Private Citizens Pursue ‘Deceitful’ Whiskey Brands in Federal Government

UPDATED: 5/23/14 9:20 a.m.: Comments from Jefferson’s Reserve founder Trey Zoeller at the bottom of the page. Jefferson’s was one of the brands reported to the TTB.

A couple years ago, I was having drinks with a San Francisco woman who bragged about her favorite rye whiskies. Based on the labels, these whiskies were from all over the country. When I told her they were all made in Indiana and the companies purchased bulk whiskey from the MGP Ingredients Distillery, she was flabbergasted. “How do they get away with that?” she asked, offering sentiments of betrayal and anger.

I was reminded of that conversation when fellow whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery reported bourbon enthusiasts are reporting sourced whiskey bottlers to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) in possible violation of federal law.

The Law In Question

“Section 35(e) of Regulations No. 5 provides that labels of whisky and straight whisky shall disclose the State of distillation of such whisky, if such whisky is not distilled in the State given in the address on the label. This section further provides that the brand label shall show the State of distillation in all cases where the Assistant Regional Commissioner finds that without such statement the label is misleading as to the State of actual distillation.” View Regs

The TTB has yet to make a public ruling on violations, but I contacted Wade Woodard, one of the private citizens leading this charge against non-disclosure in American whiskey. Based in Houston, Woodard works in real estate, and he and his bourbon-loving cohorts have reported 20 American whiskey bottlers to the federal government. I’m fascinated with the fact that this endeavor came from private citizens and not people in the industry. I had to know why Woodard pursued this action.

Brands Reported to TTB for State Distillation Disclosure

Yellow Rose Double Barrel Whiskey
Yellow Rose Blended Whiskey
Yellow Rose Straight Rye Whiskey
Red River Bourbon Whiskey
Red River Rye Whiskey
Red River Texas Young Rye Whiskey
Red River Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Whitmeyer’s Texas Single barrel Whiskey
Witherspoon’s Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Troubadour Bourbon Whiskey
Troubadour Blended Whiskey
Troubadour Barrel Strength Bourbon Whiskey
TX Blended Whiskey
Rebecca Creek Fine Texas Spirit Whiskey
Jefferson’s Reserve
Silver Star Whiskey
Red Handed Bourbon Whiskey
Salado Texas Whiskey
Henderson Rye Whiskey
Henderson Bourbon Whiskey
Black Saddle Bourbon Whiskey
Jesse James Bourbon Whiskey
Alibi Whiskey
Templeton Rye Whiskey
Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey
Tin Cup American Whiskey
Whistlepig Straight Rye Whiskey
Whistlepig Boss Hog Straight Rye Whiskey
Hillrock Estate Bourbon Whiskey

Why did you report brands to the TTB?

I like to support the craft distillers in my area. Some are doing a really good job and making product from scratch from grain to glass right here in Texas. And then I started seeing all these products on the shelf and as an average consumer, you’d think they were made right here in Texas. They have the complete marketing bologna on them and Texas on the label. I knew what they were doing: They were sourcing this whiskey {from Indiana or Kentucky} and putting a Texas label on it. In my opinion, that was hurting these other guys who were really doing it right—Garrison and Balcones. … I did this to help the true craft distillers.

I look at this like the “Yogurt” Jerry Seinfeld Episode, where everybody thought they were eating non-fat yogurt. They started gaining weight and had it tested. It wasn’t non-fat. I look at what we did like that…it was the right thing to do.

Why pick this issue over something like the TTB approving a bottled-in-bond flavored whiskey?

Some of those other things are cases of people not knowing the law. In this case, they knew the law, but chose to deceive the consumer. I know one example of a distiller in Houston. The first product they made was from grain to glass. Then, they started selling a rye whiskey. I saw their label approval online and it listed the state of distillation on the label. I saw them at an event and noticed they didn’t have the {state of distillation} on the label anymore. He said, ‘we talked to our wholesalers and they told us not to put that information on the label.’ So, they knew the law and yet they could sell more if they were being deceitful.

If you could have a conversation with a bottler buying whiskey from Indiana, what do you say to them about putting their state of distillation on the bottle?

The sourced-whiskey bottling business is very respectable. Many independent Scotch bottlers are very upfront about who they are and what they do, and they’re very successful at it. There’s no reason why that model cannot be followed in the United States. Just be honest about your whiskey.

