Friday, October 30, 2015

Imbibe Magazine Says I'm a Character

I'll get right to the point. This link opens an article from the November-December 2015 issue of Imbibe Magazine. Thank you to Imbibe Executive Editor Paul Clarke, writer Robert Simonson, and photographer Matthew Gilson for making it happen.

Thanks also to Gary Regan, Fred Noe, and LeNell Camacho Santa Ana, who Robert got to say nice things about me, and to Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill (who I've known for 37 years), for admitting that I sometimes piss him off. Special thanks to Chris Kafcas at Fountainhead for hosting the photo session. It takes a lot of time and effort to make me look that good.

The article is headlined 'Whiskey's Iconoclast,' a characterization I can't dispute. The first person who called me an iconoclast, many years ago, had to define it for me. She explained the word's etymology and then we had sex. I'm so glad I went to college.

It's true that as a child of the 60s, I've never had much use for authority. That's probably why I've been self-employed for the past 30 years.

The best thing about this late-life career I've fallen into is all of the fun and fascinating people I've met as a result. It should not surprise you that most people in the hospitality business are fun and sociable, so much so that they can even tolerate the occasional boozy iconoclast.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The State of Bourbon Is Strong

For the last few years, sales of bourbon, rye, and other American whiskeys have been growing at home and overseas. Established producers are increasing their production capacity and launching new products. New producers are entering the field, some small, some not so small.

After a long period in the doldrums, American whiskey began to show signs of life about 25 years ago. One of the harbingers was the appearance of master distillers at tastings, whiskey shows, and other events. Usually kept close to their stills, master distillers were suddenly traveling the world to promote their company's brands. That pioneer generation has now mostly passed from the scene. Several were honored in 2015.

Even in an industry as time-hallowed as whiskey-making, 'innovation' is a driving force. But sometimes the old can be new again, as several producers demonstrated by reviving the bottled-in-bond designation, first used in 1897.

Although it's not over yet, 2015 has been an eventful year and The Bourbon Country Reader is devoting its current issue to a 'State of Bourbon' report for 2015, covering all of the subjects described above. Current subscribers have had the new issue (Volume 17, Number 1) for a couple of weeks. You can get yours by subscribing now.

The Bourbon Country Reader is America's oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey. Honoring tradition, it still comes to you on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS.

subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still just $20 per year (six issues) for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is always independent and idiosyncratic and has no distillery affiliation. It is published six times a year, or thereabouts. (We've been a bit lax of late. Those responsible have been sacked.)

Click here to subscribe with PayPal or any major credit card, or for more information. Click here for a free sample issue (in PDF format). Click here to open or download the free PDF document, "The Bourbon Country Reader Issue Contents in Chronological Order." (It's like an index.) For the record, this new one is our 97th.

If you want to catch up on what you've missed, bound back issue volumes are available for $20 each, or three for $50.

If you prefer to pay by check, make it payable to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, and mail it to Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 3712 N. Broadway, PMB 298, Chicago, IL 60613-4198. Checks drawn on U.S. banks only, please.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

MGP CEO Predicts Bourbon Growth "Just Beginning"

One of the existing warehouses at the MGP Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
In a recent announcement that MGP is investing $16.4 million to double warehouse capacity at its Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery, MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin made the following statement:

“This investment is consistent with the ‘invest-for-growth’ initiative of our five-year strategic plan. Increased capacity will help us better support the rapid growth of the whiskey category, as well as support our own brand development efforts."

The brand development comment officially reverses a company pledge that it would never compete with its customers by creating its own brands. The reversal is not surprising, as house brands are simply too important for long term profitability to be dismissed that easily.

Griffin also said this:

“American whiskey is in the early stages of a long term growth trend. Thanks to our strong reputation for quality and innovation, and our production capacity, MGP is uniquely positioned to benefit from this trend. This investment allows us to expand our ability to mature product for both our customers and our own future needs.”

There has been much private discussion in recent years about the staying power of American whiskey's current boom. Many companies are speaking through their investments but few senior executives have been willing to predict a bright future this directly. As the U.S. producer most dependent on the non-distiller producer market, MGP needs this prediction to be true. Much depends on robust growth in export markets such as India and China.

MGP has been in and out of the whiskey game for decades, getting back into it with the acquisition of Lawrenceburg's old Seagrams distillery in 2011.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Buffalo Trace Distillery Harvests First Corn Crop

What distillery is the most grain-to-glass? Sazerac's Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky has just harvested its first crop of corn off land adjacent to the distillery. It purchased the land last year, expanding its site on the Kentucky River to 378 acres.

In May of this year, the distillery planted its first seeds using the same corn strain planted by Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. in 1870 (non-GMO, of course).

