Saturday, March 7, 2015

Master Distiller John Lunn Out at George Dickel

Diageo has announced the imminent departure of George Dickel Master Distiller John Lunn for "an exciting opportunity outside the company." At 45, Lunn is one of the youngest master distillers for a major producer. He was with the company for eleven years, succeeding Master Distiller Dave Backus.

Although the official announcement comes just a week before Lunn's last day (March 13), the company tipped its hand with its recent, lavish twelve-page magazine insert for Dickel, which does not show Lunn and only mentions him once, in the final paragraph along with a previously-unknown Dickel distiller, Allisa Henley. That may be a coincidence, but normally one would expect a producer to feature its master distiller in such a document.

Henley seemingly is not the heir apparent, as Diageo says it has "begun the process of finding a replacement for John and this will be subject of a future announcement," according to the official notice. In addition to a replacement for Lunn, Diageo still needs a distiller for its new Bulleit Distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky, which is supposed to go into production late next year.

In related news, it was just two weeks ago that Fred Minnick reported that Marianne Barnes, 28, is leaving her position as Master Taster and Associate Process Research Engineer at Brown-Forman to become Master Distiller at the new micro-distillery going in at the Old Taylor site. Barnes departure is a shock because she has been the subject of an intense Brown-Forman-generated publicity campaign for the last year or so, based on her role in the Old Forester 'craft' reboot. Brown-Forman also encouraged speculation that she was on track to succeed Chris Morris, 57, as Master Distiller.

In recent years, micros have snapped up several major producer retired master distillers as employees or consultants, but this is the first time a prominent up-and-comer has gone over to the small side. Job volatility in the master distiller position may be another hallmark of this new era, although legacies like Eddie Russell at Wild Turkey and Freddie Noe at Jim Beam are likely to stay put.

Looking around the industry, successors appear to be in place at Beam, Turkey, Jack Daniel's, and Heaven Hill. Of those where they are not, only Four Roses has a current master distiller who is past retirement age.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post confused the micro-distillery being built at Old Taylor with the one being built at Old Crow next door. The one at Old Crow has been named Glenn's Creek Distillery and they have announced a grand opening for June 13. Marianne Barnes is, according to Minnick, going to work at the other one, at Old Taylor. The mistake was entirely my fault. I regret the error.


Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Chuck, you mention in the last sentence that Jim Rutledge, who we all know is well-deserving of his upcoming retirement, has no (at least none announced) successor. Any chance Four Roses will bring in someone from another distillery? Or, have they been grooming someone we don't know of in-house? Any insights?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I have no idea what they plan to do at Four Roses.

Anonymous said...

Come on Chuck. A master distiller of a computerized ethanol factory is as disposable as your razor. Mega distilleries are now controlled completely and totally by the master marketers.

When the well educated experienced master distillers leave to start their own micro distilleries, or consult to the new upstarts, that's where they shine.

They are wasted in the fake marketing fiasco that the few conglomerates now control. But it will change over time. Much like Budweiser has lost 2/3rds of their market share, so will the big distilleries.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'd sure like to see some evidence that Budweiser has lost 2/3 of its market share, because that is a preposterous claim, as in it is clearly not true.

Anonymous said...

Lew Bryson said...

Actually, Budweiser the brand has lost close to that much (largely to Bud Light); it's decline over the past 25 years is nothing less than seismic. But while Anheuser-Busch InBev the company has also lost market share, it's a relatively small amount; not 2/3.

Anonymous said...

This article at The Atlantic states that Bud has declined from 50 million barrels to 16 million barrels in the last 25 years.

I don't have enough information handy to convert that stat from "barrels sold" to "market share", but that's a pretty high loss.

On the other hand, I don't know what that has to do with the role of master distiller in modern whiskey making.

Alex said...

The master distiller does more than just distill. Often they are involved in the wood management program and in choosing barrels for blending. Even if they are not tasting each barrel, they often decide what taste profile the tasters are looking and blending for. The master distiller is also there to guard the whole process and maintain consistency and quality, while the plant manager manages the labor, budget, and equipment. So they add more value than just watching computer screens and having their name slapped on the label, as you presume.

