Media Files
Interview with Mark Brown, April 30, 2009
Bourbon in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Oral History Project
Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
Interviewee Mark Brown
Interviewer Thomas Troland
created 2010-04-30
cms record id 2009oh170_bik011
accession number 2009OH170 BIK011
is part of Buffalo Trace Oral History Project (BIK003)
summary Mark Brown is the president and C.E.O. of the Sazerac Company, parent company of Buffalo Trace. Brown grew up in a small town in England where his parents owned a pub, later coming to the United States, where he took a position with Sazerac. In this interview, Brown explains that he came to Kentucky to work with Sazerac's holding, Buffalo Trace, which was struggling during the bourbon industry's downturn in the 1970s and 1980s. He describes the restoration of the distillery and lists the successes it has since enjoyed. Brown talks about Buffalo Trace's commitment to innovation and mentions its development of experimental bourbons. He also describes the distillery's effort to preserve the historic architecture on the site. Brown discusses the future of Buffalo Trace and the bourbon industry's potential for success in international markets. In addition, he explains the benefits that bourbon tourism and the growth of the industry could have for the state of Kentucky.
England--Social life and customs
Bars (Drinking establishments)
Family-owned business enterprises.
Sales promotion.
Quality of products.
local term Sazerac Company, Inc.
local term Whiskey
local term Whiskey industry--Kentucky
local term Distilleries--Kentucky
local term Brown-Forman Corporation
local term Alcohol industry.
local term Bourbon whiskey
local term Business enterprises, Foreign.
local term Export marketing.
local term Buffalo Trace Distillery.
local term Economic conditions.
Rights Statement:
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Source Metadata URI:
00048048 (2009oh170_bik011_brown_ohm.xml)
Mark Brown is introduced. He describes his childhood growing up in his parents' pub outside of London, England. He talks about the types of drinks they sold, their usual customers, and his own responsibilities at the bar.
Partial Transcript: My name is Tom Troland.
Bars (Drinking establishments)
England--Social life and customs
Family-owned business enterprises.
"Real ale"
"Under the bar"
Bourbon whiskey
Brown-Forman Corporation
Craft beers
English beers
Hampton Court Palace
London (England)
Police officers
Brown discusses his early interest in the business aspects of his parents' pub, and describes some of their marketing techniques to promote the bar. He talks about his independent personality, and cites Winston Churchill as his personal hero.
Partial Transcript: As you were growing up, of course you were in or under the bar at different times.
Alcohol industry.
Family-owned business enterprises.
Sales promotion.
Small business--Ownership
Word-of-mouth advertising.
"Real ale"
Beer of the week
Family businesses
Life lessons
Winston Churchill
Brown talks about his first job after graduating high school, and the other early jobs in his career. He talks about how he became involved with alcohol sales.
Partial Transcript: When you left the British equivalent of high school, what, what happened next in your life?
Alcohol industry.
Sales promotion.
East End London (England)
Racing stables
Brown talks about coming to America as part of his sales job, and discusses his transition to working for Sazerac Company. He describes a typical day working in New Orleans for Sazerac, and the lessons he learned from the company's leadership.
Partial Transcript: At what point did you come to the United States?
Alcohol industry.
Business enterprises, Foreign.
Export marketing.
Sales promotion.
Bill Goldring
Life lessons
National sales directors
New Orleans (La.)
Peter Bordeaux
Sales trainers
Sazerac Company
Tulane University
Typical day
United States (U.S.)
Vice president of sales and marketing
William Goldring
Brown talks about switching jobs to work for the specialty brands division of Brown-Forman in 1992. He talks about bourbon's success on the global market and the overall growth of the bourbon industry.
Partial Transcript: Now at some point in your life you became interested in bourbon, because that's part of your life today.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Brown-Forman Corporation
Business enterprises, Foreign.
Export marketing.
Sales promotion.
American whiskey
Foreign countries
Global market
Jack Daniel's whiskey
Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky
Louisville (Ky.)
Most-recognized brands
Scotch whisky
Specialty brands division
Brown talks about why he returned to work for Sazerac after his stint with Brown-Forman. He talks about why he chose to remain in Kentucky, and discusses the "journey of discovery" they have made regarding the history of the Buffalo Trace Distillery site.
Partial Transcript: Let's talk a little bit about your return to the Sazerac Company, um, later on after you left Brown-Forman.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Economic conditions.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
"Journey of discovery"
Bill Goldring
Eagle Rare bourbon whiskey
McAfee's Benchmark bourbon whiskey
Sazerac Company
William Goldring
Brown talks about the research that was conducted regarding the history of the Buffalo Trace Distillery site. He talks about their goal of preserving that history as well as the physical preservation of historical buildings on the property. He talks about the ownership of the distillery and the challenges they faced throughout the decades. He talks about some of the more modern history of the distillery, including the many awards they have won and the improvements they have made.
Partial Transcript: And what about the history of this place?
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Albert Blanton
American history
Bourbon industry
Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr.
Commodore Richard Taylor
Dan Churchill
Daniel Swigert
Distillery of the Year
Frankfort (Ky.)
George T. Stagg
Great Depression
Leestown (Ky.)
Master distillers
Richard Taylor
World War I
World War II
Brown talks about how bourbon has become a more popular spirit, and discusses how the standards that bourbon is held to differentiate it from other products. He talks about some of the people involved at Buffalo Trace, as well as in the bourbon industry in general, who have made an impact on their products.
Partial Transcript: What do you think has caused this turnaround in consumer, uh, perspective on bourbon and what role do you think Buffalo Trace has played in that turnaround?
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Economic conditions.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
American products
Bill Samuels
Elmer T. Lee
Freddie Johnson
Harlen Wheatley
International competitions
Jimmy Johnson
Leonard Riddle
Mass market
Mass production
New barrels
Ronnie Eddins
Tasting of Paris
Brown talks about the future challenges and opportunities facing the bourbon industry, including competition with Scotch whiskey, and the conflict between bourbon tourism and dry counties. He talks about Buffalo Trace's search for the best bourbon, and how their experimental collection assists in that goal. He discusses how Sazerac's acquisition of other brands fits within their strategic plan.
Partial Transcript: What is--what are your thoughts regarding the bourbon industry in the future?
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Business enterprises, Foreign.
Economic conditions.
Export marketing.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
"Holy Grail"
Barton brands
Best bourbon
Bourbon industry
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection
Economic impact
Foreign markets
International markets
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Product innovation
Sazerac Company
Scotch whisky
Strategic plans
Brown says that he would not like to have a whiskey named after himself, nor a statue built in his honor. He talks about what he hopes will be his legacy at Buffalo Trace: working with others to make progress for the next generation to become even more successful. The interview is concluded.
Partial Transcript: Now there are a number of brands produced at this distillery named for people who previously worked there.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Drinking bourbon
TROLAND: My name is Tom Troland. We're interviewing today Mark Brown,
who is president and C.E.O. of the Sazerac Company. It's April 30,
2009. This is part of the Buffalo Trace Oral History Project. We're
here at the Buffalo Trace Distillery and Mark, thanks very much for
taking out time for this interview.
BROWN: Welcome.
TROLAND: Let's begin with just a simple question. Tell me a little
about yourself.
BROWN: Oh--well, not much to tell. I grew up in a pub in England. So,
I grew up under the bar, literally, and have been under the bar ever
since. But--my parents had a pub. And eventually, I left the pub
and went to work for a company that supplied alcohol to the pub--and
they then decided on an export adventure, so they packed me off to
the states for six months. And uh, I came over, fell in love with the
country, and never went home. And
then, in 1981, I met Bill Goldring,
who owns Sazerac, and we struck up a friendship. And I eventually
went to work for the company. And here we are some twenty-eight years
later. In fact, I spent eleven years with Sazerac and then left in
1992 and went to work for Brown-Forman. Had five great years there,
which is really what brought us to Kentucky. And then, chap I'd been
working for at Sazerac left. Bill asked me if I wanted to come back
and uh, run Sazerac. And I was excited at that opportunity, and that
was eleven years ago. So, I've had twenty-two years with Sazerac, and
five years with Brown-Forman in the middle.
