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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Life and Passion Return to the Old Taylor Distillery.

I’ve heard stories and seen pictures from people who have snuck onto the Old Taylor grounds near Millville, Kentucky, on Glenn’s Creek between Versailles and Frankfort, but I had never been there myself before this past weekend.  Apparently I was waiting for the right opportunity, and for once I’m glad that I waited.  The property is in the midst of a $6.1 million revival (or up to $9 million in other press reports), and while it might not ultimately be called “Old Taylor,” I’ll stick with that name since it’s the historical name.

Marianne Barnes, who until being named Master Distiller for Old Taylor worked as Master Taster under Chris Morris at Brown-Forman, gave us a personal behind-the-scenes tour, and described the plans for renovations.  Marianne is on her way to rock stardom.  She’s a professional beyond her years, and her passion and vision for the Old Taylor property is inspiring.  While another distillery should have hired the first female Master Distiller long ago, Marianne’s breaking of the barrier is icing on the cake.

The Old Taylor property was built by Col. Edmund H. Taylor, Jr., who was one of the Bourbon pioneers in the 1800’s and 1900’s.  He owned or had ownership interests in many renowned distilleries throughout Kentucky, and he was a larger than life figure in Kentucky Bourbon, banking and politics.  He built this literal castle of a distillery in 1887, just 2½ miles away from another distillery that he once owned in part, the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, and not far from the O.F.C. in Frankfort, which he also owned.

Col. Taylor continued to transform the Bourbon industry at the Old Taylor Distillery.  He successfully fought off his former partner, George T. Stagg, to retain the use of his trade name and the famous script signature that he used on his bottles (link here); he pushed for enactment of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 (link here), and he took the laboring oar in fighting off rectifiers (link here).

The Old Taylor Distillery is big for today’s standards, let alone in 1887.  Col. Taylor used one of the world’s largest stills, he built one of the world’s longest warehouses, and he was the first to bottle one million cases of straight Bourbon.  Col. Taylor used limestone spring water from the property, and he built an ornate colonnaded spring house complete with limestone pillars, roses and a chandelier over the spring.  Even in its near-apocalyptic current state, the grandeur of the Old Taylor Distillery is evident at every turn.

 The distillery closed in 1972, but the warehouses were still used for aging until the 1990’s.  Owners through this time did the unthinkable to such a treasure – they let it crumble.  It was essentially sold for scrap, including to an Atlanta group that ripped apart some of the buildings for “vintage” brick, stone and lumber, further contributing to the property’s demise.

Fortunately, the current owner, Peristyle LLC, had much more noble plans, with the ultimate goal of returning the Old Taylor Distillery to greatness.  (“Peristyle” means “a colonnade surrounding a building or court,” invoking Col. Taylor’s magnificent spring house.)  When renovations are completed, the spring house will be used as cocktail garden, and cocktail herbs will be planted around it.  Marianne plans for the first distillation run to be in November or December 2015, with the core brand being a traditional Bourbon, but she will also produce gin.

Back to the “Old Taylor” naming issue, Peristyle isn’t calling it “Old Taylor” yet because it is in the middle of a trademark battle with Sazerac, the owner of the Old Taylor brand name.  Sazerac sought to trademark the name “Old Taylor” and Peristyle has opposed it before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”).  Peristyle’s opposition (Peristyle, LLC v. Sazerac, No. 91217760) contends that Sazerac’s intended use improperly invokes the geographic location owned by Peristyle, and therefore is “geographically deceptive.”  The parties are discussing settlement, however, and have obtained numerous extensions of time upon reporting to TTAB that they “are actively engaged in negotiations for the settlement of this matter.”

Sazerac should keep in mind that the use of “Old Taylor” as the name of the distillery is not trademark infringement because it is a historically accurate geographic name.  While Country Distillers could prevent T. William Samuels (a/k/a, Bill, Sr.,) from using “Samuels” as a brand name (link here), and while National Distillers could prevent K. Taylor Distilling Co. from using “Taylor” as a brand name (link here), this dispute is more like the 1880’s lawsuit where James E. Pepper tried to prevent Labrot & Graham from using “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery” as the name of the distillery that is now Woodford Reserve (link here).

The case of Pepper v. Labrot [& Graham], 8 F. 29 (C.C.D. Ky. 1881) describes how the limestone distillery built by Oscar Pepper in 1838 became known as the “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery,” and it was brought to prominence because of its Master Distiller, James Crow.  Oscar Pepper died in June 1865, and the distillery was leased to Gaines, Berry & Co. (a partnership that included Col. Taylor).  Through this time, the distillery continued to be known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, but also by the Old Crow brand name or even “Oscar Pepper’s ‘Old Crow’ Distillery.” 

