I put in equal effort to picking a header image as I suspect most craft whiskey releases put into their graphic design and branding
t8ke here, with another series wrap up. If you have been snoozing, that’s fine. Recently, I wrapped up my First Annual Craft Whiskey Crackdown. This series was meant to take a look at all sorts of releases coming from craft producers across America. It morphed a little here, and there, but ultimately stayed true to my goal which was more or less: “trying a bunch of really questionable whiskey” or as we say in sports, taking one for the team.
In a moment, I’ll post the lineup, but you can see that there were one or two red herrings in the batch. Some mysteries I thought were craft, but weren’t. Some craft that turned out to be big brand sourced. Some shit Heaven Hill was so bad at marketing, it looked like craft. You get the picture. If you’re adverse to strong language, maybe sit this one out. This was a project of passion, and quite frankly, it hurt to drink a couple of these. Swearing may ensue.
I had a lot of fun doing this though, and I think I’m going to make it an annual excursion. Next year, I have much finer investigating to do. So I don’t think we need to beat on that too hard here. Here’s what I sampled on this go around:
- Day 1, Big House Bourbon
- Day 2, Kings County Bourbon
- Day 3, Johnny Drum Private Stock
- Day 4, John J. Bowman Single Barrel
- Day 5, Rye Royal 20yr
- Day 6, Big Bottom Bourbon
- Day 7, Copper Pony Rye, 6mo
- Day 8, Hayes Parker Bourbon, 6mo
- Day 9, Winchester Rye, 6mo
- Day 10, Winchester Straight Bourbon, 2yr
- Day 11, Winchester Extra Smooth Bourbon
- Day 12, Willett Pot Still
- Day 13, Hooker’s House Sonoma Style High Rye Pinot Noir Finished Bourbon
- Day 14, Knox Whiskey Works 70/30 Single Barrel, MC”s Selection
- Day 15, Homestead Barrel Proof
- Day 16, Boondocks Cask Strength American Whiskey
- Day 17, Old Forge Cask Strength Single Barrel Bourbon, McScrooge’s Selection
- Day 18, David James 10yr Straight American Whiskey
- Day 19, 1816 Chattanooga Cask Whiskey McScrooge’s Selection
- Day 20, Virgin Bourbon 7yr
- Day 21, Balcones Texas Single Malt
- Day 22, Balcones Baby Blue
- Day 23, St. George Single Malt Whisky
- Day 24, Stranahan’s Snowflake #20: Quandary Peak
That’s a lot of questionable whiskey. Yikes. Overall, I came to four strong conclusions, though.
- Most in-house distilled and bottled craft whiskey is generally too young, or is being sold too young
- Most craft producers sourcing big house products for interim or permanent releases aren’t adept at making good picks
- All in all, poor transparency runs a muck, and is usually accompanied by high price tags.
- TerrePure needs to cease to exist as a production outfit.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s dive in.
Most in-house distilled and bottled craft whiskey is generally too young, or is being sold too young
For the most part, we all know how producing whiskey goes. You buy grains, ferment them, distill them, then place that beautiful liquid money in a barrel. Then you sit on your keister and wait, hemorrhaging money every single day until you can bottle and sell that product. This isn’t a new problem for craft producers and it’s a hard one to overcome. There’s really only two possible mitigation approaches:
- Have a metric boat load of money, or other products to sell, and wait it out
- Sell your product young
I think, by and large, most craft producers do a little of both. They release a gin, a vodka, maybe some liqueur and wait. Unfortunately, I also think that many get twitchy and still bottle their products too young. I know that business is business and money has to come in. Unfortunately, this is usually at the cost of the quality of the whiskey goin’ out. Some big offenders here were Kings County, St George and Big Bottom. I’m hesitant to address TerrePure here as well, since I have a whole section sort of earmarked for slinging fire and brimstone in their directions, but I’ll add a note here also. 6 months of age is not a reasonable time frame for any whiskey, any where to be matured. If your local shop is slinging 6 month whiskey and you want to support them, the best thing you can do to preserve your taste buds is to take that $50 you’re about to drop, and just put it in the tip jar. Everyone is the better for it.
Most craft producers sourcing big house products for interim or permanent releases aren’t adept at making good picks
This was a weird one for me. Is a small house that sources their product, but does a terrible job being transparent about it really count as craft? Well, since I had already procured the bottles I wanted to taste before realizing this in most cases, I answer yes to this point. Next year, that will change. But this year, I let any small guy who had a whiskey for sale in the doors.
