What Consumers Should Know Before Buying Whiskey

According to the United States Code of Federal regulations, whiskey that carries the name of a grain must be made of a mash that contains a minimum of 51% of the grain.  Bourbon whiskey must be made from a mash continuing a minimum of 51% corn, but the mash from which corn whiskey is made must be made of no less than 80% corn (maize).

Unless the whiskey has been labeled as blended, in order to be labeled as any of the above types, it must be distilled to 160 proof or not greater than 80% alcohol by volume.  This ensures the flavor provided by the original mash is retained adequately.  Adding caramel, coloring or other flavoring agents is prohibited.  All grain whiskey, except corn whiskey, requires aging for at least a brief time, although there are no minimum standards established, in new oak charred containers.  Consumers should understand that these restrictions do not affect products with similar names that originate in other countries, such as Canada.  American corn whiskey requires no aging at all, however if it is to be aged, it must be in used or uncharred barrels made of oak.  Normally, this means that if corn whiskey is aged, it will be in used bourbon barrels.

The term straight whiskey is applied to a beverage that has been distilled to 160 proof and one that has been aged for a minimum of two years, at a beginning alcohol maximum of 62.5% and may not be blended with other types of alcohol, additives or coloring.  Straight whiskey that is made of a mash containing at least 51% of a specific grain other than corn or 80% corn mash, can be labeled by containing the word straight with the grain name, bourbon or corn as specified.  In addition, a straight whiskey must be aged for a minimum of four years in a warehouse that is federally bonded, bottled at 100 proof, and the product of a single distilling season may be labeled as bond whiskey.

Unqualified whiskey is a beverage that can be distilled to as high as 190 proof, but must be stored in oak barrels, again for an unspecified time frame, bottled at a minimum of 80 proof and cannot state the name of any grain on the bottle. Unqualified whiskey must not be labeled on the bottle as straight.

Consumers will also find there are certain other kinds of whiskey bottled in the United States that federal code has defined.  These whiskeys include the following types:

Blended whiskey is a mixed type of whiskey containing straight whiskey or a straight whiskey blend that cannot be less than 20% on the proof gallon basis either separately or when in combination, with other natural spirits or whiskey.  The 80% that does not consist of straight whiskey can include un-aged grain alcohol distillates, flavorings, grain neutral spirits, colorings and flavorings.

In order to be labeled as light whiskey in the USA, a product is required to be at least 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) and stored in uncharred new barrels or used oak containers.

Spirit whiskey, includes a mixture of natural spirits.  It must contain a minimum of 5% of certain types of whiskey subject to the stricter categories.

Consumers must also realize that when products are distilled in the USA for export, they are not subject to these labeling requirements or standards of identity.  This means that buying a favorite name brand of whiskey when outside the USA one may not receive the higher quality purchased from stores within the USA.  Thus that bargain bottle of whiskey purchased on a cruise ship may not meet the standards of the bottle bought at a local liquor store, even though both were produced in the United States.

Tennessee whiskey is another important mark on the American label.  Currently, there are only five brands of Tennessee whiskey being bottled:  Collier and McKeel, Jailers, Benjamin Prichard’s, George Dickel, and of course the ever famous Jack Daniel’s.  Of these five brands, all except one use the Lincoln county process, that involves a filtering stage.  In this stage, the whiskey is filtered through maple charcoal before being placed in the casks for aging. Under NAFTA, Canadian law and at least one other trade agreement, Tennessee whiskey is a recognized name for straight Bourbon Whiskey that has been produced legally in the state of Tennessee that has not been officially recognized as some other type of whiskey within federal regulation and does not have any other strict definition under the law.

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