“We received word that a number of different brands were postponing or canceling their launches” during the pandemic, said Mike Montgomery, chief executive officer and co-founder of Blue Run, “and so that created this window for us. I think people were looking for something new; they were looking for something different; they were looking for something kind of interesting.”
Blue Run was formed by Montgomery, a longtime political strategist and consultant, and four other whiskey fans. It made a splash in October 2020 with its first release of 2,600 bottles priced at about $170 each. They sold out in less than two weeks. The company made an even bigger splash at the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, where two of its offerings won best single-barrel bourbon 11 years and older and best small-batch bourbon 11 years and older. Blue Run has put out ten releases of bourbon and rye since it was founded, most selling out within minutes.
The startup is capitalizing on its core tenets — youth culture, aspiration and inclusivity — to bring high-quality bourbon to a broader audience beyond the traditional demographic of middle-aged white men. “Today’s bourbon drinker doesn’t look anything like it did 20 to 30 years ago,” Montgomery said. “It’s more diverse now.”
Blue Run’s first release was available online and in stores in Kentucky and Georgia; the company has since expanded distribution to more than 20 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada, but online sales remain key to connecting with consumers.
But it’s what’s in the bottle that will keep bourbon fans coming back. In a stroke of inspired audacity, Blue Run asked Jim Rutledge, an industry icon and former master distiller at bourbon brand Four Roses, to join the startup. He agreed to be a “liquid adviser.” (Think of Michael Jordan joining your pickup basketball team.) He oversaw the first few releases by selecting and blending whiskey from barrels purchased from an undisclosed distillery. He now helps guide Blue Run’s own distilling.
Joining him is the company’s first hire, Shaylyn Gammon, as whiskey director, a rising star in a male-dominated industry who combines a research-and-development background with the artistic ability to develop unique flavors. The Russell’s Reserve 13-year-old bourbon she created was named the best American whiskey of 2021 by renowned spirits critic Fred Minnick. That achievement was all the more impressive because she created the bourbon entirely without tasting it: She was pregnant at the time. “So much about taste is smell,” she said, “so I would do it by aroma.”
The company, which has raised nearly $15 million in outside money and has been profitable almost from the beginning, has a revenue target of $15 million for 2022 and estimates significant increases in the following years. Blue Run just announced a $51 million expansion in Georgetown that will include a distillery and future headquarters.