Where Your "Craft" Whiskey Is Distilled Is Essentially Unimportant: A Rebuttal to The Daily Beast's Eric Felten

Glenfiddich_Distillery_stills.jpg
Colin Smith, geograph.org.uk.- CC-BY-SA 2.0
Stills at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland
Eric Felten, writing for the Daily Beast, has stumbled upon the worst-kept secret in the liquor industry: much of the craft whiskey, especially rye, that commands high prices comes from a giant, intensely ugly building ten miles west of the Cincinnati airport. Cue the clutching of pearls, the shattering of dropped tulip glasses, the rending of lapels, the wailing of women. How could we all fall for this?

He is correct on the facts: a former Seagram's distillery called MGP, located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, furnishes much of the American whiskey we see on our shelves. Bourbon and rye flow from the industrial stills. He is correct that when you see a whiskey older than the company selling it, those barrels were bought from elsewhere.

Here is the entire reason MGP exists, in ten words: Our thirst for whiskey has overwhelmed the number of distilleries.

Does it matter? Not really.

MGP is to whiskey what co-packers are to food. When small food producers want to sell beyond what's permitted by cottage laws, they often contract a company to make the product for them. They hand over a recipe, container specifications, and the approved label, run test batches, and then go into production. The business owner benefits because he or she does not have to deal with the permitting, inspections, or equipment upkeep; he or she can concentrate on marketing and sales, and ramp up production simply by requesting it from the co-packer. MGP works the same way: there are different mash bills (the ingredients list that specifies how much of each grain goes into the fermentation tank) and proof requirements (how much alcohol is in the white lightning as it comes out of the still).

Some producers purchase the "standard" MGP recipe, the original product, but even that doesn't mean it's all the same whiskey in the bottle. Finished whiskey is nearly always blended; barrels must be tasted, selected, and blended. Blending is the step in the whiskey production process that most influences the taste of what's in the bottle. All whiskey starts with grain, which is an agricultural product, and therefore varies. Perhaps there was less rain as the corn ripened, thus resulting in smaller but starchier (and therefore eventually sweeter) kernels. Perhaps the rye was particularly "hot" tasting one year. All of these things have snowball-like effects on the finished whiskey that sits in the barrels. A master distiller tastes and blends the whiskeys, which is why George Dickel Rye tastes different than Templeton Rye, even though both come from MGP-distilled whiskey.

Even single-barrel whiskey must be tasted, analyzed and selected by the master distiller. The company doesn't just walk into the rickhouse and take the top four barrels. Saying it's all the same stuff with different labels on it is insulting to master distillers and blenders who have perfected their crafts, like Harlan Wheatley of Buffalo Trace, John Lunn of Cascade Hollow (where all the George Dickel except the rye is produced), and the late Lincoln Henderson of Angel's Envy. Frankly, anyone who can't tell the difference between High West Rye and Redemption Rye has a palate problem, not a production problem, and shouldn't be drinking fine whiskeys anyway.

Contract distillation has a long and storied history: the most sought-after whiskey in America, Pappy Van Winkle, started off being distilled by the Stitzel-Weller distillery, after which it was chosen and blended by Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle. Today, it's distilled at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Whether it's the best is subjective, but it is certainly a very good whiskey, and it doesn't taste anything like Buffalo Trace.



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26 comments
DavidFoureyes
DavidFoureyes topcommenter

Like others - I disagree with the premise of the article.


If the brand represents itself as a boutique-bottled, small-batch, distinct whiskey but is none of those things - It is not the same as extending a contract to produce your unique, original food product when your market grows to a level that makes it untenable (or un or less-profitable) for you to do it yourself (so you can focus on...whatever). These whiskey bottlers never had a distinct product they brought to market beyond the brand. People buy brand, sure - but it's not genuine to say those two situations are the same. It's insulting to people that actually MADE something besides a neat-o, appealing "brand".


The only people that seem to value the expense that marketing and branding present, are people that work in marketing and branding - and those with a superior, honest product - that losses market share to a dishonest product branded well.


