Chuck is a leading authority on American whiskey and, of course, one of Malt Advocate magazine’s regular feature writers. He also has a great blog you should be checking out. He’s here to clear up all the confusion about those subtle nuances of American whiskey regulations. Take it away Chuck. (And feel free to ask that question you always wanted the answer to.)
There is a lot of activity in the distilled spirits world right now, much of it at the intersection of production, marketing, and government regulation. Tuthilltown’s sale of its Hudson Whiskey line to William Grant & Sons has raised questions about differences between American and European definitions of whiskey, which have nothing to do with how the word is spelled and everything to do with how and for how long the spirit is aged.
Alcoholic beverages also seem prone to myths, some of which die hard. Although bourbon whiskey is strongly associated with Kentucky, for example, there is no law restricting its manufacture to that state. Many people also believe that Kentucky is the only state name that can appear on a bourbon label but that’s false too. There are similar myths about the relationship between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.
The actual rules can all easily be found in one place, the Code of Federal Regulations, title 27, part 5, subpart C. The rules apply to all products sold inside the United States, whether made here or imported.
The rules don’t restrict what producers can make, just what they can call it.
They can be confusing.
One easy way to understand them is as a hierarchy or winnowing. The legal definition of “alcohol” is very broad. The definition of “whiskey” is more narrow and the definition of “bourbon whiskey” is even more restrictive. Each level incorporates the requirements of the one below.
To simply use the term “whiskey” the spirit has to be made from grain, distilled at less than 190° proof (95% ABV), and stored in oak containers. The rules don’t say anything about the type of oak container (new, used, charred, toasted. etc.), nor barrel entry proof, nor minimum age.
European Union (EU) rules are the same except they require a minimum of three years in wood.
For a product to be labeled “bourbon whiskey” it has to meet tighter requirements. The mash must be at least 51% corn, the distillation proof has to be less than 160° proof (80% ABV), the barrel entry proof has to be less than 125° proof (62.5% ABV), and the oak containers have to be new and charred, but there is still no minimum age specified.
Hence Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey may be just three months old and legal in the USA, while in the EU it can be called bourbon, but not whiskey.
That brings us to “straight bourbon whiskey,” which has to comply with all of the above plus spend at least two years in wood. Why the word “straight” was chosen to mean “aged in wood for at least two years” I cannot explain.
Finishes and infusions are another controversial area. Many people have argued, incorrectly, that Red Stag by Jim Beam forfeited the right to call itself bourbon by adding a maceration of black cherries and other flavors. Some are raising similar concerns about the new Maker’s Mark 46, which spends a little time in what are technically used barrels, with additional un-charred wood surfaces added. Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam, and Buffalo Trace have all used wood finishes, comparable to single malt scotch finished in sherry casks.
The best way to understand finishes and flavorings is that just as you can’t un-ring a bell, you can’t un-bourbon a bourbon. What you get when you add something to it is “bourbon and…” The official description of Maker’s 46, for example, is “Kentucky bourbon whiskey barrel-finished with oak staves.”
The purpose of these regulations is not to protect the purity of bourbon, it is to ensure that consumers know exactly what they’re buying.