Photograph by Ryan Kurtz
So a journalist working on a story about whiskey walks into a bar…. Or rather, lots of bars. And also a few liquor stores and restaurants. In a lot of different cities.
Like Park City, Utah, for instance. The first time I went to High West, the self-proclaimed “world’s only ski-in gastro-distillery,” it had just opened, and I was really only there to try the gastro part. But how was I supposed to resist sampling their Rendezvous Rye, especially in temperance-minded Utah? A few years later, it could be found all over the country—including the chi-chi liquor store down the street from my apartment in Austin, Texas, where I lived until two years ago. Knowing that I liked High West, but didn’t always want to spend 50 or 60 bucks, Urban Wine and Liquor’s owner steered me toward an under-$30 bottle: Redemption Rye, then located in Bardstown, Kentucky, a.k.a. the “Bourbon Capital of the World.”
On a recent long weekend in San Francisco, my main requirement was something smaller for the hotel room: a bottle I would neither leave behind nor have to bubble-wrap. The clerk at Cask was able to oblige with 200 milliliters of Hooker’s House rye from Prohibition Spirits, a “Sonoma-Style American Rye” named for the Civil War general Joseph Hooker and finished in old vine zinfandel barrels.
By the time I found myself at Bunk Bar in Portland, Oregon (where I currently reside), it was clear that I’d developed a taste for rye. In this, I’m not alone: the classic American grain whiskey fell out of favor after Prohibition, but its “George Washington–distilled-this” history and spicy flavor profile have made it a natural for drinkers in these artisanal epicurean times. If your whiskey cocktail was “crafted” rather than “made,” there’s a good chance it has rye in it, be it complicated or classic. (Drink historian David Wondrich has written that if “nobody will ever again pour a bourbon Manhattan, we’ll gladly put up with all the dipshits in ‘Make Mine with Rye’ T-shirts.”) While its overall sales are still a short pour next to bourbon, gin, and vodka, representing around just 1 percent of the alcohol market, rye’s recent growth has been more explosive than any other kind of hooch; according to a 2015 report by the Distilled Spirits Council, sales went from 88,000 cases in 2009 to more than half a million cases five years later.
Anyway, one of Bunk’s owners was behind the bar that night in Portland. He suggested I check out a local rye, James Oliver. It became a frequent purchase.
Why am I telling you about these bottles from Utah, Kentucky, California, and Oregon? Because all four of these rye whiskeys—and many, many others, including such major brands as Bulleit 95 rye, George Dickel rye, and James E. Pepper 1776 rye—are all known to hail from just downriver of the Queen City in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, at a 169-year-old distillery once owned by Seagram that is now called MGP Ingredients.
Even if you drink the brown stuff, it’s possible you didn’t realize that one of the biggest distilleries in America is almost as close to Cincinnati as our airport. MGP—whose corporate headquarters is in Kansas—keeps its long reach on the down-low by design, but the company’s employees will put its Indiana products up against anything from Kentucky (especially considering that companies from Kentucky buy some of their whiskey).
“There’s nothing wrong with Kentucky bourbon,” says Greg Metze, with no apparent sense of mischief. “But the bourbon made here is just as good if not better. We’d like to think better. And I would say that nobody in the world can duplicate the rye products that we make here.”
A low-key 61-year-old with a shop-teacher brush cut, Metze has been at the distillery since 1978, when he arrived straight out of the University of Cincinnati with a chemical engineering degree. In 2001, he achieved “master distiller” status. As the man who’s made so many bottles that don’t bear MGP’s name (or his own), you might say he’s whiskey’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
According to Metze, it all starts with the water. MGP Ingredients sits on an aquifer, just a short walk from the Ohio River (most of the facility is actually in Greendale). That 56-degree water—low in sulfur and iron, high in calcium, and limestone-filtered—lets MGP make a lot of whiskey, and also have a continuous source for cooling the equipment. That’s why there were so many distilleries in Lawrenceburg in the 1800s. MGP’s began life as the Rossville Union Distillery in 1847; after Prohibition, in 1933, it was purchased by the legendary Canadian company Seagram. Right next door was Squibb, which opened in 1846 (though another distillery, Dunn and Ludlow, was on that patch of land in 1807) and became part of the Delaware company Schenley in 1933.
