Friday, December 19, 2014

New Bourbon Documentary Hides Ugly Secret

KET, Kentucky’s public television network, debuted a new bourbon documentary earlier this week. It is called “Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business.”

The one-hour program is a series of short snippets from dozens of on-camera interviews, illustrated with historic images and beautiful contemporary views of distilleries, including spectacular aerial shots. The interview subjects often speak very personally and emotionally about their families and their love for the bourbon business. It is touching and informative, beautifully shot and edited, everything about it is first rate.

The documentary is only being broadcast in Kentucky but you can stream it here.

As wonderful as the program is, and it really is wonderful, it hides an embarrassing secret. You may wonder why the name Pappy Van Winkle, which has become nearly synonymous with high end bourbon in recent years, is never mentioned. Or why the close friendship between Jimmy Russell and Booker Noe is discussed at length but the third musketeer, Elmer T. Lee, is missing in action.


These important families and several others were excluded, not because there wasn't enough time for everyone, but because they are on the wrong side of a petty commercial dispute.

Erased from history are any families associated with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, or the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro.

“Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business” was produced for KET by Joanna Hay Productions on behalf of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA). Because Sazerac--the company that owns Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, and Glenmore--chooses not to belong to the KDA, it was not given the opportunity to participate.

The KDA and its members have pretended Sazerac and its distilleries do not exist ever since New Year’s Eve of 2009, when Sazerac withdrew from the organization. No Sazerac distillery is included on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail either but the KDA owns the Trail, it doesn’t own KET or the University of Kentucky, both of which are owned by all of the people of Kentucky. KET and UK should be ashamed of themselves for their complicity in this charade.

The Nunn Center might answer that it did a separate oral history project with Buffalo Trace, and those interviews are available for viewing on the Center’s web site. True, but they’re not on the fancy new web site linked to the documentary project.

The KDA member companies clearly dictated every aspect of this project. They chose the interview subjects and even the interviewers, to control how their brand stories would be told. If it wasn't mentioned in any of the carefully controlled interviews, it didn't happen. Therefore, as nice as it is, “Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business” is 60 minutes of propaganda for those companies and their products.

There are other serious omissions unrelated to Sazerac such as the Buzicks, whose construction company builds most of the aging warehouses; and the Shermans, whose Vendome Company builds most of the stills. Both families have been prominent industry players for several generations.

Don’t feel sorry for Sazerac. They’re doing just fine without the KDA. The problem is that the KDA is lying when it claims to be “responsible for promoting and protecting all things Bourbon.” It is, instead, a private club interested in promoting the views and interests of its members only, and discrediting all other voices. In this case, that lie has been abetted by two institutions of state government. It is an ugly stain on an otherwise lovely piece of work.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Chip Tate and the Plight of Creative People

If you haven't been following the saga of Texas micro-distillery Balcones and its founder, Chip Tate, I won't try to bring you up to speed here. The Waco Tribune has covered the story very well from the beginning, for which we should all be grateful. Their most recent story, which reports the conclusion of the current chapter, is here.

I say 'current chapter' because Balcones will continue and Tate will be back. His new manifestation will be in Waco, he says, so the story should stay interesting.

Balcones under Chip Tate has been one of the leaders of the young micro-distillery movement. Its products have been original and delicious. Up until the recent troubles its story has been pitch-perfect too. In a year when craft distillery fakery was all in the news, Balcones was usually pointed to as a new, small distillery that became successful the right way.

My attitude now is that the parties have settled their dispute. What was said was said, and you can't unring a bell, but there is nothing to be gained by rehashing it or trying to dredge up new details. There is nothing to be gained by knowing more except to satisfy our voyeurism, which is a pretty small good for speculation and commentary that will inevitably be very hurtful to people who deserve more respect and care from us than that.

(To that end, I will not approve any comments that do not follow these guidelines.)

I think it's fair to say that a Tate-less Balcones is a fundamentally different company. It will be judged on what it does going forward, just as Tate will be judged on what he does going forward. What they did together is on the record. That entity is gone. It's what is to come that matters now.

