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August 28, 2015 – The last malt whisky distillery in Scotland’s capital city closed 90 years ago this year when Edinburgh’s Glen Sciennes distillery went under. Now, longtime whisky maker David Robertson and a group of investors have received the green light from Edinburgh Council to move ahead with plans to turn a historic railway building into a malt whisky distillery. The Council-owned Engine Shed building was last used as a cafe and bakery, but Robertson fell in love with the site because it resembles a traditional distillery malting barn.
“There are urban distilleries popping up in a number of distant cities across the world, but it seems very odd to me that the country of whisky’s birth, arguably Scotland, its capital city doesn’t have one…so delighted to try and at least think about putting that right,” Robertson said in a telephone interview. While the Council approved a lease for the distillery project, the backers will still need planning approval and are raising the estimated £2 million ($3.1 million USD) needed to construct the distillery along with a visitors center and event space. Robertson believes the distillery could begin production in mid-2016 if everything goes smoothly, but projects a mid-2017 opening as a more reasonable timetable given the industry’s booming demand for distillery components. “There are a number of suppliers, whether it’s Scottish-based, Continental Europe, or maybe even the States,” Robertson said. “We’re speaking to a number of different suppliers just now, both from a mash tun point of view, a fermentation point of view, and arguably the most important part is obviously the copper stills.”
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s entire interview with David Robertson:
Robertson previously served as distillery manager at The Macallan, and later with Whyte & Mackay in charge of the company’s rare malts portfolio as Innovation Director. He describes the rest of the investor group as “like-mined individuals that are excited about bringing single malt distilling back to the capital city.” While the North British grain whisky distillery has been a fixture on Edinburgh’s west side for decades, the nearest malt whisky distillery is Diageo’s Glenkinchie Distillery in East Lothian.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the audio of our interview with David Robertson.
August 25, 2015 – If two rulings are a trend, then three might be enough to set a precedent…so to speak. Lawyers for Beam Suntory have won their third and final bid to dismiss class-action lawsuits over labeling claims on two of the company’s Bourbon brands. San Diego U.S. District Court Judge Larry Alan Burns dismissed a lawsuit filed in February over the “handcrafted” language used on Jim Beam labels on the grounds that a reasonable consumer would not assume the term meant no machinery was involved in the whiskey’s production. Beam Suntory spokesman Clarkson Hine praised the ruling, noting that “we are pleased with this swift and decisive victory, which ends the last remaining lawsuit against the labeling of our bourbon brands.”
Burns cited similar opinions issued earlier this year by federal judges in dismissing class-action lawsuits against Beam Suntory over the use of the word “handmade” on Maker’s Mark labels. The most recent dismissal also came from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, and was issued last month by one of Judge Burns’ colleagues. In his order dismissing the lawsuit, Burns rejected plaintiff Scott Welk’s argument that machinery could not be used in producing a “handcrafted” Bourbon.
“Welk’s proposed definition of the word “handcrafted” doesn’t fit the process of making bourbon. To make bourbon, grains are ground into “mash” and cooked; then yeast is added, and the mixture ferments; then the mixture is distilled, i.e., heated until the alcohol turns to vapor; then the alcohol is cooled until it returns to liquid form, and transferred to barrels for aging. Fermentation, distillation, and aging are necessary to meet the legal definition of bourbon. Machines, including stills and other equipment, have always been necessary to make bourbon.”
The Jim Beam lawsuit was filed by the Kazerouni Law Group, the same California class-action law firm that filed the unsuccessful Maker’s Mark lawsuit last December. Abbas Kazerounian, the firm’s lead attorney in both cases, responded to the ruling in an email Wednesday. “We are obviously disappointed with the ruling but we have great respect for Judge Burns. Currently we are analyzing Judge Burns’ decision and discussing options with our client,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a response to the ruling from the plaintiff’s attorney, Abbas Kazerounian.
August 17, 2015 – The one remaining secret about Bladnoch Distillery’s future is out. When Australian entrepreneur David Prior announced his plans last month to acquire the Lowlands distillery out of administration and resume production, he said a new master distiller and blender had been hired but could not release the name yet. Now, it’s been announced that longtime Burn Stewart Distillers master blender and distiller Ian Macmillan is leaving the company to join Bladnoch on October 15. Macmillan’s expertise in blending will be useful in the distillery’s plans to bottle some of the aging stocks of whisky distilled before Bladnoch stopped production in 2009.
