Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Do You Have a National Distillers Dusty?

Jim Beam Brands Co. recommended Bourbon Section shelf set for 1989-90.
Start talking about old whiskeys and pretty soon someone will mention National Distillers, usually in the context of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon or Old Overholt Rye. But National had a lot of bourbon brands including Old Crow, Old Taylor, Bourbon DeLuxe, Bellows, and other regional cats-and-dogs.

In 1987, the James B. Beam Distilling Company, a subsidiary of American Brands Inc., acquired the spirits division of the National Distillers and Chemical Corporation for $545 million. Included were three Kentucky distilleries, two of which were still active, although Beam immediately shut them down. The sale also included a lot of aging whiskey stock, at a time when American whiskey sales were in the doldrums and everyone had too much, what we call today 'the glut era.'

Enthusiasts of National Distillers whiskeys distilled before 1987 are constantly trying to figure out if bottles they have are National-distilled or Beam-distilled. It isn't easy, but some context might help.

One of the costs in whiskey-making is the cost of moving whiskey around while it is in the barrel. In a perfect world whiskey is barreled at the distillery and the barrel is moved to a nearby warehouse where it remains undisturbed until it is withdrawn years later for bottling, also nearby.

The point is that Beam's determination as to what whiskey went into what bottle was based primarily on the location of the whiskey to be bottled and the location of the bottling plant to be used. After the National acquisition, Beam bottled whiskey at two locations, its existing Jim Beam Distillery at Clermont, Kentucky, and what had been National's Old Grand-Dad Distillery at Forks of the Elkorn just outside of Frankfort.

In those days, the same bottling crew spent a few days at Clermont, followed by a couple at Frankfort. They did that because it is cheaper to move people than whiskey. The whiskey distilled by National was aging at the distillery where it was made, either Old Grand-Dad or Old Crow, which was also in the Frankfort area. Some of the whiskey distilled at Old Crow was aging in warehouses at Old Taylor, right next door. Some Beam-distilled whiskey was sent to Frankfort to age, but little if any went in the other direction.

To this day, those are Beam Suntory's two bottling plants. Each one has been substantially upgraded over the years. They run full time now and have their own crews, but the fact remains that what is aged at Frankfort is bottled at Frankfort and what is aged at Clermont is bottled there. Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark has its own bottling plant at the distillery in Loretto. The company's largest Kentucky distillery, Booker Noe at Boston, has warehouses but no bottling. Whiskey aged there is bottled at Clermont.

For reference, the distance between the Clermont and Booker Noe plants is about ten miles. The distance from either of them to Frankfort is about 75 miles. Beam has several other maturation facilities but most of them are close to Clermont, not Frankfort. Consequently, most of the whiskey bottling happens at Clermont. Frankfort bottles other things, such as DeKuyper liqueurs.

After Beam stopped distilling at Frankfort, it started to make the high-rye Old Grand-Dad recipe at Clermont, so Old Grand-Dad would have been bottled at Frankfort until the Frankfort-distilled Grand-Dad ran out, and thereafter it was bottled at Clermont. For everything else, Beam used Frankfort-distilled and Clermont-distilled whiskey interchangeably, without regard to brand, depending on where it was being bottled. This was even true of Old Overholt, as Jim Beam has always made rye whiskey in addition to bourbon.

Nothing has been distilled in Frankfort since 1987 so everything in those warehouses now comes from either Booker Noe or Clermont, but if it is aging in Frankfort it will almost certainly be bottled there too.

I know more about the period following the National acquisition than most people because I was in the room for some of it. Two years after the acquisition, Beam was still struggling to integrate the two product portfolios. I was part of a team that developed the document above, a comprehensive manual for off-premise retail merchandising of the combined Beam-National line.

The manual explained the principles of effective merchandising and where to place each major Beam brand. It included advice like this:

"The Jim Beam shelf set should begin immediately to the right of the Jack Daniels set. Jim Beam White Label should be first, immediately to the right of Daniels. Place Jim Beam Black Label to the right of White Label. Place Beams Choice to the right of Black Label.

"The Old-Grand Dad set should be placed to the left of Daniels, with all three proofs on the shelf, from left to right: 86°, 100° and 114°. This is the ideal shelf position for Jim Beam's two most important bourbon brands."

That's right. In 1989-90, Old Grand-Dad was second only to Jim Beam in importance in Beam's portfolio. That is because Old Grand-Dad still commanded a premium price and was, therefore, one of the most profitable brands on the market.

No one then could have predicted how different the bourbon landscape would look 30 years later.


Ethan Smith said...

Old Grand Dad is still one of the most important brands- at least to me!

The Whiskey MD said...

Trying to find details about these whiskeys is hard, thanks for the insight. I have a bottle with a UPC, bottle stamp and date that all point to confusion when trying to ascertain ND liquid inside versus Beam. If only there were documents somewhere telling us which barrels went into which bottles - the whiskey glut Rosetta Stone!

Sam Komlenic said...

I'd like to see what was on that top shelf to the right of Booker's!

PL said...

Wish I had a time machine. I'd love me some OGD bowling balls and Cabin Still handles!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sam, there was nothing there because it was a staged shot, but as for the top shelf in those days, about the only other thing we might have added would have been Blanton's. This was before Rare Breed or any other top shelfers.

mozilla said...

The National products were far superior to anything Beam was putting out, in my opinion. Still to this day....when I crack open an Old Taylor, Hill & Hill, Bellows Rare, Crow or OGD from National....I can't help but think how much worse off we are as consumers with National and other producers going by the way side.

What we are left with is...a one dimensional bourbon selection.

Back in the 80's....a top shelf tasting bourbon was basically the same price as the rest of the products on the shelf. Now, something that taste top shelf is 10 times the price of a regular bourbon.

It's too bad that many of the producers that had a unique flavor have been gobbled up by these other distilleries....such as: Seagrams and their four or five plants stretching from Maryland, Pa, Indiana and Kentucky; National Distillers and their Hill & Hill, OGD, Old Crow, Old Taylor and Old Overholt; Stitzel Weller; Schenley and their massive group of distilleries...Ancient Age, Old Charter, and many others; Yellowstone and Glenmore; Publicker and American Distilling; and Medley Distilling in Owensboro.....just to name a few.

I hope that with the rising number of new distilleries...we may get back to the days of....better taste at a regular another glut.

Erik Fish said...

And there is Jack Daniel's front and center right underneath the banner "BOURBON". Did anyone back then get hate mail because of that ? :)

mozilla said...

To the best of my knowledge...Jack meets all of the qualifications of a bourbon. Just because Jack chooses not to call themselves a bourbon doesn't disqualify them from being one.

And Chuck...isn't there a second half to that picture. I admit it has been several years since I have seen either of them, though.

Unknown said...

As you likely know Jim Beam is aging bourbon in some of the Old Crow warehouses they still own in Millville (Frankfort address). To the best of my knowledge it is primarily 2 year old Straight and is most likely being used in their "Apple, Maple, Honey" products that say "Infused with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey" under the name. But with that label they are open to purchase from any KY distiller for that. Those products are bottled at OGD plant in Frankfort. The trucks coming and going say Beam on them but the barrels I am not sure.

mozilla said...

Who has been using the Hill & Hill site? Last time I was there it appeared to still be a functioning factory(2004). Did Beam make juice there or sell the site?

IMO, Hill & Hill had a superb flavor profile. What ever happened to that label? Is it still in Beams portfolio?