Monday, May 19, 2014

How do You Know It's Sourced Whiskey?

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.    
It also helps to use a good dose of common sense.  Most craft distillers are excited about their product and happy to go into detail about what they do and how they do it.  If someone seems like they're obfuscating, they probably are.  If I email a company with a direct question about whether they distill the product and get back a response that talks around it or says it's proprietary information, I can be pretty sure the answer is no.

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?" you know.


Mark said...

Good read. Although, I believe Bulleit labels say they are "Distilled By" (correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure I remember reading that on the label) the Bulleit Distillery, which is just as real as the land of Oz, so while Sku's guidelines are certainly helpful, they unfortunately aren't all encompassing. I don't think any guidelines would be, however, given the minority of producers that are at least a bit misleading is still an unfortunately sizeable number.

risenc said...

I'd add that any synonym of "produced by" that is not 'distilled by" is also a giveaway. "Made by," "Handcrafted by," etc. -- pretty much all evidence that a lot of non-distilling is going on at that producer.

sku said...

Mark, yup, Bulleit does exactly that. As I said, none of these is full proof.

risenc, I tend to agree with you. Technically, the TTB breaks up the definitions as follows.

Any spirit can use "bottled by", "packed by" or "filled by."

"Distilled by" is only for products bottled by or for the distiller.

NDPs can use “blended by”, “made by”, “prepared by”, “manufactured by”, or “produced by”.

t ball said...

Sku, I'm a fan of Treaty Oak in Austin. They've said they name their from-scratch products Treaty Oak, and their sourced products something else. They make their Treaty Oak Rum all by theyselves, but things like Waterloo Gin they start with a neutral and then distill with their blend of botanicals.

That seems like a pretty conscientious way of doing things, but it also made me think that sourced or homegrown, it's the quality that matters. Seems like an obvious point but important nonetheless. I think all producers should have clear, accurate labels, but in the end, the taste is what matters.

sku said...

t ball, taste is absolutely what matters. I don't know any whiskey fan who would disagree with that, but you can't taste everything before you buy. Accurate facts about any product helps us as consumers make informed decisions. For instance, if I know something is an MGP rye, I have a pretty good idea of its general flavor profile and it helps me know if I want to make that purchase.

Of course, I am also interested in the business of whiskey and distilling and bottling are part of that business that I think is interesting, which is part of what led me to keep track of it.

Unknown said...

Really good read...different rules in different countries but similar observations should do the job

Justin said...

My bottle of bulleit 10 also says distilled by bulleit. Here's my semi-educated opinion:

It was common knowledge that Diageo was sourcing bourbon from Four Roses. Insiders at Four Roses have said there is no way Diageo was getting ALL of their bourbon for bulleit from them. It is also known that Diageo is trucking barrels of whiskey from cascade hollow to age in their warehouses at the old Stitzel Weller. They may be putting just enough of bourbon they have made to "qualify" for a label naming them as the actual distiller.

But I don't trust anything Diageo says about their US whiskies any more. The label could simply be a falsehood missed by the TTB.

sku said...

Justin, interesting theory, but if Bulleit is a vatting of bourbon made by Four Roses and Dickel, it would have to be labeled a "blend of straight whiskeys" so either way, there is some problem with the label.

Josh Feldman said...

This has to stop. It's unconscionable that consumer protection is so lax on an iconic American product. I enjoy good NDP whiskey as much as anyone - but you simply have to be able to know when someone is making whiskey or buying it bulk. This is damaging to America's whiskey business in the long run. It's time for legislative change.

Alex said...

I welcome legislative change but I disagree that lack of disclosure of sourced whiskey is unconscionable. In other areas, companies and individuals are free to purchase something, slap their name on it, and resell it without any further disclosure--whether it's store-brand cereal, Samsung's cheapest TV that's really an LG inside, or GE's multimillion-dollar wind turbines sourced from Asia. If it weren't for the unusual laws already existing around liquor labeling, we would be entitled to even less information. Most other industries aren't required to disclose their suppliers--that would be a trade secret.

I'm in favor of full disclosure, but I think we have to understand that the current state is not as outrageous as us enthusiasts would like to think. Most important, in my opinion, would be requiring disclosure of all ingredients (including coloring, sugar, flavoring, E150, Mega Purple, boise, glycerol, etc.), including some level of nutritional information (such as sugar concentration), just as the FDA requires for our foods. Next in importance to me would be requiring disclosure of the provenance information we're discussing here--although, as I suggest above, I can't think of a good argument for why we would be entitled to that information other than that some of it is already required by the laws.

Similar to our other outdated liquor laws, I doubt any of these laws will be changed soon.

sku said...

Josh, I feel your passion, but there's really no need for legislation on the sourcing issue. Enforcing the existing regulations would be sufficient.

Justin said...

Sku, you could right and, either way there is a problem with the label. But what about Woodford Reserve using bourbon made someplace besides their own distillery in Versailles to stretch woodford bottling lines? I don't seem to ever recall Woodford bottles labeled as "blended".