Macmillan has 40 years of experience in the Scotch Whisky industry, and has been in his current role at Burn Stewart since 1991. He’ll be leaving behind responsibility for Bunnahabhain, Deanston, and Tobermory distilleries (along with Tobermory’s Ledaig peated malts) to oversee the upgrades planned for Bladnoch’s revival. Prior told WhiskyCast earlier this month that he’s planning a substantial investment to upgrade Bladnoch’s aging infrastructure. The distillery was forced into court-ordered administration last year after members of the Armstrong family disagreed on whether to keep Bladnoch as an ongoing business or sell it.
Burn Stewart Distillers has not announced a successor for Macmillan yet. The company is a unit of South Africa-based Distell Ltd.
August 9, 2015 – With distiller Jay Rogers well on his way to recovery from severe burns following the April 24th explosion at Silver Trail Distillery in Hardin, Kentucky, the distillery’s founder wants to thank the global whisky community for the support he and his distillery’s team have received since the tragedy. During an interview Friday at the site of the distillery, which was destroyed when the still failed following a sudden pressure buildup and exploded, Spencer Balentine expressed his thanks.
“Thank your audience for all of the thoughts and prayers,” he said. “Especially, my distilling industry brothers and sisters…I’m still overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, love, and prayers…I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of all you guys…”
Apprentice distiller Kyle Rogers died 17 days after the explosion at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, while distiller Jay Rogers spent two months in the Vanderbilt burn center recovering from severe burns that will leave him scarred for life. During an interview at Balentine’s LBL Moonshine Museum in Aurora, Kentucky, Jay Rogers expressed his desire to return to distilling as soon as Balentine can rebuild and his health permits. While in the hospital, Balentine promoted Jay Rogers to Master Distiller, and said he would have closed Silver Trail permanently had Jay not wanted to continue. Balentine had put his rebuilding plans on hold while Marshall County voters debated a referendum to allow alcohol sales after being dry since Prohibition ended. That referendum was approved last month, and Balentine now plans to build a new distillery in an addition to the former bank building that now houses the museum. Construction is expected to begin within the next several weeks.
In the meantime, Silver Trail has resumed production of its LBL and George Jones Moonshine brands on an interim basis at the M.B. Roland Distillery in Pembroke, Kentucky – about an hour away from Hardin. M.B. Roland owners Paul and Mary Beth Tomaszewski offered the use of their facility for as long as Silver Trail needs it, and held a benefit concert this weekend to raise money for the Kentucky Distillers Association’s “Lifting Spirits” fund to help both Rogers families with medical and other expenses.
“There were many of us talking as soon as the accident occurred as far as how we could help, not only with production, but also with things like this event,” Paul Tomaszewski said. “Both of us got going in the business about the same time…we’re DSP-KY-15010 and he’s 15011, so we’re like…in the sense of business, not just located very closely as far as us being about an hour apart, but as far as how our businesses have moved along over the years.” Other distillers from around the state donated items for a charity auction at the concert, and the KDA organized daily meal deliveries to the Rogers families while Jay and Kyle Rogers were being treated at the Vanderbilt burn center. In fact, there was so much food delivered that the hospital staff became part of the daily lunch routine.
“The funny thing about it…the nurses got to looking forward to that, so when it ended, they hated to see them go,” Balentine laughs. “That was really the bright spot of this whole thing…I didn’t realize how tight an industry it really was, but this really drove it home in spades…the distilling industry looks out for each other.”
This week’s WhiskyCast has an interview with Spencer Balentine and Jay Rogers.
August 5, 2015 – Darek Bell, Andrew Webber, and Amy Lee Bell started Corsair Artisan Distillery in 2008 with a small space in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a single 50-gallon still. Only after Tennessee changed its laws to expand distilling did they open a distillery in their hometown of Nashville in 2008, and by the end of the month, they will have a second distillery open in Nashville with a third planned for next year. The new distilleries are in Nashville’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, and Darek Bell said in a telephone interview that the neighborhood is perfect for Corsair’s unique ethos based not on world domination, but “world funk-ification.”
