In 2014, an article published in the Daily Beast, titled Your ‘Craft Whiskey’ Is Probably From A Factory Distillery In Indiana, sent shockwaves through the booze community. You mean, that cool rye I’m drinking that I thought was made by guys with beards and tattoos in some garage somewhere is actually made in a... factory? ‘Fraid so. High West, WhistlePig, Bulleit and many more, it turns out, bought much of their whiskey from the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, IN. Not every brand had made up an elaborate backstory about where their stuff came from, but there were enough that did. The most egregious offender was Templeton Rye, which claimed to be Iowa-made and, so we were told, the favorite whiskey of the late Al Capone. Templeton actually lost a lawsuit and was forced to partially refund its customers.
It was a shitshow for a lot of brands. But over the next year or so, people started to realize, hey, this stuff still tastes good. Probably better than if it really had been bearded, tattooed dudes in a garage. And as brands got more transparent about where their whiskey came from, perceptions changed. Today, having “Distilled In Indiana” displayed on a bottle of bourbon or rye has become a trademark of quality rather than a symbol of shame.
The MGP distillery has been around since 1847, under various different owners, most famously Seagram’s, whose name still adorns the facade. Everything from industrial alcohol to vodka is produced there, but lately it’s become best known for its bourbon and rye. Midwest Grain Products bought the distillery in 2011, hence the current name. It happened to coincide with the current boom in boutique and craft spirits brands, as well as the explosion in rye whiskey’s popularity (a majority of the rye produced in the US, in fact, comes from MGP). It was a textbook case of being in the right place at the right time. If you’re wondering how a brand that’s been in business for three years is selling 8 year old whiskey, well, MGP is how.
Some brands buy MGP whiskey and then monkey around with it. Angel’s Envy, for example, finishes their MGP rye in used rum casks. High West, in Utah, turns out brilliant blends of MGP and non-MGP whiskeys. But these three whiskeys — two bourbons and a rye — are pretty much unadulterated MGP product. All the better for you to taste what good booze they turn out.
Remus Repeal Reserve Bourbon (47% ABV, $75). MGP produces a whole lot of whiskey for a whole lot of brands, but with a few exceptions here and there, they haven’t tried bottling and selling their own product. Well, that’s slowly changing. 2017 saw the debut of of the George Remus line of bourbons, named after the legendary Prohibition-era bootlegger. Remus Repeal Reserve is a limited edition, created to honor the repeal of the 18th Amendment — and what better way to honor Repeal than with a glass of whiskey? This a high-rye bourbon using three different mashbills laid down 2005-06 (the info is, in the interest of transparency, all right there on the label). You can really taste the rye and the wood — this is a dry, spicy bourbon with the sweet corn flavors residing in the background. The lingering finish is heavy on cinnamon and oak. I like it as a sipper, but I love it in a Manhattan, with the vermouth and bitters tempering the spice.
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel Bourbon (52.7% ABV, $65). Based in West Virginia, Smooth Ambler’s distillery is up and running and producing a homegrown wheated bourbon, but they still source quality hooch from MGP for their Old Scout line. And they do a damn good job of it. Unlike their own wheater, this Old Scout Single Barrel is a high-rye job — 60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley (the mashbill must be at least 51% corn to qualify as bourbon), aged for 11 years and bottled at cask strength. Don’t worry about the relatively high proof — this is a terrific sipping bourbon. Sweet caramel and cinnamon notes are balanced out by dry oak and light pepper, with a light alcoholic kick on the long, dry finish. It’s an elegant bourbon, meant to be sipped slowly and savored. I could see adding an ice cube or a splash of water to smooth things out, but I prefer it straight from the bottle. This is a testament not just to MGP’s prowess, but to Smooth Ambler for being able to sniff out such excellent barrels.
Redemption The Ancients Collection: 18 Year Old Rye (54.95% ABV, $400). Redemption sources all its booze from MGP. Its standard roster includes some delicious ryes and high-rye bourbons, but they regularly trawl through the warehouses and turn up a few barrels of extra-special aged whiskey, which they release in limited editions. Their new Ancients Collection boasts a 36 year old (!!!) bourbon, and this 18 year old rye. A rye that’s old enough to vote is hard to come by; back in 1998 when this was distilled, almost nobody was drinking the stuff, and even MGP didn’t anticipate how popular rye would become. 18 is also pushing the limits as far as aging; it’s a rare American whiskey that isn’t overwhelmingly woody at that age. But this is one of the glorious exceptions to the rule. It starts and finishes with strong notes of dry, peppery oak, but in between it’s a stunner, redolent of dark fruits, roasted nuts, bitter dark chocolate, caramel, even a hint of black tea. The finish is dry and impossibly long — you won’t forget you drank this baby for a good long while. It’s a hefty price tag, but worth it.