Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Florida, Whiskey Tasting, part 2

1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 46.85%, $30

The nose shows fruit and grain with soft spice notes. It’s more robust on the palate than I remember (I originally tasted this bourbon about eight years ago, but this is the first time I’ve revisited it recently). There’s some sweetness on the palate mingled with rye spice. It comes across relatively bold, but remains well integrated.

It’s no secret that 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is a Sazerac product. The Sazerac Company owns the Buffalo Trace distillery and bottles the whiskey made there under so many different brands that many people forget (or just don’t realize) that they actually own a couple of other distilleries as well. One of them is A. Smith Bowman, a micro-distillery located in Virginia, and the other is the Barton 1792 Distillery, of Bardstown, Kentucky. The later produces Ridgemont Reserve bourbon.

The distillery dates back to before Prohibition and sits on the grounds of several historic distilleries. Like many of the early American whiskey distilleries / brands, it has a long and convoluted history. All of the details are too complex to go into here, but it was known as the Tom Moore distillery up until a change of ownership in 1944, when the name was changed to Barton. The company that owned the distillery eventually became known as Barton Brands (as the company grew, it acquired several other whiskey brands along the way, as well as changing owners several times), and in 2008 they changed the name of the distillery back to Tom Moore in a historical tip of the hat. A year later, Barton Brands, along with their distillery, was purchased by Sazerac (owners of the Buffalo Trace distillery since 1992). Sazerac promptly changed the name of the distillery back to Barton, although I’m not sure when the 1792 was added into the distillery name.

The likely reason for the distillery not being too well known is because for most of its history it only produced smaller, regionally distributed bourbon and rye brands; not to mention the confusing series of ownership and name changes that the distillery went through. One of the distillery’s better known brands, Very Old Barton, was only distributed in Kentucky for many years. Sazerac has increased distribution of VOB, but it’s still only available regionally.

In 2002, Barton Brands introduced Ridgemont Reserve bourbon nationally as a premium brand, selling at a higher price point than any of the distillery’s other offerings. But it started off with a different name; Ridgewood Reserve 1792. Brown-Forman sued Barton, claiming that the name was too close to that of their Woodford Reserve bourbon. Brown-Forman won, and the name of the new bourbon was soon changed to 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. The name contains 1792 as a reference to the year in which Kentucky gained statehood.

Ridgemont Reserve bottles carried an 8 year age statement up until December of 2013. The Sazerac website and the Ridgemont Reserve website both still claim that the bourbon is aged at least 8 years, but that doesn’t really mean anything; it only has to be at least that old if it says so on the bottle. The Ridgemont website states that all of the barrels for this bourbon are housed in Warehouse Z, one of many spread across the distillery’s sprawling property. It sits on a bluff, receiving full sun all summer and is said to have optimal aging conditions.

The other feature of this bourbon is its mash bill, which is somewhat of a mystery. Their website claims that it has a higher percentage of rye than most, but the company won’t reveal the proportions. The Very Old Barton mash bill is known to be 15% rye (75% corn, 10% malted barley). That’s pretty middle-of-the-road for rye content in a bourbon. Most of the known mash bills have a rye percentage in the 11% to 18 % range. The two mash bills used by Four Roses have 20% rye and 35% rye. I’m guessing that two different bourbon mash bills are produced at Barton, the known one for VOB and a higher rye recipe for Ridgemont.

Recalling my impression of this bourbon eight years ago and comparing that to how it tastes now, I can only wonder if it started off being made from the VOB mash bill and was gradually transitioned over to a higher rye mash bill. Such a change would taken time; vatting the two together in varying percentages across several years.

Templeton Rye, Straight Rye, 40%, $37

The nose has slightly sweet fruit aromas and gentle, flowery rye spice notes. On the palate the warm, lingering rye spiciness carries through to the finish with just a hint of sweetness. I found this whiskey to be soft in all aspects except the rye spice. And that spice character is more pervasive than aggressive, resulting in a whiskey that is approachable, albeit with a bit of an edge.

When it comes to catching heat for trying to make someone else’s whiskey look like one’s own, Templeton Rye is probably one of the most well known examples. They’ve been very successful at marketing their product, first in Iowa and shortly thereafter in Chicago; the first major market they entered. That caught the attention, and ire of Chicago based whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery.

First, the story on which Templeton Rye’s successful marking strategy is predicated. The small Iowa town of the same name had a reputation for producing illicit rye whiskey of a very high caliber during Prohibition. The whiskey was eventually nicknamed “the good stuff” and supposedly brought to bigger markets by Al Capone. They even say it was his personal favorite and he had some smuggled into Alcatraz. The tradition of bootleg whiskey continued on in Templeton after Prohibition, and some say it still goes on today.