“We do a lot of funky spirits, certainly a lot of unusual stuff,” he said. “It’s sort of a maker neighborhood, it’s known for having a lot of artists and artisan companies, lots of crafty people, so that seemed like the perfect fit for us.” The first distillery will open later this month with four stills and 2,850 gallons of distilling capacity, along with a tasting room. It will be geared to corn and rye-based whiskey production, while Corsair’s original Nashville distillery will be used for experimental grain projects. The second will open next year with an eye to eventually producing brandy using grapes and wine from Corsair’s Bells Bend Farm vineyard in the Nashville suburbs, which is also home to Corsair’s grain malting and smoking facility. The original Bowling Green distillery is now focused on gin and botanical spirits.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Darek Bell:
Corsair has been highly regarded for its unique recipes distilled from exotic (for distillers) grains such as quinoa and buckwheat, along with a 12-grain (“Insane in the Grain”) Bourbon and various smoked whiskies using regionally-grown hardwoods. While they have produced a number of “hopped” whiskies using fully-brewed beer instead of unhooked “distiller’s beer,” Bell and Webber have been experimenting recently with pecan, black walnut, hickory, and apple-smoked malts using their 2,000 pound smoker at Bells Bend Farm. Their goal is to create around 100 experimental whiskies annually, enter the best in whisky competitions, and then produce the winning whiskies for retail sale.
Corsair was profiled recently in Fast Company magazine as one of the world’s most innovative food and beverage companies. While the company has won a wall full of awards for its whiskies, this is one of the few times business media has recognized craft distilling as innovative. “Panera (Bread) was number one on the list…we were number four, but still just to even be on the list with such an innovative group of companies was a really big deal for us,” he said.
“We’re not trying to dominate the world…we’re just trying to make it a little more interesting…”
Links: Corsair Artisan Distillery
August 5, 2015 – John Teeling is back in the bulk whiskey business, and Dundalk has its first working distillery in nearly a century. The Irish entrepreneur and his partners have fired up the first set of stills at their Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk, Co. Louth, in the former Harp Brewery. The grain whiskey distillery’s three column stills will be able to produce the equivalent of 30 million bottles of spirit a year, while a second distillery for pot still and single malt whiskies will come on line later this month. That distillery will have three copper pot stills and be capable of producing the equivalent of 12 million bottles annually.
Teeling saw the need for additional Irish Whiskey production capacity after selling the Cooley Distillery Co. to Beam Suntory at the end of 2011, only to see the new owners cut off most of Cooley’s bulk whiskey sales in order to use the output of Cooley and Kilbeggan distilleries for its own Irish Whiskey brands. They acquired the former Harp Brewery in late 2013 after Diageo announced plans to close the plant as part of a consolidation of its Irish brewing operations at the Guinness St. James Gate site in Dublin.
Teeling and his partners plan to supply bulk grain whiskey for blending use to many of Ireland’s small distilleries that are now (or will be) producing pot still and single malt whiskies. In addition, the distillery will produce bulk blended whiskies for independent bottlers and retailers in the “private label” market worldwide, which is where Cooley did most of its business under the Teeling group’s ownership.
It should be noted that while the Great Northern Distillery is owned by the Teeling family and former Cooley directors Jim Finn and David Hynes, the Teeling Whiskey Company in Dublin is owned by John’s sons Jack and Stephen and is managed separately from the Dundalk facility.
Links: Great Northern Distillery
July 31, 2015 – Kentucky distillers will sit down with investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s office and other agencies next month to discuss the findings of the investigation into April’s Silver Trail Distillery explosion. The meeting is the latest in several since the April 24 explosion, which killed distiller Kyle Rogers and critically burned his older cousin, Jay Rogers, and follows the release of the investigator’s report earlier this month.
The explosion was ruled accidental, but was blamed on a pressure buildup inside the still that caused it to explode before a pressure relief valve was activated. The valve installed by still maker Revenoor Stills was never rated for industrial use, but was designed specifically for use on home water heaters with a minimum relief setting of 75psi. Revenoor’s Terry Wilhelm told investigators the still was never designed to be pressurized and that welds would pop at 4-5 psi, but the pressure relief valve was installed to “keep the lawyers away.” Silver Trail owner Spencer Balentine and Jay Rogers have filed a lawsuit against Revenoor Stills and Terry Wilhelm over the explosion.
