Interview: Our 2020 Spirits Supplier of the Year, Brown-Forman

A Jack Daniel's rickhouse in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Brown-Forman is the Spirits Supplier of the Year for our 2020 Growth Brands Awards. This honor reflects the bevy of beverage brands in their portfolio that grew impressively last year.

The timing is apt, as this leading global company celebrates 150 years in business. For a look at how Brown-Forman has succeeded in the past and present — and what’s coming next — we recently spoke with John Hayes, president USA & Canada.

Beverage Dynamics: Why did so many Brown-Forman brands grow last year?

John Hayes, Brown-Forman president USA & Canada.

John Hayes: Look at the categories that we’re in that are doing great business in America. That’s led, of course, by American whiskey. Our Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve are all doing very well. The tequila category, too — which we’re in with Herradura — that’s actually outpacing American whiskey right now.

We’re in Irish whiskey with Slane, which just launched two years ago. And even rye whiskey is growing, with our Old Forester, Jack and Woodford Reserve ryes all receiving Growth Brands awards. So the long answer is that we’re fortunate to be in a great industry led by great categories, with brands that have the authenticity that resonates with consumers.

BD: Why has authenticity become so important?

JH: It’s always been very important, but especially now with the Millenial generation. We pride ourselves at Brown-Forman at having real stories. 

For instance, Old Forester, our founding brand, is celebrating 150 years this year. It’s still a relatively unheard of brand, though, especially among the 21-30-year-old consumers. But now it’s been reborn and is fast growing.

BD: What’s coming down the pipeline in 2020?

JH: We’ll be focusing on the growth of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Apple. That just launched in October, but it still takes time to reach full-on distribution.

We’ll continue working to grow our newer brands like Slane, along with our Scotch brands BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Those single malts have been around for a while but are still relatively unknown. However, they are enjoying emerging growth in the U.S. We also recently acquired Fords Gin.

BD: What’s the legacy of 150 years of Brown-Forman?

JH: At the highest level: endurance. When you’ve been around for 150 years, you’ve been through some ups and downs. Remember, that time period includes Prohibition.

Long term, it comes back to the Brown family. We’re now in the sixth generation of being led by them. They’re a family with a long-term perspective that has allowed us to have a wonderful success story. Their five core values are integrity, trust, excellence, teamwork and respect.

It also goes back to our founding brand, Old Forester. George Garvin Brown put his signature on every bottle to guarantee the quality of his whiskey.

We can’t do it alone. We take our partnerships very seriously with distributors, trade and retail, many who have been here for generations as well.

Brown-Forman has a great legacy, and we’re all very proud to be a part of it.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece How Liquor Stores Adapted to the COVID-19 Crisis.

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