by Kelly Sauber
As a profound lover of beer and a craft brewer since 1996, I know the difference between a true craft beer and Blue Moon or Land Shark. I would never expect in a million years to go into a brewpub, order a beer and discover it was actually brewed by AB, shipped in, and labeled “Our Craft Beer.”
So why do so many “Craft” distilleries do this?? Most macro vodkas and many micro vodkas are actually Neutral Grain Spirit (NGS) often distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana! This NGS can even be purchased from the same distillery, MGP Ingredients, which sells ethanol to oil companies for an alcohol octane boost to their gasoline. Many, many gins are the same NGS, even many of the self-proclaimed craft distilleries only add the botanicals and do a quick re-distill to strip out color. Pretty crafty.
“What about my favorite local whisky?” you may ask. Well, guess what…Charles Medley Distillers Kentucky, LLC, Owensboro, Kentucky is a huge producer of nameless aged bourbons and ryes. Most “craft” bourbons on the market today buy, blend, package, and label bourbon bought from these guys and multiple other large distilleries that had extra barrels in their inventory. This is not limited to just the little guys. ALL the big names do it, minus a few I know of. As far as I can tell, only Jack Daniels, George Dickel (though part of Diageo), Makers Mark, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve of Brown-Forman, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey use only their own distillate, though these guys will sell their extra inventory to make an extra buck. Everyone else buys barrels and sells bottles unless they tell you otherwise.
What I am saying is, there are “Non-Distiller Producers” who actually are nothing more than marketing companies. Heard of Pappy Van Winkle? Bulleit? Templeton Rye? Kentuckey Bourbon Distillers? Knob Creek, Bookers, Bakers, Basil Hayden, Old Granddad (these five are all Jim Beam)? Ezra Brooks, Michter’s, Jeffersons? How bout Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and even Admiral Nelsons rum, Coronet and Christian Brothers brandies? All five are blended by Heaven Hill. Crazy, right?!?! Ever notice a new craft distillery selling 7-year-old bourbon? Hmmm.
So how can these non-still owning companies, claim to be a distillery? Simple: federal law permits it. A Federal Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) has the right to distill, purchase, package, process, rectify, and/or warehouse distilled spirits. If you wish to perform any one of these, you must purchase this same permit. You do not have to perform more than one of these operations to be classified as a “distillery”.
“Why would someone want to come off like they are a real distillery?” you may ask. “Dollar Signs,” I would reply. There is nothing wrong with making money. I like doing it. It takes a large sum of cash to purchase production and bottling equipment, build out a facility, hire and train a distillation team, and store thousands upon thousands of dollars in inventory. All this effort and cash with only hope that in 2-5 years or so you may be able to sell your product at a profit. Sounds risky. What if your investment can be whittled down to a few tanks for blending, a couple of truckloads of bottles, label design, no/or limited inventory storage and a marketing company contract (all of which are unstated costs also involved in the first scenario)? It sounds like a safer bet to the bank. And besides, this is business, right? It’s all about making the almighty greenback.
The next level is an actual distillery, producing true artisan spirits, but also packaging some really cheap NGS-based products to help with cash-flow and pay the bills. More acceptable and understandable, yes, but don’t you want to know before you purchase a ‘local” gin if it began life with the ability to grow up to be a gasoline additive or cleaning solution? Don’t you want to know if you are buying a marketing company’s blend all distilled in Owensboro with a fancy label and a few extra bucks thrown on the price tag? I do.
Coming to my point, Dancing Tree Distillery is a TRUE CRAFT DISTILLERY!!!! We DO NOT buy and sell other distilleries spirits. Our mission is to craft the highest quality spirit possible, from the absolute best raw ingredients grown by the most conscientious farmers within 22 miles of our farm. We support our local economy by supporting our friends and neighbors. Even a portion of our ingredients are responsibly wild-harvested from our area. When we have a need for the 19% or so of ingredients we use that can not be grown locally by our organic and non-GMO farming community, we vote with our dollars and support organic agriculture from other socially responsible organizations and companies. Our primary supplier list includes Integration Acres’, Athens’ Own, Cowdery Family Farm, Circle Bee Honey, Shade Winery, Starline Organics, Briess Organics, and Frontier Herbs Coop. We have links to each of these on our website. Check them out, they are all good people. You can not make a premium, top-shelf spirit from commodity market, genetically modified ingredients. Period. It is like a mono-crop, green picked, force-ripened tomato shipped 2000 miles, versus a fresh vine-ripened, heirloom tomato straight from the garden out back and still covered in morning dew. No comparison in flavor or quality.
In Scotland, a single malt whisky must be 100% malted barley, aged a minimum of three years and be completely from one single distillery. There is no such legal requirement in the States. The closest is that Straight Whisky of any type (bourbon, malt, rye, etc…) must be aged at least two years in new wood (all varieties charred wood except straight corn) and distilled in the same state. As long as you don’t call it “Straight” it can come from anywhere. Single Malt in the US is a marketing term, not a legal term. Single Barrel is a term with no legal requirement in the US. There is no federal permit, licensing classification, or label requirement for only selling house distillates. Long and short, any US distillery can hide behind the law and pull the sheet over your eyes without a worry in the world. They do this by using a secondary, craft sounding distillery name on the label without ever releasing the true source of the spirit. Once again, pretty crafty.
As you may sense, this whole topic is a frustration to me. My goal is not to belittle the blenders, rectifiers and non-distiller producers, it is to enlighten the populace that there is a need to dig deeper into your favorite craft distilleries practices. Many are the real deal. Many are not. I know the growers of 80%+ of all my raw ingredients. We have walked their fields and drank a few pints. They are real people growing whole grains, fruits and herbs. Our products help support small farming families in southeastern Ohio. I feel good about that.
Note: This blog post originally appeared on the website of Dancing Tree Distillery, which became Fifth Element Spirits, and has now become West End Ciderworks & Distillery.More Blog Posts