Lies, and The Lying Producers That Tell Them

liar
A liar

The last time Liz and I were on Leelanau Peninsula we visited a winery we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t yet. We got a chatty, but professional pourer. I didn’t mention my blog, as usual. I usually don’t mention it at the beginning of a tasting because 1. I don’t want to get special treatment and 2. Nobody knows or cares who I am.

We were tasting through the menu and we came across a wine that had no appellation visible on the label. I asked our pourer whether the wine was American or Michigan or Leelanau. Our pourer replied by kindly asking me if I knew how to read a wine label. I said, yes, I asked because I didn’t see an apellation on the label. Pourer’s response was, “If you know how to read a wine label, then you already know the answer. Don’t make me lie.”

I was taken aback. Our pourer went on to explain how in 2014 and 2015 that winery, like many others in Michigan, did not have enough local grapes (due to the dreaded Polar Vortex) to produce their usual array of varietals and blends, so they had to buy out-of-state grapes to stay afloat. The owner of the winery felt weird about this, apparently, and so omitted any statement of origin on those labels at all. This is in contrast to most wine makers who put “American” on the label in the same place where the usual appellation appeared, since most bought grapes from Oregon.

That is annoying, but what our pourer told us next was shocking. They said that the owner had told them to lie about the wine’s origin to tasting room visitors who asked. “I wish I didn’t have to lie. I wish I worked for Charlie Edson. He’s very honest.”

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The true view from Bel Lago, Charlie Edson’s winery. 

Why would a winery want its employees to lie about the origin of its wines? One reason may be marketing. Many Michigan wineries, large and small, use local-ness as a large part of their marketing. If their grapes aren’t locally grown, that could be embarrassing. That said, many Michigan wineries aren’t embarrassed about that at all. Black Star Farms, Round Barn, Brys Estate, Mackinaw Trail and many others have regular offerings that use out-of-state grapes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t believe most Michigan wine customers care either. Personally, I’m less likely to buy a wine from a Michigan winery if it’s “American”, but I don’t think any less of wineries that do.

The lying and obfuscation in the realm of Michigan wine will probably die down with the recent run of two (and probably three) good, warm vintages in a row (2016, 2017, 2018?). With rising demand for Michigan wine and the inevitability of a few bad vintages every decade, the temptation to lie will rear its ugly head again, though.

Lying about place of origin is not confined to the wine world, of course. It’s quite common in whiskey, especially in the shady world of sourced “craft” whiskey. One of the most common ways of lying, or at least obfuscation, is for the bottler to “forget” to put the state of distillation on the label, as is required by law. A surprising number of producers make this mistake. When confronted about this they usually either ignore the warning or hide behind the fact that the label has been approved by the TTB. Approval by the TTB doesn’t mean the label is correct, though, as producers know. Like many other government agencies under the austerity regimes of the last thirty years, the TTB is understaffed and underfunded. It relies on consumers and the producers themselves for policing. There’s also this little bit on the bottom of the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) form:

Under the penalties of perjury, I declare; that all statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31, Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval.

More egregious than that is the phenomenon of Japanese whisky that’s not actually made in Japan. Margarett Waterbury at The Whiskey Wash breaks it down here. Due to limited stocks and the unfriendly duopoly of Japanese whisky, Japanese distillers frequently import whisky from Scotland and Canada to stretch their stocks.

Why do whiskey producers lie? The reasons are not very different from why wine producers lie. It has to do with marketing. Some distillers do market themselves as local, even using a local place-name while buying their local product from elsewhere. It only takes a second or two of boredom for a consumer to look at the back label and see that their local hero was actually born and raised in Indiana. The “craft” aspect of craft spirits is also vulnerable to accurate labeling. Articles like this one from the Daily Beast have been drifting around the internet for a few years, explaining how many craft producers buy their product from MGP’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While these articles did blow the lid off of this practice for the general public, it may have made distillers even more afraid of producing accurate labels than they were before.

What can be done about this? One thing we can do as consumers is to warn and report whiskey label violators. Universally beloved* Texas bourbon enthusiast and blogger Wade Woodard has made it his personal quest to file complaints of whiskey labeling regulations. He’s been making progress, but many still ignore regulations. With so whiskey booming and so many new labels hitting the market every year, it’s hard to keep up.

TTTT
People questioning what they are told.