One of Oscar’s sons, James Pepper, gained control of the distillery, but he soon was forced into bankruptcy and lost the distillery.  Labrot & Graham purchased the distillery and continued to call it the “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.”  James found his financial footing and sued Labrot & Graham because he believed that only he should be able to use the “Pepper” name.  Labrot & Graham won the case, however, because they owned what was actually called the “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.”   The court ruled that reference to “Old Oscar Pepper’s Distillery” meant the place of production, and was not a trademark.

While Peristyle might be legally entitled to use the name “Old Taylor Distillery,” I suppose there are good reasons to not use it as a primary name, but still find a way to honor Col. Taylor’s legacy.  Whatever Marianne and Peristyle decide to name their legendary distillery, expect big things, just like Col. Taylor would have wanted.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – I.W. Harper Returns.

There I was, 20 minutes south of Louisville on a Thursday night in the middle of a forest, tasting the return of I.W. Harper to the United States.  This is the way I get to Jim Beam (which is right across Clermont Rd.) and Four Roses at Cox’s Creek (just five miles east down Clermont Rd.), so why was I trying I.W. Harper, a brand that hasn’t been here for the last 20 years?

Bourbon enthusiasts may know that “Harper” was the brand name used by Isaac W. Bernheim, instead of using his own German-Jewish immigrant name, to sell his popular brand of whiskey in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Bernheim’s real name is memorialized in both the “old” and the “new” Bernheim Distilleries, along with Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey from Heaven Hill.  Isaac Bernheim was also a philanthropist, and as noted in the Bernheim Forest website (link here), he donated land for the forest preserve:

Isaac W. Bernheim established Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in 1929. I. W. Bernheim (1848-1945) was a German immigrant who settled in Kentucky. From a humble beginning as a peddler, he became successful in the whiskey distilling business where he established the I.W. Harper brand. Grateful for his good fortune, he gave Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest to the people of Kentucky as a gift.

I have expressed my intention that said property … be held in trust … and said fourteen thousand (14,000) acres be used for a park, for an arboretum, and, under certain conditions, for a museum, all of which are to be developed and forever maintained … for the people of Kentucky, and their friends, as a place to further their love of the beautiful in nature and in art, and in kindred cultural subjects, and for educational purposes, and as a means of strengthening their love and devotion to their state and country.

– I.W. Bernheim

Isaac Bernheim seems to have largely avoided the type of distillery litigation that I write about, but his Foundation was involved in litigation in the 1970’s which challenged its tax-exempt status.  That case, Commonwealth ex rel. Luckett v. Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation, Inc., 505 S.W.2d 762, 763 (Ky. 1974), also noted the lofty purpose of Bernheim’s gift:

The Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation was incorporated for the following purposes:

1.      To afford means for further development in the people of Kentucky, regardless of race or creed, of love for the beautiful in art, music, and in natural life, and for kindred educational subjects, and to strengthen their love and devotion to the State of Kentucky and the United States, and the institutions which have made possible the development thereof.

2.      To establish and permanently maintain, an arboretum and herbarium for the raising of trees and shrubs, and to distribute, free of charge, through the State of Kentucky, such trees and shrubs grown on the lands of the Corporation in order that the work of the Corporation may add to the beautification of the highways, public parks and places in the State of Kentucky, and also that the Corporation may be an aid to the maintenance of forestration and reforestration of the lands of the State of Kentucky.

3.      To provide a sacred sanctuary for the nondestructive wild birds and wild animal life, in order that their extinction may be prevented.

4.      To establish and permanently maintain an art gallery and to acquire and add thereto from time to time, objects of art, including paintings, statuary, bronzes, procelain, and all other kindred subjects, both modern and antique, which may come under the nomenclature of artistic endeavor.

5.      To establish and permanently maintain, a museum of natural history patterned after and following the general lines of the museum of natural history of New York City.

Anyhow, that’s how Bernheim Forest is connected to I.W. Harper, and how I came to be drinking Bourbon in the middle of a forest as part of Diageo’s launch event.  After being sold only in international markets for 20 years, Diageo is bringing it back to the U.S. within a month in a 15-year version and a no-age statement (NAS) version.

Doug Kragel, a brand ambassador for Diageo, explained that the New Bernheim Distillery is the source of the new I.W. Harper 15-year (presumably just before it was sold to Heaven Hill).  The source of the NAS version is not being disclosed.

J. M. Hirsch of the Associated Press reported that Doug told him that this new I.W. Harper “isn’t quite the same … [as] back in the day … but it’s awfully close.”  It’s also bound to be slightly different than the 12-year international variety, so let’s see how the new versions do.