At its height, Seagram employed more than 2,500 people in Indiana, though the majority of them worked at a separate bottling plant. The main thing Metze and his predecessors—Jack Pytleski, who retired in 1983, and Larry Ebersold, who left Lawrenceburg in 2007—did was make Seagram’s Seven Crown. The riverside campus of red brick buildings, six stories high and two stories underground, held a lake of liquor: thousands of 550-pound barrels aging different mash bills for the company’s signature blended product, which was lowbrow (and best-known for being mixed with 7Up in a 7-and-7) but high-quality.
Then, in the wake of CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s move into the film and television business, Seagram went away. When the company, which owned Universal Studios and PolyGram Records, merged with the French media conglomerate Vivendi in 2000, its entire beverage division was sold off, the various brands and assets split between Diageo and Pernod-Ricard to avoid anti-trust issues. Pernod owned the Lawrenceburg plant until 2007, when it became LDI (short for Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana) under a new owner, CL Financial Group, the Trinidad and Tobago–based parent company of Angostura.
Pernod had been set to close the distillery; there was simply too much inventory and not enough consumer demand for whiskey at the time. As LDI, the facility was no longer making Seven Crown (which had gone to Diageo). But it still had all those aging barrels. The good news: They couldn’t spoil. The bad news: Nobody at the company had ever had to sell anything before. That task fell to Perry Ford, a gregarious 60-year-old who like Metze has also worked at the distillery for 38 years. (He started a few months after Metze but likes to say he has seniority because he delivered the Lawrenceburg Press to Seagram’s guard gate when he was 8.) Ford began his career in grain selection—vetting the corn, rye, wheat, and barley that comes into the plant—and also worked in by-product sales. Now he had to find people who wanted to buy whiskey.
It didn’t work at first. He made cold calls. Reached out to middlemen. Put up a website. “They used to call me ‘single-barrel Perry,’” Ford jokes. “Then ‘double-barrel Perry.’” But his timing was impeccable. Depending how you look back on it now, Ford either very fortuitously capitalized on or actively helped jump-start the craft distillery trend. By the time the Atchison, Kansas, company Midwest Grain Products took over LDI in 2011, changes to the liquor laws in various states had opened the floodgates for boutique distillers, and millennials and Mad Men watchers were rediscovering the brown stuff. Goodbye beer and vodka, hello bourbon and craft cocktails. Ford guesstimates that there were no more than 60 craft distilleries in the early aughts. Now he says that number probably tops a thousand.
The reason start-up distilleries need a company like MGP is simple: You can make your own vodka and bottle it tomorrow. You only have to steep gin botanicals for a short time. But one of the most important ingredients for whiskey of any kind is age. If most businesses try to have enough operating capital to lose money for three years, a start-up distillery specializing in well-aged whiskey might have to plan for 10: six to eight years while their whiskey is in the barrel, then a few more before they see any sign of profits. In the meantime, they source.
When I visited High West in early 2010, their “ski-in distillery” was just a few months old, but the company had debuted Rendezvous Rye in 2008. Founder David Perkins didn’t distill this whiskey, and he didn’t claim to, telling Rendezvous’s story in a fanciful but entirely truthful way: that he had stumbled onto an improbably-delicious, almost magical cache of six-year-old 95 percent rye that was originally going to go to waste in cheap Canadian whisky. That rye, of course, belonged to LDI, which Perkins blended with a 16-year-old, 80 percent rye (from the Barton distillery in Bardstown) to make something people loved.
Here is where it is probably worth pausing to brush up on the most basic federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) definitions of whiskey. Bourbon is made from a mash of not less than 51 percent corn, stored in charred new oak, and can be made anywhere in the United States (it just won’t be “Kentucky bourbon”). Rye whiskey must be made from not less than 51 percent rye and stored in charred new oak. Most bourbons are rounded out with either rye or wheat, plus barley malt. Most rye is rounded out with corn plus barley malt.
