Archive for the ‘Distillery news’ Category

Mossburn And Mathieson: a different distillery startup story

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Author - Gavin SmithAnother day, and another Scotch distillery project appears. No doubt funding will come from an issue of founders’ bonds or future cask sales, and a diverse group of private investors, while early income will be predicated on sales of gin and new-make spirit. You get the picture.

So we look at the case of Mossburn Distillers Ltd. with a slightly seen-it-all-before eye. We chat with chief executive Neil Mathieson, who outlines two distillery projects, one on the Isle of Skye and another near Jedburgh, in the Scottish Borders. Talk turns to likely expenditure; and Mathieson mentions that the Borders plans involve spending between £35 and £40 million ($60 to $68 million), and that no external funding will be required.

Did he say £35 to £40 million? More or less what it cost Diageo to build its largest and most state-of-the-art distillery to date at Roseisle? Yes, he did.

Clearly we need to know more about the man and his plans. Mathieson was born in Scotland into a family with over 100 years of involvement with Scotch whisky. Moving to London, he trained as a chef, also getting involved in law, accountancy, and hotel management. He then opened a restaurant with his chef wife.

For the past 30 years he has been running Eaux de Vie, which he set up in 1984, growing it into the UK’s leading independent importer of spirits. Eaux de Vie now in the hands of Marussia Beverages BV, which ultimately belongs to the privately owned Swedish investment company Haydn Holding AB. Marussia operates vineyards in Europe and a brandy distillery in Eastern Europe, while additionally working with Caribbean rum producers.

Neil Mathieson points out that, “We started looking at having our own involvement in whisky distilling in Scotland five years ago, so we’re not jumping on a bandwagon.” In order to further these distilling ambitions, Mossburn Distillers Ltd. has been set up to create and operate the two new distilleries.

Proposed designs

Proposed designs

“At Torabhaig on the southeast coast of Skye, more than £5 million ($8 million) will be spent building a new malt distillery in a listed farm steading,” notes Mathieson. “The aim is to produce half a million liters of spirit, using traditional pot stills made for us by Forsyths. The restoration of the buildings has commenced and the first distillates will be produced in 2016. We expect that the flavor profile will be confirmed over the next year as we work on the still shape and height, malt sourcing, and wood program.”

By coincidence, distilling guru and former Diageo production director Alan Rutherford already had an existing interest in both the Jedburgh and Skye distillery projects. He was involved with the Torabhaig distillery venture before Mossburn came along, when all permissions were in place ready for work to commence. At an earlier stage Rutherford had identified the Jedburgh site as an ideal location for whisky-making in the Borders. Joining forces with the Mossburn team as technical director, it was decided that both ventures should go ahead.

“At Mossburn, our aim is to produce up to 2.5 million liters of malt and grain spirit per year,” says Neil Mathieson. “The design of the distillery buildings is currently subject to gaining planning permission, although work has begun on the other buildings at the site we own, based around the former Jedforest Hotel. We hope to start on the production buildings next year with distillation commencing in 2017. As with Torabhaig, we have yet to confirm the flavor profiles for production.

“It’s going to be a unique, statement building, which will incorporate a malt plant, a grain plant and a ‘hybrid’ plant; three distilleries under one roof, in effect. Ultimately, there will also be maturation facilities, a bottling hall and 1,000 square meters of hospitality space. We aim to have the largest whisky shop in Scotland and conference space for a spirits academy. If all goes to plan, we are talking about a 2015 build, while in 2016 the equipment will be put in place, and during 2017 the distillery and visitor center will open.”

Given that both distillery ventures are being “internally” funded by a clearly cash-rich enterprise, there are fewer pressures to obtain short-term returns for Mossburn Distillers Ltd than in the case of other fledgling whisky distillers. “We are working on a 25-year fully-funded business plan, just as we would for our other vineyard and distillery enterprises,” explains Mathieson.

Torabhaig plans

Torabhaig plans

“There will be no founders’ casks or sales of new-make spirit. We will market single malt, single grain, and blends, and the aim will be to build brands and create international sales prospects. The first limited release bottlings will probably be of five year old whisky before a standard ten or twelve is chosen. This will depend on the flavor profile the team decides on, and the development over the first five years.”

Some observers of the Scotch whisky scene foresee problems when all of the emergent ‘craft’ distilling operations begin fighting for their slice of the market. After all, each is likely to be offering consumers pretty much the same product, namely three of four year old, ‘limited edition’ bottlings from a predictable variety of casks, all with price tags of $120 and upward.

