Thursday, October 1, 2015

After 36 Years, Brown-Forman to Part Ways with Southern Comfort

Although no one at Brown-Forman has confirmed it, neither have they denied the widely-reported story that the company would like to sell Southern Comfort and Chambord, both liqueurs.

I worked on Southern Comfort for several years in the early 1980s.

When Brown-Forman bought Southern Comfort in 1979 it actually bought two companies. One made the proprietary flavoring concentrate and owned the secret recipe for it, the other bought the concentrate (made in Puerto Rico), combined it with sugar, water, and neutral spirit, and bottled it. That took place at a factory in St. Louis.

Southern Comfort had its origins in New Orleans in the 1870s. It was created by Martin Wilkes Heron, a saloon keeper, as a way to make the rough corn whiskey being shipped downriver from Kentucky and other frontier states into something that more closely resembled Cognac. French wood-aged brandy was considered the epitome of fine spirits in the Crescent City.

Heron moved around, ultimately settling in St. Louis, where he made and sold Southern Comfort until Prohibition. He then gave the worthless company to an employee, Grant Peoples, who sold the rights to Francis Fowler. Fowler then largely recreated the recipe in his basement.

Fowler’s product did okay until the late 1960s, when it was adopted by singer Janis Joplin. Sales exploded. Fowler was so pleased he contacted Joplin and asked if she wanted anything. She asked for a fur coat, which he sent immediately.

At 50% ABV, with an amber color, in a clear bottle, Southern Comfort looked a lot like bourbon and surveys showed that more than half of Southern Comfort’s consumers thought it was. No one tried to disabuse them of that notion.

Brown-Forman enters the picture in 1979. I enter it in 1982. Brown-Forman typically manages its major acquisitions from a distance. It doesn’t fix things that aren’t broken. By 1982, they finally had their own brand management team, led by David Higgins, in charge and they were planning to close the factory in St. Louis and move production to Louisville, where Brown-Forman is headquartered.

I was employed by a Louisville sales promotion agency. Brown-Forman was one of our main clients. 

I was assigned to the team that would bring Southern Comfort into the Brown-Forman fold. If three years seems like a long time in which to do something like that, it took Brown-Forman about 30 years to fully integrate Jack Daniel’s into the company and, of course, they kept production where it was.

From the 1950s, Southern Comfort had a tradition of printing small recipe booklets which were given away free at retail and also bound into major magazines. We continued that practice, typically doing four unique books per year. They were about half drink recipes and half food recipes. I developed the themes, helped invent some of the drinks, and wrote all of the copy. All of the design, photography, and food styling was done in-house as well. My legacy is the theme ‘Comfort and Joy’ for Christmas promotions.

The Southern Comfort drinker always skewed young, sometimes problematically so. We joked that most consumers had tried it, had a bad experience, and rejected it before they were old enough to drink it legally.

I left that agency in 1986 and left Louisville for Chicago in 1987. Because of my interest and involvement in the bourbon business after about 1991, I stayed in touch with Brown-Forman and kept my eye on Southern Comfort. It had many good years but has been slipping lately. There’s still a market for sweet ersatz whiskey – look at Fireball – but Southern Comfort has become old news. Maybe a new owner can find a way to revive it.

If any of this makes you want to sample the stuff, get the original (not one of the flavored line extensions) and make either a Scarlett O’Hara or a Dry Manhattan.

Scarlett O’Hara, From Antoine’s, New Orleans.
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
Cranberry juice cocktail.
Wedge of fresh lime.
Pour Southern Comfort over ice cubes, fill glass with cranberry juice cocktail. Squeeze in juice from the lime wedge and add the wedge.

Comfort Dry Manhattan
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
½ oz. dry vermouth.
Dash of Angostura bitters
Pour ingredients over ice in short glass. Add a cherry.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Top Five Super-Premium Bourbons as Reported by Shanken

Shanken today reported on sales in the super-premium bourbon segment. Super-premiums are powering the bourbon boom and these five brands are powering the segment. Beam Suntory owns two of them. Brown-Forman also owns two. Diageo owns one.

Companies guard their sales data closely and outfits like Shanken that develop their own sources for reporting it sell that information for a high price, so it's rare we in the public get a chance to compare apples to apples.

Here, then, are the top five super-premium* bourbons in 2014 U.S. sales.

1. Maker's Mark -- 1,340,000 cases**
2. Bulleit -- 480,000 cases
3. Gentleman Jack -- 310,000 cases
4. Knob Creek -- 290,000 cases
5. Woodford Reserve -- 275,000 cases

* 'Super-premium' is defined as a retail price of $25 or more for a 750 ml bottle.

** Although cases are not all the same size, sales are reported as if they are all standard nine liter cases, also known as flat cases. A case of twelve 750 ml bottles is nine liters.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Can Whiskey 'Go Bad'?

Does whiskey ever 'go bad'? It is a commonly asked question and people usually don't get a satisfactory answer.

First, whiskey in the bottle is very sturdy stuff. It will remain unchanged indefinitely. It has only a few enemies.