Overall, I was pretty whelmed. MGP was the big sourcer for the majority of these bottlings, like Big House, Knox, Homestead, Old Forge, etc. There were some other Undisclosed TN Distillers (read: Dickel) and those weren’t half bad, either. None of these really blew me away, though. Not that it really should be expected that someone brand new to the business should be the worlds best spirits sourcer, but there are start up brands kicking up every week in the world of whiskey.
Find someone good to help you source, and that doesn’t mean your local whiskey society. Hell, it probably doesn’t mean your state whiskey society either. Skip bringing a bunch of twitchy dads for a selection and work with the Master Distiller you’re sourcing from, or bring in a professional. Or a panel of people you trust because you’ve been drinking with them for eons and trust their palates.
The key though is not to end up with a bunch of crap barrels from your sourcing party, thereby kicking off your brand with mediocre offerings. Your first couple in house releases probably won’t be great either, so it helps to have something good to sell while you work out the kings.
All in all, poor transparency runs a muck, and is usually accompanied by high price tags.
This point kind of ties into Point #1, but I felt like talking about it a little more.
Transparency in American Whiskey is downright atrocious. That’s not to say that everyone involved is a shady character, but the amount of NDP craft whiskey garbage going on is downright terrible. I ran into NDP’s pretending not to be NDP’s. I ran into craft outfits who put so little relevant info on their labels it hurt. Then we had places that spun up, bottled a run of this or that with zero marketing presence or marketing information and then dried up. I’d take a WordPad doc on a free wix.com or weebly page with a “This is 3 years old, comes from MGP and we diluted it to 44%” any day. Don’t have to be flashy, just give me the info.
As a consumer, I don’t care if you are using someone else’s product. The Scotch IB market is a walking billboard that bottling someone else’s product can be super lucrative. But you have to be transparent about it. Hell, you will likely generate more interest from me in telling me that you’re bottling Dickel or MGP juice and then giving me the stats. Unless, of course, you’re trying to make a quick buck, hide your origins and charge a big sticker. Which leads into the second part of my assertion.
If you’re going to bottle 4 or 5yr MGP bourbon, it’s more or less dangerous to charge $65 or whatever for it. Hiding the source of your whiskey and charging those prices makes even less sense, though.
TerrePure needs to cease to exist as a production outfit.
Man, this shit’s gotta go. Without a doubt, no other production house has garnered such consistently low ratings from me. Not only was their product bad, it was disgusting. Across the board. I don’t typically call out companies, but this brand is a huge grime stain on Total Wine and their business practices. As I said somewhere else not too long ago, one of the biggest chills I get when trying a new whiskey is researching it as I’m about to drink and realizing that the producer did everything in their power to release a whiskey under a year or two old while also taking every available shortcut. I get they are proud and heavily invested in their rapid aging technology, but it doesn’t work. In fact, I think it makes the whiskey worse. I’d rather have quality still proof white dog than drink another TerrePure whiskey as long as I live. Much like Lost Spirits, I think producers need to either:
- Scrap the rapid / hyper aging whiskey plans all together
- Produce a quality spirit in parallel with the hinky R&D efforts on the side
It is not unreasonable to say that I dream of TerrePure and Lost Spirits going out of business some nights, because I can’t imagine how many people are swindled into buying their products over generally competent brands by some store employee somewhere. I’m a scientist by day, so I would be ashamed if I said they need to stop all R&D. Innovation is how we move forward, but if your innovations are moving your product nowhere, or so far backwards you shouldn’t have released it at all…it’s time for a change. Source a good whiskey, or hell, distill a good whiskey the traditional way. Use your profits to fund the Heimerdinger projects in the backroom and continue to innovate. Innovation is never bad. But bottling and selling a failure of a whiskey and deceiving people into buying it by comparing it to reputable brands is reprehensible.
Alright, I took a quick walk and did some bounces on the yoga ball. Blood pressure is back to normal.
All in all, this project was fun as hell. Next year, I plan to do it again, with more stringent criteria. I don’t think that craft whiskey here in the USA is entirely bad, or doomed, or deserves to be condemned, but it could use some changes. Any industry does. In the meantime, please take a moment and let me know what you think. Did you enjoy this type of series? Anything you’d change? Overall, I think variety is the spice of life, so I try and taste the top and the bottom of the shelf. My next two series, coming up is a comparison of a collection of 1792 Full Proof Single Barrels (nothing like the Knob Creek Rodeo, I promise ) and also a 9-part blind series that turned out to be a scream.
As always, thanks for reading folks. Your readership, and also your comments and discussion, is what makes this so damn fun. Be well.