For those who follow Breaking Bourbon more closely, you know we’re regular guests on a podcast hosted by Bourbon Pursuit Podcast for the ongoing Bourbon Community Roundtable (BCR) series. The guests are also typically the same, with regulars that include us, Kenny Coleman, Ryan Cecil, and Fred Minnick of Bourbon Pursuit Podcast, Brian Haara of Sipp’n Corn, Blake Riber of Bourbonr and Seelbach’s, and Kerry Bossak of Subourbia. The chatter is always invigorating and the theme is always the same - we talk about everything and anything happening in bourbon. Our thoughts, hopes, likes, dislikes, and more. It’s a therapy session for bourbon enthusiasts (who can watch and interact live) and it’s a ton of fun. In fact, what started as an online chat, turned into get togethers in Kentucky, group barrel picking, and most importantly new friendships.
Kenny and Ryan founded Bourbon Pursuit Podcast, and have always sought out interviews with people “making the industry happen,” as they eloquently describe their mission. They’ve been at it for a while, and recently laid down episode #179 to give you an idea of how much content they’ve developed so far.
So we decided to turn the tables and make the interviewers the interviewees for a change. But the topic of discussion isn’t their podcast. They have another project going on that we’re excited about - Pursuit Series. A spirits brand under their newly formed company, Pursuit Spirits, LLC, Ryan and Kenny have just issued their first release with two more hot on its heels. Cleverly calling each release an "Episode" (get it?), we’ve been getting to know their inaugural bourbon releases first hand, and wanted to take the opportunity to shed a little light on what their spirits brand is all about along with plans for the near future.
I’ll start with the big question, what inspired you to create the brand?
Ryan: We did the BCR Buffalo Trace pick and it sold out very quickly. I told Kenny we have to find a way to offer more single barrel picks to our audience. Kenny started hustling to find a partner that could give us access to picks and be able to sell online. We partnered with a liquor store and started a single barrel program exclusively for our Patreon supporters. We had successfully created our own bourbon club or society for the listeners of the show. We were just thrilled that we were able to offer single barrel picks and were totally content with that. Then we were contacted by a broker who listened to the show and they had actually helped start another brand that was reviewed on a BCR episode. Originally we thought that we would just do a few single barrel picks. But after meeting with the brokers and trying their products, all we could think about was starting our own private label and brand. Being in Kentucky, we knew a lot of people that could help us make that happen. I immediately contacted a local trademark company and a designer and we got to work on the name, label, and concept.
Kenny: To be honest, it really wasn’t our idea. We had conversations on how to grow Bourbon Pursuit multiple times but it was nothing to the extent of becoming a NDP [Non-Distiller Producer]. This all started when we mentioned a particular brand on a Bourbon Pursuit Roundtable episode. Two weeks later, my phone rings and I didn’t recognize the number so I decide to answer it. It’s a gentleman saying he’s a fan of the show and how he helped build that particular brand we discussed. He then goes on to say he’s barrel broker looking to find niche clients that wanted to do their own private labels. Ryan came over, I told him the same story, and we pretty much looked at each other and said “yep.”
Despite a separation of name and legal entity, Pursuit Spirits has strong ties to the Bourbon Pursuit Podcast. It might seem like an obvious question, but how do you see the two intertwining moving forward into the future?
Ryan: We are currently intertwining them by naming each barrel an episode and the show notes. Also the label plays off a podcast player. In the future we hope to bring actual episodes to life by offering juice from distilleries that we have had on the show. We already have a few lined up for future releases.
Kenny: “Loosely tied” was the intended theme. The intertwining really happens behind the scenes as we get to know industry folks and figure out ways to grow both brands. We didn’t want to take advantage of our platform by making listeners always hear about our whiskey. It’s further motivation to become a Bourbon Pursuit Patreon community member. Support the show and we will deliver unique experiences with access to member only privileges. At this time, our brand is boutique and isn’t geared towards serving a mass market. First access to purchase bottles is through the Patreon community before any become available for the public.
