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Dipsology - Beyond The Basics: Tracking the Provenance of the Big Box Brands

There is a good chance you have been shoving a cart around one of the big box stores or bulk suppliers and come across beverages of mysterious origins. Beers with flashy graphics never before seen, or spirits on display with in-house labels. There could be anything coming to mind between curiosity and hesitation, wondering what is before you but in no way assured of the quality contained therein. For the curious liver such as my own, this sent me to explore.

Trading Names

My curiosity and thirst were piqued while in Trader Joe’s recently. For some time now the boutique grocer has been known for its bargain-basement, but still potable wine that can cost only a couple of dollars. The Charles Shaw label in most states can be found for just $2.00, and is dubbed “2-Buck Chuck.” Considering that this is about the same cost as or cheaper than the rotgut known as Mad Dog, or the fruit-infused candy wines from Boone’s Farm, this is for many considered an un-risky investment.

The store chain comes by this discount vino through a gross vintner by the name of Bronco Wine Company in California, a family operation since the 1890s. Bronco takes a decidedly non-snob approach and can mass-produce large quantities as a result. One of the practices involves keeping an eye out for failed operations, then incorporating the stock into their production. As co-owner Fred Franzia states, “We buy wineries from guys from Stanford who go bankrupt. Some real dumb-asses are from there.”

Years back one of those sinking enterprises Bronco bought out was Charles Shaw Winery. They picked up the operation for $28,000 and then struck a deal with Trader Joe’s to use the brand and produce a blend for the chain. It has more than paid off. The first year they sold 60 million bottles of Charles Shaw. The production facility can crank out 250 bottles a minute, sometimes operating 24/7, leading to annual sales of $500,000. Since the partnership began in 2002 they have sold 2 billion bottles of 2-Buck Chuck. Damn.

Wine, California
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

But what drew my eye was the beer selection. There were boxed 6-ers of a number of different brands — Boatswain, Kennebunkport, and Simpler Times. Boatswain appears more of a craft brew line, with IPAs and a chocolate stout available, while Simpler Times looks to be more of a generic in the lager vein. Boatswain says it is made by Rhinelander Brewing Company, while the others are said to be produced by Simpler Times Brewing. But, there is more to the story.

Both of these “breweries” are in Monroe, Wisconsin, and in truth, all of Joe’s brews are developed by contract brewer, Minhas. What Minhas can do for a company is develop a proprietary recipe, and take care of the canning and labeling, something it does for over 200 brands of beers, wines, and spirits. They also make brands for Walgreens, Aldi’s, Liquor Barn, and many other retailers.

The Kennebunkport Brewing Company beers are actually offshoot labels made by Maine’s famous Shipyard Brewing.

Spirits In The Bulk World

Over at Costco they have many of their own products, but the search is made a bit more difficult in tracking down some of their originations. This is partly due to offering products under the company’s Kirkland Brand, but also selling an array of others with independent labels that are still Costco properties. Then some of those, like their beers, are made in different regional places.

The Kirkland beer line on the east coast is likely to come from Matt Brewing, in New York — which also produces Saranac and Utica Club labels. On the west coast, the Kirkland beers bear the name  “Hopfen Und Malz Brewing Co.” on the label, but that address actually belongs to Gordon Biersch Brewery, in San Jose, California.

In this June 4, 2014 photo, shoppers push carts out of a Costco in Plano, Texas. Costco on Monday, March 2, 2015 said it struck a deal for Citi to be the exclusive issuer of its co-bran

One common misconception is that Kirkland’s highly-rated vodka is actually the popular top-shelf brand Grey Goose. This is not accurate, but it is a case of close, but no cigar. One Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau registry shows that the distiller LeVecke has a registry to supply Kirkland vodka, and this is made from water in the same Gensac Springs, which is located in France’s Cognac region.

Some of Kirkland’s other brands require other sleuthing. The store offers three different types of tequila, all of which appear to originate from the Mexican producer La Madrileña. The bourbons that Costco offers differ a bit. If you can find the Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey, that one is bottled by George Dickel. Then there are three new expressions of Kentucky bourbon — Small Batch, Single Barrel, and Bottled In Bond — which are all bottled by Barton, distillers of the fine 1792.

So with a few of those mysteries solved for you maybe when buying in bulk and loading up the SUV with discounts you can be brave and do some sampling of those unknown-until-now labels.