Whiskey Sourcing and Scandalmongering: All Smoke, No Fire

By Richard Thomas

Mitcher's Whiskey

Michter’s has caught a lot of flak for being a “Potemkin distillery.”
(Credit: Michter’s)

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.

John Glaser

John Glaser of Compass Box
(Credit: Compass Box)

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.

Whistle Pig Boss Hog and Dave Pickerell

Master Distiller Dave Pickerell displays his latest WhistlePig offering
(Credit: Kurt Mailand)

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.

30 comments

  1. Its not about it being NDP that makes it good or bad. Its about hiding the lineage of the whiskey they charge a ton for. Whistle-Pig is very up-front with where they source their rye from (Alberta Premium)so few people should give them a hard time, and the master distiller argument from people is asinine (I agree with you here).

    The issue arises when like Jefferson’s who charges a boatload for 25 year bourbon from an anonymous source. Its very hard to justify spend when all they can tell you about a bourbon is how great it is, not where it comes from.

    Honesty is the policy most of us are after. And I don’t care who distilled it, it just has to taste good.

  2. I always thought the stink some people made about Angel’s Envy and WhistlePig was a load of horse manure.

  3. @ Scott — you are aware you would pay a boatload of cash for a 25 yo bourbon, whether you knew where it came from or not?

  4. The main issue for me is transparency.

    “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.”

    Yes, but with Scotch, they are also required to put where it was made on their label. Why don’t we have the same rule for Bourbon? We should require all Bourbon labels to show where the whiskey was distilled (i.e. KY-DSP-1).

    “Claims that American NDPs present themselves as distilleries are equally overblown”

    Really? You don’t offer any proof that this is not the case, other than to debunk the master distiller claims, which is a separate issue.

    Let’s pick out just one example. Look at the splash page on Michter’s website, and the first thing you see is a “Wine Enthusiast DISTILLER OF THE YEAR” quote. That would certainly imply that they actually distill *something*, wouldn’t it? There is also a clearly photoshopped image of Michter’s barrels (with no distillery number listed). On their main page, they claim to be the same whiskey that George Washington’s troops drank. You don’t find any of that the least bit deceptive?

  5. @ Bourbon Hunter,

    Thanks for your comment, but you are incorrect about scotch. Few, if any, blends, vatted malts, or vatted grains provide a detailed list informing the consumer what distilleries contributed to it on either bottle or box, nor is there any requirement for them to do so. When information of this type is provided in a company press release or on a website, it is often very vague.

    As for the Wine Enthusiast, I must point out you’re blaming Michter’s for trumpeting the fact that they received an award. Frankly, no reasonable person could expect them to remain silent about it. If you don’t think an NDP deserves “Distiller of the Year,” that is fair enough, but your issue should be with the source of the award (Wine Enthusiast), and not the recipient (Michter’s).

  6. Here’s a quote from Steve Ury of SKU’s Recent Eats ((http://www.kentucky.com/2013/12/07/2976234/the-spirit-of-kentucky-bourbon.html)):

    “Why not just be honest? he asked. “Say, ‘We bought this, thought it was great.’ In Scotland, that’s a huge market: Independent bottlers buy and all they do is put their label on, and have to say where it was made. That’s a legitimate way to sell whiskey in Scotland. I don’t understand why (American brands) can’t do the same thing. Be proud of your product for what it is, not for something you want it to be to appeal to consumers.”

    I don’t understand why would anyone (except NDPs) would be opposed to putting the source of whiskey on the label?

  7. He’s already told you twice, and in plain American English, that you are dead wrong about whisky labeling. Finding some other guy who is just as ignorant to repeat the same porky doesn’t make it true.

    I am living in Glasgow, and what you are saying just does not exist.

  8. Here’s what I don’t get. If I had to list my Top 5 Ryes, four would be from companies without stills. What you call NDPs here. They are all very upfront about that. WhitlePig comes right out and says “bottled in Vermont,” and not “distilled in Vermont.” A guy would need to be a moron not to get that distinction.

    So what’s all the fuss about? If some companies are lying, well, why doesn’t someone sue them? The companies I buy from aren’t, so why persecute them for what someone else is doing?

  9. Here is a quote from the Scotch Whisky Regulations (http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/media/12744/scotchwhiskyregguidance2009.pdf)

    Section 7.2
    “Regulation 9(4) also makes it illegal to label, package, advertise or promote any Scotch Whisky in a way which is likely to deceive the public into thinking it has been distilled at any distillery other than the true distillery.”