The 95 percent rye mash bill was a Seagram’s Seven Crown signature. Now it’s everybody’s signature…if they’re an MGP client. According to the author and Whisky Advocate writer Fred Minnick, TTB records suggest that Templeton Rye in Templeton, Iowa, and High West were MGP’s first customers. Redemption, which plays up the difference between the 51 percent minimum and the 95 percent expression on its label, released its first bottle of rye in 2010. Bulleit, which debuted its bourbon in 1999 as a Seagram brand (it is now owned by Diageo), goes so far as to include “95” in the brand name of its rye, which came out in 2011. The Tennessee company George Dickel’s rye followed in 2012.
“Ninety-five percent rye is a great product, and the facility had inventory available to feed those companies that were introducing brands at that point,” says MGP vice president of alcohol sales and marketing David Dykstra. “They grew tremendously, and they continue to grow.”
MGP’s clients can set themselves apart from each other in several ways. The most notable is blending, which remains High West’s forte. “A lot of those folks are master blenders in their own right,” Metze tells me during one interview, stopping short of saying High West’s name on the record. Dickel gives its 95 percent rye the standard Tennessee “Lincoln County Process” (with Dickel sending its own charcoal up to Indiana). Another variable is barreling. Once bourbon or rye has spent its mandated time in new oak, it can be finished in used containers, which imparts different flavor notes (as with Hooker’s House zinfandel-barreled rye). With rye, TTB regulations also allow for the addition of “harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials,” up to 2.5 percent. That’s not allowed in bourbon.
Big-name distilleries who sell sourced whiskey don’t want people knowing that New Whiskey X might come from the same mash bill as Historic Brand Y (just like you aren’t supposed to know your Trader Joe’s Pita Chips are allegedly Stacy’s). MGP’s nondisclosure agreements are the exact opposite: the company does not say who its clients are, but doesn’t care who knows—it is up to the clients to acknowledge the relationship. At the “MGP Customer Innovation Center,” where Metze, Ford, and the company’s quality control manager Pam Soule can deliver sales pitches and conduct tastings, there is a display bar with familiar whiskey, gin, and vodka bottles (MGP also makes a lot of gin and vodka) that they can’t identify as products, especially not to a journalist. “Just some things we all enjoy,” Dykstra jokes.
In 2010 whiskey journalist and blogger Chuck Cowdery called out High West as a “Potemkin craft distillery,” i.e., all facade. He eventually softened that criticism by coining the term “non-distiller producers,” but has continued to be a tireless voice for accountability and transparency when it comes to sourced whiskey. That’s because TTB regulations require companies to put the “state of distillation” on their label if it’s not in the same state as their main address. High West does this. So do Bulleit, Redemption (“distilled in the Indiana heartland”), and George Dickel. The West Virginia distillery Smooth Ambler releases its sourced whiskey under a separate brand, “Old Scout.” Closer to home, in Newport, New Riff has made Lawrenceburg an actual selling point of their OKI Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Their consulting master distiller is Larry Ebersold, Metze’s predecessor at MGP; it’s called OKI because it is “distilled in Indiana, bottled in Kentucky, and loved in Ohio.”
But then there’s Templeton Rye. The Iowa company heavily played up its hometown heritage, with a yarn worthy of Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman or your favorite Bluegrass State bootlegger. Their rye was said to be based on a pre-Prohibition recipe handed down by company founder Keith Kerkhoff’s grandfather that was also a personal favorite of Al Capone. That tale might be true, but the rye itself was neither based on that recipe nor distilled in Iowa. It’s MGP’s 95 percent mashbill, with some of those legal added flavoring agents purportedly making it taste like Grandpa Kerkhoff’s juice. In 2015, Templeton settled a class-action lawsuit that resulted in the addition of the words “Distilled in Indiana” on their bottles, as well as the removal of the words “Small Batch” and “Prohibition Era Recipe.”
