Bill Goldring: The Great Man of Bourbon
“When I first got into this business,” says Bill Goldring, “my father said, ‘Bill, you never want to go into the bourbon business, because one day you’re gonna wake up and you’re going to own a lake full of bourbon, and you’re not gonna know what to do with it, because people’s taste changes.’”
Today, Goldring, who is chairman of the Sazerac Company, which owns the most award-winning bourbon whiskey distillery in the world: Buffalo Trace Distillery, spread across hundreds of acres in Frankfort, Kentucky, and producing bourbon from five recipes, with the broadest range of aged whiskey in America. The distillery’s heritage reaches back two centuries, and Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery in the United States. It even survived Prohibition, when it was given special dispensation to produce “medicinal” whiskeys — and anyone who has tried any one of its labels can attest: medicine it is, if not for the body, then for the soul.
The advice Stephen Goldring gave his son all those years ago wasn’t wrong. The fortunes of all spirits rise and recede like the tides, but despite its longevity and distinctly American story, bourbon in particular proved prone to calamity. In the 20th century, after the Second World War, the illustrious liquor experienced a surge of popularity. Throughout the European and Pacific campaigns, GIs looking to ease their woes had to endure “ersatz whiskey” — what amounted to a blend of crude vodkas with a splash of whiskey for color. When soldiers came home, they were thirsty for the real thing, and no whiskey was more honest or American than bourbon.
To meet the demand, the market was flooded with so much bourbon that pairing animals and building arks wouldn’t have been the worst idea out there, and as a result, a spirit known for its craftsmanship became inexplicably associated with shoddiness — or worse, swill. Mark Brown, the chief executive officer of the Sazerac Company, told me in an interview that it was like selling a Rolls Royce for 25 grand. The magic was lost.
The fate of the whiskey fell to master distillers like Elmer T. Lee and T. William “Bill” Samuels Sr., who took the wheel and guided bourbon through the rough waters of the 1950s, however torn aplenty the ship might have been. They restored the liquor’s luster and then some, but tastes change, and by the late ’70s, the bourbon market again collapsed — this time with little hope of recovery. The business problem was one of capital: Bourbon is expensive to make, and takes years to age before being ready for bottling and selling. An industry in dire straits cannot wait two, four, six or seven years before putting a product on shelves and in bars — especially not a product that might turn out disappointing when the time comes, for a market that might not be that interested. Thus the advice of Stephen Goldring, and a risky bet years later by his son Bill.
VODKA RISING, BOURBON FALLING
“By the time the ’80s came,” says Goldring, “vodka had taken over.” This wasn’t a bad state of affairs for the Sazerac Company. In the late ’50s, the company premiered Taaka Vodka (which today is the largest-selling alcoholic beverage in the state of Louisiana). It was, at the time, one of just two vodka brands on the American market. Just as Bill’s bet on bourbon would be…risky at best, Stephen’s gambit to release a vodka brand during the McCarthy era was either visionary or insane. With the country turning over every rock in the hunt for communists in American society, who but a commie would drink a Russian alcohol?
But tastes change. The beauty of bourbon is its age, its taste and its aroma, and drinkers expected and enjoyed that. Vodka, on the other hand, was a surefire failure in the alcohol business because it was bourbon’s opposite: It had no taste, no smell, no odor. Who would drink a product without the very things that drinkers wanted in the first place? As it turned out: everyone. The secret of Taaka’s success was, and remains, written on every bottle’s label: “Mixes easy…just add people.”
Whatever you mix vodka with is what it tastes like. A Bloody Mary tastes like tomato juice. A screwdriver tastes like orange juice. An Arnold Palmer tastes like lemon juice and honey. “People could go out and have a vodka martini or a screwdriver, and could come back and didn’t have alcohol on their breath,” says Goldring. His father’s plan proved prophetic, and as years elapsed, vodka’s mixability took it from zero percent of the market to about one-third. Bourbon, meanwhile, continued to suffer catastrophic losses in market share.
Which is what made Bill Goldring’s move in 1991 so daring. He knew someone in Kentucky who owned a bourbon distillery that was about to go out of business entirely. “The distillery, after Prohibition, had a reputation for making the best whiskey in America,” says Goldring. “His problem was that he had a lake full of bourbon — just like my father had predicted — and he said, look, you buy my inventory and I’ll give you the distillery.”
It wasn’t much of an offer. The distillery by then was floundering, dilapidated and down to 40 employees on 113 acres. Goldring knew the quality was there, but had no idea at the time that bourbon would ever make a comeback.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get lucky and you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time; and we bought the inventory, we got the distillery, and we started buying other brands from other major distillers.” Why would someone sell such revered brands as W.L. Weller, Old Charter or Benchmark to the Sazerac Company? Because bourbon was doomed, and distillers had lost interest in the category all together.
So Goldring’s company spent seven years renovating its newly purchased distillery, modernizing it and renaming it for the migration path of buffalo headed westward from Kentucky. Buffalo Trace Distillery was born.
