Saturday, December 27, 2014

Limestone Branch, Yellowstone Bourbon's Resurrection, and Craft Whiskey's Evolution to the Mainstream

A pair of 1970s Yellowstone 6 year old 86 proof minis
for the Italian market. Distilled at Glenmore Distillery.

Everyone agrees that change must be coming to Craft whiskey, but what form will it take?  Craft whiskey in the USA is full of effusive creativity: wild mash bills, whiskey sold underaged (or just white), and localvore flavor variations.  Infused and flavored whiskeys are on the table, and so is volatility and the potential for change.  Whiskey geeks love to discuss what's going to happen to Craft.  "The good ones will succeed, maybe with some mature stuff eventually, while the crappy ones will go belly up" ... is how a lot of these discussions go.  But the recent lesson of top Craft distillery Balcones - with the creative force and brand creator Chip Tate unseated from the company and a group of investors proceeding to develop Balcones' distillery as a larger scale more corporate entity while Chip goes off to start a new distillery suggests a different path of evolution for Craft whiskey; one pretty familiar in the Craft Beer arena: corporatization.  Is this really happening?

Well, another example of the movement from Craft to corporate in American whiskey is the interesting case of Limestone Branch which is turning 180 degrees from white dog Craft to classic Bourbon via a merger - news of which broke on December 2nd 2014 via Chuck Cowdery's Blog that liquor brand producer/marketer Luxco was buying a 50% stake in the small Lebanon, Kentucky craft distiller.  Luxco is a company that has bought brands and then bottles bulk sourced liquors labeled with those brand names.  Their best known products include straight alcohol brand Everclear and, in the whiskey end of things, Rebel Yell (once the light bodied wheated mash bill Southern market exclusive specialty product of Stitzel-Weller), and Ezra Brooks.  They also have the venerable brand "Yellowstone" which once was one of the bigger selling Bourbons in the pre-glut era; one with a very long history that stretches well back into the 19th century.  Yellowstone is still sold now with juice Luxco sources bulk - at a low price and quality level.  But from 1935-1991, though, Yellowstone was made at the Glenmore Distillery (where Kentucky Tavern was made too) and had a sterling reputation. Glenmore stopped distilling in 1993 (but still operates as a bottler and a rickhouse).

Partnering with Limestone branch is a big step for Luxco.  It marks their entry into Bourbon distilling.  It's also presages an ambition rebranding effort.  Luxco is going to try to have resurrect a fallen brand back into something special.  The partnership marks a big change for Limestone Branch too.  They have been making variations on sugarjack and this marks their entry into Bourbon distilling too.

Chuck reported:
After Prohibition, Yellowstone moved to a new location in Shively, south of Louisville. It was solely under the Dant family's control but Beam family members were employed there as distillers. In 1944, the brand and distillery were sold to Glenmore. It was a massive facility that made bourbon until 1991. In 1993, after Glenmore was sold to what became Diageo, Yellowstone was sold to Luxco where it became an unpalatable bottom-shelf brand made by one or more unnamed Kentucky distilleries.

A column still, additional pot still, automated bottling line, and barrel house will be added at Limestone Branch, which plans to begin distilling the original recipe for Yellowstone (their uncle had a copy) in early 2015.

Cowdery has provided more of the back story of Yellowstone in previous posts on his blog back in 2009, by the way.  It's a story that goes back to the roots of the industrial revolution in Bourbon distilling in the 19th century and includes some of the biggest names in Bourbon.  Period.
"The Yellowstone whiskey brand was created by the wholesale firm of Taylor & Williams shortly after the national park was established in 1872. Taylor was D. H. Taylor, who started the firm in Louisville about 1865. J. T. Williams joined the company in 1877. They were wholesalers and bought whiskey from various distilleries.
Sometime in the 1880s they contracted with J. B. Dant to make Yellowstone bourbon for them. Dant had a (then) new distillery in Nelson County, Kentucky, at Gethsemane Station. It was called Cold Springs Distillery.  
In about 1903, Taylor & Williams merged with the Cold Springs Distillery. Dant became president and the distillery was renamed Yellowstone, as that brand had become very successful."
Ad for "Taylor & Williams, Inc.'s Yellowstone - first years of the 20th century
"After prohibition, J. B. Dant and his sons built a new distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively to make the revived Yellowstone bourbon. Various Beams and Dants were involved in that operation too. Another Louisville-based whiskey maker, Glenmore, bought Yellowstone, brand and distillery, in 1944.

