Kentucky Round 5 - It ain’t worth nothin’, if you don’t share it.
We’ve entered a new era in bourbon. The current boom sets up an entirely new paradigm for both producers and consumers. Scarcity will always be part of the conversation, but it won’t be long before increased production in KY begins to alleviate some of the unprecedented stock issues we’ve experienced. That’s not to say that there won’t be extreme pressure on our partners to maintain the atmosphere of paucity.
The skeptics among us will insist that the current shortages are artificially created to encourage the feverish pursuit of these products, but anyone who examines that postulate closely will realize how inane any such business plan really is. There’s no doubt that there’s a trickle down between a distillery’s various “available” brands and those that might be allocated, but any benefits to an adjacent offering due to the inability to supply demand for another brand is nonetheless a missed opportunity.
If Buffalo Trace could produce infinite bottles of Weller, there’s no doubt that they would happily bottle exactly the number the market could bare. It’s in fact their competitors that benefit most from the lack of inventory. Of course, the retailers and resellers trying to maximize their return on their allocations, also benefit greatly, but there’s no discernable upside for the actual distillery.
There will always be prestige brands, sometimes created just for the purpose of being rare. The scarcity of those products fuel price inflation on the secondary market, but when companies start allocating their core products, you better believe it’s because they were caught sleeping, not scheming to create artificial rarity. There’s no financial benefit for these companies to not sell people the bourbon they want beyond the real blue-chip releases, which have always been difficult to acquire.
We tell stories about having shelves full of Pappy and Hirsch, but to be honest those shelves were only full until the right customer walked through the door and snatched up whatever we had. Even back then there were plenty of guys who knew what was going. And while the most rudimentary understanding of supply and demand explains the massive explosion in the secondary markets, the benefits of those conditions simply do not favor the actual producers of these products. Yes, lack of supply should encourage them to raise prices, but for a strong stigma for many industry players against unreasonable price increases.
The fear is that they’ll offend loyal customers who have been buying for years. The sad truth is that those people are mostly already offended, because many local retailers feel no such stigma. And who can blame them. If you used to get cases of Blanton’s every month and now you only get a few bottles, how can you blame the corner shop for trying to make a buck? I mean K&L isn’t your typical retailers. The strange truth is that this is an imperfect market.
The reason stocks are tight right now is because these companies were scared to death of over producing 10-20 years ago. The rank and file decision makers had seen the devasting result of the cyclical market. The future favors the bold they say, until it doesn’t. Big bourbon is not renowned for its risk taking. But this cycle has been different. It doesn’t seem like Bourbon will go out of fashion any time soon and the industry is as bullish as I’ve ever seen it. Proof of that enthusiasm sits just outside of Louisville at the Bernheim Distillery.
They’ve just completed an expansion to crank out over 1250 barrels of whiskey a day. We took a walk through this complex to get a glimpse of the scale of production. The three massive stills crank out spirit at an astonishing rate. Enormous fermenters and a new charging tank mean that the distillation runs nearly continuously 24/7. The plant is designed to run in the most efficient way possible but that doesn’t mean they’re compromising on quality. This is after all where the winning barrel of Mckenna was distilled and countless other legends. All of it happens within a shockingly small foot print. Just one square block with a brick warehousing operation attached that we have yet to see. It’s an exciting example of what modern bourbon looks like. We thank our guild and move onto our next tour.
Minutes away, Michter’s world class distillery sits just behind the Brown-Forman plant in Shively. Another gleaming example of what the industry is capable of these days, although not nearly on the scale of Bernheim before it. We met their Master of Maturation, Andrea Wilson, who Joe hired away from Diageo. Michter’s has some unique ideas about what makes bourbon great. That starts with a commitment to utilizing every tool at their disposal to create the very best bourbon. It shows in every aspect that they do and it’s also clear that they’ve hired some of the very best in the business away from the biggest players.
They’ve even developed an intricate system of custom for chill-filtration. Each expression has its own specifications for filtration which allow them to remove the unwanted elements that can cloud the whiskey without compromising character. I must admit I think they could skip the whole thing, but for an industry that’s obsessed with efficiency and consistency, it’s a refreshing take on the controversial process. I get that as a producer you still deal with a huge number of customers that don’t want to see oily sediment in their bourbon.
Michter’s gains my respect for addressing that reality in a thoughtful and unflappable fashion. We tasted the standard Michter’s filtration next to a traditionally chill-filtered product and the differences were undeniable. Anyone who tells you differently either can’t taste properly or doesn’t mind lying to you. I’m still not sure their process is better than not filtering, but within the context of a brand trying to be a major player using talent poached from the very biggest in the industry, you couldn’t ask for a more judicious take on the problem.
