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Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Do you read the whiskey news? Of course you do, you whiskey slugger, you.  Given that, you’ve probably heard recently of the troubles some “Small batch” whiskey producers are going through due to some…let’s call them inaccuracies of their marketing efforts.  Your know the story: “We’re making the same whiskey that pappy used to make during the Prohibition Era.” And people have apparently enjoyed the story, because they are buying lots of these products.  Are consumers victims if they buy a product based on the marketing and not because of the product itself?  I will leave that up for debate amongst you all, but let me dive into some of the more technical aspects of these conversations that bother me a bit.

A quick summary of the situation:  Numerous distilleries of whiskey (Interestingly enough, primarily rye whiskies) have previously marketed their products as “Small batch” and are being sold with the suggestion that they are local products coming out of places such as Iowa, Utah, and Vermont.  Through some surprisingly dedicated journalism, a good handful of stories are coming out about how most of these whiskies are actually produced out of huge distilleries like MGP-I in Indiana. Amongst the general outrage, a law firm is gearing up to attack the companies that buy what we term as “bulk” whiskey from a mega-distillery, perhaps do some blending of their own and then bottle it up and sell it as their own product.  This is a practice called Private Labeling and is used in just about every product category you can imagine from food to clothing.  And I can bet at some point you’ve probably stood in a store debating between two products that were created by the same company and now have two different labels on them.  The solution being proposed is to force these private labelers to disclose on their labels where there product was distilled.

Now let’s get into some of the details.  First up, what exactly is considered to be “Small batch” anyway.  In America, we have no legal definition so someone making 254 bottles (About 1 barrel’s worth) and someone making a million bottle’s worth of whiskey could both put “Small batch” on their labels if they wanted to.  For reference, here are what some well-known producers consider to be small batch courtesy of the compiled numbers at Wikipedia:

Batch sizes

  • The company that produces Maker’s Mark says that the traditional definition is a whiskey produced using “approximately 1,000 gallons or less (20 barrels) from a mash bill of around 200 bushels of grain“.
  • Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a producer of bourbon and rye whiskey, uses at most 12 barrels per batch for its small batch brands.
  • George Dickel uses “approximately 10 barrels” of whiskey to make each batch of its Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey brand.
  • Jefferson’s Bourbon – Jefferson’s Reserve (“Very Small Batch”) gives the bottle number as being “x” of 2400 x 750ml bottles in the batch. This would equate to about 9 standard bourbon barrels (200.6L per barrel)

Second, let’s address the whole “local” issue.  Because we live in America, and our alcohol laws are more concerned about controlling who drinks it rather than the quality of it, if you’re drinking American whiskey (or beer for that matter), it is most likely not made from local ingredients regardless of where it is actually distilled.  Malt, that pivotal ingredient utilized for its sugars to feed to the yeast that turns it into alcohol will most likely come from the Upper Midwest.  The barley that companies like Rahr Malting and Cargill utilize can come from all over North America.  Therefore, part of the American beer or whiskey you a drinking could have actually come from Canada.

Third, as a subpoint to the above, where the whiskey is distilled (most likely utilizing its non-local ingredients) will have no bearing on the quality, flavor, or uniqueness of the end product.  Locality in American whiskey (or beer) doesn’t matter since we do not have unique regional styles (Reminder: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. as long as it’s primarily from corn).  Compare this to Scotland, whose whiskies have distinct regional styles and you can easily distinguish between a whisky (spelling due to Scottish prefernces) made in the Islays compared to one made in the Highlands.  If you truly want a local whiskey made from local ingredients, using old traditions and that maintains a distinct regional style, try Springbank.  It’s one of the few distilleries that malts its own barley.  Of course, a bottle of their 25-year old may set you back $600+.

Additionally, the act of distilling (separating the alcohol from the other content of the mash to some degree) can be done in any environmental conditions with the same result because the things that truly affect the product like the type of still you use, the materials that still is made of, the temperature control of the still, and how you blend the cuts, are not constrained by the geographic location.  The quality of the end product is a result of the quality of the ingredients and the skill that went into distilling it.  This is theoretically easier to accomplish in smaller batches, but there are some large producers (MGP-I) that do a fantastic job in large batches.

To summarize then, in America we don’t have any legal definitions as to what the term “Small batch” means, nor do we have anyway to verify how local a whiskey product is (not that it would necessarily give us an indication as to how it would taste).  Oh, I almost forgot, we don’t have any definition as to what the words “Artisinal”, “Craft”, “Handmade”, or “Traditional”.  Hopefully though, you as a consumer have seen these words on bags of potato chips and wised up that they usually mean absolutely nothing.  Ironically, in the past marketers would shy away from these terms because they usually meant the product was inferior.  Legally, we do have a definition for the phrase “Distilled by” however, which has actually never been used by any of the cited whiskey producers in the lawsuit who have instead used “Bottled by” or “Produced by” instead.

