Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

DISCUS Briefing Confirms Surging Growth of American Whiskey

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonAt the annual Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) industry review on Tuesday, February 4, the usual graphs and numbers on domestic sales of distilled spirits and export sales of American spirits were presented, and they told a great story about American whiskey producers. American whiskey is solidly on its way back, after thirty years of steeply declining sales. (see graphs 1 and 2). I started writing about whiskey in the mid-1990s, and much of what there was to write about back then was how the decline in whiskey sales was slowing down (I referred to it as “the glide path” to emphasize that it was a gradual decline, but I must have forgotten that glide paths always end on the ground!), and optimistically noting that there were some small niches in the overall category that were showing growth: single malt Scotch whisky, and small batch bourbon. Everything else was dropping.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Now things have turned around, and the DISCUS numbers were rosy indeed, especially in the export market for American whiskey. Exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion for the first time, and represented 2/3 of total U.S. spirits exports. The top six markets for export growth (by dollar sales) were Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Panama, while Canada remained the single largest export market by far. DISCUS attributed this export growth to economic recovery, a recognition of American quality, a drop in tariff barriers in key markets, and a continuing strong interest in classic cocktails. They also noted the Department of Agriculture’s promotion of American spirits overseas.

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Here at home, total spirits sales were up 4.4%, to $22.2 billion, and a lot of that stemmed from the growth in sales in the “High End” and “Super Premium” categories, the most
expensive bottles. It was noted that whiskey provides substantially higher revenues per standard 9-liter case (an average of $133, compared to $85 for vodka), and the whiskey category’s growth of 6.2%. In volume, total spirits cases sold were up 3.9 million cases, and whiskey’s 3.1 million case increase was 80% of that growth. It’s not all American whiskey, either. While total whiskey volume was up 6.2%, Irish was up 17.5%, “Blended” (which includes flavored whiskey; more on that shortly) was up 14.3%, single malt scotch up 11.6%, bourbon/Tennessee/rye was up 6.8%, Canadian up 2.9%, and blended Scotch whisky was up 2.0%.

Flavored whiskey continued to grow strongly, with 1.4 million additional cases sold, accounting for 45% of the total whiskey category growth. Straight whiskeys, however, accounted for 80% of the revenue growth, so you can bet that the distillers won’t abandon them in a rush to flavors. There was talk of how distillers are being cautious about introducing the rainbow of flavors that has typified vodka sales, and open speculation over whether vodka has gone too far with flavors, jumped the shark; it seems doubtful to me that the bottom of that well has yet been plumbed, but whiskey is going to be a different case. Don’t expect birthday cake bourbon anytime soon.

Where is all this growth coming from? It appears that a good chunk of it is coming from the decline in sales of beer, particularly traditional major brands. The folks from DISCUS saw this as a triumph of their focus on increasing accessibility (by encouraging Sunday sales where restricted and urging modernization of control state systems) and encouraging cultural acceptance of spirits. As spirits become easier to buy, as people don’t have to make a special trip out of their way to buy them, people are choosing them more often than they have in the past. But a lot of it, clearly, is coming from the increased appreciation for whiskey, and the increased innovation and choice presented by whiskey makers, both from the traditional regions and from the increasing number of craft distillers.

You can see the full report at the DISCUS website here.

Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

John HansellBack in late November, the whiskey media received news from Diageo of the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project, a new series of old and rare limited-edition whiskeys from their warehouses. It’s something we’ve seen from Diageo before, but these are American whiskeys, not Scotch or Irish.

Many of you are aware that Diageo owns and operates the George Dickel distillery in Tennessee. They do not, however, own an operating bourbon distillery.  They own the Bulleit brand, but it’s an open secret that Bulleit bourbon has been produced at the Four Roses distillery in Kentucky; Bulleit Rye is sourced from MGP in Indiana.

Old Blowhard Lo ResBut Diageo does own the Stitzel-Weller distillery (mothballed around 1992), where they have stocks of bourbon aging, some distilled at Stitzel-Weller and some from other distilleries. They also once owned the existing Bernheim distillery (from around 1992 to 1999, when they sold it to Heaven Hill) and a different, older Bernheim distillery (theirs into the late 1980s).