TROLAND: So, tell me a little about bit about your, your parents. They
ran a pub, and that kind of got you started under the bar?
BROWN: Yes. My father was a police officer at Scotland Yard. So
actually, I grew up in a police house, oh, and his father was a
policeman, and on my mother's side, they were all lawyers. So, there
lots of law enforcement in the house to some degree or other. But,
he retired early from the police force and uh, bought the pub, and that
was where I grew up. It was a fascinating experience growing up as a
young person constantly surrounded by adults.
TROLAND: Where was this pub located?
BROWN: It was about thirty-five miles from London, in a village of 300
people; small, rural pub. It was a free house, which means it wasn't
attached to any of the breweries. It was able to buy beer from all
sorts of different breweries. So, we had quite a customer following.
We used to do beer specials and go to small breweries and buy
individual barrels and uh, market them, and people used to drive from
miles and miles around to come and enjoy themselves.
TROLAND: How old were you when, when the pub came into the family?
BROWN: About
eleven. So, I had a good seven or eight years there,
growing up under the bar.
TROLAND: Is that expression, "under the bar" a British expression?
BROWN: Yes. It's usually where you find yourself after you've had
rather too much to consume. Or in my case, I was too short to see over
the bar, hence under the bar.
TROLAND: So, what did you do when you where there eleven, twelve,
thirteen years old--there?
BROWN: Well, I started off in the cellar, racking barrels and um,
learning about how to keep beer in good condition. Then, I spent quite
a bit of time filling shelves, and then eventually, I ended up serving
customers. And--finally, had a little bit of a hand in running the
pub, which was great fun.
TROLAND: I would imagine that at a pub every now and then, something
happens. Is there a story you can think of about something
that happened one night at the pub? When you were eleven, or twelve, or
thirteen or--
BROWN: (laughs) No, actually, the, the memory is that the number of
males that would come in with their girlfriends during the week and
order inexpensive drinks. And then, believe it or not, would come in
with their wife over the weekend and buy expensive drinks. Why--what
would possess anyone to bring their mistress and their wife to the same
pub, the same week was just a little bit hard to fathom. But, it used
to happen with a fair degree of regularity. We, of course, had to try
and keep the scorecard clear in our own minds, so we didn't step in,
step in and cause any problems.
TROLAND: What did people typically drink in the pub?
BROWN: We were a big beer--big beer pub. Real ale pub serving
traditional English beers, which were very hard to find at that
time because that was still the era of the big brewery. So, you had
Watney's, was a very big and powerful brewery. Courage was a very big
powerful brewery--Allied, Whitbread--and they were into mass marketing,
standard pasteurized-type beers. And so, we were really one of the
real ale pubs specializing in, in what would today be known as craft
beers and those types. So, we were a rare animal in a, in a sort of
fifty mile radius, if you will. So we were a big beer pub; we got
through a fair amount of wine, even though wine consumption in England
was in its early stages, and people were still wowed by French plunk
and Spanish plunk. I think they were wowed because no two bottles
were alike. And--then, spirits were always pretty highly taxed in the
U.K., so, our spirit business was probably the smallest of the three
segments. And we did a fair amount of food as well.
TROLAND: Did you have bourbon, by any chance, at your, at your family
BROWN: We had I think a bottle of Old Granddad, stuffed on the top
shelf of the back somewhere gathering dust. We used to sell a lot of
Canadian Club, and a lot of Southern Comfort--but nothing else off the
American continent. And I'm not even really sure why we had the bottle
of bourbon, because I, I can scarcely remember pouring any of it during
those years.
TROLAND: I was told--at least in some parts of Europe--for example, in
Ireland, whiskey is viewed as an old person's drink. Was that your
impression at the time when you were working at the pub?
BROWN: Yes. I'd some think it was really more economical,
or economics-
based. Um, spirits were quite pricey in those days, especially relative
to beer. So, most of the younger people were on beer budgets. And
then the more affluent, and typically older, could afford spirits and
that's where you saw an increase in spirit consumption. If we were
drinking spirits as younger people, it was somebody had bought a bottle
of Grappa on a holiday in Italy for a dollar or a pound and brought it
back, but, uh, spirits were really a little bit priced out of our, the
younger person's league.
TROLAND: So, it's interesting, getting back to the question of customers
who came in both during the weekdays and also on weekends, weekdays
were the days to be out with your mistress?
BROWN: Apparently so, yes; we were, business was reasonably quiet, and
they would bring in their uh, their mistress.
And that was maybe a
Tuesday or a Wednesday, lunch time. And we were in a rural setting--
lots of country lanes, lay-by's , places to park, scenic landscapes--so,
we were apparently a good afternoon run in the car for somebody--an
amorous couple.
TROLAND: Where and when were you born?
BROWN: I was born in 1492. Actually, 1957, right opposite Hampton Court
Palace, and that is as close as I've ever come to royalty.
TROLAND: What is the Hampton Court Palace?
BROWN: Hampton Court Palace was built by Henry the eighth. It's one
of the more spectacular palaces. It's about ten miles, fifteen miles
outside of central London, towards the southwest, and sits on
the River
Thames--extremely pretty setting.
TROLAND: As you were growing up, of course, you were in or under the bar
at different times, what in general interested you as a young person?
BROWN: I was fascinated by business. I thought the idea of running a
business--building a loyal client base--building, bringing customers
in, and seeing them go away happy and seeing them tell other people
and having them come back--that was inherently appealing. And also,
the mechanics of, of taking cash across the counter, putting it into
the cash register and buying products and actually making a profit. I
think that was--watching sales revenue grow and watching profits grow I
think was just a very interesting, fascinating concept.
TROLAND: Did you have the sense that when
the men left with their
mistress in the weekdays they were happier? Or, speaking of customers
leaving happy--or, when the men left with their wives in the weekends?
BROWN: (laughs) I would definitely say the winner would have been the
weekday arrivals and departures. (laughs)
TROLAND: Were you at all involved in the, in the business aspects of the
family pub?
BROWN: Yes I was. The last two years I was there, my mother and father
were kind enough to let me take care of the profit loss statement.
So, that was quite good for a sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old
to, to be able to do that. We were actually able to increase profits,
which was nice. And the turnover was growing, we were getting more and
more customers, busier and busier. And watching some of the marketing
programs work--we did beer of the week, which was a guest beer barrel
special ale. And they could
of--those barrels could of come from three
hundred miles away, four hundred miles away, five hundred miles away
and--once we got that program going, we would have an awful lot of
customers showing up to find out what the beer of the week was. And
this is all in the days pre-Internet. I mean, there was no Internet
marketing or any of those capabilities. No blogging, no websites.
This was good old-fashioned word of mouth.
TROLAND: Were some of these ideas for marketing that you described at
the family pub your ideas? Did they come from your parents? Where did
they come from?
BROWN: Well I'm generally too modest to take credit for much, so--I'd
say it was a collaborative effort. But, we were very fortunate that it
worked very well. There was a growing interest in quote, "real beer,"
or "real ale." People were beginning to tire of uh, Watney's Red Barrel
and--so, there was a little bit of
momentum behind the trend. The
camera, which was the campaign for real ale, was beginning to take,
to take hold. So, there were quite a few consumers out there looking
for those type of, type of things. We did branch off into cocktail of
the week, which turned out to be a spectacular failure, Um, cocktails
in the U.K. were a little bit unknown, and it was quite fiddly at
the time making them. So, you had a very busy pub, run by fairly few
staff, and so, cocktail of the week did not get much traction. So, we
continued to press ahead with beer of the week, which did very well.