  10. @ Bourbon Hunter: The regulation you quote would prevent me from claiming a whisky comes from Glen Typical when it comes from Glen Generic. It does not require, as you seem to believe, that I state my vatted malt draws whisky from both Glen Generic and Glen Typical.

    The bottom line here is that the behavior of most (most, not all) American NDPs is in line with their cousins in Ireland and Scotland. While most American bloggers, with their strictly local perspective, are either unaware of this or have a very erroneous perception of it, we have a full-time person in Europe and are keenly attuned to it.

  11. This is how I see it.

    A few labels are misleading, like Templeton Rye. You can go look at their stuff and see they are giving “distillery tours” of their bottling plant. Whether their rye comes from a family recipe is anyone’s guess.

    But there are many more labels out there that are honest about what they do. Willett, Angel’s Envy, Masterson’s, WhistlePig. Anything to the contrary is just dumb bullsh*t, IMHO.

    I especially like how Willett gets so little trouble, by the way, since they used to call themselves “Kentucky Bourbon Distillers” despite not having a working still until this year. Seems to me the blowhards like to ignore certain things, as blowhards usually do.

    A company like Michter’s is somewhere in between.

    But yeah, these jerks make a mountain out of a molehill for sure. Good call on calling them out on their crap.

  12. @ Editor — I think Mr. Bourbon Hunter here is going to keep on “bloviating” as you call it, no matter how many facts you wave in his face. You can lead a dog to sweet water, but he’ll still go drink out of the mud puddle.

  13. If you don’t make your own whiskey, you suck!

  14. Richard, you are correct, but what it also means is that you can’t put “Fake Distillery, LLC” on the label if there is no actual distillery or it is made somewhere else.

    My bottom line, is that I don’t really care where whiskey is distilled/barreled/bottled, as long as it is good Bourbon. However, I don’t see any reason for all the secrecy, unless it is to purposely deceive customers.

  15. I really have to wonder about these guys who say “I don’t care about it, so long as it’s good” and then go on to bitch about it all day.

  16. Michter’s just got admitted into the KDA. Will the haters start eating crow now, please?

    • No, they won’t. That is because their saint is Chuck Cowdery, and Cowdery hates the KDA because they compete with his tour guide gig.

  17. Hello, I apologize for commenting so late on this, but this post was just now brought to my attention. Perhaps I can shed some light on the issue as someone who has a fair amount of experience researching the sources of American whiskey brands. I don’t think the issue for most critics of NDPs is that they source or blend; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as you correctly point out. The issue is that many of them do deliberately give the impression that they are distilling when they are not.

    Based on my experience, I strongly disagree with comment that “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.” Take Bulleit Bourbon for example, look on the website or the label and find one shred of evidence that this is a sourced whiskey. Indeed, the label even says that it is distilled by Bulleit, which is simply false. WhistlePig used to list Canada as the source of its whisky on the label, but has dropped that statement. Check the websites of Templeton or KBD; Templeton is one of the worst offenders…with a section on distillation which speaks of how “we” do it. Of course, it’s now well known that these are independent bottlers who use sourced whiskeys, but that’s largely due to the work of bloggers who made it known in the first instance.

    But there are many smaller brands that source and are very unclear about it. I review hundreds of American whiskey labels for my list of whiskey distilleries and brands, and even with a fair amount of knowledge of American whiskey and regulations, it can be very hard to tell who is sourcing. Indeed, part of the reason I started the list is that it is so difficult to tell who is a distiller and who is not. Many, many brands would like you to think they are distilleries when they are actually bottlers. I often see statements about old family recipes, family histories of distilling and claims of local terroir for whiskeys that are actually distilled thousands of miles away using pre-set recipies. These statements go far beyond saying nothing, as you argue, and much more toward implying -usually without directly saying so- that they are distilling the whiskey. For my part, as a consumer, I would like these companies to be honest about what they do.

    My point in the quote listed in the comment above, which was poorly spoken on my part, was not that Scotch bottlers are required to list distillers (they are not), but that it is common practice for them to do so. Why can’t American bottlers do the same thing as Signatory, Murray McDavid and other Scotch bottlers and simply say ‘this is a great whisky from Heaven Hill’ the way Gordan & MacPhail say this is a Bowmore?

    Now, there are certainly some brands have been open about their sourcing. High West and Angel’s Envy to name two, but I’m afraid they are in the minority.

