Monday, June 7, 2010

Tuthilltown's Hudson Whiskey Is Not Whiskey In Europe.

Now that William Grant & Sons has decided to take Hudson Whiskeys worldwide, perhaps someone will address the elephant in the room. None of Tuthilltown Distillery's Hudson Whiskey products may be legally sold as 'whiskey' in the European Union (EU) or many other parts of the world that have modeled their own rules on Europe's.

That's because, unlike the United States, the European Union defines 'whiskey' as "a spirit drink produced by the distillation of a mash of cereals...matured for at least three years in wooden casks." The Hudson line's flagship, Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey, is three months old, 33 months shy of the minimum.

What is whiskey? Depending on where you sit, there is more than one correct answer. Hudson Baby Bourbon, whiskey in the United States, is not whiskey in Europe.

There was a show on Discovery Channel last night called "How Whiskey Made America." As far-fetched as their stories were, they were only fetched at all if you consider 'whiskey' and 'alcohol' synonyms.

They most emphatically are not.

After the Civil War, the growth of railroads and introduction of the column still transformed distilling from an extension of agriculture into a fully commercialized industry. Trains gave distillers a national market, which allowed them to grow big. At the same time, the new technology of the column still made it possible for the first time to produce a colorless, odorless, and tasteless distillate, which they called 'grain alcohol,' that was virtually pure ethanol.

Terminology was pretty simple then. If it was made from grain it was whiskey, just like it was rum if made from molasses and brandy if made from grapes.

People who took the newly-available grain alcohol (what we call vodka) and flavored it with tea, prune juice, tobacco, and other ingredients to make it resemble aged whiskey felt entitled to call their product whiskey too, since it was made from grain.

But the people who carefully crafted a rich, low-proof spirit and flavored it with nothing but oak felt they had the sole right to use the word. The grain alcohol flavorers, known as "rectifiers," were by far the larger block. The forces for "pure whiskey" were concentrated in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The battle between these two groups raged until 1909 and the Taft Decision, which represented a victory for the Taylors, Browns, Motlows, Samuels, Beams, Dants, Wathens, Medleys and other whiskey-making families.

The Taft Decision codified the definitions of "whiskey," "straight whiskey," and "blended whiskey" as we know them today. Since then it has been the case that although "storage in oak containers" is required, no minimum aging duration has ever been specified.

As recently as 1968 a group of producers argued for the adoption of a three- or four-year minimum, but the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division (predecessor of today's Tax and Trade Bureau) rejected the proposal. The agency concluded that "it is preferable to permit the consumer an adequate basis for the selection of whiskies (even immature ones) than to limit his choice by banning them from the market. The mere desire to conform American regulations to those applicable in foreign countries is not sufficient justification for imposing the proposed limitation." (Industry Circular 68-03)

Therefore, on behalf of producers such as Tuthilltown, the American trade representative should argue that the United States is a major whiskey-producing country, has been for hundreds of years, and has a whiskey-making heritage that developed independently of other whiskey-making traditions. Current American rules are consistent with that tradition.

It is not in the spirit of fair trade to expect American producers to change their authentic and long-held practices in favor of European ones. Nor is it in the interest of European consumers, who want access to authentic American products, not proxies reformulated to pass muster with regulators in Brussels.

However, American producers need to be very careful about seeming to support changing the U.S. rules to eliminate the aging requirement altogether (the 'white whiskey' debate) while simultaneously arguing that the EU should recognize American rules that require aging but conspicuously do not require a minimum aging duration. It would, however, be appropriate to argue that corn whiskey should be exempt from any aging requirement.

It is absurd that while the EU recognizes "Bourbon Whiskey" as a distinctive product of the United States, it doesn't accept the American definition of Bourbon Whiskey.

An acceptable compromise would be to allow that, in the EU, any product to be labeled "whiskey/whisky" only, with no modifier, must be at least three years old, but products labeled "American Whiskey," "American Blended Whiskey," "Bourbon Whiskey," "Rye Whiskey," "Corn Whiskey," etc., would only have to meet the requirements for use of those terms in the United States.

William Grant & Sons bought a brand called "Hudson Whiskey." It's hard to see how that brand is worth very much if the word "whiskey" can't be used anywhere except the U.S.


Davin de Kergommeaux said...


I just couldn’t agree more. It really aggravates me when regulators get in the way of making good whisky or selling good whisky for what it is. American whisky is a unique and recognizable product regardless of whose laws it follows or breaks. It has its own history and its own processes and most importantly and it has a loyal following that recognizes it for what it is.

