If you would have talked to Turner Wathen on the day it happened, it would have been a completely different story — a story that involved one giant accident and the demise of a business, a dream, a passion.
But hope springs eternal, and after a night’s rest, Wathen revisited the scene of the accident and discovered, lo and behold, that his mistake “was pretty f@#king good.”
More on that in a bit.
Business partners and entrepreneurs Wathen and Jordan Morris had a solid plan for their startup company, Rolling Fork Spirits. After years of discussing, researching, brainstorming, scrapping ideas and starting new ones, the two decided they wanted to create rums that bourbon aficionados could get behind.
Wathen comes from a lineage of Kentucky bourbon-makers, and Morris has been a fan of whiskey long before it became cool. Wathen lives in Louisville and works in sales, while Morris lives in Portland, Oregon, and works as a lawyer.
The two met at a party through an introduction by their wives, Wathen recalls, and ended up talking whiskey all night long. Both men had a desire to get into the spirits business, but neither had the deep pockets needed to open a distillery.
After researching and testing out a sorghum-based spirit, which did not end up being a commercially viable product, Wathen and Morris set their sights on rum.
“Our objective was to be rum evangelists out of Kentucky and do cool things to rum that we think bourbon- and whiskey-centric audiences would appreciate,” says Wathen.
Since making their own rum would be too costly, the two began looking to source rum from places like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. They soon stumbled upon a batch of 12-year-old rum from Trinidad that contained no sugar, no color and no additives — ingredients sometimes added to mass-produced rums.
“There’s a lot of really good spirits out there that we can access through our contacts that we think are deserving of consumers’ appreciation,” Wathen explains. “We’re not the first to do it, we’re not the last to do it. We just try to be transparent about it.”
It ended up being some of the last Trinidad rum to be sold in the United States, so Wathen and Morris knew they had a solid base product.
The plan was to release a high-proof, triple-finished spirit that had been aged in three different barrels — bourbon, port and then sherry.
The plan was in place, a name was chosen and a label was even in the works. And then, that dreaded day in July of 2017 …
With Morris in Portland, Wathen was supervising the finishing process at an area distillery and warehouse they contracted for storage and services. The rum had sat about seven months in used bourbon barrels, so it was time to move it into the port barrels.
In order to do that, Wathen says, all the barrels had to be emptied into a stainless steel dump tank, and then the rum would be pumped into the port barrels from there.
What could go wrong?
“Well, we pulled a dump tank we did not know had 90 gallons of rye whiskey in it,” he admits. “So we dumped our rum into this dump tank, and all of a sudden it scaled 1,000 pounds over what it should have been. I’m sitting there freaking out. My partner is on the West Coast, so he didn’t even know yet.”
Wathen recalls the sudden silence that fell over the room and the pale, frightened look on everyone’s faces. He figured he had just flushed his business down the toilet, so he told everyone to go home. The rum surely was ruined by the five-year-old rye whiskey.
After explaining the situation and lamenting to Morris and his wife and anyone else who would listen, Wathen decided to go back into the distillery the next day and clean up the mess. Perhaps something could be salvaged, he thought.
And then, he tasted it. Color returned to his face as his taste buds savored the intricate, balanced and delightful flavors coming from the rum/rye whiskey hybrid. A big smile appeared when he realized his company was not doomed. Although it wasn’t what they planned, it still fit the mold.
Thus, Fortuitous Union was born.
“If it had been vodka, we would have had failure. If it had been a younger bourbon or a corn-heavy mash bill, it probably wouldn’t have tasted that good,” says Wathen. “Ninety percent of what we do are accidents. We’re just dumb enough to put money into our accidents.”
Wathen and Morris quickly readjusted the plan for this new, unexpected product. They also sought opinions from local spirits experts like Larry Rice, co-owner of The Silver Dollar and The Pearl and also an investor in the company, and author Fred Minnick. In fact, it was Rice who helped come up with the name — Fortuitous Union — which fittingly abbreviates to FU.
Local graphic designer Bill Green already was working on a label for the triple-finished rum, so he put that on hold and started from scratch on this one.
And as the label and bottling came together, Wathen and Morris worked on finding a supplier.
Fortuitous Union now is available in Louisville and Chicago — two markets the guys want to tackle first. You can find it by the pour at The Pearl or on the shelf at Old Town Liquors in the Highlands and eventually more liquor stores as distribution expands. It retails for $65.
FU is more rum than whiskey, but when sipped, it displays those familiar spicy notes common in rye whiskeys or high-rye bourbons. At 103 proof, the finish tingles with heat, which is definitely not a characteristic of most rums.
And while it can certainly fare well a fine cocktail, we preferred to sip it neat and let those two flavors — sweet and spice — mingle in our mouth.
But don’t take our word for it — in April, it won a silver medal at the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Wathen says there will most likely be other iterations of Fortuitous Union, but for now, they’re focusing on this product and also working on their original triple-finished concept, which they may call Rolling Fork Rum.
“We literally roll dice and hope it’s going to work, but also we spent a long time teaching ourselves how to partner with the right people — and we’ve gotten lucky,” he says. “It’s a lot of luck, a lot of risk, and there’s some vision in there between.”
This story has been updated for clarity.