Monday, March 28, 2016

That 'craft' whiskey may not be very craft-y

I wasn't surprised (but I was still annoyed) to learn that many so-called 'craft' or small-distillery whiskies and other spirits may be mass-produced in a single factory.

Lawrenceburg, Indiana (not to be confused with bourbon-locale Lawrenceburg, Kentucky) is home to a massive brick complex that cranks out mega-industrial quantities of beverage-grade alcohol. The factory, once a Seagram distillery, has changed hands over the decades and was most recently acquired by food-ingredient corporation MGP. It is now a one-stop shop for marketers who want to bottle their own brands of spirits without having to distill the product themselves. MGP sells them bulk vodka and gin, as well as a large selection of whiskies, including bourbons of varying recipes, wheat whiskey, corn whiskey, and rye. (They also make “food grade industrial alcohol” used in everything from solvents and antiseptics to fungicides.) Their products are well-made, but hardly what one thinks of as artisanal. And yet, much of the whiskey now being sold as the hand-crafted product of micro-distilleries actually comes from this one Indiana factory.

Upstart spirits companies selling juice they didn’t distill rarely advertise the fact. But there are ways to tell: whiskey aged longer than a distillery has been in business is one of the telltale signs that the “distiller” is actually just bottling someone else’s product.

. . .

“I have purchased hundreds of barrels of rye and bourbon from them,” John Bernasconi admits when asked about the Indiana factory. A principal in the New Mexico company, Bernasconi says that purchasing whiskey from MGP and bottling it is “a means to develop a brand and help fund the next step” of actually distilling a unique product. It may be a sensible enough business strategy, but as whiskey writer Charles Cowdery points out, “There’s no reason to think anyone knows how to make whiskey or can learn how to make whiskey based on buying whiskey.” Cowdery has been railing for years against the proliferation of what he calls “Potemkin distilleries,” many of which own shiny new copper stills to wow visitors, but actually sell factory-made spirits they’ve acquired in bulk.

. . .

Dozens of new brands are packaging whiskey bought in bulk from Indiana. But it isn’t the only source. Some recently launched whiskey brands, such as the much-hyped WhistlePig Rye (which touts the product as “hand-bottled” on a Vermont farm), get their product from a factory distillery in Canada. Others are picking up cast-off barrels from high-volume Kentucky “macro-distillers” who occasionally find themselves with more whiskey than they can sell under their own labels.

There's more at the link.

I was particularly angry to find out that some well-known small distilleries (including top brands) are named in the article as sourcing at least some of their products from mega-factories like that.  Why should I waste my hard-earned money on premium spirits that aren't premium at all?  I'm surprised it's even legal to allow such sales without full disclosure of where the product comes from.

As of right now, I won't be buying any 'craft' spirits unless I'm absolutely certain that I'm getting what I'm being asked to pay for.



JohnAich said...

One of my favorite distilleries is verifiably all done in house. Their wheat whisky is superb. Dunno if you can get them where you are, but worth trying if you can find them.

SiGraybeard said...

The same situation applies in the wine market, with massive wine factories that use enormous stainless vats. The buyers think they're getting something aged on oak, but if there is ever any oak involved, it's probably oak that has been used up.

I was listening to an interview with a guy who is the real deal as a private label vintner. His forte is wines that have minimal additives and it was an interesting interview. One of the big takeaways to me was that the percent alcohol in wines isn't regulated, by default. The tolerance on the percentage is so wide that it doesn't mean much, so the inspectors hardly ever measure it, which means nobody pays attention to it. The other is that the majority of people who talk about problems from sulfites are really reacting to something else in the wines.

The Raving Prophet said...

There's a lot more that goes into whiskies than just where the unaged distillate comes from. They can still be worth the time and cost. That said, I tend to not get all bent out of shape over anything "craft," be it whiskey, beer, or anything else. Maybe it's good. Maybe it isn't. Either way, I'm not likely to spend more for some small batch stuff I've never heard of than I would for a Glenfiddich or other brand with a good strong reputation for making stuff I like.