Similarly, Canada is also a major whisky-producing country, has been for hundreds of years, and has a whisky-making heritage that developed independently of other whisky-making traditions. Current Canadian rules and practices are consistent with that tradition.

You can search the Canadian liquor store shelves long and hard, and unless it has been imported from an American bottler you will not find a blended Canadian whisky. Up here we simply call it Canadian whisky.

When we export to the USA though (our largest market by far), we must label it according to American regulations and because we separate our distillate into several streams before aging it, we are required to call it ‘blended’ whisky. By American definitions it is blended, even though in Canada that is how we make whisky. But putting the ‘blended’ stamp on it creates all sorts of misunderstandings because backward engineering types read the American definitions then assume they apply to our whiskies too.

For instance I can’t tell you how many people honestly believe that there is neutral grain spirit in Canadian whisky. There isn’t of course. Our base spirit, which is distilled at a high abv has less intrinsic congener content than, say, Bourbon, but it is not neutral when it is first distilled and it tastes like real whisky (loaded with spices and fresh oaky tones) by the time it is mixed with richer whiskies from the other distillation streams. Most of the time our whiskies are the product of a single distillery, but the ‘blended’ term gives people the false impression they are not.

Is it in the interest of American consumers, who want access to authentic Canadian products, to require Canadian whisky makers to re-name their products to pass muster with regulators in Washington? I think not. It should be sufficient to simply label them ‘Canadian whisky’ recognizing, that like American whisky, Canadian whisky is a unique and recognizable product regardless of whose laws it follows or breaks. It has its own history and its own processes and most importantly and it has a loyal following that recognizes it for what it is.

An acceptable compromise would be to allow that, in the USA, any product to be labeled "whiskey/whisky" only, with no modifier, must conform to American regulations, but products labeled "Canadian whisky," would only have to meet the requirements for use of that term in Canada.

So I say, more power to the American trade representatives who argue that ‘American whisky’ should be recognized as whisky by American rules alone, and as a sign of good faith let American regulators recognize that the same logic applies to Canadian whisky as well.


Chuck Cowdery said...

You make a clever point if not exactly the same one I'm making.

I would accept some kind of modifier that would allow a product such as Hudson Baby Bourbon to use the word "whiskey" although, ironically, if they can get away with calling it "Hudson Baby Bourbon" period, that would probably be their best course.

Here, for reference, is the rule regarding Canadian whiskey sold in the USA:

"Canadian whisky" is whisky which is a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada regulating the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is "blended Canadian whisky" (Canadian whisky--a blend).

The Souper Sleuth said...

Chuck, I want to thank you for your blog in general, and this post in particular. As a novice but enthusiastic bourbon aficionado, I crave the education that you so often provide. Most importantly, I have learned that this most-American of spirits has a rich history that is as interesting to learn about as the spirit is to drink. Your ability to share equal parts history, whiskey-nomics, and current events/issues facing both distillers and consumers (all with a sense of humor and humility) is exactly the right prescription for converts like me. Just had to share my heart-felt thanks...!

Anonymous said...

Chuck, in London for the WORLD WHISKIES CONFERENCE to speak about "Innovation in Whisky" to an audience of whisky professionals and followers. It's not unlike bring "coals to Newcastle" and then telling the miners there are other ways to dig coal. We have been "warned" about the grip the SWA has on EU laws around whisky, it has all the qualities of paranoia. The continued narrowing of the definition is not supported by the history of spirits production anywhere, not just unsupported in Scotland. Certainly the Scots did not age their Scotch whisky in used American Bourbon barrels prior to the invention of bourbon in the US. The SWA may someday realize Scotland is not the only producers of whisky, perhaps the only SCOTCH producers, but as you point out American whisky traditions are hundreds of years old; the three year minimum on aging whisky for EU sale only dates to mid 20th century when the SWA took an activist stance and convinced other countries and the EU to adopt the rules which apply to the making of Scotch whisky to ALL whisky sold in the EU. From our point of view, the SWA has stifled any possibility of innovation in the variety of production techniques and of products which are made available to EU consumers, a disservice.

In all my travels introducing our whiskeys to EU consumers I am greeted with the same comment "Thank god something new." Sure bet the "new" won't come from any of the Scotch producers and won't be available under its legitmate type name in the EU until the regulations recognize and accept the American definition for its own national spirits.

Ralph Erenzo
Tuthilltown Spirits
Hudson Real American Whiskeys