Thursday, July 31, 2014

I'm Not the Bad Guy Here


A few days ago, The Daily Beast published an article entitled "Your Craft Whiskey Is Probably from a Factory Distillery in Indiana," by Eric Felten.

Felten is not some general assignment reporter stumbling through his first whiskey story. He is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well. He understands this issue, as do most of the folks who read this blog regularly. I am one of the people Felten interviewed. It's a good article.

The Daily Beast is a popular general interest site so a lot of the people reading Felten's article are those who need to receive its message. Craft whiskey is a cool, new thing. There are many cool, creative people doing amazing things with whiskey and other spirits. They are bold, adventurous, talented, sometimes kookie. It's a fascinating new trend.

So, naturally, there also are a lot of slicksters out there trying to rip it off, trying to get consumers to think they are artisans when they're really just scammy marketers. They copy the trappings of craft distilling. They jabber on about craft and care and expensive ingredients and handmade this and that when all they did was buy a 500 gallon tote of aged whiskey and bottle it.

Except for true craft distillers, whose output is very small, all of the bourbon made in America is made at one of 13 distilleries owned by eight companies. For rye you can add one or two big Canadian distilleries to that list.

It's true that some of the scammers sell some pretty good whiskey. In fact, the saddest thing about this whole story may be that many of the scammers are selling a better product than the real craft distillers. How's that? Making good whiskey is hard and many of the true craft whiskeys are works in progress, bottled way too young. Others are deliberately going for unique and unfamiliar flavors. Some of it is tough to drink.

That, however, is not the point. The point is that if you want to buy a whiskey made by a craft distillery, you should be able to do so without a bunch of poseurs blocking your way. That's why I write about non-distiller producers and Potemkin distilleries, and why writers like Felten pick up on the story and report it for a general audience.

None of which explains the headline of this post. To understand that you need to scan the comments to Felten's article. You'll find things like this:

"Apparently Mr. Felton believes that only the super-rich should be allowed to start up distilleries. It takes approximately $10M to start up and fund a distillery for the 5-10 years he demands before the distillery is even allowed to sell its first bottle. Talk about snobbery."

"What does it matter if it actually tastes good and is well distilled and refined? It is a bit misleading to imply craft whiskey is 'probably' made at that distillery in Indiana."

"What does it matter? The company who is lying about their product is making a hell of a lot more money by pricing it as if they made it. A good fake Chinese Rolex looks just like a real one, why pay for a real one? However if the fake cost as much, would that be okay?"

"I think actually if the feds were less involved then small distilleries could spend more time and effort on their craft instead of paperwork and red tape. Does the gov stop your supermarket from selling store brand corn flakes made by another company?"

"When you can't sell your spirit on its own qualitative merits, talk about the big, bad things the other guys are doing. Give me a break."

Often it gets much uglier than the samples above. Very often, people who have been suckered by a Potemkin attack the messenger instead of the actual liar. Once a guy in a bar was ready to punch me because I told him that not one drop of Templeton Rye was distilled in Templeton, Iowa. He only stopped when he noticed how huge I am. Breckenridge is another Potemkin with a very loyal and belligerent following. Nobody has any contrary facts, just a lot of passion.

I've been accused of being a toady for Big Whiskey, and much worse. It's a bit nuts but once again, for everyone who has missed the point, there is nothing wrong with buying and bottling whiskey bought from a real distiller, if you tell the truth about it. If you're lying instead, or not lying but feverishly obfuscating, you better make your money fast because you won't get away with it for long.

10 comments:

Hoke Harden said...

Nicely said, Chuck.

You're not a Toady for Big Whiskey. You're a Toady for All Whiskey.

jlondon said...

Very well put, Chuck. Keep up the great work...as always.

kaiserhog said...

Agreed, Chuck is fantastic. From what I understand MGP makes fine rye and bourbon. No reason to hide they make your whiskey.

NMissC said...

Seriously, before I started reading your blog, I had a general understanding what was going on (knew that whiskeys I liked, a lot, like Van Winkle and Blac Maple Hill were not distilling their own product, for instance) and knew that there were fairy tales about at every distillery and whiskey that had varying amounts of truth. So what you've been saying wasn't news, but provided a lot of very important verifying details.

I had this understanding before the "craft" thing was launching.

So what you gave me was concrete details that I found useful. I'm fully able to enjoy a whiskey from a producer who doesn't distill. But I'd really rather know the details and truth.

And then there's this: A suggestion that if you adn other truth tellers would just shut up, and the regulations would go away, "small distilleries could spend more time and effort on their craft..."

That's the most errant bullshit I've seen yet. The regulations on labelling and honesty about the number of years in the barrel are critical for consumers. I have no doubt that time-in-the-barrel is a nightmare for a small producer trying to launch. They can't sell anything! But the regulations defining bourbon also require them to wait until they can sell anything we would want. While I can sympathize with how much it might cost to hold the juice till ready, it's part of a legitimate cost of entering the market.

Anonymous said...

I am a true "Craft" distiller. We ferment and distill all our own products. At this very moment I am distilling my first barrel of single malt whiskey. I have been working on rum for the last few years. I have no worries over these distinctions between real craft products and the hype that the bottlers and rectifiers use to sell their product.

We produce a quality product. I hope our whiskey turns out well, I wont know for a while yet, but I am not worried.

I started this business with some experience in entrepreneurship. I started it with cash, a modest sum, and a lot of ingenuity. I also always stick to my principles of business. Always produce a product that I am proud to have my name on. I wont let anything less out the door. This, educating my customer, and keeping my overhead and debt low, give me the ability to grow at a pace that is comfortable and allow our reputation to precede us. I also have no aspirations toward a mega-corporation.

So as those that struggle because of poor management and ego issues continue this argument, I will just stay the course and allow our product to define us.

If the customer likes the product and believe it is produced with integrity, they will buy it. If they find out you deceived them, you will certainly lose their business. "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all the time. But you cannot fool all the people all of the time." The truth inevitably exposes itself. Some just takes longer than others. Customer beware. Business owners that are ethical and intelligent will succeed.

Chuck Cowdery said...

All very good, so why post this anonymously?

David D said...

HA! Chuck let's go get into a bar fight!

Jake Norris said...

Chuck, Jake Norris here. I am with you 100%. "Distilleries" purchasing spirit and passing it off as craft are violating the bond of trust between the micro distillery and the customer. If they are not doing anything they are ashamed of, put the source of the whiskey on the bottle. If they are not willing to do that, they are ashamed of something, and therefore being deceptive. It seems pretty simple to me.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I know in some cases the attitude is "this is just marketing, this is what marketers do." As someone who has spent 40+ years in marketing, my response is, no, you're mistaken. That is not how most marketing is done. Some marketing is done that way but not all marketing. Most marketers try to tell the best true story they can, not the best story they can make up. To me it's also a matter of pride, of personal integrity. I may make mistakes, I may fall short in many ways, but at the end of the day I'm proud of my work and proud of the way I did it. Why would you want to live any other way?

Anonymous said...

"Breckenridge is another Potemkin with a very loyal and belligerent following. Nobody has any contrary facts, just a lot of passion."

So Chuck, is this a fact that Breckenridge has a belligerent following, or are you just a Potemkin "journalist"?

For the recored I have n opinion on Breckenridge, other than the skiing there, which is awesome, but this like many of your posts confuse opinion for fact, hence your need to defend yourself.