Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cleveland Bourbon and MGPI samples

I often seek out various whiskeys to taste for comparative purposes. Sometimes though, the candidates for interesting comparisons present themselves to me rather unexpectedly. I recently had the coincidental opportunity to taste a couple of whiskeys that are oddly related.

First I was presented with a couple of bourbons from a company called Cleveland. Then about a week later a few young samples of MGPI whiskey (a bourbon and a rye) came into my possession. I was unfamiliar with Cleveland, a company that uses an accelerated aging process, but apparently they’ve been around for almost two years. MGPI is the former Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana which has gone through a series of owners since the collapse of Seagram’s in 2000. Since 2011 it has been part of MGPI, a Kansas based food and alcohol producer (confusingly, the distillery is MGP Indiana and the company that owns it is MGP Ingredients).

Accelerated aging of whiskey isn’t an entirely new concept, but recent years have seen a lot of technological development on this front. Efforts to speed up the aging process date back to at least 1886, when a steam heating system was installed in the warehouses of the OFC distillery (now known as Buffalo Trace). In the modern era, new entrants to the whiskey industry have taken advantage of warm climate regions such as Texas and the use of barrels as small as five gallons to get their products to market more quickly. Meanwhile, others have been exploring more advanced techniques to age whiskey rapidly.

Terressentia, which was formed in 2006, is one of those companies. Their TerrePURE technology relies on ultrasonic energy and forced oxygenation. They buy young bulk whiskey, apply their process to it and sell it non-distiller producers who bottle and market it. They weren’t a well known company until they bought the old Charles Medley distillery in Owensboro about a year ago, claiming it would be up and running within 18 months. It hadn’t produced whiskey since 1992, but its last owner, CL Financial, did a lot of restoration work on the plant between buying it late in 2007 and running into a liquidity crisis at the start of 2009. Terressentia also stated that in addition to using their rapid aging process, they would also age some of the whiskey traditionally.

As far as I can tell, Terressentia doesn’t own any whiskey brands. They buy young bulk whiskey, rapidly age it and sell it to companies that deal with their own marketing and distribution. Cleveland Whiskey, on the other hand, buys six month old whiskey, applies their rapid aging technology to it, then bottle and market it all themselves. Their process sounds similar Terressentia’s, but slightly different. At Cleveland the whiskey is dumped into tanks and the barrels are broken down, cut up and added to the liquid. Then a week-long process that involves agitation, rapid pressure changes and oxygen infusion is applied to the whiskey.

Of the two, Terressentia seems much more secretive. I’ve never heard of a whiskey company claiming to be one of their customers or mentioning the use of their process on the label. On top of that, if you look at the Terressentia website it appears that having their clients sign a non-disclosure agreement is a top priority. Whether you love or hate the concept of rapid aging, at least Cleveland owns the fact that the technology is an integral part of their product. They clearly state what they do right on the label and also note that the whiskey is distilled in Indiana. This is a legal requirement for any whiskey that is distilled in a state other than the one in which it is bottled, but the law is flouted by many non-distiller producers.

The only slight issue they have is their age statement. I got the six month figure from older versions of their label posted online, but the statement on the labels of the bottles that I saw said “aged less than two years”, which is essentially meaningless and not an age statement format allowed by government regulations. Unfortunately, for quite some time the TTB has been approving labels that don’t conform to the regulations regarding age statements and even misinforming producers as to when age statements are required. This issue was so pervasive that last year I even mistakenly stated that American whiskies younger than four years old and without the word “straight” on the label didn’t need an age statement. As Chuck Cowdery has reported here and here, it looks like the TTB is finally going to start properly enforcing its own rules on age statements. This is going to make it a little harder for companies that want to hide the fact that they are using rapid aging technology.

So, what is the connection between Cleveland and MGPI? As I said above, the Cleveland label notes that the whiskey is distilled in Indiana. MGPI is the only whisky distillery in Indiana, so that is clearly the source of Cleveland’s distillate. MGPI does produce five different bourbon recipes, but the “21% Rye” is the most common (and most available) one, so it’s very likely that it is the one Cleveland is using. This will essentially give me a “before and after” comparison of the 6 month old MGPI bourbon that Cleveland applies their aging process to.

There’s also another interesting, although ultimately unimportant, connection here. CL Financial, which is the Trinidad based company that owns Angostura bitters, owned the MGPI distillery from 2007 to 2011 (it was known as LDI during that time) in addition to owning the Charles Medley distillery from 2007 to 2014.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to taste these side by side, and I really didn’t get a chance to put together proper tasting notes for the Cleveland whiskeys, just general impressions. 

