Thursday, November 28, 2013

Diageo Clarifies Orphan Barrel Project, Sort Of

This mass email arrived yesterday from a marketing agency that works for Diageo.

Before you unplug and enjoy a couple days with friends and family, we wanted to share a quick update regarding an exciting new endeavor we’re working on with DIAGEO. It’s called The Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project and you may have heard whispers or read early reports about it stemming from statements made by DIAGEO CEO Ivan Menezes during their recent investors meeting. 

The team is still working on pulling together final press materials as details surrounding the project are still being finalized. However, in the meantime, we did want to share an official statement from DIAGEO – see below. 

The goal of The Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project is to share old and rare whiskey from our barrel houses with discerning whiskey adorers. The first two whiskies to be released from the project will include the 20-year-old Barterhouse and the 26-year-aged Old Blowhard. Both are American Kentucky Bourbons, hand bottled in Tullahoma Tennessee and are expected to begin appearing on select shelves throughout the U.S. in early 2014 under strict allocation due to limited supply. 

Additionally, DIAGEO is creating a separate new-to-world bourbon called Blade and Bow. Blade and Bow is anticipated to hit shelves in the second half of 2014 and is not a part of the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Project. 

We appreciate your patience and will be in touch when additional information is available to share.

You may have read the quotes from Menezes here last Friday. Bourbonblog posted pictures and what reads suspiciously like a press release on November 3. The additional information reported here, about what reps are telling bars in Chicago, came from a very reputable source who was on the receiving end of those pitches.

Based on what we know, what's most peculiar about Orphan Barrel is how closely it resembles something Diageo predecessor United Distillers & Vintners tried 20 years ago. That time it was called the Rare American Whiskeys Collection. It was intended to be a series of one-off releases of the most outstanding, unique, and rare whiskeys in their warehouses, which they had because they had acquired so many distilleries while building their empire. They planned to release a few every year, but the plan died a swift death at Diageo's birth. The new company changed direction and within a few years, Diageo had essentially exited the American whiskey business.

The even more odd thing about both Orphan Barrel and Rare American Whiskeys is that in both cases Diageo decided to create brand names that are unrelated to the whiskeys. In that earlier case, they took names from defunct distilleries--Joseph Finch and Henry Clay--and used whiskey from other not-identified defunct distilleries. The whiskey called Joseph Finch was not made at the Joseph Finch Distillery, the whiskey called Henry Clay was not made at the Henry Clay Distillery, and the actual distilleries were not revealed. It seemed crazy then and it does this time too. This time it is what appear to be newly-created brand names with an old-timey feel.

What is Diageo thinking? You have this supposedly great and rare whiskey but you won't tell us anything about its provenance? Then you wrap it in a package that suggests a false provenance?

Why doesn't Diageo understand that most "discerning whiskey adorers" don't appreciate being zoomed? Save the malarky for Jeremiah Weed and Captain Morgan, please. If the whiskey is as great as you say it is, why not just let it speak for itself? A Diageo rep said they're not sure where it's from. It's written on the barrel head, stupid.

It seems sometimes that Diageo is incapable of doing anything (a) original, or (b) honest.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Buffalo Trace Distillery Is a National Historic Landmark

The word 'landmark' is thrown around a lot, but the National Park Service only recognizes about 2,600 National Historic Landmarks in the entire United States. Kentucky has about 30. Three of them are distilleries.

The latest to join this exclusive club is Buffalo Trace, using its historic name of the George T. Stagg Distillery. The other two are the Burks Distillery (today known as Maker's Mark) and the Labrot and Graham Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (today's Woodford Reserve).

The designation describes the Frankfort distillery as a "highly intact" example of pre-Prohibition industrial architecture that also shows how distilling expanded once the federal ban was repealed. The buildings, which are still in active use, feature distinctive quarry-faced stonework and decorative brickwork in a 1930s-era factory style. Many barrel warehouses and other buildings are much older, dating to the 1790s. Officially, the distillery was established in 1857-58 and acquired in 1870 by E.H. Taylor Jr.

