Friday, October 30, 2009

Jimmy Russell, Rock Star.

Bruce Schreiner does a good job covering the American whiskey business for AP. His article today describes how the master distillers of American whiskey have become like rock stars on the international circuit of whiskey festivals and other events. As usual with an AP story, you can find it on the web in about 5,000 places, but one of them is here.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where Are The Enthusiast Bourbons From Beam Global?

Red Stag by Jim Beam is bourbon whiskey infused with a cherry juice concentrate and other natural flavors. I first wrote about it way back in February.

This post isn't about Red Stag. Let's just say that a lot of whiskey enthusiasts are viscerally offended by the very existence of Red Stag. Others are primarily offended by the advertising slogan, "A New Breed of Bourbon," arguing that Beam Global should be prohibited from calling it bourbon without a modifier like "flavored."

I'm not as hostile to Red Stag as some people are, but as I've said from the beginning, it's not for us. Red Stag is intended for people who like to think of themselves as whiskey drinkers but want it to taste like Peach Schnapps. You know, Southern Comfort drinkers.

My criticism of Beam Global is a little different. Potentially, gimmicks like the Knob Creek drought, or gimmicky products like Red Stag, can be viewed as floating the corporate boat and making it possible for them to also give us truly great products. Ideally, these things will make them a pile of money that they can invest in making something cool that we might like. I might be able to sell that rationale to the bourbon enthusiast community. Producers such as Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace understand and keep that bargain. Beam Global gives us plenty of gimmicks, but they aren't giving us the esoteric products we crave.

Okay, fair is fair. Knob Creek--promotional gimmicks aside--is an outstanding whiskey. So are Booker's and Baker's. But they're all 20 years old! Where is the single-barrel Booker's? Where is the 15- or 20-year-old Beam bottling? Where are the Beam limited editions; not fancy bottles, but truly exceptional whiskey?

Beam Global owns Maker's Mark and, again, fine whiskey in itself, but their one and only expression is 50 years old. The only variation they ever give us is different colored wax.

Bourbon enthusiasts buy a lot of bourbon. We also influence a lot of people about what bourbon they should buy. We try new stuff. We fill the web with bourbon talk. That's why all of the producers cater to enthusiasts in one way or another. Beam just isn't pulling its weight.

As we say here in Illinois, ubi est mea ("where's mine?").

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Woodford Seasoned Oak Finish Out November 1.


Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak Finish will be released on November 1. I told you about this limited edition bottling here, but with the official launch comes a press release. Here are some excerpts:

It is the fourth in the series of limited edition bottlings and continues Woodford Reserve’s tradition of crafting rare whiskeys that extend the category in bold new directions.

Seasoned Oak Finish features bourbon finish-aged in unique barrels crafted with wood that has been seasoned longer than any previously used in the industry.

"Of all the distillers in our industry, we are the only bourbon company that crafts its own barrels, giving us unique knowledge and control of the process," said Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris. "As the rough oak staves are exposed to seasonal weather changes and subsequently dried, this natural cycle develops a new range of flavors in the wood."

This seasoning progression changes the wood by reducing tannins and ultimately creates a new range of flavor compounds. The staves for most bourbon barrels are seasoned for three to five months; however, Seasoned Oak Finish combines fully-matured Woodford Reserve with barrels crafted from wood that has been exposed to the outdoors for three to five years -- the longest seasoning known in the bourbon industry.

Released periodically at the master distiller’s discretion, the Master’s Collection whiskeys are extremely limited in quantity and bottled only once in a proprietary package inspired by the copper pot stills of The Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Woodford Reserve Seasoned Oak Finish will be sold in 44 U.S. markets, and a limited quantity will be available in Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, New Zealand and Australia. Each bottle is individually hand-numbered and presented at 100.4 proof. Available in major metro markets, only 1,337 cases are available with a suggested retail price of $89.99 for a 750ml bottle.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How Much for Stitzel-Weller Whiskey? How about $350?

