Whisky Advocate

Burning Down the Rumor Mill

April 18th, 2014

By Fred Minnick

Author - Fred MinnickCovering bourbon is a lot like covering sports. In my brief time as a sports reporter, I dealt with rumors and dishonest coaches who specialized in saying nothing. Well, bourbon fans love a good rumor, and distillers can be skillful spin doctors, hiding in supposed confidentiality clauses, and overselling history vs. what’s in the bottle. But as a writer, I can’t deal in rumors. I have to take the distillers at their word until they’re proven wrong.

With that said, the Internet, especially social media, loves a good bourbon rumor. I’ve examined some of the prevalent rumors found on barstools, forums, and social media; let’s have a look at the facts behind them.

2013FourRoses125AnniSmallBatchBourbonFour Roses – Out of the Honey Barrels?

By now, you know that Four Roses’ 2012 and 2013 Limited Edition Small Batches have dominated the awards circuit. But there’s been a nasty rumor floating about that the older bourbon in these small batches will soon be gone. What does master distiller Jim Rutledge have to say about that?

“It is true the exceptional lot of 18 year old OBSV recipe that has been used in some of our recent Limited Releases has been exhausted,” Rutledge says. “However, because of the unique single story rack warehouses used by Four Roses distillery, we do not have special, or limited, warehouse locations in which ‘honey’ barrels are found. Exceptional distillation lots are found in all 20 warehouses, and even without the referenced honey barrels I anticipate the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch will be another excellent bourbon.”

Very_Old_Barton_KSBW_6_Year_80prf_750ml_GlassVery Old Barton—Where’s the Age Statement?

For those who love the price:quality ratio of “value bourbons,” 6 year old Very Old Barton was one of our last hidden treasures. The age statement has disappeared from the bottle. What gives?

“The 80 proof VOB lost the age statement years ago. For the 86, 90, and 100 proof, many bourbon distillers are moving away from age-declared products because delivering a consistent taste profile is more important than the age statement,” says Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for Sazerac, which owns a slew of bourbon brands. “In the case of VOB, sometimes that means 6 years old, sometimes 7, sometimes 5. With no age statement, VOB can better avoid product shortages. Sitting around waiting for a barrel to turn 6 years old when the bourbon tastes fine at 5 years and 10 months is silly. Consumers have told us over and over that a consistent taste is more important than an age statement and certainly more important than them running out of supplies. That being said, VOB will continue to be 6 year old whiskey for the foreseeable future; the same great bourbon.” 

Is it Pappy? (Or is it Weller?)

You could start a media company (and keep it busy!) just by covering the rumors on Pappy Van Winkle. One of the more popular Pappy rumors is that Weller bourbons are now being used for Pappy, because they have the same wheated grain bills. That’s not true, Comstock says. “Each brand has its own sales forecast out until 2047 and its own reserved inventory,” he says. “Weller and Van Winkle share the same wheated recipe, but the barrels are aged in different warehouse locations and for different periods of time.”

Speaking of Weller…is the 12 year old Being Discontinued?

Buffalo Trace President and CEO Mark Brown told me Weller 12 is not going anywhere. But there’s no denying that it is hard to find these days. If you want to find it for 2014, here’s a hint: It will be released in August or September.

AncAge10yrBrbnWhisk750mlHow About Ancient Ancient Age?

Ancient Ancient Age—the beloved ‘Triple A’—is another value bourbon that you just can’t find anymore. Does it have a future? “We have no plans to discontinue AAA 10 Star, as demand is strong,” Comstock says. “Unfortunately, demand for AAA 10 Year has dwindled to the point where it is no longer commercially practical to bottle.” Okay, who stopped drinking it?

Old Grand-Dad 114: Put Out to Pasture?

You can probably find someone who’ll tell you that Old Grand-Dad 114 is on the way out, too, but that’s just a rumor. The folks that own Old Grand-Dad, Jim Beam, tell me the OGD 114 is doing exceptionally well and is staying put for the foreseeable future. In fact, the 114 is up 30% (dollar value) in the last year.

Elijah_Craig_12Elijah Craig 12 year old – Is The Age Statement Being Dropped?

