8818951979038Two things Kentuckians know, right down to their marrow: They know their basketball and they know their bourbon.

Washington knows apples.

So here comes Costco out of Issaquah, Wash., that most mass of mass merchandisers, with its own brand of bourbon. “Kirkland Signature Premium Small Batch Bourbon.”

And my first thought is: Go back to Issaquah and stick to what you know! We wouldn’t come up to Seattle peddling Natural Falls of the Ohio pure bottled water. Or Genuine Bardstown Road mountain climbing gear. Or the Kentuckiana Digi-Tech Incubation Center.

You already have Amazon and Microsoft, Starbucks and Nordstrom — keep your hands off our bourbon.

The name Kirkland, by the way, refers to a nice-enough waterfront town in the Eastern Seattle area, right across Lake Washington. But it has no history of moonshine or stills, hooch-runners or revenooers. It’s not rural and romantic, it’s suburban and antiseptic. It’s probably about three months old.

costcoAnd Kirkland is also the brand of all Costco private label merchandise. It would be like saying, “We’re out of bourbon right now, but try our Pappy Van Winkle frozen cheesecake.”

So am I just being grumpy and territorial? Is this stuff in fact drinkable?

“It tastes to me a lot like Jim Beam,” says Mike Veach, the official Bourbon Historian at the Filson Historical Society’s Bourbon Academy.

Is that possible? Can someone even figure out how to rip off the taste of the world’s No. 1-selling bourbon?

Not quite. And it’s not so treacherous. Certainly not illegal. And not in the least bit difficult. Just maybe — misleading.

“There are 10 licensed distillers in all of Kentucky,” says Jason Brauner, owner of Bourbons Bistro on Frankfort Avenue. “And these 10 distillers produce bourbon for about 300 labels — even including direct to the Japanese market.”

Most of the brands, familiar names, end up on liquor store shelves. And some are exclusive, distilled and marketed that way. For example, “I get my own private selection bourbon from Four Roses,” says Brauner, who offers about 130 different brands in his place. “It’s between 120 and 130 proof and you can’t get that product anywhere else on the market.”

And in some cases, it’s just a matter of slapping a label on something. Four Roses by any other name.

All legal and paid for. Not inexpensive. Just — misleading.

According to some of the people I talked to about this, many of our most familiar bourbon brands do not, in fact, have their own distilleries. Jefferson Reserve does not. Redemption buys somebody else’s “juice” and puts its label on it. The Pappy Van Winkle bottle says, “comes from the Van Winkel distillery,” but they in fact have no distillery. Their stuff, I’m told, is made at Buffalo Trace.

“When Woodford Reserve opened for business, they immediately started selling bourbon,” one person told me, “but they didn’t have any juice. So that initial Woodford Reserve was actually from honey barrels of Old Forester.”

And take a deep breath, Kentuckians: It turns out some Kentucky bourbon comes from Indiana. The Lawrenceburg Distillery, a former Seagram facility, produces bourbon under a variety of brand names, including Bulleit, Templeton, Filibuster, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption and Smooth Ambler.

Think of it as Kroger private label grape jelly in the supermarket. Kroger isn’t in the business of making jelly. It was made exclusively for Kroger, probably by Smucker’s or Welch’s, with a Kroger label slapped on, to compete with Smucker’s and Welch’s.

kirkland bourbon“Costco no doubt bought its Kirkland Signature Premium from some brand name bulk distiller here in Kentucky,” says Filson’s Veach.

And therefore it’s probably wrong to dismiss the Costco bourbon as strictly bush league — the Washington State Podunk Association of Second-Rate Liquor Producers.

For one thing, as Jason Brauner says, “There’s no bad bourbon, just better bourbon.”

Veach calls the Kirkland product “not bad.” Bloggers on the Internet — and it’s astounding how many of them there are, for practically any given subject — have varying opinions.

“Overall, it’s not a bad option at a slightly lower price than Knob Creek, especially if you really like Knob Creek,” says therewillbebourbon.net.

