Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Favorite whiskey myths debunked.

All of the following statements are false, although many of them are widely believed. (The statements in parens are true.)

Bourbon whiskey must be made in Kentucky. (Bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States.)

Kentucky is the only state legally allowed to put its name on a bourbon label. (No such law or rule exists.)

To be called bourbon, a whiskey must be aged at least two years. (Two years is the requirement for straight bourbon. Although the rules say bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels, they don't say for how long.)

Jack Daniel’s cannot be called bourbon. (Not true. Its owners just prefer to call it Tennessee whiskey.)

A bourbon mash must be at least 51 percent corn and not more than 80 percent corn. (The 51 percent floor is right but there is no ceiling. The difference between bourbon and corn whiskey depends on the type of barrel used.)

Sour mash whiskey tastes sour. (Sour mash is a technique for keeping whiskey mash at the ideal pH from batch to batch. It does make the mash taste sour, but not the whiskey.)

Only some American whiskeys are sour mash whiskeys. (Although not every maker puts the words 'sour mash' on the label, they all use the sour mash method.)

Whiskey made in a pot still is superior to whiskey made in a column still. (The two types of still are different, but in the end what they do is the same.)

Canadian whisky contains neutral spirits. (It doesn’t. The base whiskey in Canadian is the same as in blended scotch, nearly neutral but technically whiskey. The base spirit in American blends is neutral spirit, i.e., vodka.)

There is some reason why Scottish distillers spell their spirit whisky while most Americans spell theirs whiskey. (No reason. Whiskey is just one of hundreds of words that Americans and Brits spell differently. The spelling difference means nothing.)

Moonshine is un-aged corn whiskey. (Moonshine is any distilled spirit made illegally. Most of it is made from sugar, making it rum.)


Davin de Kergommeaux said...

Great post Chuck. It should be the first page in every whisky book.

Damean said...

Very illuminating statements. The statement about Jack Daniel’s is most interesting. So, legally speaking, does that mean Jack Daniel's whiskey fulfill all TTB's requirement of being a Bourbon?

Also is the process of filtering Jack's through the 6 foot or so sugar maple charcoal make them unique and different from the Bourbon? In fact, other than the fact that it needs to be distilled and aged in Tennessee, what makes a Whiskey a Tennessee whiskey?

Thanks in ahead for answering my questions.


Damean said...

Have a question on the statement "Although not every maker puts the words 'sour mash' on the label, they all use the sour mash method".

I recently bought a Word Reserve Sweet Mash bourbon; I thought they used the sweet mash method?"

Chuck Cowdery said...

The TTB hasn't ruled on the matter, but by my reading of the rules, there is nothing in the way Jack Daniel's is made that prevents it from being labeled 'bourbon.' Charcoal filtering certainly won't do it as many bourbons are filtered through charcoal to some extent.

Chuck Cowdery said...

'All' is a dangerous word since someone always points out the exception, however minor it may be. Yes, Woodford Sweet Mash is sweet mash, done as an experiment because sweet mash is so rare among major distilleries. The other exception is micro-distilleries, which seldom use sour mash.

Anonymous said...

Fun read--I came here, as I imagine a lot of people have, from links out of Wikipedia.

It's tough to debunk the "myth" of pot-distilled whisk(e)y's superiority, because, after all, there's no arguing taste. To assert it's superiority is to argue taste. To deny it is, similarly, to argue taste. With respect and good will, I don't think your hearty "Is not!" is likely to settle the matter...

The interesting question about Tennessee whiskeys--or at least about Jack and George--is whether the _sugar maple_ charcoal, specifically, is simply a filter or is also a flavoring: that is to say, does a quality of the charcoal enter into the whiskey, even as it's primary function is to remove (undesirable) qualities from the spirit? This is important, as bourbon, properly so-called, must not contain flavorings or additives...

...or, you know, maybe Tennessee Whiskey is automatically boubron because NAFTA, which, as a duly ratified treaty, is the supreme law of this land, says it is. But that leads us to another question, no less important: who gets to define terms like "bourbon," not in the statute-books of the United States, but in the hearts of whisk(e)y lovers the world over? At some level, it does seem like a hell of an odd thing to make the United States Senate the final arbiters of what shall be called "bourbon," doesn't it?

Chuck Cowdery said...

All interesting points. If you're comparing pot-distilled SMS to column-distilled bourbon it's not really 'taste' because it's apples to oranges. The styles are completely different across the board, not just by still type. My other complaint is with people who use column-topped hybrid stills and try to claim the supposed superiority of pot stills for themselves. Again, not really taste. It's hard to find a straight comparison where the only difference between two spirits is the still. Too bad Woodford Reserve, which is based on that dichotomy, won't bottle it that way.

The "is Jack bourbon" thing is a good point. It's never really been tested by the only authorities who matter, the TTB. I maintain it can't be a flavoring because it's a subtractive, not additive, process and nothing happens in the those vats of charcoal that doesn't happen in the barrel except for one fact. The regs specify white oak for the barrels and the filtering charcoal is maple, not white oak. I think it would ultimately hinge on that if you put it to the test.

Under U.S. law, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are unique products of the United States, as protected by NAFTA and other treaties, by which the United States gives the same recognition and protection to Tequila, Cognac, Scotch and other products. Not a bad thing.

Jeroen (from The Netherlands) said...

I wonder about the spelling difference 'whisky' vs. 'whiskey'.
I've always thought the Scots prefer to use the 1st spelling and the Irish prefer the 2nd, and in the US both are used (depending on the family heritage coming from either Scotland or Ireland), the Irish variant being the more common.
I noticed though that older official documents like [1] use 'whiskey', while newer ones like [2] use 'whisky'. Any ideas about the reasoning for this?




Chuck Cowdery said...

The Scots are very particular about their spelling. Americans are not. Perhaps the drafters were scotch drinkers. They're two different acceptable spellings of the same word and nothing more than that, so using one or the other signifies nothing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and informative, as usual. But one thought that occurred to me as I was reading this, based on your ninth item. 

While the base whiskey in Canadian, blended Scotch and blended Irish whiskeys are indeed technically whiskey under the laws of those countries because they are aged, they would not be under US law if produced here because of the high proof to which they are distilled. Meanwhile, US law does allow for the labeling of low-aged spirit as whiskey, (such as the recent trend of "white whiskey") so long as its not distilled to near-neutral levels, while the other three major countries require a minimum of three-years aging. 

It seems that it's more a philosophical distinction, where the retention of grain characteristics is more defining in US law while the aging is more defining in Canadian, Irish and Scottish law. It speaks to the difficulty of using terms from one country in reference to whiskeys from another country, and to the general difficulty of cross-style comparisons. 

Chuck Cowdery said...

Actually, the base whiskey in Canadian, Scottish and Irish blends is whiskey under U.S. rules. To quote them: "'Whisky' is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190[deg] proof."

Only the named types, such as bourbon and rye, have to be produced (i.e., distilled) at less than 180 proof (80% ABV).

Anonymous said...

Ah, thank you for the clarification. But wouldn't 80% be 160 proof? Or was that just a typo. 190 proof is still 95% alcohol, though, which is the maximum practical proof anyway, and would count Everclear as whiskey, which I don't think many people would call whiskey. So the focus on aging in the other big three still seems to be a distinguishing characteristic.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Indeed a typo. 160 proof (80%) is the limit for bourbon and other named types, not 180. For whiskey, however, it is <190 (95%). So, 94% is whiskey, 95% is neutral. You have to draw the line somewhere.