Sunday, July 27, 2014

Chris Fletcher, Asst. Master Distiller at Jack Daniel's, Is a Good Righthand Man with a Good Right Arm

As Assistant Master Distiller at Jack Daniel's, Chris Fletcher is Master Distiller Jeff Arnett's righthand man. His right arm is pretty good too, as he demonstrated Thursday at Wrigley Field in Chicago, throwing out one of the ceremonial first pitches before the Cubs-Padres game.

Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane's pitch was better, but he is a professional athlete, and his whole team was watching. (They played a friendly with the Chicago Fire last night.) Fletcher's throw was at least as good as that of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder.

Fletcher's job as part of the distilling team at Jack Daniel's, involving as it does public relations appearances like the one Thursday, is very different from that of his grandfather, legendary Jack Daniel's Master Distiller Frank Bobo (1968-1988). “My first memory of the distillery is watching my grandfather make sour mash and operating the stills,” said Fletcher, who was born and raised in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

In Bobo's day, the bosses didn't like the distiller to leave town, ever. Today, public appearance demands are one of the reasons Arnett needs an assistant. That and the fact that Daniel's now sells about 15 million cases of its iconic whiskey a year.

After working as a tour guide at the distillery during college, Fletcher finished his chemistry degree and joined Daniel's parent company Brown-Forman full-time. He left there to work at other distilleries including Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, where he succeeded Truman Cox as Lead Chemist in 2011. He took the Assistant Master Distiller position at Jack Daniel's earlier this year.

With American whiskey currently experiencing such a renaissance, the 32 year-old Fletcher is an ideal fit for Jack Daniel's. He has the heritage and authenticity of Jack as his birthright, but also brings a fresh approach to product innovation. As his grandfather often reminds him, the incredible growth Jack Daniel’s has experienced since his days at the distillery is a result of the process and quality controls established by its founder. Now it’s Fletcher’s job to help ensure that the craft of making great whiskey remains true to Mr. Jack’s mantra of “Everyday we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gus Griffin, Formerly with Brown-Forman, Is New MGPI CEO

On Thursday, the Board of Directors of MGP Ingredients, Inc. (Nasdaq/MGPI) announced the appointment of beverage alcohol industry executive Gus Griffin as their new president and CEO.

MGPI is a company that makes beverage alcohol and other products from grain. Its distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which makes whiskey, has become a very important vendor to the non-distiller producer community.

Griffin also comes to MGPI after a period of heavy corporate turmoil, that culminated in the ouster of his predecessor seven months ago.

Encouraging for fans of MGP's whiskeys, Griffin is a marketing and management guy, formerly with Brown-Forman Corp., where he ultimately served as senior vice president and global managing director in charge of the company’s flagship Jack Daniel’s business.

“We are very pleased and excited to welcome Gus to our company in such an important capacity,” said MGP Board Chairman Cloud L. “Bud” Cray.

Griffin most recently spent a year as executive vice president of marketing for Next Level Spirits, a northern California-based producer, importer and distributor of premium wine and spirits brands. His responsibilities in that position included establishing strategic planning disciplines and spearheading all aspects of corporate, consumer and trade marketing. Just prior to that, between 2011 and 2013, Griffin served as brand and business consultant for Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, Tenn., where he performed a key advisory role in that company’s development and launch of Belle Meade Bourbon.

(Note: the whiskey in Belle Meade Bourbon is made by MGP of Indiana.)

“I am excited to join MGP and to have the opportunity to help shape the next stage of the company’s proud history,” Griffin said. “MGP has a rich heritage, a strong reputation for quality and innovation, and all areas of the business have significant growth potential.”

Griffin’s career with Brown-Forman, a leading global wine and spirits company with annual sales of approximately $4 billion, spanned 24 years. He joined that company, headquartered in Louisville, Ky., as a merchandising representative in 1987 and later moved into sales management. From 1990 to 1997, he advanced through a series of increasingly important brand management roles in Brown-Forman’s U.S. marketing organization. His brand assignments included Old Forester Bourbon, Southern Comfort Liqueur, Southern Comfort Cocktails, Jack Daniel’s Beer and Early Times Kentucky Whiskey.

