Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

Some residents plan to fight new Diageo distillery in Kentucky

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickDespite the Shelby County planning commission unanimously approving the $115 million Diageo Distillery, nearby residents plan to continue protesting if several local issues are not addressed.

Diageo officials explained their company’s distillery plans, including state-of-the-art fire protection measures, significant economic benefits, and environmental considerations that include the planting of 2,450 native trees and a bio retention basin. But at the June 17 public hearing, several citizens offered cynicism toward Diageo’s claims and raised several issues over odor, traffic, noise pollution, water usage, black fungus, and sewage.

At the center of the community’s issue is the Guist Creek Lake, a 317-acre reservoir five miles east of Shelbyville. Diageo plans to use 180,000 gallons a day from the lake and says feasibility studies indicated this will not impact local water supplies.

But Bill Roberts, a 25-year resident of the Guist Creek Lake area, says past droughts have impacted its usage. “I can remember twice the lake was so low Shelby County had to keep the farmers from pumping water for their crops,” Roberts said. “How can [the county] allow another company to take 180,000 gallons a day from that lake and use it?”

The water commission determined the distillery’s lake usage would take out less than two inches of level, said Guy. L. Smith, executive vice president for the company, who was the lead Diageo presenter at the hearing. “If there was a drought, we’d be a part of the community that would be sensitive to that and would not just carry on,” Smith said.

There’s also the issue of the lake residents tapping into the new infrastructure.

“For 25 years they’ve been telling us we’re going to get sewers and fire hydrants,” said Linda Casey Stevenson, a resident who lives two blocks from the proposed distillery entrance on Benson Pike. “Diageo is coming in and they’re building all this. But we will not be allowed to hook into that. Obviously, they have declared Shelby County is open and for sale.”

Linda Casey Stevenson is concerned about drought.

Resident Linda Casey Stevenson is concerned about drought.

Stevenson says she’ll continue to voice her opinions.

But there’s little that can be done. Smith says Diageo plans to be breaking ground in three months and wants to support the community as “good neighbors.” Diageo is now pursuing approvals for building permits, but it’s met all county and state requirements to begin the project, Smith says.

In addition to the area’s tree plantings, the company says it went above and beyond the county’s newly adopted zoning requirements for a distillery, which required at least 25 percent of the property to be dedicated to agricultural use or preserved as a conservation area.

Diageo said it will have a zero waste to landfill and that at least 100 acres will serve as a natural barrier to the operation. Diageo also explained buildings will fit in the natural landscape and will contain fire as well as alcohol leaks.

Company officials said in the case of a fire or massive barrel leaks, the warehouse’s concrete dikes would contain the fire or liquid. The water retention basin would act as a secondary containment area, they said.

“The entire area of disturbance in the distillery area and warehouses is drained to the water bio retention basin,” said Kevin Young, a site planner working with Diageo. “All storm water goes through a filtration system before it exits the site. This is not required by [the zoning], but something we’re doing above [requirements].”

These extra efforts have not gone unnoticed. Outside of the Guist Creek Lake residents, Shelby County Tourism and residents expressed support for the new distillery.

“I appreciate the dilemma of [residents] and their concerns. However, this distillery has gone above and beyond what most companies try to do within our regulations and to support this community,” said Shelby County resident Katy Shabdue. “I’m very much in favor of this.”

Only one resident claimed to have an issue with the whiskey fungus. The young man presented the commission with a picture of black mold. The commission did not address him and later voted in favor of the distillery.

Construction is expected to be completed within three years, Diageo says. The company still has not named the distillery.

More About Diageo’s Kentucky Distillery Plans

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickDiageo still doesn’t have a name for its new Shelby County distillery, but the liquor giant somewhat revealed its American whiskey strategies at a public gathering at the Shelbyville Country Club on June 10.

Diageo officials said they’re investigating the possibilities of moving its Stitzel-Weller stills from Shively to the new location. These stills have not been used since the early 1990s, but produced some of the greatest bourbon ever made. Meanwhile, Diageo has tapped Vendome to build a 60-foot-tall column still, and Fluor Engineering to construct single story warehouses, which will be 27 feet tall and 55,000 square feet, with slight heat in the winter to keep the fire protection sprinklers from freezing. The heat will not influence aging, officials said.

The "Before" shot

The “Before” shot

The 300 acre, $115 million distillery will yield a projected 750,000 9-liter cases or 1.8-million proof gallons annually, but the officials were quick to point out that this volume is just an early estimate and the selected site—Benson Pike—offers growing room.

As for the upcoming master distiller, well, Tom Bulleit, founder of Bulleit Bourbon, had something to say about that. “It wouldn’t be me. I’m just the founder, just the business guy like Bill Samuels [of Maker’s Mark],” Bulleit said. “It will take two or three years just to get going. There will be a great national distiller here, a representative of Kentucky.”

Whether Diageo recruits a current master distiller from another company or pulls in George Dickel master distiller John Lunn (who has been known to be looking over Stitzel-Weller) remains to be seen. But all indications point toward this new facility being solely an American whiskey producer.