“There is litigation going on, so as far as a ‘what happened and who’s at fault’ standpoint, we shouldn’t comment on that,” Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory said in a telephone interview. “From a ‘what can we do now to make sure this never happens again’…that’s something we’re very clearly interested in.” The KDA brought experts from its member distilleries together with investigators after the explosion to help them learn more about distillery operations, since there are very few safety codes that apply specifically to distilleries. While distilleries are subject to local and state building codes, boiler regulations, and fire regulations, there are no set guidelines for still construction anywhere in the United States. “We’ve seen people who are building their own stills, we’ve seen companies that are building smaller stills, obviously here in Kentucky we have Vendome, which I think personally, they kind of set the bar for still making.” Vendome executives have been invited to attend the meeting, which is still in the process of being scheduled.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Eric Gregory:
While the meeting may not lead to specific safety regulations for distilleries, Gregory sees the process as an ongoing effort. “We’re very fortunate as an industry in Kentucky that – nobody we talked to could remember the last time we had a fatality (before the Silver Trail explosion) at a distillery, in talking with the old-timers…nobody could remember that, but over the years we’ve unfortunately had some fires, weather-related things like that, but the thing is that no matter what has befallen or beset our industry, we’ve learned from it.”
July 30, 2015 – Just two weeks before France’s Glann ar Mor Distillery was scheduled to close in a dispute with French officials over proposed legal standards for “Breton Whisky,” the Donnay family has decided to keep the distillery open after all. As reported last month on WhiskyCast, Jean and Martine Donnay objected to the technical specifications being submitted to European Union officials as part of the protected geographical indicator status sought for “Breton Whisky.” The Donnays had maintained that the specifications would not allow them to produce the whiskies they make at Glann ar Mor, and being forced to remove all references to Brittany and “Breton Whisky” from their bottles would make it economically impossible to stay in business.
While they still object to the current standards, the Donnays said in a statement Wednesday that French officials are willing to revisit the specifications. The Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) manages appellation designations throughout France, and according to the statement, the agency’s general manager has indicated that the technical standards can still be amended – after previously telling them that no changes would be possible. While there is no guarantee that the Donnays will be successful in getting the changes they seek, they say the possibility is promising enough that they will hold off on closing the distillery August 15 as originally planned. However, they do plan to reduce staffing from six employees to four for the present time.
Jean Donnay has proposed what he calls in the statement a “debate” with INAO officials to discuss the “Whisky Breton” designation. No date for that discussion has been set.
July 29, 2015 – A California federal judge has dismissed the class-action lawsuit filed last December accusing Maker’s Mark Bourbon of defrauding consumers with the “handmade” claim on its labels. Judge John Houston used the same argument that a Florida federal judge used in dismissing a similar case against Maker’s Mark in May, ruling that a “reasonable consumer” would not be misled by the claim.
“This Court finds that “handmade” cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning literally by hand nor that a reasonable consumer would understand the term to mean no equipment or automated process was used to manufacture the whisky. Thus, this Court finds plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Lawyers for plaintiffs Safora Nowrouzi and Travis Williams filed the lawsuit in San Diego claiming that the Maker’s Mark label claim violated California state consumer protection laws, and sought to represent all California residents who had purchased Maker’s Mark over the previous four years. Beam Suntory asked Judge Houston to dismiss the case in January, arguing that the Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau’s label approval process created a “safe harbor” protecting Maker’s Mark from claims over label language. The judge rejected that argument based on previous court rulings that the TTB’s process is “informal” compared to other regulatory agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration where the “safe harbor” standard applies.
Abbas Kazerounian of the Kazerouni Law Group led the legal team for the plaintiffs, and is traveling and unavailable for comment. Matthew Loker of the Kazerouni Law Group declined to comment on the ruling or whether an appeal is planned. The firm has a similar lawsuit against Jim Beam pending before another judge in the same court, and lawyers for Beam Suntory submitted Judge Houston’s ruling in the Maker’s Mark case Tuesday as part of their motion to dismiss the Jim Beam case as well. Judge Larry Alan Burns has yet to rule on Beam Suntory’s motion.
In an email, Beam Suntory spokesman Clarkson Hine praised the ruling. “We were confident we would prevail, and we are pleased that the California court terminated this matter at an early stage, much like the Florida case two months ago,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a response to the ruling from Beam Suntory. Judge John Houston’s ruling in the Maker’s Mark case is available to download from our web site.
