Two terms you’re may encounter when perusing whisky shelves. What’s the difference, and is it essential to know the difference? It depends on your perspective and just how much you want to know about the whisky you’re drinking.
Distillation versus Rectification
When it comes to whisky, distillation is the act of separating desirable alcohols and congeners from the poisonous and less desirable compounds. This process occurs in the still and is fundamental to producing whisky. The person responsible for this work is called a distiller.
Rectification, on the other hand, is technically the act of repeatedly distilling, stripping a sprit of all its flavors and aromatic compounds. A distilled whisky has an alcohol by volume (ABV) of less than 94.8%. Whereas, rectified alcohol has an ABV higher than 95%. It’s the difference between a whisky and a vodka or a neutral grain spirit. Technically, a person responsible for rectifying alcohol is a rectifier.
However, when it comes to whisky the term, rectifier, is often used differently. In the whisky trade, the colloquial use of the word implies an individual who takes distilled whisky, made by others, to create a unique blend and market it as a distinct brand.
It’s a common practice, and people have been rectifying as long as they’ve been making whisky. In fact, it wasn’t until the latter part of the nineteenth century that distillers began selling and marketing their whisky. Until then, distillers sold their whisky to local grocers who blended the whisky with other whiskies or herbal flavorings. Sometimes it was done to make inferior whiskies palatable; other times, it was done to enhance a whisky and improve upon its taste and character.
In recent years, however, the term rectifier has taken on negative connotations. Elsewhere I’ve written about the resurgence of the brown spirits in the liquor industry. I cited one of the reasons as the consumer’s growing interest in not only the quality of a product but also in its backstory.
Who made the product? How was the product made? Did the product have cultural significance? Can I trust the product, is its story authentic?
Correctly answering these questions goes a long way to competitively positioning a new product, especially in a mature market. Craft brewers were quick to recognize the advantage of a locally produced beer. The expectations of the mass market did not constrain the local artisan. Quite the contrary, instead, they pursued niche markets and offered consumers a new, different beer tasting experience.
Indeed the unique taste and character of a craft beer played a significant role in its growth. But so did the back story or the experience drinking a craft beer offered. Visting a craft brewery allowed you to meet the brewer, learn about his hops, watch him add the yeast to the fermentation tanks.
The more authentic the story, the better the experience, and the better the beer tasted. Astute marketers recognized the merits of a genuine back story and redefined an industry. In 1990, there were 250 licensed craft breweries in the United States. As of June 30, 2019, there were 7,480 active breweries in the United States. A phenomenal record of growth!
Templeton Rye Whiskey
Unfortunately, not all marketers got the message. Oh, they knew a good story could sell a product, but they failed to understand that the adage “truth in advertising” actually meant something to the modern consumer. This misunderstanding would have significant ramifications in the whisky industry and tarnish the image of the contemporary rectifier.
A classic example is the case of Templeton Rye Whiskey. In the early 2000s, Templeton introduced a new rye whiskey to the market. It was promoted as an Iowain whiskey based on a prohibition-era formula. The problem was, Templeton didn’t make the whiskey in Iowa, nor was it derived from a mysterious bootleg mash-bill.
The real story was that MGP Ingredients, an industrial distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind. made the whiskey. And it wasn’t based on a handed-down recipe. Consumers rebelled, and a class-action lawsuit settled in 2015 required Templeton to refund consumers who purchased Templeton Rye $6.00 for up to six bottles. Even if you lacked proof of purchase, you could get — $ 3.00 per bottle.
An Honest Practice
The Templeton controversy cast doubts on good whisky and honest rectifiers. Apparently, in some consumer’s minds, an authentic backstory determines a whiskey’s quality. For some, the concept of transforming a mass-produced whisky into a quality product isn’t believable.
But those same consumers didn’t turn their wrath on other rectified brands such as Angel’s Envy Rye, Bulleit Rye, Filibuster, George Dickel Rye, and High West. Whisky also distilled by MGP in Lawrenceburg.
What distinguished Bulleit Rye and the others from Templeton? It was in the manner in which they were “finished,” or rectified. Those bottlers hold onto the whisky and age it or finish it in different casks. In essence, they transform the original whisky, using their expertise to enhance the whiskey’s flavor and character.
Templeton didn’t age the purchased whisky nor did they finish it in different casks. They simply diluted the whisky with distilled water, a common practice, to bring down the ABV from cask strength to 40% ABV. Their problem was that they misled the public; their story wasn’t authentic. For that, they paid a stiff penalty and cast doubt on the practice of rectifying.
As I mentioned, rectifying is not a new practice. The truth is many of the world’s best whiskies are “rectified.” This would include whiskies such as the original Four Roses Borbon and the original Green Spot Irish Pot Still whiskey.
Historically rectifiers were responsible for building the global whisky industry. They had the resources to collect, enhance, market, and distribute the whisky. Not until the rectifiers built the lucrative industry did the distillers take an interest in directly distributing their whiskies.
Today, rectifying serves another purpose. Creating a new whisky requires a significant investment. The equipment, the storage facilities, and the cost of marketing and distributing a new whisky is enormous. Also, the slow return on the investment means it can take years for a new distillery to break even.
It is a common practice for new distilleries, especially craft distilleries, to produce vodka, gin, or various liqueurs. They can make and bring these products to the market almost immediately. But if their goal is to become a whisky distillery they have two choices; one, they can make it, age it and finish it themselves. Or two, they can buy whisky, bottle it and market it as a unique brand. It is not an illegal nor unethical practice as long as they don’t mispresent the whisky as their own.
Since the Templeton case, distributors have been leery of misrepresenting their product. Advertising laws now require sellers to clearly state on the label the whiskey’s producer.
Distiller vs. Rectifier, important?
Getting back to my original question, is it essential to know the difference between rectifier and distiller. Not when it comes to determining the quality of the whisky in the bottle. First of all, quality is subjective; what you may like I may find appalling. So, only you are responsible for determining the “quality” of the whisky you drink.
But if it does matter to you, check the label. If it states the product is “distilled” by So & So Distillery, you are safe in assuming So & So is the distiller. But if the label states “bottled for” or “produced by” XYZ Distillery, then there is a good chance XYZ is the rectifier. Another distillery is responsible for creating the whisky.
The label below is for Bulleit Bourbon, Frontier Whiskey. The label clearly states that Bulleit Distillery of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is indeed the distiller of this whiskey.
However, Bulleit also markets a very fine rye called Bulleit Rye, American Whiskey. But note that the labels states Bulleit Distillery CO. of Lawrenceburg, Indiana is the producer not the distiller of Bulleit rye. Implying that Bulleit did not distill the original rye in the bottle but rather refined it by aging or blending it with other ryes.
Therefore, when selecting a new whisky, do your due diligence. First, read the label it will tell you who made it, where it was made and what type of whisky it is. Second, research it online. Read what others are saying about it, do they mention something that appeals to you. And last, ask for a sample if at an artisan distillery.
Smell it, taste it, chew it, and swallow it. Determine if you like it. If you do, then it’s a good whisky. It is only after this do I suggest looking to see if it is the creation of a distiller or a rectifier. So in answer to my question? No, it’s not essential to know the difference.