Posts Tagged ‘Fred Minnick’

TV and Image and Visitor Centers — Oh My!

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

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

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

Maker's Mark's new artwork.

Maker’s Mark’s new artwork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Turkey's new visitor center

Wild Turkey’s new visitor center

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

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

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

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

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

Whisky Books for the Holidays, Part 1

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

We know the holidays are coming…er, are here, and we’re sorry this is a bit late for Hanukkah, but we wanted to get you some advice on whisky books. Here’s the first set, from Fred Minnick; more to come.Fred Minnick

When my literary agent and I were shopping Whiskey Women, the most common rejection we received was, “Whiskey is a niche audience and doesn’t interest the masses.” That’s why many whiskey writers have been forced to self publish and American whiskey enthusiasts have had to rely on dated texts—mainstream American publishers never took whiskey books seriously.

My, oh, my, times are changing. Publishers are bringing new books to light that are good for the future of whiskey. This holiday season whiskey books are on many gift lists, and there are two new ones I highly recommend for the American whiskey fan in your life.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye by Clay RisenAWBRCover

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to The Nation’s Favorite Spirit by Clay Risen, an editor for the New York Times, is the first true whiskey guide dedicated to only American whiskey. Other whiskey guides have explored rye and bourbon whiskey, but they also covered Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. Risen sticks to American distillations.

Risen delicately walks readers into whiskey’s past, present and future without getting on too much of soapbox. But, he sends a few jabs to distillers and bottlers, revealing where products are actually distilled and questioning odd product marketing.

With the “Old Whiskey River” brand Risen informs us Willie Nelson commissioned the whiskey, but adds a parenthetical “whatever that means.” For Bulleit bourbon, Risen uncovers the worst kept secret in modern whiskey history: the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, makes Bulleit Bourbon.

Risen’s words are meant for whiskey lovers, as he dissects every brand’s hi  story and scores products on an NR (not recommended) to four-star scale. He conveniently left out flavored whiskeys and gave NRs to mostly craft whiskeys, including four Hudson whiskeys. Risen’s palate certainly skews to older bourbon, granting four stars to Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Michter’s 20 year old, and Jefferson’s 18 year old bourbons.

American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye is an American whiskey treasure worthy of four stars in Risen’s scoring format. One downside to this book is Risen likely made Pappy Van Winkle even more desired. When describing Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, Risen says, “bourbon doesn’t get better.” Retailers didn’t need that!


Kentucky Bourbon Country by Susan ReiglerReigler, BOURBON Cover 300dip

With the growth of the Bourbon Trail and the whiskey’s mainstream media coverage, Kentucky’s bourbon experience looks to join California’s Napa Valley as a spot for adult beverage travel. But unlike Napa, Bourbon Country has lacked a truly informative guide to help folks navigate the commonwealth’s distilleries. Until now.

Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide by Susan Reigler, with photographs by Pam Spaulding, leapfrogs Internet travel sites and gives a comprehensive travel guide that digs deep into each Kentucky region.

Reigler gives a terroir look to Kentucky bourbon, breaking the book into the commonwealth’s major bourbon regions: Louisville, Frankfort and Midway, Lexington, Lawrenceburg, and Bardstown. In each section, Reigler offers the area’s bourbon history, from a brief mention of the Henry Clay distillery in the Lexington area to Frenchman Leopold Labrot’s shareholding status with the Frankfort/Midway region’s Labrot & Graham distillery, now the Woodford Reserve distillery.

As a Kentuckian, I’m thrilled with how Reigler explores not only bourbon, but takes you inside several relatively unknown destinations, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Lawrenceburg, a hidden gem in this state that’s often overlooked by travel writers; the Perryville Battlefield, a Civil War park where 7,500 were killed or wounded; and along the beautiful horse farms and race tracks that complement Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.

Reigler also gives cogent driving advice that GPS programmers should listen to and great boarding recommendations. Beyond the detail of most travel guides, Kentucky Bourbon Country was most certainly written by a Kentuckian.

Both Reigler’s and Risen’s books show great promise for the whiskey book world. Just remember to read responsibly and with fine bourbon in hand.

Woodford Reserve…Malts? Yes Indeed!

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Fred MinnickFred Minnick tastes the latest Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection.

2013 Woodford Masters Collection 061When master distiller Chris Morris revealed to me the latest Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection whiskeys, a single malt project, my first thought was that this will raise eyebrows with the craft distillers. The American craft distillers have carved out a nice niche with American single malts.

Woodford’s new Double Malt Selections—Straight Malt Whiskey and Classic Malt—are the first modern American malt expressions from a large-scale producer.

But Morris says the Double Malt project began before many craft distillers were in business. “Some might see this as following, but we were putting malt whiskey away nine years for maturation,” Morris says.

