Music and bourbon have gone hand in hand since the whiskey itself was invented. Nothing is more enjoyable than firing up your favorite artist and sipping on your favorite bourbon in the waning hours of late summer. There’s something magical that happens when you inundate your senses with your favorite things all at once.
The whole experience becomes even better when you can do this while listening to live music. That’s why we’re excited to announce that we’ll be traveling down to Louisville, KY to attend and participate in the 2019 Bourbon & Beyond festival taking place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, September 20 - 22. Both the artist lineup and bourbon selection look great, and we’re excited to experience it all in person. With the festival only weeks away, we had the opportunity to catch up with Fred Minnick, who has been curating the bourbon portion of the festival since it started in 2017.
Breaking Bourbon: Fred, what's your official role in Bourbon & Beyond?
Fred: I'm a co-founder in it, and the curator of the festival. I curate the culinary and bourbon stuff. Less on the culinary, but 100% on the bourbon. I come up with some ideas on the food side. But really everything in the bourbon...that's my footprint...that's like my baby. Especially the panels, I came up with all those. And that's kind of what I do every year. And then I also do promotions for the festival and drink with the artists and stuff, teach them how to taste bourbon...things like that.
Breaking Bourbon: How did you initially get involved in Bourbon & Beyond?
Fred: I am just really a bourbon geek and there is nothing more. I really didn't have it in my plans of breaking into super mainstream stuff. But the more I saw the impact I could have on regular everyday consumers, the more I wanted to do that kind of stuff. I can have more support and have a bigger impact and that’s really what Bourbon & Beyond has. It transformed me a little bit.
Breaking Bourbon: Ok. So you talked about the food aspect and the stage aspect. But what makes Bourbon & Beyond different than other music festivals that attendees might go to?
Fred: There are a lot of festivals that will have some kind of a drink component to it, or food component. But you go there and there is no connection to the food or drink, it's just there. And the food may be good, and the drink may be good. But there's no one there to talk about it. There's no one there to say what it is. And it's a real myth, in my opinion, for a lot of music festivals to have that, because it doesn't matter what the genre is, people who go to music festivals and listen to concerts, they are usually more on the affluent side.
So it is usually the people who listen to the likes of the Foo Fighters, Leon Bridges - that's your affluent crowd that has a college degree and is out spending money. So I think that's what Bourbon & Beyond is, it is legitimately a bourbon festival. It really is. If you look at our panels for the last three years, those panels have been some of the most engaging in the industry. Last year I got Fred Noe and Jeff Arnett on the stage...Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, a huge rivalry. And no whiskey event in America [has] ever done that. And this year, we have a panel on the history of slavery and American whiskey as a topic...that most people don't want to discuss...but we think it's important.
I'd say what really makes us different, is that there is a thoughtfulness for every square inch of the festival. And specifically on the bourbon. This is one of bourbon’s best chances to convert a French consumer into a fan [for example]. And its happened. I mean, the first year there were truckloads of Eddie Vedder fans, and none of them were bourbon drinkers. And then in the middle of his set, they would go to the big bourbon bar, and then get a cocktail.
But also on the culinary side, we're bringing the people who are on Top Chef, who are the celebrity chefs, and they're kind of like their own rock stars right now. And we're bringing them to the table We're bringing them to people to meet. [For example, there are] a lot of Graham Elliot fans out there. So you bring in that kind of talent, and you know, this festival just stands out so much. [It’s] so much bigger than a lot of those that try to do something like it.
Breaking Bourbon: The last two years have been two day festival. This will be the first three day festival, which means even more bourbon and music for everyone, right? So what type of bourbon experiences can festival attendees expect when they go to Bourbon & Beyond?
Fred: So kind of the whole market would be big bourbon bar, where you go in there and it’s the size of a football field….like spans the whole thing. You know you can get bourbon or you can get a cocktail. There [are also] Tiki components, [as in] there will be bourbon Tiki. You'll find little hidden bars throughout the festival. There's a lot of effort to pair the food with the bourbon. You'll see some fun pizza and bourbon opportunities. But probably one of the coolest for our particular audience is what we call the Hunter Bar. And that's the element that Silver Dollar operates and they're bringing in a bunch of vintage stuff and then bringing in some [feral] pigs and stuff. And then you've got my minibar, which the minibar is the bar where we bring in the craft spirits. I've got Wilderness Trail, MB Roland, and Bluegrass Pillars and then we're also going to put all of our barrel picks in there. And we've partnered with Kroger this year as our retailer. And when I tell you - they were like “Hey, can we do barrel pics for the festival?” I was thinking we might do like five or six. That turned into about 12 to 15!