“We just figured bourbon was going to come back,” says Goldring. And he was right. Its first product, Buffalo Trace, ignited a bourbon renaissance when it was released in 1999.
BESTING THE COMPETITION
“If you wake up in the morning and you think you have a J-O-B, you’re in the wrong place,” Goldring tells me. “This is a fun business. Everybody likes to talk about their favorite alcohol beverage, and it’s easy to have a passion for something that is so much fun.”
With that joie de vivre, he set his sights on rival liquors whose products he felt inferior to his own. “We thought bourbon, certainly, was a better product than scotch.”
Indeed, Goldring placed scotch directly in bourbon’s line of fire. Scotch, in Goldring’s prescient estimation, was a dominant whiskey worldwide not because of its quality, but because of the British Empire’s global footprint. They would move into a continent and bring their booze with them. It simply had a head start on the superior American whiskey. And before long, he says, people started to realize that bourbon does taste great. “I’m not just saying that because I’m in the bourbon business,” he adds.
It comes down to the basics: Bourbon is made in new charred oak barrels and aged. Scotch starts with used bourbon barrels, which means bourbon has a much better flavor to start with. Indeed, one is likely to find used Buffalo Trace barrels all over the world — and with good reason. The Sazerac Company hand-selects each of its barrels, down to the particular part of the tree that will be used in the barrel’s construction. Moreover, scotch makers can add flavoring like caramel and coloring. With bourbon, what you see is what you get. Whatever comes out of the barrel is the end product. Such shortcuts versus the integrity of bourbon lead to huge differences in flavor profiles.
But scotch isn’t the only player on the market that a successful bourbon distillery must overcome. Although there seem to be hundreds of bourbons hitting store shelves, hoping to capitalize on the liquor’s popularity, there are only about 12 real bourbon distilleries in the United States. This is, in part, because it’s so difficult up-front to start a true such distillery. (For comparison, there are about 12,000 wineries in the United States and 7,000 breweries.) Government regulations are a hindrance, but it’s also a question of time: Unlike vodka, which can be distilled today and bottled tomorrow, it takes six to seven years to make great bourbon. The first four years of that, you lose 25 percent of the bourbon to evaporation. For a 20-year bourbon, the evaporation rate goes as high as 75 percent.
“If you wonder why a Pappy Van Winkle is so expensive,” says Goldring, “it’s because there ain’t much left when you get to 20 years old.”
It is one thing when you own the company to say that you make the best whiskey in America, but whiskey writers the world over are in almost unanimous agreement. The bourbons of Buffalo Trace Distillery are lauded annually with every award yet conceived. Among its most celebrated bottles are Buffalo Trace, W.L. Weller, Benchmark, Eagle Rare, Pappy Van Winkle, E.H. Taylor, Zachariah Harris and Elmer T. Lee. All are the result of hard work and human hands. “Our master distillers over the past 200 years are all iconic,” he says. And their legacies continue to drive the company forward, from one success to the next.
“Edwin Edwards once said that if you sit by the river long enough, all of your enemies will pass by,” Goldring says. “If you hang around long enough and you’ve got integrity, quality and craftsmanship, you will get recognized for who you are. And nothing is more important than word of mouth, which I believe we have achieved with the consumer and our industry.”
TOWARD THE FUTURE
When the Sazerac Company bought what would become Buffalo Trace Distillery, Goldring and Mark Brown, the company’s president & CEO, had no way of knowing that the distillery would one day grow to 2,500 employees, its 130 acres expanded to 450. The buildings on the facility span three centuries — the most recent such structures include the addition of one new warehouse every four months.
“Many years ago, we built an experimental warehouse in trying to achieve what we call the Holy Grail of whiskey,” says Goldring. They’ve taken different types of barrels made from woods from different parts of trees. They’ve used different types of grains and continually work at making better whiskeys. But what does it mean to be the “Holy Grail” of whiskey? How would you know it if you found it? Goldring compares it to making a gumbo.
“Every day a chef adds a little bit more sugar or a little bit more flour to his recipe in working to get the shape better. You don’t make any dramatic changes, but when you get there you’ll know it.” You’ve got to tinker with it, he says, and you’ve got to keep tinkering with it. Here, Buffalo Trace Distillery has a towering advantage over its rivals. They have dozens of different whiskeys, each slightly different: different proofs, different ages, different barrels, all in climate-controlled warehouses. They have laboratories with machines that analyze the DNA of what is in the barrel. The company, he explains, has a keen interest in agriculture, even growing their own corn on their property using non-genetically modified crops.
“Because we have so many different whiskeys, if you take a look at 90 percent of all the small distillers — and I mean small,” he emphasizes, “they start off making one whiskey and they really don’t know how it’s going to taste in six years, much less if the consumer is going to like the taste of what they have produced.” The question then is, what does a small distiller do in six years if they’ve produced something the consumer doesn’t want? The answer: not much. This allows the Sazerac Company to take chances that others cannot.
