There are a lot of people out there that will assert that all Midwest Grain Products of Indiana, (MGP) based rye whiskies on the market taste the same. And there are just as many folks that will defend the Non-Distilling Producers that sell these MGP whiskeys stating that they all taste differently. They’re both wrong! And they’re both right.
The term Non-Distilling Producer (NDP) refers to someone that bottles and sells a whiskey or spirit that they did not distill. It is a very old practice and it used to be the norm and not the exception. There are many NDPs that have a tremendously good reputation, especially in the Scotch whisky world. For our purposes here, I may refer to a distiller as a NDP, even though they do distill their own spirits in addition to bottling a whiskey that was sourced from another distillery, in most cases, but not always, MGP.
Many whiskey aficionados are irked by the notion that some MGP rye whiskies are being marketed as something they’re not. Many have been fooled more than once and resent it. Even when the NDPs do not make any false claims about the origin of the rye in their bottles, they will happily allow their customers to draw their own wrong conclusion. I have been on hours-long tours through distilleries that, in addition to the spirit that they do make, also market whiskey produced elsewhere. During these tours I listen acutely for the plain explanation of the origin of their most famous whiskey (which is sourced). They go on to point out their still that they “use for every drop of whiskey they distill.” The guide motions towards the grinder where they “grind every bit of grain that they distill.” On and on, with “truthful” statements spoken to knowingly allow the guests to draw the wrong conclusion; thinking that all of the whiskey they sell is indeed distilled right there in that distillery.
During a tour of High West Distillery, not once was it ever explained that the only thing they actually distill is their High West Silver, an unaged spirit. As our group looked over their still another guest asked, “Is this where you do all of your distilling?” Our guide answered, “yes.” And then comes along the annoying people like myself with a follow-on question like, “So then, is this where you distilled your Very Rare 12 Year Old Rye?”
I once had an interaction at Prichard’s Distillery that went like this:
Guide- “All of the grain that we use comes from local farms.”
Me- “Is the grain for your rye whiskey from local farms?”
Guide- “No, that rye grain comes from a different location.”
Now that is some smooth talking. Do you think anyone else in the tour group caught on to the fact that they don’t produce their rye whisky and that it is sourced from MGP? No, it just sounded like she said that they get their rye grain from out of state. She didn’t lie. But she didn’t tell the truth either. And this kind of in-between talk happens over and over. I once mentioned the George Dickle Rye whiskey at the George Dickel tour and, talk about awkward, it was as if I brought up the family member that nobody talks about. I tabled the topic of MGP at a private tour through Sagamore Spirits Distillery and It was so awkward that I felt compelled to follow myself and explain that not only do I know about them sourcing whiskey, but that I am completely fine with it. My escort had completely intended to lead me through the entire building and never make a mention that what they were selling at that time, they weren’t even making; kinda like, “I won’t mention it, if you won’t mention it.”
One of the most awkward moments I ever had was when I stopped by the MGP booth at the American Distillers Institute annual Expo. Being a fan of their whiskey, I went over to chat with the guys at the booth. The gentleman, who was all smiles as I made my way towards him, took one look at my Media Pass and wanted very little to do with me. I mentioned a few of their brands that I really liked, and he dodged the topic. I mentioned that my first experience with MGP whiskey was at the Smooth Ambler Distillery when John Little first helped me to understand the concept of NDPs, (now those guys have done it right from the beginning). The MGP guy indicated that he didn’t know what I was talking about. Come-on! Who doesn’t know that Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout is MGP whiskey! When I mentioned Sagamore Spirits he said, “Have a good day”, and turned his back to me.
Okay, maybe MGP has a non-disclosure agreement with some of their customers, but couldn’t he just have said, “Hey, I’m glad to see you’re a fan of our product, but as you may know, we never talk about who we sell our whiskey to.”
The point I make is that I like MGP rye whiskey. But I get very annoyed over people in the industry, although perhaps not actually lying, trying to create an environment that will lead consumers to draw an incorrect conclusion regarding the origin of their whiskey. This, I believe, creates the lion share of negativity surrounding the MGP whiskies. Because to me, all of those factually truthful statements spoken in such a manner to lead the average rational person to the wrong conclusion, is in fact a lie. And, I love the whiskey, but I hate the lie.
Now that I have gotten that off my chest, let’s talk about the whiskey. MGP, like many large distilleries, makes a pretty darn good and very consistent spirit. Originally, MGP rye was distilled to be added into blended whiskey. So, consistency was the goal. And now that so many NDPs around the country rely on MGP whisky to bottle and sell (almost 50 different brands), the need for their consistency is greater than ever.
Their whiskey is solid; there is nothing wrong with it and if it meets your fancy you can even say it’s great. As with any whiskey, there is no argument to be had of whether it is good or bad, that is up to the individual imbiber to assess. But the point of contention often aired about MGP rye is whether or not they all taste the same. This question too, I think, is up to the individual. But I am more perplexed over the argument than the answer.
So, the “It All Tastes the Same” camp, makes the argument that someone who spends top-dollar to buy a bottle of Smooth Ambler’s Very Old Scout (an MGP rye) is foolish when he could buy a bottle of Bulleit Rye (also an MGP rye) and have the same tipple for a quarter of the price. These are the same folks that will scan a new rye-enthusiasts bourgeoning collection of different MGP rye whiskies and snidely state “You’ve got eight bottles of the same whiskey.”
