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Whiskey producers feeling effects of possible trade war
‘It’s definitely going to be painful’

Makers of American whiskey worry the increasing likelihood of retaliatory tariffs, particularly from the European Union and China, could hurt business after years of booming growth abroad.

The Trump administration announced Friday that it was moving forward with 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, most of which will go into effect July 6. China responded later in the day by announcing its retaliation of similar value. Whiskey is one of the American goods that would be subject to the Chinese tariffs, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

The European Union, meanwhile, is preparing to implement more than $3 billion in tariffs on American goods in response to Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum exports to the U.S. Mexico has already imposed 25 percent tariffs on American goods, including bourbon; Canada and Turkey could soon follow suit.

None of this is good news for the American spirits industry. From 2008 to last year, exports of American whiskey grew almost 43 percent — from about $791 million to about $1.1 billion, according to data provided by the Distilled Spirits Council. Whiskey exports year to date are up more than 20 percent from last year.

“Whiskey is a great American export story and we don’t want to see that disrupted,” said Clarkson Hine, interim president and CEO for the Distilled Spirits Council.

The European Union, in particular, has been a strong export market for American whiskey, in part because it’s been mutually duty-free since 1997. U.S. bourbon that’s sold in France is taxed the same as spirits that are distilled locally there. Chicago-area companies large and small, from Beam Suntory to smaller craft distilleries like Few Spirits and Koval Distillery, have invested in Europe because of that open trade relationship and the growing demand for bourbon.

Total U.S. spirits exports to the EU last year were valued at $789 million; 85 percent of that was American whiskey, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. By comparison, American spirit exports to China have grown from less than $1 million in 2001 — when that nation joined the World Trade Organization — to $12.8 million last year.

Hine, who is also senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Beam Suntory, declined to give any specifics on how the tariffs will affect the privately held company, a division of the Japanese firm Suntory Holdings, saying only that contingency plans were in place.

Executives at rival Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, among other brands, are also keeping close tabs on the potential tariffs. About one quarter of Kentucky-based Brown-Forman’s sales are generated in Europe and another quarter is from other global markets; the rest comes from sales within the U.S.

“(While) it’s premature to comment on the potential impact on our business, we are on top of the situation and have undertaken measures over the last few months to mitigate risk, such as increasing our inventory levels in non-U.S. markets where we own our own distribution,” Brown-Forman Chief Financial Officer Jane Morreau said on an earnings call earlier this month, according to a transcript of the call.

That’s not an option for smaller spirits companies that don’t own their own distribution in non-U.S. markets. Paul Hletko, founder of Evanston-based Few Spirits, said he’s lost sales “in the six figures” in just the past two months from distributors in Europe and China cutting back on orders out of concern that tariffs could lead to higher prices for consumers, and therefore less demand.

“That’s just the market responding to all the verbal jabs, not even actual tariffs,” Hletko said.

Exports make up about 10 to 15 percent of total revenue for Few Spirits, said Hletko, who declined to disclose sales for the privately held company. Few’s top export markets are the U.K., France, Finland and China, he said. It has taken years of work to build demand in those markets.

Likewise, Koval Distillery, based in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, has grown its business in recent years in both Asia and Europe. Exports make up about 25 percent of the company’s approximately $6 million in annual revenue, said Sonat Birnecker Hart, Koval president. Its largest export markets are Austria, Germany and Italy.

“We don’t know the extent of the damage this is going to cause, but it’s definitely going to be painful,” Hart said.

Earlier this month, the Distilled Spirits Council sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, outlining the industry’s concerns about the tariffs and calling on the administration to “find effective solutions to address U.S. trade policy concerns, without harming the U.S. distilled spirits sector in the process.”

On Friday, the Commerce Department responded and the two sides expect to meet soon. Despite the looming threat of tariffs, the spirits trade group says it is optimistic that the situation can still be deescalated in a way that’s not bad for the booze business.

“We’re the unfortunate collateral damage of someone else’s dispute,” said Frank Coleman, spokesman for the spirits group. “We want to get everyone back at the table and talking again.”

