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.