Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

Non-Distiller Producers? Or American Independent Bottlers?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickWhen it comes to sourced whiskey bottled by the so-called Non-Distiller Producers (NDPs), the whiskey is sometimes lost in the conversation of transparency.

In case you’re not glued into the American whiskey world, let me fill you in: these NDPs purchase whiskey from X distillery by the barrel and bottle it. Sometimes they slap a phony backstory on their label. Sometimes they try to hide the state of distillation on the bottle. And almost always, consumers, bloggers, and class-action lawyers will paint the Internet with “fraud” and “phony” comments about said NDPs.

This exhausting NDP narrative continues to play out with new companies trying this stuff every day. Just last month, Hatfield & McCoy launched a whiskey that was made from the two family recipes. According to the press release, the two feuding families “have century-old recipes written down in the backs of bibles and the backs of their minds. Until now, those recipes of the two clans have never met.” This whiskey is made by Charleston, South Carolina, Local Choice Spirits, which uses the TerrePure technology that rapidly matures whiskey outside of the barrel. While this Hatfield & McCoy whiskey may very well be from the family recipes, they most certainly did not use high-tech filtration technology to craft their whiskey. In the defense of the Hatfield & McCoy, they are not hiding their TerrePure connection and are merely making a sound business decision to take advantage of their family history.

With that said, the Hatfield & McCoy Whiskey is already catching flak on social media and merely permeating the anti-NDP sentiment that exists in the hardcore whiskey consumer culture.

Meanwhile, the whiskey is a victim. If tasted blind and without hearing the questionable backstories, the TerrePure and sourced whiskey fare well in competitions. Perhaps more importantly, business owners who are not making up phony backstories are getting lumped into the fake story group. The fact is, these bottlers are purchasing barrels from great distilleries, most notably the MGP Ingredients facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which uses the same “V” yeast as Four Roses. (MGP and Four Roses were once owned by Seagram’s.)

I’m a big fan of MGP’s whiskey. Several companies have done a nice job selecting splendid stocks, and some are getting really fed up with the never-ending NDP conversation. Redemption co-founder Dave Schmier says NDP is often used as a derogatory term, and he much prefers “merchant bottler” or “brand owners.”

barrel proof  7yo- no backgroundIf anybody has been transparent about the whiskey, it’s been Schmier and Redemption. When Schmier and industry veteran Michael Kanbar launched Redemption in 2010, Redemption’s low price point and mixability made it an immediate bartender favorite. They told everybody it was whiskey made in Indiana, even—get this—putting it on their label. Then, all the scuttlebutt came about the sourced whiskey dilemma, and Redemption, as well as several other brands, found themselves in the crosshairs of an angry whiskey-drinking mob.

Things have calmed down a little, and Redemption survived.

Now, as Lew Bryson’s recent ratings accurately illustrate, Redemption is reaching new levels of stardom with its sourced whiskey. But there’s more to this whiskey than Indiana. Redemption’s latest releases have been extraordinary and some have a connection to Stitzel-Weller, the famous distillery once owned by Pappy Van Winkle. Redemption’s recent 6 year and 7 year old rye releases were distilled in Indiana and aged at the Stitzel-Weller warehouses. For the record, Redemption didn’t put this on their bottle as some have; I simply gleaned this from conversation with the owners. In fact, these barrels were aged at Stitzel-Weller for four years.

As for the ultra delicious 10 year old rye, it was aged almost exclusively in Indiana. Redemption will also be releasing 17 year old Redemption Rye later this summer and 8 year old rye sometime in the near future. All aged in Indiana.

The brand also purchased significant amounts of bottled 1978 bourbon that it intends to “fine tune” with younger bourbons. Not sure what that means, but I’ll sign up for a partial whiskey made in the 1970s!

Redemption had a distillery planned, but like many plans, things changed and continued its contract distillation at MGP. A distillery is still a hope, but for now, Redemption is sticking to Indiana.

Don’t expect a strange backstory to come about, though. Schmier and Kanbar have had successes and failures; Redemption is essentially their second chance. As it turns out, whiskey was their thing.

There Is a Bourbon Shortage

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickWhen I agreed to take the affirmative for the bourbon shortage argument, the words of Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge echoed in my mind: “We are having trouble meeting demand.” There’s a thought that the bourbon shortage is a bunch of bull mess smelling of marketing foul. But Rutledge is the one guy in this business I trust above all. His words are the golden truth.

Fast forward a few months after Rutledge uttered his comments, I broke the story of Four Roses discontinuing its Limited Edition Single Barrel on my blog. That’s when I knew that the bourbon shortage was real, so it took me awhile to understand this was not hype.

