Thursday, September 17, 2020

Jim Murray Does It Again (I Wish I Knew How)

Do not look directly into his eyes.

One thing you rarely read about in the whiskey press is the whiskey press. That's just as well. Excessive navel-gazing is a risk in any enterprise. Look at the movie industry. But Jim Murray's annual World Whisky of the Year awards are a cultural phenomenon that deserves a comment or two.

Although it is the work of one man, it is widely reported as if it represents an industry consensus. Every year there are dozens of different competitions for distilled spirits products; with panels of judges, prestigious announcement events, and fancy trophies. Murray does a press release, yet he gets better coverage than all of them. Murray's annual announcement is always front page news in the trade press and garners remarkably heavy coverage in the general press as well. 

How does he do it? No one explains Murray better than Murray. Here is his description of himself, from his website:

"Jim Murray is a legend and leading player on the world’s whisky stage. It is now over 25 years since he became the world’s first-ever full time whisky writer. And this 2020 edition of his Whisky Bible marks the 17th year of annual publication."

You can't argue with results.

What is his secret? Here is part of the answer. Murray does his business in a way that generally pleases whisky producers, although he has pissed off more than a few of them too. His annual pronouncement gives most of them something to crow about, often in irresistibly evocative prose, so they promote his glowing descriptions of their products and burnish his credibility in the process. He keeps a low profile most of the time and doesn't go on Facebook to argue about politics and other wastes of time. He maintains an air of mystery, the hermit aesthetic who speaks to his votaries only through The Book. ($19.95 on Amazon

About that evocative prose, here in part (from his press release) is his description of his latest World Whiskey of the Year:

“A succulence to the oils, balanced perfectly by ulmo and manuka honeys ensure for the most chewable Canadian mouthful possibly ever and yet this is constantly salivating, from the very first nanosecond."

Murray also is very good at creating controversy, i.e., buzz. He loves to tweak the whiskey establishment by giving his highest honors to outliers such as this year's winner, Beam Suntory’s Canadian bottling of Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye.

Whatever his secret, he's been getting it done for 25 years now, and I can testify to how easy that isn't.

NOTE (9/21/20): Murray's hegemony faces a new threat. Finally, he is being called out for the sexism in his writing.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

O. Z. Tyler Is Now Green River Distilling Co. (Again)

The distillery on the west side of Owensboro has had many names. One of the first was Green River, a name originally given to a distillery on the nearby Green River, a tributary of the Ohio. That distillery, established in 1885, was owned by John W. McCulloch, who had worked there as the 'government man' (i.e., internal revenue agent) before buying it. In about 1900, he moved the distillery to its current location for access to the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis Railroad line, but he kept the Green River name.

The Green River brand became famous for its advertising slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache.” With new rules post-Prohibition, that slogan was barred. Its replacement, “The Whiskey Without Regrets,” though arguably more evocative, never had the same zing and the brand declined. 

But now the slogan is back, in huge letters on the side of one of the distillery's brick maturation warehouses.

The name change is being unveiled today.

Green River Distilling Co. is owned by Terressentia, which bought it from CL Financial in 2014. They renovated the distillery, which had been dark since 1992, and named it O. Z. Tyler after the company's founder. Distilling resumed there in 2016. The master distiller, then and now, is Jacob Call, whose family has deep roots in bourbon-making. Both his father and grandfather worked at Jim Beam.

“Green River was known for making some of the finest whiskey in Kentucky," said Call. "We’re excited to be crafting bourbon and rye under the Green River flag again. As a third-generation distiller and seventh-generation Kentuckian, playing a role in reviving this historic distillery has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Terressentia is best known as developer of the TerraPURE rapid aging process. However, the bourbon and rye that will be sold under the Green River name will not use TerraPURE, according to distillery sources. Both whiskeys will be traditionally aged for a minimum of four years. A limited release of Green River Kentucky Straight Bourbon will be available in 2021. For more information, visit the distillery's web site.

Rob McCulloch, great-grandson of Green River's founder, worked closely with Terressentia CEO Simon Burch to rename the distillery. “I’ve always wanted the distillery’s name back at its original location in Owensboro," said McCulloch. "It completes the story my great-grandfather started in 1885.”

“We’re so grateful to Rob for sharing his family’s legacy with us and it’s a privilege to continue to build on the legacy that John McCulloch created," said Burch.  

Green River Distilling Co. is the westernmost point on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Is Jack Daniel’s the #1 selling whiskey in the world?


