The VinePair Podcast: Wilderness Trail

In the wake of Gruppo Campari acquiring a 70 percent stake in Wilderness Trail, Adam, Joanna, and Zach explore why the bourbon market remains red-hot, why the primacy of Kentucky remains unchallenged, and speculate on which distillery will be the next to sell. Then, they taste the Small Batch Bottled in Bond from Wilderness Trail.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: And this is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Today we’re talking about acquisitions. And this acquisition’s going to be Wilderness Trail, a VinePair Next Wave Award winner for brand of the year last year.

J: Yeah, spirit of the year.

A: Yes, spirit of the year has just been acquired recently by Campari. I thought it would be fun to have a conversation about this and the general idea of, is anything going to slow bourbon down? This is what makes it so interesting to me. First of all, Wilderness Trail’s a great bourbon. It’s a really great bourbon. There’s lots of indie bourbons out there now, so it’s not the only one, but the taters like it, geeks like it. People love it because they put the exact percentages of the mash bill on there and all that kind of stuff so it’s good for the geeks. But I was a little surprised that Campari bought it just because I feel like it’s so similar of a brand to Wild Turkey in terms of it’s also loved by the taters. It was an interesting decision to me. They’re going to pay upwards of $600 million for it.

J: I thought it was $420, oh-

Z: It’s valued at-

A: If they buy the rest.

J: Okay. Yeah.

Z: Yeah.

A: Yeah. It’s $420 right now and if they buy the rest it’ll be $600. And everyone knows they’re going to buy. What are they going to do, not buy the rest of it? They’ll ultimately pay $600 million for it. Look, I will say, I think this is the smartest bourbon acquisition that has happened so far in the last few years. This is the smartest one, because this brand has the potential to become on the cult level of a lot of Sazerac’s brands. People are that obsessed with it and I’m surprised that other bigger companies didn’t look at that and see that. Maybe they don’t want to be that, but this was a very smart buy. It’s continuing to prove — dude, I don’t think anything’s going to slow bourbon down.

J: What’s surprising to me is that Campari Group doesn’t have more bourbon in its portfolio.

A: Yes, that is true.

Z: They’re looking to change that, they very clearly said.

J: Right, and they’re looking to change that.

Z: In the announcement for this acquisition, they’re like, “We’re looking to buy more bourbon,” more or less, so keep an eye out for future moves.

J: Well, we’ve been seeing this for a while now.

A: Yeah, I think what was interesting about that, though — and Zach, by bringing this up, this is an interesting point — is a lot of these companies are realizing that not only do they want to own more, they need to own more, and it’s not a problem to own more. They’re happy having multiple brands in the same liquid category. Basically, most people have said that they’re predicting that they don’t think Diageo is done buying tequilas.

J: It’s the same thing that’s happening with tequila, too.

A: Exactly. These two categories right now, companies are basically not done buying and they want to have lots. I think one of the biggest companies that have proven that it doesn’t — you can look at probably three or four that have proven — ABI has proven it doesn’t matter how many beers you have. There’s beer for everyone. Diageo has proven it doesn’t matter how many single malts you have. They own so many of them because a lot of them are going to be ingredients for Johnnie Walker, but they own a ton. Beam Suntory’s proven it doesn’t matter how much whiskey you own. Right. And Gallo has proven it doesn’t matter how many wine brands you own, right? They’re actually, they’re kind of competitive, but it also is kind of healthy. And so I think everyone else is sort of sitting here being like, “Yeah, maybe we don’t need to only put all of our funds into Wild Turkey.” Maybe we need to see what happens when we spread money around and also invest in Wilderness Trail and other things. Yeah, I think this one’s smart because geeks really truly love it. I think there have been others that recently have been blockbuster bourbon purchases that honestly you don’t hear as much buzz about, especially from the true obsessives. For example, Jefferson’s, right? It’s a good bourbon, but it was not beloved by bourbon people. So when Pernod bought it, it was kind of like, “Okay, cool.” Kind of makes sense because it’s a good package, but it doesn’t really, I don’t see it ever becoming a collector’s bourbon. It’s a decent bourbon and they do some-

J: Ocean-

A: Yeah, they do some geeky stuff. But this one is like — wow, this is smart. This is really smart.

