I read a really thorough article yesterday from the Daily Beast concerning a "craft" whiskey trend that's been going on for years: the fact that small distillers are purchasing bulk whiskey from MGP (formerly known as LDI), putting it into their own custom package, and posing as if they distilled it themselves; usually opting not to mention that the whiskey was made elsewhere (which is technically illegal). However, unlike many fine, outstanding people I know who care deeply about booze and its provenance, I'm not really all that offended by the idea of this practice. It's not that I don't care, or don't understand what's happening; because I do. I get why people think it's annoying, believe me.
1) Prideful producers who do distill their own whiskey have to compete against a cheaper product posing as a producing competitor. That's really annoying.
2) People think they're buying Iowa whiskey, or Oregon whiskey, or Wisconsin whiskey from a small, local producer, only to find out that they're buying bulk product from a plant in Indiana.
3) The practice is misleading, somewhat dishonest, and meant to capitalize on the sentimental nature of certain shoppers.
It's not like I haven't been doing my share to debunk these romantic tales. I've spent five years educating consumers about the fact that High West, Bulleit, Templeton, Old Scout, Redemption, Willett, Crater Lake, Dickel, and a slew of other rye labels are all made by the same distillery in Indiana, thinking they'll be shocked at the news. What I've found, however, is that the large, overwhelming, staggering majority of my whiskey customers do not care. One guy said to me last week:
"They don't all taste the same, though."
"That's true; they don't," I answered.
"Then what does it matter? There's still a difference between them. I'll just pick the one that tastes the best to me."
I didn't have an answer for that because he was completely right. Here was a guy who simply cared about the taste, not the story. If your primary concern is flavor (which is what we all like to think dictates our purchasing decisions), then the news that your favorite "craft" whiskey is really made at MGP in Indiana isn't really all that devastating. It's only the people buying on the specs who are annoyed (as I've written in the past, buying purely on specs is often a way to guarantee your own disappointment). Most casual drinkers could care less about where their whiskey comes from as long as it tastes good and has a proportional quality to value ratio—and, honestly, the MGP ryes are often both cheap and tasty. As one commenter on the Daily Beast article wrote:
So pompous, ignorant snobs who wouldn't know a single malt from a chocolate malt get ripped off. Where do I go to care about this?
With the exception of whiskey geeks on the internet, this is actually how most people I meet react to the MGP story (Devious practices being pulled on eager enthusiasts? Why is this news?). But as a self-proclaimed spirits geek, and someone who cares about alcohol and strives his hardest to find the most authentic, charismatic, and interesting spirits on the planet, why am I not outraged? Because, as one of my favorite rappers Slick Rick once said: this type of shit happens everyday.
Human beings are obsessed with authenticity, originality, and natural ability, yet we continue to idolize and be fooled by those claiming to present us with hyper-versions of these assets—those hoping to bask in our collective awe. This duplicitous behavior, in my opinion, isn't so much about getting paid as it is about ego and giving people what they think they want. In my thirty-four years on this planet, I have watched a number of people pose as if their own natural ability were responsible for their success—much like those "craft" distillers in the article who believe they actually had something to do with making the whiskey. When certain people are hungry for attention and accolades, they're always going to do what's necessary to obtain them. And they are always going to lie about how they did it. I've been watching it happen my entire life.
- How many athletes have broken records and shattered the limits of what was physically possible, claiming that their own natural ability was the only thing at work in their achievements?
- How many celebrities, from A to D-listers, have had plastic surgery, tummy tucks, face lifts, and physical enhancements, then claimed that diet, exercise, and hard work brought them their good looks? (read this story for a fun look at how far this fad has gone)
- How many of my friends in high school cheated on exams, took short cuts, and lied about ethnic backgrounds and achievements on their college applications, then got accepted to Harvard and Stanford, and had the balls to say it was their own intelligence that got them there? At least twenty (including my "native American" friend who got into UCLA because of her stunning 2.9 GPA).
- How many authors have written books about personal struggle and overcoming diversity, only for us to find out it was all a hoax? More than we know, but James Frey's A Million Little Pieces is a good place to start.
- How many Cognac producers will tell you that they add nothing to their brandy, and that the flavor and color are due to 100% French oak maturation and quality fruit? Answer: all of them. Truth: maybe a handful of them actually don't use boise or caramel coloring.
There are many things in life that continue to baffle and annoy me, like why does that guy on the freeway think he can go 55 mph in the fast lane and not yield to faster drivers? However, wondering why "craft" distillers lie about their whiskey isn't on that list. I already know the answer to that question. It's the same reason that Barry Bonds lied about taking steroids to break both the single season and all-time home run records. It's the same reason that girl at the bar said she had surgery for a deviated septum and not a cosmetic nose job. It's the same reason that cases of celiac disease have gone up 2000% in the face of the new gluten-free dieting fad. And it's the same reason that people who have fake British accents claim to have "picked something up" while living abroad for a year. Some people want to be seen as special, significant, and superior—and they are willing to delude both you and themselves to do so (watch HBO's Eastbound and Down for a HILARIOUS take on this subject).
In the end, if every one of these bottlers were to print "distilled in Indiana" on the label and follow the law as it is written, I don't think it would make all that much of a difference to consumers. Even when the information is right there on the bottle, it's often ignored in the face of the bigger story (which is why these people know they can lie!). Every single day I have customers tell me they love that delicious Bay Area-distilled Bourbon—you know, St. George Breaking & Entering (despite the fact that the label clearly says "Kentucky"). I have daily vendors coming in, telling me about their new "craft" whiskies—100 % self-distilled—even though it says "Indiana" right there on the bottle. People often don't read labels, or pay attention to detail. When this happens, it's quite easy to take advantage of a little white lie. Once you've been burnt, you just learn to be skeptical all of the time (as I've said before: assume that everyone is lying to you).
Rather than depend on a government-approved label to tell me what's what, I just look for the play. If you're really interested in the truth, a few words on a piece of paper isn't going to cut it. We'll all need to be a little more like Sam Rothstein from Casino:
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But that's hardly news to me, nor is it all that upsetting, because it's what I've come to expect in life. The TTB should definitely start enforcing the distilling laws as they've been written, but it's not going to stop people from being human. Nor will it make the whiskey in your bottle taste any better.