I'm sure you won't return to defend your ridiculous claims anyway.

Anonymous said...

So let's see, I was substantially correct about the Budweiser claim, yet that's not enough. Now someone claims that the master distiller is actually the logger and marketer. Get a grip. The master distiller is told what to do by the focus group hired by the CEO of x conglomerate, who tells him what they should pretend to be this week. Don't get me wrong, as a small distiller I love the scam. They spend millions pretending they are small, and we the actual small distillers who are actually bringing new products to market, get to take advantage of their marketing deception.
The average new bourbon / whiskey drinker isn't being fooled into locking in on a mega ethanol brand. They are being brought into the industry by the mega marketing and once in, they try the products of the varied new distilleries.
Big ethanol isn't dead of course, they will just move the majority of their sales overseas, where their products are new and unique to many foreign cultures. But here at home. They're what was. It will just take a while.
By the way, when was the last time you heard anybody drone on about a master brewer at Bud? I imagine they go out onto the farms and pet the hops.
You old timers are funny ( and of course big ethanol paid posters).
The only problem we sam all distilleries are having right now is shelf space in liquor stores,due to all of the new brands, and of course the old brands, who pretend they are new.
But this will work out over time as more liquor stores start segregating space for real craft product (for example ACDA) quantity limited producers, so customers can bypass the faux-micro's.

Anonymous said...

To anon...
Small producers cannot beat or even compete with the big distilleries because they almost universally over price their products. Bud is dying mainly because it's not good and also because high quality craft beers are only several dollars more to purchase over bud.
When new whiskey makers are really ready to compete by aggressive pricing then they will put the skeer ino hh, 4r, jb, jd, wt.
Almost all new make underaged craft whiskey is overpriced often sourced and positioned to be "boutique." All small ditillers or fancy ndp rebottlers are not boutique.
For the consumer a 23 wt101 or 32 fr single barrel will always win the buy decision war in the mind of the buyer as he/she scans the shelves.
Folks want to support local distillers but the disillers themselves make that almost impossible.
Small producer pricing is counterinuitive and counterproductive. Price to compete in the market!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (EBR:ABI) is the largest brewer in the world, with 22% of world market share, and 50% of U.S. market share.

Anonymous said...

AB actually bought real companies with real products and brands, as a growth engine. Completely different than the big distilleries making up stories about their "new brands".

As for price, agreed that it is cheaper to mass produce ethanol with columns, computers, electric valves, etc.. No argument there. However that it's somehow "craft by experts" is what's absurd, and worthty of anything more than a commodity price.

Anonymous said...

What's absurd is the term "craft distilling" as a whole. What do they do that is different than the big boys, specifically when it comes to whiskey? That's what set craft beer apart from big beer. New styles, new ingredients, new flavors, and local flare. Most craft distillers use the same grains, same yeast, and same barrels as the big guys, mix in their "special" water and then sell an underaged product at a 100%+ mark up.

Unfortunately, the most important ingredient in making quality whiskey is money. Second is patience. Most "craft distillers" have neither.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else notice that George Dickel has no presence on Diageo's website?

Dave Zanko said...

I wouldn't read too much into that. It never has as far as I can see. You know what else doesn't? Seagram's branded whiskies. VO, 7 Crown and the others have just a passing mention at best. Considering the expense the as insert, the recently revamped Dickel website and the increased distribution I've seen, I actually think Diagei realizes they have something with Dickel in a way they didn't before.

Unknown said...

That's such a terrible argument about price. Where I live, Budweiser is $6.99 a sixpack. Good craft beer is around $10.99. That's 57% more for something we would consider inherently better. Buffalo Trace is about $26.99 for 750ml. Something that is 57% inherently better would be $42.43.

And Bud gets knocked for using corn in their beer. Why do they use it? Because it's cheap, flavorless, and easily ferments in the form it's used. And what's in bourbon? A lot of corn. I'll pay more for folks using more expensive - and flavorful, and less energy intensive and all that jazz, if it gets you going - ingredients than cheap corn.

