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A Letter To The Whiskey Community of 2015

This year, after years of procrastinating, I finally began to write down my thoughts on whiskey. Just shy of four months isn’t a long time, but in that time I’ve received enough comments, compliments, complaints, shares, and whatever else to make me feel like it’s been worth it. Thank you all.

In the small amount of posts I’ve published, I’ve written positive reviews, a few negative ones, and some other pieces I hope you found different and/or intriguing or, at the very least, entertaining.

At the end of the day I just want to know that I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and that I contribute things of value to the growing community of whiskey enthusiasts.

But I must be honest, I hardly know much of anything about nothing, or at least that’s the way I like to see it. I’m a student, and writing this blog is only one way I can apply (and share) what I’m always in the process of learning.

And, I wouldn’t have learned anything without the generous folks who have helped me along the way.

I’m fortunate to say that some of those folks are involved in the industry but, in reality, those who aren’t have had the largest impact. While I greatly appreciate the time those much busier than I have spent showing me around and answering my questions, I’ve learned more from those of you reading this than many of you may know.

Your comments about flavors I couldn’t place, details of history that were new to me, and questions that went beyond what I thought I knew pushed me to fill in the gaps of my own knowledge and inspired me to look at things in new ways.

The friendships I’ve made over this past year have been nothing short of stellar. And that’s what this is all about. On that note, I’ve been waiting to share something with all of you and I can’t think of a better time than now.

A few weeks ago I logged onto Facebook and actually read something worth reading. A new member of the Lexington Bourbon Society who, due to some of life’s many circumstances has yet been unable to actually attend an event or meet any members in person, wrote a long and heartfelt comment in our forum about how the collective good-nature of our members (as he’s observed over time on social media) has already had a positive impact on his life.

The gentleman wrote:

“After retiring from the Army and moving to a city in which I have never lived, I often wondered, outside of church, where my wife and I would find friends in this new chapter of our lives. The genuine kindness and good heart-ed nature displayed in the simple fellowship of social media postings and communications is such a nice alternative to the sometimes detached, too busy mentality of an arguably large portion of society. I am anxiously looking forward to getting into the swing of things and meeting you all.”

That’s an incredible comment, and we look forward to meeting you, sir, and others like you.

You see, I didn’t get into this scene years ago to become a collector, to flip bottles, or to constantly hound the people and/or corporations making the products we enjoy (or don’t) for the truth. Those things inevitably tend to happen in varying degrees over time, but I pursued a deeper interest in Bourbon and all things whiskey simply because I enjoy it, and because I have an innate desire to learn as much as I can about the the things I love.

This is why communities like ours are much greater than we often think. Sharing knowledge is what pushes us all to grow, and that growth manifests in the friendships we create based on a simple common interest shared amongst us.

As we move into the new year, let’s remember this: If we continue do what we’re supposed to do, and we do it well, it’s inevitable that our community will continue to grow. Let’s call bullshit where we need to, there’s always a time for that, but let’s first raise a glass to the knowledge we’re yet to learn, the friendships we’re yet to make, and the experiences we’re yet to have.

I’m thankful to have met so many great people in 2014, and hope to do the same in 2015. That’s what it’s all about.

Cheers to great whiskey, and all of you.

Happy New Year!

Hunting For Pappy: An Elementary Analysis Of Bourbon Whiskey’s Basic And Controversial Internet Market Dynamics

I recently read this blog post about the secondary bourbon market and the mention of bourbon industry data got me thinking:

What does the whiskey craze look like in terms of the internet?

and

What role do sites like Bourbonr.com play in the dynamics of a primary and secondary market boom?

The article focuses on the secondary market where many people trade and sell rare bottles as though it’s some dark and mysterious underworld, and correlates that with fears of rising prices.

The mysterious bourbon flipper is the most hated figure in bourbon today. Can’t find Pappy? Blame the flipper. Store increased their prices? Blame the flipper. Distilleries increasing prices? Blame the flipper. I think of a flipper as someone that doesn’t even drink bourbon and purchases solely for resale.

There’s some truth there but, you see, there’s always been people flipping and trading bottles of whiskey or anything of value for that matter. A quick search on Google turns up many sites that have been around since the dawn of the internet, and auction houses have been around for even longer. The history of the whiskey market itself is full of tales of “legendary” black-market operators, many of which are printed on the labels of products we celebrate today, so what gives?

