Fred Minnick header image

Blog

Bourbon Tourism: Is it a Factory Tour or Napa Valley?

The Kentucky bourbon industry learned non-aficionado consumers think of a bourbon tour as a “factory tour.”

In focus groups funded by the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism, consumers from several cities offered new perspective on the Commonwealth’s “Bourbon Tourism” initiatives. The Commonwealth commissioned Illinois-based Rockpile Strategies to study focus groups in Illinois, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana. The findings will be made public. Yesterday, I was invited to view the results along with representatives from the state’s visitor bureaus, distilleries, government officials and even wineries.

I learned the outside world views bourbon a lot differently than Whiskey Geeks.

A couple examples. The use of “America’s Native Spirit” when referring to bourbon made people think of a Native American drink instead of the 1964 Congressional declaration that made bourbon a unique product of the United States. One focus group member thought the “Bourbon Trail” might have had a historical connection to a moonshiner trail used to transport illegal whiskey. Hey, that sounds like a great story, but it’s not true. One test advertisement showing bourbon  poured into a rocks glass incited this comment regarding visiting a bourbon distillery: “I am not looking for a vacation that is one big pub crawl.”

As to be expected, those who consider themselves aficionados can’t get enough of the bourbon distilleries or Kentucky. And those who have traveled through Kentucky want to come back to the state and some hope to visit the distilleries. But bourbon distillery visits were not a priority among those who don’t drink alcohol, those of certain religions or with kids.

The most pertinent piece of information, in my opinion, came from how these focus groups viewed the terms “Bourbon Trail” and “Bourbon Country.”

The Bourbon Trail was thought to be a pathway to distilleries, while Bourbon Country was a region with cultural heritage similar to Napa Valley. As one consumer said in the focus group, according to Rockpile: “The Trail goes through Bourbon Country.”

Why this is even significant is the Kentucky Distillers Association owns the trademark and promotes the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which is a highly successful initiative with more than 700,000 visits and is coming up on its 20th anniversary. The Sazerac-owned distilleries are not KDA members; and thus, 1792 Barton and Buffalo Trace do not appear on Kentucky Bourbon Trail literature. This has led to lawsuits between Sazerac and the KDA. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail complaints have been settled, but the tensions are still there, as evident in the latest trademark objections.

The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau and other state tourism groups pursued the “Bourbon Country” marketing initiative in 2007 and has included the Sazerac brands as well as the KDA members.

To my knowledge, the state’s recent focus groups are the first study that showed both Bourbon Trail and Bourbon Country complement—rather than compete—one another. It’s a great step in the positive direction for Bourbon Tourism, but there’s a long way to go.

People who had no interest in bourbon simply asked: “Why would I want to take a factory tour?”

On one hand, people think of Kentucky bourbon as factory made. And on the other, consumers view bourbon in beautiful surroundings similar to Napa Valley.

So, is Bourbon Tourism a factory tour or Napa Valley?

From the state’s perspective, it’s trying to appeal to the masses, and they’re selling Kentucky’s great landscape, bourbon, horses and the people. Bourbon is a mere slice of its tourism pie.

Until yesterday, I did not realize just how niche bourbon really is. It’s time to change that. It’s time for outsiders to understand that the so-called factory tour embodies the best of America, with all the smells, views and authentic people that tourists desire on weekend or month-long getaways. Bourbon is not some liquor you pour over ice; it’s a lifestyle, listening to the authentic sounds of Bluegrass Music and watching the sunset over a ripe green field with young colts prancing and mares galloping.

And it’s not Napa Valley, where investors appeared after the 1970s winemakers earned significant international attention. Many of today’s bourbon buildings were built by hand in the 1800s, and the same families have run the companies since Prohibition. Through taxes and jobs, bourbon built Kentucky, schools and roads; it was here before Don Draper poured a whiskey on Mad Men; and it will be here if and when the Chicago hipster moves onto something else.

Bourbon isn’t a factory tour or Napa Valley.

Bourbon is genuine, filled with history, tastes, smells, laughable legends and good people. Nothing compares to Kentucky’s bourbon culture. And the only way to appreciate this fact is to experience it.

