Reality Bites: Shady Whiskey

Published  March 2014

I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. There’s a pretty good chance your whiskey bottle is not being honest with you.

It’s not that your whiskey has over-sold you on your own attractiveness; you’re still beautiful. Your jokes are still funny and your dance moves continue to speak for themselves. In these respects there is indeed “Truth in whiskey.” The fact remains, though, that some bottles of whiskey are actively trying to deceive you about their own back-story, like a Craigslist roommate with a record. An open and honest relationship with your favorite whiskey might involve a bit of a background check, and you might not enjoy what you discover once you start digging.

For example, you are in for disappointment if you bought the line that the spirit inside a Templeton Rye bottle hailed from the rural cornbelt town of Templeton, Iowa. It doesn’t. Templeton Rye is made in a huge factory distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (LDI) and then shipped over to Iowa to be bottled. You see, the truth of what’s in the bottle isn’t to be found in the long story on Templeton’s label about how Prohibition-era locals produced such high-quality rye whiskey that Al Capone favored it above all others. The critical information on their label is tactfully phrased in loose language over on the side. It reads, “Produced and Bottled by Templeton Rye Spirits, LLC. Templeton, Iowa.” You see, it’s that “Produced by” which provides the smokescreen, because what it does not say is “distilled in Templeton, Iowa.”

To be clear, I am not criticizing the quality of the spirits produced by Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (now officially owned by a company called MGP Ingredients). LDI makes some delicious whiskey, but the spirits companies that purchase this whiskey and bottle it under their own labels do their customers a disservice when they attempt to fabricate or obscure the origins of their product. The whiskey should be able to speak for itself.

Some startup spirits companies use LDI as a crutch for the first few years as they get off the ground. Whiskey takes years to age, and there isn’t a way around that. So in the meantime, companies like Whistle Pig or High West buy what’s available and stick it in the bottle with their labels on it. There wasn’t a drop of Vermont rye whiskey in a Whistle Pig bottle for years; most-to-all of it was purchased from a Canadian rye producer. We still don’t really know the details because Whistle Pig won’t officially tell us. They’d prefer to keep it a secret because there is another complication on the horizon: Once the young spirits that are actually distilled, aged, and bottled in Vermont under the Whistle Pig name grow old enough to be presented to consumers, we’re going to compare them to the Canadian products that have been sold to us under the same label in previous batches… and boy, does the marketing department want to avoid those conversations!

The easiest solution to protect the consumer’s interests would be to require the Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) number to appear on every bottle of liquor.

The government tightly monitors the production of alcohol and every legal still is assigned a DSP number, or a Distilled Spirits Plant number for tax purposes. This number provides the means to trace what is in the bottle all the way back to the still from which it was produced, yet this number is not required by the government to appear on the final package. Because of this, many consumers make their purchases and develop relationship with their favorite brands based on false assumptions. That doesn’t sit right with me.

There are some small “boutique” brands like Rowan’s Creek that do it the right way, though. If you look at a bottle of Rowan’s Creek you see on the front that it was “Bottled by Rowan’s Creek Distillery, Bardstown, KY.” (Notice the presence of “bottled” and the absence of specious terms like “produced by”) On the back of the bottle, above the paragraph-long story about the brand’s back-story, is a second label that clearly shows the batch number as well as the code DSP-78-KY. A quick internet search shows that this bourbon was made at the Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, which also goes by the name of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, DSP number 78. The label provides the same marketing punch for the layperson as it does specific information for the whiskey aficionado. By including their DSP number, I feel that brands like Rowan’s Creek are inherently more honest with their customers than brands like Whistle Pig or Bulleit, which do not.

So the next time you fall in love with an alluring rye whiskey or a flashy new bourbon, give pause and do a little digging. It’s worth knowing where your product comes from so that you can be assured of consistency as well as quality. You will also be able to take the compliment to heart when your whiskey tells you how awesome you are.

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