May 6, 2016

Independent Bottlings and New Blends in American Whiskey...

I know that this topic is discussed hundreds of time on different platforms already but for what it is worth I also have a few things to say… As you all know lately people got pretty upset after some new distilleries scored very high points, win medals, awards and what not with whiskeys they actually didn’t distill but sourced from other distilleries. It fired up a debate about how ethical this whole business model is and whether we should bring more transparency in the industry or not.

Compass Box line-up in Boston Whisky Live, October 2014

For my two cents one of the most important reasons why this discussion reaches a dead end every time is that we still don’t have a strong and established independent bottler category in American whiskey industry and for some particular cases the category “Blended American Whiskey” is not really a term most whiskey producers are willing to print on their labels because of its definition and history.

Cooley 13yo Single Cask Nation bottling
Let's start first talking about blended whiskey in America. "Blended American Whiskey" is defined by TTB regulations as “Whisky produced by blending not less than 20% on a proof gallon straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies and, separately or in combination, whisky of any type or neutral spirits.” Therefore it is a term clearly defining cheap and “low shelf” products which potentially can contain 80% neutral spirit. You can see why distillers and blenders don’t want their whiskey to be identified as blended American whiskey. But in Scotland blended whisky is a totally different entity which cannot include neutral spirits and doesn't necessarily mean cheap and bland alcohol like its American counterpart. On the contrary from the old and widely distributed brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, etc. to the rather new, artisan and limited releases from Compass Box, Wemyss, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, etc. blended Scotch has always been a vibrant, respected, innovative, constantly improving and expanding branch of the industry. It is the best selling whisky category in the world after all... While master blenders are getting all kind of credits and honors on the other side of the Atlantic and promoting their products proudly as “blends”, master blenders here understandably do not label their whiskeys as blends to avoid possible confusions. For example while John Glaser (actually it is pretty ironic that he is an American…) is enjoying his worldwide fame as a master blender with his own label “Compass Box”, David Perkins from High West is deliberately avoiding the fact that he is actually creating some amazing blends.

Clynelish cask in Springbank warehouses, June 2014

At this point even the most snobbish single malt Scotch drinkers have their favorite blends and I don’t think that anybody is particularly interested in what exactly the recipes of them are. I personally don’t want to know what they are using to blend each batch of Bell’s or Campbeltown Loch. I just want to make sure that I will get the same experience every time I order one. But all of a sudden we started to demand more transparency from all American whisky makers forgetting that a small fraction of the whiskeys we are talking about are actually blends. We should allow Bourye or Campfire be known brands by themselves. They are great blended whiskeys, I like them a lot and to be honest I don’t want to worry about how David Perkins’s blends them.

But now I would like to comment on an entirely different and actually more important subject... There is a more common practice used by new distilleries rather than creating their own blends with sourced whiskey. They simply buy a cask (or multiple) from another distillery, fill the liquid into the bottles and promote them as their own whiskey. Most of the time the process is not well explained and/or deliberately hidden to mislead customers. They basically establish their brand on somebody else’s product in secrecy and hope that their own whiskey in the future will be as good as the sourced one so the transition can happen while nobody is noticing… We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There is already a category for this type of releases and it is simply called “independent bottling”. It is a pretty common business model and an accepted category in the whisky world again almost anywhere but for some odd reason in America it is kept on the hush.

Whistle Pig Boss Hog launch in Boston, September 2014
Well, this is exactly where we should demand for more transparency and honesty from the producers. Opening a distillery and entering a competition just months after with a whiskey sourced from another distillery and trying to promote your brand by winning medals and awards with somebody else’s product is not ethical. We definitely need the “independent bottler” category in spirits competitions as soon as possible.

At the end I have two separate suggestions here: 

First, since it is almost impossible to re-phrase or re-define TTB’s “Blended American Whiskey” category maybe a new term can be created to cover all the new blended whiskeys in America. I believe that the industry will benefit immensely from it. 

Secondly we should come up with a new category for sourced, un-blended whiskeys. It can be called as simple as "independent bottles" like anywhere else or if we really feel like it we can come up with a new term but it’s definitely needed.