The problem is, these two words—“bourbon shortage”—lack a definition or statistical data to support a shortage exists. In fact, all we have to conclude that there is a shortage is the yearly Buffalo Trace press release saying there is one, which gets diced up and published all over the world, and anecdotes from several master distillers and brand managers. We also have solid evidence of brands discontinuing products—see Early Times 354 and Ancient Age 10 Year Old—to use these earmarked stocks for more popular brands. We have examples of proof lowerings and age statements being dropped to make the whiskey stretch out a little further per bottling, while brands place products on allocation and consumers stand in long lines just to put their names in the hat for a harder-to-find bourbon lottery. Meanwhile, consumers complain they cannot acquire once everyday bourbons such as Weller 12 year old.

For the past three years, with the continuing bourbon shortage conversation, we’ve heard all of this and the never-ending complaining that goes along with it. But nobody has provided statistical data to show the depths of this shortage.

I have done just that. In two separate surveys, my company, Minnick Media Inc., polled bourbon enthusiasts and retailers. The data suggests both groups indeed feel there is a bourbon shortage in perception and what they’re able to purchase.

This data should be viewed similarly to the U.S. unemployment rate. American citizens become fearful of the economy and job situation when the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent to 12 percent. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was 24.9 percent. That means 75.1 percent of the working population was employed. Sure, they endured lower wages and perhaps did not work in their desired career field, but three-quarters of the working people had a job. Today, Grenada, Kenya, Kosovo, Macedonia, Nigeria, Nepal and many other countries endure higher unemployment rates than the United States during the Great Depression.

I offer these labor stats as a contextual perspective: Consumers are able to buy bourbon, but not the bourbon they necessarily want—just as most Americans had jobs during the Great Depression just not at the craft or salary they desired. So if your measure of the “bourbon shortage” is there is bourbon sitting on the shelves and in the warehouses, then, there is no shortage. But the bourbon shortage is not about everyday bourbons sitting on shelves—Jim Beam White Label, Wild Turkey 101 or standard Evan Williams. According to the surveys, the lack of bourbon availability exists in the mid-tier to premium brands.

About the consumer survey: 85 percent respondents were male, 50 percent lived in a household earning between $100,001 and $200,00 a year and 31 percent were between the ages 21 and 44 with the majority living in the Southern or Midwestern United States. Respondents were verified bourbon enthusiasts with 42 percent enjoying bourbon between 6 and 15 years.

Key findings from the consumer poll:

  • 86 percent said they have entered a store with an intent to buy a product but the bourbon was not in stock.
  • 82 percent said they have been unable to find bourbons they once easily found.
  • 67 percent said they have purchased multiple bottles in fear they’ll be unable to buy this product next time.

As expected, some brands showed greater availability than others, but your average bourbon enthusiast visits stores that do not or cannot carry Weller 12 year old and Old Charter. And 97 percent of the responders said their store did not carry George T. Stagg.

Where's all the bourbon?

Where’s all the bourbon?

None of that surprised me. What shocked me was that of the random twelve bourbons selected for this survey, Jim Beam White Label was only available in 85 percent of the respondent’s store of choice. I don’t think I’ve been to a liquor store that didn’t carry Jim Beam White. To go back to my unemployment analogy for a minute, how would this country react to 15 percent unemployment?

Jim Beam claims it does not have a shortage problem, of course, but why did the company drop the age statement on its Jim Beam Black? Of course, the particular liquor stores could just not like this product or the respondents simply don’t recall seeing Jim Beam White Label, but other mainstay brands with strong national presences showed signs of a lack of availability. According to the responders, Elijah Craig 12 year old and Noah’s Mill were unavailable in 15 percent and 58 percent respectively of their preferred stores.

In the “other” section of brand availability, Elmer T. Lee, Willett and Van Winkle dominated the write-ins, indicating they were widely unavailable.

The consumer survey was completed with 149 people. The liquor store survey is ongoing, but so far it’s darn near unanimous across the country. Of the respondents, 100 percent said they are unable to fulfill a consumer’s bourbon request at least once a day and the most requested product is Pappy Van Winkle, followed by Four Roses Limited Editions and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Liquor stores are unable to stock brands they once normally stocked and believe the lack of product availability hurts their bottom line. Perhaps most importantly, 100 percent of the liquor store owners / managers believe there is a bourbon shortage. Interestingly, nearly 70 percent of the liquor store respondents said they are “tired” of the industry’s excuses.

Liquor stores would know better than anybody. They are the front-line salesmen and women who interact with consumer.

With that said, the bourbon shortage must not be measured in quantity sitting in warehouses and new brands hittingBourbon Shortage the shelves. The shortage should be an actual statistical rate that can be measured and studied. This shortage narrative should be about consumer data just like the Nielsen TV ratings system or the unemployment rate.

My data confirmed what we’ve always known: Limited Edition bourbons were hard to come by. But it also offered a glimpse into the state of mainstay bourbons that are not available in more than 15 percent of the stores, while more than three quarters of bourbon enthusiasts are unable to find bourbons they once easily found.

