Each week, we bring you the latest whisky news on WhiskyCast, but a lot can happen during the week. Now, you can keep up with whisky news as it happens here on WhiskyCast.com!
May 15, 2022 – Police Scotland is investigating an overnight break-in at the Glenfarclas Distillery visitors centre. According to the distillery, the burglars smashed display cases and stole a bottle of 60-year-old single malt along with a number of Family Casks releases valued at more than £100,000.
In an Instagram post, the distillery asked anyone who may be offered these bottles in a private sale to contact them.
Police have not disclosed whether any cameras were operating at the distillery that might have captured images of the break-in.
This story will be updated with more information as available.
April 29, 2022 – Pernod Ricard is planning major expansions at its Aberlour and Miltonduff distilleries in Scotland. The two Speyside distilleries will receive a total of £88 million ($110 million USD) in upgrades that will increase production by 14 million liters of alcohol annually.
In a news release, the company’s Chivas Brothers unit unveiled plans for an all-new still house at Aberlour, along with a new visitors center to replace the tiny shop at the distillery’s main gate. The distillery’s production will be doubled to nearly eight million liters of alcohol each year using sustainable distilling technology as part of the company’s goal to reach net zero carbon emissions at its distilleries by 2026.
Miltonduff, known as one of the “fingerprint” malts used in the Ballantine’s blends, will see an all-new distillery built adjacent to the existing distillery. The new distillery will have an annual capacity of 10 million liters of alcohol, which Chivas Brothers expects to use in fueling continued sales growth for Ballantine’s worldwide.
In a statement, Chivas Brothers CEO Jean-Etienne Gourgues said “this expansion will allow us to increase our volume to capitalise on the increased demand and interest in Scotch, but also supports our drive to reduce emissions in line with our sustainability ambitions. We’re once again betting big on the future of Scotch so we can bring in new consumers to the category and continue to shape a sustainable future of whisky.”
Both projects are expected to be completed by mid-2025.
Links: Chivas Brothers
April 27, 2022 – Groundbreaking is expected in June for Heaven Hill’s return to distilling in Bardstown, Kentucky. The family-owned distiller plans to build a $135 million dollar distillery in Bardstown. When it opens in 2024, the distillery will make Heaven Hill’s first whiskey in Bardstown since the historic 1996 fire that destroyed the Shapira family’s original distillery.
The announcement comes after Tuesday night’s approval of zoning changes for the site by the Nelson County Planning Commission. The distillery will be built on a 61-acre vacant piece of land just east of Bardstown Community Park along Highway 245, just west of the proposed Kentucky Owl Park development. This represents a shift away from Heaven Hill’s main campus on Loretto Road southeast of Bardstown, home to the company’s main bottling facility and maturation warehouses along with the newly-expanded Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience visitors center.
The new distillery will complement Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, which the company acquired after the 1996 fire and has used as its main production facility for more than 20 years. That distillery produces approximately 1,300 barrels of whiskey each day, but has little room for future growth.
“We’ve been planning for this for years, what the expansion process looked like for American whiskey long-term, and we found that Bernheim, which is more or less landlocked based on three or four expansions there, just could not contain the space that we needed to continue to expand and grow our American whiskey portfolio,” Heaven Hill spokesman Josh Hafer told WhiskyCast Thursday.
“We take great pride in being a part of the Bourbon Capital of the World,” Hafer said. “It’s where we were founded…our old distillery, our bottling operations, and a disproportionate amount of our team members are there in Bardstown and Nelson County, and so it was important for us to have this homecoming to Bardstown with this distillery because it plays such a big role in our success,” he said.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Josh Hafer of Heaven Hill:
“For them to return, I think it demonstrates a very strong amount of confidence with our community that we can deliver the infrastructure that they need, the people that are available for employment, and there’s a level of trust that comes with that as well,” Bardstown Mayor Dick Heaton told WhiskyCast. “We weren’t the only community considered for the project…I know there were at least three other counties and county seats of those counties like Bardstown is for Nelson that were looked at by Heaven Hill and their team in making their decision, so I think that sends a message that we are the Bourbon Capital of the World. It’s not just something we talk about, but we have earned that reputation,” he said in a telephone interview. Heaton called the $135 million dollar project the largest single economic development project in the town’s history.
The project has also been approved for $1.5 million in economic development incentives by the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority on March 31. According to Heaven Hill’s application for those incentives, the new distillery is expected to create 25 new jobs when it opens and increase to 38 jobs over a ten-year period. That goes along with the company’s plans to start with an annual production capacity of 10 million proof gallons of spirit and eventually expand production to as much as 30 million gallons per year.