There are two versions of Cleveland that I tasted, The Eighty-Seven, which is 87 proof, and the Black Reserve, which is 100 proof. Both of them retail in the $30-plus-or-minus range. The Black Reserve is much darker in color, but I haven’t seen any definitive statements regarding any technical differences between the two other than proof. The back label of the Black Reserve does mention that the stave segments used in the rapid aging treatment are heat processed. That statement does not appear on the label of The Eighty-Seven, so perhaps that is part of the difference.

As for taste, The Eighty-Seven really comes across as being quite youthful. It’s kind of rough around the edges and not well-integrated. It tastes like whiskey, just not particularly good whiskey. The Black Reserve is by far a much better whiskey. It does away with the excess heat, shows some bold flavors and is fairly well composed. The only real criticism here is that the oak flavors are over attenuated. What do I mean by that? I guess the best analogy would be when one person is singing louder than the rest of the choir. They may be singing very well, just obviously much louder than everyone else in the group.

The bottle of Black Reserve that I tasted was labeled Batch 008. I’ve seen some older reviews with pictures of bottles labeled batch 003. Those reviews were so horrendous that I can only assume that they were terribly biased or that Cleveland has made some pretty big improvements to the product over the past year or two.

Could you find a better bottle of bourbon than The Black Reserve for $10 less? Sure, but you could probably also find a worse bottle for $10 more. I would be very curious to see what kind of results could be obtained by applying this process to bourbon with more age on it, maybe something four years old or so.

You’ll notice the MGPI sample bottles say Ultra Pure rather than MGPI. This has nothing to do with Terressentia’s TerrePURE process. Ultra Pure is the broker that you have to go through to get MGPI whiskey if you are buying in quantities smaller than a tanker truck. I won’t post any pricing because bulk pricing of unaged whiskey is all that is available and that’s not really relevant here. The samples are at 117 proof (bourbon) and 118 proof (rye).

I’ll start with the bourbon. The nose is bright and volatile (but not overtly hot) with strong corn aromatics and a touch of vanilla. It has good flavor development (although at this point in its life it is fairly corn-forward with a mild oak influence) and it transitions pretty smoothly from the start to the finish. There’s some serious heat on the finish and the flavors taste pretty youthful at the very end, but that’s to be expected for any six month old barrel proof bourbon sample. I tasted them more than two weeks apart, but I think I might prefer this over Cleveland’s The Eighty-Seven.

MGPI’s 95% Rye is far and away their most popular product. It first appeared in Templeton Rye and some of the High West ryes, but now it is also used for Bulleit Rye and George Dickel Rye as well as many other smaller brands. The nose has a bit of vanilla sweetness along with the characteristic rye spice notes which have a very floral manifestation here. Again, nice flavor development and smooth transitions, with some grain notes joining the floral spice and mild oak flavors. The finish doesn’t seem quite as youthful as that of the bourbon sample. Perhaps this is due to the absence of corn in the mash bill, which keeps it from having the robust corn flavors associated with youthful bourbon.

The unprecedented length of whiskey’s current boom period is starting to have some serious effects on the industry. The spot market (where excess aged whiskey is sold by distillers for whatever the going rate is) has pretty much dried up. If a company that buys whiskey from distillers to resell it didn’t start buying young or unaged whiskey under contract several years ago, they won’t have aged whiskey for several years to come. If you want to start buying barrels of whiskey from MGPI today and not sell any of it until it is five years old, you’re looking at an investment of nearly $100,000 if you purchase the minimum amount once a year. And that’s just for the barreled whiskey and warehousing. Taxes, bottling, marketing and distribution costs are all in addition to that figure. It’s not much easier if you are a new distiller; as I mentioned in another post, we’re in the midst of a very real barrel shortage. Independent Stave, far and away the biggest source for new barrels in the industry, has had current customers on allocation and a freeze on new orders for well over a year now.

Considering the current state of the industry, the appeal, even necessity of rapid aging is quite understandable. Terressentia may be secretive, but it seems like a pretty big company; they have the resources to buy and restore a defunct distillery. I suspect that there are many products on the shelf that go through Terressentia’s process unbeknownst to consumers. I’ll be honest, the 100 proof Cleveland was better than expected, and I think it’s safe to say that these rapid aging processes will be improved upon as time marches on.

Many bloggers and whiskey discussion forum pundits are currently dismissing this technology in a wholesale manner. While I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to whiskey production, I’m also a student of history. I can’t help but think of the way that companies like Polaroid and Kodak basically drove themselves into bankruptcy by failing to recognize the importance of and embrace new technologies related to the imaging industry.

There are three paths that the big U.S. whiskey distillers can take here. They can ignore the new technology, possibly at their own peril. They can try to fight it, which would likely involve modifying the labeling requirements and legal definitions for various types of American whiskey. These companies are certainly big enough to have the resources to fund the serious lobbing effort that would be needed to push such a legislative change. Or they could embrace the technology and use it to their advantage.

It will be very interesting to see which direction the big players in the industry take, and whether they act in unity or if the issue divides them.

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