Well, here we go.
I’m finally addressing the elephant in the room: MGP, famous (or infamous) as the source of sourced whiskey. You know, the stuff distilled semi-anonymously, procured commercially, and labelled liberally. I’ve mentioned (alright, moaned) before that a sad ritual involves me flipping over a bottle to find my three least favorite words: “Distilled in Indiana.”
The reason this bothers me is not that MGP produces bad whiskey. On the contrary, I’ve more or less enjoyed much of what I have (knowingly) had from them. Instead, the rub is what the folks who get their hands on whiskey from MGP do with it, or rather don’t do with it. The omission I reference here is one of our guiding lights at Malt: transparency. For the purposes of this review, I am defining that term as “clear and forthright acknowledgement of exactly what is in the bottle and where it came from.”
“Oh, but we’re totally transparent about the fact that we source whiskey” protest those who repackage the output of MGP’s stills, pointing to the aforementioned verbiage on the back label. While having those three words in tiny font in the least prominent place may adhere to the letter of the law, the practice certainly doesn’t correspond to the spirit of full disclosure.
This is particularly so when the hard facts are buried underneath a mountain of marketing shtick, fabrications, and the like. If a consumer has to parse a logorrheic slew of falsehoods about “craft” whiskey distilled “by hand” to a “family recipe” before learning that this was industrially-produced whiskey selected off an Excel spreadsheet, I’d argue that the miniscule disclosure only serves to highlight all the preceding dissimulation that could only be intended to prevent discovery of the truth.
Fortunately, the subject of our attention today suffers from none of these shortfalls, being as it comes to us from folks who share our preference for overt and detailed disclosure of all the relevant information behind a whiskey. I’m referring, of course, to Single Cask Nation. As a consequence, we have here an MGP light whiskey labeled as such, and with additional particulars provided.
To learn more about this whiskey especially (and light whiskey more generally), I looped in Jason Johnstone-Yellen, one half of the Jewish Whiskey Company (owners of the Single Cask Nation label) and a generous friend of this site. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity
Malt: Tell me about this whiskey?
Jason: In a way, it’s a kissing cousin of our first Chicago Jewbilee release. The Chicago Jewbilee release was an ex-rye cask that we picked up from David Perkins at High West. David, of course, being the person who introduced us to American light whiskey. As a category, it was not something we were familiar with. So, we took the ex-rye barrel that we acquired from David Perkins, and we put some eight-year-old light whiskey in it. However, the cask had lived a life.
Our second Whisky Jewbilee bottling was a collaboration with David where we took bourbon, rye, light whiskey, made a blend, bottled it, sold it. We then had the ex-rye cask on our hands; we sent that off to Schmaltz brewing. Schmaltz aged beer in it with fresh mustard seeds. We released that beer at the next Whisky Jewbilee in New York City. So, then we had an empty ex-rye, ex-beer cask – ex-IPA cask – and we had this eight year old light whiskey on our hands. So, we stuck the light whiskey into two of those casks.
One of them finished like greased lightning. Just in a matter of weeks we had a ton of extra profile from the ex-beer, ex-rye cask, and that cask we then bottled for the very first Whisky Jewbilee Chicago. That, to date, is one of my very favorite release we’ve ever done. 65.1% alcohol, single cask, wonderful light whiskey presence, wonderful beer presence, wonderful hop presence; it’s just so, so good.
The other cask, it finished very, very slowly. We sat on it, we sat on it, we sat on it. After about four years, we combined that ex-rye, ex-IPA cask with some other light whiskey casks that we had lying around. That became the two batches of the light whiskey. One of those batches was sold online to members of the nation – that was batch 1 – and the other was sold to retail. It was a great, great little whiskey; light whiskey at the heart of it, but then some different wood finishes, additional wood maturations on it, to be able to tell a different kind of story from it.
Still, hugely successful. The fact that you even have one of the bottles is remarkable, because as it was hitting retail it was selling out immediately. It is one, to date, that we still get retailers say, “Hey, do you have any of that MGP 12 batch lying around?” And we say, “No, it all sold out lightning fast to retailers.” So, kudos on having one; that’s a good friend!