Diageo spokesperson Alix Dunn said the distillery will be used to make Bulleit and “innovative products in the pipeline.” It will most certainly not be used for distilling or aging George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey, Dunn said, adding “we can’t do that.” Diageo recently proposed a Tennessee whiskey law change that would allow the use of used barrels. Brown-Forman, the makers of Jack Daniel’s, said this was an effort to age George Dickel in Kentucky, among other things. Tennessee lawmakers said they will study the issue after the summer legislation ends. [UPDATE: the Tennessee legislature's investigation into this matter ended abruptly last night after Lunn testified that the liquor stored in Kentucky would be blended with other spirits and not used for George Dickel.]

As for why Diageo chose to build a new distillery instead of repairing the historic Stitzel-Weller facility, Dunn said, “It made the most sense for the future to start fresh on a new site that allows for more options as needed.” It’s also worth pointing out that the closest residential area to the proposed single story warehouses is about one mile away with the surrounding areas zoned for agriculture. This puts the new facility at a significant distance from potential whiskey fungus litigants.

“We’re not right on top of other people,” Dunn said of the proximity of the distillery. “[Whiskey fungus] is not something we’re in agreement with, but it remains to be seen what the courts have to say about it.”

Tom Bulleit (left) talks with local folks at the meeting

Tom Bulleit (left) talks with local folks at the meeting

It also remains to be seen what the future holds for Bulleit. Diageo has not named the Shelby County distillery, though the founder tipped his hat to the fact he might be campaigning for it to become the Bulleit Distillery.

Bulleit bourbon has been one of the most important growth brands, especially in the cocktail culture, and owns the wells in core markets like San Francisco. Bulleit Bourbon sold 600,000 cases last year. Bulleit says his immediate goals for the brand is to roll out a private barrel selection program this fall at Stitzel-Weller, where Bulleit bourbon and rye are currently aged, as well as at two other locations. Neither he nor the other Diageo officials knew exactly how much Bulleit would be aged at the new location, saying there are many steps left to be taken.

The Diageo facility has received the support of the Kentucky governor as well as local and county politicians. A public hearing will be held on June 17 at 6:30 pm in Shelbyville.

At the June 10 gathering, during the first two hours, nobody opposed the distillery. In fact, most locals seemed incredibly enthused, including the Radcliff Farm owners who grow corn for one of Diageo’s competitors. (They didn’t say who.) “It’s going into a beautiful area, very peaceful,” said Jim Tafel, the farm owner. “They’ll have nice neighbors.”

The Kentucky Bourbon Affair — a first year’s experience

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWe were invited to attend this year’s inaugural Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a set of events put together by the Kentucky Distillers Association (the KDA) and its members. As KDA president Eric Gregory explained it to me back a few months ago, it was something they’d tossed around as an idea, and they put it up to the individual distiller-members. The challenge: come up with an event that would give the guests a fun, inside look at some aspect of the bourbon business, of the making, the people, the places. The twist was that while everyone wanted to know what the other distillers were doing…but the KDA didn’t let that out till all the ideas were in. The result was a one-upsmanship competition that delivered a set of somewhat over-the-top experiences.

I missed the opening event, an evening gala that was to be held outdoors at Hermitage Farm, a gorgeous horse farm northeast of Louisville; that is, until heavy thunderstorms were predicted (and accurately, too; they were violent) and the decision was made to shift to the art-filled and whiskey-savvy 21C Museum Hotel. I also missed “The Golden Affair,” the black tie wind-up at the Pendennis Club. What an evening, with an array of bourbons (including “premium and rare” bottlings), a panel discussion with master distillers, the premiere of a new documentary (“Kentucky Bourbon Tales”), and a performance by renowned Irish tenor, Anthony Kearns.

Insiders at Bernheim

Insiders at Bernheim

Poor me: all I got to go to were five memorable events that took place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (May 15-17). The fun started at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim distillery, where about ten of us (the lightest-attended event I would attend; the other times at Heaven Hill were sold out) started with a backdoor tour of this big, usually closed-to-the-public facility. We tasted mash, listened to the roar of the big beer stills, tasted new make right out of the spirit safe, and then boarded a van to the new Evan Williams Experience on Main Street.

After the impressively well-done multi-media program on the historical Evan Williams, we got a rare hands-on tour of the pot still-equipped microdistillery on the premises; one of the guests got to bung the day’s barrel of production (signed the bung, signed the log, pretty cool experience for him!). Then we sampled whiskeys in the speakeasy with brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers, and went up to the gift shop where the guests got a bottle of Heaven Hill’s “Select Stock,” an 8 year old wheated bourbon, finished in cognac casks (I took the opportunity to buy a bottle of Rittenhouse).

Bobby G mixing 'em up at Fred's Man Cave

Bobby G mixing ‘em up at Fred’s Man Cave

I had to run, and after picking up my car back at Bernheim, I drove down to Booker Noe’s house in Bardstown; I’d been there before, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect today. What we got was a chance to hang around in what the DIY Network show “Man Caves” had made out of Booker’s garage: big leather chairs, fireplace (good thing, because it was chilly that week in Kentucky!), big TV, and of course, a full bar. Mixology legend Bobby “Bobby G” Gleason was making drinks, and after I braced myself with a Knob Creek Rye Manhattan, we had the main event, another show of the long-running Great Whisk(e)y Debate, talking about Scotch vs. Irish vs. Canadian vs. Bourbon. It was a lot of laughs and good whiskey, and at the end, there was a nifty cocktail-making set handed out to all the guests.

