A micro-producer writes, "just read your whiskey blog concerning the new Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye Whiskey. This is very interesting. My husband and I own a small artisan distillery and have had our labels in for approval with the TTB. We received our second rejection and, lo and behold, it's about the wording for our Unaged Rye Whiskey."
It seems a shame that while modern distillers can make a product their ancestors would have called rye whiskey,
we can’t call it that today.
Until the second half of the 19th century, most whiskey was not aged. Folks probably didn't call it 'rye whiskey,' they probably just called it 'whiskey.' But it was spirit straight from the still. You can make such a product today, but you can't call it 'whiskey.'
By the time Federal rules about the standards of identity for distilled spirits were being written, early in the 20th century, the aging of whiskey in oak barrels had become so common and expected that whiskey was defined as a distilled spirit made from grain that had been stored in oak containers. Rye whiskey, furthermore, had to, among other things, be aged in new and charred oak barrels.
Before you start to complain about damned government regulations, recall that these rules were written to protect consumers from dishonest or misleading labeling and they have worked pretty well. The problem is one typical of government regulation. It has a hard time keeping up with changes of attitudes and ideas among the people it's supposed to protect.
Setting aside the desirability of unaged rye whiskey, it is a historically legitimate style and not that hard to understand, so the possibility of consumers being confused about it is small.
We've learned from the recent Jack Daniel's experience that the only suitable classification available from TTB is 'Distilled Spirits Specialty,' which is a catch-all for any distilled spirit that can't qualify for one of the other existing classifications.
Although it makes sense that there should be an 'unaged rye whiskey' class, none exists. Since spirit classified as ‘rye whiskey’ must be aged, ‘unaged rye whiskey’ is a regulatory impossibility. Many people have blithely said TTB should just create and define such a category, but it doesn't work that way. It might actually require an act of Congress. Maybe not, but it certainly requires going through a long and arduous regulatory rule making process.
Part of TTB’s problem is that for the first 70 of its 80 years of existence, it dealt mostly with big companies, with compliance departments and lots of lawyers, who were making me-too products. Consequently, TTB is not well equipped to deal
with hundreds of small producers who are, in many cases, trying to push the envelope on everything.
But all is not hopeless. Here's how other producers have solved this problem.
When the folks who run Washington's restored distillery at Mount Vernon wanted to sell unaged rye whiskey, they actually aged it, very briefly, in new, charred oak barrels.
This is called gaming the system or, more charitably, finding a work-around. Under the rules, although aging is required, the length of time is up to you
(24 hours is plenty) as is the size of the barrel. It just has to be new, which means you can use it only once for rye whiskey. It
also has to be oak and charred.
This can, of course, be expensive and you have to pass that cost along to your customers. The folks at Mount Vernon didn't care, they planned to charge a lot anyway.
Another alternative is to age in a used barrel. Again, how long it’s in the wood doesn’t matter. You can't call it 'rye whiskey' but you can call it ‘whiskey,’ as the
class, and use ‘rye’ in the name, you just can’t put the words ‘rye' and 'whiskey’ together. You can, for example, call it 'Chuck's Old Rye, An Illinois Whiskey.'
This way is much less expensive because not only does a used barrel cost about 40 percent less than a new one, you can use the used barrel an unlimited number of times, so you only need one no matter how much whiskey you make.
Another alternative is to make corn whiskey instead of rye whiskey,
since corn whiskey is already an exception in the rules. It doesn't have
to be aged at all.
One idea no one has tried yet is getting a cooperage to make cheap, piece-of-crap oak containers. Essentially, disposable barrels. Since TTB doesn't care how long the spirit is stored in the container, how good does is have to be? It doesn't even have to be a barrel. The rule just says, 'charred new oak containers.' Any vessel that meets those requirements and can hold the whiskey for even a few seconds should pass TTB muster.
Then you can knock the containers down and burn them to fire your boiler.