Thursday, March 15, 2018

What Is Sazerac Doing in Tennessee?


A rendering of Sazerac's proposed Tennessee whiskey distillery in Murfreesboro.
Last fall, Sazerac announced its interest in a 55-acre parcel of land in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on which to build a new Tennessee whiskey distillery. Nothing was said at the time about how this might affect Sazerac's existing distillery in Newport, Tennessee, where distillers John Lunn and Allisa Henley have been making Tennessee whiskey since last June. On March 1, USA Today reported that even as Sazerac's plan works its way toward approval by the city council, local residents are up in arms about traffic, industrial zoning so close to residential, and the dreaded 'whiskey fungus.'

But that isn't what caught my eye in the article. Baudoinia compniacensis will always be with us. What struck me was this: "Sazerac will relocate its Tennessee operations from Newport in East Tennessee." The article doesn't identify a source for that claim, and Sazerac says its plans for Newport are not finalized, so they won't comment.

'Newport' is the distillery formerly known as Popcorn Sutton. At the very end of 2016, Sazerac bought the distillery but not the Sutton brand, nor any of the spirit made there up to that point. Popcorn Sutton was a notorious moonshiner who died in 2009. Shortly after his death, his widow and one of his buddies launched a legal distilling venture in Sutton's name. In 2013, it was acquired by Mark and Megan Kvamme. He is a successful venture capitalist, close to Ohio Governor John Kasich. She became Popcorn Sutton Distilling's new CEO. The Kvammes still own the brand, which appears to be quiescent.

The Kvammes poured a lot of money into building a new distillery in Newport, near Sutton's home, and also not far from Gatlinburg and other Smoky Mountains attractions. The place is big, 50,000 square feet. The three solid copper pot stills are true alembics (no rectification section), built by Vendome. The two beer stills are 2,500 gallons each. The spirit still is 1,500 gallons. The operation also includes a 5,000-gallon mash cooker, three 10,000-gallon fermenters, and a small bottling line.

The Kvammes scored their biggest coup in 2015 when they hired John Lunn and Allisa Henley away from Diageo's George Dickel Distillery to run the place. When Sazerac bought it, they kept Lunn, Henley and their crew in place. After a few months of planning and experimentation, Lunn and Henley began production of a Tennessee whiskey of their own creation.

Then came the Murfreesboro announcement. Nothing was said about Newport, but USA Today in its recent reporting says Henley will run the Murfreesboro operation.

What Sazerac seems to be doing is logical. Newport only made sense when the distillery was all about the legend of Popcorn Sutton. That remote location might be good for tourism, but without Sutton there is no obvious tourism hook. Sazerac doesn't want to make 'moonshine.' They want to make regular, bourbon-like Tennessee whiskey to compete with Jack Daniel's and George Dickel. Murfreesboro is close to Nashville and the home of Middle Tennessee State University. It is reputed to be a great place to live and will be an easy stop for tourists on the way to visit Jack and George.

Stay tuned.

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