MGP Ingredients, a big corn processor out of Kansas, bought the former Seagram's distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 2011. Observing how they run and position it has been fascinating.
Although unique today, commodity producers like MGP of Indiana used to be a prominent part of the American whiskey landscape. Wild Turkey was a non-distiller producer (NDP) for the first 30 or so years of that brand's existence. It was made from whiskey purchased from commodity producers until Austin-Nichols acquired the Ripy family's distillery in the 1970s, the distillery we know as Wild Turkey today.
MGP's distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, was acquired and rebuilt by Seagram's at the end of Prohibition. It made a lot of whiskey but all of it was used for Seagram's products. After the break-up of Seagram's by Pernod and Diageo, Pernod became its owner and began to sell bulk whiskey to Templeton Rye, High West, and others in a small way. They kept a low profile, as did their successor, Angostura (i.e., CL Financial), and as do the distilleries like Heaven Hill that operate a substantial contract distilling and bulk whiskey business along with their branded business.
MGP is taking a different approach, in part because they're a public company, but also because they want to make a name for themselves as a quality producer for the NDP community. Early last month, they announced the addition of six new recipes to their portfolio. As people began to look at that portfolio, it became apparent the distillery was using some odd and confusing naming conventions, probably inherited from Seagram's.
The naming convention for the ten bourbon recipes made at Four Roses, also a former Seagram's enclave, is similarly vestigial. It uses four letters, two of which are the same for every recipe and have no meaning that's relevant to their current application.
Unlike Four Roses, which pretty much leaves things like that alone, MGP has moved swiftly to correct its confusing names. Here's some of what yesterday's notice to its customers said:
"This is to notify you that effective immediately the names of four of MGP's beverage alcohol products are being changed. The previous naming practice varied as certain product names listed the percentage of the total small grains used in the mash bill while other names did not. Going forward, the product names will note the feature grain of the mash bill."
Here they are, with the new name first.
'Bourbon (21% Rye)' was called '25% Bourbon.' Mash bill is 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt.
'Bourbon (36% Rye)' was called '40% Bourbon.' Mash bill is 60% corn, 36% rye, 4% barley malt.
'Bourbon (99%)' was called 'Corn Bourbon Whiskey.' Mash bill is 99% corn, 1% barley malt.
'Corn Whiskey (15% Rye)' was called 'Corn Whiskey.' Mash bill is 81% corn, 15% rye, 4% barley malt.
The bourbons, of course, must be aged in new charred oak barrels while aging is optional for corn whiskey, but if aged the barrels must be used or un-charred. Take that corn whiskey recipe, put it into new charred wood, and it becomes a fourth bourbon.