Regarding wine obfuscators, I think it’s important to always ask where the grapes come from if no appellation is listed on the label. lf at a tasting room, ask your way up the chain of command. If not, call or send an email and ask. If you get lied to, then press the owners or managers in person, or on social media. Business owners who are unrepentant liars should be shamed.

It’s important that this is done responsibly, though. It’s counterproductive and just plain shitty to do so in a way that gets someone fired or punished at work. Tasting room employees aren’t responsible for marketing or labeling of the wines they pour. That’s why I haven’t named the winery in question. It would take a minimal amount of snooping around on social media and going over work schedules to figure out who our pourer was once I disclosed the winery.

What should producers do to avoid being reported or shamed? Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, folks: TELL THE TRUTH. Disclose what you’re supposed to disclose. Disclose even more than you have to even. If truth-telling and disclosure interfere with your marketing strategy, change your marketing strategy. Being truthful to your customers should always come first. Most people don’t like to give money to people they don’t trust.

As for me and this blog, even though I did buy some bottles at the winery, I will not be reviewing any of those bottles here anytime soon. Maybe I will if the winery in question shows that they have changed their ways when the next bad vintage rolls around, but without a change in ownership, I’m not holding my breath.

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Metze’s Select, 2015 Medley

Maker: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA20160401_170206-1.jpg

Age: 7 y/o

Composition: Medley of two mashbills: 38% 21% rye bourbon distilled in 2006 + 3% 36% rye bourbon distilled in 2006 + 59% 21% rye bourbon disilled in 2008.

Proof: 93% (46.5% ABV)

Purchased for $75 (Vine & Table. $70 at Binny’s).

Appearance: Medium dark copper.

Nose: Spicy. Hot thai peppers, pink peppercorn then malt, butterscotch.

Palate: Medium bodied and surprisingly hot. Habanero hot sauce with some background amaretto, oak and vanilla notes.

Finish: Aggressive. Refuses to stop burning your mouth even after a minute or two. A fleeting taste of chocolate ice cream on the front end, though.

Parting words: I have tasted some really great whiskeys distilled at MGPI in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Just about every bottle I’ve had from Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout line, for starters. Metze’s Select is unique because it’s the first distillery bottling from MGPI that I am aware of. Only 6,000 bottles were released so it truly is a limited edition. It’s named for Greg Metze, MGPI’s long time master distiller.

When I paid $75 for this bottle, I realized that I was probably paying too much. I was right. This “medley” isn’t undrinkable but it’s unbalanced and shows no integration whatsoever. There is some of the soft fruity sweetness that one associates with its former sibling-distillery Four Roses, but that’s overwhelmed by brash, immature chili pepper and alcohol flavors. Water doesn’t seem to help this at all. It only washes any flavor out entirely.

I’m not sure what happened but I’m guessing that the seven-year-old bourbon component (59%) is what’s dragging this down. Seven years of age is an uncertain time for a bourbon. Some are already world beaters at that age and others taste like they just came off the still. Metze’s Select has way too much of the latter to come close to being worth the money. This is the most disappointing bourbon I’ve tasted in a while. Metze’s Select, 2015 Medley is not recommended.

Old Hickory Blended Bourbon

Maker: R.S. Lipman, Nashville, Tennesee, USAwpid-oh-blended_thumb.png

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: Blended bourbon (100% whiskey but not a blend of straights)

Age: 2 y/o (89% 4 y/o, 11% 2 y/o)

Proof: 80 (40% ABV)

MSRP: $30

Note: I received complementary bottles of this and the straight bourbon from Double Diamond Marketing & Communications. Also, coloring and flavoring additives are used in this blended bourbon.

Appearance: Shiny auburn.

Nose: Mild. Alcohol, roasted corn, caramel.

Palate: Sweet and mild with some heat on the back end. Vanilla, caramel, pinch of cocoa.

Finish: Vanilla extract.

Mixed: Did poorly in cocktails with citrus mixers, like a whiskey sour or a Holdfast. Did very well in just about everything else. Perfect eggnog bourbon. Also makes an excellent Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and boulevardier. Gets a little lost with soda but did fine on the rocks.

Parting words: There aren’t a lot of blended bourbons on the market and the ones that are aren’t very good. One of the reasons for that is that they use Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS, basically vodka) to fill out the non-bourbon portion of the blend. The makers of Old Hickory blended use another type of whiskey instead of GNS. I’m guessing it’s a young corn or wheat whiskey, but they don’t say. OH blended does use flavoring and coloring additives as noted above, but this is perfectly legal and expected for any type of blend. While straight bourbon doesn’t use additives, many styles of whiskey do. Coloring is very common in Scotch and flavoring additives are allowed in Canadian whisky, of course. The vanilla extract flavor is overbearing in the finish when drinking neat, but complements most mixers.