With the continued bourbon demand, Elijah Craig 12 year old will become the new Weller 12 year old, which will become as scarce as Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, which will become Pappy Van Winkle, which will become, well, you get it.

The bourbon shortage equals a combination of the limited edition bourbon availability, in-store availability of mainstay products and the rate at which a consumer cannot find a product. These three core data identifiers represent the consumer, not the brands, and the data clearly shows they cannot purchase premium products, mainstay products are becoming harder to come by and they’re often unable to find what they want.

The bourbon shortage is real. It’s felt every day.

There Is No Whiskey Shortage

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Is there a shortage of bourbon? Will there be one soon, as booming demand dumbs down age statements and kills off favorite brands? Or is there plenty of good bourbon, with just a few hyped bottles in short supply as the collectors scurry to fill their shelves? We knew two writers with very different opinions, so we invited them to have it out. This Friday, in the Plenty O’ Bourbon corner, Colonel Charles K. Cowdery. Next week it’s Fred Minnick’s turn to argue the gloom and doom side of the issue. Feel free to leave your own opinions in the meantime!

 

Author - Chuck Cowdery“Is there a whiskey shortage looming?” The Tennessean asked last summer. Yes, they answered. Then came ten paragraphs about how bourbon is booming, but nothing about a shortage until this: “To underscore the possibility of a shortage, gains in whiskey sales are outpacing production increases by at least 2-to-1, industry experts say.” Said experts remained unidentified and the vague statistic remained unexamined as we learned about a fledgling Tennessee micro with all of 200 barrels in storage.

It’s not just The Tennessean. That’s the overall state of whiskey shortage journalism today. Why? Because editors love the idea of a whiskey shortage. They want the words “whiskey shortage” in the headline, even if the story won’t support it.

It’s called ‘clickbait.’

In December, the Wall Street Journal got the words “Bourbon Shortage” into a headline by reporting about how bourbon enthusiast fears of a shortage are provoking panic buying. “Fear is a motivating factor,” said Edward Johnson of Simpsonville, South Carolina, as he picked up a Blanton’s and a Henry McKenna at Harvard’s Liquor & Wine.

We have a name for that in bourbon country: Whiskirexia nervosa. It is characterized by a distorted whiskey inventory image and an obsessive fear of running out of whiskey. Individuals with whiskirexia nervosa tend to already own more whiskey than they can ever drink, even as they continue to buy more.

Whiskirexia nervosa, though it may be a facetious name, exists. It may even be on the rise, but it is not evidence of a looming whiskey shortage.

Yes, bourbon is booming. According to a recent report by Vinexpo and the IWSR, sales of bourbon are expected to soar by almost 20 percent, to 45 million cases, by 2018. Bourbon is the fastest growing category in the distilled spirits industry.

Beam Rack House

That sure is one hell of a lot of bourbon, folks.

But that doesn’t mean there is a shortage now, or that there will be one in the foreseeable future.

It is impossible to prove a negative, but consider this. New bourbons are appearing on the market every day, sold by people who didn’t make them. If you owned bourbon, and knew there was a shortage coming, would you sell it to someone else so they could sell it to the public? Of course not.

It’s true that because of the aging cycle you can’t ramp up the production of whiskey like you can, say, Skittles. This has always been the case. Several times a year, producers update their sales projections, compare them to their inventories, and adjust production accordingly.

Some writers have cited as evidence the fact that products are being discontinued, prices are going up, and age statements are going away. Some of that is just normal course of business while some of it does, indeed, represent steps producers are taking to adjust inventories and production so no shortage occurs.

It is also in the nature of whiskey that even as supply tightens, oversupply is always a risk. A lot of whiskey will mature in the next few years whether there is a market for it or not and if it doesn’t all sell, the pipeline will clog up fast. In the robust market we have now, a little price cutting should quickly unplug it, but that’s a long way from a shortage.

What does a shortage look like? We nearly had one 30 years ago. American whiskey was dying. Companies were merging, brands were disappearing, and American whiskey sections were shrinking in liquor stores. In bars, it was just Jim and Jack and maybe Maker’s or Wild Turkey if you got lucky. More than once I was forced to drink Jameson.

What bourbon drinkers can expect for the next several years is the occasional disappointment, when the desire for a certain brand or expression will be temporarily frustrated. The solution? Buy something else. You’ll have plenty of choices.

Whisky Advocate’s Spring 2015 Issue’s Top 10 Whiskies Reviewed

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Whisky Advocate’s Spring issue’s Buying Guide is brimming with reviews; 114 of them to be exact. We’re going to give you a sneak preview by revealing the 10 highest-rated whiskies right here, right now. We start with #10 and conclude with #1.

