Thursday, April 28, 2022

Why 'Straight Bourbon' Does Not Mean 'Straight Bourbon'

It may not mean what you think.

'Straight bourbon' does not mean 'straight bourbon.' 


Said another way, the legal meaning of the term 'straight bourbon' is different from the ordinary meaning of the term. This is a never-ending source of confusion and consternation for many.

The dictionary says the word 'straight,' when referring to an alcoholic drink, means undiluted, the same as 'neat,' and gives the example of "straight brandy." This is the ordinary understanding of what 'straight' means in that context, a beverage served as-is, with nothing added. We use this meaning in everyday speech. "Give it to me straight" means "tell me the truth." 

Many whiskey enthusiasts very logically extend that understanding of 'straight' to insist that a whiskey with flavoring or a secondary barrel finish or anything else done to it whatsoever cannot and should not be labeled 'straight bourbon,' even with a modifier. It is no longer straight. That is, it is no longer just bourbon, something has been done to it. Maybe it's now flavored bourbon, but it's not straight bourbon.

They believe products so labeled are mislabeled due to the incompetence of regulators, the cupidity of producers, the chicanery of marketers, the duplicity of spirits journalists, or all the above. 

Whatever the reason, they are having none of it.

But their indignation is misplaced.

What 'straight' means when it precedes the word 'bourbon' on a liquor label, whether bracketed by 'Kentucky' and 'whiskey' or not, is not the ordinary meaning of 'straight' as 'undiluted.' The same goes for 'straight rye' or the generic 'straight whiskey.' In the context of spirits labeling, as regulated by the U. S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau, 'straight bourbon' is a term-of-art, which is itself defined as “a word or phrase that has a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field or profession.” 

The specialized meaning of a word or phrase can even, as in this case, contradict the ordinary meaning, or seem to. The two meanings in this case are certainly incompatible, hence confusion and consternation.

Here's the deal. On a label, 'straight bourbon' does not mean 'nothing but bourbon.' 'Straight bourbon' means bourbon whiskey (which is itself a term-of-art precisely defined in the regulations) that has been stored in a new charred oak barrel for at least two years.

That is the entire definition of 'straight whiskey,' which covers straight bourbon, straight rye and any other straight whiskey. It doesn't mean the term-of-art and the ordinary meaning. Just the term-of-art meaning applies. There is nothing about additives, nothing about filtration, nothing about finishes.

The term 'straight whiskey' gained its specialized meaning because of a presidential proclamation more than a century ago. Like the president president? Yes, William Howard Taft. Whiskey is that important.

Because the term-of-art overrides the ordinary meaning in this context, the ordinary meaning of 'straight' does not apply unless you say “straight straight bourbon” or "straight bourbon, straight," and I’m sure no one wants that.

Therefore, if a label says, "Straight bourbon finished in a mango chutney barrel," that is a true statement of the bottle's contents and as disgusting as it sounds, that is what the law allows and, in fact, requires; an accurate statement of the bottle's contents.

Monday, April 25, 2022

New Basil Hayden Release May be a Good Choice for Fans of Extremely Old Bourbon

Very old bourbons, say 15-years and up, are not for everyone. Wood dominates, especially the acrid notes of char and ash. If that sort of thing appeals to you, and it does to many, the present limited availability and high cost of those products may be a source of vexation. Now comes a possible solution in Basil Hayden Subtle Smoke from Beam Suntory. 

The suggested retail is $49.99, but it seems to be running in the $60-$70 range. Even at that price it is more affordable than genuine very-olds like Elijah Craig 18 or Eagle Rare 17, if you can even find those at retail. It is a one-off, but it should be generally available until it’s not. (Their limited editions are not all that limited.) Point is, if you act now, you might actually get to drink it.

Make no mistake. This is not a very-old. It is standard Basil Hayden bourbon, most likely 6- to 8-years old (the 8-year age statement was dropped a few years back), with a secondary barrel finish. The finishing barrel is toasted and lightly charred, then they pump hickory-chip smoke into the barrel and through the whiskey. Nobody is claiming this as a ‘rapid aging’ technology, but it has that effect on the flavor. It tastes old-ish.

They maybe didn’t need to go to so much trouble. The end result is similar to Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, which they get by soaking, heating, and agitating freshly emptied barrels, then mixing that wash with the straight whiskey.

Like most work-around solutions, this one has drawbacks. Although Basil Hayden has become an almost-anything-goes experimental platform for Beam Suntory with secondary barrel finishes, flavorings like port wine and other innovations, they are sticking with the brand’s 80° proof hallmark (40% ABV). This, they say, is what makes Basil Hayden ‘approachable,’ one of the brand's key attributes, and while that is generally true they might want to pause it for this product. Despite the name, the effect is not that subtle, which is all to the good for folks who like this sort of thing.

Another deficiency is the body. It comes off thin because char overpowers the vanilla and wood sugars a high-rye bourbon like Basil Hayden relies on for backbone.

As for it being ‘smoky,’ it is smoky in the way that a very old bourbon is smoky. It is nothing like a smoky scotch. That is peat smoke and there is nothing like that here. It is hickory, after all, campfire smoke or, if you prefer, bacon smoke. (But it doesn’t taste like bacon either, more’s the pity.)