Yellowstone was a significant brand in its heyday, but as a mass or popular price brand, it suffered brutal share losses during bourbon’s sharp decline in the 1970s."
1948 Magazine Ad for Yellowstone Bourbon
Glenmore - the Louisville era

Dants and Beams made Yellowstone both before and after Prohibition.  You don't get more blue blood in Bourbon history than the names "Dant" and "Beam".  And Yellowstone was a leading and classic distillery and brand.  (Tasting notes below).  That name "Beam" is the thread that binds this history to Limestone Branch.

Meanwhile, Limestone Branch, a new young Craft distilling operation has been, up until now, all about making moonshine and sugar jack - a lot of it flavored.  This is iconoclastic stuff - very much not in keeping with the nature of a classic like Yellowstone.  But, yet, at Limestone Branch there are Beams making whiskey.  Chuck Cowdery, who reported as early as 2012 found a lot to like:
The brothers Beam make everything themselves with help from their father, who worked at Cummins-Collins in Athertonville, among other distilleries. They grew some of their own corn on the distillery grounds. They make a very clean spirit, with good flavor, and little harshness or burn. They're double-distilling. Their doubler is a 150-gallon handmade copper Hoga.
We don't just have to take Cowdery's word for it that they are doing good work.  Eric Burke (@arok) who did a detailed distillery visit recently with pictures of the charantais-type still and tasting notes of one of the flavored sugar shines they sell on his blog
This is a tasty liqueur. Tastes exactly like a baked apple pie that has been allowed to cool. Even the mouthfeel is correct since the liquid in an apple pie gets nicely thick and syrupy.
Stephen Beam and the line-up -
 from an article announcing the merger in the Lexingon Herald-Leader:
The focus on moonshine and sugar jack (i.e. white rum) at Limestone Branch a nod to the illicit local hill traditions and a play at the new trends in flavored whiskies.   It's classic "Craft whiskey" in the new distillery vein which is all about youth and added flavors and playful mash bills.  Here it's moonshine white dog with an interesting mash bill (here it's half moonshine sugarjack, and half white corn whiskey).

White dog in Craft is partly about the survival of small distilleries that need cash flow and need to sell unaged whiskies first when they start distilling.  Part of it is related to local traditions and the localvore market - thus Limestone Branch's big seller "Moonpie Moonshine" - where the flavors are as illicit and ironically downscale as the American South itself.  There's probably a reason that the Moonpie marshmallow cookie sandwich logo graces the Limestone Branch distillery and that it's the very first product listed on the company's web site:

As Eric Burke reported:
As you pull into the parking lot, the first thing you see on the side of the building is a large Moon Pie sign. One of the products they produce is a Moon Pie flavored moonshine that, my wife tells me, is scarily close to the real thing in flavor. 
The Moon Pie is junk food - but it's quintessentially Southern junk food.  The production of a sweet white unaged moonshine version of this is the epitome of one aspect of American Craft distilling that's analogous to junk food - and it drives some purists apoplectic.  But it's clearly a theme for Limestone Branch, which sells a bunch of flavored moonshines:  Apple Cinnamon Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Blackberry, Cherry, Strawberry.  Heck, there's even a barrel aged one - Precinct No. 6

Lisa Roper Wicker, who crafted the Moonpie Moonshine flavor adaptation,
here mixes up the Pumpkin Pie Shine flavors.
From TripAdvisor where Limestone Branch is listed as the #1 attraction in Lebanon, KY:
So, how is an effusive Craft distiller like Limestone Branch going to digest the change in becoming the resurrection of Yellowstone for Luxco?  That's the question.  There have been threads on various fora about the prospects.  Squire's comment on Straight Bourbon captures the tone:
"I'm pulling for them as well, this is the kind of partnership I can support. A new whisky based on the original Yellowstone recipe won't be the same of course but it is a great idea."
So, granted that Limestone Branch's recreation will be a new thing.  What did the old thing taste like?

Yellowstone 6 43% abv.  1970s dusty Italian market export.

Color: pale amber

Nose: Sandalwood oak, vanilla, salted caramel, butter, light solvent, and jelly candies.

Palate:  Candy up front - sugar dusted fruity flavored hard candy and more of those jelly candies.  Then, on the expansion, toffee, sweet cream, citrus, and lightly tanned leather.  At the turn, leather and char take over with some nice tannin spice and a ton of vanilla on the finish.  Nice vividness and intensity of flavor.  Floral and sweet.  But the finish is only medium long.  Also, not a huge body.  But it's a very pleasing set of flavors.  I'd like to try this in a higher proof expression, but I can understand why this was a popular leading Bourbon.  It's very tasty and accessible.  It's also a classic Bourbon flavor profile you don't see any more:  fruity candy.  It's something special that's gone.


Limestone Branch is going to have to take a hard turn from its effusive shines back to tradition to get this right.  I'll be watching with interest.  Is this a bellwether event in the evolution of Craft?  Time will tell.