As of now, there are no plans to build maturation warehouses at the site. Instead, the distillery’s output will be matured at Heaven Hill’s existing warehouse sites located around the Bardstown area, including the old Schenley warehouses adjacent to the distillery site. There are also no immediate plans for a visitors center at the site, though Hafer said the distillery might one day be part of tours originating at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience.
Editor’s note: This story was updated following an interview with Heaven Hill’s Josh Hafer.
Links: Heaven Hill
February 16, 2022 – Hans Island sounds like the name of the villain in a James Bond movie, but it’s actually more like a lair for a Bond villain. It’s a small island in the North Atlantic on the border between Canada and Greenland, and has been the subject of a low-key diplomatic dispute between Canada and Denmark for decades.
Both sides claim sovereignty over Hans Island, but the dispute escalated in 1984 when Canadian soldiers “invaded” the island, planted the Maple Leaf flag, and left behind a bottle of Canadian Whisky. Denmark’s minister for Greenland followed up on that visit with a mission of his own to replace the Canadian flag with Denmark’s and the whisky with a bottle of schnapps. Ever since then, the two sides have regularly visited Hans Island to re-stake their claim to ownership while diplomats have tried and failed to come up with a resolution.
Now, Denmark’s Stauning Distillery is upping the ante. It’s one of nine whisky distillers in Denmark, and is threatening to stop production unless both sides come to an agreement.
“We don’t care who actually gets what, or if there’s a line down the middle or if it’s owned for half of the year or whatever the solution is, but it’s more the symbol of not being able to agree to something,” says Stauning’s Rasmus Bendtsen. He describes both countries as “peace-loving” and the conflict as calm, but with climate change increasing the potential for mineral exploration on Hans Island, he said in a Zoom interview that now is the time to resolve the dispute.
“Even as it is charming, what would happen if one day, one of the nations came and found a bottle of vodka, or mezcal, or Champagne or anything else, because now with climate change, the whole region will become much more important,” he said.
Watch Mark Gillespie’s interview with Rasmus Bendtsen:
Bendtsen and his colleagues are threatening to stop production on World Whisky Day (May 21), and want other distillers to join them in a #WhiskyPeace movement. They have offered the use of the distillery as a place for negotiations between Canadian and Danish diplomats. Bendtsen and his colleagues have already been invited to the Canadian Embassy in Copenhagen, where they were told that the Canadian government endorsed their calls for a resolution and told them talks remain active between the two countries. However, they have not heard yet from their own government.
Ironically, the Danes have never left a bottle of Stauning or any other Danish whisky on Hans Island. That’s because when the dispute started, there were no active whisky distilleries in Denmark.
Updated February 2, 2022 – Heaven Hill is expanding its portfolio to include “craft” whiskey brands such as FEW Spirits, Widow Jane, and Brenne with its acquisition of Samson & Surrey. The craft producer has been one of the fastest-growing spirits companies in the industry since it was founded by industry veterans Robert Furniss-Roe and Juan Rovira five years ago, and will operate as a standalone unit within the Shapira family’s Heaven Hill Brands.
“This is actually right in our wheelhouse of what our strategy is, both currently and long-term,” Heaven Hill president Max Shapira said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve been looking to premiumize our portfolio for a number of years and have worked hard with brands like Elijah Craig, Parker’s Heritage, with our Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond series, and that’s taken us a good long way toward that step, but we’re always looking for something additional to that. This group of brands fits absolutely, squarely in the premium to luxury section of the business,” he said, disclosing that the company will also use Samson and Surrey to develop other spirits brands and may move some of Heaven Hill’s existing brands into the unit.
In addition to the FEW, Widow Jane, and Brenne brands, the deal also includes Philadelphia Distilling’s Bluecoat Gin, Tequila Ocho, and Mezcal Vago. Heaven Hill will also acquire the FEW Spirits Distillery in Evanston, Illinois, Widow Jane’s distillery in Brooklyn, New York, and Philadelphia Distilling’s distillery along with the company’s other production facilities. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Shapira said key Samson and Surrey team members like FEW founder Paul Hletko and Widow Jane master distiller Lisa Roper Wicker will remain with the company.
“Over the last five years we have enjoyed unprecedented success thanks to the talents of our team, the truly remarkable award-winning liquids we make, and the engaging consumer stories we tell. The combined talent, scale, and resources of Heaven Hill now present a unique opportunity to provide a long-term home for Samson & Surrey and to further accelerate our growth,” Furniss-Roe said in a statement. The unit will operate in a similar fashion to Heaven Hill’s Texas-based Deep Eddy Vodka brand, which has its own brand and sales teams while sharing back-office functions with Heaven Hill headquarters offices in Louisville and Bardstown, Kentucky.
