NPR ran a story the other day based on a Daily Beast article about the disappointing reality that a lot of popular craft whiskeys that cater to the discerning consumer with an appreciation for the finer things are actually not produced in artisanal small batches at all but instead hail from the large Midwest Grain Products (MGP) factory in Indiana. How to tell you’re getting the “real thing”…? Check whether the product is “distilled by” or “bottled/produced by” the company—a big difference when looking for the origins of the whiskey you’re consuming.
On one hand, the story nicely illustrates the manipulative allure of authenticity rhetoric: “hand-crafted,” “individual,” or “unique” are savvy sleights of hand employed by marketers to help consumers feel as though they’re getting a genuine article and not something mass-produced. Exposing the strategies as exactly that is useful in deconstructing myths of irreducible selfhood, individualism, and desire that posit one’s self as something completely unique (and, thus, something satisfied only by completely unique products).
On the other hand, though, I think it’s important to point out the way in which this exposé is delivered. NPR reports the recipe can be illuminating because “the Indiana distillery uses 95 percent rye, which is very distinct.” Even in respect to various barrels, “there’s a commonality of flavor of these MGP ryes because they are so distinct.” So although the whole point of the piece is to let us know that we’re being duped when falling for the language of artisanal whiskeys and thinking we’re getting something special, it nonetheless uses distinctiveness to describe the processes and flavors coming out of MGP. And since it’s all legal, the story smacks of the Seinfeld “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” refrain that attempts to mitigate the clear dissatisfaction with someone or something:
In this sense, the disappointment at finding out the small-batch whiskey often doesn’t come from literal small batches is nothing to do with the whiskey itself. As attorney and blogger Steve Ury told NPR’s Audie Cornish in the interview when asked what he drinks given what he knows about MGP, “I’m an adventurer, so I like to try a little bit of everything… I drink plenty of whiskey from MGP in Indiana. In fact, I have some favorites from there… It’s not so much a matter of its tasting better or worse, it’s more a matter of the consumer knowing what they’re getting, and understanding why something might taste a certain way, and why something might taste differently.”
But as Vaia Touna reminds us in her recent post on the origins of chocolate, we shouldn’t be surprised that origins are themselves complex, with multiple layers of interests and contexts at work. So maybe instead of thinking about the thing itself as an object of consumption or desire, we might think about the interests that guide our desires. After all, as Ury admits, knowing the mass-produced source of so many “small-batch” whiskeys doesn’t make him any less a fan of those brands distilled at MGP. I think of Slavoj Žižek, who suggests we don’t really want what we think we do:
So, it would seem what we’re purchasing is only ever the rhetoric of unique and artisanal products anyway—the dream of highly individualized desires that grow out of highly individualized selves. But as Andrew Potter warns in The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, “Authenticity is a way of talking about things in the world, a way of making judgments, staking claims, and expressing preferences about our relationships to one another, to the world, and to things. But those judgments, claims, or preferences don’t pick out real properties in the world” (13-14).
While both the NPR and Daily Beast pieces implicitly bemoan the effects of MGP on “actual craft distilleries,” the distinction between the small and large production facilities seems a highly artificial one. After all, marketing and profit guide any distiller selling a product… not that there’s anything wrong with that.