UPDATE: After this story ran yesterday, I reached out to Jefferson’s Reserve founder Trey Zoeller about Jefferson’s labeling and whether the TTB has contacted him. “We have never misrepresented what is in the bottle.  Our labeling honestly reflects the geographic origin of our products,” Zoeller wrote in an email. 

In my opinion, this geographical labeling issue has leapfrogged the whiskey shortage as the most-interesting American whiskey story. I remain fascinated this all came from consumers reporting to the TTB, and it just goes to show how passionate whiskey drinkers are.

 

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16 Replies to “Private Citizens Pursue ‘Deceitful’ Whiskey Brands in Federal Government”

  1. I struggle to find the scandal here, only someone who is annoyed/embarrassed that he didn’t read the label. Have the bottlers broken the law? I cant speak for all the brands here, but of the brands I have purchased the truth has been disclosed on the bottle, per the regulation. Its no secret they bottled, not distilled. Why report them to the federal government if no law has been broken? What are they going to do? I’m not too impressed with bottlers of sourced whiskey either, but I am certainly not going to throw a tantrum about it. Just don’t buy them, they will go away.

    1. J Briggs – yes, the law was broken. That’s what this whole article was about – the fact there is a federal law about listing the State of Distillation on the bottle and that law is being broken.

      1. By God, you’re right. I went to a local shop here in Spokane and went to a few bottles in question. I distinctly remember “Indiana” on the back of Templeton and Jeffersons as well as “Imported from Canada” on Whistlepig last time I bought the bottles. However, both Templeton and Whistlepig removed the point of origin and replaced it with “produced and bottled by…” One Jeffersons bottle disclosed Indiana but the other bottle had no mention of it.

        Most of the people who buy these already know where they come from, but boy, I don’t know how you can get away with the “produced by” claim. Yikes.

    2. Something to realize is that these guys aren’t really consumer advocates. They are haters. Some of these brands are deceitful, but some of them definitely aren’t by any reasonable standard, and some obvious, well-known deceivers aren’t on the list.

      If you go read the forums where these guys do their griping under a rock, you’ll see them also contending that Barterhouse and Rhetoric are the same bourbon under two different labels. No proof whatsoever, mind you.

      This is all about the personal caprice of a few malcontents, and even if they score a few good points, it doesn’t change their fundamental character as haters. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

      1. Hater… You lost me there. Who cares what is in thwart of the person with a legitimate gripe? The law us the law. You dint like it, change the law…. Am I also a racist for writing that?

      2. Haters? You sound like an uninformed tool just for using the phrase. The subject here isn’t deceit in general, but instead deceit specifically about listing the state it was distilled in. (Which hopefully should be defined to include Providences as some of these are distilled in Canada.) There is a lot of other deceit going on but that is not the subject at hand.

        Contending that Barterhouse and Rhetoric are the same bourbon under different labels? I highly doubt you can provide proof that anyone has claimed this, but you may have misunderstood if you weren’t paying enough attention. I do find it very likely you’ve seen people say that there is some Barterhouse in Rhetoric. Or that they are the same mashbill. Maybe even that they are both Bernheim. All three of those statements are true and the proof is out there. Barterhouse is 20 year old juice from old Bernheim. Blowhard is 26 year old juice from new Bernheim. Rhetoric is a blend of Bartehouse and Old Blowhard.
        People who take their whiskey seriously want to know where it is coming from. If the same exact product is on the shelf in different bottles for $30, $50, and $60 with price differences only based on marketing then they want to know it. I’m one of those that wants to know it. If I like the juice I’d rather have twice as much for my money and would like the other to have product sitting on the shelf for trying to rip off the consumer. Likewise, if one “local” distillery does everything in-house and the other just bought bulk from someone else, we want to know it. For a similar product, I’ll support the one who is really distilling and supporting local industry, rather then the one that is just buying a finished product.

  2. As a bartender and someone who appreciates good spirits I am amazed at the how deceptive these bottles are. When I point out these whiskeys that are legally mislabeled to normal consumers they are shocked by the fact that they aren’t getting what the marketing is selling them. It may be legal but it’s a sneaky way of doing business.

