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.


Erik Fish said...

Trade associations can be an effective "force multiplier" for an industry. But when they start seeing themselves as grail guardians and excluding and even attacking anyone they see as not paying tribute and playing by their rules, it gets ugly.

The line between upholding standards, and bullying and squelching innovation, is a murky one.

The KDA seems to follow the same model as the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association), whose legal teams are always on the lookout for perceived threats. While they do good work nailing plagiarizers and exposing genuine fakers, their hubris leads to overreach.

Fortunately, they don't always win. Just like Sazerac seems to do fine on the wrong side of the KDA, Glenora and Compass Box, just to name two well-known examples, benefited more than they were hurt from the fame of standing up to the SWA.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mr. Cowdery! Good whisk(e)y has a way of encouraging people to drink it without such sillishness and slogans telling people to drink it. Bourbon is not Coca-Cola :)

I was somewhat jaded with Sazerac due to availability problems of Buffalo Trace products and I'd heard before that they weren't part of the Trail, but didn't know why. Now I have a renewed appreciation for them. Not that I'll overpay for their product. But I'll continued picking it up when available.

Nothing worse than condo board mentality.

Anonymous said...

There are only two non public and/or internationally owned majors left. One is not in the KDA and the other is the only one of its kind in the is it really local people driving KDA? Or really a proxy for people in London, Tokyo, Milan, is the quintessential American Produced Product...

It would be cool to have Heaven Hill and BT start there own “KDA” and kind of be the KDA for “Locals”...i would bet that both have most of the big awards in the bourbon world anyway.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The KDA board is made up of one representative from each member company. Most of the time, that person is based in Kentucky but, obviously, most of them work for companies that are not based in Kentucky. Sazerac is odd because, technically, it is based in Louisiana but its CEO, Mark Brown, and all of its management are in Kentucky. Regardless of where they are based, every KDA member has one or more major facilities in Kentucky so the Kentucky focus is strong, maybe too strong sometimes.