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!
December 13, 2018 – The world’s largest whisky producer is planning to expand yet again in Kentucky, as Diageo plans to invest $130 million over the next three years to build a new distillery and warehousing complex in Lebanon, Kentucky to produce Bourbon and American whiskies. The announcement comes after today’s approval of a $2.5 million economic development incentive package from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority, based on projections that the facility will create 30 new full-time jobs when it opens in 2021.
Four years ago, Diageo did not have a single distillery in Kentucky – just the long-closed Stitzel-Weller Distillery on Louisville’s west side where it used the distillery’s warehouses to mature stocks of its sourced whiskies and the old barrels dating back to the United Distillers days of the early 90’s. Last year, Diageo began production at the $115 million Bulleit Distilling Company distillery in Shelbyville and will open a $10 million Bulleit visitors center there next summer. The existing Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience opened in 2014 at Stitzel-Weller will be re-branded as the “Stitzel-Weller Whiskey Experience” and focus on Diageo’s other Bourbon and American whiskey brands, including Blade & Bow, I.W. Harper, the Orphan Barrel range, and Seagrams 7 Crown.
“Bourbon and American whiskey are vibrant and growing categories and we are excited to expand Diageo’s footprint in Kentucky to support our ambitions in this space,” Diageo North America Senior Director of Federal Affairs and Whiskey Barry Becton said in a statement announcing the plan. The project is also receiving support from the Marion County Industrial Foundation and the City of Lebanon. Marion County is already home to the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto and the Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon.
The distillery is expected to be built on the south side of Lebanon on a plot of land currently owned by the Marion County Industrial Foundation along Adam Hughes Memorial Highway/State Highway 2154. According to a Diageo spokesperson, the timetable calls for the sale of that site to close in late January. Assuming permitting goes as expected, construction of the distillery, a dry house for spent grains, and warehousing should begin early this summer. The distillery will have the capability of producing whiskey for use in Bulleit Bourbon, along with “current and future American Whiskey brands for Diageo.”
Diageo declined to make company executives available for interviews, and Marion County officials have not returned our requests for interviews. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information provided by a Diageo spokesperson on the distillery’s construction timetable.
December 10, 2019 – A split between longtime partners is shaking up the 2019 calendar for whisky festivals in the United States. Paragraph Publishing, the owners of the Whisky Live brand along with Whisky Magazine, is working on new dates and venues for its events after splitting with Chicago-based Tasting Promotions LLC. The company owned by Dave Sweet had held the licensing agreement for rights to the Whisky Live brand in the U.S. and Canada since 2013, but that agreement expired after the Whisky Live Los Angeles festival in October.
Now, Sweet and his new partners are taking those shows and re-branding them under the “Whiskey and Barrel Nite” brand, with the first event scheduled to be held at New York City’s Metropolitan Pavilion on February 27, 2019. Sweet’s new “Spirits Marketing & Events, Inc.” also plans 2019 events in Los Angeles, Chicago, New Jersey, Louisville, and Pleasanton, California – using the same venues that had previously hosted Whisky Live. However, specific dates have not yet been confirmed for those events.
“We have run the shows entirely through our company, so we are rebranding our shows and expanding the shows,” Sweet said in an interview for the latest episode of WhiskyCast. “After 15 years of running the events and running the magazine for a half-dozen years, it was just time to go on different paths and different directions. We wish Paragraph all the best,” he said. Sweet and his partners plan to keep 80 to 85 percent of the new shows focused on whiskies, while allowing for more barrel-aged spirits that have a natural link because of their use of ex-whisky barrels.
Paragraph Publishing commercial director James Houlder declined to comment on the end of the relationship with Sweet’s organization in an email, other than to describe it as a “sensitive issue” and confirm that the company has no connection to the “Whisky and Barrel Nite” events. The company is currently working on plans for a new Whisky Live New York in May, along with events in Washington, DC in September and Chicago in October. Dates and venues are being worked out now, and Houlder hopes to have more details available soon.
The split ends a long relationship between Sweet and Paragraph Publishing that began in 2007, when he first licensed the Whisky Live brand for his whisky events at regional Highland Games in Illinois, Texas, and California. At that time, Paragraph was producing its U.S. events in-house using hired event planners, and eventually hired Sweet’s company to take over that role. Sweet also became the company’s U.S. representative responsible for Whisky Magazine ad sales and marketing, a role he held until the end of 2017.