Scott Bush started Templeton Rye in 2005 to produce a legal version of Templeton’s historic whiskey, which his great grandfather had supposedly once distilled. Bush brought on Keith Kerkhoff as a partner in the business to gain access to his family’s whisky recipe, which had been passed down from Kerkhoff’s grandfather, a prolific Prohibition era distiller.

When they first started selling Templeton Rye, every bit of their marketing material made it sound as if they were producing all of the whiskey themselves, in their tiny Iowa distillery. But red flags quickly began popping up: well-aged whiskey available shortly after the company started, pictures of barrels marked with the company logo and “barrel entry” dates going back years longer than they had been in business, etc.

Before I analyze the truthfulness of Templeton’s current marketing, let’s take a look at where their whiskey actually comes from. There’s a very large distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana that dates to 1847. It became part of Seagram’s in 1933, and then Pernod Ricard acquired it in 2000 when Seagram’s collapsed. Next it was sold on to CL Financial in 2007 and renamed LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). CL fell victim to the financial crisis of 2009 and in 2011 sold the distillery to MGPI, a Kansas based food and alcohol producer.

The distillery had made straight whiskeys for many years, but few people knew that since the whiskeys weren’t sold as such, but rather used as flavoring components in blends like Seagram’s 7. In April of 2006, Pernod Ricard announced that it would close the distillery. Not long after that, they made their existing stocks of straight whiskey available on the open market. Templeton was their first customer, followed very shortly by High West. Instead of being closed, the distillery was sold to CL Financial. That deal was completed in July of 2007. CL had plans to develop their own brands before they folded, but MGPI has chosen to stick with producing and leave brand development to their customers. Brands buying from them now include High West, Redemption, Dickel Rye and Buillet Rye, just to name a few.

I’ve gone back and read quite a few blog posts about Templeton Rye that span the last six years. The owners of Templeton even respond to the criticisms in a few of them and it paints an interesting picture. The rye whiskey made by LDI/MGPI is unique in that it is made up of 95% rye, a much higher proportion than any of the other mass produced American ryes. When Templeton started they were very secretive about who made their whiskey (and no one who was speculating thought of LDI as it wasn’t one of the “usual suspects” at that point). Templeton also went to great lengths to give the impression that all of the whiskey they sold was made in-house, at least to the less informed observer.

Under heavy criticism, Templeton had to admit
pretty early on that they were working with another distillery, and by 2010 they had finally revealed that LDI was the source of their whiskey.

Looking over Templeton’s website today, it doesn’t take long to see that they are still playing fast and loose with the truth though. They do mention their distilling partner in Indiana on one page of the web site, but everywhere else, especially on the fact sheet describing the production process, they still put forth a strong effort to make it sound like the whole process is done in-house.

They claim that their “master distillers utilize the original Kerkhoff family recipe” and that it is “unique for the remarkably high rye content”. These statements are pretty ridiculous. This is the same recipe of rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% malted barley) that many other NDP’s buy from MGPI. Chuck Cowdery has researched the history of that recipe; it was developed by Seagram’s (therefore pre 2000, before Templeton even claims to have started). Creating custom whiskey recipes is part of what MGPI offers today, but that is a fairly recent development. It was certainly not a service offered when the distillery was owned by Pernod Ricard or CL Fiancial. Templeton states (on their website and on the bottle labels) that their recipe is “more than 90% rye”; that’s a great way to introduce plausible deniability, letting the less skeptical believe they may be using a unique recipe. But the real kicker comes from a 2010 Chicago Tribune article about Templeton. In it, Keith Kerkhoff is quoted as saying "The Tax and Trade Bureau requires us to make it at least 51 percent rye. Prohibition whiskey was probably less than that". That’s a pretty big contradiction to the company line.

Templeton is a Straight Rye without an age statement. That means it is at least four years old. For their story of an original recipe coming from LDI/MGPI to be possible, their relationship would have to have been established at least four years before they started selling whiskey. And that is what they claim on their website; that the building blocks of the company were put in place in 2001. They even go so far as to claim that the first batch of 68 barrels was aged entirely in Iowa. This is clearly revisionist history put in place to lend credence to their marketing claims. There is no evidence of Templeton Rye existing as a company before 2005. They didn’t even file to register a trademark on the name until April of 2007. And finally, Chuck Cowdery states that they received their alcoholic beverage producers license in 2005; they could not have taken possession of a single barrel of whiskey without that (I’m doubtful they could have even purchased the whiskey and left it in LDI’s hands without the license).

