Now more than ever, we demand to know where our products come from. From food and clothing to whiskey and wristwatches, we increasingly have little tolerance for intentionally vague advertising with skillfully chosen language that kind-of-but-not-really suggests products come not from their true origins but from where we wish they came from. On one hand, it’s hard to blame clever marketing. Companies want to earn revenue, and our higher-than-ever standards demand their products be expensively small-batch or in-house, an achievement not suitable for every firm’s bottom line. On the other hand, the modern corporation lives and dies by establishing a trustful relationship with its customers. We crave and reciprocate the connection as long as the corporation keeps its end of the bargain. The instant we discover that, say, an in-house watch movement is, in fact, not made in-house, it doesn’t just feel like an over-promise anymore. It hurts our feelings.
This isn’t another post about Bremont’s Wright Flyer. We’ve all had enough of that by now and I, for one, am over it. Let’s talk about whiskey, although the two have a lot in common right now. While everyone was disgusted with the insides of Bremont’s new limited edition watch, rye drinkers across the country were discovering where their favorite whiskeys came from thanks to Recent Eats, a Los Angeles-based food whiskey blog (and later covered by many others including The Daily Beast and NPR). As it turns out, they don’t come from where the bottles say. Let’s just say that the world of rye has its own ETA (or La Joux-Perret, I suppose) and it’s called MGP, or Midwest Grain Products.
MGP, a Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery once owned by Seagram’s, produces the mash for a lot of the most popular brands behind the bar. Some of these brands are more open about the origins of their whiskeys, but others are downright deceptive. Also, some brands (e.g. George Dickel) age or filter their whiskeys in a particular fashion that makes their booze unique, akin to how a watchmaker would decorate, modify or augment an ETA ebauche.
If we’re looking for the most egregious perpetrator (rye’s “TAG Heuer” or “Bremont,” if you will), then Templeton is likely the winner. From The Daily Beast:
Templeton Rye, by contrast, has built its successful brand on being a product of Templeton, Iowa. They tell an elaborate story about how their recipe was used by the owner’s family to make illicit whiskey in Iowa during Prohibition, and how that rye had become Al Capone’s favorite hooch. They publish a description of their “Production Process” so detailed it lists the temperature (124 degrees) at which the “rye grain is added to the mash tank.” They brag that they focus their “complete attention on executing each step of the distillation process.” And yet, for all this detail, the official “Production Process” somehow fails to mention that Templeton doesn’t actually do the distilling.
It’s so brazen it’s almost funny. I say “almost” because I’m a fairly big fan of Templeton. Despite this disappointment, I still enjoy the taste, but a big reason I preferred it to Jim Beam, for example, is the same reason I prefer Founder’s to Budweiser. Craft breweries make a superior-flavored product with more heart and soul than the big guys. As it turns out, I’ve been buying from the biggest guy of them all.
But the crime doesn’t stop at Templeton’s deception. An entire category of liquor is host to countless labels that all claim to be small-batch, craft whiskey and yet they come from the same place, which means I’m now conditioned to believe that all rye tastes a particular way. Granted, the aging of the whiskey involves variable techniques, all of which add uniqueness to the flavor, but distilling is just as much art as science and its techniques can be implemented in various ways to achieve dramatically different end results. From what I’ve read–and I’m no expert–all mash is not created equal.
Scandals like this only make intelligent consumers smarter. A big motivation behind our purchases, especially in a word-of-mouth economy, is to not look stupid in front of our friends buying something that’s inferior or deceptive. The products we buy are a reflection of who we are (and who we want others to believe we are), and I’m not going to get caught looking stupid again. At least not when it comes to rye. Like I said, I still enjoy Templeton (and other MGP whiskeys), but I’m already building a list of true craft distilleries with artisanal offerings that I’ll be scouting over the next few weeks. I will finally get the rye this bottle and many others have promised me!
To bring the watchmaking connection full-circle, collectors aren’t going to get burned by the in-house marketing claims too many more times in the future. In part because collectors are going to get smarter. No longer are brands going to be able to extravagantly transition from outsourced movements to manufacture calibers without scrutiny, or worse, cynicism. Brands that disrespect collector’s trusts will work extra hard to earn it back and when they do, boy, will those be some stunning timepieces. Also, I hope, enthusiasts will think of in-house movements as less than god-like and begin to appreciate the whole watch. Good watches–and good whiskeys–don’t have to be manufactures.
Back to the good stuff. Templeton is still likely to make its way into my glass at a bar, but it’s safe to say a fair number of whiskey drinkers feel duped. However, I wouldn’t expect the CEOs and owners of these craft bottlers to fly out and make an apology video.