Monday, March 23, 2015

Odds and Ends

Lots of interesting happenings here and there.

Janet Patton, of the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper ( online) does an excellent job on the bourbon beat and is always worth reading. She is a real reporter who looks behind the press releases. Today she takes us to Diageo's Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, south of Louisville, for a rare interview with Pauline Rooney, vice president of North American distillation, maturation and engineering for Diageo.

Ms. Patton observes that, for a tourist attraction, Stitzel-Weller is a little hard to find. She's right. The Bulleit Experience web site helpfully offers directions, but neglects the route Tom Bulleit himself recommends. Here it is:

From I-65, take the Crittenden Drive exit to Central Avenue, following the signs to Churchill Downs. You'll pass Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on the right, then Churchill Downs on the left. (Don't use this route during Derby Week or U of L football home games.) Stay on Central to Seventh Street Road. Take a left, then a quick right onto Wathen Lane. You're now in the old distillery district and the ghosts of closed distilleries surround you. Wathen ends at Dixie Highway, where you'll make another quick left-and-right jog onto Millers Lane. Turn left onto Fitzgerald Road and Stitzel-Weller will be on your right.

Diageo is the world's largest drinks company but they have been very late to the bourbon revival. Recently they have been making up for lost time. Now they have the Bulleit 'home place' at Stitzel-Weller, a new distillery being built in Shelby County, George Dickel in Tennessee operating at full capacity, five super-premium 'Orphan Barrel' bourbons in distribution, the American re-introduction of I. W. Harper bourbon just announced; and more to come.

Ms. Patton's article points out that all of this activity occurs as Diageo rival Brown-Forman is also ramping up its Kentucky act with the appointment of Campbell Brown to run the new Old Forester Distillery in Louisville's downtown. Brown is a fifth generation descendent of company founder George Garvin Brown, who created the Old Forester brand in 1870.

Although it is not in the official press release, many news outlets including Insider Louisville, incorrectly reported that "for the first time in nearly 100 years, a member of the Brown family will take the reins of Old Forester." In fact, there have been Brown family members in charge of the company and all of its brands, including Old Forester, for most of its existence and as recently as 2005.

The long-languishing Old Forester brand has recently shown signs of life, which the company hopes to stimulate with new products such as Old Forester 1870 Original Batch, and the new downtown distillery and tourist destination.

Brown-Forman has announced that it will spend $30 million on the new distillery and another $20 million pushing Old Forester products.

Meanwhile, Jim Beam is seeking to burnish both its craft credentials and its tourism presence in Kentucky's largest city.

Last week, Beam Suntory announced two new releases in its Jim Beam Harvest Bourbon Collection, which is itself a sub-brand of Beam's Signature Craft Series. They are an eleven-year-old High Rye bourbon and an eleven-year-old Rolled Oat bourbon.

Because it seemed disingenuous to label something 'high rye' without stating the mash bill, we inquired. We were reminded that Jim Beam doesn't disclose mash bills (a policy we have called "stupid"), so knowing that Old Grand-Dad is 'high rye,' we asked if Jim Beam 'high rye' is just eleven-year-old Old Grand-Dad. It's not, a Beam spokesperson assured me. It contains even more rye than Old Grand-Dad.

Although Beam doesn't officially disclose mash bills, Booker Noe whispered both of them in my ear many years ago. The Jim Beam mash bill, he said, is 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent malt. The Old Grand-Dad mash bill is 60 percent corn, 30 percent rye, and 10 percent malt. Since bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, and let's say the 10 percent malt is a constant, then the 'high rye' Jim Beam has to be between 31 percent and 39 percent rye.

Both new products are priced at $50 for a 375 ml bottle. They're available in Chicago now and should be everywhere in the next few weeks. Although they surely are limited, Beam isn't making a point of that. Last year's 'Harvest' releases, Red Wheat and Brown Rice, are still in stores. The series will wrap-up in 2016 with Triticale and Six Row Barley.