It appears that Mossburn is in the position to avoid such a situation, but what does Mathieson suggest for others embarking on their whisky-making dream? “I would advise them to concentrate on the costs of grain, wood, and cask storage over their aging plan, rather than the initial outlay on distilling equipment, and not to consider unrealistic retail prices or expect them to continue increasing,” he says. “Also, forget the U.S., as our distribution and retail models are different. Perhaps if we all took the initial expected financial requirement, doubled it, and then doubled it again, we would all be securely funded for the future!”

 

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.”

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.

A First Glimpse of the new Ardnamurchan Distillery

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

There is an undulating, skinny ribbon of asphalt running along the north shore of Loch Sunart. It’s barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two, but it stretches all the way out tJonny McCormicko the most westerly point in mainland Great Britain. In this stunning locale, distilling is set to commence at the brand new Ardnamurchan Distillery in Glenbeg, Lochaber. The independent bottlers Adelphi Distilling Ltd will finally see their dream realized and join the rank of those who can proudly call themselves distillers. This is no farm distillery by any stretch of the imagination. Underneath the twin pagodas, the Ardnamurchan Distillery will have the capacity to make 500,000 liters of alcohol per year.

Graeme Bowie

Distillery manager Graeme Bowie gave me a tour of the site. He was assistant manager at Balblair Distillery for six years, and has progressed his way to distillery manager from distillery operator following six years at Balmenach and sixteen years at Glen Grant. As you might imagine, he is relishing the job at hand.

The distillery will produce peated and unpeated Ardnamurchan whisky in equal quantities, although at the outset, Graeme predicts it could be eight years until the company considers the whisky to be ready for release. Boldly, there will be no gin or other distractions produced for short-term cash. They are straightforward whisky men; nothing more, nothing less. Meanwhile, there will be a visitors center with a bar and tasting area where you will be able to find Adelphi’s latest independent cask strength bottlings.

The company is named after the Adelphi distillery, a Lowland distillery that operated on the south side of the River Clyde in Glasgow from 1826 until 1907, drawing its water from Loch Katrine. In its day, it had two mash tuns, up to twelve washbacks, and two stillhouses containing a Coffey still and four pot stills. In addition, the 19th century Adelphi distillery boasted its own cooperage and maltings (though the bulk of the malt came from Port Dundas). When Alfred Barnard paid a visit in the 1880s, Archibald Walker & Co, then Adelphi’s proprietors, owned Limerick Distillery, Ireland and the Vauxhall Distillery in Liverpool, England. The Adelphi name was revived in 1993 by Archibald Walker’s great grandson.

Like other newly opened distilleries, Ardnamurchan will have a private cask ownership scheme whereby whisky enthusiasts and clubs can order a cask of peated or unpeated spirit filled into either a bourbon barrel or sherry butt. Final prices are being confirmed, but they are expected to be approximately £1,750 for the bourbon barrel and £5,000 for the sherry butt, so it should prove popular.

Inside the biomass burner

Graeme pointed out their four 15,000 ton grain silos, which will receive the barley deliveries. With different malt specifications, supplies will come from Bairds Malt, and from malting on site. Production will begin with milling in the compact Alan Ruddock AR2000 four roller mill, the same model as you will find at Wolfburn distillery. Adelphi have installed a two-ton, copper-topped, semi-lauter mashtun with a manhole and double hatch. Power will come from the Swiss-built, one megawatt Schmid biomass wood chip burner, whose fiery hunger will be fueled by the local forestry companies. The yawning hatch to the deep pit of the chip store in the yard is motor-driven and opens effortlessly at the touch of button, like the malevolent plaything of a Bond villain. The burner can take up to an hour to get up to its running temperature of 800°C, but then it will reliably produce steam bountifully. This is conveyed to the space age looking Steam Accumulator.

Ardnamurchan’s pagodas

Each heating tank holds 9,000 liters of water in preparation for mashing. The first water will be 6,500 liters at 65°C, followed by a second water of 4,000 liters which will slosh in at 82°C. The 6,500 liters of the third water will gush in at 90°C. Production will start modestly at one or two mashes per week, but in time, production will be ramped up to six days a week.

Unique to Scotland, the fermentation will be carried out in four oak washbacks resized from ex-cognac vats by the J. Dias cooperage in Paramos, Portugal, plus three Forsyth-built, stainless steel washbacks complete with switchers. Anchor dried yeast will be used (10 kg for every 10,000 liters). The fermentation times are planned to be reassuringly long to build flavor, envisaged to be 55 hours for the short runs, then 88-90 hours for long runs over the weekend.

The pair of virgin copper stills look magnificent. Built by the experienced coppersmiths of Forsyths, they sit resplendent behind picture windows. The wash still holds 10,000 liters and has a silhouette reminiscent of those at Highland Park. Meanwhile, the spirit still has a body contoured like the Glen Grant stills, and has a capacity of 6,000 liters. Everything is controlled by hand, so you will find no automation here. The vapors will funnel down a Lyne arm sloping away at 15° into two shell and tube condensers tucked away at the back, before the spirit is pumped into the spirit receiver warehouse vat.

