Bourbon Story Magazine is launching soon in partnership with Beacon Reader, a platform for writers arounds the world supported by subscribers. To find more about this interview with Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker's Mark, read the full piece here.
The great Tennessee Whiskey brawl has ended, and for now Jack Daniel's and its Louisville-based parent, Brown-Forman, are the winners.
But the issues it raised have consequences far beyond the borders of the Volunteer State, far beyond, too, the international jujitsu between Brown-Forman and Diageo, the whiskey titans that own Jack Daniels and George Dickel, the two leading Tennessee Whiskeys.
The booming demand for American whiskey is offering short-term incentives for distillers of all kinds to stretch the rules hone it comes how they make their liquor -- and still be able to call it by names that command loyalty from drinkers when they see it on the shelf. Bourbon Story traveled to Kentucky to talk to one of the wise men of bourbon, to get a sense of what was at stake in the Tennessee tussle and to ask how some of the same questions are being raised in the bourbon industry.
But first a quick recap on what's happening in Tennessee. We brought the details to you last week. In short; Tennessee lawmakers were debating undoing rules they codified last year with a statute requiring that all Tennessee Whiskey be made like Jack Daniel's and George Dickel are now -- including the costly requirement that the whiskey be aged in brand-new charred oak barrels. Dickel's parents were pushing to change the rules, and Daniel's owner, Brown-Forman of Louisville, was trying to keep the rules in place.
Now that the bill has been withdrawn in Nashville, the matter will rest for another year. (More coverage: here and here.) But the issues it raised -- namely, will strict rules stymie innovation among small distilleries? Do they protect the quality of the product? Does the boom in whiskey sales mean more and more makers will try to skirt the rules, even if they are in place? -- are all questions that resonate far beyond Tennessee.
To get a sense of what's at stake for the American whiskey movement, Bourbon Story Magazine visited historian Mike Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Veach is bourbon historian at the FIlson Club in Louisville, one of the nation's oldest and most-respected private historical associations. He told us plainly that he understands both sides had good arguments, and was especially sensitive to the position of the craft distillers who might want to experiment with the ways they want to make whiskey in Tennessee.
But he had a stark warning, both for those makers and for some of the bourbon titans that are beginning to find ways around bourbon's rules, too.
"Brown-Forman did that to ensure that the quality of whiskey remains good, because they spent 60, 70 years building that reputation for Tennessee Whiskey," Veach said. "And it doesn't take but a few really bad products being put out there to tear down that reputation."
The growing demand for American whiskey, and especially whiskey that consumers will recognize and trust, means that distillers will find themselves under increasing pressure to monkey with the product to find news way to satisfy the demand, stretching the limits of the definition as they go.
Stretch it too far, and the consumer will lose confidence in what a bottle that has "Kentucky Straight Bourbon" or "Tennessee Whiskey" has in it. Once that happens, the whiskey-makers will have squandered a relationship with consumers that has taken decades to forge.
It's already happening, he said, noting Jim Beam's new-fangled Red Stag flavor-infused liquor and, slightly less worrisome to him, Angel's Envy bourbon finished in port barrels -- something he said should make it a potentially fine whiskey, but not a bourbon.
"Same thing is happening to bourbon now. In my opinion, they never should have allowed the word bourbon go on a product like Red Stag (from Jim Beam) or Angel's Envy because once you add other flavors to it it's no longer bourbon," Veach said, noting that he is especially worried about Red Stag. "They are adding cherry juice to it, how is that different from making a blended whiskey? What they are doing is capitalizing on the same market that flavored vodkas have got. Yes, they are selling a lot of product on the short-run, but look at the reputation of vodka over past 10 years. It has gone down hill horribly. Basically they are saying now you have to have a flavored vodka to sell a good vodka. I don't want to see bourbon go down that route."
LOUISVILLE -- I was speaking to January in late March in Kentucky, and that meant basketball was on in her bar as she built me a Manhattan. Could a visit to my hometown really ever be so perfect?
On screen behind the bar at Proof on Main, five freshmen for the University of Kentucky were handing Wichita State its first loss of the season, setting up a game next weekend against the defending national champions Louisville Cardinals -- and tension was already crackling in every corner of the city and would soon be washing over the rest of the Commonwealth like the Ohio River jumping its banks in a spring flood.
I had told January I am in town for the week to do bourbon research -- the best kind of work -- and asked her to build a Manhattan that would teach me something. She set down a bottle of Antica Formula vermouth and a bottle of Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon and I knew I was being taken to school.