Not kidding at all: we shot skeet!

No bourbon involved…till later

After recovering overnight, I drove down to Lawrenceburg to the Wild Turkey distillery, where there were skeet-shooting traps set up right on the distillery grounds, and each of the guests got a chance to shoot some clays (after some excellent coaching, and before anyone had even the hint of a drink). I hadn’t touched a gun in over 20 years, and it all came right back to me; I had a blast! We went into the warehouses with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, rolled some barrels that were just arriving from the distillery, and sampled 101 and Russell’s Reserve in Warehouse A, the first warehouse on the grounds that dates back to the 1800s. Then we had lunch at the new Visitor Center, and Jimmy and Eddie answered any questions people had and signed bottles for the guests.

Creating cocktail mixes at the flavor lab - Science!

Creating cocktail mixes at the flavor lab – Science!

That evening I took in some craft distillery whiskeys at an event at Epicenter Distilling’s Moonshine University. This is where I noticed something pretty cool was happening. Not only did I get to taste some great whiskeys from the likes of Willett and Corsair and Old Pogue (and the bang-on accurate and fun taste of Limestone Branch’s Moon Pie Moonshine — I kid you not, it tasted just like Moon Pie!), I was running into people who’d been at the other events, and we were friends, we were bonded. I’ll tell you, you shoot skeet and drink bourbon in a warehouse with someone, and you’re catapulted into a certain level of friendship! (We also mixed up our own custom cocktail mix at the flavor lab next door; I made Dr. Lew’s Real Good Medicine, and it tastes pretty fair with a dose of rye.)

Stitzel-Weller: silent, and likely to stay that way.

Stitzel-Weller: silent, and likely to stay that way.

One more event was on my schedule — after an early breakfast with fellow writer Fred Minnick — a visit to the grounds of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the offices and grounds are being groomed and landscaped as a home for Bulleit whiskeys. Tom Bulleit was there to greet us, with a big bowl of punch that we were only too happy to partake of (at 9 a.m., hallelujah). The stillhouse is off-limits (I understand that there are problems with asbestos), but we did get to see the filling room, where the new make would flow from the distillery to be barreled. The workers had chalked up milestones on the wall — when the company was sold, when the last operational day was — and it was as if they had just walked away. In fact, we were allowed to nose a glass of “new” make that the folks from Diageo had discovered still in the pipes at the filling room when they started to do renovations last year. That’s what we were told, anyway, and it was a heady moment; pouring out a tiny bit of white dog and rubbing hands to release the still-fresh corny aroma. Stitzel-Weller juice! Diageo’s spruced up the offices, and while it was largely about Bulleit, there was one room dedicated to new product launches (currently done up in Orphan Barrel designs).

So…what did I come away with? First, this isn’t cheap; most events were at least $100. But that bought the kind of backdoor access and personal time that usually, to be honest, is the province of writers and media types. These few days, you could get in the same parts of Bourbonland that we do, and hang out with Jimmy, Eddie, Tom, and Fred. If they could give that kind of access to every bourbon drinker, I’m sure they would, but then it would be hard to make the whiskey! So this is a chance to get inside; as more than one person put it, a kind of fantasy baseball camp for bourbon.

If the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is wide-open and sometimes seems more about Bardstown than about bourbon, this is maybe the other way. This is bourbon for bourbon aficionados, people who want to get their hands into it, and, as I said earlier, maybe a bit over the top with it for some. I think there may be room for something in-between, but this does make a welcome addition.

As it stands now, this was an industry-controlled happening, not like the numerous “Beer Weeks” that have spread across the country recently. There were a relatively small number of events, pretty much ‘invitation only’ by arrangement with the KDA and the member distillers. It was also spread out very widely; from the western edge of Louisville well down into bourbon country, and loosely headquartered at the eastern Louisville Marriott, miles away from downtown. There was a lot of driving involved. I’m wondering what this could be if participation was opened to the growing number of bourbon-focused restaurants and bars in the area, with more effort to link the far-flung sites with a shuttle service.

But that’s for next year. This was the first year for the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, and it was a rollicking beginning. We’ll have to wait and see where it goes.

Diageo Building a New Distillery in Kentucky

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

We just got the following information, confirming rumors and inside information we’ve been following for almost a year. Diageo is planning a new distillery in Shelby County; the location will be somewhere on a line drawn roughly between downtown Louisville and Frankfort, north of I-64. Here’s what Diageo released to us about 15 minutes ago.

Rendering of the proposed distillery

Rendering of the proposed distillery

Diageo Announces Intention to Invest an Estimated $115 Million to Build Distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky

Investment signals commitment to high-growth North American Whiskey category

SHELBY COUNTY, Ky., May 29, 2014 – Diageo today announced its intention to invest an estimated $115 million over three years to build a 1.8 million proof gallon (750,000 9-liter cases) distillery and six barrel storage warehouses in Shelby County, Kentucky.  While finalization of these plans is still subject to approval by local government, the project will represent a significant investment in Kentucky’s growing bourbon industry.  The proposed facility will distill a number of current and future Diageo bourbon and North American Whiskey brands.

