Kentucky Bourbon War Looms Over Technology

There’s a battle coming to Kentucky, and bourbon could soon be more about the test tube than the barrel.

In the next year, a Kentucky bourbon brand will be created using Terressentia’s TerrePURE technology that takes whiskey less than a year old and applies “chemistry instead of the oak barrel,” CEO Earl Hewlette told me in an interview for Whisky Advocate. (TerrePURE has been used to make other bourbons, such as Winchester Small Batch “Straight Bourbon,” but not with Kentucky on the label.)

Terressentia purchased the Owensboro Charles Medley Distillery last year for more than $25 million.

Hewlette claims the technology rapidly matures whiskeys to achieve significant color in four- to six-month-old whiskey and favorable taste phenolics. I’ve not seen this process in action, so my understandings are based on interviews.

In this side-by-side comparison with a Booker's media sample (left) and a Hatfield & McCoy TerrePURE whiskey, you can see the color stands up to a traditionally aged bourbon. There is no coloring disclosure on the Hatfield & McCoy label.
In this side-by-side comparison with a Booker’s media sample (left) and a Hatfield & McCoy TerrePURE whiskey, you can see the color stands up to a traditionally aged bourbon. There is no coloring disclosure on the Hatfield & McCoy label.

South Carolina-based Terressentia has produced several whiskey labels, including the recent Hatfield & McCoy. In my interview with Hewlette, he was very clear that he intends to use his technology in Kentucky bourbon for his own brands and for his distillation contracts.

Now that the Kentucky bourbon sourced whiskey market has dried up—it’s harder for Non-Distiller Producers to buy or contract distill “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” from traditional outlets, such as Heaven Hill, Barton and Brown-Forman—NDPs are reaching out to upstart Kentucky distillers for contract distillations. Currently, New Riff and Kentucky Artisan Distillery are contract distilling for several companies, including names as big as Jefferson’s, because the clients want “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” on the label. That means, Hewlette will likely pluck a few NDPs who will want to see Kentucky on the label.

TerrePURE (1)
Hatfield & McCoy discloses its use of TerrePURE. Will others?

“There remains a belief that Kentucky bourbon is a premium bourbon,” he told me. “So, I think to that extent, being able to offer a product that is made in Kentucky ultimately will be considered a premium over non-Kentucky bourbon.”

This week, Earl’s wife, Paula Dezzutti Hewlette, told me her company, Local Choice Spirits, will soon be launching “Baby Boomer Bourbon.” The exact release date was unclear, but it appears the bourbon will be out within a year and uses the TerrePURE technology.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Bourbon and Lost Spirits boast rapid aging technology that have created heated debates over the use technology in American whiskey. Often relying on the good old boy network, the Kentucky bourbon industry has held tried and true to the mantra that many have tried rapid aging before and they’ve all failed. The industry can no longer say this.

Despite my preference of tradition and the old-fashioned way of making bourbon, you cannot deny Cleveland Bourbon and Terresentia have carved out a market for their respective companies. And while I do not care for the Cleveland Bourbon’s over-oaked profile and find the TerrePURE products too hot and grain-forward, people buy them, people drink them, and distillery engineer types want to know more about them.

Thus, the Kentucky industry must decide how to deal with this technology entering the Commonwealth’s bourbon industry. Will they attempt to change the state or federal laws to disallow certain technologies? Will they do a full-court PR press against TerrePURE? Or will they welcome technology with open arms?

I’ve reached out to the Kentucky Distillers Association, which represents the majority of the state’s distillers. Here’s what KDA president Eric Gregory had to say: “We reached out to Terressentia last year in our first membership drive and invited them to become members. I spoke to their leadership last month to get an update on their renovations and encouraged them to apply. Once we receive their application, we will meet with them, tour their facilities and get to know them better – just as we do with any prospective member. I’m sure there will be questions about their process since this is new technology. But the KDA maintains an open membership policy, and we’re always happy to welcome new companies and new ideas to our distilling family.”

That’s a nice politically correct answer from Gregory, but the truth is his membership loathes the technology. But the distillers of yesterday loathed automation in distilleries.