Buffalo Trace now offers a National Historic Landmark Tour that highlights the site's history.

To learn more about the distillery's Landmark designation, read Janet Patton's excellent article from this summer in the Lexington Herald Leader.

A lesser designation by the Park Service is inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Buffalo Trace received this honor in 2001. You can read the detailed application, which covers most of the same ground as the National Historic Landmarks application, here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wild Turkey 101 Rye Is Back, Sort Of

Early in 2012, Wild Turkey introduced a 40.5% ABV rye and announced that the original 50.5% ABV rye was in short supply and on allocation. Allocation plus panic buying soon created a widespread shortage and bottles of the 101 rye have been thin on the ground ever since.

Last week, with modest fanfare, Wild Turkey announced its return, sort of. It will be available in only 21 states and only in the one-liter bottles preferred by bars and restaurants.

“I have been working in this business for 60 years and if someone told me just five years ago Rye Whiskey was going to be one of the hottest categories in the spirits industry, I would have balked at the notion,” said Jimmy Russell. “To be completely frank, we didn’t realize bartenders had such a passion for it.” It’s true that rye whiskey has been booming. It’s up 41 percent in the past 52 weeks (according to Nielsen data).

Wild Turkey still sells Wild Turkey 81 Rye (40.5% ABV) and Russell's Reserve Rye (6-years-old, 45% ABV).

Before Prohibition, rye whiskey outsold bourbon in the United States. It was made primarily in Pennsylvania. Rye never really came back and nearly died out entirely during the 1970s and 80s, when the entire whiskey category went bust. The Pennsylvania industry died off and what little rye production remained shifted to Kentucky. Wild Turkey was one of the few distilleries that consistently produced rye throughout that period. The others were Jim Beam and Heaven Hill, and National until it merged with Beam in 1987. Others made rye sporadically.

The ryes made by Wild Turkey, Beam (Jim Beam Rye, Old Overholt, Knob Creek Rye), Heaven Hill (Rittenhouse, Pikesville), and Sazerac (Sazerac Rye) are 'barely legal' at 51 percent rye. Today you can also get a 95 percent rye made at MGPI of Indiana (Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, George Dickel Rye) and a 100 percent rye made in Canada (WhistlePig, Mastersons, Jefferson's Rye).

Look for Wild Turkey 101 Rye in the following states. Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York (NYC only), Ohio, Oregon, Washington, Washington D.C., Texas. (That doesn't add up to 21, but that is the list they provided.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Buffalo Trace Warehouse X

This will be short and sweet. I was with Lew Bryson, Fred Minnick, and Dave Waddell on November 15th as the first outsiders to see the new experimental aging warehouse nearing completion at Buffalo Trace Distillery. (Left to right that's Waddell, me, Bryson, and Minnick.)

You should read Lew Bryson's article about it here, with pictures by Fred Minnick. I have little to add except that I admire the willingness of Sazerac/Buffalo Trace to invest real money in experiments that won't yield any useful results for decades, and maybe not even then. That's what companies do when 'long-term thinking' is more than just a commercially-attractive catch phrase.

One thing Mark Brown said that day that struck me: part of their preparation for this was to see what other research has been done on making bourbon. Virtually all of it, he said, was about how to age bourbon faster. None of it was about how to age bourbon better.

Fred 'took' the photograph above, even though he is in it. He set it up. Someone else pushed the button, which is an important job too.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Diageo Announces New Bourbons, Not That It Needs Them, It Says

According to Shanken News Daily, Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes revealed on Tuesday that the company is prepping two new bourbon brands for release next year. The first, Orphan Barrel, will be priced from $75 to $125 a bottle and is scheduled to appear in the first quarter of 2014.

The other will be called Blade & Bow and come out later in 2014.