Diageo will purchase approximately 300 acres of property located on Benson Pike in Shelby County.  The company expects that the construction project will provide a significant number of jobs and anticipates employing approximately 30 people for whiskey distillation and maturation.

“This proposed investment in Shelby County, in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, will cement our commitment to expanding our share of the American whiskey category,” said Larry Schwartz, President, Diageo North America. “Diageo has a long tradition within the craft of whiskey-making and we look forward to bringing this artisanship to the new distillery. The distillery will build on our presence in Kentucky and we are committed to being a productive member of the local community.  We are very thankful for the support we have received thus far from state and local officials and look forward to a long and fruitful working relationship.”

“Today marks another feather in the cap for Kentucky’s bourbon industry,” said Governor Steve Beshear. “Distilled spirits remain a marquee industry in the Commonwealth, and Diageo’s new distillery will ensure that even more Kentucky bourbon is enjoyed around the globe. I want to thank Diageo for investing in Shelby County, and I look forward to seeing the distillery in action.”

“The Shelby County Fiscal Court is very excited that Diageo is proposing to expand its worldwide distillation operations by building a state-of-the-art distillery in Shelby County.  We look forward to a great partnership with Diageo and we welcome them to the community,” said Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger.

“This is a fantastic investment for Shelby County.  It further solidifies our community as one of the fastest growing and business friendly areas in Kentucky,” said State Senator Paul Hornback (District-20).  “We are thankful for the positive economic impact this will bring and are proud that bourbon, a signature industry of Kentucky, will now be made right here in Shelby County.”

“Diageo is a name known around the world for their large portfolio of leading spirits brands and we are grateful that they have chosen Shelby County as the home base for their distilling operations in Kentucky.  This $115 million investment in the community will benefit our citizens for years to come.  I look forward to working with Diageo as their Kentucky bourbon operations grow and I welcome them to this district,” said State Representative Brad Montell (District-58).

“We couldn’t be more thrilled for the company and the Shelby County community, as this major distilling center will bring jobs and increased investment to the region,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, of which Diageo is a long-time member.  “We applaud Diageo for its continued commitment to Kentucky and our signature Bourbon industry, and look forward to toasting this incredible landmark at its opening.”

Over the last year, Diageo’s momentum in North American Whiskey has accelerated with both flagship and new-to-world brands. Fuelled by flavor innovations and consumer demand for premium brands with authenticity, bourbon is currently the fastest growing spirits category in the U.S., enjoying 14% value growth for the latest 52 weeks[1]. This popularity is mirrored globally, with the super-premium price segment growing 24% over the last three years[2].

The proposed distillery will be designed to fit in with the surrounding countryside and during construction, Diageo will take measures to conserve the natural landscape in the area.  Approximately 100 acres of land around the property line will act as a natural barrier to site operations.  Diageo North America has a strong record of achieving zero waste to landfill in its operations, and the company aims to achieve the same in Kentucky. Diageo also plans to collaborate with the local community for the recycling and reuse of materials generated from the proposed facility.

Diageo announced in February that it will be opening a Visitor Center at its legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville.  Diageo hopes that the Stitzel-Weller Visitor Center will soon be included on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour.

On June 10, Diageo will hold an Open House to discuss the plans for the proposed Shelby County distillery, answer questions and hear from members of the public from 2:00 to 7:00 pm at the Shelbyville Country Club, 47 Smithfield Road, Shelbyville, Kentucky. A public hearing will be held on June 17 at 6:30 pm at the Stratton Community Center, 215 Washington Street, Shelbyville, Kentucky. Diageo hopes to receive approvals and to break ground in the coming months with the goal of having the distillery operational in late 2016.

Top 10 Whiskies Reviewed in the Summer 2014 Issue Buying Guide

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Here’s a sneak preview of our Summer 2014 issue’s Buying Guide. A total of 117 whiskies were reviewed for this issue. We welcomed two new members to our review team: Jonny McCormick (blended scotch, blended malts, grain, Irish, and world whisky) and Geoffrey Kleinman (flavored whiskies and U.S.-exclusive imports).

Crown-Royal-XO-bottle#10 - Crown Royal XO, 40%, $45

A rich luxurious whisky finished in cognac casks, as was the crisper, brighter Cask No. 16 that it replaces. This is the cedary, leathery, tobacco-ish sipping whisky of the private club. Simple toffee and the cherry essence of Beaujolais nouveau evolve into ripe red apples and heavy, dusky, dark fruit with candied citrus peel, bitter almond skins, and hints of oak. Sizzling gingery spice and white pepper linger over textured sandalwood. Defined by its heavy, creamy body. —Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#9 - Evan Williams Single Barrel (Barrel No. 1) 2004, 43.3%, $27

