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Jim Beam faces a potential class action lawsuit over labels that indicate that the whiskey is handmade
Jim Beam has called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
Kentucky bourbon company Jim Beam has been hit with a $5 million lawsuit over the whiskey maker’s claim that the product is “handcrafted,” reports the Lexington Herald Leader.
Similar lawsuits have been filed against Maker’s Mark, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and Templeton Rye, to name a few. The law firm representing the suit against Maker’s Mark is also responsible for the new case against Jim Beam, the Herald Leader points out.
In the Jim Beam case, which targets its White Label whiskey, plaintiff Scott Welk alleges that the bourbon is not handmade by “skilled craftsmen,” as the company claims.
The lawsuit states:
“Such conduct by defendants is 'unfair' because it offends established public policy and/or is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous and/or substantially injurious to consumers in that consumers are led to believe that Jim Beam bourbon is of superior quality and workmanship by virtue of it being ‘handcrafted,’ when in fact it is not.”
In response, brand owner Beam Suntory, Inc., a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings, called the claim “frivolous.”
For Jim Beam, Puff is Enough, and No Safe Harbor is Required
A federal judge in California dismissed a class action suit against Jim Beam on August 21, 2015. The suit—Welk v. Beam Suntory Import Co.—concerned whether Beam’s use of the term “handcrafted” on its Bourbon labels is misleading to consumers. The court’s holding—that it is not misleading—and the case’s dismissal mark yet another win for Beam in a series of consumer fraud suits that have been brought against it (as well as a host of other alcohol producers) since 2014. Beam also did very well in this similar case, concerning Maker’s Mark.
Welk began back in February 2015, when Plaintiff Scott Welk filed a class action complaint alleging that Beam’s use of the term “handcrafted” on its Bourbon labels was misleading. According to Welk, “handcrafted” means “created by a hand process rather than by a machine.” Welk argued that the “mechanized” and “automated” process that Beam uses to make its Bourbon could not fairly be characterized as “handcrafted.”
In its defense, Beam claimed that TTB federal approval of its label provided it with a safe harbor that insulated it from label-related consumer fraud claims. Beam also argued that reasonable consumers are not actually misled by the term “handcrafted” because it is merely puffery that is not relied upon by consumers when they make their decision to purchase.
The side label, in recent years, says HANDCRAFTED – FAMILY RECIPE as above. For what it’s worth, note that Beam seems to have started using this language around 2011. It does not appear, for example, on this 2007 approval.
In a short and to-the-point opinion (less than 8 pages), Judge Larry Alan Burns of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California sided with Beam, holding that the term “handcrafted” is “‘generalized, vague, and unspecified’ and therefore inactionable as ‘mere puffery.’” Because “handcrafted” is merely puffery, Beam’s use of the term on its Bourbon label does not violate California’s false advertising or unfair competition laws, and does not amount to an intentional misrepresentation.
Interestingly, the court held separately that the safe harbor doctrine did not insulate Beam from the consumer fraud labeling claim here. Judge Burns stated that “the TTB [COLAs] don’t reveal whether the TTB specifically investigated and approved the veracity of Beam’s use of the claim at issue.” In this case and some others, the courts ponder what TTB did and did not do, but don’t seem to look into it.
Dismissing all of the Plaintiff’s claims with prejudice, Judge Burns ended his opinion boldly, stating that “No amendment [to the Plaintiff’s complaint] would cure [the Plaintiff]’s allegation that Beam’s use of the term “handcrafted” is misleading.”
Federal district courts adjudicating these types of label disputes have split over whether TTB label approval provides alcohol producers with a safe harbor from litigation, and whether terms such as “handcrafted” and “handmade” are non-actionable puffery.
Judge Burns’ conclusions that the safe harbor doctrine does not apply and that the term “handcrafted” is non-actionable puffery are consistent with the conclusions made by Judge Houston in his recent decision regarding Maker’s Mark’s use of the term “handmade” on its label. Nowrouzi v. Maker’s Mark Distillery, Inc., 2015 WL 4523551 (S.D. Cal. July 27, 2015).