Menezes provided no details about either product but Diageo reps are telling on-premise accounts that Orphan Barrel will be sold only to them. ('On-premise' means bars and restaurants, as opposed to stores.) It supposedly will be made up of 'lost' barrels 'discovered' at Diageo's Stitzel-Weller Distillery (SW). Diageo stopped distilling there in 1992 but has continued to use the facility for maturation and blending.

Diageo has long been secretive to the point of paranoia about what it's actually doing at Stitzel-Weller, so it's hard to believe anything they say. A Diageo rep also claimed Orphan Barrel will be given only to four exclusive accounts in the Chicago area.

Diageo is particularly secretive about what it matures at SW, but it is widely believed that Bulleit Bourbon is among the products aged there. In his remarks Tuesday, Menezes predicted that Bulleit will reach the precious million-case threshold "over time," which is not exactly a bold prediction. It's at 600,000 now. Sales in the U.S. grew by 27% last year, but 60% of Bulleit's sales are outside the U.S., in Canada, Australia, Mexico and the U.K.

In response to continuing speculation that Diageo will acquire Beam Inc., Menezes noted that Diageo's share of the North American whiskey market is 23%. Most of that is attributable to Crown Royal Canadian Blended Whisky. The next biggest chunk is Seagram's Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey. He claims that means Diageo and Brown-Forman are tied for #1. Brown-Forman's flagship, of course, is Jack Daniel's.

This week Diageo also announced "a multiyear marketing partnership with the NBA, which will make Diageo the exclusive spirits partner of the league." The main brand beneficiaries are Crown Royal and Ciroc Vodka with the men's league and Baileys with the women's.

“Our brands have the unique privilege of participating in some of life’s greatest celebratory moments the world over and what better partner to bring those moments to life than the NBA,” said Peter McDonough, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, Diageo. “From the players and competition to fashion, music and nightlife, the NBA opens the door for us to leave a lasting impression with adult fans in truly innovative and meaningful ways around the game.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Last Chance (Probably) for the Chuck Cowdery Experience

Mint Julep Tours announced last week that there are just four places still available for the March 12-14, 2014 Chuck Cowdery VIP Bourbon & History Tour Experience. Sure, it's still four months away, but with just four places left it will fill up in a flash, so if you've thought about joining us this is probably your last chance.

We might add another date later in the year, but that's not a sure thing. If you think it would be fun to bop around Kentucky with me on a comfortable bus, seeing things most visitors don't, it's time to pull the trigger.

The Chuck Cowdery VIP Bourbon & History Tour Experience is three full days of touring. We'll visit a couple of distilleries, a cooperage, and a place where they make bourbon candy. We'll pay our respects to Dr. James C. Crow and see copper stills being made. We'll take you shopping for bourbon at one of the popular local retailers and wrap it all up with a tasting at a favorite Louisville watering hole.

Because the distilleries and other attractions are pretty far apart, there's a lot of driving. We'll fill in that time talking about bourbon. It's going to be a small group, just 20 people, so there'll be plenty of time to chat. You should come, it's going to be a lot of fun.

The folks at Mint Julep Tours will make sure we're safe and sound, amply fed and watered, and exactly where we're supposed to be at all times. Go here for complete details. To book, or for any questions, call Josh Dugan at 502-384-6468, ext 306, or email him at

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Revenge of The Olds

They say the best revenge is living well.

Sometimes the best revenge is just living.

Back when the American whiskey business was collapsing, in the 1970s and 80s, a lot of smart people tried to figure out why fewer and fewer consumers wanted to drink American whiskey, and what could be done about it. They gathered all the data they could. One thing they discovered was this: the brands losing market share the fastest all had the word 'old' in their name.They became known collectively as 'The Olds.'

They were everything you didn't want your brand to be.

In contrast, what sort of brands were holding their own? The ones whose first name was a Christian name, not 'Old,' but Jack, Jim, Ezra, or Evan.

Many of the Olds went away. A few survived. Three of the biggest 'Olds' were Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, and Old Overholt, all products of the National Distillers Corporation. Back before the fall, Old Crow was the best-selling bourbon in America, Old Grand-Dad was the best-selling premium bourbon as well as the best-selling bond, and Old Overholt was the best-selling rye whiskey.