The interesting thing is that they have been distilling at Templeton since pretty early on (probably starting some time in 2006). But it has always been in miniscule amounts relative to what they sell. The whiskey they make themselves is sold in very limited local releases and is not the same as the mass produced whiskey that is their main product. Actually, they can’t even legally call the limited releases whiskey because even though there’s some rye in the mix, the main ingredient is sugar. That moonshine style recipe is likely a lot closer to the Prohibition era family secret than what they are sourcing from MGPI.

Templeton Rye is a good whiskey. Whether or not it’s worth the price they sell it for is a debatable point. But clearly, everything the company puts out there to promote the product is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Breckenridge, Bourbon, 43%, $40

This bourbon has a pleasantly grainy nose which is full and a little sweet. It’s easy drinking with good flavor development and notable rye spiciness that nicely rounds out the finish. I found it surprisingly well composed for its young age (stated as “a minimum of two years” on the bottle, and two to three years on their info sheets / web site).

I was very impressed upon tasting such a seemingly well made young whiskey. I should have been suspicious instead. Before I get into the details of what I’ve found, I’ll take a quick look at the background of the operation. Breckenridge distillery, located in the ski town of Breckenridge Colorado, was founded in 2008 by Bryan Nolt, a physician turned distiller. He brought on Jordan Via, who was the American Distilling Institute’s Master Distiller, first as a consultant and later as Breckenridge’s Master Distiller.

The bourbon is their flagship product, but they have a full portfolio of distilled goods: vodka, rum, brandy, bitters, several liqueurs, and a malt whiskey that is in the works but needs further aging before it’s released. I’m not sure when they started distilling in earnest, but they opened to the public for tastings and tours in October of 2010, and began distributing their bourbon and their vodka in July of 2011.

When I research an American whiskey that I’m not familiar with there are a few places that I look first. I check a couple of trusted blogs and also search through some whiskey discussion forums (straightbourbon.com in particular). In the case of Breckenridge, what I came up with was troubling because the information was so conflictory. Some said it was sourced whiskey, others said it used to be sourced but no longer was, and there were reports of it being a mix of sourced whiskey and whiskey distilled in-house. Worst of all, most of these statements could be traced back directly to the distillery.

From what I’ve pieced together, it looks like the folks at Breckenridge started off being fairly up front about the bourbon being sourced, but then things changed in 2012. They had embarked on a big marketing push and were trying to increase their distribution dramatically. Their “small distillery” story was a key selling point, and sourced whiskey certainly wouldn’t fit that narrative.

I found references from 2011 stating that they were pretty open on their website about the bourbon being sourced whiskey. By 2012 the web page with that information was still up, but there was no link to it from the rest of their site. Now that page is gone.

What I consider to be the most accurate information comes from someone who posts on straightbourbon.com and visits the distillery about twice a year. The latest information he posted was from April of 2013. At that time he was told (at the distillery) that the bourbon was originally 100% sourced, and then they switched over to blending the sourced whiskey with their own distillate, but they wouldn’t reveal the proportions of the two components. When that switchover happened, they changed the label a little; it went from saying “bourbon” to saying “bourbon whiskey”. He was also told that the bourbon would “eventually” be 100% their own and that another label change would happen to differentiate those bottles.

Interestingly, in June of 2013 one of the bloggers I have a lot of respect for was told by the distillery that their bourbon was still 100% sourced, and that eventually they would blend with their own distillate before transitioning to 100% made in-house bourbon.

Unfortunately, for the last couple of years they’ve also been telling a lot of people that the bourbon they are selling is all made at their Colorado distillery, and most of those statements originate with the company’s owner. One example was a restaurant manager from Atlanta who was fed this story directly by Bryan Nolt in February of 2012. I also found a blog post that called out Breckenridge for sourcing their bourbon. Someone commented with a quote from the distillery owner (it was a recent comment, but I think the quote dated back about a year) where he essentially stated that that they had sourced whiskey in the past, but were no longer doing that. But he also said they occasionally used whiskey distilled elsewhere that was made for them, with their recipe, yeast strain, etc. And finally I came across one more blog post where Bryan Nolt told the writer that most bottles are 100% their own whiskey, but occasionally a batch would require some older, sourced stock. That was in February of 2013.

Adding to the confusion, the bottle carries and age statement of two years, their marketing material says two to three years, and just about a year ago they told a prominent blogger that the age range was two to six years. When the same blogger questioned them about their use of unmalted barley, they told him that statement was a mistake and that they use malted barley. A year later that same information about unmalted barley is still on their website.

