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.


Chris Middleton said...

There is ambiguity in the word-worlds of being straight, especially when applied to the manufacture of American whiskey. Its semantic origins can be traced back to the post-Civil War years in Kentucky and surrounding States, around the early 1870s, when the whiskey trade began using this descriptor. It was a colloquial expression by distillers and wholesalers to differentiate bourbon made on American patent steam stills and by the old plan (pots stills) from rectified and blended whiskey starting to proliferate. Rectifiers and compounders had set up businesses in cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Nashville, using a range of rectification techniques to strip the common whiskey of undesirable flavors and noxious fusel oils. The new continuous beer stills were also coming into production, making highly rectified and purer whiskey and spirits at much high proofs. The word ‘pure’ was a term the rectifiers adopted as they could claim their whiskey was cleaner, safer and purer of congeners than traditionally made whiskey. The Scotch industry evolved around a different definition, where they adopted the term pure to describe whisky mashed exclusively with malted barley. Whereas American straight whiskey was mainly mixed grains, the exception being rye 100% (with malted rye in the mash bill) and only a couple of pure malt distilleries on the east coast during the 19th century.

The term straight meant honest, unadulterated, ‘straight-shooting’ and even wholesome whiskey for the American trade. By the 1880s, the term was widely used throughout the whiskey trade, industry associations and in official documents. The acquisition spree by the Kentucky Distilleries and Cattle Feeders Trust led to the trade journals by 1886 reporting the output of straight whiskey (bourbon, rye and malt) versus ‘continuous goods;’ or high proof spirit from the ‘High Wines Trust.’ Ironically, Kentucky’s best whiskey distilleries refused to label their whiskey as straight bourbon or straight rye, which they believed an inferior product, until the 1910 Decision. Instead, they called their whiskey ‘all copper distilled, (sometimes hand-made) sour mash whiskey’, or simply ‘Premium Kentucky whiskey.’

The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and finally, President Taft’s 1910 decision on defining straight versus blended whiskey, established this class of whiskey in the statutes. From August 1935, the FAAA set the first product identity on straight whiskey, under definitions and articles for American whiskeys, and the leading imported foreign whiskies, i.e., Scotland, Ireland and Canada.

dramdevotee said...

I don't think Taft is helpful in your argument. He never said that straight whiskey was 2 years old. He only said that straight whiskey was understood in the trade to be aged in wood. He even said that bourbon had more fusel oils which were considered poison, but that his decision was not to determine the health of a product but the truth in labeling of whiskey products. I'm still not clear on when the law made straight whiskey two years old. Do you know? I have documents showing that straight ryes, bourbons, and malt whiskeys were advertised as being "aged for at least 18 months" in 1937. I can't seem to find any documentation showing that legal establishment of 2 years being the baseline. Or when it was established that four years was the age that the bottle didn't have to list the specific age over two years? Thanks!

dramdevotee said...

Nevermind. I finally found it in my notes. It was after Prohibition that the age destinction was set.(excerpt from the 1935 act establishing standards for whiskey)-
(b) Straight whiskey is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain distilled from a fermented mash of grain distilled at not exceeding 160 proof and withdrawn from the cistern room at not more than 110 and not less than 80 proof, whether or not such proof is further reduced prior to bottling to not less than 80 proof, and is-
(1) Aged for not less than 12 calendar months if bottled on or after July 1, 1936, and before July 1, 1937; or
(2) Aged for not less than 18 calendar months if bottled on or after July 1, 1937, and before July 1, 1938; or
(3) Aged for not less than 24 calendar months if bottled on or after July 1, 1938.

Chris Middleton said...

Point of historical clarity. In the preamble to enact the June 30th, 1906, Pure Food and Drug Act affecting whiskey, expert panels (e.g., Wiley’s Division of Chemistry, Food Standards Committee) and Government committees examined the different grain formulas labelled whiskey, their ‘boiling points’, still types to the presence of high alcohols in some classes of whiskey manufacture. Despite much lobbying by industry bodies, notably the straight whiskey distillers led by Edmund Taylor jr., the Act did not delineate between different cereal mashed distilled spirits products. The influential National Wholesale Liquor Dealers, the rectifiers trade organization, and the most voluminous whiskey producers in America prevailed.

President Willian Taft’s Decision on December 27th, 1909, titled ‘What is Whiskey’, was not only helpful; it was the most crucial decision mandating the legal classification of straight whiskey. ‘Straight whiskey must be branded as such hereafter; manufacturers may use the word “Bourbon” or “Rye” as the facts warrant.’ The Decision ‘defines what could be called “straight whiskey”, what was “blended whiskey”, and finally what was “imitation whiskey.”’ Therefore, Taft’s Decision established straight whiskey's product identity and labelling definition. Thereafter (post-Prohibition), modifications were made to the specifications of the product identity of straight whiskey. Such as, on July 1st, 1936, straight whiskey (e.g., rye, bourbon, malt, wheat) could no longer age in used cooperage or European oak ‘must be stored in a charred white oak container,’ effective July 1st, 1938.

Anonymous said...

I’d just like to add that just because a company was a rectifier doesn’t mean they weren’t bottling a pure product. Often rectifying houses were highly respected blending houses that purchased whiskeys from distilleries and simply stored the whiskey in barrels in their own aging warehouses. Nothing was adulterated, as their costumers demanded pure, aged products. Their rectifying license did allow them to alter the product, but that doesn’t mean that they did. In fact, they often did not.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Very true, and a good addition. Thank you.