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, 2017 – When Jay Howard takes the green flag Sunday in his Honda-powered #77 Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports IndyCar for the Indianapolis 500, it will mark a rare occasion for fans of whisky and motorsports. After almost a decade away from the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Jim Beam is back as an associate sponsor on Howard’s Team One Cure/Tony Stewart Foundation/Lucas Oil car. With Johnnie Walker on board two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s car, this will be the first time that both the world’s top-selling Bourbon and Scotch Whisky have faced off as sponsors at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The deal is for Howard’s car only, and does not extend to the other SPM cars driven by James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin.
“To join a distinguished list of drivers who have had the opportunity to be associated with a brand like Jim Beam is really special to me,” Howard said in a news release. “Our 2017 program continues to grow daily and bringing in big brands is really fundamental to the longevity of this effort with the Tony Stewart Foundation. This first year is simply definitely the start to a greater initiative, and I’m thrilled to welcome everyone from Beam Suntory to this family.” The British native first competed in the 500 in 2011, and his return to the Speedway was engineered by the Tony Stewart Foundation as a way to raise awareness for “Team One Cure” and the “comparative oncology” cancer research program at Colorado State University. Doctors and veterinarians at CSU are studying potential links between cancer treatments for pets and those for humans.
While Johnnie Walker has not sponsored a car in the 500 before, Jim Beam’s logo was a familiar sight at the Speedway between 2003 and 2008, when it sponsored cars for Andretti Green Racing. In 2005, Beam was one of the two primary sponsors on Dan Wheldon’s winning car along with Klein Tools. The following year, Michael Andretti came out of retirement to carry the Jim Beam colors in the 2006 500, finishing third behind his 19-year-old son Marco and winner Sam Hornish, Jr.
Marco Andretti had replaced Wheldon following his move to Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and one of the reasons behind his father’s decision to race in the 500 was the need to shuffle sponsorships around the team because of Marco’s age. The team placed Beam’s Canadian Club sponsorship on Dario Franchitti’s car for the 500, while Michael Andretti’s car carried the Jim Beam sponsorship. That move led to the last Indianapolis 500 victory for a whisky-sponsored car in 2007 when Franchitti won the rain-shortened race in his Canadian Club-sponsored car.
In addition to the Andretti Green program, Jim Beam also sponsored Team Penske’s cars in 2008, but withdrew from IndyCar at the end of that season. The Bourbon brand also sponsored Robby Gordon’s NASCAR team until 2009, when it largely withdrew from North American motorsports. However, Beam was a major supporter of the V8 Supercars series in Australia between 2007 and 2012 with Dick Johnson Racing.
Whisky brand sponsorships have been relatively rare at the Indianapolis 500, and were banned for many years. Those bans were relaxed for IndyCar starting in 2003 with Beam’s Andretti Green deal, and a year later, NASCAR followed suit and began allowing liquor sponsorships, though beer brands had never been under a similar restriction. The sponsorships have generally been used in conjunction with responsible use programs.
May 24, 2017 – Shares of Constellation Brands dropped slightly more than one percent in Wednesday’s trading on the New York Stock Exchange as Brown-Forman publicly rebuffed a reported takeover offer, while so-called “B” shares of the Brown family-controlled spirits company rose nearly two percent. Brown-Forman chairman Geo. Garvin Brown IV and CEO Paul Varga issued a statement after the close of trading on behalf of the Louisville-based company emphasizing the family’s desire to keep Brown-Forman independent.
“As a matter of corporate policy, Brown-Forman does not comment on market rumors or speculation. However, it is important to reiterate that Brown- Forman is not for sale. For nearly 150 years, the Company and the Brown family have been committed to preserving Brown-Forman as a thriving, family controlled, independent company. That commitment is unchanged, and our goal is to continue creating value for all shareholders for generations to come.”
According to CNBC, Constellation Brands approached Brown-Forman with an offer to buy the company, in which the Brown family controls a majority of the voting stock. Constellation, which is controlled by the Sands family and owns Corona beer, has been actively trying to expand its spirits portfolio over the last year. The CNBC report did not specify how much Constellation was offering, but Brown-Forman’s current market capitalization is around $21 billion USD according to Bloomberg data. By way of comparison, Constellation’s market cap is estimated at $34.8 billion USD.
Historically, Brown-Forman has been more interested in acquisitions than in being an acquisition target, as evidenced by the Brown family’s nearly 150 years of ownership. In the past, Brown-Forman owned a number of other consumer brands, including Lenox china and Hartmann luggage. However, it sold those brands in 2005 and refocused on its core spirits and wine businesses. Brown-Forman’s “B” shares have gained 13 percent in value over the past year as the company’s sales of Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and other brands have benefitted from global demand for American whiskies. The company expanded into the Scotch Whisky market last year with its acquisition of the BenRiach Distillery Company and its three distilleries (BenRiach, GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh), and has just debuted its new Slane Irish Whiskey brand, with construction of a new distillery at Ireland’s Slane Castle scheduled for completion this summer.