Here is the latest update on the shipping restrictions from The Whisky Exchange and Master of Malt:

The Whisky Exchange is currently only shipping to the following US States. (Note that Illinois is NOT one of the states they are shipping to currently):

We are able to deliver your order only to the following states:

Alaska (Anchorage only)




District of Columbia







New Jersey

New Mexico

New York


Rhode Island






Masters of Malt has currently stopped ALL shipping to the US. They posted the below on their blog on April 18th:

Shipping to the USA

By Master of Malt on April 18, 2018, 12:00 pm

Ok, there’s no way to sugar coat this, so we’re just going to come right out and say it – as of today, we’re stopping delivery to the US.

We’d love to be able to have some idea how and if this is going to change in the future, but we just don’t want to give any false hope.

Suffice to say, 2 things are true:

You guys in the USA are extremely important to us, and we are *incredibly* sorry about this.

We are working very hard on ways to be able to provide services again with the help of wholesale and retail partners based in-country.

Thank you for all your incredible support over the years.

The Chaps at Master of Malt


The issue for Master of Malt is that since AB Inbev is a distributor in the United States, they legally cannot act as a retailer. It would violate the three tier system.

If and and when I see further updates, I will keep you all posted.

Brother Bass

Just came across this tidbit over at Masters of Malt (thanks to them for the heads up):

“In October 2017 Diageo said it was going to revive the closed Brora Distillery. Where we’re not quite sure, given that Clynelish overlaps on its original footprint. The build is due for completion in 2020 so we’ll soon see!”

Given the plethora of recent reports about shortages in single malt scotch production it makes sense that Diageo would see an opportunity here. The Brora facility would seem to conflict with the operation of Clynelish but I’m sure Diageo has a plan that makes sense and will be exciting.

Blind pours ready for the tasting

Brother Randall hosted a blind tasting featuring six (it’s been a loooooong time) expressions. His choice were fun and bold (more on that in second) but his most impactful contribution may be the addition he brought to the blind tasting format: the 30 expression landscape, within which the 6 actual expression lay. Here’s “the 30”:

Balvenie 12 Single Barrel
Balvenie 12 Doublewood
Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve
Glenrothes Vintage Reserve
Glenrothes Peated Cask Reserve Islay Cask Finished Speyside Malt
Edradour 10
Edradour 12 Caledonia
Macallan 10
Macallan 12
Macallan Double Cask
Glenfiddich 10
Glenfiddich 14 Bourbon Barrel Reserve
Glenfiddich Experimental Series Release # 1 Finished in IPA Cask
Laphroig 10
Laphroig Triple Wood
Laphroig 18
Laphroig Quarter Cask
Tomatin 12
Tomatin 18
Tomatin Cu Bocan Lightly Peated
Glenkinchie 12
Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition
Ardbeg 10
Ardbeg Kelpie
Ardbeg Uigeadail
Lagavulin 8
Lagavulin 16
Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition
Oban 14
Oban Distiller’s Edition
Oban Little Bay

Now, notwithstanding the fact that we’re not sure anyone can tell the difference between The Macallan 10 and The Macallan 12 this landscape proved inspired and at times treacherous. I really like having “the 30” and it made identifying the expressions much more feasible rather than the traditional completely industry-wide open ended format. I definitely don’t think it made it too easy either. After all I had the best score of 2 out of 6 as I identified The Macallan 12 and the Lagavulin entry. For the record here were the expressions in presentation order, with my guess, followed by the actual expression:

1) My guess: Glenfiddich 14 Bourbon Barrel Reserve; the right answer: Ardbeg Kelpie
2) My guess: Tomatin 12; the right answer: Oban Little Bay
3) My guess: Balvenie 12; Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve
4) My guess: The Macallan 12; the right answer: The Macallan 12
5) My guess: Edradour Caldonia; the right answer: Tomatin Cu Bocan
6) My guess: Lagavulin ‘D’; the right answer: Lagavulin 8

After the pours. It was fun to do 6 expressions again in one tasting (it’s probably been 15 years).

I can’t make this up.

A pricey dram that’s all about marketing. There’s a VR app to experience while you sip. Sip what? A Macallan (admittedly high end) NAS malt that centers on sherry casks. And just so you don’t miss that, they will cut it with a 30 year old sherry. Now strap some big old goggles to me so I don’t have to look at it and it’s easily worth $95.