In 2013, Tasting Promotions took on the franchise for the Whisky Live brand in North America, making Sweet’s company responsible for all aspects of producing the festivals. Unlike most other local and regional whisky festivals, the Whisky Live brand is owned by Paragraph Publishing and licensed to independent event promoters for specific countries. For instance, the highly successful Whisky Live Paris held each September is owned by French whisky retailer and distributor La Maison du Whisky, which licenses the exclusive rights to use the Whisky Live brand from Paragraph for France and its territories. Whisky Live London is the only show currently produced in-house by Paragraph, though the company indicates that it will produce the three new U.S. events in-house.
The change may not have a major impact on the already-crowded whisky festival schedules in New York City and Chicago – the only two markets where Whisky Live and Whiskey and Barrel Nite will compete head-to-head in 2019. Last month, the Jewish Whisky Company announced plans to mothball its series of “Whisky Jewbilee” festivals in 2019 in order to focus on expanding its Single Cask Nation independent bottling business. The first Whisky Jewbilee was held in New York City in 2012, and later expanded to include events in Chicago and Seattle. New York City and Chicago also both host Whisky Advocate magazine’s WhiskyFest events and the Independent Spirits Expo, while each city also has an extensive calendar of local whisky tastings and events.
Editor’s note: WhiskyCast’s Mark Gillespie previously served as the U.S. contributing editor for Whisky Magazine, and worked with both Dave Sweet and the UK-based Paragraph Publishing team in that role.
December 7, 2018 – After three years of starts and stops because of funding and health issues, construction of the J.W. Rutledge Distillery is likely to begin in 2019. Bourbon Hall of Fame member and longtime Four Roses master distiller and Jim Rutledge and his partners have settled on a site near La Grange, Kentucky northeast of Louisville in Oldham County, and are working on the final phase of raising $10 million in capital for the project.
“We hope to be there by early 2019…I don’t think we’ll make it by this year,” Rutledge said in a telephone interview with Mark Gillespie for the latest episode of WhiskyCast. “In addition to the $10 million, we’re making arrangements to secure a low-interest USDA loan for $12 million…between the two, we should be getting started late winter, very early spring at the latest,” he said, while noting that there is still room for potential investors to join the project.
Ironically, a recent meeting with potential investors led to news of the project’s status getting out before Rutledge and his team were ready to go public. The North Carolina-based architectural firm for the project issued a news release after presenting their concepts to potential investors, and Louisville Business First reported on the status Tuesday. Rutledge told WhiskyCast the preliminary release may have cost them a chance to qualify for economic development incentives, but also said it led to additional investors coming forward. “Things happen, and when they do, they do…and if it first tastes like lemons, then see what you can do to turn it into lemonade, and that’s what we’ve done, I think,” he said.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s complete interview with Jim Rutledge:
Rutledge’s partners in the distillery are Stephen Camisa, Jon Mowry, and Will Conniff. Camisa and Mowry are partners in Louisville’s Bedford & Grove law firm, and have worked with Rutledge dating back to his days at Four Roses. Conniff is the newest partner in the venture, and has been working as a consultant since retiring from Southern Wine & Spirits in 2016. The partners have been working with Venture First in Louisville to find additional investors for the project, but plan to maintain majority control. “We don’t really want one or two investors coming in and acquiring more than 50 percent, and for example, telling us to run some blackberry-flavored Bourbon,” Rutledge said with a laugh.
Once the funding is complete, Rutledge said there are still a lot of pieces that have to come together. The likely site on 183 acres of farm land in Oldham County still needs to be re-zoned from its current agricultural status for use as a distillery, and Rutledge says water and natural gas lines would need to be extended to the site as well. Plans include a biomass digester to convert distillery waste into methane gas for fuel, along with a geothermal heating and cooling system. The firms of Luckett & Farley and pod architecture + design are providing engineering and architectural services for the project. Louisville-based Luckett & Farley has extensive distillery experience with work on many of Brown-Forman’s distillery projects in Kentucky and Tennessee, while Pod recently won an award for its work with Rabbit Hole Distilling in Louisville, which opened earlier this year.
The project will include a visitors center, and the proximity to Louisville would make it a natural stop for tourists along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The site is right off the La Grange exit on Interstate 71 about half an hour northeast of Louisville, and is 12 miles north of Interstate 64 linking Louisville and Lexington.
Rutledge, Camisa, and Mowry first proposed the distillery project in the spring of 2016 and began a crowdfunding campaign to give small investors a chance to have a stake in the project, only to cancel it within days after receiving “lackluster” results and negative feedback on social media. The project suffered additional delays in 2017 when a major investor withdrew support and after Rutledge suffered a heart attack. He notes that the health scare forced him to start taking better care of himself and is now exercising regularly and eating better, while looking forward to getting back into a distillery on a regular basis. He has been doing some contract distilling work at Castle & Key Distillery on a project with Louisville entrepreneur Brook Smith to produce a Bourbon that will eventually be sold to benefit educational programs in Eastern Kentucky.
