As you meander down the aisles of your local liquor store, a multitude of possibilities unfold in your mind. You know you're on your way to buy something, but triple-takes occasioned by the array of bottles before you slows your gait to a stilted shuffle. The silent sound of confusion fills the space on either side of you, interrupted only by the occasional arm reaching across your periphery to grab a bottle of Jack Daniels, which is somehow everywhere.
After a false start or two, you have arrived at the brown-tinted wall of whiskies. Here, you challenge the fog of abundance with decisive but measured action—you resolve to wade into the stream of the small batch.
There are certainly some familiar names here, though they are now etched in brass-colored calligraphy and accompanied by dangling relics of authenticity as if they had been endowed with pieces of the true cross. You have tried one or two of these, and have heard about two or three more. You pick up one that's ensconced in an ornate, artificially aged wooden box and skim the back label half-attentively. Perhaps . . .
But then you focus on what you don't recognize. The labels are unique, as are the shapes and sizes of the bottles themselves. Each bears a hand-scrawled series of numbers proving the extraordinary rarity of the run you luckily stumbled upon. One apparently shares the mash bill of a whisky Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir made at a secret still in the heart of Yosemite. One has been scientifically proven to have the same chemical composition as a bottle of rye recently discovered in the recesses of Monticello. And one claims to have been crafted by nomadic Mennonites in two-quart batches before being aged in hollow logs on the side of a forgotten mountain on the banks of the Cumberland River.
It is from this sea of ultra small batch whisky that you make your selection. You take it home, you pour it neat, you take a whiff, you lift back the glass. Triumph! Taste the artisan!
Here's the problem: Likely as not, you've been bamboozled. That pre-prohibition, limited edition, single barrel, random-dude-named, secret-aqueduct-sourced, high rye, true American craft spirit you just bought? Yeah, that was probably made by a food-additive company called MGP Ingredients at a huge distillery in Indiana.
You see, in addition to making innovative "food" products like "lightly hydrolyzed wheat protein" and "pregelatinized, modified wheat starch," MGP distills a fairly wide selection of liquors. This includes gin, vodka, and a host of whiskies with varying mash bills. But it doesn't directly sell these products to consumers. Instead, it supplies them to companies that market and distribute them as their own.
Some of MGP's relationships are with large companies that have standalone distilleries, such as Bulleit and George Dickel, who use MGP's products to dabble in something new. (Bulliet Rye and Dickel Rye are both distilled by MGP in Indiana instead of at those companies' distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee.) And so it goes. One huge distillery—owned by a huge conglomerate of distilleries—contracts out one of its products to another huge distillery. The whisky isn't bad, and the bottles both reveal the truth of their origins, even if only on the backside labels.
But the wool that's just been pulled over your eyes at the liquor store is of a different ilk.
[Warning: If you thought I was bordering on snobbish preaching a second ago, brace yourself. I'm about to light the soap box on fire.]
What is this small, independent "distillery" whose product you thought you were buying? It doesn't make the whisky, of course, so I suppose it's not really a distillery. I'd say it makes low-ball glasses and t-shirts and bar signs, all of which you can no doubt buy from its website. But it doesn't really do that, either. It just orders them from t-shirt and glass and bar-sign makers, and sells them on the internet.
Removing all pretenses, then, the question remains: What does a company like that actually do? It hires other companies to design and make the product it sells and the items that market that product. It doesn't own the means of production or aging, and very well may not own the means of bottling or labeling, nor make or design any of the items used in those processes. In all likelihood, it didn't even make the logo that it plasters all over the stuff that the other companies make for them or on the website through which it hypes the stuff that it doesn't make.
Ah, but I suppose it "made" the idea of the particular "craft" liquor you purchased, right?
Well, if that's it, the company isn't really a "craft" or "artisan" anything, let alone distillery.
It's an ad agency.
But let's not be too harsh. Some of those companies say that they need to use MGP to establish their brand and fund their eventual functioning distilleries. It takes a fair amount of money to start such an operation from scratch, after all. Instead of spending the time to figure out how to blend, ferment, distill, and age liquor before starting a business in which they have to blend, ferment, distill, and age liquor, they can order an MGP pre-selected blend that's already aging on a shelf in Indiana, ready to be bottled with the label and authentic-sounding mythology of the their choice. Sure, it'll taste similar to all of MGP's spirts that other small companies market as their own, but hey, all those bottles and back stories are so unique!
That, boys and girls, is a giant, steaming pile of horse manure.
But lo! All is not lost! Craft spirits need not be purchased from MGP's middle men wrapped in a self-hyped mantle of contrived independence. Real artisans still exist, and not just at huge distilleries that have been making whisky for generations.
Let me introduce you to the craftsmen of Lexington's Barrel House Distilling to show you how it's really done.
That Kentucky is a veritable land of bourbon need not be parsed or explained. In my mind, the amber, liquefied corn flows from uncapped derricks all across the Bluegrass State. Stills are on every corner, and the streets are lined with whisky stones. It is to bourbon what Oregon is to beer.
But that's not exactly the way things work. While beer hubs like Oregon and Colorado boast more than 150 brewers apiece, Kentucky's distillery set is much more limited. As of a few years ago, there were only around 20 functioning distilleries in the commonwealth. The dozens of brands and styles of straight Kentucky bourbon you see in stores? Those all come from this handful of facilities, many of which are owned by large corporations. There are of course quality products across the board from these fine establishments. But it's just not quite the scene I assumed existed surrounding all the small batch Kentucky gold I see on store shelves.
