Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Why the George Remus Bourbon Brand Is a Terrible Idea


Murderer George Remus and his victim, in happier times. (1907)
This is a tease post for the latest issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, where we cover the Remus issue in some detail, but I won't make you subscribe to get the payoff.

George Remus was a criminal, a crook who happened to deal in whiskey. He was caught, convicted, and imprisoned. He was also a murderer and the victim was his wife.

The violence against women aspect makes the Remus story particularly problematic for the brand. From social media and other sources, it appears some consumers like that part of the lore. “Bitch had it coming,” is the common sentiment. 

MGP/Luxco, the company that sells George Remus Bourbon, has done nothing to encourage this, but when that kind of noise is attached to your brand, it can only end badly.

In principle and in general, it is a bad idea to link legal businesses to criminals and crime, but it is an especially bad idea for makers and sellers of alcohol.

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But wait, there's more! 

Also in this issue, "Tennessee Whiskey. It's Not Just Jack Daniel's Anymore," in which we survey recent goings-on in the Volunteer State. Also, expansion at Wilderness Trail, and whiskey distilleries making a green walnut liqueur. 

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Monday, January 10, 2022

Top 10 Best-Selling Distilled Spirits Brands in the United States, in 1971

But what were they drinking?
My fellow baby boomers will not appreciate being reminded that 1971 was half-a-century ago. Much has changed. We wore Nikes and polyester bell bottoms when we went skateboarding with Farah Fawcett, but what did we drink? The answer may surprise you. Here are the top 10 best-selling distilled spirits brands in the United States in 1971.

1.   Seagram’s 7 Crown (American blended whiskey)
2.   Seagram’s VO (Canadian blended whisky)
3.   Smirnoff (Vodka)
4.   Canadian Club (Canadian blended whisky)
5.   Bacardi (Rum)
6.   Gordon’s Gin (Gin)
7.   Jim Beam (Bourbon whiskey)
8.   Cutty Sark (Blended scotch whisky)
9.   Gilbey’s Gin (Gin)
10. (3-way tie) Dewar’s (Blended scotch whisky), Kessler (American blended whiskey), Calvert Extra (American blended whiskey)

Several things stand out. Seven out of twelve are blended whiskeys, three American, two Canadian, two Scottish. As for white goods, there is one vodka, one rum, and two gins. Jim Beam is the lone American straight whiskey. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey? It was Nowheresville 50 years ago, way back at #36. 

Another chart in the same presentation told me that the all-whiskeys share of the U.S. distilled spirits market in 1961 was 73.1 percent. By 1972, whiskey's share had declined to 62.1 percent. The all-non-whiskeys share increased similarly, led by vodka. Whiskey's crash was just getting started. Whiskey's share would continue to contract for another 20 years.

Today, only Smirnoff, Bacardi, and Jim Beam remain big category leaders. Seagram's Seven is still the #1 American blended whiskey but that segment is a fraction of its former self and the Jos. A. Seagram Company no longer exists. 

In 1971, I lived in Ohio, where 3.2 percent beer was legal at 18. I couldn't legally buy spirits until September of 1972. It was mostly Seven & Sevens (Seagram's 7 and 7Up) for me then, though I soon switched to J&B and other blended scotch. Although my parents drank nothing but bourbon, I didn't start until I moved to Kentucky in 1978, where it is required by law.

Not really, but when I showed up in Kentucky drinking cheap scotch, my friends would say, "why are you drinking that cheap crap when bourbon is even cheaper and a lot better," and they were right! That's how it all began for me. Then I wrote a book and everybody started to drink bourbon again. The end.

Today, Tito's and Smirnoff top the leader board. Crown Royal (Canadian blended whisky) is third and the only blended whiskey of any kind in the top ten. Jim and Jack are both top ten but so is Fireball. Four of the top ten are vodkas. Two are rums. There is no gin or scotch anywhere in the top 20. 

Now we know how it all played out, but if you studied this list in 1971 you might, despite knowing how much whiskey had fallen since 1961, still think whiskey looked pretty strong. That's why trend-spotting only looks easy in retrospect. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Are Basil Hayden and Old Grand-Dad the Same?


A little knowledge goes a long way. 

Are they? Short answer, no; but here is why this question is asked and why that ‘no’ is nuanced and will bear some explaining. (Fair warning: It may not need as much explaining as it's about to get.)

Basil Hayden is a brand that offers several different expressions, but its flagship is a straight bourbon bottled at 80° proof (40% ABV). Once upon a time it had an 8-year age statement. It is NAS (no age statement) now, but probably 6-9 years old in practice. The brand was created in the early 1990s as part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Bourbons Collection.

Old Grand-Dad is a brand that originated in the 19th century. It was started by R. B. Hayden and had several different owners on both sides of Prohibition, eventually becoming part of Seton Porter’s National Distillers. In 1987, National sold all of its beverage alcohol assets to the parent company of Jim Beam, which landed Old Grand-Dad in the Beam portfolio.

Old Grand-Dad was just one of many brands Beam acquired in that deal, but it was unique. National’s other bourbons, such as Old Crow, were similar enough to Jim Beam that when the whiskey inventory acquired in the deal ran out, they could put Jim Beam liquid into Old Crow bottles and no one would be the wiser, which is exactly what they did (and no one was).

But they couldn’t do that with Old Grand-Dad because it used a different recipe, a particular yeast strain and a mash bill that contained about twice as much rye as Jim Beam and, consequently, that much less corn. If they put Jim Beam liquid into Old Grand-Dad bottles, it would taste different and people would notice. That would be bad because even in the dark days of the 1980s, Old Grand-Dad was considered a premium brand and was very profitable.

Bourbon pricing in those days was simple. ‘Value brands’ were the cheapest; your off-brands, house brands and generics. Next was ‘popular price.’ That’s where most of the major brands were, including Jim Beam. The highest category was ‘premium.’ Old Grand-Dad was considered ‘premium.’ The leader in the premium segment was Jack Daniel’s. The Beam marketing folks thought maybe they could ‘squeeze’ Jack Daniel’s with Grand-Dad on its upside and Beam on its downside, but that strategy went nowhere.

As the brand settled in, executives at Beam saw little opportunity to grow Old Grand-Dad, but they very much wanted to preserve what sales it had.

They didn’t guess about any of this. They meticulously researched it with consumers and concluded that the additional cost of producing a separate recipe would be offset by the estimated sales they would lose if they changed how it tasted. Spending more to keep it the same was worth the investment, so that's what they did; same yeast, same high-rye mash bill, same distillation proof, same barrel entry proof, everything. 

The only change was the distillery. Although the deal included the place where National had been making Old Grand-Dad, Beam didn’t need additional capacity so they moved distillation to Clermont. Owning the former distillery was good, however, because it gave them easy access to everything they needed to keep everything the same, including some of the crew who had been making it there. 

Today, Old Grand-Dad is straight bourbon bottled at four different proofs: 80°, 86°, 100°, and 114°. The 100° proof is bottled-in-bond. Old Grand-Dad doesn't have an age statement, so it is at least 4-years old. It’s probably in the 4- to 6-year range.

The story of the Basil Hayden brand starts with Booker’s Bourbon. That whiskey, with retired master distiller Booker Noe as its spokesperson, was one of the first to herald the bourbon renaissance. Its success prompted Beam to create the Small Batch Bourbons Collection. Booker’s was basically an extra-aged (6- to 8-year), barrel proof version of Jim Beam. Two other brands in the four-brand Collection, Knob Creek and Baker’s, also used the Jim Beam base distillate. It was decided that the fourth one would use the Old Grand-Dad recipe. 

At the time, Old Grand-Dad itself did not have an 80° proof expression, so they made the small batch version 80° proof and 8-years old, and named it after Basil Hayden, the actual grandfather of the brand’s founder and an important participant in the earliest history of Kentucky’s bourbon heartland. It was the lowest proof of the four, so they positioned it as an entry-level offering. “A good starter bourbon for scotch drinkers.” That was the idea.

Making Basil Hayden just an older version of 80° proof Old Grand-Dad, right?

This is where the nuanced ‘no’ comes in or, more precisely, ‘not exactly.’

One aspect of bourbon-making that many enthusiasts miss is the flavor profile. Beam has many thousands of barrels of the Old Grand-Dad base distillate aging in its warehouses. After aging, each barrel is a little bit different and mixing whiskey from different barrels together is how you create a flavor profile. 

Every brand, and every expression within a brand, has a flavor profile that must be maintained from batch to batch. They still do that the old-fashioned way, with human tasters who compare each candidate bottling batch to a standard for that expression. Maintaining the standard itself can be complicated but its essence is, “what it tasted like last time.”

Deciding which barrels to dump for bottling starts by identifying barrels that are the right age, but it doesn’t end there. Candidate combinations are done on a small scale, tweaked until they get it right, then scaled up to the hundreds of barrels and thousands of gallons that can make up a bottling run. Even after the scaled-up batch is prepared it is subjected to additional taste tests and tweaks before it goes into production. 

There probably is nothing producers take more seriously than consistency from batch to batch. That consistency also applies to appearance, but it’s mostly about taste and aroma.

If Basil Hayden’s flavor profile is different from Old Grand-Dad’s, and it is, then they are not the same whiskey. Remember that Beam's objective with Old Grand-Dad, for 35 years now, has been to keep it the same. Basil Hayden was a new brand and wasn't targeted at Old Grand-Dad drinkers. It was crafted to appeal to that bourbon-curious scotch drinker and other entry-level bourbon drinkers. So, yes, it's the Old Grand-Dad distillate, but used in a completely different way. In fact, the Basil Hayden profile is probably as far as you can get from the Old Grand-Dad profile using the same distillate.

Even within the Old Grand-Dad line, the various expressions aren’t just 114 plus different amounts of water. Each proof has its own flavor profile, its own standard, that must be matched. It may not be much more than adding water, but it’s a little bit more.

Of course, it isn’t just Beam Suntory that does this with Old Grand-Dad and Basil Hayden. It is every brand at every company. Every expression of every brand has a flavor profile, maintained from batch to batch as described above. The big producers have thousands of samples, in bottles, so they can reference not only the current standard but also go back and compare current batches to previous ones from just about any period in the brand’s history. These are the kind of crucial business records you can't digitize.

In a small craft distillery, tasting may solely be the distiller’s job, but typically there is a panel of people who do this regularly. Many receive special training.

Most distillers make more than one recipe and derive multiple brands and expressions from each of them. It is common for two or more brands to have the same base distillate, and that is a big thing to have in common. It is useful to know what some of these ‘recipe families’ are because if you like one expression in a given family you may also like others, and likewise that knowledge can suggest labels to avoid, but being in the same recipe family, even being generally similar, does not make them the same whiskey.

Not exactly.