Thursday, February 27, 2020

"Is This Worth $40?"

AUTHOR’S NOTE (3/2/20): The folks at Lonely Oak Distillery are angry about this article. Their ire is misplaced. This article is not about Lonely Oak’s Steeple Ridge Bourbon. It is about what you can do when you see a picture like this and want to find out about the product and what’s in the bottle. That answer may seem disingenuous but let me continue. The article is very clear about the steps one goes through and, in the end, it does not reach a conclusion. Because the picture only shows the front label, I also scoured the distillery’s website. I did not search for the COLA, which would have shown me the back label, because most consumers don’t know how to do that. Also, COLAs can be unreliable because labels can change after label approval. Apparently, this product is 100 percent house-made, and less than four years old, but some of my other questions (actual age?) remain unanswered. Finally, the adage, “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” applies here. ‘Bad’ publicity creates an opportunity to generate good publicity if you’re smart about how you handle it.

The original article begins now.

A person posted this picture online with the question, "Worth $40? What is it? Has anyone tried it??"

My answer: "When I see something unfamiliar, I ask myself 'what is it?' If I can't figure it out from the label, I try the web site. If I still get a bunch of vague puffery but no useful information, I conclude it is not worth consideration, let alone $40."

If you spend time on bourbon sites, you see this sort of thing all the time. That new label someone saw in the store sparks their interest. Maybe someone on the site has an answer, but probably not. They're probably in the same boat. The unfamiliar label catches your eye and you wonder, have I just stumbled upon an unknown gem?

Almost surely not.

Here is a tip for bourbon shoppers. That bourbon you just saw in the store that is unknown to you just might be perfectly okay but it is almost certainly nothing special and most likely an undistinguished, overpriced, sourced whiskey in an enticing bottle. The chance that you have discovered some overlooked gem from some mysteriously unknown distillery is virtually zero.

This is especially tragic if the person is someone new to bourbon. There are so many good to great bourbons and ryes out there at decent prices, from reliable producers who make it clear what's in the bottle, that you really should spend your time getting to know them. But I get it. Strange has its own appeal.

More likely than not, that unfamiliar label is the product of a marketing company that has created a concept and acquired some bulk whiskey for the project. It might be a brand created by a retail chain or distributor, again using bulk whiskey. This is a little less true now than it used to be because the new, smaller distilleries that launched a decade or so ago have come of age and are making good whiskey. But even new distilleries often create a brand using sourced liquid to generate cash flow while they get their distillery off the ground.

But it might still be great whiskey, right?

Anything is possible, but here is why that is unlikely. First, you need to know that whiskey's probable source. The number of distilleries in the U.S. that make whiskey is still fairly small and the number that make enough whiskey to sell some of it in bulk remains tiny. All of them keep their best whiskey for their own brands. What they sell is perfectly good in most cases, but probably nothing special and maybe not worth the price you're asked to pay.

It may not even be unfamiliar. You may have already had that exact same whiskey under a different label.

Almost all of the majors sell some bulk liquid from time to time. These days, aged bourbon is so valuable that if you have more than you need of a certain age or type, it makes sense to sell it rather than leave it in the warehouse.

There are a few companies, most famously MGP, who sell most of their output in bulk, but business is so good these days they struggle to maintain stocks that are more than a standard five or six years old. They're selling most of it much younger even than that.

Consequently, if you're in the market for bulk whiskey so you can create a brand, you will have a pretty easy time finding new make (spirit straight from the still), but the pickings get slimmer and the cost gets higher the older you go. If the source has something in the range of 12-years available, there's a good chance it's over-oaked, which doesn't mean someone won't sell it anyway.

If you're really interested in a new brand and don't have $40 (or more) to throw away, start by asking the retailer if that brand is available to taste. If not, maybe you can find it in a bar and taste it that way. Otherwise, the next step is to do some research.

Back to the bottle in the picture, "Steeple Ridge Bourbon Whiskey." What does the label tell you? There is no age statement visible and it's not labeled 'straight bourbon,' so that's a bad sign. 'Straight' is a pretty low threshold. It just means the whiskey is at least two years old. In the U.S., an age statement is required if the whiskey is less than four years old. After that, the age statement is voluntary. You can't see an age statement in the photograph above so does that mean it's at least four years old? Not necessarily. The absence of 'straight' suggests the whiskey is less than two years old. If the age statement is there it probably is hidden on a back or side label, in very small type. I've seen them printed sideways to be even less noticeable.

But say you're in the store, have examined the bottle carefully, and found no age statement. Does that mean it's at least four years old? Not necessarily. People have been known to violate that rule.

The other thing to look for on the label, which this one doesn't show, is some kind of 'distilled by' statement. Although that's not required, if it doesn't say 'distilled by' and says something like 'produced and bottled by' followed by the name of the distillery, or it says nothing, it almost certainly is sourced whiskey. Again, perfectly good whiskey but not an undiscovered gem.

The next step is to search the web. The good news is that this producer, Lonely Oak Distillery, appears to be a real distillery in rural western Iowa. There are pictures of their stills. There are pictures of the owners standing next to their stills. Their distillery is not huge but it is substantial. You can make whiskey with that rig. They are farm-based so they talk a lot about their grain, but not at all about mashbills, aging, and other details.