    Anyway, I hope that clarifies at least the point I was trying to make. I’ve enjoyed looking in on this blog and I will certainly continue to follow it.

    Best,

    Sku

    • With all due respect, but that is bullocks!

      Your normal blend has 30, 40, or even 50 different whiskies in it. They usually don’t even tell you the balance of grain to malt, and if they ever say anything about where it comes from, it’s only one or two distilleries they want to showcase. That one or two amount to like 5% or less of the content. The rest is a company secret.

    • Gemma M, obviously Sku was talking about independently bottled single malts, like the ones he mentions as examples. He was not talking about proprietary blended whiskies, such as Johnnie Walker Black. Since bourbons on the market are rarely blends from different distilleries, the single malt comparison is more applicable.

    • Also, there are only about 10 distilleries of bourbon that an NDP could theoretically turn to for sourcing. Combined with the fact that I’ve never heard of using more than two different bourbons in a product, the bourbon world is much less complex than Scotland’s 100+ malt distillers. Most NDP bourbons come from a smaller handful of distilleries, and many of them come from a singe distiller, MGPI, who only makes bourbon for NDPs and has a few different bourbon recipes available for bulk purchase.

      Bottom-line is that it would be very easy for any U.S. NDP to disclose the source of their whisky. Since most aren’t blends, even if they didn’t disclose the combination of recipes and ages used, most of them would only have a single distillery to disclose.

    • My comparison was indeed to independent bottlers, which most NDPs appear to be, not blends. However, Scotland is also more open about blends. The SWA has a specific definition for blends, so everyone knows that a blend has more than one whisky. (And I’m pretty sure no one is ever led to believe that JW Black is made at some nonexistent Johnnie Walker Distillery). Even though they seldom disclose the components, it’s clear that any Scotch labeled a blend is composed of different whiskies from different distilleries.

      Such is not the case in the US. There is no special designation for a combination of different bourbons from different distilleries, so long as they are from the same state. Therefore, any straight bourbon (or rye, etc) can actually contain a combination of bourbons from different distilleries from the same state with no special label designation. The only exception is whiskeys that are Bottled in Bond which must be from a single distillery and state the distillery on the label.

      This is somewhat of a thread drift but it’s an interesting difference between the US and Scotland and impacts not just NDPs in the US but also the big distilleries.

    • In the US there are 10 or 12 distilleries one could source from? In Ireland there used to be just 3. Everyone knew the small brands didn’t have a distillery, of course, but it’s not because they made a point of saying so. Those guys wouldn’t always say where they got their whiskey from. Hell, some poor souls were foolish enough to think that Tullamore Dew was still made in Tullamore and not Midleton for years.

      Was all that “deceptive”? Did they colour the picture? I don’t see what the to do is about.

    • Gerald, the difference in the U.S. is that most people here do not know, and the brands contribute to the confusion by coming as close to lying as they can (and that’s just on the label; in-person, the product reps are either badly misinformed or do actually lie because no one can hold them to their oral statements). When a Colorado whiskey’s label talks about being made with “snowmelt” from the Rocky Mountains, and when an Iowa whiskey’s label talks about being made from Al Capone’s secret recipe using Iowa grains, is it clear that both products are made by the same company in Indiana? And that the Indiana company supplied their standard bulk whisky recipe instead of using “Al Capone’s” recipe?

      As Sku replied above, the Irish and Scottish markets may differ from the U.S. because it is well-known their whiskeys can be blended and that often a merchant (like the Walker family) may purchase whisky and bottle it under his own name. And when the merchant does bottle the purchased whisky, they don’t say “Produced by the Walker Distillery Company” when they don’t have a distillery. The U.S. market is not like that, and the NDPs act like they’re bottling their own recipe that they distilled. They encourage the deception.

      Another contributing factor may be that the Irish and Scottish consumers are much more familiar with whisky. In the U.S., the section of the public buying NDP products are mostly new to whisky and aren’t as knowledgeable about who the real distillers are or how an NDP operates. With the popular food trend being “eat local”, these NDP products are marketed by appealing to local pride–e.g., the Iowans love to drink their Iowa whiskey and think they are consuming the handiwork of local artisans. Instead, they are drinking the same mass-produced product 15 other NDPs are bottling. Isn’t it unfair to bamboozle these consumers into believing they are drinking a local product when the only relation to their home state is a tanker truck driving 1,250 miles across the country to a bottling plant?

