Why Sazerac Feels It’s Time to Get Into Tennessee Whiskey

| December 23, 2016

Sazerac Co.’s purchase this week of the distillery formerly known as Popcorn Sutton in Newport, Tennessee, was a bit of an anomaly for the acquisition-happy Metairie, Louisiana, spirits giant. While the deal included the facility, its hardware, and its employees, it didn’t come with the white whiskey stock or the brand named after Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the deceased folk hero moonshiner.

Sazerac’s goal is to bolster its American whiskey portfolio by creating a true Tennessee whiskey with a pair of distillers who, until this year, ran the stills at George Dickel, before coming to Sutton. According to Mark Brown, its president and CEO, this yet-to-be-created brand will be released to the drinking public four to six years from now.

popcorn stills

The stills at Popcorn Sutton (image via Popcorn Sutton)

“While we work with a sense of urgency, we’re not going to be in a rush to launch an underage whiskey,” Brown said in an interview with us the day the news broke of the acquisition. “We’re going to do right, and how long it’ll take is how long it’ll take.”

Brown is bullish on Tennessee whiskey as an aged spirit expression he believes is underrepresented domestically and globally. During part of his term at Brown-Forman from 1992 to 1997, he served as president of Advancing Markets Group, where his task was to sell Jack Daniel’s around the world. It remains the world’s most popular whiskey by a wide margin. Getting into the Tennessee whiskey game, he said, is a long-term play with abundant upside.

“I thought of the bigger picture about this—looking at how American whiskey is going to evolve over time and how Tennessee whiskey is a part of that,” he said. “We were definitely drawn to the talents of (distillers) John (Lunn) and Allisa (Henley) and the opportunity to purchase the distillery. And once our guys looked the distillery over thoroughly, it all got to be a no brainer for us.”

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For now, anyway, since technical planning remains to be done. Compared to Sazerac’s largest distillery, Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky, the Sutton site is quaint. According to a news release from Sazerac, the pair of pot stills on hand to make Sutton’s signature recipe will be modified to accommodate the Lincoln County Process required for real Tennessee whiskey.

Yet given Sazerac’s propensity for buying brands to grow them, that arrangement is likely a short-term workaround preceding a significant overhaul. Brown addressed the issue somewhat vaguely, saying the distillery’s new layout will be a work in progress.

“We’re going to sit with John and Allisa in the new year and have a nice conversation and get everyone on the same page,” he said. Once the group decides what the whiskey will be like and how much will be made and aged, Brown said he’ll ask, “And by the way, how much investment do you need in distilling equipment?”

Brown went through a similar drill when joining Buffalo Trace in 1997. Then, only 50 employees worked on the site, but today at least 500 work there. Additionally, distilling and warehousing capacity are maxed out.

“Any distillery is an evolution,” Brown said. “Look at where Buffalo Trace is going now: the purchase of 225 acres of contiguous land, a $200 million-dollar investment into the site over the next few years, building new warehouses on that land … and (master distiller) Harlen (Wheatley) is already talking about the fact that we’ll be out of cooking and fermenting capacity in two years!”

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His belief is Tennessee whiskey is headed for the same steep growth curve, and his company is committed to fueling that expansion. Whiskey is the largest premium spirit on the global stage, and he said there’s no expectation its progress will slow.

“Roll the clock forward 50 years and ask who will be the bigger players,” Brown began. “Will it be the Irish or the Japanese, who’ve really come along lately? Someone we’ve just not seen yet? … I fancy our chances with American whiskey, and of that, I think Tennessee whiskey is a viable and promising subsegment.”

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Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....