Friday, August 22, 2014

It's Time for Jim Beam to Drop the Number One Bourbon Claim

I like the Beam Suntory company very much. I like the people and most of their products.They are an outstanding operation. They do things the right way and they are very successful. They are truthful and reasonably open. They have been a leader and innovator and respectful participant in the bourbon business, and you know how much I love bourbon.

It is because I have so much respect and affection for them that I am making this suggestion.

Please stop claiming that Jim Beam is the world's #1 bourbon. It's not. You are bragging about a technicality. It's embarrassing.

As most readers can guess, I'm saying this because Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is bourbon in all but name. It is made like bourbon and tastes like bourbon. Even their acclaimed charcoal mellowing really just jump-starts the barrel aging process. It is a point of difference but not a very big one, objectively. It has more to do with marketing than with the product itself.

Jack Daniel's is the world #1 bourbon and trending toward becoming the world's #1 whiskey, spilling Johnnie Walker from that throne.

Although they were fairly close in sales for many years, Jack Daniel's has pulled away from Jim Beam decisively. Daniel's sells about 60 percent more whiskey than Beam. They're not even close. Beam is doing fine. It has grown and is growing, and is an equally dominant #2. Evan Williams is third.

As people around the world discover American whiskey they will drink Jack and Jim and find them very similar. They will ask, "what's the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?" We will sound silly when we try to explain. The least silly explanation is the truest one. It's a marketing thing. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon that's made in Tennessee. They don't call it bourbon because bourbon is so closely associated with Kentucky.

This matters because bourbon is competing for share-of-mouth against a wide variety of beverages, alcoholic and not, but it competes most directly against other whiskeys. Classifying whiskeys by their place of origin works because each country, for the most part, produces a different style of whiskey. Among whiskeys, bourbon is the most distinctive because most other nations make whiskey from malted barley in a style that inevitably resembles scotch. The other exception would be Canada, which takes elements from both the Scottish and American styles. Japanese whiskey has emerged as a distinctive style, although it is still very close to scotch. Irish whiskey still struggles to distinguish itself from scotch, which is not to say the Irish don't make fabulous whiskey.

I don't expect Jim Beam to suddenly start crowing "We're Number Two." Nor do I expect Jack Daniel's to claim its primacy, except perhaps to say it is the world's most popular American-made whiskey, which doesn't have the same zip. I just want Beam Suntory to think about it, and maybe look for something else to hang their hat on, realizing that the cat is out of the bag.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Diageo's New Distillery to Bear Bulleit Name

Diageo held a groundbreaking ceremony today for its new Kentucky distillery in Shelby County and announced that it will make Bulleit Bourbon there. What's interesting is that the day this distillery opens, its namesake product will be selling more than its distillery can produce, based on estimates announced by Diageo.

One-hundred-fifteen million dollars just doesn't buy what it used to.

Diageo appears to be following the lead of rival Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman's Woodford Reserve has a beautiful, showcase distillery for the tourists, which makes some of the product. The rest is made in an unseen factory somewhere else.

At Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's, tourists never see 90 percent of the warehouses. The bottling house and other functions are also hidden. They're not underground or anything, just several miles from the distillery and town proper.

Okay, it's also the Heineken model. The old brewery in Amsterdam that the tourists see produces little or nothing. The real brewery is several miles away.

The approach must work, as Woodford, Jack Daniel's and Heineken are extremely popular tourist destinations. But so is Buffalo Trace, where everything is visible and everything is made there.

There is one hitch in this theory. Diageo says the new distillery won't be open to the public. A visitors center might be built in the future, hinted Diageo North America President Larry Schwartz, but only if Shelby County voters vote the county wet. They have two years. The new distillery is supposed to open late in 2016.

In the meantime, Diageo is building a Bulleit Bourbon visitors center 40 miles away at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, where they make nothing. It is believed they age Bulleit Bourbon there that was made somewhere else, but they won't confirm it.

And that, dear friends, is Diageo.

Our friend Fred Minnick has a detailed report of the groundbreaking here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Is Your Name Jim Beam? Let's Party!

If your name is James Beam, you may have heard that another guy named James 'Jim' Beam rather famously made whiskey a century or so ago, and one of the most popular whiskeys in the world still bears his name.