May 3, 2017 – When two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today for his first testing session in preparation for the Indianapolis 500 May 28, one question on the minds of whisky-loving motorsports fans was answered: would Johnnie Walker be part of Alonso’s sponsorship package? The Scotch Whisky brand has been one of McLaren’s major sponsors for years, and when McLaren announced its partnership with Honda and Andretti Autosport to run Alonso at Indianapolis instead of F1’s Monaco Grand Prix the same day, it was widely assumed that McLaren’s F1 sponsors would be part of the effort. However, Andretti Autosport did not respond to a request for confirmation of those plans at the time.
The livery for Alonso’s one-off entry was unveiled as Alonso’s car was rolled out to the pits, and features the Johnnie Walker logo on the nose of the car just above Alonso’s car number (#29), as well as on his helmet and fire suit.
It is believed that this is the first time Johnnie Walker will be a sponsor for an Indianapolis 500 entry, though the brand sponsored McLaren’s entries in 2006 and 2007 when the United States Grand Prix was held at the Speedway. Alonso’s best finish at Indianapolis was a second-place run for McLaren in 2007, the final year that Formula One raced at the Speedway. He finished fifth in 2006 while driving for Renault, though he later won his second consecutive F1 title that season.
Whisky brands have played only a minor role in sponsoring cars at the Indianapolis 500 compared to other consumer brands, but have been successful when teaming with Andretti in recent years. Scotland’s Dario Franchitti had Canadian Club as his primary sponsor in 2007, when he won the first of his three Indianapolis 500 victories for what was then known as Andretti Green Racing. In 2005, the late Dan Wheldon won with Jim Beam as one of his major sponsors for Andretti Green Racing. In between, team co-founder Michael Andretti finished third in 2006 with Jim Beam as the primary sponsor on his car.
In 1965, Jim Clark became the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 after winning the F1 World Championship. Graham Hill repeated the rare accomplishment the following year, followed by Emerson Fittipaldi with Indy wins in 1989 and 1993. Mario Andretti won the F1 title in 1978 after winning the 500 in 1969, and Jacques Villeneuve won the F1 title in 1997 after winning Indy in 1995. He is also the last F1 World Champion to race in the Indianapolis 500, posting a 14th place finish in 2014.
Editor’s note: Photos are courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and photographer Chris Owens.
May 2, 2017 – After years of confusing cross-ownership deals and distribution agreements, The Glenrothes Scotch Whisky brand and the Speyside distillery that shares its name are back under one owner. Edrington and Berry Bros. & Rudd announced a deal to reunite the brand and its distillery under Edrington ownership today, bringing The Glenrothes back into Edrington’s Scotch Whisky portfolio alongside The Macallan, Highland Park, The Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, and The Glenturret. No financial details were disclosed.
“We would like to thank Berry Bros. & Rudd for their excellent stewardship of The Glenrothes over the past seven years,” Edrington’s Paul Ross said in a news release announcing the deal. “We are very pleased to be reuniting the brand with its distillery and we know it will be an excellent member of Edrington’s leading family of premium brands, including The Macallan and Highland Park. We are very much looking forward to accelerating the growth of this award-winning single malt in international markets.” Ross was not available for an interview Tuesday afternoon, and this story will be updated with additional information as needed.
Historically, Edrington and its predecessor, Highland Distillers, have owned the Glenrothes Distillery going back to 1887. The distillery has also been the backbone for Cutty Sark, which was historically owned by Berry Bros. & Rudd since its founding. The two companies joined forces in 1987, with Berry Bros. & Rudd marketing the first Glenrothes-branded single malt produced by Highland Distillers. While Berry Bros. & Rudd handled marketing and distribution for the brand, Highland Distillers – and later Edrington – took care of production under master blenders John Ramsay and Gordon Motion.
In 2010, the two companies executed an asset swap in which Edrington acquired control of Cutty Sark and Berry Bros. & Rudd took complete control of The Glenrothes single malt brand while distillery ownership and production remained with Edrington under a long-term supply contract. Now, Berry Bros. & Rudd will be the contractor, as the agreement calls for the London-based wine and spirits merchant to handle UK distribution for The Glenrothes through its Fields, Morris, & Verdin subsidiary. In the United States, Edrington Americas will take over importing duties from San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling, in which Berry Bros. & Rudd owns a minority stake. Other global distribution agreements will transfer to Edrington with the sale.