In 1997, Griffin was named vice president and managing director of Brown-Forman’s Pacific Region, relocating to Sydney, Australia, to lead all aspects of this multi-million dollar operating unit. Chief among his responsibilities was driving profitable results through the oversight of marketing, sales, finance and production. He returned to the company’s headquarters in Louisville in 2001, assuming responsibility for the Jack Daniel’s brand for the Asia Pacific Region. Within a year, he was appointed to serve as vice president and managing director for West Main Interactive, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Brown-Forman in the digital and relationship marketing arena.

Griffin’s accomplishments led to his being named vice president and regional director for Brown-Forman’s Southern Europe operating unit that encompassed Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy and Greece. During his two years in this role, he led the successful turnaround of this business unit, significantly growing the region’s profitability.

With a promotion to senior vice president and global managing director for the company’s Southern Comfort brand in 2007, Griffin returned to Brown-Forman’s headquarters to lead a worldwide marketing team and ensure alignment between brand strategies and marketing practices. He transitioned to senior vice president and global managing director for the Jack Daniel’s brand franchise in 2008, leading all facets of building this brand worldwide over the following three years.

Griffin is a native of central Pennsylvania and was educated at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., where he received a bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1982 and a master’s degree in business administration in 1987. He is a past board member of Hartmann Luggage, a former subsidiary of Brown-Forman.    

Friday, July 25, 2014

How to Become a TTB-Certified Chemist

The following information comes from the U. S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, better known as TTB. TTB is the principal national regulator of beverage alcohol. This may be of interest if you are a producer and wish to sell your products outside the United States.

Many foreign governments require a laboratory report of chemical analyses of exported wine, distilled spirits, and beer before the products enter their countries. Many importing countries require government laboratories of the exporting countries to perform these chemical analyses or certify that the analyses were performed.

We, at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) administer a program where chemists, enologists, and technicians in qualified U.S. laboratories in the private sector are certified to carry out these analyses for export purposes. TTB's Chemist Certification Program offers exporters of alcohol beverages the flexibility to perform specific analyses of their products either on-site or through a third-party TTB-certified qualified laboratory. This program ensures that chemists, enologists, and technicians are trained and can generate quality data for alcohol beverages. By using a TTB-certified chemist to do analysis, some exporters get the laboratory analysis completed more quickly thereby getting their product exported sooner.

Twice a year we share the list of certified chemists and qualified laboratories with foreign governments. We have recently updated this list.

Our Beverage Alcohol Laboratory at the TTB National Laboratory Center offers the Chemist Certification Program twice annually (spring and fall cycles). To participate in the program, applicants need to meet specific educational requirements, and must be able to analyze accurately the beverage alcohol samples (e.g., beer, distilled spirits) we send them. We will certify the applicant if a TTB chemist validates the applicant's report of analysis and the applicant meets all other requirements for certification. This certification is free of charge and is valid for two years; during this time, a TTB-certified chemist is authorized to perform specific tests and to generate reports of analysis to accompany alcohol beverage export shipments.

The Chemist Certification Program facilitates export of U.S. alcohol beverage products by allowing exporters to use a TTB-certified chemist to rapidly and efficiently perform required chemical analyses for the export market.

For more information about the program, or to view a list of TTB-certified chemists, please visit our Chemist Certification Program Information page.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bourbon Inventory Tops 7.5 Million Barrels for First Time in 40 Years

According to a press release yesterday from the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA), more than 5 million barrels of bourbon are aging in Kentucky warehouses. It's the first time bourbon stocks have reached that level since 1977.

Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries filled 1.2 million barrels last year, the most since 1970. Production has skyrocketed more than 150 percent in the last 15 years, resulting in 5,294,988 aging barrels at the end of 2013. Add to that 2.2 million barrels aging at Jack Daniel's in Tennessee, for a total of 7.5 million barrels.

