Each week, we bring you the latest whisky news on WhiskyCast. Now, we’ll be bringing it to you as it happens here on our News Updates page!
May 25, 2016 – Most businesses have succession plans in place, and the whisky business is no exception. At Kentucky’s Four Roses Distillery, longtime Master Distiller Jim Rutledge identified Brent Elliott as his likely successor several years before his retirement last September, and Elliott moved seamlessly into the new role. Years earlier, David Stewart did the same with Brian Kinsman at William Grant and Sons, and while Stewart continues to work with The Balvenie in semi-retirement, Kinsman now serves as Master Blender for the rest of the company’s portfolio.
“If he gets hit by a bus or someone accidentally pushes him off a cliff, or what not, then I would take over,” Brendan McCarron says with a laugh shortly before the beginning of an Ardbeg Night event at the Astor Center in New York City. McCarron joined The Glenmorangie Company two years ago, and while his official title is “Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks” – his primary role is to serve as Dr. Bill Lumsden’s understudy and eventual successor. Before joining Glenmorangie, McCarron moved around for eight years within the Diageo system starting at the Burghead Maltings in Speyside, in production and distribution roles in Scotland and the U.S., spent some time as Oban’s distillery manager, and finally moved to Islay to oversee Lagavulin and Caol Ila distilleries and the Port Ellen Maltings.
The University of Strathclyde graduate credits his time at Diageo with giving him a well-rounded education in the whisky business, and credits Lumsden with giving him the freedom to use that education. Both men have similar backgrounds, coming from the suburbs around Glasgow and joining Glenmorangie after working for other Scotch whisky companies. “We have the same sort of want to be innovative and make different whiskies, and that’s why we moved to Glenmorangie…it’s been a really good fit so far.”
Shortly after joining Glenmorangie, McCarron was put in charge of overseeing the development of a set of casks earmarked for one of Glenmorangie’s Private Edition whiskies – this year’s release of Glenmorangie Milsean. The French Oak casks had previously held Portuguese red wine and had been re-charred while still wet with wine, which caramelized the sugars in the liquid and added an extra sweetness to the final whisky. “He didn’t just want me watching him work because you don’t learn as quickly that way, so he threw me into the deep end, told me where the casks were, helped me request the samples, and then I got to do everything from there,” McCarron said.
“I had originally intended the finishing period for this to be around five years,” Lumsden said during a December 2015 interview before the release of Milsean. McCarron had an idea early on that five years would probably be too long. “When I took the first samples at six months, they were already so big and had taken on some really distinctive flavors,” McCarron said, noting that Lumsden let him make the final decisions on cask selection and timing. “I’d still get him to double-check sometimes and get a signoff, but he let me do it the whole way.” After two and a half years, McCarron and Lumsden agreed that the time had come to get that whisky out of the casks before the French Oak influence overpowered the whisky.
McCarron was in New York City this week to help kick off Ardbeg Night festivities going on around the world in connection with Ardbeg’s own celebration this Saturday as part of the annual Islay Festival of Malt & Music. After living on Islay during his Diageo days, McCarron still has a soft spot for the island. “Sadly, I won’t be there this weekend…I wish I was,” he said. Part of his role includes watching over the maturing stocks of Ardbeg, which Glenmorangie purchased in 1997, and for which he oversaw peated malt production while managing Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings. McCarron and Lumsden have been working with Ardbeg Distillery manager Mickey Heads to increase spirit production without sacrificing the quality of the new make spirit. “We’re a one million litre distillery…tiny, and we haven’t been making a million litres ever, but the last two years we’ve managed to do it and I’m really happy with the quality of the spirit.”
McCarron’s designation as Lumsden’s eventual successor could mean a lengthy wait, as the boss is still years away from retirement age. Making whisky requires a lot of patience – something McCarron has a lot of. “The longer (Lumsden) stays, the more guaranteed the success and the future of the two distilleries will be,” he says.
For now, his job as Bill Lumsden’s “right-hand man” is to watch out for any speeding buses.
“Hopefully, I pull him out of the way and we both get away unscathed,” he laughs. “That’s a scary thought…taking a bullet for Bill.”
May 23, 2016 – “The question is…is he a capable leader of WhistlePig, and the answer is yes. Undeniably, uncategorically, yes.”
