Craft Whiskey’s New Era of Extreme Transparency

Craft distilleries have gone from spinning yarns about Al Capone’s secret recipes to winning over buyers with lengthy ingredient lists and chemistry tables.

When Sugarlands Distilling’s new Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey appeared on my stoop in an ornate, copper foil-embossed box, I wasn’t exactly impressed. Inside the box was a handsome, wax-dipped bottle. Because, of course. How else are you going to convince folks to spend $50 for a 375mL bottle of two-year-old whiskey?

But perhaps I shouldn’t have judged the whiskey by its pretty package. The rye was surprising good—spicy, potent and wise beyond its years. And then I noticed the bottle’s back label, which didn’t merely list the government-required alcohol proof—one of the few things the TTB actually demands—but many other seemingly arcane facts, like how long its barrel staves had been air-dried (six months); the char level inside each 25-gallon barrel; and the barrels’ average percentage of liquid evaporation over their lifespan (17 percent). Why were they disclosing this kind of esoterica?

“We believe these are all essential facts and integral in defining what our whiskey is all about,” explains Greg Eidam, Sugarlands’ head distiller.

Spinning a good yarn about one’s origin story while revealing as little as possible about the actual liquid has been par for the course in American whiskey for quite some time. As the craft whiskey market began to boom, it dealt with its own issues of transparency, which came to a head half a decade ago with Templeton Rye. Since its introduction in 2006, the Iowa brand claimed that their “Prohibition-era” whiskey was distilled right there in the Hawkeye State. But, in a 2014 article for The Daily Beast, Eric Felten revealed that it was actually made in Indiana at MGP Ingredients, the same factory that was making whiskey for pretty much every famous “craft” distillery you had ever heard of at that point in time: Redemption, High West, Smooth Ambler, Bulleit—you name it.

Craft whiskey is not just about being small but about being “handcrafted,” and the Templetons of the world were unraveling that tale, which is arguably the most important one these distillers have to tell. Suddenly, however, a new breed of craft distillery is not just rejecting the half-truths and outright lies that have undermined the craft whiskey movement, but overcompensating for their predecessors’ missteps with extreme transparency.

“There has always been a pretty high degree of transparency with craft distillers that are actually making the whiskey themselves,” explains Mike Raymond of Houston whiskey bar Reserve 101. “Texas brands like Garrison Brothers, Balcones and Ironroot Republic will proudly tell you just about everything they do.” It’s just now they’re taking things a step further.

If knowing Roaming Man’s barrels have a “#3 char” level isn’t too much gobbledygook for the typical consumer, Roaming Man’s box also includes a postcard-size slip of translucent film that lists the whiskey’s so-called “gas chromatograph profile.” This notes how chemical compounds like ethyl butyrate, iso-amyl acetate and syringealdehyde have changed within the liquid over its aging time. You almost need a chemistry degree to decipher it all.

“[That’s] essentially the DNA, or fingerprint, of the whiskey,” explains Eidam, noting that there are thousands of different chemical congeners and specific compounds that are particularly important in giving a whiskey its character. (The card notes that ethyl hexanoate adds “sweet apple flavor & pineapple aromas,” for instance.) “For the hardcore science geek, this is a rabbit hole you might not ever come out of, but for the layman, it’s just a visual way of showing how much ‘maturing’ goes on in the barrel. Consumers can geek out on this as much or as little as they like.”

As the type of nerdy kid who spent more time reading the stats on the back of his baseball cards than admiring the beautiful swings on the front, this is something I can appreciate. Other distilleries are following suit, so hell-bent on proving they actually make their whiskey that they’re ready to turn over their receipts if necessary.

“This was a conscious decision, led by my brother Mike,” explains Bob McManus, a co-owner of St. Paul, Minnesota’s Eleven Wells. It is believed they were the first craft distillery in the country to offer this form of extreme transparency when they opened, in 2013. “To him, it was about the beauty and purity. This is what we’re doing and this is what people have done for hundreds of years. There’s no proprietary recipe or secret sauce or an ingredient like the Colonel has in his chicken. That’s why we’re happy to tell you everything.”

That “everything” includes the 13 different flavor-impacting elements listed on each and every bottle of their Prototype Series whiskey. These elements range from the more standard proof and mash bill to whether it was a sweet or sour mash, its particular yeast type and even what state the oak trees used in the barrels came from and who coopered them.

Though this might seem like unnecessary information, many of these distilleries believe it can actually help whiskey fans identify what it is they actually like. “If you find a factor that seems to be impacting your choice from batch to batch, then we want to hear about it,” Eleven Wells notes on their website. Eidam feels similarly: “It’s about educating the consumer and helping them to develop their palate. If you know what you’re drinking, you may learn that you like the spicy character from rye—but maybe only up to a certain percentage of rye.” He feels that if a distillery doesn’t share it’s mash bill with consumers, it makes it difficult for whiskey drinkers to identify what they specifically enjoy and to seek out similar products.

While most craft distilleries don’t have the money to conduct rigorous analysis like Roaming Man or Eleven Wells, simply stating if you (or MGP) actually distilled the product and then revealing your mash bill doesn’t cost a dime. As more consumers become accustomed to greater transparency, the question on many whiskey lovers’ minds is whether it will force the big boys to open their own kimonos, so to speak.

“Everywhere we go, people ask about mash bills and processes of how we make the bourbon,” says Harlen Wheatley, the master distiller at Buffalo Trace.

Wheatley’s Buffalo Trace is the only major distillery going the extreme transparency route at the moment. But Wheatley and Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown admit that when you spend millions of dollars on distillation, aging and processing, it’s good to keep a bit of it confidential.

“We balance [that] by showing people as much as possible about our operation to explain the craft without giving away all our secrets,” notes Wheatley.

It’s true that Buffalo Trace’s standard bottlings, like Eagle Rare, Blanton’s and even Pappy Van Winkle, don’t list too much additional information, but the Experimental Collection’s labels track everything from how many barrels went into the blend, to what warehouse floors and ricks the barrels were slotted in, to Wheatley’s own tasting notes.

“We believe it depends on the brand,” explains Brown. “For the Experimental Collection, details appear to matter more [to customers]. On a brand like Benchmark, less so.”

While the number of brands that are adhering to a reveal-everything mentality is relatively few, distilleries big and small are starting to realize that a greater degree of transparency might be necessary for a growing base of consumers who are interested in how, and where, spirits are actually made. While it’s unclear whether extreme transparency will lead to a larger economic success for the craft set, it’s certainly become a more honest form of marketing. If five years ago craft distilleries were telling tall tales about Al Capone’s secret recipes and hearkening back to the rowdy frontier days of yore, today customer seduction is, at least in part, coming in the form of ingredient lists and chemistry tables.

“This shit interests me,” says McManus. “And, if this shit interests me, it might interest you too.”

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