There are some blends out there that also simulate that very-old effect. Whether it's Beam Suntory's Little Book or American craft blends from independents such as Lost Lantern and 50 State, expanding your search beyond known double-digit age statements and opening your mind a little to different ways of getting there might just yield the taste you are looking for at a price you can afford from a bottle you actually can go to the store and buy, and wouldn't that be a nice change-of-pace?

Monday, April 18, 2022

A Long Time Ago in a Congressional District Far, Far Away


Kentucky's 5th Congressional District

In my marketing career, I had only one experience as a professional political operative when the advertising agency I worked for was hired to make and place TV commercials for a candidate running in a primary.

The office in question was Representative for Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District. The 5th is in the southeastern corner of the state. Then and now, the district is rural and sparsely populated. In those days, leading up to the 1980 election, Kentucky was still mostly Democratic, but not the 5th. It was just as solidly Republican. This was a legacy, I was told, of Cassius Clay, the 19th century abolitionist who was a founder of the Republican Party. The mountainous region never had much slavery, I was told, so it had no Southern sympathies and had always voted Republican. 

It was my first taste of what Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

The incumbent was Tim Lee Carter, who had decided to retire at age 70 after holding the job for 16 years. It was universally understood that the winner of the Republican primary would win the general and could hold the seat indefinitely. The 5th didn't change its representative unless the current one retired or died. That’s how it was done in the 5th. 

For ambitious Republican politicians in southeastern Kentucky, this primary was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When the dust settled, ten candidates made the ballot. 

My employer was a typical Louisville advertising agency, not a political specialist. I had worked there for about two years. I was their radio and TV guy. I was 28.

Our clients included a regional convenience store chain, a regional drug store chain, a distillery (it being Kentucky), a bank, a lunchmeat maker, the usual mix. We would create and place TV ads for the candidate. The campaign would do the rest, whatever ‘the rest’ was. 

The situation was unusual in that there were no television stations in the district. There was no cable, no streaming, all TV was over-the-air. The district was served by stations in Lexington and Knoxville. We explained that the cost-per-thousand would be insane but there was no other way to reach the district’s voters by television.

In terms of size, we were the #3 agency in the state, but our media buyer was highly regarded. I think her reputation is why we got the gig. The media buy would be tricky. 

I didn’t have a dog in the fight, it was just an assignment, but the project yielded a few memorable experiences. I recall one early meeting where we presented the project budget. When we revealed the total, the campaign manager made a few taps on his calculator and remarked, “for that I can buy every Republican in the district a pint of Jack Daniel’s.”

I am proud of my reply.

“Sir, if you can figure out how to do that, I think the money would be better spent.”

He laughed.

Another memory is from the shoot itself. It was outdoors, in the district. I remember a lot of driving to different locations, but I don’t remember where they were. The commercials were simple, just the candidate speaking to camera in some appropriate setting. It probably was my first trip to that part of the state, which is very hilly. For one scene we choose a nice spot for the candidate to stand, with rolling hills in the background, fading off in the distance, and I experienced vertigo because there was no level ground, no way to get my bearings, no matter where I looked.

I don’t remember who was on the crew, but I remember it was fun. I recall driving up and down all those southeastern Kentucky hills in a big, black Lincoln, as one does.

(Actually, we got the Lincoln because the trunk was big enough to hold the gear, it was more comfortable than a van, and the candidate was driving the same model, so it looked kind of cool. They thought it might create some buzz.)

Although we were not political specialists, we knew enough to take a baseline survey to figure out where the various candidates stood with voters before the campaign began. The retiring incumbent announced that he would not make an endorsement, and he didn't, but it was generally understood that his long-time chief-of-staff had the inside track. Sure enough, that guy finished first in the baseline. Our guy was a member of the state legislature who happened to be the frontrunner’s cousin, with the same last name. He ranked third in our baseline. 

Considering that this was the first competitive election for that office in 16 years, no one had any idea how it would go or what might move the needle of voter opinion. The campaign hadn’t even begun. It looked like maybe half the field would have enough money to do something, but that kind of election in that kind of district, who the hell knows what will happen? Surely people will do whatever they do before an election, to decide who they want, and the various campaign efforts will have an effect. Something will happen, right?

So, we all did our thing. We made and ran our commercials. Being a primary, it was pretty much one-and-done. There was no opportunity for mid-course corrections. There was no way to tell if our efforts were having any effect until the votes were cast and counted.

Our guy lost. 

His cousin, the incumbent’s chief-of-staff, won. 

What’s more, the election results corresponded almost exactly to the results of our original survey. The ranking was exactly the same and the vote shares were more-or-less the same. Everything we and all the other campaigns did, all the money we spent, had zero effect on voters. None. I kept thinking, if only we could have done that pints-of-Jack thing.

This memory came up today because Don Young died last month. Young held Alaska’s only House seat for 49 years, which made him the House’s longest-serving member, its ‘dean.’ Upon Young’s death the new dean became Hal Rogers, the man who won that primary 42 years ago. He still represents Kentucky’s 5th and is now Dean of the United States House of Representatives. 

John Wanamaker, of the famous Philadelphia department store, is reputed to have said, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half.” This one time, I knew.