This may be a surprise to some people, but not all “whiskey” is actually whiskey!
If you buy whiskey from Scotland, Ireland, or Canada, there are laws that ensure that what the bottle says is what it contains. In the United States, however, while similar laws exist – whiskey category names were chosen in a way that can fool the consumer. So my purpose here to let customers know what they are buying.
Issue 1: Spirit Whiskey
Chuck Cowdery writes
The rules define ‘Spirit Whiskey’ as a combination of at least 5 percent whiskey and neutral spirit, i.e., vodka… So if it sounds like spirit whiskey is vodka with a tiny little bit of something that is barely whiskey added to it, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. Spirit whiskey was put into the regs right after Prohibition, at a time when fully-aged whiskey was scarce and vodka was virtually unknown. It was a way to make something called whiskey that required very little whiskey to make. When fully-aged whiskey became readily available, spirit whiskey died out.
Below: An image of you if you taste “spirit whiskey”
Issue 2: American blended whiskey
Obviously, something labeled “blended whiskey” should simply be a blend of whiskeys right? What else could it mean? And indeed, across the world that’s what it means. When you buy Scottish, Irish or Canadian blended whiskeys you are getting just that. However, American law allows products to be sold as “blended whiskey” with just 20% whiskey. The rest can be neutral grain spirits (basically, ethanol) and flavorings.
Pictured below – Bird Dog blended whiskey, on the far left.
Issue 3: Moonshine that qualifies as “American whiskey”
In other nations, distillate (aka white dog, new make) has to be aged for at least 3 years in wood (generally, oak) in order to legally be called whiskey. But in the United States, regulations only state that it needs to be aged – so one could pour moonshine on wood for 10 minutes and call it “whiskey”. But that’s obviously misleading.
So know the difference between American whiskey and American straight whiskey. The spirit that people call “whiskey” in the rest of the world is what Americans call “straight whiskey”. Chuck Cowdery writes:
‘Straight’ is a modifier that applies primarily to American whiskey and not to most other types of distilled spirit. It means that certain specifications have been met, including aging in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. It doesn’t guarantee that the product will be good but it does guarantee that it will be what most people understand to be whiskey. We’re talking about American whiskey here, like bourbon or rye, not scotch, Canadian, or Irish. They have their own rules and peculiarities. Straight whiskey (or straight bourbon, straight rye) is what most people mean when they just say whiskey.
In Praise of Straight (It’s Not What You Think)
None of this, of course, is to tell you what to drink. Enjoy what you like. Honest labeling laws don’t tell you what to drink; they only tell what you are drinking.