Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Who Made That Whiskey?

Every time some new whiskey appears that isn't being made by one of the "usual suspects" (the handful of known distillers of American whiskey) my first question is always, who made it?

Often, when I query the marketers of said product, they admit they did not make it but claim they can't tell me who did, because that producer won't let them.

I believe this claim of "source secrecy" by bulk whiskey buyers is more obfuscation than fact. When Willie Nelson, for example, wanted to disclose Heaven Hill as the source of his Whiskey River Bourbon, Heaven Hill was happy to oblige, and had him in for pictures. Likewise Luxco identifies Heaven Hill as the source for its Rebel Yell Bourbon. The Pogue family also was very forthcoming when they introduced their bourbon, which was Heaven Hill whiskey sourced through Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Ltd (KBD).

In Scotland, where there are a lot more distilleries and where distillery names and brand names, for single malts at least, are one in the same, and where bulk sales to blenders are common, the distilleries tried without success to prevent independent bottlers from identifying the sources of their whiskey. Logo designs, package designs and things like that are protected, but the courts ruled that if saying, "this whiskey was made at Glen Whatchamacallit" is a true statement, then the bottlers are allowed to make it, whether the distillers like it or not.

Of course, a sale of bulk whiskey could well be made on the condition that the source not be revealed, which would give the distiller a civil cause of action if the bottler did reveal it, and the contract could be written in such a way that the mere breach would entitle the distiller to some kind of award, without having to prove damages, but I've never seen such a contract or heard from a distiller that they insist on such a contract when they make bulk sales.

No, who I hear it from are the bottlers, who frequently have also created a mythology intended to lead consumers to believe they made the product they bottled. Then when somebody like me asks them who really did make it, they come up with this "source secrecy" thing.

In fairness to KBD, a major independent bottler of American whiskey, they have never used the "source secrecy" excuse with me. They either tell me where it came from, give me enough information to figure it out, or just tell me they're not going to tell me, all of which are fine with me. I'm definitely not pointing a finger at them about this, but I've certainly heard it from others, most recently Templeton and High West.

Tell me to go f*** myself, tell me it's none of my g** d*** business, but don't lie to me and treat me like a chump.

While I don't think Heaven Hill or Barton, who are the sources for most bulk whiskey, really care, I can imagine somebody like Jim Beam, who only sells bulk occasionally, when they find they have overproduced for their needs, demanding non-disclosure. Brown-Forman, on the other hand, can't wait to tell me who they're making whiskey for, so I can't believe they swear the customers to secrecy.

If someone refuses to tell me I still don't know, but that's not the same as falsely claiming that you are required by the distiller to keep the source secret. If they say, "I don't want to tell you," they are at least taking responsibility for the secrecy, not pretending that they'd like to tell me but their hands are tied.

As I said, don't treat me like a chump. I'd like to know the source and I don't think much of them for refusing to tell me, but I give them points for owning their silence. I think even less of them if they pretend that they can't tell me when the truth is that they choose not to.

Many people have come back at me with the argument that "who cares if it's good whiskey?" There is some validity to that. However, part of my reason for arguing for transperancy is that the most highly regarded single malts all come from known distilleries and that type of obfuscation is not well tolerated by single malt enthusiasts. I think that for American whiskey to take its rightful place among the world's great spirits, its producers need to be similarly transparent. Independent bottlers should identify themselves as such and be proud enough of their products to tell the truth about them.

We're not children and we don't need to be told that our whiskeys are made by elves in a hollow tree.

In other not-getting-answers-to-my-questions news, it is two weeks and counting since I asked Diageo my George Dickel questions.

1 comment:

sku said...

Chuck, once again, you have hit the nail on the head. I have long wondered why independent Scotch bottlers (mostly) openly disclose the source of their whiskies while Bourbon bottlers (that is, non-distillers) do not and sometimes even imply that they distill the stuff themselves.

This is extremely confusing for newcomers to Bourbon, and as a consumer, I want to know what I'm buying and what I'm drinking.

The problem isn't just with bottling companies though. It's often not easy to decipher, from a distillery produced Bourbon label, what distillery it came from. That information is easier to come by with research, but why can't the distillery just be listed on the label?

For instance, I don't think "Four Roses" appears anywhere on the Bulleit label.