So, in theory, future Orphan Barrel whiskey releases could be sourced from a number of operating and mothballed/demolished distilleries, including Stitzel-Weller, Bernheim (current and older), Dickel, Four Roses, MGP, or their Gimli, Manitoba distillery where Crown Royal is produced. There might even be some additional sources that I have omitted, but for the sake of (relative) brevity, let’s leave it at that.

The first three releases, all bourbons, are about to hit the shelves. The press release states that they were bottled at the Dickel distillery, but they weren’t made there. These won’t be the only three releases; at least, this is Diageo’s thinking at present. The two that were mentioned in the November release (Barterhouse and Old Blowhard) are being released first. A third one, tentatively called Rhetoric, will follow on a month or two later. These bourbons will only be sold in the U.S.

I recently had the opportunity to taste all three (along with another separate new Diageo bourbon release called Blade & Bow). All three Orphan Barrel bourbons have identical mashbills: 86% corn, 6% rye, and 8% barley. Whiskey geeks reading this will identify this as the formula from whiskey made at the Bernheim distilleries.

The youngest of the three is Rhetoric, clocking in at 19 years, followed by Barterhouse at 20 years and Old Blowhard at 26. If you do the math, you will discover that Old Blowhard was actually produced at the old Bernheim distillery. This is from the last remaining stocks. There will be no more Old Blowhard releases, according to Diageo. The suggested retail price of $150 is great when compared to other older bourbons and ryes these days—especially from mothballed and demolished distilleries. (Think Pappy Van Winkle and Stitzel-Weller.)Barterhouse Bottle Lo Res

Barterhouse is from the existing Bernheim distillery. My sources at Diageo say there might be another batch release of Barterhouse, and perhaps Rhetoric, down the road. Barterhouse, at a suggested retail price of $75, is also very attractively priced, considering its age.

But how do they taste? My informal tasting notes are below. Because they are informal, and not official Whisky Advocate reviews, I have not assigned a rating to them yet. This will come at a later date and eventually be published in the magazine.

There’s a sliding scale in flavor profile, with the Barterhouse being the sweetest of the three, Old Blowhard brandishing the most dry oak influence, and Rhetoric somewhere in the middle. I list them in that order, not by age.

Barterhouse 20 year old, 45.1%, $75

Surprisingly lacking in oak intensity, given its age. Very creamy and soothingly sweet, with notes of honeyed vanilla, crème brûlée, sultana, orange creamsicle, peach cobbler, and a subtle array of tropical fruit. Soft and mellow on the finish. It’s very easy-drinking and should be enjoyable under most moods and circumstances. Very nice indeed!

“Rhetoric” 19 year old, 45%, $TBD

Situated between Barterhouse and Old Blowhard in oak influence (and flavor profile in general). Firm spice, botanicals, and dried fruit delivered on a bed of caramel. There’s a kiss of honey to marry with the resinous oak grip, with polished leather and a hint of tobacco on the finish. This whiskey does indeed show its age with the oak presence (much more than Barterhouse), but the sweet notes make a valiant effort to keep the wood influence in check.

Old Blowhard 26 year old, 45.35%, $150

Old Blowhard indeed. The most intense of the three Orphan Barrel releases.  Very robust, with leather, tobacco, and roasted nuts. Quite spicy and resinous too. There’s toffee, maple syrup, and caramel struggling to sooth all this robustness, but the oak maintains the upper hand, I’m afraid.  A digestif, perhaps, after a large meal? Unless you are purchasing for a piece of bourbon history, my advice would be to try it before you buy, as it is very woody.

I did not take notes on the new Blade & Bow offering, but this is a younger, more standard offering that will be a regular stock item, bottled at 45% and sold for around $40. I did not ask the source.

In summary, my favorite of the three Orphan Barrel releases is Barterhouse. It’s very versatile, and the price is right for a 20 year old bourbon. Having said this, you may prefer Rhetoric when it comes out if you like more oak in your bourbon. It was my wife’s favorite. Old Blowhard is the rarest of the bunch, but whether you like it or not will largely depend on your oak tolerance. It’s my least favorite of the three, quite woody, and the most expensive.

