Monday, September 28, 2015

Top Five Super-Premium Bourbons as Reported by Shanken

Shanken today reported on sales in the super-premium bourbon segment. Super-premiums are powering the bourbon boom and these five brands are powering the segment. Beam Suntory owns two of them. Brown-Forman also owns two. Diageo owns one.

Companies guard their sales data closely and outfits like Shanken that develop their own sources for reporting it sell that information for a high price, so it's rare we in the public get a chance to compare apples to apples.

Here, then, are the top five super-premium* bourbons in 2014 U.S. sales.

1. Maker's Mark -- 1,340,000 cases**
2. Bulleit -- 480,000 cases
3. Gentleman Jack -- 310,000 cases
4. Knob Creek -- 290,000 cases
5. Woodford Reserve -- 275,000 cases

* 'Super-premium' is defined as a retail price of $25 or more for a 750 ml bottle.

** Although cases are not all the same size, sales are reported as if they are all standard nine liter cases, also known as flat cases. A case of twelve 750 ml bottles is nine liters.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

How Do You Make Ten Different Bourbons at One Distillery?

There has been a lot of symbolic torch passing at this year's Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF), underway now in Bardstown and other locations.

Having a whiskey event at multiple locations, some quite distant from each other, would seem like a bad idea considering that drinking and driving shouldn't be encouraged. Yet they do it, during the KBF and the Bourbon Affair. They encourage designated drivers, of course, and you can pay for transportation, but still.

One of the best KBF events has always been 'Let's Talk Bourbon,' which takes place on Friday morning at Four Roses. It's a great event because Jim Rutledge gives a presentation that really gets into detail about how bourbon is made. It's generally free of marketing fluff. They serve a nice breakfast too. They have capped attendance at about 300 people and always sell out.

They do a great job and you can understand why Four Roses wants to have it at the distillery and not somewhere in Bardstown, but Four Roses is about 42 miles from Bardstown.

Yesterday morning, Rutledge, who is recently retired, passed the torch to Brent Elliott, the new Four Roses Master Distiller.

After the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Induction on Wednesday, I happened to walk with Elliot to where our cars were parked at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Rutledge was never able to explain to me how Four Roses is able to make ten different recipes 'in line,' i.e., without shutting down to change over. The inability to understand is entirely my fault, not Jim's, so I thought I would give Elliott a try. He gave me a little more detail that helped my understanding.

In even more fairness to Rutledge, I've asked him the question at events with lots of other people vying for his attention. I had Elliot all to myself on a warm Kentucky afternoon when neither of us minded spending a few more minutes standing in the sun.

The key is timing, he explained, which begins when the last fermenter of a given recipe heads to the beer well, followed by the first fermenter from the next recipe. There is a little bit of overlap in the beer well itself, he conceded, because it has to be maintained at a constant level. They know how long it takes for that last fermenter of mash to get from the beer well through distillation to barrel entry, and that's when they change over the barrel head stencils to indicate the new recipe.

This means, of course, that a tiny handful of OESV barrels might have a little bit of OESK in them. The mind reels.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Absolut Bourbon?

Ain’t that America? We have whiskeys that don’t taste like whiskey (e.g., Fireball) and now a not-whiskey that tastes a little bit like whiskey, Oak by Absolut. Absolut is foundering and desperate. The pundits say it is whiskey, bourbon in particular, that is kicking vodka’s butt in the USA. Ergo, bourbon-flavored vodka. Never let it be said that Pernod Ricard doesn’t see and do the obvious.

It isn't bourbon-flavored vodka exactly, but most of bourbon's flavor does come from the new charred oak barrel in which it labors for several years. (The aging process is much more active than the 'slumber' metaphor usually used to describe it.) Oak by Absolut spends about six months in wood. They can't call it 'aged vodka.' That would be against the law. Instead, like the Tequila makers, they call it 'rested.' 'Rested on oak' is their description of the process.

