What makes a liquor handmade? Courts may decide

Is what you're drinking handmade - and do you care? (Image: Public domain via British Library)

Is what you’re drinking handmade – and do you care? (Image: Public domain via British Library)

More and more people are asking questions about their where their food comes from and how it is produced. It’s only natural that people are beginning to ask the same questions about the provenance of what’s in their cocktail as well. It’s a well-known fact that marketing plays a huge role in the success or failure of any given brand of liquor. Marketing is the only significant difference between most vodkas, which are, by definition, colorless, flavorless and tasteless. Another obvious fact is that advertising folks tend to bend the truth a bit, sometimes to the breaking point. As people ask questions about what’s exactly in that bottle and how it got there, they aren’t very happy with what they are hearing. And this being America, lawyers are getting involved.

Maker’s Mark bourbon has recently won two lawsuits brought against it by consumers claiming to be misled by the word “handmade.” One lawsuit alleged that Maker’s Mark advertising shows manufacturing using an antique roller mill to break up grains when, in reality, it uses a completely automated process. Tito’s Vodka is currently involved in lawsuits in California and Florida surrounding its claims that its vodka is “handmade.” The plaintiffs claim that since Tito’s vodka starts off as neutral grain spirit trucked in from Iowa, it can’t call itself handmade.

All these lawsuits hinge on the definition of the word “handmade.” Like the word “organic” on food, it can mean different things to different people. Food and beverage regulators are still trying to come up with a formal definition of what those words mean when you see them on a label.

Templeton Rye recently settled three class-action suits brought against it from consumers also contending that the labeling and advertising for their product is deliberately misleading. Templeton labeling claimed that its whiskey was made according to a Prohibition-era recipe, but the whisky is really a stock spirit trucked in from the enormous commercial distiller owned by MGP Ingredients in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Templeton then adds ingredients to replicate the taste of a Prohibition-era recipe passed down among the company’s founding family members.

The fact that most of your favorite name brand liquors start their life as a neutral grain spirit from a large factory in the Midwest is no secret among those in the spirits business, but it comes as a shock to many consumers. At least 65 percent of all vodkas in the U.S. start their journey this way. The local distiller will then run this spirit through their own smaller stills, perhaps adding an ingredient or two in order to make the final product unique. A distillery only needs to run this neutral grain spirit through its stills once in order to have the words “distilled and bottled” on their label.

Many bourbon and rye drinkers were recently shocked to discover how many of their favorite brands start off life in that MGP Ingredients distillery mentioned previously. Steve Ury, who blogs under the name of Sku, maintains a comprehensive list of distillers and where their products originate. His list contains almost 50 brands that start off as MGP Ingredients products.

The fact that a spirit may start off life as an MGP Ingredients product is not in itself a bad thing. A distiller has many options to impress its own unique flavor onto the base spirit. Additional distilling with unique ingredients, filtering, and barrel aging can radically change and improve a base industrial spirit. Using contract base spirit is also a great way for new distilleries to get a product out and established as they develop their own on-site distilling practices.

So what’s a poor consumer supposed to do? Firstly, apply some common sense to the advertising and hype. If Tito’s Vodka sells 850,000 cases of vodka each year, it shouldn’t be that much of surprise that much of the process is automated. If a company has only been around for two years and is selling a 15-year-old rum, bells should go off somewhere.
Secondly, read the label carefully. You may be surprised at what you find in some of the small print on the label. Research on the Internet may also reveal some surprising secrets about the provenance of your favorite brand.

And finally, find a local distiller that you can verify makes its own product. Get a distillery tour and see for yourself. Florida has almost 30 distilleries now, and many of them make great products.

Hopefully, as more folks question some of these practices, we may get more clear regulations regarding what is in that bottle and where it came from. As Brendan Wheatley, the distiller at St. Augustine Distillery, puts it: “I’m a strong believer in truth in advertising. Since when is the truth not interesting enough?”

– George Jenkins