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The New Diageo Special Releases

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonOnce again it’s time for the annual Special Releases series from Diageo – everyone’s pantomime villain that the collectors love to hate (while secretly rushing to buy the bottles).

This year, Whisky Advocate was granted a sneak advance tasting. All eleven of the whiskies will be available in the U.S., albeit in limited quantities, so I have listed them all in the table together (see below) with the essential information on age, pricing (in UK Pounds; no U.S. pricing available as yet), % ABV, and the number of bottles to be released. (Incidentally, if you’re perplexed on the apparently odd numbers, you’ll find they all divide neatly by 6, thus indicating the total number of 6-bottle cases that will be shipped.)

What do we observe from the list? The usual favorites are there: Port Ellen, Rosebank, Brora, Caol Ila, and Lagavulin all make an appearance. But there are one or two surprises, including a first ever Special Releases’ bottling of Strathmill, and a venerable Singleton of Glendullan, at 38 years old the grand-daddy of this group.

The pricing, as we’ve come to expect, doesn’t offer any bargains nor, I suspect, make it likely that anyone will make a toss-the-cork session with these bottles, no matter how good their friends. Diageo have long-since understood the reality of the secondary market and determined that they, not speculators, will profit from the demand to own these treasures. One might recoil in mock horror at some of the prices but it’s hard to blame Diageo for this trend. Having said that, the Unpeated Caol Ila (£75) and the 12 years old Lagavulin (£80) are both accessible and attainable to all but the most impecunious of enthusiasts. These, thank goodness, are whiskies for drinking.

6 bottle range

As the market for this style dictates all the bottles save one carry an age declaration. The odd man out is the Clynelish Select Reserve. Though I understand the youngest spirit in the vatting to be 16 years old, this whisky is a complex, rich and mature blend created by Diageo’s Dr. Jim Beveridge and, for me, one of the stand-out drams of the collection. It’s a great testament to the argument, increasingly advanced by the distilling industry, that skilled blending counts for more than age on its own. While there are certainly some older whiskies in here, the result is a beguiling, waxy, mouth-coating set of sensations that mix Clynelish’s signature ozone and brine notes with fresh and dried fruits, smoke, fudge, and menthol. This is a whisky that keeps on giving – at £500 a bottle you might expect something sensational and this does deliver.

Brora bottle&boxIt’s far from the most expensive, however. Both the Brora and the Port Ellen releases will break the bank for most of us, requiring £1,200 for the Brora and £2,200 for the 14th Release from the closed and now legendary Islay distillery. But, putting price to one side as we must, those lucky enough to acquire a bottle of either are in for something of a treat: fans of these celebrated distilleries will find much to enjoy. Both need a modest amount of water to fully reveal themselves (but go carefully, as only a few drops are required); both are packed with subtle and complex smoke notes; both need time and some care; both finish long, with pepper and spice (an unexpected ginger edge in the Port Ellen stands out) and the damp, smoldering embers of a wood fire on a beach with salt on the wind call to mind their ancestral homes.

There’s poetry too to be found in the offering from Rosebank; this a bittersweet elegy for another lost distillery. Diageo’s Maureen Robinson perplexed us with her initial comment that the nose carried the scent of “fresh air”, but likened it to the crisp, clean aroma of freshly laundered cotton sheets (a 1,000 thread count sateen if I’m any judge of bed linen). This I thought was the aperitif whisky of the session, a vibrant, zesty palate-teaser that zinged into action from the very first sip. It was young, yet knowing; fresh, yet deep; sweet on the nose, yet by turns clean and drying.

From all parts of Scotland they have come and I surely must mention the Speysiders in the company: The Singleton of Glendullan; Cragganmore; a meaty, big-bodied, blustering Benrinnes that threatened to steal the show (and repelled in equal measure some of the panel) and the debutant Strathmill, initially coy and enigmatic but full of mesmerizing charm – a wallflower that would soon waltz elegantly past a line of eager suitors.

But the finish! Almost all these whiskies left me struggling for descriptors that capture their complexity, charm, and character. Too literal a description scarcely does them justice; too poetic and the reader will be baffled and think the taster bewitched…

So let me finish with the two Special Releases that will be most widely seen, enjoyed and drunk: the 15 years old unpeated Caol Ila and Lagavulin, bottled at what is for this distillery at least an unusual 12 years of age. The result of this policy of the preferment of youth is that there will be plenty to go around, at prices that permit enjoyment without the rueful contemplation of one’s credit card statement.