Gin Meets Whisky (in a barrel)

Monday, January 27th, 2014

We welcome Geoff Kleinman, editor of the DrinkSpirits website, as a guest blogger on the subject of aged gin…which can be tantalizingly close to whisky.

Author_Geoff KleinmanAged Gin isn’t a new spirit category, but it’s a category that has been getting an increasing amount of attention. Craft distillers have embraced aged gin as another vehicle for creative expression and as an aged product that can be sold during the long waiting game that’s required for aged whisky. The problem with the category is that, at times, it tends to blur the lines between gin and whiskey, with one product, Pow-Wow Botanical Rye, completely obliterating the lines.

“Early American gin (up through the 1860s) was made in the flavored-whiskey style, and it was often barrel aged. Later, once (neutral-spirit based) English styles took root, that, too, was often aged, but much more lightly,” explains David Wondrich, spirits historian and author of Imbibe!.

One of the first contemporary entries in the aged gin space came from Ransom Spirits, in Sheridan, Oregon. With Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, distiller Tad Seestedt helped resurrect a “lost” style of gin and in the process helped kick off a new wave of the aged gin category. “The idea was initially to replicate the short amount of time that the gin would have historically spent in barrel during transport over land or sea to its final destination. We also realized afterwards that the barrel aging had an obviously pleasant effect on the gin,” says Tad Seestedt.

agedginRansom’s Old Tom Gin soon became a darling of the craft spirit world, and it opened the door for more craft spirit companies to follow in the aged gin space. “One of the most challenging aspects of “craft distilling” is that the big boys make outstanding products – aging gin allows me a chance to not only be creative but create products that the big boys fhave to play catch up, like with Beefeater’s Burroughs Reserve,” says Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller of FEW Spirits.

Many craft distillers don’t have the ability to truly rectify spirits and scoff at using neutral grain spirits for their products. The result can be a malty botanical spirit with similar characteristics to a young whiskey. “The primary difference, besides the addition of the botanicals to the spirit, is the distillation proof of the base spirit. As you know, whiskey is distilled to a much lower proof off the still, so there are fusels and other congeners in the whiskey distillate that aren’t there in the base of the gin distillate,” remarks John Little, head distiller of Smooth Ambler Spirits.

Seeing this intersection between aged gin and aged whiskey, Amir Peay, CEO and founder at Georgetown Trading Co., created Pow-Wow Botanical Rye. “We took a fine, mature whiskey and then infused it with whole botanicals over an extended period of time. My idea of a good whiskey is one that is complex and balanced, and I wanted to see if we could take a great whiskey and add new layers of botanical complexity that worked in concert with the existing flavors.”

The dividing line between a botanical flavored whiskey and an aged gin may be murky, but it’s there. “Aged London dry style gin, or any gin that’s based on neutral spirits, is not aged whiskey, it’s aged vodka. If you make your gin with an unrectified grain spirit that’s been distilled to a relatively low proof, as the Dutch do with their moutwijn, then it’s a flavored whiskey,” explains David Wondrich.

While aged gin is predominantly seen among craft distillers, this year Pernod Ricard got into the space with their limited Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve “Barrel Finished Gin.”

“Aged or rested gin opens up another drinking occasion for gin. Most people wouldn’t think to sit and enjoy a glass of neat gin with a cheese plate after dinner, but with Burrough’s Reserve on the market now we can,” says Nick van Tiel, Pernod Ricard’s English gins brand ambassador.

Whether or not whiskey drinkers will embrace the aged gin category remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a category that deserves exploration. Paul Hletko best sums it up: “It is a wide open place, and much of what we do is education on what ‘brown gin’ is and why it’s brown.  But the opportunity to be creative is worth it.”

