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Spirits: What makes whiskey 'made'

A warning upfront: Serious Whiskey Geek Alert.

In my column this week, I discussed the challenges and rewards facing small American craft distilleries who make whiskey. I’ve emphasized that word because I would now like to focus on it -- specifically, its past tense.

I recommended several of my favorite domestic whiskeys, one of which is the relatively new Rendezvous Rye, which I said is “made by High West Distillery in Park City, Utah.”

On Wednesday, I saw a Twitter message from Jake Parrott of Ledroit Brands, the local D.C. distributor of many highly regarded spirits, who took issue with my use of the verb. Wrote Parrott: “Tsk tsk. Rendezvous Rye not made at High West, just bottled there.” While I disagree with Parrott, he does raise an interesting issue that is now being debated within distilling circles.

Rendezous Rye is a blend of 6-year-old and 16-year-old rye whiskeys. High West’s distillery — which claims to be the world’s only “ski-in distillery” — was built in 2009. Now, I don’t think High West made the whiskey in the Timecrowave that Alec Baldwin was hawking on "SNL" last week. So it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that Rendezvous Rye was probably distilled somewhere besides Utah. Time is always an issue in making whiskey, and instead of financing its operation with white spirits such as vodka, High West took a different approach.

But does that necessarily mean that High West didn’t make the whiskey? Well, that’s where the debate exists. High West sourced a supply of two aged whiskeys from a defunct distillery, and then blended them into what became bottled as Rendezvous Rye.

This sort of production is very common in the world of spirits and wine. Most cognac houses source their cognacs from various winemakers and distillers — some of them at significant age — and then they blend to create the final product from these sources. There is even a tradition of old widows in Cognac keeping a few barrels aging in their cellar as a sort of retirement fund or inheritance for their children. In the wine business, there is also a long tradition of “négociant” producers who blend grapes and vintages from various growers and winemakers. Plenty of prestigious Burgundies and Bordeauxs are from négociant producers.

The world of whiskey is the same. What makes great whiskey: Is it the distillation? The barrel aging? The final blending of different ages and recipes? The answer is all of the above. That’s why, at the biggest whiskey producers, there are distinctions between Master Distillers, Masters of Wood and Master Blenders. Blending is a huge part of making whiskey, which is why I believe we can say: Yes, High West makes its rye.

Of course, none of this matters very much to the casual drinker, meaning 99 percent of the world. But it matters a great deal in the world of people who make the stuff we drink.

Since I returned home from the American Distillers Institute conference in Louisville, the issue has come to the fore. That’s because ADI, during the conference, held a competition for Best Craft Distilled American Whiskey. And, lo and behold, High West took home the award for Best of Show.

Immediately afterward, there was serious grumbling among the microdistillers present. High West didn’t distill its own whiskey, they protested. You can read Chuck Cowdery’s whiskey blog for a more detailed account, but High West did not cheat, and could not be disqualified, because there was no rule formally disallowing their production method. But in response to the kerfluffle, ADI has now created a special category for “negociant” whiskey producers in future competitions.

A tempest in a teapot, perhaps. But the provenance of food and drink is an issue that seems to get hotter all the time. Just this week, two grown men in Portland got into a fistfight over during a pig cook-off because the winning pig wasn’t from Oregon.

What do you think?

-- Jason Wilson (Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  May 21, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, Spirits, whiskey  
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I came across a similar problem when writing an article about new West Coast distilleries. Some distilleries, I found, did not actually produce their spirits on-site, which became a challenge to the article's my "West Coast" distinction. In other words, should I include a West Coast distillery if their spirit was made in Wichita?

In any case, I believe High West did indeed BLEND the whisky, but I don't think they MADE it. The blending process is utterly important, of course, but I heartily believe the majority of effort in producing whisk/ey is made in the mashing, fermentation, distillation, and aging stages. I don't blame those microdistillers from being disgruntled.

Posted by: FudRyter | May 21, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

The microdistillers have a legitimate point. If High West had made their product from purchased raw white spirit, instead of aged rye, I would be more comfortable with the notion that they had *made* it.

Posted by: ihateregistration1 | May 21, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

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