McCormick Ardnamurchan distillery stillThe first delivery of American oak barrels has already arrived from Jack Daniel. Ardnamurchan’s traditional dunnage warehouse will bear casks three racks high, but it is eerily empty at the moment. The steel frame of the warehouse is covered with Kingspan; insulated, metallic panels to help keep a cool, damp interior temperature for maturation. Eventually, the warehouse will hold 6,500 casks over two floors but it will take six years to fill up before they need to build another one.

The warehouse footprint has been physically hewn out of the solid rock of the hillside, some 12 meters deep. The excavated rock has been utilized to lay a rough road up to the distillery’s water source. Before I depart, Graeme zooms me a mile up the bumpy track in an all terrain vehicle to show me the source of the production water from the Glenmore River.

As the inaugural distillation is still a few weeks away, the only undertaking I’m denied today is a taste of the new make Ardnamurchan spirit. However, that intrigue gives me the perfect excuse to return.

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.

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.

Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Funhouse: Warehouse X

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Lew BrysonPhotos by Fred Minnick

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

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

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

North side of Warehouse X

North side of Warehouse X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley

Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley

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

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

 

The Laird of Fintry has Landed

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

author-beaumontIt’s been a good year for Canada’s Okanagan Spirits. To begin with, a break on the standard retail mark-up in the provincially-owned liquor stores for distillers using locally-grown ingredients – which this fruit belt operation does exclusively – was rather unexpectedly announced in the early spring by the government of the company’s home province of British Columbia.  Then came word from the World Spirits Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria, where Okanagan Spirits was awarded not only World Class Distillery certification, but also the titles of Distillery of the Year 2013 and Spirit of the Year 2013, the latter for their Blackcurrant Liqueur.

Now a six-year project has finally come to completion with the arrival of Laird of Fintry Single Malt Whisky, distilled from 100% British Columbia-grown barley and aged in French and American oak. Although no doubt better known for their fruit-based eaux de vie lof.bottleshotand Taboo Absinthe, the Laird of Fintry is in many ways a landmark release for Okanagan Spirits, representing in production and aging almost a full two-thirds of the distillery’s existence.

“At the time, we weren’t sure we could even make a whisky, so it was more of an experiment than anything else,” explains Rodney Goodchild, marketing and operations director for Okanagan Spirits. “We had a brewery make the wash for us and were able to distill just a single barrel out of it. Then, as time went on, we kept tasting it and tasting it until at about eighteen months we realized that it was evolving into something quite nice.”

The whisky is titled with the nickname given to an early 20th century settler, James Cameron Dun Waters, who named what is now the Fintry Estate provincial park for his Scottish hometown. The distillery has been producing about a dozen barrels of whisky per year, says Goodchild. So while that initial run has resulted in rather meagre release – leading to a lottery-style sale that had 1,527 people vying for an opportunity to buy the a mere 210 bottles of the whisky – there will be more available next year and in the years to come. One key to Okanagan generating more whisky for sale will definitely be a change in what can only in the loosest of terms be called “warehousing.”

“The distillery has no real warehouse,” says Goodchild, noting that the only other significantly aged product is an 18 month old apple brandy, “So we’re currently storing the barrels in the retail area. The problem is, with the changes in temperature and the dryness of our winters, we estimate that we’re losing about 12% of the spirit per year.” Okanagan Spirits aims to reduce that overly generous angel’s share with the construction of a glass walled barrel room adjacent to their current retail space and tasting bar.

OKS-1223

Distiller Peter von Hahn

As for the whisky itself, its nose is possessed of a surprising maturity for a spirit so relatively young, with aromas of plum, cooked pear, and stewed and spiced raisins accompanying the expected notes of vanilla and toffee. On the palate, however, its youthfulness shines, with ample but integrated oakiness and effusive, sweet notes of both fresh and baked pear, apple and yellow plum, caramel and baking spice, all leading to a still fruity, vanilla-accented finish.

Although it is obviously a grain-based spirit, the Laird of Fintry seems to channel the character of many of its stablemates in the Okanagan Spirits portfolio, specifically the fruit eaux de vie for which the distillery is becoming quite famous. As an operation committed to the use of local ingredients, that is not at all a bad thing.

True, in this batch and at this age, the whisky is not likely to excite anyone approaching it in search of Speyside or Highland complexities, or even the simpler charms of a pot-distilled Irish whiskey. But in terms of speaking to its terroir in the one of the largest fruit-growing regions in Canada, it can only be considered a success, and a harbinger of greater things to come from western Canada’s original and arguably greatest and most successful craft distillery.