The acquisition is the first for Heaven Hill since its 2019 purchase of Black Velvet Canadian Whisky and the Black Velvet distillery in Lethbridge, Alberta from Constellation Brands.
Editor’s note: This story was updated following an interview Wednesday morning with Heaven Hill president Max Shapira.
January 29, 2022 – Sales of “private selection” barrels by distillers in Kentucky have become popular choices for retailers, bars, restaurants, and even whiskey clubs. However, it turns out that those sales actually violate state liquor regulations in Kentucky, and perhaps even at the federal level. It’s not because sales by the barrel are specifically banned, but because the process of selecting those barrels violates a number of state regulations.
Kentucky’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board enforces the state’s regulations, and has issued informal guidance to that effect, according to Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory. “Right now, the ABC has given us a grace period, if you will, to work with us while the Legislature is in session to get that fixed,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s not a want…that’s a need, and we’ve gotta get that done,” he said, citing support from the groups representing liquor wholesalers and retailers for reforms.
The process of selecting a barrel usually involves tasting samples from multiple barrels during a customer’s visit to a distillery, and that is where the legal issues begin to build up. State regulations do not make any difference between “trade” visitors to a distillery and consumer visitors to that distillery’s visitors center, and the regulations limit the amount of samples to 1.75 ounces per visitor per day. In addition, regulations also limit the amount of whiskey an individual customer can buy at a distillery to one nine-liter case per day. Once again, that doesn’t allow for the sale of an entire barrel of whiskey to a single customer, since that barrel could yield 200 bottles or more in what would be counted as a single purchase.
A spokesperson for ABC Commissioner Allyson Taylor told WhiskyCast in an email that “there are no laws or regulations related to private barrel selects so we are working with KDA, lawmakers, and others in the industry to solidify the legality of these activities.” She was not specific about the issues Gregory raised in terms of sampling and sale limits.
Private barrel selections can be critical for retailers trying to set themselves apart from their competitors. Westport Whiskey & Wine in Louisville has been among the most active participants in private barrel programs with more than 60 barrel picks, and owner Chris Zaborowski says the loss of that opportunity would have a critical impact on his business. “Just to use a conservative number, if that’s around $8,000 a barrel, that’s a fairly impactful number, almost half a million dollars in sales.”
While the Kentucky ABC’s opinion applies only within the Commonwealth, it could have nationwide implications. Not only do Kentucky distillers sell private barrels to customers in other states, but similar restrictions on sampling and sales exist in most of the states with craft distillers. As of now, regulators in other states have not moved to block private barrel selections, but the Kentucky decision could set a precedent.
There is also a potential issue at the federal level as well. Kentucky’s opinion also cited the potential violation of the state’s “tied house” regulations banning distillers from offering anything of value to retailers, based on the exclusive nature of a private selection barrel not available to other retail competitors. In addition, when consumers purchase an entire barrel of whiskey from a distillery, the bottles are shipped through a wholesale distributor to the retailer of the consumer’s choice, and Gregory says that compliance with the “three-tier system” also is seen as a violation of tied house restrictions. Similar bans exist in federal regulations enacted after the end of Prohibition to keep distillers from having undue influence over the retail sector. Gregory indicated that the KDA is working with federal regulators to address the issue.
“It’s not quite a problem in search of a solution, or a solution in search of a problem, it’s just a case of getting the language cleaned up so no one can create a problem,” Zaborowski said. “It’s a point of distinction for us, and to turn that switch off would be devastating for our business,” he said in a telephone interview.
State lawmakers are currently in session at the state Capitol in Frankfort, with the current legislative session scheduled to run through mid-April. “We’re urgently seeking a resolution in the Legislature, and it’s going to have to have an emergency so as soon as it’s signed by the Governor — if we’re fortunate enough to get it passed — it would take effect immediately and we wouldn’t miss a beat on private barrel sales,” Gregory said.
Gregory doesn’t want to think about the alternative.
“It would be a big impact on the distillers, but more importantly, it would be a big impact on retailers and consumers,” he said.
While the needed changes appear to have strong support and would be relatively simple to enact, Zaborowski is reminded of the constant threat that hangs over any piece of proposed legislation: the so-called “Christmas Tree” effect.
“It’s what gets tacked on to an easy bill that could make the bill more difficult,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the only real fear that I have, because Kentucky still has a large percentage of dry counties and a lot of these legislators don’t like dealing with alcohol bills because, you know…it’s sinful.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated with comments from a spokesperson for Kentucky ABC Commissioner Allyson Taylor.