I think more small producers should be making blended bourbons or ryes or other types. Low or no GNS blends might be a good way to give the consumer true-to-type whiskey flavor at a lower price than an NDP or micro-distilled straight might go for. Unfortunately, Old Hickory blended isn’t at a lower price than a straight of similar quality. Selling this at $30 seems to defeat the whole purpose of offering a blended bourbon. Evan Williams, Very Old Barton, and Old Grand Dad are all cheaper than OHBB by $13 or more in this state. At $20 or even $25 Old Hickory Blended Bourbon Whiskey might be recommended but at current MSRP, it is only mildly recommended.

Old Hickory Bourbon

Maker: R.S. Lipman, Nashville, Tennesee, USAwpid-oh-straight_thumb1.png

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: High rye bourbon

Age: NAS (4-7 y/o)

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

MSRP: $40

Note: I received complementary bottles of this and the blended bourbon from Double Diamond Marketing & Communications.

Appearance: Ruddy copper.

Nose: Spearmint, potpourri, pine.

Palate: Hot on entry. Cinnamon, clove, butterscotch, oak, alcohol.

Finish: Herbal and hot. Lingers for a long time.

Mixed: This is a fantastic mixing bourbon. The strong rye notes complement vermouth perfectly and prevent the low proof from being problematic. Wonderful in a boulevardier and Manhattan. Also good in an old fashioned and in eggnog.

Parting words: Lipman is a small, Nashville-based Non-distiller producer (NDP) that has been around for a couple decades. They purchased the Old Hickory brand in 2013 (for many years the flagship bourbon of Publicker/Continental in Pennsylvania) and resurrected it with the help of our old friends at MGPI. It is currently only available in Tennessee, but is slowly being rolled out around the country. The label doesn’t make a connection with the old brand, other than featuring Old Hickory himself on the label. They are also very open about where they’re getting their stocks from. Good on them for not taking the Michter’s route.

According to Lipman’s promotional materials, this whiskey has a very high proportion of small grains (meaning malt and rye) and it certainly tastes like it. There seems to be an even higher percentage of rye than most high rye MGPI bourbon. Perhaps it was custom distilled. Lipman makes a big deal of how it owns its own stocks of bourbon and thus isn’t just buying this stuff on the bulk market. That should mean a consistent product going forward, more so than most NDP brands. They are planning some more expressions in the future, in addition to the straight and blended bourbons offered now.

This is a weird bourbon. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted one that was like this. It’s so rye heavy that if I were tasting it blind I would probably guess that it was Bulleit Rye, not a bourbon. It took me a while to figure out whether this was good weird or bad weird, but I finally settled on good. At this price, the proof should be higher, but it does ok at 86. Like I said above, the spice makes up for the low proof. Old Hickory Straight Bourbon is recommended, and highly so for cocktails.

A Midwinter Nights Dram

Maker: High West, Park City, Utah, USAwpid-2015-10-23-17.15.39.jpg.jpeg

Distillers: MGPI, some Kentucky distillery or distilleries.

Style: Blend of straight rye whiskeys finished in French oak and port barrels.

Age: NAS

Act 2.9, Scene 234

Proof: 98.6 (49.3% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $82

Appearance: Dark copper.

Nose: Alcohol, cut grass, prunes, dried figs, tawny Port.

Palate: Fruity and rich. Apple-mint jelly, cinnamon disks.

Finish: Hot and spicy, then shifts to big menthol and eucalyptus flavors.

Mixed: Makes for a good hot toddy and Manhattan.

Parting words: High West’s Rendezvous Rye is one of my favorite ryes, and this is a finished version of that. Port finished bourbons were all the rage a couple years ago when this product was introduced, ushered in by Angel’s Envy. I have liked the products generally, and I like this one. The minty character of the high rye MGPI tends to run roughshod over everything else here. There’s a little bit of Port that shines through, but not too much (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

A Midwinter Nights Dram is good by the fire and would probably be good with a cigar if I smoked. The sweetness complements smoky environs nicely. I can’t really say that I like it more than Rendezvous Rye but I should if I’m paying $30 more for it. A Midwinter Nights Dram is mildly recommended.

Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA (Brand owned by Pernod-Ricard)wpid-2015-04-30-16.40.34.jpg.jpeg

Style: Dry American gin.

