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I was putting the finishing touches on a review of Rebecca Creek 16 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon recently when I hit a mental roadblock. The score I gave it (a rather generous 7.3, mind you) seemed too low for the specs of that bottle. Rather than asking myself “why wasn’t this better?” my mind was telling me that this has all happened before and I should have known better. Instead, this shifted my question to “Why are almost all 14+ year old MGP single barrels consistently underwhelming?”
16 year old MGP bourbon is a rarity. Scratch that; 16 year old bourbon is a rarity for any distillery. But the large heritage distilleries that have barrels over 14 years old are typically saving them for their top-tier labels. These will eventually become products that have high expectations by the bourbon drinking community for being beautiful, complex expressions that show off their age in ways that no other whiskies can.
Think about it: Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, Four Roses SmBLE, Eagle Rare 17 Year, William Heaven Hill, Knob Creek (various labels), Hardin’s Creek, King of Kentucky, Michter’s 20/25 Year, Willett Wax Tops and Block Letters and multiple labels of Dusty Wild Turkey… All of those are generally regarded as elite-level labels wearing ultra-high age statements. Many of those come in single barrel form too. Yet we don’t seem to question their quality when it’s time to buy a bottle or order a pour. It’s a given they’re great. So why would MGP be different?
This article will reveal that it’s not about how they make their bourbon, it’s how they sell it to other producers and how those producers choose to release them. Read on as I break down the main issue behind how older, sourced MGP single barrels are more at risk for being mediocre than any other distillery’s similarly aged products.
Step 1: Breaking down MGP’s business model
In 2000, Seagram’s had lost their way. Through a variety of reasons, they were dissolving and selling off their assets in the form of multiple distilleries and large stocks of aged whiskey. Pernod Ricard and Diageo were the main buyers who decided who got what. Pernod Ricard was the beneficiary of the distillery in Indiana while Diageo would be their biggest customer. The only problem was PR didn’t have a clear vision as to what to do with the distillery during this time. The warehouses were filling up, but there weren’t many buyers for their whiskey.
Pernod Ricard decided to sell the distillery in 2006 and found a buyer; CL Financial (which had ties with Angostura). Things weren’t much better for business during the ensuing financial crisis. The distillery wasn’t gaining a huge number of customers and production remained light. CL started to collapse and eventually Midwest Grain Producers (MGP) swooped in to buy the distillery. Things began to stabilize after 2011.
The business model became more streamlined under MGP. They still had a steady cash flow with Diageo as their key customer – but what were they going to do with all of these barrels of whiskey they had aging in their warehouses? They had to find new buyers.
In the beginning, buyers like Smooth Ambler and High West came in and had their pick of the litter. This allowed MGP some breathing room to begin distilling more regularly. Old barrels were shipped out and freshly filled ones soon took their spot.. The more customers they brought on, the more financially secure the company was feeling. Word also spread quickly about how Indiana-produced bourbon was high quality. This made newer producers feel safe enough to place large orders. Belle Meade, Chattanooga Whiskey, Valentine Distilling, OKI, Traverse City; the list kept growing of customers that wanted in.
Even though MGP started with a ton of barrels in 2011, they began to disappear quicker than anticipated. Projections showed that they were going to run out of their older barrels very soon at the current rate – especially since customers came looking only for bourbon and rye whiskey aged 8 years or more. They were laying down barrels at an incredible speed but by 2019, they were looking at an inventory that consisted only of 5-year-old barrels. Something had to give.
MGP’s “Loyalty and Rewards Program”
Around 2016, MGP began to pump the brakes on how much aged bourbon (8 years and up) that they would (could?) sell to customers. They realized that customers were only coming to them for their really aged whiskey, not the new barrels they were laying down.
Raising prices was not the solution because there were only so many older barrels left. So the distillery began to enact rules that companies could buy a certain amount of aged barrels if they signed contracts to purchase more new-make barrels. This was smart because it allowed MGP to grow their operation and refill their warehouse with money that wasn’t out of their own pockets.
