Well, the cat’s out of the bag…
…at least for a few distilleries. I have been wanting to write on this for a very long time, but in the interest of not throwing industry members under the bus and holding on to the hope that they might become more transparent with their marketing, I have held off. Quietly my blood has boiled while I shoveled out 600 lbs of spent grain by hand twice every batch. Silently I fumed when my fermentations died because my cooling system over-heated, or froze, or malfunctioned in some other unique and frustrating way. Many many times, I bit my tongue when customers came in praising other distilleries in Michigan and the great “craft” product they had enjoyed there.
To be clear, this anger has nothing to do with competition, anyone who has spoken to me on the topic knows I feel very strongly about need for growth in the industry locally, so we can build a destination like the wine industry has done so well here. The anger comes from a place of perceived integrity. The consumer should be able to purchase products and get basic truthful information from the label (without having to look up obscure definitions in the federal code of regulations). Being anything less than truthful hurts the industry as a whole. This is bad for all of us, even those of us looking to be transparent, because the consumer doesn’t know who they can trust. The anger also comes from a more personal place. Can you imagine if you thought you were buying a local hand-crafted piece of art, only to find out it was actually a mass produced print sold at a big box store that the “artist” affixed their name to? Not only is this super lame, it’s also more than a bit fraudy in my opinion. Can you imagine if you were another artist who spent your time money and energy creating something beautiful, watching this other vendor peddle second rate bullshit? This is how I feel during every shovel of spent grain I muscle out of the mash tun. It’s not the work, it’s the thought that someone else is cheating that makes me seethe. It’s the fact that everywhere, customers are spending their hard earned dime on products that are being knowingly misrepresented. It’s total crap, and I am so glad that everyday, more exposure is being shed on this dishonest practice.
Luckily, there is a mostly full-proof way to determine whether the product you are consuming is actually made by the seller. The easiest way to do this is to completely ignore the large portion of the label because unfortunately words and phrases like “small batch”, “craft”, “handmade”, and other fluff are not well regulated and largely meaningless. The magic phrase you want to find is “distilled by (insert company name here)”. This will usually appear in small print on the back label, and trust me, those of us actually making our product have it on our bottles.
So… what the hell are you drinking if it doesn’t have “distilled by” on the label? Short answer is someone else’s booze. It may say hand-crafted, but not by the hands you think. A huge portion of distilleries in the U.S. are currently engaging in a market practice called sourcing. This means they are buying booze either finished or partially finished (usually known as neutral grain spirits or NGS) and bottling them with their own label. Some distilleries will also mature these products in house in their own barrels (which makes it craft maturation possibly, but not much else). Much of this product comes from a few gigantic facilities usually in Indiana or Kentucky. A more transparent label might read… Hand crafted (sort of), by a giant computer controlled still, somewhere not here. As a rule, if the bottle reads “produced by”, “bottled by”, “made by” or any other phrase other than the magic one listed above, the product was not made, at least in large part by the seller.
The act of sourcing itself is not necessarily a bad thing (unless of course you are a self-proclaimed purist snob like myself). Sourcing allows many distilleries to get on their feet when they first start and offer a matured product to customers while they are waiting for their own, or so they can focus on their specialty. Sourcing will also keep costs much more contained for the consumer, so everyone can partake in imbibing. My issue is not with the act, so much as the dishonest marketing that surrounds it. We can do better, and professional associations like The Michigan Craft Distillers Association and others are working hard to end this practice in the industry. Check out this site for distilleries near you that are making at least 51% of their product. https://www.micraftspirits.com/craft-distillery-members/ If you are local to us check out Iron Fish Distillery south of Traverse City for quality “distilled by” products, or stop in and see us. I can promise that as long as I am distilling, I will never source a single drop of anything distilled anywhere else.
This blog is our journey. Distilled.