Proof Positive: Fortuitous Union
Coca-Cola. Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. Chocolate chip cookies. Brown-and-serve rolls. Tea bags. Fudge. Cheese. Post-it notes. Ivory Soap. Silly Putty. Aspirin. What do they have in common? They were all accidents! None of them came into being as a result of an intentional search. And they all have fascinating backstories too.
The story of a distilled spirit specialty named Fortuitous Union might well be added to the long list of “accidents” that resulted in success. Meet native Kentuckians and long-time friends Jordan Morris and Turner Wathen. Morris resides in Portland, Oregon, where he works as an intellectual property attorney. Wathen still lives and works in Louisville and comes from a prominent bourbon family. Both men have spent years dreaming and making plans to enter the spirits business.
Bourbon whiskey would have been a logical choice for them, of course, but there was just something about the pleasures of high-end sipping rum that captured their imagination. They came to believe that fine rum is underappreciated and underrepresented in the United States (unlike bourbon, clearly). For a time, they thought about setting up their own rum distillery and bottling operation but concluded that investing in real estate, equipment and permitting wasn’t the best move during the early stages of their “passion project.” There are already countless rum distilleries and brands in the Caribbean and other countries in Latin America.
Rather than making rum, then, Wathen and Morris decided that they would become rum evangelists and educators who seek out and bring to market the best and most interesting rums being produced. As their mission statement, they borrowed a tagline from the historical Wathen family brand: “No finer spirits.” In 2017, backed by several local investors and the owner of two bourbon establishments, they launched their operation with that philosophy guiding their every decision.
“By working with partners, we can bring rums to select markets and spread our passion for rum,” explains Jordan. For their first batch, the partners settled on a 12-year-old rum from Trinidad and Tobago that they shipped to a warehouse in Kentucky to be finished first in Kentucky bourbon barrels and, later, in port barrels.
During the process of pumping the rum from bourbon to port barrels after six months, the rum was moved through a holding tank. Warehouse employees did not realize that the holding tank already contained rye whiskey. Once the fine 12-year-old rum was moved into the tank, the spirits had accidently become a blend of rye and rum.
The young men were understandably devastated. Their first batch of rum had been ruined by an inadvertent mistake. Nonetheless, they tasted the blend.
“To our surprise, once we tasted the accidental blend, we thought it had exceptional characteristics we had yet to experience in a pure rum product or a pure rye whiskey product. Through a stroke of good fortune, our rum seemed to perfectly mesh with the rye whiskey,” says Jordan. “The day after the rum was blended with the rye, we began working on a name. Over 12 hours of texting, we landed on the name Fortuitous Union. We didn’t question it. We didn’t overthink it.”
“ Name the greatest of all inventors: Accident.” ― Mark Twain
The next three months involved a sprint to get the product branded, packaged and ready to market. “We wanted to handle every aspect of the process, which has taught us some tough lessons. There are ways having money can make launching a product less stressful, but we didn’t have money, and we wanted to do this on our own.”
In their own words, the learning curve was steep and the work was more than they had anticipated. “On the legal side, we had to learn how to file all of the different paperwork to become federally and locally permitted. On the design side, we spent countless hours with graphic designer Bill Green working on the look and feel of the label, picking out bottles, tops and closures. Every aspect of our bottle is intentional.”
“We set deadlines, missed deadlines, overspent on the label. We actually overspent on everything, since our plan was to execute these tasks with someone else’s money. Our weeks would be wracked with challenges—federally, legally and on the production side as well. We would put all the extra hours in, and by the end of that week, those challenges would be met, and we’d be ready to face a new set. We really hope some of those days are past us.”
After all their efforts, Wathen and Morris had yet to make a sale. By their own admission, there were formidable sales hurdles. “When we took this product to distributors, the feedback was that a distilled spirit specialty product wouldn’t sell, and most distributors did not want to carry it. On the other end, we took samples of our product to people in the industry we respected. High-end bartenders, beverage managers, spirits enthusiasts and a spirits industry writer all positively reviewed Fortuitous Union. We took this feedback to heart and sought out distributors willing to go against the norms. To our knowledge, Fortuitous Union is the only aged rum blended with an aged rye whiskey available on the market.”
When asked about the most important things they’ve learned so far, Wathen and Morris emphasized the critical importance of finding good partners. “The most important lesson we have learned is that you must choose your partners wisely. When we first started this process, we were just happy to find anyone to help us get the ball rolling. As we have grown in our knowledge of the spirits industry, we’ve been fortunate to make some great connections with people that are as passionate about their services as we are about our rum. We work with one of the most knowledgeable rum suppliers in the world to find the best rums. We have been very lucky to work with a great barrel supplier that appreciates our small scale and our focus on quality above all else. Our warehouse and bottler, Kentucky Artisan Distillery, has been instrumental in getting us to the finish line in such a short timeline for our first product. Finally, we wouldn’t be anywhere without our graphic designer and our label printer, who worked incredibly fast to get our labels designed and printed in time to make our impossible deadline. All of these partners—working with us—have helped us meet our guiding principle of ‘no finer spirits.’ Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
“While our first product didn’t turn out exactly how we planned, rum is still our primary objective, and we plan to release a high-end sipping rum in fall 2018. The ‘mistake’ that led us to Fortuitous Union set us back about a year on releasing a 100% rum product.”
“As spirits enthusiasts, we care deeply about the spirits community, the consumers who support the industry and the leaders—many from Kentucky—who drive it. Our biggest fear is to supply an inferior product. We hope people will appreciate our products because we appreciate the community that drives the spirits industry. For all of those reasons, we’re extremely proud of our first product—Fortuitous Union.”
The wisdom of Bertolt Brecht seems to sum up the story of Fortuitous Union quite nicely: “Intelligence is not to make no mistakes but quickly to see how to make them good.”