Meet the Lucky Guys Who Stumbled
Upon a Fortuitous Union
Turner Wathen and Jordan Morris set out to make a rum. Instead, they got something else—a rum accidentally blended with rye whiskey. Learn the backstory of this fortunate mistake.
This is an edited version of an interview conducted by Chris Valentine of Edible Louisville.
CHRIS: Why Fortuitous Union? Why rum? Why the recipe? Lessons learned so far?
JORDAN & TURNER: We’ve been working on a rum product for over three years. Being from Kentucky, and given Turner’s family history, bourbon whiskey would have been the logical product for us to pursue. However, we’re both passionate fans of rum, and we believe that high-end sipping rum is an under appreciated and under represented product in the United States.
We researched setting up a distillery, getting the appropriate premises and equipment, and the permitting process. In line with this, we also researched what we viewed as the competition in the rum space. The key thing we realized in this process is that there are countless excellent rum distilleries in the Caribbean and other countries in South America.
With that in mind, we concluded we didn’t need to start a distillery. Instead, we needed to become rum educators and evangelists. So we decided that the best strategy for us was to find the best and most interesting rums we could. By working with the right partners, we can bring those rums to select markets and spread our passion for rum.
We source our rum from many rum-producing countries. For our planned first batch, we found a unique 12-year rum from Trinidad & Tobago, which we moved to a warehouse to finish the rum in Kentucky bourbon barrels.
During our research process, we came across the tagline, “no finer spirits,” which was previously used by some pre-prohibition brands produced by the Wathen family. We’ve had plenty of setbacks; had some definite mistakes occur; and questioned our decisions many times. Throughout this process, we’ve used the tagline “no finer spirits” as our guiding principle. With that in mind, we strive to release the absolute best rums we possibly can to add to the conversation about rum in the United States.
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.
CHRIS: Talk about the “accident” that led you to Fortuitous Union.
JORDAN & TURNER: Last year, we were in the process of moving our rum from bourbon to port barrels, which involves a holding tank. But we did not realize the holding tank contained rye whiskey. Once we moved our rum into the holding tank, we noticed the weight scaled about 1,000 lbs. over, and some serious panic ensued.
At first, we believed our rum was completely ruined for our purpose. And, realistically, accidentally blending the rum did completely change our plans. Our 12-year old Trinidad rum was now a 12-year Trinidad rum blended with a rye whiskey. 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.
CHRIS: Could you share some anecdotes about other twists and turns of the journey so far?
JORDAN & TURNER: We didn’t plan to launch a product until early to mid-summer of 2018. Our objective was to acquire our rum, barrels, and work with a facility to enact our process. From there, we would go raise capital, and plan to launch a product in 2018. Our plan involved using the extra capital to pay for our bottles, labels and packaging materials. As entrepreneurs, we learned early if you want to survive the first couple of years of business, you better be ready to pivot—and pivot fast.
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 over think it.
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.
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, over spent 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 wrecked 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.
Every startup has its challenges. We can’t imagine our experience is any easier or more challenging than what other startups have gone through. Let’s just say, we fully understand why 70 percent of startups fail, and we hope we can survive to see another day—and another year.
Four years ago, we almost filed the paperwork to begin the process of opening a small 10,000-square-foot distillery close to downtown. We explored sorghum, and we called every sorghum producer in Kentucky and Indiana. We decided we would continue to explore options until we finally put some money down, and that’s when we finally put the chips on the table to launch our first product. During those two years, we never gave up no matter what came our way.
We’ve spent years diligently collecting information, and planning a path to launching a brand. We’ve ignored fads. While we’ve been burned and turned away advice, we’ve been extremely intentional in our product goals and design.
What’s amazing is that we’ve always stuck to our vision, values, and have developed a keen ability to pivot. You don’t know who is going to be in the “foxhole” with you until you are thrown insurmountable challenges. It’s those challenges that have proven we have a strong team—and one hell of a vision.
CHRIS: Describe the industry, and your niche within it.
JORDAN & TURNER: Obviously, our first product is not a pure rum. In fact, based on federal regulations, we can only refer to Fortuitous Union as a “Distilled Spirit Specialty”. This means Fortuitous Union does not fit in any other federally-defined spirit class. We had to put Fortuitous Union in the “none of the above” class.
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.
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 percent rum product.
CHRIS: Other thoughts about the joys of pursuing your dream?
JORDAN & TURNER: Our brand is about reviving a legacy, and bringing back family history. Following our tagline, “no finer spirits,” we will never accept producing an inferior product.
Collectively, we’ve spent years writing, consulting and leading American whiskey tastings. But we believe the next frontier for the educated drinking public is rum—not whiskey. Our driving motivation is to contribute to the rum conversation by bringing interesting and exceptional rums to the shelf. We work with partners (just as passionate about rum as us) with the goal of providing consumers with great rums.
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.