The explosion of niche whiskey brands caught much of the booze biz by surprise, but watching them emerge is a source of much curiosity and amusement to those of us who have witnessed some so-called craft distillery products become cult items. Not because some of the new whiskeys aren’t good - some are incredibly good, even at the elevated prices they command - but because the very consumers who are parched for new products with interesting stories are often being hoodwinked, at least a little, by folks posing as distillers, or at least whiskey distillers. And anyone selling American whiskey at their bar should be paying attention.
The latest brouhaha kicked off in the consumer media when Eric Felten revealed to a mostly uninformed public what many people already knew - much of the rye and bourbon being sold under various so-called craft labels is distilled in Indiana at the giant MGP Distillery, once owned by Seagram’s and Pernod-Ricard, and a very active seller of different formulas - “mash bills” - for whiskey. The story set off a firestorm about some brands in specific, like Templeton Rye, among others.
The issue isn’t that MGP makes uninspired whiskey, not at all, and as Felten and others have pointed out, a whole lot of the Rye under labels big (Bulleit) and small have come from MGP. The issue is authenticity and transparency. Many of these product hawkers are what Chuck Cowdrey calls in his blog “Potemkin distillers,” after the false-fronted villages created to fool the Russian Czar about his starving citizens; basically, not distilleries at all. In his blog, essential and unmissable if you want the straight dirt about straight American whiskey, Chowdrey frequently assails the habit many spirit packagers have of, well, telling stories and not the truth about their products, and recently has been urging the TTB, the government agency that oversees alcohol production in the US, to start enforcing the rules about what goes on a brand’s label so that consumers can at least have a fighting chance to guess where their whiskey is being made.
What does this mean to you, bartender, bar owner, cocktail lover, whiskey geek? Why should you care who makes what, where? Well, as Cowdrey says in his most recent post, “The easiest thing in the world is to not know something. Drink what you like, pay what they ask, believe their story or don't.” But when a new customer walks into your bar and while he’s surveying the bar and your menu, overhears you telling another customer all those interesting lies about McGee’s Handmade Rye from Rootintootin, Texas, don’t be surprised, if he knows his whiskey, when he heads to the door right away, looking for an establishment where the bartender actually knows what’s what. This is your business - who makes what, where and how they make it, which product is rectified neutral grain spirit and which actually made in one and only one location, all that. Keeping up is hard, compared to not knowing, which we all know, as Chuck says, is easy. But it’s your job.