Believe it or not, this isn't new. Seagram's gin used to have a slight yellow tint because it was 'rested' in used bourbon barrels for about three months before bottling. The neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) component of Seagrams Seven received the same treatment. There is even an official name for it; 'grain spirits.'

Seagrams could do this because their Lawrenceburg, Indiana plant distilled both neutral spirit and whiskey, and aged the whiskey there. The neutral spirit was flavored into gin there using a vacuum distillation process. They had a bottling plant just down the road, so freshly emptied barrels were always readily available.

It was quite a place. Corn and water went in, cases of Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin came out.

But then Seagrams was dissolved as a company and its assets sold separately. Today, the owner of the Indiana distillery is MGPI but the bottling plant is owned by Proximo. Although both Seagrams Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey and Seagrams Gin are still made at MGP, they are now owned by Diageo and Pernod, respectively, and shipped out in tankers to be bottled elsewhere. Technically, the 'resting' could still be done -- Pernod is doing it for Oak -- but Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin are price-sensitive products, so that extra expense has been deemed superfluous.

We don't know where Oak by Absolut is 'resting.' They say they are using Swedish, French, and American Oak, which might be interesting for a whiskey. For this I'm not sure it matters.

One of the greatest failures in the history of the American distilled spirits industry was Light Whiskey, introduced in 1968. At that time, vodka was kicking whiskey's ass and a nearly-neutral spirit with a little bit of characteristic whiskey flavor seemed like just the ticket. It wasn't. One of the biggest reasons people drink vodka is because they don't like the flavor of whiskey, so why would they drink a vodka that tastes even just a little bit like whiskey? They wouldn't, they didn't then, and they probably won't now.

I have not been offered a taste of it yet but when I am, I'll let you know.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Independent Stave Expands Kentucky Operations with Fifth American Oak Stave Mill

Here is some good bourbon news from now infamous Rowan County, Kentucky.

Independent Stave Company, the largest maker of oak barrels for the American whiskey industry, announced yesterday that its fifth American oak stave mill is now fully operational. Transformed from an empty 58-acre field to a state of the art stave mill in just two years, Morehead Wood Products is now supplying high quality staves to the company’s Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky. This new stave mill is one of several Independent Stave projects to support the growing bourbon industry.

“This has been an exciting time of investment and expansion as we support the significant growth our distilling customers are experiencing,” said Brad Boswell, president and fourth-generation cooper

“By production capacity, this new stave mill is now the second largest stave mill in the world, allowing us to greatly increase our supply of high-quality American white oak.”

Independent Stave has a long heritage of serving the spirits industry since its inception in 1912, first as a domestic supplier of staves, and today as a cooperage company crafting a wide range of barrels and oak products.

When Independent Stave began researching locations for its fifth stave mill, Morehead quickly became a top contender thanks to an excellent work force and an ideal location surrounded by forests known for cooperage-quality white oak.

“Building a stave mill from scratch has many advantages, including the ability to optimize each step of the process through proven techniques and new innovations,” said Boswell. “We have pushed ourselves throughout the development process to build on our experience and look for ways to further improve our quality and processes – which then becomes a direct benefit to our distilling customers.”

Mike Knudson is the new mill’s general manager. Knudson has worked for the company for more than 21 years and has extensive experience in production supervision. Upon accepting his new role one year ago, he relocated with his family to Morehead to begin the hiring process.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the community, both in welcoming us to Morehead and also submitting applications to join our team,” confirmed Knudson. “We appreciate the community’s support and look forward to a bright future.”

Presumably, that includes the Clerk of Rowan County, who will be on hand to make sure the staves are all straight.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The 'Michter's Stills' Are Once Again Owned by Michter's

Mainly, I'm posting this to call your attention to my post about the 'Michter's Stills' over on the Whisky Advocate Blog, but here is a little 'rest of the story.'

