Templeton Rye has been in the news a lot lately. Bryce T. Bauer’s book Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots was released in July, the same month that the Daily Beast published an article by Eric Felten titled “Your ‘Craft’ Rye Whiskey Is Probably From a Factory Distillery in Indiana.” (My review of the book is here.) And yesterday the Des Moines Register reported that a Chicago-based law firm had filed a class-action lawsuit against Templeton Rye on the grounds that the company “broke consumer protection laws and misled drinkers with stories of its whiskey’s prohibition-era origins.”
Felten’s article predates the lawsuit but still gets to the heart of the matter, calling out several popular and well-respected brands of rye whiskey, Templeton in particular, for having their product made by MGP, a food, alcohol, and bioplastics manufacturer in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. “Their products are well-made, but hardly what one thinks of as artisanal,” Felten writes. “And yet, much of the whiskey now being sold as the hand-crafted product of micro-distilleries actually comes from this one Indiana factory.”
That revelation isn’t quite as shocking as Felten makes it sound: while the general public may not be aware that many brands of whiskey are distilled in a large factory, it’s not news to anyone familiar with the spirits industry. Michael Dietsch explained in his excellent guide to rye whiskey for Serious Eats back in 2012 how Templeton, Redemption, Bulleit, Willett, and High West rye whiskeys are all made using the same MGP hooch. And last year the Cleveland Scene published an article making a point very similar to Felten’s, though it doesn’t seem to have gotten the same kind of traction.
The problem isn’t with the quality of MGP’s product: experts agree that the whiskey the company makes is very good, which the authors of all the articles I mentioned are careful to point out. Nor are identical whiskeys being sold under different labels. While the rye that distilleries buy from MGP is all made using the same recipe, those distilleries then blend it with other whiskeys to create distinct products. Some go even further: George Dickel charcoal-filters its MGP rye, while Angel’s Envy ages theirs in rum casks. In a rebuttal to Felten’s piece, Dave Lieberman argued in the OC Weekly that where whiskey is distilled doesn’t matter. According to Lieberman, blending is the step of the whiskey production process that has the most influence on its taste. “Frankly, anyone who can’t tell the difference between High West Rye and Redemption Rye has a palate problem, not a production problem, and shouldn’t be drinking fine whiskeys anyway,” he writes.
The issue, it seems, is with deceptive advertising. Some companies readily admit that their product is made elsewhere; Blaum Bros. Distilling in Galena sells Knotter Bourbon (pronounced “not our bourbon”), which the product description explains was not made by them. And Chicago’s CH Distillery has taken a similar approach, printing the words “We didn’t make this, but you can still love it” on its bourbon bottles. Both distilleries are new and haven’t had time to age their own whiskeys yet, though they’re in the process of doing so. But while that whiskey sits in barrels, the distilleries are selling their own vodkas, gins, and other products along with whiskey made by other distilleries.
For distilleries that sell only whiskey, however, admitting that they don’t make their own isn’t necessarily good for their image—but not disclosing that information can have its own consequences. WhistlePig, some of the most highly regarded rye whiskey in the U.S., launched in 2010 with a ten-year-old whiskey made from 100 percent rye grain. The label proclaims that it’s hand-bottled at WhistlePig Farm in Vermont, which is true. What it doesn’t say, though, is that the whiskey is made at an industrial distillery in Canada. The founders haven’t exactly hidden that fact; various sources have been reporting that the whiskey comes from Canada since soon after it was released. But the company hasn’t been particularly forthcoming, either—there’s no mention of Canada anywhere on WhistlePig’s website—and it’s faced a fair amount of criticism for lack of transparency. The official line is that master distiller Dave Pickerell went on an 18-month quest starting in 2008 to find the best rye whiskey in the world and finally discovered it in Canada; he and entrepreneur Raj Bhakta teamed up to bring it to the U.S. under the WhistlePig label.