By Mark Gillespie
December 18, 2021 – The recovery from last weekend’s devastating tornadoes in Western Kentucky and four other states could take months, but Bourbon lovers are hoping to help make some of the burden easier…not with their whiskey, but with their money and their hearts. An online auction of whiskies, experiences, and other memorabilia has already raised more than $1 million in bids in less than 48 hours.
“To be honest with you, that was the goal for the entire auction,” says whiskey writer and podcaster Fred Minnick, who organized the auction along with the Bourbon Crusaders and the Kentucky Distillers Association. “We had no idea that people would bid so quickly and often…and big,” he said in a telephone interview Saturday.
As of Saturday afternoon, the highest bid received so far was $149,100 for an entire barrel of vintage Four Roses Bourbon to be selected by the winning bidders from a group of barrels between 17 and 24 years old in a private tasting with Master Distiller Brent Elliott. High-bid items also include a chance to pick a barrel of Angel’s Envy Bourbon to be bottled at cask-strength by the distillery, with the current high bid at $85,000, along with a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 23-year-old Bourbon donated by Julian Van Winkle III at $23,000.
The auction concludes Tuesday evening at 10:00pm EST following a live online auction for those and other selected items to be streamed on Minnick’s YouTube channel. Proceeds from the auction will go to the Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund established by the office of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Fred Minnick:
“We saw the Bourbon community in auction, but we also saw people kind of pulling their resources together knowing it’s for something special,” Minnick said. “Some of it is about the bottles and the experiences, but I think this is just showing how big the heart of the Bourbon community is and it’s a community that has always given back…this hit us hard in Kentucky, and this is people showing up for Kentucky.”
The auction is being held at KYBourbonBenefit.com, and offers the ability to make direct donations to the relief effort as well. Auction items also include a variety of Scotch and other whiskies donated by distilleries, whiskey barrel furniture, and ticket packages for various whiskey festivals around the United States.
Editor’s note: The signed bottle of Angel’s Envy Bourbon shown in this story was donated by the author.
October 24, 2021 – Striking Heaven Hill workers are putting away their picket signs and preparing to return to work this week after ratifying a new five-year contract Saturday. 420 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23-D had been on strike since September 11 at Heaven Hill’s main maturation and bottling facilities in Bardstown, Kentucky. According to Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey, workers who test negative for Covid-19 will return on Thursday morning after the company does a deep cleaning of the Bardstown facilities and vehicles.
In an interview with WhiskyCast, Aubrey said the federal mediator assigned to the dispute contacted him last Wednesday night and asked for a negotiating session the next morning. That session lasted more than 12 hours and ended with a tentative agreement presented to workers Saturday for ratification. Aubrey acknowledged that his members were split on whether to accept the new contract, but that the vote passed with a significant margin of support.
The union’s key goal was to prevent Heaven Hill from assigning workers to shifts on Saturdays or Sundays, and the new contract maintains the current Monday-Friday work week for current employees while allowing Heaven Hill to assign new workers to weekend shifts.
“Heaven Hill kind of bit themselves, because (CEO) Max Shapira sent a letter to all the workers about the traditional/non-traditional language…his personal letter had more info and more concrete language than the proposal that the company was trying to come back to the union,” Aubrey said. “Once we explained it to the members, I think they realized that they are in a safe haven…there is language in there now that states that they will absolutely not unless volunteered or taking a rated position be forced onto that non-traditional (schedule),” he said.
In previous negotiations with other distilleries, the union’s goal has been to protect benefits working conditions for future employees as well as current ones. Aubrey said this does not go against that goal, since potential employees will know before they join the company that they could be assigned to weekend shifts.
Heaven Hill executives issued a statement thanking union members for ratifying the new contract.
“We look forward to welcoming our team members as we transition back to normal operations. The agreement continues Heaven Hill’s long-standing commitment to its team members with industry-leading health care, wage growth and increased schedule flexibility.”
Workers will receive a pay increase of up to $3.09 per hour over the five-year life of the contract, along with maintaining current levels of overtime. The contract also calls for additional company contributions to health insurance and 401(k) retirement plans, along with an increase in paid holidays and vacation benefits.
Both sides will now try to repair damaged relationships following the six-week strike, which led to at least one court hearing, a National Labor Relations Board complaint, and the beginnings of a social media-fueled boycott movement targeting Heaven Hill whiskies after the company declared an impasse last week and announced plans to hire replacement workers.
Aubrey compared the management-labor relationship to a dysfunctional family.
