Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Can A Non-Distiller Be Distiller Of The Year?

The liquor industry, like most, loves to give itself awards. Industry media give out most of them. That media, of course, is funded by advertising from the companies being honored. This generally is not considered a conflict of interest because the media outlet's readers have independent ways of judging if the awards are deserved or not, and the outlet’s credibility is what hangs in the balance.

Wine Enthusiast, as its name suggests, is about wine, but since wine drinkers may also enjoy other liquors, Wine Enthusiast dabbles in other forms of alcohol too. So it is that Wine Enthusiast announced yesterday its Wine Star Awards. Among them as distiller of the year: Michter's Distillery.

This will not help Wine Enthusiast’s credibility with whiskey enthusiasts. There are several issues with this choice. Principally, Michter's Distillery is just a name, it's not a distillery, it’s not even a company. It’s a brand name, used by a New York company called Chatham Imports for a line of American whiskey products.

Chatham isn’t a distiller either. They buy and sell distilled spirits, but do not distill any themselves.

The name Michter's is about 60 years old. It was coined by Louis Forman in the early 1950s for a new whiskey brand he planned to sell. Forman (no relation to Brown-Forman) wasn’t a distiller either, not then anyway. He was a whiskey broker, meaning he bought and sold bulk whiskey. He thought he could make more money if he sold some of it as a brand instead of a commodity. That’s how Michter’s was born.

About twenty years later, Forman became a distiller when he bought a historic Pennsylvania distillery and gave it the Michter's name. In 1990, with Forman long gone, that business collapsed. Its liabilities so far exceeded its assets that the then-owners simply walked away.

One of the assets they abandoned was the Michter's name.

A few years later, Chatham re-registered the Michter's trademark. With the legal right to use the name, they began to shamelessly appropriate everything associated with it, in particular the long history of that Pennsylvania distillery. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s a whole book about it, called The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste, which is for sale just over to the right of this column. Everything here is explained in a bit more detail there.

And it makes a great gift.

Michter’s today is what is known as a Potemkin Distillery. The fa├žade is quite elaborate. They even have a person with the title of master distiller. His resume includes Brown-Forman, a major distillery owner and operator, except he wasn’t a distiller there. Wine Enthusiast Spirits Editor Kara Newman claims that Michter's is a distiller even though she acknowledges they “don't have their own brick-and-mortar facility.”

“Like a great many smaller producers,” she insists, “they have used stills at other facilities.” Newman claims that Michter's “selects the mash bill, yeast, etc. and oversees the physical distillation and other production details, right down to figuring out the best bottling strength and aging times.” From this she concludes that Michter's “is not working with whiskey made by anybody else.”

What she describes is a fanciful explanation of contract distilling, but it’s doubtful Michter’s even does that much. More likely they buy bulk whiskey, selecting from whatever is available. The whiskey Michter’s sells is good and making those selections is an important job, but it’s not distilling.

It's possible but unlikely that Michter’s is contracting with one or more distillers to make whiskey to its specifications. True contract distilling is rarely done by small producers because the risk and upfront costs are just too great. Even if they have a production agreement with one or more distillers, it’s probably for products that distillery already makes, nothing custom.

And even if they are hiring an actual distiller to do from-scratch contract distilling for them, that doesn't make Michter's a distiller. The rent-a-still image that Newman paints simply does not exist.

What Michter’s is doing is unique only in the venerability of the entity they are sacking. Some have argued that this is simply marketing. History and historical figures are appropriated all the time for commercial purposes. Historians tells us that neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln ever actually attended a mattress sale, for example.

The reason it’s offensive is because it devalues the American whiskey industry’s genuine rich history. Talking to Shanken News Daily last week, Chris Bauder, general manager U.S. Whiskies at Beam Inc., said, “We attribute the latest Bourbon surge to innovation, premiumization and authenticity.”

Michter’s has benefited from that surge but what it is selling, and Wine Enthusiast is honoring, is not authenticity. It’s more like what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ something that sounds true but really isn’t.

Chatham did a good deed when it rescued the Michter’s name from oblivion, but everything it has done since has been something else.


Alex said...

Great job lifting the veil on this disturbing practice. Michter's may be selling good stuff in the bottle, but how would we know for sure? With my limited budget, how would I know they dont vary greatly from bottle to bottle? I for one want to know where my bourbon is made.

Its ok to have your own label (like Pappy's), just let me know what I'm getting.

Kudos to you Chuck. I'm buying a copy of your book today!

Justin said...

"It is very important to see these four words on a bottle: 'Distilled and bottled by.' Because any fool with a funnel can bottle whiskey!"

-Pappy Van Winkle

Paul Werni said...

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated or uncommon incident. As a distiller I thank you for informing readers about the difference between brand owners and distilleries. Sometimes truth is absent in marketing.

Paul Werni

Unknown said...

Pappy graciously overestimates the American fool: pouring whiskey through a funnel into a bottle requires the operator to put the small end of the funnel into the bottle.

Nate said...

Great points Chuck. I tend to really like the whiskies Michter's are bottling but the constant spin jobs and smoke in mirrors the company is pushing is unsettling. I sat through a 45 minute Michter's industry presentation with some other local buyers recently, and came away from the lecure knowing less about the brand then ever before. They just weren't willing to share any details about anything and denied the origins of bottlings I was confindent about the sources of. I just wish we could push legislation through that requires bottlers to display the distillery that made the product on the label. Scotch bottlers don't seem to have a problem with that, why can't we do the same for American whiskey, have a little more transparency.