Mister Sam Tribute Whisky (Sazerac) / by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trace, has been developing a presence in Canada for some years now particularly with the Royal Canadian and Caribou Crossing brands. Diageo also recently sold a number of Canadian whisky brands, including Seagram’s VO, to Sazerac in 2018. The whiskies, thus far, have been from stock which has been sourced from other distilleries in Canada. However, that is set to change with the construction of the Old Montreal Distillery which started to distill whisky in 2018. Tours are set to begin at the distillery in 2019.

Now, Sazerac is releasing a whisky as a tribute to Sam Bronfman, one of the most ominous and greatest figures in the history of the liquor industry. Bronfman initially came to Canada shortly after his birth, the son of immigrant parents, from an area which is now part of the country of Moldova between Romania and Ukraine. He became involved in the family hotel business, which grew, relatively quickly, into a small empire in Saskatchewan with the income driven more by the bars that the family owned than the hotels.

As the temperance movement grew, Saskatchewan implemented prohibition and closed the bars. The family, in clever response, got a hold of one of the rare licenses to sell medicinal alcohol and started to develop a distribution business without much competition. Medicinal alcohol was an extremely popular “remedy” during prohibition. The company soon got into the distilling business, building the (now closed) LaSalle distillery in Quebec from stills acquired in the US. The LaSalle distillery became known for quantity, which lead to Sam Bronfman’s partnership with the Scottish DCL, a massive producer of Scotch which controlled brands like Johnny Walker, Dewar’s, and Buchanon’s . This partnership, formed in the late 1920s, catapulted Bronfman ahead of Harry Hatch as the head of the biggest whisky empire in Canada. Bronfman also obtained the ever-important Seagram’s line of brands. Among these brands was Seagram’s VO, Bronfman’s drink of choice, diluted with water. With the brands came the company’s namesake, Seagram’s.

The company stockpiled stock and assets through prohibition. Despite supplying the bootlegging business, prohibition was a challenging environment to operate in due to the challenges of the supply chain. The boom of the company came when the American market opened up: Seagram’s took control of the American market. Indeed, in the 1930s three out of five bottles of blended whisky sold in the United States were from Seagram’s. The company’s success accelerated - in 1946 Seagram’s controlled 14 distilleries, 60 warehouses, and 10 bottling plants - putting out 25 million litres a year (Source: The Bronfman’s, Nicholas Faith). To this, the company added the Chivas Regal brand and grew to become the largest liquor company in the world before it’s collapse, out of which arose Daigeo and Pernod Ricard which are now the two largest liquor companies in the world.

“Mister Sam” was not only a remarkable businessman, he was also a master blender with a remarkable understanding of the importance and technique of blending. He taught his sons the “art” of blending and ensured that he and his family could always assess the quality of his brands. To honour the legacy, Sazerac has released a whisky containing a blend of American and Canadian whiskies. It was blended by Drew Mayville, who worked at Seagram’s for 22 years and was the last master blender before the company’s collapse. The whisky is bottled at 66.9% ABV, and will be sold in the United States and Canada for about 250 USD. 1,200 bottles were produced, and the whisky is slated to be an annual release.

If you want to learn more on the subject, there are a number of good books lying about. I recommend The Bronfman’s by Nicholas Faith, Booze, Boats and Billions by C.W. Hunt. De Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky gives a nice broad overview as well. To better understand the ever-important context of the time and the ever-important American liquor market, Bourbon Empire by Mitenbuler is a great read too.

I will post a review shortly.