As she worked in the ice cubes and began to stir, I told her I wanted to talk about the importance of the 'story' behind a bourbon in today's market. It's my theory -- and indeed the premise behind the Bourbon Story Magazine, which will soon launch with editors in cities across America -- that even the best-tasting hooch is never going to get anywhere without a tale about how it is made and how it's somehow connected to the hoary myths of the pre-prohibition days of bourbon's youth and its frontier-days infancy.
You can see this in the story behind nearly brand: A grand-father's recipe suddenly discovered, and whiskey aging in a forgotten warehouse suddenly is the magic behind a bottle that's going to cost you $50. Sometimes, the stories are true. And it's then that a Kentucky native like myself can feel as it we taste where we came from in the burn of a jolt of bourbon as it marches down our gullet like trail of gun powder leading to a box of dynamite that never quite goes off.
You could see it last year, too, when Maker's Mark announced it would lower its proof from 90 to 84 and instantly its fan base recoiled. I followed that story in TIME and elsewhere and it was remarkable how quickly the brand's suffered. Classic bartenders from Houston to San Francisco, on the front lines of the cocktail craze that is doing so much for the premium bourbon industry that Maker's helped found decades ago, told me they would stop using Maker's in cocktails. “When you are building a cocktail, you really reach for a higher element of proof as a backbone to stand up against the dilution and other ingredients in the cocktail. A lower proof really makes a significant difference,” explained Alba Huerta, of Houston's handcrafted-cocktail joint, Anvil Bar and Refuge.
Marker's Mark recovered, of course. Bill Samuels Jr. and his son, Rob who is now the distillery's president, reversed course and promised to keep the bourbon the same proof it had always been. The recovery was so complete that many observers argued that Maker's had staged the whole thing. I never believed that, both because it didn't make much business sense -- Maker's was already selling out; the problem it faces was one of supply, not demand -- and because it underestimated the real damage the move would have done to the brand had Samuels not reversed course so quickly. .
The story of a brand is everything in this market, where a big part of the craze behind the bourbon boom is the same search for authenticity that makes shoppers look for butchers who can tell them where their rib-eyes lived when they were cows, and the same impulse that makes Five Guys burgers hang a chalkboard next to their counter telling you which farm raised the potatoes that became the french fries you're about to eat.
Maker's story is one of Bill Samuels' father inventing a new recipe 50 years ago and resuming the family business with a batch of booze high of winter wheat and long on age. Watered-down bourbon, whether you can taste the difference of not, weakened that story.
That's what was on my mind as I watched my drink taking shape Sunday. January knew right away what I was taking about. "I call it folklore," she said adding that it's not always gospel truth. "Take this," she said, pointing to the bottle of Angostura bitters she was using to build the drink. "That's a nice name but there's no Angostura bark in that bottle."
The drink she placed in front of me wasn't cheap -- a $19 cocktail is happy hour prices at some places in DC, but they still raise an eyebrow in Louisville -- but it was fine. Balanced and with enough high-pitched squeal to cut against the sweetness to remind you that you're drinking whiskey. I guess that comes from the 100 proof.
As I settled in, I looked at the Bourbon Library on the menu. It's a nice collection, though in Louisville there are dozens of places that have 50 or more bottles of bourbon on the menu. Still, it tickled me to see that the most expensive Scotch on the list -- a $50 glass of Bowmore 12 year old -- was matched the Van Winkle family, when it's available, at prices up to 70 dollars a drink and the 20 year Mitchner's for $85. Bourbon has definitely gone upscale.
January told me she loves Scotch just fine, and the bar sells plenty of it. But chances are, she said, a whiskey lover who stops in her bar knows where they are, meaning in Kentucky. And Kentucky, means bourbon.
And in March, especially, is also means basketball. Next Friday, about 6 million or so Kentuckians or their spirits will head -- in spirit, if not in person -- two hours north to Indianapolis to see the Cardinals take on the Cats in the Sweet 16. I trust you don't need to know what will be in there flasks.
Whoever wins, it will be a helluva story.
Lawmakers in Tennessee will be weighing new bills in the House and Senate Tuesday that would weaken the requirements that Tennessee Whiskey be a whole lot like Kentucky Bourbon, when it comes to how it is distilled and, critically, how it is aged.
The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating read this morning about a tussle between the parents companies, both Fortune 500 firms, of Jack Daniel's and George DIckel Tennessee Whiskey.
Dickel's owners, the UK-based Diageo, the world's largest spirits company, wants to do away with the rules that require all Tennessee Whiskey to be aged in new charred barrels, just like bourbon. They argue that the primary requirement for whiskey to be allowed to be called Tennessee Whiskey should be that it's made in Tennessee.