December 6, 2018 – CFR Title 27, Part 5.
Unless you’re in the alcoholic beverage industry, you’ve probably never heard – or cared – about this section of the United States Code of Federal Regulations. However, if you drink whisky, other distilled spirits, beer, or wine, CFR Title 27, Part 5 affects you on a regular basis. It sets out the specific definitions for all alcoholic beverages sold in the United States, along with labeling requirements, marketing restrictions, and everything right down to the size of bottles that can legally be sold in the U.S. It contains the regulation that requires whiskies be sold in 750ml bottles instead of the 700ml bottles used in most other countries, and it’s also where the official definition of Bourbon lives.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) administers Part 5, along with the rest of Title 27 covering the alcohol, tobacco, and excise taxes for the firearms industry. It inherited that role in 2003, when the Homeland Security Act of 2002 split up the old Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms by moving its law enforcement functions to the new Department of Homeland Security while keeping the revenue and regulatory functions within the Treasury Department.
Now, TTB administrators have come forward with a massive rewrite of Part 5 that has been on the agency’s schedule since 2013. While the TTB and its predecessors have made minor changes to Title 27 regulations over the years, this would be the most extensive re-write of Part 5 since the original regulations implementing the Federal Alcohol Act were enacted in 1935.
The agency issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register on November 26, and is accepting public comments on proposed changes through March 26, 2019. While many of the proposed changes are so-called “housekeeping” aimed at incorporating current policy and industry practices into a simpler, more easily understood document, the agency has offered a number of proposals that could have a direct impact on distillers of all sizes while not covering changes sought by a growing number of distillers and consumers.
The most controversial proposal so far asks whether an official definition should be created for “oak barrel” that would specify a “cylindrical oak drum of approximately 50 gallons capacity” and whether smaller barrels or non-cylindrical barrels should be “acceptable for storing distilled spirits.” This could have a direct impact on craft distillers, who often rely on barrels as small as five or ten gallons to mature their spirits. The impact could also be felt by distillers who use much larger ex-Sherry butts or Port wine pipes as “finishing” casks, since the TTB’s proposed language does not cover the use of barrels larger than 50 gallons.
“We use 60 gallon (barrels), mostly…is that approximately 50? I don’t know,” said Jared Himstedt of Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas. “For a thing that should be supposedly solving a bunch of way overdue problems, it seems like it’s introducing some new ones,” he said during an interview at WhiskyFest New York.
Richard Hobbs, the owner of The Barrel Mill cooperage in Avon, Minnesota is even more blunt in his objections. “Small barrels have been used for whiskey for hundreds of years. Ruling that a whisky/ey must be aged in barrels of 50+ gallons would be devastating to our customers, who have millions in aging inventory, and would most likely put us and many other cooperages out of business. We currently employ 50 people…I think that innovation, and more options of available oak and other species for aging is a positive for the consumer, not a negative,” he said in an email.
The TTB’s list of proposed changes would also bar distillers from counting time spent in a secondary cask in age statements. For instance, a whisky matured in a new oak barrel for five years and then “finished” in a different cask for another five years could only be labeled as a five-year-old whisky under the proposed revisions. There is also a proposal to create an official definition for terms like “barrel proof” and “cask strength” by allowing their use only when a whisky is bottled within two proof degrees (one percent ABV) of the actual strength of the whisky when it is dumped from a barrel.
TTB spokesman Thomas Hogue declined WhiskyCast’s request for an interview with a TTB administrator to explain the reasoning behind the proposed changes, saying in an email that the agency has no official comment beyond what is in the public record. However, he also emphasized that the proposal is simply that – a proposal.
“This is an opportunity for all interested stakeholders to comment and help us bring these regulations into alignment with current industry practice and public understanding. If industry members believe that a specific proposal will be detrimental to their business, we strongly encourage them to submit substantive comments explaining the issue and, wherever possible, proposing an alternative. Keep in mind, stakeholders are not limited to commenting on just what has been proposed. If there are areas of concern or interest that were not included in this document, we welcome substantive comments to address those as well.”
