During an investors conference held last November, Larry Schwartz, President of Diageo North America, announced to the world the multinational's ambitions for becoming 'the number one craft distiller in America.'
Citing Buffalo Trace's Pappy van Winkle as perfect inspiration for its Orphan Whisky Distilling Company, the vehicle for the ongoing release of a series of old and rare American whiskeys, he gave as the reason for the move into craft as being rhetorically self-evident: "Why? Because we have the whiskeys." Schwartz also let it be known that while he agreed that Crown Royal forms an overtly significant chunk of its North American whiskey portfolio, Diageo are 'very fortunate' in that 'a lot of people don't know it's a Canadian whiskey.' In fact, most Texans 'think it's a Bourbon.'
We will connect all the Diageo dots in a while. For now, the facts: Orphan Whisky is based in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The whiskeys planned for release will be bottled at nearby George Dickel. The first two were 'discovered' in warehouses in the currently mothballed Stitzel-Weller Distillery. They are the 20 Years Old and 26 Years Old Kentucky Bourbons Barterhouse (45.1%) and Old Blowhard (45%), both due for US-only release on 14th March. A 19 Years Old nominally named Rhetoric (45.35%) will follow. All three have a mashbill of 86 per cent, six per cent rye and eight per cent malted barley. Initially coy as to the source, Diageo has since confirmed that Old Blowhard was distilled at the Old Bernheim Distillery, while Barterhouse was distilled by Ed Foote, when at the New Bernheim Distillery.
In the interests of parity, it should be said that Schwartz's comments were made in the Q&A session following a general state of the Diageo North America nation report. Nevertheless, whatever else was said, the press picked up on Diageo's designs on the craft sector. Given its size, these ambitions ought to come as a giant surprise. The American craft movement may be experiencing something of a crisis of identity, but really? Diageo? America's number one craft distiller? Author of an approach that rather than address presumed American consumer misconceptions about a whisky called Crown Royal prefers to amplify them to the point of extinguishing an entire country? Cue incredulity. Or not, as the case may be. With a few notable exceptions, mainstream reports at best chase the whiskey, and at worst simply unquestioningly repeat Diageo-based claims. Little distinction is made between what, in the opinion of Corsair's Darek Bell, qualifies as being a genuine craft distillery and either that oxymoron the non-whiskey producing distillery or the so-called small batch sub-brand of a large label. Bell: '"To me it is pretty simple. Craft whiskey is: small, independently owned, and actually distils whiskey." All else is the work of 'crafty fakers.'
Meaning, here's what we should be saying: Pappy van Winkle's a cult, not a craft whiskey. If the Orphan Barrel Distilling Company claims to produce whiskey, it does so only in the sense that magicians produce rabbits. A craft whiskey is not a whiskey made in a distillery whose barrel stock once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Orphan Barrel Distilling Company should stick to calling itself The Orphan Barrel Project. Rare and lost does not mean craft. Etcetera. Diageo's floating about a creek entirely of its own making. Stop handing it paddles.
Fortunately, whatever the outside help, some good sense looks to have prevailed. Diageo has made, as I understand it, no mention of claiming craft status either on the Barterhouse and Old Blowhard labels or in associated marketing materials. They are now merely 'well-crafted' whiskeys. How and why the volte-face, we may never know. And how to explain Larry Schwartz and company is perhaps an observation for another time. Personally, I would have hoped the truth of the mystery surrounding the whiskey's discovery be properly replaced by the truth that tells us where it comes from, who made it, and how. One's a sales poem written on a napkin. The other's a history book.