Polished and nicely balanced, with caramel as the main note, followed by candied fruit, soft vanilla, sweet corn, and nougat. Subtle spice (ginger, cinnamon) and gentle oak on the finish round out the sweet notes. Easygoing demeanor and very drinkable. Great value too! A very pleasing, versatile bourbon. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93JW Odyssey

#8 - Johnnie Walker Odyssey, 40%, $1,100

Jim Beveridge delivered these aromas of toffee apple, peach, and rich berry fruits by working with European oak casks. The smoke is timid, with hints of background salinity. The finely structured mouthfeel is where this triple malt whisky truly shines: the polished smoothness is exceptional. The flavor journey begins with honey, citrus, and swirling melted chocolate, building to a fire of squeezed orange oils, dry fruits, and pecan nuttiness before concluding with rich espresso, dark caramels, and plain chocolate. Immaculate.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#7 - Cragganmore Triple Matured Edition, 48%, £80

This is Cragganmore in early autumnal guise. Dry leaves underfoot, ripe black fruits on the bushes, waxed jacket, chestnut, and a whiff of cedary smoke, opening into dried peach. The palate is thickly textured, with those fruits, dark chocolate, and pomegranate molasses. The immensely long finish gives you light pepper, smoke, and blackberry jam. Cragganmore at its very best, and at a great price. —Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93mortlach_18yo

#6 - Mortlach 18 year old, 43.4%, £180/500 ml

Deep amber in color with the green glints of first-fill sherry, this has bosky notes and meat—mutton and venison—plus graphite, bitter chocolate, and wet rock before layers of dried stone fruits and date. This is the most savory and Bovril-like of the new range. The palate is feral and earthy; think mushroom with game pie, and rowan berries. Deep, but with more dimensions than the previous 16 year old which, in comparison, seems like a blunt instrument.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#5 - Brora 40 year old Single Cask 1972 Vintage, 59.1%, £7,000

Just 160 bottles of 1972 Brora are available through UK World of Whiskies and World Duty Free Group stores. The oldest bottling of Brora to date was distilled using heavily-peated malt. A big hit of oily peat on the early nose, with malt, dried fruit, and black pepper. Mildly medicinal. The palate yields bonfire ash, licorice, honey, more pepper, and well-integrated oak. The finish is long, with peat smoke, plain chocolate, and tannins lingering in harmony. Complex and rewarding. —Gavin D Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

#4 - The John Walker, 40%, $3,500

The pinnacle of the current Johnnie Walker range, this is a rare, inimitable blend of just nine whiskies. It exudes the aromas of ripe bananitos, whole mango, satsuma, vanilla seeds, barley awns, butter biscuits, and crystallized pineapple. The supple grain sustains indulgent, characterful malts creating a weighty, smooth mouthfeel. I’m smitten by the vanilla creaminess, burgeoning deep fruit layers, how it swells with a satisfying snuffbox smokiness. A beautifully styled blend delivering a captivating, sensuous experience. (330 bottles only)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94Last Drop 50 year old

#3 - The Last Drop 50 year old, 50.9%, $4,000

Would you have gambled The Last Drop 1960 liquid in new sherry wood for four more years? The indulgent nose proffers maple syrup, buckwheat honey, roasted spices, blue grapes, pomegranate, raspberry compote, cilantro, pandan leaf, and beefsteak juices soaking into mushroom gills. The complex, lustrous mouthfeel is replete with a sheen of rich maltiness, molasses lashed by sherry before a dry, resinous finish. Water brings an oily nuttiness, then further drops produce a silky, clingy texture. Glorious. Miraculous. Victorious. (388 bottles only) —Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

peatmonster_park-avenue_front2#2 - Compass Box The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary Special Cask Strength Bottling, 54.7%, $120

As you’d expect, solid peat is the first thing out of the glass, but this isn’t just a peat beast. Underneath are honey, dried fruit, and malt. The palate is all about balance with honeyed malt, raisin, and oak spice all complementing smoky peat. A lush mouthfeel makes you forget it’s cask strength. A pure love note in a glass from Compass Box to Park Avenue Liquor.  (Park Avenue Liquor only.) —Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
Bookers 25th Anniv Bottle

#1 - Booker’s 25th Anniversary Bourbon Batch No 2014-1, 65.4%, $100

The complete package: uncut, unfiltered, full-flavored, richly textured (almost chewy), and very complex. Notes of toffee-coated nuts, vanilla fudge, polished leather, cedar-tinged tobacco, barrel char, cocoa powder, and a hint of fig, wrapped up with a firm oak grip on the finish. Worth every penny of the premium price being charged for this commemorative release. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

TV and Image and Visitor Centers — Oh My!

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I was shadowing Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell at the Kentucky Derby Festival. Is there anybody more interesting to shadow? Adoring fans walked up to the legend, one after another, and he signed all their bottles, caps, posters and an occasional T-shirt.

Claire and Wade Pascoe from Melbourne, Australia had planned their honeymoon around this moment, to meet Russell and share a whiskey. I asked them why in all the places in the world, they chose the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for their honeymoon. “It’s a dream come true,” Claire said, hugging Jimmy. Some people love the Rolling Stones; the Pascoes wanted to meet Jimmy Russell, bourbon’s orneriest gentleman rock star.

Maker's Mark's new artwork.