Tasting Notes
Disclaimer: Diageo kindly invited me to the launch 
event at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest 
to sample both new I.W. Harper brands
for this review, without any strings attached.
Thank you.

I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey


Mash Bill:

73 corn; 18% rye; 9% malted barley
No Age Statement, but the youngest Bourbon in the bottle must be at least 4 years old under applicable regulations


82 proof

$34.99 / 750 mL bottle

Light amber.

Very subtle, corn sweetness and vanilla.

Very sweet with corn, vanilla and caramel, along with a nice orange citrus note.  Not as youngish as I expected, but still lacking spiciness, and not much oak to speak of.  However, it was creamier than I expected, and overall it clearly has older stock blended in.

Really short.

Limited Edition I.W. Harper 15-Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey


New Bernheim, Louisville, Kentucky
Mash Bill:

86% corn; 6% rye; 8% malted barley
15 years


86 proof

$74.99 / 750 mL bottle

Darker in comparison, as expected.

Again, very subtle, but predominantly sweet.

A ton of corn sweetness along with caramel and vanilla, but well balanced with oak, a little pepper spice, and plum.  Creamy.  I missed the pop of rye spice or fruitiness, but I still really enjoyed it.

A much better finish in comparison, but a little one dimensional.

Bottom Line

I’ll have to revisit these since it’s risky to review based on a single tasting, and I’ll hold my normal scoring until I can try these again.  In the meantime, from the samples provided, I.W. Harper Straight Bourbon Whiskey strikes me good, but under-proofed with better options for the price.  However, due to blending in older stocks, it’s light years better than standard issue four-year Bourbon.  Others at the event liked the younger version over the 15-year version, but I will say that the younger version made some fantastic cocktails.  Between the two, I preferred the I.W. Harper 15-year, although again I think that it was under-proofed.  I’ll definitely buy a bottle of both of these when they’re released, and I’m hoping to score at least a sample of the international 12-year version to review all three blind.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Copycat Whiskey – the Story of Ezra Brooks and Jack Daniel’s.

Although it was founded in 1866, Jack Daniel’s really figured out marketing in the 1950’s.  Through the investment of $3.5 million dollars over a few years, Jack Daniels increased its sales by a staggering 900% between 1950 and 1956, when it was purchased by Brown-Forman.  The surge in demand actually created a legitimate shortage by 1957, and Jack Daniel’s had to allocate supply.

Kentucky Bourbon producers typically have not missed many opportunities to increase sales (often leading to the lawsuits that I’ve written about), and the high demand and low supply of Jack Daniel’s brought an imitator out from nowhere.  The case of Jack Daniel Distillery, Inc. v. Hoffman Distilling Co., 190 F. Supp. 841 (W.D. Ky. 1960) tells the story of how Frank Silverman created a brand without a distillery in 1957, which he called the “Ezra Brooks Distilling Company.”

Frank sourced Bourbon from the Hoffman Distilling Company in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (DSP-KY-112), which at the time was still in the famous Ripy family.  Bourbon enthusiasts might recognize the Hoffman Distillery as the early bottling location for Pappy Van Winkle after Julian Van Winkle renamed it “Commonwealth Distillery,” and where other assumed names for bottling purposes have included A.H. Hirsch, Old St. Nick., Michter’s, and Black Maple Hill.

According to the court, Frank also sourced from other distilleries in addition to the Hoffman Distillery, but regardless of where it was sourced, Ezra Brooks was bottled in its early days at the Hoffman Distillery.  Frank was able to get his new brand to market by April 1957, just in time to take advantage of the shortage of Jack Daniel’s.  It was clear to the court that Frank “intentionally copied and imitated the appearance of the well-established and attractive Jack Daniel’s Black Label package and advertising techniques for its new and unknown brand Ezra Brooks.”

Frank didn’t just try to make his new brand look similar to Jack Daniel’s; he went for all-out imitation.  The court described the following ways in which Frank copied Jack Daniel’s:

Jack Daniel’s
Ezra Brooks
Square bottle
Square bottle
Black and white wrap-around label
Black and white wrap-around label
“90 Proof by Choice”
“90 Proof for Character”
Pictures a small old-time distillery
Pictures a small old-time distillery
“Rare Old Sippin’ Whiskey”
“Real Sippin’ Whiskey”
“Charcoal Mellowed Drop by Drop”
“Every Sip is Mellowed ‘Cause Every Drop is Charcoal Filtered”
Small black and white cardboard neckpiece
Small black and white cardboard neckpiece
Advertised that it was in short supply (which was true in 1957):  “There isn’t quite enough to go around.”
Advertised that it was in short supply (which was false in 1957):  “There just ain’t enuf to go around.”