Malt: Funny enough, he’s an anti-MGP guy because of all the chicanery around sourced whiskey.
Jason: It’s a shame that people feel that way, because I don’t think it’s any fault of MGP. One of the things for us, when we were first introduced to the light whiskey category by David Perkins, was David, who had great knowledge of the Scottish industry, very quickly said to us, “This was like American grain whiskey.”
“Light whiskey” doesn’t really say anything; it sounds like “Diet Coke.” I don’t think it’s a great term to be using. But when you say “American grain whiskey,” well… shit, I know how that works! I know large copper column still distillation; I know high running proof, high distillation proof, I know that it’s going to be used young, I know that it’s going to go into refill wood. I think it just tells an immediate story.
So Joshua and I just fell in love with light whiskey from the beginning. The other part for us was when we first started releasing it, our label said “LDI.” At that time, they were Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, and so we had LDI on our labels. Robin Robinson actually came up to us at a whiskey festival in New York City and had said, “The balls on you guys! I love what you guys are doing, just confronting head-on that this is LDI.”
The thing that we were able to say to Robin, and we’ve said ever since, is “We’re an independent bottler. Our job is to put the distillery in the middle of our label. We’re not in this for subterfuge.” It always upsets us when we do get a cask that we’re not allowed to use the distillery origin on. It feels to us like it defeats the purpose. So, running with LDI, running with MGP, running with the 25 year old Seagram’s that you got your hands on from the last Jewbilee Chicago. That’s our job, is to cut through the bullshit and say to people, “This came from this distillery. Get to know this distillery.”
I understand people like your friend who say, “I just don’t want to get mixed up with that. There’s too much mystery around it.” At the same time, MGP is still a great distillery putting out great product.
Malt: That’s the point I made to him: people don’t source from MGP because it’s a poor distillery that doesn’t know how to make whiskey. It’s a great distillery that makes whiskey really well. Speaking of making whiskey, do you happen to know the mash bill for this?
Jason: I don’t. I did see the person that commented on Twitter that commented to say “99% corn and 1% malted barley.” We asked David Perkins if he knew the mash bill and he said he didn’t. Whether he didn’t know it or whether he wasn’t allowed to reveal it, I don’t know.
But no, we just know it’s a mixed mash bill, very much in the Scottish style. Scotland vacillates between corn and wheat, whichever one is the cheapest at the beginning of the financial year, that’s what they purchase and that’s what they use. Because I don’t know the state of light whiskey; it’s hard to give a static mash bill for Scotland, and I wonder if that’s somewhat similar in the United States. I wonder if it’s a moving target based on economics, and so nobody puts it out there. I’m just speculating, I don’t know. [note: MGP’s technical information for its light whiskey confirms the 99% corn, 1% malted barley mash bill]
Malt: I think of light whiskey being a holdover from that bad era of whiskey in the 1960’s when it was going out of fashion. Seagram’s, which was the owner of Lawrenceburg at the time, as well as everybody else, was trying to lighten up the spirit and accelerate maturation and do something that wasn’t thought of as granddad’s drink.
Jason: In talking to Bill Thomas about it at Jack Rose, he connects it to the 80’s when vodka was king and brown spirits were just dead on their arse. Light whiskey was the attempt to challenge vodka drinkers. It’s so interesting to me, because what did we just have in maybe the last five years? Vodka came out with a gently oak kissed product. It’s the reverse of what the whiskey industry did back in the 80’s, when it was an attempt to take out some of the brown from brown spirits and tamp it down a bit and say, “Look, this is very accessible.”
Bill Thomas gifted me a little half bottle of light whiskey. This is Crow light whiskey and on the label it’s basically a highball that they’ve poured. It was being sold as “Look how accessible this is. If you like tall, clear, slightly colored drinks, you’re going to love this.” They sold it at 40% alcohol, 80 proof. Bill Thomas said it was just dead. They got no traction at all. Light whiskey completely disappeared from the whiskey public’s consciousness. But it was still there, right? It’s still being used in American blends. It’s still a mass-produced commodity that nobody sees, nobody talks about, nobody releases.