Conversely, there is the “Each NDP’s MGP Bottling is an Individual and Unique Tasting Range of Whiskey” group. These enthusiasts are often the most venomous in their defense and retorts to the “They All Taste the Same” group. These folks will cite that, although the spirit may have been distilled in the same location, 90% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel aging and the MGP whiskies are all aged differently.
I think that both arguments have merit. First, let’s talk about why they all taste differently. To begin, it’s true that much of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel. This is most evident with older aged MGP ryes. And it’s not just the length of time that a spirit spends in its barrel that varies between the different NDPs, but also where the barrels spend their time aging. It’s commonly agreed that if you start with two similar barrels filled with the identical spirits, but you store one in warehouse in New England and the other in a rickhouse in Texas, it won’t take too long before they begin to become two very different whiskies. And the longer they spend in their barrels aging at these different locations, the more different they will become.
The barrels themselves can also add separation to the flavors of the different NDP’s whiskies. Aside from the fact that every barrel has slightly different wood-qualities, they also can be charred and or toasted differently on the request of the NDPs. In some cases, sourced whiskey spirit isn’t barreled by MGP at all, but is shipped to the NDP to be barreled there.
When it’s time to bottle the aging barrels of MGP whiskey, there are choices made to marry certain barrels together to create a particular flavor profile or consistency. Different combinations of barrels will create different final results in the bottle. So, the marrying process itself can and will yield different flavors between NDP’s MGP ryes. [The term “marrying” is applied here as opposed to “blending” because all the whiskey in this example is produced at one distillery, MGP.]
Furthermore, the final proof, or Alcohol by Volume, of an MGP whiskey and the water that is used to proof-down the cask-strength whiskey will create differences between the final whiskeys that wer identically distilled. For these reasons and others, there can be and usually are many subtle, and often not so subtle, differences between the varying NDP’s versions of their MGP whiskey.
Now for those on the other side of the aisle that tout that there is no commonality between the different bottlings of MGP rye. First, I would plainly state that to make that claim is to completely discount the importance of the distilling process and all that goes into it.
Let’s start at the beginning – the grain recipe choice. Distillers around the world sell and brag the attributes of their specific, unique mash-bill. An imbiber’s simple statement of preference of bourbon over rye, or vice versa, in itself is a testament to the importance of grain selection. So, to try to express that the commonality in a mash-bill cannot be discerned in different bottlings of the same spirit is not logical. If you can taste the difference in different mash-bills, then you can also taste it when they’re the same. MGP ryes are 95% rye and 5% barley, (we will in the future be tasting some new rye mash-bills from MGP).
Using the same logic let’s look at the still. No one argues that the results that The Glenmorangie in Scotland, with their 26-feet tall gooseneck stills, will yield a different spirit than that of Lyon Distillery of Maryland with their 3-feet tall Hillbilly stills. Some whiskey-nerds will go so far as to attest that they can taste the difference in the micro-terroir created by the dents in one of the Glenfiddich stills, which was originally dented by accident, but now those dents are replicated exactly each time the still needs to be replaced. The point again is that, if subtle differences in a still can be discerned in the final bottled product, so then can the commonalities be found in all spirits that came from the same still and distilling process.
And there are other commonalities in MGP ryes like the water used, the yeast and enzymes introduced, and where the spirit-cuts are made. On and on, there are many things that make a finite impression on a spirit and into the final whiskey that are all the same with MGP spirits; to the point that they have a reputation for their consistency.
What I am most amazed by, is the fact that some are bothered by the commonality of MGP ryes, while others are bothered that some say they can even taste the commonalities. This conversation would not ever occur with scotch whiskey. Let’s look for a moment at Talisker, one of the more famous single malts. No one has any problem with the opinion that the Talisker 10 Year Old and the Talisker 18 Year Old taste different. And at the same time no one argues that they both taste like Talisker. The difference between these two ranges of Talisker are not unlike the differences between some MGP ryes coming from different NDPs, and yet folks will argue that they taste the same with folks that think they are completely different.
The Glenmorangie is a better example. All of The Glenmorangie scotch whiskies begin as the same distilled and aged whisky. Then they are finished in a sundry of different fashions making their many different ranges. They all start the same but end up different. Everyone says they taste the difference, but that they also agree they all taste like The Glenmorangie. And no one has a problem if someone likes to have several variants of The Glenmorangie in their collection to select from at different times. Or even better, to create a flight from to enjoy both the commonalities of the spirit and varying finishes of the whisky.
So why then can we not express that we enjoy the taste of the rye from MGP and at the same time appreciate what all the different NDPs do to that rye? Why can we not proclaim that we can taste the similarities in Smooth Ambler’s Very Old Scout Rye and Angel’s Envy Rye? And also, openly state that we plainly taste and enjoy the differences between James E. Pepper and Bulleit Rye or George Dickel Rye?
We will most certainly be seeing more and more MGP rye on the market in the coming years. To dismiss the quality of the MGP distilled spirit or to deny the artisanship that the NDPs put into it would be to miss out on a lot of good whiskey and a lot of fun.
All thoughts and opinions expressed are original to the author of the review or article. We are in no way paid to express any specific opinion about any specific company or product.