By Richard Thomas
Last month in my article about the potential for an Irish distillery building boom, I explained how building a whiskey brand is difficult, and building a distillery is expensive, so some new companies get started by selling sourced whiskey first and installing their copper later. This has become a fairly common practice in the United States, so much so that the non-distiller producer (NDP) has come under fire from several pundits for failing to make crystal clear that they don’t actually make their own whiskey.
According to the pundits who criticize sourcing, NDPs are up to something dastardly, and such critics often level one or both of two charges: that NDPs are “Potemkin” outfits, who pretend to be distilleries and mislead the public; and that blending and/or bottling whiskey distilled by someone else is immoral in and of itself.
The Art of the Negociant
The idea that being in the whiskey trade without copper to call your own is somehow “impure” is preposterous, especially when viewed from either an international or historical perspective. What are now called NDPs were once common in the United States, especially during the 19th Century, and have always been common internationally. Almost all the major blended scotch brands started as NDPs, and today no one in America looks askance at the critically acclaimed work of Compass Box and Wemyss Malts simply because they are negociants. In Ireland, all of the independent brands were sourced until very recently. Sourcing and then bottling whiskey as your own is hardly new, and certainly not devious or underhanded.
Who Exactly is Misrepresenting What?
Claims that American NDPs present themselves as distilleries are equally overblown, sometimes to the point of falsehood. Typical is the example of WhistlePig, the Vermont bottler of an excellent line of rye whiskeys. Much is made of how Dave Pickerell is their “Master Distiller,” as if there were something wrong with Pickerell using the title after serving as Maker’s Mark’s Master Distiller for 14 years, nevermind his current work with Hillrock Distillery and the recreation of George Washington’s historic distillery.
Michter’s catches as much or more flak for Willie Pratt using the title Master Distiller as WhistlePig does, despite Pratt being a 40-year production veteran. Angel’s Envy sometimes came under the same type of criticism, and it was equally groundless. Lincoln Henderson, an inaugural member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame who died recently, used the title Master Distiller as well, despite Angel’s Envy not having any copper.
What all this pot-stirring deliberately obfuscates is that “Master Distiller” is more than a mere job title. The term is also a recognition of status, akin to being a master in a guild. No one stopped calling Jimmy Bedford or Elmer Lee Master Distillers simply because they retired. There is no deception involved with it. Furthermore, the only people who have any real standing to quibble with the use of the term “Master Distiller” by men like Pickerell, Henderson, and Pratt are those of similar professional standing, a criterion that none of the croakers meet.
Likewise, the claim that a whiskey-maker, NDP, negociant, bottler or whatever else one might want to call such enterprises misrepresents itself as a distillery is objectively true only if they say “we have copper and we distilled this stuff.” In almost all cases, the American NDPs describe what they do in plain English, usually on either on their boxes or on their bottle labels, and invariably on their websites as well. Asking them to also describe what they do not do is ridiculous.
The only misrepresentation here is by the scandalmongering pundits, who seem to think not plastering “we didn’t distill this” in big, bold lettering on the front of every bottle is somehow an act of false advertising. It’s as if these bloviators want a disclaimer on the bottle akin to the cancer warning on a pack of cigarettes, but somehow I suspect even that would fail to satisfy them, since the point of this exercise is clearly not to inform the whiskey drinking public. Instead, the point is that of classic yellow journalism: create a ruckus where none exists, so as to attract more readers.