Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Latest Outrage: Spirit Whiskey.

Spirit Whiskey.

It's a new term to most people. It even has a good sound too it, like it might be something great.

It's not.

Unless you're a vodka drinker. But in that case, you probably should just stick to vodka.

It's up to you.

The web site for new Kansas Clean Distilled Spirit Whiskey says, "You won't find rednecks in overalls or middle-aged men in tweed flat caps anywhere near a bottle of Kansas Clean Distilled Whiskey." Instead, the web site shows you pictures of hip, attractive, 20-somethings who supposedly drink this new product.

Other brands trying to catch this wave are American Spirit Whiskey and WhipperSnapper Oregon Spirit Whiskey.

These companies didn't invent 'spirit whiskey.' It has been in the federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (that's the official federal regulatory rule book) all along. It just hasn't been made much in recent years. There's a good reason for that.

The rules define 'Spirit Whiskey' as a combination of at least 5 percent whiskey and neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. That may sound a little like blended whiskey, except there the minimum is 20 percent whiskey and the whiskey has to be straight whiskey, meaning whiskey that has been distilled below 80 percent alcohol and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels.

So consider Seagram's Seven, an American Blended Whiskey. It is 25 percent straight whiskey and 75 percent grain spirit (i.e., vodka with a few months in wood). Some people like that sort of thing, but most whiskey drinkers consider it brown vodka. Similar to Canadian whisky, it has a very mild whiskey flavor with strong vanilla notes. It's not ghastly, it's just very mild and superficial.

In the marketplace, American blended whiskey is an inexpensive, inoffensive alcohol delivery system. Typically sold in plastic 1.75 liter bottles, most go for less than $20, about the same as vodka.

For spirit whiskey, the whiskey component can be straight whiskey but it doesn't have to be. It just has to meet the very low threshold requirement for whiskey, which is itself damn near vodka.

So if it sounds like spirit whiskey is vodka with a tiny little bit of something that is barely but still technically whiskey added to it, it's because that's exactly what it is.

Spirit whiskey was put into the regs right after Prohibition, at a time when fully-aged whiskey was scarce and vodka was virtually unknown. It was a way to make something called whiskey that required very little whiskey to make. When fully-aged whiskey became readily available, spirit whiskey died out. 

What's the point of reintroducing spirit whiskey? The premise seems to be that vodka drinkers want to keep drinking vodka, but want to call it whiskey. Spirit whiskey allows you to pour virtual-vodka from a bottle that says 'whiskey' on it, if that is what your self-image requires.

Unlike blended whiskey, which is at least a good value, these new products are all trying to position themselves as premium and are priced accordingly. For the same price you can get a decent whiskey or, for that matter, a decent vodka.

The Kansas people also say this, "Indeed whiskey is far more exciting than the next trendy vodka."

Sorry, but spirit whiskey is the next trendy vodka.

(Full disclosure: I wear tweed flat caps.)

Spirit whiskey most resembles but is not vodka. It scarcely resembles whiskey. Think of is as whiskey's ghost, an emanation faint and evanescent. It is whiskey's echo. It is not whiskey.


Anonymous said...

Just checked the Kansas "whiskey" website, and the "tweed flat caps" comment is already gone. Not only are tweed flat caps back in style with the 20-somethings, one of the pictures popping up on the collage features a 20-something in a flat cap! I sense some quick backtracking by this new spirit

David McCowan said...

I've had WhipperSnapper before and enjoyed it... never suspecting it was anything other than just another craft whiskey. Do you know any more about this product in particular?

I don't have a bottle around to look at, but the information provided online and that can be read from screenshots really gives the impression that it's a proper whiskey (in some sense at least)... they claim pot distillation and a mixing of 79% corn new make (made elsewhere, but re-distill in-house) and 21% barley (which they make entirely themselves).

I can defiantly buy that it's not legally straight whiskey, but I'm hard pressed to believe it's 95% vodka. Could this be a case of a new product just not fitting the traditional labels and having to resort to this sub-par category as the only thing left? While the other products genuinely seem terrible, (in product and marketing) WhipperSnapper seemed alright. Or am I just falling prey to marketing that is OK in the eyes of the law, but not telling the whole story?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Spirit whiskey has to contain at least 5% whiskey but can contain as much as 20%. The wiggle room is in the whiskey component. If it's a very flavorful whiskey, then the whole beverage will be very flavorful. If the whiskey is bland, the drink will be too. But by law it must be at least 80% vodka.