What I find most intriguing about the quote above is that it’s published on the same site that hosts a state-by-state Pappy release calendar. If anything, the site helps the average person track down the latest releases and arms them to the teeth with information about each one of them. I mean this with absolutely no disrespect, but sites like Bourbonr.com encourage, enable, and perpetuate the hype around coveted bottles.

Haters Gonna Hate

I fail to understand how the craze for Pappy is any different than the obsession for Beanie Babies, Furbys, or Tickle-Me-Elmos.

Most negative feelings toward the secondary market originate largely from people new to Bourbon. These are the same people who pester retail establishments for Pappy in the middle of the summer after reading a news article. They can’t get their hands on it and feel disgruntled because, as it turns out, many other people share their desire for a limited, luxury product.

They then take to the internet and gripe.

Of course there are those people who have been drinking Pappy off the shelf for years who have been priced out of the market, but many of them have other things to satisfy their thirst. Loyalists to Maker’s Mark make more noise than those in the Pappy fan club.

The truth of the matter is, if you’re not lucky enough to be on a list or have friends in the liquor business, your only option to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy is through the secondary market. You need it, but it doesn’t necessarily need you.

A lot of Pappy bottles exchange hands often behind the scenes, but in many cases they’re used as currency to acquire more exclusive bottles that most actively searching for Pappy don’t even know exist (yet).

A Taste For Charity and Nostalgia

Without the secondary market and people who bunker rare bottles, many of us would never have the opportunity to taste whiskeys that have long been off the market. We’d never know just how good (or bad) things used to be. If whiskey is meant to be immediately opened, it would be immediately lost.

I’m not claiming that the secondary market is always a pleasant place filled with unicorns and good people, but that there are many different angles from which one can view it. For example, while many are spewing hate at mysterious people, recipients of that hate are donating spare bottles of Pappy to be auctioned off for charity in private groups. I don’t hear the public discuss things like that too often.

Supply and Demand and The Big Bucks

The demand for Pappy is a great thing for “flippers” because the collections they’ve been building for years before the general public cared are suddenly worth much more. They’re relevant to a larger pool of potential buyers willing to pay the big bucks for a chance to enjoy a “hard-to-find” whiskey.

This does translate to higher retail prices on the shelf because retailers want to get their hands on a piece of the pie. Often it’s justified but sometimes it’s ridiculous. When you walk into a store and see a 15 year old Pappy priced at $1500 it just makes you laugh.

At the end of the day, retailers are in the market of selling products and if they think they can make more money due to heightened demand, well, that’s capitalism.

A Red Herring Exposed

Is Buffalo Trace leaving money on the table and giving up profits to the secondary market?

With all this talk about Pappy and the subsequent fears of price gouging making it into the retail market, I wanted to explore just how insignificant a rare, luxury product like Pappy is in the grand scheme of the industry as a whole.

Internet search data is a great place to start because it is one of the most accurate measures of the consumer’s actual interest. The chart below shows the Google search trends for queries related to “Pappy Van Winkle” from 2008 to the present in the United States. There are a few things to note:

  • The trend shows minimal interest online until mid-2010.
  • Significant and consistent interest doesn’t take off until 2012.
  • The large spikes in 2013 and 2014 are the result of media coverage of the infamous Pappy heist, which has been a great tragedy because it has brought many into the fold of the craze who otherwise would have remained in the dark in terms of product awareness.
Google Search Demand for "Pappy Van Winkle" Over Time

Google Search Demand for “Pappy Van Winkle” from Jan 2008 – Dec 2014

Even with the large spikes due to media coverage clouding the overall trend, it’s obvious the interest in Pappy has grown, but the next chart illustrates just how minuscule and recent the demand for “Pappy Van Winkle” (Blue line) actually is when examined in the context of demand for queries related to “Bourbon Whiskey” as a whole (Red line).

Google Search Demand for "Bourbon Whiskey" and "Pappy Van Winkle"

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Pappy Van Winkle” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014

Pappy barely makes a dent, but it’s getting there.

Just how big is Bourbon these days? In the United States it’s taking over Scotch with a significant margin of interest.

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whiskey” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whiskey” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014

Bourbon is catching up worldwide, too.