ABV: 40%

Michigan State Minimum: $10

Note: 1.75 ml bottle pictured ($22)

Appearance: Clear with a very faint tinge of color.

Nose: Neutral spirit, juniper, citrus peel.

Palate: Milder than the nose would lead on to believe. Neutral spirits and a faint earthiness.

Finish: Burn and crushed juniper berries.

Mixed: Perfectly acceptable in the standard applications, especially in a Tom Collins or with tonic. Even makes a decent martini or negroni. Gets lost in orange juice.

Parting Words: Seagram’s the gin is the best selling American-made gin in the world. Seagram’s the company no longer exists. It was sold off for parts in the late 1990s in order to raise money for Edgar Bronfman’s adventures in the entertainment industry. That began a long, strange trip for the distillery (actually distilleries) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. It’s now owned by agribusiness company Midwest Grain Products and is best known as the supplier of rye and bourbon whiskey for an endless parade of “micro-distillers” who are just selling it until their own product is ready, they swear. MGPI contains an entirely separate distillery for the manufacture of gin and vodka, though, and that’s where Seagram’s Gin (now owned by French giant Pernod-Ricard) continues to be made.

In days of yore, Seagram’s Gin was “rested” in oak barrels to take the edge off the spirit and give it a saffron tinge. The process was changed sometime before September 2013, , according to a source-friend of mine. The yellowish tinge (now barely there) is created by running the spirit through a juniper slurry under pressure. Barrel resting is a thing of the past. Just going by memory, it doesn’t seem to have altered the taste much. If anything, it’s a little less harsh than I remember.

At any rate, this is a perfectly serviceable well-gin. It’s barely palatable neat, but it does just fine for casual cocktails. Seagram’s is a fine gin for your Wednesday night G & T or your third martini on Saturday night. Recommended.

That said, I hate the bottle redesign. The cross-hatching thing is dopey. #BringBackTheBumpyBottle

Big Bottom Port Cask Finished

Maker: Big Bottom, Hillsboro, Oregon, USAwpid-20150220_122442.jpg

Distiller: Unknown, likely MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: Straight bourbon finished in Port casks.

Age: NAS

Proof: 91 (45.5% AVB)

Batch: 7

Note: Not chill filtered

Price: $40 (Binny’s)

Appearance: Dark auburn.

Nose: Alcohol, oak, wood varnish, hint of port.

Palate: Sweet and oaky on the palate. Alcohol, aged tawny, chocolate covered dried cherries.

Finish: Alcohol, wine grape jam, dates. Lingers for a long time.

Mixed: While I don’t usually mix bourbons in this price range, fortified wine finished bourbons usually mix very well in the classier sort of cocktails so I thought I’d give it a go. I tried it in a Manhattan, perfect Manhattan, boulevardier, Dave Wondrich’s Holdfast cocktail (bourbon, bitters, splash of Gran Marnier) and a whiskey sour. It did well in all but it showed up best in the cocktails with as few mixers as possible to let the finishing show through. These were the Manhattans, Holdfast and the sour.

Parting words: Big Bottom (named after a section of the Lewis & Clark Mt. Hood Wilderness Area, and not to be confused with Big Ass Bourbon) offer a range of bourbons but made their name with their wine-finished ones. They bottle wines finished in Rhone, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Port barrels. I decided to start with their Port-finished expression because I have more experience with Port-finished whiskeys than with any of the others. This one is finished in a ten year old tawny cask.

This is probably the best Port-finished bourbon I’ve had. It is a little hot upon first pour but after blows off it gets much better. BB doesn’t have the strawberry flavors of Angel’s Envy (or the Balvenie Portwood for that matter) but has richer fruit flavors like the cherry and date mentioned above.  It works  very well with red vermouth and is damn near perfect as an after-dinner sipper. The price is fair for a product of this high quality. The care they took in selecting the barrels for finishing shows in the end result. Big Bottom Port finished is recommended.

 

American Prairie Reserve

Maker: High West, Park City, Utah, USAwpid-2014-09-12-19.18.58.jpg.jpeg

Distillers: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana/Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA

Style: Blend of straight bourbons (cannot be called straight because bourbons are from different states)

Age: 6 y/o (blend of 6 y/o MGPI with 10 y/o Four Roses)

Proof: 92 (46% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $42

Appearance: Medium copper with evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Alcohol, bubble gum, leather, salted caramel, whiff of steamed asparagus.