All of the parties are to be commended for bringing it to a conclusion quickly and not compounding the damage already done. The most supportive thing we can do as fans is look to the future and hope all parties will do the same and thrive.

That said, this saga has caused me to reflect on what sometimes happens to creative people in business. 'Creative' can be a tough word to talk about in the first person, but I spent most of my career in the world of advertising and marketing communication, where 'creative' is a job title, the name of a department, and the term used to describe the work product itself, as in, "have you finished the creative for the new campaign yet?"

In organizations of all kinds, managers sometimes think of employees as mere cogs in a machine, each essentially the same, easily interchangeable and replaceable. That's always a mistake, because every person is unique. Managers who think that way often do so because they are convinced it is they who make all the difference, not the people who work for them. But mostly it's a problem that happens when managers who come from one discipline are charged with managing people from a different one.

In part, I was raised to be sensitive to this problem. Dad was an engineer for an appliance manufacturer. He complained endlessly about the 'bean counters' who cared too much about cost and not enough about product quality.

For me as a freelancer, I have to be wary of prospective clients who shop for creatives like they're shopping for a new phone. Hiring the right creative is more about the ability to connect and communicate with that person than it is about how much they cost or even whether or not you like their past work. When it's apparent that a prospective client has no real idea what I do, I back away. You have to, because it's bound to become a problem eventually. A client, or boss, who fundamentally doesn't understand what you do can't direct you productively or evaluate you fairly.

Sometimes it's just an irritant but it can become a nightmare.

Creatives, therefore, have to develop the ability to spot bad bosses in advance and avoid them, but in a long career you inevitably miss a few. That can amount to a serious career setback or, at the least, a real solid period of unpleasantness, but you have to be true to yourself and pay the price to get back on track. You learn from it and move on. But, for God's sake, learn from it. Examine what blinded you to the warning signs. From my experience it's usually money, or fame, or prestige, or power, or something that looks like an easy score. Some or all of those seduce you and you don't recognize what you later realize was obvious from the beginning.

But if you really do learn from the experience (and I'm talking about myself here, no one else), then it's worth it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thank You For Your Support

I have four books out about American whiskey. Three are available in both print and electronic editions, one is electronic only. Click here to learn more.

Although you can buy the print books directly from me, most of my sales come through Amazon. As you can imagine, this is my busy season. Amazon reports sales daily. They should peak this coming week but have been very gratifying so far.

I'm about as small as a small business gets but in my marketing career I have worked with many giants. There are some ways in which all businesses are alike, regardless of size. One is new products. I don't care how much testing and analysis you do, you never really know how well a new product will be received. Some of the biggest companies in the world have had spectacular new product failures.

You just never know.

In addition to wondering how well Bourbon, Strange would be accepted, I wondered what effect the new book would have on sales of Bourbon, Straight, my first bourbon book, now more than 10 years old. That Bourbon, Straight is still selling at all after so long is unusual. Part of that is because I am the publisher and have kept it in print. I'm not sure a conventional publisher would have understood that since bourbon is still booming, new people become interested in it every day. Bourbon, Straight has continued to sell and has sold more in the last few years than it did when it was new.

Obviously, I intended Bourbon, Strange to have a family resemblance. I wanted to signal potential readers that while it is a different book, it is the same kind of book. I calculated that there was value in that but also risk. I was concerned that people looking for a bourbon book would gravitate to the new one and that would hurt Bourbon, Straight sales.

Thankfully, that hasn't happened. Numbers-wise, the sales of Bourbon, Strange appear to be entirely new. Sales of Bourbon, Straight haven't suffered at all. If anything, they've been enhanced. I have found over the years that when I launch a new product it tends to help everything else in the portfolio so I should have expected that, but as I said before, you never know for sure.

That's a lot about me, here is the part about you. Thank you. I appreciate your support more than you can imagine. In addition to the books and newsletter, my recent private and public tasting events have been successful too. Those are very direct forms of feedback. There is no buffer between you and me. I'm happy with that arrangement and gratified that so many of you have made me part of your bourbon adventure.

