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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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal Granov March 16, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Oh dear.

I was not aware of the blogger issues until i saw Johanne’s post, but did not really get what she was pointing at. NDP is indeed quite an issue. and that whistlepig (i knew about it, it’s INSANE!) is a clear example. indeed the entire bourbon / whiskey business where there are a few distilleries and each bottling quite a few brands and pricing them differently is quite crazy…

oh well ;) god bless SWA? or…

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Rich Thomas March 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Mr. Klimek: you’ve start out on a good footing by pointing out how some practices which are regarded as unremarkable in Europe are treated as suspicious or crooked in the United States. However, you’ve managed to repeat some misinformation in your cases. We made a similar point while at the same time tackling those tired old canards back in December.

http://whiskeyreviewer.com/2013/12/whiskey-sourcing-and-scandalmongering-all-smoke-no-fire_120613

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Oliver Klimek March 17, 2014 at 6:16 am

Much has been said in the comments section of your article, in particular by Sku, so I don’t want to repeat these arguments here. It appears you did not get the true reason for the anger about the NDPs who have been criticized: Their evaisiveness about not having their own distillery for example at Bulleit (“Can I visit your disillery?”-”Sorry we don’t do tours”), their evasiveness about the source of the whisky for example at Whistlepig (entering a Canadian whisky into the American category of an award) and their hijacking of a distillery tradition when they have only bought the name of the brand like Michter’s.

You can criticize the Scotch whisky industry for a lot of things (just read a liitle on this blog). But their regulations for preventing active misleading with regard to the source of the whisky are far superior to the wishy-washy US regulations. And yes, I call it active misleading. Of course everyting the NDPs say is legal, but it is more about the things they DON’T say. This often reeks of “How can we manage to make it appear we are a distillery without actually saying that we distill ourselves?” The “Master Distiller” issue is only secondary here, but having one surly helps in creating the illusion.

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Rich Thomas March 17, 2014 at 11:02 am

I understand the point perfectly well, because we have criticized very particular instances of deceptive practices in the past, most recently in our piece on the minor flap that blew up over Templeton Rye’s pork feed project. Basically, Templeton’s past behavior pretty much guarantees that whiskey fans will continue to look at them with skepticism for some time to come.

That said, many of the claims in the American blogosphere are downright hysterical, and sometimes as false as the worst of what comes from the most deceptive American bottlers. I’m sorry you see fit to repeat and adopt some of those attitudes, like that “master distiller” canard. It appears you did not get the true reason for why that assertion is dodgy. Perhaps you should re-read the piece? That was one point really argues with since I made it.

I’ll be tackling this issue again in a couple of weeks.

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Oliver Klimek March 17, 2014 at 1:47 pm

First of all: I have nothing new to add to the discussion. This article was meant to wrap up the debate for my “Scotch centric” readers who may not have followed it intensively. The arguments werde made by people who know a lot more about American whisky than I do. I support these arguments because I think they are plausible and valid. If you dan disprove the arguments in an article, please do so. Tackle them one by one and say what is wrong with each.

Your blog post makes three points. Firstly you fight against an “All NDP is bad” attitude which nobody I know of has claimed to have. NDP is not bad just because. It is the intransparency of some that causes the anger. I don’t think John Glaser is a good example to prove your point. He is one of the trademark examples for transparency in the Scotch independent bottling business. He does exactly what the critics you are fighting want the NDPs in focus to do.

Your second point is about the Master Distiller issue which I already said is secondary in my opinion. And then you essentially say that as long as an NDP doesn’t explicitly write “we have distilled this whisky”, there is no problem at all. So if anyone actually believes that an NDP has a distillery, is it their own fault because they are too naive or too stupid to get the message?

Have I missed something?

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Rich Thomas March 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

In your own piece, you state “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’.” That is a completely accurate statement in my view, and I concur.

What you misundersand is that many an American croaker don’t stop there, and insist that if the source itself isn’t revealed, something crooked must be going on. Simply saying “I’m a bottler” isn’t enough for such people, and that often translates into something being wrong with selling juice coming from another company. It’s a staple of the American whiskey blogosphere. The whole thing has gone from reasonable complaining about fishy practices to becoming something akin to a witch hunt, where any unfamiliar product is treated with harsh cynicism in fan circles.

I raise John Glaser not because I accused him of being deceptive, very far from it, actually. You are right to say his company is pretty transparent, which is exactly the point you are missing — if I were to take the standards of the fairly large, extreme wing of American ultra-gripers, even Compass Box would come up as hiding something and would therefore be “bad.” If Compass Box doesn’t pass the litmus test, then I think it’s fair to ask if something isn’t fundamentally wrong with the test itself.

Finally, if the “master distiller” title issue is secondary, as you say, then why did you spend the middle half of your article dwelling on it? In so doing, you’ve repeated some a couple of the more serious exaggerations of the “all NDPs are bad” crowd. But, as you say, you have nothing new to add to the discussion.

