NON-DISTILLER PRODUCER (NDP) BOURBON
A term many bourbon enthusiasts are not be familiar with is NDP, or non-distiller producer. You may be wondering what this term means or asking how bourbon can be produced by a non-distiller company. At Rabbit Hole Distillery, we'd like to unlock the secrets of NDP bourbon, along with what it is, how it's crafted, and the many mysteries surrounding this type of bourbon...
What Is NDP Bourbon?
NDP is an abbreviation for non-distiller producer. Bourbon that is NDP is purchased from a separate distillery and then bottled and marketed under its own name. This process is nothing new for the bourbon world, and you may have been drinking NDP bourbon all along without even realizing it. Many of these producers can craft a smooth and delicious bourbon simply by combining whiskey from different distilleries or adding their own blend of flavors. This has resulted in many surprisingly full-flavored and perfectly spiced blended bourbons.
Lesser-Known Bourbon Terms
Before we dig into the domain of NDP bourbon, it may be helpful to become aware of specific terms related to this industry. Not only will it help you understand how bourbon is created, but it will also help you discern the difference between NDP bourbon and distiller-produced bourbon. The U.S. government defines bourbon as whiskey that is produced according to these guidelines:
- Made from a fermented mash that is not less than 51% corn.
- Does not exceed 160 proof.
- Stored at no more than 125 proof in charred new oak containers.
- Cannot have coloring, flavoring, or blending materials.
- Is a distinct product of the United States.
Let's take a look at additional terminology related to bourbon and the process by which it is made:
- Artisan: A term with no formal definition in relation to bourbon but is used to describe various NDP bourbons. Many producers also use other similar terms like craft, handcrafted, and handmade.
- Barrel char: Oak barrels that are partially burnt to specific levels and then used for aging the bourbon.
- Blending: The combination of different whiskeys to achieve a specific flavor.
- Bulk market whiskey: Large quantities of whiskey that are distilled and sold to NDP companies by whiskey distilleries.
- Distillation: The process of creating bourbon that uses evaporation to separate the liquid from the solids.
- Grain or mash recipe: Different types of grains used to produce bourbon along with their ratios.
- Grain neutral: Alcohol distilled using a fermented mash of corn, rye, wheat, barley, rice, and other grains.
- Master distiller: Oversees the production of bourbon, whiskey, gin, and other liquors.
- Master taster: Assists the master distiller by overseeing production, selecting barrels for batching, and tasting bourbon that is aging in barrels.
- Non-Distiller Producer (NDP): Bourbon producer who buys bourbon from a distillery, rather than making it themselves, and then bottles it under their name.
- Proof: Twice the alcohol volume of any liquor. For example, a 120-proof bottle of bourbon is only 60% alcohol.
- Rectifier: NDP that changes the characteristics of whiskey by adding coloring, flavoring, or other modifiers before bottling under their name.
- Sourced whiskey: Whiskey or bourbon that is not distilled by the producer but is sourced from another distillery.
How Is Bourbon Made?
As the saying goes: "All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon." Still, there's a great deal of overlap in the production process. Understanding how all whiskeys are made from start to finish may give you a clearer idea of the differences between bourbon and NDP bourbon. There are six steps to making from-the-source distilled whiskey.
Whiskey distillers begin by choosing the raw grains in which they will create their unique bourbon. Malting converts the grain's starches into sugars. The distillers then dry the grain by heating it.
Mashing is the process by which the sugars in the grain are extracted. This involves grinding up the grain, placing it into a large tank, adding hot water, and then agitating it to remove the sugar.
The resulting mash is moved to a giant vat, also known as a washback, for the fermentation process. Yeast is added, which ferments the mash and converts its sugars into alcohol.
Distillation increases the alcohol content of the whiskey product, along with bringing out its natural flavors. Not all these flavors are palatable, which is why distillation takes place in copper stills. These stills help remove any unwanted aromas.
