Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: American Independent Bottlers

Over the last two weeks, I have been providing lists of American whiskey distilleries and their brand names. If you peruse those lists, though, you will find that there are many brands that aren't listed. The reason is that these brands are not released by the distillery but by independent companies.

The phenomenon of independent bottling is well known in Scotland, where there is a long tradition of bottling companies buying casks of single malt Scotch and selling them under their own labels. Unlike in the US, however, in Scotland, the bottlers usually say on the label where the whiskey was distilled. For instance, a bottle of Signatory whiskey will clearly state that it is a Signatory product distilled at Laphroaig (or wherever).

In the US, independent bottlers almost never say where their whiskey is from. They market it as an independent brand and many even imply that they distill it themselves. These are practices which I have long condemned and I renew my call for American bottlers to openly state that they are bottlers and tell us where they got their whiskey.

Please understand that this is not a criticism of the whiskey in the bottle. As with independent Scotch bottlers, there are independent Americans who are fully capable of putting out great whiskey. I just wish they were more honest about how they came to acquire it.

With all of the brands out there, it gets very confusing. I consider myself a very knowledgeable whiskey consumer and I still had many challenges in putting together this list and trying to find out the straight dope about who was making what brand and who was really distilling. I sent emails to bottlers, and I perused the writings of experts like Chuck Cowdery and other authorities for hints and theories.

Nearly all bottlers concentrate on Kentucky Bourbon and Rye. If you read our list of Kentucky distilleries, you know that there are a limited number of sources for Kentucky whiskey. So where does all of this whiskey come from? Heaven Hill is known to be a major supplier of independents as is Tom Moore/Barton Brands. In addition, some of the independents have old stock from closed distilleries such as Michter's or Stitzel-Weller. But, alas, in most cases, we won't get too far in this guessing game and will just have to accept that we don't know who makes this stuff.

In addition, some of the brands listed below are brand names held by one company that contract with a bottling company to acquire and bottle the whiskey, so they are actually twice removed from the distillery.

Another phenomenon in the independent bottling world is that many of the new microdistilleries which want to release whiskey but don't have any of their own yet are releasing whiskey purchased from other distillers, usually the big Kentucky distilleries. Some of the micros are forthright about this, but others imply that they, themselves, are distilling the whiskey.

Unlike my distillery list, the list below is not exhaustive. There are many independent brands, and I'm sure that some have been left off, but it's a good start. If you see any that I missed, please let me know. And as with my other lists, all brands refer to Bourbons unless otherwise stated.

Chatham Imports: This company sells Bourbon and rye under the Michter's label, which is bottled for them by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (see below). Michter's was a Pennsylvania distillery, the last of whose Bourbon is owned and bottled by Preiss Imports (see below). This Michter's brand has nothing to do with that distillery except that Chatham now owns the name.

Conecuh Ridge Whiskey: This Alabama bottler uses Kentucky Bourbon for its Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Whiskey.

Diageo: The world's largest spirits corporation owns the George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey distillery, but they don't own any Bourbon distilleries. To get into the Bourbon game, they released Bulleit Bourbon, which is made for them by Four Roses.

High West: This Utah company is planning to distill rye whiskey; for now they have released Rendezvous Rye, which is a blend of two rye whiskies distilled elsewhere.

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers: I shudder everytime I read the name of this bottler which shamelessly refers to itself as a distiller. KBD is the big daddy of Bourbon and Rye Bottling, using all of the following brand names, many of which are popular and have garnered positive reviews:

Black Maple Hill Bourbon and Rye
Classic Cask
Corner Creek
Johnny Drum
Kentucky Pride
Kentucky Vintage
Michter's Bourbon and Rye (bottled for Chatham Imports, see above).
Noah's Mill
Old Bardstown
Pure Kentucky XO
Rowan's Creek
Vintage Bourbon and Rye

Luxco: Luxco sells Bourbon under multiple brands, including Ezra Brooks, Rebel Yell, Rebel Reserve and Yellowstone.

McCormick Distillery: Unlike some of the entries on this list which call themselves distillers, this Missoui producer is an actual distillery. For years, this distillery made Platte Valley Corn Whiskey at their Missouri plant. McCormick still owns the brand but apparently isn't making the whiskey anymore. No one seems to know for certain who produces it, but given that Heaven Hill is the only macrodistillery producing corn whiskey, they are a pretty safe bet.

McLain and Kyne Distillery: There's the dreaded D-word again. McLain and Kyne bottles Bourbon under the brands Jefferson, Jefferson Reserve and Sam Houston.

Old Pogue: Bottlers of Bourbon under the Old Pogue label.

Preiss Imports: Preiss imports is a bottler and importer that bought up the old stocks of A.H. Hirsch from the closed Michter's distillery in Pennsylvania. (The Michter's name is now used by Chatham Imports to bottle unrelated whiskey). They are bottling the last of the old Michter's Bourbon as A.H. Hirsch, but they are also using the Hirsch name on a variety of whiskies, including a Canadian whisky, a rye and an "American whiskey," none of which appear to have any relation to A.H. Hirsch.

Prichard's Distillery: This Tennessee microdistillery makes its own rum, but they also bottle a Kentucky Bourbon under the label Prichard's Double Barrelled Bourbon Whiskey.

Templeton Rye: This Iowa microdistillery aspires to make their own rye whiskey but for now, has bottled a rye from elsewhere.

Wathen's Bourbon: It's unclear to me who exactly is making this stuff or where they are getting it. They imply that it's made at the Medley distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky, but that distillery shut down years ago (though Chuck Cowdery reports that there are plans afoot to reopen it). An email to Wathen's went unanswered.

Now when you see these labels in the liquor store, I hope you will have a better idea of what they are, even though you won't know who made the whiskey in the bottle.

Next week, we will wrap up our series on American whiskey distillers and brands.


Down Whiskey River said...

I have tried the Prichard's rum I need to keep my eyes peeled for their whiskey.

sku said...

Thanks for the comment DWR. How is their rum?