 

Fred Minnick is the author of Bourbon Curious and Whiskey Women

Famous Pappy Van Winkle Label Celebrates 20 Years; New Developments in Stolen Pappy Case

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pappy Van Winkle bottle donning the iconic Pappy photo. That’s right, the lovely bottle you know and love, and have likely stood in long lines for, first appeared on a liquor store shelf in 1995, according to Julian Van Winkle III, Pappy’s grandson.

They were selling Van Winkle labels previously, but the actual Pappy photo appeared on the 20-year-old label. Van Winkle says the 23-year-old came out a few years later and the 15-year-old around 2004.

Some of my favorite Pappy stories come from these early days, when nobody cared about bourbon and certainly not Pappy Van Winkle. A former salesman told me he couldn’t give away the Van Winkle whiskey, especially the stuff dipped in red wax, which of course, is now legendary and a leading collectable. Back then, all anybody wanted was Maker’s Mark.

The iconic Pappy photo celebrates 20 years on a bottle this year.

The iconic Pappy photo celebrates 20 years on a bottle this year.

But the 1990s saw the rise of many brands like Pappy. Jefferson’s, Bulleit, Michter’s and the Van Winkles took advantage of the buyer’s market for sourced whiskey and contract distillation time. Back then, on the heels of major companies divesting in bourbon, distilleries viewed the Bulleits and Jefferson’s of the world as another revenue stream.

Today, thanks to Chuck Cowdery coining the phrase, we call this model Non-Distiller Producer. Back then, distilleries called them rectifier clients and were happy to sell them leftover whiskey stocks.

How things have changed. In 20 years, Julian Van Winkle went from giving bottles away to new friends and salesmen practically begging out-of-state liquor stores to carry the whiskey to Pappy Van Winkle being sold in lotteries at liquor stores, who are known to list Pappy for $6,000. Consumers have even posted Craigslist ads offering “Oral Services” for Pappy.

And of course, there’s the 2013 theft of 65 cases. I was expecting to attend a news conference today regarding the $26,000-worth of Pappy stolen from the Frankfort-based Buffalo Trace Distillery two years ago. That was rescheduled for April 21. The Franklin County Sheriff says he’s uncovered new developments.

Last month, a former Buffalo Trace worker was arrested in the theft of five Wild Turkey bourbon barrels. He was later charged for the Wild Turkey theft.

On April 21, at this news conference, I will likely see national, regional and other whiskey writers at a press conference about stolen bourbon. I imagine it will be largest press event I’ve attended since covering President Bush in 2006.

And to think, it was a struggle to sell this bourbon 20 years ago. Now we’re holding county sheriff press conferences?

I wonder what bourbon / Pappy will look like 20 years from now. You’re guess is as good as mine.

 

Fred Minnick is the author of Bourbon Curious and Whiskey Women

Great, Another Flavored Whiskey That Targets ‘female consumers’

When you press bourbon distillers about flavored whiskey, those who make it all say the same thing: It’s a great introductory line for new consumers, and flavored whiskey won’t become flavored vodka with a wide-assortment of flavors. One of the greatest proponents of this argument has been Heaven Hill Brands (they recently rebranded to Heaven Hill Brands).

Heaven Hill has built a strong following with its Evan Williams bourbon line, adding extension after extension. I’ve been critical of them for using such a core bourbon brand in the flavored whiskey market. There’s potential brand fallout when you add flavored line extensions to existing bourbon brands. A new drinker drinks Jim Beam Honey, doesn’t like it, or drinks too much of it, and all he/she remembers is Jim Beam, never touching another drop of Beam again. That’s a theory, sure, but it’s one shared by many.

James Espey, the former North American president for United Distillers and founder of the Keepers of Quaich, told me earlier this year that flavored whiskeys exist because executives are trying to earn short-term profits for their end-of-year bonuses. In fact, when you talk to most current distillery people, they agree, but end the conversation: “But they sell. And you can’t dispute that.” I guess all companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders.

