What’s a Distiller When it’s at Home?

[In which I talk about American distilling related issues that I probably don’t know enough about]

In the US, until recent times, there weren’t all that many distilleries making whiskey. A history of Prohibition and draconian state liquor laws mean that not only did they start from a low base number in the 1930s but an increase in the number wasn’t particularly easy. Throw in a decline in the popularity of whiskey in the 1980s and 90s, leading to distillery closures and conglomeration, and you have a market that was ripe for the recent craft distilling boom. However, craft distilling is still in its infancy (or at least toddling years) in the USA and the ‘old’ system of whiskey production is still predominant. It’s a system that doesn’t necessarily link brands to the distilleries where their whiskey is made.

Noah's MillBuffalo Trace, based at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort Kentucky, don’t only produce Buffalo Trace. They’re also the folks behind a bunch of other whiskey brands, including (according to Wikipedia) Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Benchmark, Sazerac and George T Stagg, itself taking on an earlier name of the distillery. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, producers of Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and Willet’s stopped making whiskey in the 1970s, yet not only bottle other people’s spirit but also age and bottle whiskey for Michter’s and Black Maple Hill. The generally anonymous LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana) produce, amongst others, Redemption, Templeton and Bulleit Rye. Bulleit Bourbon, however, is made at the Four Roses distillery, who also make one of the components of High West American Prairie Reserve, as mentioned in my last post. In short, many of the larger distilleries make whiskey that is bottled either under different brand names or sold on to other companies, who themselves may also age and sell on whiskey.

Now, in the world of Scotch whisky this is also fairly commonplace, with independent bottlers, blends and blended malts an accepted part of the landscape, and for the most part it seems to work fine in the USA. However, with the explosion of the craft distilling movement comes an element of potential chicanery – when is a distiller a distiller?

Some companies like High West (full name High West Distillery) aren’t particularly elusive, with High West themselves being very honest about the contents of their bottles. However, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers don’t say much about it and in the most part people don’t seem to mind – they don’t claim to make the whiskey (outside of using the word ‘Distillers’ in their name). Both companies are now distilling, with High West bottling other people’s whiskey until theirs is ready, and KBD have done at least some test runs in their refurbished distillery. However, there are other groups of distillers who have caught some ire from the whiskey geeks – pretend distillers of various stripes.

WhistlePigHave a look at the WhistlePig website. Now, where is WhistlePig made? Have a guess. It’s Canada. On the front label it says ‘Hand Bottled at WhistlePig Farm Vermont’, gives the address as being Vermont and doesn’t mention that the spirit is actually from Canada. Davin De Kergommeaux even has a page about it on CanadianWhisky.org. It’s bought from Alberta Distillers Limited, one of the few makers of 100% rye whiskey in Canada (and producers of Alberta Premium), and bottled (as stated) in Vermont. They are, as far as I know, ageing their own whiskey on the Farm but it’s not ready yet [Update: they’re not. They’re building a distillery next year – see Davin’s site for more details], so in the meantime they’re buying in spirit (really very good spirit, from all reports) and bottling it. The only real difference between them and High West, other than having an Apprentice contestant1 and the former Maker’s Mark master distiller on the team, is that High West tell people what’s going on.

It’s happening on a smaller scale as well, with websites seemingly from small craft distillers popping up, talking about their locally made spirit and using local names to make their products appeal to the affluent local food loving middle classes (ie. me and my ilk – read Jay Rayner’s latest book if you want a bit of a kick back against the ‘local is always best’ crowd). However, these are sometimes not the lovingly handcrafted ‘field to bottle’ (a term that Davin particularly dislikes) spirits that they claim, instead being regular bulk whiskey bought from another distiller and bottled, sometimes diluted with local water, by the ‘distillers’ in question.

I’m in two minds, as usual, about this. On one hand I don’t think it matters where the spirit comes from – it’s all about the whiskey in the bottle. If the liquid is good (see Black Maple Hill, Rowan’s Creek and WhistlePig for examples of that) then why does it matter where it comes from? However, at the same time getting people to buy a bottle simply because of the implied origin on the label, especially in the food-mile centric world that we currently live in (seriously, read Jay Rayner’s book – it’s good), strikes me as short-termist deception of the worst kind. In the end I think the liquid will win out – companies are not made on single sales and if you don’t have repeat customers then there’s a very good chance you won’t be around for long. Unfortunately, in the meantime people will get screwed.

1Looking around for information on WhistlePig led to me finding one of my favourite press release quotes of all time. Raj Peter Bhakta, the Apprentice-entering owner, is a bit of a nutter:

‘Frustrated by the porous U.S. – Mexico border control, Bhakta demonstrated the haplessness of current policy by crossing the border along the Rio Grande river atop an elephant with a six-piece Mexican Mariachi band near [a] U.S. Border Security checkpoint.’

Now, that’s how to do publicity.

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