“I can tell you without hesitation that it is thoroughly decent,” says sourmashed.com. “It’s not great, but it is not bad. Middle of the pack.”

“This was a bad bourbon,” disagreed Matthew Rowley of Rowley’s Whiskey Forge on matthew.rowley.blogspot.com. “Harsh, acrid, hard to get down.”

Also, bloggers being bloggers — i.e., obsessive — they all went after the same mystery we raised. Who distilled this?

“The label tells us that this bourbon is a seven-year-old, 51.5 percent bourbon,” says sourmashed.com. “Beam has a few seven-year-old bourbons, like Baker’s and Jim Beam Black, but the former is 53.5 percent and the latter is 45. Beam does not have any bourbon at 51.5 that I know of, but a few are close — Knob Creek and Old Grand Dad are both 50 percent.”

However, adds the blogger, “The bottle mentions Clear Springs Distillery and both Clermont and Frankfort, Ky. … According to a Certificate of Assumed Name filed with the state of Kentucky in March of 2011, the Clear Spring Distilling Company is in fact owned by Buffalo Trace.”

Mystery solved. Kirkland is from Buffalo Trace and tastes like Jim Beam — a little bit, anyway.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.

9 thoughts on “What’s in a name?: The story behind Costco’s private label ‘Kirkland’ bourbon

  1. While there Are only 10 distilleries each of the different Bourbons is in fact truly different. They each have their own Mash BIll, aging specifications, etc. For example, Pappy Van Winkle, is indeed produced at the Buffalo trace distillery but it is a completely different Bourbon than anything else produced in there! They have their own specifications for the grains and the ratios they are used in, how long the mash is allowed to ferment, how the distillation takes place (temperatures etc.) along with everything else in the manufacturing and aging process. Just because there are only 10 distilleries doesn’t mean much as far as number and flavors of the Berbers produced.

  2. Great article, time for people in KY to stop supporting Brands that only based on image and support the local producers that employ people and have passion in their product and were here before the bourbon boom

  3. I believe you are wrong on your conclusion of Buffalo Trace as the source of Kirkland Bourbon. Clermont is the home of Jim Beam. They also list Frankfort for Jim Beam owns the Old Grand Dad distillery just down the road from Buffalo Trace. I also had a chance to taste it when Costco hosted a tasting. The distributor was the one running the tasting and in conversation even said it was a Jim Beam product. That being said it is a middle of the road bourbon and would drink it again. Comparable to a Knob Creek.

  4. Just wondering, what you consider bourbons that were here before the boom? Do you include new brands that are produced by the old producers are only the old brands that have been around forever?

    One of the things that has increased the visibility of bourbons around the world is the marketing hype that’s created by the new brands. Without that its popularity would probably be diminishing.

  5. All bourbons from LDI, almost all ryes except about 4, old brands that were defunct for decades that someone markets as the original but have no Distilery. Distilleries make very few varieties of mash bills especially years ago. Not like the industry can just turn on a dime and have variety when it takes years to have a good product. Pappy is just Weller 5x the price, as pappy really only MADE wheated bourbons like old fitz….so what is his the pappy mash ill?

  6. If you also search the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau it also lists Jim Beam as the source. I tried posting the link but will not show up for some reason.

  7. Kroger actually does make their own jelly in their State Avenue manufacturing plant in Cincinnati.

  8. Consensus I’ve read amongst the bourbon community is that much/all of Pappy is Buffalo Trace’s wheated-bourbon mashbill, as used in the various W.L. Weller bourbons. They may play around with certain specifics, but it’s basically cherry-picked Weller.

    My only Van Winkle experience is with “Lot B,” their 12-year old bourbon. It seemed to me a lot like a honey-barrel version of Weller 12.

    I would be glad to be disabused of this notion, however.

  9. Costco has been offering Kirkland Bourbon for quite a while now actually. I know my parents mentioned that they had tried it 2-3 years ago I think.

    Also, Trader Joe’s in St. Matthews now offers a “Kentucky” bourbon on their shelves! Oh my!! ; )

Leave a Reply