Templeton Rye, an Iowa-based whiskey maker, became the first casualty of the war on ambiguous labels Wednesday when it was accused of "deceptive marketing" for failing to disclose its product's origins, and further suggesting that it was made in small batches of a "Prohibition-era recipe." In reality, the brand has been buying seed bourbon from MPG Ingredients in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and passing it off as their own distillate.
The company will be removing some language from their labels and paying out a class-action lawsuit of between $3 and $6 per bottle after a Chicago man called them out. It sounds like bad business practice, and it is if you're judging by the three class-action lawsuits recently filed. But though Templeton made egregious errors, they're not the only company walking a fine line with their labeling.
Scottish whisky veteran and founder of The Whisky Dog, Nicholas Pollacchi, says some of the more venerable brands hide similar secrets of their own. Look first to the heart of bourbon country, where the numbers don't add up: "Out of Kentucky, there's probably 250 bourbon brands, and only 25 distilleries," Pollacchi says. His problem isn't with the product, but with the disclosure. "The lack of transparency and the lying in that is what created this."
What's so bad about MGP? Well, nothing. Stigma aside, it's actually "great fucking whiskey" according to Pollacchi, and has been a boon to a growing industry. As a new brand in the market, you're almost required to buy mass product for your first batches, because the cost to building a still, barreling, aging, and then blending your spirit is prohibitive. And MGP, arguably one of the largest whiskey producers in the U.S., is very good at many of those steps. The problem is that people don't want to know their favorite brand started in the same hollow, faceless factory hall as another they may not like.
"From a consumer perspective, what people are looking for is authenticity and transparency." Pollacchi explains. "What we want as whiskey drinkers is a story. We love a bit of romance." Those things are sometimes in conflict, as the truth isn't so quaint and charming. But backyard stills and makeshift supplies don't make great product, just great legend, which in an ever-growing category is how brands get their bottles to stand out on a shelf.
Older, larger brands with established footholds in the market have a well-aged narrative that caters to whiskey drinkers, but, says Pollacchi, "Most of these companies are no longer family owned. That doesn't mean the whiskey suffers. Whiskey has greatly improved as time has gone on, because the art and the craft is in whiskey blending. You're very rarely drinking a single barrel, so you're relying on true craftsmanship to marry these whiskeys together."
Blending is important to the art of whiskey for Pollacchi, who says the real history happens once there's something in a barrel with some age on it. "There's a lot of big whiskey brands that you know today, Scotch brands in particular, that started as 'green grocers.' These guys owned grocery stores and bought lots of different whiskeys to blend together in the shop."
But Pollacchi insists that there are great things coming from these large distributors, because brands like Templeton are doing great things with the product. "The real whiskey makers are the blenders," he says. "Whether it's a single malt or what, they're still marrying it. It's that art of getting the balance and the flavor profile right every single time."
Still, labeling standards would help clear all this up. While a lot of industry buzzwords are thrown around, they can be ambiguous, and in some cases what's not on the bottle is more important than what is. That's where Templeton went awry: the sum total of information on the bottle — none of which was necessarily false — told a different story than the truth.
"If you're making it in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, you need to put that on the label," Pollacchi says. "Where you were blended could also be on the bottle, and that's part of the story."
That is at least until they're operating their own stills. And for most brands that's the goal: profiting from what they can get their hands on to blend to the point that their art has made them enough money to buy a distillery, which is hugely expensive. Most companies need profit to invest in building one. Pollacchi says the way to get there is by trying these products. "Ten years from now, you will have 25 new distilleries in the U.S. because of that. That's how we should be looking at this."