Louisville-based Brown-Forman owns the far larger distillery at Jack Daniel's, and it says relaxing the rules would diminish the quality of the whiskey marketed as Tennessee's finest, a position many whiskey experts agree with.
But it's not just Dickel and its parent company that want to relax the rules, which were just enshrined in state law last year at Brown-Forman's behest. Joining in the fight is a push by new boutique bottlers who, just as in the bourbon industry, are popping up with increasing frequency as the American whiskey industry continues to boom. The WSJ notes:
Popcorn Sutton Distilling LLC, one of a growing number of small distillers in the state, also wants the rules relaxed. The Nashville distiller recently began aging whiskey without charcoal filtering—a recipe it says it inherited from Marvin "Popcorn'' Sutton, a legendary Tennessee moonshiner who died in 2009.
"Popcorn Sutton naturally wants to call their product Tennessee Whiskey,'' said William Cheek, an attorney for the company, which began distilling in 2012 and last year produced about 10,000 cases of so-called white whiskey that wasn't barrel-aged.
State Rep. Bill Sanderson says he wants to roll back last year's legislation after some small distillers also told him they are struggling to secure new barrels because of booming demand. "I'm not doing it for Diageo. I'm doing it for the little guy,'' said Mr. Sanderson.
The WSJ isn't the first to look closely at the debate over the meaning of Tennessee Whiskey. On Saturday, The Bourbon Truth published a piece asking whether we weren't seeing the dumbing down American whiskey.
Diageo now wants to change the Tennessee law on Tennessee Whiskey. You see Tennessee Whiskey must use all the Bourbon requirements plus the Lincoln County process which is putting the new make through 10 feet of Maple Charcoal. One distillery, Prichard’s filed for an exception and got it so their Bourbon doesnt need to use the process. They also use a rebarreled sourced product in the Double Bourbon but are up front about it and its good stuff.
A new Whiskey barrel costs about $150 a used one around $80 unless you own them, like Diageo’s Dickel, and they are free. Diageo nor others own their own Cooperage that makes barrels such as Brown Forman does and there is a barrel shortage currently. Barrels are the most expensive part of Bourbon/Tennessee Whisky production unless the law was changed to make it permissible.
There's plenty of irony in the story, including the fact that Brown-Forman is a Kentucky company, defending the integrity of the Tennessee whiskey industry. After all, Jack Daniel's is made in a way that would qualify it to be called bourbon, but it has always preferred to emphasize its Tennessee roots, and the famed charcoal-filtering that it says makes it different than bourbon.
Diageo says it has no plans to stop using new barrels for Dickel, but others aren't so sure. The Telegraph in London also weighed in Monday, with a piece pitting the struggle as one between two titans in the spirits business.
The standards and special branding of Tennessee whiskey are an outgrowth of the special designation granted long ago to bourbon. Half a century ago, Congress declared bourbon a distinctive product of the US. By law, bourbon must be made of a grain mix of at least 51pc corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, have no additives except water to reduce the proof and be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.
Spirits that don’t follow those guidelines can’t be sold as bourbon. One example is Brown-Forman’s own Early Times, which is marketed as a “Kentucky whisky” because it is made in reused barrels.
Phil Lynch, a vice president at Brown-Forman, said Jack Daniel's competitors are free to make whiskey in Tennessee anyway they want to, but they just have to call it something different.
"If you don't want to use new barrels or charcoal filtering, you can't call it 'Tennessee Whiskey.' You can call it 'whiskey from Tennessee' or 'whiskey made in Tennessee' or any other combination,'' he told the Journal.
My bottom line: It's nice that so many start-ups are trying new things with their whiskeys -- and the lawmakers in Nashville ought to give them what help they can. But they ought to also keep in mind that the less stringent the requirements for calling your whiskey Tennessee Whiskey become, the less powerful the brand will be in the eyes of the consumers.
In an market where so many of the players, big and small, are so busy creating new bottles, new brands and new story lines, consumers are already hard-pressed to know what they can expect when they take a bottle off the shelf.
If all it takes to be called Tennessee Whiskey is that it be made in Tennessee, the appellation will no longer mean anything at all. How much information does calling a wine a 'California wine' give you? None at all, until you know the grape at the very least. Tennessee Whiskey gives the brands that can use it an advantage -- it communicates something to consumers about what's in the bottle. Its rivals can thank Jack Daniel's for that -- and they may well find that they'll miss it when it's gone, if the legislation passes.