Monday, October 12, 2015

The Flavoring Game

A few months ago, Templeton Rye announced that it settled a lawsuit which had alleged that it had used misleading labeling.  This brouhaha largely dealt with sourcing issues and was one of many lawsuits filed after a Daily Beast article about sourcing whiskey went viral last summer.

But whiskey geeks have known about sourcing for years. One of the biggest revelations to come out around the Templeton Rye lawsuit was not that Templeton sources its whiskey from MGP in Indiana, we all know that, but that they also use flavoring additives provided by a Louisville company called Clarendon Flavors. This was revealed last year on an episode of Mark Gillespie's WhiskyCast.

While few of us guessed that Templeton was adding flavoring, it's all perfectly legal because Templeton is not labeled "straight" whiskey.  As I've noted before, according to the TTB regulations, rye, wheat and malt whiskeys that are not labeled "straight" can have up to 2.5% "harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials."  27 CFR 5.23. These can include caramel, sugar, oak chips, wine or other whiskeys.

I was curious as to what other whiskeys were adding flavoring and what exactly they were adding, so I started looking into it. The most important thing I learned was that no one wants to talk about flavoring.
For instance, I contacted a number of other producers of non-straight rye whiskey to ask if they use flavoring.

Knob Creek Rye is now labeled as straight but initially was not.  I asked if they used flavoring in the non-straight rye. The company did not respond.

George Dickel Rye, which like Templeton is sourced from MGP, is not labeled straight. Interestingly, Diageo's other MGP rye, Bulleit, is labeled straight. That being said, none of the Dickel line of products is labeled straight. In any case, the company did not reply to my inquiry.

Angel's Envy markets a straight bourbon finished in port casks and a non-straight rye finished in rum casks.  I had numerous exchanges with Angel's Envy's Wes Henderson but could not get him to give me a  "straight" yes or no answer about whether they use flavoring in the rye.

Unlike rye, bourbon, even if not straight, may not include flavoring additives without disclosing them as part of the label description. Recently, Sazerac has cleared new labels for "bourbon whiskey with natural flavors" for Kentucky Tavern, Ancient Age and Ten High.  I asked why they were adding flavoring to those whiskeys and what exactly they were using as flavoring. I was told that information is "proprietary and confidential."

Jeez, you'd think I was poking into a matter of national security.  I can't understand why whiskey companies are so unwilling to tell customers about the ingredients in the whiskey we purchase. There is no legal issue here as they are allowed to use a certain amount of flavoring and coloring additives. Presumably, the companies that use flavoring believe it improves their whiskey or else they wouldn't use it. Other whiskeys are known to use additives, including Scotch (coloring) and Canadian Whiskey, and their sales don't seem to suffer, but something about flavoring makes American companies go dark.

Are there flavoring and coloring additives in some American whiskeys? Clearly there are. There are flavoring companies that are in this business, and we have at least one documented case in Templeton. I would appeal to the companies to exercise a bit more transparency and let us know what they add and why. Meanwhile, keep in mind that any rye that isn't labeled straight can legally include additives.


two-bit cowboy said...

Secrecy. Who are its parents? Fear, deception, greed?

Can't you just hear the powers in the head offices...

"We can't say what's in the whiskey, those other guys will copy us."

"This whiskey isn't up to snuff, we'll 'fix' it with the additives."

"Those additives are cheaper than the equivalent volume of whiskey."

But, hey, it's legal.

Nice work, Sku.


Funky Tape said...

I love the canned PR response, "that's proprietary."

It's way more common in the food and supplement industry. I get that honest companies with legit products need to protect their own, but they of course risk alienating their hardcore consumer base. When the $$ is pouring in, why would they care?

I've always wondered why Michter's age stated rye and bourbon was not labeled straight and figured it was because they blended juice they bought from different distilleries before putting it in their own barrels for a day or something ridiculous. What would keep them from slipping a squirt of e-150 or vanillan in that $100 bottle of 10 yr??

Nice efforts, boss. Keep it up!

SmokyPeat said...

Michter's ryes including the age stated ones are labeled as Straight. Its their bourbons that are not. I also would like to know why. But considering the tighter regulations regarding bourbon we should have nothing to worry about really. ;)

sku said...

Since the TTB doesn't permit bourbon to include additives without a disclosure, "straight" means much less in the context of bourbon. Really the only thing it tells you is that the bourbon is at least two years old, which you should know anyway based on labeling requirements (though the rules about age labeling seem to suffer from lax enforcement).

