Over the past several years, sourcing has become a hot-button topic in the whiskey community. While the days of outright obfuscation may be behind us (even holdouts like Templeton Rye and WhistlePig finally came mostly clean about the source of their spirits), sourcing remains a topic that tends to make even the most polished marketing teams go mealymouthed.
Midwest Grain Products, one of the nation’s largest suppliers of whiskey and other spirits to non-distiller producers, is famously cagey about some of the specifics of its business. MGP spirits are thought to be in over 100 different whiskey brands, and with that many customers and their related minefield of Non-Disclosure Agreements, it’s easy to see why it can be hard to pry much out of them.
Instead, they seem to prefer to let the spirits speak for themselves. From Chuck Cowdery to Serious Eats, nobody has a bad word to say about the quality of the distillate coming from MGP. Many credit them as a key piece in the resurgence of Rye Whiskey, and the repackaging of their spirits has been a vital life-line for craft distilleries waiting for their own whiskey to mature.
But the distillery hasn’t always been at the forefront of the craft whiskey industry. Operated by Seagram’s since 1933, the distillery was acquired by Pernod-Ricard in 1983 after Segram’s went out of business. Pernod-Ricard, in turn, sold the distillery to a holding company called CL Financial in 2007. Its current owners, Midwestern Grain Products Ingredients, bought the facility in 2011. They couldn’t have acquired the plant at a better time. Craft whiskey was just beginning its boom, and demand for new and aged spirit was enormous.
Earlier this month, I got the chance to interview David Dykstra, Vice President of Alcohol Sales and Marketing at MGP, at the American Distiller’s Institute conference in San Diego.
“These are the glory days,” says Dykstra. “When we purchased the facility, we were making four primary products. Now, we make 13 different mash bills.”
While MGP won’t disclose details about their customer base, they were willing to talk about trends they were seeing in the whiskey industry. “We’re seeing a lot more customers blending different types of whiskies to make more complex products,” says Dykstra. “There are an infinite number of expressions that can be made just through blending. And when you add in finishing touches like wine or sherry barrels, you can see a multitude of taste profiles are available.”
“We see the bourbon trend continuing, and it’s accelerating, not slowing down. Rye is still growing too. It’s slowed a little bit, but it’s hard to sustain 100% yearly growth.”
Another spot of growth seems to be light whiskey, a relatively dormant category. Light whiskey is distilled to a higher proof and often aged in used barrels, giving it a lighter flavor (see Chuck Cowdery again for the full run-down). “There’s a lot of interest in light whiskey,” says Dykstra. “It’s a great blending component, and it is the one thing we have aged material on. We’ve been selling it since we purchased the facility, and we’re putting a lot of it away. It’s a very smooth product, especially at 4+ years. It was invented by Seagram’s as a blending component to give depth to blends, but we’re seeing a lot if interest in it domestically and internationally.”
While light whiskey has never been a particularly popular expression, after the resurgence of the nearly dead rye category, who can rule anything out? In fact, High West recently released a 14-year-old light whiskey sourced from MGP, as well as a light whiskey called Valley Tan that was distilled at their own Park City facility.
Dykstra also confirmed MGP’s shortage of aged stock. “We’re still selling some aged, but not a lot. If you’re looking for 7+ year old whiskey, those are hard to come by these days. There is still a lot of two-year-old, and next year there will be a lot of three-year-old, but you can’t make it age faster.”
Last year, MGP released a rare consumer-facing brand called Metze’s Select, named for MGP’s Master Distiller Greg Metze (we reviewed it here). When I asked Dykstra about the goal of Metze’s Select and other consumer brands (such as the as-yet unreleased Cloud’s Batch 41 hinted at earlier this year), he said, “The goal was to show the depth of the product. Metze’s Select was made to showcase a Lawrenceburg-style high rye. We want to show people that even minute differences in the mashbill or age make unique products.”
While Dykstra wouldn’t comment on any future consumer releases for MGP, just yesterday Food Business News reported that Shanae Randolph, MGP’s former Corporate Director of Communications, just moved into a brand-new role as “Brand Director of Beverage Brands at MGPI.” To me, that sounds like a new focus on consumer brands, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more bottles with “MGP” proudly listed on the front label in the near future.
Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...