Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Do You Have a National Distillers Dusty?


Jim Beam Brands Co. recommended Bourbon Section shelf set for 1989-90.
Start talking about old whiskeys and pretty soon someone will mention National Distillers, usually in the context of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon or Old Overholt Rye. But National had a lot of bourbon brands including Old Crow, Old Taylor, Bourbon DeLuxe, Bellows, and other regional cats-and-dogs.

In 1987, the James B. Beam Distilling Company, a subsidiary of American Brands Inc., acquired the spirits division of the National Distillers and Chemical Corporation for $545 million. Included were three Kentucky distilleries, two of which were still active, although Beam immediately shut them down. The sale also included a lot of aging whiskey stock, at a time when American whiskey sales were in the doldrums and everyone had too much, what we call today 'the glut era.'

Enthusiasts of National Distillers whiskeys distilled before 1987 are constantly trying to figure out if bottles they have are National-distilled or Beam-distilled. It isn't easy, but some context might help.

One of the costs in whiskey-making is the cost of moving whiskey around while it is in the barrel. In a perfect world whiskey is barreled at the distillery and the barrel is moved to a nearby warehouse where it remains undisturbed until it is withdrawn years later for bottling, also nearby.

The point is that Beam's determination as to what whiskey went into what bottle was based primarily on the location of the whiskey to be bottled and the location of the bottling plant to be used. After the National acquisition, Beam bottled whiskey at two locations, its existing Jim Beam Distillery at Clermont, Kentucky, and what had been National's Old Grand-Dad Distillery at Forks of the Elkorn just outside of Frankfort.

In those days, the same bottling crew spent a few days at Clermont, followed by a couple at Frankfort. They did that because it is cheaper to move people than whiskey. The whiskey distilled by National was aging at the distillery where it was made, either Old Grand-Dad or Old Crow, which was also in the Frankfort area. Some of the whiskey distilled at Old Crow was aging in warehouses at Old Taylor, right next door. Some Beam-distilled whiskey was sent to Frankfort to age, but little if any went in the other direction.

To this day, those are Beam Suntory's two bottling plants. Each one has been substantially upgraded over the years. They run full time now and have their own crews, but the fact remains that what is aged at Frankfort is bottled at Frankfort and what is aged at Clermont is bottled there. Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark has its own bottling plant at the distillery in Loretto. The company's largest Kentucky distillery, Booker Noe at Boston, has warehouses but no bottling. Whiskey aged there is bottled at Clermont.

For reference, the distance between the Clermont and Booker Noe plants is about ten miles. The distance from either of them to Frankfort is about 75 miles. Beam has several other maturation facilities but most of them are close to Clermont, not Frankfort. Consequently, most of the whiskey bottling happens at Clermont. Frankfort bottles other things, such as DeKuyper liqueurs.

After Beam stopped distilling at Frankfort, it started to make the high-rye Old Grand-Dad recipe at Clermont, so Old Grand-Dad would have been bottled at Frankfort until the Frankfort-distilled Grand-Dad ran out, and thereafter it was bottled at Clermont. For everything else, Beam used Frankfort-distilled and Clermont-distilled whiskey interchangeably, without regard to brand, depending on where it was being bottled. This was even true of Old Overholt, as Jim Beam has always made rye whiskey in addition to bourbon.

Nothing has been distilled in Frankfort since 1987 so everything in those warehouses now comes from either Booker Noe or Clermont, but if it is aging in Frankfort it will almost certainly be bottled there too.


I know more about the period following the National acquisition than most people because I was in the room for some of it. Two years after the acquisition, Beam was still struggling to integrate the two product portfolios. I was part of a team that developed the document above, a comprehensive manual for off-premise retail merchandising of the combined Beam-National line.

The manual explained the principles of effective merchandising and where to place each major Beam brand. It included advice like this:

"The Jim Beam shelf set should begin immediately to the right of the Jack Daniels set. Jim Beam White Label should be first, immediately to the right of Daniels. Place Jim Beam Black Label to the right of White Label. Place Beams Choice to the right of Black Label.

"The Old-Grand Dad set should be placed to the left of Daniels, with all three proofs on the shelf, from left to right: 86�, 100� and 114�. This is the ideal shelf position for Jim Beam's two most important bourbon brands."

That's right. In 1989-90, Old Grand-Dad was second only to Jim Beam in importance in Beam's portfolio. That is because Old Grand-Dad still commanded a premium price and was, therefore, one of the most profitable brands on the market.

No one then could have predicted how different the bourbon landscape would look 30 years later.

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