Putting last week’s decision into perspective, we now have three judicial decisions concluding that TTB label approval does not insulate producers from the potentially misleading claims on their labels (Welk, Nowrouzi, and Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, Inc.), and three decisions concluding that terms like “handcrafted” and “handmade” are mere puffery and therefore non-actionable (Welk, Nowrouzi, and Salters v. Beam Suntory Inc.). Only one of these decisions—Hofmann—has gone entirely against the brand (Tito) to the point where the court found that the safe harbor doctrine did not apply, and, that the specific term at issue is not puffery.
The takeaway from the whiskey cases, decided so far, seems to be that, independent of TTB’s review system, courts seem generally willing to find that “handcrafted” claims amount to non-actionable puffery.
Maker’s Mark prevails in ‘handmade’ lawsuit
A lawsuit claiming Maker’s Mark has misled consumers by claiming it is “handmade” has been dismissed
The US District Court for the Northern District of Florida yesterday (4 May) ruled in favour of the bourbon brand’s parent company Beam Suntory in a class action lawsuit, launched last year.
Florida judge Robert L. Hinkle dismissed the case by plaintiffs Dimitric Salters and A.G. Waseemn “with prejudice”, thus ending the case.
The lawsuit alleged that the brand had misled consumers by falsely marketing itself as “handmade”.
“We have asserted all along that the complaints in this case were frivolous and without merit, and we are very pleased the court agreed with our position so emphatically,” said Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark.
A number of other spirits brands have faced consumer class actions questioning their “craft” statuses in recent months.
Earlier this year, a California judge temporarily stonewalled a lawsuit launched against Tito’s Handmade Vodka due to a “technical flaw”.
Meanwhile, Jim Beam hit out at a class action claiming it is falsely advertised as “handcrafted”, stating critics’ understanding of the word “defies common sense” .
Of the recent action over Maker’s Mark, Kent Rose, senior vice president and general counsel of Beam Suntory, said: “This ruling is very good news, and it should send a strong message to those who would seek to gain from similar baseless and irresponsible litigation.”
What is Handcrafted Whiskey, Anyway?
Last month, Jim Beam won the latest in a series of lawsuits regarding the right to use the word “handcrafted” to describe their whiskey on labels. It’s difficult to find anyone in the industry who doesn’t dismiss the lawsuit as frivolous, but the controversy over the word — and what it means in the whiskey world — is still a hot button issue.
“Making whiskey is very much an industry that requires machines,” says Jamie Boudreau, the owner of whiskey-focused Seattle bar Canon (winner of the “World’s Best Spirits Selection” at Tales of the Cocktail in 2015). He dismisses the word as meaningless, describing handcrafted methods as inefficient and inconsistent. Fred Minnick, author of “Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker,” takes a more balanced stance: “Bourbon requires a certain level of hand involvement and a certain level of machine involvement, there’s no way around it.” But he agrees with Boudreau that “handcrafted” doesn’t have a definition: “It’s a throwaway term that adds nothing to bourbon.”
Just a few miles from Boudreau’s bar, Nathan Kaiser of 2bar Spirits distills a whiskey he does consider—and labels as—handcrafted. Still, looking around the Seattle warehouse where local grains undergo the entire whiskey making process under one roof, there’s no shortage of machines.
Kaiser argues that his and similar distilleries can consider product handmade “if a human touches the process between the grain and the bottle.” He describes checking the grist of his grain by hand between millings, and shows off the paddle used, until recently, to stir the mash by human power. Processes can be automated, he says, but at 2bar he and his team make every drop and use their own senses at every step, and that, to him, is the difference.
Still, Kaiser sides with Jim Beam when it comes to the lawsuit itself. “There’s no Federal definition [of the word],” he says, and he’d rather let customers decide for themselves. “Consumers are smart enough, they’ll figure it out.” That sentiment echoes Judge Larry Alan Burns’s ruling that “the use of ‘handcrafted’ on Jim Beam’s bourbon bottle wouldn’t mislead a reasonable consumer.”
