About a year ago, GQ exerpted this great picture from David Haskell's The Kings County Distiller Guide to Urban Moonshining. Click the image on the left to see the detail. It’s pretty easy to see from this that there are really only thirteen major Bourbon producers in the United States. These 13 distilleries are owned by only nine companies.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You can’t walk into a liquor store and not see an entire 50 foot shelf of Bourbons with names you’ve never heard of. Some of them are even local. All of them have great stories on the back about how this particular Bourbon was the favorite of Ulysses S. Grant or Al Capone or was made by some hill-William from a secret family recipe only recently rediscovered inside a hollow log in Possum Lick, Kentucky. Like the Templeton Rye label to the left. Click it to expand and read it.
Of particular import is the sideways type: Produced and Bottled by Templeton Rye Spirits LLC, Templeton, Iowa. Now let me introduce you to another fun section of the CFR, this time Chapter 5.36:
(a) “Bottled by”.
- On labels of domestic distilled spirits there shall be stated the phrase “bottled by”, “packed by”, or “filled by”, immediately followed by the name (or trade name) of the bottler and the place where such distilled spirits are bottled. If the bottler is the actual bona fide operator of more than one distilled spirits plant engaged in bottling operations, there may, in addition, be stated immediately following the name (or trade name) of such bottler the addresses of such other plants.
- Where distilled spirits are bottled by or for the distiller thereof, there may be stated, in lieu of the phrase “bottled by”, “packed by”, or “filled by”, followed by the bottler's name (or trade name) and address, the phrase “distilled by”, followed by the name, or the trade name under which the particular spirits were distilled, or (except in the case of distilled spirits labeled as bottled in bond) any trade name shown on the distiller's permit (covering the premises where the particular spirits were distilled), and the address (or addresses) of the distiller.
- Where “straight whiskies” of the same type which have been produced in the same State by two or more different distillers are combined (either at time of bottling or at a warehouseman's bonded premises for further storage) and subsequently bottled and labeled as “straight whiskey,” such “straight whiskey” shall be labeled in accordance with the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of this section. Where such “straight whiskey” is bottled by or for the distillers thereof, there may be stated on the label, in lieu of the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of this section, the phrase “distilled by,” followed by the names (or trade names) of the different distillers who distilled a portion of the “straight whiskey,” the addresses of the distilleries where the “straight whiskey” was distilled, and the percentage of “straight whiskey” distilled by each distiller (with a tolerance of plus or minus 2 percent). In the case where “straight whiskey” is made up of a mixture of “straight whiskies” of the same type from two or more different distilleries of the same proprietor located within the same State, and where the “straight whiskey” is bottled by or for the proprietor thereof, such “straight whiskey” may be labeled, in lieu of the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of the this section, with the phrase “distilled by” followed by the name (or trade name) of the proprietor and the addresses of the different distilleries which distilled a portion of the “straight whiskey.”
- Where distilled spirits are bottled by or for the rectifier thereof, there may be stated, in lieu of the phrase “bottled by”, “packed by”, or “filled by”, followed by the bottler's name (or trade name) and address, the phrases “blended by”, “made by”, “prepared by”, “manufactured by”, or “produced by” (whichever may be appropriate to the act of rectification involved) followed by the name (or trade name), and the address (or addresses) of the rectifier.
- In addition to the requirements of paragraphs (a)(1) and (a)(2) of this paragraph, the labels of bottled in bond spirits shall bear the real name of the distillery or the trade name under which the distillery produced and warehoused the spirits, the number of the plant in which produced and the number of the plant in which bottled.
- The label may state the address of the proprietor's principal place of business in lieu of the place where the bottling, distilling or rectification operation occurred, if the address where the operation occurred is indicated by printing, coding, or other markings, on the label or on the bottle.
(d) State of distillation.
Except in the case of “light whiskey”, “blended light whiskey”, “blended whiskey”, “a blend of straight whiskies”, or “spirit whiskey”, the State of distillation shall be shown on the label of any whiskey produced in the United States if the whiskey is not distilled in the State given in the address on the brand label. The appropriate TTB officer may, however, require the State of distillation to be shown on the label or he may permit such other labeling as may be necessary to negate any misleading or deceptive impression which might be created as to the actual State of distillation. In the case of “light whiskey”, as defined in § 5.22(b)(3), the State of distillation shall not appear in any manner on any label, when the appropriate TTB officer finds such State is associated by consumers with an American type whiskey, except as a part of a name and address as set forth in paragraph (a) of this section.
Guess where Templeton Rye Whiskey is made. If your guess is Iowa, you’re close, but Templeton is made at MGPI (formerly LDI) in Indiana. As are about sixty other brands of whiskey currently sold in this country. If you’re curious, a rather exhaustive, well updated list of who distills what where that’s broken down by state and includes brands who buy from MGPI can be found at Steve Ury’s blog. MGPI makes industrial alcohol, but they’re a huge custom distiller and ager of whiskeys, to the point that when in 2006 it looked like Pernod-Ricard was going to close the distillery, lots of brands were wetting themselves in fear of not having access to ready-aged spirit to put in a bottle and sell with a fancy label and price tag.
A lot of bottlers are now getting ratted out to the TTB because they fail to label the state their products are distilled – they do this to hide the fact they’re not distilling anything, but merely bottling (usually MGPI) spirit into a fancy bottle and charging consumers an indie markup while doing it. This is of course in violation of section 5.36.
The main problem is that it’s expensive to get into the Bourbon making game. Startup costs are not insignificant, and most investors aren’t willing to throw a bunch of money into a pile and let it sit there for 4-7 years before bottle number one is sold. Micro-distilleries have tried all sorts of tricks to quick-age their spirits, and few of them work. While it’s easier and cheaper to start distilling if you have ready-made product to sell, what’s important here is that marketing BS aside, paying $40 or more for MGPI whiskey is pretty terrible.
Let’s talk for a second about modern trends in Bourbon and what it means for consumers. First, age statements have been disappearing off of labels at an alarming rate, and they’re usually being replaced by vaguely similar sounding things, thus Ancient Ancient Age, which used to be a 10 year old Bourbon is now “Ten Star” Bourbon. Second, pricing continues to go crazy. The $65 bottlings from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection that I bought four or five years ago are now $350-$400. The $75 Pappy 15 year of that same time period is now $1100. At the top end, there’s such high demand for Bourbon with a good pedigree and a reasonable amount of aging that there’s a real tulip-mania feel to the market.
On the plus side, it’s still easy to find really good reasonably priced Bourbon. Old Grand Dad 114 is still $25. The Weller twins (Special Reserve and Antique, which is 107 proof) are in the mid-$20s range, and are delicious. I even like Bulleit’s rye, knowing full well where it’s made. It’s minty-green and delicious.
Next time: Producer Capsules about each producer