The Salt
6:33 pm
Wed July 30, 2014

Why Your 'Small-Batch' Whiskey Might Taste A Lot Like The Others

Originally published on Sat August 9, 2014 3:25 pm

It's a good time to be a whiskey maker, and craft whiskeys are all the rage, with names like Bulleit, Redemption, Templeton and George Dickel.

But according to a report on The Daily Beast, some of those producers tossing off hazy, golden adjectives like "hand-crafted," "small-batch" and "artisanal" are, well, not. There's a factory in Indiana churning out massive quantities of beverage-grade alcohol, and some distilleries are just buying it and putting it in their pretty bottles.

Steve Ury is an attorney by day and Recent Eats blogger by night who is tracking where the good stuff comes from. He tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish that over 50 different brands from different companies appear to be bottling whiskey from this big Indiana factory, which goes by the name of MGP — Midwest Grain Products.

Ury says that one of the tell-tale signs on the bottle is the wording. "Does it say it is 'distilled' by that company, or does it say it's 'bottled by' or 'produced by' that company? That sounds like a small difference, but it has a big legal meaning."

He also looks for the recipe because the Indiana distillery uses 95 percent rye, which is very distinct. That's a red flag that it might be from Indiana.

As for the taste, Ury notes that different barrels taste different. "Sometimes they blend it with other whiskeys; sometimes they put it in a barrel that previously held port or rum to give it a slightly different flavor," he says. "Sometimes they'll filter it. But there's a commonality of flavor of these MGP ryes because they are so distinct."

As The Daily Beast notes, one brand called WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey based in Vermont has gotten a lot of hype. It launched in 2010. Ury looked at the source of the whiskey and when it's supposed to be aged. So is there a discrepancy?

Ury says WhistlePig launched with a 10-year-old whiskey, made from barrels of whiskey from Canada, and sold it as the company's own rye whiskey.

"Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that," says Ury. "The only problem is that a lot of these companies aren't very clear that they're getting their whiskey from other places. WhistlePig, for instance, if you dig, you can find out that the label says in very small print 'a product of Canada,' but in their publicity they talk a lot about their Vermont farm, and about being a Vermont product."

According to Ury, all this murky sourcing makes it tough for the distilleries that really are small batch.

"When there's a distillery down the street that's marketing whiskey made by a big distillery that's 10 years old, it's very hard for a small player who is trying their best to make the whiskey. And then once they make it, they have to sit on it for four or six or 10 years to get that age on it," he says.

So we had to ask Ury: Given what you've learned, what do you drink?

"I'm an adventurer, so I like to try a little bit of everything," he says. "I drink plenty of whiskey from MGP in Indiana. In fact, I have some favorites from there. And I'm a fan of WhistlePig, and I'm a fan of High West, and I'm a fan of Willett. It's not so much a matter of its tasting better or worse, it's more a matter of the consumer knowing what they're getting, and understanding why something might taste a certain way, and why something might taste differently."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's a good time to be a whiskey maker. And craft whiskeys are all the rage - names like Bullet, Redemption, Templeton, George Dickel. But according to a report in The Daily Beast, some of those tossing off hazy, golden adjectives like hand-crafted, small-batch and artisanal are, well, not. There's a factory in Indiana turning out mass quantities of beverage-grade alcohol, and some distilleries are just buying it and putting it in their pretty bottles. We reached out to someone who is tracking where the good stuff comes from, Steve Ury. He's an attorney by day and food blogger by night on his site Recent Eats. Steve Ury, welcome to the program.

STEVE URY: Thank you, glad to be here.

CORNISH: So at this point, just how many whiskeys have you found that can be sourced back to this Indiana factory?

URY: Well, you know, it's hard to know for sure because it takes a lot of investigation. But I've found over 50 different brands, from different companies, that appear to be bottling whiskey from this big, Indiana factory, which goes by the name of MGP, or Midwest Grain Products.

CORNISH: And what are some of the telltale signs? When you pick up a bottle, what are you looking for?

URY: So there are a few different things to look for. One is, you know, on the bottle, does it say it's distilled by that company, or does it say it's bottled by or produced by? That sounds like a small difference, but it has a big legal meaning. But the other thing I look for is the recipe. The Indiana distillery uses a very distinct recipe of 95 percent rye. And if I see that, 95 percent rye, on a bottle, which is something they often brag about, that we use 95 percent rye, to me, that's when a flag goes up and says this might be from Indiana.

CORNISH: Now, Steve Ury, what about the taste? Is it really fair to say that no matter the bottle or the story, that it all tastes the same?

URY: No, it's not fair to say that. I mean, different barrels taste different, and different companies do different things with them. Sometimes they blend it with other whiskeys. Sometimes they'll put it in a, you know, barrel that previously held port or rum to give it a slightly different flavor. Sometimes they'll filter it. But there's a commonality of flavor of these MGP ryes because they are so distinct.

CORNISH: Now, this Daily Beast article mentions a brand called WhistlePig. It's based in Vermont. There's a lot of hype around it. It launched in 2010, but you're looking at kind of the sourcing and the whiskey, when it's supposed to be aged, and you see a discrepancy?

URY: Well, they launched with a 10-year-old whiskey. And what they did is they bought barrels of whiskey from Canada and sold it as their own rye whiskey. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. The only problem is, you know, a lot of these companies aren't very clear that they're getting their whiskey from other places. And WhistlePig, for instance - if you dig, you can find out. The label says, in very small print, a product of Canada. But in their publicity, they talk a lot about their Vermont farm and, you know, about being a Vermont product. And the fact is, you know, the whiskey comes from Canada. And I'd rather they just admit that and say, we found some really good whiskey from Canada, and here it is.

CORNISH: What does this mean for the distilleries that really are small-batch - right? - or who really are what they claim?

URY: Yeah, I think it makes it tough for them because when there's a distillery down the street that's marketing, you know, whiskey made by a big distillery that's 10 years old, it's very hard for a small player who is, you know, trying their best to make the whiskey. And then, once they make it, they have to sit on it for four, six, ten years to get that age on it.

CORNISH: Steve Ury, given what you've learned, what do you drink?

URY: (Laughing) You know, I drink all - I drink everything. I'm an adventurer, so I like to try a little bit of everything. But I drink plenty of whiskey from MGP in Indiana - in fact, I have some favorites from there. And I'm a fan of WhistlePig. And I'm a fan of High West. And I'm a fan of Willett. You know, it's not so much a matter of it tasting better or worse. It's more a matter of knowing - the consumer knowing what they're getting and understanding why something might taste a certain way, and something else might taste differently.

CORNISH: Steve Ury. His blog is called Recent Eats. Thanks so much for talking with us.

URY: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program