One often-requested change not included in the proposed revisions was a definition for “single malt” whiskies. Craft distillers formed the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission in 2016 to lobby for a separate category in Part 5’s “standards of identity” to cover single malts, which are currently treated as “malt whiskies” under Part 5. Those whiskies need only be made from at least 51 percent malted barley, but must be matured in new oak barrels. The group’s members want an official definition based on the standards set in Scottish law, which require 100 percent malted barley distilled at a single distillery and matured in oak casks not exceeding 700 liters. In addition, the lack of a generic standard for “single malt” whiskies has been an issue for at least a decade as importers of single malts from “non-traditional” whisky-making countries have had to fight for label approval status because their clients routinely use used barrels in maturation. The proposed changes do not affect whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, and Canada, which would continue to enjoy automatic recognition of the laws in those countries defining single malts and other specific types of whiskies.
There are a couple of proposals receiving support from distillers. One would create a new standard of identity for unaged or “white whiskies” often produced by startup distilleries, while the second would loosen the tolerance for bottling strength stated on a whisky’s label. Distillers and bottlers often proof their spirits at a slightly higher strength before bottling to allow for a small amount of evaporation during the bottling process, but are currently only allowed to be under the listed label strength by within 0.15% with no margin for error above the listed strength. For example, a whisky labeled at 40% ABV can actually be between 39.85% and 40% without violating the current standards, but the proposal would change that tolerance to 0.3% either way and allow for slightly “overproof” bottles. TTB agents routinely audit licensees by buying spirits at retail for testing in the agency’s laboratory, and a failure to meet the tolerance limits could result in enforcement actions against a spirits producer.
Industry trade groups are still evaluating the TTB’s proposals with their lawyers and members. Representatives from the Distilled Spirits Council, American Craft Spirits Association, and the Kentucky Distillers Association all declined to comment on the proposed changes at the present time, but indicated they would be filing comments with the TTB well before the deadline. We have also asked leaders of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission for their comments as well, but have not yet received a response.
Because the TTB’s entire proposal covers a wide range of proposed changes to regulations covering malt beverages and wine as well as distilled spirits, we are providing a copy of the Federal Register publication at WhiskyCast.com with specific areas that affect whiskies highlighted. The document also includes instructions on how to submit a comment for the agency’s review.
This story will be updated with additional information as necessary.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that licensees are currently not allowed any tolerance for “overproof” bottles in which the spirit is stronger that that listed on the label, while allowing a 0.15% margin for “underproof” bottlings. The TTB’s proposed change in regulations would allow licensees to be within plus or minus 0.3% of the label’s listed bottling strength.
November 29, 2018 – Move over, Valerio Adami. Step back, Sir Peter Blake. Make way for Michael Dillon!
The Irish artist’s one-of-a-kind hand-painted 1926 Macallan shattered the current world record for a single bottle of whisky sold at auction when it went on the block today at Christie’s in London. The high bid was £1.2 million GBP ($1,532,880 USD), breaking the previous record of £848,750 GBP ($1,107,663 USD) set October 3 at Bonhams in Hong Kong by one of the twelve Valerio Adami 1926 Macallan bottles. As is customary, the name of the winning bidder was not released.
Until today, the Adami and Blake bottles had traded places at the top of the world record list. A Blake bottle first broke the record in May at Bonhams in Hong Kong, only to be topped later in the same auction by the Adami bottle that held the record until the October 3 auction. Both of the award-winning artists created a bespoke label used by The Macallan’s owners for 12 bottles each to be used as corporate gifts and offered for sale to select buyers.
Dillon’s bottle was one of 16 remaining from that tranche of 40 bottles of 60-year-old Macallan that became part of the distillery’s Fine & Rare Collection for sale to the public. It was the only one to feature Dillon’s hand-painted scene of The Macallan’s landmark Easter Elchies house with the Cairngorm Mountains in the background, and was sold at London’s Fortnum & Mason in 1999. The bottle had not been seen in public since that sale, and has been regarded as the “holy grail” for Macallan collectors.
In a statement issued by Christie’s, International Director of Wine Tim Triptree MW said “the results confirm the strength of the market for whisky and the continued success of Christie’s in offering the finest spirits to our collectors across the globe.” In addition to the Dillon bottle, Christie’s also auctioned several whiskies provided by Macallan owner Edrington. A bottle of The Macallan 50 Years Old brought a high bid of £72,000 GBP ($92,016 USD), while five bottles of The Macallan Genesis sold for a combined £11,400 GBP ($14,566 USD). Genesis was released earlier this year to celebrate the opening of The Macallan’s new distillery in Speyside, and the proceeds from those five bottles will be donated to Speyside community organizations.
WhiskyCast has requested interviews with executives from Christie’s and The Macallan. This story will be updated with additional information as available.
