The labels are colorful, cartoonish, comical, and a bit grotesque.
There’s Tater Bait, depicting a woman with a massive head of 1980s hair cascading over a visor.
Smash Bill shows a poor man’s Rambo, armed to the teeth with an M60 machine gun.
While Waxx Dippz displays a bald-pated man with a Van Dyke beard, seemingly staring into your soul.
Though you might not understand the joke, each of these (and six others labels) seem to be blatantly mocking the modern bourbon geek, that sometimes vile species of obsessive who covets Pappy, clears store shelves of formerly mid-tier stuff like Weller and Eagle Rare, and even adulterates bottles with silly stickers and post-purchase wax coatings, often with a total lack of awareness for their inherent absurdity.
“I deal with these people all the time. Sometimes their lack of a sense of humor is a little alarming,” says Matthew Colglazier, a longtime liquor merchandiser and marketer. “Taking a piss (out of them), that’s part of the fun, I think.”
Catch ’Em All
Colglazier has regularly found himself in the orbit of these whiskey collectors after more than a decade in the spirits industry in various capacities. The Indiana man has been buying single barrels for liquor stores for years and been making trips to nearby Midwest Grain Products (MGP), the massive, former Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg for nearly a decade — well before most drinkers were aware that it was supplying upstart craft distilleries like WhistlePig, High West, and Smooth Ambler with much of the bourbon and rye they were bottling.
Scouring store shelves, looking at the thousands of non-distiller bottlers, as well as the countless craft distilleries that have emerged, all trying to get a piece of the perhaps $10 billion pie, Colglazier began to wonder how a new American whiskey brand could possibly set itself apart.
“When it comes to creating something new and different these days, that’s really a challenge,” says Colglazier.
Feeling confident in his industry acumen, however, Colglazier and some partners decided to branch out with their own brand in 2018. A family member had alerted him to Krogman’s, a whiskey and brandy distillery that had existed in Tell City, Ind., from 1863 until Prohibition, and then ran on fumes until the 1960s. Searching through trademark filings, Colglazier realized that no one owned it anymore. And, just like that, Krogman’s was his.
“We don’t own a distillery, we don’t own a license or anything,” says Colglazier. He sources all his “juice” and lets partners like Cardinal Spirits, a top craft distillery in Bloomington, do the bottling.
Early Krogman’s releases would include Krogman’s Bourbon and Krogman’s Rye, sourced from MGP and packaged at 90 proof in opaque black and red bottles depicting a drawing of the old distillery that no longer stands. It’s a typical way to launch a new brand, by evoking an esteemed history that isn’t necessarily your own and has nothing to do with the liquid in the bottle. These releases sold all right, but they certainly didn’t become a sensation among consumers. Colglazier knew he would have to start tackling his branding in a different way.
“How much innovation is there in the bourbon category today?” asks Colglazier. “I started to think: It doesn’t just have to be about the blocking and tackling of history.”
Around then, Perry Ford, MGP’s sales manager and an old industry connection, sent Colglazier an inventory list of the single barrels he currently had available. Looking over the menu, Colglazier noticed that all nine of MGP’s whiskey mash bills were available in single-barrel form, everything from four bourbons and three ryes to a corn whiskey and even a light whiskey. The MGP mash bills you’ll most often see in single barrel form these days are the ubiquitous 95 percent rye or the “high-rye” bourbon favored by Smooth Ambler and recent darling Smoke Wagon.
As a whiskey drinker himself, Colglazier wanted to try them all, but he needed a good excuse. His first thought: What if he created a unique single-barrel release for each and every mash bill, and then turned all nine into a set? Since the whiskeys were all 3 years old — a little youthful for your average bourbon enthusiast — he knew he’d have to make the labels novel, interesting, and highly collectable if he wanted to sell them.
That would start with what he called each release, naming them after the insider slang (so often intentionally misspelled) that had become popular on secondary market buy/sell sites, private Facebook groups, and message boards over the last decade.
“I tried to pinpoint relatively specific things that people would know,” Colglazier says.
Thus, there’s Tater Bait, a reference to neophyte collectors who do exceedingly embarrassing things in pursuit of rare bottles. Flipperzz refers to people who buy allocated bottles at retail costs only to immediately “flip” them for bloated, black-market rates. Dusty Hunterzzz is a nod to those who comb through off-the-beaten-path liquor stores for vintage bottles that have lingered on shelves for years gathering dust.
“Your civilian bourbon drinker would have no idea what these things meant and would just think, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting label,’” adds Colglazier.
