Wednesday, January 31, 2024

What Becomes a Legend Most?

Heaven Hill was named after the farmer, William Heavenhill, who originally owned the land where the distillery was built. The company's founder and first distiller was a member of the famous Beam family, Joe Beam. Joe's first cousin, Jim Beam, had already cornered the market on the family name, so the new company pulled names from the history books, Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, to christen some of its first brands.

Despite those facts, Heaven Hill's beginnings are primarily the story of the five Shapira brothers, David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose. The brothers ran a chain of small department stores founded by their father. Called the Louisville Stores, they were mostly located in Kentucky's small towns (not in Louisville). They were a lot like today's dollar stores.

One day, the brother who ran the store in Bardstown was invited to invest in a new distillery there. He agreed, believing whiskey was a good investment now that it was legal again, but he expected to be a passive investor because he didn't know the first thing about the whiskey business. He wrote the check and went back to running his store.

Prohibition ended in the midst of the Depression and money was scarce. Soon the brother and his siblings were approached with a new proposal. The other original investors were all over-extended. They intended to sell the company if they could, close it if they couldn't. Would the Shapiras care to buy the whole thing?

Though not sure they should, they did. At their mother's insistence, they pooled their money and thereafter shared everything equally, risks and profits. Slowly, the distillery and its whiskey built a following. The brothers may not have known whiskey, but they had a philosophy forged from their retail experience, of always offering customers the best value for the money. Today, Heaven Hill is one of the largest whiskey distillers in the United States, still owned and run by its founding family, and value is still their hallmark.

Even though Heaven Hill was their company, and always had been, the brothers and their descendants never put their family name on a bottle. Now they have. 

As a way of embedding the tribute in liquid, Five Brothers is Heaven Hill's traditional rye-recipe bourbon at five different ages, between five and nine years old. Yes, it's a gimmick, but it has gotten good reviews. Heaven Hill produces many brands, many of whose profiles include whiskey of different ages. Unless it's a bond or single-barrel, most whiskey products contain whiskey of different ages. Even when the label has an age statement, that just means the youngest whiskey in the bottle is that old. There is almost always older whiskey in there too.

Five Brothers Bourbon is only available in Kentucky, primarily at Heaven Hill's gift shops and a few other Kentucky retailers. Normally, I don't write about products that are this hard to find, but you don't need to buy Five Brothers to appreciate what they accomplished. Enjoy some Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Larceny, Bernheim, Henry McKenna, Rittenhouse, or any of Heaven Hill's many other fine whiskeys. 

Ninety years ago, those five young guys took a gamble. They were new kids then. Some said they were playing where they didn't belong. There were ups and downs, but they stuck together as a family and persevered.

Today, with new bourbon brands appearing daily, often with dubious backstories and liquid of unknown provenance, you have the example of the five Shapira brothers, a classic American tale of taking a chance and doing the work to make it a success. 

David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose thank you for your support.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Barry Berish, Who Ran Jim Beam, Dies at 91

Barry Maurice Berish, 1932-2024
Barry Berish died last week. He was 91.

Berish worked for 40 years, 1957-1997, at Jim Beam Brands, rising to the position of Chief Executive Officer in 1982. Under his leadership, Beam went from a one-brand company to the largest distilled spirits producer in the United States, 5th largest in the world. In 1987, he was instrumental in the company's acquisition of National Distillers, tripling the size of the company, and also acquired several brands from Seagram’s Co. that grew the portfolio by an additional 35 percent. 

I became involved with Beam about the time of the National acquisition and was often in their offices in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, working on various marketing projects until about 1994. After that, although I worked with some of the Deerfield-based PR people, I was no longer involved with Beam marketing and my writing about bourbon put me more in contact with Beam folks based in Kentucky.

Berish's official obituary talks about his "warmth and charisma," but I remember him differently. I say "remember," although I had very little direct contact with him. I knew where his office was, at the end of hall, right next to that of Rich Reese, his right-hand-man and successor. I saw both of them from time to time. Reese would poke his head into our meetings now and then. I don't recall Berish ever doing even that.

Around the office, Berish was considered volatile, capricious, and best avoided. He was very much in charge. Beam folks called it the "Barry and Rich Show" because their opinions were the only ones that mattered. I heard him blow up a time or two, but always from a safe distance. I was just one of dozens of anonymous suppliers who came and went. I wasn't on his radar and from what everyone told me, that was a good thing.

So, this is not much of a personal remembrance, but Barry Berish made a mark as one of the industry titans of the late 20th century. He helped shape the business as we know it today. When he became Beam's leader, companies like Jim Beam and its chief rival, Jack Daniel's maker Brown-Forman, were struggling with the decline in whiskey sales that had begun a decade earlier. The task before both companies, and others, was to transition from whiskey companies into broad-portfolio distilled spirits companies. Beam, led by Berish, succeeded where many others did not.

Friday, January 26, 2024

The Effect of World War II on American Whiskey Production

Julian P. Van Winkle Jr. (bottom, right) and his tank crew, on their way to liberate the Philippines, October 1944 (from But Always Fine Bourbon).