Morris has become accustomed to defending the Master’s Collection. Every year, he releases a limited edition with a change to one of the five sources of bourbon’s flavor: grain, water, fermentation, distillation and maturation. And every year, somebody says, “Well, that’s not really a bourbon.”

Morris calls the Master’s Collection the “Myth Busters” of whiskey making. “Old timers always told us we can’t do this and that,” he says. “We asked: Why not?”

Past Master’s Collection products also tested whiskey-making tradition, including Four Grain, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay-barrel finished, Sweet Mash, Maple Wood and last year’s Four Wood.

Morris says the inspiration for the Master’s Collection dates back to the mid-1800s distillers Oscar Pepper and James C. Crow, who modernized the bourbon-making processes on the land that is now Woodford Reserve. “Our charter is to be the home of innovative whiskey,” he says.

The Double Malt Selections mark the eighth expression of the Master’s Collection. Interestingly, given Woodford’s pot stills and the obvious Scottish connection, both products were made from malt mashes vs. worts. Woodford doesn’t have the capability to separate the grain for a wort, Morris says.

The Classic Malt was aged in used barrels, while the Straight Malt was stored in new charred oak barrels. The two barrel variations 2013 Woodford Masters Collection 062LRare obvious with a much lighter color and less oily flavor profile in the Classic Malt. The Straight Malt packs a similar color to Woodford Reserve, but there’s no smoke or rye spice to balance the woody notes. Lightly fruity and grain-forward, both are undeniably products of malt and American oak.

But I cannot get past the labeling. Why Straight Malt instead of the obviously more popular and more consumer-friendly single malt label?

“Our legal department would not let us call it single malt because it’s not made in Ireland or Scotland,” Morris says.

The Double Malt Selections will be available for $99.99 per bottle with availability at select stores throughout the United States and limited quantities in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, and in duty free markets.


5 Things You Don’t Know about MGPI, America’s most misunderstood distillery

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Fred MinnickFred Minnick gives you a Whisky Advocate exclusive look behind the scenes at the MGPI/LDI/Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

When I requested an interview with MGP Ingredients master distiller Greg Metze, I imagined I’d be turned down to view this secretive Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery.

Imagine my surprise when the MGPI publicist granted my request. The full story will appear in the Spring Issue of Whisky Advocate and reveal all. In the meantime, here are five factoids to pique your palate about MGPI, formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), formerly Pernod Ricard, formerly Seagram’s, formerly Rossville Union Distillery.

5. Distillery Disclosure: Customer’s Choice. MGPI says its contracts do not require anonymity clauses. Keeping the distillery a secret is the customer’s preference, says Dr. Don Coffey, MGPI’s VP of research and development. “We have a lot of customers who say, ‘Please don’t talk about us.’ And some put [Lawrenceburg, Ind.] right on the label,” Coffey says. “If somebody puts it on the label, that’s fair game. But, we’ve been asked by a lot of customers to not disclose; it’s just safer for us not to.” Plant manager Jim Vinoski says this non-disclosure strategy is a part of the company’s business model. “We are not marketers,” Vinoski says. “That’s their world.”MGPI Distillery 2

4. Sticking to History. Established in 1847 as the Rossville Union Distillery, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc. purchased the facility in 1933. When Seagram’s folded in 2000, Diageo and Pernod Ricard split the beverage division, with Pernod taking the Lawrenceburg facility. Pernod sold to CL Financial in 2007 to form LDI. When publicly traded MGPI purchased the LDI group in 2011, MGPI made a strategic decision to fondly remember its Seagram’s and LDI history. “That’s our heritage,” Vinoski says. Blogs, magazines and social media still refer to it as LDI. Many publicly traded companies would use trademark lawyers to correct such errors. But, Vinoski says: “Call us Seagram’s or LDI. It doesn’t bother us.”

3. The first LDI customer was…Templeton Rye Whiskey or High West. Both came in came in around the same time, Metze says. (According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau label approval records, Iowa-based Templeton received label approval two months before Utah-based High West in 2007.)

MGPI Distillery 192. Only 2012 stocks are left. As soon as LDI created a website, suitors came for the whiskey. From 2007 to 2011, dozens, maybe hundreds, of new whiskey brands appeared on the market using LDI-produced whiskey. There were so many that nobody really knows how many brands the company supplies without looking at a computer. Thus, with the popularity of its rye whiskey and bourbon, MGPI’s oldest available rye or bourbon whiskey is 2012. Everything else is under contract.

1. LDI almost started its own brands.  “CL Financial bought the distillery with the intention of launching their own brands,” Metze says. “We were developing some bourbon brands.” CL also purchased the Old Medley distillery (in Owensboro, Ky.) in 2007, so there were high hopes for the CL’s Angostura portfolio to add its own bourbon brands. But CL Financial collapsed in January 2009 amidst the global financial crisis and those bourbon dreams were gone. What would liquor shelves look like today if CL Financial had remained solvent?

Photos by Fred Minnick