That’s the way Dave Pickerell, WhistlePig Rye’s master distiller, defends founder Raj Peter Bhakta as he fights a boardroom coup launched by two minority owners in the Vermont-based company. The dispute became public knowledge on Friday when the Burlington Free Press reported Bhakta’s lawsuit in Delaware against board members Christopher Evison and Wilco Faessen seeking to overturn their May 6 vote to oust him as operating manager and from his seat on the company’s board. A third board member, Jose Robledo, was not present at the meeting and is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Pickerell, who owns a small equity stake in the company but was speaking on his own behalf and not for Bhakta or the company, describes Evison and Faessen as a “couple of billionaires trying to kick Raj out” and sell the company over Bhakta’s objections. Pickerell believes the dissident board members have a potential buyer in mind for WhistlePig, while the Donald Trump acolyte and former competitor on Trump’s NBC reality show “The Apprentice” wants to build a “long-term, family-owned business” as noted in the lawsuit. He and his family control around 50 percent of WhistlePig, while Faessen owns 15 percent and Evison represents the Santo Domingo family’s 12 percent interest. However, the Colombian family with an estimated $15 billion fortune is not named in the lawsuit. Bhakta has not responded to our requests for an interview.
In a redacted copy of Bhakta’s lawsuit filed in Delaware Chancery Court, he claims the May 6 vote did not comply with the company’s operating agreement and that Faessen and Evison lacked proper grounds to remove Bhakta. The complaint cites six allegations used to justify the defendants’ move, including Bhakta’s April 2015 arrest for driving while intoxicated, for which he later pled guilty to a reduced charge of “negligent operation of a motor vehicle.” Bhakta claims in the complaint that he was not intoxicated, but was on medication for back pain and tired from traveling when he was stopped in front of his residence. The allegations also include a “secret” agreement to award equity in the company to marketing director Danhee Kim, who later married Bhakta. Bhakta’s attorneys claim the initial failure to advise directors of the move as an oversight, which was later resolved when the board voted to approve the equity award. The defendants also accused Bhakta of smoking marijuana on company premises while conducting company business.
However, the circumstances around that accusation are somewhat hazy, since the WhistlePig distillery is located on Bhakta’s farm and the company leases its buildings from his family. In fact, Bhakta accuses the defendants of trying to pressure him numerous times to transfer ownership of the entire farm to the company. Evison heads the board’s compensation committee, and according to the complaint, has blocked all pay raises for Bhakta since 2013 because of the dispute over ownership of the farm. The complaint also accuses Evison and Faessen of refusing to fund construction of WhistlePig’s distillery until he agreed in principle to sell the farm to the company in early 2015, and the complaint indicates that negotiations on the sale are ongoing – in large part because the defendants threatened in late 2015 to cut Bhakta’s annual salary in half if the transfer was not completed by a specific date.
Evison and Faessen have not responded to our requests for their side of the story, Their attorneys have not yet filed a formal response to Bhakta’s lawsuit, but have asked the court for a “status quo” ruling allowing their vote to remove Bhakta from the board and his position as operating director to stand. The case is being heard in Delaware because WhistlePig Farms, LLC is incorporated in that state.
This story will be updated as necessary.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify that Dave Pickerell was speaking only for himself and not as a representative of Raj Peter Bhakta or WhistlePig Rye, and that Bhakta has not responded to our requests for an interview. We are providing a link to download a PDF file of the redacted court filing. Delaware Chancery Court rules allow parties in a lawsuit to keep confidential certain financial information until three years after the conclusion of a case. As with all civil lawsuits, it should be noted that court filings only present one side’s arguments, and should not be considered as proven facts until argued and ruled upon in court.
May 20, 2016 – The Master Distiller at Whisky Advocate magazine’s reigning Distiller of the Year is departing after 38 years on the job. MGP Ingredients Master Distiller Greg Metze’s resignation was announced in a company news release issued late Friday afternoon.
MGP President and CEO Gus Griffin stated, “We appreciate all that Greg has done for us and the outstanding mentoring he has provided to the next generation of our Master Distillers. We wish Greg the best of luck with any endeavors he may pursue in the future.”
No reason for the departure was announced, and Metze’s final day with the company will be May 31. Metze worked as production coordinator at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery starting in 1978 when it was owned by Seagram’s, and became Master Distiller in 2001 when Pernod Ricard acquired the facility as part of the Seagram’s corporate breakup. He stayed on through three different ownership groups over the last 15 years, with the last four after Kansas-based MGP acquired the distillery in 2012.
