Monday, February 16, 2015

Whiskey and the Perils of Popularity

Whiskey is popular again, especially American whiskey (e.g., bourbon, rye). That means the liquid itself is popular but it also means the idea of whiskey is popular, which means producers will lead you to believe you are drinking whisky when you are not.

This is nothing new in the United States. We are the only country in the world that allows an unaged distillate (corn whiskey) to call itself whiskey, and we are the only one that allows a product that is 80 percent vodka to call itself whiskey, i.e., blended whiskey. We even allow a product that is merely 5 percent whiskey to call itself 'spirit whiskey.'

Today, the issue is so-called 'flavored whiskeys,' none of which use the TTB's Section 5.22 (i) Class 9, the rule where flavored whiskey is defined as " which [has] been added natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, and bottled at not less than 60° proof."

Most of these products, and all of the most popular ones (Fireball, Jack Daniel's Honey) are distilled spirit specialties, a catch-all category that isn't really a category at all. The rule is simply that the label must display "a truthful and adequate statement of composition." So Fireball is allowed to be called 'Cinnamon Whisky,' defined below in smaller type as 'whisky with natural cinnamon flavor.' Red Stag by Jim Beam is 'Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused with Natural Flavors,' as is Knob Creek Smoked Maple. Crown Royal Regal Apple and Crown Royal Maple Finished are 'a blend of whiskies infused with natural flavors.'

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, like Fireball one of the most popular flavored products, goes a different route. It is 'Honey Liqueur Blended with Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.' The flavored products from Wild Turkey, Evan Williams, and Rebel Yell use similar language.

With the 'whiskey with...' products such as Red Stag and Fireball, you at least know all of the alcohol in the product is whiskey. That's not true when one of the ingredients is a liqueur. When you see the word 'liqueur' on the label, it is likely that some of the alcohol in the product is grain neutral spirit, i.e., vodka, and you can't be sure how much.

But here is a clue. Section 5.22 (h) (2) defines 'rye liqueur' and 'bourbon liqueur.' Nobody uses that classification either. Why not? Probably because it requires that the product derive at least 51 percent of its alcohol from the named whiskey type. It is safe to assume, then, that the liqueur component of these products does not meet that minimum standard. When the label says 'liqueur and whiskey' you have no idea what the ratios are, so it's possible that most of the alcohol in the product is actually vodka,

None of this is presented as a criticism of any product, company, or consumer. It is an exercise intended to keep me sharp (interpreting the rules is hard) and help all of us know what we are really drinking.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this.

Does this mean that Jack Honey (an awful thing) is actually likely more vodka than it is Jack "whiskey?"

I appreciate that producers like Jack and Jim and Evan and the like all want lots of brands to sell to different folks, but honestly, most of it is junk.

To me, as a bourbon person, all of this junk just diminishes the reputation of the core bourbons. I suppose that's a sacrifice they're all willing to take. And perhaps it's this dilution of the core brands that provides an opening to all the thousands of "artisanal distillers" and artisanal rebottlers of Indiana's finest.


Chuck Cowdery said...

We don't know the ratios for any of these products but it's possible that in some or all of them, most of the alcohol is vodka. This is desirable because vodka is so much cheaper to make.

Anonymous said...

I think you're trying hard to avoid this conclusion that if it's mainly vodka then they are falsely advertising.
But then again, Chuck, if there were honesty in advertising one might find the term "junk," "dreck," or "sludge" on the labels. And that ain't gonna happen.

Unknown said...

Ahhh Chuck!

One of my pet peeve issues. "Distilled Spirit Specialties" is a term that is not even defined by the TTB in any regulation so good luck trying to get a handle on that term. I was able to trace its earliest usage in any documentation to TTB- Industry Circular Number: 89-3 (page 6). Were the TTB wrote:

"Formulated distilled spirits products not conforming to one of the classes described in 27 CFR 5.22 must be identified as "Distilled Spirits Specialty" in Item 1 of the form."

It frustrating to say the least, even products like Michter's Toasted Oak "might" be a "Distilled Spirits Specialty". But don't ask me I just know that I don't know. My default is to see if a Formula was filed with the TTB label request. If one was its a "Distilled Spirit Specialty and not a straight whisky or bourbon. At least to me.

So from now on I look for Bottled in Bond and Straight on the label and leave it at that.

Nice article Chuck!!


Anonymous said...

As a distiller we spend our days trying to figure out what flavors a customer would enjoy, as an unadulterated sipping or "straight" beverage, and then blend that in-house. We do that primarily with known universal flavors like honey, cinnamon, maple, etc.,

We don't fill a fridge with orange juice, coke, ginger ale , fruit punch, bitters, olives, syrup, etc. and make our products in a manner or taste to fit a coctail. We leave that for vodka companies.
After we develop a flavor profile that we feel the public would desire, we undertake the arduous task of trying to get a formula and label approved based on two things.
1) what we understand to be the rules and regulations concerning the product we made.
2) what we see that other distilleries have used as label and standards of identity for similar products.

This is of course where the problems lie, because
companies end up calling their products something different, because the TTB gives different and conflicting approvals for identical products.

Right now we have formula approvals pending that are both identical in base, with only the flavor being changed. We are being told by two different examiners, conflicting definitions for the standards of identity.

The process of labeling and formula is broken. It was fine when the industry was basically a monopoly, of a few big companies just pumping out the same old stuff year after year, with occasional fake stories about how this years blend was different than last years.

However now that craft has pushed the envelope by offering up new straight flavors, the lines are getting blurred.

Don't blame the distillers for a problem outside of our/their control. We are just doing what we are told to do.

Anonymous said...

[re above comment] Interesting. Why did s/he choose not to identify him/herself?