Frank’s lack of originality and misrepresentation to the public about the availability of his new brand were not enough to win the lawsuit for Jack Daniel’s, however.  The court ruled (and it was upheld on appeal) that because Frank used a completely different name for his brand, and because the source – Tennessee vs. Kentucky – was clearly marked on the labels, Jack Daniel’s could not prove that Frank was unfairly competing or attempting to pass off Ezra Brooks as Jack Daniel’s.

Hot of this victory, Frank continued to pretend that Ezra Brooks was in limited supply, as shown in this 1965 ad provided by our friends over at Bourbon & Banter (check out and on Twitter @BourbonBanter):

The Ezra Brooks brand then passed as an assumed name around the industry, including Jim Beam, Julius Wile Sons & Co., Medley Distilling Company, and more recently Luxco, with distillation by Heaven Hill.  Many of the subsequent owners of the brand continued to market Ezra Brooks as a substitute for Jack Daniel’s, as shown in this 1983 ad:
The current website for Ezra Brooks doesn’t focus on Jack Daniel’s, and doesn’t pretend that Ezra Brooks is in short supply, but it still seems to make a few unsupported claims.  For example, the prominent “Seven Generations” claim can’t be true for a brand that was created in 1957. 

Luxco also ignores the initial involvement of the Hoffman Distillery, and instead claims that the brand started with Medley in Owensboro.  Additionally, calling 1901 “the beginning of the 19th century” is just plain wrong.

Then there’s the claim that “Ezra Brooks Distilling Co. was praised by the U.S. Government in 1966 as Kentucky’s Finest Little Distillery.’”

Whatever distillery (or distilleries) Ezra Brooks sourced from in 1966, it clearly was not the large-scale factory operated by Heaven Hill which produces Ezra Brooks today, so the whole “Kentucky’s Finest Little Distillery” bit should be removed from contemporary bottles.  Plus, I could not find any such published “praise,” and Luxco did not respond to my inquiry.

While it may be true that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” I don’t blame Jack Daniel’s for not being flattered.  Too many brands with no real history and questionable provenance take roads similar to Frank Silverman.  A Tennessee Whiskey might not be able to win a lawsuit against a Kentucky Bourbon, but consumers can drive change where the courts don’t.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – 10 Recipes of Four Roses Single Barrel.

It may be an epic endeavor to rate all ten Four Roses recipes (as a few reviewers have already done before me), but I’m up for the challenge. 

Before jumping in, as a refresher, the ten total Four Roses recipes are each represented by a four-letter code.  The only letters that change in the code are the second and fourth letters, however, so you can start with “O___S___” where “O” designates Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and “S” designates that the Bourbon qualifies as “Straight” whiskey under the federal regulatory scheme.

The second letter will either be “E” or “B,” which represents one or the other of the two mash bills used by Four Roses.  Unlike many brands who try to hide their mash bill percentages, Four Roses is upfront, and has disclosed these percentages:

            “E” = 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley
            “B” = 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley

Note that each mash bill has a higher rye content that most other distilleries who claim to have a “high rye” Bourbon.

The fourth letter in the code represents one of the five proprietary yeast strains used by Four Roses, represented by the letters V, K, O, Q or F, which Four Roses describes as having these characteristics:

            “V” = delicate fruitiness
            “K” = slight spice
            “O” = rich fruitiness
            “Q” = floral essence
            “F” = herbal essence

Some of these are very different from the others, while some show distinct family traits and are hard to differentiate.  Trying each of the ten recipes might let you identify which mash bill / yeast combination you prefer, or maybe you’ll conclude that for the money you prefer the standard OBSV at 100 proof.

There’s a bit more deciphering to do on Four Roses Single barrel bottles, though, whether you buy the standard OBSV 100 proof, or a private barrel.  I’ve always appreciated Four Roses for giving not just barrel number, and not just the warehouse location, but also the directional side of the warehouse (North, South, East or West), the rack number (out of 180 racks per warehouse), the tier where the barrel lived, and a letter code for depth into the row (A=1, B=2, etc.).  This is a wealth of information that no other distillery shares.

For example:
·         The barrel of OESK that I helped select in 2013 is labeled “KW-89-1I.”
·         Last year’s Limited Edition Single Barrel (OESF) is labeled “HW-47-1G.”
·         And my empty barrel at home (which serves as the platform for most of the pictures that I post) is “ME-9-6N.”