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Jeff March 17, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Having read your argument, I still find the “Master Distiller” issue far more than a canard. It’s true that “Master Distiller” is more than a job title, but the source of its respect and authority IS based on the work done: responsibility for actual distilling. No one disputes whether Dave Pickerell or Willie Pratt are Master Distillers, but they earned that designation at places other than WhistlePig and Michter’s – by necessity, as there’s nothing being distilled by those companies. When a company claims to have a Master Distiller on the payroll, it’s certainly implied that he is employed in that capacity unless it’s stated otherwise, and so that there IS some distillation going on at that company for him to be actively “mastering”. If a restaurant advertises that it employs a Master Chef, most people would take from that that he/she oversees the operation of the kitchen and its staff and that there is actual cooking going on in that kitchen, not that all the food is prepared somewhere else and comes in through the back door which the Master Chef holds open for the delivery guy.

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Rich Thomas March 17, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Except that Master Chefs are often employed in the role of executive management, and it is hardly uncommon to see them doing little actual line cooking on a day to day basis. The same thing is, actually, applicable to Master Distillers — how many of them spend their time doing the actual day to day distilling?

Furthermore, anyone who focuses their ire on the company chooses to ignore the very fundamental question of how the actual esteemed individuals in question feel about it. I’ve asked some of them, and unsurprisingly they aren’t thrilled with the notion that they can’t use a title they spent a career earning for whatever they are doing just because some guy with a Blogspot account says so… and your Master Chef would feel exactly the same way.

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Jeff March 17, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Who said I thought Master Chefs do actual line cooking (I said oversees the operation of the kitchen and its staff) or that a Master Distiller spends all their time beside a still (I said responsibility for actual distilling, not operating a still)? It doesn’t change the fact that, to have people employed with those titles (and to publicize both the person and the title) implies that they are acting in those capacities unless otherwise stated – and so it gives people the definite impression that there must be some cooking and distilling going on somewhere that they’re overseeing.

Dealing with your second point, such as it is, how do these esteemed individuals feel about having companies use, and really debase, their hard-earned reputations AND titles (earned elsewhere at reputable companies) to create the false impression that their employers are distillers when in fact they’re not? As experts, indeed masters of distillation, Pickerell and Pratt know that the titles they’ve earned are based on past work they have done, not work they are currently doing (because there is no distilling to be mastered). “For whatever they are doing” is exactly the point – just what are Pickerell and Pratt doing for their current employers, because it isn’t distillation. If they’re unhappy about criticism over using their titles where they’re currently employed, how much more unhappy must they be being employed at places where they can’t practice their mastered craft?

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Steffen Bräuner March 16, 2014 at 4:28 pm

All this pretending is not really limited to NDP, or semi NDP products

(I use the term semi-NDP for a company that gets everything done by a specific distillery, opposed to other NDP that shops around more or less random)

http://oldripvanwinkle.com/ – it takes a few clicks realising this is not a distillery (if you didn’t know)

http://rebelyellbourbon.com/ – I spent a full day driving around Louisville and asking several locals for directions, I didn’t manage to find this distillery. Now that was a full days holiday wasted….

The list is endless, I just put up a couple of examples here. USA whiskeys are a lot more recipe and brand positioned than distillery, and some brands have moved around or getting content from various distilleries. Also, just because a whiskey is named Woodford Reserve doesn’t necesarily mean the whiskey if (all) is from the Woodford Reserve Distillery. You got absolutely no guarentee a bourbon is the single product of a specific distillery, unless it’s BiB or have the words “Distilled at xxx distillery” on the label.

It is just a different world thna scotch single malts. And no, Gal, you won’t get me cheering on the SWA. I am surprised Oliver hasn’t ranted about the new fee they will impose on all bottlers, which is a drop in the sea for the likes of Diageo, Edrington, LMVH and Pernod/Ricard but is a lot of money for the small independent bottler. They aren’t really doing me anything good, apart from placing Dalwhinnie in Speyside :) to go around annoy people with :-)

Take a tour around websites of american distilleries. 90% are glamourising, misleading, ignoring “particular” facts, pretending or bullshitting. Worse than Aberfeldy you might argue, but then, when you are done with the scottish alphabet you can go busy in the US Oliver :-). Very busy

End of the day, all this US mess gives me something to talk about when I host bourbon tastings, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much :-)

Steffen

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Jeff March 16, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Johanne McInnis finds “that (bloggers) tearing each other down, discounting other bloggers methods or values is not professional”, but that speaks directly to the center of the issue: bloggers aren’t professionals, aren’t held to any professional standard and, in many cases, have no interest in being held to any standard beyond their own (which, in itself, isn’t always articulated). This being the case, it’s unavoidable that there will be a wide variety of approaches to blogging and a wide variety of reactions to those approaches. Factor in such things as known and unknown personal relationships between bloggers and industry people, and even that some bloggers are sometimes hesitant to write the less-than-rosy version of what they’re really thinking because of the politics of the whisky community, and it becomes the Wild West. But in order for all approaches to blogging to be equally respected, don’t they have to be (and are they) equally respectable and to/by whom? Back to the Wild West; in reserving the right to write (or, importantly, to avoiding writing) their own rules, bloggers naturally invite criticism of the decisions they personally make. Some bloggers might characterize “respect” for their methods as being reflected only by positive “atta boy” comments, just as some whisky producers might characterize only positive comments as being respectful of their craft, but not everyone sees it the same way.