You're right that a lot of craft spirits aren't any better, but they're not really 'craft' in the same sense we'd apply to beer. But really, that's on you as a customer to pull back the curtain. Or, wait until Chuck does the work for you.

-Jeff Harner

Alex said...

Now I see your agenda... Unfortunately most of the "craft" distillers make an inferior product to the big producers, regardless of retail price.

Computers and technology have made whiskey better. Are you saying all the craft distillers are using pot stills, or why are you denigrating column stills? I would rather have the column still running optimally and consistently with the head and tail cuts made accurately and put into well-managed wood than some craft distiller's inconsistent product aged for not long enough in barrels too small.

Equating "craft" with small volume is not the same as a quality product. I would rather have a car from a cutting-edge factory with precision fabrication than from the older car factory where the panel seams are huge and crooked. I'd rather have a large column still that's been running for a day make my product than making small batches each time.

There's a reason experienced bourbon drinkers prefer Four Roses and Buffalo Trace to Cleveland Whiskey.

You also talk a lot about new products from new distillers--I don't want new products if they're of inferior quality; newness isn't the goal. The craft beer revolution was different because it doesn't take hundreds of thousands of dollars of capital for a copper still and 7-10 years of aging in a $300-500 barrel to make a good beer.

Anonymous said...

I've tried more than several craft distilled whiskey/bourbons. Almost all of them were good or better than good. I can tell that a great deal of care has been taken to make them. But they are all underaged. At 40+ for a 750 there is no way I can make a BUY decision on a 1 year old new make from a small producer when i can get a real 10 year old, single barrel, etc, for 10 dollars or more less; a brand and bottle I know will be fantastic.

Where I live I can get craft beers for 7.99+. It's a no brainer to spend the extra two or three bucks for an excellent craft beer and leave the garbage on the shelf though it's several dollars cheaper. That is an easy decision.

Too many craft distillers are simply rebottlers "trying to get their distilleries off the ground" by selling indiana's finest and pretending that it's craft make, by them, though it isn't either. I can give an example: Belle Meade. They have a 9 year old single barrel, it's priced at 54 for a 750 bottle. Why would I buy a 9 year old single barrel MGP in a fancy bottle that appears to show that it's from Nashville, TN but I happen to know is not (I look on the back and see "distilled in Indiana" in small print)? It's completely ridiculous pricing.

The retailer where I shop apparently bought a barrel of this. I haven't seen any bottles move from the display in months. I'm not the only one rejecting this absurd and self-destructive pricing model from small producers.

There are white dogs in 750s from small producers aged for 9 months or less for 40 dollars. It's ridiculous.

I think I am representative of the average bourbon person out there, and I am frustrated that the new distillers are not marketing to me (and others like me). I am not concerned about their costs, etc. If you are in the market you must compete aggressively to get market share.

As one poster here mentioned bourbon is a world that is founded on quality and age. The new makers want to get to market NOW, and haven't the time to age, in many cases apparently. These folks cannot compete with the big producers because they put out excellent products at reasonable prices.

If this situation does not change I could easily see a serious reaction and lots of shuttered small distilleries out there in the coming years and that is something I do not want to see.

Note to small producers: If you want customers and lots of them you need to build loyalty, the kind of loyalty that lesser brands like JD have in droves. The only way to build loyalty is to get folks to buy your products and lots of it. Criticizing big producers simply because they are big is not a strategy that can work. The only reason it worked in the case of Bud is because Bud is awful. When given a viable affordable option most beer fans abandoned Bud. The same can only happen in bourbon if small distillers attract customers. They have to be more aggressive with their pricing or I can see an end to the entire "craft distilling movement."

I want to support craft distilling, they just won't let me.


Anonymous said...

Barrels are 225, stills for 50g's. And the only bourbon 7-10 years old, is somebody's inventory error due to bad marketing or a bad mash bill. Bourbon at 4 years is perfect, everything else is pure marketing hogwash. That is, right up until the craft distillers have 7-10 year old, then it will be the best ever :)

Anonymous said...