  3. The point here is that reading the label actually DOESN’T tell the truth. Also, if you’ve ever bought Bulleit not all your labels have been truthful. Wade actually has a point here that this hurts distillers who are doing it the right way.

  4. Come on. “Wade Woodward and pals are saving Balcones!” Give me a break. It is true that the labeling practices are deceitful, but it is also true that this isn’t about saving the Texas craft distilling movement—they are doing just fine. It also isn’t about saving those poor people drinking unlabeled NDP products. If it were, Wade would kindly tell people how they are being duped. Instead he regularly mocks those drinking NDP products off the shelf in every forum/fb page I visit. This is about Wade being Wade. That said, this time there is a putative positive result at the end of the road even though I don’t think it is very important—knowledgeable consumers already know this and the others don’t care.

  5. I believe consumers who are not knowledgeable care a great deal when they discover they’ve been deceived. A professional man of my acquaintance who is a native of Iowa became very perturbed when he found out the special rye whisky from Iowa for which he had been paying a premium was in fact not a quality hand crafted product, rather a bulk whisky from Indiana.

    Deceitful labeling and advertising coupled with a two-three times markup bothers everyone I’ve met.

    Regards,
    Squire

  6. I find this article somewhat laughable. After reading the list, I visited the webpages of each. Furthermore, I have personally visited 3 of the listed distilleries, and witnessed their production in action. Many of them are actual distilleries, and do actually produce their own products form grain to bottle, or even blend with their own distillates. Many are small local distilleries that contribute to their local economies, jobs, taxes, local farmers etc… Its funny because the list should be TREMEANDOUSLY larger and include 70 % of ALL spirits you find on the shelves, not just limited to whiskey or small distilleries. The biggest culprit of these accusations is BIG liquor. TTB will not likely take a stance on the issue since each product label on list has already been TTB APROVED. Meaning, TTB scrutinized the label prior to approval. They are not going to admit any fault on their behalf. Bottom line = The Consumer has the largest vote and its simple “Buy it or Don’t Buy it”! Cheers!

    1. Jamie – I’m sure some of these do actual produce some of their own spirits, but not the specific spirit in question. Example Yellow Rose, they make their Outlaw Bourbon grain to glass right here in TX. My list submitted to the TTB referenced specific COLA label numbers. The COLA numbers I submitted I believe all use sourced whiskey from out of state (or country) and they do not disclose this State on the label. That’s what makes them in violation of a specific law which is federal alcohol code section 5.36(d). It’s up to the TTB if it decides it wants to investigate or not.

      I agree that a large % of the spirits you find on the shelf start as a sourced product. However the law I mentioned specifically applies only to certain categories of whiskies. I’m not writing new laws, I only want to see existing laws enforced. If you want to email me to point out what 3 products should not be on the list, my email is my firstname.lastname@gmail.com

  7. What a total dumbass you are. Maybe you should review TTB label disclosure requirements. All of the products you listed had their labels presented to and approved by TTB. Sheesh. Too many idiots that can’t read in this world.

  8. I care very much about labeling!
    I am one of those with plebeian tastes that prefers MGP Rye.
    I look for hints of it on labels.
    I have tried several craft Ryes and regretted the purchase.
    I am not a well off man I work hard for my money so I am always on the lookout for a bargain.
    My goal is to find the least expensive bottling of MGP Rye I can find.
    I am willing to pay a bit more for the higher proof incarnations for a special occasion but normally I am cost driven.
    I am not willing to pay more just because the bottler has a slick website and an interesting back story.
    I am interested in the contents of the bottle only all the rest is just advertising.

  9. Idiots. Blended whiskey is exempt. Can’t you read??? Do a little research before filing a complaint and you won’t look so stupid.

    1. Drew B.,

      You are correct that blended whiskey does not fall under the rule, but only four of the whiskeys listed are blended. The remainder du fall under the rule. For easy reference see page 16 of this pdf: http://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter1.pdf

      As to those saying all these labels were submitted for approval, that is true. However, that process is notoriously loose. The point of the complaints people are filing is as much to wake up the TTB as to obtain any sanctions against the companies.

      The TTB has, in fact woken up a bit and just issued new guidelines concerning age statements. (http://bottomofthebarrelbourbon.com/2015/01/19/new-ttb-whiskey-labeling-guidelines/) I suspect new guidelines and procedures on source information may come next.

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