Breaking Bourbon: It really sounds like at Bourbon & Beyond you can be any experience level with bourbon to really appreciate that.
Fred: Yeah. We definitely have something for the geeks, the panels would get you. But the music draws in such a non-bourbon drinker. In fact, the majority of people who come, like 70%, are from outside of Louisville. And so I think we will have 20 countries, we will have people from almost all the states, we'll have people from everywhere at this festival. And what we're trying to do is to get this [to] where people talk about it like they do Coachella. This is an incredible festival, an incredible lineup, and bourbon is the headline. Bourbon is literally the headliner...star of the show. And when people walk in, they see all this stuff, they listen to music, and they're like, WOW! And they want to come back and they want to do more. It is a very, very important festival for bourbon.
Breaking Bourbon: What have you learned from your last two go-arounds, helping curate Bourbon & Beyond, that you plan on incorporating into this year's event?
Fred: I'd say what I personally learned is that...I am trying to give the people who come the best possible bourbon experience. It's really refreshing to me to see the new blood of fans come in before we're able to taint them and while they're still pure. So Bourbon & Beyond is kind of like the new wave of consumers before we've had a chance to...you know...what's the word I'm looking for...manipulate them into being crotchety curmudgeons.
Breaking Bourbon: Speaking of the music aspect, do you have any fun stories about the last two festivals of converting any musicians into bourbon drinkers, or getting to hang out and really influence the artists into looking at bourbon in a different light?
Fred: Oh, yeah! The first year, I hung out with ZZ Ward, and I taught her about bourbon and tasting and all that, and she fell in love with it. Same with Sean James, a really brilliant blues player. And it was magnificent. Sean and I stayed in touch. ZZ...she's like...she's blowing up. But last year, with the rain, I hung out with David Byrne who was one of the headliners. And we drank some Kentucky Ale 9 and some other stuff. But he was cool. And he is very, very much like he was on stage, very eclectic and unique.
Breaking Bourbon: Very cool. And is there anyone this year that you're looking forward to seeing and trying to drink bourbon with, or just influence them into looking at bourbon in a different way?
Fred: Yeah. The obvious answers are [people] like Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters. The person I am really most excited to talk to is Willie Nelson's boy, Lucas Nelson. He's an amazing musician...amazing. And I think he gets overshadowed for the fact that he's Willie Nelson's boy. I am a big fan of his, so that's probably who I'm most excited to meet. And of course, we've got the other two festivals. Louder Than Life is the next weekend. And the headliner for that is Guns N’ Roses. I am not gonna lie, I'd love a sip of bourbon with Slash.
Breaking Bourbon: Wrapping up, you know a lot of people want to know when can we expect you to launch Vodka & Beyond?
Fred: So much funny about that. I tried to do a panel on vodka this year, and I couldn't get anyone from the vodka world to join me on the bench. So it's not like I didn't try to give it a presence at Bourbon & Beyond. I was like, “Hey, you guys, you have like an hour to convince me vodka is good. I mean, come on, you know...” but I think in their hearts they just know, they know they are inferior. But there's vodka there. If you are a vodka fan you will find plenty I am sure.
Breaking Bourbon: Final plug for Bourbon & Beyond this year?
Fred: If you can find me and I've got five minutes to spare, I'll have a bourbon with you. I really, truly mean that. I'm busy at this thing, I have things to do, but I really truly and genuinely enjoy just hanging out with people. And you know, I've got to pace myself. What I learned last year...I also shot my Amazon Prime show there...what I learned there is I need to make a little bit more time for hanging out with our people.
Breaking Bourbon: You guys are, from my experience, doing things a little bit differently in terms of the starting point selection of your tasting notes from a lot of different barrels, get it down to a smaller number, and then go from there. [Editor’s note: New Riff first has you choose from approximately 25 pre-selected single barrels via barrelling date and tasting notes to narrow down to 5 options to taste, then provides a very well thought out environment to conduct the tasting. For an in-depth explanation, read about our experience here.]