Kaiser is confident that when whiskey drinkers taste his product, they will find the character that he believes handcrafting imparts. Handcrafting provides character, he says. “We know what’s going on by the smell of the still.” To him, when his whiskey bottles say “handcrafted,” “it says authenticity.”
Consumers agree with Kaiser—and with the marketing folks at Beam who added “handcrafted” to the label—as a recent Harris Poll found that 59% of all adults think the descriptor “handmade” or “handcrafted” somewhat or strongly signified that a product was of high quality.
But, to a bourbon expert like Minnick, labeling a bottle as “handcrafted” is extraneous, obnoxious, and opens the industry to lawsuits like this one. “They’re vulnerable because they’re using language that’s not regulated.” He advises that all distilleries clean up the language on their labels, saying the most meaningful phrases he can see on a bourbon bottle would be “Bottled in bond” and “Straight bourbon whiskey.” His dream label would also include a mash bill, where the grains come from, what kind of wood the barrels used were made of, how many barrels were used in bottling, filtration method, and barrel entry proof. These details, he says, will help a consumer determine whether the spirit is what they want to be drinking. Boudreau, too, expresses a wish to see more information and less marketing on bottles, wishing they would say the true distillery that made the original product, and where the aging was done.
“It’s a competitive fight out there,” Minnick says, acknowledging that companies use terminology to catch attention, “but the truth is always going to be in how it tastes.” And here, Kaiser is in full agreement, saying part of what makes his bourbon “handcrafted” is that they taste every barrel and check it again when they bottle. “You could test with machines,” he says, “but what fun is that?”
Jim Beam Subject Of Latest Deceptive Whiskey Lawsuit
In the latest example of a lawsuit directed at allegedly deceptive labeling and marketing practices in the American whiskey industry, Scott Welk has filed suit in California against Jim Beam. Represented by Kazerouni Law Group and Hyde & Swigert, Welk alleges that the claim Jim Beam is “handcrafted” is false because the whiskey is made through largely automated procedures.
A similar lawsuit was filed against Maker’s Mark last year, also alleging that the “handcrafted” claim, among others, made by the company on its label was false because of automation in the production process. Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are both owned by Beam Suntory, and both the Beam and Maker’s Mark lawsuits were filed in California by Kazerouni and Hyde & Swigert.
Beyond the two California lawsuits aimed at brands within the same parent company and pursued by the same lawyers, similar lawsuits have been filed against Templeton Rye, a controversial whiskey bottler often at the center of deceptive whiskey complaints, and whiskey bottler Angel’s Envy.
Who cares? it’s just a booze company they don’t produce medicine or food, it’s poison so what differece what the labe says.
Yes, but they’re falsely claiming they’re making *handmade* poison.
If any substantial step of making Jim Beam, such as choosing, sampling and testing the barrels that go into every batch for instance, can be reasonably described as “done by hand,” the whole thing can be handmade.
Or so it would seem in the U.S. anyway. If you REALLY want to gripe about this sort of thing, may I suggest you take your complaints on to $20,000 cars and $1,000 TVs and electronic gizmos, rather than waste them on $18 bottles of bourbon?
So does this mean we can sue every lawyer in the country? They all claim to be working in the justice system.
If not handmade it should not be allowed to say handmade, period! Distillers should remove such baloney. What’s inside the bottle really matters not the outside…
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About Our Rating System
The Whiskey Reviewer uses a letter-based rating system, instead of the numerical 100-grade rating system. Click here to learn why.
The following indicators should be taken as only a guide and not a set of hard and fast rules. Some "premium" whiskeys really are quite terrible, while some mass market products are good enough to pour into a decanter and serve to the Duke of Edinburgh.
A+: A masterpiece and one of the ten best whiskeys of its type. Above five stars.
A: An outstanding bottle of whiskey, but lacking that special something which makes for a true masterpiece. Five stars.
A-: A fine bottle of whiskey, representing the top end of the conventional, premium range.
