I’ve been wanting to get into the MGP distillery for years. Two weeks ago that invitation came. The source of bourbon and rye whiskey for some of the largest brands on the market. MGP of Indiana distills bourbon and rye, with a historical focus on rye whiskey, for the likes of Bulleit, Angel’s Envy, George Dickel, High West, Redemption, Smooth Ambler, Templeton, OKI, and many more. Many brands contract whiskey from MGP, not all make it known.
MGP Distillery is not open to the public. They don’t offer tours, have a gift shop, or give tastings. But once or twice a year they extend invitations to a “media day” at their Lawrenceburg distillery. This is an opportunity for them to share a glimpse behind the curtain with writers who can then share this experience with you.
It’s not a coincidence that I’m writing about MGP now. For the first time in their history MGP is marketing their own “in-house” brands of bourbon and rye whiskey. Traditionally they have sold their distillate and aged barrels to other brands. Well it turns out over a hundred years of experience leads to some pretty awesome whiskey and they made a decision to show off their skills to consumers through George Remus Bourbon and Rossville Union Rye.
I boarded a commuter flight from O’Hare at 6:30am on a Wednesday and flew to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, technically on the KY side of the border. Russ, our driver for the day, met me at the airport and took me to our hotel in Lawrenceburg. At 11:30 I met more of our group in the hotel lobby. A venerable who’s who in whiskey writing circles. Mark Gillespie, host of the long running WhiskyCast podcast, Michael Dietsch, author of ‘Whiskey: A Spirited Story with 75 Classic and Original Cocktails’, Jack Robertiello, writer and consultant to the wine and spirits industry, Eric a freelance writer from Boston, and Anna a writer from Kansas City. Carie Musick and Helen Gregory of Gregory + Vine PR, coordinators of our MGP experience, accompanied us.
When we got to the distillery we met the rest of our group, Maggie Kimberl, Columnist at American Whiskey Magazine, Ginny and Charlie Tonic, Patrick “Pops” Garrett, Founder of Bourbon & Banter, and our host Andy Mansinne, MGP’s VP of Brands. We walked through the front gate, cameras out of course, and into a main building to a large conference room. For the next hour we learned a ton of MGP history, brand strategy, and future plans from Andy and his team.
Before we get into the details let’s run through a quick lesson on ‘contract distilling’ and ‘non-distiller producers’ (NDPs). Contract distilling is when a spirits distillery contracts with a 3rd party brand to provide them distilled spirits. The distillery may sell the brand a fully aged whiskey or might distill a specific whitedog the brand will age themselves. On the other side of this equation is the NDP. This is the company buying the whiskey from the distiller. They focus their efforts on finishing, blending, crafting the brand’s story and marketing. Often a startup brand will begin purchasing whiskey from a distiller while building their own distillery.
MGP (aka MGPI or MGP of Indiana) is the largest contract distiller in the United States. If a bottle label reads “Distilled in Indiana” it was almost certainly distilled by MGP. They distill most of the rye whiskey on the US market and a ton of bourbon. They aren’t the only players though. Until a few years ago Four Roses distilled Bulleit Bourbon, Bulleit Rye came from MGP. In 2016 Bardstown Bourbon Company opened its contract distilling business in Bardstown, Kentucky with an annual distillation capacity of 1.5 million gallons. In June of 2017 that number went to roughly 6 million gallons. They have an awesome visitors facility and tour next time you’re in the Bardstown area.
Let’s get back to our tour. Andy gave us a rundown of the MGP story. Headquartered in Atchison, KS with distilleries in both Atchison and Lawrenceburg MGP employes about 325 people. (Vodka and gin are distilled in KS while whiskey is distilled in IN.) They have an environmental commitment and run on 100% wind power, not something I necessarily expected from such a large producer. Andy also shared their brands mission:
“To create and build a portfolio of super-premium priced and positioned spirit brands for consumers and the trade, leveraging MGP’s vast distilling capabilities and blending expertise, ensuring that these brands meet or exceed both consumers’ and customers’ expectations for taste, style and quality.”