J: But It does feel different to me than Wild Turkey. They’re very different brands to me.

A: True. True.

J: Because this is premium. We consider this super premium. It’s hard to get. Wild Turkey feels very accessible.

A: Right. I guess what I’m talking about with Wild Turkey isn’t Wild Turkey, it’s the other ranges that come out of Wild Turkey. Russell’s. So all the Russell’s stuff, I mean-

J: Russell’s.

A: Aaron Goldfarb is an admitted avid collector of Russell’s and he writes obviously a lot about whiskey for us and has talked about that a bunch, that he loves Russell’s. And that to me feels like a geeky brand in line. So yeah, I guess not Wild Turkey 101, right?

J: Right.

A: But Rare Breed is another one that’s part of that Wild Turkey universe that people love. That also is very, very popular. But I guess not as geeky as this. That’s probably the difference, this is super geeky.

J: This is very geeky, this has Dr. Pat Heist behind it. It’s been very hard to get always from the beginning, they never cared kind of.

A: Right. So you got to think that they’re going to ramp up. But the other thing that I thought was really interesting in this release, and I’ve seen other people tweet about including another writer for us, Susannah Skiver Barton is, what a lot of people don’t know about Wilderness Trail or hadn’t realized is almost 60 percent of their business prior to being bought by Campari was contracting for other bourbons. They were selling liquid to other bourbons, selling barrels, etc. Almost like being a mini MGP. And so there’s a lot of brands that have their juice in their brand, and I wonder what’s going to happen to those brands? Are we going to see a bunch of brands kind of disappear or whose quality goes down? Because there is no way, I believe, Campari allows that business to stay.

Z: Yeah. You don’t invest a bunch of money into this business and then say, “Yeah, we don’t care what happens to the majority of what comes off your stills.” They’re going to want all of that in bottles for Wilderness Trail if they’re looking to grow its production. I also think-

Z: Or say, “Hey, if you want to keep Wilderness Trail small, we want to take that 60 percent and create a third brand.”

J: A new brand, yeah.

Z: Exactly.

J: Interesting.

Z: I wonder here, something that came up to mind when I was looking at this news which we’ve talked a lot about the bourbon boom and we talked about how, mentioned in this conversation, how I do think Wilderness Trail is something of a different kind of acquisition than some of the other ones because it’s such a new creation. I mean, I believe it’s only a decade old. It’s not even one of these sort of historic names that’s been revitalized. It isn’t anything, it was a creation out of nothing, which is totally cool. But I do wonder if what we are also seeing in this is that what is still true is despite the way the laws read, Kentucky bourbon has a different cachet nationally and globally than other American bourbon because I would have a hard time believing that even if everything about Wilderness Trail were exactly the same, that it’s profile either with taters or with the spirits business at large would be the same if it was located in Texas or Colorado or, pick a place, Washington State. I think that we are seeing that despite the fact that, again, the law says you can make bourbon anywhere in the United States, that from the marketplace standpoint and at all levels, if you’re not in Kentucky, maybe Tennessee, you don’t really count when it comes to bourbon.

A: I think you’re 100 percent right. I think that this proves it. That you’re right. I mean the fact that you could —think about it, right? What has happened to Hudson bourbon?

J: Yeah, Hudson was a company, right?

A: And they had the baby bourbon and when it was a New York brand, and they were one of the first ones to prove that bourbon could be made anywhere, everyone knew it, but they were one of the first ones to be like, “We’re going to do it in upstate New York and it’s going to be awesome.” And it was all over New York City. It was of varying levels of quality at the time because it was really craft. But then it got bought really fast because it was everywhere. And I think rightfully so, someone thought they could take it, but it’s kind of not done much since. I’ll see some people write about it once in a while. I barely see it at all on back bars anymore, even in the city, and it’s supposed to be a New York bourbon. Because I think what Zach is talking about is really true, this connection we have to quality when it comes to — who bought them by the way?