Whiskey geeks (and “whiskey Twitter”) have known all this stuff forever. In addition to Cowdery’s blog posts, Whisky Advocate’s Fred Minnick wrote a big feature about Metze and the distillery in 2013. And a food and drink blogger known as “Sku” maintains an exhaustive list of American whiskeys and their confirmed or suspected provenance (which can always be found via TTB records even if the required info isn’t on the bottle). The subject went viral in 2014 after the Daily Beast posted an article by Eric Felten with the click-bait headline “Your ‘Craft’ Rye Whiskey Is Probably from a Factory Distillery in Indiana.” People don’t want to be misled, nor do they want it rubbed in their face that they are paying for a pretty label and a good yarn as much as whiskey…even though we’re all paying for a pretty label and good yarn with most whiskey.
The controversy hardly resonated inside the so-called “factory.” One criticism in Felten’s story, in a quote from the whiskey writer Clay Risen, was that MGP rye has become so dominant that the average drinker doesn’t know what other styles of rye are supposed to taste like. Which, if you’re a publicly traded company like MGP, is something you might put in your annual report. The outrage was never really directed at MGP, but rather their most obfuscatory clients. “Nobody ever contested the fact that we make quality products,” says Perry Ford. “And that would have been a prime opportunity for them to take a shot at us.”
Last November, the second annual Whiskey City Festival took place at the Lawrenceburg Events Center. For $75, attendees got a generous buffet, live entertainment, and 10 free sample pours of a variety of liquors, including many MGP-affiliated whiskeys. At one tasting table, four different brands of rye were lined up in front of a woman named Amber, a bartender on loan from the nearby Hollywood Casino. I looked over the bottles—Bulleit, Redemption, Riverboat, and Rittenhouse—and commented that Rittenhouse was the odd rye out, because it’s not an Indiana product.
“That’s what I said,” the other guy talking to Amber offered.
He turned out to be Jared Rapp, one of the partners in Traverse City Whiskey from Michigan, which was pouring a few tables over. Rapp was happy to talk about the fact that his company works with MGP, most notably for its cherry whiskey, which typically combines Lawrenceburg bourbon with fruit grown by Rapp’s distiller’s family. “A true farm-to-bottle product,” he said.
As we talked, I asked a question that included the phrase “mass production.” He took exception to the very premise. “I think using MGP and ‘mass production’ in the same paragraph is sort of…it’s more than misleading, let me put it that way,” Rapp said. “It tends to present what MGP does in a false light. There is an immense human element in every step of the process.”
Rapp had toured MGP that morning, and was blown away by the history, by the fact that so many people have been working there for multiple decades, and by what those people do. “They are taking a sample every three minutes,” he told me. “Today I saw a row of 100 [test] bottles, all being evaluated to see where the right quality point is.” He also said he had seen Metze dump hundreds of thousands of dollars of whiskey if something wasn’t up to snuff (it would then be re-distilled into vodka or grain neutral spirit).
Rapp’s opinion tracks with what MGP’s OG client, High West’s David Perkins, told Esquire in an online story about Metze last fall. “Metze’s product is good because he is a product of one of the greatest companies that ever existed: Seagram’s,” Perkins opined. The so-called “factory distillery in Indiana” is home to nearly a century of history, equipment, yeast strains, and inherited knowledge.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter operation,” Rapp said. “It’s outstanding. MGP might not tell their story as romantically as some other companies, but the reality is, there’s a lot of romance in what MGP does.”
What’s romantic about MGP might be its lack of romance. Metze is the real version of what’s often a fake story, an actual tradesman-scientist with gashed hands and perpetually worn-out steel-toed boots. His backstory is not the stuff of sepia-toned commercials or bootlegger great-grandfathers. Before becoming a master distiller, Metze worked every aspect of the process: fermentation, cooker, distillation, production manager. His entry-level job was in the dry house, where spent grain is converted into animal feed; his first management-level position was maintenance planner.