'Go bad' usually means 'spoiling,' as in the result of some kind of unpleasant bacterial activity changing some component of the product into something else. Milk becomes sour. Meat becomes rancid. Fruit becomes mush. That doesn't happen with high proof spirits like whiskey because nothing can live in that much alcohol.

So no, whiskey can't 'go bad' in that sense. What whiskey can do is absorb too much oxygen, which makes it taste like somebody added way too much vanilla. This happens most often when someone leaves a small amount in the bottle for a long period of time, and can be aggravated if the cork or cap isn't well seated.

The best solution is drink the whiskey. Don't leave that last quaff for a special occasion. Just drink it.

The best alternative is to transfer the remainder to a bottle appropriately sized.

Under some rare conditions you can get unbalanced evaporation, where some or all of the alcohol goes away leaving a very unpleasant-tasting brown water. An inadequate seal is always the culprit here, aggravated by high temperature. This is why you don't want long exposure to direct sunlight. Alcohol is volatile. We think of that as meaning prone to catching fire, but it actually means prone to becoming a vapor.

Some people think the solution is to store bottles on their side to keep the cork moist, like you do with wine. This is a TERRIBLE idea with whiskey. High proof alcohol is hard on corks and dissolved cork is hard on the flavor of the beverage so do not store bottles on their side, or upside down, under any circumstances.

Some people will suggest that you wrap the bottle tops with paraffin tape. Some will recommend replacing whiskey when your pour it with marbles, to keep the fill level high. This is a bit too fussy for most people and it really isn't necessary. Just drink the whiskey in due course. That's what it's there for.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

How Do You Make Ten Different Bourbons at One Distillery?

There has been a lot of symbolic torch passing at this year's Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF), underway now in Bardstown and other locations.

Having a whiskey event at multiple locations, some quite distant from each other, would seem like a bad idea considering that drinking and driving shouldn't be encouraged. Yet they do it, during the KBF and the Bourbon Affair. They encourage designated drivers, of course, and you can pay for transportation, but still.

One of the best KBF events has always been 'Let's Talk Bourbon,' which takes place on Friday morning at Four Roses. It's a great event because Jim Rutledge gives a presentation that really gets into detail about how bourbon is made. It's generally free of marketing fluff. They serve a nice breakfast too. They have capped attendance at about 300 people and always sell out.

They do a great job and you can understand why Four Roses wants to have it at the distillery and not somewhere in Bardstown, but Four Roses is about 42 miles from Bardstown.

Yesterday morning, Rutledge, who is recently retired, passed the torch to Brent Elliott, the new Four Roses Master Distiller.

After the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Induction on Wednesday, I happened to walk with Elliot to where our cars were parked at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Rutledge was never able to explain to me how Four Roses is able to make ten different recipes 'in line,' i.e., without shutting down to change over. The inability to understand is entirely my fault, not Jim's, so I thought I would give Elliott a try. He gave me a little more detail that helped my understanding.

In even more fairness to Rutledge, I've asked him the question at events with lots of other people vying for his attention. I had Elliot all to myself on a warm Kentucky afternoon when neither of us minded spending a few more minutes standing in the sun.

The key is timing, he explained, which begins when the last fermenter of a given recipe heads to the beer well, followed by the first fermenter from the next recipe. There is a little bit of overlap in the beer well itself, he conceded, because it has to be maintained at a constant level. They know how long it takes for that last fermenter of mash to get from the beer well through distillation to barrel entry, and that's when they change over the barrel head stencils to indicate the new recipe.

This means, of course, that a tiny handful of OESV barrels might have a little bit of OESK in them. The mind reels.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Absolut Bourbon?

Ain’t that America? We have whiskeys that don’t taste like whiskey (e.g., Fireball) and now a not-whiskey that tastes a little bit like whiskey, Oak by Absolut. Absolut is foundering and desperate. The pundits say it is whiskey, bourbon in particular, that is kicking vodka’s butt in the USA. Ergo, bourbon-flavored vodka. Never let it be said that Pernod Ricard doesn’t see and do the obvious.

It isn't bourbon-flavored vodka exactly, but most of bourbon's flavor does come from the new charred oak barrel in which it labors for several years. (The aging process is much more active than the 'slumber' metaphor usually used to describe it.) Oak by Absolut spends about six months in wood. They can't call it 'aged vodka.' That would be against the law. Instead, like the Tequila makers, they call it 'rested.' 'Rested on oak' is their description of the process.

Believe it or not, this isn't new. Seagram's gin used to have a slight yellow tint because it was 'rested' in used bourbon barrels for about three months before bottling. The neutral spirit (i.e., vodka) component of Seagrams Seven received the same treatment. There is even an official name for it; 'grain spirits.'

Seagrams could do this because their Lawrenceburg, Indiana plant distilled both neutral spirit and whiskey, and aged the whiskey there. The neutral spirit was flavored into gin there using a vacuum distillation process. They had a bottling plant just down the road, so freshly emptied barrels were always readily available.

