Lost Prophet or the Beginning of a Sourced Whiskey War?

The Sazerac Company is considering legal action against Diageo for using one of its trademarks—George T. Stagg—in the marketing of its latest Orphan Barrel release “Lost Prophet,” a spokesperson for the company told me.

In the product announcement, Diageo says Lost Prophet “was distilled in 1991 in Frankfort, Ky., at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery and found in the old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville, Ky. The whiskey is hand-bottled in Tullahoma, Tenn.”

Sazerac said: “Our attorneys are reviewing the situation since it is obvious Diageo is attempting to trade on our reputation to promote its Lost Prophet Whiskey.”

Lost ProfitDo they have a case? And is Diageo really taking advantage of their reputation or just disclosing history?

In September, at the new Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller, Diageo’s Guy Smith told me: “We’d never encroach on another brand. Whatever we do will be tasteful and historically accurate.”

No doubt, Diageo will align themselves with history as much as they can to promote their products. After all, Pappy Van Winkle, the hottest brand in bourbon, built Stitzel-Weller. They are also sitting on a treasure trove of history in the Stitzel-Weller archives.

But I view the use of George T. Stagg differently than the use of Pappy Van Winkle. Diageo has never publicly disclosed where Bulleit Bourbon is distilled, while they build the new distillery. They’re certainly respecting the confidentiality agreement they have with the contract distiller, so why not respect the George T. Stagg trademark?

On the other hand, they own the whiskey. It’s been sitting in their warehouses. Do they not have the right to promote where it came from?

As I ask these questions, genuinely looking for answers and not taking sides either way, this issue has potential to transcend the concerns of two companies. If this goes to court, we could have legal precedent that keeps sourced whiskey bottlers from disclosing whiskey origins. In addition, Diageo could file countersuit against Sazerac for its use of Stitzel-Weller in marketing Pappy Van Winkle; and we could have the beginnings of an all-out legal war between two behemoths that will dictate what you know about the whiskey you’re drinking.

I, for one, don’t want that. I want to know where my whiskey comes from.

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15 Replies to “Lost Prophet or the Beginning of a Sourced Whiskey War?”

  1. If anything, the actual distillery should be required on every single bottle of whiskey produced and sold in the US.

    I know GTS has since gone on to become a brand name in itself, but that was literally the name of the distillery. Hence, using it should be a requirement, not a legal problem.

  2. Seems like the use is factual and it specifically uses the phrase “at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery”, which is separate from the GTS brand. This is factual and can be backed up by looking up DSP #s. Seems like a fairly innocuous use in the entire scheme of liquor marketing.

  3. Many people killed Diageo for not disclosing more history about its previous “Orphan Barrel” products made at the Old and New Bernheim distilleries. Now that they are providing more info they should be applauded. It’s what we wanted.

  4. Fred, I think the answer to your question may depend on whether there was a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement that was part of the contract for sourcing whiskey from the old Geo. T. Stagg Distillery. Surely the Sazerac lawyers are digging up that old paperwork as we speak!

  5. if stitzel weller is not currently a registered TM, then the author of this blog is comparing apples to grapefruits.

    and I disagree that “George T. Stagg” is different from “the George T. Stagg Distillery” when it comes to the likelihood of confusion in the marketplace, which is the standard for trademark law.
    do any of you really believe that it would be OK to sell a frozen hamburger with “made in a former McDonald’s kitchen” on the label?… or… ANYTHING to do with food saying McDonalds or Coca-Cola on the label, with out permission, no matter how factual????

    didn’t think so.

  6. It would also be a start if Diageo would produce a product that did not have the aroma of aged goat urine. They put something in a nice package and market it well to snatch a profit but they product is an awful letdown that should not be mentioned in the same sentence as PVW or GTS.

  7. It looks as though Diageo has four separate trademark registrations active for various permutations of Stitzel-Weller, including with Distillery appended to the phrase and with SW prefixed.

    I read your article courtesy of Chuck Cowdery, who linked it and who also knows I’m not Diageo’s biggest fan. But even though I am an uninformed lay person, I doubt Sazerac has a case.

    A quick TESS search for the George T. Stagg trademark indicates it was first used in 2002. Diageo isn’t labeling any of these whiskeys with whatever names they’d have been marketed under back in the day, but even if they did or could, they wouldn’t call Lost Prophet “George T. Stagg” whiskey, because that brand didn’t exist in 1991.

    It’s kind of difficult not to use the working name of the distillery at the time the product was distilled, a distillery that Diageo’s corporate ancestors did own at the time. I think it would be clear that Diageo seems to have completely avoided referring to the distillery by its current working name, which is also the brand name of Sazerac’s flagship product and thus might have caused actual marketplace confusion.

    Maybe the next bottling could say “Distilled at a facility once owned by Schenley, sited in Frankfort, Kentucky in an area once famous for its heavy traffic of bison.”

  8. Fred, re: Orphan Barrel releases, I have a piece published before the OB releases stating that Diageo will release a Strong Box 19 year as their fourth release. There was never any mention of a Lost Prophet label. Any idea what the bottling is/ was?
    Also, there is enough cloak and dagger business going on already re: second-party sourced whiskey, especially, the older juice, and whole heartedly agree with you that I want to know where these are all these acquired barrels were distilled and aged…. Hope you and the fam are well, bud!

  9. I want to know where my whiskey comes from also. I see no problem with providing that information. If the whiskey did in fact come from the distillery that was then know as George T Stagg Distillery then they should be able to claim this. They own the whiskey, they should be able to announce its provenance.

  10. Fred…one note to point out. While Diageo has not stated in any of Bulleit’s marketing materials where the whiskey comes from, Tom Bulleit has said in previous interviews that the whiskey was coming from Four Roses. Now, that was several years ago, and perhaps he’s been advised to not say that any more…

    1. It’s been the biggest open secret for the longest time, though. I don’t have a current bottle of Bulleit, but one I’ve had for around a year says “Distilled by The Bulleit Distilling Co. in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky” on the back label. That pretty much narrows it down to two possible facilities, Four Roses and Wild Turkey.

  11. This is the kind of bickering and senseless litigation (or baseless promotion) that leads to the government stepping in and setting the rules. Then, we all lose. I’d love it if the only thing they did was REQUIRE a distillation site, bottling site and aging site, but you know they’ll want to get some gravy out of it for their own grubby hands, and create some useless crap that will either cost the consumer more, or drive good NDPs out of business.

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