Why Are Sazerac And Buffalo Trace Trying To Be So Damned Sneaky?

Towards the end of 2016, a class action lawsuit was filed against Buffalo Trace and parent company Sazerac for misrepresenting an Old Charter bourbon to consumers. Old Charter is a storied brand whose history goes back to the late 1800’s. It’s passed through several ownership changes, the last being the sale to Sazerac in 1999. For quite a while under Sazerac’s umbrella, there was a 10 year old Old Charter and an 8 year old Old Charter. Each proudly proclaimed “10 years old” and “8 years old” on the neck label, and in large print on the front label. Each also went on to elaborate in elaborate script that the 10 year old had been “gently matured for ten seasons” and the 8 year old had been “gently matured for eight seasons.” All that seems simple enough, right? 8 years old = eight seasons, 10 years old = ten seasons, that all makes good sense. And even if distilling seasons and barreling dates don’t align quite so precisely, the implication made on those labels is fairly clear.

Back in 2013, the 10 year old was dropped from the roster. Then, in the beginning of 2014, Sazerac and Buffalo trace dropped the age statement from the 8 year old’s label. Well…let me be a little more exact: they dropped the “years” and the “old” part of the age statement from the label. The “8” still stood there proudly on the neck label, now surrounded by some leafy scrollwork design. The part about being matured gently for eight seasons was still there as well. So the Old Charter no longer says “8 years old,” it now just says “8.” The Old Charter “8” is now a non-age-statement bearing whiskey. It does still mention the eight seasons part, however. The plaintiff in the lawsuit has claimed that the quality of the Old Charter 8 has gone down, and since the whiskey is no longer 8 years old, the large, residual “8” on the label constitutes false advertising and deception by Sazerac and Buffalo Trace. While I’ve personally not tried the old Old Charter 8 year old or the new Old Charter non-8 year old, the general consensus in bourbon circles is that the new Old Charter just ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be. So it seemed that perhaps this suit had merit. Or not. In January of this year, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed their suit and the case was dropped. Why it was dismissed? Maybe there was an out-of-court settlement or maybe the pursuit became too costly, who knows?

However, the courtroom drama did not end there. On January 27th of this year, a brand new lawsuit was leveled at Buffalo Trace and Sazerac, once again claiming that the companies were labeling their Old Charter product in a misleading way. Not surprisingly, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace didn’t agree. Last week, the defendants filed a motion to have the suit dismissed. In news reports, their reasoning for the motion was summed up in one quote: No reasonable consumer would transform a naked number ‘8’ into saying that the bourbon ‘has been aged for 8 years,’ or translate ‘seasons’ into ‘years.'” It’s important to note that reports on this case were few and quotes probably rather sparse compared to all the non-quoted discussion that happened in the courtroom. It’s also important to note that the quote is just fucking stupid. Apparently, after years of equating years and seasons on their label, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace decided that years and seasons used to be equal before, but now are indeed two completely different, unrelated things and that numbers don’t really need to mean anything. The companies also think that their customers are being unreasonable in equating two things that the companies used to equate themselves, presumably whilst being reasonable.

You may remember that in 2013, Sazerac took their popular Very Old Barton 6 Year Old, and cleverly removed the “years” and “old” on that label as well, leaving just a big ol’ six to make consumers feel unreasonable. Years before that, Sazerac also pushed the limits of consumer reasonability by releasing an easy to find, not 10 years old Ancient Age Ten Star alongside the harder to find Ancient Age Ten Year Old. To my knowledge these moves did not generate any lawsuits, but they do help in generating a bit of a pattern.

So, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace…what the hell? You keep doing this and it’s just seems kind of slimy. You keep dropping the age statement, but conveniently keep the damn number on the label. Why? What other purpose does that number serve but to relate back to the age the whiskey no longer is? And then, when you’re called out for being sneaky and borderline deceitful, you deride your customers for being unreasonable about falling for the confusion you hoped to generate in the first place. Sure, from a legal standpoint you might end up being ok, but that doesn’t mean you’re not being kind of an asshole to your customers. You’ve done it at least three times now, Buffalo Trace, and the technique doesn’t seem to play all that well in the court of public opinion.. If you’re going to drop an age statement, stop fucking around and drop the number associated with the age statement as well. Or, just come right out and say that you’re trying to subtly and legally trick people. At the very least, maybe we consumers would be reasonable enough to appreciate the honesty.


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6 thoughts on “Why Are Sazerac And Buffalo Trace Trying To Be So Damned Sneaky?

  1. Hmmmm, They’re at it Again. . . or I guess “still at it” would be more accurate.
    SKU; yer bein’ a bit ranty (If that’s a word); but not untrue or inaccurate.

    BT/Saz has a tradition of doing this crap, and I for one don’t mind seeing their feet held to the fire a little. I like their Bourbons (mostly), though I’ll add my voice to the chorus in mentioning the differences (not subtle) between the age-stated 8-year old Old Charter vs the new #8 (NAS) Old Charter. . . and, not in a good way.
    The AA 10* actually was pretty comparable for a long time, so that is a slightly different animal, I guess; but the ‘New’ Old Charter is a very noticeably different one; and, calling ’em on this is appropriate, IMO. Good for you, SKU.

  2. An alcohol distributor friend of mine here in KY thought that Benchmark #8 was 8 years old. BT and Sazerac know exactly what they’re doing. It’s one reason I don’t buy much of their stuff anymore. I may like some of their whiskey, but I don’t like their style.

    1. Interesting. In reading about the court cases, Jack Daniel’s, Ol’ #7, came up as an example of a number being used that clearly has no association to the age of the whiskey. I don’t think anyone these days thinks Jack is 7 years old. However, JD didn’t just get rid of its age statement and keep the #7.

      It’s perplexing because at times, Buffalo Trace does choose to be more transparent and forthcoming. Usually, it’s just when it suits their bottom line, like with the “experimental” stuff. When it comes to the cheaper stuff for the casual whiskey drinker, all bets seem to off.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. In Louisville, I see the liquor stores (I’m looking at you Liquor Barn) still with tags such as “Weller 7 year old” and Eagle Rare “Single Barrel” (not a store select single barrel). I put most of it down to incompetence and indifference. Not even to collusion; though surely the brand reps walk the aisles and notice these things if I do.

    I can be more conspiratorial if I make the observation that the “numbers” game played with Charter, Barton, etc belongs to the bottom shelf. Would more more discriminating customers put up with it if Knob Creek left a “9”, Elijah Craig left a “12”, etc on the bottle? I don’t think so. Maybe not enough to impact sales, but I could see much greater outrage. Justifiably so, IMO. I like integrity and being able to like Four Roses. I like being able to like Heaven Hill (with some caveats). I like that Knob Creek Single Barrel remained 9 years old and that I found four bottles of Booker’s for $43 right before the hike… but that’s changing the subject.

    BTW, loved the article AND the references.

    1. Ah, you make an excellent point about the numbers and the bottom shelf! The bulk of those customers probably are not whiskey geeks/aficionados/bourboners/etc., so whatever heat BT & Sazerac is getting from that crowd over those less expensive brands is probably not resulting in a big dip in sales. But you’re right, Knob Creek drinkers are far more likely to know that they’re favorite is 9 years old, and far more likely to be pissed off if that changed.

      Sadly, you’re also probably right about the incompetence and indifference in stores, and about reps blind eyes.

      At this point, I just assume it’s all going to change one of these days, and eventually I’ll be paying more for stuff I like less than I once did. Highland Park is going through a big line-up overhaul, and the cynic in me figures it’s just a matter of time before the whisky goes down in quality while the price goes up.

      Thanks again for the insightful comments, ZX.

      Cheers!

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