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whisky” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014 (Worldwide)

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whisky” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014 (Worldwide)

Now translate these trends into terms of actual product supply and demand and Pappy becomes an insignificant player.

If we consider the product portfolio of a distillery like Buffalo Trace, or a large company like Sazerac, products like Pappy, even with their high price tag, are not a significant portion of revenue due to their lack of volume. Raising prices on these products to combat the potential profit loss to the secondary market would not only be a blip on the radar, for big business it would be a blunder.

Van Winkle Market Value

I did some digging to find actual release figures, but settled on the numbers mentioned in the article linked in the stats below because they yielded the highest numbers. I wanted to inflate the significance as much as possible. Keep in mind this is an elementary analysis and isn’t an exact science. I’ve rounded many numbers for ease.

According to one source there are 7,000 Cases / 84,000 Bottles of Van Winkle products released each year.

If the average value of each bottle is ~$100, that’s $8.4M in total revenue.

This doesn’t take into account the expenses to produce and market these products, or the price at which they are sold to distributors, but that’s not relevant here.

If we multiply $8.4M by 10x to match the ~$1000 per bottle generated on the secondary market we get a total potential revenue of $84M.

Both $8.4M and $84M are substantial amounts of money but, compared to the $13.6B Suntory paid to acquire Beam Inc. this year for example, even Pappy’s high end secondary market value of $84M is only 0.6% of the value of a single company.

At that rate, if Beam Inc. relied solely on secondary market revenue generated from the Van Winkle products, it would take 162 years to recoup the company’s purchase price.

How much of the market does this one company own, you ask? About 18%.

Top Spirits Producers

Source: IMPACT Spirits Databank and IRI 52 Weeks Ending December 2, 2012.

This puts the value of the total market at roughly $70 billion in terms of purchase price and market ownership (it’s actually over $400 billion).

Since Pappy is a Sazerac product, and Sazerac occupies approximately 7% of the market according to this data, we can translate that into about $5 billion, meaning the retail value of Pappy is about 0.2% of their overall value.

That’s not even a drop in the bucket.

Will Secondary Market Values Lead To Higher Retail Prices Overall?

Absolutely not. Well, not really.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a single elusive product but for the large companies that run this industry, the revenue potential is relatively insignificant. Where this does come into play is with small operations that have a high secondary market demand, such as Willett, but that’s a topic for another day.

Instead of expanding a luxury product, it’s much easier to manipulate a flagship, and we have seen this happen through minimal and gradual price increases of core products. If Beam Inc. increases the retail price of Jim Beam by just 1% (less than $0.25 per bottle in many cases) that is a massive amount of new revenue when considering the volume at which the product is sold. The impact on the consumer is almost negligible. If you can get away with putting younger whiskey into those bottles, the margin gets even bigger.

Increasing the prices of core premium brands that remain readily available is another strategy we’ve seen evolve recently. Think Eagle Rare or Blanton’s. If you have stockpiles of old whiskey, why sell that for $10 a bottle when you can remove an age statement, put cheaper whiskey in that $10 bottle, and move the aged product into a premium product that sells for $50? That’s a huge amount of new revenue by manipulating supply of your core product range.

Of course, a company must do this without significantly diluting the product’s quality, but as new taste buds move into the market at the exponential pace they currently are, the consumer’s definition of quality evolves as well.

So What Does $8.4-$84M Buy In The Spirits Industry?

A lot of nice fancy things and investments in future business. For example:

  • A new Wild Turkey visitor center for $4M
  • A 125,000 sq. ft. bottling operation at Wild Turkey for $40M
  • Jim Beam’s new American Stillhouse for $30M
  • The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville for $10M

As it turns out, Van Winkle products generate enough cash flow to fund new event spaces and additional production lines that will bottle more bulk product. That’s about it.

Pure Luxury.

Happy hunting!

Whiskey Geekery: Quantifying The Variances of Whiskey Ratings To Find The Most Polarizing Dram

Just like you, I want to try all of the great whiskey I possibly can so I seek out new whiskeys with great reviews. That’s the easy part. I do, however, find it much more fun to enjoy whiskeys that seem to be all over the place in terms of reviews because they typically lead to great conversations and discoveries of variances in palates.