He tapped local designer Aaron Scamihorn for the label art. Scamihorn specializes in a bold, vintage comic book style, perhaps more befitting the skate decks and even craft beer labels he also designs than the sort of staid, regal branding we typically see in the bourbon industry.
“When we first discussed this project it was the first time I’d heard the word ‘tater,’” recalls Scamihorn. His labels are inspired by the beat-up VHS box covers for campy, ’80s movies you would have seen stocked on the bottom shelf at Blockbuster (Buyy it Noww! was surely spawned from 1980s “Harlequin”). That era tracks with the late-30s/early-40s demographic of guys that Colglazier sees as most into bourbon collecting right now.
At the least, these are the dudes who already have a deep familiarity with the most online and underground parlance of the American whiskey world (Unicorn! Maxx Profitzz!) needed to get many of these jokes.
“Some were really on the nose, others were a stretch,” says Colglazier. “Some barely make sense.”
Of course, whiskey fans have long had the “gotta catch ’em all” mentality that, in many people’s eyes, has turned the industry into a game of liquid Pokemon, and Colglazier is well aware of that. But Krogman’s reminds me more of another set of trading cards: Garbage Pail Kids, the 1985 series of depraved and deformed characters meant to mock the then-frenzy surrounding Cabbage Patch Kids.
“It pokes fun, but honors [these people] at the same time,” says Colglazier. “It makes it recognizable to that consumer. It’s kind of a tightrope, and I’m not sure everybody understands.”
The trickiest part of the tightrope, of course, is that the same people the labels are mocking are inherently the only people who might possibly desire having these crazy bottles in their collections.
“Looks like they are poking some fun at the bourbon world in general, but actually just bottling ALL 9 MGP recipes at cask strength with no BS!” wrote one man on Reddit. “Kind of better than all the other brands who make up a bunch of back stories. [sic]”
And that’s exactly Colglazier’s point. Yes, the Krogman’s labels may be satire, but the whiskey is no joke — it’s all non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength, catnip for the whiskey cognoscenti who don’t really care about a brand’s nonsense “origin” story.
The set was first released starting in late summer 2020, mostly at big box liquor stores in Indiana, though Tater Bait made its way onto Seelbach’s, an online whiskey retailer that has plans to sell a complete set of nine in the future. There were three to four barrels each of most releases, so fewer than 1,000 bottles per SKU. (For the completists, bottlings made for the Kentucky market had variant labels meant to poke fun at all the Booker’s Bourbon releases like Country Ham.)
They sold for just $32 a bottle, a remarkably reasonable price in an era that has seen other sourced whiskeys cost many times as much. Smoke Wagon’s 8-year-old MGP single barrels, for instance, sell for upwards of $700 per bottle on the secondary market. That’s why another Redditor agreed that it was an “exploitable niche” to sell barrel-proof MGP so cheaply, calling the entire series a “slam dunk.” “The Whiskey Vault,” a popular YouTube channel, praised the series as well, loving its execution and transparency.
“Not subtle!” joked co-host Daniel Whittington.
A Collectible in the Making?
You could argue that Krogman’s is the most honest bourbon brand of this crazy era. It may seem like a troll — and, of course, it partially is — but it’s one of the few MGP-backed bottlers offering unique releases and not trying to dupe consumers and generate high demand based purely on hype. While other bourbon and rye brands pretend they exist in a vacuum, clueless to online discussions and tater-driven market forces, Krogman’s has a keen self-awareness of the hyper-obsessive culture it is being released into.
Colglazier isn’t sure where the series will go next, but a part of me feels that while leaning so heavily into the scene, he’s unwittingly created something that, in a few years, might end up being one of the biggest collectibles of the era. Krogman’s may be seen as an economically priced prank right now, but could it one day be the American version of Ichiro’s Malt Card Series released between 2005 and 2014 — of which a complete “deck” of the 54 bottles in the Japanese series sold for $1.52 million in late 2020?
Probably doubtful, as Ichiro’s came from the shuttered Hanyu distillery and Krogman’s is certainly not as well aged of stock. But sometimes it takes a few years for these ahead-of-their-time ideas to pick up steam. Even the Malt Card Series had initially been consumed by buyers, not squirreled away and collected.
“People really want to see themselves reflected back in the things they buy,” Colglazier says of his bourbon. “In many ways, what we buy, what we collect, these are validations of who we are. People have used lots of consumer goods to validate themselves. This is just taking it to the next level.”