Still, one thing Buffalo Trace has struggled with for a decade is demand outpacing supply. “What other people have done is reduced the age and reduced the proof, and we have refused to do that, nor have we gone out to buy whiskey on the open market. Every crop comes directly from Buffalo Trace.” Maintaining the integrity of their product is first and foremost in Goldring’s mind. Indeed, when considering the care that goes into making any bottle bearing the Sazerac Company name, the word that comes to mind is not factory, but rather, art studio. From the care and cleaning of the facility to the use of organic corn to making sure the terroir of their soil is well-cultivated…artistry is the only correct word. Sazerac is truly in the culinary arts business.
But considering the sheer number of labels in the Sazerac Company portfolio — everything from George T. Stagg to Chi-Chi’s — I asked Goldring whether they were, to him, products…or something more? Does he have favorites? Is there a division between art and commerce?
No, he answered immediately. “Every one is better than the next,” he says.
Because of the overwhelming demand placed on their product, everything that the Buffalo Trace Distillery releases is on what is called “allocation.” Everything they make is a limited release. Goldring hopes to change that. “That’s why we are building those warehouses,” he says. “Business is up, and we’re selling every drop.” Because bourbon needs to age for seven years, they tried eight years ago to determine where they would be today and move away from allocation. They had no way of knowing just how profoundly the bourbon market would explode in popularity.
“We think that, four or five years from now, we’ll have it figured out. You can’t put this stuff in the microwave,” he says. “You can’t put it on a boat, have it sail through the Caribbean, and make it age any differently. Just the opposite.”
THE MARKET AND SUCCESSES, EXPECTED AND NOT
Consumer tastes change over time, and if there is one truism about the Sazerac Company, it is that they are obsessive about exploring new ways of distilling spirits while remaining steadfast in their commitment to the heritage of their bourbon forebearers. But they keep a close eye on the market, and Goldring was quick to walk me through the state of affairs in liquor today.
“I hear a lot of people talk about growth in gin,” he says. “There’s no growth in gin. As far as scotch whiskey is concerned — it accounts for about four and a half percent of the market, and it’s not increasing.” Straight malt scotches are increasing, he adds, but blended scotches are decreasing. Rum is decreasing, he says, explaining: “Bourbon is picking that up, and tequila is increasing dramatically.” He suspects the rise in tequila is coming at the expense of vodka.
One of his own products, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, whose flavor evokes the spicy candy of the same name, has taken the market by storm, becoming the top-selling whisky in the United States. They knew they had a winner on their hands almost immediately, Goldring says.
“Fireball started in Nashville. Country & Western singers were drinking it, and it spread from Tennessee to Texas and all of a sudden, it’s everywhere,” he explained. “I use the expression: When the tom-toms are beating, they’re heard all over.”
When college kids are drinking it in Texas, they’re also drinking it in Michigan. Still, he doesn’t think people quite understand the Fireball success story.
“The fallacy is, people think is that it’s a young person’s drink. Fireball is now consumed throughout the universe of ages. If you go to a home for grandmothers, it’ll be the number one brand there — just as it will be in a college bar. It has a great taste.” He compares it to Coca-Cola; no one has been able to imitate it — and oh how they have tried. “Competitors have come and gone,” he says.
Another astounding success for the company is Sazerac Rye 18.
“There’s nothing to tell you about it,” he tells me with a laugh. “There’s about this much of it in the world,” and he holds his thumb and index fingers close together. The price reflects this; you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle of it for less than a thousand dollars. Every October, the Sazerac Company releases an antique collection of spirits in limited quantities. “Eighteen years ago we didn’t even know we were going to have an antique collection,” he says.
George T. Stagg has been another 18-year-old success story for the company, rated as highly as the peerless Pappy Van Winkle. This year they released what they are calling Stagg Jr., which is a nine-year-old version of the same bourbon.
As for how the past informs the future, Goldring is optimistic. “We’ve grown from the smallest distiller in America to the largest. In 20 years, we think if we get into enough countries we could be the largest or the second-largest distiller in the world. We’re going to have to make a lot of whiskeys to do that.” Despite the global reach, however, Goldring keeps coming back to his pride in the Sazerac Company’s local history.
“Sazerac is perhaps the oldest company in New Orleans and one of the oldest companies in Louisiana. Similar to Tabasco, Sazerac is a Louisiana company that is famous around the world.”
He adds: “Mark Twain said that there are three great cities in America: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans, and the rest of the world is Cleveland. New Orleans is known for its cocktail culture, and one of the most important things to me personally is to bring people into our great city and help its economy. And what we’ve done over the years through our foundation, and being a major benefactor of Tulane University, the Audubon Nature Institute, City Park, Woldenberg Park — all of those bring people into the city.”
And with last month’s opening of Sazerac House on Canal at Magazine, it seems that Bill Goldring is just getting started.