When whisky or rum is really flavored vodka

By American law, bourbon, or any straight whiskey, may only be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof / 80% abv. In many nations, when rum is made, is distilled to no higher than 90% abv.

Single column reflux animation

There’s a good reason for this ceiling: When one distills a spirit over these percentages then one loses most of the organic molecules that give the spirit its distinctive taste and aroma. The result would be grain neutral spirits (GNS.) When GNS are sold for direct consumption, there’s a label for that – vodka.

Here’s where we run into trouble: some nations allow whisky or rum to be distilled all the way up to 95% abv.

That’s almost identical to the azeotrope- the point at which it literally becomes impossible to distill the alcohol any further, as after that point both water and alcohol leave at the same rate. At this point there’s almost no organic molecules from your base material left, whether grains, sugar cane juice or molasses. Little characteristic aroma or taste remains.

Azeotrope ethanol water

So why do we find some Canadian whisky distillers, and some rum distillers, engage in this practice? I believe that it is only to make large amounts of very cheap product.

Many Canadian distillers make a base whiskey that is distilled to a very high abv but they sell it only after blending it with a much lower distilled ABV whiskey.  And for many Canadian whiskeys, after also adding wine, caramel coloring, or other flavors.

Many rum distillers make a rum distilled to a very high abv, but again, they sell it only after blending with much lower distilled abv rums, or adding large amounts of sugars, and caramel coloring.  Although I do recognize that some funky rums indeed may be improved by distilling them above the 160 proof that I mentioned earlier.

Fionnán O’Connor writes:

When you strip away the marketing bull, the higher the alcohol content the closer you come to pure ethanol and the less flavour affecting compounds resultantly remain. Within a safe margin (traditional irish pot distilling, whether double or triple, will likely kick around the 70-80% range), this could allow you to select or prioritise certain congeners over others of course and create all kinds of diverse distillates but when you hit something like 95% in a column still, you’re not really retaining too many fingerprints off the fermented source.

For example, if you distilled a mash of malted barley to 70% and a mash of wheat to 70% under the same conditions, they would obviously taste strikingly different as they’d be dragging a lot of their fundamentally different origins behind them. If you distilled them to 95%, however, there might be a few nuanced differences but they’d be a whole lot more like each other as so much of their composition is just alcohol itself.

What are your thoughts on this?

pointing finger

Here you can check out our reviews of  bourbonScotch,  Irish whiskey,  Canadian whiskey,  ryes or flavored whiskys. We have articles on science & health, and a plethora of other topics. Feel free to learn more about me, Distilled Sunshine.

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3 comments

  1. You can’t distill straight whiskey. To make it straight whiskey it has to meet other requirements. So trying to compare light whisky and straight whiskey is apples and oranges. Lots of light whiskey and lots of Canadian whiskey is well made and delicious, blocking me on FB won’t change that. 🙂

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    • I blocked you on Facebook because you were engaging in bizarre behaviors, like making up fake quotes and attacking me for things I never said. That’s not how adults engage in discussion.

      Having a difference of opinion is fine. Writing attacks against non-existent statements, however, is not fine. Find peace.

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  2. There are really two or more different things at play here. First is the law. Second is the taste. You cover the taste issue from one side only. The real issue is the BASE material used in fermentation. As you stated correctly ethanol as a molecule is flavorless to humans. So all the flavor comes through with water. Strip out more water and get less flavor of the base material. You are correct there. BUT with Rum for example made from Black Strap molasses (the final cut), that base ingredient does not taste good. If the water used or base ingredient used has an “off flavor” then the distillate will as well….unless you go over about 95%. And for US law Rum MAY be distilled to as high as 190 proof. At that level it is essentially neutral. Then it is also economics. It is cheaper to ship the distillate at 190 proof than to ship say the molasses. So rum distillers use basically a waste product of the sugar production process and distill out the flavor. That is one reason rum made in this way is a good mixer. Like vodka it imparts little flavor.

    One correction for you. GNS or NGS is from GRAIN. NS can be made from any product including sugar and sugar beets. It would still be vodka by law if distilled OVER 190 proof (often 192). And if potatoes are used as they traditionally were they smell and taste HORRIBLE when fermenting so guess what? It is necessary to distill to a high proof to get rid of the base taste. That is probably why the law for vodka is to distill to that high proof.

    Now on to the mixing of “whiskey.” The thing is by US LAW there are more categories of whiskey than any other distillate. Whiskey is a class of distillate. Bourbon is a TYPE of whiskey. Canadian whiskey must come from Canada and MUST follow the laws of CANADA. But there are two types in the USA. Blended and non blended. By the way the term “blended” means to MIX whiskey with another class of spirit, typically vodka or neutral spirit (those terms are essentially synonymous). By US law blended whiskey can be 80% NS. And things like coloring and flavoring may be added.

    But MOST bourbon is a blending of barrels. That is NOT blending. That is “co-mingling” in the industry. Blended bourbon would be from two or more different distilleries in DIFFERENT STATES. So if it is all from Kentucky even if two distilleries it is not blended according to the label requirement. It gets rather complicated, but the law is clear but most consumers are clueless as to the words and meaning. If you see “Blended Bourbon” read closer and you will likely see a statement about the addition of color and or flavor. It is required to state that. In the case of “Blended Bourbon” it must be at least 51% straight bourbon total. So up to 49% NS.

    The law is clear but complicated! The laws in my mind were passed to prevent the introduction of cheap knock off products and undercut the better and more expensive ones.

    By the way the term STRAIGHT simply means that the product has been aged two years (and follows all the other rules for that product.)

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