Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Strange Story of How Light Whiskey Saved Bourbon

In honor of Bourbon, Strange, approaching its first anniversary next month, I thought I would share a few excerpts over the next few days. The bit below is from the chapter, "The Unlikely Story of How Light Whiskey Saved Bourbon." To just buy the book already, click here.

In 1972, a new type of whiskey debuted in the United States. It was called ‘light whiskey.’

Light whiskey was supposed to save the American whiskey industry from ‘unfair’ foreign competition. It was the drink Americans were supposed to be clamoring for, made like the imports but tailored to American tastes. It was expected to capture 10 to 12 percent of the U.S. distilled spirits market by 1982.

It didn’t. More likely than not, you’ve never heard of ‘light whiskey.’

In the late 1960s, after more than two decades of powerful growth, American whiskey sales suddenly stalled. The industry identified foreign competition as one of the causes.

Compared to traditional American whiskeys such as bourbon and rye, the whiskeys of Scotland, Ireland and Canada are generally distilled at a much higher proof, entered into barrels at a higher proof, and the barrels are mostly used, not new as American law requires. This makes them cheaper to produce, which American distillers felt put them at an unfair competitive disadvantage.

The rules put in place at the end of Prohibition had closely followed the rules passed in 1906, in the Pure Food and Drug Act, which were refined by the Taft Decision in 1909. Then the ‘unfair competition’ was rectifiers who sold compound whiskey, concoctions that often contained no whiskey at all. Back then, distillers wanted strict standards the rectifiers could not meet. Imports weren’t even on the radar.

Sixty years later, imports were kicking ass. They had a lighter taste profile which American drinkers increasingly seemed to prefer. American producers could make a similar product, but the rules required them to label it in ways that diminished its marketability. There were certain terms they were not allowed to use in regard to such a product, such as ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ and ‘straight rye whiskey.’ And there were certain terms they were required to use, such as ‘aged in used cooperage.’ The imports merely had to be labeled here the same way they were labeled in their home countries, another ‘unfair advantage.’

As a solution, several of the large American producers proposed rule changes that would allow them to adopt some of the foreign practices and still call their products ‘straight bourbon whiskey’ or ‘straight rye whiskey.’ If American consumers saw the familiar phrases, it was reasoned, they might not notice that the products had changed.

The proposal was made to the predecessor agency of today’s TTB. Then as now, the agency regulated spirits producers by controlling what could and could not be printed on labels.

In January of 1968, the agency rejected most of the proposals and explained its reasoning in a nine page ‘Industry Circular.’ Instead of the changes the producers wanted, the agency created a new type designation, ‘light whiskey,’ based on the import model.

In explaining why it decided not to allow producers to call the new products bourbon, rye or straight, it observed that spirits made in the proposed way would “generally lack the distinguishing characteristics of such whiskies.” To call these products “straight bourbon” or “straight rye” would be misleading and not “in the interests of the consumer.”

So ‘light whiskey’ was created instead to identify domestic whiskeys made like the imports. In support of this new designation and its associated rules, the circular mentioned “several studies” that “proved conclusively that whiskies distilled at more than 160° proof mature satisfactorily in used cooperage.” As further evidence, it noted that, “Canadian, Scotch, and Irish whiskies are composed primarily of whisky so matured.”

The agency also found that higher distillation proof “produces a distillate containing less pronounced natural flavoring components (both desirable and undesirable ones). Thus a smaller amount of wood extractives is needed to produce a balanced, palatable whisky.”

They even declared that aging these lighter products in new charred barrels was probably a bad idea since, “the storing of such whisky in charred new oak containers would not produce a balanced whisky since it would be overburdened with wood extractives.” Scotch producers, then and now, use similar language to explain their preference for used bourbon barrels.

The same reasoning was applied to barrel entry proof. “Consistent with the higher distillation proof, such whiskies may be properly entered for storage at proofs higher than 125°.”

The new rules allowed makers of this new ‘light whiskey’ to use age statements similar to those permitted for imported whiskeys, which did not specify the type of cooperage used. Since the consumer could reasonably assume anything labeled ‘light whiskey’ was aged in used barrels, it was unnecessary to call it out.

According to a Time Magazine article published in April, 1971, Schenley, Seagram’s, National Distillers, American Distilling, and Publicker – the industry’s giants – were leading the light whiskey charge. They expected to have 200 million gallons of it in inventory by 1972.