While I don’t know the exact specifics, the formula wasn’t totally a secret. Companies coming to MGP for whiskey barrels were told that for every 10, 20 or 50 barrels of new-make whiskey they’d buy, they qualified to buy a small amount of whiskey aged 8 years or more. Need proof? I don’t have any fancy charts or graphs to show you, but looking at producers like Smoke Wagon who took delivery of perhaps 1000 barrels of 8+ year old bourbon because they placed orders for new make (or very young) barrels in the tens of thousands. This helped fuel temporary releases like their red-wax Private Barrels, Desert Jewel and early batches of Uncut and Unfiltered.
Companies like Rebecca Creek purchased a much smaller amount of barrels and received a smaller amount (probably under 100) aged barrels from MGP. I’m sure by the end of 2023 we’ll see a few more producers dropping 12, 14 or 16 year old MGP single barrels too – albeit in very limited quantities.
How does knowing this explain why 14+ year old MGP is a gamble to buy? Why wouldn’t it be good?
With so many new customers coming to MGP between 2016-2020, MGP had to scour their warehouses for remaining older barrels while also trying to keep some back for themselves (for their new house brand Remus Repeal Reserve). I wouldn’t argue with you if you said “oh, those remaining barrels probably weren’t the cream of the crop then.” Maybe.
Those customers were getting the leftovers but still hoped to build their reputation on them to elevate their brand. This meant that they had to put them out in single barrel form. To do it any other way would risk de-valuing them. For whatever reason, enthusiasts will spend much more on single barrels than they would on batches (even if they’re the same age) or, godforbid, finished whiskey.
In regards to the bigger brands, they will pick and choose the best barrels for their limited releases. If a barrel becomes over-oaked, it will get dumped into other batched products to recoup at least some of the costs.
Small producers who may have only been able to source 50 barrels of 12+ year old MGP are at a particular disadvantage because they don’t have the luxury of just blending away barrels that aren’t up to snuff. They have to make maximum profit off of them and the only way to do so is bottle them up as a single barrel and hope that nobody notices. Or if they do, they hope the volume isn’t too loud on their opinions to sink the brand.
The point in all of this is that the fewer 12+ year old single barrels an NDP gets, the more chance that they’re just going to put them out regardless of quality. Producers know people will buy them so they sell them anyway to make back their money – but at what cost? The chances are higher than ever that those barrels aren’t good because producers cannot afford to not sell them. There can’t be quality control checks if there isn’t a system set up to handle rejected barrels. And frankly, the smaller producers cannot afford to reject a single barrel from being released. They’re all operating on razor thin profits anyway, so they’ll take their chances nobody will know.
Where does that leave the consumer?
Admittedly, consumers are the ones who pay the biggest price – both literally and figuratively. I’ve heard many friends express dismay with how their ultra-aged MGP single barrel was not what they were hoping it would be. Reviewers who hype them up are sometimes not believable either. Many of them might not want to bash a bottle if they just so happened to buy extra to flip for profit. If they admit their investment sucks, it would damage their future profit on the secondary market. Bottom Line: The world of single barrel reviews is murky because you never know if there is extra motivation behind a score being suspiciously high. The same goes for anyone on the secondary market who boasts about a particular pick being extra good.
Knowing all of this unfortunately exposes why barrels of whiskey from MGP with age statements over 14 years should be treated with extra caution. There is a very good chance that the taste will not match up with the cost. Perceived scarcity aside, there will always be another one out there if you really feel like you missed out, but I’d say you’re more likely to dodge a bullet. Let the buyer beware.
*author’s note: It should be noted that not every brand that sourced barrels of MGP whiskey did so through a contract with MGP. Many brands used barrel brokers or bought and sold from each other. This article was meant as a way to simplify the reason why producers have limited access to these aged barrels. If I were to explain every kind of method used to buy them, I’d be writing for over a year. This was meant to be a template to further your understanding rather than the rock-solid truth of how every brand who uses MGP barrels works.
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