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.