There has been a lot of talk about Non-Distilling Producers lately. Consumers feel they are being deceived by this newest generation of rectifiers and people act as if they are a new phenomenon but they are not. People have been doing this since the earliest distilling in Kentucky. In fact the distillers of Kentucky in the earliest days of statehood would sell their whiskey as a commodity and the “grocers” would sell to the consumers. In those days they were simply called “rectifiers” because they purchased whiskey from a distiller and then “rectified” it to create a taste profile that would meet their standards. Many of these rectifiers simply married two or more whiskeys together to create the profile they wanted while others would create what we now call a blended whiskey by using GNS (Grain Neutral Spirits) and flavorings such as caramel and prune juice to create their products. The rectifiers did not often disclose where they acquired their spirits or what they did to create their whiskey any more than today’s Non-Distilling Producers.
Many of today’s best-selling brands were created by rectifiers. Paul Jones was a rectifier when he created Four Roses. In fact one of the stories as to where the name came from is that Jones bought four different whiskeys from the Rose distillery in Atlanta to create the brand. George Garvin Brown created Old Forester by marrying the whiskeys from three different distilleries together to create his flavor profile for the brand. This included whiskey from the Mellwood Distillery in Louisville and the Mattingly Distillery in St. Mary, Kentucky. The latter was the distillery they purchased at the turn of the 20th century as Bottled-in-Bond whiskey became the focus of consumers. I. W. Bernheim created I W Harper while in Paducah, Ky. using Bourbon from Nelson County. He too purchased a distillery only as Bonded whiskey became popular. W. L. Weller never owned a complete distillery but had a still to make gin and redistill whiskey purchased elsewhere. After his death and the business was sold, they contract distilled with A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery until prohibition but never owned a distillery until Stitzel-Weller was built in 1935. S. C. Herbst started as a rectifier and whiskey merchant. When he created the Old Fitzgerald brand he was using whiskey distilled in Kentucky but aged in Milwaukee. Even into the 20th century, Wild Turkey was developed by Austin-Nichols under a rectifying license in the 1940s. It was whiskey they purchased in Kentucky, mostly from the same distillery, but not always. They later purchased that distillery in the 1970s. Even Julian Van Winkle operated under a rectifying license after the family sold the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and he purchased whiskey from several sources other than Stitzel-Weller for his products.
There has been a long history of people entering the whiskey business by selling whiskey purchased on the bulk whiskey market. The rectifiers sample many barrels and pick only those that meet their flavor profiles. Others would contract distill the whiskey they wanted. This is different from bulk market sales because the rectifier would set the perimeters of the product being made. Mash bill, entry proof, barrel char level and even yeast could be specified for the whiskey made and delivered. This is what W.L. Weller and Sons did at A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery before prohibition (no, it was not a wheated recipe), and that is what Diageo has been doing for Bulliett and Michter’s has been doing for their brands for the last decade or so. Some will say that even if they purchase new make whiskey from a known distillery and age it themselves it is more their whiskey than the distiller’s because about 60% of the flavor comes from the aging process. These are all ways that rectifiers employ to make their whiskey their own.
History is again repeating itself. In the 1870s as the whiskey industry was growing by leaps and bounds following the Civil War, the rectifying industry grew as well. More and more people entered the industry creating ways to “age” whiskey quicker, or duplicate the flavor of aged whiskey by adding flavors and compounds. They cheapened the reputation of Bourbon to the point that people such as E.H. Taylor were reluctant to call their products ‘Bourbon”. The distillers fought back with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. These laws helped define such things as “Straight whiskey” and set the standard of four years old as fully matured and you could leave off an age statement.
In the 21st century you again see attacks upon the standards for Bourbon. Distillers are adding flavors to the product and attempting “fast aging” for the spirits. The word “straight” is disappearing from many labels and age statements for products under four years of age are becoming vague if they are there at all. The Bottled-in-Bond act was fairly well gutted in 1984 with the removal of the tax stamp that gave the season and year the whiskey was distilled and bottled so the consumer knew how old that bottle of whiskey was and who made it. Many of these changes have come about because the industry had consolidated to where only a few distilleries existed and they began to put short term profit ahead of long term quality. These companies are controlled by the bottom line as their stockholders don’t care about the future growth and health as long they reap the profits now.
The difference between now and the late 19th century is that the growth of distilleries today is actually bringing more competition to the big companies and the results may be the re-introduction of standards set aside in the past few decades. There is no need for new regulations but there is a need to enforce the ones on the books. If this is done properly, then fifty years from now some of these “Non-Distiller Producers” of today may be the big brands of the future.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl