mashing; they take distilled spirit, made elsewhere, then run it through Mary and age it on their premises. When the late Truman Cox took over as master distiller, he told me with no little excitement that there were plans in the works for changing that; there was going to be mashing at Bowman. Truman never got to see it, sadly, but the plans continued; there is going to be mashing and primary distillation at Bowman.
When I was at Bowman last month, I saw the evidence. Master distiller Brian Prewitt walked me through the facility, pointing to where the mash cooker and fermenters would be installed, where they’d be putting the new hybrid pot/column still—to be named “George”—and a new warehousing space, twice the size of the current space (which is almost packed full of aging whiskey). It was quite impressive.
I talked to Brian recently about details. He’d been out to Vendome in Louisville, taking a look at George. It’s a 500 gallon hybrid still, with a 4-plate column on top of the pot, and a 20-plate bubble cap vodka column off to the side, and an optional gin basket. “I can pull a draw off any plate, pull at a lower proof, it gives me the option to do all kind of different things,” Brian said.
On the fermentation side, there’s going to be a 500 gallon mash cooker, with rakes and a false bottom so they can run wash or the whole mash. “We want to be able do anything and everything,” said Brian; he said it several times, actually. “The fermenters are jacketed [cooled], so we can do all kinds of fermentation profiles, or we can do it all natural if we want. We’re getting a hammer mill and a roller mill; I’ll run corn through the hammer, malt through roller. Whatever combination of grains we want, we’ll be able to run.”
It should be delivered and set up in January (after a few tweaks at Vendome), then up and running in February. All timelines are dependent on TTB approval, of course, and he’d heard nothing yet on the warehouse expansion.
I asked Brian if this is the new Bowman. Yes and no. “It will yield about 65-66 proof gallons [per batch], which, lo and behold, is just about a barrel,” he said. “The core products will be from Buffalo Trace and Mary, but we want to have an experiment going, well, every week if we can. One week a rye, then a wheat, and maybe a local rum, who knows?
“It’s exciting, it’s turning over a new leaf for the distillery,” he said. “We’re getting back to making some good whiskey, with the flexibility to experiment one barrel at a time. We can try all sorts of stuff, pulling out the stops and trying the old favorites too. It’s twice the size of the Taylor [microdistillery at Buffalo Trace]; it’s a similar design. But they have a packed column, they can only really run vodka through it. We’ll be making gins, different eau de vies; Virginia has a lot of grapes, and we don’t even have a brandy in our portfolio. Why not do it?
“We originally thought, hey, let’s get a whiskey still,” he said, and laughed. “Well, what if we want to do a gin or a rum? We wanted something we could easily clean to get the other flavors out of, and do anything!”
It’s a major step for Bowman, and it brings the question of “what is a ‘craft’ distiller” into sharper focus. Is Bowman craft? They’re small, they innovate. Is it important that they’re wholly owned by the Sazerac Company, when they operate with such a wide degree of independence? Which parts of the identity of a “craft distillery are important? Tough questions.
Who knows whether Shinjiro Torii, when he opened his Torii Shoten store in 1899 in Osaka, envisaged his family firm becoming the world’s third-largest drinks group? Or that, in pioneering whisky distilling in Japan and creating a style that was recognizably Japanese and not a scotch copy, he would excite the world’s palates; that the values he laid out would have lasted for over a century.
A few years ago I met with his grandson, Shingo Torii, Suntory’s vice-president and master blender. Then, among other things, we discussed the philosophy which, he felt, helped define Suntory. “It has been about creating and developing a positive tradition, and it is this tradition, or what you could even call ‘inheritance,’ which should be understood by everyone within the company. It is important that it is handed down.”
As other drinks firms increasingly seem attracted to short-term fixes, these embedded values have given a consistency to the firm’s long-term vision for whisky. Neither does “consistency” mean “conservative.” You don’t spend $16 billion buying a competitor if you are that. After all, one of Shinjiro Torii’s first principles was “Yatte Minahare!” [Go For It!]
Suntory has always been based around innovation. This is the firm that transformed the stagnant domestic Japanese whisky through the HiBall revolution, while its research into whisky production at Yamazaki leaves other distillers scratching their heads in disbelief.
I remember asking Torii-san whether a family company was in a better position to take this approach. “I see family management as simply a form of style, he replied. “However, it is also true that this style has enabled Suntory to pursue its dream for a significant period of time and makes the moral values which lie at the heart of the business a top priority in the firm’s values.”
Seen in that light, the acquisition of Beam is the most visible manifestation of a very long-term strategy. What has resulted is the creation of the only firm that plays in every one of the world’s key whisk(e)y styles. Beam’s stake in bourbon, yes, but also blended scotch and single malt whisky, particularly peated. Beam Suntory is the biggest single player in Japanese whisky, but also owns Canadian Club and the world’s rye whisky specialist, Alberta Distillers; and then there’s Cooley, from Ireland. It is an astounding—and deep—portfolio.
It will be interesting to see how these Suntory principles are absorbed within American business culture and how the new management handles this range. “We have a deep conviction for making product,” said Torii-san. “In addition, [it is about] having a long-term plan, in terms of half a century or even a century, and being able to maintain a sense of humility.”
Humility is not a word you hear in whisky often—it is one which should be heard more often in business—but if these Suntory values are maintained, then a measured, long-term approach to building these brands can only benefit the category and consumers. Beam Suntory should not merely be a bourbon firm with some interesting stuff in its second tier.
It took $16 billion to break the duopoly of Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, but there’s a new kid in town, a new seat at the table. Who else could be our Distiller of the Year? Whisky’s pieces have been fundamentally rearranged. Things will never be the same. —Dave Broom
That’s our final Whisky Advocate Award announcement for 2014. We’ll see you in the comments section!