Suntory Bids For Beam

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

It was revealed today that Beam, the all-spirits company spun off by Fortune Brands in 2011, has agreed to be acquired by Suntory for $13.62 billion, upon approval from Beam Inc. shareholders. Suntory already distributes Beam’s products in Japan, and Beam distributes Suntory’s products in several other Asian markets. The deal is targeted for completion in the second quarter of 2014.

Given numbers from the Impact Databank, the deal will make Suntory the world’s fourth-largest spirits company, behind Diageo, India’s United Spirits Limited, and Pernod Ricard; Bacardi will now be fifth. By dollar amount, this is a bigger deal than the Fortune Brands/Pernod takeover of Allied Domecq in 2005.

Assuming the deal goes through, this will put a lot of new whiskeys under Suntory’s roof. In addition to their own Suntory, Yamazaki, and Hakushu brands, and Scottish brands Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, and McClelland’s, they will now own all the associated Jim Beam brands, Maker’s Mark, Canadian Club, Laphroaig, Ardmore, Teacher’s, Alberta Distillers, Cooley, and the Spanish DYC brand. They’ll also own the still-growing Pinnacle flavored vodkas, Courvoisier cognac, Sauza and Hornitos tequilas, Gilbey’s, and Skinnygirl cocktails.

What’s this mean to you, the whiskey drinker? Probably not much. Beam CEO Matt Shattock and the current management team will be left in place to run the business. Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, and Scotch whisky are all growing strongly. Given Suntory’s record with Morrison Bowmore, it seems unlikely that they’d change anything with their new acquisitions. Should we worry about Suntory owning both Bowmore and Laphroaig, and possibly closing one Islay distillery as unwelcome internal competition? Not for now, when both are selling well, though it may become a factor if there’s a downturn; but in that case, everything is going to be in play anyway.

The deal will increase Suntory’s debt load considerably; Moody’s Investors Service indicated that they would be evaluating the company for a re-grading in light of it. Should we worry about prices going up to cover the debt? Realistically, at this point in the whisky market…would we notice?

This was a sale that everyone interested in the industry had been expecting, at least on the “Beam sold” end. As a purely spirits company that was neither family-owned nor large enough to fend off purchasers, Beam was widely considered as a very likely takeover target. The “Suntory acquired” part was more of a surprise, in that one company is swallowing them whole. That’s the only potential downside; that a richer purchaser might have been able to put more into the new brands than Suntory will, but that’s all speculation.

In the end, it looks like a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ moment. Just another swapping in the game that has gone on for decades. Suntory has a good track record; rest easy. We might even see more Suntory whiskies in the world market.

Meanwhile, in a much, much smaller deal that was also announced today, two Tasmanian distilleries are merging. Lark distillery will acquire Old Hobart distillery and the Overeem brand. Both companies will remain as separate brands and entities, Overeem becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Lark. Perhaps more importantly, Bill Lark will be reducing his time at the distillery and becoming the Lark global brand ambassador, and Casey Overeem will be doing the same. We’ll wait to see if this means more Tasmanian whisky in America.

Whisky Advocate Award: Craft Whiskey of the Year

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Few Spirits Rye, 46.5%, $60

Reviewing craft-distilled American whiskeys is still a matter of degrees, especially when the craft distillers venture into the stylistic territory Few Ryestaked out so strongly by the established traditional distillers. The benchmarks of bourbon and rye are well-known, and to openly declare your competition with them is to invite direct comparison. I call it the “Evan Williams Test”: is this craft whiskey good enough that I’d buy a bottle of it instead of yet another $14 bottle of the reliably well-made Evan Williams Black? Only the very best craft whiskeys can stand up to that.

By that test, Few Spirits Rye is clearly in the top tier of current craft whiskeys.

Although it’s young, the whiskey is well-made and clean in character, not funky and flawed, which still counts for a lot these days. As I said in my review (an 89 score), “Straightforward rye crisps out of the glass in no-nonsense style; dry grain, sweet grass, and light but insistent anise almost wholly drown out the barrel character.” It’s backed up on the palate, where you’ll get more rye, some tarragon and dry mint spice, and then some oak in the warming finish.