“There’s times where you’re not going to agree with everything, you’re not gonna see eye to eye, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. The local union and Heaven Hill before this, had always had a great relationship…we’ve always worked well together. The last few weeks was just one of those situations that we just didn’t see eye to eye,” he said.
WhiskyCast has requested an interview with Heaven Hill executives. This story will be updated with additional information as necessary.
Editor’s note: This story was updated following our interview with UFCW Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey.
October 22, 2021 – After nearly six weeks of picketing, accusations, and counter-accusations, a tentative agreement has been reached between Heaven Hill Distilleries and Local 23-D of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Union members will vote on the five-year contract tomorrow. The agreement followed Heaven Hill’s announcement earlier this week that it would begin hiring replacements for 420 striking workers after declaring an impasse in contract talks. In addition, there has been a growing backlash against the company on social media since that announcement with calls for a boycott of Heaven Hill’s brands, including the popular Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons.
While specifics of the contract have not been publicly released ahead of the ratification vote, Heaven Hill’s statement indicated that it “continues Heaven Hill’s long-standing commitment to its team members with industry-leading health care, wage growth and increased schedule flexibility.” Heaven Hill had hoped to achieve its goal of expanding production to seven days a week at its main maturation and bottling facilities in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Union negotiators had fought strongly against the proposal to add weekend shifts to what has traditionally been a Monday-Friday work week, and 96 percent of the striking workers voted against the company’s final offer before the strike began on September 11.
However, the Local 23-D executive committee unanimously recommended today that its members approve the new contract. In a statement issued by the UFCW, Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey thanked local residents who supported the striking workers.
“UFCW Local 23D has reached a fully recommended tentative agreement with Heaven Hill on a five-year contract. With the strong support of the Bardstown community, these hardworking men and women have been standing together for more than a month to protect these good Kentucky jobs that their families have counted on for generations. Heaven Hill workers will make their voices heard tomorrow when they vote on this tentative agreement.”
WhiskyCast has requested interviews with union leaders and Heaven Hill executives. This story will be updated with additional information.
By Mark Gillespie
September 21, 2021 – Like other spirits companies, Pernod Ricard has been nibbling at the edges of the e-commerce business with in-house platforms. Now, the number-two spirits producer is taking a shark-sized bite with a deal to acquire London-based retailer The Whisky Exchange from founders Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh. The brothers entered the retail business 22 years ago with a single shop in London, and have expanded over the years to become one of the world’s leading online retailers of whiskies and other spirits while opening two additional locations in London.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition includes the online and physical retail operation, the Speciality Drinks distribution unit, and the Whisky.Auction online auction site, along with the annual Whisky Show events produced by The Whisky Exchange. In addition, Pernod Ricard will also acquire ABV Global, which produces the London Cocktail Week, London Beer Week, and London Wine Week events.
Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh will stay on following the acquisition as joint managing directors, but will be splitting their time managing the remaining assets not included in the deal. That includes their new distillery currently under construction on Islay, along with the Elixir Distillers independent bottling unit and Speciality Brands, the UK importer for whiskies from Amrut, Kavalan, Waterford, Corby, Michter’s, and other spirits.
In a statement emailed to WhiskyCast, Sukhinder Singh cited the growth of the whisky industry worldwide as a critical reason for their decision to seek a partner. “The last few years in particular have brought about a period of rapid growth that has highlighted the need for us to bolster our experience, resource and infrastructure to deliver the next stage of business development, and we’re excited to have agreed this deal with Pernod Ricard to help achieve this. Myself and my brother Rajbir are looking forward to remaining at the helm of the business and helping drive future growth for the global drinks industry,” he said.
Pernod Ricard has been operating its own e-commerce unit in countries where it’s allowed to do so. The Paris-based company acquired Uvinium in 2018 and has since rebranded it as Drinks & Co. with online sales in 10 European countries. In 2019, it acquired Bodeboca, Spain’s largest online wine and spirits retailer, and continues to operate it separately from the Drinks & Co. Spanish web site. In addition, it sells whiskies through the web sites for its Jameson, Redbreast, and Chivas Brothers brands where allowed by local laws.
Pernod Ricard CEO Alexandre Ricard expects to use the knowledge the Singhs have developed in selling whiskies and other spirits worldwide through The Whisky Exchange’s online site, including their experience in shipping to the United States. “E-commerce is a key channel in our long term strategy. We are thrilled to work with industry pioneers such as Sukhinder, Rajbir and the whole team to bring The Whisky Exchange to a new step of its development,” Ricard said in a statement.
Listen to this weekend’s episode of WhiskyCast for more details on this story, including an interview with Sukhinder Singh.