Other key facts from KDA:
  • Bourbon isn't the only spirit aging in barrels in Kentucky. When you include brandy and other whiskies (e.g., rye, wheat), the state’s total barrel inventory was 5.9 million at the end of 2013, the highest total since 1975.
  • The tax-assessed value of barrels aging in Kentucky is $1.9 billion this year, an increase of $81 million from 2013. Since 2006, the value of barrels has nearly doubled ($1 billion to $1.9 billion). 
  • Kentucky distilleries paid $15.2 million in ad valorem tax last year to the state and local communities. Ad valorem tax receipts (a tax on the value of whiskey in storage) have increased 52 percent since 2006. A new law enacted earlier this year gives distilleries a corporate income tax credit against the amount of ad valorem taxes paid, if they invest that money in their Kentucky operations. (Tennessee doesn't have an ad valorem tax.)
  • The KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour experiences logged more than 630,000 visits in 2013, a new record for the tours that showcase KDA-member distilleries. 
Hidden in the 1970, 1975, and 1977 dates is a cautionary tale. American whiskey sales began to trend down in the late 1960s after growing steadily since Prohibition's end. Although production began to decline after 1970, it didn't decline as much as sales, so inventories kept growing until 1977. This created a whiskey glut that lasted for approximately 20 years.

That was a painful experience producers would like to avoid this time around, so don't be surprised if the current ebullience is tempered with caution. Still, it's a great time to be a bourbon fan.

Monday, July 21, 2014

There Is a Difference Between 'Craft' and 'Crafty'

As reported by Amy Hopkins in The Spirits Business last week, Diageo North America president Larry Schwartz recently declared to investors at a conference: “We’re going to be the number one craft distiller in North American whiskey in the US. Why? Because we have the whiskies.”

Schwartz was talking about the Orphan Barrels program, which so far consists of three bourbons called Old Blowhard, Barterhouse, and Rhetoric. Diageo calls them 'craft.' Others have called them "an insult to American whiskeys and the people who drink them."

The person Hopkins calls "Ewan Moran" is probably Ewan Morgan, who takes the ball from Schwartz. "Craft is about artisanship, passion, experience, great liquid, great products," he says. Okay, except 'artisan' is just a synonym for 'craft,' while 'passion' and 'experience' sound nice but they're just vague platitudes. Even absent an agreed definition, 'craft' has to be more than a vague label you can stick on just about anything.

Or does it? For marketing purposes, words such as 'craft' are best left to the consumer's imagination, because like 'small batch' and 'produced by,' the consumer is likely to believe they mean more than they really do.

Morgan is absolutely right about one thing when he says, "not all small distilleries are craft."

The American Distilling Institute (ADI) begs to differ. It defines 'craft spirits' as "the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases, where the product is physically distilled and bottled on site."

In other words, "not you, Diageo."

But 'craft' has to mean more than just 'small,' doesn't it? ADI's problem, of course, is that so many of its members are fakes. Take a look at its pathetic joke of a craft self-certification system. Diageo probably loves it since it's based on the principle of "It's craft because I say it is."

To muddy the waters further, a California company called Craft Distillers Inc. (CD), has trademarked the term 'Craft Distillers.' Earlier this year they filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the young movement's other trade association, the American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA). ACDA put on its tough guy face at first, then became the ACSA (American Craft Spirits Association).

Can a large distiller be craft? Probably, but Orphan Barrels isn't because there is nothing even remotely craft about the offering.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan affects some kind of transformation. For something to be 'craft,' an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The 'craft' performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it. Orphan Barrels is a marketing idea, not a product idea. The product itself consists of nothing more than several large batches of leftovers.

Too harsh? Consider the facts. No one has claimed that United Distillers, the Diageo predecessor company that made all the whiskey, intended 26 or 20 years ago to make these products, nor that it did anything special then or along the way to the specific whiskey that became these products. It was standard production of the Bernheim Distillery, from before and after it closed and was rebuilt. It is simply whiskey they couldn't find any other use for until now.