That light barrel character is hardly surprising in a young rye, and we’re not going to see much but young whiskey out of craft distillers for a while yet. So high marks to Few Spirits for making a very good young rye, one I’ve been using as a benchmark ever since I tasted it. — Lew Bryson

Tomorrow, the American Whiskey of the Year will be announced.

Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 1

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

We know the holidays are coming…er, are here, and we’re sorry this is a bit late for Hanukkah, but we wanted to get you some advice on whisky books. Here’s the first set, from Fred Minnick; more to come.Fred Minnick

When my literary agent and I were shopping Whiskey Women, the most common rejection we received was, “Whiskey is a niche audience and doesn’t interest the masses.” That’s why many whiskey writers have been forced to self publish and American whiskey enthusiasts have had to rely on dated texts—mainstream American publishers never took whiskey books seriously.

My, oh, my, times are changing. Publishers are bringing new books to light that are good for the future of whiskey. This holiday season whiskey books are on many gift lists, and there are two new ones I highly recommend for the American whiskey fan in your life.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye by Clay RisenAWBRCover

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to The Nation’s Favorite Spirit by Clay Risen, an editor for the New York Times, is the first true whiskey guide dedicated to only American whiskey. Other whiskey guides have explored rye and bourbon whiskey, but they also covered Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. Risen sticks to American distillations.

Risen delicately walks readers into whiskey’s past, present and future without getting on too much of soapbox. But, he sends a few jabs to distillers and bottlers, revealing where products are actually distilled and questioning odd product marketing.

With the “Old Whiskey River” brand Risen informs us Willie Nelson commissioned the whiskey, but adds a parenthetical “whatever that means.” For Bulleit bourbon, Risen uncovers the worst kept secret in modern whiskey history: the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, makes Bulleit Bourbon.

Risen’s words are meant for whiskey lovers, as he dissects every brand’s hi  story and scores products on an NR (not recommended) to four-star scale. He conveniently left out flavored whiskeys and gave NRs to mostly craft whiskeys, including four Hudson whiskeys. Risen’s palate certainly skews to older bourbon, granting four stars to Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Michter’s 20 year old, and Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbons.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is an American whiskey treasure worthy of four stars in Risen’s scoring format. One downside to this book is Risen likely made Pappy Van Winkle even more desired. When describing Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Risen says, “bourbon doesn’t get better.” Retailers didn’t need that!

 

Kentucky Bourbon Country by Susan ReiglerReigler, BOURBON Cover 300dip

With the growth of the Bourbon Trail and the whiskey’s mainstream media coverage, Kentucky’s bourbon experience looks to join California’s Napa Valley as a spot for adult beverage travel. But unlike Napa, Bourbon Country has lacked a truly informative guide to help folks navigate the commonwealth’s distilleries. Until now.

Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide by Susan Reigler, with photographs by Pam Spaulding, leapfrogs Internet travel sites and gives a comprehensive travel guide that digs deep into each Kentucky region.

Reigler gives a terroir look to Kentucky bourbon, breaking the book into the commonwealth’s major bourbon regions: Louisville, Frankfort and Midway, Lexington, Lawrenceburg, and Bardstown. In each section, Reigler offers the area’s bourbon history, from a brief mention of the Henry Clay distillery in the Lexington area to Frenchman Leopold Labrot’s shareholding status with the Frankfort/Midway region’s Labrot & Graham distillery, now the Woodford Reserve distillery.

As a Kentuckian, I’m thrilled with how Reigler explores not only bourbon, but takes you inside several relatively unknown destinations, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Lawrenceburg, a hidden gem in this state that’s often overlooked by travel writers; the Perryville Battlefield, a Civil War park where 7,500 were killed or wounded; and along the beautiful horse farms and race tracks that complement Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.

Reigler also gives cogent driving advice that GPS programmers should listen to and great boarding recommendations. Beyond the detail of most travel guides, Kentucky Bourbon Country was most certainly written by a Kentuckian.

Both Reigler’s and Risen’s books show great promise for the whiskey book world. Just remember to read responsibly and with fine bourbon in hand.

Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Funhouse: Warehouse X

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Lew BrysonPhotos by Fred Minnick

Buffalo Trace is well-known as an innovator. They’ve won awards for it, they’ve seen plenty of ink (and pixels) for it, and they even sell the results of this innovation as their Experimental Collection; selected barrels from a reported 1,500+ variations aging in various warehouses. Distillery president Mark Brown has likened the multi-decade experimental project to a car company’s Formula 1 racing program: technical innovation to improve the general process and product.

But up until now, the experiments have focused on recipe (different grains and proportions), barrel (type of oak, size, seasoning, entry proof, and the whole Single Oak project), and things that are easily changed one or two or five barrels at a time. The E.H. Taylor microdistillery is able to feed that kind of experimentation with very small batches of different distillate. But now things move into a new arena with the christening of Warehouse X, a building expressly designed to test the effects of environment on aging. (Buffalo Trace has always designated their warehouses with single letters; the sequencing of “X” for this experimental warehouse was happily fortuitous.)

The idea for Warehouse X started years ago, literally with a sketch on the back of a napkin, a conversation between Mark Brown and former warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins. “If it hadn’t been for Ronnie Eddins,” Brown said in tribute, “there wouldn’t have been the energy for the Experimental Collection. I was intrigued by his ideas for warehouse experimentation. All the research on aging has been done to get rid of it. What about getting more out of it? Why not a glass roof, bigger windows, or smaller ones?”

North side of Warehouse X

North side of Warehouse X

But warehouses aren’t cheap, not even small experimental warehouses, so the idea slumbered for years, until a tornado tore off the back of Warehouse C in 2006. For six months, until repairs could be made, the barrels aged in the open; no wall, no roof. The whiskey was eventually bottled as E.H. Taylor “Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon.” It was, as Brown admits, a bit of a stunt, some fun.

“But the whiskey was great!” he hooted. “The whole debate on warehouse experimentation resurfaced.” Master distiller Harlen Wheatley got a $250,000 budget to design and build a small warehouse with four different bays and a “patio.”

It turned out to cost more like a million dollars when everything was said and done. One bay will age whiskey in total darkness, one will cycle in temperature (on varying schedules), one will be subject to changes in humidity (“Humidity’s a mystery,” Brown said), and the fourth will be affected by changes in airflow. The patio will try to replicate the effects of the tornado; open-air aging.

Brown thinks sunlight on the barrels may be the key, though the thought worries him, in a humorous way. “We’ll look like a bunch of chimpanzees if all we needed to age the perfect bourbon was a field full of barrels and a guard tower,” he said with a grin…a wry grin.

Of course, the question is…”the key” to what? When Buffalo Trace embarked on this project some years ago (officially; Ronnie Eddins had been running it off the books for years!), there was talk of the “holy grail,” the “perfect bourbon.” Like bourbon, we’re all older, more mature, and more mellow now (and maybe a bit woody, too), and talk of the “perfect bourbon” makes us edgy. Who’s to say what is the perfect bourbon?

Indeed, Brown agreed, and easily acknowledged that different people have clearly different ideas about it. The purpose of the experimental program is to learn what will create different character in bourbons so that the process can be more readily controlled and optimized for flavor, and sometimes very different flavor. After we’d seen the warehouse, we sat down to taste whiskeys that had been aged in Mongolian oak (incredibly smooth and fruity at only 5 years old, but at about $1,000 a barrel, don’t expect a lot of it), four and six grain bourbons, and a shockingly different — peppery, sweet mint, explosively spicy — 1 year old whiskey that Brown and Wheatley mostly grinned about without saying much, other than that it was “bourbon.”

It was clear that this project is not about changing Buffalo Trace, or Elmer T. Lee, or the Antique Collection. “We’ve thought a lot about the project on a technical level,” Brown said. “We didn’t think about retailing it.” However, he did say that there are some Experimental Collection projects that will go commercial, and allowed that the portfolio had room for “one more brand.”

Brown also emphasized that while innovation looked to the future, the distillery’s recent recognition as a National Historical Landmark (there were new banners up all over the grounds) looks to the past. The process of approval brought out even more about the site’s history, which goes back over 200 years (older than most Scotch whisky distilleries).

Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley

Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley

“This is a crusade for us,” he said. “We feel we have a custodial role; we have to get this distillery intact to the next generation.” Despite some low points, Buffalo Trace has survived, and as we walked around the distillery, it’s clear that it is thriving, stronger than ever. There are plans for expansion, something I never would have guessed would be needed when I first toured here in the 1990s.

But innovation, like the Experimental Collection and Warehouse X, begets success, especially when linked to the independence that’s characterized Buffalo Trace. Don’t expect the desire to investigate the art of bourbon manufacture and aging to change here any time soon.

 

More From Inside MGP

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

My article, “LDI: The Mystery Distillery,” was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Whisky Advocate. It was a hard story to write because no one involved with the former Seagram-owned plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, would talk about it. Not aauthor-cowdery word, on the record or off.

A few facts about the place were known, but by 2011 it wasn’t even possible to determine exactly who owned it. Available public records simply showed the owner as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, LLC.

Between when the story was written and when it went to press, LDI was sold. In the nick of time, we were able to update the piece to report the sale. “In late October,” we wrote, “MGP Ingredients Inc., a major food grade ethanol (i.e., vodka) producer, announced that it is buying LDI for $15 million.”

What we did not know then was that the new ownership would be as open as the previous had been secretive. We recently spoke with Dave Dykstra, MGP vice president for sales and marketing; and Don Coffey, vice president for research and development, about the company’s plans for the Indiana plant.

David Dykstra

David Dykstra

Dykstra began by explaining the facility’s historical footprint as the maker of Seagram’s Gin (now owned by Pernod-Ricard) and Seagram’s Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey (now owned by Diageo). Both brands are in the value segment and though large, both have been moribund recently. Now they are growing again.

In addition to that business, MGP believes there is a need for a bulk producer that won’t compete with brand companies, globally. This applies to their whole product mix: vodka, gin, and whiskey.

“We see a huge need for it,” says Dykstra. “Most companies like dealing with us because we’re not their competitor.” They have grown the business in the 18 months since they bought it, picking up many new customers.

Although MGP is best known as a grain neutral spirits producer, the Lawrenceburg acquisition marks their return to the whiskey business. McCormick, a historic distillery in Weston, Missouri, was owned by MGP from the 1950s until 1999. MGP also made whiskey at its distillery in Pekin, Illinois, until 1993.

With its new whiskey program, MGP is aiming for 50% to 60% of its whiskey business to come from contract distilling (in which the customer buys the whiskey when it is distilled and pays an annual fee for maturation), with the rest coming from bulk or ‘spot’ sales (in which the customer buys and takes immediate delivery of aged whiskey).

“Our focus is on the European and Asian markets for growth,” says Dykstra. “And we’re focusing on the private label business.”

One early change they made was expanding their whiskey offerings. They now make five bourbon recipes, three rye recipes, and one each for corn, wheat, and malt. No other major American distillery makes that many different recipes…and they are working on more.

Coffey explained that, with so many different mash bills in play, they have decided to use one yeast for all whiskey products.

Don Coffey

Don Coffey

“We’re freezing that as a variable,” says Coffey. But when it comes to maturation, variety is once again the rule. “We used seven different barrels for the new mash bills,” says Coffey, “different toasts and chars, to create different sub-species of bourbon and other whiskeys.” The idea is that producers will be able to buy distinctive whiskeys from MGP, whiskeys that are uniquely their own.

“We have eight novel bourbons going now, with four more cued up,” says Coffey. “The standard is the 21% rye recipe, but we will offer a variety of small grains: oats, quinoa, whatever the customer wants. We’ll study how the small grain changes the bourbon’s character, as compared to the standard.”

Since mixtures of one or more straight bourbons are still considered straight bourbon, not a blend, the possibilities are endless.

MGP intends to be most innovative and consistent supplier of distilled spirits.

“What customers value from us are consistency and reliability, the ability to replicate success,” says Coffey. ”We want to be the customer’s research and development team.” It is their intention to supply liquid, not packaged products, as they have no bottling facility. It was sold separately to Proximo Spirits. Many of MGP’s customers are bottler-rectifiers and they don’t want to compete with their customers.

