A Taste for Classic Americana

It’s a good time to be born and bottled in America—that is, if you’re a whiskey. The numbers don’t lie: According to the Beverage Information Group, the straight whiskey category showed a 6.7 percent increase from 2012 to 2013.

“That growth was driven by high-end premium and super-premium brands—the categories saw 31-percent and 104-percent growth, respectively, over the past five years,” explains Andrew Floor, Senior Marketing Director, Dark Spirits at Campari America.

“Bourbon is on fire and the surge has been lasting for years now,” says Dan Cohen, PR Director at Beam Suntory. “We’re finding whiskey around the world is growing and doing really well and Bourbon is really leading the charge.”

Cohen attributes that growth to three factors: innovation, premiumization and authenticity. “We know that everyone is looking to discover new options,” Cohen says. “They’re interested in unique production; they’re interested in a variety of different styles and types of Bourbon.”

But they’re not just interested in the products. “Now more than ever, whiskey consumers are fiercely interested in learning about stories behind the brands they consume, and whiskey is no exception” says Yvonne Briese, VP Marketing for Diageo North American whisky. “They want to know the history, production, and especially, the people behind the brands.”

As a result, there’s plenty of attention paid to the category. “This category is so white hot right now,” says Larry Kass, Director of Corporate Communications of Heaven Hill Distilleries. “It’s getting so much interest as not only a distilled spirits product and consumer packaged goods product, but a cultural phenomenon; that’s a lot of what’s driving this interest. We’ve just never seen the amount of attention and interest that’s being paid to Bourbon and straight American whiskey. It’s never been at this level clearly.”

The more apt question might be: What’s not happening among straight whiskey? Matt Blevins, Senior Brand Manager, Jack Daniel’s Craft Portfolio at Brown-Forman, sums it up: “It’s a dynamic and exciting place to be.”

Innovative Offerings

As it celebrates its namesake’s 150th birthday, Jim Beam is rolling out several new additions to its portfolio. In August, the brand released its third flavored whiskey, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, which pairs Jim Beam’s signature Kentucky Bourbon with cinnamon liqueur. Coming in at 70 proof, the 750 ml bottle has a suggested retail price of $15.99. “It hit a few select markets a few months ago and is now starting to reach every market nationally,” Cohen says. “In the first 13 weeks it’s the sixth most successful innovation in all of spirits. We’re expecting a lot of positive momentum for Kentucky Fire.”

Cohen credits Beam’s 2009 Red Stag launch as the pioneer for the brand’s flavor innovations. “It started a wave of innovation across flavors and also was a catalyst for further innovation at Beam,” he says. “Since Red Stag we’ve seen Devil’s Cut, which has been huge. It’s up 49 percent in the last year.”

And the 2013 launch of Jim Beam Maple has had similar momentum in the category. “Jim Beam Maple is the eighth most successful innovation in all of spirits in the last year,” Cohen says.

Although Jim Beam has been recognized as a whiskey leader for decades, the brand never had a single barrel offering. “We knew that it was time to release a single barrel,” Cohen explains. “We know that Fred Noe, our Master Distiller, has said for years that everyone has asked him when he’s going to release a single barrel product for Jim Beam. Fred wanted to launch one now; he felt the timing was right to come out with a hand-crafted, really unique, old style, traditional Bourbon that’s a first ever for Jim Beam.”

Beam put a lot of love into its Single Barrel Bourbon, which is hand-selected from barrels that have been individually bottled and hand-numbered. Only one percent of Beam’s barrels even qualify for this bottling. The result is a 95 proof product that honors the first Jim Beam barrel from 1795 and retails for $34.99.

To coincide with this launch, Jim Beam introduced a contest where consumers could share their whiskey statements with a chance of their statement appearing on the Single Barrel bottle labels. Now fans have the opportunity to be part of the craft-making process.

Age Isn’t Just a Number

While there has been a growing trend to remove age statements from whiskey bottles, Heaven Hill Distilleries spent the year adding age statements to some of theirs. From its introduction in 2005, Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whiskey never carried an age statement on its label. “Countering the trend in the American straight whiskey category, which is to remove age statements, we’ve actually added a 7-year age statement to Bernheim,” Kass says.

This year its label was redesigned to carry a prominent “Aged 7 Years” statement as well as the term “Small Batch,” which appears next to the age statement on the bottle label. “With the success and critical acclaim we have been seeing with Bernheim since its introduction nearly a decade ago, we think the change to a new label with a prominent age statement will continue to lift the brand profile,” says Susan Wahl, Senior Brand Manager for American Whiskeys at Heaven Hill.