That's the premise for a party in honor of legendary bourbon distiller Jim Beam's 150th birthday. Jim Beam Bourbon is inviting anyone named Jim Beam (who is of legal drinking age) to join a once-in-a-lifetime birthday party at the historic distillery in Clermont, Kentucky on September 18, 2014 at 11AM EDT. Anyone named James 'Jim' Beam who makes the journey will be an honored guest and play a special role in the day-long festivities.

"If your name is Jim Beam, then you better get down here," said Fred Noe, Jim Beam's great-grandson and 7th Generation Master Distiller. "We want to meet you and we want to treat you to a special day in honor of a special man."

(The party is free but guests are responsible for all travel and expenses associated with the event.)

Fittingly held during National Bourbon Heritage Month and the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, this milestone birthday celebration will take place at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse

According to Noe, the "Jim Beams" will be treated to a VIP distillery tour, including a private BBQ lunch and the honor of helping to unveil a life-size bronze statue of Jim Beam created to commemorate his birthday.

"They're going to get VIP treatment," said Noe. "Because if they have the same name as my great-granddad, they deserve it."

Born in Bardstown, Kentucky in 1864, Beam was the fourth generation family distiller. His great-grandfather, Jacob Beam, founded the family business in the foothills of Kentucky in 1795. After learning the business from his father, David M., Jim Beam established Jim Beam Bourbon as a national brand after Prohibition.

Bourbon enthusiasts unable to make it to Kentucky need not worry. They can still raise a glass and share the Beam family legacy on Facebook at or @JimBeam on Twitter.

Fans must be 21 years old or older to participate. For more information or to RSVP to the event, email by Monday, September 15, 2014. Space is limited and restricted to a first-come basis. Guests not bearing the namesake are also invited to join the birthday celebration, with complimentary cake and ice cream served at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse from 11AM to 5PM EDT.

The name 'Beam' is an Americanization of the German name 'Boehm,' which was itself a shortened form of 'Bohemian,' meaning a Czech from that historical country of Central Europe. Because Bohemia was a common place of origin, Boehm and Beam are relatively common names and persons having that name aren't necessarily related, their ancestors simply all hailed from that region. All of which means there should be quite a few takers for this unusual event.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Buffalo Trace Addresses Rampant Rumors About Portfolio Changes

This may come under the heading of 'no good deed goes unpunished,' for them and for me, but here goes. Buffalo Trace has issued a press release to address some of the rumors that are going around. It follows but, first, a brief commentary.

Buffalo Trace makes more different bourbon and rye brands than anyone else in the business. All of those brands have increased in popularity in recent years That is mostly good -- for them and us -- but a little bit bad, because Buffalo Trace has had a worse shortage problem than anyone else in the business. They also rely on the serious bourbon enthusiast market more than anyone else in the business. And they do a better job than anyone else of showing love to that audience. That's why they take chances and put out announcements like this:


After providing a recent update to its fans about the bourbon shortage the Distillery currently faces, the rumor mill spun into overdrive as a few folks speculated on why it was difficult to find their favorite Buffalo Trace bourbons on liquor store shelves.

"Many people dismissed the warning about our bourbon shortage, speculating that this was a publicity stunt we conceived to sell more bourbon. That's simply not true. We only provided the update to consumers, retailers, and bartenders in an honest and forthright attempt to explain why bottles seem so scarce these days. Many liquor stores across the country may have empty shelves, and we felt an obligation to explain why," said Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director.  "While we cannot speak for the bourbon industry as a whole, our bourbon shortages are a very real problem, driven by increased demand for the brands. Every single one of our bourbon brands is currently on strict allocation. While we are, and have been, making more over the last several years, bourbon takes a long time to age in oak barrels. As we wait for barrels to mature, there will be temporary periods in which bottles are hard to find."

Once people started to see empty shelves at the local store, rumors started flying. Here are some of the most popular rumors:

Rumor #1: Weller 12 Year-Old-Bourbon will be being discontinued.  False. There are no plans to discontinue Weller 12 Year. In fact, we have increased production by a considerable amount for future sales.

