Last week, a blow hit faux-pretentious whiskey geeks everywhere - Templeton Rye, the craft whiskey brand that popped out of nowhere to become the thing that boys who graduated from Makers have to drink, settled a big false advertising lawsuit. What was the basis of the suit? Well, Templeton spent a lot of energy marketing itself as an Iowa product. Except... it's not made in Iowa. Like most rye in America, it's made in a huge factory in Indiana, and then bottled (and sometimes aged for short times) at whatever distillery's label is on the fancy bottle you bought it in for $40.
But that wasn't the story that caught my eye.
.... "Alcohol flavoring formulation." Blech.
We spirits geeks are all about the flavor, and we spent a ton of energy talking and writing and snobbing about how the quality of the wood, the humidity, the temperature, the charring, the time in the barrel and the general demeanor of the distiller (magically transmitted through to the liquid) all combine to make this magic thing called good whiskey.
Yeah, right. Except when it's not - except when it comes out of a test tube like the delicious "cheese" on your favorite bag of nacho cheese chips.
I, of course, am not the first person to have noticed this - when Templeton had to do some disclosures late last year, the scandal hit and I missed it. Two great blog posts from back then explained the laws behind this.
The bottom line: Federal regulations don't require any labelling when artificial flavors go into booze. The only ways you can know for sure? First, you can look at the bottle. According to the experts, if it says "straight" (as in "straight bourbon whiskey") you're safe.
Or, you could go the second way and ASK your local distiller. Yet another argument in favor of local, craft products. So I did! Turns out they have some pretty strong feelings on this issue.
My hometown distillery in Iowa, Cedar Ridge (who, one supposes, has a right to be pissed at Templeton's fakery, since they're making award-winning product from scratch in the same region):
When asked about whether FEW uses artificial ingredients, distiller Paul Hletko responded "Ha. No. We make whiskey the old fashioned way. We actually make it."
Some may complain that i'm being too fancy, elitist or picky. Everything else is artificially flavored, so who cares? We eat artificial flavorings (or "natural flavorings" which are the same thing) in everything from candy to bottled water to roast chicken, so why should liquor be any different? It tastes good, stop your whining.
Here's why it matters: Fine spirit makers are selling an idea. They're selling an experience. You're not spending $50 for some flavored water with a pretty label - you're buying the copper still, the barley spread on the floor, the handmade barrels, the master distiller with the tongue of gold, the smell of the mash. You're buying the time capsule of it all - the idea that when I crack open a cognac made in 1982, i'm returning for a brief moment to the year of my birth. And you're buying the craft, created over hundreds of years, of making this stuff taste pretty amazing. That's what your $50 is being spent on - and that's why it's an insult when someone fakes it.
But, it tastes pretty good, someone said to me, so why should i care? So does a bag of cheetos. That's not what I want to sit down to at the end of the day.