We talk about the bourbon community evolving on the Bourbon Community Roundtable - very much so now with the increasingly stronger ties on online community forums, bourbon groups, and new/different forms of media coverage. You decided to go the unconventional route and make your brand available 100% online only, which certainly fits within the description of an evolving spirits space. Considering you’re the first spirits company to go 100% online what are your hopes and fears going this route? Do you think others will follow?
Ryan: The unique thing about our brand was that we already had a customer base. We just had to figure out the best way to make this accessible to them. We knew the only way we would succeed would be doing online retail. I don’t think we would have been able to do this three or four years ago. Fortunately, we were able to partner with Seelbach’s, out of DC, which is able to ship to more states than we currently can in Kentucky. With more whiskey and brands being created everyday, our hope is that we can pave the way for more brands to follow suit. Making distribution easier across state lines is a win-win for brands and consumers. It helps smaller brands be more competitive against the already established brands who rule shelf space and distribution. I think it will also reduce the need for a secondary market by making more products accessible. With anything new, there is going to be resistance from the old and established. The people that are already successful in the traditional system will fight to keep things the way they are and try to make change more difficult. We have already ran into many challenges and we question what we are doing all the time. But we are prepared to take them on because our success depends on the success of online sales and distribution.
Kenny: It’s more fear than hope right now. It is not easy trying to take on a 100 year old industry while remaining legally compliant. We want to model other industries and find the most direct route from producer to consumer while servicing an online-first marketplace. Everyone is happy buying products off Amazon, why can’t we do the same thing with spirits? An online model negates finding distributors in every state (that also requires making deals with each one) and fighting for retail shelf space. There’s not many industries, like liquor, where arcane laws exist that inhibit this type of growth. We’ve hit our fair share of speed bumps but we’re able to take care of the majority of our Patreon community members. Our hope is that every state drops outdated liquor laws and opens up interstate commerce to keep prices competitive. Legalized online sales and shipping across state lines will change the game for everyone involved. The unfortunate circumstance is the money spent in lobbying power. Every industry has been disrupted by technology and it’s only a matter of time until liquor distribution sees the day.
Let’s talk about the branding and label. You hit many of the main details bourbon geeks want to see, and then there’s the tie back to the Bourbon Pursuit Podcast including the unique “Show Notes” on each bottle. You’ve also differentiated between “Pursuit Spirits” and “Pursuit Series.”
Ryan: We wanted the design to be bright, clean, playful, and modern. Most bourbon brands have dark colors and have a very old masculine feel to them. We feel we are the new bourbon drinker and wanted our brand to reflect that. We were fortunate to work with a designer who was able to create exactly what we wanted. Since single barrels are going to have a different flavor profiles from barrel to barrel, we came up with the idea to make each release an episode with its own show notes that describe our thoughts on this barrel. This was a tie back to the podcast. Each episode is a different number and color so that you could distinguish between each one when looking on someone’s shelf.
Kenny: Pursuit Spirits was more of a business decision at the time. We didn’t know if Pursuit Series would be the only label so we decided to create an overarching layer of Pursuit Spirits. The goal of Pursuit Series was to appeal to our audience of enthusiasts that want to see age statements and drink barrel proof whiskey. The “show notes”, episode number, and play button are more examples of loose branding where we can put our unique play on tasting notes and do something different than a traditional barrel number.
Do you think we’ll ever see a non-bourbon release? How about a non-whiskey?
Ryan: Yes. Pursuit Spirits or Series gives us the opportunity to offer a non-bourbon release. I hope to do a rum or brandy episode at some point.
Kenny: That’s the beauty of having a private label. We can take it anywhere. We are actively looking for opportunities to bring variety to the line. An episode could be a rye whiskey, a small batch blend, rum, brandy, etc. Exposing hidden gems of the spirits world under our private label brings mutual benefits by giving those distillers immediate access to our community. We continue to hold ourselves to a high standard while maintaining our integrity by never advocating for a whiskey we didn’t love.