Time wrote, “they are betting that the drink will appeal to changing American taste, especially among young people and women, who generally demand a ‘light’ liquor. No one can even predict with certainty how light whisky will taste until it has matured a legal minimum of four years; in its present unripened state it somewhat resembles whisky-flavored vodka.”

Time was mistaken about the legal minimum. There was none.

Joseph Haefelin, American Distilling's vice president and research director, spoke for all believers when he said, "Light whisky will make it because it is in tune with the times."

He was so wrong. It wasn’t and it didn’t.


Richnimrod said...

Light Whiskey......

Died a prompt and well-deserved death....

May it ever rest in peaceful repose, never to be marketed again.

Hope Hope Hope.....

Rick said...

I don't see the difference between this, and many of the new products coming out ie: "moonshine" and "aged .2 years"...

on that note, I actually have two bottles of brown-formans Frost 8/80. looks awful :D


Harry said...

Once upon a time in the mid-1970s, I went to a charity (i.e., NONpolitical) fundraiser here in WashDC. Got talking with a guy at the open bar about the whiskey selection - Jack Daniels and Dewars were our only choices. I mentioned Frost 8/80. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him that, although I could not drink it neat or with ice or water, it mixed well with fruit juices but was best when mixed with applesauce. I also noted that it had disappeared from the store shelves already. Only then did he tell me he was a regional rep for Brown Forman and that it would NEVER come back. The rest of his comments about it were off the record.

So, Rick, if you really want to get rid of it, mix it with applesauce.

Anonymous said...

There may be some truth in the argument that light whiskey didn't catch on, however the real answer lies not in more people drinking "bourbons of standard description" but instead that the American whiskey industry is following in the footstep of flavored vodka. No matter what you may think, a product like Jack Daniels cinnamon Fire, Is completely different than bourbon, yet its sales are categorized as such, just because there is 20+/-% bourbon mixed in with the vodka, corn syrup and flavoring that makes up the majority of the bottle.

Personally I would take a clean higher proof real whiskey over a bottle of bourbon cough syrup any day of the week. But if you think it's important to pretend that you're drinking "real bourbon" than as P.T. Barnum said ..........

Anonymous said...

American Light Whiskey was a product for which no market existed and none could be created by advertising.

Back in the late 1960s to early 1970s I worked for Seagram at a two distillery complex located on Kresson Street in Baltimore, MD that was run out of the now long closed Four Roses plant in Dundalk, MD. One of the two Kresson Street distilleries produced bourbon and rye for use in the Seagram blends and the other produced light whiskey. The light whiskey was distilled to very high proof, 188-189, which was as high as it could get without legally being neutral spirits. Consequently, it had very little flavor and subsequent aging added very little flavor to that.

Seagram was interested in light whiskey for several reasons. Seagram then had a number of fading American whiskey blends: Seagram's 7 Crown, Calvert Extra, Four Roses, Kessler, Carstairs White Seal, Paul Jones, Hunter and Wilson. The market for blends was aging away and the only real American growth market for whiskey in the 1960s was the lighter Canadian blends. A number of them were imported in bulk and bottled in the U.S., which was advantageous for excise tax reasons. These included Canadian Mist, Windsor Supreme, Black Velvet, Canadian LTD, and MacNaughton's. Seagram had several products in this category: Lord Calvert Canadian, Harwood and James Foxe. It was thought that American light whiskey would be more competitive with the Canadian imports and replace the fading American blends.

When American light whiskey could first legally be sold in 1972, Seagram introduced Galaxy Light Whiskey and re-launched the old Four Roses American blend as Four Roses Premium Light Whiskey. Both brands initially had considerable advertising behind them but, like light whiskeys from other producers, never developed much of a market and were eventually discontinued. The strategy of replacing the fading blends with American light whiskey failed. The Kresson Street distillery complex was closed and demolished by 1975 and has been a storage facility for U-Haul vehicles for decades. Closures of a number of other Seagram production facilities followed in later years.

Light whiskey had little flavor and none of the prestige of an import. Back then younger drinkers continued to gravitate toward vodka and rum while the consumers of the older American blends that had been major sellers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were literally dying off. The whiskey revival going strong today was still far in the future.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks for taking the time to share that with us. It's a fascinating chapter in American whiskey history.