Before he passed away, Elmer T. Lee criticized automation used in the distilleries. (Here’s a great 2006 interview with Lee on WhiskyCast.) The former Old Fitzgerald master distiller Edwin Foote agreed, saying the human senses are more acute than computers. And before them, Stitzel-Weller master distiller Will McGill and Seagram’s research director Dr. E. H. Scofield often debated about the use of science in the 1940s. (Read about the McGill-Scofield debate in my next book, Bourbon Curious.) And before them, early 1900s distillers debated the use of heat cycling in warehouses.

So, my point is, either this TerrePURE technology is a part of the bourbon technology evolution like heat cycling or it will unify all distillers to stop it.

Because once the technology starts putting Kentucky bourbon on the shelf, it’s not going to stop.

 

Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious

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10 Replies to “Kentucky Bourbon War Looms Over Technology”

  1. Here again we see a comparison with Booker’s, a recognizable brand. Why won’t any of these guys do the only comparative taste test that matters, comparing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ using their special process? That is so obvious that the failure of every one of these guys to do it is why they don’t pass the smell test for me.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chuck! I should point out that the Booker’s photo was mine, and I just grabbed something off the shelf for a color comparison.

  2. Kentucky Revised Code 244.370
    Whiskey to be aged — Exception if not labeled as Kentucky whiskey.
    No whiskey produced in Kentucky, except whiskey the barrel containing which is branded “Corn Whiskey” under the internal revenue laws, shall be bottled inKentucky or removed from this state unless such whiskey has been aged in oak barrels for a period of not less than one (1) full year
    http://www.lrc.ky.gov/statutes/statute.aspx?id=11476

    I hope there is a push for more transparency in labeling.

    1. Thank you, Eric. I’m sure this is the code the people in power are prepared to use for a lawsuit. But what happens if TerrePURE uses 1-year-old whiskey? I agree with you 100% on transparency, but TerrePURE products have always been transparent. I’ve not seen one that didn’t have TerrePURE on the label. I applaud them for that, because it gives consumers a chance to decide based on their preference.

  3. Fred,

    I appreciate your calling attention to our technology but wish to clarify a couple of things. First, Hatfield & McCoy is an American whiskey, not a Bourbon, so it’s taste profile will have more grain and heat than our
    Bourbons. Second, we do not add caramel or any other coloring agent to our whiskies. We draw color from the oak barrel.

    As for our Bourbons and Rye whiskies, at the 2014 San Francisco Spirits Competition, our 6 month Hayes Parker Bourbon won a silver medal and our 6 month Darby’s Rye won a bronze. This year we entered three different rye whiskies and won one gold and two silvers. And a silver for our 6 month Hayes Parker Cherry Bourbon. Plus two double golds for vodka and apple pie moonshine and a silver for blueberry moonshine. In 21 different international taste competitions since 2009, our products have won over 70 medals. So someone thinks our technology works.

    Traditionalists need to open up a bit more to innovation. What we are doing does not in any way degrade the distillers art. We need well made whiskey and other spirits as a starting point. All we are doing with whiskies is replicating barrel aging. We have found a way to take whiskies that have been traditionally aged for six months and create a taste profile that is equivalent or better than most 4 year old whiskies. This is “commodity” whiskey, not Pappy 15 year old. But if your goal is an affordable, enjoyable whiskey, why wouldn’t you want to save the cost of 3.5 years of barrel aging (warehouse costs, barrel taxes, time value of money, and the “angel share” losses).

    There is room in this industry for creativity. The consumer will be the final judge.

    Earl

  4. I tried the terresentia whiskey, and still got a sample.

    My opinion is that it doesn’t work at all. In Scotland they found an even easier way to colour their whisky called e150

    Steffen

  5. I’m a bit late on this story, but here are my thoughts: I purchase liquor for a larger store in Denver CO. We carried the Hatfield & Mccoy, which ended up on the discount shelf, and I was just sampled on the Gentry. I was unaware of the process used for these whiskies prior to trying them, but I didn’t care for either. The Gentry had a sherry like flavor with no spice, or really bourbon character to it in general. I passed on it. Its not a requirement that I like everything I sell (different folks, different tastes), but as a consumer I’d have been quite displeased with this purchase. The only place I’d see a home for this type of product is in the 100ml $0.65 type “I just need to be drunk” products where the quality/flavor is assumed to be less than say, Kentucky Deluxe. If Earl had said “this whiskey is not Kentucky Deluxe” rather than using the name Pappy…

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