Will the releases always be single barrel, barrel proof?
Ryan: Yes but never say never. We tasted some non bourbon products at very high proof that when watered down tasted very interesting. But for now we are sticking to what we know. Quality barrel proof bourbon and whiskey.
Kenny: Let's not kid ourselves, blending is hard. We believe we’re pretty good at picking single barrels at this point and know it’s only a matter of time until we sit down and try to do a blend. Our audience loves barrel proof, as do we, so I don’t see us hopping off the barrel proof train any time soon.
What’s your long term vision for the brand?
Ryan: Sometimes I have to pump the brakes on my vision. I can think pretty big at times. For now we would like to release 2-3 different episodes a month. I think we can partner with craft distillers or brands that are creating quality products and who want more exposure by offering a Pursuit Series episode of their product. We have very high standards so their product has to meet or exceed those to be offered as an episode. Eventually we may create a blend with a more consistent flavor profile. This would allow us to scale our brand and make it more available. The downside of single barrels is that most offerings are only 100-170 bottles which limits your availability to consumers.
Kenny: The current plan is to release two barrels per month with no inventory remaining before the month ends. Growing this to four or six barrels per month would be a great stretch goal. We want to establish more partnerships that give brands unique exposure while providing variety to the label. At the same time, forge a new path that’s cohesive with our national reach and the online shopping experience.
Do you ever envision trying to open up your own distillery?
Ryan: If Breaking Bourbon will cosign for us. This whole experience has made me realize that there is so much quality product out there for us to choose from that there is no need to distill our own. We have talked about having a contract distiller creating a mash bill for us. but that’s not happening anytime soon
Kenny: Not a chance. The rapid growth rate of the industry will allow continued opportunity for cherry picking barrels for years to come. We aren’t distillers and don’t have a dream of becoming one.
I have to ask about that logo, C+C Music Factory hasn’t knocked on your door yet have they? Any chance we’ll see “Gonna Make You Sweat” show notes at some point?
Ryan: Haha yes. Kenny came up with that. We have yet to receive any cease and desist letters. It could have been a name of the first three episodes. We picked those in July in a warehouse when it was 95 degrees out. We were sweating our asses off.
Kenny: I like duets. Perhaps we can team up and do a “Things that make you go hmmm” release.
When should we plan on coming to Kentucky for the Bourbon Community Roundtable barrel pick edition?
Ryan: We would love to do an episode with the BCR and are willing anytime. We just can’t let Kerry name it.
Kenny: Name the date. We look forward to building a very unique single barrel program as we continue to grow. The Roundtable invitation is always open.
Pursuit Series Episode 001 Background & Tasting Notes
Episode 001 is a Straight Bourbon distilled in Tennessee. Aged for 11 years and bottled at 118 proof (barrel proof), it comes from a single barrel yielding a total of 172 bottles. According to Kenny, “This was one of the first three barrel samples we ever received. If it wasn’t for this, the whole adventure may have never started. It had perfect balance and soared above the other samples.” Ryan also noted, “It is perfectly balanced, showcasing everything we love about bourbon.”
As for flavor profile, balance is something I noticed right away as well. A warming spice is consistent throughout, starting with the aroma. There’s some vanilla sweetness as well, but the potency remains tame. The spice carries into the sip, bringing some heat along with it. Vanilla, caramel, and burnt oak peek out from behind it. A touch of raisin is also present. On the finish the spice starts to fade, allowing more of the sweeter flavors to pull through. Vanilla, caramel, a hint of raisin, and a light and savory leather-tobacco note come into play. It’s quite balanced overall, and in a sense classic bourbon flavors I’m accustomed to delivered in a rather robust sip.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Samples of Episodes 001, 002, and 003 were provided at no cost courtesy of Pursuit Spirits. We thank them for the samples and for allowing us to review them with no strings attached.
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.