For us at Single Cask Nation, that alone was part of the attraction. The fact that at natural cask strength it’s wonderfully oily, it’s got massive orange creamsicle components, orange spiced gumdrop components. I think it’s a lovely, lovely spirit, and we were able to take ownership of that as a company and we were able to put it in front of people who said “What the fuck is this? What are you putting in bottle here?”
We’ve got some Nation members who, to this day, say our LDI 13 and our LDI 11 as well as our Chicago Jewbilee #1 are their favorite bottlings from Single Cask Nation. Think what we’ve done with Scotch, think what we’ve done with bourbon, think what we’ve done with world single malts, and folk have said, “No. LDI light whiskey, what a wonderful drink!”
Malt: Does it benefit from the lack of preconceptions around it? Are people more openminded?
Jason: It’s funny that you say that because my perception on it is actually the exact opposite. When a consumer encounters this whiskey category that has existed and they’ve never heard of it, they ask themselves why they haven’t heard of it. There must be a reason nobody’s bottling, selling, talking about light whiskey. Sometimes we’ve had to overcome that version of the preconception, to be able to say “No, no, no, clear your mind for a second…”
Or, what I’ve really done, is I’ve said, “Scottish grain whisky is deeply ingrained in the industry, in the culture. This is American grain whiskey. Why not taste your country’s version of something we’ve been doing in Scotland for a long, long time?” That kind of eases people; when they start to hear “Scotland” again, they get a little comfortable, as opposed to that word “light whiskey.” Doesn’t make me want to drink it; it’s a terrible name.
Malt: There’s nothing light about it in practice, especially when it’s this old!
Jason: The “light” portion of the name is the distillation attribute, where taking it up to 94.5% alcohol gives you something… I hate to say the flavors have been stripped out of it, but they’re only half a point away from producing vodka. So it really is on the end of the spectrum, that it is lighter both on flavor and on color. But – just like Scottish grain whiskey – if you let it sit in cask for a period of time it really will grow into itself and it really will present some components that are very grain dependent, but then also with just a hint of the wood thrown in for good measure.
I think, as far as the American whiskey industry goes, given that use of new charred oak, I think that having an American product that goes into refill really shows the capabilities of American spirit when you let the spirit breathe and you don’t pound it too much with the new charred oak which is a heavy, heavy maturation.
Malt: This was distilled in June 2006; why is MGP distilling light whiskey? Is it destined for blending stock?
Jason: It is. If you think of Seagram’s, what was the famous cocktail? The 7 and 7. My understanding is that Seagram’s were using it heavily as blending stock. Where it goes now, I just don’t know. To be honest with you: I haven’t even asked the question, because I don’t really care about the answer. I just want more access to light whiskey because it’s damn good. But yeah, blending stock is the answer.
Malt: And you guys got it when it was eight years old, and it spent an additional four years maturing in casks?
Jason: Correct, which is so funny. When you said it was distilled June 2006, I could not have told you that. To think that we actually bought it six years ago and then held it for four years and then released it two years ago. This whiskey has lived a life! I have very little recollection of it.
Malt: Is that eight years of age a common or standard age for light whiskey? Or did this barrel get forgotten?
Jason: I would say no, there is no standard age for light whiskey. The blend that we put together with David Perkins for the second Jewbilee, it was 12 year old light whiskey that went into that with an eight year old straight bourbon and a six year old straight rye. The light whiskey for Whisky Jewbilee Chicago was eight. The Seagram’s that we did for the last Chicago was 25.
To my mind, again, it’s just like Scottish grain whisky: you get it when you get it. When we launched our retail line we had some ten year old Girvan. As the retail line has grown we’ve put out a 1973 Port Dundas, we’ve put out a couple of ‘74 Invergordons, we’ve put out a 90-something Cambus. I know it was 26 when we bottled it. Now we’ve just picked up some 12 year old North British. The ages are moving all over the place; you pick up what you can, when you can.
