Every week, I look at the TTB's latest label approvals and see new whiskeys from new companies. For the purposes of adding them to my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands, I try to discern if the company that made the product actually distilled it or sourced it from elsewhere. A few years ago, this was a lot easier because the TTB regulations require that the state of distillation be listed right on the label. If a Nebraska company was selling Kentucky bourbon, they had to say so. Unfortunately, that rule seems to have gone out the window, though some valiant souls are trying to change that.
Since you can't rely on the state of distillation rule, how can you tell if a whiskey is sourced? Well, it's not always easy, but there are a few important clues.
- Does the label say "produced by" or "distilled by?" While the TTB may not be enforcing the state of distillation rule, there is another rule that regulates how whiskey production is described on the label. "Distilled by" means just that, whereas "produced by" means the whiskey was bottled by another party than the distiller (there are other terms that can be used as well, but those two are the most common). This should be the end of the inquiry, but companies do make mistakes. Usually the mistake is actually the distiller using "produced by" as opposed to a bottler using "distilled by" but it goes both ways. Despite the occasional erroneous label, I give the benefit of the doubt to the label statement. If it says "distilled by," it probably is; if it says "produced by," it's probably sourced, but the inquiry doesn't stop there.
- Compare labels. For companies that make multiple spirits, I also look at the labels for their other products. If they used "distilled by" on a vodka and "produced by" on a whiskey, then they obviously know the difference, and they didn't distill the whiskey.
- Look at the timeline. If a distillery opened last year and they are selling a ten year old whiskey, it's sourced. This is surprisingly common.
- Look at the mashbill. Using a 95% rye mashbill is a dead giveaway that it was distilled at MGP in Indiana. Sure, it's possible that a craft distillery could use the same mashbill, but MGP produces a huge amount of 95% rye and sells it all to other companies, so when I see the 95% rye figure, I know it's most likely sourced from MGP.
- Unusual grains. On the flip side, if the mashbill contains unusual grain combinations, you're probably not looking at a sourced whiskey. Very few big producers are doing much work with spelt, millet or oats. That being said, there are some craft distilleries that have sold their whiskey to other companies, so while sourcing is still a possibility, it's much less likely.
Finding out if a whiskey is sourced when the producer doesn't want you to know is particularly tricky, so here are some things to watch out for in those cases. None of these are good evidence of distilling.
- They have a still. One guy wrote me an angry email saying that a bourbon I had listed as sourced couldn't have been because he saw a picture of the owner in front of his still. News flash: just because a company has a picture of a still on their website doesn't mean it's their still, and even if it is, that doesn't mean they are actually using it, and even if they are using it, that doesn't mean the whiskey they sell isn't sourced. There are a number of distilleries that distill their own spirits while also selling sourced whiskey.
- They talk about distilling. When you're perusing company websites, you have to read like a lawyer reads a deposition...very precisely. It's easy to say a lot about the distilling process, the grains and water used and barrel aging without ever saying that you actually distilled the whiskey. Similarly, be careful about local newspapers that say the product is distilled by a local company. Most local reporters covering the new distillery in town don't know the first thing about whiskey, and the difference between a distilled and sourced whiskey is going to pass right over them. If there isn't a direct quote from the producer saying they distilled the whiskey, take it with a grain of salt.
- The liquor store guy/bartender/sales rep. said they distill it themselves on their farm in South Dakota. If you're reading this blog right now, you probably know more about whiskey than 95% of the salespeople out there. Sure there are exceptions, and the ones who know their stuff can have valuable information, but most of them aren't reliable sources of information about distillery specifics, plus they're trying to sell you something.
That being said, in some cases this is very difficult to figure out, and none of these methods are foolproof. Despite flaws in the label approval process, labels are still one of the most reliable sources since the information on a label is more heavily regulated and requires federal government approval, while the information on a website or press release does not.
I also want to stress that while there certainly are some charlatans out there, most whiskey companies I've had contact with, particularly the newer and smaller ones, are honest and well intentioned. I've had a number of producers email me with information for the list, including information about sourcing, and many are more than willing to answer questions.
So if you ever see a whiskey on my list and wonder, "How does Sku know this was sourced?"...now you know.