Monday, October 8, 2012

Jack Daniel's And TTB Redefine Neutral Spirits, Or Do They?

When is a neutral spirit not a neutral spirit? When it's a Jack Daniel's product, apparently.

The young saga of new Jack Daniel's Unaged Rye has already gotten curiouser and curiouser. The story begins with Friday's post about two new 'white whiskey' products from Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's.

Looking at the photograph of the Jack Daniel's package provided by the distillery, inquiring minds wanted to know how a product distilled at 140° proof (70% ABV), as they described the product, could be labeled 'neutral spirit,' considering that the regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) clearly state that neutral spirit is a distilled spirit distilled at more than 190° proof (95% ABV). (The exact wording is reproduced below.)

Well, that apparently is not what 'neutral spirit' means if you're Jack Daniel's. Below is the explanation from Jack Daniel's PR agency. I'm flabbergasted, but there it is.

Mr. Cowdery,

Good afternoon. Thank you for your inquiry. Per the portion of the Code of Federal Regulations describing neutral spirits (vodka) and whiskey copied and provided below, vodka has to be distilled at or above 190 proof and “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color. Whiskeys must be distilled at less than 190 proof and “possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be stored), and bottled at not less than 80 proof.”

The net of this is that our unaged rye did not satisfy the “Class 2; Whiskey” requirement of being stored in an oak container, therefore the TTB ruled that it should be labeled as a “neutral spirit” even though it was distilled at 140 proof and obviously violates the stated vodka requirement of being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this ruling, it is assumed that the TTB considers all whiskies (except corn whisky) to be neutral spirits until they enter the barrel for maturation. Jack Daniel’s packaging and legal departments argued that the Tennessee Unaged Rye should be labeled as an “unaged whiskey” which we felt more accurately described the nature of the product to the consumer, but the TTB ruled against this proposal and would only approve the label under the category “neutral spirit”.

Jack Daniel’s understands this category classification can certainly be a point of confusion. The Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Unaged Rye is a fermented mash of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley that was distilled at 140 proof and charcoal mellowed, but it was never entered into an oak barrel.

Again, thank you for your inquiry. Please let me know if you have more concerns or questions.


Subpart C—Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits § 5.22 The standards of identity. Standards of identity for the several classes and types of distilled spirits set forth in this section shall be as follows (see also §5.35, class and type):

 (a) Class 1; neutral spirits or alcohol. “Neutral spirits” or “alcohol” are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190° proof, and, if bottled, bottled at not less than 80° proof.

(1) “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

(2) “Grain spirits” are neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.

(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.

Rob Hoskins
Jack Daniel’s Media Relations

As I replied to Mr. Hoskins, the definition of ‘neutral spirits,’ as a class designation, is distinguishable from the definition of vodka, which appears below it as a type designation within the class of neutral spirits, much as ‘rye whiskey’ appears as a type designation within the class of whiskey. The definition of ‘neutral spirits’ as a class, while it does not include the "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color" requirement for vodka, does clearly state that the spirit must be distilled above 190° of proof. The ruling as described would seem to undermine the definition of neutral spirits for more purposes than just the labeling of this one Jack Daniel’s product.

In case you haven't detected this yet, I consider this outrageous. 

I have made my own inquiries to TTB. Stay tuned.


jdl said...

Chuck-Just to be clear, you are not outraged at Jack Daniel's are you? You are upset at the ruling from the govt-right. To me, it almost seems like we need a new catagory-this is not vodka, it is not whiskey. What would you call the product before it is put in an oak barral?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'm outraged that a product that is clearly not a neutral spirit is going to be sold as a neutral spirit. I've heard JD's side and haven't heard TTB's, so the jury is still out on who is responsible for this travesty.

If JD had used the touch-and-go technique, putting the distillate in wood for a few minutes, there would be no objection to calling it whiskey, so they seem to have sought this disturbing ruling, despite their protests to the contrary. Their proposed 'unaged whiskey' classification clearly doesn't work, because it contradicts the definition of whiskey, but this outcome is just as nuts.

The Bitter Fig said...

I don't want any one company rewriting the TTB laws, but I also strongly feel they need to be updated. There are strange sorts of gaps here and there, and the international exemptions granted to Canada, Ireland, and Scotland need to be included to cover Japan, at least.

However, this needs to be done by Act of Congress, not Diageo strongarming a regulatory bureau.

BJ said...


Thanks. I was wondering about this all weekend - it's clearly not vodka but it's also clearly not whiskey. Isn't it white dog? How is that classified by TTH? (Or has that question not been tested yet ... is this the first "white" pre-whiskey that hasn't been aged even for a second?)


