Thursday, April 7, 2011

What's In A Name: White Whiskey.

One of the ongoing dramas in the epic saga of America's fledgling micro-distillery industry is between producers and the calendar. Most have just not figured out how to make fully-aged whiskey products.

I recognize that this whole definitional terrain is a minefield and even a term such as 'fully-aged' can be considered unfairly value-loaded. Maybe 'traditional' is more acceptable. Traditional American straight whiskeys, such as bourbon and rye, are typically aged for between 4 and 8 years. Scottish-stye whiskeys typically spend 8 to 12 years in wood.

You don't have to think very hard to see how ridiculously expensive that is, especially at the beginning. You're spending money every day to make the whiskey -- grain, water, yeast, barrels, energy, salaries -- and you can't sell a drop for four or five years, minimum.

Like actors who hope to direct, most micro-distillers say they want to make whiskey, but most haven't figured out how to manage the whole aging problem. And while age is objective the real issue isn't age but maturity, which is subjective. When is a given whiskey 'ready'?

Because of the aging conundrum, it is rare to find a micro-distillery whiskey that is at least 2 years old, and many are sold with no aging at all as 'white whiskey.'

This is problematic, however, because U.S. law says something called 'whiskey' has to be wood-aged. On the other hand, it doesn't say for how long. In most places outside the United States, the law does say for how long, typically a minimum of three years. You can imagine the possibilities.

All this keeps alive the subject of what to call such products, considering all issues of production, consumer awareness, and regulatory compliance.

Although 'whiskey' is a word people recognize, some producers use alternatives such as 'moonshine,' 'white dog,' and 'new make.' Others propose 'American whiskey' as a catch-all for anything that's not bourbon, rye, corn, Tennessee, etc.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

The traditional term in the United States for unaged whiskey was 'common whiskey,' but that was long before the first Standards of Identity came into being with passage of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. It was called 'common' because most whiskey then wasn't aged, which is not the case today.

Of all the terms mentioned above, 'whiskey' is the only one that is regulated. It's probably the most desirable word to use, with or without a modifier, for any flavorful grain spirit. Since whiskey must have contact with oak by law, we might have to teach people that very young wood-aged whiskey can be clear. That doesn't seem like a huge obstacle. That makes 'white whiskey' a good term. The average person's intuitive sense of what it means is largely correct, which is a great recommendation for it, and rare.

'Moonshine' is tough to resist because it resonates with the consumer, but using it on a legal product undermines the true meaning of the word, leading to confusion. Many people mistakenly believe that moonshine is a type of distilled spirit when, in fact, it is any distilled spirit produced illegally. Using the term 'moonshine' on an unaged whiskey product is doubly wrong since virtually all true moonshine is sugarjack.

I don't like 'American whiskey' as a catch-all category, although 'other American whiskey' is fine. The natural meaning of 'American whiskey' is a whiskey made in America, an umbrella term that includes bourbon, rye, corn, blended, Tennessee, i.e., everything not everything except the major categories. It has never been all about bourbon in the USA and even Tennessee whiskey has to be respected as a de facto type even if it's not de jure.

'White Dog' is nice because it is colloquial and sounds vaguely 'bad' (like 'moonshine') but it's also traditional and authentic. I've been hanging around American distilleries for the past 30 years and folks in the industry probably use the term 'white dog' most often. It seems to naturally roll off the tongues of distillers in Kentucky and Tennessee.

'New make' is similar but doesn't have any tang to it. It's bloodless, but equally authentic. 'New make' is for use in company that might not get 'white dog,' such as non-native English speakers. Both terms also get around the need to have oak involved.

You can't realistically make any of these terms proprietary so there's still some value in trying to think of a term that communicates what your product is as effectively as 'white whiskey' does, but that you can own.

Back at the beginning of my career I heard the term 'high wines' a lot but almost never now.

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