It was quite a place. Corn and water went in, cases of Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin came out.

But then Seagrams was dissolved as a company and its assets sold separately. Today, the owner of the Indiana distillery is MGPI but the bottling plant is owned by Proximo. Although both Seagrams Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey and Seagrams Gin are still made at MGP, they are now owned by Diageo and Pernod, respectively, and shipped out in tankers to be bottled elsewhere. Technically, the 'resting' could still be done -- Pernod is doing it for Oak -- but Seagrams Seven and Seagrams Gin are price-sensitive products, so that extra expense has been deemed superfluous.

We don't know where Oak by Absolut is 'resting.' They say they are using Swedish, French, and American Oak, which might be interesting for a whiskey. For this I'm not sure it matters.

One of the greatest failures in the history of the American distilled spirits industry was Light Whiskey, introduced in 1968. At that time, vodka was kicking whiskey's ass and a nearly-neutral spirit with a little bit of characteristic whiskey flavor seemed like just the ticket. It wasn't. One of the biggest reasons people drink vodka is because they don't like the flavor of whiskey, so why would they drink a vodka that tastes even just a little bit like whiskey? They wouldn't, they didn't then, and they probably won't now.

I have not been offered a taste of it yet but when I am, I'll let you know.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Independent Stave Expands Kentucky Operations with Fifth American Oak Stave Mill

Here is some good bourbon news from now infamous Rowan County, Kentucky.

Independent Stave Company, the largest maker of oak barrels for the American whiskey industry, announced yesterday that its fifth American oak stave mill is now fully operational. Transformed from an empty 58-acre field to a state of the art stave mill in just two years, Morehead Wood Products is now supplying high quality staves to the company’s Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon, Kentucky. This new stave mill is one of several Independent Stave projects to support the growing bourbon industry.

“This has been an exciting time of investment and expansion as we support the significant growth our distilling customers are experiencing,” said Brad Boswell, president and fourth-generation cooper

“By production capacity, this new stave mill is now the second largest stave mill in the world, allowing us to greatly increase our supply of high-quality American white oak.”

Independent Stave has a long heritage of serving the spirits industry since its inception in 1912, first as a domestic supplier of staves, and today as a cooperage company crafting a wide range of barrels and oak products.

When Independent Stave began researching locations for its fifth stave mill, Morehead quickly became a top contender thanks to an excellent work force and an ideal location surrounded by forests known for cooperage-quality white oak.

“Building a stave mill from scratch has many advantages, including the ability to optimize each step of the process through proven techniques and new innovations,” said Boswell. “We have pushed ourselves throughout the development process to build on our experience and look for ways to further improve our quality and processes – which then becomes a direct benefit to our distilling customers.”

Mike Knudson is the new mill’s general manager. Knudson has worked for the company for more than 21 years and has extensive experience in production supervision. Upon accepting his new role one year ago, he relocated with his family to Morehead to begin the hiring process.

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the community, both in welcoming us to Morehead and also submitting applications to join our team,” confirmed Knudson. “We appreciate the community’s support and look forward to a bright future.”

Presumably, that includes the Clerk of Rowan County, who will be on hand to make sure the staves are all straight.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The 'Michter's Stils' Are Once Again Owned by Michter's

Mainly, I'm posting this to call your attention to my post about the 'Michter's Stills' over on the Whisky Advocate Blog, but here is a little 'rest of the story.'

I'm became aware of the equipment in question more than a decade ago. I was talking to John Ed Beam (yes, those Beams) about some equipment his family owned. Although he and his two brothers all had good careers in other fields, they also felt the itch to make whiskey to varying degrees. Their dad, David Beam, a former master distiller at Jim Beam, had acquired the equipment years before, but hadn't done anything with it except put it in a little pavilion where he could look at it. John Ed and I were talking casually about what it would take to set up a micro-distillery. This was in 2002-2003, when such a thing still seemed like a pipe dream.

My how things have changed.

That led to a story by me in Whisky Magazine about the family and the stills, which everyone enjoyed, but the idea of the micro distillery never got off the drawing board. John Ed got married, he and his wife had twins, and that was pretty much the end of it.

A few years later another father of twins, Tom Herbruck, was getting his Tom's Foolery Distillery going on the outskirts of Cleveland. Having a distillery was a childhood dream of his (really!) and he was planning to start with applejack, but also wanted to make whiskey. We got to talking about what kind of equipment he might need and I thought of the Michter's stills. I asked John Ed if he thought his dad might be willing to sell them. John Ed wasn't sure but he thought it was worth asking.

So Tom did, and the timing was right. Tom got the equipment, sent it to Vendome for any necessary refurbishment, then on to Ohio. Pretty quickly he had it set up and running. David Beam and other Beam family members helped, as did Dick Stoll, who had run the equipment when it was at Michter's and he was master distiller there.

The Michter's that owns the equipment now is a completely different company, of course, but the old wooden fermenters still have the Michter's name on them after all these years, so it seems like everything turned out right.