Whisky Advocate

5 Things You Don’t Know about MGPI, America’s most misunderstood distillery

August 9th, 2013

Fred MinnickFred Minnick gives you a Whisky Advocate exclusive look behind the scenes at the MGPI/LDI/Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

When I requested an interview with MGP Ingredients master distiller Greg Metze, I imagined I’d be turned down to view this secretive Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery.

Imagine my surprise when the MGPI publicist granted my request. The full story will appear in the Spring Issue of Whisky Advocate and reveal all. In the meantime, here are five factoids to pique your palate about MGPI, formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), formerly Pernod Ricard, formerly Seagram’s, formerly Rossville Union Distillery.

5. Distillery Disclosure: Customer’s Choice. MGPI says its contracts do not require anonymity clauses. Keeping the distillery a secret is the customer’s preference, says Dr. Don Coffey, MGPI’s VP of research and development. “We have a lot of customers who say, ‘Please don’t talk about us.’ And some put [Lawrenceburg, Ind.] right on the label,” Coffey says. “If somebody puts it on the label, that’s fair game. But, we’ve been asked by a lot of customers to not disclose; it’s just safer for us not to.” Plant manager Jim Vinoski says this non-disclosure strategy is a part of the company’s business model. “We are not marketers,” Vinoski says. “That’s their world.”MGPI Distillery 2

4. Sticking to History. Established in 1847 as the Rossville Union Distillery, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc. purchased the facility in 1933. When Seagram’s folded in 2000, Diageo and Pernod Ricard split the beverage division, with Pernod taking the Lawrenceburg facility. Pernod sold to CL Financial in 2007 to form LDI. When publicly traded MGPI purchased the LDI group in 2011, MGPI made a strategic decision to fondly remember its Seagram’s and LDI history. “That’s our heritage,” Vinoski says. Blogs, magazines and social media still refer to it as LDI. Many publicly traded companies would use trademark lawyers to correct such errors. But, Vinoski says: “Call us Seagram’s or LDI. It doesn’t bother us.”

3. The first LDI customer was…Templeton Rye Whiskey or High West. Both came in came in around the same time, Metze says. (According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau label approval records, Iowa-based Templeton received label approval two months before Utah-based High West in 2007.)

MGPI Distillery 192. Only 2012 stocks are left. As soon as LDI created a website, suitors came for the whiskey. From 2007 to 2011, dozens, maybe hundreds, of new whiskey brands appeared on the market using LDI-produced whiskey. There were so many that nobody really knows how many brands the company supplies without looking at a computer. Thus, with the popularity of its rye whiskey and bourbon, MGPI’s oldest available rye or bourbon whiskey is 2012. Everything else is under contract.

1. LDI almost started its own brands.  “CL Financial bought the distillery with the intention of launching their own brands,” Metze says. “We were developing some bourbon brands.” CL also purchased the Old Medley distillery (in Owensboro, Ky.) in 2007, so there were high hopes for the CL’s Angostura portfolio to add its own bourbon brands. But CL Financial collapsed in January 2009 amidst the global financial crisis and those bourbon dreams were gone. What would liquor shelves look like today if CL Financial had remained solvent?

Photos by Fred Minnick

14 Responses to “5 Things You Don’t Know about MGPI, America’s most misunderstood distillery”

  1. Randy Perrelet says:

    These guys know what they’re doing. The Bulleit Rye is one of the best values in American whisky. I await the Spring article with anticipation.

  2. two-bit cowboy says:

    In a community so taken with brand identity, knowing the exact origin of a whisk(e)y, and spouting the name of the forest where the maturing barrel’s oak originated, this story makes my face contort. I don’t know whether to raise a brow, roll my eyes, cock an ear, or grimace.

    With all this lead time before going to press I hope some eager (hungry) journalist doesn’t scoop your story.

  3. tanstaafl2 says:

    Look forward to learning more about MGPI. That they have shown they are more open and public than past owners can only be a good thing in my mind. Oh, and I really, really, really hate the word “factoid”! It generally has two basic definitions:

    1: An invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.
    2: A briefly stated and usually trivial fact.

    I presume the article by Fred is not invented and while the second definition could be the more appropriate usage I am sure none of us regard the information provided as trivial so it really doesn’t apply!

    A pet peeve I suppose…

  4. Col Paul Borntraeger says:

    Good to see whiskey in such high demand. Smart men and women across the world are returning to spirits of real character and quality.

  5. mongo says:

    i wonder how often i’ve had the same mgpi whiskey from bottles with different labels on them. or do some/many customers age their purchases further or blend them?