As we all know, whiskey ratings and reviews are a polarizing topic as there are very few whiskeys almost everyone agrees are great. And even in the instance that everyone agrees something is great, there’s always someone who argues in favor of something else they think is greater. Its a vicious cycle of circular subjectivity, and it’s fun.

So where do you find a whiskey to pick a fight with? Right here!

To compile this list, I sorted whiskey reviews by category which also makes for easy browsing. The categories are: Bourbon, Rye, Scotch (Highland / Speyside, Lowland, Islay, Island, Campbelltown), Irish, and Canadian.

I then filtered each list down to whiskeys that had 10 or more reviews to make sure there was no funny stuff. Each whiskey has an average score, a high and low score, and a point differential to show the variance of its highest and lowest score. Each table below is sorted by descending value of variance.

A shout out and thank you goes out to the good people over at reddit for keeping a spreadsheet of all community reviews, which made this post possible.

(Continue scrolling to view all categories and ratings)

Most Polarizing Dram award

(LARGEST OVERALL SCORE VARIANCE)

Bowmore Legend

Bowmore Legend (67 point variance)

Least polarizing dram award

(Smallest overall score Variance)

bruichladdich port charlotte an turas mor

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte An Turas Mor (6 point variance)

Highest overall single score

High West A Midwinter Night's Dram

High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram (100 points / 93 average)

HIGHEST overall Average score

William Larue Weller

William Larue Weller (96 points)

lowest overall single score

Bowmore Legend

Bowmore Legend (17 points)

LOWEST overall average score

Bowmore Legend

Bowmore Legend (64 points)

VIEW ALL RATINGS BY CATEGORY

Bourbon whiskey

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
W.L. Weller 12 40 62 33 87 95
Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel 10 44 45 81 89
Orphan Barrel Barterhouse 20 13 44 50 84 94
Knob Creek 9 year Small Batch 20 38 53 83 91
Four Roses Yellow Label 11 37 50 73 87
Jim Beam White Label 13 35 50 70 85
Bulleit Bourbon 29 34 59 81 93
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select 23 31 60 82 91
Four Roses Small Batch 32 28 66 86 94
Buffalo Trace 45 24 68 85 92
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 11 23 72 85 95
Jim Beam Black 8 Double Aged 11 22 65 79 87
Maker’s Mark 27 22 69 81 91
Old Grand Dad 114 24 22 72 87 94
Baker’s 107 14 21 69 83 90
Maker’s Mark 46 12 21 70 84 91
Elmer T. Lee 37 21 74 87 95
Old Weller Antique 107 51 21 75 88 96
Evan Williams Black Label 16 20 70 82 90
Old Grand Dad 100 Bottled in Bond 27 20 72 84 92
Elijah Craig 12 35 20 70 84 90
Evan Williams Single Barrel 2003 18 19 75 83 94
Blanton’s Original Single Barrel 29 19 78 88 97
Eagle Rare 10 36 18 75 85 93
Stagg Jr 25 18 76 87 94
Booker’s Bourbon 42 17 79 90 96
Eagle Rare 17 10 17 78 91 95
Wild Turkey Rare Breed 20 16 84 88 100
George T Stagg 2013 11 16 80 89 96
W.L. Weller Special Reserve 16 15 72 80 87
Russell’s Reserve 10 12 15 78 84 93
Evan Williams Single Barrel 2004 11 15 80 86 95
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Lot B 10 15 79 89 94
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 32 15 82 90 97
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel 11 14 77 86 91
Wild Turkey 101 28 14 77 87 91
Larceny Small Batch Bourbon 10 13 73 81 86
Four Roses Single Barrel 38 13 82 89 95
Black Maple Hill 12 12 75 80 87
Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof 14 11 86 92 97
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition, 2013 18 10 88 94 98
Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection (OBSF) 10 9 84 90 93
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 12 9 86 92 95
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15 10 9 90 94 99
Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch 20 8 84 89 92
William Larue Weller 10 7 92 96 99
Back to Categories