Their marketing is based on a few key points (followed by my rebuttals):

They claim to be the highest distillery in the world at 9600 ft.
While distilling at higher elevations has some advantages, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make good whiskey. And just 40 miles away, in Leadville, Colorado, is the Two Guns Distillery, at more than 10,200 ft.

Their water is supposed to come from snow-melt.
Apparently the distillery does have very high quality water. The water also comes off the tap at 38 degrees, and that does make their condenser very efficient. The water may originate from snow-melt, but I came across a newspaper article from 2011 where the distiller stated that it is municipal water and has to be filtered to strip out additives like chlorine and bromide.

They have a unique mash bill (56% corn, 38% rye, 6% unmalted barley).
First there’s the discrepancy that I mentioned above about the unmalted barley. In addition to that, I’ve seen references to the stated mashbill dating back as far as March of 2012, but I also found a youtube interview with their Master Distiller from May of 2012 where he stated the mashbill as being 56% corn, 34% rye and 10% malted barley.

They won an award in 2011 where they scored better than Pappy 23 year.
There are so many spirits awards out there that it is almost comical; most of them are judged by people whose opinions I don’t have much faith in. Much like modern-day school kids, almost everyone in these competitions gets an award and no one has to have their feeling hurt.

They have a custom copper Vendome combination still; the owner says that “Every shape, every bend affects the flavors”.
Reports from last year state that their plans for expansion include the installation of a column still to increase capacity. Not to mention that if they are sourcing as much whiskey as I suspect, then a significant proportion of the whiskey they have been selling would have come from a column still.

Clearly there are some honesty issues with this distillery. I decided to look for some numbers to see if I could draw any conclusions about the percentage of sourced whiskey that is in the bottle. After spending a considerable amount of time Googling, I did come up with some insightful information.

One article said they were one of the first craft distillers to sell more than 12,000 cases in their first year of distribution. I think that was for all of their products, but the bourbon is their focus and I’m sure it accounts for the vast majority of their sales. So let’s say 10,000 cases of bourbon in their first year. At the time, they were distributed in about 18 states. That was before their big marketing push in 2012. Looking at the product locator on their website, they are now in at least 29 states. But more importantly, they are in a massive number of locations in each state. Breckenridge bourbon is a regularly stocked item in 17 different stores in the Binny’s chain alone. And they are in all of the major markets: New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, Florida……

I think it’s safe to say that they’ve easily quadrupled their sales since their first year, so I’m going to estimate at least 40,000 cases last year. Just as a frame of reference, Maker’s Mark was selling 175,000 cases per year in 1994, and 14 years later they had increased sales almost ten-fold.

So, can Breckenridge make that much whiskey? There are two bottlenecks – distilling capacity and warehouse capacity. They were working on expanding both in the spring of 2013 and everything was supposed to be up and running by the fall of 2013. The old warehouse could hold up to 320 barrels and the new one was going to have a capacity of 3700 barrels. Assuming that they’re aging the bourbon for three years on average, the benefits of that expansion are still a few years away. For three years of aging that would give them 100 barrels per year. There are a few variables, but a barrel will typically yield 250 bottles. That would work out to about 2100 cases per year (12 bottle cases). The distillery does have a second warehouse in Denver (that info dates to late 2011), but I could find no information about its size so that is somewhat of a wildcard. To support 40,000 cases per year, the Denver warehouse would have to hold 5800 barrels, which is much bigger than the new warehouse at the distillery and I’d be very surprised if they had something that big.

The twice-a-year visitor to the distillery I mentioned earlier stated that he was told they were going to add a column still to increase capacity. In talking about that expansion, the owner of the distillery said production capacity would go from two barrels per day to 16 barrels per day. Again, with the aging time, that expansion is still a few years away from taking affect. Two barrels per day is about 700 per year. That works out to 44,000 cases per year. Breckenridge does make a lot of other products besides their bourbon, but it’s hard to say how much of the distilling capacity is taken up by those products.

I was really hoping I could come up with a good ballpark estimate of the ratio of sourced whiskey to house-made whiskey in Breckenridge’s bourbon, but without knowing the size of their Denver warehouse there are just too many variables. Their current sales could be a lot higher than my estimate too. Based on what I tasted, it’s my belief that it is a blend of the two, that the two to three years age statement refers to the whiskey they made themselves, and that there is a significant amount of sourced whiskey in the mix that’s in the four to six year age range.

The big story here is that once a distillery goes down the road of telling blatant lies and ends up with a bunch of conflicting information floating around on the web, it becomes hard for the informed consumer to trust anything they say, even if they do eventually start telling the truth.

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