Metze’s official bio couldn’t be less florid. It says the master distiller’s main focus is “world-class spirits and whiskeys,” but there’s no myth-making in the way he talks about the job. “In addition to monitoring production schedules, product quality, and multiple steps in the production process, including yeast propagation, other day-to-day responsibilities involve ensuring that all standard operating procedures are being met,” the bio reads, before concluding: “I enjoy solving equipment and process challenges, and view my role in developing unique and innovative techniques, distilling methods, mash bills, and formulations as the proverbial ‘icing on the cake.’”
“That’s what makes this business so special,” says Metze. “A big part of it is art. A big part of it is the science.” He can go on about “congener profiles” (congeners being the carefully managed chemical by-products that give whiskey its color, scent, and flavor) the way a Scotsman would about peat. The current whiskey world is not unlike the Moneyball era in sports: We still want our distillers to be people who know and love the game, and who go on taste and instinct, not because computers and mass-spectrum chronometers tell them how to do it. In that sense, Metze has been the Billy Beane of bourbon and rye for years, even if he still keeps track of each day’s batches—from making sure the yeast is interacting with the sugars properly to deciding when a 26,000-gallon fermenter full of mash is ready to go in a five-story continuous column still—on a little sheaf of shirt-pocket notepapers that he refers to as his “Palm Pilot.”
While MGP is no assembly line, there is a ton of automation, a change that Seagram made in 1998. As far as Metze is concerned, that’s a good thing. When all of the equipment was manual, the control panels, which are now computerized, “looked like a World War II submarine,” he says. Depending on who was working a particular shift, the settings, and thus the quality and taste of what was going in the barrels, could change slightly. Automation reduced the distillery’s work force, but most of the equipment and techniques remain the same.
It’s also a team effort. Metze oversees a number of employees who are in charge of cooking, distillation, and quality control. Pam Soule, who is 58, and like Perry Ford a lifelong Seagram/LDI/MGP employee, heads the quality control department, serving as the lead panelist in tasting and evaluating everything that goes into the barrels and gets sent out to the clients for bottling. “She is one of the best in the business,” says Metze. “She has a great nose, and is a terrific blender.”
Whiskey made at MGP is no more or less “mass production” than Graeter’s ice cream, Glier’s goetta, or even the world’s most-collected and legitimately small-batch bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle. That Daily Beast story could have just as easily been headlined, “Your Pappy Is Made at a Factory Distillery in Kentucky,” i.e., the Sazerac-owned Buffalo Trace, which was formerly George T. Stagg, and is filled with red brick warehouses that look exactly the same as the ones in Lawrenceburg. The Frankfort, Kentucky, spot just happens to have manicured grounds, National Historic Landmark status, and a gift shop.
“What Greg does out there is just as much craft as any small distillery,” says David Dykstra. Of course, the critique is not that MGP is not craft, it’s that its clients aren’t. And the critique of those clients isn’t really that they aren’t “craft,” it’s that they aren’t distillers.
Certainly when you are an actual craft distiller, the term means something. Colin Spoelman at Kings County in Brooklyn sources grain from local farmers he’s met face to face, and makes one barrel of whiskey a day in old-fashioned pot stills. “There’s no ambiguity between who is a commercial distiller and a craft distiller,” says Spoelman. “It’s the 13 legacy distilleries—all of them producing hundreds of barrels a day, if not more—and the craft producers. There’s room for both. There are spirits-business entrepreneurs and there are distillers, but people should be careful not to confuse the two.”
A Kentucky native, Spoelman believes the more hands-on pot still method is superior. When I bring up the subject with Metze, he doesn’t really take the bait. “They make just as nice a quality product as continuous stills do,” he tells me. Again, no mischief; in his world, this is just a fact. The proof is in the bottles. Metze will also tell you there is no such thing as good moonshine. “[Home whiskey makers] just don’t have the equipment, the analytical capacity, the science,” he says.
And really, nobody’s ever said the best bourbon or rye in the world comes from a craft distillery in New York or Iowa or Utah. It might. Or could in future decades. But there’s something to be said for big, at least according to Portland bartender and cocktail writer Jeffrey Morgenthaler, in an article he wrote for Food Republic headlined “To Order Craft Spirits or Not to Order Craft Spirits? That Is the Question.”