If you are looking to spend about $350 on a special gift for a bourbon enthusiast, here’s a suggestion: a very limited Old Rip Van Winkle Family Selection 23 year-old bourbon in an engraved and numbered decanter from Glencairn Crystal of Scotland

Although the press release doesn’t say so, the whiskey was distilled at the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery. It aged there initially, then was transferred to Buffalo Trace to finish aging there. It is wheated bourbon, of course.

Julian and Preston Van Winkle personally selected the barrels to be dumped for this bottling. The bourbon is not chill-filtered, leaving all of the flavor and complexity intact. It is bottled at 114° proof, which was the original barrel entry proof.

"This is some of our best whiskey," commented Julian Van Winkle. "I’m thrilled to offer this new expression of Old Rip. Hopefully, whiskey aficionados will appreciate the rich taste of this bourbon as much as I do."

Only 1,200 decanters were produced. The set comes in a solid wood, leather-lined box and includes a crystal stopper and two crystal glasses.

Look for it in stores late November. If you are interested, don't wait for it simply to appear. Talk to your whiskey monger now. For more information go to www.oldripvanwinkle.com.

It may seem like there is a lot of Stitzel-Weller whiskey turning up lately, but there is very little left, and none of it will be sold cheap. These days, the only way to get Stitzel-Weller whiskey cheap is to go dusty hunting.

It also should be noted that not all Stitzel-Weller whiskey is created equal, although it ranges from merely great to stupendous. Selections made by Julian and Preston usually lean toward the stupendous. If you are looking for something a bit more affordable, their Family Reserve 12-year-old, known as Lot B by enthusiasts, can be had for about $45.

Stitzel-Weller was the distillery put together after Prohibition by Julian Van Winkle's grandfather, best known as Pappy. Stitzel-Weller made wheated bourbon long before Maker's Mark did. The family sold the distillery in 1972 and it stopped producing in 1992. It is now owned by Diageo, which uses the warehouses and some of the other facilities. It is located in the Louisville suburb of Shively. The Van Winkles, Julian and son Preston, are presently affiliated with Buffalo Trace.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The House That Old Crow Built.


This is Berry Hill Mansion, in Frankfort, Kentucky. It was built by George Berry, who made his fortune as vice president of W. A. Gaines & Co., makers of Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Old Crow Bourbon was first made by Dr. James C. Crow when he was master distiller at what is now Woodford Reserve. His whiskey was so famous that when he died suddenly in 1856, it seemed like a good idea to keep selling it anyway. A company was formed for that purpose, which after a couple of iterations became known as W. A. Gaines & Co. Hiram Berry, George's father, was one of the original investors.

The money was in New York, so was the company's president; but the distillery was just outside of Frankfort and Berry was the senior executive on the scene. He wasn't a distiller. We don't know for sure but he was probably more like the general manager. He was also a major shareholder. It made him a very rich man. He built the mansion he called Juniper Hill in 1900. In about 1910 he added a music room, the home's most spectacular feature.

Today, Berry Hill Mansion is owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It is meticulously maintained and beautiful, inside and out. It is open to the public and also used for conferences, weddings, and other events. W. A. Gaines & Co. ceased to exist as anything other than a name at Prohibition. Today, Old Crow is made by Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

If you have any questions about the mansion, or want to rent it for an event, e-mail my buddy Paula Weglarz or call her at (502) 564-3000. If she doesn't answer they're probably racing at Keeneland.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This Is What Else I Do.

If you wish you could make a good living just writing about whiskey, so do I.

Like a lot of artists, if I may be so bold as to call myself that, I do several different things to get by. Most of them involve writing, but I also produce (video, audio) and consult. I have been a fulltime freelance writer for more than 20 years, primarily in marketing but not exclusively so.

I'm always looking for new business and since many people read this blog, I make a brief sales pitch from time to time. Here it is.