B+: Very good stuff. Four stars.
B and B-: Good and above average. The best of the mass market whiskeys fit in this category, as do the bulk of the premium brands. A B- is three stars.
C+ to C-: Average whiskey. A C- is two stars.
D+ to D-: Below average whiskey. A D is one star and a D- one-half of a star.
F: Zero stars. Rotgut.
Maker’s Mark Wins Second Deceptive Claims Lawsuit
A California lawsuit alleging that Maker’s Mark misled consumers by claiming its bourbon is “handmade, thereby violating the California’s False Advertising and Unfair Competition Act, was dismissed by Judge John A. Huston this week. Huston indicated that no reasonable person would interpret “handmade” as meaning literally by hand nor […] understand the term to mean no equipment or automated process was used to manufacture the whisky.”
The judge also added “plaintiffs cannot plausibly contend defendant intends to deceive consumers about the nature of its processes when its label clearly describes the process and points consumers to its website.”
A similar lawsuit against Maker’s Mark was dismissed in Florida in May. In that case, the ruling judge wrote in a similar vein to Huston, stating that no reasonable consumer could possibly think that hundreds of thousands of bottles were made, packaged and distributed entirely by human effort.
The two lawsuits against Maker’s Mark were part of a wave of court actions aimed at whiskey companies, coming in the wake of Daily Beast article on misleading marketing by whiskey bottlers that went viral last summer. The main subject of that article, Iowa bottler Templeton Rye, was targeted by at least three lawsuits, and recently settled out of court. The legal campaign then went astray, targeting companies like Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam.
MillerCoors sued for claiming Blue Moon is a craft beer
Blue Moon, a sweet Belgian wheat ale, that has risen to the top as one of the country’s top beers is brewed by MillerCoors.
But a lot of people still think it’s a “craft” beer.
Now, one California man is taking matters into his own hands, filing a class action against MillerCoors charging that the beer giant misleads customers by marketing Blue Moon as a craft beer.
MillerCoors has eight major U.S. breweries and produces 76 million barrels of beer annually. None of its brands meet the standards for a craft brewery set by The Brewers Association, which says craft breweries can product up to six million barrels of beer each year.
According to court documents filed in the Superior Court of California in San Diego, Evan Parents—the suit’s filer—claims that MillerCoors has gone to "great lengths to disassociate Blue Moon beer from the MillerCoors name,” and practices deceptive marketing practices to lead consumers into thinking Blue Moon is in fact brewed by a smaller institution.
The website for Blue Moon does not feature “a single reference to MillerCoors” and the beer’s label says the words “artfully crafted” which Parent says is a tactic used by the company to make consumers think is a craft beer and therefore will pay more for the product.
The suit also mentions that the company charges up to 50 percent more for Blue Moon than it charges for other products.
Other big alcohol brands have faced lawsuits recently over misleading marketing practices. This January, a judge ruled that Anheuser-Busch InBev had to payout to customers who believed their Kirin Ichiiban beer was imported from Japan. In February, bourbon producer Jim Beam faced a $5million lawsuit over its use of the word “handcrafted” on its bottle labels.
Suit Over Bourbon Maker Using ‘Handmade’ in Ads Is Dismissed
A federal judge in California dismissed this week a lawsuit filed by two consumers against the bourbon distiller Maker’s Mark, who claimed they were misled by the company’s claim that its spirits were handmade. They said that was what had enticed them to purchase Maker’s Mark instead of a less expensive whiskey, and their suit accused the company of false advertising, unfair competition and negligent and intentional misrepresentation. The suit said the process to produce the bourbon features “little to no human supervision, assistance or involvement.” That argument did not persuade United States District Judge John A. Houston. “This court finds that ‘handmade’ cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning literally by hand,” Judge Houston wrote. The judge added that the plaintiffs “cannot plausibly contend defendant intends to deceive consumers about the nature of its processes when its label clearly describes the process and points consumers to its website.” It was the latest legal victory for Maker’s Mark in fending off claims of false advertising. A similar suit was dismissed earlier this year in Florida. Maker’s Mark, owned by Beam Suntory, is produced at a distillery outside Loretto, Ky.