David McCowan said...

Hmmm... thanks for the clarification. As I think back about it, I guess I do remember it being very light and clean. In retrospect, maybe too light and clean for a young craft whiskey.

With the other two, it seems to be marketing whiskey to vodka drinkers, but WhipperSnapper doesn't come off (at least to me) in the same way. I wonder what the pure whisky component tastes like... and if there is something so terrible about it that it needs to be diluted by neutral spirits.

Ransom makes other good products that seem to be done with care (an Old Tom Gin and a grappa come to mind), so this seems a strange approach. They even make a point of declaring how little they filter their vodka so as to retain some barley flavor. I guess that maybe it is just the curse of the whole craft whiskey industry at the moment: a good, mature whiskey is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, so work-arounds appear to pay the bills.

Robert Heinz said...

Actually Chuck, while “spirit whisky” must contain less than 20% straight whisky, there's no maximum amount of whisky, nor any minimum amount of neutral spirit. You could just as easily make a “spirit whisky” that was 95% whisky and 5% neutral spirit as you could one that was 5% whisky and 95% neutral spirit, just so long as less than 20% was “straight whisky.” The purpose of the “straight whisky” limit is simply to prevent overlap between the “spirit whisky” and “blended whisky” classifications, not to ensure a certain amount of neutral spirit is used.

“WhipperSnapper” actually uses 21% whisky, but all of it is aged less than 2 years, and most of it is aged in used cooperage, so it has to be called a “spirit whisky” rather than a “blended whisky.”

Wade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, Robert. I was having a little trouble wrapping my head around that part of it.

Wade said...

I'm reading the TTB BAM manual and I don't think you can put a State on Label for the Spirit Whiskey category. Look at Ch. 1, section 14, you will see that Spirit Whiskey is left off this list.

Also, Ch. 1 section 12 tells me the label should have to disclose the % of neutral spirits on label. Also section 13 requires age statement.

Am I interpreting this incorrectly?

David McCowan said...

Thanks Robert. I thought that it might be a technical thing. (i.e. that the whisky doesn't fit the definition of straight whisky).

When you say that WhipperSnapper is 21% whiskey, am I right to assume you are referring to the 21% barley contribution? (Is this also the pot still portion they mention?) If so, then the corn-based spirit which they source elsewhere and redistill must be pushed up to neutral grain spirit levels (via column still, I'm guessing).

Have we pieced the puzzle together correctly?

Hatkevtonin said...

Just for the record, Seagrams is a Canadien distillery and 7 Crown is a Canadien blended whiskey, not American.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sorry Hatkevtonin, but you're wrong. The Seagram's company ceased to exist more than a decade ago. The Seagram's name is used on brands owned by Diageo and Pernod. The whiskeys are owned by Diageo. While some Seagram's whiskey brands, such as Crown Royal, are Canadian Blended Whiskey, Seagram's Seven Crown (aka Seagram's 7) is an American Blended Whiskey. If you don't believe me, look at the label. At least that is true of Seagram's 7 sold in the United States. If Seagram's 7 is sold outside the USA, that product is probably Canadian for legal reasons.

Robert Heinz said...


1. I don't know of anything in the TTB regulations that would prevent spirit whisky from being labeled with the name of a state, and all of them are in one way or another, so I guess it's allowed.

2. They absolutely must list the percentage of neutral spirits on the label as well as the commodity from which it's distilled, and they all do.

3. While a read through the regulations would lead me to believe that the whisky component in spirit whisky would need to have an age statement if aged for less than 4 years, none of the spirit whiskies currently do. Instead, they label the whisky component as “spirit” (as opposed to “neutral spirit”), along with the grains from which it's distilled, without an age statement. I'm not sure whether the TTB is requiring this practice, or simply allowing it.

At the end of the day, it's not how you or I interpret the regulations that matters, but how the TTB does.


The label for WhipperSnapper says it's made from 79% corn neutral spirit and 21% barley spirit, so, yes, you're correct. I have no idea which is pot distilled, but my hunch is that Ransom only has a pot still (or a hybrid pot and column still), and that they distill the barley spirit in house, and buy the corn neutral spirit in bulk (and, perhaps, redistill it in house.)

Hatkevtonin said...

Oh, weird. My apologies.

The Grumpy Nerd said...

Thank you for preventing me from wasting money.