Midwest Grain Products has long been one of the liquor industry's best kept secrets. This Indiana-based distillery sells its spirits to dozens of brands—many of which are highly regarded by the whiskey hipsterati and general public alike—who then bottle it and sell it as their own. The practice was unbeknownst to most consumers until last year, when a bunch of online debunkers publicized MGP's existence. It turned out that a lot of favorite "craft" (read: small and independent) brands are actually mass-produced in Lawrenceburg. Tincup Whiskey? George Dickel Rye? James E. Pepper Bourbon? All made by MGP. Virtually overnight, the initials MGP (or LDI, for Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, its former name) became a slap across the face of once beloved brands of bourbon and rye.
Indeed, there are a whole lot of faux-artisanal, pseudo-small batch whiskeys that are not, in fact, lovingly distilled in the barn of some grizzled former moonshiner, as their marketing departments might want you to believe. The most notorious of these was Templeton Rye: Said to be from Iowa, it was purportedly distilled using a Prohibition-era recipe that was a favorite of none other than Al Capone who, according to legend, called it "the good stuff." The story turned out to be such a load of horsefeathers that Templeton was found guilty of deceptive marketing, and forced by a judge to issue partial refunds to its customers.
Templeton's yarns helped to indirectly sully a lot of MGP-produced brands. The folks behind brands like Angel's Envy and Redemption were liars, conventional wisdom said, claiming to be "craft" whiskeys when in reality they were mass-produced garbage. The thing is, mass-produced doesn't equal garbage. In fact, the opposite can often be true. Lots of "real" craft (read: small and independent) distilleries don't have the money to source top quality ingredients, the experience to distill them properly, or the time to sit on all their product while it ages to peak maturity. MGP has the equipment, the know-how, and lots of aged booze on hand. The result is whiskey that's smooth, well-balanced, flavorful, and easy to drink. Nobody argued that Templeton didn't taste good, after all. A spirit doesn't have to be made in Grandpa's barn to taste good, it just has to be made right. Despite what some whiskey snobs believe, MGP makes some spirits worth savoring.
MGP's whiskey may be mass-produced, but each brand gets to put its own stamp on the finished product; it's not like they're going out and buying Jack Daniel's and putting a different label on the bottle. MGP uses at least a dozen or so mashbills, or recipes for the "mash" which is distilled to make whiskey. Do you want a bourbon that's 60% corn, 36% rye and 4% malted barley, for a spicier, more robust flavor? Or 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malted barley, for a smoother, sweeter bourbon? MGP has more than a dozen different mashbills to choose from.
Aging is also important—the exact same whiskey will taste very different after 10 years in a barrel than it will after three. High West, for instance, will combine whiskeys of different ages and mashbills to create a new and unique product. And then there's "finishing," also known as extra-aging, when mature whiskeys are aged a second time, usually for weeks or months, in a barrel that's formerly held a different spirit. Angel's Envy, whose rum barrel-finished rye comes from MGP, is one of the best known practitioners of extra-aging.
There's a whole lot of MGP whiskey out there with a bunch of different labels on the bottle, but here are half a dozen brands that best show off the breadth and depth of the distillery—and they show that every step of the whiskey-making process, including aging, bottling, blending, and even sourcing (knowing how to buy) is as important as the distilling itself.
Metze's Select Indiana Straight Bourbon
MGP has made a whole lot of booze over the decades (it's been in business since the 1840s), but this is the first time its name—and, more accurately, that of its Master Distiller, Greg Metze—has been on the bottle. Metze's Select ($75 for a 750 ml bottle) is a tremendous display of just how good MGP is at both distilling and aging.
Metze's is a blend of high-rye and low-rye bourbons (MGP's high-rye mashbill is 36% rye while its low-rye contains 21%; the more rye in a bourbon, the drier and spicier the flavor), aged for seven to nine years. That's a generally accepted sweet spot for bourbon aging—the wood has had a chance to soften and smooth out the whiskey's harsher notes while also adding richness and depth, without overwhelming the flavors of the corn and rye.
Here, the results are lush and sumptuous, with a thick, velvety feel on the tongue. Metze's is very sweet and creamy up front, with notes of brown sugar and hints of amaretto, before the spicy notes of the rye kick in on the finish. It's beautifully balanced, and makes a gentle sipper even at 93 proof. Only 6,000 bottles are being produced for now, but it's well worth tracking down when it's released in late September.