September marks the release of the next limited edition of Parker’s Heritage Collection. “This year we’re going to be doing a 13-year-old wheat whiskey,” Kass says. “It’s actually the very first batch of what became our Bernheim straight whiskey product, but we’re releasing this very aged batch under the Parker’s Heritage Collection.” This marks the first time that the Parker’s Heritage Collection annual release is not a Bourbon.

“We’re seeing a lot of traction for these non-Bourbon American straight whiskeys because I think consumers and mixologists are discovering a lot of great variety and slightly different tastes and flavors that you can get from these other American whiskeys,” Kass says.

Other New Releases

The Bourbon slush, traditionally a frozen mix of Bourbon, sweet tea, lemonade and orange juice, is embodied in the latest flavor expression Evan Williams is testing. Evan Williams Kentucky Slush, the only Bourbon-based pre-mixed cocktail, combines Evan Williams Bourbon with the natural flavors of lemonade, orange juice and sweet tea for a spirit that can be served frozen, poured or blended. The 25 proof product comes in a 1.75 L PET bottle—perfect for freezer storage—and has a retail price of $14.99. With its summer release, Heaven Hill is testing the product in 11 markets with hopes of rolling out to more markets next summer.

This release comes after Evan Williams opened 2014 with the announcement of its 19th annual edition. In January, the brand began shipping Evan Williams Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey’s latest vintage, the 2004 edition. These editions have collector’s item written all over them: the Single Barrel Bourbon has received numerous awards over the years and the packaging notes the date that it was placed in oak and bottled and the serial number for the single barrel it was drawn from. This 86.6 proof Bourbon retails for $26.99. “The Evan Williams franchise has been a great success story for us,” Kass says.

As it has since 2011, Jack Daniel’s will end the year with a limited edition holiday release created by Master Distiller Jeff Arnett. But unlike the last three editions where a single taste or style has been highlighted, the 2014 season marks the first single barrel selection of Holiday Select. “Our distiller has gone into the warehouses and selected the honey barrels, or the angel barrels, that are the best example of our single barrel whiskey,” Blevins explains. “That’s an annual series that we look to continue.” Available at the end of September, the 96 proof Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Holiday Select is specially bottled in approximately 8,400 6-pack cases. Packaged in a gift box, each uniquely numbered bottle retails for $64.99.

Investing in Expansion

While other companies made plans to expand their distilleries and visitor experience centers, Jim Beam’s parent company, Beam Inc., was acquired by Suntory Holdings Limited to become a force to be reckoned with among the spirits business. Suntory completed its acquisition of shares at the end of April, and Beam was renamed Beam Suntory Inc., creating a company that stands in third position on the global premium spirits market.

When Heaven Hill Distilleries announced it was expanding its Bernheim Distillery in Louisville in 2013, it was only the start of expansion projects by key players in the American whiskey and Bourbon industry. Beam Suntory, Buffalo Trace, Diageo and Wild Turkey announced investments of their own in 2014, making for a booming Bourbon business in the state of Kentucky.

Wild Turkey’s parent Gruppo Campari unveiled a $43 million packaging facility at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg one year ago. “Since Gruppo Campari purchased Wild Turkey in 2009, it has invested more than $100 million,” Floor says. “These financial commitments include a $50 million distillery expansion that more than doubled the plant’s production capabilities, a $43 million packaging facility, and new barrel warehouses.” The distillery also opened a new visitor center in April.

Diageo kicked off 2014 with an announcement that it would invest an initial $2 million to develop the visitor center at Louisville’s Stitzel-Weiler Distillery. The building stores and rests barrels of whiskey, but it hasn’t been a functioning distillery since 1992. The new visitor center will allow Diageo to celebrate the American craft whiskey movement, as well as showcase the company’s popular Bulleit brand and new craft whiskey portfolio.

But that’s not the only expanding Diageo is doing. The company announced in May that it intends to build a distillery (enough for 750,000 9-liter cases) and six barrel storage warehouses in Shelby County. “Diageo is committed to building the future of American whiskey with the recently-announced $115 million distillery,” Briese says.

Breaking ground in August, Diageo’s investment will expand the company’s share of the American whiskey category while also helping the local economy. The goal is to have the distillery, which will carry the Bulleit name, operational by late 2016.

Beam Inc.’s big news for 2014 may have been its acquisition by Suntory, but before that was complete, Beam announced that it would be building a distribution center in Franklin County. Spanning 600,000 square feet, the state-of-the-art distribution center will serve Beam’s portfolio of distilled spirits brands and is expected to open in the first quarter of 2015.