Last month a judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against Jim Beam Co. The lawsuit claimed that Beam’s use of the word “handcrafted” on the label of their bourbons mislead consumers. Beam responded that the TTB label approval protected them from any wrongdoing. Beam also stated that “handcrafted” is just puffery and no reasonable consumer would make a decision based on this word. What’s interesting is the judge agreed that “handcrafted” is not misleading but “mere puffery”. It’s also interesting that the “we relied on the TTB” defense was rejected.
Marketing plays a big role in the bourbon world. Every brand spins their own story. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you know the truth and don’t make purchases based on “puffery”. However, it’s getting harder to decipher the puff from the truth. Below is a list of some common bourbon puffiness.
Handcrafted – Whose hands and what did they craft?
Small Batch – A number of bourbon barrels between 1 and infinity mixed together before bottling
Frontier Whiskey – I enjoy Bulleit bourbon and Rye whiskey but their “Frontier” label always struck me as funny. It’s made in Kentucky and owned by an International conglomerate. Where did the “frontier” come into play?
Handmade – See “handcrafted”
Full-Flavored/Fully-matured – I can imagine marketing minds sitting around a label thinking “we can just have the name and proof”, “Ok, what about instead of saying our bourbon taste good we say it’s full-flavored” “Dave, you’re a genius. Now, we don’t have an age statement but we do have more room on the label. Whatcha got?!”
Any story about their families history with bourbon making. Unless, their last name is Noe, Van Winkle or Samuels.
Vintage – This isn’t wine. This is just a general reference to age.
What’s your favorite bourbon puffery? You may want to check out our “Bourbon Buzzwords Explained” post as well.
Sourcing, Labeling & Lawsuits: Why American Whiskey Should Improve Its Labels
The m ore the average American spirits drinker dives into whiskey, the more he or she learns remains unknown. Confusion currently reigns across much of the landscape, with some of the largest issues at hand surrounding who is actually distilling the whiskey being sold by a particular brand, and what that brand is actually disclosing, or not, on the label.
Sourcing & MGP
Many of today's "craft" brands are actually buying their whiskey from large producers, and selling it under their own name. This practice is known as "sourcing." These brands are not distilling their own stuff, and may or may not be responsible for aging it on their own property. They're either blenders or bottlers, but certainly not distillers. In other words, they're middlemen in the process of producing whiskey and getting it to the shelf. Collectively, they're known as Non Distiller Producers or NDPs. While sourced whiskey is often rather good on its own merits, matters get murky when NDPs play it off as a product they are distilling.
In the U.S., the biggest player on the sourcing scene is MGP Ingredients, based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. MGP rose to the top by producing quality whiskey at huge volumes for others. While recently the company debuted a limited release under its own label, MGP almost entirely distills for other companies, and the whiskey it produces ends up under dozens of different brands. Many of these labels are now known, and many are upfront about where they get their whiskey, but many others remain hidden, hoping to go unexposed.
A visit to MGP's website won't reveal a customer index, thanks to nondisclosure agreements, but it will provide a "product list" that includes all the types of whiskey and alcohol it distills. A brand could choose from five different bourbon mash bills, three rye whiskeys, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, corn whiskey, and more.
The public at large caught wind of this truth last year, and its outcry was heard far and wide. People felt spurned and lied to, and suddenly didn’t know who or what to believe in terms of American whiskey. Yet, sourcing whiskey as a practice, and MGP itself even existing, is far from a new story, and those involved in the whiskey or spirits scene on any level were already well aware of sourcing and its prevalence.
". if you call yourself a distiller, there ought to be some distilling going on in your place of business — otherwise, you're just fabricating ways to describe a bottling plant." - Ben Lyon, Lyon Distilling Co.