I became aware of the equipment in question more than a decade ago. I was talking to John Ed Beam (yes, those Beams) about some equipment his family owned. Although he and his two brothers all had good careers in other fields, they also felt the itch to make whiskey to varying degrees. Their dad, David Beam, a former master distiller at Jim Beam, had acquired the equipment years before, but hadn't done anything with it except put it in a little pavilion where he could look at it. John Ed and I talked casually about what it would take to set up a micro-distillery. This was in 2002-2003, when such a thing still seemed like a pipe dream.

My, how things have changed.

That led to a story by me in Whisky Magazine about the family and the stills, which everyone enjoyed, but the idea of the micro distillery never got off the drawing board. John Ed got married, he and his wife had twins, and that was pretty much the end of it.

A few years later another father of twins, Tom Herbruck, was getting his Tom's Foolery Distillery going on the outskirts of Cleveland. Having a distillery was a childhood dream of his (really!) and he was planning to start with applejack, but also wanted to make whiskey. We got to talking about what kind of equipment he might need and I thought of the Michter's stills. I asked John Ed if he thought his dad might be willing to sell them. John Ed wasn't sure but he thought it was worth asking.

So Tom did, and the timing was right. Tom got the equipment, sent it to Vendome for any necessary refurbishment, then on to Ohio. Pretty quickly he had it set up and running. David Beam and other Beam family members helped, as did Dick Stoll, who had run the equipment when it was at Michter's and he was master distiller there.

The Michter's that owns the equipment now is a completely different company, of course, but the old wooden fermenters still have the Michter's name on them after all these years, so it seems like everything turned out right.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Cool Video, Old News

This video is all over the internet today. It's amazing, well worth watching, but it's not news, and much of what is being said about it is wrong.

First, it happened in 2003, twelve years ago. Second, lightning didn't ignite a 'leak from the factory,' as many outlets reported. Lightning struck a warehouse, at least that's the conclusion reached by investigators at the time. It couldn't have been a 'leak from the factory' because the two Beam distilleries are each about 15 miles from where this occurred, at a separate maturation facility just north of Bardstown off Withrow Court. The lake into which the burning whiskey flowed is a man-made retention pond. I don't believe there was a significant fish kill from the event, as some have reported.

Fire is a constant threat at whiskey distilleries and maturation facilities due to the combustible combination of wood and high proof alcohol. This particular warehouse was relatively small, containing about 800,000 gallons of whiskey. The ones they're building now hold more than twice that much, but they also have better fire controls. Beam has 72 maturation warehouses at various locations in Nelson, Bullitt and Franklin Counties, a few more than it did in 2003.

This location has been particularly unlucky. In 1968, before Beam owned it, another fire destroyed a warehouse there. It was still a distillery then. The other buildings were saved but the distillery closed the next year anyway. Beam bought the site to replace some warehouses it lost to a tornado in 1974.

If a warehouse starts to burn, about all firefighters can do is try to keep it from spreading. It can't be extinguished. Some barrels explode, sending others flying through the air. You don't see it here, but usually the flames are blue, like an alcohol lamp.

The first distillery at that particular location, known as S. P. Lancaster, was built in 1881. Like many distilleries built at that time, the location was chosen to take advantage of the newly-built Bardstown-Springfield Branch of the L&N Railroad. Like many Kentucky distilleries, it changed names often. It was variously known as Independent, Shawhan, and Waterfill & Frazier.

Beam had a fire at another site in 2007. Wild Turkey had one in 2000. (That one, by the Kentucky River, did have a significant fish kill.) The worst one on record was at Heaven Hill in 1996, which destroyed the distillery and seven warehouses. The Cummins-Collins Distillery in Athertonville had a bad one in 1972. Barton had a bad one in 1944. Both of those were in the distillery itself.

During Prohibition, a distillery at Elkhorn Forks near Frankfort, built in 1901 by John D. Hinde, was destroyed in a fire. Arson was suspected. The event was fictionalized in Irwin Cobb’s 1929 novel, Red Likker. After Repeal, a new distillery was built there by Kenner Taylor, son of E.H. Taylor of Old Taylor fame. It eventually became Old Grand-Dad. Today it is owned by Jim Beam and used for maturation and bottling.