Last year, MGP released the first whiskey to be bottled under its own brand, a limited edition blend named Metze’s Select in honor of Metze’s career at the distillery. Metze has been responsible for a number of award-winning whiskies bottled by independent bottlers and other whiskey companies using bulk whiskey distilled at MGP. While the company’s client list is confidential, it is known that Diageo sources the whiskey for its Bulleit Rye and George Dickel Rye from MGP. In addition, High West has used MGP-produced spirit in many of its bottlings, and MGP-distilled whiskey is being used in the new Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey brand owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank while his new distillery is being built in Baltimore.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information. According to an email from Greg Metze, his resignation is effective May 31.
May 20, 2016 – Farms are known for a couple of things…mud and manure, and according to a Vermont newspaper, there appear to be plenty of both flying around WhistlePig Farm, the home of Raj Peter Bhakta’s WhistlePig Rye. The Burlington Free Press reports Bhakta is engaged in a legal dispute with at least two of the minority stakeholders in WhistlePig who voted to remove him from the company’s operations earlier this month.
According to the report by Free Press reporter Dan D’Ambrosio, board members Christopher Evison and Wilco Faessen called a special board meeting in New York City to level six charges against Bhakta with the goal of removing him as operating manager. Bhakta controls three of the six seats on the WhistlePig board and was not present at the meeting, but Evison and Faessen cited language in the company’s bylaws to force Bhakta to recuse himself from voting on the issue because of the allegations against him. With a third board member also absent, the bylaws allowed Evison and Faessen to form a quorum and vote to dismiss Bhakta. Two of the charges stem from Bhakta’s arrest in April of 2015 on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and his later guilty plea to “the criminal offense of negligent operation of a motor vehicle.” The dissident board members also accuse Bhakta of secretly promising an equity stake in the company to marketing director Danhee Kim, whom he later married, and claim that he used marijuana on company property.
Bhakta has filed a lawsuit in Delaware, where WhistlePig is incorporated, seeking to overturn the board’s action and remain in charge of the distillery’s operations until the dispute is tried in court. According to the Free Press, Bhakta denies all of the allegations and in his complaint, called the equity stake award to his future wife a “good faith oversight” that was later ratified by the board of directors. Bhakta has not returned WhiskyCast’s request for an interview, but told D’Ambrosio that Faessen and Evison threatened him in April that they would move against him if he didn’t agree to put WhistlePig up for sale. Bhakta provided the Free Press with a redacted copy of his complaint, which is not available to download through the court’s web site.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Dan D’Ambrosio:
According to the Free Press, Faessen is a managing director at Barclays in New York, personally owns 15 percent of the company, and helped bring in the Santo Domingo family of Colombia, which owns another 12 percent of the company and is one of the largest shareholders in beer giant SABMiller. Faessen also describes himself as a “co-founder” of WhistlePig on his LinkedIn biography, a claim Bhakta disputed during his interview with the Free Press. Evison is a managing director and chief investment officer at New York-based Quadrant Capital Advisors, which oversees the Santo Domingo family’s investments and an estimated $15 billion fortune. Both joined the WhistlePig board at a time when Bhakta needed additional capital to build the company and sold equity stakes that reduced his personal stake in the company to around 50 percent.
Attorneys for Faessen and Evison declined to comment to the Free Press, and they have not filed a response to Bhakta’s lawsuit in the Delaware Chancery Court. WhiskyCast has contacted both men for their side of the story, but have not received a response from either yet.
This story will be updated with additional information as necessary.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information and audio from an interview with Dan D’Ambrosio of the Burlington Free Press. Note that in all civil cases, accusations made in court filings only represent one side’s position and should not be considered as proven facts until ruled upon in court.
May 20, 2016 – It’s hard to write a book about whisky. Make it too elementary so newcomers will understand, and longtime whisky connoisseurs will roll their eyes. Make it too detailed, and the longtime whisky lovers will love it, but you’ll intimidate the newcomers and continue the perception that whisky is too difficult to comprehend. That’s the challenge Michael Dietsch has balanced successfully in his second drinks book “Whiskey: A Spirited Story With 75 Classic & Original Cocktails.” Dietsch covers not only the history of the various types of whisky, but looks at the history of cocktails from Revolutionary War times to the present day, and does it with a lighthearted style that will keep both groups of potential readers engaged.
“There aren’t very many books out there for people who are brand new to the category and don’t know much about whiskey already,” Dietsch said in a telephone interview. “That’s what I wanted to aim the book for…the whiskey category is growing so fast now, as you know, that clearly there are a lot of new consumers coming on board and a book that’s a deep dive into Scotch isn’t necessarily the right thing for them.” Dietsch balances the need to bring those potential future connoisseurs up to speed while providing the right amount of historical context and depth that longtime connoisseurs expect.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Michael Dietsch:
The book features (as might be gathered from the title) 75 recipes for whisky cocktails, starting with the Cherry Bounce that Martha Washington prepared for George Washington’s journeys between the Revolutionary War and becoming the first President of the United States. Award-winning Vancouver mixologist Lauren Mote contributes her recipe for The Acadien, a cocktail that combines Western Canada’s legendary Rye whisky with Eastern Canada’s maple syrup liqueur to, as Dietsch puts it, tell “the history of Canada through a cocktail.”