Here’s how to decipher it: 
·         My OESK was from the West side of Warehouse K, in the 89th rack, tier 1, barrel I (9 barrels deep).
·         The 2014 Limited Edition was from the West side of Warehouse H, in the 47th rack, tier 1, barrel G (7 barrels deep).
·         And my home barrel was from the East side of Warehouse M, 9th rack, 6th tier, barrel N (14 barrels deep).

B” is for “Bourbon,” but the Warehouse is on the label too. 

I haven’t purchased all ten recipes yet, so for those missing recipes, I’ve simply noted characteristics from private barrel selections that I’ve attended, and I’ll be updating this post as I add new bottles.  In the meantime, let me know your favorite Four Roses single barrel recipe in the comments below or on Twitter.

(1)               OESV
A 9-year, 5-month barrel of OESV was one of my favorites in an October 2013 private barrel selection.  It had a huge nose, great warmth and an outstanding balance of spice and fruit.  Nothing was particularly dramatic about it, but on the other hand, all of its pieces were put together just about perfectly.

(2)               OESK
*Used in 2012 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (12 year).

2013 Yankee Spirits Private Barrel KW-89-1I
9 year 9 month
ABV:  55.5%
Cost:  $60.00
Notes:  The pairing of the low rye mash bill with a spicy yeast resulted in a Bourbon that starts with a fantastic spicy nose, followed by a balanced taste with big caramel and vanilla balanced with great cinnamon and rye, and opens up with more candy sweetness and ripe fruit with a splash of water.  The finish is medium to long with vanilla, oak and fresh-baked cookies.
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  4.0

As a comparison:

2014 Evergreen Liquors Private Barrel HE-24-3R
9 year 6 month
ABV:  58.6%
Cost:  $49.99
Notes:  Dark amber with a great nose of rye, caramel, vanilla and blackberries.  Rye and cinnamon mark the taste, along with dark fruit, oak and a creamy feel.  Overall dry but great balance, and fine to sip neat despite the ABV.  Sweeter with ice or a splash of water.  Long, warming finish.
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  4.0

(3)               OESO
*Used in 2007 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (13.5 year).

I’ve tried two of these barrels, both aged 11 years, and they were both very good, most noticeably with a lot more spice and warmth than I might have predicted from the recipe, and less fruitiness than I expected from the yeast.

(4)               OESQ
*Used in 2009 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (11 year).

2014 Liquor Barn Private Barrel RN-85-3H
10 year 1 month
ABV:  59.0%
Cost:  $53.99
Notes:  The floral yeast resulted in a Bourbon that was way too perfumey for me.  It reminded me of potpourri.  I don’t know if this was the pairing with the low rye mash bill that did this, whether it was just the yeast coming through, or whether this barrel just turned out this way, but it’s not drinkable in my opinion.  To be fair, others have absolutely raved about this recipe.
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  1.0

(5)               OESF
*Used in 2014 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (11 year).

2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel HW-47-1G
11 year
ABV:  54.5%
Cost:  $99.99
Notes:  Wow.  Check out the full review here: Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel & Small Batch 2013 vs. 2014
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  4.5

As a comparison:

2014 Liquor Barn Private Barrel GE-5-2C
10 year 8 month
ABV: 56.6 %
Cost:  $53.99
Notes:  Close, but doesn’t touch the 2014 Limited Edition.
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  3.5

(6)               OBSV
*Used in 2010 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (17 year), reported to be Jim Rutledge's favorite of the LE Single Barrels.

This is the standard recipe used by Four Roses for its 100 proof Single Barrel, pairing the high-rye mash bill with the slightly fruity yeast to create a really outstanding balanced Bourbon.  This is one of my absolute favorites, and thankfully I can always find it priced right about $30 in Louisville.

(7)               OBSK
*Used in 2008 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (12 year).
*Used in 2013 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (13 year).

2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel BS-3-2B
13 year
ABV:  57.7% (115.4 proof)
Cost:  $79.99
Notes:  I love OBSK, and it’s probably my favorite along with OESK.  I scored this particular bottle slightly lower in a head-to-head comparison with the 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel (OESF), but between normal private barrels, I’ll pick OBSK and OESK every time.  Check out the full review here: Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel & Small Batch 2013 vs. 2014
Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:  4.0

(8)               OBSO
Pairing the high rye mash bill with the richly fruity yeast strikes me as a winning combination, so long as they don’t fight against each other.  But when I tried OBSO out of the barrel last August, I reacted immediately with a “no.”  Instead of rye spice or fruitiness, I got a lot of baking spice and floral notes.

(9)               OBSQ
*Used in 2011 for the Limited Edition Single Barrel (12 year), reported to be Jim Rutledge's least favorite of the LE Single Barrels.

