Wednesday, November 9, 2011
The Latest Outrage: Spirit Whiskey.
It's a new term to most people. It even has a good sound too it, like it might be something great.
Unless you're a vodka drinker. But in that case, you probably should just stick to vodka.
It's up to you.
The web site for new Kansas Clean Distilled Spirit Whiskey says, "You won't find rednecks in overalls or middle-aged men in tweed flat caps anywhere near a bottle of Kansas Clean Distilled Whiskey." Instead, the web site shows you pictures of hip, attractive, 20-somethings who supposedly drink this new product.
Other brands trying to catch this wave are American Spirit Whiskey and WhipperSnapper Oregon Spirit Whiskey.
These companies didn't invent 'spirit whiskey.' It has been in the federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (that's the official federal regulatory rule book) all along. It just hasn't been made much in recent years. There's a good reason for that.
The rules define 'Spirit Whiskey' as a combination of at least 5 percent whiskey and neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. That may sound a little like blended whiskey, except there the minimum is 20 percent whiskey and the whiskey has to be straight whiskey, meaning whiskey that has been distilled below 80 percent alcohol and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.
So consider Seagram's Seven, an American Blended Whiskey. It is 25 percent straight whiskey and 75 percent grain spirit (i.e., vodka with a few months in wood). Some people like that sort of thing, but most whiskey drinkers consider it brown vodka. Similar to Canadian whisky, it has a very mild whiskey flavor with strong vanilla notes. It's not ghastly, it's just very mild and superficial.
In the marketplace, American blended whiskey is an inexpensive, inoffensive alcohol delivery system. Typically sold in plastic 1.75 liter bottles, most go for less than $20, about the same as vodka.
For spirit whiskey, the whiskey component can be straight whiskey but it doesn't have to be. It just has to meet the very low threshold requirement for whiskey, which is itself damn near vodka.
So if it sounds like spirit whiskey is vodka with a tiny little bit of something that is barely but still technically whiskey added to it, it's because that's exactly what it is.
Spirit whiskey was put into the regs right after Prohibition, at a time when fully-aged whiskey was scarce and vodka was virtually unknown. It was a way to make something called whiskey that required very little whiskey to make. When fully-aged whiskey became readily available, spirit whiskey died out.
What's the point of reintroducing spirit whiskey? The premise seems to be that vodka drinkers want to keep drinking vodka, but want to call it whiskey. Spirit whiskey allows you to pour virtual-vodka from a bottle that says 'whiskey' on it, if that is what your self-image requires.
Unlike blended whiskey, which is at least a good value, these new products are all trying to position themselves as premium and are priced accordingly. For the same price you can get a decent whiskey or, for that matter, a decent vodka.
The Kansas people also say this, "Indeed whiskey is far more exciting than the next trendy vodka."
Sorry, but spirit whiskey is the next trendy vodka.
(Full disclosure: I wear tweed flat caps.)
Spirit whiskey most resembles but is not vodka. It scarcely resembles whiskey. Think of is as whiskey's ghost, an emanation faint and evanescent. It is whiskey's echo. It is not whiskey.