Fans of American whiskey will sometimes see an unfamiliar label on a liquor store shelf and wonder if they have discovered some previously-unknown distillery. In most cases, what they have found is either an obscure brand from a major distiller, or the product of a non-distiller using whiskey bought from one of the majors.
These days it might also be the product of a micro-distillery, but they are easy to spot and their combined whiskey output doesn’t amount to 1/10 of one percent of US whiskey production.
A straight rye might come from a non-US distillery, such as WhistlePig from Canada, but if it’s bourbon and not from a micro or defunct distillery (now very rare), then it was made by one of the thirteen US whiskey distilleries that are currently active.
If a bottle is bottom shelf, possibly a store brand, vague origins are no big deal. If you don’t pay much you don’t expect much.
But if the product has a premium price you are smart to ask questions and the first and most obvious one is, “who made this?”
Which brings us back to those thirteen large distilleries that produce 99.9 percent of the whiskey made in the USA.
Nine of them are so open they give regular public tours. Three of the remaining four give occasional press and trade tours. That leaves one.
Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana LLC, usually abbreviated as LDI.
Lawrenceburg, Indiana is near Cincinnati and developed in the 19th century as the main distilling center for spirits brokered and distributed through Cincinnati firms. Until the American distilling industry began its big contraction in the 1970s, two of the Big Four -- Seagrams and Schenley -- had large whiskey plants there.
LDI is the old Seagrams place. It traces its roots back to 1847, although little is known about its early days. The name was Rossville then and after 1875 it was owned by the James Walsh Company. They operated it up to Prohibition, and even during Prohibition under a medicinal whiskey license.
At the end of Prohibition, Walsh sold Rossville to Seagrams, which expanded it and operated it until that company was sold for parts in 2001. Pernod-Ricard had it until 2007, then sold it to Angostura, the current owner.
LDI is actually two distilleries. The larger one makes neutral spirits (vodka and gin) while the smaller one makes whiskey. It has maturation warehouses and a bottling house. According to the LDI web site, it sits on 78 acres and is one of the largest beverage alcohol distilleries in the world. It makes distilled and compound gin, corn whiskey, rye whiskey, and three different bourbons.
Of greatest interest to the enthusiast community are their rye, which is 95 percent rye grain, 5 percent malt; and their high-rye bourbon, which is 60 percent corn, 36 percent rye, 4 percent malt.
Unlike the other twelve major whiskey distilleries in the USA, LDI makes no brands of its own. It sells its entire output in bulk to other producers, large and small, up to and including Diageo (Bulleit 95 Rye) and Pernod (Seagrams Gin). Some LDI whiskey in current distribution was brokered by Pernod, the rest seemingly comes from LDI directly.
In that word “seemingly” lies the rub. The people who run LDI won’t give interviews, at least not to me. Some of LDI’s customers will provide a little bit of information but they don’t necessarily know very much, except what type of whiskey they bought and the fact that LDI made it.
Being secretive and close-mouthed is what bulk producers do. Heaven Hill has always had a big bulk whiskey business but getting them to talk about it is like pulling teeth. Four Roses and Brown-Forman will both confirm that they sell whiskey to Diageo, primarily white dog that Diageo barrels and ages in the maturation warehouses at Stitzel-Weller near Louisville. Buffalo Trace has been in and out of the bulk business and currently says it is out, including at its Tom Moore Distillery, which sold bulk when it was owned by Constellation. Everybody sells bulk whiskey from time to time, to adjust their inventory or when the price is just too good to pass up.
Neither the producers nor their customers will say much about the bulk whiskey business. Since a bulk producer doesn’t really know what happens to the whiskey after it leaves their plant, and since they don’t own the brand names under which it is sold, their reluctance makes a kind of sense. If a marketing company wants you to think it’s really a distiller, as some do, its reluctance to talk about the real producer makes sense too.
Or consider this. Diageo confirms that its new Bulleit 95 Rye is LDI. The LDI high-rye bourbon mash bill is the same as the one Four Roses makes, which is no surprise since both plants used to be owned by Seagrams.
That bourbon recipe happens to be the Bulleit Bourbon recipe. Is Diageo taking spirit distilled in Indiana, aging it in Kentucky, mixing it with the all-Kentucky bourbon from Four Roses, and calling the whole thing “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey”?
Can they? The rules say producers may not misrepresent where a product was manufactured, but they don’t define ‘manufactured.’ They do say that when distilled spirits are bottled by or for a rectifier, the phrase ‘manufactured by’ may be used in lieu of the phrase ‘bottled by.’
If mere bottling is considered ‘manufacturing’ then surely aging is too.
Beyond the TTB’s general misrepresentation rule above, no entity regulates the use of ‘Kentucky’ in the phrase ‘Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.’ Nowhere is it decreed that whiskeys using the phrase must be distilled and aged in Kentucky.
So I’m not saying Diageo has done anything wrong if they are doing this, but it sure would be interesting to know.
Maybe that tells you why nobody wants to talk about LDI. The problem, of course, is that when you can’t get information from authoritative sources, the rumor mill takes over. I may hear something that doesn’t sound quite right but if I can’t get a company to confirm or deny a rumor there’s not much I can do to set the record straight.
The best hope is that LDI’s customers will convince them to open up. The place makes good and interesting whiskey. Somebody should be bragging about it.