Maker’s Mark’s new artwork.

A few booths over, I witnessed a man lift his shirt showing off his sagging skin and a faded Four Roses tattoo. I’ve seen Jim Beam tattoos and witnessed Maker’s Mark fans call former CEO Bill Samuels “Jesus Christ,” and a woman on an airplane nearly accost a fellow passenger for adding Coke to Woodford Reserve.

Bourbon fans are a special breed. I know, because I am one. But are we fans because of what’s inside the bottle, or is it the image the bourbon portrays?

In the coming years, I believe we’ll learn if marketing dictates what we drink or if it’s the sweet nectar enticing those heavy pours. The past five years has seen an incredible growth in visitor centers, TV commercials and branding campaigns. According to industry statistics, bourbon sales have also increased 20 percent over this period. So the hype is paying off, and the investments continue.

Master distiller Chris Morris toasts the revamped Woodford Reserve visitor center.

Master distiller Chris Morris toasts the revamped Woodford Reserve visitor center.

Every major brand has built new visitor’s centers or refurbished old ones. Maker’s Mark is getting swanky with art in tasting rooms and rickhouses, Wild Turkey invested more than $100 million in their new one, and Woodford Reserve is unearthing its surroundings to recover lost Pepper family artifacts. And in case you missed my article on the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in the latest issue of Whisky Advocate, I kind of liked it. Every major distillery receives more than 100,000 visitors a year and it’s only going to increase with these shiny new facilities.

The latest spend has been on the television. Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam’s Devil’s Cut, and Evan Williams have all aired television commercials in the past year. Katar Media data suggests bourbon brands accounted for $52.5 million in advertising in 2013, a 6.3 percent increase compared to 2012. No data is available for 2014, and brands are mum on what they’re spending to reach people watching ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Walking Dead,’ but I’m estimating we’ll see double-digit percentage increases. Jim Beam didn’t hire celebrity Mila Kunis to not let her face shine in primetime!

But these investments—even Kunis—are all a gamble. Most of the whiskey coming off the still today will not be on liquor shelves until somewhere between 2018 and 2022. By then, the millennials may have moved onto tequila, rosé, or Mastika (a resin liquor.)

Buildings fade. Commercials are lost in the multitude of media. And consumers are just fickle. These marketing investments to reach new customers concern me because of the moves made on the production side.

Wild Turkey's new visitor center

Wild Turkey’s new visitor center

We continue to see the growth in flavored whiskey, the dropping of age statements and the lowering of proofs, illustrating that distilleries care more about the short-term gains than maintaining a lasting bourbon standard.

The future of bourbon’s taste does not rest upon the marketing director’s shoulders or the visitor center architect’s; it belongs to the production managers, warehouse crews, distillers and engineers who smell grains, turn knobs and valves, and check barrels. Are these people getting the same budgets to improve the whiskey as the marketers are to improve its image?

Make good whiskey, and you can air all the TV commercials you want. Of course, the price will increase, but we’ll pay for the whiskey. We always do.

Make good commercials and produce inferior whiskey, and you’ll see a gradual decline of enthusiasts who brought bourbon to the current dance. Oh sure, bourbon may still be profitable because you’re telling people how great it is, but those who know sweated barrels from a honey barrel will just sit around the campfire talking about bourbon’s good old days.

Marketing is extremely important to bourbon’s growth. Let’s just hope we’re not sacrificing production dollars for TV time.

Four Kings Collaboration Whiskey

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Collaboration beers are common in craft brewing. Brewers come and play in each other’s house, and make something they maybe both wanted to try but haven’t, or add some house specialty from one brewery to the house specialty of another. You don’t see a lot of it in spirits, though. Whether it’s the long lead time, or the hefty tax load, or just…well, that they’ve never done it before, it’s a rare spirit that sees more than one maker.

Author - Lew BrysonFour Midwest distillers have stepped up to get the ball rolling. Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, Journeyman Distilling in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Mississippi River Distilling in LeClaire, Iowa each contributed 30 gallons of whiskey that was blended into what is being called Four Kings Bourbon, for the four distillers, and the four grains that went into the whiskey.

“It was a crazy idea we had over drinks last spring in Chicago,” said Bill Welter, owner/distiller at Journeyman.  “As craft distillers, we spend a lot of time at the same events and get to know each other.” It was just an idea until Burchett mentioned it to Brett Pontoni, the spirits buyer at Binny’s of Chicago. Pontoni loved the idea, and got on the phone to get the four distillers’ wholesalers to agree to work together on the deal. They went for it, and Binny’s wound up as the sole off-premise retailer for the run of 600 bottles.

Four Kings

Four Kings

It’s not just four different distillers. “We all threw in bourbon except Corsair,” noted Mississippi River’s Ryan Burchett. “They brought fifteen gallons of bourbon and fifteen gallons of smoked wheat whiskey.” You’d expect nothing less from Corsair, but why wheat whiskey?

“We tasted through a lot of whiskies looking for something that might add a unique twist to the product,” said Andrew Webber, president and distiller at Corsair. “Wheat is so light and sweet, but the smoke gives it another dimension. In the blend, it gives the whiskey a sweet kiss of light smoke on the finish that I think people are really going to like.”