Maker’s Mark, which has a rich history in Loretto, also announced plans to expand in 2014. In a nearly $70 million project, the Maker’s Mark Distillery intends to create a replica of its existing stills, add new barrel warehouses and make other improvements.

Sazerac has expansion projects underway, totaling an estimated $70 million, for three of its distilleries to meet Bourbon’s projected growth and demand. Buffalo Trace broke ground in April on a new 83,000-square-foot warehouse center. At Glenmore Distillery, Sazerac plans to add a 223,000-square-foot distribution center, as well as adding equipment and improving its barrel warehouses. The company plans to purchase additional equipment at the Barton 1792 Distillery that will increase its production capacity.

Kentucky’s Bardstown, the official trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, is already known as the Bourbon capital of the world. Visitors flock to the Nelson County distilleries, which include Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark. By 2016 they’ll have another to add to their trailblazing. The Bardstown Bourbon Company announced plans to build a distillery, visitor center and warehouses on 100 acres in the Nelson County Industrial Park.

“The Bardstown Bourbon Company will be a celebration of the Bardstown community, from the local ingredients we use to produce our product and the team that designs and builds our distillery, to the employees that distill, barrel and store our Bourbons,” says David Mandell, president and CEO of The Bardstown Bourbon Company. Billed as a destination experience, the company will produce Bourbon and other spirits with local ingredients.

Craft Creations

September marks National Bourbon Heritage Month and the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Beam Suntory is celebrating with limited edition releases that have been called the rarest whiskey expressions to leave the rackhouse. Jim Beam Signature Craft is launching the Jim Beam Harvest Bourbon Collection, which is a series of six handcrafted Bourbons aged more than 11 years. Each of the six Bourbons represents a different grain representation: Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice, Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye and Six Row Barley. Soft Red Wheat and Brown Rice, both 90 proof and with a suggested retail price of $49.99 for a 375 ml bottle, will be released in September, while the other four will roll out in limited quantity throughout 2015.

The brand’s Signature Craft Line releases Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask in September. The ultra-premium offering joins Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-Year, the line’s permanent expression that was released in September 2013, and is the second limited edition expression. Aged at least five years, the 86 proof product has a suggested retail price of $39.99 for a 750 ml bottle.

Rye on the Rise

“Rye whiskey continues to undergo a revival in the United States and around the world,” Briese says. “Much of rye’s growth can be attributed to the on-premise trend of recreating and experimenting with pre-Prohibition cocktails that were traditionally made with rye whiskey.”

Tom Bulleit started Bulleit Distilling Company with a family Bourbon recipe, but it’s the Bulleit Rye he launched in 2011—at the request of bartenders who wanted a spicier rye—that has surged in three years, becoming the No. 1 selling rye whiskey.

“There has been an amazing and truly unprecedented resurgence in straight rye,” says Susan Wahl, Senior Brand Manager for American Whiskeys at Heaven Hill. “For those few of us who have made it for decades in limited quantities, it is both an opportunity and a challenge to produce enough to meet sudden record demand.”

As rye whiskey surges, Heaven Hill has taken its age-old Rittenhouse Bottle-in-Bond Straight Rye Whisky and redesigned its packaging, giving it a look that is based on the original labels from the 1930s. While the colors and brand logotype remain the same, the Rittenhouse face label looks more like the Art Deco design it had post-Prohibition. The redesign includes the return of the tax stamp and the addition of a printed neck capsule.

“Rittenhouse, like several other traditional American Straight Ryes, has probably seen more activity and interest in the past eight or 10 years than it saw in the 70 years prior,” Wahl says.

Jack Daniel’s has made a name for itself in the whiskey category, but it only recently explored expressions in the rye segment. “We have a great brand and platform to make interesting whiskey, so you’ve seen us over the past five years start experimenting with our rye whiskeys,” Blevins explains.

Jack Daniel’s entered the rye whiskey category with its 2012 Unaged Tennessee Rye. “We’ve noticed as part of this trend of people becoming more interested in whiskey, the real aficionados want to experience the product in a lot of different ways,” Blevins says. “The unaged rye whiskey was the first shot across the bow of innovation from Jack Daniel’s whiskey world and that went very well.”

Two years later the brand is following that up with a limited release of Jack Daniel’s Rested Rye, the distillery’s first barrel-matured expression in the rye category. “Given the success of Unaged Rye, we felt like we should offer our friends another limited-quantity rye expression with a brief exposure to the barrel that’s still handcrafted with the same passion and quality they expect from all of our products,” says Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett.

