June 23, 2014
If you follow us on social media, own a bottle of our alcohol, or have ever visited the distillery – you’ve likely heard us use the phrase “never neutral.” If you’ve ever wondered what it means, you’re probably not alone – we were fairly surprised to find out what “neutral grain spirits” really meant in the craft distilling world.
A neutral grain spirit is, by definition, highly concentrated ethanol which has been purified by means of repeated distillation, a process that is called rectification. Any grain can be used for this purpose, since the point is to make the spirit completely neutral, and void of any taste or flavor. We were aware that many vodka and gin producers use NGS (and we’re sure this is why people are blown away by our Nick the Sipper vodka), but what we weren’t aware of is how commonly NGS are used in so-called craft distilled products – even aged whiskeys.
Almost immediately after we received our federal licensing, we started to see solicitation emails from industrial alcohol manufacturers for neutral grain spirits. The NGS were marketed to us as a way to “augment our production” – so we could brew a little bit of our own grain mash, distill it, and then add a whole bunch of NGS to increase our production and decrease our costs. It was grain neutral – having no taste or odor – so it allegedly wouldn’t change the taste of our product. The actual percentage of our own product apparently doesn’t matter – we could use as little or as much as we wanted of these neutral grain spirits. Heck, we could use 100% of it and not add a single drop of anything we actually brewed or distilled! The use of NGS doesn’t need to be disclosed on your labels. In fact, it’s such an accepted practice that there are allocated spots for this augmentation process on the Federal tax forms that we submit monthly.
It got worse – on these same sales emails, we found we could purchase virtually any spirit we wanted in bulk. Rye distillate, corn distillate, organic apple distillate…aged and unaged whiskeys and bourbons. Virtually any type of alcohol base you could want or need was available to purchase. We quickly realized that if we wanted, we could literally just purchase an aged whiskey, have it delivered in bulk to our distillery, bottle it and slap our label on it. As craft distillers, we have the choice to actually run a distillery without ever having to even turn on our stills, much less do the much more labor and time intensive brewing side of the business. This was shocking to us – we were under the assumption that the term “craft distilled” had meaning. We assumed that if we purchased a bottle of spirits from a small distillery, that that distillery had actually made the product from scratch. We assumed they were buying tons and tons of grain, brewing it and fermenting it before they distilled it, and bottled it. We had no idea that it could be any other way. Now, we knew.
As food enthusiasts, we immediately made comparisons to food with the idea of this. It was like opening a jar of ready-made spaghetti sauce, adding some garlic powder, and calling it homemade or “small batch”. It is remarkable to us that this practice of using neutral grain spirits, or bottling spirits purchased in bulk, is as prolific as it is – imagine, if you will, if craft breweries had the same option. What would a craft beer enthusiast think if they found out that one of their favorite craft brewers was buying beer from a huge national entity by the truckload, dry hopping it, and calling it their own? Or simply rebottling it with their own label?
Does this have repercussions for us? Naturally. It puts our spirits at a bit higher price point, and we hear this feedback occasionally. Of course, they would be – grain, especially high quality grain from small, Massachusetts farms, is expensive. We brew the grain ourselves (that’s Alex’s job), we don’t speed things along with added enzymes to unmalted grain (malted barley covers that!) and fermentation itself takes at least ten days. These things all increase the price of the product. We’ve had well meaning people tell us we could make more money, and faster, if we just added some NGS to our whiskeys, bottled NGS for vodka, or bought a few 55 gallon drums of aged, bottle-ready whiskey to rebottle and boost our bottom line. Of course we could – we could save a lot of money on the production end by simply omitting most of the production end.We choose not to do that. We’re aware of all these shortcuts that are available to us via NGS or bulk spirits – and we choose not to take them.
We didn’t open Damnation Alley Distillery as a jump to a new career. We all kept our day jobs so that we could produce the best spirits possible without being under pressure to hit sales numbers or pay back huge loans, and so that we could grow our business organically without ever having to sacrifice our company ethos. Our goal was not to make big piles of money as quickly as possible – our goal was to make the best tasting spirits we could make, with the best grains from some of the best farms in our state.
Even though there are state of origin labeling regulations in place by the Tax and Trade Bureau , some whiskey producers are being questioned on their labeling practices. Consumer groups and whiskey aficionados are starting to report alleged labeling violations, as Fred Minnick recently discussed in his blog. I think we’ll see these types of issues become more and more transparent as the craft spirits industry grows, and the major manufacturers of bulk spirits move to increase their presence. The “whiskey shortage” we keep hearing about will no doubt play an interesting role in all of this, as well.
In the meantime, we can promise you that we have never, and will never, use a single drop of NGS or bulk alcohol at Damnation Alley Distillery. 100% of every bottle started as Massachusetts grain (and will eventually include fruits and veggies – we’re looking at you, potatoes), and we have brewed it, fermented it, distilled it and bottled it at our location at 7 Brighton Street in Belmont. We know it’s not the most efficient way, and we know it won’t make us millionaires – but we’re proud of the quality of our spirits, and we think the flavors speak for themselves. And there’s certainly the argument to be made that it doesn’t matter, so long as the beverage tastes good. And that’s okay too – the use of NGS and bulk spirits are one type of business model, but it’s not ours. Personally, I’m a strong advocate for transparency in labeling. I expect it in my food, and I expect it in my beverages. It’s frustrating to me that a whiskey I purchase can have caramel coloring and artificial sweeteners that don’t require inclusion on the label, for instance. I like to know exactly what I’m getting, you know? So it’s important to us to be clear to our customers – what you see is what you get.
As a last note, if you care about whether or not your favorite brand makes their own booze or is simply a clever marketer, we encourage you to do some digging. In some cases, a simple check of the label will tell you – “Bottled By” generally means they didn’t make it. There are many whiskey blogs discussing both the use of NGS and the quickly growing “State of Origin” debate. At a minimum, you’ll know who made what you’re drinking.