Whiskey expert Davin de Kergommeaux, who’s Canadian, wrote a positive review of WhistlePig in 2011—though he was careful to point out that it’s Canadian whiskey, not American. Last year, though, after a WhistlePig representative at a tasting tried to convince him that the whiskey was made in the U.S., he got fed up and wrote a blog post titled “WhistlePig Farms is not a distillery.” After declaring WhistlePig one of the best rye whiskeys on the market, he continues: “I have been a fan of WhistlePig from day 1. Unfortunately the guile with which this wonderful whisky is marketed also began on day 1. Rather than tell us that WhistePig is sourced whisky, the marketing folks invented a new evasive term. They called their whisky ‘found’ as if somehow it had been lost. Sorry boys, distillers in Canada keep track of every barrel of whisky they make, and every drop of whisky in each barrel.”
Templeton rivals WhistlePig in deliberately obfuscating the source of its whiskey. The bottle clearly states: “Produced and bottled by Templeton Rye Spirits, LLC, Templeton, Iowa,” with no mention of Indiana anywhere on the label. And both the front and back labels mention a “Prohibition era recipe”—implying, of course, that Templeton’s recipe is from the Prohibition era. In smaller letters on the back, it does say “based on the original Prohibition era recipe,” and Templeton’s website acknowledges that the recipe doesn’t replicate the Prohibition-era one; under current federal regulations, that recipe wouldn’t qualify as rye whiskey (distillers at the time used more corn and less rye). The site also says that experts formulated the recipe used to make Templeton rye in Lawrenceburg to match the Prohibition-era recipe as closely as possible.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register in August, however, both the president and chairman of the Templeton Rye company confirmed that the whiskey the company sells is made using MGP’s stock recipe for rye. After being distilled and aged in Indiana, the whiskey is shipped to Templeton, where it’s blended with other whiskeys and water (to lower the proof) before being bottled.
Does it matter that Templeton Rye isn’t made at Templeton? Or that WhistlePig is distilled in Canada, not on the picturesque farm prominently featured on its website? That depends who you ask—but demand for more transparency in the labeling of whiskey is increasing. Federal regulations don’t allow companies to print on product labels that they’ve distilled the product if they haven’t, but they can say they’ve produced it (“produced by” and “bottled by” are common phrases on labels for whiskey that’s been purchased from another distiller). And if the whiskey is distilled in a different state than the one where the brand is located, regulations dictate that the state where the whiskey is distilled must be printed on the label.
According to the Des Moines Register, in April certified spirits specialist Wade Woodard reported to the federal government more than 50 whiskeys that he believes aren’t complying with the labeling rule, including Templeton. He hasn’t seen any changes in labeling yet, though. And Edelson PC, the same Chicago-based law firm that just filed suit against Templeton, has been looking to file class-action lawsuits against nearly a dozen whiskey brands that have represented their whiskeys as coming from “small, independent distilleries when they are actually all made in the same large, generic distillery.” Last month the blog and podcast WhiskyCast reported that the law firm is seeking people who’ve bought whiskey from Templeton Rye, Angel’s Envy Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Rye, Seagram’s 7, Breaker Bourbon, High West, WhistlePig Rye, Redemption, and Rancho de Los Luceros Destileria to participate in a consumer class action suit. High West founder David Perkins told WhiskyCast by e-mail that he was “not very disturbed by this nor am I worried for anyone named. It sounds ludicrous!”
Templeton Rye is currently in the process of changing its labels to “add greater transparency,” the company president and chairman told Josh Hafner of the Des Moines Register last month. They’re adding the words “Distilled in Indiana,” which should take effect about a month from now, pending approval by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). They’ll also be “defining the differences between the modern day Templeton Rye distilled in Indiana and the Prohibition-era Iowa-distilled whiskey that inspired it,” Hafner writes. According to Templeton’s president and chairman, these moves are self-imposed, not a result of any inquiry from the TTB.
And in a move that’s become increasingly popular among rye whiskey companies that buy their booze from outside sources, Templeton is building its own distillery. At least half of the brands named in Edelson PC’s class-action lawsuit are in the process of building distilleries, according to WhiskyCast, including WhistlePig, Angels’ Envy, and High West. But don’t expect to find Iowa-distilled Templeton rye on the shelves anytime soon. Templeton is hoping to start building the distillery in 2015 and finish by 2017, which means that after aging, the first batches of whiskey distilled there would hit the market in 2020 or 2021. They’re not planning to change their recipe, though. Templeton Rye chairman Vern Underwood told the Des Moines Register that “the company will attempt to replicate its current MGP-sourced whiskey as closely as possible,” Hafner writes.