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Sazerac CEO Mark Brown Is Stepping Down. What Happens to His Beloved Industry Newsletter?

The newsletter arrives every weekday between 3 and 3:30 a.m. Not quite clockwork, but close enough. The subject line is always the same: “Industry News Update.” At the very top, a courteous reminder: “Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail.”

Inside are up to 20 articles from publications around the beverage world, their full text included, with sources cited and linked below their headlines. The stories range from public sales reports to consumer trends, acquisitions, and mainstream economic outlooks, usually focused on alcohol but sometimes expanding to the broader beverage world. There are no GIFs, no memes, no bells and whistles; just a compilation of everything one needs to know in booze and beyond.

Occasionally, there’s something a bit more personal at the top. Short notes mark holidays, fundraisers for families in need, and heartfelt notes when an industry veteran passes on.

The emails become so routine, so expected, that it could be easy to overlook the sender’s name: Mark Brown, the longtime President and CEO of Sazerac.

For around two decades, the head of one of America’s spirits giants has compiled and sent a daily newsletter to a broad swath of the beverage industry. Industry News Update (INU) is a must-read for those wanting to stay in the know, from journalists and analysts to retailers, distributors, brewers, and distillers — including Sazerac’s competitors.

It’s the beverage industry’s worst kept secret, the daily blast people often read before they get out of bed. Beverage writer, reviewer, and consultant Robin Robinson calls it “essential reading for anyone involved in all parts of the industry.”

With Mark Brown set to step back from the CEO role on July 1, it’s unclear if INU will continue, or in what form. Brown (very politely) declined to comment for this article. But for subscribers, the newsletter is inextricably tied to the sender, so much so that “Industry News Update” and “Mark Brown’s emails” are used interchangeably.

Interviews with people across the industry illustrate just how integral, trusted, and beloved the newsletter has become — and uncertainty about what comes next.

Wakeup Call

Industry News Update doesn’t have a flashy landing page. There are no paid ads, pop-ups, or trappings of the modern newsletter industry. While sources suggest Sazerac employees are automatically subscribed, most people have to email Mark himself. State your case and role in the beverage world, cross your fingers, and hope he adds you to the list.

New recipients can expect the first blast the following weekday, well before dawn.

“I knew Mark already [before subscribing], and this fit with my impression of him — curious, open to sharing ideas, etc.”

“I frequently read it before I get out of bed in the morning,” says Lisa Wicker, CEO and master distiller at Lyons Brewing & Distilling Co. For Wicker and others, articles republished in INU often spark the day’s first conversations in the workplace. “It’s like discussing the morning paper,” she says.

No one is really sure how many people subscribe to INU, except maybe Brown himself. Speaking anonymously, a former Sazerac employee said that during their tenure through the mid-2010s, it was commonly thought Brown compiled and sent each blast himself, rising in the wee hours to do so.

It’s also difficult to confirm exactly when the sends started. It likely started sometime after 1997, when Brown began his second stint at Sazerac, rejoining as President and CEO.

Occasionally, though rarely, Brown’s shared some insight into the list’s metrics. On April 8, 2022, in a note at the top of the day’s INU, Brown wrote: “This is INU edition #5,251 and you are about to read the 44,664,303rd word. Long time readers have our undying sympathies!”

There are between 260 to 264 weekdays each calendar year. That’s just over 20 years of sends at the current pace, a tick more if one counts extended holiday breaks. As important as INU is for folks in and around alcohol, it’s worth noting Brown’s other accomplishment here: a remarkable feat of digital endurance.

As far as the “why” behind INU, Brown’s acquaintances cite an intrinsic motivation to share knowledge in an industry where information is far from standardized. The newsletter reads equal parts labor of love and exercise in objectivity. It’s as likely to spotlight record sales as an article about alcohol’s link to preventable cancers.

“I knew Mark already [before subscribing], and this fit with my impression of him — curious, open to sharing ideas, etc,” says spirits author and New York Times journalist Clay Risen.

The Mark Brown Bump

Beyond Brown’s occasional (and occasionally self-deprecating) intros, almost all of INU is content copied and pasted from trade publications, mainstream news outlets, other newsletters, consumer reports, and blogs.

“I started receiving the newsletter when I joined IWSR, and the vast majority of my colleagues are also subscribers to the INU. We find it very useful and read it every day. We would recommend it to others who want to stay informed on news that impacts the industry.”

Some of that original content lives behind paywalls. Generally, the act of reposting and redistributing articles is hotly debated in content circles, particularly when paywalls and subscriptions are involved. In the media, the lines between sharing and pirating can get blurry rather quickly.

At scale, every publication has its detractors, reposters included. But Industry News Update seems to largely sidestep those critiques, in part due to Brown’s reputation as a locus of information and integrity within the alcohol space.

“Having our work in the Update is a good thing for us and we’re flattered when it appears,” says Jeff Klineman, editor-in-chief of BevNET, a frequently shared outlet in INU.