On its own, there's absolutely nothing wrong with sourcing, as long as there's honesty about what's taking place, rather than deception. With Scotch, there's a longstanding and still highly respected history of independent bottlers, companies completely devoid of distilling, who either select barrels to sell under their own label, or blend stock from multiple sources to create something entirely new.
"There is nothing wrong with sourcing spirits as long as the seller doesn't attempt to imply otherwise," says Ben Lyon, distiller and co-owner at Maryland's Lyon Distilling Co., and founder of the Maryland Distillers Guild. "Where I really cry foul is when a 'distiller,' who had no part in the spirit coming off the still claims to have 'handcrafted' it. I also contend that if you call yourself a distiller, there ought to be some distilling going on in your place of business — otherwise, you're just fabricating ways to describe a bottling plant."
Sourcing discussions sometimes make MGP look like the bad guy, like some kind of industrial villain. But, simply put, the company is making enough really good whiskey that brands continue to line up around the corner for a chance to purchase it. Like other distilleries, MGP has a master distiller. It's no more a dirty industrial factory than any other major players like Wild Turkey or Jim Beam — each is a mammoth, computer-controlled, industrial operation. So, MGP shouldn't be frowned upon or held responsible for the sometimes shady or duplicitous acts of its customers. MGP isn't the bad guy, and "sourcing" need not be a dirty word, either.
Many small brands who are opening their doors for the first time often source whiskey so they have a product to sell immediately while their own stuff ages. It's a fiscal necessity, since it's impossible for most of these brands to sit around for years, not generating revenue, while their whiskey is left maturing in the barrel.
Therefore, they buy somebody else's whiskey as they begin the process of putting away their own stock. Along the way, these new brands may begin incorporating their own juice into the purchased whiskey, or they may simply wait until their whiskey is fully of age and release it separately.
. MGP shouldn't be frowned upon or held responsible for the sometimes shady or duplicitous acts of its customers.
Even if a brand has no intentions of ever distilling its own liquor — relying instead upon a unique aging or blending process to distinguish its whiskey — or it plans to bank on superior marketing, there's nothing wrong with either act as long as the brand isn't trying to deceive the consumer. Sourcing in and of itself is fine, and is a common practice.
A Close-Up on Bulleit
It's not just smaller brands who source whiskey though. For instance, take the case of Bulleit, a popular and well-regarded Diageo-owned brand, who, as of now, does absolutely zero distilling. A new Diageo distillery is set to open in Kentucky's Shelby County in 2016, and Bulleit will be distilled there moving ahead. But that means the brand is still many years away from filling its bottles with bourbon made at Diageo's distillery.
A visit to the Bulleit Experience—a tourist attraction housed at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which is where the Pappy Van Winkle lineup was formerly produced— is shrouded in mystery. The barrel warehouse which is accessible to the public is roped off at the entrance, so visitors can't meander through it, presumably able to see on the barrels who made what, where and when.
What is "Craft"?
Handcrafted. Handmade. Small batch. Craft. What do any of these words actually mean? Myriad lawsuits are being filed over such claims, and even beyond this legal wrangling, it's hard to come to any firm conclusions.
In terms of size, DISCUS caps "craft" production at up to approximately 84,000 cases annually in order to qualify as a "small distiller" in their Small Distiller Affiliate Membership program, which includes over 120 members. The American Craft Spirits Association sets a far higher cap, about 315,000 cases, to qualify as a member. Those limits may help to distinguish between operations of different sizes, but that still doesn't clear up the issue of "craft."
The American Distilling Institute defines a Certified Craft Spirit as "the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is physically distilled and bottled on-site." ADI also has definitions for a "certified craft distilled spirit" and a "certified craft-blended spirit, as well as "craft blenders. "
Has any of this actually cleared up the issue? Not really. Craft could refer to size, either of production or sales, as well as quality, technique, ownership and myriad other specifics.
In the meantime, don't be swayed by any such label designations.
Visitors are also barred from taking photographs in the narrow swath of rickhouse that they are able to enter. On a recent trip, Bulleit reps explained that photography was a fire hazard. But to this writer's knowledge, nobody in the group was utilizing a century-old shattering flashbulb camera. Needless to say, on the same trip, every other brand's warehouse allowed full access, and full photographic privileges.
