Let Us Take You There!

Most liquor made in factories, no matter the label

By Jason BlevinsThe Denver Post

POSTED:   09/28/2014 12:01:00 AM MDT
UPDATED:   09/29/2014 04:03:59 PM MDT
Matthew Ward, right, labels bottles of Rocky Mountain Peach Whiskey with a barrel and batch number while Alec Ropes boxes them.

Matthew Ward, right, labels bottles of Rocky Mountain Peach Whiskey with a barrel and batch number while Alec Ropes boxes them. (Photos by Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

That local liquor from the distillery down the road might not be so local. Chances are the brown liquor comes from industrial factories in Indiana, Kentucky or Tennessee and the vodka comes from large ethanol producers.

Those factories churn out millions of gallons of hooch every year, and they feed the nation’s exploding craft distilling industry. Ever wonder how a brand-new distiller is offering 8-year-old whiskey? It is buying it.

And many of those upstart companies are more crafty than craft, laboring to conceal the source of their liquor with provincial names and marketing that taps the wildly trendy locavore movement.

Ears burn when Rory Donovan talks about distilleries that hide the origin of their hooch.

“This whole thing is like comparing an air-guitar player to a real guitarist,” said Donovan, co-founder of 9-year-old Peach Street Distillers in Palisade. “One of them is pretending to be the other.”

Peach Street, he said, “did it the stupid, hard way,” laboring for years to craft the right bourbon and then waiting years for it to finish in oak-staved barrels.

Donovan said he understands the financial reasoning that drives up-and-coming distillers to buy liquor, but he is unwavering in his disdain for distillers who hide it.

“There’s something that does feel good when these charlatans are exposed,” he said, panting into the phone after spending an afternoon welding in his distillery.

 Worst-kept secret

A pair of class-action lawsuits filed this month against craft distillers has exposed what many consider the worst-kept secret in craft distilling: Despite the marketing, most liquor is factory-made.

For several years, Iowa’s Templeton Rye distillery promoted its $35 whiskey as “small batch” and “made in Iowa.” Tapping its small-town roots, the distiller peddled its Prohibition-era recipe as the favorite drink of Al Capone.

In fact, the whiskey was made from a stock recipe in Indiana’s MGP Ingredients factory, which distills whiskey for dozens of brands. The lawsuit accuses Templeton of duping consumers into spending more for its whiskey with an untruthful tale.

Another class-action lawsuit filed this month in California targets Tito’s Handmade Vodka, arguing the Texas-based distillery cannot be hand-crafting — “in an old fashioned pot still” as the label says — the 15 million bottles of vodka it sells annually.

“The vodka was made, manufactured and/or produced in massive buildings containing 10 floor-to-ceiling stills and bottling 500 cases an hour using automated machinery that is the antithesis of ‘handmade,’ ” reads the lawsuit filed by a California real estate broker.

Not disclosing the source of pure whiskey on a bottle’s label violates federal regulations.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — or TTB — requires the state of distillation to be named on whiskey labels, unless the whiskey is blended. The regulation is part of the byzantine rules that have governed whiskey since the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791 sparked the infamous Whiskey Rebellion.

Today, a modern-day whiskey revolt is fermenting, with whiskey fans laboring to differentiate distillers who actually make the liquor and those who simply package it.

Todd Leopold examines the vodka mash fermenting in large Douglas fir wood barrels. Leopold, head distiller at Leopold Bros., runs a small-batch distillery

It’s a task true craft distillers have been reticent to do in recent years, said Chuck Cowdery, author of “Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey.”

“When the real craft distillers are critical, somebody will always chime in and say you are trying to run other people down to build yourself up,” Cowdery said.

So whiskey fans and the hordes of bourbon geeks who flock to online forums likestraightbourbon.com are taking up the fight.

It requires sleuthing to uncover distilleries that source their bourbon.

The outfits that are aboveboard — like Park City, Utah’s High West Distillery — clearly label who made their bourbon, acknowledging they need to sell something while their own creation ages in oak barrels.

Other outfits might briefly mention that their whiskey was made with Midwestern grains but amplify the fact it was cut with local water.

Searching a federal database for Certificate of Label Approval often reveals the source of some whiskeys.

Cowdery has drawn a bead on Double Diamond Distilling in Breckenridge, which he says sells far more of its popular Breckenridge Bourbon than it can make yet does not disclose the source of the bourbon it imports from other states.

“They are in violation of labeling laws,” he said. “Yes, they can get away with not following those laws because enforcement is lax, but it’s still illegal.”

Repeated calls to the federal TTB were not returned.

Double Diamond owner Bryan Nolt said his team — led by the respected master distiller Jordan Via — distills its own bourbon but sometimes blends it with whiskey from another location. He declined to name where he sources his bourbon for blending, calling it a “proprietary process.”

“Talking to our peers in the industry, there are a lot of folks freaking out about label details,” Nolt said. “We are pretty sure we are compliant with TTB guidelines, but like everyone else, we’re making sure everything is compliant.”

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