With age statements dropping like flies, anything with an age statement is subject to this rumor. Heaven Hill spokesperson Larry Kass says Elijah Craig 12 year old is not losing its bright red numerals. “I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe the fact that for space reasons we had to move the 12 year old mention to the back label of the Barrel Proof?), but one of the reasons EC 12 is on hiatus from our full barrel program is to keep stocks for the regular case goods,” Kass says.

Heaven Hill Green Label—Going Away?

Is Heaven Hill Green Label on its way out? This rumor hasn’t even hit the social media circuit yet; I picked it up sitting on a barstool. Kass says Heaven Hill Green Label is not being discontinued and contiues in most markets as a no age statement 80 proof whiskey, and in a couple markets as a no age statement 90 proofer. But the national Heaven Hill Green Label will become the no age statement 80 proof, while the Kentucky market will continue to enjoy the 6 year old Heaven Hill Green Label at 90 proof.

Elijah Craig Barrel Strength – Please Tell Us It’s Coming Back!

Last year, the Elijah Craig Barrel Strength swept America’s bourbon-loving palates at incredible value. Some thought it was too good to be true. Rest assured, bourbon lovers, Elijah Craig Barrel Strength will return. In fact, a February release of a 132.4 proof quietly hit shelves. Another release arrives May 1, but proof is not yet determined. The suggested price is $45.

Very Special Old FitzgeraldOld Fitzgerald line – What is the future?

With Larceny essentially becoming the focal point for Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon, will the distillery be completely discontinuing or trying to sell its other wheated bourbon, Old Fitzgerald? “No, we will keep selling Old Fitz Prime 80 proof, Old Fitz Bottled-in-Bond and Very Special Old Fitz 12 year old in current markets,” Kass says. “We are eliminating the Old Fitz 1849 SKU, but that was a very small number of cases.”

Maker’s Mark – A New Product

Wait, what? Maker’s Mark is coming out with something new? (Talk about burying the lede!) This rumor started back before the Suntory deal, but Maker’s Mark has kept quiet on the whiskey. Maker’s Mark officials have alluded to the fact a new product is on its way, but have yet to divulge more than that. Perhaps a single barrel? A higher proof older version of Maker’s Mark? That’s just all speculation, of course; let’s start our own rumors.

41 Responses to “Burning Down the Rumor Mill”

  1. Mike says:

    Great rundown. Lots of good info. Thx

  2. Wade says:

    So you replaced the rumor mill with marketing spin.

    “Demand for AAA 10 has dwindled” – they say that with a straight face and expect us to believe it? Come on Fred if you are going to publish this, do a little deeper digging and have them prove this with the case sales numbers.

    “Consumers have told us over and over that a consistent taste is more important than an age statement” – again this is bunk, consumers did not tell them this, their bean counters told them this.

    “delivering a consistent taste profile is more important than the age statement” – taste OWA from today and taste it before they dropped the age statement 5 years ago and then tell me that you believe this line.

    Current Pappy is hand selected barrels of BT wheated bourbon (Weller) and different age and proofs than what Weller is available. They can try to spin it, but it is what it is.

    • Fred Minnick says:

      Hi, Wade,
      Thanks for reading!

      This story’s intent was to have the companies respond to rumors, and some did. I chose to run Sazerac’s quotes verbatim because it gives you a sense of their operation. Is it true? They did not offer sales numbers, and The Nielsen Company’s Beverage Alcohol Division did not divulge case numbers to me. So, short of hacking into Buffalo Trace’s computers, which would land me in jail, I cannot report on anything other than what they told me or alluded to.

      Overall, these companies still don’t consistently disclose their mash bills or how much is sourced whiskey. I hope this story and these comments illustrate to the distillers that transparency is a good thing.

      • Wade says:

        Fred – I know Sazerac is privately held company and they will not tell you or anybody else anything they don’t want to tell. I would rather them say absolutely nothing than try to say demand for AAA 10 was dwindling. Sazerac if you are reading – what’s wrong with straightforward honesty? I would respect these answers:

        -We have a limited amount of 10 year old bourbon and will be using in in brands where we make more profit than AAA 10 year old.