As I read the press release from Jack Daniel's about the resignation of Jeff Arnett, I thought they had buried the lede. There, at the end of the second paragraph, I saw it: "Jack Daniel’s is the #1 selling whiskey in the world."

I don't recall seeing this statement in any previous press releases from Jack Daniel's, but I have to confess I don't read them all. Notice the exact words: "#1 selling whiskey in the world." Not "#1 selling American whiskey in the world."

This is a big deal because the #1 spot has long been held, proudly, by Johnnie Walker. As any whiskey drinker knows, Jack Daniel's and Johnnie Walker are completely different products, connected only by the fact that both are classified as whiskey (or whisky). They are, however, as segment leaders, avatars of each nation's whiskey industry. As Jack and Johnnie go, so goes the business. World wide, scotch still outsells American whiskey about four to one, but that ratio has been narrowing steadily for decades.

In 2014, when the Tennessee legislature was considering amending or repealing its new Tennessee Whiskey law, I testified before the committee looking into the matter. I was there at the invitation of the newly-formed Tennessee Distillers Guild, most of whose members supported the existing law, which for the first time formally defined Tennessee whiskey as (in effect) straight bourbon that has been filtered through maple charcoal before aging.

Those wanting to dilute or discard the law were led by Diageo, owner of Tennessee's George Dickel Distillery, and not coincidentally also the owner of Johnnie Walker. Diageo and its supporters offered a variety of reasons for opposing the law. They said it was unfair to small distillers, too narrow, and stifled creativity. I told lawmakers the real reason. "Right now, Diageo's Johnnie Walker and Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's are battling for the title of world's number one whiskey, a title long held by Johnnie Walker," I told them. "Most industry analysts believe it is only a matter of time before Jack overtakes Johnnie. In emerging markets, where no one knows either, that title is worth millions, so anything Diageo can do to slow Jack down, they will do it, and that is why they are doing this."

That sent the Diageo folks in the hearing room scrambling, but no one has ever denied my claim.

Earlier that year, the drinks research firm IWSR reported that the principal expression of the Jack Daniel's line, black label "Old No. 7," had passed Johnnie Walker Red as the best-selling single expression of a whiskey product. Although the Arnett resignation is the first time I've noticed it in a press release, my Jack Daniel's contact says they've been using it for "some time," relying on the IWSR research. Wasn't there a big announcement, I asked? Apparently not, my contact said. "We typically don't tout something like that directly, so I'm not surprised that there wasn't a big announcement." 

Is Jack Daniel’s the #1 selling whiskey in the world? By that single-expression standard, yes. If you consider the brand as a whole, no. According to industry publication The Spirits Business, Jack Daniel's sold 13.4 million cases in 2019, Johnnie Walker sold 18.4 million.

The Spirits Business does a cute trick. Jack Daniel's is #1 on their "World Whisky" list, which excludes the products of Scotland. Johnnie Walker is #1 on their "Scotch Whisky" list. But they also show the numbers. Neither brand has moved very much since 2014, with each growing by about a million cases.

If you merge the two lists it goes like this. Johnnie is first, Jack is second, Jim Beam is third, Ballantine’s Scotch is fourth and other blended scotches round out the top ten. An American whiskey, Maker's Mark, slips back in at number 12. 

But nobody cares about #12. Everybody wants to be #1. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

No, the Booze Business Is Not 'Thriving,' Part Two


Historically in the US, approximately 80 percent of alcohol sales were conducted at off-premise retail establishments such as alcohol, convenience, and grocery stores; with the remaining 20 percent coming from on-premise (bars, restaurants, etc.). As Covid-19 impacts the on-premise beverage alcohol landscape, the balance between on- and off- premise occasions has shifted, with consumers being forced into even more at-home consumption.

This is from IWSR, one of the leading research companies serving the alcoholic beverage business. 

As much as it is Covid killing on-premise today, the on/off-premise ratio has been shifting toward off-premise since the turn of the century.

One reason is price. Drinking in always has been cheaper than drinking out, but the gap has grown as on-premise prices have increased more than off-premise prices over the last 20 years. Other factors driving more at-home drinking include stricter DUI laws, a societal/generational shift towards online experiences, the growth of online shopping and delivery services, and better at-home entertainment options. 

Today, there are 20% fewer places that serve alcohol than there were 20 years ago. 

According to IWSR's analysis, total beverage alcohol volume sales for off-premise increased by 9.3% over the 52-week period ending August 16th. It would need to increase at twice that rate to compensate for the estimated 75 percent loss of on-premise business. 

