The NDP Dilemma
NDP = Non-Distiller Producer: whiskey that's bottled by someone who didn't actually distill the whiskey. While non-descript barrels, vattings, and blends have dominated the Scotch whisky market for years, the idea of NDP Bourbon really rubs some people the wrong way here in the states. As my buddy Chuck Cowdery said to me the other day, "Personally, I don't want to play the guessing game of who made the whiskey." It's a perfectly understandable point of view. Many Bourbon enthusiasts want to know what they're paying for and, unless you know what's in it, it's quite difficult to make that assessment. Maker's Mark we know is made by Maker's Mark. Buffalo Trace is made by Buffalo Trace. Four Roses is made by Four Roses. But which distillery made the Bourbon in the Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve? Which whiskies comprise the St. George Breaking & Entering? The fact is we don't know and, for some drinkers, not knowing can be a complete turnoff.
The biggest assumption made by consumers about NDP Bourbon is that they're overpaying for whiskey that could just be purchased straight from the source. Why pay another company more money to essentially take whiskey from another distillery and put it inside a different bottle? Because there's no disclosure, no age statement, and no information regarding the contents on each label, consumers are forced to speculate as to why this might be. Maybe they don't want us to know. Maybe if we knew, we wouldn't buy it! Capitalism has taught us not to trust anyone, but sometimes the answer is out there if you ask. I spent some time on the phone today with a few key figures in the NDP Bourbon world to ask why consumers might want to give their products the benefit of the doubt.
First on the list was Drew Kulsveen from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Perhaps the biggest of the NDP Bourbon companies, KBD has been working with other distilleries for years to secure barrels for their own private labels. Willett, Pure Kentucky, Vintage, Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, Johnny Drum, Black Maple Hill, are all KBD expressions and the list keeps going. More than any other company, KBD seems to draw the wrath of certain customers who assume that, because of their close proximity to Heaven Hill, their whiskies are likely just more expensive versions of Elijah Craig or Evan Williams. "The truth is we buy from every distillery in Kentucky except for Maker's Mark," Drew said when presented with this assumption. "We've had relationships with these companies for quite a long time and many of our whiskies are made from three or four different distillates."
With regard to KBD's lack of an age statement on most bottles, Drew replied that, "age is about expectation - namely, about what a whiskey should taste like. We use whiskies of all different ages in our recipes, so sometimes the number can be deceiving." I couldn't agree more. As a retailer, I taste whisk(e)y every single day, sometimes for hours upon end. More often than not, the older, more expensive whiskies under-perform while the younger releases tend to offer more value. Basically, age is never a guarantee that a whisk(e)y is of quality. It's not really an indicator of anything other than what you can expect to pay. Customers do tend to assume that the oldest expression must be the best, simply because it's the oldest. "Noah's Mill, for example," Drew continued, "is made with three different whiskies, from three different mashbills, from four to eighteen years of age." His point being that, were Noah's Mill to include an age statement, KBD would have to write a big "4" on the label. Because many customers do not understand that age statements signify only the age of the youngest whisk(e)y in the marriage, he would be doing a disservice to the expectations for Noah's Mill. As someone who watches the buying patterns of most customers, I can't blame him one bit.
Consumers also assume that buying from an independent label means you're buying another distillery's leftovers. The sloppy seconds. The dregs. Drew was quick to correct me on that point. "No one from these larger distilleries has time to taste every barrel. There are simply too many. Even still, most places will let us come and do our own tasting before we purchase, so we don't feel we're buying second-rate stuff." I believe Drew when he says this because of my own experience with barrels from Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Four Roses. When I taste through available barrels for K&L, some of them are fantastic and some are terrible. Either way, which ever barrel I choose will be bottled by the distillery with their logo on it. If I were to choose one of the lesser quality selections, it would reflect poorly on me and my ability to select good booze, but it would also reflect poorly on the distillery's reputation. If they had someone checking the quality of each barrel before they sent it out, this wouldn't happen. But it does, so in my mind that affirms Drew's assessment.
As far as cost is concerned, the reasons behind the higher price tags on KBD bottlings are no different from any other small producer. There's the obvious upcharge on the whiskey because they have to purchase it first. They bottle it by hand, rather than with a high-volume bottling line. They're working with smaller quantities, so they're not getting the bulk discount. It's really not too different from the realities faced by Kilchoman or other small single malt producers. When you're a little guy in a sea of big fish, you simply can't be as cost effective. You have to make up for the high production costs with better whiskey and this is where I think blending comes into play. In my opinion, the real value in a company like KBD is that they're blending whiskies from different distilleries together. Buffalo Trace, mixed with Heaven Hill, with a splash of Wild Turkey. Obviously, I don't know the various formulae, but in Drew's words, "I like to think of these whiskies like a spice rack. Having a large selection allows us to be more creative with our recipes."
Dave Smith from St. George agrees. The man behind the recent Breaking & Entering Bourbon said, "What's valuable as a blender is that you get to take single barrels and use them to their fullest potential. Large distillery Bourbons can be mass-blended on a gigantic scale and sometimes there's not much nuance, there's no time to go barrel by barrel because you've got to get so much done each day. You go by lots, not by cask." Like Drew, Dave points out that smaller non-distiller producers don't face the time contraints that larger distilleries do and might catch something the bigger guys don't. "Sometimes a barrel can be like a piece of art, perfect on its own, but sometimes they need a little help. Blending on a small scale gives you the chance to focus on these details and make a whiskey greater than the sum of its parts, something better than you could have ever expected."
In the end, if you value your whiskey because of where it's from or how old it is, you might find better deals direct from the distillery. However, if you're a whiskey enthusiast looking to expand your horizons, many of these NDP selections have merit. In my weekly appointments with vendors I have tasted some pretty terrible NDP Bourbon, some that were obviously a single cask haphazardly funneled into a different bottle, much like many customers fear might be the case. However, you can't lump all of these bottles into one category. Like most barrels of Bourbon, you have to judge them on a case by case basis. Ultimately, I think that's what scares many enthusiasts about these whiskies - the fact that they have to decide for themselves what the quality level is. There's no age statement or distillery to rely on. One can't claim, "but it's made by Buffalo Trace!" to provide them with a security blanket. We have to taste them and decide for ourselves if they're worth the money.
To add some more personal perspective, I've witnessed first hand how the current demand for brown booze has weakened the quality of certain brands that have been forced to bottle lesser spirit or deal with financial losses. With so much whiskey going out the door right now, there have been some serious changes to reputable whiskies as of late. When age statements start dropping like flies, we know to expect a change of flavor. Therefore, just because we buy our whisk(e)y straight from the source isn't any guarantee of quality either. The whole idea that "the best stocks are with the distillery" falls flat if the company is simply dumping whatever they have in a big tank and bottling it up ASAP. Drew told me at the end of our conversation, "We're not going to change what we do to supply the demand. We're always running out and there's nothing we can do about it. We're not trying to take over the world. We're trying to let our business grow organically." In finishing, I of course had to ask him about Black Maple Hill and the idea that it might just be leftover Heaven Hill stock. He replied, "It's made with whiskey from two different distilleries and the formula has never changed. It's always been the same recipe."