Raven Flavored Whiskey

Well, at least, Heaven Hill’s latest flavored whiskey is not riding on the brand coattails of Evan Williams. But it is entering a new flavor into the category. Granted, I am no connoisseur of flavored whiskey, but I’m fairly certain Raven’s Lace PeachBerry Whiskey is the first with peach and sweet strawberry. From the press release: “…with the smoothness of Bourbon whiskey at an approachable 60 proof. Raven’s Lace PeachBerry Whiskey primarily appeals to the growing segment of female consumers for whom traditional whiskey is not necessarily their drink of choice but are interested in the sweet taste of flavored whiskeys. By all accounts, flavored whiskey is growing tremendously and makes up 12% of whiskey sales according to the Wall Street Journal. And women are playing an increasingly important role in the whiskey category with about 40% of flavored whiskey consumed by females.”

Oh, boy. I know many whiskey-drinking women who hate flavored whiskey more than me, and they’re not too keen on this whole marketing to women notion. Believe me, I know.

I honestly thought distilleries were done trying to promote flavored whiskeys to women or at least they were scaling back public efforts. With this incredible growth in Bourbon Women, Women Who Whiskey, Whiskey Chicks and dozens of other great female-based connoisseur clubs, I’ve seen a shift from flavored whiskey marketing to just pure-and-simple education. I was hoping the distilling industry had turned a corner on this effort.

I guess it’s a wider corner than I thought.

 

TerrePURE: ‘Traditionalists need to open up’

After my blog post yesterday regarding TerrePURE technology entering Kentucky, the company’s founder wrote a lengthy comment at the end of the story. I’ve confirmed Terressentia’s Earl D. Hewlette indeed wrote the response.

In a phone call follow up, Hewlette said he’s fully aware of the Kentucky statute that requires Kentucky whiskey products to be a year old and that he will abide by all state and federal rules. (A commenter in yesterday’s post provided the statute in question.) Hewlette says he wants to produce a Kentucky bourbon and even a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, which must be at least two years old. Terressentia will also apply for Kentucky Distillers Association membership, he says, and pursue traditional aging techniques.

He told me: “We want to be viewed as any other distillery and make {whiskey} as the same as anybody else, but we have alternative aging,” Hewlette told me. “We have consumers all over the world using {TerrePURE}. Big chains in Europe and U.S. are bottling it. We ship it {to them} in tankers.”

Below are his unedited comments from the previous post.

“I appreciate your calling attention to our technology but wish to clarify a couple of things.  First, Hatfield & McCoy is an American whiskey, not a Bourbon, so it’s taste profile will have more grain and heat than our
Bourbons. Second, we do not add caramel or any other coloring agent to our whiskies.  We draw color from the oak barrel.

“As for our Bourbons and Rye whiskies, at the 2014 San Francisco Spirits Competition, our 6 month Hayes Parker Bourbon won a silver medal and our 6 month Darby’s Rye won a bronze.  This year we entered three different rye whiskies and won one gold and two  silvers.  And a silver for our 6 month Hayes Parker Cherry Bourbon.  Plus two double golds for vodka and apple pie moonshine and a silver for blueberry moonshine. In 21 different international taste competitions since 2009, our products have won over 70 medals. So someone thinks our technology works.

“Traditionalists need to open up a bit more to innovation.  What we are doing does not in any way degrade the distillers’ art.  We need well made whiskey and other spirits as a starting point.  All we are doing with whiskies is replicating barrel aging.  We have found a way to take whiskies that have been traditionally aged for six months and create a taste profile that is equivalent or better than most 4 year old whiskies.  This is “commodity” whiskey, not Pappy 15 year old.  But if your goal is an affordable, enjoyable whiskey, why wouldn’t you want to save the cost of 3.5 years of barrel aging (warehouse costs, barrel taxes, time value of money, and the “angel share” losses).

“There is room in this industry for creativity.  The consumer will be the final judge.” — Earl D. Hewlette, CEO of Terressentia

Kentucky Bourbon War Looms Over Technology

There’s a battle coming to Kentucky, and bourbon could soon be more about the test tube than the barrel.

In the next year, a Kentucky bourbon brand will be created using Terressentia’s TerrePURE technology that takes whiskey less than a year old and applies “chemistry instead of the oak barrel,” CEO Earl Hewlette told me in an interview for Whisky Advocate. (TerrePURE has been used to make other bourbons, such as Winchester Small Batch “Straight Bourbon,” but not with Kentucky on the label.)

Terressentia purchased the Owensboro Charles Medley Distillery last year for more than $25 million.