Beam has also begun construction of its Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse at the north end of downtown Louisville's Fourth Street Live entertainment district. The attraction is supposed to open later this year. Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark Lounge anchors the south end of the strip.

In sad Louisville news unrelated to bourbon, the Louisville Slugger brand has been sold to Wilson Sporting Goods for $70 million, as reported today by Louisville Business First. Although it has sold the iconic brand, the 131-year-old Hillerich & Bradsby Company will remain family-owned and will continue to manufacture Louisville Slugger wood bats at the factory and museum on Main Street. Headquartered in Chicago, Wilson is owned by a Finnish company, Amer Sports Corp.

In other booze news, the lawsuit against Tito's Handmade Vodka is moving forward. Although we don't care about vodka, Templeton Rye, Breckenridge Bourbon, Jim Beam, and Maker's Mark are all facing similar suits.

In particular, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller ruled that Tito's owners hadn't shown that safe harbor provisions barred the suit's allegations. This refers to the argument that Tito's can't be sued about its label because the label was approved by the federal regulator, the TTB. All of the producers who have been sued for misleading label claims are offering this defense, which we refuted here.

More recently, the TTB's new guidelines on age statements prove that prior approval counts for nothing if the label is wrong. Labels that are wrong must be corrected the next time labels are printed. You can read more about that here and here.

Speaking of Texas and mis-labeling, Whitmeyer's Distilling Company, a micro in Houston, has announced the release of "the first legal bourbon whiskey fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Harris County, TX since prohibition." The release of 600 bottles will be sold only at the distillery. This is interesting because Whitmeyer's got caught between the TTB's old and new rulings on age statements. Since all of the bottles are already labeled, Whitmeyer's won't need to change them, but their labels are wrong.

They need an age statement.

According to TTB rules, the absence of an age statement is supposed to mean the whiskey is at least four years old. This one isn't, as Travis Whitmeyer was happy to admit. The whiskey is, in fact, two-years old, but they didn't put 'straight bourbon' on the label even though they could because TTB told them they could avoid the age statement that way. They know they'll have to label future products differently.

If the comments to Whitmeyer's Facebook announcement are any indication, those 600 bottles will be gone in no time. At last count, the announcement had 115 'likes' and 17 'shares.' Limit two per customer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another informative post, Chuck.
In my region here in the mid-south, WT-101 is now very hard to find. I've been to several places where the WT101 shelf space is empty and the proprietor says "unavailable." I wonder if Wild Turkey is preparing a reboot of the 101?

Mark said...

@Anonymous (Dan)-

Which mid-South state are you in? If it's one of the "control states" (Virginia and North Carolina are two examples) it may just be poorly managed liquor selection/inventory, as it is done by the government.

Doctor Tarr said...

If you go a little bit farther down Dixie Highway and turn on Ralph instead of Miller you'll drive right by Little Brownie Bakers, one of the two bakeries that make Girl Scout cookies.

Then turn right on Fitzgerald.

Chuck Cowdery said...

With everything in this post, it cracks me up that most of the comments here and on Facebook have been about the directions to SW.

Amanda Swift said...

What is your take on the handmade lawsuit? At what point does something stop being handmade?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Not all 'handmade' cases are created equal. In Tito's case, the word is part of the product's name: Tito's Handmade Vodka. They're saying 'handmade' is a really, really, important part of their product's positioning. So what is handmade about it? Absolutely nothing. That said, I don't know if that rises to something actionable. Despite what your parents told you, all lies don't cause harm, at least not enough to merit compensation.

Michael Shoshani said...

Something I'd love to see, but probably never will, is mashbill disclosure on labels. (You can reveal your mashbill without revealing your secrets, since there are many varieties of each grain plus the yeast is an enormous variable.)

Without such disclosure, terms such as "high rye" are meaningless, since one distillery's low rye at 20% could easily be higher than another distillery's high rye content at 12%.

Nonetheless, stills are running, barrels are being filled, aged, and dumped, and even the large distilleries have a spirit (ha) of experimentation and exploration now. Overall, this is very good.