by Mike Janowski
Much of the liquorati have their sensitive palates in a snit lately about the provenance of various “craft” or “micro-distilled” whiskies.
These days, “craft” is king – craft beer, locally raised and crafted foodstuffs, unique crafts sold on Etsy – there’s a significant movement afoot in America to return to a smaller, more unique way of producing the things we consume, away from the perceived blandness of “mass” production.
This being America, there’s no shortage of hucksters, connivers and charlatans out there to exploit the craft trend for a quick buck. The craft distilling business is in the midst of what some would term an “attack” by these unscrupulous players.
The problem is that alcohol production in general, and in particular brown spirits (bourbon, rye and other whiskies), is governed by a strict set of regulations in this country. There are distinct recipes and procedures one must follow in order to classify your hooch as a particular type. Bourbon has to be at least 51% corn. Rye must contain at least 51% rye. And these regs pertain not only to the mash bill, but to the label as well. This is where begin to see the depth of deception that some producers are willing to go to in order to make drinkers think their products are “craft”.
Like learning to read a wine label from France, definitions are necessary to understand the issue. “Produced” and “Producer” do NOT mean the same thing as “Distilled” and “Distiller”. The ATF’s Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) allows pretty much ANYONE to call themselves a producer…but also insists (via Rule 5.36(d)) that the provenance of the bottled spirit be accurately stated on the label. This is to inform and protect the consumer (for instance, from spirits with flavor “additives” which may be harmful to one’s health), as well as to police the industry, making sure that their product is what they say it is.
This is where the problems begin to crop up. Several unscrupulous producers are fudging, and/or outright ignoring, the labeling requirements set forth in 5.36(d), in order to gain a marketing advantage by making it appear that their booze is craft. They bottle and label it in such a way as to make you, the drinker, think that it’s distilled by a bunch of cool dudes with massive facial hair and plaid shirts and that certain indie savoir-faire, when in fact it’s bought in bulk from a Distiller, maybe aged, maybe adultered, maybe blended, and then bottled, leaving the only thing crafty about it being the label (no doubt designed by some indie marketing dude or dudette).
Now, I have to stop for a minute because, barring health safety issues (yes, I want the TTB to assure me that the booze I’m drinking is the ONLY poison in the bottle), some of this discussion becomes a little vague for me. Templeton Rye has taken quite a bit of criticism in this regard, because they’re an early and egregious violator of the spirit of these regulations. Noted whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery has been blogging extensively about this for years (and discusses the issue at length in this post. It seems that the little story on the Templeton label about being “produced” in Templeton, IA, from an old bootlegger’s recipe is made up out of whole cloth: it’s been determined that Templeton purchases their whiskey in bulk from large distiller MGP in Indiana; puts some sort of flavor additive into it (which they claim mimics the taste of the original bootlegger’s product), and bottles it. They make a fine product, I’ve written about how much I like it. But knowing this, you really wouldn’t call their process “craft”, would you? I’ll still drink it no matter what, but I’d enjoy it more if they weren’t trying to convince me they were the same sort of product as say, Journeyman or FEW. But you wouldn’t know that from their label, even though this 5.36(d) rule requires them to disclose this information. Now, Templeton is one tasty bottle, so this begs the question: Who cares where and/or how it’s produced? After all, drinking helps you not care, so if the stuff is tasty and has the right punch. It’s all good, no?
For me, the answer lies in a deeper understanding of craft – what that means to us as consumers, and hopefully budding connoisseurs, of distilled spirits. Craft is a manner or method of production which seeks to create something unique, with a personal stamp, in order to create a closer connection between producer and consumer. Craft means care, not just in the production of a spirit (nobody’s accusing Templeton of bottling substandard booze), but in the entire chain from procurement of resources, through mashing and distillation, to consumption. If a producer doesn’t care enough to tell you what you’re drinking, what else won’t they care about? And as a corollary, if you consume craft spirits because you want to taste unique products, and support the “little guy,” don’t you feel a little bit duped by some producer who tries to make it appear that they’re doing something craft when all they really want is to charge you a premium, custom price for what are essentially stock goods? And on a moral level, what does the fast and loose use of craft do to the true craft producers? Think of Rhine Hall, Koval, or FEW here locally. They’re busting their nuts trying to create unique spirit expressions, sweating the small margins all small businessmen put up with, only to have the value of their marketing hook devalued by producers who cloak themselves in a fake patina of craftiness.
Perhaps it’s best summed up by Chuck Cowdery, speaking here about a Scotch, but applicable to other whiskies as well:
“What Balvenie is, most of all, is real. That’s where the young U.S. craft distilling movement has gotten stuck. Too many of its leading names are outright fakes. Too many new consumers, attracted by the idea of ‘craft spirits,’ are being suckered by clever packaging and glib stories that may stay within the letter of the law but use every trick imaginable to convey a false impression.”
So the lesson here is twofold: learn to read labels carefully, and learn to discriminate in your use of craft. Note especially if the label says “distilled” or “produced”, and remember that producing is a catch-all term which might or might not mean the producer added some value (aging, blending) to the final product. Any bottle of craft spirits that says “distilled” on it is a guarantee that real people were involved in its creation from the start. Any label that seems sort of vague as to where and when the spirit was distilled, yet attempts to wear the craft mantle, should be viewed with skepticism.
On to other things now, which would be, drinking!A note about a class of whiskies making big noise: Japanese malts. For the first time ever, Jim Murray, who’s published at least 10 editions of his Whiskey Bible (considered, well, The Bible for whiskies), ranked a Japanese malt as “the best whiskey in the world.” Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was the recipient of this praise. You can read about here in this Eater article.I’ve been enjoying an occasional nip or two from a bottle of 12-year-old Nikka Taketsuru “pure malt” whiskey (a gift last Christmas from the wife). I enjoy this type of malt because, unlike some single-malt scotches, which seem to have every bit of grain sweetness peated, smoked and beaten out of them, there’s a bit of sweetness left in the liquid. It has a classic malt nose, somewhere between a weird gym-shoe rubber smell and puke (yep); glides effortlessly and smoothly over the lips and tongue; and settles for a nice long mid-palate ride, with a bit of smoke and salt combined with the barley sweetness. It’s finish is long, like the ringout of a tuning fork, and almost has some overtones of a light American lager at the end (think of the Blatz or PBR that you swigged after your parents’ parties broke up) I’m not a big malt whiskey guy, but if you’re like me, starting with some Japanese malts is a good way to introduce yourself to this class.
That’s all for now. I’ll buy the next round!