#10: Tomintoul Reserve 37 year old, 43%, $600

Not what you’d expect from a malt at this age. Instead of oak dominating the nose, it’s citrus in focus, with orange marmalade, candied orange, and even orange blossom. On the palate this whisky is light and delicate, leading with the citrus notes from the nose. This symphony of orange is followed with toffee, ginger, oak, and rancio in a combination that’s well balanced and integrated. Unique for its age, a definite treat for those who prefer lighter and more delicate whiskies. (U.S. only, 600 bottles)–Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Orphan Barrel_Lost Prophet Bottle Shot_Lo Res#9: Lost Prophet 22 year old, 45%, $120

The fourth release (and best so far) in Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. This bourbon was distilled at what was then called the George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace) and spent the last several years maturing at Stitzel-Weller. It’s nicely balanced and not over-oaked, with spice (clove, cinnamon), oak resin, and leather, along with sweet notes (honeyed fruit, soft vanilla, coconut custard) and a nice creamy texture. Better than most 20-plus year old bourbons on the market.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92GF_25_Lockup

#8: Glenfiddich Rare Oak 25 year old, 43%, £250

A classic mature ‘Fiddich nose, that mix of chocolate, sweet fruits, and funkiness. Dried apples, a little currant, but also a pure thread of sweetness. In time, a little fresh mushroom. Complex. Soft on the tongue, so you need to concentrate on what’s happening. Later becomes minty, with supple tannins and a little artichoke on the finish. Water needs to be handled carefully to bring out green herbal notes. I’d probably keep water on the side. Excellent. (Travel Retail only)—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#7: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 year old wheated bourbon from floor #9, 45%, $47/375ml

Darker, more intense and mysterious in personality when compared to its two siblings. Notes of barrel char, roasted nuts, polished oak, and tobacco, peppered with dried spice. Fortunately, sweet notes of toffee, maple syrup, and caramel stand up to the dry notes and provide balance.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Blue_Hanger_11th_700ml_bottle#6: Blue Hanger 11th Limited Release, 45.6%, £90

It’s the intensity of flavor that just grabbed me by the lapels and spun me round. It harbors intense tangelo juiciness; that unparalleled concentration of deep citrus skillfully mingled with dark vanilla, dried apricots, and gentle smoke. This goes the distance, delivering wave after delicious wave: peach juice, mandarin, pineapple cubes, and lemon zest. A firm, unctuous finish shows a little charred wood and dark sugar cloaked in fine smoke. Tongue pleasing and very special indeed.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92JPWisers_RedLetter_3D (3)

#5: Wiser’s Red Letter 2014 Release Virgin Oak Finish, 45%, C$100

Pencil shavings, then vanilla, caramel, barley sugar, and bitter candied orange peel. Mild white pepper persists in a spicy fusion, from which a subtle but energizing pithiness teases out delicate smatterings of cloves, ginger, and allspice. The fruitiness of canned peaches, apricots, and sour green apples adds dimension and balance. Complex and so tightly integrated that rich as it is, individual flavors are little more than nuances. Finish is long and gingery with refreshing citrus pith. (Canada only)—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#4: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye 10 year old, 55.1%, $180

Redemption delivers a 10 year old, barrel proof rye (sourced from MGP); the bottled whiskey is mingled from only six barrels. Nose of hot, bitter rye spice and caramel with oak. Great whambam! feel of sweet whiskey followed immediately by oily, spicy rye, which then controls the flavor and finish without dominating. Not over-oaked, and barrel proof  7yo- no backgroundthese older MGP barrels are finally showing what 95% rye can do. At 6 years, it could be a high-rye bourbon; this simply shouts rye. Fascination.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#3: Redemption Barrel Proof Rye (Batch #1), 61%, $80

Redemption repeats their barrel-proof MGP-sourced 95% rye, now at 7 years old. Has a year significantly changed last year’s 90-point outing? Oak is more subdued and the pepper floats on sweet, light caramel. It is still quite nice at full-bore, no water needed. Sweet vanilla and bitter rye oil blend surprisingly well; this is hitting the bells, and it’s better integrated. Big, swaggering, and sporting big-barrel maturity. Can go toe-to-toe with almost any rye out there.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#2: Lot No. 40, 43%, $40PRUSA - Images - Lot 40 and Pot Still

Corby’s latest Lot 40, this one undated, comes from the same distillation batch as the 2012 release, but with a couple of extra years in wood. The familiar flavors are all there: dustiness, sour rye, hard wet slate, floral notes, exotic fruits, sweet spices, and biting white pepper. Over these, time has sprinkled licorice root, dried dates, oatmeal porridge, vanilla, hints of bike tires, and mango peels. Flavors remain fully integrated with faint tannins underscoring a long sour-rye finish.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

BT Wheated Bourbon Warehouse Floor #5#1: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 12 year old wheated bourbon from floor #5, 45%, $47/375ml

Nicely balanced flavors, and complex. Spices dance on the palate (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), balanced by underlying caramel and butterscotch, and subtle honeyed orchard fruit. Lingering, well-rounded finish. A fabulous wheated bourbon!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

Kentucky Bourbon: “The Spirit of Compromise”

Friday, February 6th, 2015

author-lew-brysonWith the mantle of America’s Spirit comes not only support and loyalty, but a certain amount of historical responsibility. Bourbon has been entwined with the history and making of the United States for almost as far back as the Constitutional Convention, but perhaps never so much as when Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” represented the Bluegrass State in Washington.