Jay: We did an awful lot of intimate work with Kentucky’s finest distilleries back when we were retailers with barrel picks and other products, things like that. We launched at The Party Source, for example, Four Roses private barrels for that distillery, among other things. And so we knew well how that all works at the retail level, at the experiential level. And when we go to offers that to people in our now distillery, we wanted to do it right. We hope we do everything right, but that’s kind of how we went about that. I hear from other groups and stores and our customers, things like, you know, you hear horror stories about where this wound up at other institutions or distilleries. Like, they go to a tasting and they’re all tasting out of a common glass. They pull it out of a barrel and pass a glass around.
I’m pretty sure you guys can afford getting some glassware, you know? It’s just uncivilized and things like that.
But the notes that we put out, these tasting notes...look, back when I was doing these, I never wanted notes. Don’t give me the note. Just give me the whiskey and get out of the way. In fact, honestly, at The Party Source, I almost never went to the distillery to do a pick for one thing. It was long enough ago that they were fold-over thrilled-happy at distilleries that someone wanted to do a pick, and they didn’t care if you came there or something. Today, many distilleries, including in a way, New Riff, although we’re not absolutely dogmatic about it, to constrain somewhat. I know Four Roses does this, again. Places require you to come to the distillery, they’re not just going to send out samples. And by the way, one reason they don’t like to do that so much anymore is it chives up a lot of the barrels. If you have 100 barrels, and you want people to pick 5 barrels out of them, and you start sending out 4 barrels at a time, what happens? Suddenly you’re waiting on people to get back to you, and they take a long time, or they blow you off, or whatever they do. So there is that. I never wanted a tasting note though.
And I have some sort of our…how do I put it…more evolved or more sophisticated bar- restaurant retailer clients who are extraordinarily experienced and bourbon-experts, they sometimes pick them at random, you know, give me that one and that one and that one. I had one retailer in Louisville say, “Ehhh, just give me four barrels, from, let’s say, even numbered dates.” Ok. 10, 12, 14, 16, like that. That’s a great way to randomize what you’re tasting.
Breaking Bourbon: And how do you get to those barrels that are going to end up in the single-barrel program, at this point?
Jay: We taste every lot of whiskey, by which we mean, at New Riff, fermenters...and this is an interesting point, really, it’s the more important point than other aspects of single-barrel or private-barrel programs...most larger distilleries have…so you distill a batch of whiskey. A fermenter full of whiskey. It goes through the still you get the white dog, etc. Most places, that goes to a ginormous tank, big as your house, and all the whiskey pours into that and they cut it and they start filling barrels. And by this, means the batch-to-batch, fermenter-to-fermenter difference...there’s a slight difference between each one. This one get that flavor or that one gets this flavor…is largely ameliorated and kind of blended away if you will, which is great for consistency, and that’s a very smart way to make whiskey.
We happen here to not really be able to do that. Well, we distill a fermenter whiskey, and it goes to a gage tank, and that gage tank is only big enough to hold the output of one fermentation. That’s not absolutely discreetly dogmatically true. We have...perhaps you saw on your tour...a beer well. So a fermenter goes with the beer well, and we distill it out of the beer well. It takes about 7 or 8 hours to go through a whole fermenter in the beer well. Well we top that beer well off from other fermenters through the day. So there is a small amount of combining or mixing together different fermentations, but there’s also...at least in a relative sense...there’s a more concrete, discrete line between each fermentation than at many distilleries.
The long and short of this is, Nick, that we see a difference not only barrel to barrel, but lot to lot. So we always give people advice when they’re picking...don’t pick stuff all from the same lot. I don’t care if you really like this note and that note and this flavor...be sure and pick some from different lots, because we get to see a flavor, not only a difference in flavor, not only barrel to barrel, but lot to lot. So we change each lot of whiskey, and based on that, we go into that lot or not and pull out some single barrels.
Nick: Is there anything on the horizon that you’re able to talk about at this point with upcoming releases or upcoming experiments or projects that you guys are working on?
Jay: Well we make three what we call “main” whiskeys, by which I mean we make them every month - bourbon, rye, and malted rye. 100% malted rye grain, right? And we only make three fermenters a month of malted rye. We made it very sporadically in the early years...in the early days. At any rate, we make those three. So the next sort of official, if you will, whiskey to come out will be malted rye. That probably won’t hit the market until fall of 2020.
Breaking Bourbon: Little ways off, yeah, I saw that one a little bit, we talked about that one a little bit [when visiting New Riff].
Jay: Yeah, we’re going to give it a little extra time to age and let it be a solid 5 years old, not 4, and kind of make a little exclamation point out of it. So that’s coming down the pipe.
And then as well as that, we make...perhaps you appreciated on the tour...how we have the ability to digest different grains.