Crafted using the same charcoal mellowing process that’s used in the Tennessee Whiskey recipe, Rested Rye contains 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn and 12 percent malted barley. The one-time offering became available in select U.S. markets in April with a 750 ml bottle suggested to sell for $49.99.

Limited Luxury

Jim Beam isn’t the only brand celebrating a milestone in 2014. Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, has been with the Kentucky distillery for 60 years, gaining a reputation as an innovator who respects the traditional methods of making Bourbon. Known as a living legend in the spirits industry, Russell is considered the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the world, which is something the brand celebrates in its latest release, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary. “It’s a fantastic whiskey for a serious collector or whiskey aficionado,” Floor explains.

Jimm’s son Eddie Russell, who has made whiskey with his father for more than 30 years, developed the idea for Diamond Anniversary around the time his father was celebrating his 45th anniversary as a Master Distiller. This extra special whiskey, which honors Jimmy as a father and mentor plus his 60 years of service, is crafted from rare barrels aged for 13 and 16 years. “He taught me everything I know, so I wanted to craft something that reflected all of the invaluable knowledge he passed on to me; something that was worthy of one of the greatest Master Distillers of all time,” Eddie Russell says.

The limited edition mingles the 13- and 16-year whiskies and has nods of approval from Jimmy and Eddie. The 91 proof Diamond Anniversary has a suggested retail price of $124.99 and started to roll out nationally in small quantities in August.

This follows on the heels of two 2013 releases: Wild Turkey Forgiven and Wild Turkey Spiced. “In the past year, Wild Turkey has continued to lead within the category with two unconventional products,” Floor explains. “Wild Turkey Forgiven is a mix of Bourbon and high-proof rye whiskey, and we sold out of that almost immediately. Wild Turkey Spiced, a Bourbon with spices typically found in island spirits, is aimed at bringing spiced rum drinkers into the category.”

Up next for Wild Turkey comes the launch of American Honey Sting, a limited edition that will hit shelves this fall. “American Honey Sting pays homage to our heritage in the flavored Bourbon space,” Floor says. “It’s an interesting area with so much growth potential.”

While Wild Turkey has a legendary distiller in Jimmy Russell, Buffalo Trace’s legend was Elmer T. Lee. Although his work as a Master Distiller didn’t span six decades like Russell’s, Lee is credited with creating the first single barrel Bourbon 30 years ago. He served as a Bourbon ambassador for years for Buffalo Trace and had a single barrel Bourbon named for him when he retired.

To honor Lee, who passed away in 2013 shortly before his 94th birthday, Buffalo Trace released a commemorative Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon in April. Bottled at 93 proof, this Elmer T. Lee models the standard Elmer T. Lee with its square bottle but features a black label embossed in gold lettering with Lee’s signature as well as Lee’s profile on the front label and details about his life and legacy on the back label. The product launched in limited quantities with a retail price of $34.99.

Diageo’s Bulleit has been a huge hit, growing 73 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to Beverage Information Group research. “Bulleit’s success has as much to do with the authentic relationships that Tom Bulleit has formed with trade and bartenders around the country as the quality product inside the bottle,” Briese explains.

But Bulleit is not the only Bourbon Diageo is banking on. In February, Diageo started the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company. Located in Tennessee, Orphan Barrel’s goal is to rescue forgotten barrels of rare whiskey and share them with others. Its first two variants, Barterhouse Whiskey and Old Blowhard Whiskey, came out in March, and a third, Rhetoric Whiskey, was released in June. All three were discovered among the warehouses at Louisville’s Stitzel-Weller facility.

Aged 20 years, Barterhouse Whiskey has a suggested retail price of $75. Like the distinctive personality it exudes in flavor, its packaging reflects the inspiration behind the whiskey’s name. The vintage label is colored in khaki and brown and features a fox who has just made a deal at the local trading post.

The Old Blowhard label features a whale exhaling through its blowhole with nautical blue coloring and powerful fonts that highlight the spirit’s 26-years-aged statement. Old Blowhard carries a suggested retail price of $150.

Rhetoric Whiskey, whose stocks were also discovered at Sitzel-Weller, is a limited craft Bourbon that is aged 20 years in its first release but will be progressively aged for future releases with a 21-year-old released in 2015 and so on. The progressive aging gives whiskey aficionados the opportunity to collect a Rhetoric Whiskey series and compare the expressions as they mature. Rhetoric’s packaging features a gold label with a rising hummingbird, and its background, which resembles the oak barrels that it’s aged in, will become deeper in color with each release to emphasize the aging process. Rhetoric has a suggested retail price of $85.

