The Truth About Kirkland Signature Whiskeys

Costco sells a ginormous amount of alcohol under its multibillion-dollar private label, Kirkland Signature. They first started with wine, in 2003, and later expanded to spirits in 2007. Selling home-branded alcohol brought a dreamy amount of sales for Costco — topping $5 billion in 2020. Per a Market Watch report, spirits make up 30% of beverage sales. Though that number is still lower than wine, whiskey expert and author of "Whisky: Its History, Production, and Appreciation," Joseph V Micallef, says that Costco is most likely the largest retailer of whiskey in North America. Micallef notes that out of the 50 spirit expressions that the wholesale retailer offers, 20 are private label (via Forbes).   

Costco has been hush about where its whiskeys come from. But since they taste quite similar to some of the popular brands out there, customers and this TikToker can't help but wonder if it is indeed a premium brand just bottled differently? Here's the truth about Kirkland Signature whiskeys.

There are 10 Kirkland signature whiskey expressions in total

You can't always blame cheap liquor for a bad hangover. There are studies that show that inexpensive booze might not always be your worst enemy (via Vice). But fans of Costco's uber cheap alcohol probably didn't need a study to tell them that. Among the many positive Reddit reviews of their private label whiskey is a comment that reads, "It's like everything Kirkland Signature: better than what you paid for it." Even if not "everything," most of them have a surprisingly high quality for the price. 

Per whiskey expert Joseph V. Micallef, Kirkland Signature has 10 different whiskey expressions under its umbrella: four Scotch whiskies, three bourbons, a Canadian whisky, a Tennessee whiskey, and an Irish whiskey. (Confused? Americans and Irish call it "whiskey" and Canadians and Scots call it "whisky." The plurals are "whiskeys" and "whiskies," respectively.) The Scotch expressions include a blended Scotch whisky, and a 12-year-old expression of it; single malt Scotch whisky, and a 20-year-old and a 22-year-old Speyside Sherry cask finish; besides a 23-year-old single malt sherry cask finish, and an Islay single malt Scotch whisky that were later released by Costco, as per the Micallef's article on Forbes

In contrast to how accessible these bottles are, the answer to "who makes them?" has been beyond the reach of many.

Costco is quite secretive about who makes its Kirkland Signature whiskeys

Who makes Johnnie Walker? Diageo. Dewar's? Bacardi. Kirkland Signature whiskeys? ...silence. Costco has never officially revealed whose magic hands (barrels) make its potions. But those who shop for their favorite tipples at the big box store can't stop being curious — and one of them took to Reddit to pose the question we all have on our minds, "Does Costco make their own whiskey?"

As per the author of the book "Hacking Whisky," Aaron Goldfarb, nope, Costco does not make its whiskeys but sources them from other distilleries (via Punch). Which distilleries though? Goldfarb asked the same question to Costco's then-assistant merchandise manager, Annette Alvarez-Peters, who said, "Thank you for asking, but again, we don't disclose how we develop Kirkland Signature." Goldfarb says, "I received similar answers to all of my follow-up questions." 

Sure, Costco hasn't given away any names of distilleries, but there are heaps of theories out there anyway about the provenance of Costco whiskeys. One thing is for sure though: "They use very high-end producers — premium all the way up to super-premium and beyond," as David Schick, lead retail analyst at Consumer Edge Research told Bloomberg.

Crown Royal and Kirkland Signature Canadian whisky are rumored to be made in the same distillery

Name a Canadian whisky — did you think of Crown Royal? We did too. After all, according to whiskey expert Joseph E. Micallef on Forbes, it is the most popular Canadian whisky in the U.S., accounting for more sales than all the other Canadian whiskies combined. And since Kirkland Signature Canadian whisky tastes (and even looks) a lot like the land of Maple Leaf's best drink (via Thrillist), it's only natural there are strong rumors about both drinks being produced in the same distillery — Gimli in Manitoba, Canada.

However, Micallef points out that older bottles of Kirkland's Canadian whisky mentioned they were imported by World Wide Importers, a company that was once associated with Sazerac. Sazerac owns the Old Montreal Distillery in Quebec. So ... could it be that the Canadian whisky used to be made in Montreal? "For now, at least, Sazerac isn't talking, so the source of the whisky remains a mystery," writes Micallef. While it's hard to put a finger on a distillery, what's for sure is that it's from Canada. It has to be, for it to be called a Canadian whisky (via Angels Envy). 

Kirkland Signature Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey and Collier and McKeel share the same distillery

While Costco wraps its other spirits in a cloak of secrecy, when it came to their Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, Costco released a whole video about its making. According to whiskey expert Joseph E. Micallef's notes, a whiskey has to be made and aged in Tennessee and run through charcoal chips made of maple wood, for it to be called a "Tennessee" whiskey (via Forbes). Costco's video showed how the grains were gathered, and how the whiskey dripped through maple charcoal before being casked. The sour mash bottles have the name of both the master distiller Mike Williams and the distilling company Tennessee Distilling Ltd. on it — the same distillery where the popular sour mash whiskey Collier and McKeel is made (via Johnson City Press). 

According to Williams, Tennessee Distilling Ltd. makes whiskeys under both their own brand label and for private labels, like Costco's Kirkland Signature. Williams said that whether it be the whiskey for their brand or any private label, they "make them with the same quality and with the same care that we would make a brand that was our own brand. That's what we have tried to do with [Costco's] whiskey." Williams added, "[Costco] picked the grain build that they wanted, gave us the specifications that they wanted their whiskey made to." 

Their Scotch whiskeys come from somewhere around Speyside

Kirkland Signature's single malt scotch whiskies come from the Speyside and Islay areas of Scotland. We know that because the names of the two Scottish regions are mentioned on the bottle. But here's the catch, Speyside has over 50 distilleries and Islay is literally called the "whisky island" since it has a ton of distilleries. Which distillery does Costco's scotch come from? Nobody will tell. All we know is what Cameron Johnston, Brand Manager at Alexander Murray and Company, said about the single malt scotch whiskies being sourced from a bunch of different distilleries (via Forbes).

The bottles mention Alexander Murray and Co. as the manufacturer. The California-based company, per whiskey expert Joseph E. Micaleff, is the same that provides whiskeys to your neighborhood supermarket Trader Joe's and the alcohol retailer Total Wine (via Forbes). But where do they source the Scotch from? The scuttlebutt is that all the Scotch comes from Tullibardine distillery, in the Highlands of Scotland (via Punch). Though, with no proof, it remains scuttlebutt. However, what we know for sure is that Costco did previously partner with Macallan Distillery that's based in the Speyside region, to sell Macallan 18 under their Kirkland Signature label.

It's no secret where Kirkland's Signature Bourbons are made

Kirkland Signature offers three Kentucky Straight Bourbons: Small batch (92 proof), bottled-in-bond (100 proof), and single barrel (120 proof), as per the May 2021 edition of Costco Connection Magazine. Costco has been open about its partnership with Barton 1792 Distillery to bring out the bourbon offerings. Barton 1792 is a big deal in the bourbon world. Its 1792 Full Proof Bourbon was the "World Whisky of the Year" in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2020, which is a list that shakes up the whiskey world annually. Costco has previously partnered with popular distilleries: "Costco's original bourbon bottlings were sourced from Jim Beam and then George Dickel before ending up with Barton," per whiskey expert Joseph E. Micaleff (via Forbes).

To be called a bourbon, the spirit has to be made in the United States — not necessarily in the Bourbon County of Kentucky as is widely believed, but anywhere in the U.S. The only catch: The whiskey has to be at least 40% alcohol by volume and aged in new oak barrels.

Kirkland Signature whiskeys taste like the more popular whiskeys in the market

Have you ever wrongly guessed that Costco's Canadian whisky was Crown Royal? It's not just you. Four out of the 10 tasters mistook Costco's Canadian whisky to be Crown Royal in a Buzzfeed taste test. Even for an expert tongue, there seems to be only a minor taste difference. As noted by bartender and co-owner of Denver's Curio Bar, Stuart Jenson, Costco's "thin, dry, and high-pitched" Canadian whisky has just a wee bit more spice in it (via Thrillist). It turns out, many of the other Kirkland Signature whiskeys also taste like knockoffs of expensive ones. 

