Monday, March 9, 2015

Why Doesn't America Have Independent Bottlers Like Everywhere Else?

People who become interested in scotch will invariably discover the seeming multitude of independent bottlers who buy spirit or mature casks from any number of distilleries and bottle it (usually) with the name of the distillery prominently displayed on the label. Some are long established companies, like Gordon & Macphail or Signatory, while others are small operations that bottle a handful of casks before fading into obscurity. But with rare exceptions *cough*Glenfarclas*cough* the owners of the distilleries that they source spirit from are perfectly willing to have other companies use the names of those distilleries on their products.

The situation in America is very different. While there have always been companies that operated on roughly the same principle - buy whiskey from large distilleries and bottle it under their own labels - it is extremely rare for those labels to state exactly where the whiskey was distilled, other than the state it came from. With rare exceptions, e.g. LDI/MGP, that makes it very difficult to determine who made the whiskey in a bottle.

Until fairly recently, no one was particularly bothered by this state of affairs. But the whiskey boom of the last 5-10 years has resulted in a confluence of factors that has radically altered drinkers' attitudes. There has been a proliferation of new outfits buying whiskey from major distilleries and bottling it under their own labels at the same time as a lot of genuine new microdistilleries have been opened as a result of the increase in demand for new whiskey. On top of this, many of those drinkers are very interested in knowing exactly where the spirit they're consuming came from and how it was made.

This has, unsurprisingly, led to a lot of shifty dealing. The now classic example is Templeton rye whiskey. They were one of the first outfits to discover the untapped resource of Lawrence Distillers Indiana (LDI), which had been quietly producing a unique 95% rye mashbill whiskey. As a distillery that was already focused on selling bulk whiskey, they were perfectly happy to sell it to a new company. Templeton took that whiskey, added a story about Al Capone's favorite rye and how the recipe had been handed down over the generations, and proceeded to sell it at a very healthy markup.

It was a pretty good business plan. For a while. While plenty of customers and journalists were willing to swallow the story whole (in no small part because even some of the most knowledgeable people in whiskey didn't know about LDI when Templeton was first released), others started poking around and eventually sussed out the source. It took a while for the facts to percolate into public consciousness, but they have now resulted in a lawsuit against Templeton claiming false advertising. Similar accusations have been leveled against Whistlepig, who sourced 100% rye Canadian whiskey while giving a wink and a nod about their farm distillery in Vermont (which didn't have any stills), and Michter's, who have taken the name of a famous and now defunct distillery and used it to sell sourced whiskey.

Many other outfits, while not being intentionally shady, never state exactly where their sourced whiskey is from for the simple reason that most of the major distilleries include nondisclosure clauses in their sales contracts (though MGP no longer does). So even when a bottler would like to state the provenance of their whiskey, they are left with little to do but drop hints, rather than stating the source plainly. A few will disclose the mashbills of the whiskey they are bottling, which in some cases allows the astute drinker to suss out the source. But given how few different mash bills there are for bourbon and rye whiskey, those are often little better than guesses. This is in marked contrast to Scottish indies like Cadenhead and Alchemist who clearly the state the source of their bourbons (usually Heaven Hill).

There are a number of historical and structural reasons for the differences between independent bottlers in Scotland (and the rest of the world) and non-distiller producers (NDPs) in America. A major factor is the concentration of production in America. The vast majority of the whiskey produced in America is made by a handful of companies (Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Diageo, and MGP) at a slightly greater number of distilleries. This came about largely because of Prohibition, which both pushed a lot of distilleries out of business and, after Repeal, encouraged consolidation as the government preferred to work with a smaller number of easily regulated entities. That concentration of ownership means that each distillery produces a wide variety of brands, often from what appear to be different places. This has meant that more established NDPs have been able to happily coexist with the majors' brands as they often look very similar, e.g. Luxco's Ezra Brooks, which is distilled by Heaven Hill and has a label very reminiscent of Evan Williams or Jim Beam. Even major companies like Diageo play this game, with Bulleit bourbon being produced by Four Roses (though this is slated to change as they are opening their own distillery) and Bulleit as well as George Dickel ryes being made by MGP, while carrying a story about the Bulleit family recipe.

So when new NDPs began to blossom during the current whiskey boom, they were entering a market already replete with dubious backstories. This was also among the backdrop of microdistilleries popping up across the country, who all touted the superior quality of their 'craft' spirits. So while the majors tended to present stories based around 19th century ancestors, the smaller outfits were more likely to talk up the 'artisanal' qualities of their spirits. Many skirted around the issue without making outright lies, talking about the quality of the water used to proof down the spirit or other minor contributions, while hinting at their superior quality to justify the enhanced price tags. And let's be honest, a lot of their customers were quite satisfied with the stories they were purchasing alongside those spirits and many no doubt tasted something better than a regular bottle of Jim Beam.

Let's contrast this with Scotland. While ownership of distilleries may be nearly as concentrated (roughly the same number of majors own most of the distilleries), production is far more dispersed, with over a hundred rather than a dozen big distilleries. Even more important is the tradition of blending in Scotland, where the output of many malt distilleries, plus one or more grain distilleries, are combined to produce a single product. This necessitates the purchase and trading of casks from one distillery with others, as blenders seek the components they need to maintain a consistent flavor profile. The earliest independent bottlers grew out of the blend trade and some still have a hand in it. So there is a long tradition of warehouses containing casks of whisky from a multitude of different distilleries. It is perhaps unsurprising that some of these companies decided to start bottling some choice casks on their own, rather than making them components of blends. Because the owners of distilleries were often dependent on others for their own blends, the person you sold to today might be someone you needed to buy whisky from tomorrow. So a sort of gentleman's agreement evolved around independent bottlers, who were (usually) allowed to sell the output of other distilleries with the provenance clearly stated. That isn't to say that all NDPs in Scotland are perfectly explicit about their whisky - the blends themselves and many 'mystery malts' are just as hazy - only that in Scotland and other countries it is possible to be more explicit.

The lack of a similar blending tradition in America (it was quite novel and a little confusing when High West began to produce American whiskeys built from the output of multiple distilleries) means that there is no comparable system of trading spirits between distillers or independent companies. Sales of whiskey are largely unidirectional and primarily a matter of contracts. A distiller will sell their output when they have excess capacity and will let those contracts lapse when demand for their products rises. Additionally, the aforementioned plethora of brands produced by single distilleries means that they have an incentive to prevent NDPs from disclosing the source of their whiskey, as it would break their long-established illusions - hence the nondisclosure agreements that most NDPs are forced to sign.

At this point it would likely require a major rewriting of regulations to change the status quo. While the TTB is making an effort to enforce the labeling regulations that are on the books, these are fairly minimal when it comes to source disclosure - the state where a whiskey was distilled and the state where it was bottled are about as close as it gets right now. As I noted, the majors have no incentive to change the status quo as they aren't the ones who are hurt if customers who purchased whiskey from an NDP get mad about a brand leading them to believe that it was 'hand crafted' or any other sort of nonsense. And while it would be nice if the NDPs militated for more transparency, many of them benefit from obfuscation and those who would like to be more open have little to no leverage to bring about change. Ultimately, if customers want to know where their whiskey comes from they will have to insist upon it, either by cajoling the NDPs to disclose as much information as they are legally able to do so or by lobbying the government to change regulations to require more information on labels.

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