Before Jack Daniel’s had garnered the attention it has today, Frank Sinatra had marked it as one of his favorite drinks. Sinatra became one of the brand’s most loyal fans, a relationship that has endured even years after his death through Frank Sinatra Enterprises.

“He was always a passionate advocate for [Jack Daniel’s],” Blevins says. “We decided several years ago that the time was right to honor that friendship with Mr. Sinatra.” With 2015 marking 100 years since the entertainer’s birth, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Frank Sinatra Enterprises have created Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select, which is crafted from special Sinatra barrels that have been hand selected by Master Distiller Jeff Arnett.

Packaged in a commemorative gift box complete with a booklet that tells the story of the friendship between Frank Sinatra and the Jack Daniel’s brand, this 90 proof ultra-premium whiskey comes in a unique one-liter bottle and retails for $185.

Eyes on Experimentation

“Craft distilling, new brands, and good tasting whiskey generate more interest in the category,” explains Kris Comstock, marketing director, Bourbons, and Kevin Richards, marketing director, whiskeys and specialty brands.  

Buffalo Trace Distillery has spent the last year continuing to roll out releases from its Single Oak Project Bourbon, a project that started in 1999 and will wrap up in 2015 when the last of its 192 barrels are released. While 2013 ended with the 11th round, 2014 has brought releases for the 12th, 13th and 14th rounds as of August. The Distillery plans to take the top-rated Single Oak Project Bourbon barrel and make more under the Single Oak name.

“Hopefully, our periodic experiment whiskey releases enable whiskey drinkers to experience new flavor profiles while learning the nuances and differences in whiskey,” Comstock and Richards say.

Buffalo Trace has been experimenting for more than 20 years and continues to roll out innovations. “We will continue to experiment and innovate in search of new and different whiskies,” they say.

The distillery built an entire warehouse dedicated to experimentation. Opened in November 2013, Warehouse X houses the whiskeys that are aged to be bottled as part of the Experimental Collection. The bottling is still years down the road, as these whiskeys have to be aged for a minimum of eight years after the warehouse’s completion before they are bottled.

Heaven Hill Distilleries doesn’t have a warehouse devoted to experimentation, but the company is releases some interesting barrel proof bottles with its Elijah Craig line. Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Barrel Proof Bourbon, which was introduced last year as a limited edition, joins Elijah Craig Small Batch 12-Year-Old as a recurring item in Heaven Hill’s American whiskey portfolio.

In 2013, Barrel Proof released batches at 134.2, 137 and 133.2 proof. For 2014, a 132.4 proof came out in March, a 134.8 proof was released in May, and the third and final batch of the year hits in September. Plans are already in the progress for 2015’s first edition to be released in January. The small batch Barrel Proof continues to retail for $44.99.

New Whiskey Players

It’s a Scotch-style whiskey, but Westland Distillery’s Single Malt expression is as American as apple pie. Produced in Seattle, its barley is grown in the Pacific Northwest and the casks it’s matured in are made of American Oak.

“Rarely in my 30 years of experience have I met people who are so single-minded about their vision for American single malt whisky,” says David King, president of Anchor Distilling Company. “In 15 years, I believe, Westland will define American single malt whisky as a world-class category within our industry.” Available in 750 ml bottles, the 46 percent ABV expression retails for $79.99.

Proximo Spirits is no stranger to the whiskey category, already having Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey under its wing. But in 2014 the company added another Rocky Mountain creation by distilling veteran Jess Graber. Tincup American Whiskey launched in January, rolling out to select markets and carrying a suggested retail price of $27.99 for its 750 ml bottle.

Tincup, which blends corn, rye and malt in a unique flavor combination, is bottled at 84 proof in Colorado using Rocky Mountain water. The product aims to honor the mid-19th century Colorado miners, the state’s first whiskey drinkers, with its name and packaging. The deeply embossed bottle is hexagonal in shape and its cap is a tin cup that can be used for drinking.

Terlato Wines has been expanding its Artisan Spirits portfolio and recently partnered with Heartland Distillers to produce a collection of American craft spirits. After launching a gin in 2014, Terlato and Heartland Distillers look to unveil Spring Mill whiskey and Bourbon in 2015.

“When we started building our Artisan Spirits Portfolio, we knew it would need to include a selection of unique and distinctive hand-crafted American spirits,” says Terlato Wines CEO William A. Terlato. “Small-batch American spirits are one of the fastest growing and most dynamic categories in the U.S. drinks market, especially with Millennials.”

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