TROLAND: So, would it be fair to say that this pub became a rather
thriving business?
BROWN: Uh--well, I think we like to think that it was, was quite
successful, and certainly a lot of fun. They're hard work, and they're
very difficult to extend into a second pub
or a third pub, because
so much of it is about the people that run the pub, classic family
pub. So, unless you have a very large family, it's tough to make
extensions of yourself. But, no, we had a good time and the business
was prosperous. I think is how I would describe it.
TROLAND: Is that pub still in the family?
BROWN: No. My parents sold it in 1982 or 3, and retired, again, and--
but the pub is still there. In fact, I went there about three or four
years ago. It looks good, looks in good shape, continues to prosper.
It's an old building. The foundations and the cellar are all from the
twelve hundreds, thirteen hundreds.
TROLAND: So, it's ancient to some extent--like the famous castle in
Versailles here in Kentucky, I
BROWN: Yes, it--it has some age to it.
TROLAND: As you look back at that time in your life when you were a
young, young man, young boy, was there an adult, either a parent or not
a parent who made a real difference in your life? Someone you look back
and think had a major influence on your life?
BROWN: Um, not really. I've always been extremely independent. So, I
tend to march to what's in my head as opposed to external influences.
But, I've been around people, to be able to learn things to do and
things not to do. I think you learn from people many times as much
what not to do as what to do. So, and I've been blessed to be around
an awful lot of people and had an opportunity to watch behaviors and
see what works and what doesn't work and that type of thing. But that
independent streak
is--I don't know if it's preventing me, but that's
how I wake up in the morning. My all-time hero, of course, is Winston
Churchill. That would be, if you, if you said to me, "Who do I look
at as a hero?"or someone of that description, it would be Winston
TROLAND: Winston Churchill, I understand, had quite a thirst for
BROWN: Oh yes, he was quite a participant in our industry. In fact,
for a while I sold the champagne that he drank. Pol Roger--he had a
horse named after the champagne, Pol Roger. And when he died, they put
a black line around the label on the outside of the bottle, as a mark
of respect. But yes, he was a brandy drinker, a champagne drinker.
I haven't seen any records or any documents of him consuming bourbon.
But if he were still alive, I'd consider him an
TROLAND: When you left the British equivalent of high school, what, what
happened next in your life?
BROWN: That's when I went to work. It was, it was a little bit less
usual in England to go to college. It really wasn't what you did.
So, I came out of high school and went straight to work in the pub.
Whereupon I discovered working with my father was not a good idea on
a full time basis. That was never going to be a relationship built to
last. My--both my parents are Type A personalities, and three Type A
personalities in the room--little bit too much to, to handle.
TROLAND: Better to have, I suppose, a Type A, B, and C. Better mixed.
So, once you realized that perhaps working in the family pub wasn't
going to
be your future, because it wasn't a good fit, what did you
think what you wanted to do then? What was your next plan?
BROWN: Well, I was clueless. I mean, my academic studies at school were
atrocious. I look back--pretty interesting waste of sixteen years.
I think if I had to do it over again, I'd do it a lot more, but I
was, I was quite a challenge to myself in school. So, I did not excel
at that by any stretch of the imagination. And--it certainly wasn't
going to work with my parents in the pub, so I ended up with a number
of different type of fill-in jobs. We were quite fortunate. We had
a racing stable across the street that was run by Dick Francis and
his son--as in Dick Francis, the novelist. And so, I spent quite a
lot of time at race tracks watching horses. That's part of why I like
Kentucky, growing up
with that. And, um, after that, I ended up one
summer on a building site, filling a cement mixer. And that was the
day I got religion. Because as I saw the cement mixer going around
and around all summer long, you can see the rest of your life spinning
before you, so that was when I went to work for one of the suppliers to
the pub. And--very lucky--I mean, fell into a sales job and found that
was what I really liked doing. And so from there, that was really when
my career got some traction. But, it was fortunate to find something
that was actually a real interest and motivation. And that was--that
set the path for what has followed.
TROLAND: How old were you when you began to work for the supplier?
BROWN: Eighteen. Youngest sales guy they had ever hired by about five
years. So, I'm sure I was quite obnoxious and brattish and surrounded
by people in their forties and fifties who'd been selling for a very
long time and here is--I must have been looked upon as a baby, showing
up and selling. And I had the east end of London, as the territory.
So that was the area that was all bombed out after the war--and quite
a rough and tumble. It's a little bit like New York's--or London's
equivalent of Harlem would be a good way to describe it. But great
people that lived there--interesting place to be.
TROLAND: What did you sell?
BROWN: Cider, alcoholic cider, which is a big category in the U.K. And
at that time, it was growing--quite a lot of young people. They had
figured out how to put it on tap. Previously, it had always been sold
in bottles. But, they had figured out how to put in on tap, and that
was driving some consumption in bars and those type of accounts.
So, I
had 600--690 odd pubs to call on, and a handful of stores.
TROLAND: At what point did you come to the United States?
BROWN: Well, interesting story. I'd been selling for a couple of years,
and then they had been dumb enough to promote me to sales trainer.
So now, at twenty, I'm training other people how to sell. And then a
management position came open, which I applied for. They very politely
told me that I was too young for the position. What they really should
of said which was the truth, which was far too obnoxious and pushy
and--they certainly weren't going to let me loose on the lives of seven
or eight people so they said, "How would you like to go to the states
for six months as part of our export adventure?" So, that seemed like a
pretty exciting
opportunity. The thing was the whole project, and the
U.S. was a little surreal. So, now I would be twenty-two. We show up
to depart from England and the guy who is running the adventure hands
me first class tickets on TWA. April 20th, 1980. We get off the plane
in New York. They have a white Rolls Royce Corniche, with the name of
the company on the license plate. And they had a swank apartment in
New York, and a swank apartment in Washington D.C., and no sales.
TROLAND: So, what did you do about that?
BROWN: Well, the first thing we had to do is generate some sales. But
eventually, I came to find out that it was really just a boondoggle for
the directors of the company--come over to the states and vacation and
enjoy themselves; hey were very mixed up in their business objectives.
But we did get some business going in
the U.S.--cider in the U.S.
is a tough sell. The regulatory environment makes it difficult in
some states to actually sell alcoholic cider. Plus the fact in many
states, cider is considered to be a non-alcoholic, and then hard cider
is considered to be the alcoholic version. So, and they've never
really managed to overcome all of those issues. There are some brands
that have done well--Hornsby's, um, Woodchuck--but, it's been spotty
at best. I think wine coolers have probably filled that niche, that
flavor-taste profile, that area. So, we struggled along. We got into
twenty-odd states. Then I met--as I said, I met Bill Goldring, and
one thing led to another, and then I went to work for Sazerac in 1981,
in August. Got married, changed jobs, changed countries in the same
week. (laughs)
TROLAND: Is your wife an American?
BROWN: She's English.
TROLAND: English, oh.
BROWN: We met at the--we worked, both worked for the same company is how
we got to meet.
TROLAND: So, when you began working for the Sazerac Company, where were
you located and what did you first do?
BROWN: We were in New Orleans living in a rented apartment eating
ninety-nine cent pizzas, for a considerable amount of time. But, I
was looking after new products and new markets for Sazerac. Which is
peculiar, because Sazerac only did business in nine states and had a
pretty small portfolio. So, in point of fact, new markets turned out
to be a large number of states, and we had a couple of brands. We had
a blue peppermint schnapps liqueur called Aspen, which was doing quite
well in Peoria. So, I suppose the adage about if it plays in
it will play anywhere is not exactly accurate. Because we could not
get it sell elsewhere, but--so, that's what I did for a couple of years
with Sazerac and then eventually took over as national sales director.