A little more online digging reveals that Lonely Oak Distillery has been in business only since the summer of 2017. That means that, at best, anything made there is barely two years old. No whiskey that young is worth $40 a bottle, though I concede that's an opinion others may not share.

The information now at our disposal suggests that this is probably a 'something to get us started' bottling of sourced whiskey. This is bolstered by the fact that they are also selling a single barrel, cask strength bourbon. It's still possible both are very young house-made liquids, but sourced seems more likely.

If it is sourced and was distilled outside of Iowa the label is supposed to disclose the state where it was made, but that rule too is often disregarded or, like the age statement, hidden as much as possible. One famous offender was their neighbor in Templeton, Iowa. There aren't very many distilleries in Iowa in a position to sell their whiskey in bulk, but it's possible. A source like MGP in Indiana is more likely. Again, we don't really have answers and although Lonely Oak has a well-designed web site loaded with stuff, none of those questions are answered there.

So we know more than we did but we still don't have a good idea of what is in that bottle, who made it, or how mature it is. Is what we do know worth $40?

It's nice to support someone just getting started, so you could look at your purchase that way, as part whiskey, part Kickstarter contribution.

I'll leave the final decision up to you.


Anonymous said...

There is one other piece of information on the label that I believe is worth pointing out. It says "small barrel." This could indicate a very young house-made whiskey that tastes of toothpicks and Popsicle sticks, or sourced new-make that is "aged" in Iowa in small barrels. I find it odd that the distillery believes small barrel aged is a marketable statement for the front of the bottle! -Andy from Michigan

Agent SJ said...

Anyone tempted to buy this needs to re-taste a good entry level macro straight bourbon. My favorite is Evan William black or white.

Anonymous said...

All so very true! I am amazed at the avalanche of upper-mid range priced bottles that have amazing labels & have the "look", but if you study the label, its apparent that it is newish product distilled by some one else and bottled by someone else for someone else. :-)

Anonymous said...

I ran across this distillery by happenstance while traveling through the area. I stopped and took a tour and while, yes, small distilleries offerings such as this are often not worth the price, this distillery does have a little more going for it. They grow corn onsite specifically for their whiskey so this is not an MGP "juice". Also, they were fortunate enough to have Dave Pickerell as a consultant before his passing. Their single barrel bourbon is surprisingly good, much better than I anticipated, but it also has a higher price tag. All of this is on the website so the author's research was lacking. Everyone has their own tastes but I wouldn't write these small distilleries off because sometimes they put out quality product. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Readers can easily judge for themselves but the website is ambiguous at best.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I hope the distillery's principals, who are obviously new to the business, will take this opportunity to learn how best to communicate with whiskey consumers and not be defensive about a little constructive criticism.

Christopher Carlsson said...

If anyone is interested I’ll dust off my “How to Tell You Are Craft “ article I wrote a few years back ( almost titled it how to write a press release but decided that was too cynical),
It is late tonight or I would be able to dig it up now. Basically it was a piece on what points to make on a website ( or space permitting a label ) on the positive aspects and information on your distillery and products.

Christopher Carlsson said...
Actually found it !
Yes, Jonathan Swift was an influence for the title.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I did a minor bit of my own snooping and found the following:

According to their website, the bourbon is made entirely by Lonely Oak Distillery using local agricultural products.

Their basic bourbon offering (the label shown on Chuck's post) has "small batch" on the label (which means very little) but I find nothing suggesting the use of small barrels anywhere on the label. The age statement is " Less than 4 years"--a blatant violation of the labeling rules. "Less than 4 years" could be aged for 10 minutes up to 3 years/11months+.

Their "Single Barrell"/"Cask strength" offering has a more legitimate age statement: "Aged a minimum of 9 months". However, from what I see, every bottle is released at 102 proof. Call me skeptical, but I don't see how they manage to make each and every barrell exactly 102 proof, without adding water. Adding water makes it NOT "cask strength". According to the website, this bourbon is aged in small barrells.

I have a ton of respect for Pickeral, but a lot of pedestrian bourbon is made in distilleries where he is listed as a consultant My local distillery, St Augustine Distillery " is one such example. It seems to me any distillery lucky enough to have been influenced by Dave should understand the basics of bourbon labeling rules and terminology.

I certainly understand supporting a local product (as I have with St Aug) by overpaying for sub-par whiskey. But that's about the only legitimate market for this juice, IMO.

*Disclaimer: I have not tried this whiskey. I've asked at two local luck. And the label age statements I found on Google Images. Perhaps they are different now.

Anonymous said...

Brian, you do mention that you found on their website that they age in small barrels, but it also DOES explicitly state "small barrel" on the label as well. It is on the image that Mr. Cowdrey posted. Look right under the word "Ridge." -Andy from Michigan

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Anonymous is correct. Small Barrell is on the label. Don't know how I missed it.

Of course that makes it even less desirable to me.

Adam Darst said...

Hey it's part of their Barrel Series, Thank God, not sure what else they are aging their white dog in...