Thursday, February 11, 2010

Potemkin Craft Distilleries.

Thanks to High West Distillery & Saloon, I have coined a new term: Potemkin Craft Distillery. It’s a play on the term ‘Potemkin Village,” which is defined as "something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance."

The original term refers to Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who allegedly had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and Crimea, in an effort to show his colonization efforts there were successful. It came into common usage during the Cold War, to refer to similar Soviet efforts to portray living conditions in the USSR as better than they actually were.

I call High West a Potemkin Craft Distillery because the company’s most highly touted products, its Rendezvous and Rocky Mountain Ryes, are whiskeys High West did not make but, rather, merely bought and bottled. In the fine print, High West explains that they “sourced the whiskey from back east while we are waiting for our own whiskey to age."

I am skeptical in part because no one who has taken this approach has subsequently replaced their third-party product with a house-made one.

In High West’s case, the High West Distillery & Saloon in Park City, Utah, just opened in December of 2009, but High West has had a still and a distilling license for four years. They could have a four-year-old whiskey of their own creation on the market right now, but they don’t.

The splash page of High West’s web site talks about "award winning small batch mountain crafted spirits." Another page talks about how "High West Distillery & Saloon started with one man’s passion to make a great Rocky Mountain Whiskey." It doesn't mention that his dream is, so far, unrealized.

Finally, on the product page, after the words, "High West Distillery crafts products for people who want great taste and appreciate quality ingredients, small batches, and the distiller's personal touch," comes the admission that the whiskeys were made somewhere else by someone else. It is hard not to conclude that High West’s intention is to fuzz the distinction.

Why do I keep harping on this? Because I have repeatedly had the experience of someone raving to me about this terrific whiskey made by this little distillery in Utah. When I explain that the whiskey was most likely made in Indiana, not Utah, they express disbelief and disappointment. Until High West calls its business "High West Distillery, Saloon & Rectifier," I will continue to call them a Potemkin Craft Distillery.

There are micro-distilleries such as Finger Lakes, Dry Fly, Garrison Brothers and others who have eschewed the course of buying spirits for resale and have, instead, found a business model that allows them to only present products of their own manufacture. I tend to regard those companies more highly than I do companies that take the other approach. That's my prerogative as a consumer.

So while I commend High West for making some exceptional orphaned whiskeys available to the marketplace, I continue to find the company's Potemkin Craft Distillery pose disingenuous.


Doctor Tarr said...

If it's from Indiana, does that mean it's from the Angostura distillery in Lawrenceburg?

Sam Komlenic said...

Chuck, While I absolutely agree with the principle of this argument overall, I also feel that your finger is unfairly pointed at only one example of the offenses you take issue with.

There are others, and in fact, the accepted-as-gospel marketing hype of many established commercial brands can be called into question all day long. You have done so yourself. Until recently, the vaunted (and rightfully so) Van Winkle brands were sourced from various unknown producers, with no mention of their place of origin. Why is High West such a particular thorn in your side in this instance, other than they own a distillery which you feel should have been producing whiskey from the day the license was issued?

Though your claims do not directly impugn the character of David Perkins, they do just that in a roundabout way. I have never met Mr. Perkins, but we have been in contact regarding the development of his own rye whiskey, which I truly hope meets with success once it is market-ready. I have not been paid for the information I have shared with David other than samples of "his" whiskeys. I have no vested interest in his success.

That said, I know that Mr. Perkins has more interest in and enthusiasm for traditional methods of production than some in the trade, and I am aware of modifications he has made to his own equipment after understanding how rye whiskey was pot stilled back in its Pennsylvania heyday.

There is no untruth in High West's presentation of their product, and the quality is top-shelf. Are they more vague than you might like about their product's provenance? It would seem so, but I also get the impression they are making an honest attempt at actually producing their own whiskey. We will all see what comes of those efforts as time progresses.

In the meantime , they are indeed distilling "award winning small batch mountain crafted spirits." Not whiskey...but spirits like their 7000' vodka. I hope and trust that whiskey will follow and vindicate their efforts.

Samuel Adams recently started brewing all of their own beer for the first time in their twenty-year history. Did contract-brewing make their previous product any less authentic, or less-deserving of our business? Now things have come full circle, and economics allow them to finally control every aspect of production. Never did their label identify any city but Boston (where they have but a tiny facility) as the home of the beer. Without the methodical execution of the business model, their manufacturing independence may never have been realized. Does that independence make their beers better now than before? Not as far as I can tell. Ditto Van Winkle.

The public believes what it wants to believe, and even if the product was graphically labeled as to origin there would still be those who wouldn't care enough to understand the difference.

Respectfully submitted,
Sam Komlenic

Sam Komlenic said...

