Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Whiskey Educator Dave Pickerell on Craft vs. Sourced Spirits

When it comes to “made” versus “sourced” spirits, whiskey legend and longtime Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell wants to start dispelling myths.

“It’s a bartender issue more than consumers—the belief that there’s nothing craft about bringing sourced whiskey to market,” he says. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

In an era when the demand for handcrafted cocktails has reached peak levels, actually understanding what separates the wheat from the chaff can be increasingly difficult.

“[Sourced spirits are] a different kind of craft,” says Pickerell. “Someone is buying a sourced whiskey and then tweaking it to make it their own and finding ways to bring it to market. It’s every bit as much craft as the guy who finds the way to make the product himself and brings it to market.”

Below, Pickerell outlines three pointers to help bartenders talk to guests about the blurry tightrope of what constitutes a sourced spirit.

1. Misconception: Sourced brands are bringing products to market without something to make it uniquely their own.

“The WhistlePig Old World rye took four years to develop, but it started out as MGPI juice [whiskey mass-distilled by MGP Ingredients] just like so many of the whiskeys that get criticized. The details and finishing, though, took longer than most of the guys who are making whiskey from scratch to get into the market.”

2. Only two things should really be important when you’re sitting at the bar: Do you like how it tastes, and are you okay with its price?

“People who make in-house don’t have any corner on the market of making good, tasty products. There are big-boy [mass-market] products that aren’t very tasty; there are little-boy products that aren’t very tasty; there are craft merchant-bottled products that aren’t very tasty. The other way around is true too—a lot of people are making tasty stuff.

“Millennials are dyed-in-the-wool information junkies. When you get to the issue of ‘are you okay with the price?’ you have to get into thought process. Millennials will pay more for things that aren’t related to how it tastes: They’ll pay more because it’s local, organic or sustainable. There’s a product sold that smelled like Trappist cheese, but it was being sold at $110 a bottle because of this. They’ll say, ‘I don’t necessarily like the taste, but I like everything else the guy stands for, so maybe I’ll learn to like it.’”

3. Misconception: Everything made at the same distillery tastes the same.

“Fifty percent of the whiskey brands on the market have MGPI rye in them—Templeton, Bulleit, Dickel, on and on. Put them in a blind tasting, and I challenge you to tell me that they’re all the same. There’s a terrible misconception that it’s the same stuff, different bottle.

“Bartenders can help people learn about this. Do a flight of MGPI ryes, and say, ‘Look, these guys have all done different things with this. They’re different ages, different proofs; some of them are finished.’ Everyone has done their own twist.

“Bartenders should help provide education and knowledge. There are bars that say they don’t carry products that aren’t distilled in house, then frankly you go and look on their shelves and they’re always wrong. I’ve yet to go into a bar that purports to only carry brands that self-distill, and I can go in and show them where they have stuff that’s been distilled by other people on their shelf.

“The big guys do it all the time. For instance, Bulleit has been made by all the distilleries in Kentucky at one time or another except for Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve, and the law says they don’t have to disclose it. Knowledge is better than getting on the bandwagon.”