Aging, or maturation, is typically done in a charred oak barrel. These barrels are stored in warehouses during the aging process. During maturation, some of the alcohol evaporates, lending bourbon its distinct and characteristic flavor. The whiskey must be aged in a new, charred oak barrel for at least two years two qualify as an authentic bourbon.
Bottling is the last step in the whiskey-making process. Once it has reached a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume, which is 80 proof, the whiskey is bottled, one barrel at a time. Some whiskey distilleries filter the resulting product for a more clarified whiskey.
History of NDP Bourbon
There is a deep history of crafting NDP whiskey that began in Scotland (where, of course, it's whisky). In fact, 90% of the current Scotch whisky market is NDP whisky. The same process Scottish whisky producers have used for decades remains a common practice today: Companies buy liquor from multiple distilleries and then blend them together to create their own exclusive Scotch whisky brand. Sometimes these companies add in other grain liquors to the blend.
NDP bourbon has a long-standing history of being produced using a similar method in the U.S. Kentucky bourbon distillers would sell their whiskey, also known as bulk market whiskey, to various grocers or bourbon producers, and then the producers would sell it to their customers. While some grocers would purchase whiskey from a bulk market, others would agree to a specific contract-distilled whiskey they wanted for their final product. This process involved the bourbon producer setting specific parameters for their desired whiskey, such as the mash recipe, amount of yeast, barrel char level, and alcohol proof.
Once the whiskey was delivered to the producers, they would create their own bourbon whiskey using three different methods. The first, most common technique was simply combining two different brands of bourbon to create an exclusive blended bourbon. The second method was to add a neutral grain alcohol, such as vodka or gin, again crafting a completely unique product. With the third method, producers would enhance the flavor profiles of their NDP bourbon by adding flavorings like caramel, prune juice, juniper, different fruits, and a variety of herbs and spices.
The Bourbon Rectifying Trade
Following the Civil War, the whiskey industry grew exponentially — and along with it, the bourbon rectifying trade. Unfortunately, this began a terrible practice of NDPs finding ways to duplicate the flavor of aged whiskey or somehow make it age faster. They would add flavors and compounds, not to craft their own one-of-a-kind NDP bourbon, but to cheaply copy the exclusive products of many of the original whiskey distillers. This resulted in a sub-par product and essentially depreciated the value of true Kentucky whiskey.
Whiskey distillers who worked hard crafting their original whiskey product fought back with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Drug Act of 1906. These two laws led to strict definitions of whiskey and standards for producing fully matured whiskey.
As you follow the history of NDP bourbon, you'll find that many rectifiers chose not to disclose the source of their bourbon. This is partly because they used their sourced whiskey to create a completely different liquor. Many felt they were producing their own artisan blend of NDP bourbon and that it wasn't necessary to give credit to the original distiller.
Now that sourced whiskey is becoming more scarce, some people believe the right thing to do is acknowledge the source of the original whiskey on the NDP bourbon label. They don't realize that this was never an issue for the original whiskey distillers, nor the first non-distiller producers of bourbon.
20th-Century NDP Bourbon
The 20th century brought about another change in the distillation of bourbon and the production of NDP bourbon. Producers were not quite following the strict standards set back in 1897 and once again began crafting unsatisfactory NDP bourbon. In 1984, the removal of the tax stamp denoting the distillation and bottling dates, undermined the Bottled-in-Bond Act, ultimately devaluing the high-quality standards set for true Kentucky-distilled whiskey. When the consumer purchased NDP bourbon, they had no idea how old the bottle of bourbon was nor who distilled the original whiskey.
Why were the producers being lenient when it came to creating NDP bourbon? At that time, many of the original distilleries were consolidating, leaving only a few of the foremost distilleries in operation. To make up for this loss, the whiskey industry began introducing methods, such as adding flavorings, that would enhance the bourbon's flavor without waiting for the liquor to age properly. Now distillers could produce Kentucky whiskey more quickly without sacrificing its taste — or so they thought.
