Whiskey Educator Dave Pickerell on Craft vs. Sourced Spirits

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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.”

Series & Type: Bartenders OnlyBar Talk
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  • silatjunkie posted 2 years ago

    I'm a distiller and though it's common practice to use sourced liquor, it is not the same. Yes, they can craft that sourced spirit. But it's the equivalent to doctoring a pizza by adding more cheese, more meat, more seasoning and maybe even buttering the crust. That's NOT the same craft that goes into sourcing the grain, sourcing the barrels, making wash, choosing your yeast and fermentation method, and then making your cuts. Let alone determining what toast and char your barrels have, what proof you put the spirit into the barrels at and when you decide to take it out. And so on.... MGPI is a manufacturer of bulk spirits. Often just referred to as MGP.

  • joshua.g.miller.e704fb7 posted 2 years ago

    I drink plenty of sourced stuff--Plantation rum for instance--but whereas they are upfront about their ingredients' provenance, many sourced "craft" whiskeys obfuscate the origin. I would say the average consumer would see "Vermont" plastered all over a 10-year Whistlepig label and assume it's distilled in Vermont. That's where the backlash comes from IMO. People don't want to feel duped when buying a $70 bottle of booze.
    If you're upfront about the source, your status as a non-distiller producer is irrelevant provided it tastes good and the consumer perceives it to be a good value. That much I agree with. However, I find the position that distillers and negociants are the same to be an oversimplification of a multifaceted argument about what constitutes "craft".
    For me, distiller producers and non-distiller producers are fundamentally different because the latter doesn't have to ferment anything, and that's where the heart of the spirit is really created.
    I'll be interested to see how this article affects bartender and whiskey geek behavior. Will people share it blindly or actually dig into what is being said here and why?
    Parting thought: If you agree with Dave's position here, what is your feeling about Tito's vodka? They also source corn liquor and finish it in their own way. Heck, they even re-distill it, if you believe their marketing. Is addition by subtraction less "craft"?

  • DStreck posted 2 years ago

    Some fair points, but given that Pickerell has a vested interest (Whistle Pig doesn't make anything themselves), and he hid the actual source of their stock for a long time, this should be taken with many grains of salt. They call it "Vermont whiskey" but it's actually made in Alberta. Buying barrels of whiskey and bottling them is not "every bit as much craft " as making it yourself from grain. That's what they do with regular Whistle Pig, and throwing it in a wine barrel for a few months like they do with the Old World series doesn't change that.
    MGPI is a large distillery in Lawrenceburg, IN that makes the rye whiskey (95% rye) that is found in most third-party label rye whiskey. He's right that Templeton, Bulleit, Redemption, Dickel, Crater Lake, Angel's Envy and others don't all taste exactly the same, but most people probably couldn't tell the difference if they weren't side by side.

  • chadhardengmailcom1044801940 posted 2 years ago

    Well written and informative article! What does this acronym MGPI mean, it may be good to define this early on for those who don't know? Thanks!

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