The main advantage to working with me is my depth of experience, in marketing and everything peripheral to it, with clients of every size. I am very good at translating corporate jargon into everyday English, for internal and external communications. I am also good at making technical material understandable to a non-technical audience. I’m a lawyer, which can come in handy for insurance, financial services, healthcare and other categories. In addition to writing (ads, brochures, scripts, speeches, features), I can help with strategy, planning, branding, you name it. Whatever it is, call me. I can help.

To reach me by email, click here. To download a one-page PDF with more information about my work, my clients, and how to contact me, click here. For my full CV, also in PDF format, click here. To get the free Adobe Reader, so you can read PDF files, go here.

Beam Global Announces Major Reorganization.

Reading corporate tea leaves (i.e., press releases) is never easy. So it is with Monday’s corporate reorganization announcement from Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

For one thing, you can bet that the words used to sell it in the board room are not the same words that appear in the press release. At least you hope savvy directors of a multi-billion dollar corporation are not dazzled by sentences like, “In addition to further building a high-performance organization that will enable faster decision-making and sharper focus on customers and consumers, the initiatives will also unlock resources that can be reinvested in driving brand growth.”

Although ‘unlock resources’ is corporate-speak for cost-cutting, the rest is gobble-dee goop.

But this part is interesting. The brand portfolio is being realigned into three groups. One of those groups is bourbon, just bourbon. One presumes rye is included, blends as well, though it’s not surprising they aren’t mentioned as neither amounts to very much business.

Beam’s bourbon portfolio includes Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden, Old Grand-Dad, and Old Crow.

The other two brand groups are ‘mixables’ (rum, tequila, vodka and cordials) and ‘classics’ (cognac, scotch and Canadian whisky).

That this realignment involves brand management is to be expected but the three groups will also have their own finance, operations and human resources functions, with profit-and-loss responsibility. Presumably, ‘operations’ includes production, i.e., the distilleries. All this suggests that the groups will not be simply marketing divisions, but more like wholly-owned and self-contained subsidiaries.

Sales will be separate and will sell all three groups. The U.S. sales organization will be distributor-specific. It and the three brand groups will report to Bill Newlands, president of Beam Global’s U.S. business.

Internationally, Beam Global will merge its two current European regions into one, resulting in three groups based on geography: Europe, Asia/Pacific, and Emerging Markets/Travel Retail. The international units will report to Donard Gaynor, senior vice president and managing director – international.

Newlands and Gaynor will report to Matt Shattock, president and chief executive officer of Beam Global.

Beam Global has had a fascinating history to this point. It traces its origins to the Beam family and specifically to Jacob Beam, who started to make and sell whiskey in Kentucky in the late 18th century. It was a Beam family-owned business until 1920. After Prohibition, a group of Chicago investors owned it. After World War II, the son of one of those investors bought the others out. He and then his son-in-law ran the company, which made and sold Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey and very little else. They sold it to American Tobacco Company, makers of Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes, in 1967.

Even though they no longer owned the company, members of the Beam family continued to have a major role at its two Kentucky distilleries, and in marketing its bourbons, as they do to this day.

It continued to be essentially a one-brand company; run, in very top-down fashion, by the tag team of Barry Berish and Rich Reese. Along the way, American Tobacco changed its name to American Brands, then sold its tobacco assets and changed its name again to Fortune Brands.

In 1987, Beam acquired National Distillers, a larger but poorer company. Although it was billed as a merger, Berish and Reese remained in charge.

But the National merger did change the company by making it a player in most distilled spirits categories, not just bourbon. This was crucial, considering the state of bourbon sales in 1987. Although the National deal netted three whiskey distilleries and such venerable brands as Old Grand-Dad and Old Crow, the real prize in Beam’s eyes was DeKuyper, whose Peachtree Schnapps had become a million-case brand.

Reese got the top job in 1997 when Berish retired. Reese himself retired in 2003. Reese was an interesting guy, who came to Beam as a salesman after a 12-year Major League Baseball career, at first base and in the outfield, mostly for the Minnesota Twins. He is perhaps best remembered as the batter who gave Nolan Ryan the single-season strikeout record in 1973.