The freshness and vibrancy of eager youth was evident in both. A hint of smoke could be detected in the Caol Ila, which was soft, generous and giving and packed with vanilla, where the Lagavulin was all pulled pork BBQ with smoky bacon topping and a peat sauce. But then rich fruit notes emerged from the misty smoke, an autumnal note crept forward and a tentative, delicate, fugitive sweetness offered up its still, small voice.

If you are sufficiently fortunate to come into possession of one of these whiskies – any one of them – then do not hoard them; do not place them on some remote, unattainable pedestal; do not venerate them, but share them freely (yet with appropriate discretion). Induct some neophyte into whisky’s riches or exchange a dram with another privileged connoisseur.

‘Special’ these releases may be, but I implore you to set them free. It is noble work, and you will be the better for it!

DISTILLERY AGE AT BOTTLING YEAR DISTILLED UK RRSP % ABV NUMBER OF BOTTLES
THE SINGLETON OF GLENDULLAN 38 1975 £750 59.8% 3,756
CAOL ILA – UNPEATED 15 1998 £75 60.39% 10,668
CAOL ILA 30 1983 £425 55.1% 7,638
CLYNELISH SELECT RESERVE 1999 £500 54.9% 2,964
CRAGGANMORE 25 1988 £299 51.4% 3,372
LAGAVULIN 12 2002 £80 54.4% 31,428
PORT ELLEN 35 1978 £2,200 56.5% 2,964
ROSEBANK 21 1992 £300 55.3% 4,530
BENRINNES 21 1992 £240 56.9% 2,892
BRORA 35 1978 £1,200 48.6% 2,964
STRATHMILL 25 1988 £275 52.4% 2,700

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.”

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.

Campari Buys Forty Creek

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxNews today that Italy’s Campari Group has bought Canada’s Forty Creek Distillery, should come as no surprise. After decades of marginal decline, Canadian whisky sales have rebounded strongly in recent years. Much of the credit for this must go to Forty Creek’s whisky maker, John K. Hall.

JohnHall_106It is more than a decade since Hall began taking his whisky from bar to bar in New Orleans and Texas. At the time Canadian retailers had shown little interest in the upstart Canadian whisky maker. As he pounded the pavement, selling a case here and a case there, Hall effectively became the face of Canadian whisky in the U.S. Happily, despite the sale of his distillery, this will continue.

From the firm base he began building in America, Hall returned to Canada to conquer his home market. Forty Creek is not the largest, but it is now the fastest-growing whisky brand in Canada. Today, Campari, which also owns Wild Turkey bourbon, confirmed Hall’s unshakable faith in Forty Creek by purchasing 100% of the distillery, its brands, and holdings for $185.6 million Canadian. Forty Creek, as the consultants say, was low-hanging fruit, ripe for the picking.

Campari was one of a number of firms that was interested in purchasing the distillery. Hall was looking for a buyer that would keep the Grimsby facility open and ensure that all the employees could keep their jobs. The deal was sealed when Campari committed to those objectives.

When I met Hall in Victoria this past January, he seemed tired. “I just can’t keep this up,” he said of the non-stop pace of appearances at whisky shows and liquor stores across Canada and the U.S. “I want to spend more time with my family. When I’m in my distillery now I spend half my time behind a computer.”

“You need to hire a CEO and get back to tending your stills,” I offered. And I guess, in a way, that is what he has done. Little will change in day-to-day operations at the distillery and Hall will remain as company chairman and whisky maker. With the full strength of Campari’s sales force supporting him, Hall will likely have more time to do what he loves best: make whisky.

“I am very excited about my 2014 Limited Release,” Hall told me recently. “It will be bottled in July, and then after two and a half months of bottle rest I’ll release it.” That’s typical John Hall. Ever the wine maker, he wants to be sure his whisky has time to recover from bottle shock.

Forty Creek is a small distillery. With two pots and one column still, it has yet to reach its annual production capacity of 555,000 cases of whisky, but with the Campari deal, that can’t be far off. Watch for expansion plans in the not-too-distant future as Campari uses its global resources to grow Forty Creek in Canada, and around the world.

Meanwhile, congratulations are due to Canada’s hardest-working and best-known whisky maker, John K. Hall, and the whole Forty Creek family. For that’s what it feels like when you visit the distillery.