Flash forward to 2013. The Olds are back. Beam Inc., which acquired National Distillers in 1987, has given the Olds a new home on the internet.

"We launched the 'Olds' first-ever web site with the intention of introducing three iconic whiskey brands to those who haven’t yet experienced them," says Dan Cohen, Beam Inc. Senior PR Manager. "Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow and Old Overholt are three of our finest and most legendary whiskey brands, each of which has seen tremendous momentum recently – especially on-premise and among bartenders."

"Explorers" searching for "new options" are the target audience. The site is intentionally over-the-top. It features content developed in partnership with The Onion, America's Finest News Source.

The basic idea is to personify the three brands as three twenty-something guys who enjoy a good time. Old Overholt looks like a 19th century stevedore, Old Grand-Dad looks like a degenerate riverboat gambler, and Old Crow looks like the counterpart degenerate riverboat skipper. Their antics (in short films that can be viewed on the site) are as old as "A Hard Day's Night," but they get the idea across.

Beam has spent next to nothing promoting these three brands in the 26 years it has owned them, so it's good to see them finally do something. Old Overholt is good whiskey. Old Grand-Dad is very good whiskey. Old Crow not so much, although Old Crow Reserve is an improvement on the standard version.

Since all three brands are growing without support, Beam decided to see if it could boost them even more with a modest spend.

Will it work? Who knows? If we've learned anything these last few years, it's that anything is possible.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What is CRAFT?

What is CRAFT? In the all-cap format, it refers to yesterday's CRAFT Spirits & Beer event in Miami, two kick-off dinners the night before, and a wrap-up one this afternoon. In lower case, it's a question we discussed on two different panels at yesterday's event. Both uses merit some reflection.

First, the event. It is the brainchild of Jennifer Massolo, who took the chance that Miami bars and restaurants, and their customers, would attend and enjoy a showcase of craft spirits and beer, complemented by creative food and drink. They seemed to, even though there wasn't a mojito in sight.

One hates to say 'first annual,' but you have to put events like this on regularly for them to catch fire and become something the community looks forward to attending. Craft spirits and beer are connected to other trends, such as creative cocktail mixology, creative cuisine, and the locavore movement.

Being as they're all forms of personal expression, CRAFT was held in an exhibition space in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, an up-and-coming arts district, not in the usual hotel ballroom or convention center.

Second, the question. Yesterday's event consisted of a tasting hall and several seminars, including two sessions about "What Is Craft?" I moderated both but the panelists were different for each round. Jennifer had the great idea of including not just craft producers but also distributors, beverage managers, and mixologists.

No one offered a pithy definition of 'craft.' It was more along the lines of "I know it when I see it." The panelists disagreed about whether or not craft has to involve originality or creativity, about the role of size ("Can a big distillery be craft?"), and about the best ways to educate consumers.

"Disagreed" might be too strong but both discussions were lively, all of the participants were engaged, and it's probably good that we had a time limit or we'd still be talking about it.

People like Kent Fleischmann (Dry Fly), Chip Tate (Balcones), Ralph Erenzo (Tuthilltown), Nicolas Palazzi (PM Spirits), and John Glazer (Compass Box) attend this sort of thing all the time all over the country, but I rarely do outside of Chicago and Kentucky. Miami has such a unique and exciting cultural mix and that played into it too.

One thing about which everyone agreed is that this movement is happening very fast, people (that is, consumers) seem to love it, and no one can predict what will happen next.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Brown-Forman Releases Collingwood 21-Year-Old Rye

Collingwood, Ontario, is a small town at the southern end of Georgian Bay. There is a big ski resort there, Blue Mountain; and a Canadian Whisky distillery, Brown-Forman's Canadian Mist Distillery. In addition to Canadian Mist, the distillery makes Collingwood Canadian Whisky, a small super-premium line extension. Now they are releasing a Collingwood limited edition, a 21-year-old whiskey made from 100% malted rye.

