Production

Rising spirits

Bourbon is not only continuing its growth in profitability but is carving out a new premium image for itself. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
You don’t expect to find a top Kentucky distiller conducting tastings on a Saturday afternoon in a sprawling shopping mall on the edge of Louisville. Mind you, until relatively recently you wouldn’t have expected to find his whiskey there either.Jim Rutledge is the master distiller at Four Roses and a key figure in the organisation of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.Until two years ago Four Roses sold in Japan and Europe and it was as rare as a Derby winner in its home state.But all that’s changing. First Four Roses started winning accolades from whiskey experts and picked up Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best Award for American whiskey under 10 years old. Then the distillery got a make over. And finally its owners, Japanese drinks giant Kirin, set about making the whiskey available elsewhere – including its home state. Indeed you might argue that the proudest words on the Four Roses website are those in the description of the small batch: ‘sold in Kentucky only.’ So it’s not so surprising that a proud man like Jim would be seizing every opportunity to let others share the joys of what is a very fine bourbon indeed. And sure enough here he is behind the tasting table handing out samples not just of the original Four Roses whiskey but two new versions of it – the single barrel version and a small batch version.The liquor store meeting is completely unplanned, but I’d spoken to Jim by phone just weeks before to find him in bullish mood.“It’s taken a long time but things are looking good for Four Roses,” he said. “We were very proud of the Whisky Magazine award but it was important not just from the customer point of view but from the point of view of letting people here in Kentucky know we are around.“Then we got the new packaging which we’re real pleased with. And now we have the chance to get some of this whiskey over to Europe and in to the United Kingdom.” This focus on Europe in general and increasingly on the United Kingdom is an important one. During recent years there has been a pointed and frustrating economic malfunction between demand in Europe and the ability to supply from America. Though trade insiders have spoken for some time of the move towards a premium bourbon market it has only happened in the smallest of pockets. The American whiskey export market is completely dominated by Jack Daniel’s. In some territories including swathes of Great Britain, Jack and possibly Jim Beam and Wild Turkey would be the only bourbons most people could name. And one of them isn’t in the category.Yet American whiskey sales continue to grow faster than just about any other category, though admittedly from a low base.So what’s happening?Firstly, bourbon’s still got an identity crisis, but it may be the hard work of the likes of Brown Forman and Sazerac is paying off. Ask me what the traditional image of bourbon is and I’d say rough cowboy redneck drink sold off the bottom shelf to hard drinkers. And yet tellingly when a pub trade journalist, and a Scot to boot, was asked that very same question, he said ‘it’s a girly drink.’ This sort of image crisis may well worry marketing folk, but it’s just possible that the drink is benefiting from its Janus-like status.And as the bourbon companies introduce a greater variety of drinks to the customer, it may be that it can appeal to the feminine cocktails at one end, and the spicy rye and peaty malt folk at the other.Ade McKeon is the managing director for Beam Global Spirits and Wine, and his company is able to boast the best selection of bourbon serving the European market.There’s Jim Beam (both the white and the classier black label versions) in the mainstream market, the soft and smooth Maker’s Mark in the middle, and a range of smaller releases including Knob Creek and Booker’s for the connoisseur. According to McKeon, bourbon is presenting a threat to Irish and Scotch producers.“Those whisky producers need to pull their socks up,” he says. “The figures show clearly that there is a demand for bourbon and anecdotal evidence backs this up.American whiskeys are appealing to a cross-section of people.” What seems to be happening is that a medium tier of available and affordable premium bourbons is starting to grow.Where once you drank Beam and maybe Wild Turkey if you were lucky then watched in frustration as ‘sexy’ bourbon brands such as George T Stagg, Eagle Rare and the Van Winkle brands go for a small mortgage on eBay and never quite make it across the Atlantic.Driven by Diageo’s Bulleitt brand, interesting bourbons such as Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, the special Wild Turkey releases and Four Roses are finding a willing market among a sophisticated and young market. Not just in style bars, either.Ask the staff of any good whisk(e)y shop in the United Kingdom and they’ll tell you the large number of times they’re asked for the best America has to offer.So where is it all heading? One thing that all the British distributors of bourbon agree on is that if the drinker understands the category as a whole, all bourbon brands will benefit. As a result it’s not uncommon for them to include ‘rival’ brands at their promotional evenings.“You want people to understand that there is a range of choice from America as there is in Scotland,” says Mark Jordan of Brown- Forman. “And obviously you hope to lead them to the conclusion that there are lots of good brands but yours is the best.” Beam Global takes the same approach, happy to put Maker’s Mark in the company of some of the sector’s true heavyweights and then to point out how it stands apart. But there is something else going on at Beam Global, too. The company, just shaping up after the changes that brought it a raft of Allied brands including the Cognac Courvoisier, the greatly under-valued blend Teacher’s and malt heavyweight Laphroaig, is revelling in the challenge of taking difficult brands and drinks categories such as sherry or port and giving them a new lease of life. Ade McKeon includes bourbon in the list.“We are trying to take a different approach to promoting these brands,” he says. “We feel we have the right people in place to come at these sectors in a different way and to give them a new lease of life as a result.” The message seems to be, then, that if one bourbon brand grows they all do, and if bourbon grows, whisky as a whole can benefit. That’s the hope of Jim Rutledge at Four Roses.Such a trend would take him one step nearer to being able to show off his brands to an entirely new group of people.