Bulleit doesn't mind disclosing that they source rye whiskey from MGP, but the picture for their bourbon is far murkier. Until recently they had a contract with Four Roses, one of the traditional major bourbon brands and producers, to handle their bourbon distilling, but that deal expired and was not renewed. So who's making Bulleit now?
It's an issue of much discussion, and one the company doesn't love to talk about. Bulleit won't say where, but does acknowledge that its bourbon is made in Kentucky, and features a mash bill of 68 percent corn, 28 percent rye, and 4 percent malted barley. There are only so many other Kentucky distilleries out there with the bandwidth to make as much bourbon as a brand the size of Bulleit needs. Here's looking at you, Barton, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam.
None of this need necessarily scare you away from Bulleit — although the secrecy discovered at the Bulleit Experience was a touch unsavory. Still, diving into the brand's backstory explains their situation more clearly.
What is now known as MGP was formerly owned by Seagram, and Bulleit was formerly a Seagram brand. That simply means that the parent company's distillery was making the juice for one of its brands, and the practice continued as ownership changed and new brand conglomerates were formed.
Four Roses was also under the Seagram family. So when they were making Bulleit’s bourbon, it was again simply the case of synergy between different brands and assets under the same company roof. Nothing unsavory about that.
When Seagrams was sold and divvied up in 2000, Four Roses was sold to Pernod Ricard rather than Diageo, and Diageo contracted Four Roses to continue production for Bulleit. Diageo then began contracting other producers to make Bulleit's bourbon as well, including Brown-Forman, Barton, and the aforementioned Beam, and they quietly began incorporating those bourbons with the juice from Four Roses.
Four Roses is out of the picture now, so who's left? Since we know that the distillery supplying Bulleit is in Kentucky, that potentially nixes Brown-Forman, as the distillery producing Jack Daniel's is in Tennessee, and Woodford Reserve's distillery in Kentucky doesn't have that capacity, leaving only the Brown-Forman distillery in Shively as a viable option. Woodford's Master Distiller Chris Morris also confirms that Woodford's facility does not sell to anybody. "We're very fortunate that we don't source whiskey from anybody, and we don't sell whiskey to anybody," he said. "We're one of the exceptions. We make it and sell it all under our label."
In a conversation with Jim Beam's Fred Noe, he discussed the issues of producers selling whiskey to other brands, as well as the labeling issues which result. "If you're just bottling, and you go out and buy whiskey from me, all you can put on it is 'bottled by,'" he explains. "But if we make it and bottle it, then it says 'distilled and bottled by.'"
Noe therefore acknowledges people buying whiskey from Beam and selling it under their own brands, although he was more tightlipped on the specific matter of Bulleit, perhaps a tell in and of itself for the usually highly gregarious Noe. "If you dig deep enough, you'll find where everything is made," Noe said. "You can track it down." Signs are pointing, at least partially, in his direction.
Confusion over what's actually in the bottle has led to a collection of lawsuits filed against a range of different brands. But none more prominently than Templeton Rye, the label which has come to signify in the minds of many the practice of sourcing and the negative issues of deceptive labeling.
"Many producers engage in less than forthright labeling practices . to mislead the consumer . "- Don Poffenroth, - Dry Fly Distillery
Templeton Rye formerly touted a lofty story, both on its website and on its bottle, about utilizing a Prohibition-era bootleg rye whiskey recipe favored by Al Capone. Meanwhile, the stuff was being made at MGP. Multiple lawsuits were levied, with several now seemingly headed toward mediation.
Another MGP customer, Angel's Envy, has been targeted with a lawsuit as well. WhistlePig came under similar fire, although in their case they're not utilizing MGP's juice. They're now more upfront about purchasing their rye whiskey from Canada, but in the past the company had been a bit mum on the fact, and touted the spirit as an American rye.