In 2005, the Beam company transformed itself again. It helped Pernod Ricard buy Allied-Domecq, then the world’s #2 distilled spirits company. They split the spoils between them, giving Beam control of Maker’s Mark, as well as Canadian Club, Teacher’s Scotch, and several other major brands. The deal elevated Beam to the top rank of worldwide spirits companies. This time, unlike in 1987, senior management of the acquired company came on board in key positions.

The reorganization announced yesterday is further fallout from 2005. It is the first major move by new CEO Shattrock, who was hired in April from outside the company.

Although the faces change, Beam has always been a very smart company. They don’t make many mistakes. That’s why, from the narrow vantage point of the bourbon enthusiast, yesterday’s announcement should be regarded as good news. In effect, Beam has set-up an independent company just to look after its American whiskey assets, a company that is free to compete aggressively against its own stable mates in the scotch, Canadian, and other spirits categories. It will also have to live or die by its own success, more or less.

You can’t know for sure if this realignment will work, or even take, but considering Beam’s track record you probably should not bet against them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Here's What's New In The Bourbon Country Reader.

The new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 12 Number 3, has flown to its eager subscribers all over the world, whose drab days are brightened when they see that simple white envelope amidst the day's bills and catalogs. "Oh Joy!" they exclaim.

This time, we wonder why Americans don't do what the Scots figured out 150 years ago, which may account for scotch's five-to-one lead over American whiskey in worldwide sales. We really don't put it that way at all, though we could. Instead, we explain why Americans make whiskey the way that they do and how, maybe, the new breed of micro-distillers might exploit the oversight of the seven companies who make 99 percent of America's whiskey. The headline is: "The Case for Reviving the Fine Art of Whiskey Blending in America."

We also review Chester Zoeller's new book, Bourbon in Kentucky, A History of Distilleries in Kentucky. Preview: we hate the title, guess why.

You may also wonder why we still publish a paper newsletter sent through the U.S. mail. The real reason is because it's still hard to sell information on the web for what it's worth. The romantic reason is that we're writing about an industry that values tradition, so we do too. Take your pick.

Click here to subscribe, with a credit card or PayPal. We publish every-other month, or thereabouts, and you get six issues for $20. You should also buy my book, Bourbon Straight, The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey; and my documentary on DVD, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky."

By golly, they make great gifts.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Score One For Heather.

I have given Heather Steans, my state senator, a hard time in the past for this and that, including for how she got her job in the first place, but she did something good recently for which she deserves due credit.

On October 1st, Senator Steans, in her words, "was able to do something as a Senator that has never made me feel more proud or honored." She filed the Equal Marriage Act, a bill that would allow same-sex couples in Illinois the right to marry. Senate Bill 2468 will clarify equal marriage rights for same-sex couples across the state - a right which, she says, "is already enshrined in our constitutional language and traditions."

Rep. Greg Harris (D-13th) has introduced civil union and equal marriage bills in the House each session for each of the past two General Assemblies, but nothing had ever been filed in the Senate. Harris is my state rep. I've given him a hard time too, but they both have my support on this one.

The Best Little Still House In Texas.

Garrison Brothers Distillery is a small distilled spirits plant located in the Texas Hill Country, very close to the LBJ Ranch. They manufacture Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey there, just outside the tiny town of Hye. They just posted their Fall 2009 newsletter, here.

Unlike some so-called micro-distilleries that make a lot of noise but sell whiskey they didn't make, Garrison Brothers is doing it the right way. For the last couple of years they have just gone along, quietly filling barrels, waiting for them to mature into a bourbon they'll be proud to sell. They still won't predict exactly when that will be, but they've filled more than 400 barrels, and even though their casks, at 10 and 30 gallons each, are smaller than the standard 53 galloners, that's still a lot of whiskey.

If you are interested in American whiskey you might just want to bookmark the Garrison Brothers web site. This is one to watch.

No Sympathy For Polanski Here.