High West Double Rye!
Distillers get all the love nowadays, but there's a lot more to making a great whiskey than distilling. Take David Perkins of Utah's High West. He seeks out great whiskeys from MGP and elsewhere and then blends them until he's got something uniquely High West. "You can't just pick out a barrel of whiskey and slap a label on it," he says. "You have to know what you're doing." Double Rye! ($35 for a 750 ml bottle) is a blend of a very young (two-year-old) rye with a very high rye content (95%), along with a very old (16-year-old) rye with a comparatively low rye content (53%). It's sweet and spicy—Perkins likens it to Big Red chewing gum—but it also has a lot of dry woody notes, as well as rich caramel flavors from the older whiskey. Perkins has his own distillery, and he's currently aging his homegrown booze. But in the meantime, as he puts it, MGP "is paying the bills around here."
Bulleit's popular bourbon is still a bit of a mystery—nobody's 100% sure exactly where it's distilled, how it's made, or where it's aged. When it comes to their rye, however, the brand readily admits it's MGP all the way, no guessing games involved. If you want to know what unadulterated MGP whiskey tastes like, Bulleit Rye ($25 for a 750 ml bottle) is the one to try. It uses MGP's signature 95% rye mashbill, creating a big, spicy whiskey with notes of cinnamon, pepper, cloves and a bit of caramel oakiness from the wood aging (there's no age statement on the bottle, but it's aged at least four years and probably a bit more than that). It's only 90 proof, but it packs a lot of alcoholic heat. An ice cube or a little water dials down the fire and ramps up the flavor. It's also a great mixer in classic whiskey cocktails like the Old Fashioned or a Sazerac.
Angel's Envy Finished Rye
Founded by the late Woodford Reserve/Old Forester distiller Lincoln Henderson, Angel's Envy set the whiskey world on fire in 2010 with its port barrel-finished bourbon. When the company decided to do a rye whiskey a couple of years later, they went to MGP and bought some primo six-year-old rye with its signature 95% rye mashbill. They took that rye and aged it for another 18 months in Plantation XO Caribbean Rum barrels, which in turn had previously held cognac. The resulting whiskey is fairly saturated with the sweet, tropical fruity notes of rum, with the rye contributing spicy, dark fruit flavors. It's said that up to 70% of a whiskey's flavor comes from wood aging, and Angel's Envy Finished Rye ($70 for a 750 ml bottle) makes that clear. A fascinating and delicious rye that doesn't taste like anything else, even if it comes from the same place as dozens of other brands.
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Ten Bourbon
Based in West Virginia, Smooth Ambler already markets excellent gins and vodkas. But while owner John Little is waiting for his own whiskey to age, he's sourcing MGP product for his Old Scout line of bourbons and ryes—and being upfront about it, too. Why not? After all, as he says, "They make great whiskey." The Old Scout line has bourbons of different ages and mashbills, but the 10-year is my favorite—rich and smooth, full of sweet corn flavor (corn makes up 75% of this bourbon, with the rest of the mashbill coming from rye and malted barley) along with notes of cocoa, honey, and a little bit of cashew and hazelnut. A decade in oak could produce a dry, woody bourbon, but this has just enough oak to keep all the sweet flavors in check. Mix Old Scout Ten ($60 for a 750 ml bottle) with ice cream for an amazing boozy milkshake, or simply drink it neat to get the full experience.
WhistlePig Old World Rye
WhistlePig has been one of the most acclaimed and best-loved rye whiskey brands since it launched in 2010, but its "juice" has all been sourced, mainly from Alberta Distillers in Canada. Old World ($118 for a 750 ml bottle), the newest extension of the brand, is also the first to come from MGP. It's a combination of three limited edition WhistlePigs that were blended together to make one of the most interesting ryes you'll ever taste. The base of Old World is a rare (and pricey) 12 year old rye. Finishing, or extra-aging, Scotch whisky in barrels that have formerly held wine is pretty common, but for rye it's almost unheard of. And Old World is finished in three different kinds of barrels; Madeira (63% of the blend), Sauternes (30%) and Port (7%). Oddly, the dark, sweet and fruity notes of the port come through the strongest, though the honeyed sweetness of the Sauternes and the rich tang of the madeira are felt as well. Standard WhistlePig is bottled at 100 proof and comes off big, bold and spicy, while Old World comes in at a milder 86 proof, with a round, very smooth flavor. Proof positive of rye's versatility.