Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Secret Mash Bills Are Stupid


Everyone knows the rye whiskey made at MGP of Indiana, sold as Templeton, Bulleit, Redemption, George Dickel, and many others, is made from a mash bill that is 95 percent rye and 5 percent barley malt. MGP, which is a contract distiller and bulk whiskey seller, publishes all of its mash bills.

Many people also know that most major distillery straight ryes are 'barely legal' at 51 percent rye. This is true of Heaven Hill (Rittenhouse), Jim Beam (Jim Beam, Old Overholt, Knob Creek), and Buffalo Trace (Sazerac). In all three cases, this was confirmed to me by the Master Distiller.

The only rye Brown-Forman makes is the new Jack Daniel's product. The first batch hasn't reached maturity yet but they've announced the mash bill -- 70/18/12.

Someone asked me recently, what about Wild Turkey Rye? I'd never asked them specifically, so I did, via the PR channels I'm supposed to use. Can't tell you, proprietary, they answered. Okay, can you tell me if it's more than 51 percent? Yes, it's more than 51 percent.

They attributed the answer to Eddie Russell, but keeping the mash bill a secret isn't Eddie or Jimmy Russell's decision, it's corporate.

As it happens, the second part of that answer satisfied my curiosity but it also got me thinking about the policy of keeping mash bills secret. Producers of pretty much everything like secrets as a marketing gimmick. A secret recipe suggests the product is special, unique, and can't be duplicated. Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken are two famous examples of brands that have made a secret recipe part of their image.

That might be fine for soft drinks and fast food, but whiskey is different. Whiskey fans like to know what they're drinking. The more information, the better. Plus of all the things you might want to keep secret about how your whiskey is made, few are less important than the mash bill. Nobody can duplicate your product just because they know your mash bill.

Fred Noe, Master Distiller at Jim Beam, told me once that mash bills aren't even that rigid. They vary from time to time and no one can taste the difference. So between what we can surmise and how little it matters, keeping your mash bill a secret probably does more harm than good. It looks like you're hiding something.

Although Four Roses doesn't make a rye, they do make two different bourbon mash bills. They publish them on a card they pass out at tastings. It helps them tell their '10 Recipes' story.

Mash bill is primarily useful as a way of classifying the whiskey. A 95 or 100 percent rye is expected to taste a certain way, a 51 percent rye is expected to taste a different way. There is certainly room in there for a third classification and Wild Turkey Rye would be unique if it occupied that ground -- say, 65/25/10. They might actually be losing something while gaining nothing by keeping it a secret.

So the message to all distilleries is this: tell us your mash bills or come up with a damn good reason why you won't.

9 comments:

Quintilian B. Nasty said...

Thanks for following up on the previous post where you got asked that question.

tmckenzie said...

You can take the same mashbill and do so many different things to it that like you said. Nobody could figure it out to copy it. Besides, the same mashbill and process can be duplicated a mile apart and the two distillates made will be different. There are lots of stuff about whiskey making that are unknown. That is the biggest one. It is like terroir in the wine industry.

EllenJ said...

Well first of all, whiskey marketers sure aren't copying their "exclusive family recipe" shtick from fast-food or soda pop companies. Bourbon and rye sellers were touting their "secret formula" long before Coca Cola or KFC were ever dreamed of. In fact, in the case of Coke, the original marketing targeted much the same customer base as many of the original bottled whiskey brands ("it's medicine, and only ours is the one that will cure your ills).

Also, until relatively recently (well, at least for those of us in mid-geezerhood who consider the late '70s relatively recent, anyway) Wild Turkey Rye was sourced in bulk from first Pennsylvania distillers (Pennco? Continental? East Penn?) and then Owensboro, Kentucky (before Barton and United Distillers bought up Glenmore and it's children). And while it's possible that the Russells gave a hoot about rye whiskey, that would not an opinion anything I've ever heard Jimmy say would lead me to believe. My guess is that Wild Turkey Rye is very similar to Fleischmann's Rye, or at least the Fleischmann's Rye that was being produced back in the day. Unless you know different?

Another interesting possibility is that, especially considering how physically close they are, the original Wild Turkey KENTUCKY rye might have been Schenley (now Buffalo Trace), since Schenley held a lot of old Pennsylvania rye stock and IF they were making rye in Frankfort they might been trying to duplicate the likes of their Pennsylvania brands.

So, to speak to the issues of your article, here's a couple of discussion points...

(1) What's Sazerac's rye mashbill?
(2) Is it different from what they were doing when Age International owned the distillery, as is the case with their bourbon mash bill?
(3) Are there any Age International brands of rye (they would have to be only available in Asia, but you might know.
(4) For decades, Old Overholt has been the rye of choice for New Orleans bartenders and Sazerac rye tastes nothing like Overholt (neither current nor old-style). Is Beam's rye mash bill the same for Overholt as for its other rye whiskies (or at least was National Distillers' version the same as Jim Beam Rye?)

With all due respect, I would put Fred Noe's statement about the irrelevancy of grain proportions into the same class as statements that "age doesn't really matter" and "we no longer print 'bottled-in-bond' on the label because our customers don't like it".

So if "mash bill" isn't important, and "age statements" aren't important, and it doesn't matter anymore that the whiskey isn't guaranteed to be uncolored and unflavored, nor who actually distilled it, then just how does American whiskey differ from Coca Cola (or Sam's Choice Cola) as far as product integrity is concerned?

Sylvan said...

My notes (unfortunately I have no reference) have the Sazerac rye mashbill as 37% corn, 51% rye and 12% malt.

I'm a weirdo mash bill collector and I've noticed that they do seem somewhat malleable, usually due to the rising price of rye grain. I do believe that small shifts won't change the aged whiskey noticeably.

