Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Label Changes Can be a Good Thing



Virtually every distillery has a story about an old Master Distiller telling his young successor, "don't change a damn thing." Apparently, the industry's Master Marketers have a different philosophy. They love to change things and inevitably enrage the enthusiast community whenever they do. Enthusiasts hate change, mostly because they distrust it. Every change, they fear, heralds a degradation of the product, probably with a price increase.

Lately the target of their ire has been voluntary age statements and their disappearance. An age statement on the label tells you the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Age statements for American whiskey are supposed to be mandatory for any product that contains whiskey less than four years old, but the regulators have begun to accept "this whiskey is less than 4 years old" in lieu of an actual age. If the whiskey is all more than four years old, age statements are voluntary. They just have to be truthful.

During the glut years (1980-2000), many producers put much older whiskey into their non-age-stated (NAS) products. Some also tried to get a slightly higher price by actually stating the age, so there were quite a few 8- to 12-year-old bourbons out there at very reasonable prices. This was usually done with line extensions, not the main brand, because they didn't know how long the glut would last. (Answer: much longer than anyone imagined it would.) Remember, though, during this period nothing was selling very well.

Which brings us to Eagle Rare. Eagle Rare was created by Charlie Beam for Seagram's in the early 1970s, or thereabouts. It was one of the last new bourbon brands created until Booker's and Blanton's came along in the late 1980s. Charlie finished his career at what is now Four Roses, which was owned by Seagram's at the time. He was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2010, posthumously.

Charlie's Eagle Rare was a Wild Turkey knock-off, hence the bird theme and 101 proof, but 10-years-old rather than Wild Turkey's 8. (Wild Turkey lost its age statement 20 years ago.)

Sazerac acquired Eagle Rare and Benchmark from Seagram's in 1989. That was the beginning of Sazerac's bourbon program, which has since grown to more than 30 brands. Eagle Rare at the time was in a barrel-shaped bottle. It was 10-years-old and 101 proof. It was not single barrel. Sazerac left it alone for a few years but eventually gave it a classier bottle and a label printed on the glass rather than paper. They kept it at 10-years, lowered the proof to 90° and made it single barrel.

Enthusiasts are still complaining about the proof cut.

After a recent change, Eagle Rare is no longer single barrel and the age statement has been moved to the back of the bottle, which enthusiasts fear is in preparation for its elimination. For a detailed explanation of the changes and Sazerac's reasons for them, read Clay Risen's interview with Mark Brown.

Here is why this is a good thing or, at least, not such a bad thing. Eagle Rare competes in a segment led by Bulleit Bourbon, Woodford Reserve, and Knob Creek. None of them are single barrel and only Knob has an age statement (9 years). Knob has a single-barrel line extension and Bulleit has a 10-year-old line extension, but the flagships are as described.

Eagle Rare is obviously doing well against that competition because Sazerac is increasing production and putting it on a high-speed bottling line to do so. Sazerac has a lot of small brands, none of which are leaders in their market segment. A couple have a shot at achieving that. Weller is one, Buffalo Trace is another, and Eagle Rare is the third. In its segment, Eagle Rare has parity with the leaders on every characteristic except age, where it has a one-year advantage.

Eagle Rare is a very fine whiskey at a good price ($25-$30/750 ml). It's usually a few dollars below Bulleit, Woodford, and Knob. It's a good, patriotic choice for the Fourth of July. If more people discover Eagle Rare because it is more available that is good for them, good for Sazerac, and good for bourbon in general.

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