Hewlette claims the technology rapidly matures whiskeys to achieve significant color in four- to six-month-old whiskey and favorable taste phenolics. I’ve not seen this process in action, so my understandings are based on interviews.

In this side-by-side comparison with a Booker's media sample (left) and a Hatfield & McCoy TerrePURE whiskey, you can see the color stands up to a traditionally aged bourbon. There is no coloring disclosure on the Hatfield & McCoy label.

In this side-by-side comparison with a Booker’s media sample (left) and a Hatfield & McCoy TerrePURE whiskey, you can see the color stands up to a traditionally aged bourbon. There is no coloring disclosure on the Hatfield & McCoy label.

South Carolina-based Terressentia has produced several whiskey labels, including the recent Hatfield & McCoy. In my interview with Hewlette, he was very clear that he intends to use his technology in Kentucky bourbon for his own brands and for his distillation contracts.

Now that the Kentucky bourbon sourced whiskey market has dried up—it’s harder for Non-Distiller Producers to buy or contract distill “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” from traditional outlets, such as Heaven Hill, Barton and Brown-Forman—NDPs are reaching out to upstart Kentucky distillers for contract distillations. Currently, New Riff and Kentucky Artisan Distillery are contract distilling for several companies, including names as big as Jefferson’s, because the clients want “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” on the label. That means, Hewlette will likely pluck a few NDPs who will want to see Kentucky on the label.

TerrePURE (1)

Hatfield & McCoy discloses its use of TerrePURE. Will others?

“There remains a belief that Kentucky bourbon is a premium bourbon,” he told me. “So, I think to that extent, being able to offer a product that is made in Kentucky ultimately will be considered a premium over non-Kentucky bourbon.”

This week, Earl’s wife, Paula Dezzutti Hewlette, told me her company, Local Choice Spirits, will soon be launching “Baby Boomer Bourbon.” The exact release date was unclear, but it appears the bourbon will be out within a year and uses the TerrePURE technology.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Bourbon and Lost Spirits boast rapid aging technology that have created heated debates over the use technology in American whiskey. Often relying on the good old boy network, the Kentucky bourbon industry has held tried and true to the mantra that many have tried rapid aging before and they’ve all failed. The industry can no longer say this.

Despite my preference of tradition and the old-fashioned way of making bourbon, you cannot deny Cleveland Bourbon and Terresentia have carved out a market for their respective companies. And while I do not care for the Cleveland Bourbon’s over-oaked profile and find the TerrePURE products too hot and grain-forward, people buy them, people drink them, and distillery engineer types want to know more about them.

Thus, the Kentucky industry must decide how to deal with this technology entering the Commonwealth’s bourbon industry. Will they attempt to change the state or federal laws to disallow certain technologies? Will they do a full-court PR press against TerrePURE? Or will they welcome technology with open arms?

I’ve reached out to the Kentucky Distillers Association, which represents the majority of the state’s distillers. Here’s what KDA president Eric Gregory had to say: “We reached out to Terressentia last year in our first membership drive and invited them to become members. I spoke to their leadership last month to get an update on their renovations and encouraged them to apply. Once we receive their application, we will meet with them, tour their facilities and get to know them better – just as we do with any prospective member. I’m sure there will be questions about their process since this is new technology. But the KDA maintains an open membership policy, and we’re always happy to welcome new companies and new ideas to our distilling family.”

That’s a nice politically correct answer from Gregory, but the truth is his membership loathes the technology. But the distillers of yesterday loathed automation in distilleries.

Before he passed away, Elmer T. Lee criticized automation used in the distilleries. (Here’s a great 2006 interview with Lee on WhiskyCast.) The former Old Fitzgerald master distiller Edwin Foote agreed, saying the human senses are more acute than computers. And before them, Stitzel-Weller master distiller Will McGill and Seagram’s research director Dr. E. H. Scofield often debated about the use of science in the 1940s. (Read about the McGill-Scofield debate in my next book, Bourbon Curious.) And before them, early 1900s distillers debated the use of heat cycling in warehouses.

So, my point is, either this TerrePURE technology is a part of the bourbon technology evolution like heat cycling or it will unify all distillers to stop it.

Because once the technology starts putting Kentucky bourbon on the shelf, it’s not going to stop.

 

Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious