In 1972, a new type of whiskey debuted in the United States. It was called ‘light whiskey.’ Light whiskey was supposed to save the American whiskey industry from unfair foreign competition. It was a drink made like the imports but tailored to American tastes. It was expected to capture 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. distilled spirits market by 1982.
It didn’t. Light whiskey was a huge failure.
But it could have been a lot worse.
Today American straight whiskeys, in particular bourbon and rye, are popular all over the world. It wasn't always that way. At one point about 40 years ago, it got so bad that some of the largest bourbon and rye makers wanted to fundamentally alter the product to, in their minds, make it more competitive with the imported scotch and Canadian whiskeys that were eating their lunch.
They wanted to abandon flavorful low-proof distillation, low-proof barrel entry, and aging in new, charred oak barrels.
Some producers--the smaller, family-owned, Kentucky-based ones mostly--objected. If the majority had ruled, the rules would have been changed, but the federal government regulators decided to leave those standards alone. Instead they created a new category with the specifications the large producers wanted, and called it light whiskey. It bombed, big time.
If it had gone the other way, if the feds had yielded to the big producers and changed the rules, bourbon and rye as we know them would have disappeared. They would have missed the revival that began in the late 1980s. Today they would be but a distant memory.
The complete story is in the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 12, Number 6.
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