I think the point of Felten's article wasn't, "oh hey, holy shit, look at this secret I uncovered." but was rather, "Oh hey, look at these assholes marketing their product as distinct and boutique and small batch and old family recipe when it is none of those things: Possibly at the expense of products that ARE small and old and distinct and focused."

fancypants999
fancypants999

What's funny about all of this is none of it is new.  There are factual information that is not correct but that's not the point.  Let's keep it simple, shall we?  Let's take Angel's Envy - marketing, money and name is what made them successful out of the gate.  They have a high price point.  Why?  Here is the simple part - their expense are high.  Their marketing expenses aren't cheap and their new distillery isn't free either.  When you see most bottled products on the shelf, there is an expense component that everyone is forgetting.  A little guy can't buy juice at a price that High West can.  Price is determined by cost and what the market will handle.  Otherwise, your company will be out of business. 


Labeling.  Yea, it's an issue.  The feds don't ask for verification on stuff and I do think they should.  If they did, there wouldn't be a company in CA trying to get you to believe something about their product that isn't true.  If the bottle says produced, it doesn't mean distilled by, even if they have a still in the next room.  Would Aged and Bottled By be a lot clearer?  Yes, but that is a reflection of the company owner and his/her integrity.  Let's take Gin for example.  Most producers use GNS for this but on their label, it says Distilled By.  In fact, it should say Redistilled By.  Yes, it's in the reg but no one follows it.  Shouldn't they?  Same goes for State of Distillation for Whiskey Classifications. 


If the Feds enforced their own regs, a lot of this debate wouldn't be happening.  There are a good amount of honest distillers and producers out there that keep getting dragged into this debate for no good reason because when you look at their specific information, you realize they have been upfront on what they do.  Poor Templeton - people, get over it.  That happened years ago and they have a great product.


It comes down to this - do you like the taste and can your budget afford it.  


BTW, I'm in the business.

ewitz
ewitz

The practice of sourcing whiskey may be an "open secret" to whiskey geeks and those in the industry but most casual drinkers probably don't have a clue that Templeton Rye is not in fact distilled in Iowa, contrary to the colorful marketing copy. Felten's very well written article was aimed at that latter demographic, which is why I shared it so eagerly. Deception makes even the best whiskey taste sour so any article that advocates for greater transparency in the industry is just fine by me.

tomgreen1974
tomgreen1974

The horrible thing is that some of the big companies (Diageo) are trying to get away with calling their stuff small batch or craft. Some small micro distilleries need to source some of their stuff just to get off the ground. I have no problem with a small company sourcing their juice. The only problem is when they try to deceive you. That's when it is up to the consumer to know what a label tells them. If you're educated enough to tell me what grain gives a certain flavor profile then you should know what a label is telling you. If it says "produced" it's not distilled there. Also, distilling the product might be the easiest part of the whole process. The machine does all the work. The hard part is getting a bottle on the shelf and getting people to leave the brands that they have been drinking all along. One thing to remember too is that these small companies that are using MGP are creating jobs and supporting families in local communities across the country. Why would you guys want knock some these companies down? As long as they tell you and are honest then these companies should be applauded.

fourway
fourway

As you mentioned, this was largely an open secret.

What you don't seem to mention is that it should not be a secret at all.

I did not get the sense that the Beast article was being held up by anyone as an incisive piece of investigative journalism. It is clearly an attempt to get more consumers educated about something many of us have known for years and everybody ought to know.


The fact that you are in essence arguing against transparency in the marketplace makes you sound like an industry shill.


The fact that your position centers entirely on a straw man (that somehow Felten suggested in any way that MGP's whiskey an inferior product) makes you look like a thug who would prefer to engage in fallacious rhetoric and dirty pool than to take on a position on its actual merits in fair debate. 