Canadian Catches Up: Hiram Walker expansion planned

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxAfter several years of very encouraging sales, managers at Canada’s largest distillery have decided to expand production capacity. In 2014, $8 million will be invested on new and upgraded facilities. The coldest winter in a century delayed construction, but the cement is now poured for a new tank house at Pernod-Ricard’s Hiram Walker and Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario.

“The bottleneck here is the column stills,” master blender Don Livermore told me. “We can’t speed up the stills without affecting quality, so we are constructing a new building with four tanks to hold excess high wines. That will let us run the beer stills longer without getting backed up.”

Changes are coming in blending and bottling as well, where expansion will increase overall volumes while enabling smaller production runs. When your lines are geared to over 400 bottles a minute, it’s difficult to do small batches. New equipment in the bottling hall will permit a more leisurely pace, allowing it to process smaller runs. And good news for whisky lovers: capacity for short runs could lead to more new products making it into field-testing and onto your home bars.HIRAM WALKER & SONS LIMITED - Major Investment in Windsor, ON

“When you are set up for high production it’s difficult to attract business from small producers,” says Jason Leithead, who manages the bottling hall. “Right now a seemingly trivial change can be a monumental undertaking for us.”

Hiram Walker and Sons president Patrick O’Driscoll agrees: “The new production volume will smooth out the seasonal peaks to offer more stable employment and enhanced partnership opportunities for our customers.”

The expansion will boost overall bottling capacity by 230,000 cases. Hiram Walker currently employs about 400 people across Canada, 300 at the distillery.

“In my 18 years at Hiram Walker I’ve never seen it this busy,” Livermore tells me. “We were distilling about 20 million liters a year when I started. Last year we made the equivalent of 55 million liters of pure alcohol.” That translates into a lot of whisky. Key brands include Wiser’s, Canadian Club (made for Beam), and Gibson’s Finest (for Wm. Grant). Hiram Walker and Sons makes about 70% of all Canadian whisky, of which about 75% is sold to independent bottlers in Canada and abroad.

If Livermore has his way, this expansion is just the start of bigger things to come. “My long-term vision is to have an education center right here at the distillery. We make great products here and we need to tell people all about them.” That project is at least a decade down the road, says Livermore. For now, expanding capacity to keep up with demand and support growing consumer interest in small-batch high-end specialty whiskies is the top priority.

Mortlach: more news…and the price

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonDiageo have announced further details and pricing for the forthcoming release of four new Mortlach expressions. First revealed here in early December, the new range – which sadly means the demise of the much-loved Flora & Fauna 16 Years Old expression – comprises Rare Old (43.4%, no age statement); Special Strength (49%, non-age, non-chill filtered, Travel Retail exclusive); 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old (both 43.4%).

Rare Old

Rare and Old

Coming alongside a major expansion of the distillery, this is a big play for Diageo. Dr. Nick Morgan, the company’s head of whisky outreach, described the launch as “positioning Mortlach as the luxury malt to redefine the category. We didn’t just hang it with luxury trappings. It has great single malt credentials.” Quite what The Macallan will make of that remains to be seen but, as I warned last time, new Mortlach comes with a wealth warning; prices are very definitely going to rise sharply.

European consumers will get the new whiskies in smaller 500 ml bottles.  Morgan stated that this was “to make a little go further, as supply is constricted” but also suggested the new pack designs worked better in this bottle size. Be prepared for some fiscal easing: currently the Flora & Fauna bottle runs to around £70 in the UK (savvy merchants having moved their prices up as soon as supplies of these bottles were withdrawn).

Special Strength

Special Strength

The new ‘entry-level’ Rare & Old (it’s a NAS expression, but let’s not open that particular bottle here and now) in 500 ml is priced around £55 (£77 for the equivalent of a Euro-standard 700 ml bottle).  Special Strength will be £75 (£105); the 18 Years Old £180 (£252); and the 25 Years Old a thumping £600 (or £840 for a standard bottle).  U.S. consumers will get a 750 ml bottle, as the half-liter size is illegal there, so expect a shock at the check-out (actual U.S. prices have not been set yet).

The launch will be a global one, with priority given to high-end bars and specialist retailers in “core metro markets.” That means London, New York, Paris, Chicago, Shanghai, Moscow, San Francisco, and so on.

