Friday, October 18, 2013
Medley Brothers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. What's Old Is New Again
Here's something to look for that's both old and brand new. It's called Medley Brothers Bourbon. It is from Charles Medley and his son, Sam, who have been producing Wathen's Single Barrel for about 15 years now.
Charles is the son of Wathen Medley, who is second from the right on the label above.
This is a four year old bourbon, 102° proof, that will retail for about $25. The label is virtually the same as their label from the 1950s, showing the five Medley brothers. It's NDP (non-distiller producer), but Kentucky-made (not MGPI).
It's similar to Angel's Envy in that Charles Medley, like Lincoln Henderson, spent his whole career as a hands-on distiller, so he's doing the quality control for this, i.e., picking the barrels. Their products are contract distilled, not bulk, and use their mash bill which is 77 percent corn, 10 percent rye, and 13 percent barley malt.
Earlier this year they came out with a 12-year-old. It's very good, but also very limited. The Medley Brothers will be in ten states initially. I know Kentucky and Illinois are two of them. I don't remember the rest.
Some might say, "big deal, it's just an NDP whiskey with a story." True, but it's good whiskey and a true story.
The new Medley Brothers bourbon is very rich with all of the good wood flavors, but with a little bit of grain too. One thing about bulk whiskey (also called spot market whiskey) is that, especially in the current environment, you don't always get the pick of the litter. You have to take what the distillery is willing to sell you, which often isn't their best stuff. There are 4-year-olds the distillers will sell in bulk and 4-year-olds they keep for themselves, for their own brands. This tastes more like the ones they keep for themselves.
Who made it? They won't say, of course. Who will do contract distilling? Almost anyone with the capacity. Why not? You get paid up-front plus you get an income stream from aging, and you never have to worry about selling the stuff when it matures because the NDP owns it. Sell-through is their problem.
Most start-ups can't afford to do contract, they need whiskey they can sell right away. Therefore the micro-producer looking to create a brand, or the micro-distillery looking to sell sourced whiskey to get some cash flow, is buying on the spot market. They usually have very little capital to invest and don't want to wait four or five years before they have something to sell. If you're going to do that, you might as well build a distillery.
Most contract work is from established businesses. The considerable whiskey that Diageo buys from MGPI and others is all contract. What regional rectifiers like Phillips, Luxco, Frank-Lin and Paramount buy is contract. I suspect Templeton Rye, which has been a successful brand for six or seven years now, has switched from spot to contract.
Heaven Hill uses a contract distilling model with their distributors. The 6-year-old whiskey that will be 7-year-old (theoretically) Evan Williams next year isn't owned by Heaven Hill. They sold it to their distributors years ago, when it came off the still. This allows Heaven Hill to free up capital to invest in more production and gives the distributors a favorable price, especially in an expanding market. Heaven Hill works with its NDP customers the same way. Heaven Hill was probably doing a little less of it until they expanded Bernheim sufficiently, but Heaven Hill has always done both contract and spot as a regular part of their business.
Brown-Forman still has quite a bit of excess capacity in Shively so they're happy to do contract. They just prefer to work with other producers, people who already know the industry. I've never really talked to anyone at Beam about it but I know they do it too and I suspect their attitude is the same as Brown-Forman's.
No producer except MGPI has any interest in talking about this part of the business. If you want to write something about them, they'd prefer you write something about the brands they own. Nobody will talk about what products use their whiskey and that's fair. If I'm a contract producer, I'm making and selling whiskey with certain specifications. I don't really know if Customer A is using that whiskey to make Brand B. It's none of my business and I don't care.
In considering this particular NDP whiskey, you also have to remember who Charles Medley is. He's not some guy who last year got a wild hair to start a whiskey business. He's been doing this for 50 years and knows everyone in the business. He started at Medley when the family owned it and stayed as master distiller with every subsequent owner, down to and including United Distillers, which became Diageo. When Diageo sold the Owensboro distillery in 1992, Charles bought it. He also bought the 8,000 or so barrels of whiskey that were still in the warehouses. Those were still the glut years and Diageo didn't want it.
A few years ago, Charles sold the distillery -- which had never reopened -- to CL Financial, which also owned what is now MGPI of Indiana. They still own the Owensboro plant. Lots of people have kicked the tires but no one has bit. Reportedly, the owner has an inflated idea of what the place is worth.
Although it still bears his name, Charles Medley has no interest in owning it again, or in (at age 72) distilling again anywhere.
Those 8,000 barrels of bourbon that Charles bought in 1992 are what Wathen's Single Barrel was originally. When that started to run out, they looked around for partners. They needed whiskey, they also needed someone to bottle and distribute it. They worked with Luxco for a while. There was also a period when they weren't doing much of anything. Now it's Frank-Lin, from California.
Sam Medley, son of Charles, is now the driving force. They figure this is a good time to ramp it up and make a real business out of it. In a couple of years they hope to be doing 30,000 cases, most of that in the Medley Brothers.
What does Charles do? He isn't hanging out at the distillery. He's sitting in his office, tasting samples, deciding what's ready and what needs to age a little longer. Who will do contract under those terms? Just about everybody. The list of who won't is shorter: Maker's, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Woodford. In all of their cases it's just because they don't have enough capacity. With the enlarged distillery, I wouldn't completely rule out Wild Turkey.
Do I care? Not too much. I know it's one of the usual suspects and I know it's Charles Medley, not Craig Beam or Chris Morris, who is doing the quality control.
I don't want it to sound like I'm working for them because I'm not, but I think there is a qualitative difference between this and the many micro-producer whiskeys that have come on the market recently.
Happily, Medley Brothers Bourbon is reasonably-priced and should have wide availability, so you can decide for yourself if it's worthy.