J: William Grant.

A: William Grant. Yeah, this connection that we have to Kentucky is just very, very powerful.

Z: Well, and I think it also-

J: Seems like this was a very thoughtful purchase, too. They picked this brand very intentionally.

Z: Well, and it’s also I think a sign that the companies that have in a way waited, have perhaps done better. Waited to see where the bourbon industry is going. Because another example that I could speak to closer to home is Woodinville Whiskey here in Washington state, which was a pretty big sort of production craft distillery rather, that was launched probably over 10 years ago now. So probably similar timeframe to Wilderness Trail and got some acclaim locally. They had some bourbon and rye whiskey and they were a hot commodity locally for bars and stuff like that because it was a local product. They were bought by Moet Hennessy in 2017. Honestly, I’m not in some ways super up on this, but I think by that point, and shortly thereafter they had, I don’t know if they’d fallen out of favor locally, but there was more competition. And in some ways the affiliation with this multinational kind of hurt their local cache. But I also don’t think there’s a huge market for bourbon made in Washington State around the country to say nothing of around the world. And I think that this was one of those examples where you have a big multinational that looked at, “Oh, bourbons on the rise, who is selling a lot of bourbon, who’s growing fast?” Which they certainly were. “Let’s go in and buy this.” And I think you’re seeing a more mature bourbon market now, and you’re seeing, again, as I just said, the primacy of Kentucky, where I think brands outside can succeed. We’ve talked a lot about local craft spirits having a place, but that place is really rooted in their home market. And Kentucky seems to be the only brand that you can take national or international because it’s so connected with the history of bourbon and rightly so. And so, the belief that a small craft distillery in Kentucky could become, or a medium-sized one, could become a big available-around-the-world kind of brand is not hard for whiskey lovers, bourbon lovers to stomach. Whereas, a brand from anywhere else. I think it’s a really hard sell and no one I think has done it successfully yet.

A: Yeah, I agree. I don’t think anyone has, and this kind of proves it. I mean, I’m curious what we think. Are there any other bourbons on either of your radars that are kind of independent that you think would be the next thing to get bought?

Z: Oh, man. I feel like this is more your area.

J: Considering this, we thought about Bardstown and that had already been bought months before.

A: Yeah, I mean Bardstown is one for sure that that was already bought.

J: In a similar way.

A: It was private equity.

J: Yeah.

A: I think, so again, they could turn around and flip it to somebody, but yeah, Pritzker Capital acquired it in March of 2022, but they were another one that was really kind of growing very, very, very fast.

J: And doing cool stuff.

A: And doing cool stuff and also making all the different things, making the actual bourbon. So it wasn’t just like… I like Barrell a lot, but I do worry that Barrell’s whole concept is they’re finished, they’re buying juice already. Is that something that they can keep up with? Pinhook as well.

J: I was going to say Pinhook.

A: The only other one-

J: The Barrell is Barrell Craft Spirits, right?

A: Yes. Barrell Craft Spirits. And so that’s their whole thing, too, is anyone going to be able to do that? The only other one that I could see that gets bought pretty quickly and was only founded in 2014 is New Riff. New Riff is another one that we get a lot. It does really well.

J: It does well, yeah.

A: In all the tastings, it’s based in Kentucky. It’s another one of these. A lot of the taters like it.

J: But it’s unique, right? Like how they-

A: Yeah, and it started in 2014. Look, I’m sure if someone who’s part of one of the larger alcohol beverage companies is listening to this podcast and you’re already talking to New Riff, let me know. But I could see New Riff being another one that we hear about that has gotten purchased. They’re big about, on their site, they’re really big about independence and that they’re family owned and independent and blah, blah blah. But again, they’ve only been around since 2014. That’s basically, what, seven years now? Eight years. Someone’s going to make them an offer.

J: Well they do collaborations. That’s their thing, right?

A: No, New Riff distills it all.