There is no firm argument that "craft " is better. Everyone basically acknowledges that computers and robots and auto valves and conveyors make the most consistent ethanol and twinkles. It's that they are always the same, that's the rub. Same old, same old, pretending to be new and exciting, and craft, and blah, blah, blah...

Craft on the other hand is just that "craft". Hard work, in most cases Americans trying to grab an American Dream in the midst of country full of foreign crap, and corporate giants.

That's the scam the big ethanol producers are tryng to run. Pretend they are synonymous with people who actually own their own destiny. Drink what you want, but don't pretend you corporate ethanol is anything other that the same stuff you put in your car, minus the barrel.

Anonymous said...

Why is bourbon from a big producer "ethanol" but "small local guy" new make is "craft whiskey?"
Honest question.

Alex said...

If you think all bourbon older than 4 years is accidental, you should take a look at the bourbon shelf someday... Maybe you've heard of Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, Weller, Jack Daniels Single Barrel?

I'm not looking to overpay for "hard work". Would you rather have an iPhone, or maybe I can cobble together some brick-sized thing for you by gluing a watch and LCD display to a Motorola RAZR. Want to buy my customized lawn mower, or do you drive a GM, Toyota, or BMW? But I put tons of work into my lawn mower! Oh, and I refuse to sell my lawn mower for less than $40,000 so that I can fund building more lawn mowers until I have enough money to start building real cars. Don't you want to buy it?!

Yes, consistency can be boring. But I prefer quality. So much of bourbon's flavor comes from wood and, as Buffalo Trace has proven, there are so many variables in the barrel that there is lots of variation in bourbon even with the stills operating consistently and continuously. Much of that variability is blended away intentionally, but it's not hard to find single barrel bourbon from many of the large producers.

The big producers aren't running a scam anymore than Apple is with their arguably superior iPhone, regardless of your opinion of Apple. Early adopters of technology will be stuck with buggy hardware, and early adopters of "craft" whiskey are overpaying for something closer to what you mention as putting in your car minus the barrel--in fact, the "craft" products have spent less time in the barrel, so I guess by definition the craft products are closer to pure ethanol.

I'm sure Chuck is sick of this thread being hijacked so I won't continue arguing this point. It's only my opinion, but I'm not the only one with a similar opinion. There are a few craft whiskeys I enjoy, but I wish more money would go to them instead of the people wasting venture capital investment money with their "hard work", or, more commonly, just sourcing whiskey and watering it down with Al Capone's reserve tanks of Rocky Mountain "meltwater".

kaiserhog said...

I hate the news about John Lunn, Dickel really is a "craft" distillery to anyone who has ever visited it. Diageo, seems to be really clumsy player on the American whiskey scene.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it Buffalo trace that ran the joke of a "don't use small barrels test" ? I think that was the straw that finally alerted the craft distilling industry that the big guys were vulnerable.

Just for a moment think about one other company, with one other product on the planet earth, that markets what they don't do.

Seriously, the TTB specifically precludes distillers from advertising how their products are "better" than another's, yet BT ran a masterful marketing scam ( right down to sucking in reporters, ) about how the way they "make" their products are better than virtually all of the craft distillers products who use non-conventional maturation techniques like small barrels.

You can go to McDonalds every day of the week and get a good burger at a good price, but that not the same thing as a burger at a family restaurant where the owners actually had their hand in the craft.

As for the car analogy, it's hard to say whether this argument is about product or equipment to produce said product, so it will have to pass.

Lighten up, people will always prefer Coke over Pepsi, etc, but it takes a whole big heap of imagination to pretend that the guy pushing the buttons at your local Pepsi factory is the thing that legends are made of. Good job of course, but just another guy being told what to do by a faceless board of directors.

In closing, there is a lot of argument that craft distillers must travel the path of craft brewers so they can lock in those customers. Again this is completely missing the point. When a craft beer drinker goes into a bar, they don't drink the same thing that they always drink because they had it a hundred times before. They drink new things, almost every time. This completely unlike the drinker that big-ethanol tries to trap into drinking the same old thing every single time, by among other things, claiming that the way that other distillers make their product is inferior.

It's coming, and it will be wonderful.

Chuck Cowdery said...

This thread is now closed. Thank you for playing.