In the past, I've asked some companies who released bourbon that would qualify as straight without the straight designation why they did so, and they have mostly said there was no particular reason.

Josh Feldman said...

A really interesting and potentially important line of inquiry. Thanks, Sku.

RichNimrod said...

It IS potentially important for anybody interested in 'Pure Foods Beverages'; but most especially so for folks such as myself.
I suffer from Celiac Disease, and as a result, must consume ZERO foods and beverages with even trace amounts of a protein called gluten.
I must side-step a little to provide a bit of information; gluten is the main protein in Wheat, Barley, Rye, and possibly common Oats. Now, here's a little more not-well-known info; many flavorings, and many food colorings (particularly brown ones) are derived from Wheat, some from Barley and some from Rye. This is the reason I consume only Bourbons, or Tequila (from Agave), or Rums (from Sugar sources).
Any 'Flavored' or 'Colored' spirits are anathema to anyone who suffers from Gluten Intolerance, or Celiac Disease. So this is a VERY BIG DEAL for such folks.
Keeping mum on product additives can negatively affect the health of the unwary. ....Besides it being pretty slimy business practice for any firm who produces anything consumable by mouth.

Keith W said...

"Not giving a straight answer" is the whiskey industry equivalent of "whatever it is you're asking if we do, yes."

American whiskey is addicted to secrecy and deception, often times for no particularly discernible reason. It's like one started being all furtive, so the others followed suit, and now they don't know how to be any other way. The odd thing is how few people would even care. I mean, people still consider SoCo whiskey.

Although, given the sensational state of journalism these days, any admission of "flavoring" would result in a massive rash of shrieking Internet articles about your fake whiskey, mostly from and directed toward people who don't actually give a damn. But it's the internet, so you gotta be outraged about something, and after a million people have reposted the same article and had their freak out, it seems a huge deal and will be full of knee jerk "well, I'm never buying THAT" again comments (even from people who never bought it in the first place).

How much money does the spirits industry dump into Washington pockets every year to avoid having to list ingredients and calorie count?

Peter said...

Great Post, Sku.

David S said...

So, until further notice I will assume that Angel's Envy rye has flavoring added to it. I still like it, but I hate the secrecy and insistence of sharing as little information as possible. It's all so silly.

Eric said...


Here is an email response I got from Michter's about a year ago when I emailed them to ask why they don't include Straight on their labels:

Info Michters

Dear Eric,

Thanks for your note. We appreciate your kind words about our whiskeys and are glad you enjoy them.

In response to your question, all of our Bourbons and Ryes are Kentucky Straight. Please refer to the Whiskeys section of our website for more details:

Kind regards,
Michter’s Team

Funky Tape said...

I stand corrected on Mich AS rye. And right, I suppose if it's labeled bourbon in any respect, nothing can be added.

I don't ever recall seeing 'Kentucky' on their 10 or 20 yr bourbons, definitely not 'straight.' Could be wrong. Their Toasted is neither, only says 'bottled by....'

And as far as their $3500 Celebration: yikes.

Eric said...

As far as I know, it's not on any of their bottles of bourbon, which was actually the question I asked. Sorry, should have posted the entire exchange:



First of all, I just wanted to say thanks for the job you guys do sourcing and contract distilling your whiskies. I've really enjoyed every whiskey of yours I've tried (I have a bottle of last year's 10 year bourbon on deck for the holidays). I was wondering why most of your whiskies (outside your ryes) do not bear the "straight" designation. I can understand why your sour mash might not meet the definition, but it seems like all of your bourbons should meet the definition.




I'll be honest. I stopped buying Michter's after The Bourbon Truth published some information on Chatham's business practices, but I do think the quality of their product is generally good, though the prices on their higher end products are just ridiculous. At any rate, that was their response. I'll believe it when I see it on the label, though it is my understanding Michter's has been contract distilling for awhile now, and that they play with the bourbon by filtering in unique ways (per Chuck Cowdery's blog), so hopefully they aren't adding flavoring.

Tadas A said...

Glad to see post and discussion about dirty little secrets of the distillers.
I wonder do they add any sugar part of the flavoring? While in rum industry pretty much all rums are doctored. For example highly regarded El Dorado 12 year old rum has 39g/l of extranct, 35g/l of sugar ( That is a huge amount of additives. Coca Cola has 106g/l of sugar for comparison.