IWSR estimates that, when all is said and done, the industry will have grown 0.06 percent in 2020. Growth? Yes. Thriving? No. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

No, the Booze Business Is Not 'Thriving'

On Tuesday, Vinepair published an article by Tim McKirdy entitled, "What's Fueling the Billion-Dollar Bourbon Boom?" In it he writes, "It's no secret that liquor sales have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic." 

Not only is it not a secret, it's not true. What has thrived has been at-home drinking and hence liquor stores sales, what the industry calls "off-premise." Yes, off-premise is thriving but on-premise, meaning bars and restaurants, is dying. The one has not offset the other so overall liquor sales are down or, at best, flat.

How bad is it?

IWSR is one of the leading research companies serving the alcoholic beverage business. Back in May, they put out a press release with this headline and subhead: "Beverage Alcohol Not Expected to Rebound Until 2024. Global Alcohol Consumption Grew Last Year, However, New IWSR Research Forecasts That Covid-19 Will Push 2019 Volume Gains Back By 5 Years."

That's the real story.

They elaborate: "Total global alcohol consumption, led by increases in beer and ready-to-drink products, grew by +0.1% in volume and +3.6% in value in 2019, but losses in the months-long near complete shutdown of bars and restaurants across the world this year has not been offset by upticks in liquor retail and ecommerce. IWSR expects this to lead to double-digit declines in 2020, which IWSR estimates will take until 2024 to reach 2019 pre-Covid-19 levels (though in the UK and US, IWSR forecasts that pre-Covid-19 beverage alcohol volume levels likely won’t return until after 2024.) Global travel retail, severely affected by widespread travel restrictions, will see a particularly harsh decline in 2020 but is expected to reach pre-crisis levels by 2024."

Did you catch the caveat about the US and UK? They predict recovery some time after 2024, and they aren't prepared to say how much after. Yes, this release is from May, but has anything happened since then that would make the outlook rosier?

I got into the beverage alcohol business at about the time the American whiskey industry collapsed. For years after that, industry observers predicted a rebound was "just around the corner." It wasn't. It took about 40 years. Only now, as in 2019, has whiskey production (as in new distillate going into barrels) exceeded the previous high-water mark. As McKirdy notes, in 2019 "Kentucky distillers filled more than 1.7 million barrels of bourbon — nearly four times greater than 1999’s total. Production in the Bluegrass State ... is the highest it’s been since 1972, according to data from the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA)."

Production in the other big production state, Tennessee, is similarly at record levels.

It's bad all over. Last month, a study prepared by the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) and the American Distilling Institute showed that craft distillers have lost 41 percent of their sales, worth more than $700 million, since the shutdowns started earlier this year. Thirty-one percent of their employees have been furloughed. 

Craft distillers have been hit so hard because sales at the distillery are such a big percentage of their total sales. About 40 percent of craft distillers make most of their sales at the distillery. Most craft distilleries have seen those at-the-distillery sales decline and 15 percent say their distillery store is completely shut down. 

But the worst hits are happening with on-premise retail; bars and restaurants. Those who haven't thrown in the towel are struggling to survive. Millions are out of work. No one is thriving.

There is a lot of denial around this crisis, driven by partisan politics. But if you're willing to look at the facts in a clear-eyed way, it's possible to get a picture of what's really going on and what happens next. I'm lucky because I'm mostly retired. Like everyone I've lost some income streams, but most people have it much worse than I do. If I have any advice it's just this. 

Be realistic. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Production of American Whiskey Today and How It Got That Way

Diageo's 2017 Bulleit Distillery near Shelbyville, Kentucky.

American whiskey may be the greatest comeback story of all time. Left for dead a half-century ago, today it bestrides the world. 

Although it seems like we have been talking about the 'bourbon boom' forever, the industry has grown only recently in terms of the number of distilleries producing American whiskey and the number of different companies involved. The biggest players have gotten and are getting much bigger, and there are several newcomers. It's a new ball game and the biggest changes have occurred in the last four years.

Is it enough? Is it too much? No one can know for sure, but at least you can be well-informed about where we are and where we seem to be headed.

If, that is, you read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader. It drops today. This is the third in our "How It Got That Way" series.

Current Reader subscribers should receive their copies in a few days. New subscribers can get on the bandwagon by clicking here.

Born in 1993, in the 201st year of Kentucky statehood, The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail.

A subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still a mere $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 20, Number 2.

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free searchable PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.)

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Monday, August 17, 2020

Whiskey Yoda Says, "There Is No Best, Only You Like Best"

Au Cheval, a restaurant here in Chicago, makes a double cheeseburger that Food Network’s 'Top 5 Restaurants' program named the best burger in the U.S. There have, of course, been many ‘best burger’ lists, also best pizza, best candy bar, best breakfast, best ice cream, best cereal, best barbeque, best snack, and of course best whiskey.