Whiskeymaker
Whiskeymaker

"Blending is the step in the whiskey production process that most influences the taste of what's in the bottle"


The author has clearly never made whiskey. He may know plenty about how to taste, drink it and/or sell it, but this shows an utter cluelessness with the process. Sourcing grains, the ratio in the mash bill, how and with what it is fermented, the shape, style and operation of the still, as well as the style of the barrel it is aged in will all have a greater impact than how it is blended. Business people need to stop pretending they know anything about this art form.  

djarobi
djarobi

I agree with Chris. This is not about taking away from the craft of the Master Distiller or head blender, this is about being honest on the label. Did you make this product or not. "Distilled by" vs. "Bottled by" Read the labels closely. The long term problem for the Micro Spirits industry is the backlash that will come when the public lumps in legitimate small distillers with the knock of bottlers. They will feel scammed and we will ALL pay for it. If you didn't make it, SAY you didn't make it. High West did a wonderfully tactful job at this. 

Chris
Chris

A nice, long screed that likely tickled your editors fancy when you pitched it as "contrarian wisdom that will ruffle hipsters' feathers." Too bad you only address the issue at hand in your last two paragraphs. No one is saying MGP doesn't make good rye. Felten's argument is that rebottlers are attempting to deceive whisky drinkers who are looking to try spirits from small distilleries.


Incidentally, the fact that your rebuttal could only find a home at a website whose food column lead is "Burger King's Chicken Fries Might Be Making a Comeback" makes me wonder why I'm even bothering to read your self-indulgent snarkfest.

Jason
Jason

Well said.  Some of the worst whiskeys I've had have been from craft producers. 

haynespeterson
haynespeterson

Why do you think it up to the consumer to suss this out? Why aren't the labeling rules more explicit? We talk so much about how the brand ambassador and the bartender have to educate the public (say, when introducing a new category or style). But if the BA and his/her company is deliberately misleading the consumer, how is it the consumer's fault that they've paid top dollar for racked or rebottled liquor?

JGlanton
JGlanton topcommenter

Good article, Dave.

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

Selling sourced whiskey is a great business model and probably much more profitable than actually craft distilling a spirit.  I have no issue with it.  I do have an issue when to point is to deceive the customer into thinking you did distill it, which many do.  I also know many are violating federal law on labeling spirits - CFR 27 section 5 5.36(d).  This says for certain type of whiskies you must list the actual State of Distillation on the label.  The TTB should force Templeton (and many others) to follow the law.

mobourbon
mobourbon

Where the whiskey comes from is VERY important.  Distillers who don't distill...don't deserve any respect or extra money for their product.  Marketing tastes bad...whiskey taste good!



There are plenty of good, respectable distillers who don't charge extra for BS marketing.  Try Four Roses....they rock!



Bottlers can't always count on getting supplies from the same distilleries...so, they will eventually have consistency problems.


And your comparison of Pappy and Buffalo Trace is a complete joke.  Of course they don't taste anything alike...does chocolate cake taste anything like vanilla cake?  They are different recipes.  Just like Pappy and Buffalo Trace...completely different recipes.  If the author doesn't know the difference....he shouldn't be writing this article.



And just so everyone knows....Pappy today...doesn't taste one bit like original Pappy products.  And throughout the years...as we moved further and further away from the point in time where the Van Winkle family ran the original distillery(1972)...the juice slowly moved away from tasting like the original.  Pappy products today...taste like crap compared to the Original Van Winkle family made products.  The original family recipe held EVERY ingredient to the very highest and most traditional standards.  And I can tell you.....the family made stuff would completely blow your mind.  It is soooo flavorful and rich...without any type of off notes or burn...even at 107 proof.  The 107 proof is so smooth it doesn't taste a bit over 90 proof.  Even with this smooth profile...there is two tons of flavor in the pour.


Pappy today...taste very similar to Weller.  Because they both come from the same production runs.  It's the same whiskey...Julian just hand picks his barrels, first.  He also has enough pull...to get Buffalo Trace to bend their distillation rules to make a more traditional product when producing the wheated line.  By this...they lower the proof off the still to leave more flavor in the distillate.

Ro Ar
Ro Ar

Craft is still good, don't disparage it.

Tom Strauss
Tom Strauss

It really is unfortunate how little research the American public does, especially when it comes to what we put in our bodies.

Connett Brewer
Connett Brewer

Adam Montgomery yeah I've known this... it's funny that most people don't know the truth on this.