And then eventually took over as V.P. sales and marketing, which took
me all the way up to 1992.
TROLAND: What did you find appealing about that time--your first
period of time at Sazerac about the job, and what if anything perhaps
BROWN: Well, the, the appealing aspects--we had a very supportive owner,
who was extremely interested in seeing the company grow. And then,
he was very happy to let us go and do it without any um, interference,
being very supportive--"You guys go, you guys do." So, we went through
a pretty rapid period of expansion. The company was four times
by the time we got to 1992 than it was in 1981. So, we were acquiring
brands, we were taking on new brand projects, and built a national
distribution network and really had a very, we were very fortunate
during that period of time and experienced a lot of growth. It was
really a fun time, and I don't look back on that with any particular--
there is nothing in particular I didn't like about that, that period.
TROLAND: So, the owner was not especially involved in the--
BROWN: No, Bill's never been, has never been involved in the operations
of Sazerac. He's been extremely good about saying, "Look, you know,
treat it as your business, you go and run it and I'll be as supportive
as I can about, about following what you guys need done." And he's been
true to that the whole time up to and including
TROLAND: In those early days at Sazerac, what did you think this job
might lead to? What were your hopes for the future at that stage?
BROWN: I think we were more interested in what the company could
become, and building Sazerac into an exciting dynamic company within
the spirits business. That was really what--I've always thought about
things more in context of the business you're building as opposed to
your, your own selfish interests--in the belief that if you do the
right things for the business, then good things will happen to the
individuals in it, including yourself.
TROLAND: What was a typical workday in those days. Were you traveling a
lot? Where you on the phone a lot? What did you do?
BROWN: Oh, there was a lot of travel involved. The day would typically
start at 4:20 A.M., mainly to beat the traffic. I have no particular
desire to get up
early in the morning but, traffic is far worse.
New Orleans traffic can be pretty bad if you miss it by fifteen
minutes either way. So, I used to get into the office at 6:30, and
then we would just pound out the day. Talking to a lot of customers,
programming, selling, and then, there was a lot of travel, lot of trips
we were involved, spending time with distributors, make sure they would
take our brands on. Sell the brands, promote the brands--quite a bit
on the acquisition front. Looking at projects, evaluating projects. I
sorted my academic woes out during that period of time, I went back to
Tulane took my M.B.A., got that all put, put to bed. (laughs)
TROLAND: Was there anyone at that time with whom you worked who had an
influence on what you're doing, someone you remember fondly or, or for
some other reason?
BROWN: Yes, Peter Bordeaux,
the, the guy who ran the company that I
worked for, he and I worked together for eleven years. I learned some
things from Peter that were good, and then I learned some things from
Peter that I have studiously avoided--being like or doing. So, I think
watching Peter work was instructional. And we worked very closely as
a, as a team. We were completely different, but compatible.
TROLAND: And so the good things you learned from him were the work ethic
of the method of organization? What?
BROWN: Yes. Peter was very bright, very strategic. So, I think some of
the strategic perspective--to the extent I've picked up any would have
come from there. But Peter was disorganized, chaotic, no idea about
focus or prioritization, that type of thing. So, if you imagine the
scene in Toys R' Us, he'd be out front,
picking up toys off the shelf
and just throwing them over his shoulder into the basket. And I'm the
clown following behind with the basket, trying to keep all the toys in
some type of order. And that was how we went. But the business grew,
um, it grew and grew.
TROLAND: As you look back on that time with Sazerac, what would you say
is your proudest achievement?
BROWN: I think the fact that we quadrupled the size of the company
and took it from being a small, sleepy, regional company, to being a
national business.
TROLAND: Now, at some point in your life, you became interested in
bourbon, because that's part of your life today. When did you first
become involved in the business of bourbon?
BROWN: Well, in 1992, I actually was contacted by a recruiter working
Brown-Forman, and they were looking for someone to run their
specialty brands division which they had just put together. And that
division had Glenmorangie in it, Gentleman Jack, Bushmills--and that
job was based up here in Louisville. So, actually my first day was
March thirty-first. No one thought it was a good idea to start working
for Brown-Forman on April first. So, we came up to Kentucky in 1992,
and started on that adventure. So--and I had been to Kentucky in 1983,
and I had quasi-fallen in love with the bourbon industry then, and
being English, without a red cent of Scots in my blood anywhere, it
seemed to me that, uh, bourbon's a very nice thing to give the Scots
a run for their money with. And I actually think bourbon is a
superior product to all other whiskey products, because of the rules
and regulations that surround it. So, I started to get some, some
involvement in that 1992 and 1993. Then, Brown-Forman went through
a change in leadership from Lee Brown to Owsley Brown, and they asked
me if I'd be interested in looking after their--the markets in the
world where Jack Daniels had never really been sold before. Which
surprisingly turned out to be 183 countries. So, we had responsibility-
-the group we put together had responsibility for all of Latin America,
all of Asia with the exception of Japan, all of Africa, all of the
C.I.S. (Commonwealth of Independent States), as it was at the time-
-which was really the former U.S.S.R., and we had responsibility for
Australia and New Zealand--and had a blast. We had a hundred and
fifty, sixty people in twenty-three different countries in three
Launched Jack Daniels in a host of countries from Angola, to South
Africa, to Korea, to the Czech Republic to Hungary, Brazil, Chile,
Argentina--and that was really when you could see ninety million cases
of scotch selling around the world. You could see the opportunity
that exi-, existed and still exists today. And the only reason scotch
sells around the world is because of the British Empire. You know,
the British went marching in to various and sundry countries, they
typically didn't call back home and say, "Send bourbon." So they took
their native spirit with them and it stuck. So, they got a head start
because of history. But I think bourbon can be a formidable competitor
for Scotch whisky. Which is really our mission--and the mission of
successive generations. Because we won't get it done in my lifetime.
We can make
some progress--but that real goal of driving bourbon into
global success is a project that's going to take forty or fifty years.
TROLAND: Do you feel that the market--marketing successes you had at
that time with Jack Daniels represented a step in that direction for
bourbon in general?
BROWN: Yes, clearly Jack Daniels is seen through the eyes of consumers
as American, and whiskey, and then I think it gets much fuzzier, so I
don't know what the average Chinese person--I think they get about as
far as American whiskey, and that's about as far as it goes. So, you
could, you could say that it's sort of part of the American whiskey
expansion. I think delineating bourbon, and separating it from
Tennessee whiskey and from rye whiskey, all of that will take time,
but it'll come, eventually. But yes, very much a step in the right
America, around the world, it's a, sort of a schizophrenic-
-they love the freedom and independence that we have. And then they
hate the loud plaid jackets, and the, some of the arrogance that we've
managed to display. But in terms of consumer goods, I think bourbon
represents a lot of that freedom and independence. And Jack Daniels is
certainly representative of that. So, consumer goods are well liked-
-Coca Cola, for example--and apparently McDonald's in ever-growing
TROLAND: Was that a period of very substantial growth for Jack Daniels
sales as you penetrated the markets in many different countries?
BROWN: Yes. The period of ninety-four to ninety-seven and subsequent
to that has been a great period of growth for Brown-Forman, and been
highly successful with Jack Daniels. I still think there's a fair
amount of growth left in Jack Daniels as a global brand. So, it
remains to be seen whether they can access that growth, but clearly,
lots of opportunity.
TROLAND: I didn't realize there were any countries where Jack Daniels
was not sold, so that realization probably is testament to the success
that you and your colleagues had in getting it out in the world.
