TIP: S7E09 "Deadly Velvet: Part I"
This week, you're drinking BOURBON. That was easy, right?
Now, if you want to read a bit more about the state of bourbon production right now, follow me.
A few weeks ago, my friend Julian and I talked about alcohol, and tried to focus on whiskey, but perhaps failed to do so. We were busy drinking at the time, and thus were easily distracted.
One thing that Julian said though, that I'd like to bring back up, is this:
The way the barreling happens makes a difference and where it gets put in an aging house, but it all starts out from the same stuff. A lot of the differences are really just in how the product gets marketed. So this bourbon is prohibition style and it has this bootlegger theme going on, and then this one has this frontier, western cowboy thing, and this one is this New York cocktail branding, and this one is the every-man good ol’ boy thing. But it’s all coming from the same place. And again, that happens with all sorts of stuff, but I just don’t think that many people know about that.
Now, that may have sounded like a sweeping statement to some of you, and you might have labeled it under "Drunken Internet Hyperbole".
Let's break down why he wasn't exaggerating and then we'll talk about whether or not you should give a shit.
The turn of the millennium was the "Summer Child of the Cocktail and Spirits Movement". Well, really it was about a decade or so later, but I remember working at restaurant in Savannah, GA in 2005, and Bacardi started pushing bars REALLY hard to sell mojitos. The trouble was that to make a mojito, you need fresh mint and something to muddle it with. So Bacardi was giving away all these muddlers to every bar they could, and trying to get them to buy fresh mint sprigs. Admittedly, that wasn't the high water mark of the craft cocktail movement, because bacardi really just wanted people to buy their Bacardi Raspberry or Mango flavored rums for a hip new trend that you can make at home!!! That said, it did start a situation where people were keeping a fresh herb on their bar, and muddling it into a drink, which was more effort that was needed for your average Jager-Bomb at the time.
Anyway, starting around 2008 or 2009 you started to see a big boom in the whiskey market, and brands were just popping up like crazy. In the 80's and 90's, bourbon had become a word that was associated with grandpa's and VFW halls. It was certainly not hip. But along came Don Draper and his fancy Old Fashioned's, and all of a sudden, a tidal wave of whiskey drinkers seemed to rise out of a previously calm ocean.
The only problem with that, is that whiskey, unlike vodka or light rum, takes several years to make. You can't just wake up one day, decide that you want to get into the bourbon market, and immediately start selling product. First you have to get your property, then you have to buy your distilling equipment, then you have to source out your grains and figure out a recipe that you like, and then you need to put it in barrels and it needs to set there for as the shortest, a few months, but on average, you need to let it age it somewhere in the range of 2 to 10 years. During all that aging, time, you need to be distilling more and more product, so that once you finally start selling the aged stuff, you have a constant stream of product, not only that, but you also need to try and anticipate future demand and growth. All the while, you aren't selling anything yet. You're just spending lots and lots of time and money, with nothing you can sell.
Some distillers get around this buy starting off selling vodkas, gins, and moonshine. Since those spirits can be sold almost immediately after distillation. Then eventually, 3 or 4 years down the line, you start to see a line of whiskeys roll out.
You can buy some whiskey from a large bulk distiller, that makes a variety of different styles, and you can mix and match them until you get a product that you like, and seems unique enough to sell to the public, and then you start selling that immediately. You may or may not ever ween yourself off of using that whiskey, even if you build up your own distillery, for several reasons.
- The product you are buying is probably coming from a place that has lots of experience at making spirits, and you just won't have the know-how to replicate what they do.
- Building a distillery is expensive, and the larger scale that you can produce at, the cheaper the end result will be, so it'll be very tough for you to ever make your own product as cheaply as the product that you're out sourcing.
This is exactly what happens with literally hundreds of whiskey brands in the U.S. and likely abroad, too. One of the largest sources for this bulk product is from a company called MGP Ingredients.
In July of 2014, the summer child died. Eric Felten of The Daily Beast published an article which laid bare the deceptive marketing schemes that many whiskey makers were using to make it seem as if they were "small batch micro distillers", when in fact, they buying and blending mass produced product that they had ZERO hand in actually making.
Templeton Rye seemed to be the most egregious of them all:
Templeton Rye, by contrast, has built its successful brand on being a product of Templeton, Iowa. They tell an elaborate story about how their recipe was used by the owner’s family to make illicit whiskey in Iowa during Prohibition, and how that rye had become Al Capone’s favorite hooch. They publish a description of their “Production Process” so detailed it lists the temperature (124 degrees) at which the “rye grain is added to the mash tank.” They brag that they focus their “complete attention on executing each step of the distillation process.” And yet, for all this detail, the official “Production Process” somehow fails to mention that Templeton doesn’t actually do the distilling.
The story was so far fetched that a year later, Templeton had a class-action lawsuit against it for false advertising. You can go file a claim against them now if you feel that you were a customer that was taken for a ride by their "Al Capone's Favorite Whiskey" story.
That said, not everyone was so deceptive in how they marketed their products. High West Distillers have been very open about the fact that they use product from MGP, as well as many other sources, and that they don't have any intention of stopping, because the product that they source from MGP is consistently great, and that it helps keep their cost down.
“Since MGP whiskey is [more than] 80 percent of my revenues, it might be silly to wean myself off of that,” Perkins says. “I don’t think my employees would like the pay cut!”
This is where the dilemma comes in: Does it matter that whiskey makers are buying a product from a bulk distiller? The reason it is a dilemma is the same sort of problem you have when you go buy strawberries at a local farmers market. You can say that your local farmer has a "lower carbon footprint", because they aren't moving their produce across multiple countries to get to you. However, that isn't how the math works out. When you put 5 tons of strawberries on one giant truck, and you drive it across the country, it is actually vastly MORE efficient, and creates less carbon, than if you have 50 small farmers all driving their pick-up trucks back and forth to their local farmers markets. Not to mention the energy use of their farms.
The point is, bigger doesn't not ALWAYS mean that it is worse. As a matter of fact, just the sheer amount of whiskey made by MGP almost proves that they actually do make very good products that people enjoy drinking.
If there is any real argument against bulk distillation, being sold as "small batch", it's the lack of transparency that goes into the marketing of the products. When you buy a coke, you don't have any assumption that it was made with water from a local stream, and flavored with organic herbs, in season, from a village near you. If Coca-Cola started marketing a soda that said, "Small batch, hand bottled, artisanal soda, made just like it was in the old days", well, then you might take issue with the marketing vs reality of the product.
That said, if you like the idea of a distiller who makes their own bourbon from start to finish, and does a damn good job of it, you can find a massively comprehensive list over at Steve Ury's blog. Do a quick search for MGP, and then make your choices from there.
Anything that you can get from the craft services table. Probably like, a bunch of grapes? A premade sandwich?