Sunday, March 3, 2013
Kansas Clean. What Is This Stuff?
"Kansas is a new whiskey for new whiskey drinkers," says the ad, replete with pictures of attractive 20-somethings and at least one unattractive geezer. Kansas, aka 'Kansas Clean,' aka 'Kansas Clean Distilled,' is a distilled spirit product that has been around for about a year. It is the first product from a company in Rochester, New York (not Kansas), called Fabulous American Beverages.
They want $30 a bottle for it.
The bottle is clear and the product inside is clear too, so how can it be whiskey? Doesn't whiskey always have to be aged? Haven't dozens of micro-distilleries, and at least one giant (Jack Daniel's), gotten into trouble with federal regulators for trying to call an unaged grain spirit whiskey? Then what's this stuff?
What's that? Well, under U.S. rules, 'spirit whiskey' is a distilled spirit that contains at least 5 percent whiskey, with the remaining 95 percent neutral spirit, aka vodka. The whiskey component can be anything that meets the legal definition of whisky, so it can be very nearly neutral and very lightly aged itself.
The very hip/now/with-it Kansas web site tells you none of this.
The spirit whiskey classification exists because right after Prohibition there was so little fully-aged whiskey available, and whiskey was what people wanted, that the feds accommodated producers by creating categories of 'whiskey' that were mostly vodka.
That way, producers could stretch what little whiskey they had and still give people something with a little bit of whiskey character.
In the intervening years, and especially after the 'light whiskey' fiasco of the late 1960s, it became conventional wisdom that no one wants a whiskey that is barely there. Drinkers who want a neutral spirit buy vodka, which is the largest distilled spirit category. There is very little demand, seemingly, for a slightly non-neutral spirit with a modicum of whiskey character. At least there is very little demand for a spirit with less whiskey character than Canadian Mist or Seagram's 7 (the Bud Lights of whiskey).
That is, until now. Whiskey is now hip. There are, or so the makers of Kansas believe, many people who want to drink vodka but say they're drinking whiskey. They don't so much want the very slight whiskey flavor that (at least in theory) differentiates the product from vodka, as they are willing to tolerate it for the privilege of calling it whiskey.
In the rest of the world this isn't an issue, because following the guidance of the Scotch Whisky Association and the lead of the European Union, their rules say whiskey must be aged for at least three years. In the U.S., whiskey has to be aged, but no minimum duration is stated and products that contain as little as five percent whiskey are able to call themselves whiskey.
The rules are written to protect consumers but also to accommodate producers. In this case, both probably would be better served if the 'spirit whiskey' classification was abolished. Sorry, Kansas. (Not really.)