Midwest Grain Products (MGP) distillery has been producing spirits in Lawrenceburg, Ind., since 1847. Although it has gone through several owners and a tumultuous history (Pernod Ricard nearly shuttered the facility in 2006), the whiskey going into barrels here has remained remarkably consistent—and largely unknown to the general drinking population.
That’s because the overwhelming majority of what it makes is purchased by better-known brands to be bottled as their own: High West, Templeton, Redemption, George Dickel rye, Bulleit rye—the list goes on. In 2015, the company announced plans to launch its own label. At long last, it seems, Midwest Grain Products wants a little of the limelight for itself.
The massive brick-facade compound housing MGP resembles more of an industrial power plant than a facility for the production of “craft” spirits. But the brand’s own business model is much more in line with a smaller producer than you might suspect. Like most craft distilleries these days, it got things started with a vodka brand — in this case, TILL American wheat vodka, distilled using a proprietary process, from 100 percent Kansas wheat.
“Our strategy is to build out in all categories in which we distill,” says Andy Mansinne, the vice president of brands. That includes not just bourbon and rye but vodka and gin, as the company has long been a producer of neutral grain. (It still makes Seagram’s, one of America’s best-selling gins, under contract for Pernod Ricard.)
And whether it cares to admit it or not, most Americans enjoy drinking a good story. Enter George Remus. MGP’s first official brand acquisition is a line of straight bourbons named after one of the most prominent Prohibition-era bootleggers. The bottle employs Art Deco edges and labeling to convey a roaring 20s nostalgia. The liquid inside is a blend of some of MGP’s oldest high-rye bourbons, evoking flavors familiar to the distinguishing palate of its namesake. Subsequent editions will drop annually on Remus’ birthday, November 13.
MGP matures all of its stock in its Lawrenceburg rackhouses. Among the inventory are barrels holding up to a dozen different mash bills—wheat, corn, rye, malted barley, with the capability to incorporate other grains. This affords MGP a great deal of variety with which to mix and match. Along with scale of production, it’s one of the primary reasons why so many outside brands have worked with MGP throughout the years. “We offer customers the option to mingle standard mash bills to create a precise flavor profile,” says Mansinne. “In addition to our standard mash bills, we also innovate customized mash bills in collaboration with customers.”
But MGP’s greatest impact on the whiskey landscape is in the realm of rye. It’s what it does best. Rye is a notoriously fickle grain to work with, and many whiskey-makers shy away from utilizing too much of it in their mash. Not so at the Lawrenceburg distillery, where the house style features 95 percent rye. It’s the same liquid that helped propel many “craft” producers into the national spotlight.
Now, MGP is hoping it will do the same for its own brand. “This summer, we have introduced our flagship rye whiskey brand: Rossville Union straight rye whiskey,” says Mansinne. “Rossville was the original name of the Lawrenceburg distillery, and we honor our legacy with two rye expressions: Master Crafted, at 94 proof, and Barrel Proof, at 112.6 proof. Each bottling has the exact number of barrels used on the label.”
The new brands are currently only available in 12 states, concentrated mainly throughout the Midwest. It will slowly rollout to the coasts as MGP continues to test the marketplace.
“Be on the lookout this fall for our ‘Rye-ducation’ training and cocktail sessions,” says Mansinne of a touring activation headed to bars and liquor stores across the country. “We’re working to make rye more appealing to all spirits drinkers.”
Not that it hasn’t made enough inroads in that arena already. The dozens of brands that sourced rye from MGP over the past several years were instrumental in rejuvenating a sagging category. And while Rossville Union shows significant promise, it won’t be cannibalizing your supply of High West or WhistlePig Old World anytime soon—that stock is secured under contract for the foreseeable future.
Either way, MGP seems poised to continue investing more in itself. “We’re not yet finished with building our portfolio,” says Mansinne. “While our whiskeys are aging, we’re working on new concepts that will appeal to both consumers and the trade.” The familiar words of another small-time craft producer—this one just happens to be housed in the country’s largest industrial distillery.