This week, those 18 acres were harvested and the corn has begun its journey toward fermentation in what will ultimately be Buffalo Trace's own farm-to-table 'Single Estate' experience. This bourbon will be a separate, stand-alone brand with its own identity. The name, age, price, and other details have yet to be determined.

"Although the yield was not quite as much as we had expected, we're still excited to complete this step and begin our own farm-to-table bourbon," said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller.

The additional land was acquired primarily for new warehouses. A total of 50 new warehouses are planned for the next 10 years. They will hold 50,000 barrels each. Construction on the first will begin in 2017. Two office buildings also on adjacent land, built originally as maturation warehouses, were recently converted back to that use. Sazerac also has maturation facilities at the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown and the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro. In addition to whiskey, the warehouses at Barton 1792 are also used to age Paul Masson Brandy for the distillery's former owner, Constellation Brands.

Warehouse space is the chokepoint at many distilleries. New ones are being raised as fast as Buzick can build them. Buzick Construction builds most of the warehouses and other buildings for distilleries in the U.S.

MGP recently announced a $16.4 million investment in new and refurbished warehouses. One new warehouse, under construction now, is expected to be completed yet this year. It is being built on a 20-acre site adjoining the company’s current Lawrenceburg facility. The program includes both the refurbishment of existing warehouse buildings and the construction of new warehouses. It will double MGP's maturation capacity.

Monday, October 19, 2015

MGP Joins Big Boys Club

It was announced last week that MGP has joined the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS), the national trade association for producers and marketers of distilled spirits sold in the United States. This is another major move by the Kansas-based distiller which makes bourbon, rye, gin, and vodka primarily for the non-distiller producer (NDP) marketplace.

"As a leading supplier of premium distilled spirits, joining DISCUS is an important step in the evolution of our company," says MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin. "We are excited about our membership in DISCUS, which further demonstrates our commitment to playing an increasingly active role in this industry.”

MGP makes neutral spirits at its distilleries in Atchison, Kansas and Lawrenceburg, Indiana, while Lawrenceburg also makes whiskey.

DISCUS is one of several trade associations in the beverage alcohol business, but it is the largest and best-known group for producers. Joining DISCUS is a big commitment. It's expensive. Not every major producer is a member. Heaven Hill and Sazerac, for example, are not. MGP becomes DISCUS’ 15th voting member. In addition, DISCUS has 127 small distiller affiliate members in 35 states.

DISCUS says that, since 1935, it and its predecessor organizations have served as the industry’s voice on public policy and legislative issues in the nation’s capital, state capitals and foreign capitals worldwide.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Diageo's Crown Royal First to Put 'Serving Facts' on the Label

They can't call it 'Nutrition Facts' because it's not part of that FDA program, but Diageo has gone where no alcoholic beverage has gone before. As announced Tuesday, Diageo has begun to ship cases of Crown Royal that include what they're calling 'macro-nutritional information' on the product. It's the first time an alcoholic beverage brand has included a serving facts panel on its packaging. The panel details serving size, number of servings per container, alcohol by volume, number of calories and grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving. It also includes the U.S. Dietary Guidelines definition of a standard drink, which is 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.

Crown Royal has been used as a stalking horse before.

In 1996, Crown Royal (then owned by Seagram's) drew fire for breaking the taboo on distilled spirits advertising on television. President Clinton criticized them, saying the TV ad ban "helped protect children." Before that, Seagram's had created a line of 'Seagram's Coolers' that included both wine-based and spirit-based products, which it advertised on TV using Bruce Willis as the celebrity spokesperson. Technically, only the wine-based products appeared on TV, but the spirit-based products had identical packaging.

Diageo, which is frequently not very transparent about some of its products, wants to be seen as transparent on these types of consumer facts. Since 2006, Diageo has provided serving facts information on its DRINKiQ ( website. Diageo will add this information to other brands as they change or update their labels.

A 2014 study cited by Diageo found that 86 percent of U.S. alcohol consumers agree that serving facts labels that include the 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol per drink definition provide useful and relevant information, while 83 percent agree the same information on a label helps them understand the definition of a standard drink. The majority of respondents in the same study (conducted by FoodMinds LLC) specifically indicated that beverage labeling that includes alcohol content per serving is helpful to them in following the recommended dietary guidelines for alcohol consumption.

In 2003, Diageo was part of a coalition of consumer and public health advocates that publicly asked U.S. regulators to allow serving fact information on beverage alcohol products. In 2013, the US Treasury’s Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) finally approved that request, allowing labels to include serving size, number of servings per container, alcohol by volume, number of calories and grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving. Since that time, the TTB has approved a label that specifically references the US Dietary Guidelines, which defines a drink as being 0.6 fluid ounces of alcohol.