There’s a key in that statement that Andy elaborated on when asked if he viewed MGP’s new brands as competition to their existing NDP customers. He said they are positioning their brands at a super-premium price point so as not to compete with their customers. He’s spoken with many of their existing NDP partners and assured us they are in no danger of losing their supply of whiskey.
If you don’t live in the midwest or one of MGPs 12 markets for their Remus/Rossville products you probably haven’t seen them yet. This is another strategy of MGP. They are approaching their new marketing efforts with the mentality of a startup distillery. After all, they have distilled since their founding in 1941 but this is the first time they’ve marketed their own whiskey to consumers. The strategy is to go “narrow and deep”, building strong relationships, a strong portfolio, and a loyal following before expanding into more markets.
After a light lunch in the conference room we grabbed hard hats and ear plugs. While the head of safety briefed us on protocol we suited up and filed out. As we walked outside our tour guide pointed up at the words “Seagrams Since 1857” prominently placed in white tile at the top of several buildings. Before MGP purchased this distillery in 2011 it was owned by a holding company and operated as “LDI”, and before that it was owned by Pernod Ricard, another big name. But before that the distillery was owned by Seagram from 1933 until they went out of business around 2000. Though I was told MGP has records of distilling operations at the Lawrenceburg facility dating back to 1808.
As we walked from building to building Andy told me they actually have stills from the 1940s in use today. A gin still from 1941 is used almost every day and a second still from 1942, transported to Indiana in the 80’s, is used as well. As we entered one of the fermentation buildings the sweet smell of corn bread hit my nose as I looked in awe at the fourteen 27,814 gallon fermentation tanks, nearly all filled to the brim.
Next we hit one of barrel warehouses of which there were too many for me to count. I asked Andy to tell me more about their process and relationship with their customers. He tells me they work hand in hand. MGP can provide the grain, yeast, barrels etc or a customer can bring their own. They’ll ship full barrels to customers, dump and ship the juice, or dump and blend. Whatever the customer prefers. A big part of their services is actually their blending expertise. Concrete floors and ceilings separated each floor of the aging warehouse we visited, each floor being 6 barrels high. Andy said each floor remains a fairly consistent temperature and humidity compared to rickhouses that are all open from floor to roof.
The last stop on our tour was the barrel filling building. An impressive assembly line showing off their brand new charred oak barrels being mechanically filled with 120 proof whiskey then sealed with a mallet by a guy whose arm I can only imagine is incredibly sore.
Now it was time to taste. I dropped off my safety gear and took a seat in the MGP tasting room where David Whitmer, Corporate Director of Quality and Alcohol R&D and Innovation, took the stage to show off his work. I had met David in Chicago a few weeks earlier and could immediately tell this is a guy with an understanding of his craft that few will attain in their lives. David educated us, answered questions, and sipped whiskey with us for over an hour. He shared some interested facts about MGP but also about whiskey in general.
Facts such as bourbon’s requirement to use only new charred oak barrels came from a post prohibition works program. America was in a depression and using only new barrels for bourbon put a lot of loggers and coopers back to work. In fact, the coopers union pushed for the new barrel requirement.
David went on to say that because all of their rickhouse floors are isolated with concrete and the temp and humidity remains fairly stable they typically see lower temperatures and consistent humidity. David says, “Unlike some Kentucky rickhouses where barrel proof can rise over time, you won’t see a 130 proof barrel from MGP. More alcohol evaporates at MGP. Barrel Proof products will most likely always be less than the barrel entry proof of 120.”
I asked if, being the former Seagrams distillery, they were still using some of the yeast strains originally developed by Seagrams scientists in the first half of the 20th century. “Yes, we’re still using yeast strains that would have been cultivated way back then”, David said.
A bit about the brands
George Remus Bourbon
A blend of high rye bourbons aged 5 to 6 years.
MGP purchased the brand in November 2016 from a couple Cincinnati entrepreneurs who were sourcing from MGP at the time. Though David tells me the old version was a blend of younger 2 to 3 year bourbon. The team at MGP improved the blend and brought it back to market.