“We were able to sample the blend before it went back into barrels for finishing,” said Few Spirits owner and distiller Paul Hletko. “The really striking thing to me was just how clean and smooth it was. We have four great distilleries doing it right.”

The whiskey is being released during Whisky Week in Chicago, this Thursday, the 24th. You can buy it at Binny’s, and it will be pouring at Delilah’s on the night of the launch. Other than that…you’ll have to ask the Four Kings.

Happy anniversary, Jimmy Russell

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

Jimmy Russell: 60 years at Wild Turkey

I was in Kentucky on Tuesday for the grand opening of the new Wild Turkey visitor center. At least, that was the big billing for the day to the press, and Kentucky Governor Beshear was there for the event, as was the head of Campari North America, Jean Jacques Dubau. It was cocktails and toasts all around as we stood in the glass-wrapped structure, high on the bluff over the Kentucky River; the view was tremendous, the whiskey exceptional, and the engagingly open rickhouse-like interior of the center, all raw, unpainted wood and steel supports, was a reflection of the honesty of the product being celebrated. It’s the crowning touch of $100 million worth of expansion and improvements that Campari has made at Wild Turkey, and that kind of investment is noteworthy.

But the real reason I was there, and the real reason people like Fred Noe (Beam), Al Young (Four Roses), Mark Coffman (Alltech’s distiller), Greg Davis (Maker’s Mark), Craig Beam and yes, even Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) were there, was something more momentous. We were celebrating Jimmy Russell’s 60 years with Wild Turkey; a little early, maybe, since he started at Wild Turkey on September 10, 1954…but that just means we’ll get to do it again in five months.

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

Al Young, Mark Coffman, Craig and Parker Beam, Jimmy, Gov. Beshear, Eddie Russell, Fred Noe, and Greg Davis: some real bourbon firepower

If there was any doubt about how important Jimmy has been to the long-term success of Wild Turkey, the billboard over the river at the west end of the Rt. 62 bridge should dismiss it. “Welcome to the house that Jimmy built.” We toured the new distillery, and Jimmy pointed out the reassuring sameness. The still is built just the same — five feet wide, 52 feet high — as the old one (which is on display in the visitor center with the hatches open so visitors can get a rare look inside a column still), the fermenters are bigger and more numerous (there are twenty 30,000 gallon wells) but still open, the barrels are still air-dried white oak burnt to a #4 ”alligator” char, and the yeast is still grown up fresh from the same strain that was being used in 1954.

The house that Jimmy built

The house that Jimmy built; the new distillery.

So what exactly was it that Jimmy did, if everything is the same? That’s the point: he kept it that way. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular when bourbon sales were sinking badly through the 1980s. But Pernod Ricard went with his solidly stated advice, and it has turned out to be right, much like the oft-quoted advice of Dickel’s first distiller, Ralph Dupps: “Don’t change a damn thing.”

Now, there have been some changes at Wild Turkey, and not just building a big new visitor’s center to replace the old 2-bedroom house that used to serve that function! The entry proof is a little bit higher than it used to be; some are going in as high as 57.5%, though most are going in at 55%, where they used to be down around 52.5%. Eddie Russell (he’s been there for 33 years himself, of course) said he had to get the proof up a bit; he wasn’t getting a high enough proof out of the barrel often enough to make the higher proof Rare Breed and Single Barrel bottlings.

That’s another change: up through the early 1980s, the flagship 101 bottling was the only bourbon they made, along with the rye and the liqueur (which is now bottled as American Honey). More bottlings were added, including the 80 proof bourbon…which is now gone. “Jimmy and I didn’t even drink the 80,” Eddie said. It was 4 ½ years old, the new 81 is about 6 ½ years old (Jimmy likes to add a half year, “an extra season,” to every barrel). The 101 is 7 ½ years old, and the Rare Breed is a mingling of whiskeys between 6 and 10 years old.

IMG_20140415_151622788Which brings us to the new whiskey we got to taste: the Diamond Anniversary, a 91 proof bourbon that’s a mingling of 13 to 16 year old whiskeys. That’s pretty well-aged for Wild Turkey! It was definitely Wild Turkey — hot honey sweetness, a bit smoky, and strongly smooth — but with much more wood character — drying spiciness — than I’ve ever encountered in a Wild Turkey bottling. There’s not a lot of it, and at $125, I believe it’s the most expensive bottling they’ve ever done, but it’s like nothing else you’ve ever had from this distillery.

Did I like it? We tried it at a tasting in the distillery (there’s a small gallery right by the yeast room) along with five other whiskeys, and I not only finished the Diamond, I figured there was nothing to be lost by asking for more. Ask and ye shall receive, it turned out, and I finished that one, too!

It was a pleasure to be there to wish Jimmy the full congratulations he deserves for his long, illustrious run at Wild Turkey. He’s not slowing down, either; Eddie’s feeling the pressure to not retire before Jimmy, and he admits that may be quite a while yet. After all, it’s getting busy. That was one of the biggest changes Jimmy noted from when he started. “We were making around 60 to 70 barrels a day when I came,” he said. “We had four storage buildings, we had about 70,000 barrels in storage. Now we’re making 560 barrels a day, we have 27 warehouses, and we have over half a million barrels in storage right now.” He seems to figure, why stop now?