Going forward, they expect to upgrade many of the distillery’s systems and will expand capacity as needed. They’ve sold most of the aged inventory made under the former owners but the warehouses are filling up again.

As a large, fulltime, non-brand producer that values creativity and innovation, MGP of Indiana adds a welcome new dimension to the American whiskey landscape.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Forty Creek Heart_of_Gold_bottle#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70

Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93

Handy Sazerac2

#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70

The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70

Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Elijah Craig 21 Year Old
#7: Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42), 45%, $140

Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94SazeracRye18year2

#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70

Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70

The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
GeorgeTStagg2
#4: George T. Stagg, 64.1%, $70

Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#3:  Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96Redbreast 21 Year Old

#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

125th_Front_SMBLE#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97

 

2013: The Year of Great Premium Bourbon

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

author-hansellWhiskey prices keep climbing, and none of us are happy about it. It’s a simple matter of economics: supply vs. demand. The entire world has discovered the joy of whiskey and there isn’t enough to go around.

But if we can set aside the price issue for a moment and look at the quality of the product on the market, it’s quite apparent to me that 2013 will go down as a great year for premium and super-premium bourbon, and other American whiskeys, like rye and Tennessee. Let’s take a look at what’s been released this year.

The premium whiskeys we expect to be great every year are great again this year

Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection (George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17 yr., Parker's_ALS_Promise of Hope_Bottle ShotSazerac 18 yr., and Thomas H. Handy) delivers an amazingly consistent combination of quality and variety.

Then there’s the new Parker’s Heritage Collection “Promise of Hope” bottling. While the Antique Collection might get all the attention, Parker’s new release is just great, honest, no frills bourbon that I could drink every day and never tire of it.

On top of this, we have another stunning Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch for 2013. After we gave the 2012 Limited Edition Whisky Advocate’s “American Whiskey of the Year” honors, I thought that there was no way Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses could ever match that one. But they did with the 2013 Small Batch release! And the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel offering is no slouch either.

Even the “hit and miss” annual releases are great this year

2013 saw two different Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection releases, six bottles in total—four different wheated bourbonsOldForBDay2013 that experimented with barrel entry proof and two 15 year old bourbons that varied the barrel stave seasoning times. All four wheated bourbons, while tasting quite different, were very good to excellent. The 15 year old bourbon with the extended 13 month stave drying time blew me away with enriched sweet, creamy notes that balanced the dried oak spice that comes with 15 years of aging, without the harsh tannins often found in bourbon that old.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release for 2013 was the best in many years. And my Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel rocked! (Mine was from Barrel No. 42 if you’re keeping track. I did taste whiskey from other barrels and they were still good, but not quite of the stature of No. 42.)

George Dickel gets into the act too!
Dickel Hand Selected Barrel 9
After wishing for years that George Dickel would put out some great super-premium Tennessee whiskeys, they finally did. I was thrilled to see them introduce to retailers the new single cask “hand selected barrel” offerings at both 9 and 14 years of age—and higher proof! I particularly enjoyed the 9 year old samples I tasted. There’s so much untapped potential there at Dickel. Let’s start tapping it.

The new stuff is also exciting

Angel’s Envy Rye was like a breath of fresh air, combining rye spice with the rummy notes gained from being finished off in rum barrels. Beam came out with a new Distiller’s Masterpiece finished in PX casks and two new “Signature Craft” releases; one a standard 12 year old, the other finished with Spanish brandy. Wild Turkey Forgiven married bourbon with rye whiskeys. Okay, so maybe some of this new stuff isn’t of the caliber of the other whiskeys I mentioned above, but it was the icing on the cake of a really great year.

Sure, there’s still some ho-hum whiskeys

The Stagg Jr. I reviewed was a bit harsh and aggressive on the finish, and I could take or leave the two new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Limited Edition Malt releases. Still, these were the exceptions to what otherwise was an outstanding year for premium and super-premium American whiskey.

All this, and not one mention of Pappy…