Rye whiskey

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Rittenhouse Rye 100 35 23 72 86 95
Sazerac Rye 17 16 75 85 91
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 11 15 85 93 100
Willett 4 Year Rye 23 13 82 89 95
Bulleit Rye 26 12 80 85 92
High West Rendezvous Rye 20 12 83 90 95
Wild Turkey 101 Rye 12 10 80 84 90
High West Double Rye 15 10 82 87 92
Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye 13 10 85 90 95
Thomas H. Handy 10 10 88 94 98
Knob Creek Rye 10 8 80 84 88
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scotch: HIGHLAND / SPEYSIDE

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Clynelish 14 25 43 49 82 92
Cragganmore 12 31 35 60 80 95
Cardhu 12 20 34 55 76 89
Dalmore 12 26 31 60 78 91
Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask 64 27 69 86 96
Aberlour 10 19 26 60 79 86
Dalmore 15 15 26 64 81 90
Dalwhinnie 15 43 26 65 83 91
Balvenie 15 Single Barrel 44 26 70 88 96
Balvenie 12 Doublewood 73 24 68 82 92
AnCnoc 12 36 24 70 85 94
Aberlour 12 Double Cask Matured 34 20 72 84 92
Aberlour A’bunadh batch #39 13 20 74 88 94
Ardmore Traditional Cask Peated 21 19 68 79 87
Aberlour 18 14 19 74 87 93
Balvenie 17 Peated Cask 15 19 79 90 98
Benromach 10 15 18 77 85 95
Balvenie 12 Single Barrel First Fill 11 18 75 86 93
Aberlour 12 Non Chill Filtered 34 18 79 90 97
Aberfeldy 12 14 17 70 79 87
AnCnoc 16 12 17 76 86 93
Balvenie 21 Portwood 23 17 78 89 95
BenRiach 10 Curiositas 13 16 79 87 95
BenRiach 12 11 13 74 82 87
Aberlour 16 18 12 81 87 93
Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch #3 11 12 85 91 97
Aberlour A’bunadh 19 11 83 90 94
Aberlour A’bunadh batch #45 11 10 86 91 96
Balvenie 17 Doublewood 12 9 81 87 90
Balvenie 12 Signature 11 7 81 84 88
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SCOTCH: LOWLAND

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Glenkinchie 12 19 36 55 79 91
Auchentoshan Valinch 31 34 60 84 94
Auchentoshan 12 25 21 65 79 86
Auchentoshan Three Wood 30 15 76 84 91
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scotch: ISLAY

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Bowmore Legend 16 67 17 64 84
Caol Ila 12 68 63 35 85 98
Ardbeg 10 107 55 40 86 95
Bowmore 12 38 42 48 75 90
Bowmore 15 Darkest 18 32 55 78 87
Bowmore 18 14 32 56 81 88
Bunnahabhain 12 66 32 63 86 95
Ardbeg Alligator 22 21 77 89 98
Ardbeg Galileo 30 19 78 89 97
Kilchoman Machir Bay 41 18 76 87 94
Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten 62 18 75 87 93
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 7 15 18 77 90 95
Ardbeg Uigeadail 99 18 80 93 98
Ardbeg Ardbog 29 16 80 90 96
Bruichladdich Rocks 21 14 75 83 89
Finlaggan Old Reserve 16 13 80 85 93
Ardbeg Corryvreckan 45 13 84 91 97
Bunnahabhain 18 17 12 82 90 94
Bruichladdich Black Art 2 18 11 84 89 95
Kilchoman Loch Gorm 10 9 83 88 92
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10 12 8 85 88 93
Bruichladdich Octomore 4.2_167 Comus 10 8 90 93 98
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte An Turas Mor 16 6 82 85 88
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SCOTCH: ISLAND

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Highland Park 12 112 52 42 85 94
Talisker 10 84 51 44 87 95
Jura 10 18 40 54 76 94
Ledaig 10 19 39 55 81 94
Talisker 57° North 18 27 69 86 96
Tobermory 10 18 26 65 81 91
Scapa 16 16 26 67 82 93
Highland Park 18 45 26 74 88 100
Arran 10 18 25 65 84 90
Jura Superstition 24 23 65 79 88
Ledaig 7 peated sherry cask – /r/Scotch Community Cask 11 22 68 81 90
Jura 16 12 21 69 82 90
Talisker Storm 18 21 70 84 91
Tobermory 15 14 20 76 89 96
Highland Park 15 13 18 74 86 92
Arran 14 18 14 76 84 90
Talisker 18 18 14 80 89 94
Talisker Distiller’s Edition 2012 10 13 80 89 93
Highland Park 25 16 12 84 91 96
Talisker 25 10 7 87 91 94
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SCOTCH: CAMPBELLTOWN