Morgenthaler’s “general, if oversimplified, rule of thumb: Liquor made from grain is better from large distilleries, while liquor made from fruit is better from small producers.” His analogy was corn flakes, which are hard to beat when made by Kellogg’s, versus orange juice, which is obviously better fresh-squeezed. But even more important is the expertise. His conclusion: “The stuff made by the guy who just started last year won’t be quite as good as the stuff that’s been made for over a century by the people who invented it.”
The big news last November at the Whiskey City Festival, the thing that everybody had to taste, was MGP’s (and Greg Metze’s) first-ever retail bourbon. Metze’s Select Indiana Straight Whiskey was a “2015 medley” of three high-rye bourbons (two from 2006 and one from 2008), chosen for blending by Metze and Pam Soule and limited to just 6,000 bottles (which are now long-gone). A bottling named for Lawrenceburg’s master distiller seemed like a harbinger. Having thrived making whiskey for others, was it time for MGP to market its own juice?
If so, it won’t be with Greg Metze. On May 20, the company announced his departure; at press time, it had not named a successor. A spokesperson at MGP told Chuck Cowdery that “MGP has developed a solid base of talent, including a team of other master distillers and experts within the company who have greatly benefited from Greg’s many years of mentoring.”
One commentor on Cowdery’s blog questioned MGP’s assertion that it had a “team of other master distillers,” but the term is something of a unicorn. When Metze first went to work at Seagram, Jack Pytleski didn’t even have the formal title “distiller” (he was “production manager”). “Master distiller” is a relatively new, entirely unregulated honorific. According to Larry Ebersold—who, like Metze, began with a chemical engineering degree—it was not in widespread use “until the late ’80s when marketing decided to create the mystique.” As with artisan and craft, the notion that there are only a dozen guys in a secret whiskey society just makes your favorite bottle cost more.
In early June, Metze told Fred Minnick of Whisky Advocate he’d started a consulting firm, with two unnamed clients. “That’s going to become public sooner rather than later,” he told me in early July. “[The companies] need to do that at their pace, not mine.” He also said his departure had been in the works for a few years. “I left to start a new adventure. It really sets me up for retirement, or semi-retirement, down the road.” Metze wouldn’t comment on who might fill his shoes, but when I noted that his bio mentioned his “lengthy internship” under Ebersold, he said “there wasn’t anybody that I was technically breaking in to replace me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The master distiller certainly went out on top. MGP won’t say how many barrels they have on hand, but the facility is completing a nearly $20 million capacity-doubling warehouse expansion. “We think we’re in the fifth year of a 20-year cycle,” says Dykstra. In theory, MGP’s business could have declined once their sourced clients were finally ready to sell in-house whiskey; instead, those companies continue to sell the whiskey their customers already know and love, and their own products on top of that. There are also MGP-sourced brands that don’t exist yet: still-aging whiskey that’s spoken for, be it by a boutique start-up, a major company planning to introduce a new line, or—who knows?—maybe MGP itself.
The viral articles and obsessive blog comments about sourced whiskey have improved transparency. But since MGP itself has never been deceptive—and more important, since people like their whiskey—the who-made-what-where controversy had the additional effect of turning a company which has no brand into a brand. If Bardstown is the “bourbon capital of the world,” Lawrenceburg can certainly call itself the “rye (and high-rye bourbon) capital of the world.” This past March, Whisky Magazine’s World Whiskies Awards named Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10-year-old “the World’s Best Single Barrel Bourbon.” Three months before that Whisky Advocate had named MGP “Distiller of the Year” for 2015. “Look for ‘Distilled in Indiana’ in tiny print on all those whiskey labels,” the magazine wrote. “You can count on the quality.”
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that former MGP master distiller Larry Ebersold had the same title at New Riff and was therefore “doubly involved” in the Newport company’s OKI whiskey. In fact, he is a “consulting master distiller” for New Riff, and did not play a direct role in the development of OKI.