Friday, August 23, 2019

When 'All' Doesn't Actually Mean 'All'

It's right there on their home page, in the upper left-hand corner: "Kentucky Distillers' Association (Est. 1880). Responsible for Promoting and Protecting All Things Bourbon."

That's what is known as a 'mission statement.' By their nature, mission statements are aspirational. Use of the word 'responsible' conveys a sense of duty.

But that's not the word causing a problem with this noble sentiment. It's the word 'all.' The Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) has no interest in "promoting and protecting all things bourbon." The KDA is only interested in promoting and protecting those 'things' that flow from it and its member companies.

About 70 percent of all the bourbon made is made by four companies. One of those companies, Sazerac, resigned from the KDA ten years ago. The reasons were many. In the end, Sazerac looked at the cost of membership and decided it could spend that money better by itself. A decade on, they seem to have been right.

Sazerac operates two bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, Buffalo Trace in Frankfort and Barton 1792 in Bardstown, both of which do heavy tourism business. It has a small maturation facility and massive bottling plant in Owensboro. Although the corporation is based in Louisiana, it is run from Kentucky. It is big and getting bigger. Buffalo Trace alone is in the midst of a $1.2 billion expansion. It already owns the largest still in bourbondom, at 84 inches, and plans to add another one the same size.

Not long after Sazerac left the KDA, the KDA sued to stop Sazerac from using the term 'Kentucky Bourbon Trail,' which the KDA had trademarked. As far as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is concerned, Sazerac's distilleries don't exist. Despite that, Sazerac's distilleries consistently add visitors at a higher rate than the rest of the state.

It's not just Sazerac that is excluded from KDA's 'all.' It has expressed its displeasure with other 'things bourbon' that it does not control, such as Louisville's annual Bourbon Classic. It has gotten in the way of regional tourism authorities that want to promote their bourbon assets (KDA members or not). It even tried to trademark the words 'Drink Kentucky Bourbon,' so no one could use them without KDA's permission. (That failed.)

I have been persona non grata with KDA since I criticized its Bourbon Affair about five years ago.

The KDA does a lot of good, but the KDA is a membership organization and it operates solely to advance the interests of its members. Nothing wrong with that, it's what you expect any club to do, but claiming to 'promote and protect all things bourbon' is hubris at best, hypocrisy at worst.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

What Would Owsley Think?

I saw this in Walgreens the other day. Maybe not this brand, but this fragrance. Whiskey & Tobacco. At first blush, that doesn't seem like a good choice for a scented candle. I certainly have been in many rooms redolent with the scents of actual whiskey and tobacco. I can't say it was edifying.

I think I would be more disposed to burn a scented candle to mask, rather than reproduce, the aroma of whiskey and tobacco.

But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. I'm reminded of an interview I did with Owsley Brown, president of Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniel's, Old Forester, Early Times, Woodford Reserve, and many other whiskeys. Owsley Brown was the great-grandson of Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown. He spent 37 years working for the company, but he told me about his memories of visiting the distillery as a child.

Today, the corporate campus in Louisville, on Dixie Highway just south of West Broadway, houses only offices and bottling. Distillation and maturation happen elsewhere. In Owsley Brown's youth (he was born in 1942), everything was done at Dixie Highway, and Brown-Forman's plant was right next door to a huge Philip-Morris cigarette factory.

Mr. Brown told me he enjoyed his childhood visits to the distillery. He described them as "magical." He recalled the musical cacophony of the bottling line, and how the women who worked there always made a fuss over him. (Bottling line staff in those days were mostly women.) And he remembered the smell, the aroma of the whiskey mingling with the tobacco scents from Philip-Morris next door.

Since Owsley Brown died in 2011, we can't ask him if this candle brings back any happy childhood memories, or if it is more in tune with my decadent adult pursuits. I guess we'll never know.