Bourbon brands often change hands. This isn’t something new to the spirits industry. Classic mainstays like Jim Beam (Beam Family>American Tobacco>American Brands>Fortune Brands>Suntory>Beam Suntory), Maker’s Mark (Samuel’s Family>Hiram Walker & Sons>Allied Domecq>Fortune Brands>Beam Inc>Beam Suntory), and Four Roses (Paul Jones, Jr>Seagram>Pernod>Kirin) have been traded amongst parent companies since pre-prohibition. Bourbon brands were traded for a vodka brand, a gin, or rum. Strengthening a portfolio in a weak area by trading a brand they no longer need. “Shuffling the deck” as it were. This happened before prohibition, and especially after as the Bourbon industry grew up.
Recent examples include Angel’s Envy (purchased by Bacardi in 2015) and High West (purchased by Constellation Brands in 2016). Both of these brands began life blending whiskies sourced from other distilleries, namely MGP. While High West did run its own distillery since it’s inception it, like Angel’s Envy, has taken its huge cash infusion from a new parent company and built an impressive new distillery, moving to distill all of their whiskey in-house. Justin Lew, VP of Marketing for High West was quoted in a Quartz article last year speaking about educating consumers during this transition:
“In terms of marketing… it’s really the art of blending that is central,” says Justin Lew, VP of Marketing. “We’re using [whiskey] that we’ve purchased and [whiskey] that we’ve made to create something completely different. I think that message is easier for somebody to understand, so the transition will not be as abrupt two years from now,” he says, estimating when the bulk of their own products will be ready for standalone release.”
It doesn’t always take an acquisition to cause a change in a well-known whiskey brand. WhistlePig began by sourcing rye whiskey from Canada while they built their own distillery and began aging their own whiskey stocks. The plan from the beginning was to be a distiller. Last month, March 2017, WhistlePig released Farmstock. Their latest rye whiskey and the first to use a blend containing whiskey they distilled themselves. While they’re still sourcing whiskey, from Canada and Indiana, they will move to using more and more of their own whiskey with each future release; up to a 100% estate whiskey. WhistlePig is getting ahead of these changes by being completely transparent on the Farmstock label. The back of each bottle states the origin, percentage, age and more about each whiskey in the blend. Instead of trying to match the flavor profile of past releases they are creating new products and showcasing the nuanced differences. This is a great approach, we hope more brands take notice and continue to become more transparent.
I spoke with WhistlePig Midwest Brand Ambassador Taylor Hansen who had a few thoughts to share about WhistlePig’s strategy for the future. “We have sourced our 10-Year from Alberta since day 1, and our 12-Year from MGP. Now that our state-of-the-art Rye still is up and running and our grain fields producing, we had the choice to make of how we integrate these new flavors into our portfolio. The simple answer is, the distillers making our 10-Year / 15-Year / Boss Hog juice clearly did a damn fine job and with the level of business we do with them, we are immensely proud of their work. They produce WhistlePig to our specifications and we age appropriately with very calculated methods. We consider them an extension of ourselves and every bit as responsible for our success as any of our own in-house actions. Our relationship is symbiotic. Rather than cut that tie and replace the juice that IS WhistlePig with something new, we are not going to stop sourcing our 10 / 12. Rather, we released the FarmStock, our first non-age statement extension.” In my opinion this is a great way to tackle this challenge. The product consumers have come to know will not change. Instead, WhistlePig will showcase their own distillate in an exciting new way. Consumers may be a fan of the “original” stuff or may prefer the new estate whiskey. But, they’ll have their choice, and may even love them both.
“One of the difficulties in transitioning from sourced juice to estate is recreating the old flavor profile that your consumers are loyal to, in a new location / still / rick house. No matter how talented a distiller may be, each still has a unique personality and will impart a bit of that nuance onto the distillate. The trick is, getting as close as possible and blending to reach that defining profile of your brand.” – Taylor Hansen
Bulleit Bourbon, owned by Diageo, was contract distilled by Four Roses for many years before that agreement expired. What you find on the shelf today, with a Bulleit label, was distilled by Four Roses. A few years from now when that stock is depleted it will have to come from somewhere else. Diageo is famously tight-lipped about the source of its whiskey. Going so far as to craft elaborate stories of “hidden and nearly forgotten” barrels (Orphan Barrel). We may never know where future bottles of Bulleit are distilled or aged. One can hope Diageo will decide to step into the light and divulge more, as that’s what enthusiasts and consumers continue to demand. But it’s very likely you won’t hear a peep from Diageo when the source of Bourbon in those Bulleit bottles changes. I highly doubt they will change any of the branding. This will be an example of a brand working to maintain consistency as the source of Bourbon changes. I’ll be interested to see if a bottle of Bulleit purchased today tastes the same as one a few years from now. (*Bulleit Rye has always been distilled at MGP.)