        -We are trying to balance supplies for demand of Very Old Barton in various proofs. Although we are increasing production, for the time being we need to remove the age statement. We made a mistake in leaving the big ’6′ on bottle and it will be removed.

        -We make one wheated bourbon at Buffalo Trace. That bourbon becomes Weller and Van Winkle. Julian hand selects the barrels of this that go into Van Winkle. Julian has an outstanding palette and his selection process creates the Van Winkle line.

    • Josh says:

      “Consumers have told us over and over that a consistent taste is more important than an age statement” – again this is bunk, consumers did not tell them this, their bean counters told them this.”

      This.

      I’m tired of this “consistency is what the consumers want” excuse. Maker’s feeds us the same line. I’m a consumer, and I rather enjoy variances in flavor profiles, and I’m not alone. Eliminating age statements has to do with money. Period. Please stop trying to pull the wool over our eyes……we weren’t born yesterday.

      I agree with Fred. Transparency. Transparency. Transparency.

    • sam k says:

      You must have missed this quote: “Weller and Van Winkle share the same wheated recipe, but the barrels are aged in different warehouse locations and for different periods of time.””

      • Lew Bryson says:

        Sam’s right. That’s how different bourbons are made from the same unaged spirit: by plucking them from different ages and warehouse locations. That’s how bourbon works; this is not news, nor is it shocking. To say “Van Winkle is Weller” is to miss the point, and to expect Buffalo Trace or Julian Van Winkle to say it is not reasonable…because it simply isn’t true.

  3. Ken says:

    Glad to hear the ECBP is coming back again, that one has been eluding me for awhile.

  4. barturtle says:

    I would love to see proof that demand for AAA 10yo dropped before they cut back shipments.

  5. mindtron says:

    “We have no plans to discontinue AAA 10 Star, as demand is strong,” Comstock says. “Unfortunately, demand for AAA 10 Year has dwindled to the point where it is no longer commercially practical to bottle.”

    This quote doesn’t make any sense. Demand is strong but has also dwindled?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      AAA 10 Star and AAA 10 Year are two different bottlings. Sadly, I’d rather have 10 Year than 10 Star, but…that ain’t happening.

      • sku says:

        I’m skeptical that most consumers know the difference between these brands.

        • Lew Bryson says:

          Me too — I mean, MOST consumers haven’t even heard of them — but what are you saying? That their ignorance had something to do with the decision to keep one and dump the other? Or that most consumers won’t notice? Or something else?

          • sku says:

            What I’m saying is that I’m skeptical that demand for 10 star has grown while demand for 10 year has shrunk when I doubt most consumers make any distinction between the two.

          • Lew Bryson says:

            I suspect the difference they see is that the 10 Star is cheaper…

          • merd says:

            Wish we could get the 10 Year in CO. 10 Star is available here in spots… and has some respectable drinkability, especially for the price of a value priced plastic 1.75. Never seen it any other way. Wondered for quite some time if we’d ever see it (10 yr) here so I could get some (even attempted to order from my local ‘dealer’ as I call him – through the distributor – to no avail) but apparently my consumer thoughts are mistaken and invalid … There is no demand (grumble grumble).

        • sam k says:

          My guess is that they knew they’d be discontinuing 10 Year the day they came up with the intentionally similar 10 Star concept.

        • WhiskeyVampire says:

          I’d be surprised if most consumers knew the difference between any two brands of bourbon, except that it’s not bourbon if it’s Tennessee whiskey ;)

  6. Chris says:

    If they were really going to maintain the age profile of the VOB 6yo, then I wouldn’t worry about it. But we all saw what happened when they dropped the age statement from OWA. Am I supposed to find his statement about maintaining quality reassuring? What else would he say? Also, why didn’t you ask about deceptive practice of leaving the number 6 on the label, which can only be to trick customers.

    • sam k says:

      Barton is far from alone in allowing the number to remain after the age statement has been dropped. They’re actually in pretty good and very numerous company.

      • Ben McNeil says:

        Yes, but all that was published was a quote. The author couldn’t even be bothered to ask for the rationale in keeping the “6″. Seriously, it didn’t even occur to the interviewer?