Editor’s note: Currency conversions in this story are based on the Bloomberg Generic Composite Rate as of publication.
November 2, 2018 – Dave Pickerell, the master distiller and blender responsible for helping dozens of would-be whiskey entrepreneurs achieve their dreams, has died at the age of 62. He passed away Thursday in San Francisco, where he was scheduled to be at tonight’s WhiskyFest sponsored by Whisky Advocate magazine, and where his next distillery project was also to be built. Pickerell had been touring this fall with the members of Metallica to promote their Blackened American Whiskey, and the next step was to build a distillery in the Bay Area to make their own whiskey. In fact, he, the four members of Metallica, and their management team were scheduled to visit the proposed site of the distillery Saturday morning to get Pickerell’s final approval before moving forward with the project. Smooth Amber CEO John Billelo told WhiskyCast in a telephone interview that not only will the band go ahead with the distillery, but it will be named the Dave Pickerell Distillery when it opens.
According to Danielle Eddy, one of the publicists who worked with him on many of his projects, Pickerell had spent the day Thursday doing a full slate of appearances in the San Francisco area on behalf of his clients’ brands, and returned to his hotel room to rest. He was found later in the evening, and died of natural causes.
As word spread of Dave Pickerell’s passing, many of the distilleries he worked with posted tributes to him on their web pages. The members of Metallica took down the entire Blackened American Whiskey web site, and replaced it with a single image of Dave at one of their concerts.
In a September WhiskyCast interview, when asked about his work with Metallica, Dave broke into song, singing “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone.”
“Oh my God, this boy from the slums got his picture with Metallica in the Rolling Stone…what’s not to love about that.”
The feeling was mutual, according to John Billelo. “The reality is, we were on our way to becoming quite the family, and obviously, Dave will be terribly, terribly missed. There’s not much we can say that hasn’t been said other than the fact that there are very few people in life that walk the talk, and Dave was proud of saying that he did business by handshake…he was a true gentleman, a man of his word, an amazing artist in the spirit he created, but more importantly, he was a dear and wonderful person who enjoyed being around people, and we will miss him,” Billelo said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon.
Billelo also passed on condolences from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who was unavailable for a telephone interview because of rehearsals for the band’s acoustic concert Saturday night to raise money for their All Within My Hands Foundation. “He adored Dave and the time they spent together and the whiskies he created for them, and like the rest of us, it’s just a very, very difficult day,” Billelo said. Dave had donated one of his trademark felt hats to be auctioned at the concert along with a bottle of Blackened signed by himself and the four members of Metallica. Billelo says the hat has been pulled from the auction, and will instead be displayed in the new distillery, which will also be named the Dave Pickerell Distillery in his honor.
Pickerell was a 1978 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating with a degree in chemistry and playing on the Army football team. He later received his Master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville in 1988 while serving in the Army, and after leaving the military, went on to become a consultant in the distilling industry. One of his clients at the time was Maker’s Mark, and Bill Samuels, Jr. hired him away in 1994 to become the distillery’s Vice President of Operations and Master Distiller. Maker’s Mark released a statement on behalf of the Samuels family Friday afternoon:
“We were very saddened to learn of the passing of Dave Pickerell and send our heartfelt condolences to the Pickerell family. Dave was an accomplished and important figure in bourbon. He certainly made a mark on the industry he loved, and will truly be missed.”
After leaving Maker’s Mark in 2008, he founded Oak View Spirits and began working with startup distillery projects and whisky brands worldwide, along with serving as the original master distiller for the restored George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia.
His partners and clients included Hillrock Estate Distillery in New York, J. Rieger & Sons in Kansas City, and Vermont’s WhistlePig Farm, where Dave sourced the original Canadian Rye whisky that became the foundation for WhistlePig’s early releases. In a statement, WhistlePig CEO Jeff Kozak said:
“To us, Dave was family. He was larger than life and truly part of the WhistlePig fabric. Working with him never felt like work. It was his passion, humor and storytelling that helped this brand come alive. Saying we are going to miss him isn’t enough, and we will continue to honor his memory and keep him in our stories and our hearts.”
Funeral arrangements are pending, but following a private service for the family in Kentucky, plans are being made for memorial services in several cities around the United States.
Please join us in expressing our condolences to Dave Pickerell’s family and his many friends around the world.
Editor’s note: Dave rarely discussed his age, and our original reporting that he was 70 years old was based on information provided by one of his publicists. We have since confirmed through West Point alumni records that Dave was born in 1956 and was 62 when he died. We regret the error.