J: They distill-

A: They do do some stuff, but not in the same way. They make lots of different whiskeys. They’re making some gins now, too. They make some riffs, so they do a bunch of different stuff. So they’ll do something like Peated Backseat Kentucky Straight Rye, that’s all bottled in bond. So they do geeky stuff as well, but they do bourbon. The thing is their stuff is bourbon and their bourbon always does really well. Josh loves their bourbon and always says it really punches above its weight. Does really well. It’s young, right? It’s like four-year-old bourbons that drink like they’re much older. So I could see that. I could see that as well. And there’s got to be others. They’re just sort of bubbling below the surface. But I do think the point that Zach, you made earlier, is true. I think it’s still going to be the bourbons that are going to always do the best in this American market and abroad are the ones based in Kentucky.

J: Kentucky, yeah.

Z: Well, and I wonder then if we will see more aspiring distillers, people who want to launch a brand, move to Kentucky and open there with people who do dream of, I don’t know if they necessarily dream of making it big and selling, but at least getting recognition. I think we are seeing that it’s kind of hard to get recognition for bourbon if you’re not in Kentucky. And if you’re someone who dreams of making great bourbon and you don’t want to go work for an existing distillery, your only option might be to launch there.

A: Yeah, I mean I think that’s really true. And Kentucky now has a whole craft trail for all these new upstart bourbons. And I think that those are the ones that other people are going to start looking at and saying, “Okay, cool.” New Riff is one of the ones that we know really well, but there’s a lot of them now that are starting to come up. The Bard Distillery and a bunch of others that people are getting really excited about and think are going to be sort of the future. And this Wilderness Trail will not be the last, but we have Wilderness Trail in front of us.

J: Yes.

A: So we have the same one, right Zach?

Z: Well, we have the-

J: Different batch.

Z: Different batch.

J: Small batch bourbon, bottled in bond?

A: Yeah, we have a small batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bottled in bond. And we have batch number 16E02.

Z: I have 17L01 for anyone who’s tracking.

A: And this is why the geeks love it, because you can go and look up the batch and see everything on the side. Mine says the mash bill is 64 percent corn, 24 percent rye, and 12 percent malted barley, copper pot distilled from a single fermented batch using a sweet mash process and put in the barrel at 110 proof and now it’s a hundred proof in the bottle.

Z: Yeah.

A: That’s good bourbon.

Z: Smells nice.

A: I mean you see why it’s a nice bourbon. Yeah.

J: It smells good.

A: It smells amazing. It’s like not too high-alcohol.

Z: Yeah, it’s fairly smooth for bottled in bond.

J: Yeah.

A: No, it’s really tasty. It has a burn, but not bad.

J: Not too bad for-

A: No. Yeah, not too hot for 50 percent. It has that just really nice sweetness at the end. Like that vanilla and almost like cold, like vanilla Coke.

Z: Oh yeah, I can see that.

A: It’s really good. I mean this is why people like bourbon. That sweetness and everything at the end is why people like it.

Z: Yeah. But at the same time, it’s not a big caramel bomb. It’s subtle with the sweetness.

A: No

Z: And interestingly-

A: Really nice-

Z: No age statement here. So we’re not playing that game with this one, with this-

A: No, they’re not. And I think what’s also interesting is this definitely becomes more of their collector’s bourbon. I mean look, we’ll see if they convince the brand to do a more mixology-focused one or cocktail- focused one. But this is definitely a sipping bourbon. And again, they have those with Wild Turkey, so they almost don’t need to have the mixologist, the bartender.

J: Same line that way.

A: Yeah. This is another collector bourbon. This is people who want to have a bottle of bourbon and have a glass of bourbon at the end of the night, this is that bourbon. Cool. Let us know what you think, if you’ve had Wilderness Trail before, hit us up at [email protected]. If you’ve never heard of Wilderness Trail before, you should have, because it was Next Wave’s Spirits Brand of the Year last year.

J: Or if you have any other bourbon brands that you think are going to be acquired.

A: Yeah. Let us know who you think is going to get bought next. We always love to play that game. And I’ll talk to you both on Monday. Have great weekends.

J: Have a great weekend.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.