When it was distilled, the small unnamed batch of malted rye whisky was identified only as lot 41-06-91. It has now become Collingwood Rye 21-Year-Old. The spirit was matured in seasoned oak barrels and as a finishing step, rested with toasted Maplewood.

Maplewood finishing is the Collingwood brand's trademark. It is a final step before bottling. Maplewood finishing should not be confused with the maple flavoring added by Crown Royal and others. Maplewood finishing does not impart a maple syrup flavor. It is a true wood note and subtle. It doesn't taste like maple syrup at all.

Although the regular Collingwood is a Canadian blended whisky, this is a straight rye by U.S. definition.

Collingwood Rye 21-Year-Old is bottled at 80° proof with a suggested retail price of $69.99. In Canada it will be available only in Ontario. In the U.S. it will be sold in Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming only.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Bourbon Joke

This joke was told to me many years ago as I enjoyed lunch and a bourbon in the bar/billiards room at the Pendennis Club in Louisville. The Pendennis Club is a legendary private club in downtown Louisville. It has been guilty in the past of all the ills associated with elite private clubs in the South, but has also been an integral part of the city's business and government communities. Among other notable achievements, it is usually regarded as the birthplace of the Old Fashioned.

The story is told that the bartender at the Pendennis Club bar had a special arrangement with a certain United States Senator from the Commonwealth, who was a club member and frequent presence in the barroom. When the Senator walked up to the bar he would conspicuously request "the usual." The bartender would surreptitiously scan the room to determine which local whiskey baron was present. He would then pour a few fingers of that maker's main brand into the Senator's glass, making sure the bottle and label were visible to all.

This worked fine for many years until one day the Senator entered, put on his show, and waited for his reward. He took his drink, sipped it, and immediately and involuntarily spit it out. He anxiously leaned in to the barkeep. "Why on earth did you give me a gin and tonic?" he sputtered. "Sorry, Senator," came the reply, "but they're all here."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Trouble with Whiskey History

It's often said that history is written by the winners. Then we get 'revisionist' history, written by the other side. Often history says as much about the preoccupations of the present as it does about doings in the past.

You might think history is absolute--something either happened or it didn't--but you'd be wrong. While there is science involved, in the form of facts that can be verified (JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963), there is also art. Good history writing is storytelling, and the best story usually wins. (Conspiracy theories persist because they're better stories.)

Sometimes stories get simplified to fit the available space. Columbus didn't exactly 'discover America' but what he really did takes some time to explain. Maybe 'Columbus discovered America in 1492' is sufficient in some circumstances.

Add a commercial element and you create an incentive to tell the story that sells best. That's why even brands that are blessed with oodles of real history tend to fudge it here and there.

For example, the claim that Jack Daniel’s is 'the nation's oldest registered distillery’ is not only false, it's ridiculous. Assuming they're talking about registration with the Federal Government, the first distilleries were registered when the first Federal Excise Tax was enacted in 1791, 59 years before Jack was born.

The 'oldest registered distillery' claim, like many others, is based on facts that cannot be verified, otherwise known as 'tradition.' You would think that if Jack Daniel registered his distillery with the Federal Government in 1866 there would be some kind of document, but there isn't. It's tradition. Jim Beam claims that Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in 1795. The source? Beam family tradition. Bulleit Bourbon claims that Augustus Bulleit came to Louisville from New Orleans in 1830 and established a distillery. Source? Bulleit family tradition.

Even so, some claims are more fictional than others. One day a few years ago, Sazerac decided to declare William LaRue Weller 'The Father of Wheated Bourbon.' In addition to plucking that claim out of thin air, it's based on an immaculate conception, since Weller wasn't even a distiller. He didn't make whiskey, he just sold it.

It's worth debunking these stories because it's nice to know what's true and what's not, but it's hard to get too outraged about the fibs. It's neither unusual nor unpleasant when a story told over a few bourbons is exaggerated. We should take the stories, and their debunking, in that spirit.