Anonymous said...

Right on Chuck. Very interested in the gubbmint's response on this one for sure. Stickit too'em. ;)

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's the gist of it. Until now, if you wanted to sell 'white whiskey,' whether using that name or not, you had to cheat a little by letting it briefly touch wood and thereby earn the 'whiskey' classification. I say 'cheat' because that wood contact, however insignificant, is 'aging,' so technically you can't call that product 'unaged.'

There has, however, been a tacit understanding that it's a distinction without a difference. Spirit so 'aged' is not aged in any meaningful sense.

I suppose it's admirable that JD refused to cheat, but look where that leaves us? Without a working definition for neutral spirit.

I've tried to think of how to classify true white dog but I can't come up with anything. The regs don't admit to the possibility of truly unaged whiskey.

But this solution is untenable. Why? Because 140 proof spirit is not neutral.

BMc said...

Chuck, do you have ideas as to why BF might have pursued this designation? Do you think "neutral spirit" is less scary to people who don't drink whiskey?

Bradley J. Weidemann said...

Chuck, I definitely follow you. But what is it, in your opinion? Do the regulations have a catch-all category for something that doesn't meet any of the above requirements?

Tim Dellinger said...

The TTB is caught in the rub here, and they're doing what they can. I have one question, and one Modest Proposal.

My question: when is the "right" time for re-writing the law? Setting aside the lack of political modivation, of course. I see lots of change in the marketplace these days: the acceptance of flavored whiskies (Red Stag, etc.) is a surprise to the purists, as is the rise of unaged and under-aged whiskies. Start-ups (as they do in all markets) will innovate with disregard to existing notions. I'm not sure that the dust has settled with respect to how the whiskey shelf is changing, so I don't know when the labeling rules should be re-written. There are good arguments on both sides of the now vs. later question.

So here's my Modest Proposal: seeing as how the definition of the word whiskey can already be bent to include additives such as distilled orange juice, I don't see the purity of the word as something that has to be protected. Although it's an integral part of the character of whiskey, I'm perfectly happy removing the wood aging requirement from the definition. We'll be fine without it.

Tim Dellinger

Chuck Cowdery said...

"Spirit Specialty" is the catch-all. You can see why JD wouldn't like that.

Capn Jimbo's Rum Project said...

As always, great stuff Cowdery, thank you!

To further muddy the white waters (pun intended), let's not also forget Canadian Whiskey. Davin de Kergommeaux in his book of the same name (CW) swears up and down that Canadian Whiskey is not, I repeat NOT made with GNS (grain neutral spirits) - which as you mentioned is distilled at 95% (190 proof).

Yet in the book he also details how Alberta Distillers (and others) DO use what is called "Canadian Whiskey Spirits" (CWS) which is distilled at around 94.5%!

Technically NOT GNS, but practically - it's as neutral as you can get without being vodka or GNS. And in this case a whole class of spirits - Canadian Whiskey - therefore is what amounts to vodka flavored with a bit of flavoring whiskies (which are distilled closer to 70%).

Thanks for exposing yet another big chunk of hypocrisy in the world of spirits. Most commentators won't touch these subject. Thank god that you do!

Chuck Cowdery said...

To be fair, nearly-neutral Canadian whiskey is aged a minimum of three years, unlike GNS.

Anonymous said...

It has been 10 months since the last post. Did the TTB ever reply?

Chuck Cowdery said...

TTB doesn't reply directly, but Jack Daniel's changed their label. See this post from January.

Anonymous said...

In case you needed another reason why the TTB needs to update these regs, consider the fact that makers of barrel-aged gin can't advertise their gin as barrel-aged.

Hoke Harden said...

This need not have been an issue---except that JD did not want to accept the closest analogy. Brandy, the other widely ranging spirit class, made of fruit, not grain, is defined as a fruit spirit (less than 190 Proof), and aged in wood. If not aged for at least two years, it must be labeled "Immature Brandy."

So Jack could have called the spirit in question "Immature Whiskey" in conformance to an existing practice. Yeah, like they were going to do that.

I would accept "Unaged Whiskey", but grudgingly, since the definition clearly states "aged in an oak barrel". How can it be whiskey if it is not aged?

The other way to avoid this entire brouhaha (well, maybe not) would be to classify it as "Special Product"---which it is because it doesn't fit the existing definitions of classes.

Of the three possibilities, I'd choose "Special Product", because it really says nothing and leaves the definition moot.