The food was spectacular, but I'll always remember Tyler Florence's Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco for its liquor selection, which featured dozens of American whiskeys that were previously unknown or geographically unavailable to me.
Among them was Templeton Rye, an Iowa-based craft whiskey that had three main things going for it: quality, history and scarcity. If its Prohibition-era recipe and tasting notes of vanilla, cinnamon candy and pepper don't do it for you, consider this: Templeton Rye allegedly was the preferred poison of Al Capone, and for a time was about as hard to apprehend thanks to its modest distribution.
After that encounter I sent home several bottles of Templeton Rye. I also bought and shipped Rendezvous Rye, a blend of straight rye whiskeys from the High West Distillery in Park City, Utah; Willett Rye, a 4-year-old barrel-proof offering from a storied distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky; and WhistlePig Rye, a 100-percent straight rye from Vermont that spends a decade in the barrel. To an Ohio bourbon enthusiast on a rye kick, this was like being a kid in an adult candy store.
But now I mostly look back and laugh. You see, none of the spirits I bought that day were distilled by the brands that market them. I had never heard of them for good reason. After all, how can a 6-year-old company like WhistlePig sell a 10-year-old rye? Likewise, how can a "distillery" like Willett sell a 4-year-old rye when it was nonoperational for 20-some years until 2012? They can't: Instead, they buy their booze from somewhere else.
In the case of Templeton, Willett and High West, that "somewhere else" is Lawrenceburg, Indiana, at the site of the old Seagram distillery. There, a company called MGP Ingredients (MGPI) makes the rye distillate for those three brands plus countless others, among them Bulleit, George Dickel, Redemption, Angel's Envy and Smooth Ambler. To be clear, MGPI is not making separate recipes, but rather a single mash bill of 95-percent unmalted rye and 5-percent malted barley. Those brands are all selling you different expressions of the same thing.
So why all the private labels? For starters, consumers don't seem to mind. The MGPI distillate happens to be very good—and very available—otherwise brands wouldn't be clamoring for it. Pappy Van Winkle, the most sought after bourbon in the United States, ceased production at the Louisville-based Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1991 and has since become a private label.
Second, starting a distillery is expensive. Distillers pay taxes on their whiskey as it ages and again when it's bottled. Also, aging whiskey takes years. What's an upstart distillery supposed to do to remain economically viable in the meantime? If you're like Middle West Spirits in Columbus, the guys behind the OYO brand, you start by rolling out unaged spirits like vodka and gin while your whiskeys sit on wood. Or, if you're like High West, Templeton, Willett and WhistlePig, you buy bulk whiskey and sell value-added products while starting or restarting your own distilling operation.
But mainly, it's because there are no laws precluding the practice. "In Scotland, the 'single malt' designation means, among other things, that a scotch was made at a single distillery," explains Tom Herbruck of Tom's Foolery Distillery in Chagrin Falls. "There is nothing analogous to that in the States." Instead, it's up to a consumer to know that a $37 bottle of Templeton Rye and a $27 bottle of Bulleit Rye are pretty much the same thing.
"People increasingly care about where their food comes from, and the same is starting to happen with spirits," adds Herbruck. "Consumers want transparency, and these private labels hope that they can transition their booze to their own operation before consumers smarten up."
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