Meanwhile In America: The NDP Debate

by Oliver Klimek on March 16, 2014

Despite the “Everything Whisky” tagline, this blog mostly is about Scotch whisky. But every once in a while it is worth to take a look across the Atlantic Ocean.

While the Scotch blogging community has been vigourously discussing the topic of No Age Statement (NAS) whisky, Americans have their own three-letter word to rant about: NDP which stands for Non-Distiller Producers. In Scotch terms these would be called independent bottlers, although the two are not entirely equivalent because of the differing histories of the whisky business in both countries.

NDP is not about companies like Duncan Taylor or Cadenhead’s selling something like a 1998/2013 Maker’s Mark single barrel bottling. It is about brands that do not own a distillery but source whisky from others to sell it under their own name. In Scotland this is happening as well, mainly in the blended whisky sector. But there are also number of undisclosed or ‘bastard’ single malts like Smokehead.

In Scotch whisky, this phenomenon is not controversial at all. And in the case of the bastard malts it is more an entertaining “guess the distillery” game than anyhing else.

But in the United States, emotions are running high about some NDP whiskies. The reason for this discrepancy is the lack of openness and, frankly, honesty of some of the American NDPs. Scotch brands have no problem telling you “We buy the whisky somewhere else but we and/or the distillery don’t want to disclose the source”.

Some US whiskies instead try to create the impression that they actually do have a distillery while in realty they have not. Myths and legends are told and sometimes made up about the history of a brand, and any mention of the fact that there is no distillery at all is being carefully avoided by officials. And this in particular is what gets many American writers and bloggers upset.

Three tyipical NDP stories that have been on the agenda are Whistlepig Rye, Bulleit Bourbon and Michter’s. Whistlepig is a comany from Vermont who goes to great lengths to disguise the fact that their whisky is 100% Canadian. This is going as far as entering their whisky into competitions as American. The 100% Canadian Whistlepig Triple One was named “Best American Rye Whisky” at the last World Whisky Awards where it beat the 100% American Sazerac. Former Maker’s Mark master distiller David Pickerell has been appointed as “Master Distiller” for Whistle Pig, but since the company was created in 2010 he has not distilled a single drop in Vermont.

Bulleit Bourbon is another interesting case, well documented by Chuck Cowdery in two blog articles. The Diageo-owned brand used to source their bourbon from Four Roses, but now remain completely silent about the origin. This quote from the second article says everything about Bulleit’s honesty with regard to the source of their bourbon:

“… you might want to call that number and ask them for the street address of the Bulleit Distilling Company in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, so you can visit the Bulleit Distilling Company’s distillery. They will tell you, of course, that they can’t give out that information because, unfortunately, they are unable to offer tours.”

The myth that there is a proper Bulleit distillery which was founded by an Augustus Bulleit in the 1800s must be defended at all cost. There might tbe a portion of shame involved that Diageo as the world’s biggest spirits producer does not own a single distillery in Kentucky.

The third example, Michter’s, is about the resurrection of an famous brand of bourbon originally distilled in Pennsylvania. The history is a bit complicated with several changes of ownerhip and dates back to the time of the American Revolution. The new owners, Chatham Imports, are based in New York City. And while they are trying to build up a proper distillery in Kentucky, they are sourcing whisky from other distilleries. The websites of Chatham Imports and Michter’s make this appear quite as if they are distilling themselves, though not specifically claiming this.

“If you drink the whiskey that warmed General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge,
does that make you a patriot? Not necessarily, but it indicates you appreciate that
Michter’s sets the standard for highest quality, limited production whiskeys.

America’s first whiskey distilling company, Michter’s rich history dates back to 1753
when a farmer in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania distilled his first batch of whiskey
from hardy rye. At one point a Master Distiller left his family’s well-known distillery
to join Michter’s so he could be at a smaller, less cost-conscious company where
he could make the finest whiskey, cost be damned.”

“We continue this grand distilling tradition in Kentucky by never releasing our whiskeys until both our Master Distiller Willie Pratt and our panel of whiskey tasters deem them ready. In fact, our whiskey is often much older than the age statement on the label. At Michter’s we produce single barrel ryes, very small batch unblended American whiskey, very small batch bourbon, and single barrel bourbon.”

And again the misleading of the public has paid off in the form of an award. Wine Enthusiast named New Michter’s “Distiller of the Year” despite the lack of self-distilled whisky.

Of course there is a lot of bullshit being told by the American NDPs. But what makes the NDP debate particularly interesting from a blogger’s perspective is that both the Bulleit and the Michter’s case have lead to a series of personal attacks among bloggers about tackling industry officials too softly when speaking to them.

Alwynne Gwilt, better known as Miss Whisky, had to take some serious flak for not having addressed this issue in her recent interview with Tom Bulleit. And also Joshua Feldman of The Coopered Tot was blamed of “cuddling up” too much with Michter’s President Joe Magliocco when he met him, right up to the allegation of having been essentially bribed with a dram of the $4000 Michter’s Celebration.

The debate became quite heated, especially on Twitter with some other bloggers chiming in, so Whisky Lassie Johanne McInnis expressed her annoyance with this in a rant post on her blog which in return was accused of promoting fluffiness towards the industry while discouraging criticism among bloggers.

An interesting case study indeed, and one that demonstrates that whisky bloggers are indeed not the homogenous group that constantly indulges in mutual back-patting as which they are pictured sometimes. But it also shows that not everyone appears to have understood what the writers really meant to say; or vice versa the writers did not always manage to bring their points across.

My personal view? Bloggers interviewing industry members need to be aware that they have to straddle the line between respectfulness and not becoming a tool for promotion, and this might sometimes be difficult to see. And of course factual criticism of other bloggers should always be possible. It’s just the punches below the waistline we should avoid.

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