In today's Chicago Tribune, columnist John Kass takes on the case of director Roman Polanski, who is currently in a Swiss jail awaiting extradition to the U.S., to be punished for his 1977 statutory rape conviction. Kass's kicker is that the sactimonious Hollywood types pleading for Polanski's release are showing how little they think of us, their audience.

I wrote a piece about Polanski the last time this kicked up, in 2003, when he won the Oscar for his movie The Pianist. It contains many details of the case that are omitted in most accounts.

In 2003, Polanski’s defenders noted that his film contained elements of his own traumatic childhood as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland. Polanski was imprisoned at Auschwitz and his mother died there. Stories about Polanski invariably also mention that in 1969 his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Charles Manson cult.

Yes, very bad things have happened to Roman Polanski in his life. Apparently, he has always viewed the rape incident more as something bad that happened to him than as something bad he did. In defending himself against the charges, Polanski often claimed that his 13-year-old victim was a "Lolita" who "knew all about sex and drugs." After he fled he told a BBC reporter, "I've been tortured by this for a year and that's enough."

Like Kass, I have no sympathy for Polanski and feel nothing but contempt for those who defend him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Maxwell Street T-Shirt And Poster Available Online.

I have, for a long time, been active in the movement to preserve the heritage of the Maxwell Street neighborhood, the home of the world-famous Maxwell Street Market, and the birthplace of the Chicago Blues. To that end, I have been involved with the Maxwell Street Foundation, a small, grassroots group dedicated to that mission.

To find out more about Maxwell Street, and order our cool, new t-shirt and poster, click here. Proceeds from sales help support our preservation and education mission.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kentucky Should Protect Its Signature Industries.

Congressman Ben Chandler (Kentucky's 6th District) had an excellent guest commentary in yesterday's Lexington Herald-Leader about protecting Kentucky's signature bourbon and horse industries.

If the name sounds familiar, Ben is the grandson of Happy Chandler, who was Governor of Kentucky, a U.S. Senator, and the Commissioner of Baseball (1945-1951).

More Maker's Anyone?


Here is another angle to the issue of Maker's Mark not making any enthusiast expressions. If that was "The Maker's Mark Dilemma," call this "The Torch of Stitzel-Weller."

Arguably, the Maker's Mark Distillery is the natural successor to the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which distilled its final batch in 1992. Why? For several reasons.

First is the "Pappy gave Bill Sr. the Stitzel-Weller recipe" story, which came to me many years ago from a guy who worked for Stitzel-Weller when Pappy was still alive and the Van Winkle family still owned the distillery. It apparently was common knowledge among insiders at the time. I've talked to Bill Jr. about it and he more-or-less confirms it, saying his father sought and received input from many of his friends in the industry. He mentioned, for example, that Pappy told Bill Sr. that you can't cook a wheated mash under pressure.

The second reason is the Maker's Mark stills. They were made by Vendome, which also made the Stitzel-Weller still, and the specifications are the same, according to former Maker's Mark Master Distiller Dave Pickerell. The stills have some unique characteristics in common which Dave can explain much better than I can.

Third, Joe Beam and his sons worked at Stitzel-Weller at various times and Will McGill, the longtime Master Distiller at Stitzel-Weller, was Joe Beam's brother-in-law. One of the sons, Elmo Beam, who had worked for his Uncle Will at Stitzel-Weller, was the first Master Distiller at Maker's Mark.

Fourth, some percentage of Maker's Mark whiskey is aged in the warehouses at Stitzel-Weller, where Maker's Mark has been renting space from Diageo for a decade or more.

So the premise is that since Maker's Mark is the natural successor to Stitzel-Weller, it should take the torch and try to reach some of the exalted heights of excellence that Stitzel-Weller did with some of its higher proof and longer aged expressions, such as Very Very Old Fitzgerald (12-years-old, 100 proof), which some consider to be the best bourbon of all time.

It is probably impossible to exactly duplicate the whiskey made at one place someplace else. There are just too many variables. Is the Jim Beam White Label made at Booker Noe exactly the same as the Jim Beam White Label made at Clermont?