      Not every NDP does it this way, which is evidence enough that there is an honest way to handle the situation–although no NDP product proudly boasts on its label that it is the product of a contract distiller, several companies will admit it without hesitation. The whiskey blogging community is not outraged at these honest NDPs (e.g., High West Distillery), who are more similar to a Compass Box, identifying and sourcing high-quality barrels to blend into a unique product.

    • I’m afraid I must take issue with Sku there. It is not “common” practice to list contributor whiskies abroad, even among independent negociants. It is not even common practice to disclose the exact proportion of grain to malt whisky, a matter of concern for most scotch drinkers.

      There are few directly comparable products to blended scotch or vatted malt scotch in the U.S., since some of those products might draw on tiny amounts of whisky coming from as many as a third of the distilleries in Scotland. Yet that is not the point. The point is that when someone says “why can’t they disclose their sources, like they do in Scotland or Ireland,” that is pure BS, because they don’t do that across the Atlantic.

      What is more common is the attitude “I’m a bottler and blender, I’m proud of what I do, and no, I won’t tell you my recipe or where the stuff comes from.” That only makes sense, because revealing the specific whiskies in a blend is essentially giving away a trade secret.

      This careless misunderstanding is at the root of a one of the points I want to make. I routinely see even a frank, early admission by a company that they sourced their whiskey as not being enough for ultra-complainers in American whiskey circles. They want to know where it came from, which is fine insofar as that goes, but it would still be extraordinary by any existing standard, either in the U.S. or abroad. That fact needs to be acknowledged, out of fairness if nothing else.

      Alex — don’t overestimate the education of the European whiskey drinking public. I’ve been living over here for a number of years now, and it’s really only slightly different from America. People don’t know X,Y, and Z, and for all kinds of reasons. In places like France and Spain, where whisky is the #1 distilled spirit, some people do think there is a “Johnnie Walker Distillery,” even though JW doesn’t even make that claim.

    • The point is that when someone says “why can’t they disclose their sources, like they do in Scotland or Ireland,” that is pure BS, because they don’t do that across the Atlantic.

      Richard, you keep conflating blenders and independent bottlers which have two very different practices in Scotland. I don’t see how you can say “that is pure BS, because they don’t do that across the Atlantic.” Most independent bottlers of single malt Scotch do just that. For instance, Signatory, Murray McDavid, Douglas Laing, Gordon & MacPhail. How can you say it’s not common practice when all of them list the distillery on most of their bottles? Have you never heard of these companies? Are you denying that is their practice? Sure there are some that don’t (Smokehead, Lismore, etc.) but they are the minority in terms of Scotch bottlers. These are exact analogies to US NDPs, which mostly just bottle, not blend their whiskeys. I understand that you don’t think NDPs are a big deal, however misleading they might be, but I don’t understand how you can’t fathom the analogy to Scotch bottlers.

    • Of course I’m familiar with the outfits to which you refer. We’ve done work on some of them, and in the particular slice you are referring to, you are absolutely correct. It’s not that I can’t fathom the point you are trying to make, Sku.

      First, you and I are including different items into our apple carts, which just happen to partially overlap. Second, in this op-ed I was refuting a very vague, broad charge I have seen repeated over and over by bloggers and in forums for years, and you are coming back with a very narrow counter-example. You’re coming back with a narrower counter-argument, as if the issue I was trying to address in the first place wasn’t there.

      I know who Gordon & MacPhail are and what they do; the people I was addressing almost certainly do not. I think that ought to be made obvious by the fact that I bring blend issues into the equation, since it’s part of what I was originally refuting. I don’t get why you can’t fathom that.

      However, what you’ve written here raises an interesting question when it comes to bottling and modern practices. Gordon & MacPhail have been around since, what, 1890? Douglas Laing is post-war, if I recall correctly. The best parallels to American bottlers are not these antique establishments, but the outfits that have opened in modern times, much as their American counterparts did. Once you focus on that group the picture blurs and gets mixed. On the one hand, you have Wemyss Single Casks. On the other, you have Smokehead.

      Just as one can find clean examples if they wish, one can find spottiness too. I’m not blind to either.

  18. I’ve said this many times before in whiskey forums — if you spill more ink on what a label says than what’s actually in the bottle, something is seriously wrong with your outlook.

    I see a lot of that going on here.

  19. Guys, if you two are trying to prove scotch is some sterling example of transparency, and even your chosen, ideal case has a bunch of opaque exceptions, you don’t have a point. What you’ve done is produce silver with a bunch of black and green spots. Nevermind how the OP also mentioned Ireland, which you are doing your best to ignore.

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