We bought some of the light whiskey from David Perkins, but we’ve also bought light whiskey from Dave Schmier [of Redemption]. You ask yourself the question, “Why was Dave Schmier sitting on light whiskey?” I don’t know, but I know he had it for sale!
Malt: Is grain due for a resurgence? Are you guys going to make grain great again?
Jason: This is the question. Do you mean American grain as in light whiskey, or do you mean Scottish grain?
Malt: All of the above. Globally, interest in all kinds of whiskey has never been higher. It seems like if grain whisky was going to make a comeback it would be now, and yet people still turn up their noses at it?
Jason: Correct. We actually just took this question on the podcast a couple of episodes ago. Joshua and I have been deeply into grain whisky for the better part of ten years. The industry writ large hasn’t really put the official bottlings, the distillery bottlings, onto the market. William Grant put out a bottle maybe five years ago that was maybe a 25-year-old grain whisky. I think at that time they were looking for $250 or something? If you knew grain whisky, you knew you could get great bargains in the world of grain whisky and paying $250 for 25 year old grain whisky didn’t make any sense. It kind of fell dead born from the womb and it kind of soured the consumer to distillery-bottled grain whisky. You then of course have Diageo bringing out Haig with David Beckham. That was… not successful, which is probably as kind as I can possibly be.
If you look at an independent bottler’s latest outturn, we’re moving in that direction now where there will be two or three Scotch whiskies in it, there might be one or two world single malts, there will be a rum, and there will be a grain whisky. As independent bottlers, I think there’s that respect around exploring multiple categories and putting the best expressions from said categories into an outturn.
If you’re one of the major players, one of the major brands, one of the major conglomerates, people know that grain is your bread and butter for your blends. People know that and when they try to champion it, it feels a little peculiar. It doesn’t fit quite right.
So, to answer your question: I don’t think grain will have any kind of moment in the sun if it doesn’t have ever massive brand dollars behind it. But, among people like you and people like me, and followers of the Nation, and readers of Malt, amongst those people: oh yeah. Grain, if it’s not already well known and being celebrated, will be very soon. But will it go mainstream? I just don’t think so. I just don’t think it will ever get the money behind it to go mainstream.
Thanks again to Jason for sharing his time and insights with us. Ending on that hopeful note, I will now try some light whiskey… excuse me, American Grain Whiskey. This was distilled at MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in June 2006. As discussed above, it was aged eight years in a refill American oak barrel, finished for another four years in an ex-rye, ex-IPA barrel before being bottled in March 2019. This is Batch 2; it comes to us non-chill filtered and at the cask strength of 51.3% ABV. 456 bottles were produced. This bottle was generously donated by Matt K, who paid retail price $95 for it.
Single Cask Nation MGP 12 Year Old Light Whiskey – review
Color: Golden orange with a faintly tawny hue.
On the nose: This immediately presents a sweet and spicy, cinnamon-accented note of freshly-baked apple pie. The influence of the IPA cask is evident from a slightly bitter whiff of hops, as well as a yeasty nuance. There’s abundant spicy aromas of cumin and mustard seed, as well as the hallmark MGP dill note.
In the mouth: At first, this has a yeasty beeriness to it that dominates the front of the mouth. Turning citric as it progresses across the tongue, this hits a high point with abundant and generous spices at the top of the mouth. There’s nutmeg, garam masala, chili powder, ground cinnamon, and more dill in a lingering mixture of intense flavor. A note of star anise and some tannic woody notes carry this through the finish.
An interesting riff on the style. The additional maturation in the ex-rye/ex-IPA casks adds layers of aromas and flavors that mesh well with some of the sweeter elements from the whiskey. There’s a hint too much dill on the nose for me, but fortunately this dissipates on the palate and is replaced by an entire spice cupboard’s worth of seasoning. I love the exotic aspects of this, whether they came from the MGP whiskey, the cask finish or both.
Call me jaded, but with so much same-y whiskey out there, it’s not often that I get to taste something that is truly unique. This carried a premium price tag, which to me would require this to be a standout in terms of delivering a smell and taste profile that was both diverse and intense. This does so, and its few weaknesses are more than made up for by its many charms. As a consequence, I am happy to award this a very solid score.