Clay served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State, argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, and gained his greatest fame in the Senate, where he successfully brokered a compromise between the northern and southern states that held off the Civil War for over ten years. Clay’s secret weapon may have been the barrels of bourbon he had specially shipped to the Willard Hotel. Clay brought opponents to agreements that met in the middle with skillful application of brilliant arguments and delicious Kentucky bourbon, “the spirit of compromise.”

Filling the Decanter of Compromise with The Spirit of Unity

Filling the Decanter of Compromise with The Spirit of Unity

In that tradition, the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) worked with Kentucky’s senior senator, Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, to bring a new spirit of compromise to the Willard Hotel. On Monday, February 2, the new barrel was filled with bourbons mingled from Kentucky distillers (lightly; Virginia’s liquor laws prohibited more than four liters in one container to cross state lines!) at Clay’s Ashland estate, with the cooperation of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. The barrel, with a number of bourbon’s top folks, made its way (across Virginia’s state lines) to Washington for a ceremony on Tuesday the 3rd.

The room was filled with folks like Al Young (Four Roses), Bill Samuels Jr. (Maker’s Mark), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Jerry Summers (Beam Suntory), Tom Bulleit (Bulleit), Joe Magliocco (Michters), Pearse Lyons (Town Hall/Lexington), and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), with Eric Gregory representing the KDA. After some fine bourbons (and a little business being discussed, inevitably), the guests of honor took the stage.

We heard from one of the Henry Clay Center interns—who had the courage to remind Senator McConnell of the Congress’s low approval ratings, to which the senator responded that Congress richly deserved them—and then Gregory presented the senator with a crystal decanter in commemoration of the event. (He had very carefully filled it from a bottle of the Spirit of Unity bourbon that was created by Parker and Craig Beam last year to raise money for ALS research; there was “a little left over,” he said. We watched closely, and not a drop was spilled.)

Senator McConnell speaks about bourbon.

Senator McConnell speaks about bourbon.

Senator McConnell noted that the Willard was about halfway between the Capitol building and the White House, an appropriate spot for talking about compromise, and gave tribute to “two of Kentucky’s greatest contributions to America: bourbon, and Henry Clay.” He reminded the crowd that today’s problems pale in comparison to those the country faced because of “America’s original sin: slavery.” He quoted Clay as appropriate to today as to his own time: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what’s right with America.”

He then did speak briefly about bourbon, and about the expansion that’s taking place, and how it’s reaching more people, around the world. “It really is wonderful to see what’s happened in this industry,” he concluded, “which is employing so many people, and helping us all reach a lot more compromises.”

It really was wonderful to see bourbon on this national stage. The powerful came to dip their cups: Senate Majority Leader McConnell, almost the entire Kentucky Congressional delegation, and Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped in at the end as well. Bourbon wields a powerful influence: as an industry, as an historical icon, and indeed, as a “lubricant to the wheels of government,” as Clay used to say. The barrel, by the way, will stay at the Willard, and it is to be hoped that from there it will spread a spirit of compromise up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Latest DISCUS Numbers Confirm Whiskey Growth Still Strong

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Author - Liza Weisstuch

Partisanship nearly defines America today. But on Tuesday morning, the Distilled Spirits Council of the US offered some information that all parties can applaud: the American whiskey can claim a banner year. Again. The total whiskey category was flat for years, then in 2011 it picked up steam and it hasn’t shown signs of flagging.

This year’s industry review, which the trade organization presents each February, revealed that the total supplier sales in the US were worth $23.1 billion. With American whiskey, it’s the same happy story: the category is booming and it’s the high-end and super premium brands that are driving the growth. Supplier sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey across price segments grew 7.4% over 2013 to approximately 19.4 million cases, a jump of 1.3 million cases. That increase accounts for a massive chunk of the 4.4 million cases by which the overall industry grew in 2014.