Personally, I’m all for transparent labeling of any product and forcing whiskey producers to admit that they are really just private labelers is a good step.  My own ventures recently into the Private Labeling world have given me a new perspective, but a lot of the craft distillers have pushed the envelope of having a good backstory a bit too far.  However, we should also probably create a legal phrase that a producer can use to denote that they sourced their ingredients from local or regional growers.  Until then, the true story behind a whiskey (or beer for that matter) will look more like a supply chain readout of your car manufacturer.  Of course, the wine world already has this figured out this whole labeling thing so maybe we could just look over there instead?  Or just drink more wine…but I may be biased in that.

 

 

 

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A new events company has just burst on to the local scene here in Minnesota called GetKnit.  They are pulling together winery and brewery tours, cooking classes, and volunteering opportunities, which all ride on the back of the Local movement.  On Sunday, April 7 at 10:30am, the new company kicked off their maiden voyage with the St. Croix River Valley Winery Tour.

Even though the day started out cloudy, the staff were nothing but sunny.  Just shy of 40 people met at the Roseville Park N’ Ride to board a luxury charter bus to the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing over the air.  I personally would have gone with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, but I’m not sure how many would have gotten the joke, so Old Blue Eyes was probably a better choice.  The GetKnit staff, called the GetKnit Gurus, which were nearly all in the first half of their 20s, expertly set the atmosphere establishing the suggestion that above all else, this day would be fun and social.  The company’s name itself hints at their broader goal of “Knitting the community together” and without silly games or icebreakers, they organically facilitate the co-mingling of fellow travelers.  Of course, the added suggestion that bottles of wine purchased at the wineries may be consumed on the bus certainly aided this process.  Later in the tour this set the groundwork for a sing-a-long of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, which was well participated.

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

Stop 1 was a quick ride over to St. Croix Vineyards for a tasting of 5 locally grown and made wines including a port-style dessert wine with a bit of chocolate to finish it off.  While the group certainly enjoyed the tasting housed in a beautifully restored rustic barn, the excitement for the vineyard came at the end when a large number of visitors lined up to make purchases.  Stop 2 was in the more urban styled Northern Vineyards, a co-op winery found in the heart of Stillwater.  This tasting followed the format of the first involving Minnesota grown and produced wines, finishing with the port-style dessert wine and chocolate, but in a more urban atmosphere.  The second floor patio of the winery overlooks the scenic St. Croix River and will no doubt only enhance the experience when the chill finally leaves the air.  Much discussion was had in comparing the first winery to the second, but regardless of which side people stood on, purchases were again made.

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Around 1pm a well-deserved lunch was had just down the street at Luna Rossa.  Wine was not included in the lunch, but was available for purchase.  However, only the most adventurous chose to partake; most appreciating the brief respite piling up on the pasta and salad.  Yet, before the coma-inducing powers of digestion could set in, the GetKnit Gurus corralled everyone back on the bus for the 45 minute drive over to the last stop across the border into Wisconsin at Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard.

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This stop was perhaps the least Midwestern feeling of the wineries visited as it was inspired by various aspects of France showing off regal statues and a fountain out front, a French hunting lodge inspired tasting room, candelabras, chandeliers, and even full sets of armor standing at guard.  The wines themselves were mostly made from grapes imported from California, but to reassure people they were in fact still in the Midwest (Specifically Wisconsin), the winery does have two wines labeled Buckhunter Red and Cheesehead White.  For good measure, they also have produced a wine from the University of Minnesota hybrid Marquette grape as the previous two wineries had which appeared to be their grape of choice planted in their burgeoning vineyard mixed in with some Prairie Star.  After a quick tour of their facility, another port-style wine and chocolate pairing was had.  The women again swooned.  Purchases were again made and even bottles of beer were bought (When in Rome…) for the ride back across the state line to the tours completion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Most surprisingly was how smoothly everything operated for GetKnit’s premier outing.  The GetKnit Gurus seemed particularly adept at herding cats and there was not a single blip in the schedule, or if there was, no one noticed.  At $65, the tour was an absolute value (15 wines, 3 wineries, lunch, transportation, wine glass memento) and not only the participants, but the wineries and the staff all appeared to be having a wonderful time.  The company has already lined up a number of events, including the wine tour through May with more events likely to follow.

Happy tourists.

Happy tourists.

For more information about GetKnit events follow the link.

Compensation disclosure: Tour fee comped for an event write-up for the Midwest Wine Press

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For all of those in the Twin Cities this Sunday stop on out at The Homegrown Experience on Nicollet Island. Lots of local vendors for food, beer, and yes, wine! I’ll be giving a presentation at 1pm on the importance of locality in wine and an overview of Minnesota wine. Hope to see you there.

http://www.thehomegrownexperience.com

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