What DOES the reg say? I'm certain Diageo lawyers have looked into it and are content they have a defendable position for what they are doing. And all of this is why they are making such a stink over standing Tennessee laws on aging spirits distilled in Tennessee in Tennessee. They want their cake and eat it too. If I am right, one of the biggest errors in labeling is the fact that they market Bulleit as a "Kentucky" bourbon. And as Mr. Cowdery rightly points out, having Kentucky on your label is huge!

sku said...

Justin, the regs allow blending of straight bourbons from the same state (a la Woodford) to still be labeled bourbon, but if you blend two bourbons from different states (e.g. Four Roses and Dickel), it's a "blend of straight bourbons."

Funky Tape said...

We need more no-bullshit bloggers like SKU and a higher participation in education of whiskey, not more government. In fact, buy all the good stuff that you can now that is made by transparent brands before the Gvmnt ruins it even more.

EllenJ said...

Said SKU to Justin: "... interesting theory, but if Bulleit is a vatting of bourbon made by Four Roses and Dickel, it would have to be labeled a 'blend of straight whiskeys'..."

Worse. Dickel isn't a straight whiskey. One might also add that it isn't a Kentucky whiskey, either, so that would disallow the label's "Kentucky Straight Whiskey".

Except... (yes, it gets even murkier, doesn't it?) by tanking their Tennessee distillate and barreling it in Shively, it legally BECOMES Kentucky whiskey.

(1) Go figure!
(2) Thank you for a much appreciated, if somewhat Quixotic, attempt to make sense out of the silly fiction that is (and always has been) liquor labeling.

sku said...

EllenJ, thanks as always for your comments. How is Dickel not straight? As long as it's two years old, it should be since it complies with all of the other requirements.

As to whether it becomes Kentucky whiskey for the purposes of labeling "straight" vs. "a blend of straights," I supposed it would depend on how the TTB interprets the phrase "produced in the same state." Are you basing that on a TTB interpretation? An industry practice?

Justin said...

Great reply Ellen. I am enjoying this exchange.

But at the end of the day two simple truths still remain:
1. I don't trust Diageo when it comes to American whiskey.
2. The TTB has dropped the ball on their duties on many verifiable occasions.

Sku, Chuck, Ellen, Jason, Tim, .......keep the light on the truth. I for one greatly appreciate it.

EllenJ said...

Well, sku, Dickel does not, nor ever did, claim to be straight whiskey. In fact, I don't think there is a "Straight Tennessee Whiskey". According to your own article (and those of us who understood that even before reading it here) that means that, other than non-binding claims and general mis-knowledge, we have no reason to suspect that it DOES qualify. Dickel, Daniel, and any other non-straight whiskey can be colored, flavored, and mixed in any way the producer wishes. I'm not saying that is true of our blessed Tennessee Two; maybe they once were 'secretly straight' whiskies, and maybe they're still made way they once were. But they don't have to be. They're under no requirement to conform to regulations governing straight whiskey. ANY regulations. And that includes whether the mixture is all from the same state.

As for whether that state is Kentucky, there really are no legal rules. The TTB says nothing about individual states, other than you can't call your product "Kentucky" whiskey if it is produced somewhere else. However -- and it's a BIG 'however' -- there's no federal interpretation of just what they mean by "produced". As your article (and others you've published) points out, that definition is pretty hazy and open to wide interpretation.

In another article you wrote just about exactly a year ago, you mention the Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) section 244.370. First of all, thank you; it's really hard to get real references instead of "well, everyone knows..." and that one is very helpful. In fact, it could be the basis of a whole 'nuther discussion. It's generally thought of as the "year and a day" rule, and basically says that you can't label your whiskey "Kentucky whiskey" unless you keep it in the commonwealth long enough to pay a year's worth of taxes on it.

Unfortunately for our purposes, the regulation only applies to whiskey PRODUCED in Kentucky (there's that word "produced" again) and then either bottled there or taken to some other state to bottle it. The aging requirement doesn't apply to whiskey NOT produced in Kentucky. In fact, there is nothing in that regulation stating that a whiskey must be distilled (or produced, to keep the TTB happy) in Kentucky in order to call itself Kentucky whiskey. That would logically include whiskey brought into the state from elsewhere (Tennessee? Indiana?) and stored for the requisite time before bottling or reshipping. Of course this doesn't apply to Bottled-in-Bond whiskey, but then look how many whiskies once proudly sporting that status on their labels have stopped doing so. And if you think that's a call for a SKU-investigation of THAT topic, you're right! :-))

sku said...

Great points EllenJ. The flexibility of a term like "produced" in both the federal regs and KY law do indeed create some huge loopholes, depending on how they are interpreted. I'm reminded of the old saying, "Anything's possible if you have a good enough lawyer."

Anonymous said...

Just and FYI, Bulliet says "Distilled Spirit" on the front label (which is not inaccurate)but the back label says "Produced by Bulliet Distilling Co Lawrenceburg, IN". So, I'm definitely agreeing with Sku with this one.