A new master distiller can also impact flavor profiles. Four Roses yearly ‘Limited Edition’ Small Batch and Single Barrel releases are picked by their Master Distiller. From 1995 to 2015 that was Jim Rutledge, with the help of Brent Elliott and others. In 2015 Brent Elliott took over the title of Master Distiller and picked his first limited edition’s the following year. With a new nose and a new palate can come different flavor profiles. In an interview with Breaking Bourbon, Brent was asked what he might do differently than Jim:
“I don’t really feel a need to change anything. It sounds kind of boring, but it ain’t broke and I don’t plan to fix anything. I think we might have slightly different palates, but even so we worked together on every limited edition and I think we both saw eye-to-eye on those dating all the way back to 2009 when I started working on those.” -Brent Elliott
What Doesn’t Change?
No matter who owns a bourbon brand, a huge company like Mitsubishi, parent company of Kirin which is the parent company of Four Roses, or a family owned craft distiller like Whiskey Acres, they are still bound by the laws protecting bourbon. Unlike other industries, when a Bourbon brand is purchased, the new owners can’t move production to China to save a buck. They must distill in America, from corn, on a copper still, and age in new charred oak for years. There’s no way around that if they want to continue selling bourbon.
The process of distilling and aging Bourbon doesn’t leave a lot of room for drastic changes. But, that doesn’t mean brands can’t experiment. Buffalo Trace Distillery has long been known to experiment with various aging techniques. Including the Single Oak Project and more recently their use of 300 year old trees. WhistlePig uses Vermont Oak to age some of their rye. And many producers, including Woodford Reserve, Angel’s Envy, and WhistlePig experiment with finishing their whiskey in different types of barrels.
What Can Change?
Shuttering smaller family distilleries, like Stitzel-Weller, and moving production to different physical distilleries, like Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill, does force change. The source of grains may change to match the larger company’s economies of scale. Barrel manufacturers may change. The type, design, and nuances of the still can change. Even the natural yeasts in the air and the temperatures and micro climates of the aging warehouses will be different. There are stories of distilleries actually recreating dents in a new still to match dents in their old still in an attempt to maintain consistency of the distillate.
This is a huge consideration with brands like Angel’s Envy, WhistlePig, High West and others who have built a reputation around sourced whiskey. Consumers know the flavor profile of these brands. Now each one has built their own distillery and begun distilling their own whiskey. The finished product will undoubtedly change but will it be a nuanced difference? A drastic change in flavor profile? Will consumers prefer it to the sourced whiskey they’ve come to recognize under that label? Or will these brands loose part of the loyal following that helped build them? It will be at least a few years before we have answers to those questions. After all, bourbon takes time no matter who’s making it.
So while the bourbon will continue to be bourbon, it likely won’t be the same exact bourbon you’ve come to know. It may fall out of favor, but, it may get even better.
The same master distillers and pioneers who built brands such as Maker’s Mark and Angel’s Envy, haven’t simply faded into bourbon history. They’ve started their own brands, once again looking to find a foothold in an ever-changing industry. And the cycle continues. I recently sat down with Marc Bushala, Chicago resident and President & CEO of Liquid Asset Brands. Marc’s company finds and invests in spirits brands looking to grow and make their mark. They recently launched “Stolen Whiskey” to the US market and are opening a new distillery in Chicago later this year.
Reid Mitenbuler’s book, Bourbon Empire, inspired me to write this post. The book is an excellent deep dive into Bourbon’s history but also America’s history. If you’re interested in learning more about Bourbon I highly recommend picking up Reid’s book.
In his book, Reid says that it is what’s behind the label that counts. And I share a sentiment with him that while “Local Craft Bourbon” is enjoying a renaissance; those words only goes so far if a distiller is producing subpar bourbon. I believe that this Bourbon boom we’re enjoying has a LOT more time to show us what it can do. Eventually, when the craft spirits market reaches critical mass, the distillers making great whiskey will either have been bought by the big guys or held out as an independent distiller. But the ones making anything less than a great product will be left out in the cold. And that my friends will be a great time to buy a used still!