As we reported in the most recent issue of The Bourbon Country Readervery little whiskey was distilled during World War II. Whiskey distilled before the fighting began became available as it matured, but because all the distilleries were making neutral spirit for munitions, synthetics, and other war needs, and not whiskey, there was panic buying, hoarding, profiteering, and other ills. Whiskey was scarce on the front lines and at home. 

As a follow-up, and thanks to the inimitable Chris Middleton, here are American whiskey production totals for 1934 to 1952, after which this data was no longer publicly reported. A "proof gallon" is one gallon of 100° (50% ABV) spirit. Reporting was for a July-June fiscal year.

1934/35........149,112,923 proof gallons
1943/44......No whisky produced

Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933. There had been limited production since 1929, but the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, so it took time to get the distilleries operating again. As you can see, extraordinary amounts were produced in 35/36 and 36/37 before settling down to a normal level of about 100 million proof gallons per year, ramping up to 120 million on the eve of Pearl Harbor.

Although it was winding down, WWII did not technically end until August of 1945, so 46/47 was the first full year of normal whiskey production. The numbers probably reflect an industry operating close to capacity and still in the process of ramping up, both to make up for missed production, and to exploit the post-war economic boom.

The fact that 51/52 production was half of 50/51 might reflect the Korean War, or it might just be a reporting anomaly as the Treasury changed its reporting system.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

U. S. Craft Spirits Sales Exceeded 14 Million Cases in 2022


The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and Park Street today presented highlights from the 2023 Craft Spirits Data Project (CSDP) at its annual economic briefing. Introduced in 2016, the Craft Spirits Data Project evaluates performance and trends in the U.S. craft spirits industry. 

Key findings and highlights include the following: 

U.S. craft spirits market volume reached 14M 9-liter cases in retail sales, growing at an annual rate of 6.1%. In value terms, the market reached $7.9 billion in sales, growing at an annual rate of 5.3%. While there was still growth in 2022, it had slowed considerably from 2021, when craft spirits volume grew by 10.4% and value by 12.2%. U.S. craft spirits market share of total U.S. spirits maintained a 4.9% share in volume and increased value share to 7.7% in 2022, up from 7.5% in 2021.

The number of active craft distillers in the U.S. grew by 2.4% over the last year to 2,753 as of August 2023. Similarly, growth slowed from the year prior, which reported an increase by 17.4%. Active craft distillers are defined as licensed U.S. distilled spirits producers that removed 750,000 proof gallons (or 394,317 9L cases) or less from bond, market themselves as craft, are not openly controlled by a large supplier, and have no proven violation of the ACSA Code of Ethics. 

Despite strong economic challenges, craft producers have consistently found value in reinvesting in their businesses. The total amount invested in the U.S. craft spirits segment increased by 6.5% year-over-year to $880 million. Employment numbers within the U.S. craft market also continued to increase post-pandemic, with 27,368 full-time domestic employees. 

Home states still represent a critical sales opportunity. Craft spirits sales remain almost evenly split between the home state (47.4%) and other states (52.6%) in 2022. 

While export growth was slower (up by 58% in 2021), exports provided an important runway for growth in 2022, up by 4.3% to 171,000 9L cases and surpassing pre-pandemic heights of 155,000 9L cases in 2019. However, the category is still recovering from the impact of tariffs and have not reached pre-tariff levels seen in 2017 at 566,000 9L cases. 

The American Craft Spirits Association is the only registered national non-profit trade association representing the U.S. craft spirits industry.  Launched in 2003 by former McKinsey consultants, Park Street is a technology-enabled services company that helps emerging and established alcoholic beverage suppliers and brand owners cost-effectively and securely scale and manage their businesses.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Size Matters


A 42-inch diameter column still at Diageo's Bullit Distillery.
The previous post was long and covered a lot. Here I want to give more attention to the "Size Matters" story in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, my old-school, paper-in-the-mail newsletter.

About a decade ago, I began to keep track of all the column stills making whiskey in the United States. Why? Because the size (i.e., diameter) of a column still tells you that distillery's production capacity, not how much it will produce, or does produce, but how much it can produce. In the story "Size Matters," I go into some of what I've learned from that project. 

I've written about this subject here on the blog. This post from 2017 continues to be one of the most-viewed. 

In 2014, eight companies distilled virtually all of America’s whiskey at thirteen distilleries. Three years later, there were ten companies operating fifteen distilleries. The additions were at the low end of the scale. Today there are 16 companies operating 26 distilleries. Those companies control about 94 percent of America’s whiskey production capacity. 

Again, the new companies are coming in at the low end. The biggest producers have only gotten bigger. The new guys are nowhere close to knocking out the old guys, despite what some folks out there seem to think.

The 16 companies, more or less in order (best estimate), are Brown-Forman, Beam Suntory, Sazerac, Heaven Hill, Campari, Kirin, MGP/Luxco, Diageo, Bardstown Bourbon Company, Whiskey House of Kentucky, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Tennessee Distilling Group, Michter’s, Jackson Purchase, and Castle & Key.

As the inclusion of Whiskey House of Kentucky suggests, the database includes current capacity and scheduled (not speculative) near-future capacity.

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