July 2012

Whiskey History in the Making

By: Fred Minnick

As Dave Scheurich tilts the Prohibition-era still back, showing ax slits made by a revenue agent, I couldn’t help but think about the original owner. Agents likely stormed his Kentucky hill hideout, held him at gunpoint and stripped him of his illicit livelihood.

Master Distiller Dave Scheurich and his wife, Della, enjoy Jailers Tennessee Whiskey and Forbidden Secret American Cream Liqueur on their front porch.

These Prohibition stories are colorful and rich with characters, but for the longest time, nobody cared about this history. We all knew Prohibition was the experiment that didn’t work, but our culture didn’t embrace the era as it does today. The result was so much whiskey past discarded on the scrap heap.

But Scheurich, Master Distiller for The Tennessee Spirits Company, has always tried to keep whiskey history alive. In fact, when the History Channel’s American Pickers wanted a whiskey still education, the producers called Scheurich, one of the country’s top whiskey collectors. He gave the network substantial background used on a recent episode.

Scheurich’s museum-worthy collection includes an 80-year-old yeast jug popular before refrigeration units became affordable, a wicker-enclosed demijohn once used to hold whiskey, a half dozen stills, a one-of-a-kind bronze-sculpted Woodford Reserve bottle and many whiskies he has collected from the likes of Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell and Jim Beam’s Fred Noe. Scheurich likely knows more about the copper stills used in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee than anybody else in the country.

“Yeah, I’ve been known to collect stuff,” Scheurich says.

Scheurich shows off a Prohibition-era still in his collection that sports ax slits made by a revenue agent.
What Retirement?

Once, when working for another distillery, Scheurich saw workers throwing away old barrel stencils. Instead of just letting them go to the landfill, the stencils are now among his most treasured finds, the only memories of forgotten Kentucky distilleries. “I love this industry’s history,” Scheurich says.
Scheurich oversaw the two-year, $10-million renovation of the Labrot & Graham Distillery for Woodford Reserve. When he retired as Woodford Reserve’s General Manager on December 31, 2010, Scheurich hoped to spend more time finding great pieces and doing chores assigned by his lovely wife, Della, but instead, he found himself in a “reluctant consultant” role. With experience at every level of the business, having worked for Seagram’s, Brown-Forman and Wild Turkey, Scheurich taught young microdistillers how to build a brand from the ground up. Then, one day, he got a call from Capital Brands; they wanted him to become the Master Distiller for their planned subsidiary, The Tennessee Spirits Company.

“When I retired, I figured we’d run off into the sunset,” he says. “But I thought about the Capital Brands offer and told them, ‘Before I agree to, I need to taste the product. I can’t promote something I can’t support.’”

Eight-year-old Breakout Rye is destined to become a must for mixologists.
As soon as he put Jailers Tennessee Whiskey to his lips, taking in those rich vanilla, caramel and spice notes and feeling the smooth finish, Scheurich knew this was a company he could stand behind.

“This falls between a complex bourbon and an uncomplex bourbon,” says Scheurich, a Brown-Forman loyalist who still waxes poetic about Woodford Reserve. “Jailers is a really soft whiskey. When I present Jailers to retailers, I will pull out a $20 bill and offer it to them if they can name six Tennessee whiskies that are not extensions of Jack Daniel’s. They can’t do it.”

Ambitious Goals

The Tennessee Spirits Company is planning to give other American whiskey companies some serious competition. The company is building a $50-million distillery in Pulaski, Tennessee, and is already represented in all 50 states and 12 countries. “We want to be the number three or number four American whiskey company in the world in ten years,” says Founding Partner and Chief Marketing Officer Bob Reider, a goal backed up by Founding Partner, Senior VP and General Manager of the distilling company Ray Steelman.

When Scheurich tasted Jailers, he knew it was a whiskey he could get behind.
At $24.95 a bottle, 86-proof Jailers is aggressively positioned as the premium Tennessee whiskey in retail, riding high on its recent 93 rating from THE TASTING PANEL, among other critical praise. For Breakout Rye, an eight-year-old whiskey that is poised for the bartender’s shelf, the company will mostly focus its efforts on-premise to win over the mixology crowd. “We are investing tens of millions of dollars into this,” Reider says. “We are planning to make an impact on the industry.”

That’s why Capital Brands and The Tennessee Spirits Company hired Scheurich, who has the distinction of building bourbon and Tennessee whiskey brands. When asked what he considers his storied career’s greatest achievement, the Master Distiller quickly answers: “Right now, it’s definitely Woodford. We did something special. But, Jailers is textbook to how Woodford evolved.”

But there is one slight difference: Woodford Reserve was all about the rebuilding of the Labrot & Graham Distillery (when Scheurich first walked into the mothballed facility, a snake fell on him from the rafters). Now, he’s helping build something from the ground up. And this time, he’s the face of the brand, something Reider understands the importance of. “Dave’s background is our background,” he says. “We feel fortunate to have him.”

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