My thoughts: This is a decent sipping or mixing bourbon but didn’t blow my socks off. It’s a high rye MGP mashbill from a group of people with tons of experience making high rye bourbon. It has a nice profile though not much complexity. None of this is a bad thing per se. At $44.99 it’s moderately priced and probably worth it for fans of MGP bourbon.
Remus Repeal Reserve I (2017)
A blend of high rye bourbons 11 & 12 years old.
Two mashbills, 21% and 36% rye.
Bottled at 94 proof
My thoughts: This takes Remus to another level. Bottled at the same 94 proof but aged about twice as long as George Remus and commanding a shelf price of $70-$80. This is an excellent high rye bourbon though might be hard to find as it’s an annual release.
Remus Repeal Reserve II (2018)
Bottled at 100 proof
Officially released on November 14th, 2018. (George Remus’s birthday.)
They will do this Reserve release every year. Releasing a set number of cases to the market each time. One thousand 9L cases in total. As they expand to more markets, more than the 12 they are in now, the number of bottles per market will drop and this bourbon will become more scarce.
My thoughts: This is a fantastic bourbon and easily my favorite of the day’s samples. We were some of the first people outside of the company to taste this new release. Bumping the proof from last years 94 to 100 proof on the RRRII was a great move. That extra heat balances this complex bourbon and thoroughly shows off the skill of the MGP distillers and blenders. Personally, I enjoyed the RRI but didn’t purchase a bottle for my collection. At $85 the RRRII is worth the price and will definitely get my money.
Rossville Union Rye & Barrel Proof Rye
Launched in 2018
94 proof (112.6 for the Barrel Proof)
A blend of 51% and 95% rye mashbills (corn and barley being the other grains)
David says they are after a particular profile as opposed to a specific recipe. Not one single mashbill is ever used for Rossville Union. the standard rye is a blend of the above two percentage mashbills. The Cask Strength, however, is not just the same blend at a higher proof. It is in fact a different percentage blend of those two mashbills, also at a higher proof. The standard is meant to be approachable and comfortable. The barrel proof is meant to be more bold.
My thoughts: I’ll be the first to tell you rye is not my preferred brown spirit. It’s hard for me to pass judgement given this is a category I don’t generally prefer. I can share what Mark Gillespie (WhiskyCast) said, “I would spend my own money on the Remus Repeal Reserve II and the Rossville Union Barrel Proof. And that’s the highest praise I can give.”
Distilled from “hard” red winter wheat which is planted in the fall in northern states vs. “soft” wheat which is planted in the spring in southern states.
No glycerol or citric acid added.
My thoughts: When tasted next to one of the other leading vodka brands Till comes off clean and bright. It doesn’t have a strong ethanol flavor like many other vodkas. At $24.99 Till shows that quality vodka doesn’t have to be overpriced.
As we tasted I asked David his opinion about chill filtering. Given his extensive chemical background I hoped he would have some perspective to share. David told us that chill filtering removes some of the fatty acids that he wants in his whiskey. He went on to say that all of their whiskeys are 94 proof or higher so there’s no need to chill filter. (Chill filtration is a process developed to remove a cloudy haze that can develop around 80 proof and can be unappealing to consumers. Basically the process chills the whiskey, solidifying fatty acids that are then filtered out.) Though not a necessary step some brands continue to chill filter and claim that it does not impact the flavor of their products. MGP brands are NOT chill filtered.
Later in the evening I spoke more with David as we rode to and from dinner. According to David, a lot of what they do at MGP is to provide valuable guidance and advice. They help their customers navigate mashbills, yeast strains, aging, and a host of other variables that could be overwhelming to a new brand. Using their experience they help identify potential challenges before they arise and guide their customers to a successful end spirit. David told me that MGP used to have a 1,000 barrel minimum order but has recently lowered that to 200. They also allow multiple groups to combine orders to meet that quantity. So….. who’s in?
(Thank you to Gregory + Vine PR and MGP for inviting us out. As well as the MGP team for warmly welcoming us to their home.)