Our OBSQ barrel was fourth in the lineup at a barrel selection last year, and it jumped out to an early lead with the best nose and finish to that point.  It had caramel with distinct candied cinnamon, along with nice oak, and importantly for my preferred profile, the floral notes from the Q yeast were extremely subtle.  It stayed in contention, but ended up being ranked third or fourth overall.

(10)           OBSF
The “herbal essence” yeast combined with the high rye mash bill was a little too much for me this past August.  It had a ton of heat, spice and perfume.  I have an unopened bottle from a Bourbon Society private barrel, so I’m hoping for a better experience.

The Sipp’n Corn Scale™:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon.  Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.
5 – Wow.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

Barrel selection with Jim last year on my birthday.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

KDA v. Sazerac – Who Gets To Be On The “Kentucky Bourbon Trail®” Or Public Television?

As more and more people become interested in Bourbon and want to experience the living histories of Kentucky’s Bourbon distilleries, they might visit the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” website (link here) to plan their visit.
In the course of planning their trip along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, they might wonder why Buffalo Trace, with all of its venerable history, isn’t included on the Trail or the map:

The answer is as simple as understanding that members can benefit from participating in a trade organization.  The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (“KDA”) is a trade organization made up of member distilleries, which traces its roots back to 1880 when distillers banded together to reduce whiskey taxes and to protect the industry.  The group disbanded during Prohibition, but reformed in 1935 to assist with repeal efforts.  According to its website, the KDA is a non-profit organization with a mission “to protect the trade interests of the industry whenever they may be threatened and to handle common problems in a concerted action.”

The KDA created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999, at a time when the owner of Buffalo Trace, Sazerac Company, Inc., was a member of the KDA.  Anyone who toured Buffalo Trace between 1999 and 2009 might have noticed Kentucky Bourbon Trail trademarked logos and advertisements, and might have even had their Kentucky Bourbon Trail “passport” stamped at Buffalo Trace to memorialize their visit.

This all changed at the end of 2009, however, when Sazerac terminated its membership in the KDA (Click here to view the December 31, 2009 letter) and then, according to a complaint filed by the KDA against Sazerac in April 2010 in federal court in Louisville, it tried to keep using the Kentucky Bourbon Trail trademarks (Click here to view the Complaint).

Trademark protection has been a recurrent theme in Bourbon litigation, and is a frequent subject of my posts.  While many of those cases arose very early in the development of trademark rights, it’s probably indisputable that trademark rights are well-understood by today’s sophisticated corporations, Sazerac included.  Worse for Sazerac, according to court filings, as a KDA member, “Sazerac participated in the creation and development of the KDA’s promotion and tourist attraction, the KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL®, including the creation and adoption of the mark ‘KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL®.’”  Buffalo Trace was even one of the first members of the KDA’s promotion and tourist attraction.

Between 1999 and 2009, when Buffalo Trace used the KDA’s trademark for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on its website, it used the standard acknowledgment that the KDA owned the trademarks.  But then, after Sazerac left the KDA, it kept using the Bourbon Trail name albeit slightly revised to “Buffalo Trace Distillery on the Bourbon Trail,” it tried to register that as a trademark (along with a similar trademark for its Tom Moore Distillery), and it even tried to cancel the KDA’s trademarks.

The case never went to trial, and instead the parties settled, so the case was dismissed in November 2011.  While the terms of the settlement were not released (the Order that the parties prepared for the Court stated simply that all claims have “been resolved and settled to the mutual satisfaction of the parties” – Click here to view), a review of today’s Buffalo Trace website can give us a hint about the result:  neither the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” nor “Buffalo Trace Distillery on the Bourbon Trail” are anywhere to be seen.

If there were any smoldering embers of the dispute between the KDA and Sazerac, they might have been fanned last week when a prominent whiskey writer complained about the new Bourbon documentary which aired on Kentucky Educational Television (“KET”) earlier this month.  The documentary, “Kentucky Bourbon Tales; Distilling the Family Business,” aired to much acclaim.  For those who missed it or are outside of Kentucky, you can find it at this link: Kentucky Bourbon Tales.

Kentucky Bourbon Tales was produced by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and was funded by the KDA.  I’ve linked to the Louie B. Nunn Center interviews for other posts, including great information related to Buffalo Trace.

As the subtitle “Distilling the Family Business” indicates, the focus of the documentary is people who grew up distilling and handed down Bourbon tradition generation after generation.  The Beam family (stretched far wider than Beam Suntory), Wild Turkey with Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Heaven Hill (still a privately-owned company), Brown-Forman, Four Roses with nearly 50 years of Jim Rutledge working his way through Seagram’s and finally bringing the brand back to prominence, were all featured. 