18 Year Old

18 Year Old

The highly distinctive packaging, said to be two years in development, was created by New York-based Laurent Hainaut of the Raison Pure design house, who claim on their website to offer “a platform for design excellence and social progress.” Clearly design excellence comes at a price, and with retail stickers such as these they will hardly be mistaken for socialists or philanthropists! The packs pay homage to the distillery’s founding father Alexander Cowie, and are heavily influenced by the great engineering achievements of Victorian Scotland, including icons such as the Forth Bridge and the mighty foundries and steelworks of Glasgow and the west of Scotland. (Note the metal framing on the 18 and 25 year old bottles.)

As for the distillery expansion itself, ground works have started to ready the site and construction will begin as soon as the final planning permissions have been received from the local authorities. It’s hoped that building will start very soon as the planning process is stated to be in its final stage.

25 Year Old

25 Year Old

The new Mortlach expressions themselves will enter global markets in late June and July this year, beginning with the UK and Germany, followed by Asia, and the U.S. later in the year. I await the launch with some interest: I cannot remember Diageo ever taking this amount of time and care to brief the whisky press over any previous release. These are big, meaty whiskies and the company is evidently playing for big steaks (pun intended, please forgive me!).

Diageo Announces Restoration Project at Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Friday, February 21st, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWe’ve heard that Diageo intended to make the fabled Stitzel-Weller distillery the “home” of Bulleit whiskey. Bulleit’s been a very successful brand, but that’s starting to become a problem, because Bulleit fans who want to go see where it’s made are finding out that there is no Bulleit distillery. It’s a pretty poorly-kept secret that Bulleit bourbon is made at Four Roses; it’s open knowledge that Bulleit rye is made at MGP in Indiana.

But Diageo had a couple options to solve that problem, and this is one of them. Although the only operating American whiskey distillery owned by the world’s largest drinks company is George Dickel in Tennessee, Diageo also owns the Stitzel-Weller distillery, even if the place has been silent since the end of 1991. So the plan became to develop Stitzel-Weller as the Bulleit home.

Wednesday we learned that Diageo would be investing $2 million to renovate the original administrative building at the distillery, “to bring to life the history of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery through artifacts from the site’s archives; a whiskey education section; an homage to the people, land and water of Kentucky; and a celebration of the heritage, brands and people behind Diageo’s award-winning collection of American whiskeys.” That would be Bulleit and what Diageo is calling their “evolving craft whiskey portfolio,” which includes the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project.

S-W MI_Mosaic imageDiageo plans to begin the work immediately, in order to have this first phase finished in time for Derby Day, which is when Stitzel-Weller opened, in 1935. There will be a visitor center and gift shop.

All things being equal, we’d rather see Bulleit get a distillery than a gift shop, but it’s a start. It’s a bit disturbing to hear all this talk about “craft whiskey” coming from the world’s largest drinks company (they referred to this as “another step in our support of and leadership within the American craft whiskey movement”), and we suspect the country’s craft distillers are greeting it with either gloom or hysteria.

But Bulleit has a home, and we’ll be able to walk the grounds of Stitzel-Weller again.

Suntory Bids For Beam

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good News – and Bad – for Mortlach lovers

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

There is good news for lovers of Mortlach the distinctive, near-triple distilled Speyside single malt, renowned for its meaty full flavor, with the announcement by Diageo of four new expressions. And, I fear, bad.Ian Buxton

Due to be available mid-2014 in global markets, the range comprises Rare Old (43.4%, no age statement); Special Strength (49%, no age statement, non-chill filtered, Travel Retail exclusive); 18 Years Old and 25 Years Old (both 43.4%). Packaging details and prices have yet to be finalized, but I understand that the ‘new’ Mortlach will be positioned as a luxury brand, with the entry level Rare Old priced alongside Johnnie Walker Platinum, and other expressions higher still.

So the good news is tempered with a wealth warning, and the further disappointing

news that stocks of the current 16 Years Old Flora & Fauna expression will not be replaced; it has effectively been withdrawn. If this is a favorite, better lay in a bottle or two!

Current stillhouse

Current stillhouse

The move has been three years in the planning and follows the welcome announcement that production of Mortlach is to double beginning November 2015, with the opening of a new, purpose-built facility that replicates in every detail the current distillery, a process that a Diageo spokesman described as “idiosyncratic, not state of the art.”  Investment in the new plant exceeds £30 million ($48.5 million).