Jenson found Costco's blended Scotch whiskey is "reminiscent of a Dewar's White Label," and 50% of those who took a blind taste test of Costco's Irish whiskey and Jameson, confused Costco's with the most popular Irish whiskey in the United State (via About Costco's Tennessee Sour Mash, one Redditor asked: "I figure it's a Jack Copycat?" To which, another replied, "I tasted [Cotsco's Tennessee Sour Mash] and Jack side by side and prefer the Kirkland! It tasted sweeter and more mellow than Jack." Even Whiskey Crusaders, a YouTube channel dedicated to reviewing whiskeys, pointed out Costco's sour mash's stark resemblance to Jack Daniel's.

But they are way cheaper than their name brand versions

You don't want to splurge but also don't want to buy a bulk of hooch that no one's heard of — Costco gets it. Their private label whiskeys seem to emulate the taste of the popular name brands, all while keeping the cost very Costco-esque. For example, a Kirkland Signature Speyside single malt whisky, aged 25 years, is $89. In comparison, per Punch, "a typical Speyside 25-year-old from, say, Glenfarclas, hits shelves around $200." Kirkland's Canadian whisky is priced at less than $20 for a 1.75-liter bottle, nearly half the rate of its taste-alike Crown Royal (via Forbes); and Kirkland's Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey starting price is $18.99 — again, less than the Jack Daniel's that people often confuse it with. 

Impressive, but how does Costco do it?

As we already established, Costco doesn't make its own whiskeys but sources them from other distilleries. While Costco's lips have always remained zipped about the topic, there are speculations that the big box chain has a deal with some big names in the whiskey-verse such as Diageo and Edrington to source alcohol in large quantities for cheap, per Punch. The report suggests that many distilleries are keen on giving away barrels of alcohol for want of space and to maintain strict standards on their own brands. Costco imports the whiskey on a large volume, low rate basis and sells them at an even lower rate — which it does a darn good job of.

In some states, you don't have to be a Costco member to buy Kirkland's Signature whiskeys

Usually, Costco offers a member-only shopping experience. To buy discount kitchenware and reams of toilet paper, you need to first shell out $60 for a membership card ... or tag along with a friend who has one. But turns out you can actually skip that formality — depending on where you live — if you are heading to Costco just to buy a bottle of booze. Per Delish, it is against the law to require membership for alcohol sale in states including "Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Texas, or Vermont." 

It is also to be noted that not all Costco stores sell Kirkland whiskeys — as of July 2021, only 337 out of the total 810 Costco stores in the U.S. sold them, per Forbes. Usually, Costco stores have a separate entrance for the liquor section, and if you are in one of the mentioned states, you can waltz in to pick up a bottle without having to flash a card. Although, per Delish, you might have to do some explaining to the cashiers — not all of whom might be as legally savvy as you are.

Kirkland's Signature Whiskeys are among the best in the world

Kirkland Signature alcohol has earned cult status. No offense to the chocolate-covered almonds and peanut butter pretzels at Costco, but per a 2017 Bloomberg report, Costco liquor performed better than their food, and Kirkland Signature liquor was a key reason (via Mercury News).  Sure, the price is a driving factor to pick a Costco private label whiskey over an expensive bottle of Glenfiddich, but the quality of the alcohol plays a big role as well. The company is pretty selective about what it displays in its liquor aisle. Annette Alvarez-Peters, who used to manage the alcohol division at Costco, explained that it's quite important for them that "Every item must perform in volume." She said, "With the limited-item assortment, we constantly evaluate." 

And as it turns out, Kirkland Signature has under its umbrella some of the best whiskeys in the world. Kirkland's Signature Single Barrel oak rye whiskey (60% ABV) and Kirkland Signature small batch bourbon (46% ABV) won the Silver Award, and Kirkland's bottled-in-bond bourbon (50% ABV) won the Gold in the 2021 "Whiskies of the World" awards. Meanwhile, their blended Scotch whisky and Canadian whisky have been given the "Exceptional" rating by Tastings, a beverage testing institute.