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Springbank 10 31 33 60 84 93
Springbank 18 11 23 70 88 93
Springbank 15 23 21 70 86 91
Springbank 12 Cask Strength 23 16 79 89 95
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IRISH WHISKEY

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Redbreast 12 13 24 70 85 94
Jameson 14 15 69 76 84
Back to Categories

CANADIAN whisky*

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Crown Royal Special Reserve 6 54 39 67 93
Crown Royal Black 5 30 55 76 85
Forty Creek Barrel Select 9 18 72 79 90
Lot No. 40 8 13 82 87 95
Forty Creek Confederation Oak 5 12 75 83 87
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve 5 12 75 83 87
Alberta Premium Dark Horse 16 12 82 87 94
Back to Categories

* Canadian Whisky data based on 5 or more reviews due to lack of reviews

The James E. Pepper Distillery Gets A Facelift

While some distilleries are getting a facelift to resurrect a piece of their former glory, the former James E. Pepper distillery in Lexington, Kentucky is moving into a new era with a fresh, yet controversial, coat of paint.

Sponsored by PRHBTN and crowd funded by the residents of Lexington and beyond, the mural is an extremely large “self-portrait” created by French artist MTO located on the large warehouse that faces all who approach the complex from downtown Lexington via Manchester Street.

There is a narrative to the artwork showcased in the video and transcribed below. While some of the points made in the narrative don’t necessarily apply to the James Pepper Distillery, they are valid for most others during the era of Prohibition.

If anything, the video provides a glimpse into the ruins of the distillery that I haven’t had the chance to explore myself in many years, and that most have never had the chance to see.

Video Transcription

My Name Is Mo and this is my story..

In 1919 the “Volstead Act” declared effective alcohol prohibition in United States. All distilleries in the country closed. One after another. The black market network developed, bringing the creation of clandestine distilleries.

In 1933 prohibition was abolished and legal alcohol production started again, but numerous companies stayed closed because 14 years of inactivity rendered them obsolete. They were too degraded to start again.

I was born 40 years later in 1973, in a small city in Kentucky named Lexington. In the early nineties I was a teenager and fascinated by the New York art scene, particularly by the recent rise of a new form of illegal art called graffiti.

I started scheming around every corners of my city with aerosol spray cans and wrote my name everywhere I went. One day while I was painting in an old abandoned distillery, police saw me from afar and tried to arrest me. I fled into the huge empty warehouse next to it, formerly used for bourbon storage and refining.

The police didn’t find me. But in passing they closed and locked the door I used to come in. I found myself alone and trapped in this very big structure without anyone knowing I was there. Two days passed without finding any means to escape. So I was forced to accept my sad fate. I was going to die here alone!

However I made a very surprising discovery when I was looking for a way to escape. I found a small trap door very well hidden under a mound of trash. This door led to an enormous subterranean network containing a gargantuan stockpile of fine aged bourbon. This amazing cache of bourbon had been most likely concealed by very well organized smugglers during prohibition and had never been found as the smugglers spent their final days in jail.

In desperation, I started to drink recklessly in order to hasten my death and maybe add a little joy and delusion. But then – something absolutely unexpected and inexplicable happened: I didn’t die. Despite the lack of food and water, the bourbon was nourishing me. It was keeping me alive.

As time passed my body was undergoing some very disturbing changes to say the least. Two arms started to grow from my back, and the gas mask I usually use to paint slowly started to graft to my face, which had become disfigured.

But above all the most impressing thing was that I started growing. Growing a lot. So much growing that people in Lexington eventually discovered me, but it was too late. Nearly 25 years had passed, I couldn’t go back to a regular life.

I had become a monster.

A Brief History of the James E. Pepper Distillery

James E. Pepper Distillery 1936

For starters, the artist mentions all distilleries were closed as a result of Prohibition, but this is simply not true. Some distilleries remained open and the Pepper Distillery was one of them. To portray this structure as a symbol of the devastation caused by prohibition, as the artist does, is misleading. As Richard Thomas summarizes,

“The Pepper distillery was one of a handful in America that survived the Prohibition era intact, largely because it became both a licensed ‘medicinal whiskey’ producer and because it became an official warehouse agent under the Federal government’s concentration-and-control scheme for Prohibition era spirits.”