As Jimmy said, several times during the day, and again during his acceptance of the key to the town of Lawrenceburg and an honorary plaque from the Governor, “It’s been a blessing for me.” He honestly seems to be the luckiest kind of person, someone’s who’s enjoyed their job so much that he’s never worked a day in his life. Happy anniversary, Jimmy.

Burning Down the Rumor Mill

Friday, 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.

Bourbon Tax Credit Passed

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickAs Tennessee legislators are in the middle of a used barrel fight, Kentucky lawmakers are taking concrete steps to improve the commonwealth’s cherished bourbon whiskey industry.

On March 31, Kentucky passed House Bill 445, which allowed distillers a corporate income tax credit for the ad valorem barrel taxes paid on aging whiskey. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, distilleries pay $13 million a year in barrel taxes.

Although ad valorem taxes—“according to value,” usually a tax on real estate or property—on Kentucky distilled spirits have existed off and on since 1906, the current system has been in place since 1990, when the General Assembly raised the rate from $0.001 to the current rate of $0.005. This 24-year-old legislation also allowed county and cities to tax the aging spirits, creating significant taxation liability without the ability to write off these contributions on their corporate income taxes.

Thus, HB 445 is an historic piece of legislation for the bourbon industry. But the distillers will not receive the tax credit if they do not reinvest the money, says Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association.

“There’s a list of capital improvements that can be utilized for the credit. All our members agreed to that,” Gregory says. “We wanted to show the legislature that we’re serious about using this money to strengthen our industry, create jobs, and compete on an international scale. I think that’s important. The state Revenue Cabinet also is required to report to the legislature’s Interim Joint Appropriations & Revenue Committee each year on who has taken the credit, how much and what capital improvements for which it was used.”

Since Kentucky distillers are the only alcohol manufacturer in the world required to pay aging barrel taxes, Gregory says, this new law will at least allow distillers to better compete in the global marketplace with non-tax-burdened brands. It will allow them to reinvest that money in their Kentucky operations, create jobs and spur production, Gregory says, and allow the Bluegrass State to better compete with other states for new craft distilleries.

“Distilleries will still pay these taxes, so both the local communities and state will receive their money,” he says. “It will simply allow a tax credit on the distillers’ corporate income tax. We strongly believe that the reinvestment credit will actually create more than it will cost. Bourbon is a great investment for the Commonwealth. We have one of the state’s highest job spinoff factors; surprisingly, higher than other signature industries like tobacco, coal, and horses. For every distilling job, three more are created down the line.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaks with reporters in the Kentucky Senate.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, speaks with reporters in the Kentucky Senate.

But no matter how much the KDA, its distillery members, or non-KDA member Buffalo Trace Distillery’s lobbyists—who all actively pursued this legislation for seven years—campaigned for change, a Kentucky legislator needed to take action. That man was Kentucky Senate president Robert Stivers (R-Manchester, a dry district), and I spoke with the president the day after the bill passed.

Tell us about the ad valorem tax credit. Why was it important?

Years go, a particular legislator wanted to add more funding to his local school system, so he got the legislature to pass an ad valorem tax on barrels in the warehouses aging. It’s how they funded their school systems and has gotten to the point that the school systems have developed their budgets on this. You couldn’t repeal [the local tax] because the schools would lose their money. What we’ve done is create a credit at the state level. [Distillers] get a dollar for dollar credit on their state corporate tax liability and are supposed to reinvest part of that into their operations. It’s what they’ve been wanting for years.

For all these years, distillers have not been able to write these taxes off. Was that fair?

Their bourbon was sitting there unusable for six to eight years and they’re paying taxes on it. That’s the only product like that you have. It wasn’t fair.

I’ve been told you’ve been working on this bill behind the scenes for a while.

When I got into leadership five years ago, I started looking at it. I thought it was an unfair tax and saw an opportunity in this session, so I took advantage of it. People in the House have been saying for they’re for it; I just gave them an opportunity to prove they were for the tax credit.

In private meetings, Senators and House members indicated they wanted to give distillers a barrel tax credit?

They would say they were supporting this, but you never saw anybody doing anything about it. Actions speak louder than words.

Were there any organizations or distilleries that helped make this happen?

The KDA and the distilleries, but I saw this opportunity and I took it.

How did you put this in motion?

As an amendment to a House Bill that the House Leadership really wanted. They basically saw the amendment and said we’re willing to talk. It passed with large numbers in senate.

Would this have passed if bourbon were not so popular?

I think you’re onto something. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become so popular and accepted. Bourbon is a true signature industry in Kentucky. It creates employment, peripheral jobs, and there’s also the image of Kentucky bourbon.

What is next? Are there other bills for bourbon?

We’ve are working on an option for state parks to go wet. But right now, the bourbon industry is on solid footing from a legislative standpoint.

I can’t let you off the hook without asking: What’s your favorite bourbon?

I have a lot of Woodford Reserve, but I also like to drink a little Maker’s Mark every now and then.