Addressing the State of the Bourbon

April L. Dowd photo

I originally wrote this industry update for Whisky Magazine.

In tradition-minded industries, any change can be cause for surprise. In the extremely traditional world of American bourbon, many observers are agog over the wave of changes washing over it this year, ranging from new master distillers to new ownership, production facilities and product portfolios.

It all is part of a suddenly vibrant spirits niche that has seen solid sales growth in recent years after a comparatively fallow period during which white spirits stole much of its thunder.

In 2007, 14.9 million 9-liter cases of bourbon were sold in the U.S., generating more than US$1.7 billion in revenue for distillers, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. which includes Tennessee whiskies in its bourbon statistics. (They’re essentially the same except that Tennessee whiskies go through a charcoal filtration process.)

Projections are for sales of at least that level this year despite the sagging U.S. economy, which would extend a bourbon upswing that has seen sales of 9-liter cases rise from 13.1 million in 2002 to nearly 15 million last year.

“Reflecting American’s desire to drink better, high-end premium and super-premium brands drove growth,” DISCUS’ analysts say. “High-end premium revenues were up nearly 6% in 2007 and super-premium over 15%. … Bourbon’s increasing popularity in overseas markets allowed exports to grow to almost $713 million in 2007.”

That means such small-batch, often pricey, sometimes celebrity-branded labels as Booker’s, Booker Noe’s, Elijah Craig, Blanton’s, Knob Creek, Bulleit, 1792 Woodford Reserve and Russell Reserve are getting growing acclamation and sales along with the more established brands.

Drinks Americas Holdings Ltd., as just one example of star branding, recently announced that sales of its Willie Nelson Old Whiskey River Bourbon business are tracking 48% ahead of last year. DAH has shipped more than a half-million dollars in bourbon sales with the music icon’s name attached through April 30 of this year. Not exactly in the same volume league as the Jim Beams of the world, but an interesting sidelight.

Among some of the major changes behind the scenes:

• Maker’s Mark master distiller David Pickerell recently left the job after 14 years, a company announcement citing no reason except for that euphemistic catch-all phrase "to pursue other interests." He has been replaced by Kevin Smith, who joined the company in 1998 as a master distiller in training.

Pickerell was the second major American master distiller to step down in a four-week period. Jimmy Bedford, 68, who headed up Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey creation, left after spending 20 of his 40 years with the company as head distiller and was succeeded by understudy Jeff Arnett, 41.

It later was revealed that the company asked Bedford to “retire” after a female employee filed a US$3.5 million sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Phil Lynch, vice president and director of corporate communications for Brown-Forman Corp., the parent company of Jack Daniel's, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "We investigated it thoroughly and took strong action. He soon left the company."

• Angostura Ltd., the Trinidad company best known for its rum, purchased Charles Medley Distillers and announced plans for a $10 million renovation project that will re-open Medley’s Owensboro, Kentucky, facility. It has been closed for nearly 16 years. The upgrade will include making it a barrel-manufacturing site as well.

The $3 million purchase price for the distillery included 23 acres, five warehouses and the still house, but not Charles Medley's private label -- called Wathen's Kentucky Bourbon, a label his late father, R. Wathen Medley, once owned. Medley said he will continue to bottle that brand himself. For its part, Angostura plans to create a new Charles Medley Kentucky Bourbon label.

But out in the real world, bourbon eventually boils down to what’s in the bottle and what the consumers like.

Small craft-distilleries are popping up with regularity around the nation. And that includes enterprises producing bourbon outside “bourbon country.”

The American Distilling Institute is a growing organization of what it refers to as “the new generation of progressive beverage, medical and aromatic distillers.”

Its 129 small-distillery members spread throughout the U.S., along with a handful of members from Canada, are making everything from simple vodkas to more adventuresome whiskies that require sufficient investment capital or sales of other spirits to support them while the premium spirits age.

One such example is Tuthilltown Spirits. It is making a line of liquors in a distillery along the shores of the Hudson River north of New York City, one of the few such operations in a wine-centric state.

Although Tuthilltown’s portfolio included corn liquor, rum, rye, vodka and single malt whiskey, it has added a smooth, spicy Four-Grain Hudson Bourbon Whiskey and a mild Baby Bourbon Whiskey made 100% of New York corn. Both are 46% abv.

Among the major bourbon producers, several new releases particularly stand out in the bustling field. A few were released in some markets late last year to catch the holiday sales period, they have really been making their mark in 2008.

Here are some top-of-the-line examples:

Four Roses Barrel Strength 120th Anniversary Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey: This expression, which may be vying for the title of longest bourbon name, was issued in May to mark the company’s 120th anniversary. Aged 12 years, uncut and non-chill filtered, 58% abv. It has a robust spiciness with delicate, fruity notes and hints of autumn flavors -- nutmeg, toasted almonds, baked apples and cocoa. Approximately 3,000 bottles were produced under the eye of master distiller Jim Rutledge, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame.

Old Forester 2007 Birthday Bourbon: This orange-brown treat, aged in oak since 1994 and 47% abv, marks the 161st birthday of George Garvin Brown, founder of Old Forester and the first person to bottle bourbon. It follows the last few annual releases in offering a cinnamon-caramel nose that sets one up for even more caramel, leavened by a bit of vanilla and apple. A hint of mint also is detectable in the clean but lingering finish. Go to Dowd's Tasting Notes for my observations on this release.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: This is the 13th annual edition of the expression from Heaven Hill of Bardstown, Kentucky. As with the previous 12 vintages, each bottle is marked with the exact date it was placed in oak and bottled, plus the serial number of the single barrel from which it was drawn. The 43.3% abv spirit, with crisp apple, caramel and brown sugar notes, was matured under the supervision of the father-son team of Parker and Craig Beam.

Old Forester Repeal Bourbon: This one isn’t out yet, but Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris is planning to release it in the autumn to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition in the U.S. Advance word from Morris describes it as “similar to the Old Forester that was bottled during Prohibition.” Curious, since not many folks are still around who might actually remember what that is. (Go to Dowd's Tasting Notes for my observations after sampling this release.

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