Still, if Maker's has the best possibility of duplicating what Stitzel-Weller did, shouldn't they try? On the contrary, Maker's Mark follows practices that would inevitably make their whiskey less like Stitzel-Weller rather than more, because they are aiming for a consistent product in the 5- to 6-year old age range to be sold at 90 proof.

According to press releases issued at the time, Julian Van Winkle has since joining Buffalo Trace provided guidance to help BT's wheated juice more closely resemble Stitzel-Weller whiskey, but of course the distillery itself is very different.

Has he succeeded? The proof, I think, is in the excellence of the Van Winkle bottlings, where I no longer care if, in fact, there is any Stitzel-Weller whiskey in there or not, or where the whiskey was made (Bernheim? Buffalo Trace?) because the quality is there (e.g., Lot B).

But the question persists about Stitzel-Weller because real Stitzel-Weller whiskey is becoming so scarce.

The actual successor to Stitzel-Weller, arguably, is Heaven Hill's Bernheim Production Facility, which was designed by the owner of both plants to be the successor, and which was set-up by Ed Foote, the last Master Distiller at Stitzel-Weller.

Although Buffalo Trace produced a little bit of wheated bourbon prior to acquiring the W.L. Weller brand in 1999, it didn't produce enough to fully support the brand and even today a lot of the Weller on shelves is Bernheim whiskey. So is some of the Van Winkle. Of course, all of the Old Fitzgerald on shelves today, except for the odd Stitzel-Weller dusty, is from Bernheim, which Heaven Hill acquired along with the Old Fitzgerald brand.

Dave Pickerell was also deeply involved in the design of Bernheim and probably no one alive knows more about all three facilities.

Finally, I tasted some of the Jefferson's Presidential Select yesterday at Binny's and I agree with what some others have said. It's definitely Stitzel-Weller whiskey and is very good, although it's not the best Stitzel-Weller whiskey I've had by a long shot. It reminds me of that Everett's bottling of Weller 12-year-old from a few years ago, that contained 16- and 14-year-old Stitzel-Weller whiskey. But that was $20 a bottle. This is $90.

For the money, I prefer two bottles of Van Winkle Family Reserve Lot B.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Double Wood" Experimentals in Stores Soon.

Back in August I told you about the latest experimental bourbons from Buffalo Trace, the two "double woods." Today, Buffalo Trace announced that they will be released at the end of this month and retail for approximately $46.35 each. These bottlings are very rare and limited. They are packaged in 375ml bottles and each label includes all of the pertinent information unique to that barrel of whiskey.

Buffalo Trace says they have more than 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in their warehouses. Each of the barrels has unique characteristics that make it different from all others. Some examples of these experiments include unique mash bills, types of wood and barrel toasts. In order to further increase the scope, flexibility and range of the experimental program, an entire micro distillery, complete with cookers, fermenting tanks and a state-of-the-art micro still has been constructed within the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

For more information on the Experimental Collection or the other products of Buffalo Trace Distillery, you can contact Kris Comstock at kcomstock@buffalotrace.com.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tourism Groups Unite To Promote Kentucky Bourbon Experience.

Team Bourbon, an unprecedented coalition of eleven tourism groups, was unveiled today at events in Lexington and Clermont. Their mission is to showcase Kentucky’s signature bourbon industry and the communities that celebrate its spirit.

At today's events, the new group also announced its new campaign to market the bourbon lifestyle and its unique place in the Commonwealth’s history and hospitality, said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. Its theme: "Kentucky Bourbon – where the spirit leads you."

"Pour some Kentucky bourbon and you’ll taste more than the world’s finest whiskey. You’ll sample the flavors of Kentucky," he said. “There’s an experience and an adventure for everyone, from history to horses, arts and fine cuisine, nightlife, wildlife, sports and much more.”

The announcement was timed to coincide with this weekend’s inaugural Bourbon Chase overnight relay race. More than 2,000 runners will compete along the legendary Kentucky Bourbon Trail from Friday morning through Saturday night.