Regardless, the bottle still says, "Hand bottled at WhistlePig Farm" in Vermont. And, while correct, that statement could lead a consumer to mistakenly believe WhistlePig is making the whiskey there, which they're not. WhistlePig is growing their own grain and has imminent plans on beginning their own distillation, however that means it'll be quite a few years until what's sold as WhistlePig is distilled by WhistlePig.
Others have filed lawsuits against Jim Beam and Maker's Mark, each due to "handcrafted" or "handmade" statements, and beyond the world of whiskey there have been additional disputes flying as well. Most prominently, Tito's Handmade Vodka has come under legal fire for its own "handmade" designation, the brand's own rapid fire growth pushing it well beyond the small batch status it touts.
Yet, all of the above lawsuits only target individual brands, not an industry as a whole. Shutting down a single brand doesn't inherently mean that others change their own practices.
Of course, wary consumers could have a larger say by shutting their wallets for whiskey or spirits whose story or label they distrust. "Many producers engage in less than forthright labeling practices," says Don Poffenroth, co-founder of Spokane, Washington's Dry Fly Distillery.
"Many of these producers do so to mislead the consumer," he continues. "We find consumers are unhappy to learn that what they thought they bought from a producer, is indeed a product made by someone else. In the end, the consumer will decide whether the misleading practices are acceptable."
If brands didn't have as much wiggle room, there would be far less deception and confusion from the start.
Noe agrees. "Just stay away from them," he says, referring to brands with a reputation for being deceptive or lying about their whiskey. "There's enough good whiskey out there . if you want to know what you're drinking, make sure you're buying it from the folks who make it."
Ultimately though, broader action needs to be taken from a regulatory standpoint. If brands didn't have as much wiggle room, there would be far less deception and confusion from the start. The TTB, or Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, is the government agency responsible for alcohol product labeling, and that's where regulation or reform would need to begin.
"The regulations at the TTB exist to clear up any confusion regarding these issues," says Poffenroth. "Unfortunately, the staffing and resources do not exist to enforce those regulations. It’s kind of like the Wild West right now, and some producers are taking significant advantage."
"The bottom line is that if the producer is honest, we have no issue with [sourcing]," he continues. "We believe we do something entirely different, and it’s important for the customer to understand those differences."
Lyon doesn't necessarily want to see increased regulation either, but he does believe that inconsistent policies lead to consumer confusion, and need to be resolved."The labeling requirements for American whiskies are best described as arcane, arbitrary, and oftentimes bizarre," he says. "More transparency where it truly matters could benefit the consumer."
It all comes down to being forthright, straightforward and honest about what's in the bottle. Sourced whiskey can be wonderful to enjoy, and most drinkers care far less about where the whiskey is made, as opposed to the quality of what they’re drinking. But if the companies can't seem to get it together on their own to be completely clear about what they're using, who made it, and where it's from, then there needs to be legal reform.
An Easy Solution to Whiskey Labeling
There are many issues at hand, including the consistent enforcement of current regulations. The best and most straightforward real solution though would be a mandate that all labels include a clear designation of where the spirit was distilled, and where it was bottled.
Lyon suggests a few key improvements. "If sourced, identification of the actual distiller would be present," he says. He also wants to see any artificial flavorings listed on the label, noting that the TTB allows "up to 2.5 percent 'harmless coloring or flavoring materials'" to whiskey with no mandate to declare it on the label.
"When we speak about our labeling, we focus on the producer statement," says Poffenroth. "The words 'Distilled By' or 'Distilled and Bottled By' are clear indications that the named producer at least does the final distillation and packaging in house. 'Produced by' or 'Bottled by' or anything else other than the word 'Distilled' indicate a product that was not produced by the named company."
That doesn't sound like too much to ask — that every bottle of whiskey sold in the United States be legally required to actually tell you where it was made, and by whom. Some phony brand legends might be squashed in the fallout, but what other negative consequence would there be of such a mandate?
Distilled by [Distillery], in [City], [State]. Bottled by [Company], in [City], [State].