July 28, 2015 – Investigators with the Kentucky State Fire Marshal’s office have ruled the April 24 explosion at the Silver Trail Distillery an accident, but blame a pressure relief valve as a likely cause of the blast that killed one distiller and critically injured a second. The still was built in 2011 by Revenoor Stills of Yamhill, Oregon, and during an exclusive WhiskyCast interview May 22, Revenoor owner Terry Wilhelm said his stills were not designed to be pressurized. However, Wilhelm told investigators he installs pressure relief valves “to keep the lawyers away” and to serve as a backup in case a clog backs up the still output. According to the investigative report, Wilhelm said welds on his stills would start to crack at 4-5psi (pounds per square inch of pressure) before the pressure valve activated. By way of comparison, a properly-inflated NFL football is filled with approximately 13psi of air.
However, the valve installed on Silver Trail’s still was never designed to be used with a still. The Watts LLL100XL pressure relief valve is designed for use on home water heaters, according to the company’s documentation. That model is set for 210º Fahrenheit, and has a pressure relief range of 75-150psi. The valve is commonly available from plumbing suppliers, and sells for around $22 online, though WhiskyCast was able to find it at a major home improvement store for $12.50. Quoting from the report:
“Being that the still was not designed or intended to be a pressure vessel, a pressure relief valve rated at 150psi appears very excessive.”
Jay Rogers, who survived the explosion but suffered critical burns, told investigators the pot still had been operating at around 202º at the time of the explosion. While the investigation found no signs of a blast wave or propane explosion, the still was blown clear of the building. The copper pot was found about 50 feet away, while the 4″ diameter column landed about 72 feet from the building and the stainless steel access lid for the pot still landed 95 feet away. Jay and Kyle Rogers, who died 17 days later from his burns, had already produced at least three gallons of moonshine that morning with no signs of clogs in the still’s output.
“All indications are that the event directly involved the over pressurization of the still with subsequent failure which resulted in it being propelled out the north end of the structure.”
What caused the pressure buildup inside that still? While the investigation does not list an exact cause, the design of the still uses glass marbles in the column to increase the surface area for condensing water. The report notes that those marbles can also reduce the flow of spirit through the column and increase pressure, especially if the mash inside the still has suspended solids that can clog up flow through the marbles. Silver Trail founder Spencer Balentine has previously told WhiskyCast that was unlikely, since the distillery’s practice is to filter its mash three times to remove any solids before filling it into the still. However, Balentine and Jay Rogers told Deputy Fire Marshal Bill Compton that they had recently found a marble stuck inside a hole in the plate that keeps the marbles from falling out of the still while allowing vapor to rise through the column. They freed the marble by pushing water through the column while tapping the side with a rubber mallet.
In a statement, Balentine said “Basically it verifies that the tower failed due to an internal plate being only tack welded when it should have been welded fully around. This allowed a distilling bean or beans (glass marbles) to clog the product (shine) output hole. This caused an immediate over pressurization which ruptured the still bottom and sent it hurtling through the door.” It should be noted that the Fire Marshal’s report does not mention the welding issues raised in Balentine’s statement.
While there were no links between the distillery’s propane service and the explosion, the report did point out several safety-related issues. The Revenoor still was designed originally to be used with electric heat, though Wilhelm told investigators there were no issues with using propane. However, the burners used on the still were rated for outdoor use only and did not have the safety shutoffs required by building codes for indoor use. In addition, the contractor who installed the burners and propane equipment did not have the proper state license as required by law. That same contractor also repaired a split welding seam in the copper pot still shortly after it was installed at Silver Trail, but the repair work was not considered to be related to the April 24 explosion.
While the Fire Marshal’s report ruled the incident an accident, Silver Trail and Jay Rogers have already filed a lawsuit against Terry Wilhelm and Revenoor Stills for civil damages, and Spencer Balentine is asking state prosecutors to present the case to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.
In an August 9 email, Terry Wilhelm declined to comment on the Fire Marshal’s findings.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on August 9 to include a response from Terry Wilhelm of Revenuer Stills, along with our finding the Watts pressure relief valve selling at a lower retail price than originally cited in this story. The May 22 telephone interview we conducted with Terry Wilhelm of Revenoor Stills was cited in the Fire Marshal’s report and is included in the exhibits that are included in the case file. We have also provided a link to download the report from our web site, and the report is also available at the State Fire Marshal’s web site.