May it never end.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jim Beam Announces Louisville Visitors Center

Beam Suntory announced yesterday its plan to open a "unique new visitors experience in the heart of Louisville’s 4th Street entertainment district in 2015."

The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will include a small working distillery, a bottling line, a tasting experience, and a variety of branded merchandise available for sale.  

“The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will be a must-stop destination in the heart of Louisville that will complement the experience offered at our Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont,” said Kevin Smith, Vice President, Kentucky Beam Bourbon Affairs. “In Louisville’s most exciting downtown area, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will provide a unique hands-on opportunity to experience the heritage and craftsmanship of bourbon on weekdays, weekends and evenings, and we believe it will serve as a trailhead for the increasing number of visitors to Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries.”

“This project is another example of the growth of bourbonism in Louisville,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. “Our city’s bourbon experiences are attracting a new type of tourist and that leads directly to economic growth and job creation. The Urban Stillhouse also expands the bourbon experience down Fourth Street, creating a density of spirits tourism locations downtown.”

The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse represents a multi-million dollar investment and will be located in 4,300 square feet of space on the street level beneath Beam Suntory’s Louisville office.

The Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will be about a block from Beam Suntory's other 4th Street property, the Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. As Kentucky's largest city, Louisville has successfully positioned itself as the perfect 'home base' for a bourbon country adventure, with more dining and lodging choices than any other town, and now a growing number of bourbon-related attractions.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Heaven Hill Names Denny Potter Co-Master Distiller

Denny Potter, currently plant manager, has joined Craig Beam as the Co-Master Distiller at Heaven Hill, the company announced today.

Heaven Hill distills its whiskeys at the historic Bernheim Distillery on the west side of Louisville. They are aged at various locations, but primarily at the company headquarters in Bardstown.

Potter has spent 13 years in distillery operations. He came to Heaven Hill from Jim Beam, where he was Operations Manager at the Frankfort bottling and maturation facility. Prior to that, Potter was General Manager at Beam's Cruzan Rum distillery in St. Croix, USVI, and Director of Distillery and Environmental Operations at Beam's Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto.

“We are very pleased to have Denny continue his growth with the company and within the industry,” Heaven Hill President Max L. Shapira said. “His knowledge of Bourbon production and aging—and his ability to teach and relate these subjects to the trade and consumers—make him an ideal person to help carry forth Heaven Hill’s leadership position and reputation into the future. Denny is grounded in the traditions of our company and industry yet has a keen eye for innovation and emerging trends.”

A native of Louisville, Potter holds an undergraduate degree from Indiana University in Bloomington and an MBA from Indiana University-Southeast.

In addition to responsibility for grain acquisition, distillery operations, maturation, and quality control, master distillers today are a distillery's primary brand ambassadors. One solution to this challenge is multiple master distillers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Stranahan's Is Back. Let the Disinformation Begin

Earlier this fall, Stranahan's announced that its Colorado Whiskey will be distributed outside of Colorado for the first time in more than four years. This seemingly straightforward announcement has been accompanied by an unusual amount of bullshit. Forbes Life contributor Katie Kelly Bell, for example, writes that "several years ago Stranahan's went national with distribution. It was a raging success, so much so that local fans in Colorado were left out in the cold, unable to find their home state whiskey anywhere. Owner Jess Graber wisely brought distribution to a halt, restored the stock on local shelves and set about ramping up production to meet national demand. Years later, he has produced and aged enough whiskey to go around and make everyone, from the Rocky Mountains to Manhattan, happy."

If that reads more like a press release than a news story, that's because it probably is. And Katie Kelly Bell is the same person who wrote another piece on Forbes Life in which she claims that "The Best New Bourbon Is Actually An Aged Panamanian Rum."

But the fact that this revisionist history most likely comes from Stranahan's itself is disturbing, especially in light of the still-unfolding Balcones situation, because Stranahan's has been one of the leaders in the craft distilling movement and, by and large, they have done things the right way. Now and then, though, they struggle with the truth.