It just occurred to me that Bulleit is another current example of intentional confusion, and also another great whiskey brought to market by someone who doesn't distill a drop, but makes no overt effort at letting us know that tidbit. Should they be exempt from this discussion?

Chuck Cowdery said...

If you look, you will see that I have taken Diageo to task over Bulleit and criticized the marketing practices of many other companies. No one is exempt.

Doctor Tarr said...

Look at what you've actually written, Chuck, would get in the way of the righteous indignation.

Sam Komlenic said...

Without the luxury of total hindsight, I'll ask whether you have addressed Woodford Reserve's semi-cloaked cachet as an all pot stilled whiskey. They do nothing to clarify their status as a partially pot stilled whiskey that is actually mixed with mostly "ordinary" whiskey from their column still plant. Have they been singled out in the past? Perhaps so.

Others can be substituted here as I think of them, but I'll get off the soapbox for now. Have others been singled out previously? Sorry to be so detail-oriented, but I'm shooting for clarity here, as, I'm sure, are you. There are a million of them out there, not just High West.

My point is that this situation is not necessarily isolated to any one brand or distiller, and the fact that we're getting great whiskey from a lot of disparate folks is a good thing in the long run. None should be exempt, so why the intense focus on High West?

I hope they will all make their own whiskey on down the road, then justice, and the whiskey-drinking public will truly have been served.

Doctor Tarr said...

I mean "looking"

Chuck Cowdery said...

The only person here with an "intense focus on High West" is you, Sam. You need to read me more often and not just when I write about your friends. There are a lot of stories in the American whiskey world. High West is one of them.

Sam Komlenic said...

That was the reason I asked those questions in my last response, Chuck, and they went unanswered, so I'll do some looking around your archives for your previous takes on Bulleit and Woodford.

Also, exchanging a couple of e-mails with a guy doesn't make us friends. I certainly like David...heck, I like you too, but we're not friends.

Crash said...

Well, I've met David Perkins and I consider him a new friend, so I'll state my bias right up front, but in my experience he does not hide the fact that he's been purchasing whiskies (I'm familiar with the sources, and they are reputable, but I don't think that Indiana is part of the equation).

High West does have vodka, which is a good cash product, and ought to help them to further their goals of producing their own whiskies someday.

I understand exactly how you feel, Mr. Cowdery, but as a retailer, I like to look at intent and motives behind a company's marketing attempts. While I cannot argue with what is on the labels, I am impressed with the blending that High West has done on the Rendezvous and the Bourye. I like the whiskies, and I like David Perkins. As someone who considers himself an honest retailer, I will be the first to inform customers that these are purchased whiskies, but they are a small company and they are doing what they can, and I wish them success. David Perkins has a background in science, and he's working towards a dream. He certainly strikes me as a good guy, not a charlatan or huckster. I save my contempt for large conglomerates who deliberately mislead consumers, or don't turn out a quality product, or who take shortcuts which cheapen their product.

I'm not holding your opinions against you, Mr. Cowdery, I respect you far too much and value your opinions, even if this is a rare occasion where I disagree with you for the most part, but David Perkins and High West are not terrible villains, even if their labels aren't as forthright as you would prefer them to be. I'm not saying that High West, or any company which follows a similar model, deserves a "pass"; they do need to be held to standards of honesty, but neither should they be exorciated if they are in earnest, and not just trying to make a fast buck.

I do commend you for correcting people who get excited about their products for the wrong reasons, but the fact is, the current High West whiskey offerings are good, and they ought to be encouraged to do everything the right way. I think that their distillery has a bright future and excellent potential to be realized. Let's encourage them instead of discouraging them.

Sam Komlenic said...

As promised, I completed a thorough review of the blog last night, and found an excellent posting on both Bulleit and Templeton (one posting each) for the same reason. I thank you for your even-handed coverage of a couple of similar "violators." I also found many postings on unrelated subjects that I found to be quite compelling reading, reminders of why I started following this blog. I could find nothing, however, on Woodford Reserve. If you have posted on their marketing transgressions previously, could you please provide a link?

I found it telling, however, that this is your fourth post on High West, each making the same point. In light of this, I stand by my earlier "intense focus" response.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You also should have found some similar postings regarding Diageo and George Dickel, some in which I take Beam Global to task, and several commentaries about craft distilleries in general. For Woodford, see Malt Advocate, Volume 14, Number 2, from 2005. I assume you have access to that.

Sam Komlenic said...

Thanks Chuck. I will request that issue to refresh my memory. Carry on!

JSJ said...

Ten years on, has High West "subsequently replaced their third-party product with a house-made one"? I truly don't know.

Chuck Cowdery said...

High West now has some house-made products and also some that combine house-made and sourced liquid. Their products have a very good reputation.