As far as I’m concerned, folks who take freebies from the companies they’re writing about need to at least acknowledge that fact, if not examine whether it compromises their objectivity. That which is presented in public is fair game for public criticism and, in fact, both the industry and the majority of whisky bloggers could stand greater critical scrutiny and, in many cases, a more critical approach to what they do – there is far too much of the constant exaggerated drumbeat of “whisky’s great and just getting better / boy, I like whisky!” There is no defense for comment that is factually inaccurate, but the fact that criticism IS starting to focus on the bloggers shows that, for better, or worse, they are being taken as whisky’s journalists (the professional writers largely being written off as general industry spokespeople and many bloggers are certainly starting to marginalize themselves through the same behaviour). As a result, some commentators do protest when certain blogs seem to be going in a marketing direction because those people see the need for honest, unvarnished, non-political comment on the whisky industry and its products. For their part, many bloggers might have never asked, or want, to be considered a “whisky journalist” but, on their face, many blogs look much the same and it sometimes takes a while to differentiate (where a distinction has to be drawn) between those who want their commentary to be taken as serious critical assessment and those who just like to write about whisky without being particularly critical, either in their comments or their approach.

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Josh Feldman March 17, 2014 at 3:44 am

Thanks for the shout-out, Oliver. Even if I’m an object lesson here in what to avoid. Personally, I’m not an expert in the American whiskey scene – but have been getting more involved in it through my love for dusty American whiskies and the fabulous history I keep running into when chasing them down. I knew Michter’s was a quagmire when I went in – so I waded into the debate with open eyes. I have taken some body blows, but have enjoyed the heat, action, and probably illusory sense of relevance that has come along with it. It’s important for everyone to remember that American whiskey has legislation governing mash bill, barreling proof, and aging in new oak “containers”. It doesn’t say boo about honesty about where the juice comes from except in the narrow case of the “Bottled In Bond” designation. Sure enough, brands are shifted willy nilly among owners and distilleries in the history of American whiskey. Certain beloved brands, such as Eagle Rare, Old Grand Dad, I.W. Harper, Old Taylor, Weller, Old Fitz, have changed hands 3 or more times in the past 75 years and have been produced at 3 or more distilleries over that time. These changes are seldom acknowledged. Furthermore almost every brand ended up shifting distilleries, recipes, mash bills, and yeast types between their pre-Prohibition and post Repeal incarnations. This renders pretty much every historical claim which harkens back to the 19th century somewhere between a specious fantasy and an outright marketing lie. This is part of whiskey in the USA. This history in the 19th century was even worse – with gussied up neutral spirits being sold as whiskey and virtually everything not sold in a sealed bottle being adulterated in one way or another. This is why the bottled in bond act was passed in the first place and where the emphasis on honesty in Bourbon came from: a necessary antidote to a history that is full of more deceit and chicanery than that of patent medicine sold at carnival side shows. The current explosion of NDP production – particularly in connection with the craft whiskey boom – is clearly problematic in this regard. There is a crying need for reform but I don’t think “government regulation” is on anyone’s radar at all. Chuck Cowdery has proposed voluntary measures by industry organizations to certify labeling honesty but I haven’t heard boo about this. Only market forces will make any kind of meaningful change. And the market, at the moment, is one of boom driven supply shortage. Every drop is getting sold – except for the very worst. Anything with any measure of excitement is getting sold out and bid up in the forbidden but thriving aftermarket. In this kind of environment, no one has any incentive in addressing these issues. We will have to watch and see if the market gets fed up enough to begin letting the air out of the boom. This is true of the NAS issue in Scotch as well. Will declining whisky quality be the poison pill which kills the goose laying the golden eggs? I sure hope not – but things definitely seem to be heading in that direction.

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whiskylassie March 17, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Good write up, as always Oliver… oh wait, that smells like the #whiskyfabric softener?!

Hmmm… you are nothing but a Barbaric hot air balloon who wasn’t hugged enough as a child and has a desperate need for attention… Oh no wait, that’s Coop… or maybe SKU, no, no wait… it was… ahhhh, hmmmm, Annoying whisky opinions?! Awww crap, I can’t keep track… doesn’t matter….

Moving on…

(Please insert fits of laughter, a few drams and that all of my comments are made purely in jest) well except the pat on the back which is genuine I assure you. :)

Respectfully always,

Johanne

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