Many of your favorite whiskeys may not be distilled where you think they are. But does it matter?
High West. Templeton. Redemption. Belle Meade. Premium, beloved brands that all evoke a rich history and a sense of place. What do they all have in common?
They may be bottled in Utah, Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee, but they’re all distilled in Indiana.
When I first stumbled across this truth in GQ, my mind was blown. Mythology is a big part of of whiskey culture. But had the storytelling had become… just a story? A white lie perpetuated by evil marketers?
(Full disclosure: I’m an evil marketer myself, perhaps a little too familiar with tricks of the trade — and I don’t like being “had” by my own kind.)
Why Indiana? Midwest Grain Products (MGPI), formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), was also formerly Seagram’s. When Seagram’s went bust, a lot of good hooch was left behind. A few smart, enterprising people decided to bottle it, brand it and resell it.
And why not? Why let decent — and in some cases, excellent — whiskey go to waste?
But that’s only part of the story. There are only a handful of companies that make bourbon. And most of those companies only have one mash bill (think: recipe). Using Buffalo Trace as an example, this means that a $100+ bottle of Pappy Van Winkle contains exactly the same ingredients as a $10 bottle of Weller. The difference is in barreling and aging techniques.
But still. Shelves are littered with whiskeys, each with their own elaborate and often romantic backstory.
After I got over my initial shock, and let’s face it — sense of betrayal — I realized that these insights shouldn’t prevent me from enjoying a favorite brand.
After all, it takes a finely tuned nose and level of skill that I don’t possess to understand which whiskeys to blend, how long to age them, or what type of wood to use in their barrels. It’s still an art form.
Let’s take Belle Meade Bourbon, for example. Sweet and spicy, it’s one of my current favorite sipping whiskeys. But it’s a newcomer, the initial offering of the recently reborn Green Brier Distilling Co. Wanting to restore their family distillery to its former glory, Charlie and Andy Nelson looked west to help them launch their initial brand. And I don’t fault them.
Unlike some distillers-with-a-secret, they’re in the process of getting Green Brier up-and-running in order to distill future brands there themselves. Farming out Belle Meade was simply a means to that end — the fastest, most cost-effective way to relaunch Green Brier, begin building a buzz and restore its once-stellar reputation.
In the end, a good whiskey is a good whiskey, even if the truth behind its making is stretched. After all, I don’t know how many half-truths I’ve told under the influence of bourbon.