Rumor #2: All of the Weller Bourbon is now being shipped to Japan.  False.  None of the Weller Bourbons (Special Reserve, Old Weller Antique, 12 Year-Old, and William Larue Weller) are shipped to Japan.

Rumor #3: Buffalo Trace is shipping most of its bourbon to China and Japan. False.  While a modest amount of bourbon is sent to those markets, the quantity is very small as we ensure the overwhelming majority is made available here in the United States.

Rumor #4: Eagle Rare Bourbon is now aged only six or seven years. False.  Eagle Rare Bourbon is still aged for 10 years and there are no plans to change this. The age statement remains on the back of the bottle.

Rumor #5: Elmer T. Lee is being discontinued. False.  We have been making Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel for nearly three decades and have no plans to stop.

Rumor #6: Elmer took the recipe for his bourbon to his grave, so it will never be made again. False. Fortunately and thankfully, we have the recipe for Elmer T. Lee Bourbon and are continuing to make more.  Additionally, we have a very full archive library of samples of his favorite picks to ensure consistency for the future.

Rumor #7: Elmer T. Lee is becoming part of the Antique Collection. False.  We are very happy with our current lineup of the Antique Collection (George T. Stagg, Sazerac 18 Year, Eagle Rare 17 Year, William Larue Weller and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac) and have no plans to change this lineup or discontinue any of the offerings.  Furthermore, our Antique Collection whiskies are only released once annually and we want to offer Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel more regularly throughout the year.

Rumor #8: Buffalo Trace is taking advantage of this bourbon shortage to raise prices. False.  Our prices to our customers have and will remain relatively unchanged. We strive to offer consumers award-winning whiskey at a great value. Although a minority of stores may now be charging a premium for these limited brands, we are not asking them to do so. Our commitment to quality and pricing will remain consistent now and in the future

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Confused About American Whiskey? The Answers Are Here

A lot has been written in the last week or so about deceptive packaging and deceptive marketing of American whiskey. It started with Eric Felten in the Daily Beast with, "Your ‘Craft’ Rye Whiskey Is Probably From a Factory Distillery in Indiana." That article has been widely re-posted and commented upon. It also brought some new attention to the piece Wayne Curtis wrote for The Atlantic back in May, "Has Craft Distilling Lost Its Spirit?"

The media isn't just writing about the Potemkin Distilleries and other fakers. Just today, Bruce Schreiner has a good story going out on AP that you'll probably see in your hometown newspaper or your favorite online aggregator tomorrow, "Bourbon Production Reaches High Point Since Seventies."

I'm a fan of all three writers and they all did a good job with their articles, but if you're interested in the real facts about bourbon, rye, Tennessee, and other American whiskey, I have two extremely self-serving suggestions for you. (Some commenters have accused me of being self-serving like that's a bad thing.)

First, what is depicted above, a group of devoted whiskey enthusiasts having the time of their lives (just ask them) on the inaugural "Chuck Cowdery VIP Bourbon & History Tour Experience" in March. My tour specializes in the truth because I don't work for any of the distilleries, I work for you. I'll even tell you what the tour guides got wrong during our 'official' distillery tours. (I won't tell you during the tour because that wouldn't be polite.)

Specifically, the picture above is of our visit to the grave of Dr. James C. Crow, the Father of Modern Bourbon.

Book now. The tour is October 15-17 but the deadline to sign up is September 1, or when we fill the bus, whichever comes first! To start the ball rolling, call Mint Julep Tours at 502-583-1433 or email I think Chasta is out West rock climbing at the moment, but I'm sure somebody at Mint Julep will be able to help you. I suggest you call them first thing Monday morning.

Second, you can read my new book, Bourbon, Strange; Surprising Stories of American Whiskey. I guarantee there is truth on every page. The producers have their multi-million dollar advertising campaigns to tell their stories and a lot of them are just that, stories, i.e., fiction. Most of it is just a bit of fun, but some is deliberately deceptive. In Bourbon, Strange, I've done the best job I can of giving you the true stories. Best of all, they are in most cases a lot more fun than the fiction.

Mark Gillespie was nice enough to interview me about the book for WhiskeyCast. Part one of that interview is available now. At least it started out being about the book. We mostly talked about all of the other crazy stuff that's going on. Thanks for the practice, Mark. I'll try to do a better job selling my product next time. Part two will be in the next program, but that's already recorded and I think I got even crazier.