Serving fact information is now permitted, but it is not required. Producers have the option to include it or not.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stitzel-Weller, Meet Neiman Marcus

The annual Neiman Marcus Christmas Book debuted today. You know what it is, a wonderful expression of excess and aspiration. The fantasy gifts, the ones that make news, are selected to capture something of the historical moment, so it's an indicator of where American whiskey is today that one of them is this:

Whiskey a Go-Go

The perfect grab bag for a close circle of five whiskey-loving buds with a spending limit of $25,000 each. For $125,000, The Orphan Barrel Project puts you and your pals in the driver's seat (not literally!) at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. There, you'll go "barrel hunting" for bourbons recently discovered at old rickhouses and distilleries. And you get 24 bottles of eight different Orphan Barrel bourbons, never to be tasted again, including two variants you and your tight circle dreamed up during your spirited tour.

That works out to $641 per bottle. All of a sudden, Old Blowhard looks like a great value.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

After 36 Years, Brown-Forman to Part Ways with Southern Comfort

Janis Joplin was a fan.

Although no one at Brown-Forman has confirmed it, neither have they denied the widely-reported story that the company would like to sell Southern Comfort and Chambord, both liqueurs.

I worked on Southern Comfort for several years in the early 1980s.

When Brown-Forman bought Southern Comfort in 1979 it actually bought two companies. One made the proprietary flavoring concentrate and owned the secret recipe for it, the other bought the concentrate (made in Puerto Rico), combined it with sugar, water, and neutral spirit, and bottled it. That took place at a factory in St. Louis.

Southern Comfort had its origins in New Orleans in the 1870s. It was created by Martin Wilkes Heron, a saloon keeper, as a way to make the rough corn whiskey being shipped downriver from Kentucky and other frontier states into something that more closely resembled Cognac. French wood-aged brandy was considered the epitome of fine spirits in the Crescent City.

Heron moved around, ultimately settling in St. Louis, where he made and sold Southern Comfort until Prohibition. He then gave the worthless company to an employee, Grant Peoples, who sold the rights to Francis Fowler. Fowler then largely recreated the recipe in his basement.

Fowler’s product did okay until the late 1960s, when it was adopted by singer Janis Joplin. Sales exploded. Fowler was so pleased he contacted Joplin and asked if she wanted anything. She asked for a fur coat, which he sent immediately.

At 50% ABV, with an amber color, in a clear bottle, Southern Comfort looked a lot like bourbon and surveys showed that more than half of Southern Comfort’s consumers thought it was. No one tried to disabuse them of that notion.

Brown-Forman enters the picture in 1979. I enter it in 1982. Brown-Forman typically manages its major acquisitions from a distance. It doesn’t fix things that aren’t broken. By 1982, they finally had their own brand management team, led by David Higgins, in charge and they were planning to close the factory in St. Louis and move production to Louisville, where Brown-Forman is headquartered.

I was employed by a Louisville sales promotion agency. Brown-Forman was one of our main clients. 

I was assigned to the team that would bring Southern Comfort into the Brown-Forman fold. If three years seems like a long time in which to do something like that, it took Brown-Forman about 30 years to fully integrate Jack Daniel’s into the company and, of course, they kept production where it was.

From the 1950s, Southern Comfort had a tradition of printing small recipe booklets which were given away free at retail and also bound into major magazines. We continued that practice, typically doing four unique books per year. They were about half drink recipes and half food recipes. I developed the themes, helped invent some of the drinks, and wrote all of the copy. All of the design, photography, and food styling was done in-house as well. My legacy is the theme ‘Comfort and Joy’ for Christmas promotions.

The Southern Comfort drinker always skewed young, sometimes problematically so. We joked that most consumers had tried it, had a bad experience, and rejected it before they were old enough to drink it legally.

I left that agency in 1986 and left Louisville for Chicago in 1987. Because of my interest and involvement in the bourbon business after about 1991, I stayed in touch with Brown-Forman and kept my eye on Southern Comfort. It had many good years but has been slipping lately. There’s still a market for sweet ersatz whiskey – look at Fireball – but Southern Comfort has become old news. Maybe a new owner can find a way to revive it.

If any of this makes you want to sample the stuff, get the original (not one of the flavored line extensions) and make either a Scarlett O’Hara or a Dry Manhattan.

Scarlett O’Hara, From Antoine’s, New Orleans.
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
Cranberry juice cocktail.
Wedge of fresh lime.
Pour Southern Comfort over ice cubes, fill glass with cranberry juice cocktail. Squeeze in juice from the lime wedge and add the wedge.

Comfort Dry Manhattan
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
½ oz. dry vermouth.
Dash of Angostura bitters
Pour ingredients over ice in short glass. Add a cherry.

UPDATE: Sazerac did indeed buy Southern Comfort in January, 2016.