  7. barturtle says:

    I’m sorry, but writing their prepared statements isn’t journalism. You should have gone back and questioned them about those statements.

    this isn’t much more than a glorified ad for the companies.

    • Fred Minnick says:

      Barturtle,

      LIke I said in a previous comment, I used verbatim quotes from Sazerac instead of chopping them up in indirect quotes. By letting you, the reader, see how they’re “spinning” a rumor, I believe, it’s just like witnessing live press conference. You can listen to the politicians and coaches say what they have to say and form your opinions just like you can with distillers. As for the follow up, I did and will continue to follow up on unanswered questions. I don’t plan to go away anytime soon.

  8. sam k says:

    The bourbon market sure isn’t what it used to be, and won’t be again in most of our lifetimes. Distillers are reacting as they see fit considering increased consumption here and burgeoning overseas demand.

    I don’t believe they owe us full transparency as to these decisions, though I too think they’re being unnecessarily elusive in some cases. There remain plenty of good whiskeys out there at any price point, and most of those price points remain far below other brown goods options.

    Flux and change will continue whether we like it or not. Seek and ye shall find.

    • Jim W. says:

      They are in business. It’s not as if “acting as they see fit” is any different now as it was 20 years ago. The circumstances may have changed, but not the priorities or basic attitudes. It’s all about the dead presidents, first and foremost.

  9. Dan Z. says:

    The two products that seem to be drawing the most attention are Very Old Barton 6 year and AAA 10 year. For Barton, it seems like Sazerac is deemphasizing the Barton line as premium and emphasizing 1792, instead. For AAA, isn’t that on the Age International side, where Sazerac may not have full control over decisions? The company’s responses are suspect, but pretty consistent. I would think if they were going to tell a different story, they would have done so by now.

  10. HD says:

    Thanks Fred. A little bit of the FireWorks I have sorely missed on this Blog.

    When K. Comstock says, “Sitting around waiting for a barrel to turn 6 years old when the bourbon tastes fine at 5 years and 10 months is silly” — it’s Hilarious. Me? I’m thinking what’s 2 more months, *******.

  11. Harry says:

    Thanks for running these down & getting the “official” positions from the producers. In spite of the heat you’ve taken here and on other forums (fora? – my Latin 101 was in 1962), we should appreciate your “first” of this series of articles killing rumors – goodness knows we critics have furnished you with a huge list of questions to follow up. Good luck.

  12. Mr. Manhattan says:

    Simply reporting statements from corporate spokespersons doesn’t tell the entire story…

    Old Fitz BIB was my well here in Northern CA and it’s gone since February, discontinued along with the 12 yo. According to my HH rep, the brand is being discontinued nationally so they can focus on Larceny. Someone isn’t telling the truth or the whole truth, e.g. this is at odds with what Kass stated about “current markets.”

    Also: we were just informed that HH has now discontinued all of its barrel purchase programs, not just EC12.

  13. Wilmsoft says:

    Look, he’s just reporting on “rumours” , We all know where there is smoke there is fire. AND the marketers LOVE that we are talking… Did we really think there would be “truth” to rumours?

    Plus, the old adage is: if you say it enough, it becomes the truth. LOVE the write up, Fred! hope there are many more to follow!

  14. Jim W. says:

    Many of the rumors and some of the comments on them seem to have the same source: bloviating paranoiacs on the internet with nothing better to do.

    So thanks to Fred for puncturing some hot air bladders out there. It needs to be done much more often.

  15. Josh says:

    I’m more inclined to trust knowledgeable “paranoiacs” on the internet than mendacious, evasive, double-speaking corporate talking heads who just regurgitate the party line.

  16. sam k says:

    Josh, you presume the paranoiacs are knowledgeable. You also presume the corporate reps are lying bastards. For the most part , on both counts, this is not necessarily the case.

  17. Josh says:

    Sam k: When it comes to the corporate reps I’ll put my money on them not being truthful whenever it suits them, which is far more often than not. I come from the liquor business and speak from almost 30 years experience.

  18. Wayne Parker says:

    Elijah Craig 12 year barrel strength third release is available in Virginia ABC stores, 134.8 proof. Thanks Mark…

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