Diageo’s Dr. Nicholas Morgan, head of whisky outreach, described the move as the company’s most significant in single malt in the past decade, claiming that the new Mortlach brand will “define luxury for single malt [and] become the next great luxury brand.” Though specific competitors were not identified, this suggests that Diageo have category leaders Glenlivet and Macallan very much in their sights.

Based on a limited tasting of the new expressions, the distinctive meaty, sulfur-influenced taste of Mortlach, with heavy sherry notes, has been evolved to a more elegant and refined style, without compromising the signature power and weight beloved of fans.

Site manager Steve McGingle

Site manager Steve McGingle

These are complex, multi-layered whiskies with a considerable depth of flavor. While the beefy note has been muted (think roast pork and BBQ juices), the fruit and spice impact has been dialed up through a different balance of casks. Rare Old and Special Strength illustrate this in fascinating detail, being basically the same cask mix but presented at different strengths to draw out varying facets of spirit character. At 25 Years Old, Mortlach offers a dense, layered and extraordinarily rich taste that demands contemplation.

While lamenting the loss of the Flora & Fauna expressions, Mortlach drinkers will find much to enjoy in the new range, which will be available more readily, albeit at higher prices. Further details of the range will be announced in February next year with the products in market from the early summer.

And now…Kininvie!

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Dave Broom William Grant & Sons are doing a fair impersonation of the London bus syndrome; you know, nothing for ages, then five come along at once. Following the recent new Glenfiddich Soleras, Balvenie’s latest Tun 1401, and Girvan Patent Still comes potentially the firm’s most exciting release yet, the first official bottling of Kininvie, called Batch Number One. At 23 years of age it is made up of whiskies distilled when the distillery was established in 1990.

Kininvie can lay claim to be one of the most obscure in Scotland. Built in order to ease pressure on Glenfiddich and supply whisky for Grants’ blends (and in more recent times, for Monkey Shoulder), it has never been bottled under its own name.

IMG_1910These important responsibilities could justify why this has happened, but 20 years is a long time for malt lovers to wait. Was it always the intention to hold fire for so long? “I’ve been here for 17 years,” says Brian Kinsman, Grant’s master blender, who has masterminded the release. “Every year we’ve had a discussion about Kininvie, so I don’t think you can say that there was any pre-determined plan.

“One thing in our favor is that we do tend to keep stuff, and the mentality for as long as I’ve been here is to keep hold of it and wait until the right moment. It’s here.”

The Kininvie stillhouse sits between Glenfiddich and Balvenie, and stylistically the whisky is a midpoint between its two sisters. It has its own dedicated 10,000 liter mashtun in the Balvenie mash house (though it doesn’t use any of that distillery’s floor-malted barley) and its own tun room as well, with three new washbacks (out of six in total) being installed at the time of writing.

The stillhouse, often rather cruelly dismissed as no more than a shed, contains nine stills in three sets; one wash to two spirit, the spirit stills being roughly similar to Glenfiddich in shape and size, the wash stills being tall and onion shaped. The cut point is high, thereby avoiding getting heaviness from such small stills.

Aging takes place in a variety of woods: first fill bourbon (predominantly for Monkey Shoulder), refill, and some sherry.

When you compare its new make to Balvenie, Kininvie is on the floral side of the spectrum (think geraniums), lighter and sweeter with less thickness on the tongue, lower vanillin and cereal, but a more lifted, estery fruitiness, and a long silkiness on the palate.Image 2

It is this mix of flowers and fruits which predominate in Batch Number One. Bright gold, the nose immediately offers up fruit blossom, wild flower meadow, sugared plums, and an old-fashioned sweet shop. Water brings out grass and pineapple. The oak is very restrained, allowing the palate to build in sweetness with supple weight, star fruit, white peach, and light citrus on the finish. It’s very Grants, in that there are hidden depths if you take the time to look, yet is substantially different from its siblings.

The downside for malt whisky completists is that Batch Number One will only be on sale in Taiwan, itself a clear indication of how the malt category has evolved since the day that Janet Sheed Roberts opened the distillery. Then, the category was in its infancy, only just breaking out of being the preserve of a few connoisseurs. Taiwan was chosen because it is now a mature — and very modern — malt market.

The name — and Kinsman’s revealing of the depth in stock — suggests that this might be the start of a regular series of Kininvie bottlings. “We could do that,” he says, “but if we do, it will be more of a slow drip.”

Kininvie Batch Number One 23 years old, 42.6%, retails at TW$4,500 (US$153) for a 350 ml bottle, or two for TW$8,000 (US$272).