Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In Praise of Straight (It's Not What You Think)

The advent of products such as Kansas Clean has revealed a shocking truth. Distilled spirits that contain as little as five percent whiskey are allowed to call themselves whiskey. They can whiskey-this and whiskey-that all over the place, but is their product really whiskey? By law, yes. By common sense, no.

But law will trump common sense every time.

For you as a consumer, it shouldn't be necessary to memorize the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits just to buy a good bottle of hooch, and it's not.

There is a simple, one-word solution, but the word to remember and look for is not 'whiskey,' it's 'straight.'

'Straight' is a modifier that applies primarily to American whiskey and not to most other types of distilled spirit. It means that certain specifications have been met, including aging in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. It doesn't guarantee that the product will be good but it does guarantee that it will be what most people understand to be whiskey.

We're talking about American whiskey here, like bourbon or rye, not scotch, Canadian, or Irish. They have their own rules and peculiarities.

Straight whiskey (or straight bourbon, straight rye) is what most people mean when they just say whiskey. If asked to elaborate, they might call it 'real whiskey' or even 'pure whiskey,' but those terms are forbidden, at least on whiskey labels. That's okay as long as you know that the alternative is 'straight.'

If you want to blame someone for the semantic awkwardness of all this, the person you want is William Howard Taft, the 27th president, whose Taft Decision in 1909 allowed products that contain liquids other than whiskey to call themselves whiskey. It created different types of whiskey, the most whiskeyish of which is straight whiskey.

Unfortunately, there are a few straight whiskeys that don't have 'straight' on their label. Jack Daniel's doesn't and possibly can't, even though it meets all the key requirements. Even so, remembering to look for 'straight' is a good tip for anyone who wants guidance but doesn't want to get bogged down with details. 'Straight Bourbon,' 'Straight Rye,' and 'Straight Whiskey' are the terms you want to see. 'Straight Wheat' too, but there's not a lot of that around.

If you don't see 'straight' on the label, either find out why, or simply move on.


Unknown said...

Eagerly awaiting someone to mix a few drops of brown food coloring into vodka and sell it as "Whiskee". The best "Whiskee" around.

Hank said...

I think I heard somewhat that the first vodkas sold in the US were marketed as "white whiskey."

Damon said...

I seem to always mix this up. I thought that the difference between "bourbon" and "straight bourbon" was that the latter was aged a minimum of 4 years (instead of 2) and had to be made in Kentucky. What they had in common was the charred oak, the minimum 51% corn, and the max ABV in the barrel.

Looking for the word "straight" is a good first filter. But one can do the minimum research like looking it up in something like Jim Murray's 'Whiskey Bible'. (Or just stick with Old Weller 107 and call it a day)

merd said...

Amen brother Chuck.

The Bitter Fig said...

The problem I've got with Straight whisky is that it's fairly limited in mashbill. Making a whisky with 1/3rd each of Corn, Rye, and Barley could never be a "Straight" whisky, no matter how genuine or real.

Nor could a well aged refill-barrel whisky. I'd love to try something no-actually-Bourbon after 15 years in a refill cask.

Of course, this is a problem from the opposite direction. Anyone making something like that is going to use whatever external-to-bottle marketing they can to let you know how their whisky is unique and worthy, so it isn't THAT big a loss. Still, I think the lack of the "Straight" designation inhibits experimentation.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The only limit on straight whiskey mashbills is that all of the fermentables must be grain. If the mashbill doesn't match one of the named types (e.g., bourbon) you can just call it 'straight whiskey.' It's true that you can't use refill casks and call it straight.

ESJ said...

Chuck - I'm curious as to why Jack Daniel's "possibly can't" use the designation "straight." Will you elaborate?

Chuck Cowdery said...

As I said above, "If the mashbill doesn't match one of the named types (e.g., bourbon) you can just call it 'straight whiskey.'" Well, Daniel's does match one of the named types: bourbon. So if they tried to use 'straight' they would be forced to use 'straight bourbon,' which is the last thing they want to do.