Jonathan H said...

Food and drink disclosure laws vary by product and by state - for example, there is no federal standard for olive oil, and only Connecticut has a state standard, so many of the cheaper 'olive oil' containers on store shelves are actually soybean treated for thickness and color, sometimes with allergens used in the process and not disclosed.
To back up what SiGB said, there are currently several tankers (ships), that specialize in transporting wine. Here are picture of some of them:
Given the condition of some of those, I wouldn't want to drink any wine that had been on them!
There is also at least 1 tanker that specializes in transporting orange juice.

This comes back to the old adage: You get what you pay for - but with a modern corollary that you have to know your product, since if you don't you may NOT get what you are paying for!

The Raving Prophet said...

Besides, MGP has a pretty good rep in the business.

It may not be distilled and aged in tiny batches at some family owned distillery in the hills, but that doesn't mean it can't be pretty good.

Chuck Pergiel said...

Every time I've stopped in the local liquor store the last few years I have been amazed by the proliferation of brands and flavors. I don't understand it. Must be a bunch of wanna be drug dealers wanting to get into the drug biz but don't want to get shot so, alcohol.

bmq215 said...


Your comment about sulfites is right on. I know far too many people who don't drink reds because they're "allergic to sulfites". Little do they know that whites are just as likely to contain sulfites and in fact often contain higher concentrations. Likely they're reacting to something else, such as tannins.

Anonymous said...

A.D.M. is huge corn processor based in Decatur, IL. Factories all over. One of the products produced at some is grain alcohol.
I worked at the Clinton, IA facility in sugar dept. There was an alcohol dept also. I thought it was all for gasoline blending- but was surprised to hear that yes a portion was sold to numerous liquor manufacturers as the "alcohol" in their product.
VERY interesting!
Also, there was ONE gin company that had their own tank with THEIR blend of juniper berries(etc?)contained in it. I don't know how that all worked process/business wise, but found it neat they wanted to maintain their reputation/product by utilizing that angle. All the others got the same uniform product. I always think of that when I see flavored schnapps/vodka etcetc... syrup meets grain alcohol~ hmmm.
So yes- this has been a practice for a LONG long time!:)

I would also mention- access to that building was strictly controlled, as was ANY activity inside. First, as a fire hazard, vapors being a thing! There was some 'signage' thereabouts too advising immediate firing if even suspected of touching or tasting the product (and really- there was NOwhere to access a tap.) Sealed system)
Of course-The reality is- being produced under pressure, this is true 100% alcohol, and will literally BURN you if contacted. Alcohol at regular atmosphere is ~95% with 5% H2o, pulled from the air. At 100% pure, it will pull that moisture right out of YOU. That burning feeling? Yah-you are screwed-- you'd be headed for the ER! Ouch!

Quirel said...

This weekend, I was in Seattle and stopped by a local grill. They heavily advertised their in-house tequila and vodka. There were barrels of tequila aging out in the restaurant, and there were several displays of vodka being dripped through charcoal filters.

I noticed that the barrels of oak-aged tequila seemed to be about the same age and cleanliness, even though some of them were apparently laid back in 2014! I didn't think much of it until I came in for breakfast the next morning, and another customer was examining the barrels. He said that they weren't there the last time he'd visited the grill (To which a waitress said that management had the barrels moved out into the restaurant from a back room) and tried to lift one off the rack. It was full, but the waitress wouldn't let us open it up to have a taste. ;)

Anonymous said...


Recently stopped in at the Blaum Brothers distillery in Galena IL. They process and sell bourbon from other sources, but have given it a tongue n' cheek name. "Knotter Bourbon"n Not-Our.....!knotter-bourbon/c1ca1


0007 said...

When I was in Saudi, there were people there who could take ethanol and blend it up to taste like whatever your favorite brand of liquor was. Hell, the Aramco compound had a full-fledged English-style pub located in the middle of the compound that served beers, wines and hard liquor that was all produced locally.