Saturday, January 28, 2023

Guess What? None of It Is Whiskey


A mini-bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (L) and a mini-bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Flavored Malt Beverage (R)

"There's no whiskey in mini bottles of Fireball, so customers are suing for fraud," reads the headline on the website for National Public Radio. Yes, even NPR is weighing in on the class action lawsuit involving Sazerac's treasured money tree known as Fireball

NPR explains it like this: "Consumers are suing Sazerac Company, Inc., the makers of Fireball whiskey, for fraud and misrepresentation, as the mini bottles of the alcoholic beverage don't actually contain whiskey. The smaller bottles, named Fireball Cinnamon, are made from a blend of malt beverage and wine, while the whiskey-based products are called Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, according to the company website."

These lawsuits happen from time to time, with similar fact patterns. To say "consumers are suing" is a euphemism for "lawyers see an opportunity to make some money." These suits typically fail if the producer has complied with all legal requirements. 

The wrinkle in this case seems to be use of the term 'whisky flavor' in the description of the non-whisky version.

These cases generate a lot of publicity and Fireball is a product for which there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Is the consumer misled? Plaintiffs argue that consumers intend to buy whiskey. Do they? Or is ethanol what they intend to buy and ingest? Both versions contain ethanol. Both get you buzzed.

And neither is whiskey.

The distilled spirit product gets its alcohol from a base of Canadian whisky, which by style has very mild whiskey flavor. Cover that up with sugar, cinnamon, and other added flavors, and you're not drinking whiskey.

Clearly, many people like these products. There always is a market for sweet drinks. Many so-called 'flavored whiskeys' are liqueurs with vodka (i.e., neutral spirit) as a base. Even products like Jack Daniel's Honey probably contain more vodka (i.e., grain neutral spirit) than they do whiskey. If you see the word 'liqueur' in the product description, that's a tip-off. (Another Fireball variation had liqueur as a base.) Even if a liqueur contains whiskey, it is likely getting most of its alcohol from neutral spirit. Fireball is 'whisky with natural cinnamon flavor,' but its Canadian whisky base is nearly flavorless. Most of the spirit in Canadian whisky is distilled almost to neutrality and aged in used cooperage. 

There are many fine Canadian whiskies on the market, whiskies that taste like whisky. But because it is so mild and doesn't cost much more to make than vodka, bulk Canadian whisky is often the base for flavored whiskey products. Sazerac also exploits the designation 'spirit whiskey,' another nearly-neutral distillate it uses as the base for Southern Comfort, another sugary concoction.

These products are cheap to make. Most of the expense is in marketing. Sazerac has been spending billions on acquisitions and expansion. The success of Fireball is funding a lot of it.

What does whiskey have to do with it? Nothing. Drink these products if you want, really. It's your mouth. Just don't tell yourself you're drinking whiskey. It's kind of great that whiskey is so popular right now that everybody wants to slap that word 'whiskey' on their label. Kind of great, kind of not.

But drink them if you want, it's fine. It just has nothing whatsoever to do with with whiskey. Whiskey should taste like whiskey, not like peanut butter. Whatever Fireball and its kin may or may not contain, they do not taste like whiskey. The legal definition of 'whisky' requires that "the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky." 

In these products, whiskey contributes nothing to the drink except ethanol. Ethanol is made by fermenting sugary water, which can come from cereal grains like corn and barley, fruit like grapes and apples, the sap of maple trees, the honey of bees, or squeezings of sorghum or sugar cane stalks (e.g., White Claw). The fermented liquid can be distilled or not. In the end it's all ethanol in one form or another.

The main thing whiskey contributes to most of these products is the word 'whiskey.' Apparently, the word 'Fireball' works just as well.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Bottled-in-Bond: An Old Law for Modern Times


One of government’s most basic jobs is ensuring that things we buy and use are what they claim to be. Rules enforced by various agencies regulate what can be said about food, medicine, stocks, bonds, insurance, the hidden contents of mattresses, and, of course, whiskey.

In the United States, regulation of whiskey marketing began with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. It is surprisingly lively for a 126-year-old law. 

That is a short preview of my latest "Back In The Day" column, appearing in the Winter issue of Bourbon+ Magazine, which is available now. I have been on the last page of Bourbon+ with my musings on American whiskey history in every issue since #1. This new one begins the magazine's fifth year (and we're on only our third editor). 

BIB was just about dead when craft distilling got going, and the crafts have seized on it as a 'coming of age' milestone. As I write in the piece, "If you want to prove you are a real distillery committed to making and selling mature whiskey you made there yourself, you make a bond." (Click here to read the whole thing.)

The idea of this free sample from the magazine, naturally, is to induce you to subscribe, which I recommend. If you want to start your subscription with this issue, subscribe by February 6th. 

Bourbon+ covers American whiskey and everything around it like no one else. It is a beautiful magazine with good writing that goes nicely with a little 'red likker.' 

If you would like to order a copy of just this issue, click here.

A side note. Since I wrote the column, I have learned that the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was formally repealed in 1979, but the requirements for using the 'Bottled-in-Bond' or 'Bonded' designation were incorporated into the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, administered by the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the United States Treasury Department.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Prohibition Killed More Than Just the Liquor Industry

Chicago's Chapin & Gore in its heyday.
When beverage alcohol was outlawed in 1920, people lost jobs and businesses closed. Economic disruption was widespread, affecting not just distillers, brewers, and vintners, and their associated distributors and retailers, but also coopers, bottle makers, printers, builders, shipping companies, advertising agencies, lawyers, accountants, and other businesses that supplied and supported the industry. 

All that has been documented, but little has been written about the loss of alcohol businesses as engines of economic development, a role they played in many American communities from the colonial period into the 20th century, and may have continued to play but for Prohibition's heavy hand.

The Chapin & Gore Building Today

In the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, we examine this phenomenon through two case studies, one from 19th-century Kentucky, the other from Chicago in the late 19th, early 20th century.

Chapin & Gore, the second example, is remembered today as a whiskey brand, no longer produced, that shows up in auctions, collections, and vintage bottle shops. 

In pre-Prohibition Chicago, Chapin & Gore was the midwestern boomtown's greatest emporium of beverage alcohol and also an important civic leader, functioning as a bank and even building Chicago's first electric plant, providing power to its own building and those around it. In those days before the 3-tier system, it was a producer, distributor and retailer, with six downtown retail stores as well as a saloon and restaurant popular with politicians and business people.

In this issue, we also take a deeper look at a matter broached here last fall, when Maker's Mark debuted its two latest Wood Finishing Series releases. Are Maker's Mark's managers endangering what has made the brand so successful? Read all about it in the new Reader.

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The Bourbon Country Reader is the oldest publication devoted entirely to American whiskey. It is a charming mix of news, history, analysis, and product reviews. Do you worry that advertising spending influences coverage in other publications? No chance of that here since The Bourbon Country Reader is 100 percent reader-supported. It accepts no advertising.

To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail, which just went up, again.

Nevertheless, a subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is a mere $25 per year for addresses in the USA, $32 USD for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less (this one is a little late), but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 21, Number 4. 

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