Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MGP Deserves Their Victory Lap Too

In the World Whisky Awards (WWA) just concluded, Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10-year-old single barrel bourbon was named World's Best Single Barrel Bourbon.

The WWA is presented by Whisky Magazine. It is all blind tasting and they have good judges. Of all the awards for which I've served as a judge, nobody does it better than Whisky Magazine. (I was not a judge this time.)

The WWA doesn't make any distinction between large distilleries and small, or between distillers and non-distiller producers (NDPs). All are welcome. Because it is such a big tent, it is exciting when a small producer wins one of the top awards. The Smooth Ambler team is right to be proud.

Smooth Ambler is a good company that has always been transparent about its business. It is a small company, in West Virginia, that is both a distiller and an NDP, and they make it clear which products are sourced and which are housemade. Everything sold under the Old Scout trademark is sourced, all or most of it from MGP of Indiana. Another WWA award winner, Smooth Ambler Contradiction, won a gold. It is a blend of housemade (27%) and sourced whiskey.

There is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey if you're up front about it and Smooth Ambler has always been a straight shooter. I wish all NDPs were as honest as Smooth Ambler. (They aren't.) The Smooth Ambler team deserves credit for creating and marketing the Old Scout line of very carefully curated whiskeys. Yet it's a shame that Greg Metze and his team at MGP, who actually distilled and aged the winning whiskey, don't get a nice plaque to hang on their wall. That's not Smooth Ambler's fault. That's maybe not even Whisky Magazine's fault, as they have never inquired about whether any winner actually made the whiskey that won.

Diageo, the world's largest spirits company and a very large distiller internationally, is an NDP for most American whiskey purposes. If Bulleit Rye won a big award, MGP wouldn't get a victory lap for that either.

About once a year, some major media outlet 'discovers' that some whiskey producers don't make the products they sell. People who actually pay attention to whiskey and maybe read a book or magazine now and then already know this, but the media outlet will play it up like some big revelation and it will be news to most of the people who see the report.

The problem is that most people assume--and they're not necessarily to be criticized for assuming this--that a company called Buick makes Buick automobiles, and a company called Hershey's makes Hershey's chocolates, and a company called Keebler makes all those cookies and crackers, though probably not in a hollow tree.

The reality is generally more complicated.

It is, however, always your right as a consumer to ask "Who made this?" And when you do, you deserve an honest and complete answer.

Perhaps it's also possible that whiskey is a special case. A quarter million people tour the Jack Daniel's distillery every year. How many Buick owners want to visit the factory where their car was assembled? And if whiskey is a special case, maybe craft spirits are a special case too. That doesn't mean a small distillery can't also be a NDP, but it can get tricky.

And you know at least one person is going to get a blog post out of it.

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