Kentucky's Distilleries Are Running Full Throttle

I hate that this must be said, but there is nothing in this post about the Full Throttle Saloon, Distillery, or imbecilic TV show. Before all of that idiocy began, 'full throttle' was a perfectly good expression meaning something that was running as hard and fast as it could be run; 'maximum warp,' to use another cultural reference.

I learned earlier this week that the Brown-Forman Distillery in Shively is now running full throttle, meaning at full capacity, more-or-less. They run their two stills 24-hours-a-day for three days, shut them down briefly for cleaning, then do it all again.

This is about the time of year when distilleries go on shutdown. A distillery is like your furnace at home. It doesn't have speeds, it is either on or off, so how much you produce is strictly a function of how long you have the switch turned to 'on.' One way they do this is by shutting down in August and again in December, the shutdown's duration determines total production volume for the year. 'Full throttle' means they take two weeks off for essential maintenance, but that's all.

The news about Brown-Forman was a surprise because it is the first time in living memory that particular distillery has been ridden so hard. It primarily makes Old Forester and Early Times. Old Forester reached its high water mark in 1978. For Early Times, it was even earlier.

For years, Brown-Forman was the contract distillery of choice for the other big producers. I also learned that as of the end of this year, Brown-Forman is out of the contract distilling business, news some of their contract customers were not happy to receive. Everything they make from now on will be for their own products.

What's happening is that there is a corporate mandate to revive the founding brand, Old Forester. Why haven't you heard about it? Because they have to make the whiskey before they can sell it. Ballin' the jack now is an act of faith that their revival campaign will be successful. I'll have more shortly on one of their first initiatives.

Brown-Forman's other two distilleries, Woodford Reserve in Kentucky and Jack Daniel's in Tennessee, are both running balls out with major expansions underway.

Buffalo Trace, probably the second-largest distillery in the state after Jim Beam's Booker Noe plant, is going all out too. That's another distillery that hasn't been close to operating at capacity in decades. Their smaller Barton 1792 Distillery, which like Brown-Forman was running way below capacity just a few years ago, is also going full tilt. Maximum warp has been the rule at Maker's Mark, Heaven Hill, George Dickel, and Four Roses for years. Wild Turkey is ramping up its new distillery and will be at full bore soon. Same with MGP of Indiana.

Jim Beam's two week summer shutdown ends Monday. "While our distilleries are producing extremely high volumes, we are certainly not at max capacity," said a Beam spokesperson.

Still, this is unprecedented, and it is no wonder other parts of the industry, from coopers to truckers to bottle and label makers, are having a hard time keeping up.

If we get a warm, wet August and September, a bumper corn crop is still possible. We're going to need it.

This is all simply remarkable. No one in the industry has ever experienced anything like it. There appears to be no end in sight. Nobody predicted this, so everybody is flying blind and hoping for the best. Bad news from China, as Diageo and Pernod have experienced recently, makes everyone nervous. Because of the aging cycle, whiskey is always made on the if-come, but the bets being laid down now are the biggest in history.

Come on, baby. Daddy needs a new pair of shoes.

Posted by Chuck Cowdery at 9:00 AM