We can dump any bag of grain we want to into the process. For one thing, that’s how we make 100% malted rye. We have the ability to go outside of our silos and dump in 2,000 lb. bags of whatever grain we want and then that takes its malted run. So we’ve made a whole bunch of different things. We’ve made wheated bourbon, we made heirloom-grain bourbon, we’ve made heirloom-grain rye, we’ve made chocolate oatmeal stout bourbon where we were inspired by our background as brewers, beer lovers, to make a bourbon so it’s mostly corn, but there’s oats in it and malted oats and things like that. So those things will come out, I don’t know when, but in the future, as special limited editions. And for what it’s worth...but just so you know, those are not accessible for private barrels. And in fact will not be bottled as single-barrels, probably, they will just be Bottled-in-Bond.
Breaking Bourbon: To go forward for New Riff, what’s on the more immediate horizon? What’s on the long-term horizon? What might we expect New Riff to look like in 10 or 20 years from now, all things going as you guys kind of envision them today?
Jay: Well, I don’t think I can say really with accuracy here. But I would say that we do hold that 20-30% of our output every year to become older. That still is not a lot. 20% or 30% of what we made 4 years ago, in 2015, years from now, still is not a lot of whiskey. I hear from folks a lot, I can’t wait until it gets older. And it will get older. I don’t know how old, 7, 10, 8, I don’t know. But there won’t be a lot of it. So I hope that by 10 or 20 years from now, we have simply more whiskey to share with the world.
Furthermore, maybe, more whiskeys to share with the world. Right now we have bourbon and rye. What does malted rye do? What do our specialty, as we call them, for want of a better term, the speciality whiskey do? What is the perception of our version of wheated bourbon? And I’m not necessarily saying it’s the cat’s meow but we have the opportunity to change perceptions in the future with other risks, if you will, that we will do.
Breaking Bourbon: And you don’t have any plans to become, or ideas to become, larger on a scale of say...let’s open another distillation location or something of that nature? I know there’s another warehouse that’s in the works, at least, as we toured the warehouses, and were speaking about that, from a distillation and production standpoint. Or would you grow into demand, do you think...or do you think you’d want to keep it in the tighter kind of way you have it right now?
Jay: One thing I can say with certainty is, we’re going to remain independent. As we’re in this business now and I start to work inside the bourbon industry in a totally different way than we did when we were retailers, you can start to see people’s business models. And these are all good...no criticism of anybody...they’re all viable ways to do your business, what have you...but I can see places making decisions for an eventful outcome. And sometimes that outcome is to remain independent and often that outcome is to someday be bought up. Sell it to someone.
I can look at someone now and see that they’re making decisions to do one or the other. Nothing wrong with that, but if Ken Lewis’s intention is to get bought up someday, he’s doing it wrong. We are not doing the kind of things...you know, putting the money where the mouth is...that would lead us to be bought up. We are making decisions that are for long-term independence and quality. So that I can say with a certainly is what you will see in 10 or 20 years. Will we be owned in 10 or 20 years by, take your pick of Diageo, Sazerac, William Grant, Brown-Foreman? No. We’re not going to be sold. I don’t know that we would ever expand with another distillery. It’s doubtful. We think that you are not wanting to get too big.
One thing that we are not really concerned about is the very thing that all these big companies are concerned about, which is two words - the words are market share. Market share. What’s our market share in San Francisco? How we doing in London? What’s our market share? We don’t really care about that. We don’t have stockholders. We don’t have shares out there. We have one brilliant owner who’s a fantastic guy to work with.
You know how you hear of such and so entrepreneur is just the most amazing boss to work for, but it’s never your boss.
Well, Nick, it is my boss.
Working with Ken Lewis is tremendous. And I think that’s not going to go away, so. We don’t need to get really big. Our goal here is not to get rich. We’ll have nice lives and we’ll make our money, and we’ll be successful, but the point is not to gain market share. The point is to be a great small distillery. Which if you think about it, is an amorphous goal. How do you know if you’ve made it? What do you do every day to get there? If your goal is market share, it’s simple. You need to make and sell more booze. But that’s not the case when your goal, your stated goal, that you remind yourselves in every meeting every week, is to become a great small distillery of the world and to do it in sour mash Kentucky whiskey. If that’s the goal, how do you go about it? How do you know that you do it?
You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other with confidence and skill and commitment to quality. That’s what will go on. I’m sorry that sounds corny but its the truth.