With lawsuits flying and even the mainstream (non-whiskey) press reporting on it from time time, it looks like the dust-up over craft, handmade, and non-distilling producers (NDPs) isn’t going to settle down anytime soon. And while the motivations of the law firms filing suits can be dubious, the end result is that they will likely force some change and maybe a little more honesty and transparency upon the American whiskey business. In the middle of this controversy — or perhaps, standing off to the side in the shadows — is the blandly named Midwest Grain Products (MGP), formerly known (and usually still referred) to as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), a massive industrial distilling operation on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, just a little west of Cincinnati. MGP is where almost all of the whiskey used by NDPs comes from.
MGP doesn’t offer tours. They don’t advertise. They don’t bottle anything themselves or put their name on anything. They distill for others, and what those other companies do once they buy their barrels — whether they are honest about the whiskey being “sourced” from MGP or whether they obscure the fact behind a fake origin story (usually the same origin story, about someone’s grandfather moonshiner or bootlegger) and fake distillery — has nothing to do with MGP. And yet the big Indiana outfit finds their name mentioned frequently, often times in ways that imply the whiskey they distill, by nature of being from a large industrial operation, is inferior to whiskey from a true, small craft distillery. As anyone who has tasted their way through an endless parade of young, poorly made craft products can attest, or tasted anything from MGP, this is simply not the case. After all, there’s a reason so many people bottling MGP whiskey are winning awards.
But for our purposes here, that’s neither here nor there. What is here or there is the interest that was generated when Single Cask Nation, a small independent bottler in the New York-Connecticut area, released two bottles bearing, in big black obvious letters, the name Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana.
“Our primary aim in releasing bottles with the Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana name on the label was to highlight the good work that this distillery is doing,” says Single Cask Nation’s Joshua Hatton. “We wanted to give credit where it was due. How other people use LDI/MGP is their business. Our business is to find good whiskey casks, educate people about the whiskey and let them know who made the stuff. Full transparency.”
Hatton, who also runs the Jewmalt website and organizes the annual Whisky Jewbilee festival, started Single Cask Nation (and its parent company, the Jewish Whisky Company) along with partners Jason Johnstone and Seth Klaskin. In no way exclusively Jewish, the Jewish Whisky Company was founded to provide education, events, and, through Single Cask Nation, actual whisky that catered to the rules and obligations of observant Judaism. Single Cask Nation is a combination of concepts: a private membership group that anyone in the US can join to gain access to the whiskies they sell, akin to Scotland’s Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and essentially an American version of something very common in Scotland – an independent bottler – someone who searches through available stocks of whiskey from a variety of sources and selects unique and exceptional casks to bottle as part of their own line. In Scotland, many single malts from independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail and Douglas Laing are sought out with even more passion than people searching for bottles from the distilleries themselves.
In the United States, however, the practice is much less common, and many American consumers seem suspicious of the concept. Companies sourcing American whiskey often find themselves tangled in a mass of nondisclosure agreements from suppliers who don’t want to compete with their own product under a different name. And so, in the US, independent bottlers often become “non-distilling producers,” and the source of the spirit — because there are so few large distilleries in United States — generally does not appear on the bottle (as opposed to independently bottled scotch, where not including the distillery name is the rare exception rather than the rule). Canny consumers can usually divine the distiller of a sourced whiskey by looking at the city and state in which it was distilled. This information is required to be on bottles, though many NDPs omit it without getting caught by the government. Which is what has started the whole fracas about fake distilleries and obscured origins.
Single Cask Nation, however, handles themselves like the Scots, noting the distillery of origin and other information right on the front of the bottle (except when, in the case of a recently released bottle of Islay scotch, where SCN was not allowed by the distillery to print the name). And so, when they got their hands on a couple casks distilled at MGP when they were still known as LDI, Hatton decided the LDI name needed to be prominently displayed.
“While it is fairly common practice to be told to keep the name secretive,” explained Hatton, “in purchasing these casks, we were not told to hide the name by our source.”
Also on the label is something else almost as curious as the Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana distillery name: the designation of the spirit as “light whiskey.” One immediately thinks of some awful, watery “diet” whiskey when one hears the name, but that’s not what it is (the patent for diet whiskey resides with Indiana company United Spirits Limited, shares of which are owned by Diageo; they market a diet “whisky” under the name McDowell’s No.1 Diet Mate). So what is light whiskey?
“Light whiskey is a really wild style of whiskey,” says Hatton. “Essentially, light whiskey is made by distilling the wash to between 80% and 94.5% alcohol and then diluting the distillate down to a barrel fill ABV. That distillate is put into used American Oak rather than new charred American Oak. The result is a whiskey that is quite citrusy and floral but with a good deal of vanilla and ginger spice.”
Hatton compares American light whiskey to single grain scotch or single grain Japanese whisky. He first stumbled across the style while working with Utah’s High West to create a unique bottling for the 2014 Whisky Jewbilee. High West put together a blend of 6 year old straight rye, 8 year old straight bourbon and 12 year old light whiskey, all distilled ad LDI. When he tasted the light whiskey that went into the blend, Hatton was sold and wanted to do a bottling.
“It was so different, unique, and new that we had to delve further into the style with the hopes to find some casks that really caught our attention to bottle under the Single Cask Nation label.”
What they found were two casks, one 11 years old which Hatton describes as “a firecracker” (it’s bottled at a whopping 66.3% ABV) and an “older, gentler” sibling, age 13. Both sold out relatively quickly, but Hatton hopes to come across more MGP/LDI casks — be they light, rye, or bourbon — that can become part of the Single Cask Nation offerings. Bottles currently available to members include a 2 year old heavily peated single malt from Seattle’s Westland Distillery that has been matured in a first fill Oloroso sherry barrel, a 10 year old single malt from Glen Moray matured in a first fill bourbon, a 7 year old heavily peated single malt from an undisclosed Islay distillery, a 13 year old Arran from a 2nd fill Oloroso cask, and a 3 year old Catoctin Creek aged in a Sonoma County Chardonnay white wine cask from the Francis Ford Coppola winery.
Besides the two LDI bottles from Single Cask Nation, companies like Redemption, Smooth Ambler, and High West (among others) source whiskey from MGP without trying to be tricky about it or spinning yarns. While MGP/LDI will doubtless continue to be associated with the NDP and fake distillery controversy, this shouldn’t serve as a reflection of the quality of their product or that of bottlers who openly and transparently bottle MGP spirits without attempting to fool consumers. Everything else aside, MGP, formerly LDI, formerly Seagrams, has been in the distilling business for decades. Like similar massive distilling operations in Kentucky (both Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill have giant industrial distilling operations on the outskirts of downtown Louisville), Indiana’s MGP knows what they’re doing. And Hatton, Johnstone, Klaskin, and Single Cask Nation certainly knew what they were doing when they bottled it.