2019 bourbon drinkers, or least the type that likes to read whiskey blogs, seem to always be searching for the next big thing. This is especially true if it is new and they can ‘get in on the ground floor’. Whiskey bloggers are more than happy to get the page clicks or podcast/YouTube views, so they promptly gush all over the new guy in the market. Being first to get a review out from a free brand provided sample bottle is important work for these types. Most of these blog posts are the PR points of the brand regurgitated into an article along with some tasting notes. But since you are reading my blog you know my angle will be different and I will dig a little deeper.
Today’s new flavor of the month bourbon is St. Cloud. Sites like The Whiskey Wash and Breaking Bourbon have quickly done their thing with little to no due diligence performed. Ray Walker is the person behind this new brand of bourbon. Ray fancies himself as a successful entrepreneur. He started a French wine company, Maison Ilan, and claims he was the first American to make Grand Cru Burgundy wine. In 2011 he was featured in a New York Times piece. He wrote a book, The Road to Burgundy, that reached 15th on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list in August 2013. His wines at this point were in massive demand with futures sold only to the lucky buyers who had ‘got in on the ground floor’. Two years later the bottom fell out and buyers did not receive their wine, which was paid for upfront. The winery was bankrupt and shut down. Just as there are bourbon forums, there are wine forums where many of these buyers have vented their concerns and consider Ray a huckster. Ray himself admits orders have not been fulfilled and has promised to make these buyers whole, but to date for some this has been nothing but an empty promise. This is not the first time Ray has made serious business mistakes that cost others money. When he was in his twenties he dealt in BMW parts where he also left buyers with unfulfilled orders. Ray explained this away as being young and irresponsible. If you wish to read more about the fall of Maison Ilan, please see this article – https://www.burgundy-report.com/burgundy-report-extra/09-2016/the-spectacular-rise-fall-of-maison-ilan/
Ray Walker is now trying to shed his past reputation and rebuild his brand with a sourced bourbon. The Saint Cloud website mentions it’s made using a “perspective that comes only from making Grand Cru in one of the world’s top wine regions”. For me this just screams marketing spin as Bourbon is uniquely American and has very little to do with wine making. The website says the bourbon is unique and refined being “produced in a traditional manner using a hybrid pot-column still without the use of many other modern aides and equipment”. There’s nothing unique about pot-column hybrid stills as those are the most common used stills by craft distillers across the US. I am curious what modern aids and equipment are forgone.
This product at one point was pitched as L’Americaine Kentucky Bourbon. Perhaps this was a little too French as it was launched as Saint Cloud Kentucky Bourbon. Batch one is apparently from 12 barrels and yielded 3000 bottles. The website says it was distilled in 2016 and bottled in March 2019. This could be a 2 year or possibly a 3 year old bourbon. We know that federal code requires all American whiskies under 4 years to have an age statement. Here is their required age statement:
It states under 4 years. This is not a TTB compliant age statement. The TTB even has an online FAQ that covers age statements that specifically list this as not acceptable. See S11 here – https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml
Is this product Bourbon or Straight Bourbon? The above label which is placed on the side of the label says Bourbon in one spot and Straight Bourbon in another. The class type is required by code to be on the front of label; the front of neck label on the bottle states Bourbon. Their website mentions that it is Straight Bourbon. Perhaps it’s a case of someone with a wine background who does not know the difference?
Also, this is Bourbon. Redesigned. Jim Beam just ‘redefined’ Bourbon last month with their Legent whiskey. Who will ‘reconceive’ bourbon next month?
The website has some lovely videos that spends more time showing the bottle being produced than the bourbon. I’ll grant the packaging is very nice and my estimate accounts at the retail level for about a third of the price. Speaking of price, we have another young bourbon that is over the $100 price point; this is listed on their website with a purchase price of $114.99 per bottle. The chairman of Diageo Javier Ferran once said “A key driver of perception of quality is price”. Looks like they are taking a page out of the Diageo playbook.
Why are the blog sites hyping up such a limited release from a new company run by a person with a questionable business background? My answer is they cater to taters who only care about owning, likely to later flip, a bottle that is a limited release, be it any limited release, as long as the hype can drive up the secondary market.
The Whiskey Wash ignored my request for a comment. https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/bourbon/new-saint-cloud-kentucky-bourbon-crafted-by-former-winemaker/
Breaking Bourbon responded with “His prior business failure and sorting through that mess, however, was not the focus of the tasting notes for the bourbon.” https://www.breakingbourbon.com/tnt/saint-cloud-kentucky-bourbon-2016-batch-1
3 thoughts on “Saint Cloud Bourbon – hop off the hype train”
For the record, we researched the Saint Cloud brand, tasted the bourbon on more than three separate occasions, and spent over an hour on the phone with Ray Walker discussing his fall from grace, this bourbon release, inspiration, and future plans. While his controversial past was discussed, and online articles surrounding his history reviewed, that was not the focus of our bourbon tasting notes write up. Moreover, we quickly realized determining exactly what happened from an outside perspective would be quite difficult. As a result, we did not include a discussion of his background in our tasting notes. -Breaking Bourbon
And totally ignored the illegal wording and claims on the label, didn’t even bother to address it in the review or here in your explanation of your actions.
It might have been worth at least mentioning in a small blurb to be fair and open with your many fans as well as curb any gripes about biased reviews. It felt dishonest omitting some relevant details about his past and disappointing having to find out from other sources. Tasting notes could have been subtly influenced by the fact that you had a positive experience with the creator, received the sample gratis and didn’t want to come across as rude.
Ray’s a known con-man who also happens to be one of the world’s foremost marketing geniuses. The whiskey world is such an ideal target for a guy like him. The fact that your review felt so incongruous with the typical forthright writing on your site… kind of feels like you may have fallen for his charms hook line and sinker.
When I search Saint Cloud Bourbon – your site is the first at the top of Google’s results. Breaking Bourbon is my go-to trusted resource in an industry that’s very heavily influenced by marketing, money and hype. I hope future reviews don’t omit relevant data and that I can continue trusting your opinions.