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If you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that sometimes I get a hunch about something and completely fall down the rabbit hole to figure out if I’m right or not. This is one of those articles.
I recently opened a sample bottle of 13th Colony Distillery Double Oaked (Batch 1) that a friend sent me a year ago. I was blown away with how good it was. This prompted me to seek out my own bottle which I finally did last month (it was a Batch 2). Once again, it was an absolutely amazing product – truly a whiskey of the year contender.
But as I started to do my notes and gather what I was going to say about it for a review, I kept running across the same hurdle that all of the other review websites out there. There was a big question mark on if the bourbon that 13th Colony used for their Double Oaked bourbon was distilled by them or if was it created from barrels of sourced bourbon. My review seemed to get pushback on the Discord groups I’m in and on Reddit.
The following reasons have led me to the conclusion that not only did 13th Colony source the whiskey that went into their famous Double Oaked bourbon, but that it’s very likely that they have never bottled and sold their own distillate, period.
#1. No evidence exists that 13th Colony has ever bottled the whiskey they have distilled
13th Colony Distillery was founded in 2009 in Americus, Georgia by a couple of guys who wanted to take the legal route to distill their own spirits. However, they didn’t fire up their own 250 gallon pot still until around 2011. The fact that they have a pot still is indisputable. There are pictures.
So this technically makes them a distillery. The pot still appears to be the stainless steel kind with three bubble plates and a shotgun condenser leading to a coil condenser. If you’re new to distilling, just know that all of your favorite heritage brands are using stills made out of copper. Copper pulls sulphur and other impurities out of the distillate which dramatically improves the taste. The more copper you can have the distillate touch before it is barreled, the better.
The best case scenario is that 13th Colony packed the columns with copper pot scrubbers to help strip the impurities. That’s more of a temporary fix though and there’s no proof they’re doing that.
One of the first red flags that came to me was how there are no videos of 13th Colony actively fermenting or distilling their whiskey. And if there are, they must be buried around social media. (note: actually, I did find this one video where it appears that they are fermenting a mash in single blue plastic 55 gallon drum – and this was as of 2017)
The lack of documentation is not common among other craft distilleries. They almost always have a video of a fermentation tank or a still or even the liquid coming off the still. Most are proud of their products and their operations show it. In a 2023 tour of the distillery by WhiskeyTuber Brewzle, the distillery guide points to the 250 gallon still and remarks how it’s still the original one that they started with. This would be – at best – capable of distilling one barrel of distillate per day. But a quick look in their warehouse shows hundreds of pallets filled with tens of thousands of bottles of spirits. There is simply no way that all of this could be made on the tiny pot still in the time period he says.
Now I’m not saying that 13th Colony has never used their still. I’m sure they have and occasionally practice on it. Hell, they might have put some whiskey into a few barrels over the years. But just because their own whiskey went into a barrel does not mean it will pass muster to bottle later on. Remember, my whole point is that I don’t believe that the 13th Colony bottles you see in stores actually have whiskey they’ve distilled inside of them – not that they’ve never attempted to make whiskey.
#2. Historical Context: The past shows no mention of whiskey distilled by 13th Colony
Here’s an interesting fact: I’ve never seen any 13th Colony whiskey product ever use the words “Distilled by 13th Colony” on the label. Ever. Do it once and it’s an oversight. Do it every time and it’s a pattern.
Whenever I want to investigate the history of a distillery, I use my trusty friend The Wayback Machine (www.web.archive.org). The Wayback Machine is one of a few internet archives that trawls the entire internet and takes a digital snapshot of any websites they come across. Depending on how popular the website is, the trawler will create more archives. In this way, nothing is ever “lost” if a website is shut down or abandoned.
I’ll give you a big reason why it’s worth your time to look through archives of distilleries using The Wayback Machine – because years ago producers used to be much more open about where they sourced their whiskey from and what their mash bills were. If you want to see a real fun one, look at High West’s! Anyway, nowadays everyone is so tight-lipped about sources and recipes that it’s really a turnoff for inquisitive enthusiasts. But knowing the past can reveal a lot about a distillery’s future.
When I typed www.13thcolonydistillery.com into The Wayback Machine, I noticed it was a brand new website as of April, 2023. There was no previous history.
I was sure that a brand as largely distributed as 13th Colony had a website in the past, so I typed in different iterations of their name. Sure enough, I ended up landing on www.thirteenthcolony.com as the url that they used in the past. Of note, if you try to type that website into a browser today, it will redirect you to 13thcolonydistillery. You have to use The Wayback Machine to see what I’ve captured in the coming screenshots. As you can see here, there’s been a lot of activity since 2005, but realistically nothing works until 2013.
I’ve checked all of the products that they made, read the “About Us” page and even read the customer reviews in the “Happenings” section. Not one time was it explicitly stated that the whiskies were “distilled” by 13th Colony in Georgia. And just to stir the pot a little bit more, their gin and vodka offerings do not use those words either. This leads me to believe they buy bulk grain neutral spirits just like Tito’s does. They use wording like “hand crafted” as well and it’s invited some lawsuits recently.
You’ll find much of the same on 13th Colony’s website with words that come close like “handcrafted,” “made” and “crafted from hand selected barrels.” I might be coming off like a lawyer here, but if it does not contain the word “distilled by” then it does not mean that they distilled any of it. That’s not just a wording blunder either, that’s a sign. If you think that they just forgot to use the word distilled, then I implore you to look at any other non-distilled producer out there and check the verbiage they use. It’s the same way.
#3. 13th Colony has a history of sourcing
The one whiskey that 13th Colony had already admitted to sourcing was their Sour Mash Bourbon. This wheated bourbon was distilled in Wyoming. It’s no secret that it would be from Wyoming Whiskey. Knowing this helps establish that 13th Colony has a history and the knowledge to source barrels from elsewhere. They’re not new at this.
My first giveaway that the rest of their products are sourced was from the very first page of their current website. On top of not explicitly saying “This is the bourbon mash bill we distill with,” it also lists a bourbon mash bill that’s the same as the one that Green River Distilling in Owensboro, Kentucky produces for dozens of labels. It could be a coincidence that 13th Colony picked a mash bill out of thin air to distill with and it just so happened to be the same one as a very popular sourced bourbon – but I’ve come to find out there are very few coincidences in bourbon.
Other mash bills that they have previously listed have also been known to be popular sourced whiskey varieties. They include a 70/25/5 bourbon, a 96/4 (and later, 95/5) rye whiskey and a bourbon using 22% rye.
This is a screenshot from YouTuber El Jeffe whereby we can catch a glance of a bunch of top-fill barrels on the racks. This is a very common barrel design found from MGP or Dickel for their palletized warehouses where the barrels are aged standing upright and not horizontally. If 13th Colony was truly filling their barrels with their own distillate, there would be no need to order barrels with a “top” bunghole placement as it would risk leakage.
#4. Virtually no online reviewer has ever complained about common “craft whiskey” notes on any of their whiskies
I might get some pushback on this one because it involves subjective tasting notes. However, one of the more curious things I picked up on as I read reviews and watched WhiskeyTuber’s was how well-received they have been. As a whiskey reviewer myself, let me acknowledge that sometimes you click with a brand and want to shower them with praises. It will come off as fake and most of us should be able to recognize when a brand is being pandered to. On the opposite side of the spectrum are those reviewers who salivate at the chance to dunk on a craft whiskey product. Their assessments and scores are way too low for a whiskey that didn’t kill them even though their scores indicate it should have.
I tend to pay more attention to the reviewers who are more in the middle. They aren’t going to shower a brand with praise, but they aren’t going to slam them either. I can pick up on the words that they say and the facial expressions they make to tell me if they like a whiskey or are just blowing smoke up our ass. Words and phrases like “would be a good mixer” or “it’ll be even better in a few more years” or “it’s good if you can look past X” are key things to look out for.
So what’s my point? It’s that I have seen no reviewers ever hint to the fact that a whiskey from 13th Colony has any characteristics of craft whiskey. And if they are truly bottling whiskey made on their stainless steel pot still, there’s no way they haven’t at least made a couple of bad batches. I have tasted a lot of craft distilleries products and all of them have had at least one telltale sign that they were craft. Whether or not I could taste astringency, “green” notes, “perfume” or dry, bitter wood notes, something was there reminding me it was craft. If you’ve had craft whiskey before, you know what I’m talking about.
All of this adds up to the fact that a large, capable distillery (MGP, Green River or Cascade Hollow) is responsible for the whiskey that goes into every 13th Colony bottle. If 13th Colony truly did make their own whiskey that ended up consistently being this good, then they have stumbled upon the holy grail of how to make an exceptional craft product. Every other struggling distillery in the US needs to pack up their operation and immediately move to Americus, Georgia and copy every technique they use.
Many of you have skimmed the entire article to read the conclusion – that’s fine. But the one thing I am going to reiterate is that this is not a hit piece on 13th Colony. I have already admitted in my review of their Double Oaked Bourbon just how fond I am of it. They have done their homework on what works and what doesn’t in terms of maturation and finishing. They could ride their popularity of simply bottling a product like that off into the sunset and be considered a legend among small producers. But that legacy is tainted with what I believe to be lying by omission on the source of their whiskies.
Consumers and enthusiasts alike have seen a rapid deterioration in the trust we give to the brands of the things we consume in life. There is no shortage of tricky ad campaigns or MLM’s based out of Utah that throw false and misleading information at us all day long. And when we identify those who have shady practices, it makes us not want to give them our patronage anymore. 13th Colony has a chance to make things right. Nobody is telling them to reveal their sources (although I bet they could), but I would recommend to them to admit that their liquid is sourced (as I suspect it is). That way we can all move on and accept their whiskey in the bottle for what it is rather than pretend it’s something it is not.
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