There were two major reasons a distillery survived Prohibition, and the James Pepper Distillery benefitted from both. The first was the Liquor Concentration Act of 1922, which consolidated stocks of whiskey in select warehouses under government supervision. At the beginning of Prohibition there were about 800 bonded warehouses housing whiskey nationwide, but by 1922 most stocks had been transferred to Kentucky. Due to its stability, and ability to securely store large amounts of whiskey, the James E. Pepper Distillery was designated as one of the sites to house this stock. Other notable distilleries to house whiskey during this period were the George T. Stagg distillery, The Glenmore Distillery, and the Old Grand Dad Distillery.

The second way a distillery survived Prohibition was through the supervised production and sale of whiskey for medicinal purposes. During the time leading up to prohibition, whiskey had already established a market as an antiseptic and painkiller, and was also prescribed by physicians to fight influenza. Since the late 1800s, Pepper and other producers had already marketed their whiskey products as such.

During Prohibition, Kentucky was among 25 other states to sanction whiskey for medicinal purposes, and those distilleries designated to maintain production and sales of whiskey throughout Prohibition were able to maintain brand recognition, but more importantly, profit. As a testament to this, by 1923 James E. Pepper whiskey was endorsed by more than 40,000 physicians nationwide, with cases being sold at almost six times their pre-Prohibition price.

After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the Pepper Distillery was poised for expansion. In 1934, the distillery was one of many acquired by Schenley to create what would become the largest distilling company in the United States through expansion of modern industrial production capacity.

The Pepper distillery’s physical significance lies not only in its pre-prohibition existence, but in its technological and overall production advances during the post-repeal era. It is a great example of success and resilience during prohibition, as well as the acceleration of industrial technology post-repeal.

Unfortunately, despite overcoming many obstacles since repeal, World War II for example, the distillery eventually ended production in 1958.

Artistic Parallels

MTO James E Pepper Distillery

While perhaps not a parallel with this particular distillery, the conceptualization of Prohibition detailed in the work’s narrative does parallel the long-time “oppression” of street art, as graffiti and whiskey-making have both been considered poisons to society. It’s a stretch to entertain the thought, but it’s there nonetheless.

Considering the history, the artwork (although ironically unintentional and misaligned) does draw a comparison between the distillery’s resilience and the place of street art in the city of Lexington through creating such an audacious piece of work on such a significant piece of history. This certainly breeds discourse, which I suppose is the end goal of this piece [in negligence of the blatant narcissism].

What strikes me as amusing is the fact that this mural screams of the oppressive stature society holds towards its genre of art, yet it was legally commissioned and as such will remain in place without threat of removal.

Prohibition was a massively oppressive move to destroy the spirits business, but it seems those with enough money and the right connections made it through hard times relatively unscathed. If anything is oppressed today, or imprisoned as the mural depicts, it’s those in the neighborhood with a negative opinion of the art, not the art itself.

On a positive note, Lexington’s art scene now boasts another gigantic mural created by an internationally known artist. Is this work another a beacon of the city’s creative ability [to bring in outside talent]?

The Arts and The Distillery District

The bigger picture that has often been overlooked by many is the recent history of Lexington’s distillery district which, since distilleries shut their doors long ago, has been more of a home to artists and artistic event spaces than it has been to distilling (at least until recently). Despite numerous attempts to revitalize the area, it would likely remain neglected to this day if it were not for artists calling attention to it.

New business has slowly moved into the area as the city’s downtown naturally expands, but this particular part of town still isn’t frequented by the average Lexingtonian. The paradox is that some claim such artwork makes this area even less inviting than the solitary deprecated and abandoned buildings lining its streets for many years, which brings us to the controversy, and at which point I digress.

Hats off to PRHBTN and MTO for pulling off a massive feat.

Related Reading

Whiskey in History: James E. Pepper

The James E. Pepper Distillery and Lexington’s Lost Bourbon Industry

James E. Pepper Distillery, Lexington, KY Historic Context [PDF]

Manchester St mural causes concern, sparks discussion about public art