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The Wildly Misleading World of American Whiskey

by Jacob Brower, Wine & Spirits Professional


If you’re on our email list—and you should be, so sign up!—you’ve probably seen that we’re holding an American whiskey today in Morristown, and this time next week in Montclair. Perhaps you’ve stopped in the store before looking for a great bottle of bourbon or rye, and seen few familiar labels or brands. Often people ask, with a scoff, why we don’t carry “rare” bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle or the latest ‘special release’ from Basil Hayden’s or Woodford, et al. 


Guess what? We don’t carry them on purpose!


Bourbon & rye brands, big and small alike, often employ buzzwords like ‘small batch’ or ‘frontier whiskey’ or ‘prohibition-style recipe’ on their labels, but most of the time, it’s not even remotely true. In fact, 80% or more of bourbon and rye comes from a few huge distilling plants, either owned by the big names—Suntory Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill—or from the infamous MGP of Indiana, a factory distilling plant that produces mature whiskeys under contract for private labeling and sale to other companies. 

Trust me. I speak from experience. This might not seem like a huge deal, until you realize that many of the apparently-distinct whiskeys on the shelves of collectors are not only distilled by the exact same plant, but are in fact even the same whiskey, sold for re-bottling and re-labeling to any company with deep enough pockets to afford it. Case in point? The rye whiskey sold under the brands Bulleit, Angel’s Envy, George Dickel, Redemption, and Templeton begins life as literally the same whiskey—in some cases, it does go through short term ‘cask finishing’ by a particular brand, but often it is bottled without alteration and offered as a unique, independent product. Templeton even reached a settlement and had to remove ‘small batch’ and ‘prohibition-era recipe’ from their label because they were seen as misleading and untrue. 


Beyond that, there’s the reality that even the most expensive and well-known bourbons, frequently released with artificial scarcity to inflate their prices, often are distilled by just a few huge corporate brands. Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg, Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Pappy Van Winkle? All distilled by Buffalo Trace, either under contract or as a house brand. Old Forester, Jack Daniels, and Woodford Reserve? All  Brown-Forman brands. Maker’s Mark, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek? All under the auspices of Jim Beam.  Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Henry McKenna, and Rittenhouse? All distilled by Heaven Hill. 


Unfortunately, even shopping for unusual or new brands doesn’t alleviate this problem…the vast majority of start-up, so-called ‘craft’ brands actually buy their whiskey either from MGP of Indiana or from Heaven Hill, because, quite simply, distilling and aging your own whiskey takes time, and you need something to sell in the interim. If a brand-new ‘distillery’ is offering a 4, 5, or even 10-year-old whiskey? Guess what?—they didn’t distill it themselves; they purchased it, already mature, from one of the big plants, so they could mark it up and sell it to you. 


Of course, I’m not suggesting that big brands and distilling plants can’t produce drinkable, even delicious whiskey. I’m not complaining if someone pours me Pappy Van Winkle, and I’ll make a mixed drink with Heaven Hill in a pinch, just like the next guy. But what I don’t respect is the smoke-and-mirrors, the intentionally misleading marketing, and the suggestion that it’s somehow reasonable to offer limited-release, very expensive new products and brands that are barely different from whiskey you can buy from the same distillery for twenty or thirty bucks. That’s ludicrous! 


At Amanti Vino, our approach is different. Sure, you’ll see one or two ‘purchased whiskey’ brands on the shelf, because there simply is no such thing as $25 craft bourbon. We all need access to a drinkable everyday mixer. But if you’re a big whiskey fan, and you’re interested in collecting and trying different expressions of bourbon or rye that are truly special, actually distinct, and actually handcrafted and aged on site using local grains and materials…well, we’ve got you covered. Outside of the everyday mixers, the whiskeys we're proud to carry and offer to you—after tasting through dozens of lesser options—are real craft whiskey, able to boast terms like ‘small batch’ and ‘craft-distilled’ honestly. 


And if you’re not sure, just ask! I spend a lot of time seeking out these products, tasting through lineups of whiskeys that don’t meet our standards…so, if it’s on the shelf, I’m excited to talk about it and more than happy to drink it myself. While we've carried a handful of DSP-sourced products in the past, in 2019 and beyond we're making a very conscious effort to support the world (and honest approach) of real craft distilleries producing some of the finest spirits in the United States today. They're what I want to drink, and what you deserve to have available to you as informed consumers. 


So whiskey-drinkers, I hope to see you at our Morristown tasting tonight or next Friday in Montclair. But if you can’t make the tasting, or need a bottle to enjoy right now, I’ve linked a few of my personal favorites below. Just like our wine selection at Amanti Vino, these were all personally tasted and evaluated against many other whiskeys before reaching our shelves, so don’t worry yourself with all the marketing BS or pay-to-play reviews you’ll find online. These are the good stuff.


Drink real whiskey—the difference is well worth tasting for yourself! 


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Finger Lakes Distilling - 'McKenzie' Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon NV (750)
Finger Lakes Distilling - 'McKenzie' Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon (750ml)

An Amanti Vino staff & customer favorite! Distilled in Burdett, New York from locally grown corn, red winter wheat, and malted barley, FLD’s ‘McKenzie’ Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon is almost certainly the best core-range... Read More

Our price  $59.99
High Wire Distilling - Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey NV (750)
High Wire Distilling - Jimmy Red Straight Bourbon Whiskey (750ml)

Husband and wife craft-distilling and farming team Ann Blackwell and Scott Marshall produce the country's only bourbon produced from the heirloom southern corn variety Jimmy Red. Rescued from the brink of extinction by a team... Read More

Our price  $104.99
Union Horse - Reunion Rye Whiskey NV (750)
Union Horse - Reunion Rye Whiskey (750ml)

Kansas City's Union Horse Distillery has quietly been producing some of the United States' finest craft whiskeys since 2010, with little fanfare and few price increases. Today their 'Reunion' Rye is one of the... Read More

Our price  $49.99
All sizes are 750mL unless otherwise noted.
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