Midwest Grain Products of Indiana: From Seeing Grams To Ross & Squibb
By now many in the whiskey game (both bourbon and rye) have heard of MGP. A bourbon person “in the know” will look at the back of a bottle, see distilled in Indiana, smirk and go “I know this was distilled by MGP.” A lot of bourbon and a truly tremendous amount of rye over the past decade has been sourced from the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The history of that distillery and the origin is fairly convoluted and interesting. Today I think many of us are thankful for the quality output from them, now let’s find out what led us here.
What we know as MGP now has been a number of things in the past and we can’t begin discussing MGP without first talking about Seagram(‘s). Seagram’s traces its roots back to Waterloo Distillery in 1857. Since this isn’t a history of Seagram, which deserves its own writeup in the annals of American Whiskey history (despite being Canadian it had a massive impact on American Whiskey), we’ll skip ahead to its public incorporation in 1928. At this point we’re at the height of prohibition where Seagram’s has been cleaning up. They were legally importing spirits to the United States directly and circuitously. We’ll come back here, just know that Seagram’s, who owned what is now the MGPi distillery for a huge portion of the 20th century was at this point in history a powerhouse.
Now we’re taking the way back machine as we often do in my pieces, to the year 1802. Lawrenceburg, Indiana appears along the banks of the Ohio River (I’ve swam in there, don’t do that, it’s gross, love it, its gross). At this point in history Kentucky is taking over the reins from Pennsylvania and Maryland as the king of distilling in the United States. The Louisiana Purchase (flashbacks of grade school anyone?) occurs a year later in 1803 allowing for the shipping of whiskey to the west and south via steamboat. Access to the Ohio gave Lawrenceburg a huge leg up when it came to the ability to move whiskey.
Now, the MGP of today talks about distilling as far back as 1809 at two barrels a day. This is one of those whiskey marketing pieces. It is very likely a number of small, farm operated stills existed in 1809 distilling a barrel here and there from excess grain to make a profit. Between the Whiskey Rebellion and the fleeing of distillers to Kentucky, Lawrenceburg was actually poised to take over the rye distilling capital of the U.S..
1847 is where we truly begin the journey to what is today’s MGPi distillery. George Ross is believed to have established a distillery in Lawrenceburg and named it the Rossville distillery (despite no town of that name anywhere near) otherwise known as the Ross and Squibb.
There is some debate as to George Ross’ role in the founding and running of the distillery, but what is sure is that in 1875 he was no longer a part of it. In 1875 James Walsh & Co, a Cincinnati rectifier, purchased the distillery. James Walsh & Co already owned several other distilleries in the area and were already a large operation. They were based out of Cincinnati but their largest operation was their rectification plant in Covington, Kentucky. James Walsh’s partner was Peter O’Shaughnessy who took over when Welsh retired in 1888.
It appears that O’Shaughnessy’s three sons took over operations in 1912. During prohibition they operated Rossville as a medicinal whiskey distillery. Despite being one of the few distilleries to successfully operate during prohibition, they sold it when prohibition ended in 1933 to Joseph E. Seagrams and Sons (also known as Seagram’s). At this point Seagram’s made Rossville their premier distillery for their U.S. operations. Seagram’s purchased a nearby grain silo in Aurora to supply the operations. While the O’Shaughnessy three built another distillery and named it Walsh, it did not last long. Seagram’s, meanwhile, expanded and updated operations to produce Seagram’s Seven Crown Blended Whiskey (yuck) and Seagram’s Gin. These were two of their largest brands.
Earlier I mentioned the name Ross and Squibb. Well, that comes from W.P. and G.W. Squibb, two brothers who bought a distillery in Lawrenceburg in 1866 called Dunn and Ludlow. Prohibition would close the (1885) renamed Squibb Distillery only for it to be bought by Schenley. The significance of the name relates to George Remus, a bootlegger who sold fake medicinal whiskey. We’ll get to Remus here in a bit.
Seagram’s owned and operated the distillery for 70 years, the longest in its tenure thus far. Starting in 1942 every bit of distillate was made for the war effort. Seagram’s was one of the few distilleries that converted completely over to make war alcohol. During this time Seagram actually acquired twenty-three other distilleries and got themselves in a bit of hot water with the Department of Justice for having “invaded the American Market”.
Honestly I’d love to say there are some interesting stories from this time, but there really aren’t. Seagram’s continued to help build Lawrenceburg as a whiskey city (along with Schenley) and continued to build and improve the distillery. That period of calm takes us all the way up to 2000, when Schenley was sold off and dissolved. The beverage divisions actually went to Pernod Ricard and Diageo. The Lawrenceburg facility went to Pernod who thankfully sold it 2007 to CL Financial after (mismanaging) threatening to close it in 2006.
CL Financial operated the distillery as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). They didn’t hold onto it long though and in December of 2011 MGP Ingredients purchased the distillery. Now, at this time in whiskey LDI was a bit of a mystery. They supplied for Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye, and Bulleit Rye as well as a number of others (though Diageo was their biggest client at the time of sale). Little was truly known about them at this point. They had been distilling light whiskey, bourbon, and just vast amounts of rye. Remember that the rebirth of rye had only really recently started around 2008 due in part to cocktail culture. The bourbon boom was just kicking off in 2011.
So we’re in 2012 and MGP now owns LDI. Let’s jump to 2016 when the hype for MGP products really gets going. Smooth Ambler was winning awards with sourced bourbon from MGP. NDPs (Non-Distilling Producer) have popped up all over the place. MGP decides they need their own line and they name it George Remus. Now, George Remus was a criminal, a crook in the truest sense, and a murderer who killed his wife. He was caught and imprisoned. His name is associated with the brand due to Lawrenceburg and his bootlegging. MGP also put out their own rye under the Rossville brand which seems like a much better name to use.
So now we take another step back as to who MGP is. MGP is a public company that is tightly controlled by the founding Cray family. Cloud Cray started it in 1941. In that year he bought a small distillery that he enlarged to make war alcohol calling it Midwest Grain Producers. After the war it continued to produce industrial ethanol, proteins, and starches. MGP has been one of the largest producers in the U.S. of Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS) for some time. In 2011 they decided to get into commodity whiskey. If you’re looking to buy contract or bulk whiskey or even GNS, they’re still the go to.
In January of 2021 it was announced that MGP was purchasing Luxco, a 63-year old whiskey company with strong connections dating back to Stitzel-Weller. Later that year it was announced that Luxco would rename the Seagram/LDI/MGP distillery to Ross & Squibb. Digging into the history its honestly a better and more relevant name than I gave it credit for. It provides a name that points to the history of Lawrenceburg as a whiskey city with both Seagram and Schenley without ever stepping on anyone’s toes. That said, I feel like its a rebrand lost on the vast, vast majority. More confusing is MGP will still produce whiskey out of the facility under the MGP brand.
Hopefully this bit of history provides some insight into one of the largest distillers in the U.S. that few still fully understand!
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