Present-Day NDP Bourbon
Fast-forward to the present day and you'll see a shift in the distillation and production of NDP bourbon. Local, small business distilleries are growing dramatically, bringing more competition to the bigger whiskey companies. Rather than forming new regulations, simply enforcing the Bottled-in-Bond Act and the Drug Act will force whiskey distillers to craft their brew according to the original strict standards set by these acts.
How Is NDP Bourbon Made?
Since NDP bourbon is not distilled by the producer who makes it, this class of bourbon is crafted using a wide range of methods, similar to how distillers' Scottish predecessors made their own version of NDP whiskey. The large whiskey distillers who make a majority of the Kentucky whiskey in the U.S. produce their original bourbon and then sell it to non-distilling producers. These NDPs bottle the bourbon, also known as sourced whiskey, and market it under their own label.
Master distillers oversee the entire distillation process of sourced whiskey. This includes choosing the mash recipe; cooking, fermenting, and distilling the whiskey; aging it in carefully selected charred oak barrels; bottling the bourbon with its own label; then selling it through their chosen distribution channels. If a large whiskey distillation company chooses to do so, it can sell the bulk whiskey to NDP bourbon companies. Once sold, the whiskey distilleries have no control over what the non-producer distillers of bourbon do with their sourced whiskey product.
NDP Bourbon and Sourced Whiskey
Non-distiller producers of bourbons use sourced whiskey as a foundation from which to craft their own exclusive brand of bourbon. Here's what you should know about sourced whiskey.
Contract distillation is when NDPs have their blended or unique brand of bourbon distilled and aged by a larger whiskey distillery. After the aging process, this whiskey is usually finished in the distillery's barrels and then bottled and labeled by the NDP bourbon company. These bottles are then sold and distributed under the NDP's name with a description of how they created their unique blended bourbon.
Another form of sourced whiskey comes from big distilleries that distill several ready-to-go barrels. NDP bourbon companies will buy multiple barrels of sourced whiskey, label it with their own brand, and sell it as their exclusive brand of NDP bourbon.
There are also NDP bourbon companies that distill and age sourced whiskey to create an entirely new whiskey product. By blending a variety of sourced whiskeys, these producers can bottle and market the liquor as a completely new brand of bourbon, although it remains an NDP product.
Transparency of NDP Bourbon
Given the NDP bourbon companies' methods, it's important to practice transparency regarding the sourced whiskey. Many respected bourbon NDPs purchase barrels of sourced whiskey from a variety of distilleries. This gives their own brand of NDP bourbon many unique characteristics, distinct palates, and flavorful features. To remain aligned with the expectation of transparency, NDP bourbon labels should contain the distillery's name and location, as well as the bottling company's name and location. Some NDP bourbon labels may also say "Bottled-In-Bond Under the United States Government Supervision."
How To Know If You're Drinking NDP Bourbon
There are times when non-distiller producers of bourbon are not so transparent. This is where it can be difficult to know whether you are drinking bourbon that was distilled and bottled at the source distillery or if you are enjoying a glass of blended NDP bourbon whiskey. If you bought or ordered bourbon from a micro-distillery, you'll know that you are savoring smooth and flavorful whiskey directly from the distiller.
American whiskey is made at only 13 distilleries across the country. If you are familiar with these distilleries, there won't be much guesswork as to whether the bourbon is NDP or not. Simply look at the label: If the bourbon was distilled at one of the main distilleries, then you have yourself a bottle of authentically distilled bourbon. If the label doesn't mention any of the main distilleries, or if it uses terms like "produced and bottled" rather than "distilled," chances are you're drinking NDP bourbon.
Another way to discover whether or not a brand of bourbon is NDP is to get online and research the company on the label. You may also find out exactly how this bourbon was produced. Was it blended with other distilled whiskeys or crafted using carefully selected additions like exclusive mash recipes or various herbs and spices?
