• Mark Still

The waters of the bourbon world are so murky

Can we be forgiven for our ignorance of what lies beneath? No, we can not.


I recently had a conversation - I'll call it that because saying 'recently exchanged social media comments' is sad - with one of two sisters who'd swapped bottles of whiskey with her out of state sibling. The idea was for them to swap local whiskies and share something unique from where they live. Unique.


The conversation started when the sister in my state commented in a local social media group that they'd 'given their sister a completely unique and stellar bottle and gotten back some local bottle' they'd never heard of. 'Typical of her. I always get the short end of these things', she typed.


It turns out that I'd had whiskey from that no-name local distillery from another state and quite enjoyed it. The bottle I had was also a gift from a local who had transplanted to my area and they were eager to share their home whiskey. I read up on the distillery and found their story to be impressive. That distillery distills all of its whiskey in their own facility and they also bottled and aged it themselves and have done so for more than a decade.


Meanwhile, the offended sister's offering came from a one-year-old distillery that chose to source whiskey to offer for sale - which can make a lot of sense since founding a distillery is some expensive and risky business - and the unique bottle in question was a bottling of MGP whiskey that sold at more than double the price of the locally produced whiskey.


To be sure, none of this means that the sourced bottle may not be delicious. It doesn't mean that it's better or worse than the craft produced bottle. Unique doesn't mean good. There are uniquely poor experiences all over the place and craft whiskey has been fighting an uphill battle in the whiskey renaissance we are living in for years and for good reason in many cases. Again, the spirits business is hard.


But if I'm in search of something unique, I just don't think of finding it coming off of a still in a giant factory. I get that distillation is only one part of the process and if a non-distiller producer took that fresh distillate and carted it away to barrel and age it in some other place, there is certainly value and a unique component that might possibly result from that. That just doesn't compare to the result of starting with the grain in a place and following through to a bottled whiskey years down the road in my opinion if we're talking about uniqueness.


It speaks to the murky world whiskey has been in for decades. Whiskey geeks in many circles have latched onto MGP whiskey and sent prices skyrocketing for bottles of aged whiskey from brands that didn't exist when the whiskey was barreled. That doesn't register with me. It isn't that I don't sometimes quite enjoy MGP distilled bourbon or rye whiskey. It's just that I'm trying to hold onto some semblance of economically reasonable thinking. When did mass produced food and beverages ever become more valued than an artisan product? Has anyone ever bragged about their grocery store branded cola other than about how cheap it is? Oh, that Dr. Thunder goodness?!?!

I'm off track. The moral of the story is that there is a difference between a unique bottling of a common whiskey and a unique whiskey commonly offered. I know which one I'd spend my money on and why. Do you?

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