The landscape was perhaps even more devoid of craft distillers back in the mid-aughts, where we meet up with our two central protagonists. Pete Wright and Jeff Wiseman were a couple of UK-educated bourbon aficionados well along vastly different, but equally successful vocational paths. Pete was an Army veteran and practicing neurologist, and Jeff had recently sold a large freight company to pursue a career as a contractor.
At the time, the two were part of a larger group of old Lexington friends who met monthly to play poker and enjoy their favorite drinks. And not unlike the conversations that pop up when home brewers gather to discuss their passion, the banter between these bourbon junkies eventually drifted toward the topic of their town's lack of a distillery.
"Someone should start one," they all agreed.
- Dramatic pause -
"Why not us?"
"Why not us," indeed. There was no good answer to this question. (Other than the fact that none of them had the slightest clue how to distill anything, let alone run a business devoted entirely to the craft.) So over the course of the next three or four months, six of the friends started talking seriously about the idea of creating a hometown distillery. As discussions continued, that number dropped to four. Then to three. And then finally to two: Pete and Jeff.
Resolute in their decision, they began the bizarre task of figuring out what the hell to do next. And this, my friends, is where our heroes departed from the hoards that slap a baroque label on a bottle of MGP's factory formula.
The first step? They went to a conference held by the American Distilling Institute in Louisville where they attended workshops, networked with people in the industry, and, well, just talked with everyone that was willing to put up with them.
They apparently did all of this quite well, because one of the contacts they made at this event was the president of the organization. He was an invaluable resource, and suggested literature the two should consult as well as people to contact regarding distilling equipment and manufacturing processes.
Next came the really interesting part: making the stuff for the first time.
Now folks, this wasn't a test drive of a fancy, professionally designed new facility built after investors had funded and fully staffed these guys' dream. This was dudes with a turkey fryer and a ten-gallon still welded out of copper sheets by a fella a couple of states over.
So yeah, this was the real deal.
The early experiments focused upon two spirits—bourbon and, odd though it seemed for a pair of Kentuckians, rum. The former was of course the impetus for the whole adventure. (They would eventually decide upon making a wheated bourbon, by the way.) But because it was going to have to age for some time before they could sell it, they knew they would have to branch out in order to have a viable business from the beginning.
So, taking some inspiration from another small craft distiller in Tennessee, they took a whirl at rum, which would not only be ready for market more quickly, but could also serve to distinguish them among other Kentucky distilleries. And after their new friends at the ADI raved about the early samples of Barrel House's unaged rum, Pete and Jeff knew they were on to something.
But then someone got the bright idea to age this fermented cane sugar and molasses in used bourbon barrels. This would of course mean that the rum would now take time to bring to market.
Further, it turns out that a new craft distiller can't just walk down to the local Home Depot to stock up on new charred or used oak barrels. Pete and Jeff found that they would have to "fight and claw" to get every barrel that they could. Used barrels were scarce, and new ones were typically reserved for established distillers and those of a much larger scale.
As the experiments continued, then, there would need to be other products the Barrel House boys could, you know, make and sell to people. The business side of the distillery was progressing, after all. They had a pure water source from the Daniel Boone National Forest south of Lexington. And by 2008, they occupied a 5,000 sq. ft. facility ready for action. (Pete didn't tell me how many turkey fryers they could fit in the place.)
So what did they do to get their business going? A vodka distilled from 100% Kentucky corn, that's what:
"Pure Blue" vodka hit the market in 2008 as the company's first retail product. It was a success with consumers—many of whom happily used the presence of the word "blue" in the name to consume generous quantities of the stuff on Kentucky's game days—and critics alike.
So over the next six years, the guys at Barrel House have stayed the course. They added another unaged product to their line-up—a sugar and corn-based Kentucky moonshine—to help keep things rolling. In 2012, they released their rum, which they call "Oak Rum" given the profile the drink developed after spending three or four years in the used bourbon barrels. (And, yes, it was good.) They continued experimenting with mash bills for different types of whiskies, and have even entertained the possibility of developing a rum made exclusively out of local sorghum.
But for all their continued success, and the manner in which they literally started their business from nothing, the thing that may be most remarkable is this: even now, the bourbon ages.
These overtly proud Kentuckians, these self-described "frustrated football fans," have a patience I can hardly fathom. The very reason they started this business, the impetus for the hours and money and energy spent with turkey fryers and barrel scrounging and grain suppliers and a morass of disjunctive regional distribution laws—it's just sitting there in barrels, staring at them.
But instead of cracking under the load of anticipation (and certain but unrealized profit), Pete and Jeff and their team of, yes, honest-to-God artisans, do their duty. They taste, they think, and they wait for perfection.
This, folks, is the difference between Barrel House and the hacks that hype the imaginary distilleries that sell MGP whisky as their own. Patience, mindfulness, and a recognition of the Good.
So when you're in Lexington this weekend, go down to Barrel House and ingest a little of UK's lifeblood to appease the SEC East's schizophrenic football gods. Talk some trash over some moonshine, and savor the bourbon notes in the rum crafted from Kentucky spring water.
And when you look upon the barrels of whisky waiting their turn, be comforted. That's what it's all about.