Here's what really happened.

In 2003, Stranahan's was founded by Jess Graber, George Stranahan, and some other people. Graber was always the front man, appearing all over the country in his trademark Western kit. He was at all the shows and meetings, a garrulous spokesperson who in many ways drew the template for micro-distillery owner/ambassadors to follow.

Then, in 2010, rumors began to swirl and were eventually confirmed. Stranahan's had been sold to Proximo Spirits, a New Jersey distilled spirits marketing company owned by Mexico's Beckmann family, which owns Jose Cuervo Tequila. Everything about it was very secretive. I made about a dozen posts back in 2010-11, trying to follow the story. Search "Stranahan's" in the site search box to the right to check them out.

Head Distiller Jake Norris lasted several months, then quit, explaining to an interviewer that, “I am not one to hang around and watch someone bridle a wild pony.” Graber agreed to stay around as a brand ambassador if they wanted him, which they didn't until recently.

No one has ever told the real story of what happened, but Proximo did end all distribution outside of Colorado. It also added equipment and increased production. Although Stranahan's is not age-stated it is believed to be about three years old, so now is when that production increase should be kicking in.

Stranahan's is a good product. It's a malt whiskey, distilled from a wash (like scotch), but it's aged in new, charred oak barrels (like bourbon). The flavor is unique and quite enjoyable, and it's really made in small pot stills in Colorado. It's also really bottled by enthusiastic volunteers in Colorado and not at Proximo's huge bottling plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (part of the old Seagram's complex there).

But they want to have it both ways. Graber is great spokesperson and legitimately a company founder, but he was never the sole owner and hasn't owned anything since 2010. He doesn't run the place. Stranahan's likes to call itself "independent and family-owned," but they don't say that the family is the billionaire Beckmanns, who also own the world's number one tequila.

They won't tell you this and neither will a lot of so-called journalists who are more interested in bylines and inches than they are in reporting actual facts.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

My Dad's Pearl Harbor Story

Seventy-three years ago today my father, J. K. 'Ken' Cowdery, was in the Army stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. This is his account of that morning.

Sunday, December 7, 1941, dawned bright and clear at Schofield Barracks, Territory of Hawaii. At least I assume that it did because it was bright and clear when I got up at about 7:45.

To get breakfast I had to be in the chow line out behind the barracks before 8:00. I made it.

Someone noticed a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of Wheeler Field, the fighter field, south of our location. There were comments and conjecture that the fly boys must be having some kind of exercise and that one of them had cracked up.

At about the same time we noticed a line of planes coming over Kole Kole Pass, which was about three miles northwest of us and in full view because there was nothing in the way. Our barracks was the furthest northwest barracks on the post. As the first plane in the line passed overhead I could not only see the red circle markings on the plane but could see the pilot's face, he came in so low that he cleared the two story barracks by about 5 or 6 feet.

At that point he also started his guns. We never did figure out why he didn't start strafing a few seconds sooner and try to get some of the 30 or 40 guys in the chow line. I have no idea what the second plane in the line did, by the time he got there I was long gone.

We all made for cover, I went into the building via the back door to the kitchen. The kitchen was about 20 feet wide by about 30 feet long. Just inside the back door, to the right, was the walk-in cooler. I hit the floor at the far end of the cooler, putting the cooler between me and the line of fire.

There must have been several planes in the line as the firing kept up for quite a long time--at least it seemed like a long time. After the firing stopped everything was completely silent, there was not a sound. I wondered if I was the only one still alive.

There was a line of preparation tables down the center of the room, with equipment and utensil storage drawers below, and ranges along the far wall at the other end of the room. Looking around I could not see another human being, everyone was obviously hugging the floor. Then I saw a hand rise up, pick up a spatula, turn over two eggs frying on the range, then replace the spatula and again disappear.

Regardless of the circumstances, duty comes first.

I might add at this point that this was the 90th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, a Regular Army outfit.

When it seemed that the attack was over and people started stirring again I grabbed a plate, claimed the eggs, and sat down to eat my breakfast.