The revenue growth for American whiskey tells its own story. Last year, supplier sales rose 9.6% to $2.7 billion, up $230 million over 2013. Breaking it down by price segment proves DISCUS’s oft-repeated dogma: premiumization, which is shorthand for “people aren’t drinking more, they’re drinking better,” drives the industry. Revenue on value products ($12 or less at retail) grew a mere 5.5%, about $181 million on 3.1 million cases. Revenue on high-end ($18-$30 per bottle) products, were up 8.1% to $1.6 billion (yes, billion). But the truly jaw-dropping growth quotient comes in the realm of the super-premium brands ($30+/bottle). These sales leaped 19.2% to $325 million.
Combined whiskey sales growth is accelerating (numbers include imported and flavored whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Whiskey category growth accelerates (totals include flavored and imported whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Whiskey category growth accelerates (totals include flavored and imported whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Flavored whiskey was a factor in the surge. Sales of an increasing selection of flavored American whiskey products grew by 140,000 cases. But a more significant is the thriving export market. Christine LoCascio, DISCUS senior vice president for international trade, apologized for being repetitive year after year as she reported more record-shattering stats: the $1.12 billion revenue that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey bring home to producers accounts for 70% of the $1.56 billion spirit exports market.

The top export markets are Canada—which, with $212.6 million of sales, marked a colossal growth of 111% over the past ten years—and the UK ($177.6 million). Germany and Australia pretty much tie with their spending of $136.7 million and $131.2 million, respectively. Then there’s the bureaucratic activity (or mumbo-jumbo, depending on your appetite for granular examination of international relations.) Trade agreements in recent years have reduced or eliminated tariffs in countries like Korea and Australia, which open up more export opportunities.

All this American whiskey talk, however, didn’t drown out the news about Scotch.

“When you listen to single malt Scotch drinkers talk, it’s almost like they’re having a religious experience,” said David Ozgo, DISCUS chief economist. He proceeded to explain that, as with bourbon, high-end and super premium brands are propelling the whole category. While revenues from “premium” single malts (the least expensive brands), fell by 13.4%, high-end and super premium rose by 6.8% and 6.3%. respectively. This came as little surprise just days after the Scotch Whisky Association announced that the Scotch industry is worth more than £5 billion in the UK, which outpaces two of the UK’s giant industries: computers, and iron and steel.

A small but increasing role is played by America’s boutique brands. In 2010, there were 109 independent distilleries operating; today there are more than 700. With sales of about 3.5 million cases last year, these producers account for 1.7% share of the spirits market’s volume. Ozgo noted that estimated supplier revenues was between $400 and $450 million, a sum he calculated based on data from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which indicates taxes paid.

The information presented at the briefing skirted the ongoing debate around the increasingly contentious terms “craft” and “handcrafted,” which have generated class action lawsuits against false claims. DISCUS uses the term “small distillers,” which it defines as the 712 producers turning out less than 50,000 cases (the average in that group being an astonishingly small 3,000 cases). The data, however, also takes into account seventeen distilleries that produce an average of 80,000 cases.

When, after the presentation, this reporter asked about the “handcrafted” debate, Frank Coleman, DISCUS senior vice president of public affairs, noted, “Let them fight about it. Some of the finest craft products in the world are made by large companies. [Glenmorangie master distiller] Bill Lumsden is making handcrafted whisky.” It is a distinction almost unique to whisky that makes the category even more intriguing.

 

Desk Whiskey

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Author - Lew BrysonThere’s a lot of talk these days of how whiskey’s back; back in sales, back in fashion, back in cocktails. It’s great, and it means we can find good whiskey in so many more places, more than just the same five bottles — Jack, Jim, Johnnie, Jameson, and Crown — and almost every town of any size has a specialist bar. Whiskey’s on television, it’s in the movies, it’s all over the gosh-darn Internet.

But there’s one place where it’s not “back” like it was, and that’s a shame: the desk drawer.

The bottle in the desk drawer was a staple of hard-boiled fiction, like this:

He opened his desk drawer and lifted three glasses out of it and a bottle of imported scotch whiskey [sic]. ‘You two care for a spot of nerve medicine?’ he asked as he began to pour himself a shot from the bottle. — The Destitute, by T.R. Hawes

I took the bottle of Dewar’s out of my desk drawer and put it on the desk along with a lowball glass. He took a couple of deep breaths as if to steady himself and carefull poured some.” — Sixkill, by Robert B. Parker

It wasn’t just private eyes, either.

Now I moved to the third drawer, the bottom, where hard-boiled detectives keep pistols and hard-boiled editors keep whiskey bottles and hard-boiled reporters keep novel manuscripts. — Gone Tomorrow, by P.F. Kluge

1-IMG_20150123_130014076

“Pull up a chair”

Why, even my boss back when I was a librarian (it’s true; in a former life I was a librarian) at the Armor School Library at Fort Knox kept a bottle of Maker’s in the bottom right-hand drawer of his government-issue gray steel desk. Friday afternoons when it got toward quitting time after we’d had a long week of eager-beaver lieutenants and budget-cutting majors, Bill would catch my eye and broadly beckon me into the office.