“It’s a great place for our work to be showcased, so the gain from it being in there in terms of exposing our reporting to potential subscribers is something that we feel sanguine about,” Klineman says. “If all of our work was going into INU and being shared around — or into any other newsletter, for that matter — we’d be less pleased, but that hasn’t been the case.”

Klineman, who is an INU subscriber, says BevNET gave Brown a subscription to its paywalled content with the understanding it would occasionally be republished.

Similarly, IWSR Drinks Market Analysis often has its content reposted in INU. According to Serina Aswani, IWSR’s Head of Content and Communications, Brown’s daily blasts are important starting points for almost everyone in beverage publishing.

“I started receiving the newsletter when I joined IWSR, and the vast majority of my colleagues are also subscribers to the INU,” Aswani says. “We find it very useful and read it every day. We would recommend it to others who want to stay informed on news that impacts the industry.”

A Newsletter Becomes the News

While INU blasts are predictable in their format, Brown intermittently adds personal notes or calls to action. Sometimes, they’re individual anecdotes and condolences to coincide with an industry veteran’s obituary. Others focus on fundraisers for families in need, including in the aftermath of the July 2022 East Kentucky floods.

Though INU is renowned for its early arrival time, rare and impactful industry news warrants an off-schedule send.

“If it’s something that comes in in the middle of the afternoon, you know something big has happened,” Wicker says.

In light of the March 2023 collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, Brown sent a Sunday night blast instead of waiting until Monday morning; that newsletter highlighted a statement from the Federal Reserve and several articles regarding potential fallout in the wine industry.

“I don’t think any news alert or aggregator could do it better!”

A recently notable “special edition” came on Dec. 30, 2022, when an almost unprecedented afternoon Industry News Update went out at 4:10 p.m. ET. The email contained a single, brief article, attributed only to Sazerac Company.

The short piece, titled “Sazerac Company Announces Changes to its United States Route-To-Market,” announced the company’s move away from longtime distributor RNDC. The remainder of the text described Sazerac’s new state-by-state distributor breakdown. The following month, the company filed a $38.6 million lawsuit against RNDC over allegedly unpaid invoices.

On March 17, 2023, RNDC filed a response and counterclaims. In “RNDC’s Answer to Sazerac’s Complaint, Affirmative and Other Defenses, and Counterclaims,” Industry News Update (cited as “Industry News Report”) is referenced several times throughout the text and footnotes.

From Paragraph 106: “[A]n hour after terminating its relationship with RNDC in 30+ markets and without discussing the contents of any public statements concerning the termination, Sazerac issued a press release, which was then communicated to the entire alcohol beverage industry through Sazerac’s own daily ‘news bulletin,’ the ‘Industry News Report.’”

Later on in the same paragraph:

“And to date, the Sazerac ‘press release’ is the only communication by a Sazerac executive RNDC has received identifying the successor distributors taking over the distribution of Sazerac product in each terminated market.”

It’s unclear which other Sazerac employees or representatives besides Mark Brown were involved in the Dec. 30 press release (and indeed, whether Brown has any outside help or influence in INU- related work).

As of this writing, litigation between Sazerac and RNDC remains ongoing. The INU mentions described above are the rare instances — and main examples in recent memory — where the newsletter became a focus beyond industry insiders.

Industry News, Updated?

In a spirits field built on patience and maturation, even the most storied tenures must come to an end. Brown is scheduled to step back as CEO and move into an executive chairman role effective July 1, 2023 as part of a years-long succession plan.

Brown began his career in the beverage and hospitality business in 1971 and has been with Sazerac since 1981 across two periods. (He was an SVP and president at Brown-Forman between 1992 and 1997.) In a beverage career spanning over 50 years, Mark Brown has become one of the alcohol world’s master statesmen, respected both for his business prowess and ability to create a rising tide for multiple aspects of the industry.

His newsletter carries similar prestige. But the question remains: What happens to Industry News Update moving forward?

For now, Brown is keeping hush on whether or not he’ll continue sending the emails. But just the thought of INU ending is enough to make subscribers nervous.

Of the sources interviewed for this article, almost all expressed trepidation about a post-INU world. Several said they’d make personal pleas in the hopes that Brown continues compiling and sending the daily resource.

“I would have to scramble more and I’d certainly feel like I’ve been left out of the conversation,” Robinson says. “It’s invaluable.”

“I don’t think any news alert or aggregator could do it better!” says Ferron Salniker, spirits editor for BevNET. Salniker thinks that while there are other valuable newsletters in the space, none captures the breadth and depth of Mark Brown’s. “I would have to carve out more time to follow news in the industry and spend some more time on social media. [P]lease don’t make me do the latter, Mark!”

“I suppose I would rely more heavily on Google Alerts,” Risen says, “though I wouldn’t be very happy about it.”

The article Sazerac CEO Mark Brown Is Stepping Down. What Happens to His Beloved Industry Newsletter? appeared first on VinePair.

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