While I’m happy for the folks at Au Cheval, and I think it’s great when people are applauded for their accomplishments, I despise these lists, all of them, especially the whiskey ones. I believe the people who make them and the people who believe and rely on them have a serious character flaw. At least one. This is, therefore, just a vent. I am under no illusion that this will change anyone’s mind. At best, it might give a little comfort to others who agree with me.

'Best’ is an illusion. There is simply no such thing without some sort of objective criteria, like weight, length, or height. Biggest burger is a real thing, best burger is not. It’s subjective, the judgment of one person or, maybe, a group of people. They certainly didn’t sample every burger in America, or even a small fraction of them. They say they have found the best burger in America but that's a lie. They have done no such thing.

The people who commission and make these lists are engaging in a tremendous act of hubris, choosing their favorite of something and declaring it ‘the best.’ Tallying the subjective opinions of several people does not render them objective. Everyone is entitled to have favorites but declaring that your favorite is ‘the best’ is narcissistic. Who are you to judge? Your taste is superior to mine? You've eaten more burgers than I have? Get over yourself! Better to tell the truth.

With whiskey, “what’s the best bourbon?” is the question I'm asked most often, usually followed by “what’s your favorite bourbon?” when I demure on the first question. When asked these questions I am friendly and polite (usually) and try to give a satisfying answer, naming four or five personal favorites, but what I really want to do is turn and run away, lest I start to lecture them about the need for a complete life change.

If you really could determine the 'best bourbon,' you might regret it. I like to try new things but if I know what the best is, why bother? Taste a new whiskey because it just might be better than the best? What are the chances? What a desolate life, either eating or drinking only one thing, albeit somebody's idea of ‘the best,’ or eating or drinking various but always inferior things. Don't rank, enjoy the splendor of diversity.

The 'quest for the best' is a cheat. Drinking something because you've heard it’s ‘the best bourbon in the world’ (you know which one I mean), and telling everyone that’s why you drink it, doesn’t tell me you're an accomplished bourbon connoisseur. Just the opposite. It tells me you're lazy and want a short cut route to this and probably everything else. You're unwilling to do the work of connoisseurship, which is also its greatest reward. Your judgment is of no interest to me because you have shown none. I should feel sorry for you because you're missing the best part, but in fact I think you're a jerk.

I read some of these lists, because I might see something I’d like to experience, but the ‘b’ word always turns me off. It continually gnaws at me. Are we such children that we would find a program called ‘Five Really Good Hamburgers and Where to Find Them’ insufficiently compelling? Guy Fieri may be irritating but I respect the fact that every program is filled with “the greatest diners, drive-ins and dives.” He never feels compelled to rank them at the end of the season. He loves everything. Sure, some diners, drive-ins and dives aren't so great. That’s why they're not on the show.

At law, calling your company, service or hamburger ‘the best’ is considered ‘puffery.’ That’s the actual, legal word for it: ‘puffery.’ It is defined as a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no 'reasonable person' would take literally. The Federal Trade Commission defines puffery as a "term frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined."

Let that sink in for a moment. You can't claim you're the oldest or the biggest or the most popular unless you are and can prove it, but you can claim you're 'the best' even if you have nothing to back it up. The puffery rule means that if you say you're ‘the best,’ no one can sue you by arguing you're not, no matter how bad you are. The claim is not subject to proof and is, therefore, not actionable.

I could get serious for a moment and suggest that people who believe there is a best hamburger or best bourbon may also believe there is a best way to solve any problem, as in only one right way. They may also believe there is only one right way to configure a family, educate children, govern a country, make love, art, or tea. They may believe there is only one true God. And there is a good chance that anyone who does not prefer the one true hamburger is apostate and not to be trusted.

Off with their heads.

‘The best’ sounds serious, important, hard to ignore. A similar meaningless claim you hear all the time is 'none better,' as in, "no one beats our prices." While that seems like a superlative, it's not. What it really means is, "our prices are about the same as everybody else's."

Despite all that, 'the best' attracts eyeballs in our clickbait world.

By the way, I no longer judge whiskey competitions, mainly because I don't enjoy it.

When you're doing it in a group, the social part is fun. If you're doing it by yourself at home it is tedious. Having been on the inside of major international whiskey competitions does not make me take them more seriously, just the opposite. I'd rather be drinking Wild Turkey.

But I'm just venting. Nothing to see here. Move along.