In 1972, a new type of whiskey debuted in the United States. It was called ‘light whiskey.’
Light whiskey was supposed to save the American whiskey industry from ‘unfair’ foreign competition. It was the drink Americans were supposed to be clamoring for, made like the imports but tailored to American tastes. It was expected to capture 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. distilled spirits market by 1982.
It didn’t. More likely than not, you’ve never heard of ‘light whiskey.’
In the late 1960s, after more than two decades of powerful growth, American whiskey sales suddenly stalled. The industry identified foreign competition as one of the causes.
Compared to traditional American whiskeys such as bourbon and rye, the whiskeys of Scotland, Ireland and Canada are generally distilled at a much higher proof, entered into barrels at a higher proof, and the barrels are mostly used, not new as American law requires. This makes them cheaper to produce, which American distillers felt put them at an unfair competitive disadvantage.
The rules put in place at the end of Prohibition had closely followed the rules passed in 1906, in the Pure Food and Drug Act, which were refined by the Taft Decision in 1909. Then the ‘unfair competition’ was rectifiers who sold compound whiskey, concoctions that often contained no whiskey at all. Back then, distillers wanted strict standards the rectifiers could not meet. Imports weren’t even on the radar.
Sixty years later, imports were kicking ass. They had a lighter taste profile which American drinkers increasingly seemed to prefer. American producers could make a similar product, but the rules required them to label it in ways that diminished its marketability. There were certain terms they were not allowed to use in regard to such a product, such as ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ and ‘straight rye whiskey.’ And there were certain terms they were required to use, such as ‘aged in used cooperage.’ The imports merely had to be labeled here the same way they were labeled in their home countries, another ‘unfair advantage.’
As a solution, several of the large American producers proposed rule changes that would allow them to adopt some of the foreign practices and still call their products ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ or ‘straight rye whiskey.’ If American consumers saw the familiar phrases, it was reasoned, they might not notice that the products had changed.
The proposal was made to the predecessor agency of today’s TTB. Then as now, the agency regulated spirits producers by controlling what could and could not be printed on labels.
In January of 1968, the agency rejected most of the proposals and explained its reasoning in a nine page ‘Industry Circular.’ Instead of the changes the producers wanted, the agency created a new type designation, ‘light whiskey,’ based on the import model.
In explaining why it decided not to allow producers to call the new products bourbon, rye or straight, it observed that spirits made in the proposed way would “generally lack the distinguishing characteristics of such whiskies.” To call these products “straight bourbon” or “straight rye” would be misleading and not “in the interests of the consumer.”
So ‘light whiskey’ was created instead to identify domestic whiskeys made like the imports. In support of this new designation and its associated rules, the circular mentioned “several studies” that “proved conclusively that whiskies distilled at more than 160° proof mature satisfactorily in used cooperage.” As further evidence, it noted that, “Canadian, Scotch, and Irish whiskies are composed primarily of whisky so matured.”
The agency also found that higher distillation proof “produces a distillate containing less pronounced natural flavoring components (both desirable and undesirable ones). Thus a smaller amount of wood extractives is needed to produce a balanced, palatable whisky.”
They even declared that aging these lighter products in new charred barrels was probably a bad idea since, “the storing of such whisky in charred new oak containers would not produce a balanced whisky since it would be overburdened with wood extractives.” Scotch producers, then and now, use similar language to explain their preference for used bourbon barrels.
The same reasoning was applied to barrel entry proof. “Consistent with the higher distillation proof, such whiskies may be properly entered for storage at proofs higher than 125°.”
The new rules allowed makers of this new ‘light whiskey’ to use age statements similar to those permitted for imported whiskeys, which did not specify the type of cooperage used. Since the consumer could reasonably assume anything labeled ‘light whiskey’ was aged in used barrels, it was unnecessary to call it out.
According to a Time Magazine article published in April, 1971, Schenley, Seagram’s, National Distillers, American Distilling, and Publicker – the industry’s giants – were leading the light whiskey charge. They expected to have 200 million gallons of it in inventory by 1972.
Time wrote, “they are betting that the drink will appeal to changing American taste, especially among young people and women, who generally demand a ‘light’ liquor. No one can even predict with certainty how light whisky will taste until it has matured a legal minimum of four years; in its present unripened state it somewhat resembles whisky-flavored vodka.”
Time was mistaken about the legal minimum. There was none.
Joseph Haefelin, American Distilling's vice president and research director, spoke for all believers when he said, "Light whisky will make it because it is in tune with the times."
He was so wrong. It wasn’t and it didn’t.