Alex said...

EllenJ, you raise interesting points and I'm all for proper disclosure to consumers, but I think some of your points are slightly off-topic here. I don't believe disclosing the mashbill is as important as an age-statement or other quality disclosures. Other than out of pure curiosity, I think the mashbill is of relatively low importance to a consumer. Unless everything else is equal and you taste the same product made the same way except for any changes to the mashbill, I don't think even 5-10 percentage points of difference in the mashbill can be identified by the consumer in a taste-test--I believe that the fermentation and other factors have a much greater impact on the final flavor of the product.

Whether Wild Turkey Rye uses 51% rye or 60% rye, I disagree that it has any effect on the product's integrity, as you call it. At the end of the day, knowing the exact mashbill (which may vary over time) provides me with less of an indication of the potential taste and quality of a product than an age statement (although, certainly an age statement is no guarantee either). An imperfect analogy is how reading the ingredients in Coke and Pepsi will tell me little about how they will taste in comparison to each other (imperfect because, if Coke and Pepsi disclosed their exact recipe, certainly I would spot the higher lemon oil, coriander, and vanilla in one versus the other because there is no other significant variable affecting taste; however, with bourbon, I believe fermentation and other inputs have a higher impact on flavor than the mashbill).

One example I remember is Jim Rutledge commenting that the spiciness in Four Roses that many attribute to their higher rye mashbill is often caused by their strain of spicy yeast, and that the same spiciness is often present even when that yeast is used with the lower rye recipe.

Alex said...

However, I agree with Chuck and EllenJ that there is no reason to keep the mashbill a secret for that very reason: because it's not that important.

EllenJ said...

Okay, looks like my over-wordy response needs to be broken up into two sections.
This is PART I:

Alex, you make a very good argument for the other side of what I was representing. And, really, except in the context of what Chuck's article brings to the discussion, I'm pretty much in full agreement with you. The minute differences between 51% rye and whatever the other two grains' proportions to each other are pretty insignificant to me as well. I don't agree with you that 51% rye mashbills should be considered equal, in a practical sense, to those with significantly higher rye content. You mentioned 60% as a comparison, and Chuck hinted that 65% might have once been used for Wild Turkey rye. I DO believe a change of THAT proportion would produce a notably different rye whiskey, all other things being equal.

The differences among the ten Four Roses whiskies result from such a complex combination of factors, though, that they really don't make a good comparison. Rutledge makes bourbon; the dominant grain is corn, and the proportions are 60/35 and 75/20 (5% malt is constant). The result is a difference profound enough to account for half of the bourbons he makes. Whether a particular flavor element is attributable to the grain, the yeast, or the time of day is irrelavent; not to mention that what Jim was probably addressing was the unreliablity of tasting notes themselves, rather than what causes what.

Buffalo Trace (mashbill #1) at 90 proof does not taste like Elmer T. Lee (mashbill #2) also at 90 proof. Try them (actually, I'm pretty sure you have; probably just not in the form of a side-by-side experiment).

My point in all this, in answer to your good points, is that the industry itself believes that small differences in grain proportion DO matter, and in the case of bourbon, are not really not all that reluctant identify them. But, as Chuck points out, when it comes to RYE WHISKEY, that does not seem to be the case. Personally, I believe that stems more from rye's position as the red-headed stepchild of bourbon distilleries than for any material reason. That, and the fact that -- until VERY recently (i.e. Rittenhouse is now being distilled at Bernheim) -- rye whiskey has been even more of a commodity product than bourbon itself. Look through the warehouses of many Kentucky whiskey companies and you will discover barrelheads from places you never would have associated with that location.

I didn't mean to give the impression of ill-reptute when I used the word "integrity" relative to Wild Turkey Rye. I consider W.T. to be among the most honorable of any of the whiskey distillers (or NDP marketers, such as Austin Nichols). By "integrity" I meant being a faithful continuation of the same product for which they gained their reputation. Readers of a blog which deals heavily in how many ways beverage alcohol is changing (this article being an example) it seems appropriate to point that out. I certainly don't condemn the entire spirits industry (which has a long (and rich) tradition of hyperbolic marketing), but at the same time I do agree with Chuck in questioning whether a bit more transparency might not be a bad idea, especially in this world of more-informed consumers.

e said...

This is PART II of a response too long to fit. Please read the former response first:

I also believe that the quality of a whiskey that labels itself "rye whiskey" should reflect an amount of rye that exceeds the TTB minimum standard. And proudly so. Do you eat a lot of "USDA Standard Grade" steaks? It seems to me that a producer of rye whiskey who wishes to point out why his product is superior would be quick to list the amount of rye used in the mashbill (and quite a few do, to the point where we tend to imagine anyone using, say, 95% rye must certainly be bottling MGP whiskey, which is not always so). Like "Bottled-in-Bond". In fact, I could forsee the TTB someday "cracking down" on labels claiming "Old 98 Per Cent (brand) Rye" on bottles of 51-48-1+enzymes CFR-approved rye whiskey.

The old rye whiskies, the ones made before Prohibition were made predominantly from rye grain, just as pre-Pro bourbon was predominantly corn. The "51%" rule didn't exist until after Prohibition (except possibly for B-in-B), and when Prohibition ended, Kentucky bourbon distillers continued to use considerably more than 51% corn. Do you know of any less-than-52% corn bourbon on the market today? Would you buy it? Pennsylvania rye distillers did the same, from the '30s up until they were all bought out by the same people who bought up all the Kentucky distilleries.

Alex said...

Thanks for the additional detail, EllenJ. I see what you're saying, and it makes sense to me.