BROWN: It was a real team effort. I think there were scatterings of
Jack Daniels that found it's way--you know, the global market is fairly
porous, so goods go to Turkey, or goods go to Rotterdam, and then they
find their, find their way to all sorts of strange places. But as a
full-fledged launch and broad, broad distribution in a country like
Korea, that's really taken Brown-Forman fourteen, fifteen years to, to
achieve. But it's been very successful.
TROLAND: I've heard it said that Jack Daniels is the most widely
recognized brand of whiskey in the
world. Is that your understanding
BROWN: Well, I'd have to give the nod to Johnny Walker. At this stage,
the Johnny Walker walking man, and Johnny Walker red and Johnny Walker
black would be, I think the most recognized whisky brand. Jack Daniels
is certainly doing well, and certainly getting a broader and broader
audience, but I still think Johnny Walker would be the, the number one.
TROLAND: Let's talk a little bit about your return to the Sazerac
Company later on after you left Brown-Forman. What brought that about?
BROWN: Well, Peter Bordeaux had been running Sazerac had left. Bill
Goldring called and said, "Would you have an interest in coming
back to Sazerac?" I think he almost expected me to say, "No." But he
miscalculated on one, on one key thought process. And that was the
simple fact that we had never finished what we set out to
achieve with
Sazerac. We'd had a lot of success, but we've really never created
the type of business that we wanted to, to create. So, I hate leaving
things unfinished, and as much as I could have foreseen a long-range
future at Sazerac, the fact--the long range future at Brown-Forman,
the fact that we had not finished the job at Sazerac was immensely
appealing. I also knew Bill, and I knew how he was going to behave and
how he was--"If you come back as the captain of the ship, you are the
captain of the ship," and again, you would be able to estimate that he
was going to be very supportive of what we wanted to try and get done.
The new dimension was of course that this distillery had been acquired
shortly after I left. I'd worked a little bit on the project prior to
leaving Sazerac, and then they had bought this distillery, um,
after I left. So, the biggest debate that we had was where I was going
to live. Was I going to move back to New Orleans, or was I gonna live
here. In the period that we've been here, we put roots down, so--I
wasn't about to move out of the state of Kentucky and made a reasonable
argument that this being the, one of the larger assets that it made
sense to stay in Kentucky and be here with the largest asset. Then, I
made the fatal mistake of coming out here and taking a look. That very
nearly completely queered the pitch.
TROLAND: What was there about the site that you saw that you came to
visit that led you to question?
BROWN: Well, I would start with the fourteen foot fence around the whole
place, and then the razor wire on top added a certain dimension of
interest to the whole, the whole thing. I--I couldn't quite figure it
out whether it was to keep the out mates out or the inmates in.
it was not the most attractive and appealing site. But, just like you
might go to an art auction or yard sale, and happen across a picture,
an ugly picture--and you might even buy that picture for the frame.
But then when you get the thing home and you take the frame off and
you begin to discover there's another picture underneath, you could
see pieces that would suggest that there was something underneath the
fourteen foot fence and the razor wire. And--so, one think led to
another, and back I came in ninety-seven to, to see what we could do.
TROLAND: How long did it take you to get the fence down?
BROWN: Not long. There was a bit of a, bit of a
horror. There was
a great deal of insecurity around the idea of taking down the fence.
It wasn't quite a Gorbachev/Reagan moment about tearing down the
wall. But--we got rid of the fence pretty quickly. The journey of
discovery was probably two years. Extensive research on the history,
which produced spectacular results--absolutely no idea how much history
was here. Then, the second revelation was just how good the whiskey
that was being made here was, just incredible. So, two completely
unknown things. Then, once you got the razor wire and the fence down,
you began to see the potential of the natural beauty. And so, by
the time we got to 1988--1999, it was very apparent that this was an
undiscovered work of art. Which was wonderful.
TROLAND: It was not just the frame?
BROWN: It was not just the frame. There was a Monet, or a Rembrandt
underneath the ugly picture of your mother in law that was sitting on
top of it. So, we've gradually been scraping off all the remnants of
the mother in law and working our way down and restoring the Rembrandt.
TROLAND: Was this the first foray of the Sazerac Company into the
bourbon business--acquisition of this distillery?
BROWN: We had purchased in 1987 the Benchmark bourbon brand and the
Eagle Rare bourbon brand from Seagram. But we never owned any, any
distillery to produce that. So, we were buying bourbon on the open
market. And
that was one of my first lessons in the bourbon business.
We--the brand had been sold using Seagram whiskey. When we bought the
brand, Seagram would not sell us any whiskey. So, we changed suppliers
to someone who will remain nameless. We started to get hate mail from
Benchmark consumers, particularly in North Carolina and Virginia. I
mean, I think if they had had it in their mind to, they would have
been marching on the offices in New Orleans with placards. Because the
taste change was immediate and obvious, and to their mind, offensive.
And so one think I learned very early about the bourbon business is
you don't go around changing recipes and changing flavors without a
great degree of care and attention--because consumers really know their
whiskey. And when you start messing around with it, they tend to have
allergic reactions to that. So, we had dabbled a little bit in the
bourbon business.
But this was a substantial investment, and really a
first foray at Sazerac into, into the whiskey business.
TROLAND: So, where does the whiskey business fit now into the priorities
of the Sazerac Company?
BROWN: It's an extraordinarily important part of our past, our present,
and our future.
TROLAND: And what about the history of this place--just to go back to
comments you made earlier. You said, "The more you were here, the
more you learned about the history. How did you find out about this
history, and what are some of the highlights of what you learned?
BROWN: Well, we had two documents. One was a piece of research done
by Dan Churchill, which I would call the foundation. And then Richard
Taylor, former poet laureate of Kentucky came in and did The Great
Crossing book for us. And between those two pieces of
work, we really
came to build a deep understanding. For me, the most significant part
is the fact that this site was started in 1773, three years before
we all departed from the motherland, or the mother ship. And what it
says to me is that the evolution at this site chronicles the evolution
of the United States. And so, when you look at the history here,
and you look at the architecture here, you can see how it parallels
the industrial development, if you will, of the United States. And I
think that, to have that on one sight, with its integrity intact, in
this day and age, is quite, is quite a remarkable find. And that is
a very striking--and then you add the natural beauty to the place, and
the fact that somebody in 1935 thought to build this
cabin when they
could of put up a block building--that someone took the time to build
the gardens--and that's a lot of the motivation. When I die and get
carried out of here in a pine box, I want to make sure that we hand
this place off to the next generation. And that in another hundred
years, somebody will say, "Thank goodness they did those things for
the distillery," in the same that we appreciate what Albert Blanton did
back in 1920, 1930, 1935. And the fact that he left us a legacy. I
think it's important that we do the same--the same thing. That it be
preserved, promoted, enhanced--because it is a remarkable collection of
buildings and architecture and history. Hence, our interest in making
sure it becomes a national historic landmark and
all the little added
protections that will come with that.
TROLAND: So, this somebody you mentioned earlier is Albert Blanton?
BROWN: Yes, I think Blanton--if you look at the history of the
distillery, it's very clear that the Schwigert family--that the early
settlers, the Hancocks, the Lees, the McAfees--who founded Leestown--
it's quite amusing when you think of there was "Lee's Town" and "Frank's
Fort" up the road, who I guess were duking it out at some point to
become state capital. I guess Frank and his fort won the thing, and
Lee and his town did not. But those early pioneers who settled here--
it must have been a reasonably intimidating prospect back in those days,
I mean, I think we are so modernized with our Walgreens on the corner
and our supermarkets, and our cars, and our roads, and--but back then,
it had to be a whole different
world, and I'm not entirely sure they
knew exactly what they were going to run into in some of these parts.
So there--they get a lot of credit for settling the sight, and clearly
there were some economic reasons to settle the sight, given that this
was probably as far up river you could go without unloading everything.