For whisky fans, there is also an answer to one key question: the fate of longtime Glenrothes brand ambassador Ronnie Cox, who has represented the brand worldwide for many years. In an email Tuesday, Cox confirmed that he will be remaining with Berry Bros. & Rudd as the heritage director for its spirits brands. Cox will continue to represent the brand in the UK on behalf of Berry Bros. & Rudd.
April 28, 2017 – It’s been a big week for announcements of new whiskies from around the world, and even a rare sneak preview of Diageo’s annual Special Releases from its Classic Malts range.
Traditionally, the world’s largest Scotch Whisky producer announces its Special Releases lineup in the autumn, but gave whisky lovers a taste of what will be coming out later this year. The release lists nine of the ten whiskies in the 2017 series, but in a statement outlining the upcoming releases, Diageo Director of Whisky Outreach Dr. Nick Morgan said “We’re keeping one in our back pocket as a surprise for you all later on this year.”
Here’s what we know will be coming, though prices were not disclosed. Closed distilleries are highlighted with an asterisk.
- 1979 Port Ellen* bottled after 37 years in a combination of refill American Oak hogsheads and butts (51% ABV, 2,988 bottles)
- 1982 Brora* bottled at 34 years of maturation in refill American Oak hogsheads (51.9% ABV, 3,000 bottles)
- 1984 Convalmore* bottled after 32 years in refill American Oak hogsheads (48.2% ABV, 3,972 bottles)
- 1964 Port Dundas* single grain matured for 52 years in in refill American Oak hogsheads (44.6% ABV, 752 bottles)
- 1993 Blair Athol matured for 23 years in ex-Bodega European Oak butts (58.4% ABV, 5,514 bottles)
- Caol Ila 18 matured in refill American Oak hogsheads (59.8% ABV, limited quantities available worldwide with no number announced)
- Glen Elgin 18 matured in in ex-Bodega European Oak butts (54.8% ABV, 5,352 bottles)
- Lagavulin 12 matured in in refill American Oak hogsheads (56.5% ABV, limited quantities available worldwide with no number announced)
- Teaninich 17 matured in refill American Oak hogsheads and barrels (55.9% ABV, limited quantities available worldwide with no number announced)
Diageo’s statement did not specify which expressions will be available in specific markets. Traditionally, not all of the 10 whiskies released each year are available in the U.S. or most other major whisky markets. Those details will likely be announced later this year when recommended retail pricing and photos of each expression are released.
Highland Park unveiled its new Valkyrie single malt from Orkney in Denmark this week, along with new packaging that will be available soon in most markets for the distillery’s 10 and 12-year-old expressions, and later this summer for the 18-year-old single malt. Valkyrie’s packaging was created by Danish designer Jim Lyngvild, who traces his Viking ancestry all the way back to the first Earl of Orkney, where Vikings ruled the islands for eight centuries until ceding control to the Scots in 1472. The whisky was created by Gordon Motion using spirit distilled from 100% peated malt produced at the distillery. Typically, Highland Park uses a ratio of 20% peated malt to 80% unpeated malt in distilling, but has been laying down casks of 100% peated malt for around a decade now.
“We were looking for a new series that’s starting to go towards Valhalla…Viking Heaven, if you want, and it just seemed the perfect time to start using some of this heavily peated stock,” Motion said in an interview for this week’s WhiskyCast. “It fits the right character,” he said, noting that the heavily peated whisky makes up about half of the blend using a combination of first-fill ex-Bourbon and American Oak ex-Sherry casks with a few refill ex-Sherry casks. Valkyrie is bottled at 45.9% ABV, and is already available in the UK and some European markets at a recommended retail price of £55 GBP ($71 USD). It will be available in the US as well, though US pricing for 750ml bottles has not been confirmed yet.
In addition to Valkyrie, Highland Park announced other major changes to its range. The 15-year-old and Dark Origins bottling are being discontinued, while a new Magnus expression will be available in the US market at the end of the summer. Full Volume is a rare 100% ex-Bourbon cask expression that will be released in most global markets worldwide later this year as a replacement for the 15-year-old Highland Park.
While the whiskies in the 10, 12, and 18-year-old Highland Park expressions have not been changed, they will be getting new names in addition to their age statements. The 10-year-old will be known as “Viking Scars” and the 12-year-old gets the added name “Viking Honour.” The 18-year-old will be known as “Viking Pride.” All three will appear in new bottles heavily embossed with designs inspired by an ancient Viking church in Ornes, Norway that feature a lion fighting serpent-like dragons depicting the ancient battle between good and evil.
This week’s WhiskyCast from Copenhagen will have more details on the Highland Park story.