He’d pull open the drawer, all the way, and reach in behind the hanging files of staff evaluations and loony letters (every library has them), and pull out the bottle and two glasses. “Pull up a chair,” he’d always say, and pour two glasses; no water, no ice, just two stiff pours of Loretto’s finest. We’d discuss the week, or the lieutenants and the majors, or the weather, and relax. We never had more than one, and we didn’t do it every week, and once or twice we did it during the week when things were particularly stressful or rewarding. But the bottle was there.

I don’t believe many people have a desk bottle anymore. Because as much as whiskey is back, it’s still not okay to drink it.

I remember telling people I loved landing at the airport in Louisville because folks there didn’t giggle when I said “bourbon.” That’s not such a problem anymore (some people react with a reflexive “Pappy!”, but I can get past that), but I’ll tell you, if you suggest having one drink at lunch…people look at you like you’re crazy, and they do giggle.

One drink? Open up the drawer, pull out the bottle — it doesn’t have to be anything amazing, because it’s going to sit in there, and you don’t know who might be in the office — grab two glasses and wipe them out with paper towels, and there you have an oasis in your day. One drink of whiskey.

What happens? You’ve brought a person into your confidence, you’ve strengthened a bond with them. There’s no harm done, and if the company policy is ironclad on no drinking; well, maybe you’re working for the wrong company. You’ve got a bottle in your desk, you’ve got something there to steady the brain and nerve the arm. Adults do this, and I believe that if we don’t giggle about it, we’re less likely to be silly about it.

…think of Ed Asner, as news director Lou Grant, occasionally pulling a bottle out of the drawer on the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. It didn’t seem irresponsible at all, did it? It was the way it was in newsrooms. — March 1939: Before the Madness, by Terry Frei

I am not saying you should start to drink on the job. But there are rituals to work, and there are rituals to whiskey. So I got Mr. Venn to draw you a diagram.

Desk Whiskey

Beam Releasing New Bonded Bourbon

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Author - Lew BrysonWe just learned that Beam Suntory is releasing a new bourbon — another one! — and while it’s very affordable at $24 the bottle, it’s also pretty special. Jim Beam Bonded is the first new bottled in bond bourbon (that I know of) that’s been released in years. It’s good to see Beam’s keeping this new bonded in the general price range, too.

If you’re not clear on what makes a bourbon “bottled in bond,” here’s a quick rundown. As well as conforming to all the regular rules for bourbon, all the spirit in the bottle must have been distilled at one distillery, under supervision of the same master distiller, in one season. It must be at least 4 years old. It must be bottled at 100 proof/50% ABV. Most of the remaining bonded bourbons are inexpensive, because they don’t get much promotion or advertising spent on them.

But the most noticeable thing about bottled in bond bourbons is that there aren’t many of them, and most of them are ‘heritage’ brands, ones that were bought up as distilleries failed. Heaven Hill is unusual in that they have two bonded bourbons under their own name, plus the Evan Williams bonded, the Rittenhouse bonded, and a couple others. Beam, of course, has the Old Grand-Dad bonded, which has been a staple at my house since I discovered it two decades ago.

jbbSo the very first question I asked Fred Noe today was “Why?!” Why bring out a new bonded bourbon now, when it seems clear that they’d seen their day, despite the efforts of folks like me, and Chuck Cowdery, and Heaven Hill spokesman Bernie Lubbers to revive them.

“It came from bartenders wanting bottled in bond, people digging up old recipes calling for bottled in bond,” Fred said. “Hell, that’s an easy hit for us; just do what we used to do. It’s not that hard to develop: 4 years old, one season, one distillery, 100 proof. We age pretty much everything 4 years already, just a matter of designing the package. It’s been well-received, they’re excited to get hold of it.”

The package design is a bit of a throwback as well. The old Jim Beam Bonded had a gold label as well. Fred said he used to carry a bottle around with him, the strip stamp was dated 1957, the year he was born. “My daddy (Booker Noe) gave it to me because of that,” he said. “I used to use it to show people what an old bottle of bourbon looked like.”

Fred explained why they were putting another bourbon in the same general price category as Jim Beam White, the 7 year old, Jacob’s Ghost, and Red Stag. “We’re always looking for new ideas,” he said. “But instead of coming up with new stuff, we can go back to the old stuff. We made good stuff back then! Like Old Tub, that’s what my daddy drank. We brought that back just to sell at the visitor’s center. And people buy it! People want the full-flavored bourbons.”

Yes, yes we do. I know I’m ready to get a bottle of this stuff and pour it over a big chunk of ice and take it for a ride. I never thought I’d see the day. First rye comes back, now maybe it’s the return of bonded bourbon. We live in interesting times.