Reasons Why Bourbon Fans Question NDP Bourbon
Bourbon that is NDP is not necessarily a sub-par product. Unfortunately, this all-too-common assumption, along with many others, prevents bourbon drinkers from trying something that could be quite amazing.
Some May Believe It Is an Inferior Product
Some people assume that if bourbon isn't bottled and distributed from its original distiller, it must be a substandard liquor or second-rate leftover. Here's the reason why this is likely never the case: All current primary whiskey distilleries only produce high-quality whiskey. From there, they can bottle and label it as their own originally distilled bourbon, or they can blend it with other types of distilled liquor such as rye whiskey, gin, or vodka, crafting an all-new bourbon experience. It is highly unlikely that they would waste their time distilling a superior whiskey product along with an inferior one.
Some Bourbon Drinkers Think They Are Overpaying
Another incorrect assumption about NDP bourbon is that consumers are somehow overpaying for this product. Why not simply purchase it from the distillery where it was sourced? At least then they are paying for a superior bourbon whiskey. This is also where the belief that NDP bourbon is an inferior liquor comes into play.
Some bourbon fans presume that purchasing whiskey bottled directly at the distillery means investing in bourbon of the highest quality. Again, this is not correct, as we've already settled the issue of NDP bourbon not being crafted from inferior whiskey.
Some NDP Bourbons Are Not Transparent
There are also bourbon aficionados who are disheartened by the fact that bourbon NDPs choose to be secretive about the source of their distilled whiskey. Rather than be completely transparent about where their sourced whiskey was distilled, they do all they can to avoid revealing this information. These NDPs believe this will somehow devalue their uniquely crafted blend of NDP bourbon, so they cut corners or bend the truth to make it seem like the bourbon was distilled and bottled by their company.
Non-distiller producers of Scotch whisky rarely take credit for distilling the liquor they sell, whereas in the U.S., this appears to be the norm rather than the exception. If you come across a brand of bourbon that claims to be produced by a master distiller, with some corny tale of how they've been distilling whiskey the same way since 1776, you probably have a bottle of NDP bourbon in your hands.
Reasons Whiskey Fans Appreciate NDP Bourbon
Many bourbon fans can appreciate the extraordinary methods and unique combinations with which NDP bourbon is crafted. Because it's not a single-malt Kentucky straight whiskey does not mean it's not a well-seasoned, smooth, or polished liquor. There are several reasons NDP bourbon can be just as good, if not better, than distilled-on-site bourbon.
NDP Bourbon Is Uniquely Crafted
Because of the various blends, flavors, or mash recipes used to make whiskey, it's arguable that NDP bourbon blended from various whiskey distilleries becomes a completely different product. Just as rectifiers back in the 19th century produced their own blended bourbon, many non-distiller producers of bourbon do the same thing today.
NDP Bourbon Is Still Bourbon
Let's say that you are purchasing NDP bourbon from a company that sources its whiskey from one of the leading whiskey distilleries in the country. If all they do is bottle it, place their own label on it, and disclose information related to the original distillery, then you are drinking a high-grade bourbon that is simply bottled by an NDP company.
NDP Bourbon Can Be Affordable
Not all bourbon producers can afford to distill, age, and bottle their own brand of bourbon. It takes specialized equipment, knowledgeable employees, and a lot of time to create a grain-to-glass whiskey. Without all the overhead incurred from the distillation process, many NDP bourbons can be sold at a lower price compared to their distiller-produced counterparts.
The next time you want to purchase a bottle of NDP bourbon, use this guide to find a high-quality bourbon from a reputable NDP company. You can also help fellow bourbon fans understand the various differences between NDP bourbon and originally distilled bourbon.
Rabbit Hole Distillery has created several varieties of bourbon, such as our Cavehill Four Grain Bourbon or Dareringer Sherry Cask Finish Bourbon. We invite you to try any of our exclusive bottles of bourbon or whiskey that are toasted and aged in our American oak barrels. You'll be glad you did once you taste bourbon inspired by our proud heritage.