“Why do people pay more for the same whiskey distilled in Indiana from one NDP [non-distiller producer] vs another? [sic],” pondered a man on one of Facebook’s private whiskey groups. What he is referring to is Midwest Grain Products (MGP), a Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery that by now is well-known for providing the whiskey for many American upstarts.
Like everything on Facebook, the responses to that initial question ranged from earnest to snide:
“Reputation. Fan following.”
“Presumed blending or barrel picking abilities.”
“Because there is a sucker born every minute.”
Even as a fan of MGP, I couldn’t exactly disagree with the any of those answers. Yet I, too, am certain that some MGP bottlers were clearly better than others. I just can’t tell you exactly why that is. Maybe I am just a sucker who likes pretty labels.
The actual MGP distillery has been standing in the same spot since 1847. It was purchased by Seagram after Prohibition and, by 2011, was in the hands of MGP Ingredients, a publicly-traded, Kansas-based supplier of wheat proteins and starches. Right about then, with many of those same Seagram distillers still on staff, MGP started selling bulk spirits to anyone who would buy them.
While MGP does produce neutral grain spirits, gin, bourbon and even malt whiskey, most people agree it’s with rye that they truly excel. Their signature rye whiskey is 95-percent rye grain—a ratio rarely seen on the market—which was once used as a minor flavoring component in their Seagram’s 7 Crown.
As rye whiskey began making a comeback in America, MGP’s stock of well-aged rye whiskey was suddenly in demand. New brands like High West and Smooth Ambler greedily snapped up any barrels they could get their hands on. Whiskey geeks loved these offerings and soon other brands were likewise sourcing their “craft” rye from MGP.
According to blogger Steve Ury’s Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries & Brands, there are at least 130 “distilleries” sourcing whiskey from MGP. (There are probably even more by now, as Ury decided to quit updating his massive list last year.) These include some of the biggest names in the business: Angel’s Envy, Bulleit, George Dickel, Willett and countless others.
When we decided to assemble this tasting, the question on my mind was, when you pit all of these brands against each other, blind, how much variation can you find between each? Is a certain age the “sweet spot” for an MGP rye? Or maybe it’s a certain proof? Is single-barrel MGP superior to a blend of barrels? And how much does so-called “barrel finishing” accelerate standard MGP toward greatness? Ultimately, we learned there’s no constant as to what factors make for a great MGP rye bottling—and, likewise, what it will to cost you.
There are a few similarities we did uncover, however. MGP ryes are so famous for their “dill pickle” note that it’s become a long-running geek joke. Indeed, the younger options we tasted did offer a lot of herbal aromas, not just dill but also of wintergreen and eucalyptus, though these notes tended to fade over the years as barrel notes took over. MGP ryes have a great oily mouthfeel, too, enabling them to remain sippable even at cask strength. Other than that, even if people worry that the prevalence of MGP rye on the market has created homogeneity, it’s hard to concur with that statement after our tasting. We encountered such a vast range of different flavor profiles that, in many cases, it was hard to believe two competing products were made from the same original distillate.
For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin. We tried to only include MGP ryes of the iconic 95-percent rye variety (of late, MGP has started introducing other rye percentages). Our tasting included bottles as young as two years old, and as old as 14; bottles as cheap as $24, and as pricey as nearly $500; and ones as low as 80-proof and as high as 120.6. Here are our favorites.
Note: While OKI Rye Reserve was one of the top picks in our tasting, we ultimately decided to not include it; New Riff Distilling has just discontinued the series as they begin releasing their own distillate. Some bottles can still be found on shelves throughout Kentucky and the Cincinnati area, however.
Rebel Yell Small Batch Rye
“Produced and sold in limited quantities,” according to their website, Rebel Yell isn’t exactly forthright about their MGP association. The Luxco-owned Kentucky brand isn’t exactly ballyhooed amongst whiskey geeks, either. Nevertheless, their thrifty rye was a surprise standout. Bottled at only 2 years old, the 90-proofer has a “dusty” aroma you often see in vintage whiskey, bolstered by an oily mouthfeel. Spicy and and slightly grassy on the palate with notes of baking soda, its finish combats the roundness of the mid-palate, giving the whiskey a surprising completeness at such a young age.
- Price: $29
- ABV: 45 percent
James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye
Another well-priced, 95-percent rye, this brand is a revival of an American Revolution-era distillery (Kentucky’s fifth ever, in fact). The nose is archetypal MGP with strong notes of mint, eucalyptus and dill. At 100 proof, it’s quite drinkable and nuanced, with one taster finding parallels between it and the Jura’s vin jaune wine. In late 2017, the brand finally started doing their own distilling at a historic space in Lexington, Kentucky, though all the James E. Pepper rye on the market for the next couples years will remain MGP.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 50 percent
Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof
A recently released limited edition from the Stamford, Connecticut-based bottler, this is a decade-old version of MGP’s 95-percent rye. The expected herbal notes of MGP have calmed down over the years, replaced by spicier ones backed by dried fruit, like raisins and prunes. One taster thought it had a distinct “wild cherry”/Dr. Pepper note, while another couldn’t help but find a distinct, chalky Pepto-Bismol note. At 116.2 proof, it feels like its teetering ever so close to sloppiness, but remains balanced.
- Price: $94
- ABV: 58.1 percent
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Limited Edition Single Barrel Rye
Unquestionably the most lauded MGP rye bottler among the cognoscenti, this tasting proved the geeks are actually right. This 10-year-old rye (barrel #2531) is extremely complex, with rich butterscotch on the nose and just a hint of mentholated smoke. That leads into a buttery mouthfeel that makes the barrel-proof offering way more palatable, with sweeter notes of brown sugar and caramel. The Old Scout single barrel series has been so popular that the Pernod Ricard-owned West Virginia distillery—with their own distillate soon to hit the market—had to drastically scale back its program, causing certain bottles to now sell on the secondary market for upwards of $500.
- Price: $75
- ABV: 56.1 percent
WhistlePig 12 Year Old World
This MGP rye is a masterclass in finishing and blending acumen. A combo of 30 percent sauternes-, 63 percent madeira- and 7 percent port-finished barrels, it was the most complex rye in our tasting, with well-integrated notes of heather, raisins, orange peel, cigar smoke and even cake batter. Big, but lithe thanks to its high acidity, the 86-proofer still feels like a steal at $122.
- Price: $122
- ABV: 43 percent