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Does it matter where Templeton Rye whiskey is made?

on 27/09/14 at 10:34 am

Booze News

secretsTempleton Rye has been in the news a lot lately. Bryce T. Bauer’s book Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots was released in July, the same month that the Daily Beast published an article by Eric Felten titled “Your ‘Craft’ Rye Whiskey Is Probably From a Factory Distillery in Indiana.” (My review of the book is here.) And yesterday the Des Moines Register reported that a Chicago-based law firm had filed a class-action lawsuit against Templeton Rye on the grounds that the company “broke consumer protection laws and misled drinkers with stories of its whiskey’s prohibition-era origins.”

Felten’s article predates the lawsuit but still gets to the heart of the matter, calling out several popular and well-respected brands of rye whiskey, Templeton in particular, for having their product made by MGP, a food, alcohol, and bioplastics manufacturer in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. “Their products are well-made, but hardly what one thinks of as artisanal,” Felten writes. “And yet, much of the whiskey now being sold as the hand-crafted product of micro-distilleries actually comes from this one Indiana factory.”

That revelation isn’t quite as shocking as Felten makes it sound: while the general public may not be aware that many brands of whiskey are distilled in a large factory, it’s not news to anyone familiar with the spirits industry. Michael Dietsch explained in his excellent guide to rye whiskey for Serious Eats back in 2012 how Templeton, Redemption, Bulleit, Willett, and High West rye whiskeys are all made using the same MGP hooch. And last year the Cleveland Scene published an article making a point very similar to Felten’s, though it doesn’t seem to have gotten the same kind of traction.

The problem isn’t with the quality of MGP’s product: experts agree that the whiskey the company makes is very good, which the authors of all the articles I mentioned are careful to point out. Nor are identical whiskeys being sold under different labels. While the rye that distilleries buy from MGP is all made using the same recipe, those distilleries then blend it with other whiskeys to create distinct products. Some go even further: George Dickel charcoal-filters its MGP rye, while Angel’s Envy ages theirs in rum casks. In a rebuttal to Felten’s piece, Dave Lieberman argued in the OC Weekly that where whiskey is distilled doesn’t matter. According to Lieberman, blending is the step of the whiskey production process that has the most influence on its taste. “Frankly, anyone who can’t tell the difference between High West Rye and Redemption Rye has a palate problem, not a production problem, and shouldn’t be drinking fine whiskeys anyway,” he writes.

The issue, it seems, is with deceptive advertising. Some companies readily admit that their product is made elsewhere; Blaum Bros. Distilling in Galena sells Knotter Bourbon (pronounced “not our bourbon”), which the product description explains was not made by them. And Chicago’s CH Distillery has taken a similar approach, printing the words “We didn’t make this, but you can still love it” on its bourbon bottles. Both distilleries are new and haven’t had time to age their own whiskeys yet, though they’re in the process of doing so. But while that whiskey sits in barrels, the distilleries are selling their own vodkas, gins, and other products along with whiskey made by other distilleries.

For distilleries that sell only whiskey, however, admitting that they don’t make their own isn’t necessarily good for their image—but not disclosing that information can have its own consequences. WhistlePig, some of the most highly regarded rye whiskey in the U.S., launched in 2010 with a ten-year-old whiskey made from 100 percent rye grain. The label proclaims that it’s hand-bottled at WhistlePig Farm in Vermont, which is true. What it doesn’t say, though, is that the whiskey is made at an industrial distillery in Canada. The founders haven’t exactly hidden that fact; various sources have been reporting that the whiskey comes from Canada since soon after it was released. But the company hasn’t been particularly forthcoming, either—there’s no mention of Canada anywhere on WhistlePig’s website—and it’s faced a fair amount of criticism for lack of transparency. The official line is that master distiller Dave Pickerell went on an 18-month quest starting in 2008 to find the best rye whiskey in the world and finally discovered it in Canada; he and entrepreneur Raj Bhakta teamed up to bring it to the U.S. under the WhistlePig label.

Whiskey expert Davin de Kergommeaux, who’s Canadian, wrote a positive review of WhistlePig in 2011—though he was careful to point out that it’s Canadian whiskey, not American. Last year, though, after a WhistlePig representative at a tasting tried to convince him that the whiskey was made in the U.S., he got fed up and wrote a blog post titled “WhistlePig Farms is not a distillery.” After declaring WhistlePig one of the best rye whiskeys on the market, he continues: “I have been a fan of WhistlePig from day 1. Unfortunately the guile with which this wonderful whisky is marketed also began on day 1. Rather than tell us that WhistePig is sourced whisky, the marketing folks invented a new evasive term. They called their whisky ‘found’ as if somehow it had been lost. Sorry boys, distillers in Canada keep track of every barrel of whisky they make, and every drop of whisky in each barrel.”

Templeton rivals WhistlePig in deliberately obfuscating the source of its whiskey…