A Visit to MGP
You may have never heard of MGP, but chances are you’ve already had the whiskey the company makes. MGP is the largest supplier of sourced, aged whiskey in America for the many companies that don’t actually distill themselves (Non-Distilling Producers or NDPs), and they’re also a contract distilling powerhouse, working with customers from the earliest stages of the whiskey-making process. How many clients does MGP have? While they’re pretty tight-lipped on the subject, it’s a safe estimate that their whiskey has been labeled under more than 120 different brands, all of which should have the tell-tale “Distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana” on the label. Despite their status in the industry, MGP has never opened its doors to the public and they’ve seldom commented on their operations. As the rest of the industry became more transparent over the last decade, MGP started to look more and more like Willy Wonka. That is, until recently.
Starting in 2018, MGP decided to get in on its own action, launching an impressive portfolio of house brands that now include five whiskeys, as well as a vodka. At the same time, they began pulling the curtain back on their distilling operations at the former Seagram’s Distillery, inviting media to tour the facility and introducing the world to the first MGP products the company can actually talk about. Drinkhacker was invited to one of these media days recently, so I got a chance to experience this proverbial “Chocolate Factory” first hand.
MGP’s distillery looms large over the small, riverside town of Lawrenceburg. Even at a distance, the red-brick stillhouse towers over a field of several rickhouses, which are themselves six stories tall and massive. It’s clearly an industrial site — you won’t find much in the way of landscaping — but it’s also not as factory-like as I imagined. The buildings are all attractive red brick, like at Buffalo Trace, and along the rooflines of the large rackhouses are the words “Seagrams” and “Since 1857,” reminding you that this place is no newcomer to whiskey-making. Records indicate that distilling has occurred on the site for more than 200 years, beginning first in 1808. The Rossville Distillery was founded there in 1847, which then became the Seagram’s Distillery in 1933. After some sporadic ownership changes in the early 2000s, the distillery was purchased by Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in 2011.
While outwardly less industrial than I anticipated, the check-in procedure at the distillery was something more akin to visiting a power plant. I wouldn’t have even known we were at a distillery if not for the bottles of bourbon and rye perched on a shelf above a row of official-looking binders in the gate house. It’s the first distillery tour I’ve ever been on where I received an ID badge and hard hat, and we were instructed to keep our phones turned off in certain locations. Everything after that part, however, was pretty familiar.
We began the tour in the barrel-filling building where MGP can fill an impressive five barrels every 30 seconds. Barrel entry for every standard MGP mashbill is 120 proof, but the company recently began allowing custom barrel entry proofs for its contract clients; part of a slew of changes they’ve made to compete with a growing number of contract distillers around the country. Their barrels are from a variety of producers but all are #4 char level, although this is likely also negotiable for some clients.
From barrel filling, we walked over to the main control room, which is the nerve center of the facility. Almost all large distilleries have these kinds of rooms with various control stations overseeing automation across several stages of distilling and fermenting, and almost all of them look like some version of Homer Simpson’s work station at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Unlike most distilleries I’ve been to, however, phones had to be turned off in this space, likely due to the secrecy concerns around whichever client’s whiskey was being produced at that given moment.
From there we moved to one of the fermentation buildings, a massive open space with 14 huge, stainless steel tanks, each capable of holding over 25,000 gallons of mash. This was one of the largest fermentation rooms I’d ever encountered at a distillery, and apparently there was another, even bigger fermentation building adjoining it. According to our guide, MGP fills four of these tanks every day with only one week off in the fall for maintenance.
The tour concluded with a peek inside one of the barrel warehouses. While each of MGP’s aging warehouses is a little different, all are brick-walled with concrete floors which help to keep temperatures consistent on each floor. Barrels are stacked six-high on wooden ricks, and each floor holds a mix of all the mashbills MGP produces, which includes both their products as well as their customer’s. This is done for consistency, according to David Whitmer, MGP’s Director of Quality and R&D, as well as for security in case something should happen to one of the buildings.
On the long walk back to the tasting room, I talked to David and Andy Mansinne, MGP’s VP of Brands and the man in charge of their new products portfolio. They told me that, in addition to being the largest producer of rye whiskey in America, MGP is also the largest producer of gin, all of which is made for other customers. Most of their clear spirits are produced at MGP’s first distillery in Atchison, Kansas, where the company first got its start in 1941 making industrial alcohol for the war effort. With MGP products crowding the liquor store shelves today, it’s safe to say they’ve come a long way in the spirits world since then.
Tasting MGP’s Brands
My day at MGP concluded with a full tasting of MGP’s complete portfolio. The company has gone out of its way to ensure that their own products don’t compete with those of their client’s in the whiskey space. For starters, all of their whiskeys are blends of mashbills. Most of their clients, according to Andy, are buying a single mashbill. Any blending done after the fact is done by them or at their direction on contract. Therefore, none of these brands should taste anything like the 100+ brands already using MGP products. In addition, MGP has positioned all of their products at a super-premium price point to allay the concerns of some clients who are selling below or above that level. They are taking their time growing their own brands. As of this article, you can find their own products in just 13 states. We’ve reviewed almost all of these products in the last year or so (see links below), but my tasting notes from that afternoon follow.
Till Vodka – This vodka is produced at the Atchison, Kansas distillery and made with locally sourced wheat. The nose is decently complex for a vodka, with minimal medicinal notes giving way to subtle aromas of lemon peel and licorice. The creamy palate has plenty of body for a good martini and is full of clean, vanilla notes that dissolve into a slight citrus finish.
George Remus Bourbon – This is a blend of MGP’s two high rye bourbon mashbills (21% and 36%, respectively). From the get-go, it’s any oaky bruiser with a barrel char nose that carries through to the palate. Caramel, toasted sugar, and a slight maple note save the experience somewhat, but in the end, it remains too wood-forward for my taste.
Remus Repeal Reserve (Second Release) – This is also a blend of MGP’s high rye mashbills but from four different lots comprising 10- and 11-year-old stock. Like the standard Remus, the nose is oak-forward, but that’s tempered some with a sweet chocolate note. The palate is honeyed and spicy, showing lots of baking spice and a little dried fruit. This second release is at 100 proof, and MGP plans to keep future releases at that proof point. Having also tasted the first, 94 proof release, I have to say I preferred its softer, more nuanced quality a little more.
Rossville Union Straight Rye – This rye whiskey is a blend of MGP’s 51% rye mashbill with the more well-known 95% rye mashbill found in Bulleit Rye, among other products out there. It’s blended to profile, so there will be different proportions in each release. The nose is full of clove, mint, and some dried fruits, while the palate shows more baking spice and brown sugar. It’s well-balanced and an easy sipper.
Rossville Union Cask Strength Rye – This rye is the same general age as the straight rye, but the blend is different, as is the batch size. The nose is significantly more aggressive than the standard rye, but not overwhelming and still nuanced with ginger and classic spice cabinet notes more typical of rye whiskey. The palate is rich and oily, and continues the classic trend with plenty of rye spice, vanilla, and clove. It’s surprisingly approachable at cask strength and even better than the standard offering.
Eight & Sand Blended Bourbon – The newest whiskey in the MGP portfolio, Eight & Sand is a blended bourbon that includes every whiskey MGP produces (including both bourbon mashbills, corn whiskey, and light whiskey). The nose is fairly classic bourbon with plenty of caramel and just the right amount of fragrant oak. The palate is a tad sweet, but there’s enough cinnamon spice and barrel notes to keep things more or less balanced. An enjoyable sipper or cocktail companion, especially for $30.