You can read the Kindle edition of Bourbon, Strange right now. Or you can wait a couple weeks and get the print version right here (well, a little bit to the right and toward the top). If you order it here on the blog, I'll sign it for you if you want. (Write the inscription you want on the order form where it says 'inscription.')

Or you can pre-order it from Amazon. And since we're telling the truth here, Amazon will usually sell it to you for less than I will.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is Montana About to Become the Whiskey Center of the West?

Headframe Spirits of Butte, Montana, announced today it plans to open a third distillery in Butte with enough capacity to rival the large distilleries in Kentucky and Indiana.

Headframe already operates two small distilleries in Butte. Headframe's owners, John and Courtney McKee, opened Headframe Spirits in 2012 and were named Montana’s Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2013. Even though they've only been in business for two years, they swear they distilled their Neversweat Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is only just barely possible.

Last summer, Headframe entered into a year long project with Butte Silver Bow Community Development, the Community Development Block Program, and SMA Architects to evaluate three potential sites in Butte suitable for "producing a full size barrel of whiskey every seven minutes."

Assuming a 40-hour work week and a 48-week work year, that's about 16,500 barrels a year. The smallest major distilleries produce about 20,000 barrels a year, so their math is a little off, but for micro-distilleries, who are doing well if they fill a barrel a day, that's huge.

Headframe says that although it will be a value-added agricultural manufacturing facility, the goal of site selection included the need to create ties between agriculture, history, manufacturing, and tourism.

With preliminary engineering and architectural work complete and a suitable site selected, Headframe intends to enter into negotiations with property owners Butte Silver Bow County and Atlantic Richfield Company with the goal to take over 20 acres of a former industrial site, The Kelley Mine Yard, to redevelop it into the largest distillery west of the Mississippi.

This project will incorporate Headframe's proprietary continuous flow distillation technology to produce beverage alcohol both for their own brands and for bulk sale. Not a lot of explanation of this 'proprietary technology' has been provided, but it apparently has to do with adapting for beverage production something owner John McKee and Manufacturing Director Mark Chadek worked on at Nova Biosource Fuels, which developed a commercial-scale biodiesel distillation facility with a rated capacity of 10 to 60 million gallons per year.

Headframe says they will maintain the history of the site, with production and restaurant space located in the historic hoist house. Barrel storage, packaging, shipping and receiving will be located in the 54,000 square foot Kelley garage building.

They also envision the site built out to act as an eastern anchor to Historic Uptown Butte, America, with a strong emphasis on tourism, outdoor event space, and economic development. Onsite overnight bungalows and a restaurant were incorporated into the master plan in order to promote a more fully integrated experience onsite and in the Uptown neighborhood.

Headframe anticipates that this project will create approximately 50 new long-term jobs and they intend to keep the ownership in Butte.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Whiskey Cocktails by Warren Bobrow

Whiskey drinkers tend not to be cocktail enthusiasts, and yet cocktail creators are usually very knowledgeable about their ingredients and often as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about great whiskeys and other straight spirits as the straight sippers. That's why Warren Bobrow deserves your attention even if cocktail concoctions aren't really your thing.

Bobrow, author of last year's Apothecary Cocktails, now gives us Whiskey Cocktails; Rediscovered Classics and Contemporary Craft Drinks Using the World's Most Popular Spirit. It won't be out until the end of September but it's available for preorder now.

Whiskey Cocktails incorporates some of the best whiskeys into hand-crafted cocktails that bring out their subtle notes and flavors. It features 75 traditional, newly-created, and original recipes for whiskey-based cocktails. This wonderfully crafted book also features recipes from noted whiskey experts and bartenders.

To sample a little Bobrow if you're unfamiliar, check out The Cocktail Whisperer blog. Bobrow also writes for the Williams-Sonoma blog,, Voda magazine, Saveur, Serious Eats, The Beverage Journal and Beverage News, and Edible New Jersey. He has taught social media and food writing at the New School in NY as well as the Institute for Culinary Education. He is a Ministry of Rum judge and was the only journalist from the USA asked to participate in Fete de la Gastronomie 2012 in Paris.