The Coolest Cult Whiskeys May Come From a Corporate Warehouse, But No One Cares

corporate whiskey warehouse
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

In late April, the Instagram account @youwouldhateit, which satirizes the whiskey industry, set its sights on a red-hot cult Bourbon, Smoke Wagon.

One day, the account posted an image of a man, labeled “Smoke Wagon,” pulling up fake silicone musculature to reveal a puny body labeled “MGP.” The latter is a reference to MGP Ingredients, Inc. (MGP), a publicly traded company based in Indiana and Kansas with a current market cap of $1.35 billion. It supplies whiskey and other ingredients to brands like Smoke Wagon and hundreds of other distilleries nationwide.

A few days later, the account posted a clip from Not Another Teen Movie in which a bespectacled woman, also labeled “MGP,” gets a simple makeover that suddenly turns her into “Smoke Wagon.”

The message was clear. Why do people go crazy over gussied-up Bourbon sourced from a giant corporate factory?

“The average Joe or Jane doesn’t have a clue who’s sourcing what and doesn’t care,” says Gary, the anonymous poster behind @youwouldhateit. “They want a good whiskey in a cool bottle.”

Most of the responses to his Smoke Wagon posts support his theory. “Some of the best blending around,” says one commenter. Another simply noted, “shit still good.”

Adam Polonski Nora Ganley-Roper
Adam Polonski and Nora Ganley-Roper, co-owners, Lost Lantern / Photo by Oliver Parini

For many in the craft beer world, Big Beer is inherently bad beer, but that doesn’t seem to apply in the whiskey world. While some beer connoisseurs deride Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company, and turn their backs on independent brewers when they’re acquired by billion-dollar corporations, whiskey drinkers don’t express that same outrage over ownership.

For instance, in 2015, when Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company, acquired San Diego brewery Ballast Point, beer drinkers took to Reddit to voice their concerns.

“Overall, I see this invasion by big business as a bad thing,” wrote one commenter. Dozens of others in the thread agreed. “There’s just this pit feeling in my San Diegan gut that this is a kind of middle finger to the local scene,” read another comment.

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Meanwhile, most of the top Kentucky distilleries and Bourbon brands are owned by international conglomerates. Beam-Suntory may house Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, but fans still clear shelves of its Booker’s Bourbon and Maker’s Mark Private Select. Italy’s Gruppo Campari may claim Wild Turkey, and Japan’s Kirin may hold Four Roses, but their Russell’s Reserve and Small Batch Limited Edition remain beloved.

“Budweiser or Coors don’t really tell a story or have a sense of place,” says Nora Ganley-Roper, co-owner of Lost Lantern, an independent bottler of American craft whiskey. “Big Bourbon distilleries absolutely do. Even distilleries that are owned by multinational conglomerates can point to a real family history and multiple generations of family distillers like the Noes [at Jim Beam] and the Russells [at Wild Turkey].”

Plenty of popular brands like Smooth Ambler, Belle Meade and Smoke Wagon have arisen over the last decade. Few people know or care that MGP might provide all or some of their “juice.”

“Craft beer made a name by bashing the conglomerates,” says Blake Riber, owner of Seelbach’s, an online craft spirits retailer. In fact, some members of the craft beer community hate conglomerates so much that, in 2017, the Brewers Association launched an Independent Craft Brewer Seal, encouraging craft breweries that fit the criteria to put the imprimatur on their packaging.

“You don’t see that ‘us against them’ mentality as much in whiskey,” says Riber.

“Like any other luxury item, the blue blood brands in whiskey are king.” —Gary, IG: @youwouldhateit

The origin stories of craft beer and craft whiskey are quite different. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, “micro-brewed” beer, as it was then known, arose as an alternative to market-dominating beers like Budweiser and Schlitz.

During this time, upstarts like Sierra Nevada gave the world dank pale ales and Anchor Brewing offered robust porters. Buffalo Bill’s brewpub even offered the world’s first commercially-brewed pumpkin beer in 1985. They were quite a change from a beer scene then dominated by fizzy, yellow lagers coming out of giant factories in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Denver.

By 2008, Seattle microbrewery Elysian printed a motto on cans of its Loser Pale Ale that summed up what most of its fellow craft brethren thought: “Corporate beer still sucks.” This antiestablishment mentality was why so many craft breweries got into the business in the first place, to offer a tasty alternative. Ironically, Elysian sold to AB InBev in 2015.

New Riff Distillery
New Riff Distilling was started in 2014 / Courtesy of New Riff Distilling

The U.S. craft whiskey industry would come along much later. It began to boom in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as distilleries like Tuthilltown, FEW Spirits and Balcones opened in New York, Illinois and Texas, respectively.

None were immediate hits amongst spirits cognoscenti. Many felt the whiskeys tasted young and were overpriced. Why buy a $40 bottle of Tuthilltown’s Hudson Baby Bourbon that’s 375 milliliters and aged for just three months in undersized barrels, when you could get a full bottle of the Sazerac Company’s Eagle Rare 10-year-old for around $20?

“I think the biggest thing is Big Whiskey wasn’t broken,” says Riber.

Indeed, the 2010s craft whiskey renaissance, now beginning to come into its own, was never a response to some “corporate” Bourbon culture. More so, it was entrepreneurial craftspeople across the country who wanted to create homegrown stuff to call their own, even if it might take decades for it to be as good as the big brands.

Larger distilleries can “make it more cheaply than most craft whiskey brands,” says Adam Polonski, the other co-owner of Lost Lantern. “Because of their scale and the startup costs and time investment for a new distillery.”

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It’s more costly and time-consuming to build a craft whiskey distillery than a craft brewery, meaning the barriers to entry tend to favor the well-funded. Craft breweries have been started for as little as $50,000, whereas it could cost a few million to get a distillery going. Even the newest, most-respected craft whiskey makers are often backed by tons of dollars, expertise, publicity teams and lots of shiny equipment.

New Riff, for instance, was started in 2014 by Ken Lewis, a Harvard-educated liquor store magnate. He invested $18 million to get it up and running. Starlight, which began to distill whiskey in 2013, may still be a family-owned, independent craft distillery, but it’s located on Indiana’s largest fruit farm, founded by the Huber family in 1843 and extremely profitable.

Of course, their resources pale in comparison to that of, say, Angel’s Envy in nearby Louisville, acquired by Bacardi Limited in 2015, which then built a $27 million downtown distillery.

“I think the biggest thing is Big Whiskey wasn’t broken.” —Blake Riber, owner, Seelbach’s 

There’s a reason you’re more likely to see Angel’s Envy in your local liquor store than New Riff or Starlight.

“Like any other luxury item, the blue blood brands in whiskey are king,” says Gary of @youwouldhateit. They have decades of name recognition, and if they don’t, conglomerates like Bacardi can quickly help them cut the line. “A Rolex isn’t valuable because watch guys recognize them. It’s valuable because everyone recognizes them.”

Still, just because whiskey drinkers have no animus toward Big Whiskey, that doesn’t mean they aren’t beginning to gravitate toward independent, craft whiskey, though for another reason altogether. Namely, because the best stuff from Big Whiskey is beginning to no longer even be an option for most drinkers.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people that predominantly drink craft whiskey,” says Riber. “They’re burned out by the big guys’ limited releases they can never find or that are overpriced.

And so, Riber says, these drinkers are finally starting to move on.

“They still want something that tastes good, is unique and limited,” he says. “That’s where I think craft whiskey now has the biggest advantage.”

Published on June 8, 2021
Topics: Spirits