  6. Col Paul Borntraeger says:

    Obviously different customers request different aged barrels and different mash bills. The real story here is that LDI has been producing for a very long time under many strong names and currently brings strong whiskey to market through finishing companies. If you are seriously not tasting a difference in the various brands then I’m at a loss..

    • mongo says:

      well, i know very little about american whiskey. but it’s not immediately obvious to me that different customers must request different aged barrels and different mash bills. if you have some basis for saying they do then, sure, i’ll believe you.

    • Patrick says:

      what is a “finishing compan(y)”?

    • Alex says:

      I believe that in the past MGPI has offered a “menu” of specific mashbills–the customers could not request a custom recipe. Hence why many of the previous MGPI rye whiskeys sold under a number of different brands all contain 95% rye (Templeton, High West, Bulleit, Redemption, Dickel, Smooth Ambler, and several others that I suspect). I believe that many of the brands are purchasing aged stock, so they also have no control over the barrel aging. The main variable is what age and which barrels they choose from MGPI’s stock. If you see 95% rye, “over 90%” rye, or any similar variant, an educated guess would be that the source of the whiskey is MGPI–almost no one else uses such a mashbill.

      There was a recent news story that MGPI had expanded its “menu” of recipes to include several new bourbons and rye mashbills. I believe aged stock was already available at the time of the announcement. Now anyone can come to market with a new bourbon or rye, and, with the variety of recipes, it will become more difficult to identify which of the latest brands on the shelf are produced by MGPI.

      MGPI also offers the option for the brand owner to purchase the whiskey and barrels when they are new, leaving the brand owner to decide how to age them. However, I suspect that many of the smaller brands wanting to enter the market immediately with a finished product are purchasing aged stock. Therefore the brand owner had no control over the mashbill and inital barrel-aging other than choosing the age of the barrels to purchase and possibly any subsequent processing or finishing. That may change over time as the now-established brands with the greatest sales look to expand their involvement to customize the process and/or reduce costs.

      MGPI offers a valuable service and quality products, but it’s up to the brand owners to be honest about where the whiskey comes from instead of fabricating a false story about reviving some old family recipe. From the contact I’ve had with several of the brands, my experience has been that Diageo has been one of the most open about where its Bulleit and Dickel rye come from.

  7. Johnnymakers says:

    Hope this doesn’t come as any great epiphany to y’all :
    If it ain’t made at the distillery down the road –the one you work at, then the art is in the handsell.
    Wait maybe it is anyway you look at it.
    Bill Samuels, Jr trained with Harlan Sanders.

  8. Randy Perrelet says:

    Is anyone selling the 95% rye mash bill at cask strength?

  9. EllenJ says:

    Thank you, Fred. The “Bourbon Illuminati” are, of course, forsworn to saying anything positive about whiskey not produced in Kentucky by distilleries named after brands that existed just post-Repeal (it doesn’t matter who actually owns or operates them today), nor tolerating anyone else’s non-deprecatory comments. It’s a little like a certain Kentucky senator’s statement that the basic purpose of Congress is to defeat any issue supported by the current administration, regardless of content. Readers of comments to your article should probably keep that in mind.

    Seagrams Indiana/LDI/Angostura/MGPI/whatever continues to be one of the most important (and highest quality) producers of American whiskey to exist since Prohibition, and their continual refusal to provide the brand-worshippers with a label they can focus on is one reason for my high regard.

    • Alex says:

      I assume that MGPI has chosen not to market its own brand for a variety of business reasons. I assume they are happy profiting from the whiskey bubble without the overhead of distribution and marketing a niche brand when they can profit from dozens of brands at once.

      The primary purpose of a brand is to identify the provenance of a product, hopefully standing for some level of expected quality. I agree that MGPI makes a high-quality product but not having their brand on the bottle cuts both ways; I am less likely to buy a new mystery whiskey than if I knew the product was from MGPI. MGPI’s contract manufacturing provides a valuable service, just like the companies making store-branded groceries and soap, but, in my opinion, the fact that the whiskey is contract manufactured for a brand owner should not be a reason to vilify nor praise MGPI.

      My disdain is for the brand owners who are intentionally misleading about selling a “local” product or reviving a “lost family recipe”. The cost of these brands manufactured by MGPI varies greatly despite the whiskey being very similar, and the brands are rewarded with a premium for their misleading. I would rather just buy whiskey of a known provenance (and possibly age) for a reasonable price, like I do with other big brands. That’s not worship; it’s just the intended purpose of branding.

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