Gregory pointed to the relay race, which sold out months in advance, as an example of the skyrocketing bourbon tourism industry that’s drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

“That’s why Team Bourbon was created,” he said. “Kentucky is the only place on earth where you can enjoy the true bourbon experience. Once you get here, there are so many exciting places to visit and things to do. So we all decided to join forces and share our spirit.”

Team Bourbon is made up of the tourism commissions of Anderson County, Bardstown-Nelson County, Frankfort, Lebanon, Lexington, Louisville, Shepherdsville-Bullitt County, and Woodford County, as well as the Kentucky Department of Travel, Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

The group’s web site – kybourbonspirit.com – contains information and links on places to visit in each community along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. A lot of it is still a work-in-progress, but there is a nifty, Bourbon Trail-specific driving distances chart. There is also a terrific, one-minute video that perfectly communicates what they mean by "the bourbon lifestyle."

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Maker's Mark Dilemma.

On a recent webcast he hosted, Malt Advocate Publisher and Editor John Hansell tasted three different Laphroaig whiskeys and Maker's Mark, the one and only. "I kept thinking this past week how nice it would be to have more than one Maker’s Mark expression to choose from–especially given that there are so few wheated bourbons on the market," he wrote today on his blog.

Kevin Smith, Maker's Master Distiller, was also on the webcast. Smith demurred that "they are having enough trouble just making enough of the standard Maker’s to put out anything else." (Laphroaig and Maker's are Beam Global products and the webcast was the latest in a long series of bourbon-versus-scotch events staged to promote Beam products.)

The more nuanced position Maker's has expressed in the past is that offering different expressions would suggest that Maker's Mark is not already the best bourbon they can make, since if the additional expressions are not better than the standard, why bother to make them? Yet no one can deny that Maker's gets less coverage because of its lack of news. That's the Maker's Mark Dilemma.

Both sides have a point. To whiskey enthusiasts, it's not about 'best,' it's all about 'different.' I have had the experience of roaming through a whiskey warehouse, tasting the 'same' whiskey from different barrels. Inevitably, some tasted better than others, but the pleasure was in the multiple, different sensory experiences. In the real world, you do that by sampling different products of the same type which are, ideally, all as good as their makers can make them.

But that's whiskey enthusiasts. Not all whiskey drinkers are true enthusiasts. Many whiskey drinkers settle on a product they prefer and, in many cases, believe is 'the best.' Every producer tries to reinforce that choice. The Maker's brand personality, carefully cultivated since the brand was created in the 1950s, supports a belief that it is not just a very good bourbon but is, in fact, the ideal bourbon. As such, Maker's appeals to a consumer who seeks 'the best' in everything. Maker's has been very successful with that positioning and is loath to disturb it.

With Laphroaig and other single malts, the main variation is aging. According to the Laphroaig web site, they sell it at 10, 15, 18, 25, 27, 30 and 40 years-old. Is the 40-year-old the best? If price is any indication, yes.

Some American whiskey makers offer their product at different ages, but Maker's does not. When Maker's lets people taste its whiskey at an advanced age, say 10-years-old, as they have at whiskey festivals, their purpose is to show how bad it is, how you wouldn't want that, and why Maker's would never sell it.

A solution that would satisfy both camps might be single-barrel bottlings. Keep all of the offerings within the Maker's standard profile, but look for individual barrels that are both outstanding and clearly different from each other. Everybody understands barrel variation and even though Maker's tries to diminish it in the standard version, letting consumers taste what Maker's makers inevitably get to taste in the course of achieving the ideal would be consistent with the brand's personality and promise.

Production planning isn't the only crystal ball gazing whiskey makers have to do. They also have to predict future differences in consumer tastes and attitudes. Maker's Mark is a fine bourbon and most whiskey enthusiasts give it due respect, even though the brand doesn't give them the variety of experience they seek. Single-barrel bottlings might be a way for Maker's to have it both ways.