Whiskey has never been more popular in America, with hundreds of upstart craft distilleries flooding the market with bourbon and rye and overall production of whiskey surpassing levels last seen in the ‘70s. The good news is, the bourbon drinker has more choices now than at any time in recent history. While American whiskey is having a moment, you could also argue that it’s more controversial now than it has been since Prohibition. While there are hundreds of bottles of “craft” bourbon and rye to choose from, most of them aren’t actually “craft” at all. The bottle may scream “handmade by local artisans,” but there’s a good chance that the whiskey inside was made by a single, massive distillery in Indiana. The fact is, most upstart distilleries source their bourbon and rye from an old Seagram’s distillery that’s now owned by a food ingredient corporation. Some are honest about their whiskey’s source (it’s perfectly good bourbon and rye, after all), while others are less straightforward about the facts.
While there are laws that determine what can be called bourbon, and even laws that determine what can be labeled as “Tennessee Whiskey,” there are no laws currently that define “small batch,” “craft” or even “handmade.” The debate about sourced whiskey came to a head recently when Templeton Rye was sued by a Chicago consumer who claimed Templeton Rye Spirits was “deceptively marketing” its whiskey as a product produced in Iowa. Templeton originally touted its prohibition-era recipe, and even made allusions to Al Capone in its marketing materials, when in fact they were sourcing the rye from MGP Ingredients, the former Seagram’s distillery, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Templeton has to refund up to $36 per complaint to its consumers, and more importantly, they have to change their label, removing the terms “small batch” and “Prohibition Era Recipe.” They also have to add that the rye is “Distilled in Indiana.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka was also hit this year with multiple class action lawsuits questioning the vodka’s “handmade” status. A similar lawsuit concerning the “handmade” status of Maker’s Mark was filed, but quickly dismissed by a San Diego judge.
“We don’t want to be lied to by the whiskey we drink,” says Bill Witkowski, head distiller for M.B. Roland, a small grain to glass distillery in Pembroke, Kentucky. M.B. Roland began distilling spirits in 2009. They have a young bourbon on the market that’s been aged in house for five years, but they pay the bills by making a variety of moonshines while the majority of their bourbon stock matures. “Two years ago, there were 40 distilleries in the U.S. making bourbon. Now there are more than 200. Most of those companies like to portray themselves as small, craft operations, but the truth is, most whiskey is made by a few giant companies.”
If you want to start a distillery, but can’t afford to wait for your whiskey to age, you go shopping at MGP. The fact is, most of the whiskey that’s labeled as “craft whiskey” is sourced from MGP. Some other whiskies are sourced from a factory in Canada, and still other small companies will buy surplus barrels from big Kentucky distilleries that will occasionally find themselves with more whiskey than they can sell. The popular Bulleit Bourbon is actually made by Four Roses and Bulleit Rye is distilled by MGP; WhistlePig is sourced from Canada.
“We’re competing with those people, while waiting for my bourbon to age five years,” Witkowski says. “As a distiller, that insults me. Our opinion is we make a superior product. We grind corn, we cook it, we ferment that mash, distilling it, like they did 100 years ago. We’re not mass producing, and we’re not calling up a large company, buying their leftovers.”
Then you have companies like Angel’s Envy, which sources its whiskey from Indiana, but ages it in its own facilities. High West does something similar for many of their expressions, and both companies are working towards producing their own in-house whiskies. The West Virginia-based Smooth Ambler blurs the lines between sourcing and crafting even more. They make a full spectrum of their own spirits (their gin is superb), source some aged whiskey from Indiana that they label Old Scout, produce a very young whiskey in house called Yearling, and have recently created a spirit called “Contradiction” that blends their young house-made bourbon with older sourced bourbons from Indiana. Perhaps more important, all three of these companies are honest about where they get their whiskey, as are many others.
“We’re transparent about what we do,” says Joe Beatrice, co-founder of Barrell Bourbon, which sources its single-barrel whiskey from a number of different well-known distilleries in Kentucky. “Distilleries big and small need cash at certain times. That need allows small businesses like ours to buy barrels from large distilleries. We find the barrels of bourbon that we really like, and we get them out into the market.”
Class action lawsuits aside, the question remains whether or not the consumer is as concerned about the origin story of the bourbon they’re drinking. Over the past year, I facilitated two large whiskey tastings in two different cities, where small groups gathered to try whiskey from half a dozen “craft” brands. Half of the whiskeys were sourced from large distilleries, the other half were made in house. In addition to tasting the whiskies, we talked a lot about the notion of sourcing whiskey, and the idea of “truth in advertising.” I asked each group if the origin of the whiskey made a difference; would the fact that a company sourced their hooch from a large distillery keep them from buying it?
One group said hell no. “As long as it tastes good, I don’t care where it comes from,” one gentleman said. Most of the people in that tasting seemed to agree with him. The other group had a completely different take, asserting that they would go out of their way to find a bourbon that was made by hand.
Whistlepig, even though it’s sourced from Canada, is one of the more popular high proof ryes on the market. Jefferson’s Bourbon is one of the darlings of the whiskey industry, and they don’t distill anything in house. But the company is honest about where the bourbon comes from.
Witkowski with M.B. Roland concedes that there are companies who are sourcing their whiskey the honest way. “But it’s the concealment of it that I can’t tolerate. People are starting to scream about it, and rightly so.”
Here’s a mix of our favorite whiskies from both recent whiskey tastings. Some of the hooch is sourced, some is made in-house. You decide whether the origin of the whiskey is important to you.
The guys at Barrel Bourbon get their whiskey from larger, more established distilleries in Kentucky, and the website explains explicitly how each batch of Barrell is sourced. Because each batch could be sourced from a different distillery, and because each batch is bottled at “cask strength,” the actual taste of the bourbon will vary from batch to batch. We had a bottle from batch #003, which has plenty of heat from the high proof nature of the spirit, but settled down into a dance of caramel and oak once it was put on ice.
A. Smith Bowman is a small Virginia-based distillery that was purchased in 2003 by Sazerac, but it’s still run like an independent company. They distill, age and bottle everything in house, producing Bowman Brothers, a solid line of well-aged whiskies. They also make some killer limited edition stuff, like the Abraham Bowman Port Finished Bourbon, which is aged for 12 years before being finished off for four months in used port barrels. The result is freaking amazing, with hints of vanilla, cherry and spice.
Their Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey is made the traditional way, even going so far as to use local corn. Every aspect of the whiskey is handled in house, and each batch is hand labeled and numbered. At 102-proof, it stands tall on its own but mellows out with a chunk of ice or a bit of water. They do a whole line of moonshine that’s also handcrafted. You gotta respect their attention to detail and dedication to the craft.
Catoctin Creek produces a number of products out of their Virginia distillery, from a white whiskey to brandy to gin, but it’s the Roundstone Rye that you should be looking for. This rye has been lauded by every whiskey critic, from Bill Murray to the Washington Post, and for good reason—the 100% rye is aged for just under two years but still manages to hit all of the caramel, woody and spice high notes you expect from a rye. We tasted Catoctin Creek’s standard 80-proof rye, but they also make 92-proof and 116-proof versions.