Adam Montgomery
Adam Montgomery

Dennis Robicheau Connett Brewer I thought u two might want to read this

Dave Mau
Dave Mau

Great points Dave. Makes me glad I've always been partial to Anchor Distilling's Old Potrero.

mobourbon
mobourbon

@fancypants999

I totally disagree with your last statement.


If someone is just buying up whiskey that would normally sell for $10/bottle.  And their 'process' adds $10 to the price...so that $10 bottle is now $20.  And all they did was bottle it....then NO.

I don't see a reason to pay that extra $10.

It isn't ALL about taste.  It's about getting ripped off $10 for someone doing nothing.  And I don't consider Marketing a part of distilling.


And that's what most of these SO CALLLED distillers are doing.  Jacking up the price...so, they can toy around with calling themselves a distiller.


Give me good honest bourbon at good honest prices.  No tricks included.


Quit making excuses for products that trick consumers.  It is NOT acceptable for someone to claim they distilled a product that they clearly did not.

fourway
fourway

@tomgreen1974

"Small batch" is a marketing phrase coined and popularized by Beam.

I don't think it was ever meant to be misleading.

They were looking for a way to draw attention to the differences in their more limited specialty line whiskies.

One of those differences was that a much smaller "batch" of barrels would be dumped at a time than with their larger mass market whiskies.

That "Small Batch" size may be a few dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand barrels, which might sound like a lot, until you compare it to the number of barrels dumped to fill bottles with plain old Jim Beam... then it looks miniscule.

The confusion was actually created when craft distillers embraced the big liquor marketing term as their own... it was a smart move in many ways, the phrase enjoys currency and consumer recognition that it gained on the larger industry's marketing dollar, but it also muddies the water a bit.


I think though if you went and spent some time working in a distillery, any size distillery from the largest and most automated to the smallest and most primitive you'd look back on your statement "distilling the product might be the easiest part of the whole process" And shudder to think that you'd ever even thought such a thing, much less spoke it aloud.

BourbonKnowItAll
BourbonKnowItAll

@Whiskeymaker Couldn't agree more. It is an art, and while the batching does make a difference it certainly does not have the most influence over the flavor of the final product!

Dave_Lieberman
Dave_Lieberman

@mobourbon You're proving my point.


As you say, Pappy Van Winkle and W. L. Weller are similar because they are the same whiskey, just different barrels. MGP has several production runs as well—it isn't just one mash bill. So why is Pappy worth so much more than W. L. Weller, given that they're chosen by the same guy, except the Pappy is the first pick? That's not to say Pappy isn't better than Weller, but is it six times (or sixty by the time the secondary market is done with it) better? Hm... master craft... and marketing!


The point is that there is craft to be seen in the choosing and blending of whiskey, whether it's distilled by the same people or not. The people who just hop a flight to Cincinnati and throw a dart at a whiskey barrel, then don't do anything to it, need to be mocked, but buying your juice from MGP doesn't necessarily make you a fraudster.


I find it funny that this is suddenly gaining traction. This has been an open secret for years, and Felten, though I respect him greatly, is Columbusing the "scam".


P.S. Yes, Four Roses is a great bourbon, and I actually love the Van Winkle 13-year-old rye.


mobourbon
mobourbon

@Dave_Lieberman Good thoughts.


I thought your point was...that Pappy and Buffalo Trace should taste similar because they were made at the same facility?

Maybe, I misread your post?


To your thought on...Does it matter where your whiskey was made?

I still say yes it matters.  Each label should have information about the Distiller and Warehouse location.  

I don't care two bits about who bottled it.  

They can still add marketing to the label...but, the truth about what still and warehouse should always be present on every Straight Whiskey.


To my comments on BT.  I am not trying to say that BT makes bad whiskey....just that Pappy products today compared to Pappy products from the early 1970's are quite different in every regard.   Pappy compared to other whiskies of today....it's pretty darn good.  Pappy compared to other whiskies of its time....it was right in line with Yellowstone, Medley, National Distillers, Wild Turkey.  There were tons of great whiskies...not that long ago.  And none of those were expensive.  They just made better whiskey thirty or fourty years ago.

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