There’s also a nod to the original recipe for the Mint Julep – without the crushed ice, and while the modern Mint Julep is the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby, this weekend’s Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico had its own bespoke cocktail for many years. The Preakness is a Rye-based cocktail inspired originally by the popularity of locally-distilled Ryes in the Baltimore area, but was eventually replaced by the Black-Eyed Susan as the official cocktail of the Preakness. Perhaps with the resumption of Rye Whiskey distilling at several local distilleries, The Preakness might once again find its way into favor with the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico.
In short, “Whiskey: A Spirited Story With 75 Classic & Original Cocktails” comes highly recommended as not only a guide to whisky’s origins and differences, but old and new ways to enjoy the water of life. The photography by Dietsch and his wife, Jennifer Hess, is outstanding as well. By the way, don’t miss Dietsch’s explanation of the differences between “whisky” and “whiskey” in the beginning…don’t want to spoil it for you.
Editor’s note: This article has a link to purchase the book in the WhiskyCast Bookstore powered by Amazon.com. CaskStrength Media receives a small commission on all sales.
May 19, 2016 – Brent Elliott took over for longtime Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge last September, but he’s still getting used to some of the limelight that shone on his mentor for many years. However, he’s already had one moment that Rutledge never faced.
“It took a lot of convincing for me to be comfortable with it and agree to have my big smiling head on the side of a bottle,” Elliott laughed during a phone interview. His face appears on the bottle of Four Roses Elliott’s Select, a 14-year-old limited-edition single barrel Bourbon to be available at retailers starting in June.
While Jim Rutledge’s face never appeared on a bottle during his 49 years at the distillery, Four Roses released a limited-edition single barrel in 2007 to honor his 40th anniversary at the distillery. In fact, the casks that went into Elliott’s Select were originally destined for blending into a Four Roses Small Batch bottling to honor what would have been Rutledge’s 50th anniversary this year. Rutledge nixed the idea for that commemorative bottling when he announced his retirement, and the unveiling of Elliott’s Select comes just weeks after Rutledge announced plans to build a new distillery near Louisville that will carry his name.
“I had all these samples sitting there like that, and said well, it’s fun looking at those, but we really have nothing to do with them, and then the idea of a possible Elliott’s Select or a commemorative bottle for me came up,” Elliott said, noting that the distillery’s marketing team came up with the idea as a way to introduce him as the new “face” of the distillery. Four Roses stopped the annual spring release of its Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon in 2014 because of inventory demands, but Elliott decided to take another look at the cask samples originally intended for the Rutledge anniversary edition. He found two batches with enough casks to justify doing a single barrel bottling: the 14-year-old OESK recipe and a slightly older OBSK recipe. The only difference between the two is the amount of rye used in the mashbill; OESK is made with 20% rye and 75% corn, while OBSK is made with 35% rye and 60% corn.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Brent Elliott:
After that, Elliott met with the Four Roses marketing team. “If you guys really want to do a Single Barrel to keep it consistent with what we’ve done in the past – a Single Barrel in the spring and a Small Batch in the fall – there is a batch that we can make this happen,” he told them. The casks produced enough whiskey for approximately 8,000 bottles that will carry a recommended retail price of around $125 per bottle. Four Roses has confirmed there are no plans to export Elliott’s Select outside of the USA.
As for that other batch? Elliott admits he went back and forth between the two batches several times before settling on the OESK recipe. He tried blending some of it into the whiskey destined for this fall’s Limited Edition Small Batch release, but says it didn’t play as well with the other recipes in that blend. “It’s still sitting there…about a hundred barrels of it…maybe it’ll find a home.”
Might it be the basis for another release…say, a second edition of Elliott’s Select? Elliott says no, that Elliott’s Select is a one-time only thing, and doubts he has the inventory to do a Single Barrel next year. Then…he pauses. “Now that you’re saying that…I hadn’t really thought about it…it really would work,” and laughs. “So…yeah, there’s hope.”
Tasting notes for Four Roses Elliott’s Select will be available soon at WhiskyCast.com.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information provided by Four Roses that Elliott’s Select will only be sold in the United States.
Links: Four Roses