Palate: Spicy and a little hot. Cotton candy, jalapeno, oak, country ham.

Finish: Semi-dry. Oak, raw pecans, alcohol.

Parting words: High West has gone from a start up to one of America’s premier blenders and rectifiers in just a few short years. This bourbon (their first & only to my knowledge) is actually a reunion of sorts. The distilleries now called MGPI and Four Roses were both once owned by Seagram’s, which I imagine led to a lot of farcical missed meetings. “OK, I’m in Lawrenceburg, where are you?” “I’m in Lawrenceburg, where are YOU?” “Lawrenceburg, Kentucky!” “UHOH!”

Anyway, American Prairie Reserve is not cheap, but it’s well done and worth the price, especially considering that 10% of after tax profits go toward efforts to establish a federal American Prairie Reserve in northeastern Montana. That’s also why there’s a grouse on the label.

American Prairie Reserve is recommended.

Grass Widow

Grass Widow Bottle Image
Used with permission of Two James Spirits LLC

Maker: Two James, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: Bourbon whiskey finished in Madeira casks.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 91 (45.5% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $60

Thanks to Amy for the sample.

Appearance: Light auburn with long thick legs.

Nose: Alcohol, balsamic vinegar, black cherry, grape bubble gum, cayenne pepper.

Palate: Wine grape jelly, oak, jalapeno, honey.

Finish: Madeira, spicy rye, oak, ghost pepper.

Mixed: It did very well in all cocktails I tried it in. Made a good, spicy Manhattan and boulevardier but it did best in an old fashioned. The bitters and sugar brought out the spice and jam very nicely. Similar cocktails should also do well.

Parting words: Many microdistillers have released sourced whiskey products as a way to pay the bills while their own products age. Some, like Two James, actually do have distilled their their own whiskey and are actually waiting for it to age.

The only other product available to that bears much resemblance to Grass Widow that is Angel’s Envy. The latter is Kentucky bourbon finished in port wine barrels. There are big differences between Madeira and Port but both are fortified Portuguese wines. Grass Widow is much richer and spicier than AE. The Madeira wine cask influence adds a dark, grapey taste and aroma to the spirit as opposed to the bright strawberry notes of AE. Both are delicious, but Grass Widow’s finish works alongside the sweetness and spice of the bourbon to while AE’s finish takes the lead and leaves the bourbon to play a secondary role. That puts it slightly ahead of AE for me.

As with most micro-producer products price is an issue. At $60 it’s not going to be anyone’s go-to, but it’s definitely worth a place in any whiskey enthusiast’s cabinet as a weekend after-dinner sip or for a top-shelf cocktail. Grass Widow is recommended.

Old Scout Ten

Maker: Smooth Ambler, Maxwelton, West Virginia, USAOld Scout 10

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Batch: 3

Bottled: 5/2/2013 by Nikki.

Age: 10 y/o

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Price: $55 Michigan State Minimum (this bottle purchased in Kentucky for $50)

Appearance: Dark copper with thin, evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Almond extract, leather, alcohol, dried flowers. More leathery and herbal with water.

On the palate: Full bodied, sweet and rich. Caramel, burn, amaretto candy, cocoa powder. With water more sweetness and some lavender and tarragon.

Finish: Hot. Red pepper flakes, with a touch of oak and caramel as it fades. Less hot with water and sweeter with a touch of basil or tarragon.

Parting words: Smooth Ambler is a breath of fresh air when it comes to micro-distillers/bottlers. Unlike the smoke and mirrors that usually goes with sourced whiskey in this country, Smooth Ambler has always been very up front about the origins of their whiskeys. Their bourbons and ryes are even called “Old Scout” as a nod to the fact that they are indeed sourced, or scouted, from elsewhere. This may not seem like a lot, but even the best known NDPs (Non-Distiller Producers) are usually less than candid about their products.

At any rate, lest that sound like faint praise, their whiskey is damn good too. I’ve reviewed MGPI bourbon before with mixed results. This one is an unqualified success. It shows excellent balance and works well as a rich, creamy after-dinner, cold-weather sipper. The family resemblance to Four Roses is in evidence. Old Scout has a certain aromatic quality (yeast-driven if I were to guess) that I get in Four Roses but no other Kentucky bourbon.

This bottle proves to me once and for all that MGPI can indeed produce high quality bourbon. At $50-$55 it’s not cheap but it’s 100 proof and very tasty. That earns Old Scout Ten a recommendation.