Buffalo Trace – which I’ve written about extensively and which I’m personally a big fan of – wasn’t mentioned, nor were two other distilleries owned by Sazerac.  Maybe that was because those distilleries did not fit into the “Distilling the Family Business” framework due to their changes in ownership and lack of family lineage for Master Distillers.  But, of course, since Sazerac voluntarily decided to abandon the KDA, it’s reasonable to conclude that’s why the Sazerac distilleries were not included in a KDA-sponsored production.  Is there a problem with that?

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with excluding a non-member who didn’t pay any dues that would have supported documentary, so I was surprised to read criticism that the documentary hid an “ugly secret” of a “petty commercial dispute,” and even more surprised to read the claim that the KDA was “lying,” and the pronouncement that KET and the University of Kentucky “should be ashamed of themselves for their complicity in this charade.”  So far as I know, Sazerac has not complained about the KET documentary; it’s just coming from one writer.

Sazerac itself probably hasn’t complained because there’s no “secret” (let alone an “ugly” one) about the membership of the KDA, and trademark infringement is no “petty” matter.  I’m not sure that anyone really thinks that Sazerac should have been given the benefit of a production financed by the group that it spurned, and from which, according to the court documents, it tried to appropriate the Bourbon Trail trademark.  Personally, I’m glad that we’re not going down the road of socialized television.  Sazerac is happy to take care of its own marketing, and the KDA is doing a great job for its members.  Let’s just all enjoy our Bourbon in harmony for the New Year, and not root for a Round Two of the KDA v. Sazerac lawsuit.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel & Small Batch 2013 vs. 2014.

I wasn’t sure that I could contribute much on a straight review of any of these Limited Edition Bourbons, especially when one of these competitors was named the Whiskey of the Year last year (the second year in a row that Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch snagged that honor), so I decided to throw them all into the same ring.  But doing that still makes my head spin.  How can I possibly rank these against each other?  Would the acclaim of last year’s 125th Anniversary Small Batch put subconscious pressure on me to rank it highest?  Or maybe I’ll be expecting too much and score that expression too harshly?  Plus, these are all stellar and they’re all bottles that you’d better buy if you luck into an opportunity, but I have to find some way to critique them, right?

Jim Rutledge – who has been the Master Distiller at Four Roses since 1995 but is pushing 50 years of experience since he goes back to the Seagram’s days where he started in Research & Development in Louisville, before moving with Seagram’s to New York and finally to Lawrenceburg, Kentucky – is pretty much a genius.  Jim is the mastermind who finally got the rotgut off the shelves and real Four Roses available again in the U.S., although it took years of his efforts and the demise of Seagram’s before it was a reality.  Plus, Jim is gracious with his time, meticulous with his art, and proud (without arrogance) of the brand he has built.

Now we’re a dozen years into the return, ten years into Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSV), and eight years into the Limited Editions, so just under the wire before 2015, let’s review 2013 and 2014:

Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bottle No. 2,206
Age:  11 Years
Recipe:  OESF
ABV:  54.5% (109 proof)
Cost:  $99.99
Total bottles:  7,122

The color of many Four Roses Bourbons is remarkably consistent, and the dark amber with an orange/reddish shimmer of this Limited Edition is no exception.  The nose is big, with dark fruits, cinnamon, vanilla and mint.  The 2014 Single Barrel doesn’t hold back on flavors.  It has the classic flavors of toffee and caramel with fresh orange zest followed by creamy vanilla, pear and cherry pie, leading to a bit of dark chocolate, leather and mint.  There’s a lot going on.  For the finish, the 2014 Single Barrel brings oak, cherries and fresh mint.  This is a true gem to savor and drink neat.

I had my doubts about the OESF recipe.  The lower rye content combined with the “herbal essence” yeast seemed to me like it was bound to underwhelm.  I was about as wrong as I’ve ever been about Bourbon.  Still, out of curiosity, I compared this 2014 Single Barrel to a private barrel of OESF, which was 10 years and 8 months old, and 56.6% ABV.  While the color is essentially the same, the private barrel has more floral and herbal notes both on the nose and in the taste, the fruit is not as rich, and the finish is not as long as the Limited Edition.  Overall it’s comparable, just not in the same league.  It was also a good lesson about Jim Rutledge being able to pick out the honey barrels; you just can’t match that.

Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bottle No. 2,725
Age:  13 Years
Recipe:  OBSK
ABV:  57.7% (115.4 proof)
Cost:  $79.99
Total bottles:  6,559

I remember really anticipating this Limited Edition Single Barrel because of the combination of the “B” mash bill (higher rye) combined with the “K” yeast strain (slight spice) because I thought it would be a true powerhouse, and word has it that OBSK is one of Jim’s favorites.

Color-wise, there’s nothing significant; it’s the darker amber expected from a 13 year-old Bourbon, with a slight orange/reddish hue.  The nose is restrained but complex.  It has caramel, honey, citrus zest layered in with toasted almonds and mint.  The taste starts with sweet flavors of butterscotch and honey, pear, and banana, along with the richness of dark chocolate and dark fruits, balanced with the powerful spice that I expected to find.  The finish finally brings a little more oak into the picture, along with maple syrup, for a sweeter finish than I expected.  Overall, this was not the pure spicy beast that I expected, and instead it was full of flavors and incredibly well balanced.

Between the two – based on my expectation of the respective recipes – I thought that I would prefer the 2013 LE Single Barrel, but I actually preferred the 2014 LE Single Barrel.  Normally though, I think I will default to the OBSK.

Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch Bottle No. 9,224
Recipes:  OBSK (9 years); OBSV (13 years); OESV (12 years); and OBSF (11 years)
ABV:  55.9% (111.8 proof) 
Cost:  $110.00 (gift shop price)
Total bottles:  12,516

After two years of winning “American Whiskey of the Year,” the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch heaped pressure on Jim Rutledge, and he answered, while not with a “three-peat,” with an excellent Bourbon.  With a deep amber color, without approaching brown, it looks pretty standard.  The nose has caramel, pears and vanilla, noticeable citrus, and never getting drowned out by the scent of alcohol.  The taste follows up with more of the traditional caramel and vanilla, but more prominently features pear and honey for the sweetness, balanced with rye spice, pepper, clove and oak, and then some mint.  The finish is punchier and more oaky than 2013 and is medium length with great warmth.

Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch Bottle No. 516
Recipes:  OBSV (18 years), OBSK (13 years), OESK (13 years)
ABV:  51.6% (103.2 proof) 
Cost:  $85.00
Total bottles:  12,468

I’ve tasted the 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch blind, and while I scored it very high, I didn’t score it stratospheric, as might be expected.  So in this non-blind comparison, I tried to be especially cautious about not getting swept up in the wave of accolades heaped on this award-winning whiskey, or the magic that is contained in the 18-year OBSV.

The color is standard amber, with good legs in the glass.  The nose is pretty remarkable, though.  It starts with tea, ripe pear, plum, caramel and vanilla, and also has hints of fresh sweet cherries.  The taste follows up in a huge way with the traditional caramel and vanilla, but adds the richness of dark berries and cocoa balanced with rye spice, pepper, leather and oak.  Both the nose and the taste hid the proof, or maybe that’s because this is the lowest proof of the four.  The long finish keeps the same balance has lingering warmth that slowly fades.  It had the longest finish of the four.

As good as the 2014 LE Small Batch is, the 2013 LE Small batch outshines it in every way.  The bar is so high for the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, and the 2013 LE is the standard-bearer.

Single Barrel Winner:  2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel
Small Batch Winner:  2013 Limited Edition Small Batch

Bottom Line:

The small batch winner was a no-brainer and the single barrel winner surprised me because I initially focused too much on the respective recipes.  Between these two winners, my ultimate favorite was really difficult to call, in part because they’re so similar.  The color is basically identical, the noses are similar (but I liked the 2014 slightly more), they have similar taste profiles (but the 2014 is a more robust), and the 2013 has the best finish.  I might pick one or the other on any given day depending upon mood.  Both the 2013 LE Small Batch and the 2014 LE Single Barrel are as close as I’ve considered to an outright “5” on my five-point scale.  But at post time, with the chilly December weather, it’s the 2014 single barrel for me.

A normal single barrel probably shouldn’t ever prevail over a fine-tuned small batch.  Except for a true “honey barrel,” a single barrel will almost always have a raw element that can’t be hidden, whereas with the small batch Jim can complement the strengths of certain barrels and mask minor deficiencies in others.  Still – at least over this month’s comparison tastings – I slightly preferred the robust punch of the 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel over the lighter, perfectly balanced, flavors of the champion.

Should the color really be this identical?        

Scores on The Sipp’n Corn Scale
2014 LE Single Barrel:  4.5+
2013 LE Small Batch:  4.5+
2013 LE Single Barrel:  4.0
2014 LE Small Batch:  3.5

Liquor Barn’s Private Barrel OESF3.5

The Sipp’n Corn Scale™:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon.  Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.
5 – Wow.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.