In addition, we also have news on several new Irish whiskies, including two single malts with a connection to Scotland. Liam Ahern and his wife, Jennifer Nickerson, have established the Tipperary Distillery, and have released two new whiskies crafted by Jennifer’s father, longtime Scotch Whisky distiller and blender Stuart Nickerson. Knockmealdowns comes from six ex-bourbon barrels filled 10 years ago at an undisclosed distillery, while Watershed also uses six first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels but carries no age statement. Both whiskies are bottled at 47% ABV, and are available in the US as well as Ireland.
Prizefight from Pugilist Spirits is a unique collaboration between West Cork Distilling in Ireland and Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire, which supplied American Oak Rye whiskey casks to finish the whiskey. It’s available in Ireland with a recommended retail price of €50 ($55 USD). No plans have been announced for export sales yet.
April 23, 2017 – “Brian and I had always had it in our minds that we weren’t going to die on the distillery room floor, and eventually be passing the whole of Tuthilltown over to a more substantial organization with the right resources.”
That’s the way Tuthilltown Spirits co-founder Ralph Erenzo describes the decision he and partner Brian Lee made to sell their upstate New York distillery to William Grant & Sons. The two companies have been partners since 2010, when the family-owned maker of Glenfiddich and The Balvenie single malts bought Tuthilltown’s Hudson Whiskey brand while leaving production in the hands of Erenzo and Lee. While there was never a formal agreement giving Grant’s an option to buy the distillery, there was an understanding that when Erenzo and Lee were ready to sell, Grant’s would be ready to buy.
“The real question that both Ralph and Brian and the team at William Grant & Sons had discussed is ‘when is the right time,’ William Grant & Sons USA managing director Jonathan Yusen said in a telephone interview for this week’s episode of WhiskyCast. “With the explosive growth of not only the Hudson brand, but also the local craft movement and certainly American whiskey, collectively we believed that now was the right time,” he said.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Jonathan Yusen and Ralph Erenzo:
In the 13 years since Erenzo and Lee founded their distillery in a historic grist mill and became New York’s first whiskey distillery since the end of Prohibition, Erenzo has become a leading figure in the craft distilling movement, while Lee played a key role behind the scenes at the distillery. The two self-funded Tuthilltown, with the only influx of outside capital coming in 2010 with the sale of the Hudson Whiskey brand to Grant’s. However, Erenzo cited the need to invest in the distillery’s long-term growth as a key reason for bringing the relationship with Grant’s to its logical conclusion.
“We’re sort of on the cusp of a very large leap forward, both in distribution but also in the public knowledge of our place here, that there’s a place to come with the family and spend the day,” Erenzo said. “Brian and I, as a private company and totally self-funded for the last 13 years, we felt that it was time that an organization with greater resources and experience in the development of this place…this was the right time.” While Tuthilltown has a small restaurant at the distillery currently, William Grant & Sons has extensive experience with developing visitor programs at its two large distilleries in Scotland, and Yusen’s team will draw on that experience to enhance Hudson’s appeal to visitors.
The move is also expected to result in increased international distribution for Hudson’s range of whiskies. Tuthilltown recently started bottling its whiskies in 750ml bottles in addition to its familiar 375ml bottles, and that move will help in producing European-standard 700ml expressions for export sales. While Erenzo and Yusen both expect to increase production at the distillery, they are firm on handling that by bringing in Grant’s engineers from Scotland to figure out methods of boosting production without expanding the facility, or as Erenzo puts it, “without having to turn this place into an industrial complex…nobody wants that…it is very nice just the way it is.”
Erenzo will have a more formal role with Tuthilltown as the distillery’s principal contact with regulators and the public, while Lee will serve as a consultant. The former broadcast engineer devoted much of his time to the distillery’s design and engineering work, and is expected to work closely with the team of engineers and chemists from Grant’s.
The Tuthilltown sale is the latest in a series of acquisitions of craft distillers by major whisky producers over the past 18 months, including Constellation Brands’ purchase of High West and a minority stake in Catoctin Creek. In addition, Rémy Cointreau acquired Westland Distillery in Seattle and France’s Domaines des Hautes Glaces, Pernod Ricard purchased West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler, Sazerac acquired the Popcorn Sutton Distillery in Tennessee, and Diageo’s internal venture capital unit has taken minority stakes in Denmark’s Stauning Distillery and Starward in Australia. When asked about concerns that yet another craft distillery is being acquired by a “conglomerate,” Erenzo described it as a logical stage in what has become a more mature industry.
“The parallel can be drawn to anybody who starts a very successful business and then spends a lot of time in it developing it and seeing it be successful” he said. “At some point, that person is going to want to make sure it gets into the hands of someone who will take over the responsibility and the expansion of whatever business it is, and carry it on into the future, secure the employment for the employees, and keep the place true to its original form.”