Friday, June 16, 2017

Tom Bulleit, Great Guy, But Not an Entrepreneur

Under the "Icons of Entrepreneurship" banner, the INC.COM headline says this: "The Unsung Hero Behind Bulleit Bourbon."

It is about Betsy Bulleit, her marriage to Tom, and their "third and fourth children," Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye. It is a fluff piece, written by the brand's PR agency.

I like Bulleit Bourbon (a product of Four Roses) and Bulleit Rye (a product of MGP of Indiana). They are excellent whiskeys. And I love Tom Bulleit. I always enjoy visiting with him. He is a great guy. I don't know Betsy, but the happy marriage angle is great too. I'm totally happy for them.

But Tom Bulleit is not an entrepreneur.

In 1995, Bulleit, a lawyer in Frankfort, Kentucky who had some business in Japan, created two new bourbon brands, 'Bulleit' and 'Thoroughbred,' for the booming Japanese market. He sold Bulleit to Seagrams in 1997. They reformulated the whiskey and redesigned the package. Mostly, they liked the name, which is pronounced 'bullet.' Thoroughbred fell by the wayside.

Tom was an entrepreneur for two years.

Selling your company after two years is surely one measure of entrepreneurial success, but you stop being an entrepreneur when you stop entrepreneuring. For the last 20 years he has been a brand ambassador. Brand ambassador is a noble calling and Tom is a very good brand ambassador but he is an employee, like Fred Noe is at Beam. It is not his company.

The brand owner is Diageo, world's largest drinks company, which never can resist gilding the lily.

Friday, June 9, 2017

MGP Ingredients Announces the Re-Launch of George Remus Bourbon

A lot has been written about MGP Ingredients, a company that makes commodity whiskey at a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The company is primarily a neutral spirits distiller. It has been mentioned here a few times.

MGP is changing, gradually and not always smoothly, but profoundly. They are cautiously adding a branded products component to their commodity offering.

That is what makes their re-launch of George Remus Bourbon, announced this week, significant. George Remus Bourbon is a tiny Cincinnati-area brand that MGP acquired last year, not long after it was launched. That product used whiskey made at MGP's Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery. The new version, according to the company, is a different formulation ("a smoother, more complex whiskey") in a new package.

Liquor brands that celebrate criminals (e.g., Popcorn Sutton, Clyde May) are inherently problematic, considering the fraught history of alcohol in both legal and illegal forms. The real George Remus was a very successful bootlegger at the beginning of Prohibition, but is that any reason to buy his namesake whiskey? Guys like Remus are only in it for the money, after all, so his standards were not very high. If it had alcohol in it, that was good enough for him.

But he was a colorful character. If you want to know more, check out William Cook's biography, George Remus, King of the Bootleggers

"We’re whiskey lovers and are very proud to offer this updated styling of George Remus Bourbon," says Andrew Mansinne, Vice President of Brands, MGP Ingredients. He is a recent hire in a brand new job. Til American Wheat Vodka is MGP's other branded product.

"This is a complex bourbon whiskey that showcases our signature, high-rye profile and the talent of our distillation team, who have artfully crafted George Remus Bourbon into a beautiful and bold spirit inspired by George Remus’ rebellious and entrepreneurial character," says Mansinne.

Available this summer in select markets (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota), George Remus Bourbon is made at "MGP’s historic, 170-year-old distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana." It is good to see them featuring the "historic, 170-year-old distillery," an attribute that will have resonance long after the novelty of the brand's name fades.

Suggested retail is $44.99 for a 750 ml bottle.

6/13/17: I received this image of the new package from MGP's PR firm. It's an improvement.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Something Went Wrong on the Way to "The 25 Most Important Bourbons Ever Made"

Two months ago, I was invited to participate in a project for Food & Wine magazine being helmed by Robert Simonson, a writer I hold in high esteem. The pitch went like this:

"The idea is to catalogue the 25 most significant and influential and just plain excellent Bourbons ever distilled since they started distilling Bourbon. These could be adjudged so for a variety of reasons: innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc. They can be extant Bourbons handily found on the shelf, or Bourbons that are hard to get, or Bourbons that are extinct and impossible to get and only live on in memory."

