Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MGP Deserves Their Victory Lap Too

In the World Whisky Awards (WWA) just concluded, Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10-year-old single barrel bourbon was named World's Best Single Barrel Bourbon.

The WWA is presented by Whisky Magazine. It is all blind tasting and they have good judges. Of all the awards for which I've served as a judge, nobody does it better than Whisky Magazine. (I was not a judge this time.)

The WWA doesn't make any distinction between large distilleries and small, or between distillers and non-distiller producers (NDPs). All are welcome. Because it is such a big tent, it is exciting when a small producer wins one of the top awards. The Smooth Ambler team is right to be proud.

Smooth Ambler is a good company that has always been transparent about its business. It is a small company, in West Virginia, that is both a distiller and an NDP, and they make it clear which products are sourced and which are housemade. Everything sold under the Old Scout trademark is sourced, all or most of it from MGP of Indiana. Another WWA award winner, Smooth Ambler Contradiction, won a gold. It is a blend of housemade (27%) and sourced whiskey.

There is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey if you're up front about it and Smooth Ambler has always been a straight shooter. I wish all NDPs were as honest as Smooth Ambler. (They aren't.) The Smooth Ambler team deserves credit for creating and marketing the Old Scout line of very carefully curated whiskeys. Yet it's a shame that Greg Metze and his team at MGP, who actually distilled and aged the winning whiskey, don't get a nice plaque to hang on their wall. That's not Smooth Ambler's fault. That's maybe not even Whisky Magazine's fault, as they have never inquired about whether any winner actually made the whiskey that won.

Diageo, the world's largest spirits company and a very large distiller internationally, is an NDP for most American whiskey purposes. If Bulleit Rye won a big award, MGP wouldn't get a victory lap for that either.

About once a year, some major media outlet 'discovers' that some whiskey producers don't make the products they sell. People who actually pay attention to whiskey and maybe read a book or magazine now and then already know this, but the media outlet will play it up like some big revelation and it will be news to most of the people who see the report.

The problem is that most people assume--and they're not necessarily to be criticized for assuming this--that a company called Buick makes Buick automobiles, and a company called Hershey's makes Hershey's chocolates, and a company called Keebler makes all those cookies and crackers, though probably not in a hollow tree.

The reality is generally more complicated.

It is, however, always your right as a consumer to ask "Who made this?" And when you do, you deserve an honest and complete answer.

Perhaps it's also possible that whiskey is a special case. A quarter million people tour the Jack Daniel's distillery every year. How many Buick owners want to visit the factory where their car was assembled? And if whiskey is a special case, maybe craft spirits are a special case too. That doesn't mean a small distillery can't also be a NDP, but it can get tricky.

And you know at least one person is going to get a blog post out of it.


Anonymous said...

Hey chuck love your blog , do we know the barrel / batch # that won the award last night ?

Richnimrod said...

I certainly agree with you Chuck, about MGP. And, I agree with the selection of Smooth Ambler Old Scout. I've had several stellar bottles, and never a single bottle that wasn't worth the asking price.

Erik Fish said...

So how exactly does the MGP business model work? Do the NDP's develop the whiskey concept, up to and including barrel char and storage during aging and such, and MGP distills and ages to order, or do they just buy off the menu of mashbills I found on MGP's website, and then do their own thing with the whiskey (like Templeton's "flavoring formula")? Or can you have it either way?

Unknown said...

Chuck, are you getting this from insider knowledge? the results of the World Whiskies Awards (plural) are not on their site yet, so I can't tell if you're talking about that contest or not.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Winners were announced at the event and many of the winners immediately posted their wins on Facebook, etc.

The 'business model' depends on the company and the product, but with a single barrel bourbon they pretty much selected a barrel and bottled it.

I do not know the winning bottle/batch number. You'll have to get that from Smooth Ambler.

Anonymous said...

Hey Chuck -

First off, love your blog, your books, and your approach!

I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a bit. I am willing to bet that MGP feels not the least bit slighted for not being "thanked" for selling Smooth Ambler the whiskey they chose to bottle. In fact, I would be willing to bet that they would shy away from it.

Why? It seems counter to their business model. If MGP were looking for awards, accolades, etc. from the whiskey press I would argue that they should be bottling it themselves. Instead, it seems to me that they are in the business of providing their clients the opportunity to purchase very high quality whiskey, bottle it, and reap the rewards. In other words, they are in the business of making others look good without the need to step in the limelight. I am in a similar business myself.

It comes at a premium too - the aging time and economy of scale issues aside - in order to remain viable, they have to be charging the NDP's more than it would cost for those NDP's to distill, barrel, and age the same whiskeys themselves. It's actually a brilliant business model and MGP do make some beautiful whiskeys.

At the end of the day, though, Smooth Ambler chose this wonderful bourbon, paid MGP for it, and bottled it; I believe they deserve sole credit for doing so. I bet MGP expects no more to be acknowledged than my local liquor store expects me to acknowledge them when sharing a bottle of Old Scout with friends.


Anonymous said...

Seems pointless to have an award for best single barrel. The award applies to that one barrel right? That's what? 200 bottles? Pure unobtainium for most all of us and the barrels that are made into the other bottles might not be the same at all.

Chuck Cowdery said...

It's a great question. The answer is yes and no. Few single barrel releases are limited to one barrel, although obviously only one barrel was tasted by the judges.

A single barrel release is generally multiple barrels from the same distillation that were all stored in the same warehouse location. They are bottled individually but are as similar as a group of barrels can be.

The people who create the awards understand this and the award is intended to encompass the entire release, not just the barrel that was tasted.

Yes, the idea of a single barrel bottling is that each barrel is different, but only slightly different.

Contact Smooth Ambler for more information about availability.

Chuck Cowdery said...

A single barrel bottling by one of the major distilleries will typically involve hundreds of barrels. The more barrels, the greater the chance of variation between any two. The fact that the Smooth Ambler Old Scout release is not that large means the barrels should be very similar to each other.

Anonymous said...

The real question is to reward MGP for producing award winning liquid or people that really do little to win them compared to other real producers (big and small)....MGP does not get the recognition they deserve, but others get to take the victory lap so to speak! Maybe awards should only go to producers not bottles. That would maybe be the best thing for the small producers, it would allow them to likely get more recognition if they win awards vs. their other smaller bottling "peers" buying already pretty darn good ready to bottle liquid.

Anonymous said...

"but others get to take the victory lap so to speak!"

My guess is that Smooth Ambler [SA] bought aged bourbon from MGP [most likely LDI at the time] ... moved, racked and aged it further in Maxwell, WV ... and eventually selected a barrel(s) and bottled it (them) as a 10YO Single Barrel expression.
I'm all for SA taking a victory lap ... after all, it was John Little's palette that selected the barrel(s) and bottled the whiskey.
I also agree that MGP should share in the credit ... and SA proudly and openly acknowledges their contribution.

Anonymous said...

This is pretty easy. There needs to be an award for "Best Tasting Bourbon" open to all bottlers including NDPs. And a separate award for "Best Original Bourbon" (or choose your preferred title) open only to distilleries.

Hotbrown said...

Thanks for the info! Just bought a bottle of this stuff - can't wait to try it...