Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Little Bit More About the Barton Sale.

I keep struggling with what to call this transaction, as 'Barton' is the name American whiskey enthusiasts know, but with the exception of Very Old Barton Bourbon, the Barton name had just about disappeared at Constellation even before it sold off the last assets that connected it to the heritage of Chicago's Barton Brands, Inc.

I wrote about the sale of those assets, by Constellation to Sazerac, on Monday, here.

Before I tell you the little bit of additional information I've learned, a moment of silence for the end of a proud American whiskey company.

Chicago businessmen Oscar Getz and Lester Abelson founded Barton shortly after Prohibition ended in 1933. They were family too, as Oscar was married to Lester’s sister.

Both men had been whiskey brokers before the drought and founded Barton to enter that business again. In those days, by the way, there was no distilled spirits business. It was the whiskey business. This was even still true after Prohibition, although people had by then acquired a taste for gin and other things. There was always a brandy market too, but most spirits drinkers drank bourbon, rye or some kind of blend.

Barton went along for a few years, buying and selling, but the business had changed. In 1944, to ensure a reliable source of whiskey, they bought an old distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, called Tom Moore, which they renamed Barton. It made neutral spirits for the military during WWII, but switched back to bourbon production thereafter.

Although they made good whiskey, Barton was always in the commodity or "cats and dogs" business. Their products were not household names, and were moderately priced, but it was a good business that thrived in good times and survived the bad.

Oscar Getz was president and a colorful personality. He loved the heritage of America's whiskey business and collected whiskey memorabilia. In time, he built a small museum in the distillery's Bardstown offices, which was open to the public. He also wrote and published a book, Whiskey: An American Pictorial History (1978).

Oscar Getz died in 1983. I'm not sure when Lester Abelson died, but he was gone by then too. After Getz's death, Barton closed the museum. The 70s had hit the industry hard and by 1983, many distilleries had closed and most that had not only operated for a few months each year, as they already had plenty of whiskey in their warehouses. Barton considered the collection Oscar's personal property and asked his widow, Emma (Abelson) Getz, to do something about it. She donated it to the City of Bardstown, along with enough money to get a small museum started. That museum is still small, but it's still going, and it is called the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.

Emma passed in 1995, in Chicago, at age 95.

Constellation Brands, a wine company, bought Barton Brands in 1993, but it continued to be called Barton Brands, with its headquarters in Chicago and a whiskey distillery in Bardstown. It also acquired the old Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky, which no longer had a distillery, but did have warehouses and a modern bottling house. In addition to the spirits business, the acquisition gave Constellation the U.S. marketing rights to Corona beer, one of Barton's most valuable assets.

About a year ago, perhaps in preparation for an eventual sale, Constellation divided its spirits business into two divisions and renamed the overall spirits company Constellation Spirits. The realignment divided the portfolio between 'value' and 'premium' products. The value group retained the Barton name and the premium group got a new name, Ascender.

All of the brands in the Barton group are now owned by Sazerac.

Also last year, Constellation changed the name of the Bardstown distillery back to Tom Moore.

The sale announcement did not say anthing about the Chicago office. However, someone in Fairport told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle that the remaining spirits business will be moved to corporate headquarters there.

Chicago's Barton Brands is now surely and truly dead.

Sazerac, which already owns the very large Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, has said very little about the transaction so far. They have welcomed the Tom Moore Distillery into the family and indicated that Ridgemont Reserve 1792, a premium bourbon that Barton launched in 2003, was one of the prizes they sought. They also needed more warehousing and bottling capacity. The ink is still wet and the deal won't close for another month or so. Meanwhile, Buffalo Trace is still deciding exactly how the pieces will fit together. The deal, valued at $334 million, is a very big one for Sazerac, though it is impossible to say how big since Sazerac is privately held.

As often happens with blogs, where you're not writing to a target length, what started out as me intending to write a few words about the little bit of additional information I've learned since Monday became, well, this.

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