From there we tore across Kentucky toward our final three appointments. A brief stop at the Four Roses Distillery to see the new still. SPOILER: it looks exactly like the old still. Then off to one of my favorite places to meet one of my favorite people, Bruce Russell in Tyrone, Kentucky. There’s so much I want say about the generosity and wisdom of the Russell family. But what endears us to them most is not their steadfast commitment to making great bourbon, it’s the fact that their genuinely good people who are a joy to be around.
We’ve picked barrels with three generations. I could listen to Jimmy Russell talk for a week straight. Eddie is a pistol, who always has us in stitches, hammering the charlatans as hard has he hits the barrels to remove the bung. This time we finally got to taste with my friend Bruce, the newest Russell on the Wild Turkey team. Bruce is a great mix of his father and grandfather. He’s soft spoken and totally transparent like Jimmy, but like his dad doesn’t pull any punches.
Bruce and I have always had a great rapport, but this was the first time we’d had a chance to get into detail about his ethos. There’s no question that the Russell’s legacy is in great hands. And while I won’t get into the nitty gritty of our discussion, I will say that this kid has been listening. He’s taken every lesson that his predecessors have given him and he’s ready and willing to use them. He truly gets it. There aren’t a lot of young people in this industry with their head screwed on as well as Bruce.
We hammered through about 8 casks, selecting three absolutely stunning barrels, before tasting some old rye barrels destined for the new Master’s Keep – which is going to be delicious. I’m grateful to have such an incredible partner and hopefully that Campari will never abandon soul that makes the Kickin’ Chicken so goddamned special, the Russells.
The final stop of our tour was the old George T Stagg Distillery, home to Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Sazerac is in the midst of expanding and modernizing, but the moment you step on the site you feel transported back in time. This is the busiest distillery in Kentucky, but Buffalo Trace isn’t technically on the “Bourbon Trail”. They’ve opted out of the organization. Apparently, they not big fans of the fees charged or something, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming an absolute juggernaut.
The company employees some more of our favorite people in Kentcuky and we’re always happy to be back here. What’s unusual about this trip is that it includes an actual barrel selection. To say cask offers from BT have been tight, understates the issue by several orders of magnitude. What was once one of our most reliable sources for casks had become an absolute wasteland. I think we had two barrels last year, when we could have sold 50. So, to actually be at the distillery tasting is a serious coup for us.
After a quick tour of the wonderfully rustic distillery, we headed down into “Pompei” the newly excavated fermentation rooms of the old distillery. It seems Castle & Key don’t have a monopoly on resurrecting old equipment and Buffalo Trace was cooking up a batch of Old Taylor Sour Mash in the vintage cement tanks. The feud between Stagg and Taylor may never die, BT owns both names, but you get where I’m coming from.
We finished our work week as we’d started selecting five incredible casks, this time from four different Buffalo Trace marks. Three casks of each, Eagle, BT, Weller and 1792 were lined up to taste. We quickly came to consensus on our favorites but for the flight of BTs. As luck would have it both happened to be up for grabs so we took two! It pays to have your Sazerac rep around when you taste. Along with those lovely expression from this distillery’s flagship brand, we took an excellent 11 year old Eagle Rare. A stupendous 9.5 year old 1792 and one of the first single barrel Weller Full Proofs to be sold -just two degrees below the cask strength of 117.
We walked out of that distillery high on the hog having put our names on a total 20 barrels in 3 days, some of the best we’d ever tasted. As we started to say our goodbyes the wonderful Freddie Johnson walked out of the gift shop to shake our hands. A third generation Buffalo Trace employee, Freddie espouse the values of genuine kindness, good faith, comradery and honest hard work that I feel represent this special industry. He left of us with a story about his experience appearing in the Amazon documentary, Neat.
Having sat for an interview for hours, Freddie noticed a cameraman had brushed up some dust off a barrel which shimmered in the bright lights. This imaged jogged one of Freddie’s earliest memories of the distillery, he began visiting his father there at the age of 5 years old. He recounted a story of his childhood playing in the warehouse just across from us, kicking up dust and creating that same striking effect. The amazing distillery where his father and grandfather had worked wouldn’t be Freddie’s employer until much later in life, but it was nonetheless deeply meaningful.
The passing of his father and the vivid imagery of that earlier time took over the scene. The pure emotion of that scene was undeniable, but Freddie apologized for going off topic. The moment struck a chord with the director and ultimately help guide the narrative of the entire documentary. He’d realized at that moment that the story of Bourbon wasn’t in the copper, wood, and steel of these great factories, but in the people, who devoted their lives to this incredible product. I felt so honored to have experienced the retelling of that special moment from the gracious gentleman himself. A hardy handshake and a promise to return, closed out our busy week of touring and tasting.
This was one of the most exciting and rewarding trips to Kentucky. Things are definitely changing here, but as long as these incredible people stick around, we’re gonna keep buying it. Bourbon country might be the next Napa Valley, but that won’t change the people who put their hearts and souls into every bottle. And that’s what it’s all about anyway, love. Just ask Freddie Johnson.