Friday, December 19, 2014

New Bourbon Documentary Hides Ugly Secret

KET, Kentucky’s public television network, debuted a new bourbon documentary earlier this week. It is called “Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business.”

The one-hour program is a series of short snippets from dozens of on-camera interviews, illustrated with historic images and beautiful contemporary views of distilleries, including spectacular aerial shots. The interview subjects often speak very personally and emotionally about their families and their love for the bourbon business. It is touching and informative, beautifully shot and edited, everything about it is first rate.

The documentary is only being broadcast in Kentucky but you can stream it here.

As wonderful as the program is, and it really is wonderful, it hides an embarrassing secret. You may wonder why the name Pappy Van Winkle, which has become nearly synonymous with high end bourbon in recent years, is never mentioned. Or why the close friendship between Jimmy Russell and Booker Noe is discussed at length but the third musketeer, Elmer T. Lee, is missing in action.


These important families and several others were excluded, not because there wasn't enough time for everyone, but because they are on the wrong side of a petty commercial dispute.

Erased from history are any families associated with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, or the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro.

“Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business” was produced for KET by Joanna Hay Productions on behalf of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA). Because Sazerac--the company that owns Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792, and Glenmore--chooses not to belong to the KDA, it was not given the opportunity to participate.

The KDA and its members have pretended Sazerac and its distilleries do not exist ever since New Year’s Eve of 2009, when Sazerac withdrew from the organization. No Sazerac distillery is included on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail either but the KDA owns the Trail, it doesn’t own KET or the University of Kentucky, both of which are owned by all of the people of Kentucky. KET and UK should be ashamed of themselves for their complicity in this charade.

The Nunn Center might answer that it did a separate oral history project with Buffalo Trace, and those interviews are available for viewing on the Center’s web site. True, but they’re not on the fancy new web site linked to the documentary project.

The KDA member companies clearly dictated every aspect of this project. They chose the interview subjects and even the interviewers, to control how their brand stories would be told. If it wasn't mentioned in any of the carefully controlled interviews, it didn't happen. Therefore, as nice as it is, “Kentucky Bourbon Tales: Distilling the Family Business” is 60 minutes of propaganda for those companies and their products, to the exclusion of every other family or company important to the history of bourbon in Kentucky.

There are other serious omissions unrelated to Sazerac such as the Buzicks, whose construction company builds most of the aging warehouses; and the Shermans, whose Vendome Company builds most of the stills. Both families have been prominent industry players for several generations.

Don’t feel sorry for Sazerac. They’re doing just fine without the KDA. The problem is that the KDA is lying when it claims to be “responsible for promoting and protecting all things Bourbon.” It is, instead, a private club interested in promoting the views and interests of its members only, and discrediting all other voices. In this case, that lie has been abetted by two institutions of state government. It is an ugly stain on an otherwise lovely piece of work.


Mark in Columbus said...

Thanks for that backstory, Chuck. Like Paul Harvey used to say......

Whiskeyman said...

Why did Sazerac exit the KDA?

Some googling turns up a few contemporaneous news articles that repeat the standard "no reason given" boilerplate.

The top search result is this blog article (ahem) which says "We'll know eventually what this is all about."

Nearly 5 years later, any insight?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Membership in the KDA is expensive and Sazerac decided it could spend that money better itself. That's the official reason. They have statistics showing that they've increased their tourism better than the KDA members have collectively Unofficially, there's a personality clash.

Michael S. said...

Money talks.

Bourbon Joe said...

You hit the nail on the head Chuck. I am appaled.

Steve said...

While watching the documentary, I thought that the lack of Sazerac interviews was not a big deal, esp if it would have reduced the show I was watching up to that point. Then I hit the last 20 min about cocktails and the Bourbon Trail. Wow. That could've been reduced to 3-4 min. There was plenty of time for more interviews (from additional bourbon companies or not) and it would've improved the show.

Olle Lundberg said...

Thanks for that insight Chuck; your are of course absolutely right! Too bad, it was so close to being a great piece.

Unknown said...

How did Michters fit into the Kentucky Bourbon family story?

Chuck Cowdery said...

(1) They built a bourbon distillery in Kentucky. (2) They paid the required amount to join the KDA.

Chuck Cowdery said...

(3) They have some employees with the necessary roots.

david said...

Sounds like KDA did a promotion piece under the guise of a documentary, public television was duped and produced this drivel (disclaimer I gave not viewed yet)