There's a name for that -- 'Closeout' maybe? 'Bargain Bin'? 'Final Liquidation'? -- but it's definitely not 'craft.' Saying the Orphan Barrels aren't craft doesn't mean they're bad whiskey. They may be great whiskey, they're just not 'craft' if 'craft' is to be anything other than a meaningless marketing term du jour.

The producers most recognized for their craft whiskeys -- Balcones, Koval, Corsair, Few, Dry Fly -- do it with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven't been done before and create products unlike anything you've ever tasted before. That's what the consumer wants from 'craft,' but perhaps Lance Winters (St. George) is right when he says, "putting a binding definition on what craft is, would be like putting a binding legal definition on what art is." Consumers have to stay skeptical and always ask producers who call their products 'craft,' "where's the craft?" It's a question we've been asking here since 2008.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Curious About an Old Bottle? Try Whiskey ID

Hardly a day goes by that I don't receive an email from someone who has discovered an old bottle in an elderly relative's liquor cabinet, or some other scenario like that. Finding them inside walls while remodeling is my favorite.

They want to know how old it is, who made it, the story behind it, if any, and how much it's worth.

Now there's an app for that.

Well, not the last one (yet) but all the rest, at least the beginning of something that will do all of those things. It's called Whiskey ID. It includes tips on how to age bottles, photographs you can compare your bottle to, producer timelines, a glossary of abbreviations commonly used by whiskey enthusiasts, and other stuff.

Some of it is clearly lifted from and, which is perfectly okay. That information was put up there for everybody to use and this format just makes it easier to access and thus a little more useful.

Most of all, it's easy to use. If researching your bottle on Whiskey ID is too much work for you then forget about it, because you don't really care.

It's also free.

Whiskey ID is not perfect by a long shot. It's clearly a work in progress but it's already a great resource for any American whiskey enthusiast.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Join Me for an Exclusive 3-Day Tour of Bourbon Country, October 15-17, 2014

Mid-October is a beautiful time to be in Kentucky. The heat and humidity of summer are gone, autumn’s leaves are in full flame, and Kentucky’s iconic distilleries are busy transforming fall’s grain harvest into new bourbon whiskey.

How would you like to share a few October days with me on an exclusive 3-day tour of Kentucky’s bourbon country? I promise you will love it. We’ll visit distilleries, and do a whole lot more. At the distilleries, we’ll have special behind-the-scenes access. We’ll also see bourbon barrels being made, and bourbon candy. It’s a memorable experience and a lot of fun.

We’ll leave every morning from Louisville. A terrific lunch each day is included. Where you stay and what you do in the evening is up to you, but our days will be jam-packed and I’ll be there the whole time, to share my knowledge and experience, and answer all of your questions as we explore some of my favorite places in the heartland of bourbon whiskey.

The dates are October 15-17, 2014. All of the details, including a complete itinerary, are here. The cost is $599 per person, which includes transportation, admissions, appetizers, lunches, a bourbon tasting with me, and an autographed book. For more information or to reserve your seat, call Mint Julep Tours at 502-583-1433 or email

We did a tour in March of this year and everyone loved it. The photograph above was taken during our visit to the grave of Dr. James C. Crow in Versailles. Everyone made new friends on the trip and got to know the real Kentucky. We were warmly received everywhere we went.

Mint Julep Tours does an outstanding job with the arrangements. They make sure we’re fed, watered, and on-schedule. Mint Julep is bourbon country’s premier tour company and I'm proud they're my partner in this endeavor.

There are only 20 spots available. It’s a little tricky, because we have to book all 20 to be able to do the tour, but people hesitate to sign up for something they know might be cancelled. That’s why we set a deadline of September 1, so you’ll know if the tour is on or not with plenty of time left to make your travel and lodging arrangements. (Mint Julep can get you deals on the lodging.)

Whether you’ve never been or can’t get enough, I promise you this will be a one-of-a-kind experience. I’m looking forward to meeting you and showing you around the Kentucky I love.