Does a Whiskey Brand Need to Do Its Own Distilling?

We try to put this age-old question to bed.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

“I heard certain whiskies that aren’t distilled by the actual distillery listed on the label and come from somewhere else, can make you sick!”

A woman excitedly told me this factoid at a private whiskey tasting that I recently hosted. I assured her that the bourbon I was pouring would not make her sick—unless, of course, she drank too much of it.

The next day, a few journalists called me alarmed by a story that they had just read about brands bottling whiskey they didn’t make but had bought on the open market. Several emails came in with headlines like: “Can we talk to you about shady whiskey companies?”

Here we go again. It seems as though every few years we need to publicly revisit the virtues and demerits of the historic—and legal—practice of sourcing whiskey. In a nutshell, brands can either distill their own whiskey, contract with a distillery to make liquor for them based on given specifications, or buy already aged whiskey that they then resell. Just a decade ago, few people asked questions like, where exactly is this brand distilled? Consumers assumed that the brand name on the bottle was also where the liquid inside was distilled, even though there have always been more brands than actual distilleries.

As whiskey sales have taken off in the U.S. and Europe, drinkers have become increasingly curious about the inner workings of the industry and the provenance of their favorite rye or bourbon. Some new craft distillers responded to this interest by playing fast and loose with their branding, suggesting that they distilled their own liquor. This murky marketing tactic—founded on the belief that the new whiskey consumer would reject the idea of a sourced brand—proved to be a tremendous misstep. Four years ago, on the Daily Beast, my colleague Eric Felten called a few of them out for deceptive practices, which led to several class-action lawsuits.

Of course, none of the whiskies were dangerous to drink. And many of these sourced whiskies were downright delicious—and still are. In fact, I’d rather drink a bourbon or rye that has been sourced from a well-established distillery than from an upstart who is still figuring out the basics of distilling and releasing whiskey that is too young, too harsh, or wildly inconsistent. I’ll buy their gin now while they figure out their whiskey. I love a good Martini!

After some tough and very public marketing lessons, an increasing number of brands who source whiskey now list their production details on their label or are truthful with consumers who ask them about whether they distill on site.

In the spirit of putting this issue to rest, here are the top questions I’m asked over and over again about sourced whiskey and my standard answers. While you think about them, I suggest enjoying a glass of your favorite brand on the rocks.

What is Sourced Whiskey?

Some whiskey brands don’t have their own distillery or haven’t been around long enough to put out an aged spirit, so instead they buy whiskey from another company and bottle it. This practice has been going since the industry started.

Can a Sourced Whiskey be Unique?

Yes. Some brands, like High West in Utah, blend sourced whiskies or blend sourced whiskies with whiskey they distill themselves to create unique products. Others might age the sourced whiskey for an additional amount of time in an unusual type of barrel, such as cask that used to hold port or sherry. And finally, you can hire a distillery to produce a unique whiskey based on your specs, including yeast strain, mix of grain and proof.

Do You Think It’s Misleading to Sell a Sourced Whiskey?

I don’t think it’s misleading. A number of brands, which started out buying whiskey now produce their own acclaimed spirits. As long as the brand is truthful about what it’s doing, I don’t have any problems with it.

Do you Drink Sourced Whiskey?

Yes. I drink brands that have sourced their whiskey. I also drink brands who distill themselves. However, I tend to hold sourced whiskies to a higher standard in terms of quality of taste than I do tiny craft distillers who are new and distilling their own. Making whiskey from scratch is very difficult to get right (and many don’t), so I also cut them some slack when I taste them on judging panels or for a review.