But, beyond that, the Schwigerts who put up the distillery--there's
not much known about them in that 1857 period. Then clearly, Edmond
Haynes Taylor, coming here in 1870 had a profound impact, and when
he went bankrupt, George T. Stagg, who rescued the whole affair. And
then Blanton, who--the man had an impeccable sense of horrible timing,
becoming president in 1917, just when World War I gets going for
the United States. He has to deal with Prohibition. No sooner than
Prohibition, is
then the Great Depression to deal with. As soon as the
Great Depression is dealt with, he's got World War II. Albert's entire
span here was pock marked with one crater after another from World War
I, to Prohibition, to the Great Depression, to World War II. Quite a
remarkable set of challenges. We think we have it tough today with,
with things. Back in his time, I think to myself, "Goodness gracious-
-quite a set of challenges." And the fact that he did all of that and
the distillery prospered, really prospered, and that he was able, while
he was doing all that to build these type of buildings--quite, quite
TROLAND: You say that the site here has vestiges of a very long period
of development in American history. What are some of the earliest
vestiges--physical vestiges that are here, that date back--
BROWN: The oldest building would be
1792. And that's the little house
that sits just outside our backdoor here that was built by Commodore
Richard Taylor to--he was brought here after the French Indian War
to build the lock and dam system. And that house remains today, and
it's a restoration project for us. We, we're arguing, quite frankly,
debating with the historical folks about what the right way to renovate
the property is. My own concept would be to take off the second floor
of the building, which belongs to the 1800s, and restore it as a period
house. 1792--unfortunately, we can't find anybody who remembers what
they looked like back then. But, I think the consensus of the majority
opinion is we should restore it as is, including the 1857 second
So, I don't think I'm going to prevail in this argument. But either
way, we're gonna restore the, the building--upstairs and downstairs,
as close as we can get to the original. And that will be a really nice
piece when it's finished.
TROLAND: Focusing on more modern history at the distillery, you came to
the distillery in 1997, is that correct?
BROWN: Correct.
TROLAND: And you were greeted with, among other things, walls that
needed to be torn down. As you view the history of the distillery from
that time, 1997 to the present, what do you think are among the biggest
changes that have occurred, apart from the removal of a wall?
BROWN: Apart from tearing down the wall, and the wires, and--I think
it's really been the renovation and restoration of the distillery.
That, that clearly when you look back over the eleven
first of all, you have the renovation and restoration of the whole
infrastructure, which now is about fifty million dollars worth of
investment into, into the property over that period of time. Secondly,
has been the astonishing run of medals and awards, and recognition for
the distillery. To have won Distillery of the Year seven times--to
have been the first American distillery to ever win Distillery of the
Year Award--to have accumulated the medals. There's no distillery
anywhere in the world--among the 6,000 distilleries that are in the
world that have won as many awards and medals and decorations and
accolades as this distillery--for a bunch of Johnny Come Latelys--
1773--that's pretty good. I think that's really a testimony to the--to
the, to the distillery and people. And
people ask about, well, you
know, "How come you're making great whiskey?" The answer is, we've
always made great whiskey. And the reason we make great whiskey is
because of the hand me downs and the people that have been involved
in the distillery over the years. I think what we've done is a more
effective job, quite frankly, of, um, presenting the whiskey as we
make, to the consuming public and to the press. That's really been
the difference-maker. And so, I wouldn't sit around and say, " Oh yes,
all of a sudden, we've completely redone the way we make whiskey and
everything else. I think we've made improvements in a number of areas,
and certainly restoring the equipment, and investing in new equipment
has helped. But the distillery has a long track record of making great
whiskey because of the few
number of master distillers we've had over
the years and the tenure of the people that work here. And the love
and care, quite frankly that they, that they've put in. We've just
done now a better job of presenting that to an eager public that's
been very appreciative of those, of those efforts. So, it is nice to
have the distillery restored. We still got a lot more to do in the
master plan. And it's been wonderful the recognition for the whiskey
that's coming out here. And we've been helped, because the bourbon
industry was collapsing in the seventies and eighties, and we've been
helped by a turnaround in that trend with consumers showing renewed
interest in bourbon. Which is helpful, given that we've invested fifty
million dollars in the site. It was lucky that--or fortunate, that the
consumers responded very
TROLAND: What do you think has caused this turnaround in consumer
perspective on bourbon, and what role do you think Buffalo Trace has
played in that turnaround?
BROWN: Well, I think you've--you have a--despite our current economic
woes, you have a generally wealthier population, with more disposable
income. And certainly, alcohol is an affordable luxury. And you also
have a better educated population. And I think to some extent, we've
been able to overcome the problem that California wine makers had in
the eighties, and the seventies--when it was Boone's Farm, Strawberry
Hill, and Gallo chardonnay--or Gallo Chablis, or Gallo hearty burgundy.
Well-made products, but not exactly sitting at the table with French
Bordeaux. And then they had the tasting of Paris, which really changed
everything. And they were able to start to get over this terrible
phobia Americans have about the fact that whatever we make here is in
some way inferior. And that this lust for imported goods--which has
been so strong, they were able to start breaking that down. In the
same way, when Americans discover the quality standards that bourbon
is held to, you're able to tell a very compelling story about the
quality of bourbon whiskey. And quite frankly, the whole problem
is exacerbated in the seventies and sixties by the big producers,
including Schenley, who owned this distillery--because it was all
about mass market. So, they took a handcrafted, handmade product,
in a handmade industry, and converted it into Ford, General Motors,
and Chrysler. And it was all about packing big bottles of bourbon in
as inexpensive a container, inexpensive packaging, and putting
wonderful handmade, hand crafted product out at lower and lower prices,
in lower and lower quality packages. And the consumer responded
by going off and buying completely different spirits. Bill Samuels
gets a lot of credit, or his dad does--for representing Maker's Mark,
which got things started. Al--Elmer T. Lee gets a lot of credit for
Blanton's single-barrel, which were really the early runners of saying
to American consumers, "Wait a minute--Cabin Still is not the poster
child for the bourbon industry, and there are--there's a story to be
told here." And I think that's why the industry has been successful,
is because we've increasingly been able to, to tell that story to a
population that is interested in being better educated about spirits,
and relationships with brands have changed. People
are no longer
content to go to the store and pull something off the shelf without
knowing a little bit more about that product. And all of that work
has been very helpful in getting the consumer. So, to the extent we've
played any role in that, however small, is nice.
TROLAND: Are you hoping--
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: Okay, we are continuing now, our interview with Mark Brown,
it is April 30, 2009, this is part of the Buffalo Trace Oral History
Project, and we are at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. I can't resist
asking you if you would not like to organize perhaps a tasting in
Edinburgh, to mimic the tasting in Paris some years ago. Perhaps any
thoughts on that prospect?
BROWN: (laughs) Ah, well, I suspect the Scots have watched the tasting
of Paris and would probably man the barricades to prevent a repeat of
that fiasco happening in uh,
Scotland. So, I don't hold out any hopes
of doing that. But, I do know that in international competitions,
bourbon's been getting very good reviews. And I like the quality
standards that are applied to bourbon. I think they force a great
degree of integrity into the product, which is an important back stop
for those of us that would not want to see inferior, cheap bourbons--
quality bourbons showing up.
TROLAND: Without going into all the technical details, what is one
example of a quality standard that applies to bourbon that perhaps does
not apply to other whiskeys such as Scotch whisky?
BROWN: No additives. No coloring, no wine in the back of the product.
Just what comes out of the barrel, plus water, is what goes into
the bottle. And I think that, right there, is a very significant
contributor to the integrity and the quality. New barrels would be the
next thing that would immediate--would spring to mind.
TROLAND: As you look back over your last ten years or so--ten to twelve
years here at Buffalo Trace. You've obviously worked with a lot of
people, perhaps a few colorful characters--any stories that come to
mind regarding uh, happenings around the distillery?
BROWN: Hmm--nothing off the top of my mind. I am in--I think in
the people sense, Elmer T. Lee has been a wonderful person to work
alongside. He's like the grandfather I never had. Which is how I
look upon Elmer. And then Jimmy Johnson, quite the most remarkable
individual, and his son Freddie. Ronnie and Leonard--we've talked
Ronnie and Leonard out of retiring on at
least three occasions.
Because what they bring to the distillery is so vitally important.
Not only in terms of their everyday performance, but their
institutional knowledge and their wonderful understanding of the
warehouse systems. And I think Harlen has done a remarkable job of
taking over from Gary Gayheart and, and becoming the master distiller.
So, to work alongside those people is great fun.
TROLAND: Bourbon is certainly viewed as a traditional, down-home
American product, a down-home industry, and advertising for bourbon
and other American whiskies often show scenes of down-home folks just
sitting around doing their thing. You're from, from the U.K. You're
from a different culture. How, how does the fact that you're from a
country affect your interactions with the people who make
bourbon and with the bourbon industry?
BROWN: Well, an interesting question. I don't know if I've ever given
any thought to that. Probably from a perspective point of view, I,
having not grown up in the United States, I don't have perhaps some
of the preconceptions around the bourbon. So, I've not fallen into
any of those. So, perhaps one can be slightly more objective about
the product. By the same token, I've been here long enough that I
wake up as an American every day; I love this country, I think it's a
wonderful country. I think some of the bashing that goes on is wholly
inappropriate, and I think if we can get over ourselves to some extent
and start to take some pride in what we've achieved and what we bring.
Couple that with perhaps a little better understanding of the rest of
the world out there, I think we'll get along just fine. But um--so,
no, it seems to of--we seem to of all gotten along quite well together
and I can step out of all that and become British periodically.
TROLAND: What is, what are your thoughts regarding the bourbon industry
in the future? Where do you think it might go? Where would you like to
see it go?
BROWN: Well, I--as I said earlier, I think that bourbon whiskey has
a wonderful opportunity to become a forty or fifty million case
business around the world. I feel very passionately about the economic
opportunity in Kentucky. I think the challenges we face in Kentucky
are fascinating, because we
live in a great state. Interestingly
enough, it has roughly the same population as Scotland--four million
people, give or take. On a geographic land mass--although it's a
slightly different shape, it has roughly the same geographic land
mass as Scotland. Scotch whisky to the Scottish economy is about six
billion dollars in exports. And bourbon whisky--I doubt whether it
gets to 250 million in export value at this stage. So, you think about
the economic--potential economic impact of this state. It's clearly
enormous. But, we have a state that--a large part of the state would
just as soon, I think, alcohol not be here. And then you have a lot
of people that think it's wonderful having us here. But that's the
dichotomy that is Kentucky. We have a large part of the population
that would just as
soon Kentucky stay in the eighteenth century. And
then there are the more progressive people in the state, that would
like to extol the virtues of the state and see it grow. And we have
this sort of conflict, if you will. We see it in all parts and walks
of life of our wonderful state. Sports franchises being a pretty
good example of--where an NBA franchise comes up, there's sort of hand
wringing in Louisville about, "Oh, do we really want that type of thing
here?" And then you got other people that are, "Oh gosh, yes. Let's
go get it." So, we deal with this, just in a slightly different cut.
But I think eventually, we will do a better job of communicating the
opportunity to the state. The interesting thing about our industry
as distinct from other industries is we also have the inbound tourism
capability. And I think tourism, using the Bourbon Trail as an anchor,
is an enormous opportunity. I don't see any reason at all why we can't
bring a million unique visitors to Kentucky to see the Bourbon Trail,
which is about roughly what goes through the Scottish distilleries.
But we have a lot of work to do. Everybody is gradually waking up
to the, to the idea and the opportunity. But I still think we're only
scratching the surface. So, I'd think that the prospects for bourbon
are tremendous. I mean, we've got a great quality story. We know
consumers around the world. Many of them are still under the legal
drinking age. They will become drinkers eventually, so there will
be more consumers out there. And as they become economically better
off, they will endeavor to--undoubtedly start to trade up and, and
experiment. I just think it's important we make sure that bourbon is
there, ready, and that the Scots don't elbow us to one side. And you
have other--Canadians, they're ambitious with their
industry. And the
Irish--Jameson's been doing very well. So it's not--we're gonna have
to compete to, to achieve that, which is great.
TROLAND: Now you've said on a number of occasions that the best bourbon
is yet to be made.
TROLAND: What do you mean by that?
BROWN: Well, I think that we've had a couple of bourbons that have
scored ninety-nine out of a hundred in a taste test. But I haven't
seen any hundreds yet. And that is a little bit of our mantra for the
best bourbon has yet to be made--I think that we also believe that's
the case. So, we have this project called Holy Grail, which ironically
may end up being very similar to the Holy Grail that we may search
forever--and it's a worthwhile search, and we may, or we may not get
there. I also think it's a useful
way to challenge our organization.
To say, "Okay, so we've won 170 medals. And we've won the distillery
of the year seven times, and it would be very easy to rest on our
laurels. But that's not satisfactory." Because there are so many
things to try, and so many things to do, and so many things we don't
understand about the whiskey that we produce. We've only documented
half of the naturally occurring chemicals in a bottle of bourbon.
Still, a half of them are unidentified because they're in such small
quantities. We don't really understand how two chemicals combine to
produce a third chemical. So, the first part of the project is to
really build a much deeper understanding of a bottle of bourbon. So,
when you open this bottle, and you try the product, and you get all
the nose sensations and the aromas and then the taste, trying to
an understanding of how all that's being created is important. Second
part of the challenge is "All right, so, how do you then manipulate
that naturally?" Because, obviously, we're not going to be dropping
bits of lemon into the product to try and tweak it. You're going to
have to do this based on your understanding of the naturally occurring
processes that go on with bourbon. So, it is a lot like looking for
the Holy Grail. This is no picnic project, but I think it's a very
worthwhile adventure. And of course, who's to say what the perfect,
or the best bourbon ever made is? I would imagine that's in the eye
of the beholder. So, um, we will see; that's a little bit of the
project we're on. The experiments that we've been doing is an attempt
to really build a deeper understand of just how a bottle of bourbon is
created, what variables can you
play with to move that taste profile
around, all in the confines of mother nature.
TROLAND: Indeed, you point to the number of bottles here from the
Buffalo Trace experimental collection. What--what's the philosophy
behind that, apart from trying different experiments with bourbon--the
distribution necessarily is very, very limited. It must have a very
small effect upon your overall sales, if not negligible. What's, what's
the guiding philosophy of putting this out as a commercial product?
BROWN: Well, the concept behind the experiments is to build this
understanding. So, we've never gone into this as a commercial venture
at all. As you point out, it's, it's negligible in its impact on
the company. But we want to do the experiments so that we can help
build this understanding of what goes into making a
particular bottle
of bourbon. And having had the experiments mature, although there
are limited quantities, we have wanted to make them available to the
public, as opposed to pouring them down the drain, which would seem to
me to be a, a tragedy. So, we live in a difficult world where there
isn't enough to go around, and we get upset people that can't find the
product from time to time. But we think it's worth it, because some of
the results we're getting from some of the experiments are really pretty
good, pretty interesting. It would be a shame not to share those. And
that's why we put them in half bottles, so that there's at least twice
as much to go around. And we have 1492 ongoing experiments right now.
TROLAND: The same year you were born, you said earlier.