The finished product, on the Food & Wine website, is here.

It is disappointing.

What went wrong? It is hard to say. You will notice that all of the products pictured can be purchased today, albeit with difficulty in some cases (e.g., Van Winkle). Was that always the plan? Or was it the decision of an editor, perhaps sensitive to the article's advertising-seeking potential? It is implausible that all of the "25 most important bourbons ever made" are still available. Where are the avatars of "innovation, historical significance, social significance, method of production, quality, etc." from the past? Some of that is in the text, but the overall result is confusing.

Take Michter's, for example. The picture shows a current iteration of Michter's, but the short blurb that accompanies it accurately states that, "This old Pennsylvania distilling name got new life in the 1990s under new owners who sourced, rather than made, their whiskey." It is hard to tell a complicated story in 100 words or less. (It took me more than 100 pages.)

One could argue that Michter's is important for two reasons. The old Michter's, which had a brief history under that name, died in 1990. A few years later, the present owners claimed the abandoned trademark and made good use of it. The whiskey they sourced was excellent and the Michter's line became a leader in the super-premium segment of the market. In August of 2015 (not 2012, as the article states), this Michter's became a distiller, operating a new distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively.

But the original Michter's was also important, for many reasons but in bourbon lore for being the source of the legendary A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, the history of which is told in The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste.

Many of the other selections have a similar problem, trying to combine multiple points of significance into a 100-word blurb under a picture of a modern product that may have little or no relationship to the story being told. Then you realize that the list represents a ranking and comes to the conclusion that Maker's Mark is the most important bourbon of all time, which is absurd on its face. Apparently, the method was to add up how many people mentioned a given brand name. Maker's was mentioned most often, hence it was judged the most important.

Here, for what it is worth, is what I submitted:

Old Oscar Pepper/Old Crow made during Dr. Crow’s lifetime, so pre-1856. Crow introduced many practices we take for granted, such as the sour mash process and routine aging. None of his whiskey has survived. I’ve never tasted it, nor probably has anyone in more than a century. Its significance is that it fundamentally changed how bourbon was made.

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12-year-old. It was a 12-year-old wheated bourbon made at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and just about perfect, as in perfectly balanced. It was generally available from the late 50s until about 1990. I’ve gone through several bottles. I have none left.

Abraham Bowman 18-year-old rye-recipe bourbon from Sazerac. It came out in about 2012. Very limited. Very old bourbons are hit-or-miss. They miss more often than not or are okay but nothing special. Very rarely are they exceptional. This one was. I had one bottle. It is long gone.

A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon, any bottling. A rye-recipe bourbon made by a doomed Pennsylvania distillery during a couple of weeks in 1974, that became a phenomenon and is genuinely great whiskey too. Most of it was sold at 16-years-old but even the 20-year-old is terrific. I’ve tasted them all and still have one or two bottles.

Weller 12-year-old. The closest you can get today to the taste of those great Stitzel-Weller wheaters of yore. Still made and widely available though often in short supply as its reputation as ‘poor man’s Pappy’ has spread.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. On the rye-recipe side of the ledger, Kentucky Spirit stands out as an exemplar. It is simply everything you want in a rye-recipe bourbon. Still made, widely available, and modestly priced for what you get.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Master Distiller’s Blend of Mashbills Bourbon (2012). On paper, it’s just a mixture of Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old rye-recipe bourbon with Heaven Hill’s 11-year-old wheated bourbon. The proportions were never revealed. To me, it is one of the best bourbons ever made and a great example of what a veteran master distiller at the height of his powers can accomplish.

Robert Simonson is a terrific writer who I know personally, and who has written kindly about me on at least two occasions. If you read the piece, ignore the photographs and modify some of the subheads, a very different story emerges, one that reads a lot more like the way he writes. I won't embarrass him by asking what went wrong. It only matters what is on the page. Whatever the reason, the article as presented is confusing and unsuccessful. It does not deliver what the headline promises.

By the way, I'm about halfway through Simonson's book from last year, A Proper Drink. So far, it is a delight. More later.