Big (Little) Changes at Bowman

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonIf you know A. Smith Bowman, you know about Mary. Mary is the pot still with the big reflux ball and tiara of pipes that the distillery has used for secondary distillation of column-stilled spirit for years. Bowman is a rare—if not unique—character in small distilleries in that they do no mashing; they take distilled spirit, made elsewhere, then run it through Mary and age it on their premises. When the late Truman Cox took over as master distiller, he told me with no little excitement that there were plans in the works for changing that; there was going to be mashing at Bowman. Truman never got to see it, sadly, but the plans continued; there is going to be mashing and primary distillation at Bowman.

When I was at Bowman last month, I saw the evidence. Master distiller Brian Prewitt walked me through the facility, pointing to where the mash cooker and fermenters would be installed, where they’d be putting the new hybrid pot/column still—to be named “George”—and a new warehousing space, twice the size of the current space (which is almost packed full of aging whiskey). It was quite impressive.

George, set up at Vendome

George, set up at Vendome

I talked to Brian recently about details. He’d been out to Vendome in Louisville, taking a look at George. It’s a 500 gallon hybrid still, with a 4-plate column on top of the pot, and a 20-plate bubble cap vodka column off to the side, and an optional gin basket. “I can pull a draw off any plate, pull at a lower proof, it gives me the option to do all kind of different things,” Brian said.

On the fermentation side, there’s going to be a 500 gallon mash cooker, with rakes and a false bottom so they can run wash or the whole mash. “We want to be able do anything and everything,” said Brian; he said it several times, actually. “The fermenters are jacketed [cooled], so we can do all kinds of fermentation profiles, or we can do it all natural if we want. We’re getting a hammer mill and a roller mill; I’ll run corn through the hammer, malt through roller. Whatever combination of grains we want, we’ll be able to run.”

It should be delivered and set up in January (after a few tweaks at Vendome), then up and running in February. All timelines are dependent on TTB approval, of course, and he’d heard nothing yet on the warehouse expansion.

I asked Brian if this is the new Bowman. Yes and no. “It will yield about 65-66 proof gallons [per batch], which, lo and behold, is just about a barrel,” he said. “The core products will be from Buffalo Trace and Mary, but we want to have an experiment going, well, every week if we can. One week a rye, then a wheat, and maybe a local rum, who knows?

George up close

George up close

“It’s exciting, it’s turning over a new leaf for the distillery,” he said. “We’re getting back to making some good whiskey, with the flexibility to experiment one barrel at a time. We can try all sorts of stuff, pulling out the stops and trying the old favorites too. It’s twice the size of the Taylor [microdistillery at Buffalo Trace]; it’s a similar design. But they have a packed column, they can only really run vodka through it. We’ll be making gins, different eau de vies; Virginia has a lot of grapes, and we don’t even have a brandy in our portfolio. Why not do it?

“We originally thought, hey, let’s get a whiskey still,” he said, and laughed. “Well, what if we want to do a gin or a rum? We wanted something we could easily clean to get the other flavors out of, and do anything!”

It’s a major step for Bowman, and it brings the question of “what is a ‘craft’ distiller” into sharper focus. Is Bowman craft? They’re small, they innovate. Is it important that they’re wholly owned by the Sazerac Company, when they operate with such a wide degree of independence? Which parts of the identity of a “craft distillery are important? Tough questions.

A Clarification About our Awards

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

john hansellThere’s been a bit of discussion in the comments sections of the Awards posts (and in other social media) that makes it apparent that our Awards process may be misunderstood by a few of you, so I’d like to clarify. While we do review whiskies all year long, and give them points—ratings—the awards don’t necessarily go to the highest-rated whisky for a given category. There’s a bit more to it than that. This holds true, not just for my American Whiskey of the Year pick, but for all the award selections.

We noted this in our December 3rd awards announcement: “As always, these awards are not simply assigned to the whiskies that get the highest ratings in our reviews. The winners might be the highest-rated, or they might instead be the most significant, or the most important, or represent a new direction for a category or niche. The awards process is not, in short, a mere numbers-based formula. It is recognition of a combination of excellence, innovation, tradition, and…simply great-tasting whisky.”

For example, my American Whiskey of the Year pick, the Sazerac 18 year old, wasn’t my highest-rated American whiskey in 2014. There were other whiskeys I gave higher ratings.

The reason I chose the Sazerac 18 yr.  involved the other factors. For example, the way that Buffalo Trace had the wisdom to “preserve” a classic whiskey in its prime by transferring it to stainless steel tanks, rather than let it age further (and likely deteriorate) in oak barrels, deserves recognition. It’s something that consumers have been benefiting from for many years now, and it’s a key reason why I picked this whiskey. That’s the “tie breaker” I mention in my awards write-up. (And I use the phrase “tie breaker” in a figurative sense.)

I hope this helps everyone understand how we chose our awards. It’s not just about picking our highest-rated whiskies for the year; we could do that with a simple sort of the ratings database. It’s about identifying the landmark whiskies for a year, the ones that made a difference, or signaled a change…or in this case, a welcome and important non-change.