BROWN: The same year I was born, yes. (laughs)
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: Okay. As you look ahead at the bourbon industry and also
look at what's happened in the last decade or two, it seems to me that
product innovation has been certainly a strong factor in
driving sales
and interest in bourbon. And certainly, Buffalo Trace has been a
leader in that field. If you consider the bourbon industry in general,
some distilleries have emphasized the idea of product innovation. Many
products, many new products, other distilleries have concentrated on
either a rather small number of products, or even just only one. What
do you see as the pros and cons of those two strategies?
BROWN: Well, I think Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey have done wonderful
jobs, as has Maker's Mark of taking one product, focusing on that one
product, and building it into an internationally recognized brand. Our
strategy has been completely different. Our strategy has been much
more about presenting to the consumer an array of different ages of
product, and different recipes of product. So, we've presented
to the consumer. And I think our concept--the concept behind that
is that you can move the taste profile of bourbon around and whiskey
around. So, if you take a rye whiskey, which is really kin more to
a bottle of zinfandel in the wine world--powerful, big, spicy type
product--and said to consumers, "Well, you may be drinking cognac, or
you may be drinking some other type of spirit, but here is something in
the American spirit collection area that you can try, adopt, and enjoy.
Similarly, the other end of the spectrum you have wheated bourbons,
which is much more like merlots of the wine world--which appeal to
certain consumers who do not like the complexity of bourbon's cabernet
sauvignon, which is the rye recipe type bourbons. And so, much as the
wine makers have diversified their presentation of different types of
wines, we felt
it was more important to offer consumers an array of
bourbons. And one of the stereotypes I think we've found in consumers'
minds, is that all bourbon tastes alike. And that would be a shame,
and it's not really correct and accurate. And I think our effort has
been more to try and get consumers to understand that there are in fact
a wide array of products. And then, if you've changed the recipes, but
then also, what difference does the impact of age make? And clearly,
there's a big difference between a four year old and an eight year old
with its impeccable balance, to an eighteen year old, with its heavy
wood flavors--which changes the consumption time of day. And so,
we've really been all about age and recipe and trying to attract new
consumers to the category that would never of previously considered
bourbon, because they thought it was a rather one-dimensional category.
And we've been able to do that, because of our reservoir
of recipes
and our capacity to age, or our willingness to age product for up
to twenty-three years. And all the attendant forecasting problems
and business risks of doing that. So, it's just a--I think really
a preference of how you think about the consumer. Clearly, or
apparently, neither approach has been wrong. It's just a different,
different way of tackling it.
TROLAND: If I were to say to you that Buffalo Trace could be imagined as
the Glenmorangie of the bourbon world, how would you react to that?
BROWN: Well, I would say that we were far too humble or modest to, to
say that. I think that we get up in the morning looking to be better
than we were yesterday and looking to be very good, and looking for
perfection in what, what we do. I've always found it a little bit
dangerous to--rather like standing on a
ladder--looking down is not
necessarily the best approach you want to continue to look up and
that's a little bit of our culture. So, I think we're flattered that,
that we've been recognized. But our real goal is to turn Buffalo Trace
into a complete Mecca, if you will, for a whiskey enthusiast, and not
rest until we've, until we've done that, that's really the goal. And I
don't know if we'll ever get there completely and utterly. But that's
that forward progress that we're interested in making.
TROLAND: Curious that you use the analogy "Mecca" since I presume in the
real Mecca, Buffalo Trace will never be sold.
BROWN: Correct.
TROLAND: What do you see as the role of the new acquisition by Sazerac
Company of the Barton Brands--what is that role in the company as a
whole? How will that change your future
BROWN: Well, um, for Sazerac, we have had this ongoing development of
our business. And there is a--we have a strategic plan that we've had
for the eleven years that I've been back. And--we've identified very
specific business objectives that we wanted to achieve. There's an
irony to the, to the acquisition, which is that--that the acquisition
is actually a, an amalgamation of several different companies, all
of which we tried to buy as individual companies in the eighties.
So, every single one of the companies that's been rolled up under
Constellation Spirits, we had actually attempted to buy in the
eighties, and so, there was a slight touch of irony that we just had
to wait, and then we were able to take the entire portfolio at, at
one time. But for Sazerac, it's
obviously a significant acquisition,
and we're delighted with what it brings us and where it positions
us. It substantially achieves our strategic plan, and now allows us
to start thinking about the rest of the strategic plan, which is our
international business and how that develops. And the drinks industry
is an, is an interesting industry, because it's really come to be
dominated by foreign companies. And there are a variety of reasons
for that; for the British, and the French clearly have a head start
on the American companies. And we're fairly competitive and like many
Americans in many different walks, we hate to be second, and so--I
think it's, it's part of our nature to want to build a company that can
compete with some of the foreign competitors.
Now, there are a number of brands produced at this distillery
named for people who previously worked there. There is the Blanton
label, there's of course the W.L. Weller, Thomas Handy and George T.
Stagg--a half a century or so from now, hopefully, they'll be one named
after you.
BROWN: Lord, I hope not.
TROLAND: What should it be called?
BROWN: (laughs) I hope not, and I've already issued--some wag suggested
building a statue at some point. And I would just as soon I am--my
whole role and goal is the, is the business entity, the distillery
Buffalo Trace. And so, if I'm lost in the annals of history, that's
just fine with me. So, I hope that no bright spot decides to come
out with a whiskey--and in any event, the trademark is taken, because
Heaven Hill has a brand called, a brand called J.T.S. Brown. Which is
ironic, because my wife
is Jane, as in 'J', my sons are Thomas and Sam.
So, I suppose if we were going to go and acquire something from Heaven
Hill maybe we should go buy J.T.S Brown. But I don't foresee all
that happening down the road. Particularly as I shall leave specific
instructions that it, that it not happen.
TROLAND: So, that would rule out, let's say, Old Brown.
TROLAND: I suppose Maker's Mark has already been taken.
BROWN: Correct.
TROLAND: Wouldn't work.
BROWN: So, there's lots of, there's lots of reasons to be optimistic
that in fact I'll be able to disappear quietly into the mist.
TROLAND: I'm sure fifty years from now--although you may have
disappeared by that time, you won't be forgotten. If someone were
writing a history of the Buffalo Trace distillery at that time, what
might you like to see in that book regarding yourself?
BROWN: Well, I think--in a retrospective sense, it would
be nice to have
this period be thought of as the period of renovation and restoration.
With particular attention to the team of people that made it possible.
So, whether you're looking at Ronnie and Leonard, or whether you're
looking Harlen Wheatley, or you're looking at the continued involvement
of Elmer T. Lee, and quite frankly, the involvement of the Johnson
family, and the involvement of all the other people that have come
to the Trace to help make it work. I think as people would look back
and say, you know, "This was the period when a group of people came
together and really put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and made
it--gave us, this generation, the opportunity to take it another step
further." And I think--to the extent that Buffalo Trace becomes as well
known around the world as is Johnny Walker, then I think we would have
really achieved something. And that won't happen in my lifetime, but
I hope successive generations are able to spring board off whatever
momentum we're going to give them, much like a relay race. And
actually achieve that goal. Because it's--it's imminently doable.
TROLAND: But no statues?
BROWN: But no statues.
TROLAND: What's your favorite bourbon?
BROWN: Buffalo Trace.
TROLAND: Apart from bourbon, what else in the way of um, distilled
spirits, or, or other alcoholic beverages do you enjoy?
BROWN: It's a bit like working in a cookie factory, so my actual intake
of alcohol is fairly low. I do enjoy Buffalo Trace, and I drink a
little bit of wine and the occasional beer. But that's about, that's
about it.
TROLAND: Anything else that you'd like to say that I haven't already
asked you about?
BROWN: No, I don't, I don't think so. I think we've covered off on an
awful lot of
topics it seems in a short period of time.
TROLAND: Mark Brown, thank you very much.
BROWN: Thank you.
[End of interview.]