Saturday, September 27, 2014
Enough of 5.36(d) for Now. Everybody, Meet Section 5.40
Here we are again, with our nose in the book. The Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, that is, the labeling rule book for the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Today we're looking at Section 5.40, Age and Percentages. Since people seem to prefer TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM), it's there in Chapter 8.
Before we started to write about Section 5.36(d), we contacted Tom Hogue. He is TTB's Director of Congressional and Public Affairs. We asked if our interpretation of 5.36(d) was correct and he said yes. We did the same thing with 5.40, which requires an age statement for any whiskey that is less than four years old. In recent years, TTB has allowed statements that read simply, “aged less than 4 years,” or something similar, instead of an actual age statement. We asked about that too.
Here is Mr. Hogue's reply:
"Age statements are required for all domestic or foreign whiskies, including blends, that are less than four years old. For whiskies over four years old, the age statement is optional. TTB is not approving labels with 'aged less than' statements where an age statement is required."
Here is an example of a label in violation of 5.40:
It's obvious why this sucks. Is it three years, eleven months old? Or one week old? It effectively says, "we're not old enough for no age statement, so we're giving you a fake age statement."
If they're going to violate 5.40, they need not have bothered with the fake. Many micro-distillery products simply omit the age statement altogether, even though one sip tells you the whiskey is not more than four years old. Again, since TTB assumes compliance, a label submitted without an age statement on it is, for legal purposes, an affirmative statement that the whiskey inside is at least four years old. If it's not, you've committed perjury.
Oh yes, you have.
When they get caught with labeling violations, producers always insist they weren't trying to deceive anyone but why else leave off or fudge the required age statement? The rule is simplicity itself. If any whiskey in the mix is less than four years old, the age of the youngest whiskey must be disclosed on the label. There is no ambiguity and there are no exceptions. "It only applies to straight whiskey." Wrong. "It only applies to bourbon." Wrong. "It doesn't apply to blends." Wrong. "It doesn't apply to imports." Wrong.
Have TTB examiners given producers incorrect information about 5.40? There is evidence that they have. That's why we got an official statement from TTB. No excuses now.
TTB even tells you what form to use: "___ years old" or "aged ___ years" are the only options.
So is it not obvious that a person trying to sell you nine-month-old whiskey for $60 a bottle would rather you not know it's only nine-months-old?
If you think a lot of producers have been violating 5.36(d), there are too many to count breaking 5.40. Good luck finding one that is in compliance, and yet they do exist. Here's an example:
This matters because, as consumers, we have a right to know what we're buying, and this particular bit of information -- the true age of a whiskey that is less than four years old -- is required by law. Among other benefits, it levels the playing field, allowing one-year-old whiskeys to compete against other one-year-old whiskeys. Anyone who isn't proud enough of their effort to tell the truth about it probably does not deserve your patronage. The question looms, after all; if they're lying about this, what else are they lying about?