Thursday, March 15, 2018

What Is Sazerac Doing in Tennessee?

A rendering of Sazerac's proposed Tennessee whiskey distillery in Murfreesboro.
Last fall, Sazerac announced its interest in a 55-acre parcel of land in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on which to build a new Tennessee whiskey distillery. Nothing was said at the time about how this might affect Sazerac's existing distillery in Newport, Tennessee, where distillers John Lunn and Allisa Henley have been making Tennessee whiskey since last June. On March 1, USA Today reported that even as Sazerac's plan works its way toward approval by the city council, local residents are up in arms about traffic, industrial zoning so close to residential, and the dreaded 'whiskey fungus.'

But that isn't what caught my eye in the article. Baudoinia compniacensis will always be with us. What struck me was this: "Sazerac will relocate its Tennessee operations from Newport in East Tennessee." The article doesn't identify a source for that claim, and Sazerac says its plans for Newport are not finalized, so they won't comment.

'Newport' is the distillery formerly known as Popcorn Sutton. At the very end of 2016, Sazerac bought the distillery but not the Sutton brand, nor any of the spirit made there up to that point. Popcorn Sutton was a notorious moonshiner who died in 2009. Shortly after his death, his widow and one of his buddies launched a legal distilling venture in Sutton's name. In 2013, it was acquired by Mark and Megan Kvamme. He is a successful venture capitalist, close to Ohio Governor John Kasich. She became Popcorn Sutton Distilling's new CEO. The Kvammes still own the brand, which appears to be quiescent.

The Kvammes poured a lot of money into building a new distillery in Newport, near Sutton's home, and also not far from Gatlinburg and other Smoky Mountains attractions. The place is big, 50,000 square feet. The three solid copper pot stills are true alembics (no rectification section), built by Vendome. The two beer stills are 2,500 gallons each. The spirit still is 1,500 gallons. The operation also includes a 5,000-gallon mash cooker, three 10,000-gallon fermenters, and a small bottling line.

The Kvammes scored their biggest coup in 2015 when they hired John Lunn and Allisa Henley away from Diageo's George Dickel Distillery to run the place. When Sazerac bought it, they kept Lunn, Henley and their crew in place. After a few months of planning and experimentation, Lunn and Henley began production of a Tennessee whiskey of their own creation.

Then came the Murfreesboro announcement. Nothing was said about Newport, but USA Today in its recent reporting says Henley will run the Murfreesboro operation.

What Sazerac seems to be doing is logical. Newport only made sense when the distillery was all about the legend of Popcorn Sutton. That remote location might be good for tourism, but without Sutton there is no obvious tourism hook. Sazerac doesn't want to make 'moonshine.' They want to make regular, bourbon-like Tennessee whiskey to compete with Jack Daniel's and George Dickel. Murfreesboro is close to Nashville and the home of Middle Tennessee State University. It is reputed to be a great place to live and will be an easy stop for tourists on the way to visit Jack and George.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Remembering a Family Champion

When Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson, retired as Beam's master distiller and became a brand ambassador for the company, the image makers seemed to decide there were no Beams except for Jim Beam and his descendants.

They found their plan stymied by a tiny woman filled with family pride. She was Jo Ann Beam, daughter of Harry Beam, and granddaughter of Joseph L. ‘Joe’ Beam.

The Beams were prominent Kentucky whiskey-makers even before Joe and Jim came along, and there are other whiskey-making branches too.

Jim Beam had one son, Jeremiah, who joined him in the business but was not a distiller. He had no children. Booker was the son of Jim Beam's daughter, Margaret.

Joe Beam had seven sons who all became distillers, touching nearly every company in the industry. Jo Ann Beam’s father, Harry, was the youngest of the seven brothers. Although not a distiller herself, Jo Beam made Beam whiskey for 38 years as a bottling line worker at the James B. Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. After she retired in 1995, she devoted herself to serving as a volunteer at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, and to researching her family’s heritage. She especially championed the ‘forgotten history’ of her grandfather, father, and uncles.

Rifling through the attics and basements of her relatives, Jo uncovered rare bottles, hand-written bourbon recipes, and other priceless objects associated with all of the whiskey-making Beams. Many of her finds are now on display at the Oscar Getz Museum. She compiled two books of Beam family press clippings, personal documents, and family tree diagrams.

I got to know 'Aunt Jo' during the last few years of her life. She generously shared her research and stories, and took great delight in doing so. She was funny, salty, boisterous, irreverent, all of my favorite qualities. In 2001, Malt Advocate Magazine (now known as Whisky Advocate), published an article by me about the Beam family, prominently featuring Aunt Jo's 'forgotten Beams.' She was thrilled and showered me with praise, but the real credit belonged to her.

In 2002, Jo Beam achieved some notoriety when she and her twin sister, Jean Hall, appeared on national television in the two-hour History Channel documentary, “Rumrunners, Moonshiners and
Bootleggers.” In a segment near the end of the program they revealed that their father, Harry Beam, was caught making illegal liquor in 1949. They were teenagers and remembered the bust vividly.

The incident had long been an open secret in the community, but never admitted to. When it happened their grandmother used her influence (and $1,000) to keep it out of the newspapers.

No family is more important to the heritage of whiskey in the USA than the Beams, and no one did more to preserve that legacy than Aunt Jo. Next week, on her 85th birthday, join me in a silent tribute and toast.