Posted by: Matt Hamlin | July 28, 2014

Mass Produced Artisanal Spirits

The Daily Beast has an article that exposes a practice most consumers of craft or micro-distilled spirits probably don’t know exists – the rebottling of mass produced spirits under new, “artisanal” brands.

Lawrenceburg, Indiana (not to be confused with bourbon-locale Lawrenceburg, Kentucky) is home to a massive brick complex that cranks out mega-industrial quantities of beverage-grade alcohol. The factory, once a Seagram distillery, has changed hands over the decades and was most recently acquired by food-ingredient corporation MGP. It is now a one-stop shop for marketers who want to bottle their own brands of spirits without having to distill the product themselves. MGP sells them bulk vodka and gin, as well as a large selection of whiskies, including bourbons of varying recipes, wheat whiskey, corn whiskey, and rye. (They also make “food grade industrial alcohol” used in everything from solvents and antiseptics to fungicides.) Their products are well-made, but hardly what one thinks of as artisanal. And yet, much of the whiskey now being sold as the hand-crafted product of micro-distilleries actually comes from this one Indiana factory.

Upstart spirits companies selling juice they didn’t distill rarely advertise the fact. But there are ways to tell: whiskey aged longer than a distillery has been in business is one of the telltale signs that the “distiller” is actually just bottling someone else’s product. KGB Spirits, the company behind the New Mexico “destilaría,” was founded in 2009; but its flagship Ceran St. Vrain straight rye whiskey comes with an age statement of 15 years in the barrel. Or take Breaker bourbon, the “first bourbon produced in Southern California since Prohibition.” The Buellton, California company behind the brand, Ascendant Spirits, wasn’t started until 2013. Yet, they brag their “ultra small batch bourbon” is aged 5 years. So how do you open a distillery one year and have 5- or 15-year-old whiskey to sell the next? Not by making it.

The rest of the article is definitely worth reading.

First I don’t think this is news to people in the bar and spirits industries. But it may well be news to a lot of non-industry consumers. Brands that do this tend to use very careful language about what it is they’re selling. And let’s be honest, some of this marketing copy can be pretty weasley. Since most craft or micro-distilled products tend to come at a premium, not getting what you can reasonably expect you were getting is a big deal.

That said, I think this problem is a bit more complicated than being a question of deceptive marketing. What sort of world do you as a connoisseur of fine spirits want to live in: a world where only mega-distillers and global brands make product, with a tiny number of micro-distillers breaking through? Or a world where new distilleries can get a leg up while they age their own product and eventually bring more new, original products to market? I’d vote for the latter, though I’ve put my finger pretty heavily on the scales here…

Aging spirits, particularly whiskey but also rum and tequila, takes a long time. When many entry-level bottlings are three to five years old, with higher tier products taking eight, ten, fifteen or eighteen years to mature, it’s really hard to start from scratch. Imagine entering an industry where if you start working and spending money today, you can’t bring your project to market for ten years. It takes a massive capital commitment to start a distillery the right way, which is a big reason why we didn’t have many craft distilleries prior to the last 20 years or so.

Two ways new distilleries can bootstrap themselves is by selling unaged products or buying juice from someone else. The rise of unaged or white whiskies in recent years largely stems from distilleries seeking to go to market sooner with their own product and have it support the company while the good stuff ages. The alternative is to go to market with someone else’s juice while you figure out how to make it yourself, allow it to age, and have something that can stand on its own. This of course opens the door to confusion about spirits companies that aren’t actually making what they sell.

Note that the issue of not producing and aging your own spirits really applies only to spirits that require aging. I’m not sure there’s a great defense of new companies selling unaged products as their own. If you can’t figure out how to make a gin you like, you probably shouldn’t be in the gin business.

The solution likely lies in distilleries doing a better job of making clear to consumers when the product they are selling is not in fact produced entirely by them. This could be done voluntarily – which is unlikely – or it could be a regulatory requirement. The goal should be to both prevent consumers from being confused into paying for a premium product and getting a mass-produced one, while also giving those distillers who’ve taken the time and resources to make their own spirits recognition that they are selling what consumers assume they’re buying.

One more thing. I don’t think there’s anything bad about mass-produced spirits. Some of my favorite bottlings are major industry defining ones – Wild Turkey, Bacardi Silver, Jameson, Beefeater, Bushmills, and many more. Being mass produced does not mean low quality. The assumption, though, is that a craft or micro-distilled product can offer something unique. Done at smaller scale, it takes more money to produce and will come at a higher cost to the consumer. This may be better, but to be honest, often it is not. In my mind, the issue of bottling other peoples’ juice is one about truth in advertising, not quality of product.

As a resource, Sku’s Recent Eats has a list of all current distillers making their own product and bottlers of other peoples’ juice. Check it out and see if your favorite micro-distiller is in fact making their own product.

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Responses

  1. I hope you realize the very definition of artesanal is that it is produced in small batches by artisans.
    Mass produced is the very opposite.
    An oxymoron indeed.
    Like Fresh Frozen vegetables; as opposed to spoiled then frozen vegetables.

    • Yes, the whole point of the headline and the concept is that it not only oxymoronic, but entirely antithetical to the concept. If it’s mass produced, it cannot be artisanal.


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