Friday, March 6, 2015

Bourbon and Snow Don't Mix

Jim Beam after an earlier snowfall this winter. (Photo by Josh Dugan)
Kentucky was hit hard by Wednesday night's record-setting winter storm and some of the biggest snowfalls fell on the distilleries. Communities near Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Heaven Hill, Barton 1792, Limestone Branch, and Willett reported 20 inches or more. Only slightly smaller amounts fell on Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and Buffalo Trace. Louisville, which probably has the state's best snow removal infrastructure, got eight inches to a foot. The Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman distilleries are there.

Tennessee's two big distilleries, Jack Daniel's and George Dickel, got mostly rain this time, but they've had plenty of snow this winter.

Happily for all of us, the extremely cold temperatures we've suffered this winter will give way over the next few days. Forecasters are predicting a string of high temperatures well above freezing. That brings another problem, flooding. Distilleries need a lot of water and are typically located in valleys, close to springs, often alongside rivers. Buffalo Trace in Frankfort is practically surrounded by the Kentucky River and has experienced serious flooding in the past.

The biggest impact severe weather events have on Kentucky's distilleries is when they disrupt transportation. Shipments of corn and empty barrels arrive constantly. Most distilleries will run out of corn in about two days, and barrels probably sooner. Spent mash (AKA 'slop') has to be hauled away every day. Filled barrels have to be taken to warehouses, which are often 'off campus.' Workers have to be able to get to work.

All of this is true for any manufacturer that experiences a severe weather event. The whiskey business is unusual because so much of the industry's production is so concentrated geographically, and because so many of the facilities are located outside of what can fairly be called 'urban areas.' Most are in small towns or out in the countryside. Some are close to the interstates, others not. A few are on roads that are borderline for truck travel under the best circumstances. Also, Kentucky and Tennessee can go years without getting enough snow to bother with, so most communities have only minimal snow removal resources, public or private. In some places, the roads won't really become passable until the thaw.

This should be the last of the severe winter weather. (Knock on wood.) Flooding will continue to be a threat throughout the spring. Since most of the distilleries are running full bore as it is, it won't be easy for them to make up even a few days of lost production. Kentucky will dig out and things will return to normal, but folks there will long remember the winter of 2014-15, perhaps with a commemorative bourbon release.


Gary A. Turner said...

Are the rick houses at any serious risk from heavy snow? If some rain or melt water gets on the barrels - no big deal, but I wasn't sure if the weight of that much snow was keeping anyone up at night. Some of them are thin skinned, but I have no idea about the roof construction!

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused by the title of this post. I understood that extremes of temperature and weather are GOOD for bourbon that is aging in the barrel. This unpleasant winter may be challenging for the bourbon INDUSTRY but isn't it perfectly fine for the bourbon itself?

Alex said...

If you consider a distillery to be similar to other chemical plants and oil refineries, my experience is that most of them are located somewhat remotely. But most still need highways and rail around them to get raw materials and products in and out.

Tony said...

I imagine the smaller, micro distilleries will be affected even worse.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I haven't heard about any concerns with the weight of snow on roofs, but the warehouses themselves are designed to support the enormous weight of all those full barrels.

Below a certain temperature, aging whiskey is essentially dormant. A handful of distilleries heat their warehouses, but most don't.

Anonymous said...

With Glenfiddich's "Snow Phoenix" in mind, I can already envision some random distillery's release of "Snow Eagle" somewhere down the road :-/